Call of duty: US Iraq war veterans. (Photo: Corbis)
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Iraq and ruin: two fictional examinations of life after war

Two new American novels about physically and psychologically damaged veterans from the Iraq war get inside their subjects’ heads with varying success, writes a former US marine.

The Free 
Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, 288p, £12.99

Carthage 
Joyce Carol Oates
Fourth Estate, 400pp, £14.99

It is a peculiarity of the current wars that some of the best novels dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan have been written by non-veterans. Ben Fountain, Lea Carpenter and Roxana Robinson have all charted new territory in examining our recent conflicts. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising. Stephen Crane didn’t serve in the American civil war. Thomas Pynchon didn’t serve in the Second World War. Homer doesn’t even seem to have known how Greek military units fought during the Bronze Age.

Now two more novels join the fray: Willy Vlautin’s The Free and Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage. Though neither story takes place primarily overseas, both pivot around physically and psychologically damaged veterans.

Vlautin’s novel starts from the perspective of Leroy Kervin, a National Guardsman who was blown up by a roadside bomb in Iraq, six months in to his deployment. Kervin has a traumatic brain injury. Having lived in a daze in a group home for the past seven years, he wakes up one day and experiences a striking moment of mental clarity. Terrified it won’t last, he attempts suicide.

The novel moves to the stories of Pauline, the nurse who ends up caring for Kervin, and Freddie McCall, the night man who was on duty during Kervin’s attempted suicide. Their lives are hard and lonely. Their struggles are interspersed with pieces from an odd, violent and overlong sci-fi dream that Kervin is having while in the hospital.

The dream sections, which deal with Kervin’s military service, are the weakest parts of the novel. Thankfully, they are more than offset by scenes showcasing Vlautin’s careful attention to how people negotiate their way through sometimes bitterly hard choices. Where The Free shines is in small, delicately rendered moments of kindness or connection – a nurse slowly trying to break through the self-loathing hopelessness of a young heroin addict, a father carefully explaining to his daughters that their mother loves them even though she has abandoned them, the wife of a convict sharing a bit of food with another visitor outside a prison.

Vlautin’s characters are, at heart, good people trying to navigate the world in extremely trying circumstances. Their outlook comes not from avoiding unpleasant realities but from confronting them and making the best moral choices possible. The book achieves a kind of beauty – not in spite of the harsh subject matter, but because of the intelligence and moral purpose with which Vlautin approaches it.

The characters in Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage, however, are a different breed. The novel deals with the disappearance of Cressida Mayfield, a 19-year-old college freshman last seen in the company of Brett Kincaid, a disabled Iraq war veteran with visible scars who had previously been engaged to Cressida’s beautiful elder sister. Suspicion falls on Brett and the mystery plot unfolds in a series of unexpected twists and turns.

Faced with the unthinkable, Oates’s characters soothe themselves with narratives they would like to believe in. Cressida’s father tells himself: “If he persevered, if he did not despair, he would find her.” Her mother has decided that the continued failure to find Cressida’s corpse is “a mercy” and later she constructs a narrative of Christian forgiveness around Brett. While in Iraq, Brett thinks to himself, “I am a good person, I will be spared.” All the while, Oates manipulates the plot to put these delusions in a deeply ironic light.

On Brett’s return from Iraq, his fiancée interprets events for him without making any serious attempt to engage with his experience: “If people are looking at you in Carthage it is only because they know of you – your medals, your honors. They are admiring of you.” It grows increasingly suffocating. Brett remains silent, the weight of expectations crushing his individuality. With impressive emotional sophistication, Oates shows us the way in which civilians, when they want to interact with veterans, often want them to function more as symbols of patriotism or masculinity than as human beings. And she shows how the soldier’s refusal to talk, or to dispel those myths, can deepen the problem.

If only that level of insight had been sustained throughout the novel. Oates has a frustrating tendency to bring her ideological opponents onstage only to turn them into simplistic fools or villains. In Carthage, military units are comprised mainly of sociopaths – one unit mutilates dead Iraqis to take war trophies, commits a rape and murder and has a colonel whose stated philosophy is, in caps: “KILL THEM ALL AND LET GOD SORT THEM OUT.” Soldiers are described as uncritical followers (“An army is ants. Essentially”). Their orders ultimately emanate from “the militant Christian God” and they are told by their chaplain they are on a “crusade to save Christianity”.

