The All-Volunteer Force and Contemporary American War Fiction
by David Eisler
When the United States abolished the draft in the final stages of the Vietnam War, the effects went beyond simple changes in military personnel policy; they also rippled into the field of cultural production. What can we learn about this process by comparing the fictional responses to Vietnam with contemporary fiction about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Note: The following article is a revised version of remarks delivered at the War, Literature, and the Arts Conference at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, 20 – 21 September 2018.
In 1973, during the last throes of American involvement in Vietnam, the United States military abolished the draft as a means to compel citizens to serve in uniform during times of war and began to rely entirely on volunteers. More than four decades later, most of the discussion about this all-volunteer force tends to lament the emergence of a gap between the military and society and the unburdening of the American population from the consequences of foreign wars. But the effects of this shift go beyond politics; they also ripple into the field of cultural production, especially literary fiction. While a parade of literature has followed every American war for the last century, a closer look at the evolution of war fiction from Vietnam to the contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan raises a number of questions about the drivers of cultural production, the dynamics of cultural authority, and the stability of genre-based conventions within the literary field.
My approach to these questions has been to compare the fictional responses to war from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, using the transition to an all-volunteer force as an inflection point to see how the cultural production of war fiction has changed over the last fifty years. I’m focused on three key variables:
- Authorship (or, who is writing about war?);
- Narrative content (what kinds of stories are they telling?); and
- Literary form (how are they choosing to tell them?).
One important caveat: this is not an attempt to derive a causal relationship between the end of the draft and the production of war fiction, but rather to compare two sets of texts in general terms across the three dimensions described above — far too many variables affect something as complex as cultural production to infer any meaningful causality between one change (like the end of the draft) and the rest of the field.
Authorship and Cultural Authority
Throughout 20th century literary history, the cultural authority of the American combat veteran in the aftermath of war led to a near-monopoly of narrative authority of war’s representation. Geographic distance between the battlefield and the home front meant that direct experience was something unique and tangible for those who fought. And book publishers, happy to wave the banner of narrative authenticity that comes with the combat veteran’s voice, served plenty of war novels to hungry audiences seeking the truth about “what it was really like.” For Americans, the big novels of previous wars all came from those who could claim the authority of experience: out of the First World War came John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers (1921)and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), while the Second World War led to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) and James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951).
In the case of Vietnam, the soldier-author’s narrative authority was cemented even before the conflict was over. Cultural movements against the war in the United States ensured that there was a distinct rhetorical marker between Vietnam and “the World,” as so many veterans called it, with American society becoming the indirect antagonist to those who had been sent overseas. With such a clear dividing line drawn between those who were there and those who weren’t, the imaginative representation of the war was left primarily to those veterans who believed they had a stake in the way the war would be remembered. Despite publishers’ initial reluctance to reopen recent wounds once the war was over, output eventually soared. Although bibliographic estimates of the number of novels written about Vietnam vary, by 1987 there were somewhere between one and two hundred. During that timeframe (1965-1987), I have found only four works not written by veterans or embedded journalists. Nearly all were written by men.
In general, the literary response to the Vietnam War became synonymous with a handful of big names: Tim O’Brien, Michael Herr, Larry Heinemann, Robert Olen Butler, Jim Webb. Their works dominated the cultural landscape and early re-imaginations of the war. But in 1985, a writer named Bobbie Ann Mason—with no connection to the war or the military—published the novel In Countryabout a girl whose father was killed in Vietnam before she was born. Although Mason was initially hesitant to tackle the subject, a moving experience at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial led her to believe that the war did not just belong to those who had fought there, but that it was “every American’s story.” The novel was widely praised, though some reviewers couldn’t help but notice that the author was not the typical writer of war fiction—the first line of the Kirkus Review said, “How ironic—or maybe not—that one of the so-far best, most affecting Vietnam novels ever should come from a woman.”
Mason’s novel appeared a decade after the fall of Saigon, but the lag between the war’s events and the appearance of novels written by authors with no direct connection to them has all but evaporated for our contemporary wars. Of the 48 single-authored novels and short story collections published about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan I’ve catalogued so far, nearly forty percent (18) have been written by civilians. More than one third (16) have been written by women. If current trends are any indication, writers without military experience are attempting to stake their claim on the narrative authority of contemporary war to a degree that simply did not happen with previous conflicts.
Narrative Content and Literary Form
Once we move away from the novel as a cultural object and begin to look at the texts themselves, we can again see distinct shifts in how contemporary authors have chosen to represent war in literary fiction.
Returning once more to Vietnam, particularly the early phase of fiction through about 1990, most narratives focused on the suffering of the individual American soldier in combat and the transformation from innocent civilian to traumatized veteran. These stories are set in combat zones and focalized through an American point of view. While there were some novels about Vietnam interested in the aftermath of war, combat and killing were the true stars of the majority of these works. With the fiction of Iraq and Afghanistan, though, that is no longer the case—in a narrative reversal of the content from Vietnam, only a handful of the dozens of contemporary war novels actually stay in country, and even those that do seem to have an eye on what comes after.
