War Lit 2014: Here Here! But What’s the There There?

Posted December 21, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Here here to war lit 2014, a year that brought us Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, and Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, among many excellent others. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars, ferocious as they were at times, never captured the nation’s undivided attention. Now nine years after Fallujah, five full years after my own redeployment, fighting in Iraq flickers back to life while conflict in Afghanistan drizzles on. Time will tell what recent events mean in terms of American soldier boots on the ground, but the wars now seem to burn more hotly in the nation’s literary imagination than they ever did in its political awareness. War lit has established itself as a steady persistent presence in the minds of authors, publishers, critics, and readers. Not the biggest deal going, by any means, but book people seem far more willing now to give the wars their due than when 20 American soldiers a week were dying.

Phil Klay and Hassan Blasim

Brian Turner at Custer's grave, West Point, New York.

Brian Turner at Custer’s grave, West Point, New York.

What is the right relationship of high-minded war literature and the nation at large? In World War II and even more so Vietnam, war literature, or at least a lot of it, acted subversively to question and undermine official pronouncements and stabs at controlling speech and thought. But in the 2000s and current decade, there seems to be no “there there” in terms of a dominant narrative or popular consensus against which our most sensitive and imaginative authors might set themselves, no greater truth on whose behalf they wield their words and stories. Leaving Blasim, an Iraqi expatriate, out of it, Klay and Turner, good as they are, rarely mock the wielders of power, so it’s hard to say how dangerous they are to the status quo. What government policy, cultural understanding, or body of literature, art, and film do they resist or subvert? Official sanctioning of torture and cross-border drone strikes? The “support the troops” ethos and the caricature of the troubled vet? The Navy SEAL and sniper memoir and Hollywood war sagas such as Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor, and Fury? Yes to all, but the best might be to come. War lit doesn’t need to more polemical, just more expansive. Its focus on the lived life of individual soldiers and the plight of veterans, noble as it is, also feels somewhat preparatory, as if the genre in toto might be waiting for even more acute and impassioned observers to capture in the most accurate proportions the vexed connectivity of soldier experience, the wars at large, and the national mood.

The novel would seem to be the medium for just such a project, and we might remember the excitement of 2012 when The Yellow Birds, The Watch, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and Fobbit lit up the war lit scene. 2013 and 2014 seem not to have delivered the same wallop, but I’ve probably missed a thing or two. In the coming weeks I’ll turn my attention to a slew of 2014 (and older) releases. Waiting on my shelf are Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Masha Hamilton’s What Changes Everything, Aaron Gwynn’s Wynne’s War, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, and Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden. And 2015 will bring Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, and Matt Gallagher’s Young Blood. Ackerman, Goolsby, and Gallagher combine significant war experience and impressive writing talent, so as I pitch into my New Year’s reading, my hopes are high, very high. I hope yours are, too.

Tim O’Brien’s “Story Truth” and “Happening Truth” in the Contemporary War Novel

Posted December 7, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Do war stories need militarily-accurate detail to be compelling? Lots of contemporary war fiction bandies the author’s familiarity with up-to-the-minute jargon, gear, and nomenclature, as if the story’s success depended on readers tipping their hats to the author’s first-hand knowledge of what an MRAP, IFAK, or ETT might be. And why not? Iraq and Afghanistan were different from Vietnam, Korea, and World War II, and some of that difference is reflected in the gear, tactics, and language used by those who fought it. Why shouldn’t authors include a little bit or a lotta-bit of verisimilar detail in their stories?

