You Know When the Men are Gone
by Siobhan Fallon
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain
by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
by Lea Carpenter
By Caleb S. Cage
While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely been isolated to the countries or regions where they have been fought over the last decade, they have also isolated the civilian populations of the mostly American and European nations from the military forces they provided to the efforts. While Americans have proven to be empathetic towards their service men and women, the majority remains generally unaware of the personal impact of individual combat experiences. As many have noted over the years, this has created a divide in need of being bridged.
“Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told an audience at Duke University in 2010. In 2011, journalist Bob Woodward defined the situation as an “epidemic of disconnection,” calling for the American public to learn the stories of those serving on their behalf before the divide was too great. To a degree, the cultural divides between nations and their military have always existed, as distant combat experiences are explained only with the greatest difficulty to those safe on the home front. Literary fiction has long been the last place people have looked for tangible accounts of military experiences. But, today’s wars are different, and discussion about the wars and their cultural impact has already begun in the realm of wartime fiction.
For the first time since the wars began in 2001, authors are using fiction to explain the social, cultural, and experiential distance between the American people and their soldiers. Several high profile works have come from authors who served in combat, like David Abrams’ novel Fobbit, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and the anthology Fire and Forget, edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton. Civilian authors like Siobhan Fallon, Benjamin Fountain, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and Lea Carpenter have also made truly significant contributions to the national discussion. While their military counterparts focus on individual perspectives in combat, these civilian authors use the backdrop of the current wars to explore the relationship between the military and civilians.
When the Men are Gone
In 2011, Fallon published her short story collection, You Know When the Men are Gone. As a military spouse, Fallon discusses both sides of the civil-military divide largely through the perspective of her fellow military dependents, those who are neither soldiers, nor truly a part of the broader civilian society.
Challenging the accepted ideas of military family life during wartime, she explores the military class structure, the pettiness sometimes present among the military dependent community on an empty Army post, and the deep jealously from both the deployed spouse and the one left behind. At a time when military families are lionized for their sacrifices to our nation, Fallon profoundly humanizes these family members. Her collection differs little from the themes of wartime fiction produced by combat veterans—delving deeply into survival, but unlike Abrams, Powers, and others, pursuing this from the perspective of the military wife or husband. Her characters must survive the year-long deployment of a spouse, cancer, and a devastating loss, just as their loved ones must survive their deployments.
Fallon also explores civilian culture from the military perspective. For Fallon’s military characters, those removed from the known comforts of the home front, the civilian and military worlds could not be more different, a fact they recognize and use to fit their own needs. One character dismisses his American girlfriend for her involvement with American popular culture while he nurses feelings for a local girl in Iraq. Another corrects his family member’s use of the phrase “car bombs” instead of the jargon “suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices” seeking to avoid any discussion of his wounds. A third character uses his intelligence gathering training to sneak back into the lives of his unsuspecting family to confirm his suspicions while he is on leave.
By examining the worlds of her characters through these diverse perspectives, Fallon outlines the impact caused by the distance between their lives and surroundings. During their time apart, the characters develop separately, adapt to different experiences, and have different feelings and sensations the people they love may not ever understand. In this fashion, You Know When the Men are Gone speaks accurately to the experiences of countless military families during these wars, and metaphorically, the trauma experienced by these family members at home and their deployed service members speaks to the same condition in the broader civilian and military cultures as well.
A Long Halftime Walk
Like Fallon’s collection, Benjamin Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk examines the divide from the perspective of the American soldier and the American public. Unlike Fallon, though, Fountain seems to be satisfied to see the divide as a perfect target for cynicism and derision, making his book a crucial part of a larger conversation about the distance between America’s civilian and military cultures that he opens.
Set almost entirely in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium and covering the course of a single day, Fountain’s book is about Bravo Squad, eight junior Army soldiers who fought so bravely in combat in Iraq that they are brought home for a brief “victory tour” to be celebrated by the American public. The story, as told from Billy Lynn’s perspective, takes them from limousine rides, to pre-game adventures, through the halftime walk, and includes their predictable debauchery during their brief respite from war.
Fountain demonstrates in great detail the vast daylight between the American people and their voluntary warriors. His eight soldiers are a diverse group, unified by their roughness around the edges and their eagerness to ride their stardom for as long as it lasts. Many of the civilians Billy encounters—Texans, evangelicals, Republicans—spew nonsense barely comprehensible to him, which Fountain depicts by splattering a few phrases like “terrRr,” “double y’im dees,” and “nina leven” on otherwise blank pages.
This distance is most absurdly portrayed by Albert, a Hollywood producer who is constantly on the phone trying to build the buzz from their story into a movie production. Albert spends much of his time trying to get Hilary Swank to play the lead member of Bravo Squad, or better yet, to play a composite character of several members of the all-male unit. Albert reflects to perfection Gates’ and Woodward’s description of the disconnected civilian public. To Albert, it is not the truth of the story that matters, but rather the ways he can make that truth more appealing to the American public.
The metaphor, which Fountain uses to explain the distance allows for the closure his characters need. Early on, Fountain describes a scene with Billy standing along a stadium wall drinking beer with his friend Mango and feeling separate from his fellow Americans. “With all the varieties on display it’s like a migration scene from a nature documentary,” we are told while Billy watches them like an anthropologist among primates. Fountain continues this metaphor throughout, describing some of the civilians as “silverbacks.” Others take on “monkey gigs” to pay the bills. Some commit assault with “monkey wrenches,” while yet another describes the veracity of the Bravo Squad’s story as important as “nickels out of a monkey’s butt” when it comes to selling it to Hollywood.
