What complicated times we live in: so many thorny issues need to be acknowledged before we can responsibly or sensitively begin a discussion. As Roxana Robinson—a Quaker who opposes war—told her audience in her 2014 address, “The Warrior and the Writer,” at the United States Air Force Academy shortly after the publication of her deeply researched and compassionately imagined novel Sparta, “You might be surprised that I wrote a book about a twenty-six year old Marine: I’m the wrong gender, the wrong generation, and the wrong religious genre.” Although she avoided the term “cultural appropriation,” it’s clear both from this address and from her other essays that she’s seriously grappled with this problem: the potential violence those of us with the resources to have our voices heard can do to those with less access to telling stories. Writer and activist Nikesh Shukla instructs that anyone “writing ‘the other’ ” should both do the research properly and “ask yourself: why am I telling this story?” In this regard, Robinson is a model citizen, but she never wavers in her conviction that it is the job of writers to be curious about and then “render precisely what it means to be alive.” We would not have Anna Karenina, Robinson writes, had Tolstoy not imagined the experience of a jilted young woman; we would not have Shakespeare’s plays had he not put himself in the shoes of kings and servants alike. “Empathy is the opposite of exploitation,” she says—and it’s with this belief that she approaches Sparta’s protagonist, Conrad.
And how prescient Sparta, written at the beginning of this decade and set between 2001 and 2006, is about our complicated times. Even those of us who once shared the views of Conrad’s therapist mother, Lydia — “war as unacceptable, the military as unreliable” — may have been surprised to find ourselves regarding the Generals in Trump’s White House as the trustworthy adults in the room. Early in the novel, Lydia, having grown up “in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when the military was shadowed with disgrace,” struggles to understand why her good, sweet son, a classics major at Williams College, has decided to become an officer in the Marines. “I want to do something serious, something that will make a difference,” he explains.
The language he used reminded Lydia of ancient myths, Nordic sagas, King Arthur. Courage and loyalty, Conrad said. Commitment, a code of honor. All straight from the ancient world…
Sparta is about the psychological pain of a young man who believes he has failed to uphold that ancient code of honor. In officer training, Conrad is taught the six steps of leadership: “Begin planning. Arrange for Reconnaissance. Make Reconnaissance. Complete the plan. Issue the order. Supervise.” It boils down to being decisive and taking responsibility for those under his command. Conrad returns from Iraq physically sound, while some of his men have returned in body bags, and it all breaks down. The gasp of a truck’s brakes sounds to him like a gunshot. He ducks, “scalded by fear,” and then by humiliation as others look at him askance. He cannot tolerate having his back to a plate glass window, and he risks causing an accident because he’s convinced that the driver in an adjacent car is holding an electronic device to set off an explosive. He cannot sleep, and if he does, it’s only to wake screaming and in a cold sweat. He cannot concentrate. He cannot make love to his girlfriend.
Reading Sparta, I found myself thinking about excerpts from Douglas Brinkley’s Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, which I’d read many years ago in The Atlantic. Brinkley quotes liberally from the letters Kerry, then also an enlisted officer, sent to his parents and fiancé as he began to question the moral clarity (a term whose political history Frank Guan dissected in a recent essay in The New York Times Magazine) undergirding his actions: the killing of civilians he witnessed and, in some cases, was complicit in, or the deaths of men under his watch. Although Kerry’s current wife, Teresa Heinz, and his sister, Peggy Kerry, have both alluded to his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder—nightmares, falling out of bed—Kerry has not spoken publicly about what he has apparently endured in the years since his return from Vietnam. Similarly, Robinson’s Conrad is reluctant to speak about how weak and out of control he feels now that he’s back home in a place that no longer feels like home. As in the Kerry letters, Conrad is crippled by shame at his responsibility for the deaths “in-country” of both the men in his platoon and the Iraqi civilians whose lives they were there to protect. Psychologist Joseph Burgo, in his recent book, Shame, outlines the common defense mechanisms against this excruciating emotion, including projection onto other, which finds its expression in contempt. Conrad, talking with his brother, directs his contempt only at himself:
“You have no idea,” Conrad said, his voice dull. “It’s like I’m a secret criminal. No one here knows what I’ve done…
The canon of war fiction written by women has only recently been adequately recognized. As Emily Temple notes, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (with the tragic character of Septimus Smith), and Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams should rightfully be included in any list of novels about war—as should many of the more recent entries in Soniah Kamal’s “Fifty Novels by Women Writers on Conflict, Displacement and Resilience,” including Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, Masha Hamilton’s What Changes Everything, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, and Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters.
In Sparta, the character of Conrad is conveyed in close third person with such texture and depth that readers may be well into its pages before they realize that his creator is a woman. It’s striking to me that the other most powerful novel I’ve read about the psychological impact of war on those who serve, Pat Barker’s Regeneration, was also written by a woman. Both Barker and Robinson illuminate corners of soldiers’ psyches usually kept in the shadows. I wonder if these female writers have been able to depict the shame and symptoms of their male characters because, as women, they are not themselves as much under the sway of warrior myths, and therefore not as susceptible to feeling humiliated by a failure to abide by those ancient ideals. In other words, Barker and Robinson have perhaps inhabited their characters without fully identifying with them and, in so doing, seen them more clearly. It’s a concept that psychoanalysts and therapists understand. The distance between the observing and empathizing functions is key to the therapeutic encounter: an analyst’s identification with a patient can cloud their perception of that which is unique in a person and the darker underbelly we all share—the ubiquitous aggressive impulses, the “secondary gain” from suffering.
