Stories from the Suck:
The First Wave of Iraq War Narratives


The Hurt Locker, Summit Entertainment, 2008

by Stacey Peebles

War stories have been with us forever, but at some points in human history they demand our attention more urgently than at others. Now would seem to be one of those times, as the United States remains deeply engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, and—perhaps more importantly—welcomes home wave after wave of veterans whose military service has been quite different than that of their parents and grandparents. As a nation, we are only beginning to understand the nature of that service for the soldiers and how those combat experiences will shape the way our community as a whole thinks about the causes and effects of war.

A great deal of the way we think about war is the product of popular representations—the books, photographs, films, and (these days) online content that takes combat as its subject matter. Think of the Vietnam War, and you’re probably thinking as much (or more) about Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Philip Caputo, Michael Herr, and Tim O’Brien as you are about first-hand stories from friends and family members. In film and text, young men are drafted into service and find themselves tangled in thick jungle and guerrilla warfare, gradually descending into disillusionment and political cynicism to the sound of a rock-and-roll soundtrack. Contemporary war is a different story.

Welcome to the Suck focuses on the soldier’s experience in the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War as represented in prose, poetry, film, and new media. The war in Afghanistan predates the Iraq War and has officially outlasted it, as combat operations in Iraq were officially called to a close on August 31, 2010. But to date, that war has inspired fewer and less prominent war stories than the war in Iraq. This may change, as political and cultural attention shifts to Afghanistan during Obama’s presidency, and the ways in which this war blends with and differs from Iraq will be a compelling avenue of study in future years.

The American soldiers fighting in Iraq and represented in these new war stories have grown up in a culture of mediation, where it has been more acceptable than ever before to subvert or transcend traditional categories and norms of behavior, gender, and ethnicity. At the same time, new communications technologies have enabled people to experiment with virtual or alternate identities—in venues like blogs, forums, and more comprehensive online worlds like Second Life. Advances in battlefield technologies offer those interested in a military career the promise of a fighting self supplemented by things like GPS-guided Humvees, night-vision goggles, digital battle simulation, and robotics. As young people, these soldiers have been encouraged to revel in their individuality, challenge restrictive categories, and make ample use of technology to do so. Contemporary American culture traffics, after all, in identities that are cyborg, hybrid, avatar.

A film like Avatar, in fact, demonstrates this emphasis very well. The protagonist, Jake Sully, rises above the restrictions imposed on him by his nationality, his culture, his disability, and even his basic biology. It’s worth noting that he is a soldier, and that this is a war movie.

But it’s also a fantasy, and not just because of the blue skin and floating islands. The transcendence that Jake steps into like a warm bath proves to be frustratingly and even devastatingly elusive for soldiers fighting in Iraq. War—real war—enforces categorization even as it forces encounters across the boundaries of nation, the body, and technology.

Consider someone like Kayla Williams, who published her memoir Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army in 2005. Williams worked as an Arabic linguist and interpreter, a tough, smart soldier as eager for challenges as her male colleagues. She is female—and thus historically not typical American soldier material—but she has no doubts about her ability to do the job and do it well. What’s the currency of military masculinity, after all? Grit, brains, competence, and dedication to the group. Williams has all that in spades, and she goes to Iraq ready to take her place as a brother-in-arms. But it doesn’t work out as she’d like. Two instances of sexual assault shake her badly, but even more telling is her account of the fellow soldiers who treat her well. They pat each other on the ass to express acceptance and affection—a gesture called the “good game”—but they are extra careful not to touch her. “As a female,” she says, “I was not really a part of the ‘good game.’”

The very form of respect these men demonstrate—that dictates not touching her body, not treating her as an object—also isolates her. Williams may be masculine, but she is not male. She joins the military in order to prove something to herself, and to transcend the traditional dictates of her gender, but the same venue that gives her the opportunity to do that can also shut it down. War wants us to think in binaries.

In the Valley of Elah, Warner Independent Pictures, 2007

Brian Turner is not the kind of person given to thinking that way. He joined the Army at age 30, after earning his MFA from the University of Oregon and teaching English in South Korea. In 1999 he deployed to Bosnia, and in 2003 to Iraq. Turner’s more recent service inspired him to write while overseas and after his return, and his first poetry collection Here, Bullet was published in 2005. It provides one of the more poignant examples of this thwarted desire for transcendence—transcendence, for Turner, that would take him beyond nation, culture, and borders of all kinds.

