Something Wicked This Way Comes: The Future of War Literature

Posted July 27, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Graffiti at the ruined and abandoned Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2008. “Darul Aman” means “Abode of Peace.”

“I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb,” wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne after completing Moby-Dick. I don’t know if Moby-Dick is exactly wicked, or about the “spotless as a lamb” business, but I am ready for a wicked book about American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, stories and novels about the wars have been remarkably dainty about depicting American soldiers’ capacity for killing, torture, carnage, malevolence, and other forms of evil. At some level, it seems, they try to hold a kernel of life-affirming goodness at the center of the war experience, whether it be located in the characters, the narrators, or within themselves.

That’s a great strategy for real life. “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle inside,” are words to live by. But it’s limited when it comes to fiction, a virtue of which is its ability to take readers to forbidden places. Another nineteenth-century author, John Neal, wrote that novels were places “where imaginary creatures, invested with all the attributes of humanity, agitated by the passions of our nature, are put to the task of entertaining or terrifying us.” The greatest characters, Neal continued, are “scoundrels,” while virtuous characters “are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.” Edgar Allan Poe knew Neal’s work, it would seem, or at least felt the same. No one’s asking for a war story as related by the berserk narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado,” but would you agree that Poe’s narrator is more memorable than all the protagonists of contemporary war fiction put together? And his narrative voice even more so?

Poe and Melville are tough standards by which to judge, but great examples from which to learn. Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, in the tales that make up The Corpse Exhibition (2014), has crafted spell-binding tales that portray, not Americans, but his own countrymen as capable of any evil, first by nature and then made even more so by the pressure of war. Contemporary war literature written by Americans, on the other hand, has by-and-large shied away from depicting truly reprehensible–which is to say truly remarkable–characters in ways that are not mediated by other, more sympathetic voices. The only story I know by an American author that entertainingly plumbs depravity is Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” from the Fire and Forget anthology (2013). Compared to the solemnity of most modern war stories, the vitality of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is exceptional, and the story’s depiction of its charismatically ruined protagonists Sleed and Rooster startling. It’s a wicked tale indeed, and though I don’t know if Van Reet feels as spotless as a lamb, if it’s any solace I think more of him, not less, for writing it.

A spate of articles have appeared recently by civilian authors asserting their right to write about war and the military. A representative example is Sparta (2013) author Roxana Robinson’s essay “The Right to Write” that appeared in the New York Times. But Robinson, right as she is, and accomplished as she is, need not worry so much. I for one count on civilian authors to lead the way by demonstrating exactly how wide and deep are the boundaries of imaginative possibility, because, tales such as “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” excepted, vet authors are not yet so skilled at getting beyond the basic first steps of realistic description and gussied-up reportage of their own experiences. Or, maybe the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are still too fresh and hot, and the most visionary writing about contemporary war can only be found displaced in stories about past wars. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (2010), an opus about Marines in Vietnam, begs to be read as a commentary not just on Iraq and Afghanistan, but on Iraq and Afghanistan war literature. Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison’s novel Home (2012), for another example, depicts an African-American Korean War soldier’s sexual attraction to and subsequent murder of a young girl. An up-and-coming author, Julian Zabalbeascoa, published in Ploughshares a fantastic story called “498” (not currently available online, but hopefully will be again soon) that portrays a soldier in the Spanish Civil War who uses the pretext of war to become a mass murderer. Guess what the number in the title refers to?

Brian Van Reet’s article “A Problematic Genre: the ‘Kill Memoir'” exposes the limitations of first-person reminiscences by ex-snipers that jumble reflection and braggadocio about the military business of killing. In my mind, and I think Van Reet would agree, fiction such as Zabalbeascoa’s most compellingly explores the complicated emotions and social context that kill memoir authors struggle to explain. But so far, our authors of war fiction have written much about soldiers preoccupied by the way the big, bad wars have impinged on the sensibilities of those who fight, and little about soldiers who find themselves on other terms—if not delight, then an ambivalent complicity—with violence, force, hate, sadism, greed, ambition, selfishness, self-preservation, and killing. Let’s see what the future brings.

