The Answers We Look For In War Literature

On military fiction, the stories through which we attempt to understand combat, and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You.

I travel a lot and in airports I have the opportunity to see a great many soldiers. Some are in fatigues, bulky backpacks slung over their shoulders. Others are in their dress uniform, everything about them sleek and disciplined, right down to their spit-shined shoes. In airports, I see a lot of gratitude toward these soldiers. As they walk through terminals, people stop to thank them for their service. American Airlines makes a point of offering uniformed soldiers priority boarding. Soldiers can have free access to most airport clubs. These gestures are certainly well-intended, but there is also something hollow to them because they are filled with the misguided idea that we understand what we are giving thanks for and the hope that there might be just recompense for a soldier’s service.

On a recent flight I sat next to a soldier who had been upgraded, a small thank-you for his service. His crew cut was freshly shorn and he wore his full dress uniform. He was, I think, a sergeant based on my very limited understanding of the chevrons on his arm. As the rest of the flight boarded, people from all walks of life stopped to offer gratitude. An elderly woman squeezed his shoulder, leaned down, her lips practically brushing his freshly shorn hair. She said, “Thank you.” To each of these gentle offerings, this beneficence, the soldier was polite. He smiled tightly or nodded or said “Thank you, sir,” and “Thank you, ma’am.”

From time to time I studied this soldier from the corner of my eye. I’ve read several war novels as of late so I was curious. I am not sure what I was looking for. I wanted to say something to him but I was silent, offered him his space. He was quiet and fidgeted for most of the flight bouncing his leg and up and down. When we landed and arrived at the gate, he stood in one elegant motion, retrieved his bag, and disembarked. As he walked by the cockpits the pilots, who were leaning out of the narrow doorway, thanked him for his service.

We have, in recent years, seen a rise in war literature. At its best, this literature tries to answer the questions “Why do we try to conquer those with whom we are meant to share this world?” and “What are the costs of conquest?”

The war literature written by veterans offers the hope that if anyone could aptly capture the truths of war, it would be those who have fought. In a recent essay, George Packer wrote, “In the literature by veterans, there are virtually no politics or polemics, in stark contrast to the tendentious way in which most Americans, especially those farthest removed from the fighting, discussed Iraq. This new writing takes the war, though not its terrible cost, as a given.” Without an agenda, war literature created by veterans creates a space for unparalleled stories to be told — soldiers trying to survive the chaos of war, trying to make sense of why a given war is being fought, trying to cope with the aftermath.

The literature of war is by no means exclusive to veterans. In her debut collection Flashes of War, Katey Schultz uses the concision of flash fiction to fictionalize the wry, moving, and all too often traumatic experiences of soldiers in the Iraq War. In Sparta, by Roxana Robinson, Conrad Farrell has returned home after his tour of duty with the marines. He wants to reconnect with his loved ones but there is a new distance between Conrad and his family, one, the book implies, may never be breached.

One of the more striking entrants into this canon is Be Safe, I Love You, a deeply affecting novel by Cara Hoffman. After her tour of duty, Lauren Clay returns to her rural town in New York on Christmas Day. She has told no one of her return and her first stop is to see her former boyfriend, Shane from whom she is estranged because, “Six months into her tour she didn’t feel like telling Shane anything. Didn’t feel like discussing her plans, didn’t have the energy for ‘when’ or ‘if’ or ‘afterward,’ so she just stopped.” When they reunite, Lauren offers Shane her “war body,” hopes to lose herself in sex, to bring herself back to the life she once lived. It is readily apparent that this attempt is futile.

As she settles in, Lauren struggles to tolerate the “soft civilian life.” She is thrilled to see her younger brother Danny with whom she has an intricate and intimate bond. She is unsure what to make of her newly responsible father for whom she has long had to compensate. She isn’t always clear that she is no longer in Iraq even though she has been physically freed from the oppressive heat and gritty sand of the desert. She is tormented by her dreams, “so filled with strange detail they made her nearly conscious of her sleeping self, her body, a thing in a trance, eyes speeding along blindly beneath their lids, stories that clutched her heart, made it thump against her breast, made her muscles jerk, but left her lying still and unable to wake.”

As the narrative unfolds, we learn Lauren is a preternaturally gifted classical singer who was going to do something with her voice until she enlisted to help save her family’s home from foreclosure. It would be a mistake to understand Be Safe, I Love You only as a war novel. This is also a book about broken families and class and the impossible choices the working poor are too often forced to make.

The novel’s secondary characters are compelling. Lauren’s best friend Holly is a single mother and waitress at The Bag of Nails, a local bar. Holly is involved with Patrick, one of Shane’s uncles, a man with few prospects. As a student at Swarthmore, Shane wants nothing more than to put distance between himself and his humble roots but he cannot resist the pull of his first love. Family friend PJ is also a veteran and a guardian of sorts for Lauren and Danny, when their father was struggling with depression. Troy taught Lauren to use her voice, and wants nothing more than for her to embrace her talent and go where her voice might take her if she could only stop assuming burdens she no longer needs to carry, if Lauren could only, as her mother gently chides, do what she wants to do.

Things come to a head when Lauren takes Danny, purportedly to visit their mother Meg. There has been a fire at The Bag of Nails and in the wake of her disappearance, people are quick to place the blame on Lauren and her erratic behavior. They find shelter in an abandoned hunting lodge in Canada near an oil field on which Lauren has become fixated. Her loved ones begin a frantic search for Lauren and Danny. Lauren becomes less and less connected to reality and we are brought closer and closer to understanding what Lauren has been through.

Be Safe I Love You is deeply moving and gorgeously written — raw in some places, tender in others. Lauren’s vulnerability and torment are elegantly rendered. Hoffman is expansive in writing of Lauren’s life after war but also before so we might better understand how she has changed but she does not give us this understanding all at once. Instead it is doled out slowly as we go from present to past to present.

Most importantly, we see how a woman’s life is shaped by experiencing war as a soldier. As Hoffman herself notes, “It was important to tell a story I haven’t yet seen told. Women have served in some capacity in the U.S. military for more than 400 years, but for the first time we now have a significant number of women being trained, serving, fighting and returning from combat. This is an enormous, unprecedented cultural shift.” It is refreshing and so necessary to see a writer exploring this shift in fiction, addressing the unique sacrifices women must sometimes make.

Throughout the novel, we see not only Lauren’s “war body,” but also her war mind. Hoffman makes the intelligent choice of detailing Lauren’s time in Iraq judiciously. We know she has seen and done terrible things but the novel focuses primarily on Lauren’s bond with, Daryl, her best friend and the soldier with whom she was closest. Hoffman writing near and around Lauren’s war and the trauma she can’t face, makes the novel more haunting. This is, I think, the best way to write of war, leaving the reader ragged and mournful — better aware of the costs of war without deluding the reader into thinking they can truly understand war from such remove.

I still find myself thinking about the soldier I sat next to for a few hours. The experience was fleeting but I wonder if he is as tormented as Lauren Clay in Be Safe I Love You. I wonder what it has been like for him to come home, if he can find peace from the things he has seen and done. I hope that somewhere, in the literature of war, his story is being told.

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Roxane Gay is the author of An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, and other things. She lives and writes in the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter.

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