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Decentring the “Scumbag” Veteran

Decentring the “Scumbag” Veteran

Jul 13, 2020

Reading Nico Walker’s Cherry

by Sarah Collier (University College London)

“How do you get to be a scumbag?” wonders the veteran protagonist of Nico Walker’s Cherry (270). A tale of war, dope fiends and bank robbery, Walker’s auto-fictional debut isn’t short of despicable people doing despicable things. The scumbag veteran, however, marks a striking departure from the veteran hero familiar to the contemporary cultural landscape. Narratives of the heroic veteran have long occupied a central space in the American collective consciousness: they appear in films from The Deer Hunter (1978) to Saving Private Ryan (1998); inform media representations of soldiers such as Jessica Lynch and Chris Kyle; and underpin the “support-the-troops” rhetoric displayed on car bumpers and at football games. Recent scholarship has seen a number of critics question the function of this particular cultural construction of the veteran. Among them is veteran and writer Roy Scranton, who criticises what he calls the “myth of the trauma hero” which shapes American political, cultural and historical discourse. The trauma hero, harbouring an unspeakable truth of war, functions to absolve collective guilt for American violence abroad by centring narratives of combat on the psychological turmoil of the soldier, “substituting the victim of trauma, the soldier, for the victim of violence, the enemy” (Scranton). The redemptive arc of the trauma hero in narratives such as Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (2012), Phil Klay’s Redeployment (2014) and Dan Fesperman’s Unmanned (2014) permits rehabilitation from the horrors of war to a mythologised position within the institutions of liberal American society. These narratives centre the traumatised veteran within the American collective consciousness and consolidate a national sense of moral good. 

This paper argues that Cherry ‘decentres’ the veteran from his sanctified position at the heart of the American collective consciousness. Discarding its political and cultural institutions, this project of decentring parallels a rejection of the political centre, whose maintenance of the trauma hero myth serves to deflect scrutiny for the socio-political catastrophes of the twenty-first century, to which Cherry bears witness. Walker’s text locates the protagonist (henceforth referred to as the eponymous ‘Cherry’ – military slang for a new recruit) at the intersection of some of the key crises of contemporary America: an Iraq war medic, turned heroin addict, turned bank robber, he shifts from war to unemployment, PTSD, and addiction at the height of the opioid crisis. Walker articulates this subject position in a detached language of parataxis and meiosis – a device he employs to understate the gravity of the horrors Cherry experiences. The result is a bleakly humorous and nihilistic tone that contrasts the self-serious poetics that characterise the contemporary trauma hero: Kevin Powers’ evocation, for example, of blood that “trickled down into the river in its final ebbing tide, brief as bioluminescence” (126), or Dan Fesperman’s “cry that is keening and forlorn, as if someone had torn open a tender and damaged part of the earth and this is the unbearable sound that issues from within” (10). Distanced from the conventions of the trauma hero, Cherry urges us to understand veterans as separate from their sanctified position at the heart of the political centre.

“Iraq”. Image by Staff Sergeant Jason T. Bailey, US Army, on Flickr under a CC BY licence.

For all the raw, abject bodily horror that pervades Cherry’s time as a combat medic in Iraq, much of his prose is unsettlingly detached:

Grace and Carranza hit an IED. Carranza was wounded. He was in the driver’s hatch and his face was fucked and he was blind and the Bradley was on fire. (163)

The simplicity with which this horrific image is constructed creates a troubling tension between a sense of urgency and distance. The gradual reveal of the full traumatic image delays its impact, and the repetition of “and” sketches the image in a flat, detached tone. Characteristic of Walker’s style, this language of detachment creates dissonance between the horrific reality of the traumatic event and its representation, suggesting a psychic detachment which renders his trauma inaccessible to the reader. Cherry’s sense of detachment is palpable throughout the narrative. His brothers-in-arms are all, to varying degrees, scumbags, “no worse than your average garden-variety sonofabitch” (148). They huff computer dust, stage depraved snuff films and watch violent, misogynistic porn. The commonly romanticised bond forged in combat is constantly downplayed: his company “weren’t my friends. They were more like acquaintances really” (170). Cherry rejects the rabid patriotism of some of his company and expresses indifference to the war: 

I wasn’t as fucking wild about America as North was. That and the shit wasn’t any fun for me. All it amounted to was some more people are dead and Emily was probably getting fucked by other guys. (176) 

Equating the thousands of casualties of a controversial war with the possibility of being cheated on, this parataxis simultaneously mocks the American exceptionalism of the trauma hero narrative while relinquishing any moral authority over the politics of the war, reinforcing his own self-centred, indifferent, scumbag identity.

