Christian Soldiers

To think about this strange and often darkly brilliant book, I pulled two other titles off my shelf that I haven’t looked at in a long time. The first was practical, a how-to guide: Frank and Ida Mae Hammond’s 1973 megaseller—“1,000,000+ copies in print!”—Pigs in the Parlor: A Practical Guide to Deliverance. Another word for deliverance is exorcism. This book tells you how to conduct a Protestant one.

So will Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp—but questions of method don’t matter so much to Percy. Her project, rather, is to try to inhabit the mind of a deeply troubled Afghanistan veteran who is either suffering from mental illness or engaged in profound spiritual warfare with a demon he calls “the Destroyer.” And this is where the other book from my home library comes in. In setting out to describe and perhaps to undergo some part of her subject’s supernatural and/or psychological trauma herself, Percy brought to mind Vincent Crapanzano’s classic 1980 ethnographic study Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan. “Tuhami,” writes Crapanzano, “was married to a capricious, vindictive she-demon, a camel-footed jinniyya, a spirit.” Crapanzano does not write that Tuhami believed himself to be married to a demon; he writes that he was. Who, after all, is Crapanzano—an outsider not just to Morocco but also to the supernatural realm in which Tuhami lives—to say? “What I take to be real,” he writes, “is my assumption.”

And who is Percy to say whether the demons of “Sergeant Caleb Daniels”—the central figure in Demon Camp—are real? Percy, a recent graduate of Iowa’s top-ranked nonfiction MFA program who then went on to Iowa’s fiction program, is an outsider to both the military subcultures that haunt Daniels after his discharge from the army and the Pentecostal community he hopes will deliver him from the demon he thinks followed him home from Afghanistan. The “story” of this remarkable book is largely Caleb’s. It’s a story, first, of his experience—of how a Chinook helicopter sent on a mission he was supposed to be on was shot down, killing eight of his fellow Special Forces Night Stalkers and eight Navy SEALs. It’s also an account of this story’s half-life in Caleb’s head—describing how he’d seen this terrible event in his dreams before it happened, and how it haunted him afterward. And, as it gets enveloped into the supernatural side of Caleb’s experience, it becomes still another tale, about the ghosts of his dead friends, about the demon he calls the Destroyer, and about the steady stream of visions he’s granted once he turns himself over to God rather than the devil.

Soldiers boarding a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan.
Soldiers boarding a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan.

Percy can’t follow Caleb to this last place—any more than she can be an army Night Stalker. She has no choice but to engage with much of what he tells her at face value. Much to her credit, she doesn’t pretend otherwise. This book belongs to Caleb, as well as to the ministry that for a while seems to cure him, and to a few other veterans searching for similar answers. But Demon Camp is laced with narrative vulnerability. Percy is frequently warned that a demon might take her over, too, that it might step across the gulf between subject and author. So, in a sense, it does. At “demon camp,” the Pentecostal retreat where Caleb is “delivered,” Percy cries into her pillow. When Caleb leads her through a scripted metaphorical dialogue about the experience of killing that requires her to say, “I get raped,” Percy plays along precisely because she doesn’t know if this is an implicit threat or merely the grotesque meanderings of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And when Caleb calls to tell her he’s received one of the revelations he describes as “a text message from God kinda thing” informing him that Percy needs to get rid of two bookcases, a table, and a bike because they’re contaminated by demons, that’s just what she does. “It’s not the specificity of Caleb’s demons that I believe,” she writes, “only that there’s something happening to my psychology.”

Does that sound like a dodge? It’s not. She’s an outsider being sucked in: “Right now, on CNN, there is a picture of three soldiers urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. The media keeps asking how this atrocity could happen. I no longer find myself asking that question.”

That sounds right, but sometimes I wished she would ask some other questions. I’ve put the name “Sergeant Caleb Daniels” in scare quotes above because I’m not sure if it’s his real name. “I’ve changed certain names and biographical details,” Percy tells us in her acknowledgments, but she doesn’t say which ones. She is coy with facts, sometimes careless (for instance, she relies for part of her narrative on former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s discredited memoir Lone Survivor). This can be frustrating, as when Percy tells us that Caleb’s prophetic dreams so impressed his commanding officers that they decided to let the sergeant “lead the briefings.” Who can say? But, no, not very likely. At another point, she writes that the Taliban fighter who took down the Chinook first yelled “Allahu akbar”—but since the men on board are all dead, how can we know if this cinematic detail is true? Or whether it even adds some greater truth?

Greater truth is what Percy seems to be in pursuit of. And mostly, she finds it. A blurb describes Demon Camp as “for fans of Michael Herr’s Dispatches.” Leaving aside the question of fandom and a book as horrifying as Dispatches—perhaps “admirers” is a less sociopathic term?—the better comparison is Gloria Emerson’s account of the psychic toll of Vietnam, Winners and Losers, which won a National Book Award in 1978 and has since been unjustly forgotten. Like Emerson, Percy perceives that beyond the old cliché about war being hell lies an even stranger country in which the prewar language used by many veterans loses its moorings. “In the classes I teach to soldiers,” says Caleb, describing his attempt to pass on his wisdom in the ways of exorcism to others, “I don’t call it demons. I call it quantum physics.” You say tomato—and Percy, channeling Caleb, says “the thing in the burning peach trees, the thing in the sandstorms and the dried riverbeds, the thing in the camel spiders that walked in the shadows of soldiers.” The greater truth here is the terror, and this Percy makes real.

But if the devil is in the blurry resonances of fear that Percy evokes so eerily, there are at least minor demons plaguing the details. In part 1, “War Dreams,” she mentions a dead soldier and his father by name and then writes that “Caleb heard the money”—the soldier’s life-insurance policy—“went to a new car and gambling in Vegas; silicone breasts for the mom.” This isn’t Caleb’s experience, it is somebody else’s, and if Caleb’s accusation isn’t right—if it’s rumor as interpreted by a man who sees monsters—then it’s really, profoundly wrong in every sense of the term. Maybe Percy checked it out; maybe she knows Caleb’s charge is accurate. If so, she isn’t telling.

That’s how the book proceeds—page after page of startling, precise prose, “falling, burning voices,” Caleb “like a bird making his feathers known,” a child’s hands as “small white moths roaming the curves of her mother’s body,” and then an abrupt stumble such as her apparent acceptance of a fringe pastor’s declaration that Pentecostalism isn’t part of Protestantism, and that “Protestants don’t believe God can inhabit the body.” So much for Jesus! Were this fiction, a claim like this wouldn’t matter any more than Hazel Motes’s theological acrobatics do in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. But Demon Camp is nonfiction, and while the line between the two is blurry, it still means something. The best nonfiction asks what that something is.

Despite its missteps, Demon Camp ultimately does ask that question. It is a whole book of peculiar questions, in fact: Percy’s for Caleb; Caleb’s for Percy. As a work of art, it is too particular, too intelligently odd, to be called merely “important.” Tim Mather, the minister who guides Caleb through his “deliverance,” holds his demon camps in a flyspeck Georgia town called Portal, “where the layer between heaven and earth is very thin.” Demon Camp, the book, is a little like that—only here, the layer between reality as it can be verified and reality as it is actually experienced is what’s become “very thin,” as it is in life, supernatural or mundane.

Jeff Sharlet teaches creative nonfiction at Dartmouth College. He is the editor of Radiant Truths, forthcoming from Yale University Press in April.