The Supply and Demand of War

Roy Scranton’s War Porn and the contradictory truths of war narratives

For those hoping Roy Scranton’s new novel War Porn might be a quick beach read to round out the summer reading list, a serious warning is in order: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Like Dante and Virgil before that, Roy Scranton writes to show you his vision of hell. Hell is a terrifying place, and any accurate description will — by necessity — disturb and frighten. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Roy Scranton’s novel War Porn took nearly a decade to see the light of day, with years going by in which Scranton couldn’t get an agent to read it.

Scranton spent a short stint in the US Army as a junior enlisted troop, doing a lone deployment to Iraq in the relatively early days of the war. It was during his time in service that Scranton began writing War Porn. After Scranton left the Army, he finished his undergrad and a master’s degree before going to Princeton for his PhD. Among a long list of other accomplishments, he co-edited the short story collection Fire and Forget with veteran-author Matt Gallagher and authored the book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. Throughout the journey, he refused to give up on his novel manuscript. Scranton’s vision and perseverance finally paid off. The novel is now available from Soho Press.

“[War Porn raises] interesting questions about the nature of those who demand and those who supply.”

War Porn tells a broad story of our conflict in Iraq through a narrow political lens by connecting three seemingly disparate threads. Scranton’s connections between the storylines are tight and significant, making the overall plotting of the novel a compelling and veritable achievement. War Porn doesn’t break any new ground with its political statements or in bringing war’s ugliness to light, but it does raise interesting questions about the nature of those who demand and those who supply; those who watch, and those who put on the show.

One thread follows Wilson, a junior enlisted soldier running patrols in the early days of the Iraq wars. Wilson’s chief conflict is against his own view of his place in the Army, for his inflated self-image of himself as an intellectual and a poet doesn’t change the fact that he’s nothing more than a grunt following orders in an unjust war — just like the crude soldiers cracking racist and sexist jokes next to him. He drifts through his tour with contempt for both the invaders and the invaded. When his unit rounds up several military-aged males and goes through a bureaucratic maze to finally land them at a prison compound, Wilson’s crime is not so much that he turns over innocent Iraqis for eventual brutalization, it’s that his self-involved cynicism keeps him from even caring.

The most accomplished thread follows Professor Qasim al-Zabadi, an intellectual working at a Baghdad university as the United States invades Iraq. His wife is already living with family in Baqubah, but al-Zabadi is torn between maintaining his career prospects, maintaining his honor, maintaining the integrity of his family, or maintaining the illusion that he has any control over any of them. The choices he agonizes over are ultimately meaningless to his fate, as al-Zabadi’s victimhood is predetermined by deceitful liars who would betray him and indiscriminate soldiers who don’t care whether he is a combatant or not.

The final thread has at its center the anti-hero Corporal Aaron Stojanowski, who accompanies his date to a backyard barbecue attended by young civilian professionals. Sto, as his battle buddies called him, is recently returned from an Iraq deployment where he served as a guard at a military detainment camp reminiscent of Abu Ghraib — the torture, humiliation, and photography of victims included. Hosting the party is Matt, an insecure software developer begging to know what it was really like “over there.” All too happy to oblige, Sto pulls out a thumbdrive to show Matt the eponymous pictures he brought back from Iraq. During his braggadocios presentation, Sto continually minimizes his role in the torture by repeating the chorus that he was simply holding the camera and — of course — just following orders.

“War porn […] is an element of depraved lust, a twisted desire to live vicariously, or in the context of war veterans, to re-live vicariously.”

War porn, in general, is the colloquial phrase well-known in military circles that encompasses forms of media depicting the most provocative and extreme depictions of violence, gore, and brutality wrought by combat, which — according to the novel’s jacket copy — are “viewed voyeuristically or for emotional gratification.” Inherent in the term is an element of depraved lust, a twisted desire to live vicariously, or in the context of war veterans, to re-live vicariously.

Through the narrow lens of Stojanowski’s war porn, the threads all connect to reveal that Wilson is as responsible for al-Zabadi’s victimhood as Stojanowksi, the broader implication being that it’s not just Wilson who’s responsible, but the civilians at the backyard barbecue are responsible; the American public is responsible; the author himself is responsible. In so far as Matt seeks to live vicariously through Sto’s stories and images, he wants to be Sto — the powerful embodiment of American violence — and Matt’s girlfriend desperately wants to be with Sto.

The resulting sequence of events and the explicit descriptions that follow should disturb any reader with a conscience. Some might make the case that Scranton’s novel is literary and literal — rather than metaphorical — war porn. However, literature is not a zero sum game; in the hands of a gifted writer — and Scranton is a gifted writer — a phrase can be both metaphor and not.

“[T]he explicit descriptions [will] disturb any reader with a conscience.”