A Good Blog is Hard to Find: War Lit on the Web

Posted July 15, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War


Enlisted grunt Colby Buzzell’s and armored cavalry officer Matt Gallagher’s blogs-from-the-front in their time seemed as new and different about the Iraq War as IEDs and FOBs. But in the years since Buzzell’s My War and Gallagher’s Kaboom galvanized Internet reading audiences the blog format’s luster has fizzled a bit and the Internet has changed structurally. In the face of competition from faster-moving, quicker-hitting social media forms such as Twitter and Facebook, it’s hard not for blogs to smell a little musty. As big money has upped the standards for web-based mass media and created plenty of outlets for the most distinctive voices, personal websites can seem quaint or a little bland. Still, they persist, reflecting and shaping popular opinion in a quieter, but still insistent vein. Most don’t speak to the masses, but all can aspire for influence within circles of like-minded cognoscenti. Below are the post-9/11 wars art and literature sites I check regularly:

War, Literature, and the Arts (WLA). The flagship of war lit and art websites, full of quality reviews, essays, and creative work. Not single-mindedly focused on the contemporary wars, but it doesn’t ignore them, either; currently featured is an essay by Ben Fountain and reviews of Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War, David Abrams’ Fobbit, and the Fire and Forget anthology.  The site is affiliated with the United States Air Force Academy and operates under the wise, caring supervision of Donald Anderson. If you haven’t read Anderson’s Gathering Noise from My Life: A Camouflaged Memoir (2012), you should, but don’t take my word for it, read Brian Turner’s and Siobhan Fallon’s blurbs at the link.

Red Bull Rising. A powerhouse compendium of war lit announcements and commentary. Blog maestro Randy Brown–aka “Charlie Sherpa”–’s passion for sharing news, rendering credit, and building a community of contemporary war lit lovers via the Internet puts Time Now’s similar efforts to shame. Brown’s a former NCO in the Iowa National Guard, and he writes with the same curmudgeonly practicality and helpfulness I associate with the many members of the Iowa Guard I served with in Afghanistan.

Military Experience & the Arts (MEA). I don’t know MEA maven Travis Martin, a US Army vet of two tours in Iraq, but he clearly not only has his heart in the right place but possesses a ton of organizational and entrepreneurial clout. The MEA site is big-time beyond compare, with so many links, pages, and announcements it’s hard to keep track of everything. If I am reading their “Publications” tab correctly, they sponsor no less than four online journals dedicated to veteran and military-themed literature.

The Veterans Writing Project (VWP) and O-Dark-Thirty websites provide writing opportunities for veterans of all wars. The VWP site contains information about writing workshops and seminars, while O-Dark-Thirty features poetry, stories, and interviews featuring established and up-and-coming veteran authors from World War II onward. I also highly recommend VWP and O-Dark-Thirty founder Ron Capps’ memoir Seriously Not All Right (2014). Not only has Capps’ service as both a military officer and State Department official taken him to Kosovo, Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan, like Donald Anderson he writes from the vantage point of having more than just a couple of decades of life experience under his belt.

While The Military Spouse Book Review is not singly-minded focused on war lit and The War Movie Buff on post-9/11 war film, they overlap enjoyably enough with Time Now’s concerns that I always keep an eye on them.  And finally, a number of published war authors–probably most–also maintain a website or blog, and if I don’t visit them as much as the sites listed above, I get to all of them sooner or later. Thanks everyone for writing and posting; the Golden Age of the blog may have passed, but to paraphrase a character in a Flannery O’Connor short story, “No one’s not doing it anymore if we’re still doing it.”

Words After War: The NYC War Lit Machine-slash-Scene

Posted July 1, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , ,

AMERICA-AFTER-9-11-flyer-806x1024This past Sunday I attended “Danger Close: America After 9/11,” an event hosted by Words After War, a New York City-based veterans writers collective I’ve had my eye on for some time. The event featured three authors of fiction who also served the government’s war apparatus in some capacity. Ex-Marine Phil Klay, the author of Redeployment, needs little introduction, but the other two authors brought not-so-obvious experiences and perspectives to bear on the discussion. Masha Hamilton is an author and journalist who also served as a civilian member of the Army command staff in Afghanistan specializing in public affairs and women’s advocacy. Her recent novel What Changes Everything features both American and Afghan characters whose lives have been ravaged by war. Maxwell Neely-Cohen is the author of Echo the Boom, a novel featuring young protagonists born “after the fall of the wall and before the fall of the towers.” Neely-Cohen could boast no military or in-theater experience, but he worked as a DOD-contracted intelligence analyst for a while after college, which is one of the more interesting perches within the military machinery I’ve come across lately. Moderating the panel was Words After War co-founder and executive director Brandon Willitts, a Navy vet of Afghanistan who has also spent a tour as an intelligence analyst working for the Joint Chief of Staffs.

