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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

This Week in History and Fiction: The Iraq War Novel Emerges

Perhaps beginning this weekly installment with a topic so close to heart and home is a bit intense, but as I researched it, I realized that is was the perfect example of why we should care how world events, history and fiction are related.

On March 20, 2003, America invaded Iraq and the Iraq War began. A few books on the invasion began to appear that same year, and by 2005, the glossy dust covers of Iraq war hardcover non-fiction reflected the lights of bookstores all over America.  
I remember very clearly those covers beginning to appear in my own home. Images of tanks, American flags, G.W. Bush and soldiers graced coffee tables and replaced my father’s face in the evenings.

Poetry too started appearing shortly after the start of the war. Some of the poetry was written in protest as early as 2003, such as those in the collection Cry Out: Poets Protest the War and those on the web site Other poetry comes from soldiers themselves, such as the 2007 book of poetry, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner. 

But what about fiction?

As far as I can tell, notable literary fiction about the war began to appear much later, close to a decade after the start of the war. To explain this, I came up with a little theory. We seek to understand our world and events that have immediacy in journalistic fashion: Who, what, when, where, why? These are the questions that the non-fiction books seek to answer. But fiction isn’t so much an attempt at journalistic understanding of an event, instead focusing on its effects on humanity. Fiction about war seeks to understand the experience of being a soldier, a citizen, a hero or an enemy during wartime. Just think for a moment about the fiction that came out of WWII. Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five come to mind.

Further, the emergence of fiction after we have all been exhausted on facts serves the Very Important Purpose of preventing us from sticking our heads in the sand, sweeping the whole nasty business under the rug, shaking our heads with an emotionless “tragic” and then moving on. It is, perhaps, the only way to knit together soldier and civilian, to come even close to creating understanding between the two.
So read:

  • Cannonball by Joseph McElroy
  • The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
  • Fire and Forget a collection of stories from veterans of the Iraq War
  • Fobbit by David Abrams

Fiction and poetry inspired by the Iraq War have also appeared in HFR. Check out HFR50 for “Bosnian Roulette” by Brandon Davis Jennings as well as Kevin Power’s poems “Death, Mother and Child” and “After Leaving McGuire Veterans Hospital for the Last Time.”

Do you know some other great fiction about the Iraq war? We would love to hear about it! Feel free to leave a comment with book suggestions and your ideas.

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