A Reviewer Called Swimming Upstream Anti-War: Here’s What He Got Wrong
Updated: Jun 11, 2018
A reviewer for Kirkus recently said my novel, Swimming Upstream, had a significant anti-war theme. He’s right. But here’s what he got wrong: he took the words of a character to represent the book’s point of view, when that character’s point of view was itself (deliberately) flawed.
Am I anti-war? Yes. I’m probably what you’d call a peacenik. I’ve been protesting war, violence, and nuclear weapons since I was a child. I got my bachelor’s degree in Peace and Global Studies and worked for nonprofit organizations like Freeze Voter and SANE to help eliminate what felt like an ever-present threat of nuclear war in the 1980s. Later I got involved in environmental and LGBT rights work; but I still protested both Iraq wars, and I continue to believe that war (and violence in general) is not the right way to solve problems.
But here’s what I think the reviewer got wrong: I think he assumed that I shared what we could call Flint’s anti-warrior point of view. And I do not. It’s true that Flint is so against the post-9/11 Iraq war — so sure it’s an illegal and immoral invasion — that he thinks the U.S. soldiers are culpable too. After all, he thinks, there’s no draft, and these soldiers volunteered to invade another country simply because President Bush wanted to avenge his father’s earlier defeat by Saddam Hussein (and in order to safeguard American’s access to the country’s oil). That the war was fought for these reasons was not an uncommon sentiment in San Francisco during the early years of the conflict.
Where Flint goes further is in thinking those enlisted men and women who volunteered, “deserved to get hurt or at least become shell-shocked.” However, to suggest Flint believes “that American combat soldiers fighting had no guilt about their actions,” goes too far. I don’t think Flint has put himself in the shoes of those who serve or bothered to think about how they feel about anything. He’s just as guilty of failing to see certain people as three-dimensional human beings as those he protests.
Here’s the thing, Flint has this thought near the beginning of a nearly 400-page novel, during the course of which he meets Brooke, a soldier wounded in Iraq, and must reevaluate his own knee-jerk biases against those who serve. Flint is a teenager who starts out seeing the war in black-and-white terms. Through Brooke we get a much more nuanced perspective on the conflict.
Does Brooke have her own doubts about the war—yes. Does she get injured and deal with PTSD? Yes. And certainly, one could argue those factors are part of the book’s anti-war bent. But I don’t believe we can have accurate portrayals of combat and the stresses that service men and women go through without talking about these realities. And let me be clear, Flint’s early feelings do not reflect my own sentiments. Like most people who are against war, I’m not against the men and women willing to risk their lives to serve our nation and its interests.
I am self-aware enough to know that I am biased against war. It was a stretch for me to try to get into the minds of my characters who served in the military. That was true even with Charlie, who was drafted during the Vietnam War; especially because he ends up voluntarily signing up to return. In order to get into their heads and experiences, I did a lot of research, read a lot of books about Vietnam and the Iraq conflict; including first-person accounts by those who served. I also read collections of letter’s home from those serving in Vietnam and found their evolution over time particularly enlightening. People are deeply impacted by their wartime experiences.
Swimming Upstream is, in a lot of ways, about how trauma impacts us, and I believe war is one of the most traumatic events human beings can experience. That may make me—and the novel—anti-war, but it doesn’t make either anti-warrior.