Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Quiet Outrage of War: Sparta by Roxana Robinson

Conrad Farrell comes home from the war in Iraq, skin unbroken and all limbs still attached...and yet he is a damaged man, a wounded warrior struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder--like so many (too many) of our returning veterans.  PTSD is at the heart of Roxana Robinson's riveting new novel Sparta which describes the condition in terms I've never before seen on the page.  Precise as a psychological case history, the book charts the painful journey of Conrad from gung-ho boy to disillusioned warrior to broken man.

Conrad comes from a family that's "bookish and liberal, not martial and authoritarian," with a mother and father who can't understand why he'd want to take up arms in defense of his country.  Conrad, a classics major in college, is drawn to the stories of the ancient world--particularly Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, and the Iliad.  "I want to do something big," he tells his family when announcing his decision to join the Marines.  "I want to do something that has consequences."

Little does he know, he'll be the one on the receiving end of those consequences.

As the novel opens, we see Conrad on a flight out of the combat zone, returning to an uncertain future with his family and his girlfriend.  How will he live life without the comforting structure of the military?  Where will he go, what will he do?  Robinson writes: "He couldn't think how to move on; it seemed like a cliff that he was approaching.  Beyond was a dark drop.  He didn't want to remember what lay behind him in Iraq."

But of course he can't not think about what happened to him over there in the desert.  He's haunted by a series of recurring images: blood on a wall, a young girl on a bed, one of his soldiers whispering from the front seat of a humvee in a throaty death rattle.

Just as Robinson did in her previous novels Cost and Sweetwater, Sparta is unapologetic in the way it gets its point across: we must always remember the human cost of the decision to enter war.  No matter where you fall in the spectrum between hawk and dove, Robinson's novel is powerfully affecting and takes its place on the shelf of essential war literature.

I was privileged to interview Roxana recently as part of The Authors Guild program Booktalk Nation.  In the course of our conversation, I brought up the fact that Roxana's great-great-great aunt was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of what is perhaps the greatest activist novel in the history American literature.  "Yes," Robinson said, "when she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, she was voicing her outrage."

Sparta is similarly full of outrage--at a costly war, at civilians' ignorance of military sacrifice, at a flawed Veterans Administration.  But it is a quieter book than Uncle Tom's Cabin, its punches land with fists wrapped in language that borders on the poetic.  Just as Aunt Harriet did with slavery, Robinson describes the problem of 21st-century war with a poignancy that insists we pay attention.

Here, for instance, she writes about the moral conflict all warriors must face:
Humans have a powerful and innate resistance to killing other humans. Something in the heart curdles at the prospect. The sound of screams, the sight of blood, the evidence of pain: all arouse an urgent need to quit. The human recognizes itself in the other. Within the military, this deep empathetic response causes profound problems. To be effective soldiers, men must be persuaded to kill other men. They must be persuaded to give up their recognition of another man's humanity.
This echoes what Karl Marlantes wrote in his masterpiece of war literature, What It Is Like to Go to War: "You can’t be a warrior and not be deeply involved with suffering and responsibility.  You’re causing a lot of it.  You ought to know why you’re doing it.  Warriors must touch their souls because their job involves killing people."

What Conrad does and what he sees in Iraq will stay with him forever, like sand clinging to the skin, a ghost that cannot be exorcised.  Similarly, there are passages in Sparta that will linger with the reader--like this one:
      That June, in Ramadi, insurgents started sending rockets and mortars onto the base. The perimeter fence kept them at a distance, so they couldn't see where they were sending them. They just lobbed them over at random. Sometimes the mortars missed everyone and everything, exploding harmlessly, and sometimes they were duds and didn't explode at all, and sometimes they took someone's leg off, like Kuchnik, who was in their sister platoon and was on his way over to the mess hall with his buddy, Colbert.
      Halfway there, Kuchnik remembered a letter he wanted to mail to his girlfriend. He went back for it, and Colbert went on ahead. Kuchnik got the letter and started back to the mess hall and was nearly there when the rocket landed. It didn't hit him, though, it landed right beside him. It hit a utility pole, and the impact detonated the rocket's hot-metal penetrator. White-hot metal shards pierced Kuchnik's thigh, severing the femoral artery. Kuchnik lay in the sand outside the mess hall, screaming and bleeding out, still holding the letter. Doc Whitman came running, but he was on his way to the shower and was wearing only his PT shorts, and he didn't have a tourniquet.
      They finally got Kuchnik tourniqueted and medevaced out to Landstuhl, in Germany, where the trauma hospital was. But by then he'd lost a lot of blood, and even though they got him stabilized on the flight over, two days after he got to Frankfurt, he died of organ failure.
      He was twenty feet from the door of the mess hall, which had sandbags around it to protect it from blasts. Colbert had already gone inside and was standing in line. Afterward it was impossible to get all the blood out from the sand, and for weeks after, going in and out of the mess hall you walked over a dim stain on the ground from Kuchnik. At the beginning, when he was still alive, you thought of it as blood, but after he died, you thought of it as Kuchnik.
I've read that passage four different times, always marveling at the way Robinson tells the story, layering the details until the reader reaches that final devastating line.

Robinson also describes Conrad's tour through the hellish labyrinth of PTSD in piercing, beautiful terms.  While writing the book, she interviewed several veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, gently prying them open until their stories spilled out (like the one about Kuchnik, I'm guessing).  Though she's a stranger to the military community (a community that is often gated and locked to outsiders) and has no history of military service in her immediate family, Robinson perfectly captures the anguish and frustration of one soldier's inability to shake the war from his system:
The thing was that he couldn't see where he was going. It was like heading toward a dam. He couldn't see past it, over the edge. All he could see was air, though he knew about the drop. He was waiting for something to click into place. In the military you had orders, and a task. Now what he had to do was keep moving. Without orders or a task.
That's how Conrad feels in the early pages of the novel.  It only gets worse for him as time goes on and he's squeezed tighter and tighter into an inescapable corner.

When I asked Roxana during our Booktalk Nation chat what she thought could be done to help soldiers with PTSD, she paused and softly said, "I don't know."  Granted, I was putting her on the spot, but her answer reflects a collective frustration with this unseen affliction, this kingdom of demons which science is still trying to map.  A cure--or, at the very least, a relief--may be on the horizon, but it is approaching too slowly, given the increasing rate of soldiers returning from war, broken in body and spirit.  Near the end of Sparta, Conrad takes shaky, tentative steps toward recovery:
It was too much to expect the end of this, but he hoped for a lessening. He hoped for a kind of hope. He wouldn't use large words like redemption, or grace. He was hoping for something humbler, something small and private.
Robinson's message is clear as a bell: wounded warriors need to take these small steps toward recovery and we, as supporters, as caregivers, as a nation which complicitly sent them off to war, need to walk patiently beside them.  All we can do is hope for hope.

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