August 10, 2016
Review: ‘War Porn’ Widens the Field of Vision About the Costs in Iraq
by Michiko Kakutani
In a controversial essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2015, Roy Scranton, a United States Army veteran who served in Iraq, argued that our perception of war has been warped by modern war literature’s preoccupation with what he called “the trauma hero myth.”
In focusing on “the revelatory truth of combat experience” and “the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure,” he wrote, “we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for.
In the case of the Iraq war, he contended, the big questions of “what U.S. soldiers were fighting for and the bigger problem of who they were killing” were often pushed aside “in favor of the more narrow and manageable question of ‘what it was like.’”
These ideas, and Mr. Scranton’s anger at the catastrophic consequences of a misguided and unnecessary war, inform the tone, story and point of view of his ambitious first novel, “War Porn.” They fuel the power and eloquence of the many passages in the book that capture the chaos of the United States invasion and the snowballing misery it has inflicted on Iraqi civilians. But they also fuel the novel’s more tendentious and stage-managed sections, which feel willfully constructed to italicize the bankruptcy of the war and the worst crimes, like torture, committed by some American soldiers — a take on the war that is as constricting in its own way as what Mr. Scranton has assailed as the myth of the trauma hero.
So far, there has been no big, symphonic novel about the war in Iraq. Perhaps it’s too soon for a wide-screen perspective of the sort Denis Johnson provided on Vietnam with his novel “Tree of Smoke” (published more than three decades after that war). After all, the tragic consequences of the American invasion of 2003 continue to unfurl day by day for the people of Iraq and the entire region, rippling outward across the globe.
In “War Porn,” Mr. Scranton has tried to broaden his novel’s scope by telling three separate tales that illuminate the war from different angles, and some stream-of-consciousness-like interludes that suggest links between Iraq and Vietnam and other wars, and the original human sins of violence and hubris.
The central and most compelling tale is told in the first person and often reads like a journal, recounting the experiences of a poet turned soldier, who finds himself in Baghdad, trapped in the mindless “Groundhog Day” loop of the war, patrolling the streets, “damned to drive the same maze over and over till somebody killed me.”
These sections attest to Mr. Scranton’s keen reportorial eye and his Michael Herr-like gift for conveying the surreal feel of modern war — where real-life bleeds into nightmare, and the default emotional setting is “manic paranoid torpor.” Soldiers eat beef teriyaki and chicken cavatelli M.R.E.s in a war zone where “armored ruins” line the roads, “charred corpses scattered in among the blasted metal”; and sniper fire and I.E.D. ambushes are a constant threat: “the chaos out there, the crazy Arabic writing and abu-jabba jabber, the lawless traffic, the hidden danger and buzz and stray bullets and death looming from every overpass.”
The second story line in “War Porn” features Qasim, an Iraqi mathematician whose life and family are torn apart by the war. Mr. Scranton does a thoughtful job of showing how Iraqis’ ordinary dreams — of a career, of building a family or earning a degree — are exploded by the war and how the daily (or nightly) bombing raids terrorize Baghdad residents.
“You watched it on TV,” Mr. Scranton writes, “you heard it on the radio, you saw it from the roof and when you ventured out into the street”: people “scurrying to hide in dim burrows, where they would wait to die, as many died, some slowly from disease and infection, others quick in bursts of light, thickets of tumbling steel, halos of dust, crushed by the world’s greatest army.”
The third and most unconvincing section of “War Porn” concerns a youngish group of men and women, who gather at a barbecue in Utah, and a hostile visitor — an angry veteran of the Iraq war named Aaron — who disrupts their middle-class hippie lives with some deeply alarming revelations about his experiences in Iraq and a savage act of violence. These scenes seem meant to underscore Mr. Scranton’s dark view of the Iraq war as “a murderous hustle,” as he wrote in a 2014 Rolling Stone article, and his conviction that “the politicians who ran the war had shown no higher ideals than robbery and plunder, and I’d been nothing but their thug.”
In that article, Mr. Scranton berates himself for being “an historical agent in the vast, crooked enterprise that was the Iraq war,” for “the pride I’d taken in my service” and for “the blood money that had bought my college education.”
It’s a point of view that also comes through in this forceful and unsettling book, though the novel is at its most persuasive not when Mr. Scranton is laboriously trying to illustrate his arguments but when he trusts his own myriad gifts as a storyteller.
A version of this review appears in print on August 9, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Broader Field of Vision for the Iraq War’s Costs.