But that’s not all there is to the question. Could one say that some contemporary war fiction is overly dependent on the insider knowledge that comes with “having been there, and done that”? Waving their litanies of military lingo and equipment as badges of authenticity, they distract attention from the author’s story-telling chops, attract gullible, easily-impressed readers, and repel discriminating ones who resent callous efforts at being manipulated.

thingstheycarriedTim O’Brien, the most important pre-9/11 writer to the contemporary war lit scene, defines these issues most succinctly. In the magnificent “The Things They Carried,” he itemizes the gear carried by infantrymen in Vietnam in long lists that stand-alone from the explicit events of the story. The effect is not only intoxicating, but groundbreaking. I don’t think the generation of World War II authors—Mailer, Styron, Heller, and Jones—ever slowed down the narrative flow of their novels in such a way to focus attention on the equipment and verbiage that enveloped their characters. But after O’Brien, almost every American vet and civilian author of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction that I can think of somewhere makes such a move. Even a lefty-feminist poet such as Julianna Spahr, in her poem “The Convergence of Everything That Breathes” can’t resist name-checking the precise, specific equipment that help define how we fight now.  Other arch-examples of the tendency include Phil Klay’s story “Frago” and Paul Wasserman’s poem  “15 Months, 22 Days.”  Klay’s and Wasserman’s works are self-conscious commentaries on the practice, and so too is Spahr’s, but for other authors the tendency seems to be more unknowing, or even craven.

Is any of this necessary? Tim O’Brien, again, leads the way in helping us understand. In an Atlantic magazine essay titled “Telling Tales,” he derides an over-reliance on verisimilar detail and instead argues that a story above all must be an original, striking act of the imagination. For O’Brien, realistic description is only a secondary attribute of fiction, one bound to eventually bore the reader unless the tale starts tickling the fancy through its artistic and fanciful rendering, or even contorting, of reality. Helen Benedict, in her review of Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives, takes another approach by arguing that reveling in military-specific jargon, equipment, and tactics amounts to glorifying war. I half-suspect she’s right, even as I wait for war writers to expand their reach to more and different realms of the Iraq and Afghanistan war experience, a move that can only be made by bringing the material and linguistic reality of the wars into view.

A good case in point in this discussion is Fives and Twenty-Fives itself. I praised it in my last post for subjecting the world of military movement in armored vehicles in Iraq to artistic rendering. I also hinted that Pitre was very observant about how military service shapes the habits of perception of service members. It’s not just what soldiers and Marines see and experience, it’s how they are trained to see and experience by military method and the danger of war. A chapter titled “The Rule” in Fives and Twenty-Fives illustrates by vividly portraying a small-unit patrol brief and the ensuing patrol. Almost every detail offered by Pitre suggests the ways that the Marines in the story have been altered by their service.

The platoon sergeant, Gunny Stout, proclaims, “Five and twenty-five’s the rule,” by which he means that the Marines on patrol will not look at just whatever they want to, but at assigned fields of vision, first five meters out, then 25. But Gunny Stout himself has also been changed. The body armor and sunglasses he wears, by hiding his middle-age flab and wrinkles, takes years off his appearance: “he looked like he could’ve been in grade school.” Gunny Stout, smart as a gunny should be, directs at every turn the absorption of patrol brief information by the Marines. He commands the platoon medic to stand next to the bomb-defusing technician, because it “helped the Marines” by inspiring confidence and unity. “Everyone stood still when [Gunny] talked,” “staring at the dirt during the convoy brief.” But when Gunny Stout commands, “Eyes up,” everyone directs their gaze his way. The platoon’s attention during the patrol brief is also monitored by the second sergeant in the chain-of-command, Michelle Gomez. Sergeant Gomez is “the only Marine allowed to move around during the convoy brief.” “She circled us,” Pitre’s narrator tells us, “like a sheepdog, making sure we all paid attention.”

Feminist critics remind us that oppression of women is often manifested through control of their bodies. They would have a field day with a scene in which Sergeant Gomez, prior to going on duty, works her long hair into a bun to meet the demands of military grooming standards. But Sergeant Gomez, no one’s victim or object of suppression, circumvents easy categorizing. When the narrator catches her fixing her hair, Sergeant Gomez fires back: “She notices me and narrowed her eyes, all mad. Like, what the fuck you looking at? Turn around. Get back to work, asshole.” The narrator, a young male medic, is unconcerned. He actually likes being spoken to like that. He’s smart enough to notice the contortions wrought on civility by military service, but in the context of actually being a Marine in the middle of a war he totally understands where Sergeant Gomez is coming from. And there is no one, absolutely no one, whom he trusts more than Gunny Stout and Sergeant Gomez to roll out the gate with on the unit’s daily mission to defuse and fill booby-trapped IED craters.

