Robert Fantina, the author of a tragically nonfictional survey of the lives of soldiers in all past U.S. wars, has now published a devastatingly fictional account of the war that the Vietnamese call the American War.
I say devastatingly fictional, because Fantina condenses and concentrates into one small book and the lives of a very few characters the lead-up to, the experience of, and the aftermath of a U.S. soldier's participation in that war. The extreme horror and tragedy recounted (leavened by much human goodness) would require the watering down of thousands of additional pages of extraneous information were it nonfiction, and yet it is all based in typical experiences endured, overcome, or surrendered to by many thousands of Americans.
The plot is not predictable, the lessons not pedantic, but the story of Look Not Unto the Morrow is a story that grabs you more firmly by the throat because of the knowledge of how many people have lived it.
Here we meet a young man who only figures out what war is once he's in it, and a young woman who loves him and who only begins to give a damn about the world and the people in it when her lover goes to war. I find myself, as I read this, desperately hoping that someone young will read it too and get themselves together faster, before it's too late.
Then I realize that when I grew up believing war was a sick barbaric atavism, I was growing up after the peace movement of the 1960s had happened. Perhaps people had learned. Perhaps that learning had reached me. I also had the option of going to college. I also was not drafted. The accounts of veterans at the Winter Soldier event during the war on Iraq, just like those during the war on Vietnam, are tales of disillusionment. These are young men, and now women too, who believed the hype, believed some good purpose could be served by mass murder, headed off to participate, and then began to have grave doubts.
The accounts of some veterans are, in fact, very mixed and complicated. Some believe a soldier should tell the truth about a horrible genocidal crime and also continue to take part in it if so ordered. Some believe our current wars should be denounced and actively resisted, but that a good war might start next month or next year.
A young man recently published a column in the Washington Post headlined "I killed people in Afghanistan. Was I right or wrong?" I interviewed him and will air the interview on my radio show. He told me that he had opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, supported the ongoing occupation once begun, and supported the war on Afghanistan. I asked what he would do if another invasion were launched that he was opposed to. He replied that he would go and fight in it. He would go and kill people in it.
Beneath all the differences between our era and the 1960s/1970s that come through in Fantina's novel, there is much that is the same. Combining Fantina's novel with Nick Turse's new nonfictional account of the extended atrocity and marathon "war crime" that was the assault on Vietnam (all war is a crime, not certain bits of it) should give one a serious understanding of what was, is, and must not continue to be the fundamental error of our ways.
I've read more autobiographical accounts of our current wars than fiction, so please send me your recommendations for the latter, as well as for accounts from Vietnamese and Iraqi and Afghan (etc.) points of view. Autobiographies have their own advantages. I used to wish Ralph Waldo Emerson's prediction might come true and novels might be displaced by memoirs.
I say I used to wish that, because a good writer can invent truths, can show us what's happening inside the heads of multiple characters, can personalize public affairs with the power of mythology. To see what I'm talking about, read Look Not Unto the Morrow.