Roy Scranton seems to be a fascinating paradox, as do many veteran-writers, people who have the hearts of both warriors and poets, many militant in our opposition to war, yet writing our words with blood-stained hands as we try desperately with Lady Macbeth to find that which will wash out the damned spot. Scranton, for one, has made somewhat of a name for himself by excoriating the work of other war writers, modern colleagues included, with prominent essays in The New York Times and Los Angeles Review of Books. His willingness to play the provocateur has produced lively debate throughout the mil-vet writing blogosphere — see, e.g., here, here, and here — and the debate is not new.

He takes particular issue with those who might claim a more authentic knowledge of war by virtue of their actual experiences fighting in a war. If Scranton’s piece in The New York Times is to be taken literally, the experiential knowledge gap between those who have seen combat and those who have not is no different than the experiential knowledge gap between those who have worked making coffee and those who have not. The real gap for Scranton is found “between our subconscious belief that righteous violence can redeem us, even ennoble us, and the chastening truth that violence debases and corrupts.”

I don’t necessarily disagree with him, but it’s hard not to notice that Scranton’s chastening truth is one grasped and revealed through the lens of his personal experience watching Baghdad burn. Adding to the seeming incongruity, War Porn features glowing blurbs from big-name authors like Ben Fountain, Phil Klay, and E.L. Doctorow, all extolling the authority of the narrative and its fidelity to truth, while Soho Press publicity materials all make sure to point out that Scranton is himself a war veteran. As a result, Scranton’s apparent position on claims of authority-through-experience presents a glaring contradiction that stands in opposition to the way in which he’s built his own career and reputation as a writer. Though his writing and scholarship are impressive independently of his experience, the authority of his “chastening truth” about war and his work’s reception rest largely on his personal experience carrying a rifle in a war.

“Roy Scranton [is a] fascinating paradox.”

Nevertheless, I believe it’s important to read with the presumption of intentionality, meaning we should presume the author crafted each section, every chapter, and every sentence with purposeful and articulable reasons. I believe it’s also essential to read with generosity, meaning that if the author’s purpose is not immediately clear, our first assumption should not be that the author unwittingly failed in achieving his purpose; instead, we can and should choose to believe that our own blind spots keep us from recognizing what the author intended. If a glaring contradiction presents itself, the presumption of intentionality and the spirit of generosity would suggest that the author presents that contradiction with purpose, perhaps to provoke thought and prompt questions and incite the exploration of ideas. The easiest but least fruitful presumption would be that the author hypocritically claims the authority to reveal some ultimate truth the rest of us can’t see.

What does it mean, then, for Scranton to be — in the words of E.L. Doctorow — a “truth-telling war writer?” Around the time Fire and Forget was published, Scranton claimed War Porn was “a story about our desire for war stories, and what that desire might cost.” The irony of Scranton’s work — dramatic irony as opposed to the fashionable hipster irony — is that it derides America’s demand for violence and war stories while being all too willing to serve as the supply channel for the same.

I don’t mean to imply that Scranton’s work is in any way hypocritical. To the contrary, with War Porn — as with many of his essays — Scranton seems to be making an earnest effort to acknowledge his own sins in the war on terror, repent, and then advance his truth with the zeal of an evangelist blinded on the road to Damascus — that truth being that the apathetic American public should likewise acknowledge its own complicity in furthering the violence that spans the globe and leaves trails of victims we’d rather not see. Then after acknowledging its complicity, that same public should go and do likewise; i.e., repent and sin no more.

“[T]he embodiment of American violence and imperialism victimizes the very people who facilitated and craved that which ultimately ruins them.”

As the supplier of the chastening truth about war, Scranton graphically depicts both violence and rape. Such intent coupled with Scranton’s skill equals results that should shock the conscience of any empathetic reader, let alone those who have never been inoculated through personal witness to war. If Scranton set out to write a story about our desire for war stories and what that desire might cost, it’s hard to say he didn’t accomplish exactly that. Given everything leading to the War Porn’s disturbing climax, it should be no surprise when the embodiment of American violence and imperialism victimizes the very people who facilitated and craved that which ultimately ruins them.

Scranton’s method of evangelism asserts that what so shocks and abhors you, dear reader, is the very thing being carried out in your name on a daily basis. These victims, dear reader, are your victims, because they are the product of American violence that you, dear reader, are complicit in promulgating. In deploying the shock and awe technique in his narrative, Scranton evinces a certain hope — namely, that our slumbering public will wake up to our descent into hell and ask as Virgil did, “What power hath wrought such dread iniquity?”

The reception to War Porn will likely be polarizing. For anyone who picks up War Porn to fill their desire for war stories, Scranton has made absolutely sure that no reader makes it to the end without paying the price. Like the few Americans who have seen war and its true costs, readers will not be able to unsee what Scranton labored so long to show them. The brutal imagery sticks around, provokes thought, and more importantly, provokes the question: “What am I going to do about it?”

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