War and art may seem like uncomfortable bedfellows but they've always managed to forge a surprising intimacy with each other. Whether it's Picasso painting Guernica, Billy Joel singing Goodnight Saigon or Christopher Walken playing Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter, conflict has always allowed the artist to study basic states – from bravery and cowardice to cruelty to grief – with equal passion.
Humanity can often be best illuminated through a study of inhuman acts, an irony that novelists as diverse as Stephen Crane, Pat Barker and Sebastian Barry have understood and used to great effect in their books.
Twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given rise to their own body of work. Ben Fountain won great praise for Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, as did Kevin Powers for The Yellow Birds. Joining their company now is Brian Van Reet, a former US sergeant, awarded a bronze star for valour in Iraq, who has converted his experiences into a debut novel that is both remarkably intense and deeply harrowing.
At the centre of the book lies three characters emerging from different life experiences, with conflicting attitudes towards war. When we first meet American soldier Cassandra, she is managing to survive in a patriarchal structure that turns a blind eye to the rape of a female soldier by a male colleague. Gossip is prevalent on the identity of the perpetrator, but it is gossip is rooted in boredom, not outrage.
“Forty-eight hours is apparently about how long it takes for untended men to descend to the level of beasts,” we are told, and sitting in tanks listening to the crude nonsense spouted by men, Cassandra knows better than to provoke them.
Alongside her is Sleed, who represents many of the worst tendencies we associate with such people. Cowardly, inept and stupid, he is for the most part oblivious to and disinterested in what is going on around him. Unlike Cassandra, however, Sleed has no interest in questioning the morality of their cause. The army, it seems, is simply a paycheque to him, a way out of a trailer park or a dead-end job.
On the other side of the Americans is Abu al-Hool, an Afghani mujahideen in Iraq who, as a child, spent time in Britain, where he experienced casual but destructive racism that left his “soaring religious feeling, my affinity for all mankind, soured into confusion”. Holed up in a Fallujah mosque awaiting orders, he spends most of his time in the prayer hall but not because of religious feeling. “It made me realise just how seldom I’ve felt the presence of God,” he says, “an indecorous thing for a mujahid to admit.”
The novel takes a turn when Cassandra is captured and subjected to the kind of abuse that we've seen perpetrated by Americans in Abu Ghraib and in Kathryn Bigelow's films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. In a brilliant section, Van Reet intersperses the abuse Cassandra suffers at the hands of her captors with what she suffered in the barracks, and we are forced to confront the reality that sexual assault on women is committed by men, not by differing ideologies.
Tied up and suffering at the hands of her kidnappers, the beginnings of a rape are played out to the words “Ugly woman, bad woman. You like this, yes you like this,” while, in flashbacks, we see the response of disgruntled US soldiers who cannot accept sexual rejection: “Don’t act like you’re too good for it.”
Few of the characters in Spoils come across as heroic or likable. Neither army seems engaged with any rigid set of beliefs, but simply follow the orders of their commanders like lemmings while ignoring the moral complexity of their missions. While it might have been helpful to have seen more complex debate in the novel, it does serve the purpose of showing how easily people can become disengaged with morality when serving in such extreme places and under such terrible conditions.
Spoils is a difficult read at time, partly due to what feels like a deliberately cinematic tone to the narrative and partly because the characters remain in a sort of status quo, rarely allowing outside events to change their singular worldview.
Still, considering the experiences of the author, one can appreciate its authenticity and the the urgency of the writing, which brings home the realities of war with more clarity than a news report. There will continue to be novels about Iraq and Afghanistan, but I suspect this will be one of the better ones.
John Boyne's latest novel is The Heart's Invisible Furies (Doubleday)