In Regeneration, which opens in 1917, we see what were then called “shell-shocked” young officers returned from the French front lines through the eyes of the psychiatrist William Rivers (a fictionalized version of the anthropologist and neurologist Dr. W. H. R. Rivers), who treats them at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. In her acknowledgments for the novel, Barker cites Elaine Showalater’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980, from which the fictionalized Rivers’s theories about the origins of war neurosis seem in part to derive. Whereas men go to war, Rivers reflects, armed with their boyish fantasies, what they experience in the trenches is, in fact, profound helplessness:
They’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure—the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they’d devoured as boys—consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed.
It is this profound helplessness, Rivers concludes, not instances of trauma, that leads to the men’s symptoms, and is why “this apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace.”
Whereas Robinson’s book is not as overtly feminist as Barker’s, one of its delights is seeing women through a male point of view created by a woman. Witness Conrad observing the women jogging with him around the Central Park Reservoir:
Girls always looked great, that was the thing. They always looked great, with their supple bodies and their flying hair … They ignored you absolutely as you passed them or they passed you, headsets on, some private music or audiobook driving secretly into their brains, not giving you the time of day, but giving you amazingly, complete privileges for looking at their entire bodies, top to bottom—tight rounded asses; flat mounds of breasts; long, clean legs and pumping arms; smooth, supple backs. They jazzed up the whole world just by running around the reservoir in those tight stretchy things, not looking at you, their expressions concentrated, their faces and necks slick with sweat, their arms and legs moving fast, their feet pounding on the soft track.
Of course, Robinson knows that women don’t always look great, most especially to ourselves when we’re sweating on a track, but she shows us what Conrad finds wondrous (“they jazzed up the whole world”) and foreign (“those tight stretchy things”) and intimidating (“some private music or audiobook driving secretly into their brains”) with the accuracy of a native able to see the idealization and ignorance and fantasies of a tourist: in this case, a twenty-first-century man with a professional mother, an accomplished, independent sister, and a girlfriend who nonetheless still thinks about sex two or three times a minute, the hum of eroticism always in his mind.
There is another crucial difference between Regeneration and Sparta. Regeneration is about the care and help the young officers receive from the compassionate and dedicated psychiatrist, William Rivers. For each of his patients—Burns, unable to eat since he’d woken with his mouth and nose filled with “decomposing human flesh”; Anderson, a doctor who’d developed a blood phobia after watching a patient bleed to death; Prior, who’d arrived mute—Rivers attempts to recover their stories and alleviate their pain. By contrast, Conrad, once he accepts that he does in fact need help, receives none. After white-knuckling it during the four-month waiting period for an appointment at the V.A. Hospital, he’s seen by a doctor who’s not read Conrad’s chart, takes phone calls during their brief meeting, and then offers nothing more than “Combat incidents can be very troubling.” He prescribes medications which, Conrad later reads on the internet, may increase his suicidal thoughts.
What the fuck? He felt everything draining away.
Nothing he had hoped for was going to happen. Nothing about him had been recognized. He was invisible again.
The shame only reverberates.
“At the heart of it,” Robinson told the Air Force cadets in 2014, “literature is a delivery system. I’d argue that it’s the most beautiful and powerful delivery system that has ever been devised … It’s through literature that we can come to understand ideas and how they work in peoples’ lives.” Although she says that the idea that spurred her novel came from a newspaper account of how soldiers were dying in Iraq in part because they had been put in harm’s way in unarmed Humvees, the idea that she most powerfully depicts in Sparta concerns the profound immorality of abandoning returning soldiers by not providing them with sufficient help to recover from their psychological wounds. “Here is the sad story,” John Kerry said in a recent speech:
You go down and see that remarkable memorial in Washington, the granite with the etched names of the 58,600-plus who died in Vietnam, there are more names than those on that wall of those who took their own lives, or lost their lives to addiction or to just depression, loss. There are more people who died here in America afterwards, who were veterans of the war, than are on that wall.
With the heartbreaking last line of her novel—“Sparta made young boys into warriors; it was left to the warriors to restore themselves to men.”—Robinson reminds us that it is sadly not a new story.
The cadets, though, to whom Robinson spoke were gifted inspiration rather than despair: Quakers, she said, believe that “every human being contains an inner light, a kind of spiritual radiance … If you look another person in the eyes, you can see his living soul.” Reading great literature, she explained, is an exercise in learning to see: a lesson plan for developing “radical empathy” and identifying the “emotional truth.” It is a writer’s job to reveal that inner light, that radiance—so essential to warriors, who hold others’ lives in their hands.
Lisa Gornick is the author of Louisa Meets Bear, Tinderbox, and A Private Sorcery. Her most recent novel, The Peacock Feast, was recently published by Sarah Crichton Books.