Hilary Plum’s Watchfires explores the consequences of the War on Terror through personal battles with her own illnesses and caretaking for her husband, stricken with cancer. She uses her experiences to critically engage with the war and its blowback, that repercussion manifested in the Boston Bombing. The fact that Plum’s memoir chronicles war at home is vital to discourse in a society so alienated from the effects of America’s longest war. Her perspective as a civilian, a woman, and a caretaker is not a liability to that end, rather it is an asset—essential if war writing is to move past archetypal stories of warriors. Plum takes seemingly disparate narrative threads of caretaking, illness, and terrorism, and weaves them into a work that calls the reader into the emotional landscape of her memories in order to pose the uncomfortable question of one woman’s—and by proxy the reader’s—complicity in a greater system of conflict and violence.
Illness serves as a fitting vehicle to explore the internal struggle with this question. That we struggle to derive meaning from the savagery of disease on the body parallels the complexity of our global conflicts. Plum likens asymmetric warfare—insurgent warfare that makes use of the civilian population—to autoimmune disease. Though we attempt to impose simplistic narratives onto war and illness by framing them in terms of a struggle with heroes and victors, there is no object lesson in the untethered mutations of a rogue cell or a drone strike’s collateral damage. Plum’s treatment of diseases inside the body, or threats from terrorism offers no moral imperative or easy answers. We are only left to reflect on the consequences. Plum writes:
Metaphorically speaking, are we now in the age of autoimmune disease? Now the enemy is ourselves: we can no longer tell friend from foe; we mistake self for other. Helpless we mount full-force attacks against ourselves. (If the body could speak—could defend itself—would it name this a preemptive strike?)
This metaphorical slippage between the self and other, disease and war, caretaker and afflicted, serves to humanize a war which seems to most quite distant. By drawing the focus inward to the body, Plum forces the reader to see terrorism not as a threat from without, but as a complex moral struggle from within. Through the treatment of the body via chemotherapy, life altering surgery, and ongoing misdiagnosis, Plum forces us to consider the moral quandary of doing self-harm as a means of cure. Indeed, her ongoing battle with presumed autoimmune disease—long misdiagnosed—seems to call into question the simplistic good versus evil Manichean framing of the War on Terror.
Achieving this effect would be difficult given a conventional narrative arc. Instead, the memoir’s structure draws on the elliptical nature of memory, non-sequiturs provoked into thought, remembrances triggered. Each section consists of only a few paragraphs, which behave more like stanzas of vignette poetry—each illuminating a sentiment or a meditation, one freely associating to the next. The experience of reading Watchfires is similar to the aspect-to-aspect treatment of images in Eastern cinema and graphic novels, as outlined in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud states that Western art focuses on actions, a reflection of being a goal-oriented culture, “…but in the East, there’s a rich tradition of cyclical and labyrinthine works of art. Japanese comics may be heirs to this tradition, in the way they so emphasize being there over getting there.” The effect of Plum’s formal choices cements the reader to each emotion, each consideration, discomfiting any rhetorical inclination, forcing us to instead linger on the affective.
Perhaps this is Plum responding to the way we wage war through information and intelligence. The hubris of the use of fact manipulation, intelligence acquisition, and surveillance culture has prolonged bloodletting on the battlefield and does nothing to shield us from attacks at home. The result is a moral imbalance, which leads us to ignore the misery of our own citizens. Plum writes:
If terrorism is a disease, then in terms of pure statistics it affects few, at least in this country. May we accept a bombing here or there as the cost we cannot quite eliminate? An excess, one or two or twenty errant men, errant bullets, backpacks, planes?…Other odds may disturb more: if the current rates of incarceration continue, one in three black men born today can expect to spend time in prison.
One of Watchfires few drawbacks is that Plum stops short of fully embracing the grief of potentially fatal illness. It is as if there is a self-imposed emotional distance toward caring for her husband, a coping mechanism to prevent self-collapse, though this too may be performative. The story’s three sections seem to track the placement of pain and responsibility via changes in point of view. In the first section, Plum writes in the third person to us, she is the other. In the second, she writes in the first person, drawing us closer to her as a subject. Finally in the brief third, she employs the second person, not only putting upon us the emotional weight of her story, but her sense of responsibility as well. Therefore, not giving grief more space on the page may indicate hope of a cure, for the husband, for our nation.
The veterans and victims of the War on Terror still struggle to reconcile with a country that only pays lip service to its service members and holds the consequences of its wars at arms length. Watchfires represents more than a handshake in an airport, or moments of silence at public gatherings, because Plum offers to shoulder the emotional burden with the veterans, the civilians, the victims. The slippage between self and other reaches past borders and battle lines, bringing the malady of global conflict into the heart. If the reader too shoulders that burden—sorrow, rage, and helplessness—then there might be hope for some remission to the violence, some cure to our war.