The New Literary War Hero of Chechnya, Iraq, and Afghanistan
Image from “Ninth Company,” dir. Fyodor Bondarchuk
When I began reading and writing about contemporary Russian war prose, especially connected to the Chechen wars, I thought that the Russian/Chechen experience, and the literature coming out of it, was unique. And of course the Chechen wars were especially awful, even by the standards of the modern asymmetrical war, in which high-powered weaponry meets guerrilla warfare. However, as I read more and more English-language literature about the West’s recent engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan (where of course the US has spent the past 16 years discovering what the USSR and UK have already learned, which is that Afghanistan is a tough nut to crack), the more similarities I encounter, something underscored by my conversations with the authors. Although some of the particulars are different, the participants all experience the disorientation of a poorly defined battlefield with no clear distinction between friend and foe, and then a return to a society that was often indifferent to the war and those who fought it, if not actively hostile. The literature this has produced is often fragmentary and alienated, full of themes of trauma, vulnerability, and desperation.
In such a case one might wonder why people bother to enlist at all, or, in the case of Russia, the majority of conscripts make little attempt to avoid their compulsory service (although The Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers are active advocates of those who wish to avoid conscription, or who need help during or after their service) and in many cases even volunteer. The new literary war heroes, whether Russian, American, or British, are often skeptical of the war they are involved in, and acutely aware of the dangers it exposes them to, often pointlessly, but nonetheless they seem to be drawn back to it like iron to a lodestone, like the character Dygalo from the film “Ninth Company,” pictured above, who hates Afghanistan and keeps begging to be redeployed there.
we discuss, on the one hand, finding a sense of purpose and community in late-stage capitalist society through military service, and on the other, the shattering of the ideal of the self that can occur when exposed to the destruction of modern warfare.
(Part I of our conversation, in which we discuss how the specific form of a war affects the literature that comes out of it, as well as the difficulty of re-integrating into civilian life after fighting an unpopular war, can be found here).
Interview with Andy Owen
EPC: I’ve read a lot about Russian soldiers coming back from Chechnya, and from Americans coming back from Iraq, from British soldiers, about people not wanting to know, or reproaching you as soon as you say, “I was there”—it provokes this really strong reaction. You talk a lot, especially in East of Coker, about the invisible scars or the invisible struggles that people have and other people maybe not wanting to deal with it. Do you think this is part of this shadow realm that you might find yourself occupying—shadow in the Jungian sense of the things we don’t want to acknowledge about ourselves, on a societal level as well as on a personal level?
AO: Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting question. It’s something I think I look at again with Alan’s story [in “All Soldier’s Run Away–EPC].
You feel as a soldier, when you go somewhere like Iraq or Afghanistan, that you’re acting on behalf of your country, and everyone within that country.
You—quite arrogantly probably, and quite egotistically—think, “I’m doing this for you, I’m doing this on your behalf.” And then you come back and you meet, you know, most of the people that I socialized with, would be people who would have, if they’d had any sort of vote on it, would have voted No. Their whole thing is, “You’re not doing it on my behalf, because I didn’t want this.” And I totally get that. But that creates a disconnect. Because you’re saying, “We’re doing it for you,” and they’re going around saying, “You’re not doing it for me, because I didn’t vote for this.” Which I think comes back to the whole way we see our relationship with our country. Which I think has changed significantly since the Second World War.
So it does create a disconnect.
You think you’re doing it for people who think you’re not doing it for them. Because the war was not popular, it’s easier for people not to take responsibility for those who came back.
EPC: One thing that comes up a lot in the Russian literature that I’ve read is that these people have done this thing, this great thing or this terrible thing that they have to carry with them for the rest of their lives that they did when they were very young. What sort of effect do you think that has on these people who’ve done this thing that marks them forever when they’re still very young. It’s like, do you feel like your life is over, or do you have to then think, “Okay, now I have a second life coming”?
AO: I think there’s an interesting comparison with elite athletes, who may do something that is everything to them until they’re in their twenties and then either they’ve peaked or they get injured, or whatever it is. And then they have to start again. There’s quite a high rate of depression and suicide and issues with elite athletes, who are so focused on something in their early twenties, like maybe in the military, and then it all ends, and they’re out in to the wider world, that’s a foreign place to them.
It’s the positive things you get from being in the military that then you miss. I think one of the biggest things is sense of purpose.
The military gives you such a sense of purpose. You know what you’re doing all the time, you know why you’re doing it, and you feel like it’s an important thing to be doing. It’s on the news, what you’re doing.
It’s the most important thing that may be going on in the world at that point, and you’re part of it, you’re at the forefront of it, everyone with you has got the same purpose.
You feel elite because of the training and you’re told all the time that you’re the best and you’re better than that other regiment, even though they’re being told exactly the same thing about you.
So you just get fed this, exactly like if you’re in a sports team. And you believe that you’re the best, and everyone with you is acting in unison. There’s a lot of stuff been written in psychology about flow and things like that—you get flow by learning to do drills and learning how to react in certain ways. And you get a sense of pride from that.
But then you lose all that.
That goes, and you have to find, not just a second life, but a second sense of purpose: what is it now that you get out of bed for? Why am I doing what I’m doing? And I’ve always found that interesting in looking at why people join the military in the first place.
What is the difference between someone joining the US military, the UK military, or joining al-Qaeda? You get the same things.
You get the same sense of purpose, the same sense of belonging, the same identity, for people who lack all of those things. You can get them from a lot of different ways and—hah—a lot of recent wars it’s been people finding somewhere to go and fight each other, sometimes from the same places back home, just because they needed to find that identity and sense of purpose, and they found it by fighting people they’d lived next door to, almost, back home.
