The Great War and Modern Memory: Paul Fussell Reconsidered

Posted November 23, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

The Great War and Modern MemoryAt the bottom of this post is a video of the group reading at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn I moderated on Veterans Day. Below I’ve named my fellow readers, all veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan who are now active authors in print or on-line. I’ve listed the units with whom they deployed, along with their reading selections and the time their appearance can be found on the video. Each of us chose a passage from a work by a writer who fought in World War I or was profoundly affected by the war:

Introductions by Louis Crawford, Brooklyn Reading Works, and Brandon Willitts, Words After War.

Me, US Army officer, Embedded Transition Team advisor in Afghanistan:  Introduction of readers.

Eric Nelson, US Army officer, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Afghanistan: Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”; Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (13:00).

Lisbeth Prifogle, USMC officer, aviation, Iraq:  Frederic Manning, Her Privates We (19:20)

Jacob Sotak, US Army sergeant, Provincial Reconstruction Team, Afghanistan:  Albert-Paul Granier, Cockerels and Vultures (27:00)

Me:  Wallace Stevens, “Lettres d’un Soldat” (33:00).

Mariette Kalinowski, sergeant USMC, logistics and convoy ops, Iraq: Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (35:00).

Adrian Bonenburger US Army officer, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Afghanistan:  Louis Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night (43:00).

Nate Bethea, US Army officer, 25th Infantry Division, Afghanistan: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (47:00).

Vic Zlatanovic, US Army enlisted, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Afghanistan: Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (57:20).

Me:  Joyce Kilmer, “Rouge Bouquet” (1:06).

An obvious first link between Great War authors and contemporary war authors is the essential literariness of the effort to understand military experience. World War I authors such as Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon were highly educated and extremely aware of the British literary tradition they hoped to join and further with their works. Likewise, today, so many war authors are the products of first-class undergraduate educations and graduate MFA and journalism programs. Consciousness of what’s come before—not just of World War I authors, but also the great writers who came out of World War II and Vietnam—is also a feature distinguishable everywhere in contemporary war writing. There are other affinities, too. While listening to my fellow readers at the Old Stone House, I noted their attraction to passages that exposed the horror of World War I combat, reflected enormous disillusionment with stated national aims and ideals, and articulated the profound difficulty of getting on with life after the fighting was over. These are all real points of connection that suggest World War I literature remains relevant to our modern way of thinking about war and its consequences.

The scholarly work that explains best the influence of World War I and World War I writing is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. First published in 1975, Fussell’s study was groundbreaking in its time and seems not to have aged a bit. Its greatness lies not just in Fussell’s attention to the ideas and language of authors of memoirs, poetry, and fiction about World War I, which is fantastic, but in the way he documents wholesale, pervasive shifts in habits of expression and thought throughout British and American culture as a result of the war. That World War I helped usher in our modern era is not news, but no one has as precisely or substantially documented exactly how as well as Fussell, who served as an infantry lieutenant in World War II before commencing a long, distinguished career as a professor at Rutgers and Penn.

Astonishing insights and claims jump off of almost every page of The Great War and Modern Memory. For example, Fussell writes, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected…. But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing … myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century. It reversed the Idea of Progress.” Expanding on this grand claim, Fussell continues:

Furthermore, the Great War was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful “history” involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future. The shrewd recruiting poster depicting a worried father of the future being asked by his children, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” assumes a future whose moral and social pressures are identical with those of the past. Today, when each day’s experience seems notably ad hoc, no such appeal would shame the most stupid to the recruiting office. But the Great War took place in what was, compared with ours, a static world, where the values appeared stable and where the meanings of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable.

