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Returning Veterans and Crime Fiction

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

I just started reading a new novel whose protagonist is a returning Iraq-Afghan veteran. Like most fictional vets, he suffers flashbacks and nightsweats; as the reader, I don’t yet know if he will also suffer PTSD and go off the rails, although it’s a good bet.

I do know that the returning vet has become a stock figure in contemporary crime fiction, and I wonder why. Although I have several friends and many relatives who are vets, I don’t personally know any crime writers who are Iraq-Afghanistan war veterans. Robert Parker served in the Korean war, and early on, Spenser mentions serving in that war. Tony Hillerman was decorated in World War II. A number of Vietnam vets have written thrillers as well as general fiction (Dan Guenther, Dale Dye, Stephen Coonts and Nelson DeMille, among others). Vietnam, Korea, World War II–not wars you wanted to see close up and personal, any more than are Iraq and Afghanistan, but many Americans did see those wars because of a pesky little thing called The Draft.

Crime writers today are like the rest of the country: we didn’t have to go to war, so we didn’t go. Less than one percent of Americans have served in the military during the Iraq-Afghan wars. Ten times that fraction served in World War II and Korea; five times that fraction served in Vietnam. All of us are therefore more likely to know a veteran from a draft-era war than we are now.

So why is it that protagonists in contemporary crime fiction far outnumber the fraction of the population in general who went to war? Is it a way of assuaging guilt? Or a vicarious machismo? Or because veterans are now exotic? Is this a different version of a yellow ribbon? We put one on our cars and then we don’t have to think about what is really going on in the lives of our children 8000 miles away? We write about a vet so we don’t have to think about the sacrifices real people are making in our collective name?

There are no sacred cows for writers; you can write about anything and anyone. But the returning vet is a a two-dimensional cliché in most of the contemporary thrillers I see: he/she is inured to death, is a killing machine, is an emotional time bomb.

It’s hard for the vet, it’s hard for the families to resume life after years of separation. The father of my best friend in high school was a naval commander. He was at sea for long periods and my friend’s mom ran the house, made repairs, paid the bills. When Commander MacKenzie came home he expected to be in command, to take over the conventional male duties of the Madmen era. My friend, her sister and her mom always had many weeks of discomfort on the commander’s return; it was hard on the marriage to have him gone and hard to have him home.  I’d like to see those issues written about real people, not cardboard cutouts.

If all you need is a character who’s a soulless killing machine, don’t look at vets: we’ve got a huge collection of civilians to choose from.

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