Where's the Great Novel About the War on Terror?

The market is heavy on memoir and light on fiction about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. A veteran asks why.

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PublicAffairs, Sentinel HC, Twelve

War is the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.

–Ernest Hemingway, letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

The American war writing tradition is a proud one, and booming in this era of the Global War on Terror—at least in the non-fiction realm. Hundreds of memoirs and press accounts from Iraq and Afghanistan have been published since 9/11. These works run the gamut from personal testimonies of combat (Colby Buzzell's My War and Kayla Williams's Love My Rifle More than You), to attempted explanations as to how and why these wars unfolded the way they did (Donald Rumsfeld's Known and Unknown), to embedded press accounts by correspondents with infantrymen half their age (Sebastian Junger's War) or exiled Iraqi prostitutes (Deborah Amos's Eclipse of the Sunnis.) There has been such a proliferation of non-fiction war writing over the last ten years that it's nearly impossible to talk to anyone in the publishing industry without hearing phrases like "war fatigue" and "market saturation."

Fiction has proven an entirely different animal. Almost a decade after the first bombs were dropped in Afghanistan, even the most avid bookworm would be hard-pressed to identify a war novel that could be considered definitive of this new generation's battles. The explanations for this vary from the esoteric—wars need to end first before fiction writers can fully capture their impact—to the pragmatic: People don't read fiction anymore.

In an email discussion about this issue, Eric Cummings, a literary critic who writes at the military blog On Violence, argued that a memoir-centric publishing industry has played the most instrumental role in stunting the growth of GWOT fiction. However, he continued, "The first draft of war literature tends to be memoirs anyway—it happened during both World Wars ... I'm sure [Iraq and Afghanistan novels] will come. And they will probably be better than the memoirs."

There is a lot of evidence to back up the assertion that war fiction takes time. Many all-time classics of the genre, from Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, took over a decade to pen. And those books seem almost rushed compared to a pair of Vietnam novels that were published in the last year, Karl Marlantes's Mattherhorn and Ken Babbs's Who Shot the Water Buffalo?, both of which took the authors over 40 years to write, rewrite, and publish. As Hemingway (a war veteran) explained to Fitzgerald (who was not) in the letter cited above, the emotional wells of war are as rich and vast as they are lethal, and such an experience can take a while for a young person to sort through and subsequently channel into the creative process.

But this argument doesn't always hold. Three Soldiers, by John Dos Passos, was released in 1920, in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Norman Mailer published his lengthy and lauded World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948. Ronald Glasser wrote and published his celebrated book 365 Days in 1971, as the Vietnam conflict still raged. Going beyond American literature, Henri Barbusse's World War I novel Under Fire appeared in 1916, and Graham Greene published his Vietnam novel, The Quiet American, in 1955. And while no "instant classic" has emerged yet from Iraq or Afghanistan, that hasn't stopped writers in other genres from making their mark—look no further than Brian Turner 's poetry collections Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise, and Siobhan Fallon's collection of homefront short stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone.

When I asked my Twitter followers why there aren't more GWOT novels, some users responded that there is, in fact, great literature on the subject out there—it's simply not being widely appreciated. One described these current years as "a formative time." Some of my own anecdotal experiences support this contention. Warrior Writer workshops have sprung up across the country, and of the ones I've attended and participated in, most contain at least one or two star writers. Roy Scranton certainly qualifies as one. Currently pursuing his doctorate in English at Princeton and a regular participant in the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop, Scranton has published works in a litany of small presses, and a personal essay "War and the City" in the New York Times. He's also labored for over three years in an attempt to get literary agents to read his novel War Porn.

Scranton was still very passionate about how this process played out, when reached by email. "The novel was conveyed and written in three distinct parts," he wrote. He continued:

The first tells the story of an Iraqi mathematician at Baghdad University prior to and during the invasion. The second is a first-person narrative, fictional but very much grounded in my own experience in Iraq. The third returns to the U.S., to a Columbus Day BBQ being held by a young couple and their friends in Utah; one friend invites an old boyfriend of hers, who has just come back from Iraq, where he was a National Guard MP in an Abu-Ghraib-style prison. The novel was like 200,000 words long.