Upon his return to the U.S., Walker’s protagonist consolidates his scumbag identity as he navigates PTSD and an all-consuming heroin addiction. Unlike revered trauma hero narratives such as Powers’ The Yellow Birds, which, in Scranton’s words, represents “war trauma as the font of poetic transcendence” (n.pag.), Walker represents war trauma in trivialising and vulgar terms. He writes:

I’d stay up by myself in the early morning and snort cocaine and snort Oxy. A gram here. 40mg there. Another 40mg. I’d steal Wi-Fi from my neighbours and watch porn on the Internet. I’d write poetry. I’d drink vodka. Vodka was good because I could drink it all day and not shit blood. I imagined all the porno girls were war widows and it made me sad. I’d get on the vodka and snort some powder at my little table and write five or six poems between three o’clock and nine in the morning – poems mainly about true love being impossible, poems mainly about what drugs I’d like to do, poems mainly about barely legal girls getting down on some cocks, poems mainly about what a piece of shit death was. Then I’d go to bed. I sent a few poems to The New Yorker, but they didn’t make it in. Then my laptop crashed and I lost my poems. (198)

The simple sentences of this passage echo the boredom and repetition of Cherry’s existence. The anaphoric sentence structures capture his bleak routine in a way that weighs the stereotype of the romantic trauma hero poet alongside acts of degeneracy, reading as a humorous and scathing commentary on the poetic trauma hero narrative. Paratactic anecdotes balance trauma with debasement; in reflecting “I imagined all the porno girls were war widows and it made me sad,” Cherry perverts his traumatic experience through the projection of a debased, self-destructive fantasy onto a porn film – an unsettling image which he juxtaposes with the meiotic adjective “sad”. At once downplaying and exposing his trauma, his consistent reference to being “sad” throughout the text contains the trace of all the cumulative traumas he has lived and seems to subtly mock the verbosity of other contemporary writers of war trauma. 

“Scumbags”. Image by Stephanie Eden on Flickr under a CC BY-NC-ND licence.

Walker further subverts the trauma hero by challenging the liberal institutions that celebrate this identity as a moral authority on war. Scranton criticises an article by George Packer, published in the New Yorker, for romanticising literature from Iraq and Afghanistan as “bearing the truth of a traumatic and disillusioning revelation” (Scranton). In upholding the veteran in these near-deified terms, he argues that Packer and other members of the commentariat divert attention from the veteran as an agent of killing. It does not seem coincidental that in Cherry, the New Yorker – a staple institution of liberal America – does not find appeal in his base, nihilistic poems. Scranton criticises the literary economy as “the system of MFA programs and New York publishing circles that shaped The Yellow Birds and its reception,” suggesting that they carve a reality where “the conventional tropes of war lit are not a means of conveying truth, but the truth of war itself” (Scranton). These institutions – liberal arts programs, the publishing industry, the commentariat to which Packer belongs (indeed Scranton notes that Packer himself was a particularly hawkish supporter of the invasion of Iraq) – are components of the political centre and contribute to the mythologising of the trauma hero as a vessel for American values and scapegoat for collective national guilt. Sat at his computer in a squalid apartment in the small hours of the morning, Cherry is spatially, temporally and cognitively distanced from the cultural economy represented by The New Yorker. His poems are rejected, presumably lost in a sea of voices deemed too mediocre for publication. Yet at the same time Cherry’s perversion of the poetic trauma hero trope reads as a provocation, mocking the potential of appeal among, in Scranton’s words, “an audience more interested in war as myth than in war as reality, or even as literature” (Scranton). 

As Cherry retreats to the margins of society, so too does he exclude the reader from active participation in his trauma. Jeff Sychterz suggests that the role of the traumatised veteran in the poetry of Brian Turner (another veteran-turned-literati) is to exist outwardly: 

Turner’s poetry asks us to open ourselves to the consequences of war, to recognize that war is not bound by geographic, temporal or even experiential boundaries. The Iraqis or America’s soldiers are not the only ones who have lived through war; we all have, and we harm ourselves by not opening ourselves to war’s victims—inviting them into our homes, physically and imaginatively. (Sychterz 9)

If the civilian reader seeks to overcome their collective guilt by creating openings between themselves and the trauma hero, Cherry rejects any such invitation. Walker’s text suggests the impossibility of Sychterz’s notion of a boundless trauma, exposing it as something which can only exist to us conceptually. Cherry instead lives an interiority which concentrates his trauma within the borders of his own embodied self. His addiction and trauma require a constant negotiation of these borders; he often experiences his body as both present and alien, echoing Drew Leder’s notion of the “dys-appearing body” where the body in pain affirms its presence to the consciousness by the semblance of being “something foreign to the self” (Leder 76). Owing to the cyclical nature of addiction, Cherry’s constant contention with his “present-absent” body leaves little space for him to consider anything else. His fixation on facial imagery, for example, recurs in the image of “making sad faces” (250), through which the meiotic adjective “sad” simultaneously understates and underscores his trauma, anxiety and heroin withdrawal in a way which makes light of his painful reality. By “making sad faces” Cherry manipulates his face as an object and experiences it as an alien presence, implying a severing of the intersubjective ties that connect him to others and the reader. Witnessing a dissonance between his subjective reality and the corporeal modes of connecting with the world outside, Cherry lives an interiority which is perceptible yet inaccessible to the reader, and denies us the ability to purge our collective guilt through his trauma. 