Irony, Fussell claims, was the dominant mode of the great World War I writing tradition—the revealed horror of war giving the lie to innocence and idealism—and remains the tradition’s gift to war writers afterward. But there were many more ways that the war changed the way not just war writers, but everyone, thought about not just war, but everything. Fussell hits the jackpot of literary scholarship by plausibly connecting epochal shifts in the ways that people think, act, and use language with the cultural conditions that engendered such change. World War I, for example, was when governments and the popular press developed a quasi-official language of euphemistic high-diction to gloss over the senselessness of war slaughter: “warriors” instead of “soldiers,” “the fallen” instead of “the dead,” for examples. In the same vein, World War I was when official pronouncements, the popular press, and soldier-authors began to describe war using the language of sportwriting and the stage. It would take about two seconds to find in today’s war writing passages that channel the sporting spirit of plucky comradeship in the face of adversity or the sense that becoming a soldier and going to war is akin to an actor playing a role; Fussell says these trends first emerged in World War I popular and literary writing. Fussell’s boldest claim, perhaps, is that the great divide between opposing forces in France—dug-in trenches separated by a desolate “no man’s land”—instituted a cultural habit of binary thinking that simultaneously divided all life into antagonistic domains and drove caring people into endlessly fretting about making connections and overcoming difference.

That’s something to consider, for sure, but it gives a hint of Fussell’s stretch. It would take a lot longer piece of writing than a blog post to fully canvass Fussell’s claims, let alone connect them systematically to today’s war writing. That needs to happen, but what really needs happening is for a scholar as shrewd as Fussell to take stock of the growing body of Iraq and Afghanistan war literature and tell us what it has to tell us with the same acuity and detail as Fussell does for World War I writing in The Great War and Modern Memory. Scholarship on 21st-century war literature and popular writing about war awaits its coming-of-age.

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 1975, 2000).

Two scholarly works that do address contemporary war literature are Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck:  Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (Cornell, 2011) and Ty Hawkins’ Reading Vietnam Amid the War on Terror (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2012). For more on World War I and World War II literature, see Patrick Deer’s Culture in Camouflage:  War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (Oxford, 2009), among others. While there’s a shortage of scholarly work on Iraq and Afghanistan war literature, there’s a vibrant, growing body of critical work on war and conflict photography that may help us understand war writing as well. I’ll cover those works in a future post.

Brooklyn, the War Lit Capital of the 21st Century

Posted November 16, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War


My title alludes to an essay titled “Paris, the Capital of the 19th Century” by Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish writer well-known to those who have studied literature, history, or the arts in grad school, if not so famous among the masses. Benjamin’s thesis was that Paris, through its up-to-the-minute confluence of architecture, city design, affinity for new modes of artistic reproduction, and rampant indulgence of consumer capitalism, was the “it” city of the nineteenth century. The most modern, the most happening, the most vital, the first home of all things new and exciting.

Walter Benjamin, war author? Benjamin, a Jew, died under mysterious circumstances trying to flee Nazi Germany.

Walter Benjamin, war author? Benjamin, a Jew, committed suicide in 1940 when his effort to flee Nazi Germany was stymied.

Today, my local paper ran a story about how even Paris, along with many other cities, strives to capture the spirit of Brooklyn, the New York City borough that currently crackles with artistic and entrepreneurial creative energy. From my perch 50 miles north, I’ve been fortunate enough the last couple of years to make many forays into Brooklyn-land and drink deep of its magical mystical mojo. It’s hard not to get excited about what one discovers or become eager to seek the approval of its brave, bold, tough, and talented residents. Along with almost everything else in every other domain of life that seems worth paying attention to, Brooklyn sets the tone and pace of the contemporary war writing scene, too, with veteran and interested non-veteran authors by the dozens tapping into Brooklyn’s vitality in hopes of infusing their writing with urgency and relevance. Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, and Roy Scranton, for examples, come immediately to mind as Brooklyn-based war authors who preside over not just the local, but national war lit scene by modeling excellence with their own work and exuding a generous spirit of encouragement to other war writers and readers.

On Veterans Day, I was invited by the war writers collective Words After War to moderate a group reading by up-and-coming war authors at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn. The Old Stone House, an historical site associated with the Revolutionary War Battle of Brooklyn, has for several years co-sponsored a Vets Day reading with an organization called Brooklyn Reading Works. The concept this year was for contemporary war writers to read selections from World War I authors in homage to the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War. I liked the idea immediately—I’ve got plenty to say about the links between contemporary war writing and the WWI war writing tradition of Owen, Sassoon, and Hemingway, and I was eager to see which authors attracted the attention of other contemporary vets.

