A Golden Age of War Writing? A Critical Companion to Contemporary War Lit

Posted May 27, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Afghanistan 109

Below are ten articles on contemporary war literature published in reputable mainstream press venues in the last two years. Some are by veterans, one is by a non-veteran author of fiction, and the rest are by critics and in-house book-reviewers, but all in my mind are major statements in regard to the imaginative literature written by Americans about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve listed them in chronological order, added a few notes and a quotation from each, and offered a few overarching comments at the end.

1. Brian Van Reet, “A Problematic Genre: The Kill Memoir,” New York Times. Van Reet asserts the superiority of war fiction over the glut of memoirs by service members a little too proud of the lives they took in Iraq and Afghanistan. Specifically praising David Abrams’ Fobbit and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Van Reet writes, “Though they are fictional, they read, in my mind, like more accurate depictions of the totality of what happened in Iraq than any of the supposedly factual accounts I have mentioned.” July 16, 2013.

2. Ryan Bubalo, “Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction,” Los Angeles Review of Books. Bubalo singles out Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as “the best of them,” and proposes a means of understanding the genre’s achievement as a whole: “In fact, the most striking similarity of these fictions is their overarching orientation toward the war. These are writers of different backgrounds and abilities, writing different types of war tales that independently confirm our national sense of the Iraq War as a great folly.” December 25, 2013.

3. Phil Klay, “After War, a Failure of Imagination,” New York Times. Klay asserts that it is an ethical imperative for both veteran authors and civilian audiences to understand war imaginatively. “To enter into that commonality of consciousness, though, veterans need an audience that is both receptive and critical,” Klay writes, “Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain.” February 8, 2014.

4. George Packer, “Home Fires: How Soldiers Write Their Wars,” The New Yorker. Packer surveys fiction, poetry, and memoir written by veteran and offers the following categorical assessment: “Their work lacks context, but it gets closer to the lived experience of war than almost any journalism. It deals in particulars, which is where the heightened alertness of combatants has to remain, and it’s more likely to notice things.” Packer singles out Brian Turner’s poem “Al-A’imaa Bridge” and Phil Klay’s Redeployment, especially the story “Prayer in the Furnace,” for praise. April 7, 2014.

5. Roxana Robinson, “The Right to Write,” New York Times. Robinson argues that non-veteran voices should be welcomed in the war literature conversation. She reminds us that “Some of the greatest war writers were not soldiers: Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane, the blind Homer. They entered the world of war through compassion, not combat. We judge them by their work, not their military service. And we benefit from that work; they have widened our understanding of war.” June 28, 2014.

6. Jeff Turrentine, “Review: Fives and Twenty-Fives, by Michael Pitre, a Tale of Dangerous Duty in Iraq,” Washington Post. In the course of his review, Turrentine calls the recent boom in war literature “a Golden Age,” and offers examples of excellence and a reason for the boom: “Although we’re still a few years away from being able to view the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the clarifying lens of closure, a number of writers have taken it upon themselves to put together the beginnings of a canon. The best of them, like the short-story writer Phil Klay (Redeployment) and the novelists David Abrams (Fobbit) and Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), seem to understand that the protracted nature of modern war … can easily lead to chronic moral fatigue. That’s a highly troubling state for our fighting men and women to find themselves in. But for a fiction writer who’s striving to create believably complex characters, there’s no better place to start.” August 25, 2014.

7. Brian Castner, “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” Los Angeles Review of Books. Castner explores why so much fiction has been written about war in Iraq and so little about Afghanistan. After surveying a number of authors, veterans, and critics (including me), he writes, “All agreed on this: there is something different about Afghanistan, and it has affected our nascent literature on the war. Consider three factors: the United States’ relationship with the conflict, the type of soldier who served each theater, and the topography — cultural, historic, geographic — of Afghanistan itself.” October 2, 2014.

8. Michiko Kakutani, “Human Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf,” New York Times. Kakutani writes, “So far, fiction about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has tended to have a chamber music quality, using short stories, fable-like allegories or keyhole views (from individuals and platoons) to open small windows on those conflicts. Why has there been no big, symphonic Iraq or Afghanistan novel?” Kakutani praises Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and Brian Castner’s and Kayla Williams’ memoirs, among others, but saves her highest plaudits for Dexter Filkins’ journalistic The Forever War for how it combines “micro” and “macro” level reportage of damage done in Iraq. December 25, 2014.

9. Michiko Kakutani, “A Reading List of Modern War Stories,” New York Times. In a companion piece to the critical survey published on the same day, Kakutani names 39 memoirs, novels, and non-fiction accounts that, presumably, constitute the works about war in Iraq and Afghanistan to which we should pay attention to first. The list is idiosyncratic–why 39 titles?–and subjective—no Brian Turner Here, Bullet, for example, but three novels as yet unpublished at the time the article appeared—but conversation-starting, at least, if not canon-forming. December 25, 2014.

