Plenty of factual books on the invasion of Iraq, but surprisingly few novels

The great American fiction of the 2003 invasion is only just emerging, writes Saul Austerlitz, albeit in a form that appears to defy the conventions of the traditional war novel

A US military veteran watches pre-game activity from the sideline before the start of an NFL football game in Tampa, Florida. Brian Blanco / AP Photo
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"At this moment, the defining story of our times - the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - is being told in some of the greatest books of our time," observed Geoff Dyer in his 2010 essay The Moral Art of War. "It's just that these books are not coming in the shape and form commonly expected: the novel."

Dyer was providing his impressions of a commonly observed phenomenon, whereby novelists had mostly ignored the most profound political events of the last decade. Meanwhile, journalists such as George Packer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Thomas Ricks, Dexter Filkins and the late Anthony Shadid were doing the work of novelists, offering richly developed characters, indelible moments and a defining sense of place in their long-form reporting from Iraq.

As it turns out, the key words in Dyer's pronunciamento were "at this moment". Dyer was not wrong, only slightly hasty. Iraq had long been practically invisible in the work of American and European writers, present as symbol (such as in Will Self's underrated The Butt) or inspiration (as in Robert Perisic's Our Man in Iraq) but rarely as fact. In the last year, though, just in time for the war's impending tenth anniversary, a wave of well-received novels has reordered the accepted narrative.

The non-fiction of the Iraq war had been devoted to bringing readers ever-closer to the action. We were taken behind the blast-proof walls of Baghdad's Green Zone in Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City, absorbed in the bureaucratic infighting and delusional optimism of the ruling neoconservative claque in Packer's The Assassin's Gate, and ventured into the hidden lives of everyday Iraqis in Shadid's Night Draws Near.

If the war was a magic trick, asking us to watch as a rabbit was pulled out of a hat, while resolutely ignoring the commotion taking place directly beneath the quivering fingers, Packer and Shadid and their colleagues were those rationalists intent on explaining the trick, even - or especially - if it ruined the effect. In the Green Zone, Packer archly noted of the secure American enclave in Baghdad, "it was as if a construction crew was carefully applying the finishing touches to the interior of a new house without noticing the arsonists gathering outside".

Their books were angry responses to the journalists "embedded" with the invading forces, too close to the fighting to comprehend what was taking place, and too trusting of the assertions of American officials to question their highly distorted version of the war.

"I had been in Iraq about three weeks and had already begun to realise that most of my ideas about the place were going to be of no use," Packer observes. An Iraqi encounters an American soldier who asks him what his intentions are in Night Draws Near, and he explodes in anger: "What are you doing here? You're my guest. What are you doing in Iraq?"

The enduring works of non-fiction about the war had been intent on rubbing our faces in the reality of Iraq. They were jeeps hurtling relentlessly forward, ever deeper into the bruised, bleeding heart of the war. Their task was one they saw as being uniquely their own; no fiction could ever match nonfiction's intensity or focus. "It was unlikely that a novelist would spend six months in Baghdad and come back to update From Here to Eternity or Dog Soldiers," wrote Packer in The Assassin's Gate. Packer's reference to Robert Stone's black-comic Dog Soldiers was a reminder that while the Vietnam War had prompted its own clutch of distinguished novels, including Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn, more recent conflicts like the Gulf War had printed invisibly on the page, and the conflict in Iraq seemed likely to follow its example.

Instead, the most prominent novels about the Iraq war are notable for their sense of retreat. The war is less subject than backdrop here, a white-hot light too bright to take in directly. The traditional war-novel credentials were seemingly not enough anymore; Kevin Powers and David Abrams had both served in Iraq, but their novels mostly observe the war at its margins, too overwhelmed to begin anywhere else. The anger of non-fiction gives way to the grieving of fiction.

