On Time and War

Whitney Terrell

“Why did you write this book the way you did?” the interviewer asks. The query is delivered in the kindly, hushed tone that one might use with a schoolboy who has a “kick me” sign taped to his back.

opens in a new windowThe Good Lieutenant

My “kick me” sign is the chronology of my new novel, The Good Lieutenant. It goes backward. Each chapter is set in an earlier moment than the chapter before it. In a novel that contains torture, fairly explicit sex scenes between military personnel, and entire chapters told from the viewpoint of a deaf Iraqi, it’s the nonlinear chronology that seems risqué.

As someone who teaches writing, though, I shouldn’t be surprised. The MFA students I teach at the University of Missouri–Kansas City are well versed in all kinds of “experimental” writing and cross the borders between genres with the breezy wave of international spies. They subvert reality as gleefully as Thomas Pynchon did in the 1960s and ’70s, or as Aimee Bender and Karen Russell do today. The limits of physics? Purely optional. People fly. The dead return as buzzing ash. Ghosts, dragons, mutants, vampires, cyborgs, devils, fairy-tale characters, and long-dead dictators are conjured fearlessly onto the page.

But the one thing my students don’t tend to experiment with is time. Their stories are almost always strictly chronological. Beginning, middle, and end.

It’s a curious thing to me, their relative lack of interest in experimenting with time. And by time, what I really mean is structure—the order in which a story’s events are revealed to the reader. For me, structure is one of the most powerful tools that a fiction writer wields. Not for nothing, it’s one of the primary advantages that fiction writing has over that great colonizing force, the movies. We, the fiction writers, can jump decades in a phrase. No need for expensive set changes. No need to change the filter on the lens. Just shift your verb tense, add a time marker or two, and, boom, you’re anywhere.

Consider Juan Rulfo’s classic, Pedro Páramo. Technically, this novel has two time lines: one for the first-person narrator, Juan Preciado, who arrives at the town of Comala to search for his father, Pedro Páramo, once the town’s hard-hearted overlord; a second follows Pedro Páramo himself, and his contemporaries, telling the story of his life. But Rulfo interweaves these time lines so tightly that there’s no firm distinction between present and past—which of course is the point, if you’re writing a novel about how the present is eternally warped, haunted, and maybe even destroyed, by the horrors of the past.

When I teach Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily,” I ask the class to make two columns on the board. One lists events as they appear in the narrative. The other lists events in the order that they occurred in “real” time. If things go well, the columns look like this:

Story chronology
Emily dies, age 74
Colonel Sartoris remits her taxes
Aldermen visit Emily about taxes
A “smell” surrounds Emily’s house
Emily’s father dies
Homer Barron arrives in town
Emily buys rat poison
Homer Barron disappears
Emily gives china-painting lessons
Emily dies, age 74
“Real” time
Emily is born (1864)
Emily’s father dies (1894)
Colonel Sartoris remits her taxes (1894)
Homer Barron arrives in town
Emily buys rat poison
Homer disappears
A “smell” surrounds Emily’s house (1896)
Emily gives china-painting lessons (1904)
Aldermen visit Emily about taxes (1926)
Emily dies, age 74 (1938)

I then ask them to draw lines connecting parallel events. It’s a little hokey, I know. (And there’s still a lot of scholarly argument over the exact dates on my list.) But the mishmash of overlapping scribbles helps me visualize how thoroughly Faulkner has reordered time, even in this short story. And there’s a second benefit: with a little detective work, you can figure out when Emily was born, though the text never explicitly gives the year.

That date plays an important role in one of my favorite literary passages about time. Describing Emily’s funeral, Faulkner directs our attention to

the very old men—some in their brushed Confederate uniforms—on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.

The key words are “as if.” Once you know that Emily was born in 1864, you also know these confederate veterans wouldn’t have courted her, unless they were pedophiles.

So their memories are false. Romantic. Otherwise known as bullshit.

The huge sunlit meadow doesn’t seem so innocent then. It gets worse when you consider, as the story insists that you do, what this false memory conceals—slavery, a lost war, a bogus, aristocratic, “lineage”-based social structure, and a panoply of other horrifically bad and unjust belief systems that are eating the South from within. All of these townspeople, like Emily, are sleeping with the decaying corpses of their past sins.

Other books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow use complex time structures to emphasize the power of history. But that isn’t the only thing that a “non-traditional” chronology can do. It can also convey the tricks that trauma plays with memory. Or mime the circular logic that bureaucracies use to conceal trauma. Both goals are evident in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The opening chapter, titled “The Texan,” occurs quite late in the book’s overall chronology. The next chapter, “Clevinger,” moves backward in time rather than forward. “Even Clevinger,” Heller writes, establishing the time frame for the chapter, “had told him he was crazy the last time they had seen each other, which was just before Yossarian had fled into the hospital.”