Left to right, Brandon Willetts, Masha Hamilton, Phil Klay, and Maxwell Neely-Cohen

Left to right, Brandon Willetts, Masha Hamilton, Phil Klay, and Maxwell Neely-Cohen

The authors all had interesting things to say about how their lives took shape after 9/11, though each was slow to emphasize the overarching importance of the day in their individual biographies. For Klay, Hamilton, and Neely-Cohen, 9/11 co-exists with a slew of other determinants that took them towards war. Hesitant to make grandiose pronouncements, the panelists instead offered anecdotes and observations that commented obliquely on global politics and history.

Klay: “On the day we celebrated the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I learned that one of my former NCO’s war injuries would leave him permanently blinded.”

Hamilton: “I had a desire to have an impact and help make a difference. I knew I had to be cautious, but not so cautious that I didn’t follow my dreams.”

Neely-Cohen: “I grew up obsessed by the Cold War and the chance of nuclear catastrophe. It always seemed odd that we would risk or even sacrifice millions then, while after the fall of the Twin Towers we measured the cost of war in the low thousands. But even as they fell, I spent the day skateboarding with my friends.”

Often the remarks segued from cultural critique to literary process and technique:

Klay: “I always pay attention my most ‘urgent memories,’ but the stories you tell about yourself are always self-serving and simplistic…”

Hamilton: “Writing in third person (about created characters) allows you to judge them much more harshly…. fiction allows you to ‘write into the gray.’”

Neely-Cohen: “As I created my characters I depended on empathy and imagination…. I did not want to belittle them.”

And so the conversation went on a Sunday afternoon in a Brooklyn, New York performance space transformed into laboratory for ideas and argument. While Klay’s work explains how war felt to those who fought, Hamilton and Neely-Cohen register its reverberations beyond the battlefield and across cultures and generations. The subject was a little large for resolution in the time provided, but the panelists’ offerings were suggestive. Collectively and individually, we all went crazy as if plagued by hornets after 9/11, even as we had to make huge decisions with gigantic costs, and we’re not through yet. Thanks as always to our writers and artists, who observe these things best and on whom we depend to help us understand better.

Thanks also to Words After War for infusing the New York City vet writing community with a collective, sociable, and supportive vibe. Impresario Willetts is passionate about helping vets and obsessed by the idea that literature matters, and he shines at staging events that showcase veteran and war-related writing. Also on the Words After War board of directors is Matt Gallagher, the author of the memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. First published as blog postings from Iraq, where Gallagher served as an Army cavalry officer, Kaboom more than any other memoir I’ve read pays attention to the nuances of soldiers’ emotional lives, which bodes well for the fiction we are sure to see from Gallagher in the future. Gallagher’s writer and warrior cred nicely complement Willett’s vision and organizing ability, and so we look forward to what Words After War brings us next.

Phil Klay, Redeployment. Penguin, 2014.

Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything. Unbridled Books, 2013.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen, Echo the Boom. Rare Bird Books, 2014.

Matt Gallagher, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. Da Capo Press, 2011.

J.K. Rowling: Contemporary War Author

Posted June 27, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

RowlingLast post, I offered the following summary of the plight of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, drawn from my reading of Stacey Peebles’ critical study Welcome to the Suck (2011):

“Peebles’ thesis is that that memoirs, poetry, and movies by and about Iraq veterans document veteran struggles to reconcile military and civilian identities. The authors and artists she studies join the military willingly, but subsequently find themselves at odds with martial culture and ideals….. They enlist confident they can handle the worst they might see. But military life, and more specifically the experience of war, overwhelms them. Still proud of their service and eager to remember positive aspects of it, their nostalgic fondness rests uneasily alongside messed-up minds and damaged bodies.”

Today, while reading J.K. Rowling’s 2013 detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling (published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith), I came across a passage that reflects the same ideas. The Cuckoo’s Calling’s protagonist is Cormoran Strike, a disabled British Afghanistan vet now working as a detective in London. When asked why he left the army, he replies:

“’Got my leg blown off,’ said Strike, with an honesty that was not habitual.”

