[I'm breaking this review into separate posts. Part II will be up tomorrow.]
David Axe's War Is Boring belongs, in a very general sense, to the grand tradition of American road trip narratives. Unlike Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, in which the Nobel Laureate set out to reconnect with an idea of America; or Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the good doctor set out to obliterate that notion altogether; or Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which a creative writing professor ignores both the country and all notions of it in favor of calling attention to his own profundity—that is to say, unlike those nonfictional account of road trips by American authors, the travel narrative that frames War Is Boring is not aimed at an American audience. I mean this literally: Axe recalls the past five years of his life as a United Nations van and its driver, Adrian Djimdim, shepherd him across Chad. That he tells his story to someone who has experienced life in a conflict zone is significant because it allows him the sympathetic space required to recount the intimate moments and minor worries of combat life without seeming a solipsist.
The wars to which he flashes back in conversation are not about him in the way that Salinas is about Steinbeck, Las Vegas about Thompson, or Pirsig about Pirsig. They are not an extension of himself because War Is Boring partakes of no Emersonian "upbuilding of a man" and Axe refuses to serve as a delegate for our moral improvement. For example, later in the novel, after being mistaken for former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, he informs Djimdim that:
As Djimdim is presented as an observant listener, he must have recognized that Axe had fed him a similar line earlier:
Note that the difference is not in growth, but simple addition: Axe doesn't correct him, he merely adds the names of his actual employers, committing what could be called a sin of omission by addition. He presents himself here not as a model to be emulated, but a person for whom old, successful habits die hard—that is, as a sympathetic example of our flawed species.* But War Is Boring is always as much about the narrative as it is the narrator, even when the stakes of the conflicts narrated are not altogether clear. While that might seem a criticism of the book, I don't mean it as such. The view from the ground will always be more chaotic than its aerial equivalent, as Axe himself argues via juxtapositions like those that open his chapter on East Timor:
The helicopter is as isolated from the events below as it is in Axe's camera, but for the moment, so is Axe. That first panel fails to inform us whether the narrative is in its Chadian frame or East Timor, and the second one only provides visual clues as to when and where we are. Moreover, the perspective Axe and, through him, the reader has on that helicopter is a familiar and unpleasant one: the isolation of the helicopter somehow representing both imperialist ambitions and the sinking feeling in a soldier's gut as his last connection to a life outside of war pulls into the sky. In fact, this framing of the conflict occurs throughout the chapter on East Timor, neatly paralleling the fact that Axe feels like he learned little in the two weeks he spent there.
*If I seem excessively focused on the personal or confessional aspects of the narrative, it's likely because I'm working on my lesson plans at the moment, and War Is Boring slots in nicely with the theme of "Confessional Comics." Reading it in conjunction with Craig Thompson's Blankets, the content of which could hardly be more different, makes plain one of Axe's strengths as a novelist: his willingness to depict his self-important or oblivious behavior, as in the "Detroit" chapter, bolsters his credibility throughout.