Wars, Warriors, and Writers

Bijay Kumar Rauniyar

Department of English, Tribhuwan University, Nepal

While the warriors win a war, they shame the humanity by their cruelty and inhumanity, and its ubiquitous repercussions.  American launched such war against Iraq saying that it possessed many destructive weapons.  Former British Premier Tony Blair told BBC (December 2009) that it would have been right even if Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction so long “[he] and his two sons [were] still in charge.”  Many justify recent US attack on Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hibernation.  I wonder what Mr. Blair and other influential leaders think about the remaining children of Laden and the possible moves of his successors.

Here I wish to explore a different perspective on Iraq war through Patricia McCormick’s fiction, Purple Heart (NY: Bazer + Bray (Harper Collins, 2009).  It seems to say that as President Obama grins at his peace medal (October 2009), the purple heart (medal) offered to mutilated or amputated teen and even minor US soldiers in Iraq War shames humanity.  “What they and the children of Iraq are experiencing is . . . a human issue. PURPLE HEART is a visceral and affecting portrait of their world.” (Bob Woodruff, ABC News).  Publishers Weekly finds McCormick “rais[ing] moral questions without judgment and will have readers examining not only this conflict but the nature of heroism and war.”

When Private Matt Duffy wakes up in an army hospital in Iraq, he’s honored with a Purple Heart. But he feels un-heroic and frequently visualizes a dog, 10-year Ali, and the alley where the boy was killed, and he himself was injured cerebrally.  Matt could see only the soles of his shoes much as the mother in the “Ballad of Birmingham” (Dudley Randall, 1914-2000) sees:

For when she heard the explosion, / Her eyes grew wet and wild. / She raced through the streets of Birmingham / Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick, / Then lifted out a shoe. / “O, here’s the shoe my baby wore, / But, baby, where are you?” (ll. 25-32)

Matt curses himself for the boy’s death but fails to judge the reality.  Finally, he returns to war with his all time squad—Justin, Wolf, and Charlene, and sees potential threats, and fears that he is not able to pull the trigger at the crucial moment.  In the war zone, what values most is loyalty, and even “[p]ain is good.  Better than the alternative” (3). The muezzin’s voice should be throttled with the muzzle.  But the mysterious smile of Ali as his frail body floated in the air keeps Matt in a fix till Justin tells the truth.  His diary also gives no clue.  The incident had “haunted them both”; it had “shaken them”; consequently, they had “nearly stopped being soldiers” (192).   But like good friends they had offered each other’s back.

McNally’s description of the suicide bomber or human bomb with a green backpack near the chai seller is equally catching.  He “looked me right in the eye.  Walked up to Wolf and asked for a smoke.  Then he did it.  Pulled the strap.  Blew himself sky high.… (194).  Matt thought about what Charlene had said when Ali stole his sunglasses.  That’s what happens when you try to make friends with these people.  [cf. earlier thoughts; could have unfriended] And he thought about what Wolf had said about being in Iraq.  We came over here to help these people and instead we’re killing them.  They were both right. (194)

The novel is set in Ward 12, Bed 37, Green Zone which happened to be Saddam Hussein’s palace of Sadr city where insurgency was at its peak.  There “Iraqi could cook a man alive” (78); and “[a]n Iraqi guy carrying chicken exploded and then forgot everything except the poultry.  Matt imagines the chicken feathers flying all over “cartoon-style” (80).  It was there that the soldiers struggled with their conscience over killing hajjis (pilgrims to Mecca Medina) but in normal they do not even kill a gnat (114).  Justin just said, “If you don’t kill the other guy, he’s going to kill you” (115).  So you kill out of self defence, out of revenge.  Iraqis even lit fire in the gutter to kill the US soldiers.  They put the civilians for military purpose (So Rules of Engagement) – if necessary for your self-defense (119).  Sergeant Benson said, “You are going to get shot at” (119).  Furthermore, “It’s going to come down to him or you.  Better him than you” (120) because “[y]ou look the same if you get killed by an enemy bullet or an American bullet” (121).  Brody narrates an event (120) in which a driver parks in their southern checkpoint with three kids in the rear, walks away towards a stall, and soon the car blows up.

The fiction is full of military and medical abbreviations like TBI (3) for “traumatic brain injury” (accompanied with cognitive problems); RPG (18) rocket propelled grenade; CFU (33) completely fucked up, and IED (35) improvised explosive device.  McCormick uses her journalistic expertise in reporting events with meticulous description like “the chatter of crickets” (134), which would “pipe up, relaying information back and forth to each other in an eerie, high-pitched frequency all their own” (135).  The dust “got into everything”; it “settled in between each strand of hair on your head”; it “got between your teeth.”  Then there was “the constant smell of burning garbage” followed by “the sickly stench of raw sewerage”; the heat “seared your throat when you took a deep breath.”