I’ll save the analysis for another column, however, and will, regrettably, for now shortchange attention to my fellow readers in this post. Below are my remarks and selections, for what they are worth. Thank you Words After War, the Old Stone House, Brooklyn Reading Works, and vet-authors Eric Nelson, Mariette Kalinowski, Lisbeth Prifogle, Jacob Sotak, Vic Zlatanovic, Nate Bethea, and Adrian Bonenberger. Most of the authors named are already in print and online, and all are working on projects that will make us pay even closer attention in the future.


“I’m honored to be here today to moderate Veterans Day: Writing War Fiction and Memoir as a guest of The Old Stone House, Brooklyn Reading Works, and Words after War. Tonight marks at least the third, or maybe even more, year in a row that Veterans Day has been commemorated with a literary event in this historic location. The format for this year’s event was conceived by Words After War executive director Brandon Willitts, who noted that 2014 was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, a war notable for the quality of the literature produced by those who fought it. Brandon’s idea was to have veterans of our contemporary post-9/11 wars who are active authors of fiction, poetry, memoir, essay, and nonfiction pay homage to the warrior-authors of the Great War, and in so doing render tribute to all those who have served our nation in its armed forces.

“I want to consider the particularly Brooklyn aspects of our endeavor here tonight. Brooklyn today is known for its hospitality to creative individuals—authors, artists, and musicians. But we might also remember its even stronger tradition of sending its sons and now its daughters to defend the nation and fight its wars. I couldn’t find exact numbers of Brooklynites who fought in World War I, but surely they were substantial, as New York state provided by far the greatest number of soldiers to the overseas army that fought in Europe. You can search online the names of those New York residents who died in World War I, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the first name, Boatswain Mate First Class Aksel Aanensen, and darn near the last, Private First Class Samuel Zuckerman, were from Brooklyn. We can also learn that a woman from Brooklyn, Daisy Kirkterp, a nurse, is memorialized for giving her life during World War I.

“Veterans Day is not Memorial Day, but those who gave their life in combat are a special subset of those whom we honor on Veterans Day, so let’s render tribute to Brooklyn residents who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Captain John McKenna, USMC (Iraq, 2007), and Army Specialist Deon Taylor (Afghanistan, 2008). We want above all to be sure that those who die in combat do not die in vain, and the families of Captain McKenna and Specialist Taylor should take great comfort in, among other things, their beloved lost ones are remembered in the proud, tough, caring community from which they came.”


Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

“Wallace Stevens is not usually thought of as a World War I poet, but the great American modernist appeared in print as early as 1914 with a poem, called “Phases,” that directly engaged the war. Shortly after the war ended, he wrote “Lettres d’un Soldat,” a passage from which I will now read. It is like no other Wallace Stevens poem or no other war poem that I’ve ever read, which makes it very cool indeed.”

John Smith and his son John Smith,
And his son’s son John, and-a-one
And-a-two and-a-three

And-a-rum-tum-tum, and-a
Lean John, and son, lean John,
And his lean son’s John, and-a-one
And-a-two and-a-three

And-a-drum-rum-rum, and-a
Rich John, and son, rich John,
And his rich son’s John, and-a-one
And-a-two and-a-three

And-a-pom-pom-pom, and-a
Wise John, and son, wise John,
And his wise son’s John, and-a-one
And-a-two and-a-three

And-a-fee and-a-fee and-a-fee

Voila la vie, la vie, la vie


Joyce Kilmer

Joyce Kilmer

“I will close by reading a poem by a poet who was not a Brooklynite, but who fought and died in the Fighting 69th Infantry, a legendary New York City unit. Sergeant Joyce Kilmer, the author of the famous poem “Trees,” and the namesake for Brooklyn’s Joyce Kilmer Square, wrote “Rouge Bouquet” just before his death in France in 1918. The poem, which is about the deaths of his fellow soldiers by artillery barrage in a French forest named Rouge Bouquet, is very much of its time not just in regard to its depictions of the horror of war, but in regard to its notions of duty, courage, and honor. We have more complicated notions about these values than did those who fought World War I, in part because of the test-by-fire the values were subjected to in the Great War. But let’s end with a poem that unabashedly renders the old virtues in the old ways, because the sentiments, despite how many times the world has turned since, can still stir us today.”

In a wood they call the Rouge Bouquet
There is a new-made grave to-day,
Built by never a spade nor picK
Yet covered with earth ten meters thick.
There lie many fighting men,
Dead in their youthful prime,
Never to laugh nor love again
Nor taste the Summertime.

