Lea Carpenter's "Eleven Days"

Eleven Days BY Lea Carpenter. Knopf. Hardcover, 288 pages. $24.
The cover of Eleven Days

Eleven Days wants to be a fable, or a myth: in her debut novel about a Navy SEAL and his mother, Lea Carpenter presents a handful of stylized, archetypical figures marching toward their fated ends. As with another recent American fable about the Terror Decade, Zero Dark Thirty, the complicated, messy reality of ten years of American military adventurism overseas is eschewed in favor of something more elemental and operatic.

The novel tells the story of Sara, a middle-class, hard working single mom, and her son Jason, a commando who goes MIA during an important mission in Afghanistan. Jason is saintly, almost a demigod. Deeply devoted to his mother, he is athletic, intelligent, attractive, gentle, loyal, calm under pressure, passionate yet thoughtful, highly literary, and idealistic. After 9/11, he gives up his chance at Harvard to go to Annapolis and become a SEAL. Chapters in which Sara recalls her son’s youth and SEAL training alternate with chapters from Jason’s point of view, in which he remembers the same. Sara struggles with raising her boy alone, both before and after his absentee father’s supposed death; Jason tries to make sense of his fatherlessness as he charts his way through the SEALs. The two narrative strands lead inexorably to the mission during which Jason disappears (an ersatz version of the bin Laden raid), and then to Bagram, Afghanistan, where Sara is taken to see Jason’s corpse.

Readers looking for a realistic portrayal of war will not find it here. We get glimpses of Jason’s training, his final mission, and a few brief reminiscences: one of his friends is shot, the SEALs find mutilated bodies, Jason rescues a baby. In lieu of detail, what the novel offers is an impressionistic and sometimes dreamlike story of sacrifice, set in a world where America’s hunter-killer teams are valorized as knights errant, “quiet professionals” doing the dirty work of empire. Throughout Eleven Days, Carpenter mythologizes the SEALs, writing about them with an open-hearted reverence that accepts them at their very best and repeats their propaganda and legends as holy writ. Again and again, she testifies to the SEALs’ humility, professionalism, and nobility. These men don’t think of themselves as heroes, she tells us, they just think of the mission. At one point, she writes: “This was not a profession that gave rise to many memoirs.”

In fact, 2012 and 2013 have been bumper years for SEAL memoirs. In addition to Matt Bissonette’s No Easy Day and Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, both New York Times bestsellers, and Jason Redman’s forthcoming The Trident: The Forging and Reforging of a Navy SEAL Leader, we can count Mark Donald’s Battle Ready: Memoir of a SEAL Warrior Medic, Marcus Luttrell’s Service: A Navy SEAL at War, Rorke Denver’s Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior, Brandon Webb’s The Red Circle: My Life in the Navy SEAL Sniper Corps and How I Trained America's Deadliest Marksmen, Chad Williams’s SEAL of God, and Eric Greitens’s The Warrior's Heart: Becoming a Man of Compassion and Courage, among others, including what might be the most provocative SEAL memoir for some time, Kristen Beck’s Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming Out Transgender.

These books, it turns out, are part of a robust tradition of SEAL memoirs, a subgenre of the older commando hagiography canon. The classic SEAL memoir, breaking the field open in 1992, was Richard Marcinko’s Rogue Warrior. Many others followed, including First SEAL, by Ray Boehm, one of the SEALs’ founders, and When I Was a Young Man , by former Senator and presidential hopeful Bob Kerrey, in which Kerrey offers his version of the Thanh Phong massacre—that night in 1969 when he and his SEALs, following “standard operating procedure,” slaughtered more than a dozen women and children.

Kerrey didn’t talk about Thanh Phong publicly for more than three decades, and if the SEALs developed a reputation as “quiet professionals” in the years following Vietnam, that fact probably had more to do with what they did there than it did with any stoic nobility. The memory of American atrocities in Southeast Asia, ethical questions about assassination squads and covert operations, the costs of PTSD and moral corruption, and the bitterness and malaise of that era cast a pall over the legends of America’s “elite warriors.”

The violence and degradation of Vietnam provoked dark, critical novels such as Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green, Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, and Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country. More than four decades later, the pall of Vietnam seems to have lifted, and America’s long, nasty “war on terror” has given rise to the worship of macho übermenschen like the kill team that assassinated Osama bin Laden; Chris Kyle, “the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history”; Dillard Johnson, “one of the deadliest American soldiers of all time”; and now, Carpenter’s mythological Jason.

Eleven Days ends with Sara imagining visiting Arlington National Cemetery, where Jason is to be buried, knowing that “when she goes back this time it will be green, like a garden.” The myth Carpenter winds up telling is an old one: redemption by blood. Jason’s sacrifice rejuvenates the site of national mourning, prompting Arlington’s transition from winter to spring, and the novel’s elegiac closing words quote a scene from The Argonautica where the centaur Chiron blesses the return of legendary Jason and his Argonauts: “…and with his right hand he waved them on full oft, chanting the while as they went a returning free from sorrow.”

Some might wonder, is Carpenter really that earnest? Couldn’t her fable be working through an awareness of its own artifice, trying to give us some kind of distance on the last twelve years of war? I would like to think so, but it seems unlikely. For a Memorial Day blog post in 2011, she wrote: "Monuments and speeches are symbols, physical texts of remembrance. For the memory itself we need only soldiers willing fight [sic]. In doing so, they grant us the gift of something to memorialize.” Later, she interviewed Navy SEAL memoirist Eric Greitens under the title: “This Is Our Greatest Generation.”

Carpenter may have begun writing to memorialize, but by making SEALs into saints, she has scripted a fantasy. We do not make our history just as we please. If under the long shadow of Vietnam we’ve sometimes too easily taken our veterans as victims or criminals, the heroic nobility of Carpenter’s mythic Eleven Days no more provides a corrective than do the bragging SEAL memoirs it both mimics and elides. Our truth lies not in these extremes, but in the fine-grained complexities and contradictions such books leave out. The last thing we need, as citizens trying to understand Iraq, Afghanistan, and the “war on terror,” is another hollow fable.

Roy Scranton is editor of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War.