A veteran’s novel that finds no redemption in war
Elliott Colla writes in The Intercept:
If your anger about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has lost its edge, Roy Scranton’s debut novel, War Porn, will help you recommit. It takes a while to appreciate the disjointed quality of the plot, which hopscotches back and forth through the lives of two U.S. soldiers, Specialist Wilson (identified only by his rank and last name), whose deployment to Iraq transforms him from a poet nice-guy into something else, and a National Guard military police officer, Aaron Stojanowski, who returns stateside jagged and dangerous. In writing War Porn, Scranton has produced a literary work that doesn’t just describe the outrages of the war, but punches them into the American gut.
We first meet Stojanowski at a Columbus Day barbecue in the fall of 2004, and watch as detached millennials ask questions about his service in Iraq. “That must have been intense,” one says. Eventually Stojanowski explodes, kicking a pet and harshing the party vibe. The novel then jumps through a set of disjointed scenes from Specialist Wilson’s time in Iraq, which illustrate in alternating fashion: the casual racism of military occupation; the boredom and routine of everyday violence; the sudden fragility of life; the unexpected, fleeting pleasures of the forward operating base.
Stojanowski’s story most compels and disturbs when he meets up with Dahlia, an underemployed American woman bored with marriage and life in Utah. Stojanowski’s life also crosses the story of Qasim al-Zabadi, an Iraqi academic trapped in Baghdad, who waits desperately and gracelessly as fate exes out the days of its cruel schedule. When these three lives — Stojanowski, Dahlia, and Qasim — finally intersect, it is by way of a rape and violations that are shocking and unexpected.
Scranton is part of a generation of mostly white, male American soldier authors who fought in Iraq. Scranton served in the U.S. Army from 2002-2006, and was deployed to Baghdad with the famous First Division in 2003-4. Since then, he has earned a Ph.D. in English from Princeton, publishedLearning to Die in the Anthropocene, a remarkable collection of essays about climate change, while also being active in Iraq Veterans Against the War. He now teaches creative writing at the University of Notre Dame.
Yet War Porn contains some of the most significant and original writing on deployment to be found in contemporary American literature about the Iraq War. Scranton sketches out grueling schedules that blur the difference between “on” and “off duty,” a form of time that passes felt but unmarked, a perpetual twilight of patrols and downtimes bleeding into one another. Similarly, War Porn maps a space lacking any “wire” to separate what is inside, and thus safe, from what is outside. In the time-space of occupied Iraq, distinctions between war and peace, combatant and noncombatant, dissolve into a world of ambiguous actions and relationships with no necessary meaning — an endless stream of DVDs and video games, pointless errands, furtive jerk-off sessions, interrupted naps, and senseless interactions with the local population.
Surrounded by soldiers he views as knuckle draggers, Wilson strives to maintain a semblance of his pre-military self. But eventually the contradictions become too large, and Wilson comes to the conclusion that his salvation must lie in the trigger.
This wasn’t who I was, who I was meant to be. I was sensitive. I was a poet. The solution seemed obvious: if I just shot a hadji, it’d all be okay. If I just killed one hadji, anyone, someone, then all the black bile, hatred, and fear would flow out of me like blood and water pouring from the wounds of Christ. I’d be transformed, transfigured. Please, Jesus, I prayed, let me fucking kill somebody.
Wilson gets his chance in a firefight, and he is indeed transformed, but not redeemed.
Further upsetting the typical narrative of war as redemption is the fact that . . .