Rowling continues:

“It was only part of the truth, but the easiest part to communicate to a stranger. He could have stayed; they had been keen to keep him; but the loss of his calf and foot had merely precipitated a decision he felt stealing towards him the past couple of years. He knew that his personal tipping point was drawing nearer; that moment by which, unless he left, he would find it too onerous to go, to readjust to civilian life. The army shaped you, almost imperceptibly, with the years; wore you into a surface conformity that made it easier to be swept along by the tidal force of military life. Strike had never become entirely submerged, and had chosen to go before that happened. Even so, he remembered [the army] with a fondness that was unaffected by the loss of half a limb….”

I haven’t yet finished The Cuckoo’s Calling, so I don’t know in what other ways Rowling infuses Strike with the habits and perspectives of a contemporary war vet, but I find her choice to make military service an important facet of the novel significant. From where comes the interest? What is she trying to say? Is she cravenly capitalizing on a trendy motif, or is Strike an Ahab-like crusader for truth, justice, and vengeance? I’ve never read a Harry Potter novel, but I’m reminded of the several soldiers I knew who used their idle deployment time to read the entire series. And if there’s any author in common I’ll bet the majority of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans—to include the veteran writers–have read it would have to be Rowling. The series appeared almost simultaneously with the coming-of-age of those who fought the wars, and individual titles came out like tick-marks during the years the wars escalated and reached their fullest fury. Smarter minds than mine can make the connections that undoubtedly exist between the make-believe world of Hogwarts, the fantastical battle zones of the middle-East, and the psyches of soldiers. “Seek and ye shall find” the saying goes, and the following quotation from the Wikipedia entry on Harry Potter could be a good start point for the inquiry:

“According to Rowling, a major theme in the series is death: ‘My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry’s parents. There is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.'”

Kudos to Rowling for donating the proceeds from The Cuckoo’s Calling to the The Soldier’s Charity, an organization that for many years has rendered aid to British veterans. Finally, if anyone is aware of novels and poetry written by British contemporary war veterans, please let us know about them.

J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling.  Mulholland Books, 2013.

More on Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck

Posted June 25, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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PeeblesStacey Peebles’ 2011 Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq only discusses one book of poetry—Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet (and treats it as if it were memoir rather than verse)—and one dramatic film—In the Valley of Elah–but it should engage anyone interested in the art, film, and literature about our contemporary wars. A study of the first wave of writing and film by and about contemporary veterans, Welcome to the Suck has much to say about the Iraq War, the men and women who fought it, the nation who sent them off to fight, and the way the war is represented in text and film.

Peebles’ thesis is that that memoirs, poetry, and movies by and about Iraq veterans document veteran struggles to reconcile military and civilian identities. The authors and artists she studies join the military willingly, but subsequently find themselves at odds with martial culture and ideals. Formed by their contemporary cultural context–rapidly changing gender norms, pop cultural saturation, and digital media possibility—they enlist confident they can handle the worst they might see. But military life, and more specifically the experience of war, overwhelms them. Still proud of their service and eager to remember positive aspects of it, their nostalgic fondness rests uneasily alongside messed-up minds and damaged bodies. The texts they write and the movies made about them record this confused and fragmented sense of self.

In chapter one, “Lines of Sight: Watching War in Jarhead and My War: Killing Time in Iraq,” Peebles discusses two early war memoirs, Anthony Swofford’s 2003 Jarhead and Colby Buzzell’s 2005 My War: Killing Time in Iraq. Each describes how their authors’ fascination with pop culture, especially movies about Vietnam, influences both their time in service and how they write about it later. The chapter also dissects how Iraq differed from Vietnam, how the perspective of contemporary soldiers was shaped by their times and sense of history, and how new technologies—such as the DVD and the blog–impacted the fighting of the war tactically and personally.

In chapter two, “Making a Military Man: Iraq, Gender, and the Failure of the Masculine Collective,” Peebles explores three memoirs that illustrate how modern soldier identities clash with traditional military stereotypes and the concept of the military as a “masculine collective.” Peebles first analyzes Joel Turnipseed’s 2003 memoir Baghdad Express, in which Turnipseed presents himself as a philosopher-aesthete among the Marines with whom he deploys. Next, Peebles examines Nathaniel Fink’s 2005 memoir One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, in which Fink describes his ultimately failed attempt to project “hardness” to the soldiers under him. Finally, Peebles looks at Kayla Williams’ 2005 memoir Love My Rifle More Than You, in which Williams recounts her efforts to gain acceptance in the male-dominated units with whom she serves in Iraq.

