A.S.H. Smyth

Heroes in error

Roy Scranton, a US veteran with an unusually poetic ear, captures the Beckettian banter — as well as trauma — of modern soldiering

Heroes in error
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War Porn

Roy Scranton

Soho, pp. 343, £

In the first year or so of the Iraq occupation — or ‘big Army goatfuck’, as it is not quite specifically referred to in former US Army soldier Roy Scranton’s debut novel — three central storylines move through and around each other.

Specialist Wilson, whose commanders can’t read maps but watch Black Hawk Down for ‘pointers’, and who is so frustrated he actually wants to be attacked by the Iraqis; Qasim al-Zabadi, a timid maths professor who lives with his Baghdadi uncle, enduring the attentions of unnamed government officials and of his Michael Jackson-loving cousins; and Aaron, who’s ‘just come back’ — too recently, in fact, to be breaking tofu with civilians who ask him questions until he tells them what they don’t want to hear: ‘Not that it’s any of your goddamn business, but no, I didn’t kill anybody.... I just held the camera.’

But if you’ve come to War Porn expecting some sort of jarhead Chuck Palahniuk, then you’re in the wrong place. Scranton opens with a line by Wallace Stevens, and punctuates the principal narratives with a cacophony of ‘found’ poetry, cut and pasted from Quranic verses, administrative documents, rolling news, philosophy, film synopses, motivational laminates and manuals on how to win the hearts and minds of the should-be grateful Iraqi population. It’s a ‘fugue of half-thoughts and disconnected images’, in the words of a fifth, unidentified voice that seems most directly based on the author’s own four years of military service.

Like all good contemporary war writers, Scranton has an ear for the Beckettian banter, the barely-conscious movie-quoting, the almost limitlessly mediated experience that comprise most modern soldiering. And if once or twice I felt he might have overcooked it (most soldiers have cause to ‘think of some other life you lived once’ but very few think back to when they were ‘a poet’. And find me a ranker who can use ‘irenic’ accurately), War Porn rewards repeated reading, not least to admire how unaffectedly the strands are drawn together to reach a conclusion (or, perhaps, an ‘aftermath’?) which might later seem somewhat inevitable.

But the abiding impression is how personally traumatised Scranton seems on behalf of all concerned in the Iraq invasion. He is hardly more optimistic for the whole human race. ‘Up out of the ancient garden of Sinbad’s Baghdad,’ Wilson surveys ‘a ruin outside of time, a 21st-century cyberpunk war-machine interzone’. The soldier next to him remarks: ‘I can’t believe how much this place looks like LA.’

Written byA.S.H. Smyth

A.S.H Smyth is a journalist and radio presenter in the Falkland Islands. He was once selected to play cricket for the national side but couldn’t make it.