Twists of Hate
Two fictional takes on the war in Iraq
William T. Vollmann
“WE HAD REACHED THE CROSS ROADS before noon and had shot a French civilian by mistake. . . . Red shot him. It was the first man he had killed that day and he was very pleased.” So far, this incident, and the style in which it is told, would be appropriate for either Redeployment or The Corpse Exhibition, two new works of fiction about the Iraq war, the first by Phil Klay, a former marine who served in Iraq during the surge, and the second by Hassan Blasim, an Iraqi filmmaker and writer who moved to Finland as a refugee in 2004. In fact it comes from a late Hemingway story called “Black Ass at the Cross Roads.” The setting is France, sometime after D-day, when the Nazis are fleeing. The narrator’s business is to kill them as they go by.
By the standards of the Iraq war, he turns out to be a bleeding heart. Even after his contingent ambushes a half-track “full of combat S.S.,” the worst of the worst, he feels uncomfortable about keeping souvenirs from their corpses: “It’s bad luck in the end. I had stuff for a while that I wished I could have sent back afterwards or to their families.”
Of course, Hemingway was no career soldier; he was a writer and therefore, never mind his tough-guy stuff, a professional sensitive. But he was around war enough to be grieved, hardened, enlightened, and damaged by it, and to write about it movingly. This essay is not about him except insofar as he can be a foil to the other two writers under discussion. I need not discuss either his greatness or his glaring faults except to say in regard to the former that he surely remains a natural