Imagining War

The ethical and stylistic issues in using real-life war zones as a basis for contemporary fiction

by Mark P. Williams

The representation of conflict in fiction raises an important ethical problem – what terms are appropriate to representing warfare through fiction? Representing conflict is arguably one of the most continuous challenges to understanding the nature of literature, or artistic expression in general. It is often seen as the very limit of literary expression.

An important part of this question is whether fictions ought to be treated as a form of immediate, visceral engagement, or as a meditative, intellectualised and more considered form of engagement. Key here is the question of whether it is valid for literature to address recent, real events—9/11, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan-Iraq—through de-familiarised, non-realist terms, or even through fiction at all. Or should such ground be ceded solely to journalism as its natural (realist) province?

Attendant upon it is the issue of emotional and/or ideological proximity of fictional representations to recent, actual conflicts. Non-realist representation is implicitly a fantasy, a visceral, subjective investment, which might be construed as wish fulfilment or whimsy, or exploitation. Such a stance is always context dependent, always fraught and always needs to be reconsidered in light of specific instances; I argue that any attempt at representing a conflict realistically is as implicitly ideological and no less visceral or subjective – and no more or less proximate to wish fulfilment or whimsy than more (explicitly) fantastical approaches.

The notion of realism is already questionable when it comes to the representation of present conflicts not only because of the vast departure from the norm involved in describing extreme events but also because the narrative position, readerly position and authorial position are already in dispute. If realism implies third person omniscient narration or a clear narrative of causes and effects, then we need to consider that in a present conflict there can be neither omniscient knowledge of the reasons for all events and their consequences, nor a fully subjective exploration of causes and effects – if only because the causes may appear to be so radically distanced from the effects as to be functionally invisible.

Equally, if we consider realism in terms of its proximity to objectivity then even a ‘realistic’ portrayal of a present conflict may be so ideologically overdetermined that attributing primacy to any particular cause is already to take a position on the conflict as a whole that could be perceived from another perspective as being biased or misinformed. Can we escape or negate this situation? I want to consider a number of fictions recently published (or recently published in English), ranging from allegory to genre fantasy, to science fiction, to graphic novels, to surrealist fictions, which seem to be addressing the same central problems.

Necessary Distance, Uncomfortable Proximity

African conflict is perhaps one of the greatest embarrassments to the West’s collective claims to have progressed beyond colonialist exploitation under postmodernity. I aim to focus briefly on two very different fictions which take partially estranged approaches to the realities of contemporary African conflict, such as child soldiers, while otherwise maintaining an apparently strong commitment to realism: Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation and the graphic novel series Unknown Soldier by Joshua Dysart, illustrated variously by Alberto Ponticelli, Rick Veitch and Pat Masioni.

Iweala’s novel is set in an unnamed African nation which is split by war, where children are taken from their families and forced to fight. It follows the narrative of one child named Agu, whose attempt to escape from the destruction around him leads him directly into the midst of the soldiers laying waste to his world. The story is told in a terse present tense from Agu’s limited perspective as he is forced to commit acts of violence: ‘I am not a bad boy. I am not a bad boy. I am a soldier and soldier is not bad if he is killing. I am telling this to myself because soldier is supposed to be killing, killing, killing’. [1] Brutality is rendered into short, staccato bursts of prose which emulate the essential simplicity of gestures but force the reader to consider what lies beyond this limit in more detail as Agu constantly returns, attempting again and again to think the unthinkable about his own actions and finally get beyond them.

Agu’s subjectivity is constantly strained by the imposition of violent forces, driving him into patterns that he finds repellent but is unable to fully articulate: ‘If they are ordering me KILL, I am killing, SHOOT, I am shooting, ENTER WOMAN, I am entering woman and not even saying anything even if I am not liking it’ (Iweala: 168). Throughout the text, his articulacy grows, and he returns to the unrepresentable site of his own complicity, struggling against it, he attempts to confront the full horror of his situation. Iweala’s prose is tightly controlled, using understated repetitions of ‘thinking thinking thinking’ to convey Agu’s straining mental state: ‘I am killing everybody, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, soldier [….] I am thinking thinking. I am thinking that I cannot be doing this anymore.’ (Iweala, ibid.).