In chapter three, “Consuming the Other: Blinding Absence in The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell and Here, Bullet,” Peebles compares the attitudes taken toward Iraqis in two works, John Crawford’s memoir The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell (2005) and Brian Turner’s volume of poetry Here, Bullet (2005). Where Crawford is “consumed” by hatred and disgust, Turner is filled with empathy and curiosity about Iraqis as people and for their history and culture. While the problems with Crawford’s point-of-view are obvious, Peebles also suggests that Turner’s surfeit of empathy also presents difficulty:  it complicates his role as a soldier and as a literary tactic risks aestheticizing the enemy “Other.”

Chapter four, “On U.S.: Combat Trauma on Film in Alive Day Memories and In the Valley of Elah,” examines two 2007 films: the HBO documentary Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq and Paul Haggis’s feature film In the Valley of Elah. Peebles suggests that both films—each about the physical and mental wounds endured by veterans—represent movie-making and storytelling as “sophisticated [narrative] prostheses” that complement therapeutic, medical, and mechanical recovery aids. While promising much, filmmaking also suffers the same limits as, say, a prosthetic leg or trauma medication—while trying to generate a return to “wholeness” that is probably not really attainable, they also exacerbate and extenuate the sense of loss and disjunction felt by the war’s casualties.

At the end of each chapter, Peebles renders a brief look at an Iraqi blog, text, or film that supplements the discussion of the American cultural artifacts under examination, and in her conclusion she compares The Hurt Locker to Vietnam movies such as Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now. Welcome to the Suck is published by a university press and features references to literary criticism heavyweights such as Judith Butler and Jurgen Habermas. But Peebles writes lucidly and economically, and the book is as organized as a five-paragraph mission order. Without describing specific battles and barely mentioning politics, Peebles delights the eager reader with the acuity and freshness of her insights. An academic text that is accessible to the interested general audience, Welcome to the Suck sets a high bar for the critical studies that are sure to follow.

Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck:  Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq.  Cornell University Press, 2011.

The Civil-Military Divide Within: Going After Bergdahl

Posted June 17, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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When Bowe Bergdahl disappeared from his small combat outpost in Paktika province in 2009, I was also in eastern Afghanistan. In the ensuing days I obtained a pretty solid first-hand understanding of the tumult the event caused. After a month the story faded from public view, but it lingered long in my mind as one of the most curious, unexplained, unfinished episodes of the war. What would have made Bergdahl do that? Why did so few other soldiers do the same thing? The furor after his release by the Taliban a couple of weeks ago confirmed my intuition that his story was captivating and important.

CacciatoEarlier this spring, I met a vet author who told me that he had written a draft of a novel based on the Bergdahl saga. For him, Bergdahl’s disappearance represented a contemporary version of Tim O’Brien’s 1978 Vietnam novel Going After Cacciato. In O’Brien’s novel, the title character slips away from his platoon while on patrol and tries to walk to Paris. It’s possible that Bergdahl, a reader and dreamy young man by all accounts, has read Going After Cacciato. But what is the larger import that accounts for the public fascination with his case? To me, Bergdahl enacted in real life a narrative that figures often in contemporary war lit, drama, and film—the dream of unofficial-but-honest unmediated contact between US service members and local national citizens. The movie The Hurt Locker provides the most available example—a soldier on his own slips the FOB perimeter to help a poor Iraqi family. I’ve seen two plays that also feature such scenarios, and I know there are others. Most portray such ad hoc interactions as kindly–soldiers now more human once free of military tyranny–but others show Americans acting evilly–enflamed by military dehumanization and now free of its discipline, they run wild.

I can surmise that such portraits represent efforts to illustrate the human side of war, but I doubt they ring true with many vets. Most I think would find them unrealistic if not downright dopey. In my experience soldiers didn’t care enough about Afghans or Iraqis to even think about risking their lives by leaving the safety of their units and their FOBs to be with them. Outside of our interpreters and military counterparts, we didn’t know Iraqis or Afghans or even really want to know them. The attitude of Rodriguez in Phil Klay’s “Prayer in the Furnace” is probably closer to the truth for many soldiers: “’The only thing I want to do is kill Iraqis,’” he says. That’s harsh, but the blighted relationships between Americans and Iraqis in Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen and Americans and Afghans in Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, marked by mutual hostility and distrust and played out within steps of FOB gates, also seem typical. To venture far outside the wire on one’s own was unfathomable.