For Death came flying through the air
And stopped his flight at the dugout stair,
Touched his prey and left them there,
Clay to clay.
He hid their bodies stealthily
In the soil of the land they fought to free
And fled away.

Now over the grave abrupt and clear
Three volleys ring;
And perhaps their brave young spirits hear
The bugle sing:
‘Go to sleep!
Go to sleep!’
Slumber well where the shell screamed and fell.
Let your rifles rest on the muddy floor,
You will not need them any more.
Danger’s past;
Now at last,
‘Go to sleep!’

There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than this place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and nobly died.
Never fear but in the skies
Saints and angels stand
Smiling with their holy eyes
On this new-come band….

And up to Heaven’s doorway floats,
From the wood called Rouge Bouquet
A delicate cloud of bugle notes
That softly say:
Comrades true, born anew, peace to you!
Your souls shall be where the heroes are
And your memory shine like the morning-star.
Brave and dear,
Shield us here.

Left to right:  Nate Bethea, Eric Nelson, Adrian Bonenberger, Brandon Willits, Mariette Kalinowski, Vic Zlatanovic, Lisbeth Prifogle, me, Jacob Sotak

Nate Bethea, Eric Nelson, Adrian Bonenberger, Brandon Willitts, Mariette Kalinowski, Vic Zlatanovic, Lisbeth Prifogle, me, Jacob Sotak

Thanks to Melissa Parrish, Iraq US Army vet, for turning me on to Wallace Stevens’ “Lettres d’un Soldat,” and in particular the great “John Smith and son John Smith” passage.

Dodge (War) Poetry Festival 2014

Posted October 29, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , ,
Elyse Fenton at Dodge Poetry Festival 14.

Elyse Fenton, Dodge Poetry Festival 2014.

War subjects and themes were the focus of this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival, the nation’s largest celebration of poetry, held annually in Newark, New Jersey. The marquee event was a contemporary war poem extravaganza called Another Kind of Courage, about which more later. But sprinkled throughout the readings and panel discussions featuring big-time civilian names such as Gary Snyder and Robert Pinsky were poets familiar to readers of this blog such as Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jehanne Dubrow. The commingling of war-themed poems within the greater flow of versification rendered ample opportunity to think about how war has inflected poetry generally in the 21st century. It also allowed one to take stock of how a first-generation of contemporary war poets might be moving on to subjects and approaches more centered within the poetry mainstream.

Jehanne Dubrow

Jehanne Dubrow

Fenton, for example, appeared on a panel that featured among others Richard Blanco, a gay Hispanic-American poet who read at President Obama’s second inauguration, but America’s recent wars were barely mentioned by the participants. Fenton, the wife of a veteran, read only “After the Blast” from her acclaimed first work Clamor. Her other poems, from a current work-in-progress called “Sweet Insurgency,” had little to do with deployment, combat, or life on the homefront, though the title alone attests to the lingering persistence of things, words, and ideas military in Fenton’s apprehension of the world. Dubrow, for her part, read just three poems from her impressive work Stateside, to include one I love called “Nonessential Equipment,” on a panel that featured no other war poets. Her husband continues to serve in the Navy, but Dubrow has turned her attention to subjects other than the vexations of martial marital relations. Still, the interest in violence and trauma inherent in Stateside continues, or is even intensified, in the poems Dubrow read from a soon-to-be published work about her mother’s harrowing life growing up in El Salvador.

As for Turner, readings at Dodge and another one a week earlier in New York gave ample evidence that he has plenty of poetry to draw on that doesn’t explicitly touch on his service as an infantryman in Iraq. Many examples can be found in Phantom Noise, but others, some that predate his military service and others written after, look at family history, regional influence, and the complexities of modern life. In New York, at an event called Stage Meets Page, Turner traded turns reading with a performance poet named Rives, a winner of freestyle contests and a giver of TED talks. Rives is probably used to blowing poetic competition off the stage, but Turner more than held his own, riffing off Rives’ cues and dipping deep into a black notebook full of funny, startling, brilliant verse that had far more to do with life out of uniform than in. For an example of the same from Dodge, on a panel on masculinity and poetry that also featured the aforementioned Pinsky and Blanco, Turner read “Zippo” from Phantom Noise.

