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The “Crazed Veteran”

On this 11th anniversary of 9/11, I am struck by how little of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wormed their way into American fiction. The main character in Michael Chabon’s brand new Telegraph Avenue is a veteran of the first Gulf War, but by the time the novel opens in 2004, his Army hitch is already 12 years behind him, and his problems are no longer a veteran’s problems. The protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (2004) spends his time denouncing the Iraq war when he is not daydreaming about murdering President George W. Bush. Stephen King makes an Iraq war veteran the hero of Under the Dome (2009), but only, perhaps, because he regrets the atrocity he committed during the war. The voice of reason in William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters is a former Navy SEAL who “has murdered many men — in Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia — some of whom didn’t even know they were in the same room with him.”

The tone of admiration is even rarer than a character who is also a veteran. Robert Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran who began his career with The Alleys of Eden (1981), a novel about an Army deserter who stays behind to live with a bar girl in Vietnam because he can “never feel innocent again in the United States,” tried to explain why to the Virginia Quarterly Review:

Most of the best writers in Vietnam did not go there voluntarily. They maintained that sense of distance from what they were doing because they weren’t there from a natural personal impulse. They were not ontologically comfortable with the role they were cast in. . . . If you go there involuntarily the intensities of war make you doubt even more profoundly why you are there.

But I wonder if there isn’t a simpler explanation, one that is rooted in Butler’s own generation (and revealed in Butler’s own attitude). From his first appearance in American fiction, the Vietnam veteran was already well on his way to becoming a stock figure: the unhinged killer, the suicidal maniac, the post-traumatic ghost of himself. In Joseph Hayes’s Like Any Other Fugitive (1971), the vet is suffering from battle fatigue and instead of surrendering to the police when falsely accused of a crime, he leads them on a cross-country chase. In Edward Connelly’s Deer Run (1971), the vet wants to escape his painful memories of Vietnam by starting a commune, which goes badly. In Harry Mark Petrarkis’s In the Land of Morning (1973), the vet’s alienation from post-war America is symbolized by his fear of sleep, which feels to him like a “black, bottomless pit too close to death.” In Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die (1973), the vet is a violent and suicidal goon who is first seen beating up a sailor, muttering that nobody makes trouble “if you get a good one in first.”

Michael Cimino’s film The Deer Hunter (1978), in which Christopher Walken gives an unforgettable performance as the ex-U.S. infantryman who stays behind in Saigon to become a vacant-eyed and empty-souled legend at Russian roulette, and then Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) with Marlon Brando as the war-crazed former Green Beret, sealed the Vietnam vet’s fate in American culture. By the turn of the decade, TV critics were complaining that the “deranged veteran” had become a predictable stereotype, but what they didn’t understand was that that was its whole purpose. To identify a character as dangerously berserk, all a writer needed was to describe him as a Vietnam veteran. Even novelists who should have known better — or at least worked harder — fell for the narrative shortcut. As Philip Roth reminded his readers late last week in his “Open Letter to Wikipedia,” the “executioner” of the main characters in The Human Stain (2000) is “the tormented, violent Vietnam vet Les Farley.” He could have saved on words by merely saying “Vietnam vet.”

Where did the image of the “crazed vet” come from? The figment is not to be found in novels about veterans of the Second World War. Even when the veterans are emotionally scarred by battle, as in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) or N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn (1968), their biggest problem in these novels is readjusting to a civilian culture — as represented by the corporation or the Indian reservation — which gives them neither the opportunity nor the resources for sniffing out the meaning of their experience. The fault of the Vietnam vets, though, is in themselves.

Or perhaps in the attitude displayed by Robert Olen Butler — the attitude of “ontological discomfort” with war, and the suspicion that anyone who chooses voluntarily to join the military has a “natural impulse” for killing and violence. A writer who feels superior to men and women in uniform is unlikely to be interested in their experience, in combat or out. Small surprise the literature of 9/11 is almost entirely a bystander’s literature. And since American writers seem incapable of imagining veterans as anything other than ontologically unhinged, their absence from post-9/11 fiction is probably a very good thing.

Update: Last Friday, Jacob Silverman had a long satisfying review of four recent Iraq war novels at Slate: T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It ’Til It Hurts, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, David Abrams’s Fobbit, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (A fifth title, which Silverman does not get to, is Brian Castner’s The Long Walk.) Silverman’s conclusion is instructive:

It’s clear . . . that these new American wars have bred manifold types of isolation. Here, actual indigenous peoples are rare, whether enemy or civilian; the one named Iraqi that appears in The Yellow Birds is killed almost as soon as he’s introduced. There is little attempt to explore the perspectives of the very people these wars are being waged upon. . . . Three of these four war novels take place primarily in the United States, with the setting of Fobbit basically representing a miniaturized America plopped down in Baghdad. Even Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk . . . is mostly a stateside affair. A decade on, we read about life over here, so we don’t have to think about what we’ve done over there.

The only one of these I’ve read is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I found dreary and far-fetched. But if Silverman is right about them as a set, these four novels belong less to the Global War on Terror than to post-Vietnam American writing. They echo Tim O’Brien’s observation in Going after Cacciato (1978), the first truly good novel about the Vietnam war, in which the American soliders, who had little knowledge of the country in which they were fighting and less contact with its people, “did not know good from evil.” Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars even after four decades.

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