But maybe Bergdhal was the exception that proves the rule. Maybe he really wanted to be among Afghans without the security of his weapon and squadmates, to see what happened for better or worse. Perhaps he thought there were good Afghans who would protect him or that the Taliban weren’t really interested or really so bad. Maybe his unit was just so screwed-up and unfriendly that he couldn’t stand it anymore. Or maybe he just got too much a snort of that wild Paktika air, which, as I’ve written about before, has turned other warriors into poets. Did he know Into the Wild, the story of a young man who assumes enormous risk by walking solo into the Alaskan outback? I wouldn’t be surprised.

PeeblesAs for me, I’m currently reading Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq, a study of contemporary war lit written by veterans up to about 2010. I’m only about 30 pages in, but am already impressed by Peebles’ insights about modern soldiers and how they represent themselves in memoirs, stories, and poetry. Peebles claims that the dominant theme in contemporary war lit is the desire of veteran-authors to transcend their identities as soldiers. Raised in a culture that now values diversity above almost all else, military men and women resist homogenous absorption by the martial world they have entered. And yet, Peebles continues, the anguish that fills the best books stems from the military’s way of imposing itself comprehensively on people’s sense of themselves. If not the uniforms and regulations, then the culture and the unit, or the demands of accomplishing missions. If not the mission, then fear, pain, and death. If not fear, pain, and death, then responsibility for what one has witnessed and done. As military identities and mindsets harden, they blot out memories of past lives and other selves, delimit possibilities for relationships in the present, and extinguish potential future options. It then becomes a question not of “being all you can be,” as the Army slogan would have it, but the military becoming all that you can be. Forget the divide between those who have served and those who have not, Peebles says, the real civil-military divide is within the psyches of soldiers and veterans:

“As young people, these soldiers have been encouraged to revel in their individuality, challenge restrictive categories, and make ample use of technology to do so. Contemporary American culture traffics in identities that are cyborg, hybrid, avatar…. The media savvy and extensive knowledge of pop culture, however, is anything but a balm for the realities of war, and only exacerbates their sense of isolation and impotence.”

“Other soldiers express dissatisfaction with traditional gender roles, most notably the dictates of masculinity, but their attempts to construct a viable alternative fail. Some arrive in Iraq ready to reach across national and ethnic divides and make a difference, but the invasion’s execution prohibits them from doing so, reinforcing their sense of being strangers in a strange land. Finally, traumatized and injured veterans find that after such radical changes to the mind and body, the most sophisticated treatment and technology in the world can’t always make them whole again.”

“[In contrast to soldiers in Vietnam War fiction] soldiers in these new war stories also feel betrayed—not necessarily by their nation, which many already believe is on a fool’s errand in Iraq, but by the personal resources they expect to carry them through. They are politically cynical, but personally idealistic, believing themselves to be beyond the strict categories of race and gender, to be technologically and culturally savvy. But these resources fail them as well… In war, the realities of biology, physics, and psychology can hit home with a vengeance—and there’s no way to log off.”

Peebles’ body of evidence is slim: Jarhead, My War, Here, Bullet, The Hurt Locker, and a few others. But there wasn’t much to work with as she wrote, so I think she has done well mining what was there for exciting discoveries. An interesting project would be to size up her conclusions in regard to the many novels about Iraq and Afghanistan that have emerged since she completed her study. Do Peebles’ ideas hold true for The Yellow Birds’ John Bartle? Billy Lynn of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk? Fobbit’s Abe Shrinkle? Sparta’s Conrad Farrell? Or, turning back to real life, how about Bowe Bergdahl, who grew up a writer of metaphysical manifestos and fan of Ayn Rand, who then found himself a soldier soldiering not just at the front, but in front of the front on the Pakistan border. At some point he just didn’t want to do that, or be that, anymore.

Here’s to a full physical, mental, and emotional recovery for Bowe Bergdahl and to a successful reunion with his parents. We look forward to learning much more about the facts of his disappearance and captivity.

Paktika in the distance, picture taken from Spera Combat Outpost, Khost Province, 2009.

Paktika province, Afghanistan in the distance, picture taken from Spera Combat Outpost, Khost province, 2009.

Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq. Cornell University Press, 2011.