The story is a kind of bildungsroman where personal growth has been stunted by the force of the violence exploding around Agu but nevertheless, his desire to be free of his circumstances continues to push against them, to attempt to find a path towards renewal, redemption and development. The narrative as a whole works towards an optimistic ideal: Agu is finally saved from his situation because he is presented with a moment when he has an opportunity to escape and he chooses to walk away when the soldiers move on. His position as a subject has progressed to the point where he is no longer as constrained by the restrictions of the violence around him and he moves towards saving himself. Accordingly the prose begins to change as well and Agu enters a space which is like heaven compared to the hell/purgatory he has lived through. In being largely geographically and historically nonspecific, the narrative gestures towards allegory here: Agu has passed through a space which may be as close to hellishness as can be conceived in a material world.

Similar in its use of defamiliarisation but otherwise much more politically specific, Josh Dysart’s graphic novel series Unknown Soldier, illustrated variously by Alberto Ponticelli, Rick Veitch and Pat Masioni, is set in Uganda in 2002. Its central character, Moses Lwanga, is a pacifist doctor who returns from America and finds himself caught up in the conflict between extremist Christians the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan Army in Acholiland. Dysart’s narrative is a re-imagining of an earlier version of the Unknown Soldier from the 1960s, which has been modified to address contemporary conflicts and published by DC’s Vertigo imprint.

Lwanga has been doubly transformed. Not only has he seen his Ugandan home devastated by warfare and his personal relationships shattered by the conflict – but his own mind has been radically transfigured. The intrusion into his life of conflict reveals that somewhere along the way he has undergone a process that has made him into a super-soldier. This recovery of a hidden, violent personality makes him into a Jekyll and Hyde figure, alternately healing and killing, and also allows us to plunge into more subjective modes of representation. To the society around him he has become an avatar which fuses contemporary conflict with the enraged spirits of traditional myth. As a character he is literally divided, suffering memory lapses and not only demonstrating contrary personality traits but actively struggling against a war-driven persona that seems increasingly to have been imposed upon him from without. Despite this, Lwanga is never an unsympathetic character. The extremes of his personality and the fact that he conceals his face beneath bandages serve to render the proximity between internal and external conflict more understandable even where they remain mysterious: he is an Everyman figure, his actions might be those of anyone faced with such extremes.

The Everyman figure is a popular and suggestive means for linking the representation of conflict with the apparent antinomies which it invokes, of the historical and the mythic or fantastical. In an Everyman narrative, a realist worldview finds itself haunted by a persistent symbolism, where every action reflects or reflects upon multiple histories of similar or related actions; here reality is permeable, and the fantastic slips through the membrane.

Symbolic Violence and Haunting

In Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows’ graphic narrative 303 (2007), realism is haunted by a fantasy which uncovers the layers of historical circumstance that have brought this particular historical moment to fruition. [2] Ennis’s central character is a Russian Colonel in Afghanistan who has seemingly seen every conflict of the late twentieth century. Through his felt connection to his past and to the conflicts that have shaped the world around him one century’s imperialist history becomes a weapon to bring down another century’s covert foreign policy expansionism.

A lone Russian spetznaz (special forces) veteran in contemporary Afghanistan finds evidence directly linking the brutality of warfare that surrounds him to the socio-political powers that govern the world from comfortable office desks elsewhere. Crossing into the heartlands of America, he sets out on an impossible quest to use a single bullet from a British 303 rifle, left over from British Imperialist ventures into Afghanistan, to bring down the governing forces in the 2003 Afghan conflict with a single shot.

The whole narrative is permeated with fantasies, from the possibility of doing the impossible (changing history with a single shot, crossing the world to do it), to the historical spectres of each landscape he passes through: the Imperialist ghosts of Afghanistan’s ‘Great Game’ to the ghosts of gunfighters, natives and pioneers in the Old West. The Russian is haunted by all the personal ghosts of his career asking ‘why’: his Nazi-killer father demanding to know what he died for; to the British SAS man who reveals to him the evidence of money underpinning political callousness, before dying of his wounds; to an American sheriff attempting to deal with the local crimes of a rapacious neo-liberal capitalism working its illegal immigrants to death up close, while condemning them from a comfortable distance.

As a character, the Russian Colonel is an agent of loss: representing Soviet Russia’s own failed venture in Afghanistan and the fall of old political systems. Each side, each group or faction, representing its own complex history phantomatically, through echoing fragments rather than complete stories attempts to speak their losses through him, to demand to know if their deaths have made the world a better place. History is personified as the multitude of phantoms which surround this lost figure, protesting that the present has never respected the past. It is a harsh vision of cycles of warfare governed by cynical politics, which create monstrous and fantastical entities turning human lives into fodder for their self-perpetuation. In this brief but brutal narrative, war is a predatory organism which politicians ride into power, a combination of machine and beast that is all appetite and production of further appetites, while people are either the voluntary and involuntary parts of that machine or the food for the beast.

