June/July/Aug 2010

The Fog of War Writing

Two accounts of conflict play up shock value at the expense of context

Chris Bray


Two new war memoirs, one from a reporter and one from a former army officer, describe close to nothing at all but do so with urgency. Violent images flash by, lives are shattered, the end. You might be inclined to wonder about the difference between observer and participant reports on war, but those distinctions evaporate on the page. Prosecuting strategically senseless war with a muddled premise in an unfamiliar social and political landscape seems to make everyone—even soldiers in the field—into oddly detached observers. In these disjointed accounts, people are just pulling the trigger and watching what happens next.

In Greetings from Afghanistan, Send More Ammo, Benjamin Tupper's erratic chronicle of the Afghan field of battle, he's "in the middle of a slow, frustrating meeting" when another soldier runs into the room and shouts: "We're rolling! There's been an explosion in the bazaar!" They go, see body parts, feel the strange sense that nothing more is happening in a place where dramatic things have just happened. "A cold, silent street remained, devoid of people, activity, and life. Shadows slowly crawled across the blast site like ghosts looking for something they left behind." The shadows of what? Don't ask—there's no answer.

Meanwhile, in Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, Megan Stack's account of her apprenticeship as a war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, she's "sitting around the bureau in Baghdad when the stringer in Mosul called" to report a suicide bombing. "Twenty wasn't very many dead, not as bombings went, but it was enough. We peeled off into the desert, pushing up the trash-strewn highways that rolled north under a dull metal sky." Stack explains that she usually goes to the sites of suicide bombings, sees body parts, feels the strange sense that nothing more is happening in a place where dramatic things have just happened: "Here is the truth about suicide bombings: They are all the same."

In this instance, the bombing is so long finished when she and her interpreter, driver, and photographer arrive in the city that they don't bother going to the site of explosion to explore its sameness. Instead, they drive straight to the hospital to interview survivors: "Needles jutted incongruously from veins. Men stumbled over IV drips, the old wheels of cots tripped their way over a gritty floor, the ward arranging itself. Sweat pushed through my skin, dampening the wool of my sweater, pooling at the waist of my corduroys." Overwhelmed, she faints, then forces herself back to her feet and continues an interview.

And then? "We spent the night in a drab hotel in Mosul and when morning came, we were finished with the bombing and nobody talked about it." Premonitory language, dramatic buildup, night in a hotel. Repeat.

In both accounts, language buries the things the authors are trying to describe. Here's Stack in Beirut: "The day of Hezbollah's rally dawned gritty and gray. The Mediterranean stretched like steel, breathing a stinging wind over town. Hiking down the hill from the Hamra district, I turned a corner and stood staring at a livid, teeming human blanket." It's not a group of people—it's a blanket. Then, as Stack looks closer, its threads become identically begrimed and aggrieved, "with dirt under their fingernails, walking the fancy streets with the weary patience of people accustomed to waiting at the back of the line."

In both accounts, crucial images sail by, are touched on and dropped. Tupper trains and mentors a company of the Afghan army, the ANA. At the scene of the attack described above, the suicide bomber's body has blown apart, and his heart has landed, "in perfect condition," on the ground. Then: "An ANA soldier walked by and kicked it down the road like a small soccer ball, a gesture of disgust at this suicide attack."

And that's it. A man kicks a human heart down the road; Tupper observes it, the end; on to the next image. Is this a soldier he knows? How do the men standing near him react? Do they laugh, look away, pretend not to notice, actually not notice? After the soldier kicks the heart, does he appear satisfied with what he's done? Does he grimace, giggle, walk away, stand there for the rest of the day ignoring the thing? What happens? Note to writers: When someone kicks a human heart in your presence, that's a significant moment. Examine it a bit.

This bizarre disconnectedness is a product of deliberate choices, not an accident of style. An about-the-author note at the end of Stack's book boasts, amazingly, that she "has reported on war, terrorism, and political Islam from twenty-three countries since 2001." And yes, her book reads precisely like a report from someone who has sprinted through twenty-three countries in something less than a decade. She goes to Libya, where she recalls that she was "filling my notebook with scraps and bits." (But the scraps have meaning, since "it all added up to fear.") She has some strange and vaguely menacing encounters with government minders. Then she heads back to the airport.

Later—or apparently later, since the chapters aren't plainly chronological—she goes to Yemen, where, astoundingly, her government minder withholds information: "I was lost in glittering futility now, coming to the end of the first dead end, the great waste of trying to know something of Yemen and know it quickly, know it now. Glazed by Arabian sun, sheened in dust, estranged from facts, I was looking for things I could not see." Great piles of language create small piles of information. Livid blankets give way to glittering futility.

Tupper, meanwhile, finishes with a note describing the origins of his book. "Over 90 percent of these essays were written as blogs and posted online," he writes. That is, again, precisely what the whole exercise feels like. Chapters start and end in a page or two, sometimes running all the way to four or five. Missions are "undermanned and poorly planned" by Tupper's never-named operations officer, who reappears briefly a few more times to make bad decisions and endanger his junior soldiers. Nothing ever comes of the conflict between company officer and headquarters staffer. The poor planning is never described, although Tupper tosses in one example of a dumb reaction from the same superior. Did Tupper discuss the bad planning with his (and therefore the operations officer's) commander? Did he complain to the operations officer? What details were poorly planned? We'll never know.

Still, there are other things to convey. In one blog post reprinted as a book chapter, Tupper explains that he's dumping "some tidbits of information that alone don't really merit any mention," adding that he thinks the tidbits might add up to something more substantial in a "quick list format." Item 6 is that the round from an AK-47, the rifle carried by Afghan soldiers, "literally hollows out the skulls of Taliban when they score a head shot. I don't know where the brain goes, but it's usually nowhere to be found." Item 7 is this: "All Afghan cell phones are 'pay as you go'—i.e., you buy scratch-off tickets, call in the code on the back, and get your allotted amount of minutes." And so on, all the information loaded with equal weight.

It's hard to blame Tupper or Stack for the messes of their books. War is disorienting. They did, in fact, race from place to place, scene to scene, without the benefit of a narrative. But do publishers publish, or merely print? Stack's 250 pages of text probably hide a worthwhile 150-page book, stripped of a third of its chapters and half of its adjectives. Tupper would surely have been better served by a project that took his blog posts and integrated them into a narrative whole, with analysis and reflection. War is lived in fragments. You have to hope that someone will bother to connect them.

It's possible that there's nothing to connect, though, in a set of wars apparently waged solely to send messages. Thomas Friedman notoriously declared to Charlie Rose that the point of the American invasion of Iraq was to say "Suck on this" to the culture of Middle Eastern Islam. I have yet to see evidence that anyone in charge can offer a clearer description of the project. And so here we are, headed for our second decade at war. If we have persistent state action without policy, war making without governing logic, what could there be to connect?

As a result, we are left with pointless stories earned in the face of death, adding up to a shameful waste. Maybe these books really are a perfect representation of their time.

Chris Bray is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at UCLA and a former soldier.

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