Note:  An earlier version of this post linked to a blog post purporting to describe Bergdahl’s World of Warcraft fascination.  That post is in fact a fabrication, though a very inspired one at that. The influence of role-playing games in the lives of modern soldiers and the art that represents them is a subject for another day.

On War Photography: Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

Posted June 9, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The photojournalist creed is that news photographs are neither staged nor edited.  Credibility depends on the collective belief of editors, readers, and peers that a photojournalist’s work represents objective reality.  Of course there is artistry and craft involved in technical choices about cameras and film and in subjective decisions about which frame of many to transmit and publish.  But the basic premise is that photographs, especially those taken of conflict, constitute reliable documentary evidence.

Photojournalist Brian Walski, for example, was scandalized early in the Iraq War when he merged two pictures together to create a more striking image that was subsequently published in the Los Angeles Times.  Walski was fired and the Times forced to issue an apology for violating press photography ethical prohibitions on altering original photographs.


Later, New York Times photographer Damon Winter earned prizes for photographs taken in Afghanistan with an Iphone.  But controversy arose concerning Winter’s use of the Hipstamatic editing app.  To photojournalist purists, doing so represented an egregious after-the-fact manipulation of images meant to register as “authentic” and “credible.”


But Winter was not the only one who experimented with up-to-the-minute apps and techniques.  Ann Davlin, in an article for the photography website Photodoto called “The Latest Photographic Trends to Defeat Your Competitors,” surveyed Instagram to determine what were the most popular editing tricks of the first decade of the new millennium–a period that roughly coincides with our contemporary wars.  Intrigued by the article, I searched the Internet and my own stock of photographs for war images that also illustrate the techniques Davlin describes.

The most popular trend Davlin notes is one I’ve already mentioned:  “phoneography,” or the use of phone cameras.  I’ve featured Bill Putnam’s work many times on this blog because I think the world of it. Putnam is a hardcore camera geek who Tweets things like “The @16x9inc adapter is Heavy. Solid. Huge, bigger than I expected. But workable. Same compression of a 60 but view of a 27. #dlsr #video.  But on his last deployment to Afghanistan, he took many pictures with an Iphone and used Hipstamatic to enhance them.  The Iphone, he reports, was just ever-handy, and potential subjects rarely blanched at requests for pictures.


Second on Davlin’s list is “macrophotography,” or extreme close-ups. Again I’ll use a Bill Putnam example:


“HDR photography” refers to “high dynamic range” manipulation and editing of images to create special lighting effects.  Sounds technical, but you’ll recognize the effect as soon as you see it below:


“Light painting” refers to emphasizing or highlighting streaks of light:


Davlin’s next category is “nostalgic photography,” or the creation of vintage effects through the use of apps such as Hipstamatic.  USAF airman Ed Drew took nostalgic photography a step further by actually employing 19th-century tintype techniques to capture pictures of his fellow airmen in Afghanistan:


“Panoramic” or “wide-angle photography” is the last of the popular special effects listed by Davlin.  A great example is below:


In addition to the categories proposed by Davlin, a few other motifs or trends exemplify contemporary combat photography.  The first is night optic technique and style:


The second is not so much a style or technique but a contemporary means of distributing and consuming images:  photography (and video) that reflects the influence of reality TV, video share services such as YouTube, TV news video, and close circuit surveillance aesthetics.  The video below, taken by a security camera at a small outpost in Afghanistan, is not for the faint-hearted.  Live footage taken about five miles away from where I was at the time, it shows a car bomb explosion that killed 13 Afghan children.


My final category is photography that reflects the aesthetics of drone warfare or first-person shooter games.  My examples are not actual photographs from the warzones, but I little doubt that envisioning the war from the aspect of a UAV reigning carnage from the sky or a soldier aiming down the barrel of a weapon permeates our optical sense of how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have unfolded:


War photojournalism and artistic photography bring to the fore questions about treating violence and suffering as aesthetic subjects. How are we supposed to respond when we view graphic images that seem to glorify or prettify war?  On what terms can a graphic image be considered beautiful?  The ethical and aesthetic questions become even more complicated when photographers self-consciously manipulate images using the latest technology to generate effect.  I’ll have more to say on these questions in future posts.

Please take time to explore the web presence of the photographers whose work I have featured in this post.  Official websites and Facebook pages below:

Damon Winter website

Bill Putnam Photography

Gagan Dhiman Photography

Michael MacLeod Facebook

Ed Drew Photography

Luc Delahaye Facebook


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