Taking the advice of my ex-wife, I excerpted the middle section (about 90k) and sent it around as a novel. I got positive responses from people, though no offers, and was told by at least two agents, an editor, and a creative writing teacher that I should turn it into a memoir. I was told that women buy novels and they aren't interested in war novels, whereas memoirs have a wider appeal.

When not bogged down in academic work, Scranton spends his days revising War Porn—in its original, longer form—confident that it will eventually find a home. He's also begun working on that memoir so frequently suggested.

Some doubt whether a war so widespread and so disparate in experiences can ever be fully represented in just one book—how can there be a definitive GWOT novel when there's no definitive GWOT experience? One service member's war in 2003 Iraq couldn't be more different than another's in 2010 Afghanistan. The same could be said of any protracted war however, and most of the historical examples already mentioned faced the same concern and managed to overcome it. Siegfried Sassoon's novel Memoirs of an Infantry Officer couldn't capture the entire breadth and scope of World War I any more fully than James Michener could capture the Korean War in The Bridges at Toko-Ri, yet these individual stories provided insight into their wider wars. For any war novel to meet that nebulous and loaded term "definitive," it seems, transcending the matters of specific time, place, and experience is the inherent challenge involved.

The last prominent explanation for the dearth of Iraq and Afghanistan fiction has to do with a general lack of connection with the wars in the first place. Less than one percent of Americans have served overseas in these current campaigns, for an approximate total of 2.2 million veterans. Comparatively, over 16 million Americans served in World War II, 5.7 million in Korea, and nearly 9 million in Vietnam—even though these two current wars are the longest-running conflicts in the history of the United States. Just by the numbers, the pool of potential veteran writers is simply much smaller than those of preceding wars. This also limits the number of individuals directly connected to these wars—who might, due to the combat experiences of a friend or a family member, be inclined to write about them someday, the way, say, Rebecca West did with The Return of the Soldier, which tells of the story of a shell-shocked British officer returning home from the World War I front. (It must be pointed out here that a lack of experience or direct connection didn't deter Stephen Crane from penning The Red Badge of Courage, generally considered America's greatest contribution to the pantheon of war literature.)

"Our wars lack collective national will, [there's] confusion over purpose, and are protracted," Alex Horton wrote in Twitter shorthand, regarding the ways societal issues will impact the future of American war writing. Horton, a staff writer for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs new media team, also spent 15 months in Iraq from 2006-07 as an infantryman with the Second Infantry Division. "There's not been enough time to reflect on it ... big ups to those who can sort it out relatively soon, but I know I'm far from understanding what it all meant."

Related to the much vaunted and oft-discussed civilian-military divide is the post-Draft effect: how will American wars fought by volunteers immersed in a warrior culture, distinct and separate from greater society, influence the literary output—and reactions by readers—detailing those wars? In an article published in 2010 by the Virginia Quarterly Review, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Vietnam veteran Robert Olen Butler said, "Most of the best writers in Vietnam did not go there voluntarily. They maintained that sense of distance from what they were doing because they weren't there from a natural personal impulse ... If you go there involuntarily the intensities of war make you doubt even more profoundly why you are there."

After reading Butler's statement, Scranton pointed out that "just because a large portion of the American war lit from the 20th century is by draftees, this constitutes a tiny portion of war literature as a whole. In fact, even Hemingway volunteered." As for when and if large readerships will be ready for a 21st-century war novel? "One problem we have as Iraq-Afghanistan vets is telling a story that the fiction-reading public wants to hear. 'I wanted to go to war' is something they cannot or will not relate to."

Time may yet yield a long work of fiction that serves as the quintessential GWOT novel, or even a few that deserve such a label, but it is not inevitable. More than one historian has compared these brushfire wars, especially Iraq, to the Philippine-American War of the late 1800s and early 1900s. This protracted guerilla war happened at the edges of both the American empire and the national consciousness, and lasted far longer than official ceasefire declarations would suggest. And while some fascinating non-fiction accounts chronicled the nuances of this war, no "classic" novel on the topic can be found. Or maybe it just won't be written in our lifetime. After all, it took a Crimean War veteran who hadn't even been born yet to author a fictional account of the Napoleonic Wars that proved lasting. That vet was Leo Tolstoy, and that book was War and Peace.