"At this moment, the defining story of our times - the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - is being told in some of the greatest books of our time," observed Geoff Dyer in his 2010 essay The Moral Art of War. "It's just that these books are not coming in the shape and form commonly expected: the novel."
Dyer was providing his impressions of a commonly observed phenomenon, whereby novelists had mostly ignored the most profound political events of the last decade. Meanwhile, journalists such as George Packer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Thomas Ricks, Dexter Filkins and the late Anthony Shadid were doing the work of novelists, offering richly developed characters, indelible moments and a defining sense of place in their long-form reporting from Iraq.
As it turns out, the key words in Dyer's pronunciamento were "at this moment". Dyer was not wrong, only slightly hasty. Iraq had long been practically invisible in the work of American and European writers, present as symbol (such as in Will Self's underrated The Butt) or inspiration (as in Robert Perisic's Our Man in Iraq) but rarely as fact. In the last year, though, just in time for the war's impending tenth anniversary, a wave of well-received novels has reordered the accepted narrative.
The non-fiction of the Iraq war had been devoted to bringing readers ever-closer to the action. We were taken behind the blast-proof walls of Baghdad's Green Zone in Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City, absorbed in the bureaucratic infighting and delusional optimism of the ruling neoconservative claque in Packer's The Assassin's Gate, and ventured into the hidden lives of everyday Iraqis in Shadid's Night Draws Near.
If the war was a magic trick, asking us to watch as a rabbit was pulled out of a hat, while resolutely ignoring the commotion taking place directly beneath the quivering fingers, Packer and Shadid and their colleagues were those rationalists intent on explaining the trick, even - or especially - if it ruined the effect. In the Green Zone, Packer archly noted of the secure American enclave in Baghdad, "it was as if a construction crew was carefully applying the finishing touches to the interior of a new house without noticing the arsonists gathering outside".
Their books were angry responses to the journalists "embedded" with the invading forces, too close to the fighting to comprehend what was taking place, and too trusting of the assertions of American officials to question their highly distorted version of the war.
"I had been in Iraq about three weeks and had already begun to realise that most of my ideas about the place were going to be of no use," Packer observes. An Iraqi encounters an American soldier who asks him what his intentions are in Night Draws Near, and he explodes in anger: "What are you doing here? You're my guest. What are you doing in Iraq?"
The enduring works of non-fiction about the war had been intent on rubbing our faces in the reality of Iraq. They were jeeps hurtling relentlessly forward, ever deeper into the bruised, bleeding heart of the war. Their task was one they saw as being uniquely their own; no fiction could ever match nonfiction's intensity or focus. "It was unlikely that a novelist would spend six months in Baghdad and come back to update From Here to Eternity or Dog Soldiers," wrote Packer in The Assassin's Gate. Packer's reference to Robert Stone's black-comic Dog Soldiers was a reminder that while the Vietnam War had prompted its own clutch of distinguished novels, including Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn, more recent conflicts like the Gulf War had printed invisibly on the page, and the conflict in Iraq seemed likely to follow its example.