EPC: That’s something you write about especially in East of Coker—you have the older character, the WWII veteran, talking about the younger generation and how they have all these material goods but they don’t have a sense of purpose. And of course it’s a huge thing in contemporary Russian society—they felt enormous pride in the Soviet Union, the Red Army, and then it was just all gone.
Do you think that modern Western or modern capitalist society is really lacking in a sense of purpose, so that people have to go and join ISIS to find it?
Or is this just humans reacting the same way to the same old thing each time—we have to rediscover things every generation?
AO: I think there’s definitely an element of history repeating itself. I think every generation has its extremists. I think there is an element of where we’ve got to in modern capitalism where people do have more leisure time than people in the past, and we don’t have much to do with that leisure time. And we’re quite focused on what rights we have, but we’re not really focused on what we do with those. And I think we’re focused on the fact that we’re born with those rights. We just inherit them and that’s it. There’s no sort of—you know, someone like Aristotle would tell you that you’ve then got to do things with the virtues that you’re born with. There’s a sort of teleological thing going on here where you’ve got to become what you become—you don’t start off like that. I think we have lost that a little bit. Some of it is the fact that we have become more secular.
The whole progress narrative that the monotheistic religions give us has gone, but I think the legacy remains.
We feel like we should be getting somewhere, there’s this idea of progress, but we don’t really know where that is any more. So there is a bit of a vacuum and a gap that these things can fill.
EPC: Yeah, one of the things a lot of the writers that I’ve read talk about is that if you’re in a war situation, you’re focused on survival and you don’t have to worry about all these things and it’s kind of freeing—you don’t have to worry about “What is my goal in life?”
One of the reasons we have wars—obviously, there are more prosaic, mineral-based objectives in war, but—it is freeing for the people involved.
Because the shackles of everyday, all the mundane tasks of everyday, you just don’t have to bother with it anymore. Anyone asks you anything from back home, you’re like: “I’m fighting a war. I don’t have to deal with that.” You have the freedom to pick what you want to get involved in and what you don’t.
EPC: So I want to get back to something that I’ve noticed in a lot of the readings. A lot of young men join up with the express idea of becoming “really manly,” that this is the ultimate man’s adventure, but that’s not what happened for them. Either they became injured and became physically dependent, or they had some kind of experience where they realized their physical vulnerability. Do you think that the experience is in some way demasculinizing, or is it that it strips away parts of yourself that you thought you had, and because it’s so many young men who do this with the specific plan of becoming tough guys, and it doesn’t work out—it dehumanizes you or takes away some of who you were and this is how they are experiencing it?
AO: Yeah, I think there’s a whole bag full of issues there…Certainly a lot of the jobs that used to exist that you would see as a “manly” job to do, be it the steel mill, the coal mine—all that sort of stuff—is not there anymore. And most young men now, they’re on an equal footing with women in the workplace because they are jobs that actually require your brain–that physical aspect of a lot of the work is gone. So I think there’s a lot of people who are struggling with that. And I think the military is one of the few places left where you can go and say, “Right, I’m going to go do that because it’s a manly thing to do.” Even though, clearly, you can do it as a woman as well, but when you’re doing it as a woman you’re kind of aspiring to a set of ideals that would traditionally be male ideals.
I think it’s not necessarily demasculinating, it’s probably that people lose the myth they thought of what a man was going to be. I think the idea that you can go and experience all that and not be impacted by it, this idea of the stoic warrior who just gets on with it, is unattainable, I think, for all but the very, very few. I think it’s more thinking that you may be able to attain something that you can’t. And I think there’s definitely elements of realizing how vulnerable we actually are. When you see someone else who you’re fighting with get seriously injured, there’s definitely a part of you that thinks, “Oh, that could be me.”
If you have this image of the stoic warrior, you don’t necessarily see him just getting killed through being unlucky.
You don’t necessarily see him just one minute being there, one minute not. When I was in Iraq, I wasn’t there, but I was aware of it, that there was one guy who trod on a mine which was designed to blow up tanks. And he just vaporized, he just disappeared.
I think experiences like that just shatter that myth, that illusion that you can be bulletproof.
EPC: I have one last question for you, which is do you have plans for more writing, projects that you’re working on now?
AO: When I was researching Alan’s story in the national archives I came across this set of letters that had been written in early 1946—after the war had finished. It was one the senior officers of this battalion writing to the people who were there when a major battle had happened. And what they were trying to do was establish what happened to a few of the people who they still had no record of.
The thing that struck me was about how we’re narrative creatures and we just can’t take not knowing the end. And it’s this desire to find out the end of the story, because, I think, we’re narrative beings, that’s really fascinating to me.
That not knowing is the worst bit. I mention in East of Coker about that whole threat of being disappeared—that idea that we write on our collar who we are so that someone knows what happened to us. So to have the idea that there’s someone, in some form, who’s in charge of locating missing people, and decides, “I’m going to give the endings for these families. Rather than let this drag on for years. I think we’re never going to find an end to this case, so I’m going to make the end up. And then at least give them closure.” The idea of this person who is making the end of these missing people’s stories, with the potential of one of these made-up endings starting to unravel. The investigation as to whether—is the truth that important, or is it better to give people that closure, to end the stories.
EPC: Well, it sounds extremely fascinating, so I hope you’re able to do it and I’m able to read. Thank you, and I really look forward to having you talk to my class next semester.
“All Soldiers Run Away” will be released on November 1 and is available for pre-order here. Meanwhile, you can follow Andy on Twitter at @owen_andy.