10. Roy Scranton, The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment and American Sniper, Los Angeles Review of Books. Scranton traces a war literature genealogy centered on what he calls the “trauma hero”—soldiers pained by their participation in war who then need therapeutic recoupment to become whole again upon return home. “By focusing so insistently on the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure, we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for,” Scranton writes. January 25, 2015.

And so we can see the outlines of a general angle of critique and praise: The wars as folly, though experienced painfully by participants. An interest in the homefront and the aftermath of war. The short story as the form best suited to wars that have resisted closure and were experienced fragmentally. A sense that what counts most are soldiers’ accounts—not civilians’–written by those with some reflective purchase on their experience and who question their choices, wrangle with their responsibility and complicity, and come to understanding of the immense wrongness of war and militaristic thinking. One subject our intellectual tastemakers don’t yet seem interested in is the new, substantial, and important presence of women in the ranks of war authors, which is curious, nor have we seen much effort to assay new war literature written by non-Americans.

We might add a few other features that are touched on only here-and-there by the critics: The corpus’s affinities and deviations from the writing inspired by other wars, especially that of Vietnam, World War I, and—going way back—the Homeric wars of ancient Greece. The quickness with which highly literary works began appearing so soon after the cessation of combat. In contrast to what the critics have noticed, the field’s inclusiveness of non-veteran authors eager to write about military and war-related subjects and themes. An interest, manifested fitfully, in depicting Iraqi and Afghan characters, and perspectives on war from those on the homefront or soldiers and Marines other than combat infantrymen. The implications of a small all-volunteer force that experiences war first-hand while the nation-at-large pays attention or not, as it will. A war newly-defined by reliance on strategies and techniques—torture, drones, Special Operation raids, cross-international-boundary strikes never officially acknowledged, counterinsurgency and nation-building operations—ethically frowned upon or considered unimportant previously. A national war rhetoric characterized by respect for individual soldier service but ambivalent about war aims articulated by first President Bush and then President Obama. A war carried out by a citizenry and fighting force completely immersed in a new communicative realm made possible by technology. The difficulty of finding equitable ground for dialogue between veterans and civilians.

The critical evaluations so far have been complimentary, by-and-large, which is cool, but sharper-edged critique by sterner critics is sure to come. Speaking of which, Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (2011) aside, we also await the academic community’s assessment of contemporary war literature using the current methodologies of literary analysis. In fact, we will soon have a survey of war literature written by Iraqis—Ikram Masmoudi’s War and Occupation in Iraq War Fiction (2015)—before we have one written about contemporary American war novels–another curious state of affairs. For any interested academics, Peebles and Aaron DeRosa are co-editing an upcoming issue of Modern Fiction Studies devoted to contemporary war literature, a welcome effort that will greatly accelerate the critical evaluation of our “Golden Age” of war literature.

The Morale, Welfare, and Recreation bookshelf, Camp Clark, Afghanistan

The “take-one/leave-one” bookshelf, Camp Clark, Afghanistan

Memorial Day 2015

Posted May 25, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Photograph by Bill Putnam

Photograph by Bill Putnam–please click to enlarge.

Memorial Day is the quietest of national holidays and probably should be even quieter still. It’s hard to say anything in honor of fallen soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors that isn’t inadequate to their loss and thus seems fraudulent and self-serving. Even so, it’s hard to resist saying something, and perhaps even necessary. Below are the names of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan with whom I served, taught, or knew well. All were good men, and their memory informs my sense of what war writing—to include Time Now—can do and be. Here’s to all the good men and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all those who died in our previous wars, too.

On the right in the photograph above is Captain David Taylor, one of my lieutenants when I commanded a company in the 82nd Airborne Division. In the picture, taken in 2001, he’s standing on a hill outside Gnjilane, Kosovo, where he served as a company commander in a task force of which I was the executive officer. In 2006, Major Taylor was killed in an IED attack in Baghdad.

I’m also thinking about First Sergeant John Blair, Sergeant First Class Kevin Dupont, and Staff Sergeant Alex French, all US Army advisor team members who died in action in Khost or Paktya province, Afghanistan, while I was there. Also, Specialist Peter Courcy and Private First Class Jason Watson, who were assigned to Camp Clark, as was I, when they died in an IED blast just outside Khost city. Colonel Ted Westhusing and Lieutenant Colonel Joe Fenty, friends who died in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively, and former students Captain Dennis Pintor, killed in Iraq, and First Lieutenant Todd Lambka, killed in Afghanistan. Finally, Major Bill Hecker, whom I knew only through email, but who before dying in Iraq in 2006, published a book on Edgar Allan Poe, an achievement that impressed me enormously.