The scene strikingly portrays the flows of deference, obedience, and resistance characteristic of enlisted life in the service. Gunny Stout, the senior non-commissioned officer in the platoon, is the master of passive-aggressive instantiation of chain-of-command orders and policies, no matter how much they are hated. After the platoon leader, Lieutenant Donovan, directs the platoon to stop writing obscene and derogatory graffiti in the FOB port-a-johns, Gunny Stout affirms the directive, but modifies it in terms the junior troops appreciate:

Then, his voice so low the lieutenant couldn’t hear, Gunny Stout said to us, “I’m running over to the shitters after we break. In fact, I’ll give the whole platoon three minutes to do the same. You know that glistening, goddamn beautiful cock in the last stall on the right? I want a picture before it’s gone forever. One of you miscreants is a regular Leonardo da Vinci of dicks, and I’d hate to see the evidence erased for all time. Fucking tragedy.”

The platoon executes not just dutifully but laughingly, and the story doesn’t end there. On patrol, a sergeant named Marceau requests the other two sergeants in the platoon, one of whom is Sergeant Gomez, to switch to an unauthorized radio frequency the NCOs use to communicate freely out of earshot of the officers.

“Listen,’ I heard Marceau say. ‘You two deserve to know that most of those penis murals are mine. And I’ll be honest—I don’t think I can quit cold turkey. Over.”

Zahn and Gomez, in separate vehicles, both keyed their radios just to let Marceau hear them laughing.

Marceau, kept going, deadpan. “So here’s my compromise: I’ll keep drawing penises, and you can go ahead and put me down as a volunteer for the overnight shitter watch. Out.”

And so Pitre continues, eloquently dancing on the boundary line between realistic rendering and novelistic possibility. When we think of Sergeant Gomez, what do we think? True-to-life portrayal? Fantastical embellishment? A male fantasy? Or a well-drawn representation of how it is to be a woman soldier or Marine in the military today? Would we like the story more if it were written by a woman? Would a woman write such a scene? Has Pitre’s own service rendered him an insider’s advantage on life inside a small unit? Does it lend his story credibility? Or, could he have told the story just as well after reading lots of memoirs and watching YouTube clips? Tim O’Brien writes in a story titled “Good Form” of “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and asserts that story-truth, or emotional truth, is far more important than happening-truth, or realistic depiction. But how do you know story truth when you see it, and how far can you take it?

UPDATE:  Adam Karr’s review of Fives and Twenty-Fives for Make Literary Magazine also riffs off the legacy of Tim O’Brien and the importance of realistic detail in war fiction. Karr’s review was in circulation before mine, and though I was not thinking of his review when I wrote this post, Karr should be given all credit for first raising this important issue, especially as it pertains to Fives and Twenty-Fives.

Iraq by the Numbers: On the Road with Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives

Posted November 30, 2014 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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PitreMichael Pitre’s Iraq War novel Fives and Twenty-Fives blends elements of Roxana Robinson’s Sparta and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch. Similar to Sparta, Fives and Twenty-Fives features a disaffected war-ravaged ex-Marine Corps officer apathetically making his way through graduate school while frustrating the concern—not to forget the desire—of a smart, beautiful woman many times too good for him. As in The Watch, Pitre’s novel’s narration is multi-voiced and non-linear. Besides Peter Donovan, the alienated Marine Corps officer, Fives and Twenty-Fives relates events through the eyes of an enlisted medic named Lester Pleasant and an Iraqi interpreter named Kateb al-Hariri, nicknamed “Dodge,” who both served in Donavan’s platoon in Iraq. Not only are an officer, a medic, and an interpreter dominant characters in The Watch, but narration in Fives and Twenty-Fives, as it does in The Watch, skips around among the three principals and back-and-forth between events transpiring in-theater and in America afterwards. As if these nods to literary predecessors weren’t enough, the climatic action of Fives and Twenty-Fives repurposes events writ large in American military history over the past two decades. Not to give away anything, but think wounded and surrounded American soldiers, helicopter rescue missions, and enemy Rocket Propelled Grenades.

