Home Fires

By Packer, George | The New Yorker, April 7, 2014 | Go to article overview

Home Fires


Packer, George, The New Yorker


HOME FIRES

BY GEORGE PACKER

How soldiers write their wars.The new war literature by veterans is largely free of politics and polemics.

"Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected," Paul Fussell wrote in "The Great War and Modern Memory," his classic study of the English literature of the First World War. "But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since." The ancient verities of honor and glory were still standing in 1914 when England's soldier-poets marched off to fight in France. Those young men became modern through the experience of trench warfare, if not in the forms they used to describe it. It was Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Lawrence who invented literary modernism while sitting out the war. Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen--who all fought in the trenches and, in the last two cases, died there--remained tied to the conventions of the nineteenth century while trying to convey the unprecedented horror of industrial warfare, a condition of existence so murderous and absurd that a romantic or heroic attitude became impossible. The essence of modern understanding is irony, Fussell argued, and it was born on the Western Front.

Fussell wasn't wrong about the Great War, but, in his insistence on its newness, he underestimated the staying power of military myths for each generation. Fussell cited a newspaper story about a London man who killed himself out of concern that he might not be accepted for service in the Great War, and noted, "How can we forbear condescending to the eager lines at the recruiting stations or smiling at news like this." But in the summer of 1968 Tim O'Brien, a twenty-one-year-old in a small Minnesota town, a liberal supporter of Eugene McCarthy and an opponent of the war in Vietnam, submitted himself for induction into the United States Army. O'Brien couldn't bring himself "to upset a peculiar balance between the order I knew, the people I knew, and my own private world," he wrote, in "If I Die in a Combat Zone," his 1973 Vietnam memoir. "It was not just that I valued that order. I also feared its opposite--inevitable chaos, censure, embarrassment, the end of everything that had happened in my life, the end of it all." Was O'Brien's fear of dishonor entirely different from the impulse that drove a forty-nine-year-old man to throw himself under a van in 1914?

Or from the thinking that led Brian Turner to volunteer for the U.S. Army in 1998 and go on to serve as an infantry team leader in the badlands of northwestern Iraq? "I signed the paper and joined the infantry because at some point in the hero's life the hero is supposed to say I swear," Turner writes in his memoir, "My Life as a Foreign Country" (Jonathan Cape), published earlier this year in the United Kingdom and forthcoming from Norton here. "I raised my hand and said the words because I would've been ashamed in the years to come if I hadn't, even if it didn't make sense, even if nobody I cared about ever thought about it, even if all the veterans in my family never said a word, or even if they did, saying, It's cool, Brian, it doesn't mean a thing, believe me, the uniform doesn't make the man." Here's Kevin Powers, who joined the Army out of high school and ended up as a machine gunner in the same region of Iraq as Turner: "I had by then inferred that the military was where a person went to develop the qualities that I had come to admire in my father, my uncle, and both of my grandfathers. The cliche, in my case, was true: I thought that the army would 'make me a man.' " The scare quotes suggest Fussell's wised-up irony, but they weren't enough to keep Powers home. Every generation has to discover what Fussell called the "hope abridged" that waits somewhere beyond the recruiting office. For Americans, this experience has been an overwhelmingly male one, recorded in literature written by men, but that will change as women--such as Kayla Williams, the author of two Iraq memoirs--go off to combat zones. …

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