Another Kind of Courage poets and musicians take their bows, Dodge Poetry Festival 2014.

Another Kind of Courage poets and musicians take their bows, Dodge Poetry Festival 2014.

The Another Kind of Courage event brought Turner, Dubrow, and Fenton together with wise war-poet old hands Yusef Komunyakaa and Marilyn Nelson and a group of younger vet poets associated with a collective called Warrior Writers. Together, as organized by festival program director Martin Farawell, they recounted a narrative-in-verse about deployment through the multiple voices of a large and diverse body of poems read by their authors. The general arc of the story focused on psychological trauma and political outrage, which is understandable and dramatic, but by no means the be-all and end-all of what war poetry is and can be. Still, Another Kind of Courage inspired wonder about the possibilities of staging war poetry and showcased many fantastic individual performances. Warrior Writers’ Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren galvanized the audience with the Eminem-like “PTSD ( T.ry S.omething D.ifferent)” and Jennifer Pacanowski’s “Parade,” read to the accompaniment of a simple guitar strum, did much the same in a softer key.

Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren at Dodge Poetry Festival 14

Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, after the Another Kind of Courage performance. Dodge Poetry Festival 2014

For all of the above, a highlight of Dodge for me was meeting Robert Pinsky for the first time since I took a class from him almost 30 years ago, when, fed up with graduate school, I asked him write a letter of recommendation for my application to Officer Candidate School. Pinsky, a former national poet laureate, published a volume of poetry called Gulf Music in 2007. Interested in knowing if it addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I purchased a copy and read it between acts at Dodge. I didn’t have to look long, for the very first poem, “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” ruminates on torture in the name of politics as perpetrated by oppressive regimes around the world, the United States unfortunately not excepted. But Pinsky, it turns out, is ambivalent or confused about conflict and violence more than he is stridently opposed; many of the poems in Gulf Music document him trying to work out the exact relationship between the propensity to inflict harm and the inclination to create art. In “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” for example, he writes:

The [torturers] created nicknames for torture devices:
The Airplane. The Frog. Burping the Baby.

Not that those who behead the helpless in the name
Of God or tradition don’t also write poetry.

In “Inman Square Incantation,” he writes:

Forgive us, we don’t exactly believe or disbelieve
What the President tells us regarding the great issues
Of peace, justice, and war—skeptical, but distracted

By the swarm of things.

That seems about right, but in a poem (perhaps aptly) titled “Stupid Meditation on Peace,” the drift of Pinsky’s thought turns more sinister and daring. He begins by describing himself as an “Insomniac monkey-mind,” an image that sets up a series of stanzas that consider the proposition that art depends on the dark energy of conflict:

We choose one of two tributaries: the River
Of Peace, or the River of Productivity.
The current of Art he says runs not between

Banks with birdsong in the fragrant shadows—
No, an artist must follow the stinks and rapids
Of the branch that drives millstones and dynamos.

Is peace merely a vacuum, the negative
Of creation, or the absence of war?
The teaching says Peace is a positive energy:

Still something in me resists that sweet milk,
My mind resembles my restless, inferior cousin
Who fires his shit in handfuls from his cage.

Pinsky’s not wrong, I feel, and he’s way too hard on himself. But these are hard things to say or prove, and must be couched in terms of irony, possibility, and humor, if not self-deprecation and laceration. For certain though, Pinsky the poet is tied up with the life course that took me to the battlefields of eastern Afghanistan: the letter of recommendation I still have is the material proof.

Robert Pinsky seems a little dismayed by my reappearance in his life.

Robert Pinsky seems a little dismayed by my reappearance in his life.

Robert Pinsky, Gulf Music. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007.