Beasts and machines appear prominently in Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon’s Pride of Baghdad (2006). [3] This graphic novel takes on the Iraq war from the perspective of a pride of lions who have escaped from the city zoo during one of the US airstrikes against the city. The talking animals face the deserted city as a larger zoo for containing still larger animals than themselves and narrowly avoid a ‘stampede’ of tanks, observing that creatures so large and aggressive cannot possibly have predators. They meet an embittered turtle which can remember the last time the two-legged creatures tore up their environment looking for black liquid.

The lions themselves are ambivalent towards their status both in captivity and at liberty. They muse repeatedly on the nature of their situation; they speak to one another as once proud beings reduced to imprisonment, and in being ‘liberated’ from one prison only to find themselves in a still larger one. One lioness argues passionately that the only freedom worth having is that which is worked for and earned, not that which is given, and speculates that the power that has freed them may not hold good things for them. With ultimate irony, the external powers which free them from their imprisonment in the zoo actually destroy them. They narrowly escape from a corrupt and decadent bear – which has been fighting and killing other lions for the sport of its human masters in a palatial building – when a squad of US troops shoots them down.

These two stories are meditations on present contemporary conflicts from strongly critical perspectives which employ distinctly non-realist techniques of estrangement within overarching worlds which are strongly realist in their approach to modern warfare. Without the visible, physical presence of history’s ghosts to the Russian soldier the narrative would seem one-sided or anti-American, but he is also haunted by the ghost of the Sheriff and thereby by the Sheriff’s own narrative of loss, both personal and ideological. Similarly, without the musings of the lions on their own nature and on whether the intentions of their relative captors and liberators are significant to their actual situation, and how much they have changed by their circumstances, it might operate more didactically as a narrative. It is helped in this by the authors observing that it is based on true events about lions being found loose in Baghdad, so that its fantastical beast-fable aspects are located against the ambivalent realities of a present conflict which already seems to test the boundaries of realist representation.

Rupture and Representation

While these fictions are openly contentious, they do not rupture the literary form of representation being employed in the process of engaging with conflict. Rupture and the transgression of form are the province of surrealist and avant-garde texts, and their appropriateness for representing conflict is a vexed question.

It is exactly this problem of the application of surrealism (particularly to on-going conflict) which the authors Etgar Keret and Samir El-Youssef place at the centre of their book Gaza Blues. [4] The pair uses widely differing approaches in representation of the relative sides of Israel/Palestine, working through the mundane and the aberrant to question the underlying nature of the division. Gaza Blues’ narrative strategies and its means of addressing a thorny subject are often confrontational, while the book as a whole presents itself as a problematic debate where characters discuss means of representation.

The use of surrealism versus realism is played out in fictions from both Palestinian and Israeli perspectives with wry black humour and a quiet self-subversion. Samir El-Youssef’s writer narrator has a brief argument with his friend about the inappropriateness of using surrealism to address the present era of the Palestinian cause where he is told in no uncertain terms that realism is the essential mode for dramatizing political struggle.

In attempting to find a representational language appropriate to such a divisive subject matter, and such a contentious topic – a conflict which entails enacting conflict in the very attempt to represent it (can representing this conflict avoid being either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian?) – the text demonstrates how it is impossible for the reader to escape complicity on either one level or another. Ultimately, the dialectic of Keret’s narratives and El Youssef’s narrative, calls attention to the apparitional split in representing conflict: a single narrative, no matter how ‘unbiased’, or how meticulously it dramatizes the sides of a conflict, can still be understood as consisting of one specific representation (and side) of the conflict.

Gaza Blues employs literary representation as both a reflection of and comment upon the conditions of its own production which necessarily strives towards becoming something more: a critique of the discourse it will generate among its readers. This is a practice akin to that undertaken by the seven authors of Seaton Point (see last month’s Werewolf) but here the split is the important aspect of the mechanics of textual production which is being highlighted. To blend their styles and produce a text which was a unity of plot and structure would be to negate the disunity that both authors are attempting to highlight through their very different approaches. Similarly, it might have entailed a degree of stylistic compromise between the ironies of textual surrealism and those of textual realism as opposing poles which would have taken something away from the power of either writer’s work. The divided and unified text of Gaza Blues serves as a multiply-coded metaphor for the conflict that both writers are addressing.

