How the perspective of war stories has shifted—from gods to guns.
My memories of war are fractured: faces disappear like smoke while literal plumes of smoke, their specific shapes and forms, linger on vividly for years. I remember the mesh netting, concrete, and dust smell of tower guard, but the events of entire months are completely gone. I remember the sound of a kid’s voice, but not anything he actually said. I guess that’s what Tim O’Brien meant when he wrote about Vietnam, “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning or end.”
Memories of people, too complex to carry through the years, fall apart. It’s easier to find purchase on memories of objects. The weapon I was assigned on my first deployment to Iraq was an M249 SAW, or what we would colloquially and inaccurately refer to as the “Squad Assault Weapon.” I remember the way it felt to disassemble—the slight give of the heat-shield assembly, its tiny metal pincers clinging to the barrel. I remember the sound of the feed tray snapping shut on a belt of ammunition. And I remember the tiny rust deposits on the legs of my weapon’s bipod, which would never go away, no matter how hard I scrubbed with CLP (Cleaner, Lubricant, and Protectant oil). I remember my SAW’s voice and the things it said.
During my second deployment, I served as the gunner in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. We ran over two Soviet-era landmines that had been stacked on top of each other. Besides a few bruises and perforated eardrums, everyone in the crew was fine. When I would try to tell people the story back home, civilians would get caught up on the descriptions of objects they had never heard of, objects that were integral to understanding my experience of the event. “Were you hurt?” Not really, I’d say, but my head slammed against the ISU, and since we had the BFT mounted in a weird place, that sort of got in the way. “What’s an ISU and a BFT?”
I came to realize that the barrier in explaining my injuries to civilians wasn’t quite phenomenological so much as it was ontological. Everyone has experienced pain, fear, and frustration, but not everyone knows what an Integrated Sight Unit is or has had their face slammed into one. Even in just trying to narrate the events to family members, it seemed like any understanding of my trauma would have to come through a knowledge of the materials around me that made the trauma possible: the ISU, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the way the tracks moved, the type of soil underneath the tracks, how the mine mechanism worked, the radios we used to call in the explosion to base.
Harry Parker, a former British Army Captain, recently published Anatomy of a Soldier, a novel that puts forward an object-oriented ontology of war: an assertion that the material objects sharing the battleground with humans play an equal role in the composition of reality itself. In the book, Tom Barnes, like Parker himself in real life, loses both of his legs to an IED blast—one to the blast itself and one to infection while recovering. Although the setting is ambiguous (we assume the blast happens in Afghanistan and the recovery in the UK) and the novel hops around chronologically, the story is moored to the voices of the objects around Barnes and Afghani nationals: a boot, fertilizer, a prosthetic limb, a rifle. They narrate objectively, even if sometimes whimsically. As a broken broom handle says during a premission brief,
He started describing the plan and used me to direct their attention to different parts of the square. He said their mission was to secure the road and then provide rear protection. He told them how they would move out before first light and push along the orange ribbon, past the blocks with L33 and L34 written on them. I paused as he explained how vulnerable this point was, and that one team would provide overwatch at the block marked M13 while others cleared the road.
I was pointed at one of the men, who nodded that he understood.
When we tell ourselves war stories, we’re forced to reconcile with our wounds. Whatever form that reconciliation takes says something about our understanding of war itself. Letting objects tell that story is a relatively recent development—which might be because the reduction of the battle space to a field of objects is itself a recent development. In his paper “Counterinsurgency and the cultural turn in late modern war,” the geographer Derek Gregory calls the movement toward an object-based description of war the “rush from the intimate to the inanimate.” To illustrate that “rush,” imagine it’s five thousand years ago and two people are rolling in the dirt, stabbing each other over contradictory messages from their local gods. Now jump cut to today, when a remote-controlled drone is making wide, buzzard-like circles over western Pakistan, looking for someone an algorithm told it to kill. That transformation was profound and disorienting.
