Dostoyevsky noted in The House of the Dead that “[t]he degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I grew up as a military brat, in military housing, on military bases. My father was a career U.S. Marine. My brother served. I served. My grandfather. My friends and their families served. And inundated with that milieu, forced by the lottery of my birth into that association, my view of the world and its machinations has been biased. That admitted, I always thought a better place to look for the measure of civilization in a society was in the conduct of its military forces, during peacetime or war, at home or abroad. The stories in The Road Ahead, a new collection of short works published by Pegasus Books, seem to echo that suspicion.
Some of the tales contained in this fine collection are delicate, thoughtful, straightforward narratives. The editors, Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, are not wrong when they note the knowledge of the canon of war literature (or the nod to) extant in these pages. Although one might easily argue that literature on the subject is not merely bound “from Hemingway to Herr,” it is obvious these writers all know “what a war story [looks] like.” Yet, there are works in this collection that echo ancient forms, some ape timeworn tropes, the frightening concepts we who commit war on one another have known since Cane and Abel. Revisited, yes, but an essential return to a lesson we seem never to learn.
Like any intelligent citizen, I realize that criticism and analyses of our representative government and its various entities is important. As a good citizen, I know that propaganda is disingenuous. As a student of literature, I know that puffery is unconstructive. Like a good patriot, I realize that dissent is often essential. If these pieces share a commonality it is that they reject the blind adage proclaiming that ours is not to wonder why. The refutation of that nonsense is overt in each turned page. These are not propaganda. These are not puffery. These are analyses by credentialed individuals with authentic experiences of these forever wars. Some are dissent. Some are minority views in their respective communities. All of these stories, at their collective core, question their surroundings, question the goings on, and in more important ways than most contemporary literature on the subject.
The enviable Elliot Ackerman, his own credentials beyond question, explores the uncanny desires inherent in most associated with such environs, that strange innate want to have something to show for their hardship. It is a hardship that often disregards the travails of the abject subordinate, the vanquished society. “Two Grenades” — perhaps “Car” or “CAR” might have been two more apt, if on the nose, titles — butts precariously close to commentary on the imperial.
Inside, the rain hit the corrugated steel roof, loud as gravel, filling the silence with something aside from conversation. The three Iraqis sat in one corner of the tower. Manuel and Gripper sat in the other, near the wood ladder, which ran from a cut in the parapet to the ground. The Iraqis didn’t speak, not even to each other. Manuel stared at them, but they didn’t seem to notice. Their faces were wrinkled, but appeared neither old nor young. The lines transmuted age as though they’d been born with them, like a man’s fate is born into his palm. There was no hurry or patience in their expressions, merely indifference. And as Manuel watched them, that is what he couldn’t understand.
The subaltern Iraqis are voiceless except for the shrieks of a pregnant woman trapped in a burning car. Further on, one character notes, “As long as they stay out of the way, I don’t care what they do.” It is telling and it seems as if the characters are nearly there, almost cognizant of their particular roles as conquerors, a corps of citizen soldiers marching as outsiders on distant soil, interacting with a populace enduring a heavy rain beneath a subjugated season. Ackerman’s narrative devolves appropriately, deftly—perhaps expectedly, if one is familiar with the military experience—toward paltry concerns for trophy and credential.
Elsewhere, there is the deliberate attempt to give voice to the voiceless. Maurice Emerson Decaul’s surreal pentalogy, “Death of Time,” begins his narrative with a chorus, an anaphora of fire. And the resultant acts, scenes, chapters, offerings are relentless. It is the painfully imagined tale of a young girl suffering beneath that same terrible season, but suffering under another oppressor, an ancient one, tragically similar, horribly universal. To the innocent, just as to the ignorant, all are Outsiders.
Fire invented a new language and cursed them. Fire was like a spider casting a web. Fire took them for a walk and showed them their sins. Fire stared them down. Fire walked into them. Fire knocked them down. Fire laughed at them and called them stupid. Fire pissed in their faces. Fire shot them when they ran. Fire hunted them. Fire invaded their bodies. Fire tongued them. Fire groped their cocks. Fire got rough with them and tied them up. Fire fucked them quickly and lost interest. Fire squatted above them and shat on their corpses.
The narrative of this girl’s anguish, in the main, is the narrative of all women who struggle against patriarchy. As an audience, we must not look away, though the horror is pervasive, the violence both physical and psychic, because we are none of us innocent of contributing to it. Here is a story that does not just question; this story demands.
