Most novels about wounded soldiers tend to be painful. What a soldier suffers and loses—physically, emotionally—often stands at the center of the narrative. In Elliot Ackerman’s recently published Waiting for Eden, an Iraq war soldier, Eden, has lost almost everything—his legs, his sight, his hearing—and is little more than a disordered brain and a head and torso covered with burns. It only gets more grim from there: the soldier who narrates his suffering is dead. “My friend was, they’d been told, the most wounded man from both wars,” the narrator says.
Ackerman’s narrative jumps between Eden in his hospital bed and his time with his wife, Mary, before his deployment. These sections are much easier to read, while the descriptions of his wounds, his decline, and the medical heroics to keep what’s left of him alive are agonizing—and rendered in a spare, precise prose that never looks away from the awful. And there is plenty of awful. The narrator observes that he was the lucky one; when they rode over the bomb, it killed him. Unlucky Eden survived.
Questions of medical morality—When does one stop fighting to keep what’s left of a person alive? Is it even moral to struggle to continue someone’s life, when all that’s left is dreadful suffering?—emerge throughout the plot, and in various characters and the narrator’s asides. But what’s left out of the discussion are questions of the morality of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Political questions never arise. This book is about what it’s like to be killed or reduced to a lump of suffering flesh in a war—not about the immorality of imperial American military adventures.
Such questions undeniably hover over the narrative’s horizon. Readers are left wondering what might’ve happened if these two soldiers had not signed up for a second deployment, or more pressing peeks at their psyche: What did they think of their mission? Did they consider it in more, legal, or political ways? But they remain, first and foremost, soldiers and thus the novel implies that such questions remain unasked. Theirs is only to fight and die.
With their views of war circumscribed, the two soldiers take on broader lineaments, become everymen—soldiers in the abstract. Discussion of the war’s political causes would interfere with that and would draw the reader away from the painful particularity of their sacrifices. And yet, by never addressing such things, the novel invites readers to regard what happened to these soldiers as some sort of unchangeable natural calamity, not as what it is—a deliberate construction of political and military power that throws young men and women into a meat grinder.
Whether it’s intended or not, there’s a sense of waste that pervades throughout Waiting for Eden. It confronts the reader from the first page to the last. These men did not need to suffer and die; powerful people, insulated from agony and death, chose this for them. And they chose it for these soldiers’ families. “She’d come to fell that he might never die and that what little remained of him might live even longer than she,” the narrator says. Much of Waiting For Eden depicts Mary, her thoughts, and her conflicted feelings about her husband dying; even though she knows death would be better, she doesn’t want to let him go.
Eden has no such conflict: “For the first time he knew it clearly: he wanted the end.” Readers can’t help thinking that when a person reaches this stage, his or her wish should be respected. There comes a point for many people when their wish to die, to end a life of pain, is all that remains. And this remarkable novel is about how a person reaches that point and what it means for his family and the medical professionals tasked with keeping him alive. Modern military medicine has worked wonders and saved thousands of lives, but it’s also created dilemmas, placed us on a landscape that’s neither black nor white but gray, where it’s quite difficult to say definitively what the right path forward is.