Welcome to the Suck takes its title from the catchphrase of Jarhead, Anthony Swofford's memoir of the 1990 Persian Gulf War. With sarcastic pride, this bit of Marine Corps slang is sometimes said to a new enlistee, meaning: whatever you think about war (and military life in general), you're about to learn that, in ways you can't yet imagine, it sucks. For the first time since Vietnam, veterans with wounds both physical and mental are coming home at a steady clip, transitioning into lives as parents, politicians, mechanics, and college students. Situating their stories will become increasingly important as we study American culture in the early twenty-first century.
This lucidly written study by Stacey Peebles takes a necessary first step in that analysis, focusing on the Iraq conflict. It is a quick read, organized into four chapters, with an introduction in which Peebles states her thesis: "what is most evident in these narratives is the soldier's desire to be truly 'in between,' to break down and transcend the cultural and social categories that have traditionally defined identity. Ultimately, however, that desire is thwarted. War, and contemporary American war in particular, enforces categorization even as it forces encounters across the boundaries of media, gender, nation, and the body" (2). That is, although service members may want to escape categories, and although joining the military means encountering people, places, and technologies that challenge assumptions, it is a way of life that enforces categories. This will not be news to readers with military backgrounds. In the academy we deem it moral and progressive to respect the choices of individuals who wish to transcend social categories. In combat, however, armies must concentrate primarily on executing jobs efficiently and professionally, not on preserving an individual's favored identity. If they are not subject to strict categories, clear boundaries, and tight rules of engagement, troops often put their lives and the lives of others in more danger. Considering war narratives as accounts of thwarted desire to transcend categories is an interesting place to begin, but the discussion cannot end there.
Fortunately, Welcome to the Suck also goes beyond that central thesis, presenting a well-considered cross-section of war narratives. Peebles writes, "The war story, as many writers, filmmakers, and journalists have realized, can now be told through a kaleidoscope of lenses" (48). In that vein Peebles not only includes a variety of media—film, memoir, blogs, and poetry—but she also sets up her [End Page 813] chapters in a manner that emphasizes the kaleidoscopic nature of our encounters with this literature. Fiction informs how we relate to nonfiction when she pairs the HBO documentary Alive Day Memories with the fictional film In the Valley of Elah. Imperial selfishness collides with a wish to inhabit the beauty of other cultures when she puts John Crawford's unabashedly racist and cynical memoir The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell in dialogue with the more culturally aware poetry collection Here, Bullet by Brian Turner—but, she observes, "neither attitude is an inoculation against suffering" (107). The list of pairings also includes memoirs by male combatants in dialogue with one by a female, as well as comparisons between accounts of the 1990 Gulf war with others centering on the 2003 invasion.
Peebles wisely emphasizes historical continuum in her readings. She frames the 1990 invasion as part of an ongoing American involvement with Iraq, and she points out how ancient combat texts by Homer, Thucydides, and Virgil fold into and influence today's war stories. Not only should scholars understand these narratives in the context of previous wars, she asserts, but the narrators themselves already do, drawing particularly heavily on Vietnam literature. She writes, "These soldiers are deeply engaged with the images and texts of soldiers who preceded them, though the agency that their engagement provides varies throughout their stories" (47). Statements like this point to the two main strengths of this book.
First, Peebles reminds readers that just as stories of old have informed how today's...