In my thoughts, I also remember the deaths of allies who fought on our side in Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the wars before.

Below is a photograph I took today in a small cemetery in Franklin Township, New Jersey, of a flag placed on the gravestone of a Revolutionary War veteran. I’m glad he is remembered and now add my measure of tribute.

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Iraq and Afghan Women in War and War Fiction

Posted May 17, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Sand QueenMy post last week about poetry written by Afghan women prompted one reader to ask me about fictional portraits of Afghan and Iraqi women and another to ask me about my own experiences with Afghan women during my deployment to Khost and Paktya provinces in 2008-2009. The first query can be answered quickly, for there aren’t many. In Sand Queen (2011) Helen Benedict features a young Iraqi woman named Naema. In The Watch (2012) Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya portrays a young Afghan woman named Nizam. In both novels, the women narrate their stories in first person in chapters that alternate with others that relate events from American point-of-views. In both novels, the young women have come to American bases or outposts to plead the case of relatives killed or captured by Americans. In Sand Queen, Naema wants to know what’s become of her father and brother, who have been imprisoned in Camp Bucca. In The Watch, Nizam wants the Americans to return the body of her The Watchbrother, a vaunted Pashtun jihadist, who has been killed in an attack on their compound. The Americans intend to evacuate Nizam’s brother’s corpse to Kabul to verify his identity and publicize his death.

Naema and Nizam are more intelligent, more mature, and more articulate than the Americans with whom they interact. Their integrity and sense of ethics are also superior. Through them, Benedict and Roy-Bhattacharya suggest how ill-equipped most American soldiers were for dealing with Iraq and Afghan nationals, especially women, with anything approaching subtlety and sensitivity. Stupidity and brutality more accurately describe things.

Short story authors Katey Schultz and Siobhan Fallon also occasionally portray “local national” women in their fiction. Benedict, Roy-Bhattacharya, Schultz, and Fallon are all civilians who never served in the military. In the fiction about Iraq and Afghanistan written by veterans, Iraq and Afghan women barely appear. Survey The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, Redeployment, and the Fire and Forget anthology and tell me what you find. Of recently published fiction by veterans, Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue includes a young Afghan woman as a secondary character, but not so much Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends I Could Find Them and Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives. Benedict, Schultz, and Fallon are all women, but not all women authors are given to portraying “host nation” women. None appear in Sparta, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, Be Safe I Love You, or Eleven Days, all written by women. Male civilian authors are more of the same: no Iraq or Afghan women in the male-authored Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Wynne’s War, or The Apartment.

So that’s an interesting but not very impressive record. I salute the civilian authors who have made the imaginative stretch to portray war from the viewpoints of Iraqi and Afghan women. The veterans, I’m thinking, just don’t have much real-world experience to draw on, for most of us spent our year or years overseas without any meaningful contact with local women. Here’s the sum total of my experiences, and I went “outside the wire” four or five days a week, at least in the first eight months of my deployment, to interact with Afghan civilians in one capacity or another.

Every woman we saw on the roads of Khost province wore blue burqas that covered them from head-to-toe. When we passed them in our trucks, they would turn away from us and hunch down in a ball until we passed. This behavior outraged our interpreters. “Do you know why they are doing that?” they would ask, “It is because the Taliban is making them.” But the times we saw women on the street were few. On most missions, we only saw men. Stopping to speak with the women we did see was unimaginable.

We hosted a shura on our camp and one of the speakers was a woman politician of some fame in Afghanistan. I wish I remembered her name, because I wonder how she came to prominence and what’s become of her.  After the public shura, I was privy to an hour-long private meeting in which the woman-politician was the only female in a group of twelve (and I the only American). Her veil came off and she bantered back-and-forth, seemingly at ease, with the men, who also seemed to enjoy the occasion immensely.

A package bounced out of one of our trailers on a bumpy patch of road and was immediately picked up by a young Afghan male who carried it into a kalat. We stopped and sent our interpreter to retrieve the package. I watched as he was met at the door by a woman who vehemently denied that anything had happened. She and our interpreter jabbered back and forth for a few minutes and then the interpreter pushed past her into an interior room, retrieved the package and returned to our trucks.

