By Roxana Robinson
Sarah Crichton Books, 2013
Conrad Farrell, the protagonist of Roxana Robinson’s new antiwar novel Sparta, is not a typical soldier: a classics major and a graduate of Williams College, he more closely resembles the World War One officers profiled in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, a masterpiece on disillusionment. Fussell argues that the crucial experience of that war was disenchantment so profound as to engender a bitter sense of irony in combatants, especially the educated men who volunteered to save a nation’s honor and arrived at the front to find mud, mustard gas, and no place at all for the broad, simple, manly virtues espoused by war propaganda. Sparta tells one such soldier’s 21st-century homecoming story, a story as familiar and important as The Odyssey, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Things They Carried and yet one refashioned to account for the specific challenges and horrors of the Iraq war. The novel takes its name from both the ancient Greek city state and a base in Iraq. Throughout the book, Robinson explores the gap between the idea of Sparta and the experience of modern war. She exhorts us to sympathize with the plight of soldiers suffering from PTSD and shames us into recognition of how inadequate our response has been.
The novel opens with Conrad’s return home after several years as an active duty Marine officer. He sits next to an enlisted man and, as the plane descends, his panic rises. The difference between the placid, hopeful enlisted man, just grateful to be heading home, and the damaged and anxious officer is a poignant reminder of the unpredictability of trauma. As the young soldiers embrace their parents and girlfriends, Conrad hangs back, anxious: “he wasn’t the person they were expecting to meet. He felt an obligation to be the person they’d known.”
Pushing out of the turnstile at Bleecker, he saw that the man ahead of him was Middle Eastern. He wondered for a second time if the man he was seeing was Iraqi—he looked it…. He wanted to turn to the man and ask, in his faltering Arabic, if he was from Iraq. He wanted to tell him that he, Conrad, had roots there.
But the roots Conrad senses he has in Iraq are shallow. His Arabic is poor; he built no relationships; he watched children die at a checkpoint and has found the lifeless bodies of other children in their beds after a raid; he killed Iraqis, some combatants and some innocents. He describes Haditha to his parents, its river, its bridges, and they ask if he liked the town. His reaction to their naive question, born out of Peace Corps work and tourism, is immediate and unforgiving: How can you like a town full of people trying to kill you?
Conrad Farrell joins the Marines in the spring of 2001, months before the attack of September 11th. He joins because he wants a purpose. When he learns from the Times that “there were no WMDs. There never had been,” the news is not so much a shock as just another of the many blows, too painful to feel: “Conrad wasn’t ready to think about this.” Admiring both the Iliad and the values of Sparta, he overlooks the fact that ancient Sparta failed because all its energies went to making war. Ultimately, there was no city, no civilization, only fighting.
Mistaking Sparta’s military success for a civilization, mistaking soldiering for manhood: these are a rather large intellectual blunders, but common ones. We see them in Mrs. Dalloway, another antiwar novel by a feminist and pacifist. There, Virginia Woolf writes that her shell-shocked soldier, Septimus, “was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.” And Woolf, like Robinson, knows the truth of Wilfred Owen’s bitter unmasking of Horace’s Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (it is sweet and right to die for one’s country) as “that old lie.”
But it’s a lie Conrad is drawn to as surely as Odysseus is drawn to the sirens’ song. Any quick check on the web for information about Owen can help you see why: on webpage after webpage, the handsome young soldier’s image stands alongside his poems, romanticizing his hatred of war as surely as we romanticize any martyr. The challenge faced by those of us who share Woolf and Robinson’s hatred of war continues to be one of channeling that wonderful — and violent — energy of youth into something other than war. In a 1940 essay, Woolf wrote “We must help the young Englishmen to root out from themselves the love of medals and decorations. We must create more honourable activities for those who try to conquer in themselves their fighting instinct, their subconscious Hitlerism. We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun.”
And so, how do we compensate the man for the loss of his gun? How, if we want to work for peace, can we help the young man channel his innate violence and energy in ways that benefit us all? A great strength of Sparta is how it captures the passion of a young person eager to make a difference in the world. My own college students mostly seem to look at the future with a narrow gaze, hoping college will launch them toward the career they seek. However, there are always a few whose eyes shine with a passionate ambition to do more, to make a difference, to be something. The process by which these driven young people, alight with energy, find their purpose is one of the most exciting, perilous, and unpredictable experiences in their education: will they choose wisely? Sparta explores the sad consequences of an unfortunate choice. While Conrad may not regret his time in the war, Robinson’s careful delineation of his character before, during, and after his service makes us regretful on his behalf. What might he had become had he made a different choice? When Conrad comes back from war, anxious and damaged, he thinks back to his initial decision to join the Marines:
He remembered going downstairs that morning, to tell his parents he was joining the Corps. He remembered their alarm and his excitement. The more concern they showed, the more elation he felt. He’d thought he’d made a brilliant maneuver. He’d believed that he’d outsmarted the system, that he was about to enter the adult world through a secret door.
