Snapped: A Soldier's Story

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A murderous rampage in Afghanistan earlier this month left 16 civilians, nine of them children, dead. Experts are looking at marital, financial, or psychological problems on the part of the suspect, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. We may never truly understand what triggered the killings.

The stereotype of the combat veteran who snaps in an act of crazed violence has been familiar since the Vietnam War in movies and fiction. The novelist and essayist George Saunders has written movingly about today's wars and veterans. His story “Home,” published in a recent issue of The New Yorker, chronicles the first days back in America for a soldier who has seen atrocities in the Middle East — and perhaps has committed one as well. The soldier’s family is distant, his wife has remarried, and the fear of explosive violence hovers tensely over the story.

→ Read George Saunders' "Home"

Saunders got the idea for the story from Euripides’ tale of the warrior Herakles, who returns from the underworld to find his family threatened by a king. Herakles kills the king but, as Saunders recounts it, the violence and darkness of the underworld have infected him and followed him home. Consumed by madness, he kills his wife and children also. In writing his story about the young veteran, Saunders tells Kurt Andersen, he wanted to explore an alternate ending: “What else can happen, and by what mechanism?”

Saunders remembers sharing a plane ride with a young soldier about to embark on his third tour in Iraq. “He was really nervous, really wanting to talk and at the same time, it seemed like he didn’t have self-permission and/or the vocabulary to do it,” Saunders says. “It was the first time I’d seen that pent-up energy. In the story, the guy is sort of inarticulate, isn’t able to say or think the things he needs to in order to clean himself out. So it manifests itself in action.”

Music Playlist

  1. First Train Home

    Artist: Imogen Heap
    Album: Ellipse
    Label: RCA