- Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier's Experience in Iraq
Stacey Peebles' book on the literatures of the Persian Gulf War and Iraq War situates itself amid the growing body of scholarship on contemporary American war narratives. It is a timely subject, indeed, in both academic and geopolitical terms. In the fall of 2009, PMLA published a special issue on War, and chapter one of Welcome to the Suck first appeared as an article in that issue. Attention is being paid (to paraphrase Willy Loman's faithful wife, Linda) to veterans who are writing about their wartime experiences in Iraq. The need for the academy and the American public at large to acknowledge these veterans and their writing constitutes the ethical imperative that drives Peebles' work. Her sense of moral responsibility frames the book: "Luckily, many soldiers haven't kept that hurt locker closed indefinitely, and open it to write or otherwise tell their stories.... These stories are thrilling, painful, lovely, horrific, and intimate. It benefits all of us if, when the locker opens and the voices begin, we listen" (22). The final words of the book's conclusion strike a similar note; she states that war "matters, and soldiers' stories tell us why and how. Then and now, we have to listen" (174). Peebles succeeds in advancing the work scholars have been doing over the last several years in listening to the stories that soldiers and marines have been telling—not only in the forms of prose and poetry but also in film—about their combat experiences.
Peebles' thesis is broad, and this proves to be a rhetorical two-edged sword. She articulates her project as follows: "In this book, I examine a selection of contemporary war stories from the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War.... I show how these newest stories have a new twist, even as they address familiar, even ancient subjects" (21). The breadth of her argument allows her the flexibility to consider multiple points of interest that fall under the umbrella of war narrative. Chapters vary considerably in subject matter, ranging from sexuality and violence to gender and performance to the cinematic representation of trauma. The drawback is the vagueness of asserting that new war writing features "a new twist"; it is also not entirely clear what the rhetorical pay-off is for proving that contemporary war [End Page 240] literature is both new and familiar. The argument surrenders a degree of focus and consistency from chapter to chapter in exchange for greater freedom of exploration. To her credit, Peebles points out that one element which makes contemporary war narratives new is the role of social media in the genesis and distribution of those narratives, a point she pursues in her analysis of Colby Buzzell's memoir My War. While the question regarding social media is not sustained evenly from chapter to chapter, Peebles is right to address it as a necessary new ingredient in our understanding of twenty-first-century war stories.
Chapter one examines the convergence of sex and violence in Anthony Swofford's memoir Jarhead and the performative construction of the self in Buzzell's My War. While Peebles' analysis of each text is insightful, the two sections of the chapter do not communicate with each other effectively, and as a result this segment of the book feels like two miniature chapters welded together. I must note that Peebles mistakenly refers to Anthony Swofford as a marine infantryman (1, 24), when he was in fact a scout-sniper, which is a specialized vocation in the Marine Corps. This is no insignificant distinction for Swofford, who explicitly differentiates between the elite class of snipers and the "common" grunts of the infantry.
The second chapter presents a unified analytical whole insofar as it explores the performance of masculinity in three memoirs: Joel Turnipseed's Baghdad Express, Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away, and Kayla Williams' Love My Rifle More than You. Peebles argues convincingly that performance is the common denominator among the different versions of male...