Abrams' bleakly comic Fobbit is named after the all-too-comfortable permanent residents of American forward operating bases, hobbits of the war effort, content to keep their weaponry gleaming and unfired, their knowledge of Iraq restricted to that portion whose landmarks are McDonald's and KFC. Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk incongruously takes place at a Thanksgiving Day football game in Dallas, where the men of Bravo Squad are making a stop on their ironically named Victory Tour before being forcibly returned to combat. Even Powers' The Yellow Birds, the only novel of the three to feature battle scenes front and centre, is a simultaneous advance and retreat, moving ever-closer to the death of its protagonist, Bartle's friend Murph, while its hero retreats ever-further from the shattering experience of Iraq.

These novelists would all agree with The Yellow Birds' Bartle, who, in explaining his own reticence at simple explanation, offers up a philosophical underpinning for these novels' reluctance to depict the war bluntly: "To say what happened, the mere facts, the disposition of events in time, would come to seem like a kind of treachery."

Fobbit lets meaning-free Rumsfeldian language dribble across its pages, references to "insurgents" and imprecations to "stay the course" filling the empty spaces in conversation. Abrams, who worked on a public-affairs team in Iraq, is particularly scathing on the unending wave of good news emerging from the US military, even as the war was clearly slipping out of their grasp. A character reading Catch-22 defends it to a fellow soldier as "an owner's manual for the war," and Fobbit evinces a Hellerian grasp of war's lunacy, with orders coming down from on high that "there is NO 'bad news' coming out of Iraq," even as they are deluged with wave after wave of disastrous new developments.

In a traditional war novel, young men remark on the strangeness of being sent to a foreign land to die; in Billy Lynn, easily the best novel yet written on Iraq, even as almost the entirety of its action takes place at Texas Stadium, young men, returned from a near-brush with death, remark on the utter strangeness of the land that sent them to war. The football players have sturdier protective gear than the soldiers do. The well-fed Cowboys fans are more gung-ho about the war than the men of Bravo. Hanging out with his fellow soldiers, participating in a desultory press conference, meeting the Cowboys cheerleaders and the team's owner, who is looking to buy a piece of their heroic story, and watching the boring game itself, Billy and his colleagues take in "just another normal day in America," one which has become decidedly foreign to them.

Ultimately, these are less novels of combat than of memory, devoted not to thrust and counterthrust but to the mysterious inner workings of grief. Bartle mourns the loss of Murph before he has been killed, "half a ghost" even when we first spot him, his connection to Murph leading him to an understandable but tragic error in judgement. But Bartle knows that the work of memory is "a kind of misguided archaeology. Sifting through the remains of what I remembered about him was a denial of the fact that a hole was really all that was left, an absence I had attempted to reverse but found that I could not". Grief serves no purpose, fulfils no mission. It is "a grave that could not be filled or leveled".

Billy Lynn is to be sent back to Iraq following this farcical pep rally for the war, and his grieving, which "comes and goes, fattens and thins like the moon freestyling across foreign skies", is not only for his dead friend Shroom, but a pre-emptive mourning for himself: "He clicks off and has a spasm of grief so intense that his knees buckle slightly. His hand finds the wall, and he has to remind himself that it's not absolutely certain he will die in Iraq."

Death is a holy absence which words could only despoil, a reality that corrupts all the patriotic blather in the air. "He wonders by what process virtually any discussion about the war seems to profane these ultimate matters of life and death," Billy thinks as he listens to a singer's rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. "As if to talk of such things properly we need a mode of speech near the equal of prayer, otherwise just shut, shut your yap and sit on it, silence being truer to the experience than the star-spangled spasm, the bittersweet sob, the redeeming hug, or whatever this … closure is that everybody's always talking about. They want it to be easy and it's just not going to be." The novel's traditional promises of intimacy and experience are denied here, stopping readers at a checkpoint, rifles pointed ominously, informing them they can go no further.

Grief, we come to understand, is both a personal and collective matter. The veterans of combat weep for their fallen brothers, and by extension, all those cut down in this misguided war. The mourning in these books is both for the missing, and for the missed opportunities of a failed war, Packer's list of "the priorities chosen, the chances missed, the decisions made and not made". These soldiers' sadness is a synecdoche, a stand-in for the unimaginable, incomprehensible totality of all the tears shed over the conflagration of Iraq.

Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.