The novels of Pierre Guyotat constitute a more transgressive attack on the validity of realist representation for dealing with conflict. Guyotat’s Eden Eden Eden and Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers are dense narratives of repetitive violence, rape and murder acted out against the bleak background of a militarised and counter-realist worldview. They are Guyotat’s attempt to address the brutalising environment of the French colonial conflict in Algeria, which he took part in as a young man, and are a particularly strong instance of transgressive narrative strategies being employed to navigate the exchanges between real and fictional violence.

Guyotat’s novel is an essentially fantastic fiction which uses surrealism to address the historical reality of conflict. Eden Eden Eden is a single-sentence novel whose repetitions and rhythms cycle the reader through a seemingly unending round of exploitation violence and abuse, while his most directly autobiographical text, Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers is – like the Chants du Maldoror – divided into seven ‘chants’ of successive bleakness where realist details are governed by an apparent dream logic.

Guyotat (pictured left) draws on Lautréamont’s Maldoror to estrange the French Algerian conflict from its original historical contexts and make it something trans-historical, attached to contemporary modernity itself. The intellectual traditions that Guyotat draws upon are those of the avant-garde anti-art movements which attack all modes of life within a conflict setting as complicit with that conflict. This is a critical position close to that of what we tend to think of now as the 1968 generation, but Guyotat’s texts are harsher and in certain respects somewhat closer to the critical demolitions of the ’68 generation by Michel Houellebecq: they attack the social values which emerge from war as well as those which initiate war; Guyotat’s novels are assaults on the reader as a historically complicit actor in the action being represented to them.

As a literary tactic, this approach is brutal and alienating in an entirely different way. The reader is confronted by a mode of representation so completely at odds with the literary tastes of the moment that they undergo an agonistic relationship with the material which is presumably intended to function as a kind of vernacular modernism: the language for expressing the horrors of conflict is a stylistic ‘horror’ which produces an internal conflict of responses in its readership. (One of Guyotat’s English translators is supposed to have had such emotional difficulty with his prose and the actions it describes that they destroyed the manuscript they were working on.) For a surrealist assault on standards of representation, non-linear plotting, surrealism, the coining of dense neologism and the use of disturbing language and description become tools for confronting the reader’s passivity, forcing it to become an active response to the text—the logic runs: the real horrors of war are worse than these words, so these words will be the worst words you can imagine. From this perspective, the more repellent the language employed to describe contemporary conflict, the more effective the representation of conflict to the reader. Both Eden Eden Eden and Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers are difficult, unpleasant reading experiences.

Disjunctive or surrealist narrative engagements with conflict insist on the totalising negation of the actual world and the exploration of a radical alternative space. Where disjunctive or surrealist texts subvert realism it is in order to create a critical distance from the politics of realist representation, to thereby launch an attack on the values that would conserve the social status quo, i.e. that validate the conflict that they are addressing. This is a critical characteristic which science fiction and fantasy share with surrealism.

SF-Fantasy: Constructing from the Ruins

War can is a device in science fiction and fantasy fiction which enables a writer to explore all social strata of their fictional society at its extremes, where its habits have to justify themselves because they are at a moment of crisis and confrontation; conflict in SF-Fantasy can be useful for exploring values, something common to classic texts such as Samuel R. Delany’s Neveryona and Tales of Neveryon, which make this point fairly explicitly, to more recent innovations on SF-Fantasy such as novels identified with the ‘New Weird’ such as Steph Swainston’s Fourlands novels which are thematically centred around conflict and stasis.

Swainston’s Fourlands novels The Year of Our War, No Present Like Time and The Modern World explore the developments of a society at war, attempting to come to terms with its own history as an imperial power and with the fact that it is governed by immortals. Social stasis and social change are visibly challenging forces which are both energised and imperilled by the threat of alien invaders, The Insects, who come from another world entirely. The Insects have stripped other worlds, or other universes, entirely of their resources and are a faceless, numberless threat to the stability of the Fourlands. Yet that threat to stability only serves to demonstrate that there are already existing tensions within the society, much of which are focalised around the life of the newest recruit to the circle of immortals, Jant, the messenger, who, because of his unique physiognomy and genetics, is also the only immortal who can fly.

