Scars of war: central Bagdhad ten years on, 2013. Photo: Getty
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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. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

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

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game