Here, mixed up with all those noble desires to do more is a deep fear of the transition into adulthood, a transition Conrad thinks he will outsmart by a simple maneuver. Throughout the novel, Robinson shows us Conrad’s fatal error: becoming a soldier is not the same as becoming an adult. In fact, in becoming a solider, Conrad has retarded his own passage toward adulthood, training himself to follow orders and give commands where his peers in the civilian world are practicing the messier arts of ordinary decision making, compromise, and error.
But Sparta‘s greatest strength is Robinson’s dramatization of the terrible consequences of that decision. In scene after scene, we see Conrad in a civilian setting, fighting to tamp down reactions of panic, anxiety, and rage. These reactions, appropriate in a street fight in Iraq, have suddenly become crazy, unacceptable in his new life. For almost the entire book, we are close observers of Conrad’s own emotions, of the overwhelming efforts he expends to appear fine to his concerned family. Robinson writes: “He didn’t like being asked, though he didn’t like not being asked. He didn’t like scrutiny, though he also didn’t like invisibility. Okay, he was a dick. He was working on it.” In this moment of late-adolescent self-knowledge, both funny and true, Robinson helps us sympathize with Conrad’s painful struggle. Elsewhere, he tries to readjust to life without the structure of the military:
he couldn’t see where he was going. It was like heading toward a dam. He couldn’t see past it, over the edge. All he could see was air, though he knew about the drop. He was waiting for something to click into place. In the military you had orders, and a task. Now what he had to do was keep moving. Without orders or a task.
It can take a soldier up to a year after active duty to decrease his reaction time and stress levels from the state of high alert of street combat. One thinks of Mrs. Dalloway’s Septimus Smith, standing with his wife on a London street in 1923, terrified by the sound of a backfiring car: five years after fighting ceased, a sudden, sharp sound can send him back to the battlefield. In one harrowing scene in Sparta, Conrad’s mother sits in the passenger seat, trapped and terrified, during an episode of his road rage. But mostly, Conrad manages to keep his terrors to himself, suffering from the training in self-reliance and strength that had served him well as an officer. In a recent seminar on welcoming soldiers into the college classroom, I learned not to make sharp, sudden noises and to permit veterans to sit with their backs to the wall at all times. I learned, too, that the Veteran’s Administration will counsel soldiers to take quantitative classes, where answers are right or wrong, early on, saving the nuance—and possible argument—of classes in English, History, and Political Science for when they are better accommodated to civilian life. Robinson, too, has learned these lessons, as we see in when Conrad surveys of the room in which he will take a test for admission to graduate school:
The testing area was bland and modern, a beige warren of three-sided cubicles…It was a bad tactical position: facing inward, exposed behind. He wasn’t going to think about that…. Conrad half listened. He could feel the headache, small, heavy, poised.
Toward the beginning of the novel, a few interpolated essays on the war and military culture impede the progress of the story. In these paragraphs, Robinson explains “to understand what had happened in Haditha, you first had to understand what had happened in Fallujah” and her understanding — particularly sympathetic to the Iraqi people, noting when the Army moved in “without consultation,” establishing observation posts that “enabled Army soldiers to look down into the private gardens, where Muslim women walked about freely” — clarifies the book’s anti-war stance. Nonetheless, they made me impatient until I realized, to my shame, that I had read Robinson’s summaries more carefully than I had read many newspaper articles over the past decade. She retells the story well and future generations will be especially indebted to her for her careful explanation. Nonetheless, I was glad when those essayistic moments abated and the story became the focus. And it’s really Conrad’s story. His patient girlfriend and his loving sister, both glossy haired, blur together at times: Robinson did not spend as much energy distinguishing them, or Conrad’s comrades, whom we only know in flashback, from each other.
The energy here, and the drama of the book, is all about the tension of inhabiting a damaged mind as it attempts to right itself, through discipline, through rage, through alcohol, through family, and through therapy. The ups and downs of that long and harrowing journey home make Sparta a riveting and important contribution to the literature of the Iraq War and to anti-war literature in general.
Anne Fernald teaches modernist literature at Fordham University and is the editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. She can be found blogging at Fernham.