War Novels and the War on Terror

More than 16 years ago, standing beneath a massive banner, George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq: “Mission Accomplished.” What followed this publicity stunt—he arrived on an aircraft carrier off California’s coast riding in a Navy jet—were years of insurgency and bloodshed in pursuit of a Dick Cheney figment: Saddam Hussein’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

** FILE ** President Bush declares the end of major combat in Iraq as he speaks aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast, in this May 1, 2003 file photo. Democratic congressional leaders on Tuesday, May 1, 2007 sent Iraq legislation setting timetables for U.S. troop withdrawals to President George W. Bush and a certain veto. On the fourth anniversary of the president's "Mission Accomplished" speech, Senate Majority Democratic Leader Harry Reid said that Bush "has put our troops in the middle of a civil war. A change of course is needed." (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The anniversary of this gaffe in a gaffe-prone presidency reminds us that war’s insanity starts at the top, in civilian attire. It reminds us why great war novels like Catch-22 are so vital. They expose absurdity in wartime leadership. Absurdity, say, like W’s response to 9/11: a declaration of war against terror.

The War on Terror, launched in Afghanistan to pursue the mastermind of 9/11, soon lost its way in the sands of Iraq. W’s pursuit of fictions there is emblematic of the war itself: the reality of going to “war” against “terror.”

To this day we are told, “See something, say something.” Announcements urge us to ask fellow riders, “Is that your bag?” How better to stoke fear—and hand victory to terror—than to remind civilians that the authorities are powerless to defeat the intangible.

Unlike our traditional sense of what constitutes war, the War on Terror is a civilian conflict as well as a military one. And 18 years later, we have declared no victory.

Writing done in the so-called war writing tradition adapts. Great novels set during earlier wars—The Naked and the Dead; The Things They Carried—have their corollary in books about military aspects of the WOT: Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds or Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood.

But because the enemy also targets civilians, civilians too walk a kind of front line. And the civilian experience demands its own type of WOT novel. Jess Walters’ The Zero, which plumbs the civilian psyche in the aftermath of 9/11, comes to mind.

The WOT began in a civilian setting, a non-military attack against ordinary people doing ordinary things in ordinary cubicles 18 years ago. But the WOT is no ordinary war. And the novels that come out of it—whether set deep in the heat of battle or on some other front at home—will serve us best if they remind us that victory over terror can only come from within.

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