Unoriginal as it may be in some ways, Fives and Twenty-Fives in other ways beautifully expands the range and deepens the texture of contemporary war fiction. For one, it features as much or more of a plot as we’ve seen from any contemporary war novel. Pitre forges characters and unfolds events in ways that seem plausible, artificed, unpredictable, and inevitable all at the same time. Donovan’s platoon is charged with filling potholes created by IED blasts on the “main supply routes” between Baghdad and Ramadi. But the deadly Groundhog Day-like routine of the mission is upset by personality conflicts within the platoon and the press of new missions, and then spills over into the post-war lives lived by Donovan and Pleasant in Louisiana and Dodge in Tunisia during the time of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The interesting storyline is the least of Fives and Twenty-Fives’s virtues, however. For example, each pothole Donovan’s Marines fill is booby-trapped with another IED, which adds to the danger of the platoon’s mission and necessitates the careful vigilance of always checking first five meters out, then twenty-five, that the Marines employ when they are on-the-ground, outside-the-wire. Here, and at many other places, Pitre describes how military duty and danger mandates new, carefully controlled, much more precise ways to perceive the world. Combat, we surmise, not only requires reorganization and regulation of typical speech patterns and the adaptation of new, non-standard lingo—as in radio transmissions and commands given during crisis—but demands the same of watching, listening, smelling, and mentally processing all sensory perceptions.

Fives and Twenty-Fives also excels in its descriptions of Donovan’s platoon as they execute their missions driving dangerous Iraq roads in their armored trucks. Contrary to what any Sebastian Junger film or any Navy SEAL or sniper memoir would tell you, the characteristic experience of combat for most in Iraq and Afghanistan was not battle on a combat outpost, a midnight raid, or a helicopter air assault. Rather, it was the “CONOP,” or convoy operation: movement in tactical formation in military vehicles whose names–Up-Armored HUMVEEs, MRAPS, and Cougars—mean little to the general American public, but were the world in which 1000s of fighting men and women lived most intensively while in Iraq and Afghanistan. One can get a sense of what French intellectual smarty-pants Pierre Bourdieu would call the habitus—the lived experience of everyday life—of tactical military vehicle movement by watching Bomb Patrol, an Esquire channel series about a Navy Explosives Ordnance Detachment in Afghanistan that features in-truck camera shots of the unit’s members as they roll down the road toward IEDs and ambushes. Or, one might read retired Lieutenant General Dan Bolger’s Why We Lost, which includes a long, detailed description of a CONOP in western Afghanistan. Why it takes the Esquire channel and a 3-star general to tell the world these things, I don’t know, but their accounts ring true to hundreds of hours I spent in armored vehicles on the roads in Afghanistan. War novelists have taken a while picking up on this, but Pitre thankfully everywhere is alert to the procedures of tactical vehicle movement as well as the material feel of it, to say nothing of the ambiance binding the occupants within a vehicle and with those in other vehicles in the formation.

Another correspondence to my own deployment experience came in the form of a fourth character in Fives and Twenty-Fives—one not given the benefit of her own speaking voice, unfortunately, though she looms large in the recollections of other characters. Sergeant Michelle Gomez is the de facto leader of Donovan’s platoon. Though the only woman, she is by far more experienced, decisive, and determined than Donovan and his weak-unit gunnery sergeant. Sergeant Gomez’s take-charge ability, in my experience, makes her not atypical but typical of the military women I met downrange, especially the sergeants, all of whom that I saw had no problem asserting their willpower over the soldiers under them or gaining the respect of the chain-of-command. In the hubbub of debate about the victimization of women in the military—and I’ve heard many first-hand accounts, so do not underestimate the problem—the ability of strong, strident women such as Sergeant Gomez to prosper in uniform is often overlooked. Adding to my interest in Sergeant Gomez was the descriptive detail that she was a Texan. I’m not sure how these things came to pass, but for a while in Afghanistan I was on a FOB with three Mexican-American women, each a sergeant, and each from a different Rio Grande valley town. All three possessed a good-natured competence that was so far above the norm it was almost unfathomable—a fact that immeasurably increased my respect for whatever’s cooking in the cultural stew of places like McAllen, Del Rio, and El Paso.

