>Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and the Endless War in Iraq

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>Out of all the major upsets, tragedies, and failures America has experienced in this new century, none will be as damaging to American morale as our current war in Iraq. We’ve just marked two major milestones in Iraq–five years of direct conflict and war, and four thousand troop deaths–and yet, the powers that be, those taking on the unenviable task of trying to fix this mess, have not improved conditions for the Iraqi people or for America’s safety and standing in the world.

And yet, we knew it was inevitable. We knew that our relationship with the Middle East was contentious and multi-layered, and that a military occupation of a nation that did not provoke or attack us would stir up resentment and anger in that region. We may never recover from these fractured relationships, much less win militarily.

Those who warned against war in 2003 had their patriotism questioned and their voices silenced, and now that their fears of the worst have come true, they now seem to represent the mainstream opinion. Yet, the Bush administration and Republican Presidential nominee John McCain continue to support this war without an end, and their poll numbers continue to fall.

Of course, the War in Iraq is not the first war America has messed up. The obvious one was Vietnam, but there were plenty that came before that, and even the ones that we won had their problems and setbacks. These wars, and the effects they have on an entire population of people, seem to come and go throughout history. Yet nothing seems to change; every other generation or so, we start the pattern of fear, war, remorse, and peace over again and then promise that we’ll never do it again.

Denis Johnson’s 2007 novel Tree of Smoke speaks to a war-torn generation in the ways that previous war novels have spoken, and all the elements of a classic are built right in. First, Johnson writes of a different era (the Vietnam war), a grand but elusive objective controlled by the mythical powers that be (the CIA’s secret operations), and a resolution that leaves our heroes as washed up failures. Like Joseph Heller’s World War II novel Catch-22, Johnson’s characters are left without a definitive purpose or objective except to stay alive and trust their commanders. The commanders, and those who assume the roles of authority, have their own things going on and no one knows exactly what might happen.

The novel follows several characters that are directly involved with the Vietnam war effort, but mainly focuses on CIA operative William “Skip” Sands and his uncle Colonel Sands (“the colonel”) as they attempt to win the war. The colonel is essentially operating a proxy war through the psy-ops division of the CIA, attempting to attack the Vietcong through double agents and their own superstitions. But as the colonel operates in the shadows of the war, he becomes a larger-than-life myth himself. Those around the colonel see him as much more than a mere operations manager, and the colonel begins to lose focus of the war on the ground.

The colonel will eventually die, but his death will remain a mystery that Skip and the colonel’s confidant, Sgt. Jimmy Storm, try to understand and figure out. After the war, both Skip and Storm will attempt to discover the truth behind the colonel’s disappearance, and their lives will become muddied versions of the lives they led before the war. The end of the war brings with it disillusionment and sacrifice that is far removed from the idealistic beliefs of morality and justice they were taught.

Just as the title suggests, Johnson’s characters operate under the false myths that America’s might will ultimately win, and that in a war against an inferior nation, America automatically assumes the role of morality and righteousness. These myths, like the tree of smoke, are abstract; they are impressions of the thing itself, just like a tree of smoke isn’t actually a tree, but rather, smoke plumes shaped like a tree. Equally, the title shows Johnson’s grasp of the intricate complexities of war. “Tree of smoke” is biblical (“’There shall be blood and fire and palm trees of smoke’ – from Joel, wasn’t it?” says a Catholic priest in the novel), but it also represents a philosophy of warfare that the colonel embodies, a “sincere goal for the function of intelligence–restoring intelligence-gathering as the main function of intelligence operations, rather than to provide rationalisations for policy.” Essentially, the colonel’s proxy war in Vietnam is a war of conflicting cultures and myths that fails, and leavs the characters that surround him confused about their purpose in Vietnam.

It’s this idea that permeates throughout entire novel. Johnson’s fluid prose style, mixed with the grander themes of war and morality, point to our current war in Iraq. They leave open the many questions we now have about the Bush administration’s flawed logic that got us into this war in the first place. Just like the colonel’s flawed philosophy regarding the “function of intelligence,” the Bush administration’s flawed philosophy of pre-emptive war has turned out to be a “tree of smoke” in its own right. The “smoke” just happens to be claims of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein’s plans to attack America, and the exploited fears of American’s living in a post-9/11 world.

Most Americans see the war in Iraq with much clearer eyes, and a strong majority of Americans believe it’s time to withdraw. As the major characters in Tree of Smoke become confused about their role in the Vietnam War, Americans at home doubted the purpose of the war as well. Sound familiar?

Tree of Smoke may use a historical turning point in American history as a way to tell a fictional story, but its story feels more relevant now than ever before. Five years into it, the Iraq war has no major turning point or sense of resolution, leaving Americans uneasy about the future. Denis Johnson knows this, and so do his readers; the myths that shaped our policies in the past continue to shape our policies now, and America will continue the cycle throughout the rest of the century.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.