Far from completing the redemptive arc of the trauma hero, Cherry ends abruptly and precludes any sense of an ending to Cherry’s cyclical, interior existence. The novel’s final lines read: 

I put the needle in my arm. The needle was dull so it pushed the vein away when it was going in. But the vein couldn’t run forever. I felt a little pop and my blood flashed in the rig. I sent it home. (313) 

Cherry’s conceptualisation of his body, here, reaffirms his subjective interiority. He lives, in Leder’s words, the “here-and-now body,” inducing a “gathering [of] space and time inward to the center” (Leder 76). Cherry lives his trauma spatio-temporally in and through his body. He experiences it as a conflict of self and otherness, as both an integral part of the embodied self’s experience of addiction (“I put the needle in my arm”) while also taking on agency of its own that must be overpowered (“[it] couldn’t run forever”). Sychterz emphasises the significance of “homecoming” in trauma hero narratives as a spiritual and emotional rehabilitation within society (Sychterz 13). Yet Cherry’s conceptualisation of his precarious body as “home” does away with the notion of home as a wholesome, spiritual reawakening and instead centres it ineluctably within the borders of his addiction. Far from fulfilling the outward, accessible myth of the trauma hero, Cherry folds inward, exposing himself to the reader while stopping short of inviting us in. Permitting the institutions of liberal civic America to recede from his own consciousness, he enacts a project of decentring, shifting away from the space occupied by the trauma hero within the American collective consciousness and prompting us to consider the veteran through a fresh lens of distance and apathy.

 Dust jacket for US edition of “Cherry” by Janet Hansen and Daniel Bjugård for Knopf.

Alexandra Alter’s review of Cherry in the New York Times places Walker’s work in the “ranks” of contemporary war writers, adding that, “Cherry adds a dark new chapter to the canon, revealing a young soldier’s transformation from hero to antihero, with no sliver of redemption” (Alter). It is not insignificant that this appears in the New York Times, a key publication of the political centre which was forced to issue an apology for consistently publishing false information in support of the Iraq War. Seemingly unable to conceive of a soldier outside of the terms of heroism, the review attempts to channel Cherry into the trauma hero myth and appears to ignore that from beginning to end, this “hero” lives a gutter life, indifferent to his actions at war or at home. The notion that a veteran could be a scumbag certainly might seem uncomfortable. But Cherry shows us a military comprised not of heroes or villains, but of unsavoury, puerile, and ultimately human young men. We must ask ourselves, then, why we feel uncomfortable to read the veteran as a scumbag, and what exactly we seek to gain from sanctified depictions of the veteran. The trauma hero myth to which we are accustomed occupies such a central position in the American collective consciousness precisely because of the outward nature of his existence and the mutual relationship implied between him and the civilian. Existing by and for the civilian, this mythologised hero lives a redemptive arc of trauma and recovery that enables us to purge our own feelings of collective guilt for political violence enacted in our name. This tragic figure is nurtured by the institutions that maintain the political centre – the same institutions currently facing a crisis of accountability for the consequences of the Iraq War and the opioid epidemic to which Cherry bears witness. Cherry neither validates nor denounces these events, instead aiming to decentre the veteran from our collective consciousness and open up space for representations of veterans that diverge from the rhetorical construction of the trauma hero. The “scumbag” veteran discards the notion of the veteran as synecdoche for American moral authority and places the onus back on us civilians to interrogate what we hope to gain when we read contemporary war narratives.

CITATION: Sarah Collier, “Decentring the “Scumbag” Veteran: Reading Nico Walker’s Cherry“, Alluvium, 8.2 (2020): n. pag. Web. 13 July 2020, https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.2.03

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 Sarah Collier is a PhD student in English Literature at UCL. Her research explores representations of military masculinities in contemporary American war narratives.  

Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra. “How a Young War Veteran Became a Serial Bank Robber, Then a Novelist”. The New York Times, 10 August 2018 (accessed 1 May 2020): https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/10/books/cherry-nico-walker.html.

Fesperman, Dan. Unmanned. London: Corvus, 2015.

“FROM THE EDITORS; The Times and Iraq”. The New York Times, 26 May 2004 (accessed 1 May 2020): https://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/26/world/from-the-editors-the-times-and-iraq.html

Klay, Phil. Redeployment. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2015.

Leder, Drew. The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. 

Packer, George. “Home Fires”. The New Yorker, 31 March 2014 (accessed 24 March 2020): https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/04/07/home-fires-2

Powers, Kevin. The Yellow Birds. London: Sceptre, 2013.

Saving Private Ryan. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Paramount Pictures, 1998. 

Scranton, Roy. “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to ‘Redeployment’ and ‘American Sniper’”. LA Review of Books, 25 January 2015 (accessed 24 March 2020): https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/trauma-hero-wilfred-owen-redeployment-american-sniper/

Sychterz, Jeff. “Poetry, the Iraq War, and the Ethics of Trauma”. WLA; War, Literature and the Arts, 30 (2018) 1–17.  

The Deer Hunter. Dir. Michael Cimino. EMI Films, 1978. 

Turner, Brian. Phantom Noise. Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2010.

Walker, Nico. Cherry. London: Jonathan Cape, 2019.

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