Scripted By War: Contemporary American War Writing as Trauma Texts



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Though war writing abounds in the form of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, little has been evaluated for its usefulness to trauma recovery. While collections such as Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War and Retire the Colors aggregate civilian and veteran experience of war and understand the importance of recognizing these stories, works like American Sniper, Lone Survivor, and War Porn are not only antithetical to the project of widespread appreciation of trauma’s effects and how they can be combatted but are also actively damaging to sufferers of trauma as well as general readers. Without a dedicated effort to categorize and evaluate the writing that has emerged (and continues to emerge still) from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the project of surviving trauma’s wounds—individually, from the battlefield itself, and socially, as a culture imbricated in war—will ultimately fail. This dissertation addresses this dangerous lack of assessment and offers a system by which one can gauge the potential efficacy of one work over another. This has been made possible by both recent and past contributions to trauma theory. From the past works of Cathy Caruth, Judith Herman, and Dominick LaCapra, a foundation of traumatization and recovery can be assessed. However, it is recent contributions from Bessel van der Kolk that allow for a more complete accounting of the effects and mitigations of trauma. The trauma theory that will be used throughout also intends to elucidate the position of the author in relation to the reader. Many authors of these war works are not only familiar with trauma but have lived it, yet many readers will be entirely ignorant of trauma’s effects and mistake harmful symptoms of acting-out as spectacle to be consumed. In effect, trauma theory becomes the key to recognition—recognition of these works as trauma texts and what ultimate effects these works might have. In the first chapter, I highlight the troubled history of trauma and weave into it the advent of war writing. In Chapter II, Chris Kyle’s American Sniper will be shown as a text based in traumatic acting-out. Kyle (both knowingly and unknowingly) entices his readers with war porn—with spectacle—while drawing their attention away from the damage that war has done to him and those around him. In Chapter III, I evaluate Roy Scranton’s War Porn as acting-out in fiction. While Scranton does much to humanize and otherwise Othered subjectivity in “the fall” section, he ultimately damages a reader in a potentially-traumatic climax. In Chapter IV, Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue and the short story collection, Fire and Forget, are shown to be efforts of working-through. Though certainly limited and dependent upon the reader’s relationship with the text, these works disabuse their audience of the glamours of war and promote recovery. In Chapter V, I hold up Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as the pinnacle of what I call vicarious working-through. Fountain, a civilian, imagines the plight of the soldier and uses that subjectivity to argue for the civilian population to take responsibility for their wars and the veterans who have been traumatized by them. Though veteran writing can be an important outlet for personal and sometimes public understanding of the war and one’s experience, the onus rests on civilians to accept accountability for the damage that war has caused. This does not, by any means, relegate veterans to silence or aggrandize the importance of civilian writing in this sphere, it is an effort to stimulate discussion of disqualified knowledge and normalize the fact that war writing concerns everyone and should be addressed by everyone. In order to prevent trauma, as a subject, from fading into obscurity as it has done so often historically, that which manifests trauma must be taken from the taboo and made normal. By interrogating contemporary war writing, it is my hope that other subjects and spheres may follow suit. Only then can we enable sufferers to heal and to prevent these traumatizations from occurring so rampantly in the future.



war writing, trauma theory, american literature