Billy watches his fellow citizens closely, often harshly judgmental:
No matter their age or station in life, Billy can’t help but regard his fellow Americans as children. They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin towards which war inclines.
By the end, though, he realizes that his fellow citizens are looking at him the same way. A fellow squad member explains, “You gotta to remember, man, we’re basically just a bunch of apes,” reversing his initial perspective and driving home the point that it is really Billy who is the “other” in the equation that Fountain carefully lays out.
Fountain seems to find delight in mocking the American people as thoughtless and ridiculous. In order to do so effectively, he uses the credibility of the eight heroic soldiers to contrast them with their civilian counterparts. While the soldiers are clearly not deified and are full of all sorts of human flaws, Fountain effectively relies on the presumption of their heroism to tell his story much like his civilian characters rely on their heroism to understand and reinforce their own worldviews.
In Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s book, The Watch, the civil-military divide is more global than either Fallon or Fountain’s perspectives. The Watch also monitors the divide within American culture, but it also considers the divide as it exists within Afghanistan, where the book is set.
Based on the Greek play, Antigone, where the daughter of Oedpius fights for a respectable burial for her brother, The Watch begins in the aftermath of an attack on an American compound in the Afghan mountains as local fighters successfully kill and wound several soldiers before they eventually are killed themselves. Learning that the body of her brother and his fellow fighters have been left outside the gates of the outpost exposed to the elements, a badly wounded Afghan woman positions herself outside the same gates, insisting that she be able to give her brother a proper Islamic burial.
Individual perspectives and their transformations, are central to the book and the keys to understanding the author’s take on the civil-military divide. Each chapter tells of the same one-day period from the perspective of each of the major players involved, from the Afghan woman to the troops, providing additional details and powerful justifications in each character’s chapter. The interpreter, Masood, for one, as introduced through the Afghan woman’s eyes, seems flippant and arrogant. But later we learn more about the tragedies he endured that led him to serve with the Americans.
To Roy-Bhattacharya, the war is comprised of powerless individuals fighting on behalf of someone else. The resilient Afghan villager has her family killed by Americans; the interpreter lost his family to the Taliban; and the Americans are thousands of miles away from their homes while their comrades are killed by locals. None would be fighting if events largely uncontrollable events had not been set in motion by the warring powers that each represents.
Lea Carpenter’s novel, Eleven Days, takes on the subject of the civil-military divide in an even more nuanced fashion, examining the divide between America’s elite policymakers and those who volunteer to implement those policies.
The story is built around Jason, a 27 year old Navy SEAL, as told through the eyes of his mother, Sara. A brief relationship with a CIA analyst results in Jason’s birth, which is followed by Sara’s decision to move to the out-of-the-beltway Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, while managing to keep one foot in the elite policy camp by providing editing services for important Washington thinkers. But when Jason decides to attend Annapolis, she finds herself increasingly interested in the military. Or, as her old boss from Langley put it, trading “Athens for Sparta.”
Carpenter decides against telling the story chronologically, indicating that it is the tension between the civilian and military cultures that drives the story and not the sequence of its actions. She spends considerable time showing the brotherhood created by elite special operations training and combat, and just as equally Jason’s honorary godfather and his colleagues trying to lure the talented and remarkable young Jason out of the dangerous special operations community and into the safety of Capitol Hill.
Jason does not truly fit into either camp, at least not one more than the other. He is a man of both ideas and of action—an incredibly literate and reflective young man who is also a part of the elite and historic community willing to die on behalf of the ideas of others. Carpenter never describes him as a hero, choosing instead to contrast his noble yet human reasons for joining the SEALs with his gentle affection for his beloved mother, making Jason the only character who can truly bridge the gap between Sparta and Athens.
The most remarkable aspect of Eleven Days is the fact that Carpenter depicts the civil-military divide without a hint of irony, instead choosing to tell her story with deep heart and conviction, not unlike the sense of duty that Jason exhibits throughout the book. She captures this corollary between his service and her writing in an important passage near the book’s conclusion:
Jason thinks about the question his Academy English professor once raise: Athenians versus Spartans? Did we really know fewer Spartans by name because they were not as skilled in battle, or do we simply lack memory for their heroes because skill in battle is not the axis on which history turns? History turns on the stories handed down to us, and the Athenians had far finer storytellers. “Athens or Sparta?” When the professor posed that question, all hands had shot up for Sparta. If they were all polled now, having served, would they say the same thing?
Collectively, these books reflect a sense that these authors are aware of the vast divide that separates civilian and military culture and the challenges that such a divide will bring. The authors are similarly aware of the false portrayals of these wars by traditional sources. But unlike most, they have decided to participate by broadening the understanding of the war through their tremendous personal talents. Because they arrive in the wake of a decade of hyper-political and extensively mediated news coverage, wartime fiction that examines the civil-military divide is among the most accurate depictions of the current wars.
Getting these stories right and bridging the cultural divide are important tasks. The military’s current civilian leadership has made significant policy changes intended to change military culture—ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, formally allowing women to serve in combat, for example. Other recent decisions will guarantee that the military will change American culture as well, especially the troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the downsizing of forces from wartime levels. As these forces come home, appreciating the truth of their stories as these authors have done will be crucial to both sides of the divide.
Caleb S. Cage is a writer living in Reno, Nevada. He is the co-author of The Gods of Diyala: Transfer of Command in Iraq (Texas A&M University Press), about his experience as a platoon leader in Baqubah in 2004.
[Photo courtesy of U.S. Army]