On Mallory Square in Key West, Florida, tourists slurp sugary rum drinks through curvy straws and snap photographs of the sunset. Circus performers walk on stilts, swallow swords, and juggle flames. Among the chaos, a man cradles a guitar like a newborn in his shaky hands, and belts out the lyrics to "The Star Spangled Banner." Men with gold watches pitch him the occasional dollar, but no one spares a second to notice the crossed rifles painted on his pale skin, the Purple Heart pinned to the collar of his white shirt, or the scar beneath his right eye from the bullet that buzzed him as he slithered snail-like through the lush vegetation and mountains of Afghanistan. And no one notices the track marks radiating up his too-skinny arms or the roar of his unfed belly.
His name is Staff Sergeant Matthew Graham, and he’s a hero. When I treated Graham to a cup of coffee last August, he treated me to his life story. Graham spent two years in Afghanistan—where he witnessed three of his friends killed in the line of duty—but for him, the real battle started after he came home. Graham had a difficult time expressing his feelings to his family and friends.
Screenwriters and directors are seducing film buffs and triggering political debates with their glamorized portrayals of the War on Terror and elite military units. Zero Dark Thirty and Seal Team Six are detailed accounts of the events that led to the discovery and death of Osama bin Laden. Both films are journalistic in their approach in that they rely heavily on facts and current political issues, generating controversy with their depictions of CIA torture tactics. Consequently, we are never able to forge any real emotional connection to the characters. Similarly, American Sniper is a biographical account of the most lethal sniper in American history. The film celebrates the heroics of Chris Kyle, an elite Navy Seal Sniper, and fails to capture what life is actually like in the trenches. Most Infantrymen, whether patrolling the streets of Baghdad or humping through the ever-changing terrain of Kandahar, had a very different military experience than the members of Seal Team Six and Chris Kyle. Their stories aren’t as action-packed or glamorous, but we need to hear them, and script writing may not do them justice.
Movies, though visually stimulating, are limited in terms of time constraints and having to tell a story primarily through dialogue. Novels, on the other hand, can provide unlimited space for descriptions and insight into a character’s mind. In the past, wars have provided writers with inspiration for grand works. Great literature was produced in the wake of both World Wars and Vietnam: All Quiet On The Western Front, The Things They Carried, A Farewell to Arms, and Slaughterhouse-Five. These works are still used worldwide to educate people about battle and the treacherous conditions soldiers experience while deployed. These novels don’t center on the achievements of the military’s elite fighting squads. Rather, they focus on the common man, examine war’s effect on society as a whole, and bring to light the stresses that remain in a soldier’s mind long after his body is out of harm’s way. Though powerful contemporary war novels may exist, they have yet to pierce the public consciousness in the way of those classics -- or Hollywood's versions.