The New War Lit

George Packer seeks a common thread in the memoirs, poetry, and fiction by soldiers who served in the most recent American conflicts:

Iraq was … different from other American wars. (So far, almost all the new war literature comes from Iraq, perhaps because there weren’t many troops in Afghanistan until 2009, and the minimum lag time between deployment and publication seems to be around five years.) Without a draft, without the slightest sacrifice asked of a disengaged public, Iraq put more mental distance between soldiers and civilians than any war of its duration that I can think of. The war in Iraq, like the one in Vietnam, wasn’t popular; but the troops, at least nominally, were—wildly so. (Just watch the crowd at a sports event if someone in uniform is asked to stand and be acknowledged.)

Both sides of the relationship, if they were being honest, felt its essential falseness.

A tiny number of volunteers went off to fight, often two or three times, in a war and a country that seemed incomprehensible. They returned to heroes’ welcomes and a flickering curiosity. Because hardly anyone back home really wanted to know, the combatant’s status turned into a mark of otherness, a blessing and a curse. The title of David Finkel’s recent book about the struggles of soldiers returned from Iraq, “Thank You for Your Service,” captures all the bad faith of a civilian population that views itself as undeserving, and the equivocal position of celebrated warriors who don’t much feel like saying, “You’re welcome.”

So it’s not surprising that the new war literature is intensely interested in the return home. The essential scene of First World War writing is the mass slaughter of the trenches. In the archetypal Vietnam story, a grunt who can never find the enemy walks into physical and moral peril. In much of the writing about Iraq, the moment of truth is a reunion scene at an airport or a military base—families holding signs, troops looking for their loved ones, an unease sinking deep into everyone.