But Pitre’s greatest accomplishment in Fives and Twenty-Fives is the Iraqi interpreter Dodge. Initially somewhat of a cartoon figure, what with his goofy nickname and love for heavy metal and Huckleberry Finn, over the course of the book he grows exponentially in terms of interest and complexity. Pitre’s feat here to fully imagine a history for Dodge pre- and post-experience working with Americans that is both haunted and resonant with connections and implications. The war begins with Dodge, the son of a Saddam government bureaucrat, on the run from Shia death squads and Al Qaeda killers, and ends with him in Tunisia at the outbreak of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. What Pitre is suggesting by having his hero, the rebellious America-loving son of Baathist insiders, meet defeat in his own country only to become one of the avatars of Arabian democracy is hard to fathom. Is there a thought process that connects the aborted stab at freedom in Iraqi and the promise of true freedom in another country? I’m not sure, but the beauty of Pitre’s characterization is generated not so much by political symbolism, but by intimate portraits of Dodge’s relationship with his family and friends and the edge (or lack of edge) that his education in American literature gives him in the face of dealing with real Americans.

Donovan doesn’t bring much new to the brooding, erratic war-veteran table, but instead reliably mopes about until restored to life by reconnection with Pleasant and Dodge, and the kindling of a romance with a grad school compadre named Paige (nice play-on-words, you clever writing guy author!). Paige, pretty, smart, and totally together, foregoes her preppy rich New Orleans crowd for Donovan, which seems a stretch, but so it often goes in the fantasy realm of novels. Describing the connection between Donovan and Paige, Pitre writes in words that most vets will understand:

She knew just what to say. Just how to get me telling stories. This is a problem.

It’s not smart for me to tell stories. Makes people uncomfortable. But with a few bourbons in me, everything takes on a gallows humor and I just want to share, share, share. It’s why I drink alone, mostly. I don’t have the discipline to drink around people and answer their simple questions without saying something awful. Even the memories that seem funny in my head come out sounding like the summer vacation of a psychopath.

It’s even worse, though, when I just sit there quietly and refuse to discuss the war all. People get the impression that I’m the stereotypical brooding vet. That’s why I always keep two or three stories on deck, harmless and cute, to distract and move the conversation elsewhere.

Sand Queen author Helen Benedict, in her review of Fives and Twenty-Fives for the British paper The Guardian, asserts that there are only two questions that matter about any war novel. Is it honest, one, and does it glorify war, two? Benedict generally approves of Fives and Twenty-Fives, but with reservations. In Benedict’s thinking, honesty acknowledges that native Iraqis and Afghans suffered far more than Americans, and glorification is the result of schmoozy authorial love for military jargon, gear, tactics, and obsessive male concerns such as glory, patriotism, bravery, and soldierly camaraderie. Benedict’s points are good ones, though perhaps a bit dogmatic and restrictive. But honestly, I don’t think you could write a war novel grim enough to convince a young man, or nowadays, a young woman, to not enlist who wasn’t already disinclined to serve. A writer even shrewder than Benedict, the 18th-century Englishman Samuel Johnson, proclaimed that “no one ever regretted serving as a soldier or a sailor.” Johnson seemed to be blissfully dismissive of those killed or grievously maimed in battle, but his pronouncement rings true nonetheless. “Get some” the saying goes, or, as Jimi Hendrix asked, “Are you experienced?”  The force of those phrases’ application still applies today to those possessed by the itch to see combat, those who want to write about it, those who want to read about it, the characters in Fives and Twenty-Fives, and I’m betting Pitre himself, no matter how harrowing the ride.

Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives. Bloomsbury, 2014. Thanks to Adam Karr for lending me his copy of Fives and Twenty-Fives.  Karr’s own review of the novel can be found here, at the Make Literary Magazine website.

The Great War and Modern Memory: Paul Fussell Reconsidered

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

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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 (P.lease 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.


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