Scars of war: central Bagdhad ten years on, 2013. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Opening the hurt locker: three new books on Iraq

There are many echoes of the literary lineage to which these books must belong. Owen’s old lie is in all of them, as is Whitman’s precious blood.

My Life as a Foreign Country
Brian Turner
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £16.99

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting
Kevin Powers
Sceptre, 96pp, £12.99

Phil Klay
Canongate, 291pp, £15


“We knew our prelude would be different from the trenches of the First World War or the front lines of Korea,” Brian Turner writes in his fever dream of a memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country. Turner joined the US army in 1998 when he was almost 31 – old, for a soldier – and served with Nato forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the close of the 20th century. From the end of 2003, he served in Iraq for a year with the 3rd Stryker Brigade.

The difference Turner alludes to, in this context, is a difference in the conduct of war. There would be no front line, but instead “a 360-degree, three-dimensional environment . . . Anything was possible. A dead farm animal on the shoulder of the road could harbour an improvised bomb sewn into its belly. A bullet might ride the cool currents of air between one human being or another. A Hellcat missile or a wire-guided Tow missile might rend the moment open.”

There is also another difference, made explicit by Phil Klay in one of the stories in his debut collection, Redeployment. Klay joined the US marine corps after graduating from Dartmouth; in 2007, he served in Anbar Province, Iraq, as a public affairs officer. “Success was a matter of perspective. In Iraq it had to be,” he writes in “Money as a Weapons System”. “There was no Omaha Beach, no Vicksburg Campaign, not even an Alamo to signal a clear defeat.”

Over a decade has passed since the invasion of Iraq by US forces in March 2003. In the years since, that conflict – as depicted by some of the soldiers who served there – has become one in which the terror of war is unrelieved, even for an instant, by the idea of a cause, of a larger morality. As Kevin Powers wrote in his acclaimed first novel, The Yellow Birds, published in 2012: “I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today?”

Powers’s new book is a volume of poems, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, and his voice, released from the constraints of narrative structure so finely exhibited in The Yellow Birds, seems angrier, more raw. Powers, unlike Turner, joined the army as a very young man – he was not out of his teens – and served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. What all three of these books have in common, for all that they are written in different forms by very different men in different circumstances, is the way in which they are haunted by the terrible and mythic landscape of Iraq – by the names Nineveh, Tigris, Euphrates – and by the shadowy presence of history’s old wars, from the American civil war to the First World War, the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam.

Powers was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, the seat of the Confederate capital during the American civil war. These poems, which move between a war zone and civilian life transformed by the experience of war, hook back into older injustices. “Nominally” is a poem that seems to speak purely of America and yet does not: “. . . down in the valley where I’m from there is/a parking lot, which covers up a grave,/a name we give in singular for the hundred slaves/they buried there back then”. This mass grave can’t help but recall for the reader more recent brutality. “Nothing/was counted. Order is a myth.” This is a fine, harrowing collection and yet one that ends on a redemptive note:

. . . The thing I can’t recall
was what I had been waiting for.
It likely won’t come back again.
And I know better than to hope,
but one might wait
and pay attention
and rest awhile,
for we are more than figuring the odds.

Turner’s hallucinatory memoir bears the mark of his work as a poet: in his first collection, Here, Bullet, published in 2005, is found the poem “The Hurt Locker”, which inspired the Kathryn Bigelow film of the same name. Broken up into well over 100 sections, this new book is a kind of collection, too, wrathful, wry and incantatory. “How does anyone leave a war behind them, no matter what war it is, and somehow walk into the rest of their life?” There is no answer to such a question: there is simply a collage of experience and memory that drops the reader fully into this writer’s life. Turner played at being a soldier as a kid and made Super 8 war movies with his pals – and he mixed home-made napalm with his dad and his uncle Jon in their California yard. Uncle Jon was in Vietnam; Turner’s dad chased MiGs over the Kamchatka Peninsula in 1965; his grandfather was a marine in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. He grew up with war all around him and yet what he found in his own war didn’t answer his question. “In Mosul, the war became routine,” he writes simply. Some routines bring comfort; some bring just the opposite.

Of these three books, Phil Klay’s is the most unprocessed and perhaps the least satisfying. All the stories are told in the first person by a sequence of narrators: a chaplain in “Prayer in the Furnace”, a member of Mortuary Affairs in “Bodies”, a foreign service officer whose job is to spearhead efforts at reconstruction in “Money as a Weapons System”. The last of these is a sharp satire reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 but too many of the stories are overburdened either by a heavy-handed use of military acronyms (“EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08s fired DPICM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money”) or by too-obvious rhetoric. A story such as “Psychological Operations”, in which a former soldier now enlisted at Amherst confronts a recent convert to Islam, has the feel of a creative-writing exercise. That said, Klay’s writing is often both powerful and courageous.

It’s sometimes eerie the way these books echo each other. All three writers have an eye for how the awful becomes ordinary, how what is unacceptable in civilian life becomes the norm in a combat zone. “We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot,” begins the title story of Redeployment. What that means for the story’s narrator is played out in the course of the tale; as for what the shooting was actually like, you can turn to Kevin Powers and his poem “Field Manual”. “Think quick pop, yelp, then puckered fur./Think skinny ribs. Think smell.”

There are many echoes of the literary lineage to which these books must belong. Owen’s old lie is in all of them, as is Whitman’s precious blood, but most particularly one can sense the influence of Tim O’Brien. His memoir of the Vietnam war, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and his short-story collection The Things They Carried (now available as an audiobook, read perfectly by Bryan Cranston) helped redefine the way Americans thought about the wars in which they were called to fight. I thought of O’Brien and the equipment and baggage carried by the soldiers in his stories as Turner described a group of men entering the house of an Iraqi civilian: “The soldiers enter the house with only nine credits earned toward an associate’s degree in history from the University of Maryland. They kick in the door and enter the house with the memory of backyard barbecues on their minds.”

I thought of O’Brien, too, in Klay’s “War Stories”, in which a pair of vets, one very badly wounded, consider conflict and awful injury in the context of picking up women. The narrator hears his wounded friend Jenks tell the story of what happened to him; when Jenks says, “I feel more sorry for the guys who had to rush in and treat me than for myself,” the narrator remarks, “This is Jenks’s standard line. It’s utter bullshit.” For the true war stories, as O’Brien knew, can never be told, though the need to keep trying to tell them never goes away. The reader of these books can’t help but be a voyeur, always asking, silently, secretly, “But is that what it was really like?” We cannot know. “A true war story is never moral,” Tim O’Brien wrote. “It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behaviour, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”

Erica Wagner is an Eccles British Library writer in residence and a judge of this year’s Man Booker Prize

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis