by Michael Carson
At one point during my deployment to Iraq, I asked an odd question. A soldier had been shot in the head. I was trying to get him back to the base hospital. I liked the soldier who had been shot. I did not want him to be shot. But shot he was and this is what I whispered to myself, under my breath, with gritted teeth:
“Are you happy?”
I could not sleep that night. The full extent of my complicity in this absurd war kept me awake. I finally gathered what was wrong and what was wrong was me. I saw clearly that I had done and had participated and no matter how earnest my contrition about the horribleness of it all, now that my friend and soldier had been shot, I would be a liar, because what had happened was not in the least ironic. I had expected it.
But, in my defense, all Americans expected it.
Paul Fussell’s literary history The Great War and Modern Memory seems to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts lately. In it, Fussell more or less argues that the war made European culture ironic because it was an ironic war. Nothing turned out as expected. As there has been no shortage of jaded war literature since the war, this sounds good. It makes sense from a literary perspective. Problem is, from a historical perspective, this is not in the least true. A quick glance anything other than Owen’s poetry and Graves’ angry fusillade against British culture (written ten years after the war and which he later expressed regret for) will tell you that the decades leading to the Second World War will show anyone that the people of America, Britain, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union were not especially ironic or anymore ironic after the war then they were before. This was the age of freewheeling capitalism, of communism, of fascism, of religious revivalism and soldier worship. If anything, The First World War ushered in an age of earnestness (Read Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning for a historian’s take on the question) that made hash of a vibrant pre-war culture.
Some British war literature did build on a rich satirical tradition but anyone who has read Dickens and Thackeray can tell you that World War One did not invent literary irony. This irony helped them endure the war longer than most belligerent nations, to look away and laugh as it sucked away their entire population and destroyed their economy, but it did not emerge in this awfulness. The Wipers Times, a satirical trench newspaper – forbearer perhaps of sites like the Duffelblog – is a great example of this, and nothing in that famous satirical paper does not build off the foundation of irony established well before the war. France and Germany had very few war ironists during the war. All Quiet came well after the war, ten years in fact, when everyone decided to play at irony as a last ditch effort against the main legacy of the war: seething anger, delusional stab-in-the-back romance and despair.
Fussell’s observations are correct and insightful insofar as they focus on the war poets – the Owens and Rosenbergs – who, ironically, did not survive their war. I think this renaissance of Fussell’s work has much to do with not only the First World War’s hundredth anniversary but with the volunteer nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We soldiers and Americans in general – so this version of events goes – are suddenly like Owen because we did not get what we expected. We went in as starry-eyed idealists after the towers fell and became hardened ironists through the brutality of a war we had no way of knowing could be bad. This movement from innocence to hardened wisdom makes for a great story, a sense of growth, of progress. Sentimentalists love a specious sense of closure, and this movement provides us this.
Yet it is not true.
Unless we were born in a cave (no, I take that back, even if one lived in a cave), everyone knows that when you go to war you kill people and are killed. You can’t possibly plead ignorance as a boy born on an Arkansas farm might in 1917 (and even this I find doubtful). Wars are about killing. And every war has people die and be killed. This is their appeal. It is an end to civility, a giving up on the norms of reason and accountability. Only a literal moron would think otherwise. For accounts of such morons, see Ambrose Bierce’s brilliant “Chickamauga,” narrated by a mute and dumb boy, or the psychopathic Ronald Weary of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Very few deaf and dumb mute people fought in Iraq in Afghanistan and very few deaf and dumb mutes voted for the war. There were admittedly a couple Ronald Wearys running about the halls of Congress and the Army and Marines but they were in no way the majority. So what gives? How is everyone so surprised when war turns out to be horrible and boring and as stupid as we thought it would?
Now there is the argument that we do not know really know what we claim to know or expect about war. We can say “war is horrible,” but we do not really understand it until we have seen it ourselves. There is some truth to this. But this is actually an argument against wartime irony. In this version, the full impact of its horror somehow breaks the civilized veneer of cynicism, which has become, so the logic goes, enervating to our sense of moral clarity. Experience or at least faith in something breaks down the distracting and consuming paradoxes of knowledge. Famously, the fall of the towers supposedly ended our irony, so we could see clearly again, and the first thing we did with our newfound earnestness is go to war against evil incarnate because we were sick and tired of the dissimulations and tongue-in-cheek circumlocutions of civilized discourse. War, we understood with reptilian logic, is where irony goes to die. We wanted it dead, and we killed it good.
In “What I Saw at Shiloh,” Ambrose Bierce, recounting the hideous forms of the Union dead, professes that he “cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant gentlemen who got exactly what they enlisted for.” This is harsh – they didn’t call him “Bitter Bierce” for nothing – but I think Bierce’s observation is less an accusation than an acknowledgment that part of war stories, part of the appeal of war, and part of those who adore war stories, derives from a false sense of ignorance on part of the civilians, readers and soldiers. War, we want to pretend, surprises us with its violence. This is part of the appeal, for being surprised with death is much more exciting than plowing crops from dawn to dusk, working at a Connecticut insurance company from nine to five or just lounging around all day at the local bar.
We go to war because we want to be surprised and we are duly surprised by death, human meanness and degradation. War is reliable in this respect. People forget how many of the modernists, those supposedly darkly ironic men, who for the most part turned after the war toward Christianity (Eliot), fascism (Pound) or Marxism (Brecht), saw in the First World War an antidote to peacetime banality, soullessness and ennui. The wasteland isn’t in Flanders but in London. The war confirmed their suspicion about existence and gave them a great metaphor; it did not teach them anything of note.
Phil Klay’s collection of short war stories has just won the National Book Award. The award is well deserved. His stories of various marines – from grunts doing jumping jacks on buildings to draw fire, to chaplains looking for true faith in the crucible of fire, to award writers filled with shame at the stories they are forced to make up about men under fire – touch on the way which the war gives us exactly what we expect, not how it surprises us, but how we are always stunned when we get what we thought we wanted and now no longer want.
Klay’s work is what we need because it deals with the problem of expectation. And yet there are already a series of writers and critics seeking to place Klay’s work within a tradition it is not really part of – as a proud entrant in a long line of ironic war art, whose original honorees would likely refuse the honor. They want to see the writing of his stories as a catharsis, a triumph for art over war, because they are sick of thinking about the war and this is how the story has always gone, and, most simply, this is what they expect.
But this is a lie, that old lie, as Owen might say, and we should react to the horror in Klay’s work not with surprise, not with blather about catharsis, and happy talk of how war art endures and triumphs over the barbarity of war, but admit that on some level when we went to war we as a country and as individuals expected the emotional, psychological and physical barbarity that would follow. And if this is true, if we do look toward war to answer questions we already know the answer to, then we need to really ask ourselves one thing and one thing only, the same question I asked and the same question we should ask after every war: quite simply, are we happy to get exactly what we expected? And – if we are not – maybe we need to start looking for novel and less catastrophic affirmations.