"The war seemed as far away as the football games of someone else's
college.""“A Farewell to Arms
This July, Scribner issued a new hardcover edition of Ernest Hemingway's A
Farewell to Arms, one of the finest pieces of literature ever
written about war. Hemingway's novel, along with Erich Maria Remarque's
masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front, was first published
in 1929--more than ten years after the Armistice. When you're writing a novel about
something as real as war, it pays to take your time doing it.
Not so with nonfiction. For example, Halberstam's The Best and the
Brightest was published in 1972, three years before the Vietnam War
even ended. That book's combination of timeliness, along with deep
detail and a healthy skepticism, helped change what readers expect in their
nonfictional accounts of war. Likewise for Michael Herr's Dispatches
and Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War, both of which followed
just a couple short years after the fall of Saigon. These two groundbreaking books helped popularize
the intimate, boots-on-the-ground, narrative nonfiction that we've since come
to expect in personal accounts of battle.
The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have consistently added to the well
of great nonfiction, featuring writing that could almost moonlight as
literature. Desert Storm brought us Jarhead. Afghanistan
brought us Sebastian Junger's War, as well as Krakauer's Where
Men Win Glory. The Iraq War brought us Generation Kill, The Forever War, and Imperial Life in the Emerald City.
I could keep going"”Ghost Wars and The Looming Tower
come to mind"”because the list of quality nonfiction seems nearly endless.
But where's the next Catch-22? Who's writing the Slaughterhouse
5 or The Things They Carried for our time? (The
Kite Runner is probably the best example of literary fiction to emerge
from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it's hardly about the American
Up until this year it was difficult to say. But in early 2012, just a couple
months after the Iraq War was declared officially over, I learned about a book
called The Apartment, written by a US citizen living in the UK.
The novel, about an American man who'd spent some time on the ground in Iraq,
got positive attention (even though it appears not to have gotten an American
publisher). Around the same time, many of us at Amazon read a novel called The
Watch, a thoughtful page turner about an Afghani woman who approaches
a US military base in Kandahar Province (we liked it so much, we made it a Best
of the Month selection). A month after that came Ben Fountain's propulsive
debut Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, about a squad of
soldiers traveling on a "victory tour" in the States (also Best of the Month).
In September alone, there have been two standout novels about the Iraq War: Fobbit
by David Abrams and perhaps the most literary-leaning of them all, The
Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (also BOTM).
The best fiction somehow takes you deeper than even the best nonfiction. And
while fiction may never fully usurp nonfiction's stature in covering war"”the
recent tussle around No Easy Day and the excitement over
Mark Bowden's upcoming The Finish come to mind"”it remains an
important tool in understanding what it means to go to war. And what is truly