As a veteran, I have encountered less aggressive versions of this weird stereotype before, generally from people with extremely limited contact with those who have served. Veterans could explain to Oates (and Vlautin) that one of the defining features of modern warfare is the way that critical decision-making responsibilities get placed on even low-ranking soldiers. This novel exudes a mixture of contempt and ignorance, sometimes leavened with condescending pity (“The war would be fought by an American underclass”).

At the very least, Carthage serves as a shining example of the size of the civilian-military divide. Does this matter? Oates’s main concern here is not Iraq. The war is a backdrop for philosophical questions – the relationships between guilt and responsibility, belief and fact – in the same way as Shakespeare used the Trojan war in Troilus and Cressida, to which Carthage refers directly. Shakespeare, however, made his military men complex.

It is as if Americans think the relative ignorance that even a serious public intellectual such as Joyce Carol Oates displays about her military is unrelated to her country’s inability to form a coherent war policy. It is not. 

Phil Klay served in Iraq with the US marine corps. His short story collection “Redeployment” will be published by Canongate on 27 March

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

Photo: Getty
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At last, Jeremy Corbyn gets the biography he deserves

Liam Young reviews Richard Seymour's Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics.

Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics is the fullest and fairest account of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise released to date. In avoiding much of the rhetoric espoused in similar accounts focusing on Corbyn’s early career this book provides a frank account of how the unlikely leader took charge of the Labour party. It is a very readable account too. Richard Seymour writes plainly but effectively and his writing is both accessible and incredibly informative.

Seymour attempts two monumental tasks in this piece: first he attempts to account for Corbyn’s rise and then he attempts to predict where such a rise will take him, the Labour party and the wider left. Zoe Williams wrote that Rosa Prince’s Comrade Corbyn was an account of “ex-girlfriends, the state of his flat” and featured “very little ideological insight”. Seymour does the opposite. In simultaneously engaging with Marxist and Gramscian theory, Seymour provides readers with something of academic value in the place of such gossip.

For any supporter of Corbyn, the first few chapters are a trip down Memroy Lane. Reading of the last minute rush to get Corbyn on the ballot paper sends the heart beating once more. While perhaps a niche political event, supporters know where they were the minute Corbyn’s place on the ballot was confirmed. The fact that we know the outcome of the uncertainty that surrounded the leadership election doesn't detract from the reading.

Seymour’s work is not simply the polar-opposite of Prince’s hit-job though. It would be wrong to suggest that it is a positive, self-fulfilling account of Corbyn’s rise. In many ways it is a hard hitting and realistic look at what lies ahead. For supporters of the Labour leader much of Seymour’s analysis will be discomforting; indeed the writer concludes that it is likely “labourism” will outlive “Corbynism”.

Such a view is hardly surprising though. Seymour’s repertoire of anti-establishment work suggests that it was always unlikely he would find a comfortable home in an establishment party. In this sense it suffers from being an account written by an outsider looking in. While the Marxist analysis of the Labour party is thought-provoking it seems too lengthy and seems to fit with an orthodox view surrounding the inevitable death of the Labour party.

Seymour’s concentration on “movement-building” is pertinent though. Utilising Jeremy’s own words on such a phenomenon is an effective tool. In drawing this distinction Seymour pokes at an open wound on the left asking exactly where all of this fits. It is about time that frank discussion on this topic was had. While there is a range of different opinions on the matter, Seymour’s intervention is an important initial step. It is an awkward conversation that the left can put off no longer.

The criticism levelled at the media is also well founded and long overdue. Seymour’s take on long established journalists who refused to accept Corbynmania makes for entertaining reading. On a more important note the fact that he credits social media as a central part of Corbyn’s campaign is interesting. The importance of this often overlooked element has been a point of debate within “Team Corbyn” and Seymour is right to poke at it.

Seymour’s work is, on the whole, a refreshing take on the events of last summer and a thought-provoking piece on the future of the Labour party. It is important to note that rather than viewing this book as an account of Corbyn’s campaign it should be seen as a review of the context surrounding Corbyn’s victory. Given that context is open to interpretation it is only fair to add the caveat that it should be read with an understanding of Seymour’s ideological foundation. Though I disagree with his conclusion concerning the Labour party’s future, I found it an important read. With an accessible yet authoritative tone Seymour manages the task of providing an academic insight into Corbyn’s election. Such analysis is far more valuable than words wasted on rumour and gossip – Seymour does well to avoid this and should be proud to have done so.

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.