“Tomorrow the War Will Have a Picnic”: Global Perspectives on the Global War on Terrorism

Posted October 19, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , ,

arts_books2-1_49“Tomorrow the War Will Have a Picnic” is a poem written by an Iraqi author named Abdul Razaq Al-Rubaiee on the eve of the American invasion in 2003.  It and other poems written by Iraqi poets are collected in the anthology Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq (2008). Flowers of Flame came to my attention when a scholar proposed to speak about it for a panel titled Global Perspectives on the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that I am trying to set up for the American Comparative Literature Association conference next March in Seattle. Alas, as I write I don’t have enough papers to meet the ACLA’s requirement of six to make the panel a go. But the entries I have received have already done much of what I hoped to accomplish by alerting me to the work of non-American authors who have written stories, poetry, and plays about Iraq and Afghanistan.  Flowers of Flame is one example, and below are a few more:

The Blind Man's GardenPakistani-British novelist Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden (2013), tells the story of two brothers who enter Afghanistan from Pakistan not to fight Americans, but to help wounded Afghans. Aslam’s earlier novel The Wasted Vigil (2008) is also set in Afghanistan.  An interview with Aslam at Bookslut is especially not to be missed for many reasons–I’ll quote my favorite part, in which Aslam describes how he taught himself to be a writer:

So over the course of the next 10 or 11 years I read everything. I would go to person A and say, “Tell me, who’s a great writer?” William Faulkner. So I read everything by William Faulkner. I would begin with the first novel and end up with the last novel. I would go to person B and say, ‘Who’s a great writer?’ Thomas Hardy. I read everything by Thomas Hardy, sequentially. Who’s a great writer? D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Dostoevsky.

And then I wanted to know, how much thought is allowed in one paragraph? How many images are allowed per page? What is a comma? And so I copied out the whole of Moby-Dick by hand. I copied out the whole of As I Lay Dying by Faulkner by hand. I copied out Lolita. I copied out Beloved. I copied out The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch….

Christine Evans is an Australian-born playwright who now lives in America. Her multi-media play You Are Dead. You Are Here (2013, with more productions coming in 2015) portrays a relationship between a male American soldier and a young female Iraqi blogger.  An earlier play called Slow Falling Bird (2003) features an Afghan girl living in limbo in an Australian immigrant detention center.  Evans’ other plays–Trojan Barbie (2009) and Weightless (2007)–don’t invoke Iraq and Afghanistan directly, but instead comment obliquely on modern life as it has been shaped by a decade of war.  Trojan Barbie, by-the-by, draws inspiration from Euripides’ The Trojan Women to portray the plight of women in the midst of a war, conflict, and violence-saturated historical epoch.  In the latest PMLA, a seriously scholarly journal published by the Modern Language Association, Ellen McLaughlin describes her own stage adaptation of Sophocles’ Ajax called Ajax in Iraq (2009).  Evans’ and McLaughlin’s works add two more data points to the now indisputable pile of evidence proving that classic Greek literature has been the go-to sourcepool for contemporary war writers.


I’ve appealed to ACLA for an exception-to-policy and will soon find out if my panel will occur or not.  I hope so, but even if it doesn’t, many thanks to the scholars who brought Flowers of Flame, The Blind Man’s Garden, and You Are Dead. You Are Here to our attention.  I look forward to reading both the original works and the critical commentary.

Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq.  Edited by Sadek Mohammed, Soheil Najm, Haier Al-Kabi, and Don Veach. Michigan State University Press, 2008.

Nadeen Aslam.  The Blind Man’s Garden.  Knopf, 2013.

Christine Evans.  You Are Dead.  You Are Here.  Indie Theater Now, 2013.

Congratulations, Phil Klay!

Posted October 15, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: General

Phil Klay outside Siobhan Fallon's father's bar, the South Gate Tavern, Highland Falls, New York.

Phil Klay outside Siobhan Fallon’s father’s bar, the South Gate Tavern, Highland Falls, New York, spring 2014.

The National Book Foundation announced its prestigious National Book Awards today, and Phil Klay’s collection of Iraq war short stories Redeployment was one of five finalists in the fiction category. Redeployment joins Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, both finalists in 2012, as recent war lit short-list fiction nominees.

October in the Railroad War Lit Earth

Posted October 11, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Fort Riley, Kansas, October 2008

Fort Riley, Kansas, October 2008

“October in the Railroad Earth” is the title of a beautiful prose-poem by Jack Kerouac, who served for about a week in the Navy during World War II and somewhat longer in the Merchant Marine. I have already used the title of Kerouac’s fantastic ode to autumn for the title of a post on my old blog. There it actually made a lot of sense as I wrote about long, glorious days of training in the warm Kansas sunshine while we prepared to deploy to Afghanistan. But I can’t resist repurposing the title, so here we go. A potpourri of miscellaneous war-lit notes is not my usual modus, but ideas, events, and publications have been accumulating so fast that I can’t possibly give each the extended consideration it deserves, so please bear with me.

