How do you capture war and its aftermath in all its intensity, horror, tedium, and life-changing trauma without resorting to clichés, melodrama, or glib moralizing? It’s a challenge that has attracted and bedeviled countless writers — veterans, reporters, historians, novelists — and yielded many a beloved classic that augments our understanding of history, including "The Iliad," "All Quiet on the Western Front," and "War and Peace."
The War on Terror, well into its second decade, has already produced a stack of notable books. Topping the nonfiction pile, Dexter Filkins’s visceral frontline reportage and analysis in "The Forever War" (2008) rightly earned him both a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. Medal of Honor recipient Clinton Romesha’s recently published "Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor" is a riveting account of the teamwork involved in battling the Taliban in Afghanistan. On the fiction front, several veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have channeled their experiences into stories and novels that pack a punch. Standouts include Phil Klay’s "Redeployment"(2014) and Kevin Powers’s "The Yellow Birds" (2012).
There are many more, including non-veteran Ben Fountain’s "Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk" (2012), a subversive, darkly comic take on heroism, and a growing number of books by women soldiers, such as Kirsten Holmstedt’s "Band of Sisters," Tana Biank’s "Undaunted," and Helen Thorpe’s "Soldier Girls." The first graphic novel about the Iraq war written and illustrated by a veteran, :The White Donkey: Terminal Lance," grew out of a comic strip Maximilian Uriarte created during his second deployment in Iraq in 2009 as a combat photographer and artist with the Marines.
Many of these books blur the line between fiction and memoir – an issue Tim O’Brien confronts directly in (1990), still one of the best books about Vietnam and modern war in general. O’Brien deliberately keeps readers off balance trying to figure out what “really” happened and what he’s invented. He addresses the difficulties of capturing the truth of combat in the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story,” suggesting how fiction might be better suited to the job: “In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.”
"The Things They Carried" came to mind when reading Anatomy of a Soldier, an unusual first novel written by Harry Parker, a British Army captain who lost both legs at age 25 after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan in 2009. Parker decided to distance himself from his own experiences and viewpoint by narrating his fictionalized story from the perspective of 45 different inanimate objects that surround his characters – tools of war and recovery, ranging from a helmet and an insurgent’s rifle and night vision goggles to a urinary catheter, an oscillating surgical saw, and a high-tech carbon running prosthesis. Intentionally or not, the catalog of military and surgical paraphernalia evokes the unforgettable, staggeringly heavy list of military equipment, keepsakes, and mental baggage the foot soldiers “humped” through the Vietnam jungles in O’Brien’s title story. Could Parker’s book be a deliberate attempt to revisit the territory of a prior masterpiece?
Parker’s decision to tell his war story through various cogs in the military apparatus that touch Captain Tom Barnes, a.k.a. BA5799 O-POS, has both advantages and disadvantages. With its intentionally disorienting, shifting points of view and flashbacks to the war zone, his approach fractures experience and captures the sense of detachment in the often bewildering, alien culture of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. It also captures his hero’s loss of bearings, which are exacerbated by a disrupted sleep schedule and nocturnal operations, and his further disconnection when, heavily sedated after his agonizing, life-threatening injury, he is severed from his consciousness much as his legs are severed from his body.
But such detachment has its costs. Inanimate objects do not make for the most animated narrators. There’s a flatness to Parker’s stark prose that, while avoiding melodrama, fails to capture the tight bonds that develop between men thrown together by war. Dialogue is often painfully unconvincing, stripped of the curses that usually color soldiers’ speech but filled with explication and weighted with names. In a particularly tone-deaf exchange in an otherwise searing amputation scene, the names of an entire surgical team are awkwardly attached to every statement: “Okay, Al. It’s your call.” “Mike, can you get the team together and prep.” “Okay, Sarah, show me.”
Also off-putting, the battle scenes and radio communications frequently feel chilly, polite, proper, and generic. There are too many lines like, “The men returned fire, escalating the violence.” In fact, the most vivid, effective parts of Parker’s novel involve events based most closely on his own experiences — Barnes’s injury, surgeries, rehab, and painstaking recovery. The details are sharp, and his captain’s fortitude and lack of bitterness are gut-wrenching and extraordinarily moving.
But Parker’s narrative device, however gimmicky, does ratchet up the intrigue. Many chapters begin like a game of “Who am I?” To introduce Tom’s mother on the day she learns about his injury, Parker writes: “I was normally placed on the lime-green tablecloth in the kitchen.” Cellphone, we wonder? But no: “She reached over and picked me up, pulled my magnetic clasp apart and took her phone from inside me.” Aha, it’s his mother’s red handbag, all future references to which denote her presence at the hospital.
To adhere to the point of view of a purse or a zygote fungus is admittedly challenging. Sometimes Parker gets tangled up in awkward locutions, like a combat boot’s mention of “the mirror of me.” He allows these objects moments of uncanny omniscience, such as the handbag’s observations: “She remembered him, three years old, running down the beach on holiday giggling. She wanted to cry but couldn’t.” Similarly, a service medal channels its new owner’s self-doubts about heroism, and a bicycle observes the last moments of a broken friendship between two local boys, one of whom joins the insurgents, planting and detonating IEDs, while the other doesn’t.
In “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien wrote: “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”
On O’Brien’s dark yardstick, "Anatomy of a Soldier" does not make the mark. While Parker’s novel refrains from moral pronouncements about war and in fact confronts its ethical ambiguities and horrors from fresh angles, it is filled with uplifting examples of rectitude, virtue, and affirmation – beginning with Barnes, the medical personnel who save him, and his devoted, supportive family. Parker’s stalwart protagonist literally rises above his injuries and losses.
Of course, even O’Brien’s war stories are suffused with an underlying if bruised sense of humanity and the redemptive clout of storytelling. As he concedes elsewhere in "The Things They Carried," “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.” By that standard, "Anatomy of a Soldier"delivers. It will literally change your perspective.