I’m a voracious reader of American fiction and I’ve noticed something odd in recent years. This country has been eternally “at war” and you just wouldn’t know that—a small amount of veteran’s fiction aside—from the novels that are generally published. For at least a decade, Americans have been living in the shadow of war and yet, except in pop fiction of the Tom Clancy variety (where, in the end, we always win), there’s remarkably little evidence of it.
As for myself—I’m a novelist—I find that no matter what I chose to write about, I can’t seem to avoid that shadow. My first novel was about Vietnam vets coming home and my second is permeated with a shadowy sense of what the Iraq and Afghan wars have done to us. And yet I’ve never been to, or near, a war, and nothing about it attracts me. So why is it always lurking there? Recently, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about just why that might be and I may finally have a very partial answer, very modestly encapsulated in one rather un-American word: class.
Going to War in the South Bronx
I come from—to use an old-fashioned phrase—a working class immigrant family. The middle child of four siblings, not counting the foster children my mother cared for, I grew up in the post–World War II years in the basement of a building in the South Bronx in New York City. In my neighborhood, war—or at least the military—was the norm. Young men (boys, really) generally didn’t make it through life without serving in some military capacity. Soldiers and veterans were ubiquitous. Except to us, to me, none of them were “soldiers” or “veterans.” They were just Ernie, Charlie, Danny, Tommy, Jamal, Vito, Frank. In our neck of the urban woods—multi-ethnic, diverse, low-income—it was the way things were and you never thought to question that, in just about every apartment on every floor, there was a young man who had been in, would go into, or was at that moment in the military and, given the conflicts of that era, had often been to war as well.
Many of the boys I knew joined the Marines before they could be drafted for some of the same reasons men and women volunteer now. (Remember that there was still a draft army then, not the all-volunteer force of 2013.) However clichéd they may sound today, they reflected a reality I knew well. Then as now, the military held out the promise of a potentially meaningful future instead of the often depressing adult futures that surrounded us as we grew up.
Then as now, however, too many of those boys returned home with little or nothing to show for the turmoil they endured. And then as now, they often returned filled with an inner chaos, a lost-ness from which many searched in vain for relief.
When I was seven, the Korean War began. I was 18 when our first armed advisers arrived in Vietnam. After that disaster finally ended, a lull ensued, broken by a series of “skirmishes” from Grenada to Panama to Somalia to Bosnia, followed by the First Gulf War, and then, of course, the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.