Late in August, I attended a Sunday afternoon writing workshop co-sponsored by New Jersey branches of the Combat Paper Project and WarriorWriters. With veterans of Somalia and Vietnam I traded writing prompts relevant to military experience and we read each other our responses. Here’s one I wrote on “environment”:

I find very few soldiers wax poetical about Iraq.  Nothing about the flat desert, the hot sun, and the squalid chaos of the cities seems to have impressed them.  Afghanistan, on the other hand, exerted an enchanting allure on many of the soldiers who served there.  The high mountains, often snow-capped and surprisingly forested, the clean air (at least outside of Kabul), the ancient villages built into the sides of wadi and mountain walls, and the roads that snake through the treacherous mountain passes all possess intoxicating powers. Quickening everyone’s step and filling them with wonder, the landscape makes soldiers fall halfway in love with a country that might kill them.

Speaking of falling in love with soldiering in Afghanistan, check out Brian Castner’s impressive essay in the LA Review of Books called “Afghanistan, A Stage Without a Play” on why so little fiction has been written about Afghanistan compared to Iraq. It’s curious, Castner wonders, why Afghanistan seems to have inspired triumphalist memoirs by Navy SEAL team members and infantry lieutenants, while the literary output of Iraq has been fiction and poetry written by disillusioned enlisted soldiers. I’m honored to have been quoted by Castner alongside several other veteran-writers. Along the same lines, I was fortunate to view the movie Korengal and hear Sebastian Junger speak about his love for the soldiers he filmed in action on COP Restrepo in Afghanistan. The next night, in contrast, at Penumbra, a hip photography exhibition space in New York City, I heard Benjamin Busch speak more grimly about the photographs he took in Iraq first as a deployed Marine and earlier this year when he returned to write a story for Harper’s called “Today is Better than Yesterday.” The twinned events inspired many reflections about the linkage of war, words, and images about which I hope to write soon. On a more personal level, Junger and Busch are men-after-my-own-heart, for sure: older, deeply cerebral and artistic gentlemen driven to delve deep into the mysteries of the manly realm of war. Speaking of which, I spent a fun, rewarding afternoon in New York with Maurice Decaul, ex-USMC Iraq vet, ex-Columbia, and now in NYU’s graduate fiction writing program. Decaul writes like the second coming of John Keats, as illustrated by a New York Times essay titled “Memory Lapse” and the poem “Shush,” featured below. But more importantly, Decaul is a genial warm soul who instinctively gravitates towards helping people and getting them organized for effective action and life. As he regaled with me stories about the Columbia and NYU veterans’ programs, I realized exactly how curmudgeonly have been my own efforts in this regard.

Another gentleman, Brian Turner, is reading several times in the NY-NJ-Conn area in the coming months following the release of his memoir My Life as a Foreign Country. I hope to make a couple of the readings, in particular the Dodge Poetry festival “Another Kind of Courage war poetry event on Saturday October 25 in Newark, NJ. The bill also includes Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Nelson, Jehanne Dubrow, and Elyse Fenton, all poets whose work I know and admire. On Veterans Day, I’ll join several other vet-writers to read selections from our favorite World War I authors at an event organized by Words After War and Brooklyn Reading Works at The Old Stone House in Brooklyn.

I also have two conference presentations lined up for next spring. In March, in Seattle, I am moderating a panel at the American Comparative Literature Association conference on literature inspired by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan written by non-Americans. As I write, nobody has submitted a paper proposal, which honestly I kind of anticipated. But if you are an academic and know of a work about the post-9/11 wars written by someone who wasn’t born in the US of A, please consider joining me. In April, I will participate on a panel on war memoir at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Minneapolis. Also on the panel are Ron Capps, Colin Halloran, and Kayla Williams, so I’m very excited to take part. AWP is a huge party, for those who have never been, in addition to being an intellectual feast for the literary-inclined, so please join us if you can.