In poems like “What Every Soldier Should Know” and the title poem, “Here, Bullet,” Turner writes about the dark, deadly knowledge that the experience of war brings—what it means to target and be targeted yourself. But the tragedy of the collection as a whole isn’t the tragedy of the body’s vulnerability or the up-close and personal knowledge of suffering and loss. Turner is fascinated by Iraqi culture, and threads his poetry with references to writers like the contemporary poet Fadhil al-Azzawi and Abdul “Ala” al-Ma’arri, a 10th-century philosopher and poet who, though natively Syrian, longed to return to Baghdad after leaving there. In the poem “Alhazen of Basra,” he imagines being able to ask the eminent 10th-century physicist Abu Ali Hasan Ibn al-Haitham about the light that shines “in the mind’s great repository / of dream,” the light that exists within us. As a poet, Turner writes longingly of illumination, the literal enlightenment available to those who would reach across borders and communicate more fully.

As a soldier, however, his life is defined by the blinding light outside, in war—by the destructive power of explosions that are literally obliterating in poems like “2000 lbs.” and “16 Iraqi Policemen.” The final poem, “To Sand,” ends the collection on an unmistakable note of sadness, as Turner wonders about the way “dreams burn in the oilfires of night.”

The light and concussion of roadside bombs and the pressure of desert heat are blinding and destructive outside, but those explosions detonate internally as well. Turner’s interest and empathy, enacted on both the cultural and individual levels, his thirst for both human connection and enlightenment, make his role as a soldier fighting a war unbearable. That desire for transcendence ultimately renders him both humane and inhuman. More than any other contemporary war writer, Turner exemplifies this striking quality of potential and loss.

War writing seems to always be about loss, though its texture changes in different ages, its particular color and taste. I was thinking about Vietnam War movies, and how so many feature characters who ask another character to kill them. The sniper tells Joker to shoot her in Full Metal Jacket, and, after some consideration, he does. In Platoon, Barnes goads Chris Taylor into killing him. “Do it,” he says, and Taylor does. Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter have similar climaxes—main characters left dazedly contemplating the death of another person and their own responsibility for it. They are unsettling moments—is it right to kill someone who asks to die?—but in these stories they seem to provide a way to reflect on the moral ambiguities of Vietnam.

In the Iraq War stories that we’ve seen so far, a different trope presents this conflict’s particular tangle of agency and trauma. Again and again, dead children appear as totems of the guilt, loss, and impossible choices endemic to the Iraq War. Writers like Nathaniel Fick, John Crawford, and David Zimmerman write about mistaking children for enemy soldiers, and In the Valley of Elah, a film from 2007, places the death of a child at the secret heart of the story. If you saw The Hurt Locker, you know that it takes this trope to a new extreme, as a young Iraqi boy is found murdered and implanted with what’s called a “body bomb.” Brian Turner has written in The New York Times that he dreams about children killed in Iraq. “Maybe when I go to sleep,” he says, “I’m actually entering a world in which Iraqi mothers search through the landscape of my memory in the vain hope of finding their dead sons. My body a sort of graveyard, a repository of the lost and dead.”

A dead child—it’s the ultimate indication of lost potential, but in these stories it also indicates a loss of agency, and something of the guilt and frustration felt by soldiers fighting a war in which deliberate and careful choices are often impossible—not necessarily because they’re morally ambiguous, as in those Vietnam War films, but because there’s often very little time or leeway to make a decision in the first place. And as a traumatic experience, the accidental killing of a child can have a very long wake.

Like the movie, one of Brian Turner’s poems is also called “The Hurt Locker.” Soldiers often use the phrase to refer to a way of coping with the chaos and confusion of war. After a scalding experience, what can you do that will enable you to get up, go outside the wire, and continue to do your job? Put that experience in the hurt locker, and deal with it later. Luckily, many soldiers and writers haven’t kept that hurt locker closed indefinitely, and open it to write or otherwise tell these stories. Now is a good time to listen.

About the Author:

Stacey Peebles is is Assistant Director of the Lloyd International Honors College at UNC-Greensboro.  She studies the representation of war and violence in literature and film, and her article “Lines of Sight: Watching War in Jarhead and My War: Killing Time in Iraq” appeared in PMLA’s special issue “War.” She has also published a number of articles on Cormac McCarthy’s fiction and the film adaptations of his work.  In Fall 2011, she will join the English Department faculty at Centre College in Danville, KY. Her PhD is from the University of Austin, Texas. She is the author of Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Solder’s Experience in Iraq