We could consider Swainston’s central novum the immortals, and Jant’s unique status among them, and the threat of the Insects, and the revealing of the alternate universes, as a colossal metaphorical treatment of the subject of modernity. The summary I have given suggests that we read her novels allegorically as some development on Walter Benjamin’s famous image of the Angelus Novum being blown backwards by the winds rising over the catastrophic broil of modernity, but although they may invite such reading they are not written as allegories. Swainston’s novels take very seriously the mechanics, social and military, of the idea of conflict. Flight, to the extent that it is a metaphor here, functions on the level of its visceral appeal as the liberation from the ground; Jant exhausts himself with his flying, to the point where we get a strong sense of the necessity of effort to flight. As Swainston said at a bookshop Q&A in Coventry in 2003 when promoting her debut novel, much of the details about flight came from her own experiences hang-gliding, but it is also a realistically useful device to give a perspective from which a narrative of conflict can gain a (literal) birds’ eye view. The attention to ‘realism’ in portraying the effects and necessities of conflict (armed and ideological) provides its own forms of estrangement which lend themselves very well not only to metaphor but to the central forces of fantasy: a world turned upside down creating a new perspective; the ideological construction of oppositional forces, and the distance (or proximity) between them; and the commingling of reality and imagination.

Adam Roberts deals with war and representation very suggestively in his novel Swiftly (2008) which is set in a nineteenth-century England where the voyages of Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver were historical documents. This has had a number of important effects but the main narrative ones are that the English used the Lilliputians as slave labour to produce ever more finely crafted mechanical devices, the Yahoos as guerrilla war units and even recruit some Houyhnhnms to the cavalry, while the French employ the superior size of the Brobdingnagians to drag an invasion fleet across the Channel. The novel charts the French and Brobdingnagian invasion of England from the perspectives of the former wife of an industrialist overthrown by his Lilliputian workers and an English sympathiser with the ‘pacificans’ (Lilliputians, Blefuscadians, Brobdingnagians and others) who helped the French invaders.

Roberts’ main narrative devices would seem to point towards a simple follow-on from Swift in terms of allegorical and critical content, but he pursues the Swiftian details for what they can suggest when joined to other concepts, he not only delves further into the history of science fiction to do this but also stretches out the idea of representation of conflict to alternate scales, estranging it and drawing other interesting sources, such as Voltaire and H.G. Wells into this Swiftian background in a way akin to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. A central idea of the novel is that what at first appears to be the major threat, the most important conflict, is actually far less significant when viewed on a different scale and that the chains of being which link the scales together are not immediately obvious. A key problem for the reader comes at the point when it becomes apparent that the scale at which the characters themselves operate, the human scale, is ultimately immaterial to whether or not the English or French will even survive until the end of the narrative. After the emphasis on the aftermath of fighting and killing, to learn that the seemingly slow Brobdingnagians—who are unwilling combatants—are closer to being able to prevent a greater coming threat than either human side, the final sections of the text take a distinctive turn into more intriguing SF territories.

The estrangement here operates to emphasise how forces outside of individual and even of social control can dictate the course of events. Conflict and scale become a metaphor for the central human relationship to the universe; what appears as conflict on one scale is actually accord on another, while the successful resolution of conflict between different scales is not necessarily victory but accommodation. Size operates to convey the idea of estrangement or temporal distance where all conflicts seem petty to the hugeness of history (and so it returns again to Swift).

Fighting Through

The representation of conflict in fiction is one of those points of crisis that remind us of its important distinctions from other forms, and its most significant parallels with other forms. Literature is constituted by meetings of forms, thoughts, feelings and impressions through narrative which involves its reader, both while reading and afterwards; to declare that it follows its own logic and must be understood as fully as possible on those terms is not a weak response. The crises of representation caused by attempts to grasp contemporary conflicts in contemporary fiction are not signs of a form at its limits, rather they are a sign of its social status. Like society, literature demands that its rules be re-learned every time they are refreshed or changed— thus, attempting to represent social changes and creating social changes go hand in hand.

1. Iweala, Uzodinma, Beasts of No Nation (John Murray: London, 2005), p. 29.
2. 303 by Garth Ennis, illustrated by Jacen Burrows (Rentoul, IL: Avatar Press, 2007)
3. Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughn, illustrated by Niko Henrichon (New York: DC Comics, 2006)
4. Etgar Keret and Samir El-Youssef Gaza Blues (London: David Paul Books, 2004).

Mark P. Williams is an academic with interests in contemporary literature and politics who has recently moved to New Zealand. His PhD was entitled ‘Radical Fantasy: A Study of Left Radical Politics in the Fantasy Writing of Michael Moorcock, Angela Carter, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and China Miéville’.