Hollywood and President Bush disagree about most things, but when it comes to war, they're on the same page in one crucial respect. They both think war is susceptible to narrative treatment, that you can tell a coherent story about it. Sure, the story is different--most in Hollywood prefer Full Metal Jacket, while Bush has been auditioning for Top Gun II--but both sides firmly believe in beginning, middle, and end, with a juicy moral on top.
The most provocative notion embedded in We Pierce, Andrew Huebner's new novel about the first Gulf War, is that war tends to defy narrative, that the experiences surrounding it are so unconnected and mysterious that honest soldiers resort to clichés when asked to explain what it all means.
If that sounds like a sly dig at Huebner's storytelling abilities, it's not. The well-conceived plot of We Pierce follows two brothers from a troubled family as the war spins them in very different directions. Sam stays home, goes to peace protests, and tries to become a writer. Smith climbs into the gunner's seat of an M1 Abrams and prepares to invade Kuwait. Things go awry. Sam becomes a smack addict. Smith becomes--what? A hero? A killer? Both? When events reunite the soldier and the peace protester, they struggle to understand each other.
This isn't virgin territory, of course. Readers looking for a vividly realistic take on America's first adventure in Iraq got it in Jarhead, Anthony Swofford's recent memoir of life as a Marine Corps sniper. For entertaining but disturbing fiction about the same war, there was Dear Mr. President, Gabe Hudson's collection of surreal short fiction.
We Pierce falls somewhere between those two. It doesn't have the verisimilitude of Jarhead, perhaps because Andrew Huebner was not in the war, though his brother was. And it doesn't match the fictional achievements of Dear Mr. President, in part because Huebner's writing is too uneven, alternating simple clarity with sentences like this: "The soldiers stood and stared as pilgrims at a forethought of apocalypse flashing before their eyes." But We Pierce is worth the read. Most of all, Huebner succeeds at conveying the anguish and uncertainty of men trying to cope with the mysteries of war, with puzzles that linger long after the fighting is over.