War Porn  (2016) by Roy Scranton is not a book to be easily read. To be read, yes, but not easily. Often mentioned in lists of “best contemporary war fiction,” and long on my reading list, it was sent to me by a friend who is as confounded as I am by mankind’s continuous rallying to the flag of war despite the mountains of bodies over which it flies.

Earlier, “first wave”  participant written books from the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions,  as one reviewer has called them, share certain themes:

“… they tend to be obsessed with telling readers that war is awful, our post-9/11 conflicts were quagmires, but all our veterans were just good guys doing the best they could with a bad situation.”

The “tragic but redemptive mission” says David Buchanan in his rich study of war narrative: Going Scapegoat, Post–9/11 War Literature, Language and Culture 

Not so War Porn.  Not much redemption to be found.  It will be harder to toss off a reflexive “thank you for your service” to an unknown veteran having entered into these lives. They are fictional lives, yes, but not very.  Scranton himself is an American veteran of the Iraq war;  his narrator is there when US contractors are hung and burned in Falluja, and during the revelations of Abu Ghraib.

In post-novel interviews, Scranton has said that the preoccupation of today’s war literature with “the trauma hero myth” has warped American perception of war.  In focusing on “the revelatory truth of combat experience” he says, “and the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for.” As he shows us.

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Divided into four voices of different times and locations, Scranton moves us from time-past to time-present, from before Iraq to in Iraq to after Iraq, and while in Iraq from soldiers to Iraqi civilians.  The opening and closing chapters are “the present” in which Aaron “Sto” Stojanowski introduces himself back to the civilian world.  A girlfriend, Wendy, has brought him along to a barbecue of late twenty-somethings somewhere in the American southwest.  The beer is cold, the grill is going and introductions are made.  Soon interrogations begin.  Mel, one of a female couple, goes after Aaron for his clipped, tense answers to her initially curious, slightly loaded questions:  “What it was like.  To be a soldier. In Iraq?”  The interchange quickly degenerates  into screams of “Nazi!” and a dog-kicking.

The broad center section, dived into three longer chapters,  is the past, what happened, to the narrator (‘Sto”) and friends “over there” during 2003 and 2004 in and around Baghdad, with a short leave home.  Not a straight-ahead narrative tale but one with jump-cuts from dialog to description to internal monologue, from soldier talk to officer Power Point presentations.  Military jargon and acronyms, usually unclarified — LZ, MOS, RPG, CP–  add verisimilitude as well hiccups in understanding.  For some, these chapters will be hard to read: soldier crudity and cruelty, contempt for women — including fellow soldiers– combat descriptions, bodies, no euphemisms, no keeping secrets.  Officer-talk and soldier cynicism.

About half-way through, Iraqis are introduced.  Ninety uninterrupted pages which seem disconnected from the rest of the novel at first, though sharing the locale. Almost uniquely among American Iraq-war writers, Scranton offers a picture of those who suffered the invasion, civilians all: taping up windows, the house “buzzing like a newsroom” with CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera,  radio and neighborhood gossip, families deciding where to sleep, whether to leave the city or stay,  dealing with black marketeers, gangsters, Hizbis,  Mukhabarat.  Imminent war adds to existing cultural stresses over young women wearing blue-jeans, the temptations of the body, where a man’s obligations lie.  A nephew insults his aunt and is threatened with expulsion, into the streets of war.  Two sisters join, one boy-crazy the other in love with God but unable to shake the image of Michael Jackson.  Men commiserate over women being less than subservient Everyday family arguments take on new force as some believe the Americans will make things better than under Saddam, others are sure it will only get worse.  As the radio reports the first bombs due in several hours the forbidden bottle of scotch is brought out from its hiding place.

Qasim, the main focus, is a not so young Iraqi man, married,  on the point of defending his thesis for a college degree, after “years of study, tutoring, working odd jobs, doing accounting for his uncle.”  He is considering returning from Baghdad to Baquuba to join his wife who is staying with the women and children of his brother’s family.

“Not your brother?”

“He’s in the army. He drives a tank.”

“God grant him victory.”

“God!” Qasim barked. “The same God that put him there on the front lines?  The same God that brings the Americans?”

“Don’t be blasphemous, cousin.”

“No, Adham, please. Tell me what we’ve done to deserve this.”

And of course, this is not the first time.  The older men remember the first Iraqi war, the Gulf War.

“Men’s helmets burned onto their head because of the webbing inside and the coating…it just melted onto their skin …  the ground leaping beneath his feet, the dead. A child’s arm poking from the rubble, smooth, purple-gray skin sticky with half-dried blood.”

As the book enters its later pages, Qasim is enlisted as a translator and his story is connected to Sto and the Americans.  In the final pages their relation turns from professional to terrible, revealed as two men at the party look at “war porn” images brought back from Iraq.  The reader will recognize some of them, too — a man standing spread-eagled with wires trailing from his wrists.  And Scranton isn’t finished, even then.

