- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reviewed by Brian Castner
Best Defense book reviewer
A version of this review first appeared in the August issue of Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute.
If you believe the media coverage and commentary, all of America is still waiting for the great fiction of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of last year’s reviews of The Yellow Birds or Fobbit or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk noted the supposed dearth of war novels to that point. In times past, America waited 11 years for A Farewell to Arms, 16 for Catch-22, and 15 for The Things They Carried. Now our culture wants to hear who won American Idol by the end of the episode, and even Anthony Swofford, who knows something about delayed gratification (his memoir, Jarhead, was published 12 years after the first Gulf War), says on the back cover of Fire and Forget, the new collection of short stories by military veteran writers, “I’ve been waiting for this book for a decade.”
Is the wait finally over? Yes, according to Matt Gallagher, one of the collection’s editors, who was impatient himself; he wrote a piece for The Atlantic in 2011 asking when a great novel from the long wars would finally be written.
“Iraq and Afghanistan fiction is in a much better place than it was when I wrote that article,” he told me, before hedging, “It’s just beginning. There’s no one dominant story, no one clean narrative, to emerge from these postmodern, brushfire wars. There are many.”
The form of Fire and Forget follows its function, then: 15 tales with varied perspectives, and while expected themes of struggle and disillusionment emerge, there is not a carbon copy to be found here. If you are a fan of literary Paris Review or The New Yorker short stories — casual tragedy, slow reveals, ambiguous endings — you will find familiar hardware in this collection, and for good reason. These are serious writers, more than half graduates of master’s of fine arts programs, but unlike the traditional college student, these veterans bring a life experience to the form that is substantial and heart-breaking.
Perhaps fittingly, considering the post-traumatic stress disorder newspaper headlines, there are more stories here about the challenges of return than the horrors of war, more whiskey bottles flying than bullets. In a number of stories about surreal post-war moments, animals act as symbolic stand-ins for innocence, and thus are mercilessly shot, squashed, and buried. For me, the stories of in-country combat were a comparative relief from the grinding tales of heartache at home. At least we know how the firefight will end; we have no such certainty about those still laboring to reintegrate.
The winner for sheer visceral impact is Phil Klay, whose story of returning is so spot-on I wonder if he wrote it while still on the plane ride home. He gets everything pitch perfect, and not just the major points, such as wanting to go back to war right away, literally hours after landing. No, it was the small truths that returned me to my own homecoming: the unfamiliar softness of a wife’s embrace after months of hard Humvees, the pleasant satisfaction of the first hangover. Klay remembers the details so the rest of us don’t have to.
David Abrams, the author of Fobbit, tells the brutal story of a unit remembering fellow soldiers lost in combat, not with nostalgia but rather obscenity-laced efficiency. “This short story is more typical of what I normally write,” Abrams told me. “It has more dramatic punch than . . . comedy veneer.”
Siobhan Fallon’s excellent story from the perspective of an Army wife is a breath of fresh air, one that comes early in the anthology and that honestly I could have used a little later. The veteran experience can feel insulated and claustrophobic, and Fallon’s incongruence with the other pieces — the only one not from the perspective of the solider or veteran (although Gallagher’s contribution is half and half) — begs the question, where is a piece about an Afghan family? An Iraqi interpreter? A new refugee? Instead, the Iraqis and Afghans in Fire and Forget are always “hajjis” or, in the words of contributor Ted Janis’s protagonist, “[expletive] traitors.”
Why is this? “I think veterans are still stuck in their own head,” said Abrams. “And I think we Americans, to paint with a very broad brush, lead very insular lives. We don’t naturally think about foreign policy. But for the purposes of this anthology, it’s fine. Each of these works of art stand on their own.”
True, and they do so well, but even the story from Andrew Slater, now a teacher of English at the American University in Erbil in northern Iraq, is about a U.S. soldier struggling with traumatic brain injury at home. Would he not have been the writer to bridge the gap? His story, though, is so troubling and thought-provoking that I wouldn’t trade it and that’s the point, isn’t it? After 12 years of war, we’re just starting to understand what happened to our own soldiers. Perhaps in time we’ll reach across the gulf to those we were fighting — with and against.
Brian Castner is a former U.S. Air Force captain and explosive ordnance disposal officer. He is the author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows (Doubleday, 2012). This review is reproduced here with the permission of its author.