The oldest war stories are epics—primordial, gargantuan, and episodic all at once. The narratives are powered by a mélange of psychological energies so remote and powerful that they’re given the gloss of semidivinity when not personified as gods outright. The reasons for war are heavy with metaphysical force: fate, thumos, the interdiction of a god. It’s almost impossible to experience the true weight of these things as existential facts instead of concepts to intellectually dissect. The forces at play are literally Delphic. And in trying to understand how war was experienced (or at least how it was sung, chanted, or dramatized), we get a keyhole peek into the larger civilization. War stories are artifacts; their form and mode are dictated by the wider culture, which also determines how the wars themselves are conducted. The variety of war stories through time echo the variety of cultures from which they came.
Narratives have cultural force. But war narratives of course describe the use of actual force. This is the single omega point to the varied chorus of war stories, their bone-brittle common denominator. As Simone Weil wrote of the Iliad, “To define force—it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to its limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense; it makes a corpse out of him.” To illustrate how a person becomes a thing, Weil turns to the part of the Iliad that has empty chariots rattling across the battlefield, their once proud drivers ground into the gore, “dearer to the vultures than to their wives.”
Somewhere between the ancient voice of Zeus and Harry Parker’s talking broomsticks are the battle narratives of the nineteenth century, resonating with the voices of people. There’s Fabrizio del Dongo in The Charterhouse of Parma, Byron’s Don Juan at the Battle of Ismail, or Pierre at the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace. The reality is psychological and the perspective rooted in personality. These stories cultivate an intimacy that is as profound as it is limiting. They don’t have the transcendent notions of the ancient descriptions of warfare. The individual personalities might be sophisticated, but the world itself struggles for meaning. The cultural historian Leo Braudy writes, “From the perspective of the common soldier or lowly officer participant, war was not the road to glory or the game of kings, but a deadly testing ground for the uncertain willingness to sacrifice personal nature to national goals.”
But psychological explanations of combat aren’t enough. The alien brutality of war demands more. Laurence Sterne, the sardonic prophet of the contemporary, sensed the limits of psychology and anticipating objected-oriented ontology when he has Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy re-create the Battle of Namur using toy soldiers and household objects in order to tell the story of how he was wounded. Braudy again: “Once every detail of the fortifications and weaponry is mapped, and the place where he was wounded precisely determined, then and then only will Toby be able to explain his wound to himself. In the absence of rituals that justify the wound, to specify it by time and place and detail is to regain power over the wounding.”
Sterne’s literal objectification of war is an antecedent of Anatomy of a Soldier, and it’s in the same family tree as Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam classic, The Things They Carried. O’Brien explicitly uses the objects that soldiers carry with them into battle to tell the story of the war. His descriptions blur the relationship between the landscape, the human, and the objects of war in a way that anticipates Anatomy:
We walked along. Forward with the left leg, plant the foot, lock the knee, arch the ankle. Push the leg into the paddy, stiffen the spine. Let the war rest there atop the left leg; the rucksack, the radio, the hand grenades, the magazines of golden ammo, the rifle, the steel helmet, the jingling dog-tags, the body’s own fat and water and meat, the whole contingent of warring artifacts and flesh. Let it all perch there, rocking on top of the left leg, fastened and tied and anchored by latches and zippers and snaps and nylon cord. Packhorse for the soul.
Harry Parker goes further than O’Brien in giving equal narrative play to nonhuman things. Not only do they make the plot of Parker’s novel possible, they also bear semiconscious witness to our shared reality, corroborating it. Their inability to pass moral judgment comes off as a silent accusation. If this ontological shift toward objects is the most honest way we have of talking about war, it’s still limiting: it turned its weakness—its inability to fully articulate the moral significance of war—into a defining characteristic. In doing that, it’s as much a product of our postmodern Weltanschauung as it is a parody of it.
The fact that Anatomy of a Soldier is cutting-edge suggests something will eventually replace it. There’s an almost dialectical tension between our technical descriptions of things like drone warfare and climate devastation and our inability to articulate their significance. Our moral vocabulary can’t convey the absurdity of violence or its scope. From this inadequacy sprang Oppenheimer’s apocryphal words after the first successful detonation of an atom bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He was, of course, quoting a god. Nothing else would do.
Scott Beauchamp is a writer who lives in Portland, Maine. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Bookforum, Al Jazeera, and The Baffler, among other places.