(reviewed by Andria Williams, Navy)
In the last few months, I’ve read a lot of war literature, mainly because people keep sending me books to review (if you are one of those people, thank you!). I’ll admit that literary fiction in general is what I love, and I never expected to read so much war lit, but when you run a blog called the Military Spouse Book Review and you are a glutton for free books, people just keep sending you stuff. In this instance I was glad, because if I hadn’t been sent a copy of Wynne’s War by Aaron Gwyn, I might have passed it over, and I would have missed a thrill ride of a novel.
Wynne’s War is a Western, but Aaron Gwyn is gutsy enough to have set it in the mountains of modern Afghanistan, making it a book about the recent war, too. I wondered how he’d dodge all the questions about authenticity and voice and appropriation that necessarily come up when one is writing about soldiers: he does this by giving the novel a whopper of a plot that frees him from some of the journalistic-and-moralistic tendencies of war writing, and allows the reader the enjoyment of good literature, with all the richness of story and character that it should contain.
Wynne’s War concerns itself with a young Army Ranger named Elijah Russell (a name that rings both messianic and plain ol’ country) who, in the heat of battle, rescues a beautiful appaloosa horse from a bullet-riddled public square. Nearly killed by the RPG fired at him, Russell recovers to learn that Army brass have noticed his little stunt (which handily showcased the riding skills he’d gained growing up on an Oklahoma ranch, grandson of a famous horse trainer) — thanks to the BBC journalist who recorded the whole thing from across the street. Russell is pulled from his unit to join a group of Green Berets in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border, where his new job will be to break a band of untrained horses so that the Green Berets can ride them on covert missions.
It’s a dream job for Russell, and the bonus is that he gets to bring his battle buddy Wheels along, and he meets a girl on the firebase — the somewhat damaged (but not inconveniently so) beauty Sara, a medic who’s trying to keep her own past suicide attempt under wraps.
Also a dream — or maybe a nightmare — is Russell’s larger-than-life platoon leader, the eponymous Captain Wynne. Wynne is a legend for having come back from being pronounced dead after a firefight to spit right in the attending medic’s face. He left a six-figure career on Wall Street to join the Army. Like Crocodile Dundee, he tames wild beasts using the power of his will. His men worship him. He is….. the most interesting man in the world!
Except that he really is. And as time goes on Russell realizes that Wynne might be an ascetic warrior-priest risking his life for a higher ideal, or he might be a mercenary leading his men to their deaths solely for personal gain. Don’t you want to read to find out?
Aaron Gwyn, author of Wynne’s War
Let me get down to a bit of the nitty-gritty. First off, at least so far as this sheltered Navy wife can tell, Gwyn nails the military details. He interviewed dozens of Rangers, Greenies, and other veterans for research, and, in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, hints that he undertook a sort of Philipp-Meyer-like, Method-Author brand of study: “I’m a big believer in the idea of sense-memory,” he explained, “and of physically experiencing as much as possible in order to accurately portray a profession — in the case of this novel, soldiering.” Gwyn’s obsessive penchant for detail gives you that all-important confidence in the storyteller, a nebulous quality less-confident writers would pay good money to attain. Very rarely, it gets to be a little much (did I really need to know that Russell’s issued clothing includes “Four pairs of North Face pants in… ‘dune beige.’ North Face fleece in gray and black. North Face thermal jackets. Long-sleeved T-shirts from REI”? I was starting to feel like I was going through some Lake Tahoe yuppie’s closet).
Such “TMI moments” are few and far-between, however, and overall the details are fantastic. The dialogue made me a believer, too; it’s colorful and gritty (during Wynne’s legendary near- death experience, he’s said to have been “circling the drain,” nearly “fucked the monkey,” and so on).
The Rangers who populate the story are interesting and strange and well-drawn:
Wheels had a dotted line tattooed around his neck, clavicle to clavicle, above which the crooked words CUT HERE had been inked in caps. He said he didn’t want his parents seeing him beheaded on Aljazeera, and Russell agreed it’d make for sorry programming.
“You’d shoot me, right?” Wheels asked. “If we got taken?”
“Might shoot you anyways,” Russell told him.
Ah, man-banter — that hallmark of soldier stories. And it works; you root for this buddy-cop pair, Russell and Wheels, up against, and shepherded by, the inscrutable Captain Wynne.
As protagonists go, Russell serves the same purpose as, say, Nick in The Great Gatsby or Marlow in Heart of Darkness — if Nick were, you know, a modern-day Army Ranger (he was a veteran!). Captain Wynne is as fascinating to him as Gatsby was to that novel’s narrator, though they have less of an emotional bond.
Russell’s the quiet heart of the novel, but he’s often just going along with its events. He is also, as Peter Molin smartly described Billy Lynn, “the kind of guy who always knows a little more or a little less than everybody else.” He’s an upstanding fellow from humble origins, doing his best, and when he’s not shooting “Talibs” or taming horses, he’s downright submissive. He isn’t sure what compelled him to rescue that appaloosa in the first place; he’s not sure what draws him to Sara; even during their one furtive sexual encounter he’s almost maddeningly passive, nearly paralyzed on a medical table while Sara startles him out of a dead opiate sleep. (If that isn’t a jock dream for you, I don’t know what is. Also: doctor-patient privilege?!)
I could talk about this book all day, and hopefully sometime soon I’ll find another person who’s read it so I can corner them and gently abuse them with my strong opinions. It made me want to write an essay on the idea of “children of adversity,” which is what Capt. Wynne claims all successful Special Forces members are; this is an idea I’ve come across dozens of times recently, from Billy Lynn to Christy Clothier’s recollection of what her drill sergeant shouted during Basic (“I know that you have been beaten, hurt, abused! Why else do girls join the military?”) Sweet Russell fits the “child of adversity” profile perfectly: father killed by a train (!) when he was a toddler; abandoned by a druggie mom he hasn’t seen since he was seven. The interesting twist is that possible-monk/madman Captain Wynne himself — high-school all-American, Princeton-educated double-major in religious studies and finance, hedge-fund manager — seems to be the lone character who is not a child of adversity. Of course, there could be things he’s not telling us.
War literature sometimes seems to get slightly bogged down in trying to answer the question: What was it like? (To which, unfortunately, the answer usually is, You can’t know what war is like unless you’ve been in it — probably true, but a slammed door for any author who hasn’t been in combat themselves.) True war-chronicle-writing remains the province of veterans, and this is as it should be — but fiction, novels, are fair game. Gwyn prods the assertion that you can only know what you’ve lived, and write what you know, as early as the novel’s opening quote from Cormac MacCarthy: “His father had said that no man who has not gone to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that he supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.”
Aaron Gwyn has, like most of us, not gone into war on horseback, or into war at all, but that doesn’t matter — he shows that it’s possible to bring a whole world to the reader, within a hair’s breadth of the real thing, not for the sole purpose of mimicry but for the higher purpose of art. Sure, we can’t understand war and we can’t understand horses, but who really understands life, either?
In the words of Captain Wynne: “And yet, here you sit.”
Gwyn, Aaron. Wynne’s War. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2014.