The form of these works has also changed, with narrative strategies employed to deliver a more holistic view of modern war rather than a snapshot of a single tour of duty. The focus on the individual (male) American soldier’s experience, while not gone completely, has nonetheless been reduced to make room for more complex perspectives, varied points of view, and non-traditional protagonists including female soldiers, indigenous civilians, and even enemy fighters. Novels like Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen (2011), Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014), Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue (2015), Roy Scranton’s War Porn (2016), and Brian Van Reet’s Spoils (2017) all include narrative points of view from at least one non-American character. These novels introduce moral complexity by rendering the consequences of these wars through characters on all sides of the conflict. To do so is to present the full nature of the conflicts, rather than one-sided memories and interpretations.
That is not to say that these are the only kinds of narratives coming out of these wars, but reading them alongside many of the early works about Vietnam suggests that today’s authors are seeking a greater sense of empathy with war fiction’s traditional Other. The brutality of Vietnam War fiction, and in particular the dehumanization of Vietnamese civilians, is designed to shock the reader and present the unfiltered horrors of that war’s experience. Yet there tends to be a lack of moral reckoning with those actions, an undeserved clarity of rightful purpose that is, I believe, correctly missing from contemporary war fiction. Although the dominant mode of today’s war fiction is cynicism, there is a moral ambiguity and complexity rooted in the way we have come to think about these unending wars and our role in precipitating them as American citizens, whether in uniform or not.
The Influence of the All-Volunteer Force
How should we think about these developments in American war fiction in light of the shift to an all-volunteer force? Can we say something about why there have been these underlying changes to authorship, content, and form?
To start with authorship, something has happened within the field of literary production that has led to more published war novels written by authors with no personal experience in the wars. Perhaps publishers—the ultimate gatekeepers of which works enter the literary landscape—no longer believe that war novels require the easy stamp of authenticity that comes with a veteran’s voice, or that the distinction between a veteran and non-veteran author does not matter much for marketability. This is unsatisfying, but it is nonetheless an indirect way to gauge how publishers think about what signals a reader is looking for from the genre.
I could also imagine an argument suggesting that this changing cultural authority comes from deteriorating civil-military relations. If we look at the current civil-military relationship and conclude that it has drifted to a point of non-recognition, one could argue that civilians writing war novels represents a form of narrative appropriation. In other words, non-veterans are so disconnected from the military that they have no problem poaching their stories to form their own novels, hoping and expecting that readers are too ignorant to know the difference.
Now, I don’t buy this argument, but it is still one that you could make. A more plausible explanation for me is that the non-veterans who are writing war novels—at a time within the conflict’s history that comes far earlier than with previous wars—are simply tryingto close the gap. Authors see these wars as a subject begging for literary investigation. To borrow Bobbie Ann Mason’s words, perhaps modern writers have embraced the idea that these wars are “every American’s subject.” And while the resulting stack of novels is a mixed bag of cynical targets, with some more skeptical of the military than others, each work nonetheless contributes to a broader understanding of these conflicts and their consequences.
As for the content and form of American war fiction, the all-volunteer force has led to a sharper contrast between those who choose to serve and those who do not, and nowhere is this contrast more evident than when soldiers return home from overseas. From a literary perspective, writers may find that the drama and conflict are more compelling if set within American society rather than the well-trodden combat zone. Many of these novels focus on the so-called “invisible wounds of war,” also known as moral injury, a theme that focuses on war’s psychological, rather than physical, toll by showing characters who struggle to deal with the consequences of what they saw and did. While this has always been an aspect of war, moral injury has become a staple of contemporary war fiction, perhaps stemming from the psychological tension between having volunteered to serve and the reality of that service.
Another recurring theme in these novels is how volunteering to serve removes the soldier’s claim to moral authority. They are willing participants, even if, as individuals, they don’t always support the war. This stands in stark contrast to Vietnam War fiction, which tends to put its characters in circumstances beyond their control. Sure, they make choices, but these choices occur within a context that removed their ability to choose whether or not they even wanted to participate.
Finally, the nature of the all-volunteer force has led many authors to approach the conflicts with a broader perspective. Writing a novel about Iraq or Afghanistan means offering an object of collective memory to a readership that is mostly disconnected from the conduct and consequences of the conflicts. This appears to induce a responsibility to communicate a more complete view of the wars, with more moral complexity and a wider range of voices than in the past when war was a shared cultural experience throughout American society. Although the works that comprise the contemporary American war fiction genre retain a degree of similarity with their literary predecessors of the last century, their richness and value lie in the diversity of voices and perspectives found within their pages—perhaps the only silver lining to come from the conflicts that have come to be known sardonically as the Forever Wars.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. 2005 . In Country, 20th anniversary edition. New York: Harper Perennial Press.
Image: Infantry Soldiers by Roger Blum, U.S. Army Combat Artists Team I, Vietnam, 1966. Source: U. S. Army Center of Military History, Vietnam Combat Artists Program.
About the Author
David Eisler is a PhD candidate at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. His doctoral dissertation focuses on the relationship between civil-military relations and contemporary American war fiction. Prior to beginning his PhD, David was a research analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses near Washington, DC. He also served five years on active duty in the United States Army, earning the rank of captain and completing overseas tours in Germany, Iraq, and Afghanistan. David received a BA in astrophysics from Cornell University in 2007 and an MA in international affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2014.