Just as some deployments might give their operators that strange success of trophy and credential, yet leave others wanting, as Ackerman’s Sergeant Manuel clearly was, here some tales succeed where others fall short of expectation. Some rely heavily on hackneyed trope and pulp-novel verbiage, belying their apparent polish—a shine perhaps applied via whatever veterans’ writing workshop buffed them out. But these only stand as sacrificial bookends. They punctuate the best of the others. At their weakest, these failures litter the page with mere navel-gazing, masked elliptical expressions that only hint at a depth of emotion the author clearly believes his characters are required to feel. At worst, they edge dangerously close to literary masturbation. But these are few and do only little to reduce the value of the aggregate.
And one must be concerned with the aggregate. Like a society whose civilization, or lack thereof, might be betrayed by the varied contents of her military (or prisons), this tome is a magazine filled with stories of various caliber. What some lack in finesse, others more than make up for with sober contemplation, an often near-clinical aplomb that renders the material in the best (or worst) possible glare, stark, jarring and with hints of remorse, if not displayed by the characters, certainly implied by their authors. These are chords I remember from my experience with the military. Growing up, what I saw on TV or in the theaters, with very few exception, bore little resemblance to the reality of our services. My childhood and entry into adult life via the military was limned with pawnshops, porn, and topless bars, tales of infidelity, overt and covert racism, sexism, crime, punishment, and much other than honorable behavior. To me, these seemed the true nature of military service. The degrees of our civilization contained therein have always been more nuanced, the levels and lines admittedly subtle, but unerringly far more complex than doughy, uber-patriotic, white boys charging a hill for gods and country.
Perhaps one of the more exemplary depictions of that true nature, a certain exception among other narratives, is Matthew Robinson’s “Bleeder,” a simple and disheartening tale of a soldier paying Iraqi youths to fight. The story is framed with negotiation, initially fiduciary and ultimately effective, between the narrator, his fluctuating erection, and a prostitute, ostensibly for sex and alcohol. While the tale itself seems straightforward, the complexities of desires and relationships emerge apparent with close reading. The narrator pays poor Iraqi children to fight. His buddy objects. The narrator remarks that “Mills wants it stopped; he starts to raise his rifle at them because that’s how we stop things.” The delivery is facile and the meaning deposited with a delicate touch indicative of the best kind of writing. The characters’ behavior, the action of all actors, is unapologetic; it is also uncannily prescient with regard to the current conflicts in the State of Iraq and the Levant.
There’s pressure in my chest and I swear to god I feel my dick move. “Here we go. Somebody’s ready to make some fucking money. Time!” The two fighters stand up. Neither has a mark on them but one is starting to cry. I hand a dollar to the other.
The big kid steps up. “I fight. I fight.”
The fat kid turns to the group of boys. They all shrink back except the kid with the bloody lip—he steps forward, dropping the front of his shirt.
When they stand facing each other, it looks hilarious. David and Goliath, if they believe that sort of thing. Bleeder looking up. Fatty looking down, smiling.
“Don’t fucking fight,” Mills says. Nobody moves.
“Somebody hit somebody else.”
This is the military I remember. These things must be seen. These moments must be documented. Some stories leave the moralizing to the audience, strict in their refusal to comment on the aberrations depicted. The audience must understand without prompting that these individuals see the events unfolding around them in general and are unable or unwilling, for whatever reason, to see the specific loss of humanity or the exact picture of those terrible moments that threaten to engulf them, this violent and fiery play in which they participate. On a craft level many of these stories display the height of narrative sophistication in deliberately eschewing the vapid impulse toward moralizing. In doing so, they rebel against the worn-out expectation of war literature to meander toward the didactic, or worse: attempt to legitimize by performative expressions of remorse, “It was terrible, but we had to do it.” These stories neither glorify ne excuse.
To employ another hackneyed expression, they all bear witness.
Taken together, to reiterate, these narratives question, although the characters may not, sometimes in the most disheartening of ways, ways that seem to know the answer already, but demand a hearing for the question. These stories question the reasons for (or unreason of) this forever war, the representative stories executed with an often unexpected deftness, and obvious skill, which demands both promotion and award. It is the duty of a concerned public, any patriotic citizenry to bear witness to those things enacted in their name. The content, however horrifying, however tragic, demands our witness as well, else these present terrors continue under new administration, new execution. To all who shall see these presents, greeting.