And so it goes, on and on. To Jack-y Kerouac-y, maybe not a patron saint of war writing, but certainly a kindred spirit and fellow traveller of all who burned to live intensely and then express themselves through their art.

Jack Kerouac's Navy enlistment photo, 1942.

Jack Kerouac’s Navy enlistment photo, 1942.

War Memoir/Poetry: Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War

Posted September 28, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

I’m curious why there haven’t been more post-9/11 war novels written from the perspective of a wife and that portray marriage and family life in the period after redeployment. Have we seen any? Siobhan Fallon’s collection of short stories You Know When the Men are Gone, when it appeared in 2011, seemed to announce that marital tension wrought by war would be THE subject most attractive to talented war writers and alert readers. And yet, since then, not so much of anything, really. A story here and there. Some poetry. But no long fiction, from Fallon or anyone else.

Maybe the options for portraying martial domestic life are limited. A chirpy story of foibles on the family homefront while Daddy’s off killing Taliban and Al Qaeda bad guys followed by a happy family trip to Disneyland seems neither serious nor dramatic enough, you know what I mean? A failure of imagination might also be involved. Perhaps, though, it just takes guts to depict the guts of marital strain. The blogosphere is full of writing by savvy wives of deployed service members. Writers such as Andria Williams and Angie Ricketts I’m sure don’t miss much, and their posts give the impression that they could say a lot more even than they do about military married life. But as wives of officers, they, perhaps, are bound by the same chin-up, perpetually optimistic codes of propriety that bind their husbands, and that might be what keeps them from telling all the stories, even in fictional form, that they might. I know it’s true for me, still an active-duty officer, as I think about writing short stories and novels. A little too much interest in keeping up appearances, which sometimes earns officers the accusation that they “are not real people,” is even more toxic for a would-be writer of fiction. You’ve got to put it out there, and you can’t be afraid when it gets a little messy.

Wife and WarAn interesting twist on this line-of-inquiry is afforded by Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War. Subtitled “the memoir,” it more accurately is a memoir-in-verse, as Flynn has spaced out her sentences and paragraphs a few to a page in a way that resembles long-line poetry and mixed these passages with more conventional snippets of lyric verse. Most of the lyric passages refer to the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, which Flynn witnessed. An example reads:

But what I didn’t know then is what marriage is like, how it is a net,
like the tulle of my wedding dress. How it is.

The wire mesh, found inside a wall,

Found out on a street, after a building falls down.

How it entangles you, and how hard it is to walk away.

Flynn has lived through a lot more than just the horrifying experience of being present at Ground Zero. An equally traumatizing event from childhood, a miscarriage (or two?), and a rocky patch in her relationship with her Navy officer husband following his deployment all make their way into Wife and War’s 400+ pages. My interest here though is not Flynn’s life but her choice of poetry to tell her story. Long narrative poems haven’t been in literary fashion since the first half of the nineteenth century, but I can understand their appeal to contemporary writers looking for a means of expression more starkly stated than diffusely explained while still being more suggestive than explicit. The modus of Wife and War is to render a striking scene, event, or image minimalistically and then hint at rather than explore and analyze the cluster of emotions, perspectives, and implications that might accrue to it. For example, on one page:

I am still awake, in this new house, our bed, and my husband’s arm,
crossing over my chest, like a deadbolt.

[Next page]

And I think about the mechanism of a lock. The safety on the M4 my
husband carried for one year in Afghanistan,locked but ready.Or the way
we sleep, too often, now, now that he is home, how we sleep, together, in
our bed, but locked on opposite sides. Or our hearts, that organ we assign
too much to, or maybe, not enough, locked inside of our rib cages.

[Next page]

That’s good, plenty good enough as is for most. But there’s also a lot of white space left on the page that might be used to fill in details, provide context, sketch in character (and more characters), explain a little more, if not better, in either fact or fiction. Kudos to Flynn for thinking how the resources of literature might be brought to bear on one’s personal narrative, kudos to her for letting us see the shape that marriage to a service member might take. Wife and War’s amalgam of memoir and verse probably won’t inaugurate a new public affection for narrative poetry, but it does bravely beckon other war writers to give the spaces inside a military marriage–its guts–the attention they deserve.

Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War: The Memoir. 2013.


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