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The Great Iraq War Novel: It will come, and it will tell us the truth.

There will come a day, and it will be soon, upon which a great novel of the Iraq war will be published.


If you're an American fighting there, the war in Iraq is a clearly foolish endeavor in which you've been sent to fight and possibly die for frivolously presented, very inscrutable reasons. Vietnam was like that, and that's one of the reasons why so much good writing has come from that war. Moral quandaries abounded in those jungles, and the best of fiction is dependent for its life on such quandaries in the souls of its major characters. So, from Vietnam we have James Webb's Fields of Fire and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried among many others, not to mention the amazing non-fiction books Dispatches by Michael Herr and Frances Fitzgerald's Fire In The Lake.

Although their news conference styles were quite different, Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld were alike in their seeming inability as Secretaries of Defense to understand why they were wrong... or even that they were wrong. So, young men and women are packed off to war in order to shore up the justifications these men have invented for waging it. It's terrible for the soldiers, to be sure, and we would all prefer that they not have to do this. But the scenario is absolutely ripe for contemporary fiction. If you fancy heroes who are uncertain of their beliefs in the face of obdurate destruction, or who become heroic and self-sacrificing while defending a political folly, or are observers with a keen sense of right and wrong looking on as less-wise people imprison, and then murder, innocents... if these kinds of heroes are interesting to you, Iraq is your war.

Of course, such heroes have appeared in books about wars that were very justified. Yossarian in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is perhaps the most famous, a man with a pragmatic, yet comic disposition who realizes in World War II that his superior officers are the real enemy since they are the ones sending him into battle and therefore trying to get him killed. That's the catch. Again and again he battles against them, and he loses again and again.

Henry Fleming, in Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage, runs away from battle at first, then becomes a fearsome soldier himself. The gray, self-questioning middle ground between his cowardice and his bravery is where the real novel takes place.

Actual war comes to Robert E. Lee Prewitt in James Jones's From Here To Eternity only at the end of the novel, when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. But Prewitt fights a war nonetheless against his own cohorts... literally when he's forced to box against them despite his guilt at having killed a man in the ring, and, terribly, when he avenges his buddy Angelo Maggio's death by stabbing the jailer Fatso Judson in a Honolulu alley. Prewitt's war is against his fellow soldiers and, most awfully, against himself.

And now here's Iraq. Five years on, we still see platoons of men and women sent into neighborhoods whose inhabitants are on another planet from the soldiers when it comes to religious beliefs, language, levels of wealth, personal mores and expectations for government. The soldiers have weaponry the likes of which we've never known before. But they are surrounded, they feel, by an extremely hostile enemy and are given very little real reason to be fighting in such a place, other than the platitudes of "defending democracy" and so on that are mouthed with monotonous insincerity by politicians of what is now a minority party on the other side of the world. It makes total sense that this would result in very difficult moral confusion among a number of these soldiers, and you can bet that a couple of those can really write.

Just now, finally, journalists are rising to the task of telling something of the truth of the war in Iraq. But no one will tell that truth really until some fine novelist - American, perhaps, but maybe Iraqi - writes about a dysfunctional Muslim family in Baghdad whose son is lost in the war, a pleasure-seeking Sunni merchant profiting from that war, a mercenary American bodyguard and his disapproving Vietnam veteran father, the mourning daughter of a killed Shia merchant, the parents of an American infantryman who commits suicide by fragging himself...

These fictions will tell us the truth about Iraq. But even then, the war itself in Iraq will not have been the issue. Rather, it will be personal emotional truth emerging from seemingly endless darkness, and that's something that great novelists are particularly adept at writing about.