Saturday, February 18, 2012

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

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

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