From there on, Heller treats the “mathematical progression” of time like a straight man, tweaking it, thumbing his nose at the reader’s expectations. But there’s a purpose to the structure, too. As the chronology weaves backward and forward through time, it’s really concealing Yossarian’s central moment of trauma, when Snowden dies in his arms, with his guts—“God’s plenty,” as Heller puts it—spilling all over the floor.

This is the reason that Yossarian is in the hospital in chapter 1. But the novel withholds this information, referring to Snowden ominously, but never actually showing the scene, until the end of the novel, in chapter 41.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson also uses a fractured time structure in the book’s second part, when Commander Ga is interrogated by an awful machine called the “autopilot.” “Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity,” says the narrator who conducts the interrogations.

These scenes are intercut with the “true” scenes of Commander Ga’s past, a tale that is so in conflict with the official version of his story that slowly, by degrees, it creates a rift in the identity of his interrogator.

The delay, the circling, the unexplained references: all of these techniques approximate the sensation of the human mind struggling to process an event so horrific that it can’t be incorporated into the normal flow of events. Like war.

So, back to the original question: Why did I write my novel backward? Why would I want to take such a risk?

The first answer is that I didn’t write The Good Lieutenant backward. I wrote it forward, using the traditional, chronological narrative sequence adopted by so many other war novels and films that I admired. This sequence mirrors the real-life progression of almost any soldier who goes to war: training, deployment, combat, return.

It’s a powerful structure, because military training is very novelistic. Young recruits are led on a deliberate, narrative journey from innocence to experience. The goal is to transform them from innocent, selfish individualists to trained professionals who owe their identify to their group, and will kill to protect it.

This structure hearkens back to the very first war novel I can ever remember reading, Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos. It’s there in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line by James Jones, Oliver Stone’s film Platoon (though these works begin their narratives during deployment and mostly use flashbacks to fill in the earlier bits), and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

All of these works focus on what could be lost when a person goes through that training, as well as what might be gained. And, like Heller, they thought critically about war. They did not see combat as a universally positive, character-building activity.

But other war narratives—and, I would say, what have become our culture’s dominant war narratives—use this structure in a much more simplified way. For them, combat becomes the exciting climax to the drama, the moment when the good guy’s true character is revealed. Here’s how Rick Atkinson frames the idea, in the prologue of his book about the invasion of Iraq, In the Company of Soldiers:

I had long believed that the extravagant stress of combat is a great revealer of character, disclosing a man’s elemental traits the way a prism refracts light to reveal the inner spectrum.

It’s a pretty common concept these days. It’s true in Star Wars. It’s true in Band of Brothers and Flags of Our Fathers. And it’s true in Atkinson’s own book, which sings the praises of then Major General David Petraeus.

My experiences as a reporter in Iraq, however, had given me a very different opinion of what the stress of combat can do. To me, the stress of combat was just another word for trauma. And trauma is not a “great revealer of character.” Trauma is a great concealer of character. A destroyer of character. It was not to be valued as the crucible of fire—the structural climax—that would identify “a man’s elemental traits.”

This was especially true given that my main character was a woman. She is notably not included Atkinson’s formulation—which makes sense because I think Atkinson’s view of combat as an ennobling experience is a particularly male myth.

Real soldiers whom I knew in Iraq, male or female, didn’t think this way. They didn’t search for IEDs because they hoped that this experience would reveal their inner spectrum. They wanted to avoid getting maimed. They did not relish killing people. And over and over again, they expressed to me the fear that their experiences in combat would “change” them psychologically. In a negative way. And their hope was to hold on to the person they’d been before they went to war.

That was why I chose to write The Good Lieutenant backward. By reversing time, I could remove combat from its usual privileged narrative position, roughly two-thirds of the way through the story. Combat would no longer be the climax. It wouldn’t even really be the real action of the book. Instead, it would be the exposition, the beginning. The longer the narrative went on, the farther my characters would move away from it. And the climax? The climax would grant that wish I heard so many soldiers express: it would return the characters to their old, best selves, the people they were before they ever went to Iraq.

opens in a new windowThe Good Lieutenant


Whitney Terrell is the author of The Huntsman, a New York Times notable book, and The King of Kings County. He is the recipient of a James A. Michener-Copernicus Society Award and a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. He was an embedded reporter in Iraq during 2006 and 2010 and covered the war for the Washington Post Magazine, Slate, and NPR. His nonfiction has additionally appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The New York Observer, The Kansas City Star, and other publications. He teaches creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and lives nearby with his family.


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