The fourth voice is a set of short stream-of-consciousness chapters, interestingly titled Babylon with its echo of babble and languages running over each other: clipped, mysterious, irritating; perhaps the floating thoughts of a war-hammered Leopold Bloom, perhaps 2 a.m. notes from the nightmares of the narrator.  This for openers:

rage forth, bold hero & man of war, you have no

flood documenting her lament, no legal recourse in re: administrative decisions on the matter of

torture TV rage the

rockets red not singly but in global consensus: vanquished by my spear, the highest levels of the Department beginning a world with no tomorrow

For some readers such interpolations will deepen understanding.  Others, I imagine, will skim over them,  impatient to stay with the narrative flow. For me, there is something there but several slow reads have failed to reveal it.  Or perhaps, the reality Scranton presents is more powerful than the hallucinations.

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So, I ask myself, why do I read these books of war and mayhem? And read them I have — over eighty-two in the last several years.  It is not because they excite me, or make me want to enter their fictional worlds, to fight “for glory,” or for vicarious thrills.  No, I read them trying to understand: what is it that men find in war that they turn its wheel so readily, normal thoughts of crippling consequences hidden in the mist of anticipation.

How have people — writers principally — seen war, thought about it, expressed it to others and connected?  How have listeners heard what was spoken, how have readers read what was written? Is it what the story-teller intended? If war is written of as savage and sorrowful is it heard that way, or is it heard of as savage and necessary, or savage and sorrowful and necessary? If men are tested in literature and fail, is it read as prognosis of what could be or a challenge to overcome such failure?

How much do stories invite emulation? Does reading of war make young men want to be heroes? If Homer wrote of Achilles as a man damaged by humiliation and willing to let his comrades die because of a personal insult, how did those who listened to the story remember him — as a damaged man, or as the greatest warrior of them all?

In memory after memory of men interviewed after their war in Vietnam the mention of John Wayne comes up — ‘going over to Nam to do my John Wayne thing.’  Though Apocalypse Now is widely seen as an anti-war film, more than one soldier has been excited by the noise, the music and the weapons and gone off to join an army.

So I wonder, have the stories story tellers tell of war changed since say, the First World War?  If so have the attitudes and anticipations of their readers, and the public at large changed from generations before that war?  In a larger sense, what I want to know is how do the common unspoken agreements among people change?  Why do large crowds no longer gather to witness executions?  Why does no government any longer praise the use of the rack, the brazen bull, the strappado? Why does slavery, once so common, now only live in the shadows?  How much, if at all, have stories and story tellers helped move the change?

And I have to say, my investigations have only inched me towards understanding.

It is true that War Porn gives us no one, or nothing, to glorify. The trauma brought home by the protagonist will not evoke empathy. Nor will most find anything but authenticity.  It shares with many American, participant written war books familiar language and themes —  battle myth and imagery percolating from American-Indian wars, seemingly tattooed in American psyches.  There are references to Iraq being “Indian country,”  a dream-state of “seeing great bands of painted Indians boil up out of the dark on steaming war ponies.”  Back home, the party is somewhere near Monument Valley, location for so many of John Ford’s (and others) westerns.  The day he leaves a woman battered and violated is Columbus day…

But so what?  What do we have after reading such a book, or many such books? Is our understanding of the world changed by reading fiction about it? Do the cruelties described get a purchase on shared imagination, our fears or willingness to send the young to war?  Do the dangers recounted make us cautious and thoughtful, or simply more fearful, willing to spend a country’s treasure to “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here” as the cliched justification goes?

Does such a story move towards James  Baldwin’s ferocious cry for “all the truth that we can bear”?  Is Roy Scranton, and others like him “describing us to ourselves as we now are” with some hope that in their particular stories larger truths will be revealed?  Will wide reading of such works “help us to face: what must be faced, even if it cannot yet be changed?”  Will such work really “bring to light at last the truth … describe us as we now are.?”

Or do such stories operate, as Kenneth Rexroth once wrote?

“… horror stories about war defeat their purpose if that purpose is to make war undesirable. … It is precisely the horror of war that makes it attractive — at least to the imagination of the passive reader. … …the war horror novel is dishonest almost in strict proportion to its horror. “

or Paul Goodman in short essay on designing  pacifist films

The images of senseless violence, horror, and waste that are usually employed in the commercially successful “antiwar” films do have a titillating effect and remain in the soul as excitants and further incitements.

There are few books which have changed the world.  Harriet Breecher Stow’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is often cited as doing so, The Diary of Anne Frank, in another way.  Neither, however, brought about a great change in understanding and values by themselves,  so much as articulated and made clear changes long underway — decades of abolitionist work in one case, a horrific war of racial-hatred in the other.

So it seems to me not that War Porn, in its unremitting honesty, will turn every reader into war skeptics if not resisters but that it continues to bend the arc of war narrative, beginning in WWI, and continued through WWII and Vietnam, away from high glory, courage under fire, and unfortunate but necessary carnage towards a much more sober, studied, experienced understanding that war brings terrible consequences, to all who participate.  Perhaps popular combat fiction and many movies still celebrate the boy-becomes-man or the tough sergeant or the tattered flag on the taken hill but novels and memoirs no longer let us off so easy.  The long work of reversing the automatic and even excited assent to war is somewhere in its middle reaches.

The friend who sent me War Porn, a former Naval Officer who found another life because of the war in Vietnam, told me he was deeply shaken as he finished the book. I join him in that.