The tale is blended with game activities, keeping pets, and letters, goodies, and other home provisions.  It also provides hefty humor to relieve the war tension.  For example, soldiers recall pastime with celebrity game like David Spade vs. Richard Simmons and Snoop Dog vs. Flavor Fav (154).  They reminisce their school days with guys and gal Charlene, full of sex scenes like Justin describing Matt as a girl, smelling his butt (136).  Wolf jokes about Justin’s a-word-a-day Kundalini as his “mother’s favorite sexual position” (137).  Justin rebuts, “That’s what your girlfriend and I were doing last night!” (137).  They also fancy about celebs like Britney Spears.  Equally enlivening are onomatopoeic sounds pfffff (spitting tobacco), Rambo trilogy (movie) (150), “ching, ching, ching of rounds going by overhead” (182), and ping of a bullet “against the hood of the car” (182). 

On gender side, short and stunted, Charlene feels insulted to get an “easier” role.  Matt calls her Miss Congeniality; Francis calls her another species who drinks herbal PMS tea; but she herself feels musty, muscular, and brags that she can “bench-press more than half the guys in this platoon” (152).  She grudges being told nothing for just being a woman.  On Iraqi side, women in their abayas (veil) seem to Matt “strange, other-worldly,” “stepped out of a distant century” into modern metropolis of Iraq (163).  He also gets mad to listen to an Arabic love song (160) and shoots at a garage man to silence his noise from under a vehicle.  But his friends remind of having no intent hostilities against the civilians.  It was then that he felt a tug on his sleeve.  He spun around, his gun at the ready, to see a little shoddy girl.  “She didn’t say anything.  She didn’t even flinch at the gun barrel pointed just inches from her face.  She simply looked up at him, cupped her hand, and silently put it to her open mouth, as if she were eating an imaginary heel of bread” (160).

Matt, like the chocolate cream soldier of Shaw’s Arms and the Man, frequently softened in these moments.  He even found people surprisingly friendly, and wished to go home, see Caroline, mom, Lizzy, and have a cold beer at McDonald’s, but like US youths he’s split between his duty (to kill, my addition) and people.  McNally punished Matt (172) with cleaning the latrine graffiti.   McCormick seems to be a real sneaker (investigative journalist) into latrines and brings out their literature as a genre.  She dares bare brothels (as in Sold) and barrels with equal nonchalance.  The walls of the latrines were covered in graffiti—most of it black scribbling about Osama bin Laden, George Bush, about how hot it was in Iraq or about how bad it smelled in the latrines.  But Chuck Norris jokes relieve: “… a Chuck Norris toilet paper … wouldn’t take shit from anybody” (174). Or, “96% of all women lose their virginity to Chuck Norris” (175).  As Matt is scrubbing it off, Justin reaches him and jokes, “Chuck Norris doesn’t clean latrines” (175).  He was surprised to return to his old routine and find that Justin was at least talking to him.  Their conversation almost reveals the incident.  The last paragraph where Justin shoots a young insurgent and bullet moves inch-wise to pierce him re-creates the scene as that of Ali’s death.  Next we see the US soldiers patrolling the market on “a nice day—by Baghdad standards.  Only ninety-two degrees” (175).  There they meet a chai seller who offers it to them gratis and makes a surprising “secondary attack” (179).  But the structure of the novel rises into a crescendo of actions and reactions.   

McCormick’s language is equally peculiar.  She shows Matt “curled up…in a fetal position” (186) as soldiers condole for the death of two friends.  Similarly, she calls Ali a pest, a tagalong (187), constantly innocently following them. Besides, she uses fragmented sentences, comma splices, pun, colloquial, soldier slangs, and other linguistic features, and she makes her text a subaltern study in which a cocoon turns into pricking caterpillar or cactus.  However, her myopia surfaces in her disproportionate leaning towards American soldiers, and her tribute to some of them on the inside cover page of the novel while she disregards the US and Iraqi civilians, and latter’s freedom fighters.

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I agree


  • Posted on - 2011-06-02    by     Sabi sydney
  • Mr Rauniyar, through the review of such a powerful novel you have given a blow to those winners whose victory has ashamed our deep respect for humanity." while winners win a war ,they shame on humanity by their cruelty nd inhumanity",such a wonderful statement, it makes realization whoever the winner in a war,big looser is humanity and civilization.Neither American will win nor middle easterners will loose,in the name of peace nd control, we sheding blood of brotherhood and aborting new hopes of peaceful world Shooting kids like Ali with brutality .so, stop killing innocents ,peace will prevail itself,it will rewarded us with the smile in the face of humanity .let's revive human soul and fight for it, we will be a true warrior.
  • Posted on - 2011-05-31    by     Angel
  • Nice perspective. Unless we change ourselves we can't expect to have changed world. Hope this kind of literature enlighten all of us.