Adolescent girls before maturity played on the streets without restraint, and it was heart-breaking to think about those obviously within a few months of disappearing behind the veil and kalat walls for the rest of their lives. We hosted weekly medical clinics on our camp and saw a steady stream of young girls there, but all were escorted to us by their fathers and older brothers, never their mothers and older sisters. My Afghan counterpart sometimes was visited by his seven-year-old daughter, who scampered about the office as a young girl would anywhere, alternately snuggling up to her father and then dancing across the room in peels of laughter. For a while, a young Afghan-American woman worked as an interpreter on our camp. We all liked her fine, but she had trouble relating to the Afghan officers. I think the problem was more that her command of Dari and Pashto were not great and also that she was demure by nature—a huge handicap in a nation made up of emotional and outspoken verbal combatants.

An ANA brigade commander, the governor of Khost, and the Khost police chief with a young girl in a downtown Khost ice cream shop.

An ANA brigade commander, the governor of Khost, and the Khost police chief with a young girl in a downtown Khost ice cream shop.

So that was it—pretty slim pickings, all-in-all, and though I’m sure we could have done better, the pickings were certainly even slimmer for rank-and-file soldiers. The men and women who served on Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which were charged with nation-building and humanitarian missions, had more significant interactions, but their numbers were few. NGOs had developed a network of women’s schools, clinics, and centers in they years after 9/11, but by the time I arrived most had closed, if not been blown up. Maybe more was happening in Kabul and inside the Green Zone in Iraq, but I wouldn’t know. Much has been made lately of the Cultural Support Teams made up of women who passed rigorous qualification tests to work with Special Operations units to facilitate their interactions with women. I don’t want to gainsay anything the women on these teams accomplished, and I look forward to finding out more about them, but accompanying Green Berets, SEALs, and Rangers on midnight missions to seize High Value Targets in my mind unfortunately doesn’t qualify as a significant and sustained engagement with the women of Afghanistan, and in any case the whole effort came at least five years too late. If there were feminine hearts-and-minds to be won, or important intelligence to be gained from the distaff side of Afghan and Iraq society, we didn’t do much to glean them. That’s good news for military wives worried about their husbands misbehaving downrange or falling in love with an Afghan or Iraqi beauty, but bad news for war writers interested in portraying the full range of citizenry in the lands in which we fought.

A girl at the Camp Clark clinic, 2009.  Picture by an International Security Force and Assistance Force photographer.

A girl at the Camp Clark clinic, 2009. Picture by an International Security Force and Assistance Force photographer.

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project

Posted May 6, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Washing the DustWashing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project is, as far as I can tell, the second volume published by the organization named in its title. The first, The Sky is a Nest of Swallows, appeared in 2012, while Washing the Dust from Our Hearts is out just this year. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), formed in 2009 by journalist and novelist Masha Hamilton, is a collective comprised of interested American writers and publishing world friends who facilitate via the Internet writing by women in Afghanistan. Most of the collective’s work is online, but Washing the Dust from Our Hearts and The Sky is a Nest of Swallows represent efforts–pretty substantial ones–to place in print female voices from a land often described as the worst place in the world to be a woman. Afghanistan is also said to be a land thick with poets, with a tradition dating back to the great 13th-century mystic Rumi, but it has been a male tradition never hospitable to women writers and now even less so under the pressure of the Taliban.

The Afghan poets who participate in AWWP do so at great risk—the hardship and danger of writing publicly, especially for Western audiences, is writ large in many Washing the Dust from Our Hearts poems. Women participate, they tell us, because they feel empowered by doing so and because they want the world to know their plight. They use the artistry of poetry to give shape to the suffering of women and the nation at large at the hands of the Taliban during an extended period of war. The beauty of poetry comes in the expression of loss, mixed with pride in their defiant survivors’ strength, and their ability to imagine a better Afghanistan that was and which might be again.

My favorite poem in Washing the Dust from Our Hearts is “My Beautiful and Lovely Kandahar” by a woman named Shogofa, the link to which is at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project website. Another favorite, a stanza from which I will quote here, is “My Wild Imagination” by “M”:

I am one of those women with a wild imagination
who yearns to see equality of Afghan men and women
in action and law. I want lovers to walk
in the streets of Kabul, Herat, Mazar,
holding hands, sharing hugs,
free of harassment and harsh looks aimed at them like bullets.

An interesting aspect of AWWP is that the women write in English; the poems in Washing the Dust from Our Hearts appear in their English original version and also in versions translated into Dari, the Afghan version of Persian, and then transcribed into Arabic script by a woman named Pari. This remarkable alchemy of poetic production and reproduction is made possible by the care and let us not forget resources of the American (and other international) members of the collective. I salute AWWP for their effort and achievement and encourage you to support them.

Afghan Women’s Writing Project homepage here.

A photo of a Kabul bridge, by Roya, from the AWWP website.

A photo of a Kabul bridge, by Roya, from the AWWP website.

Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Edited by Lori J.O. Noack; translated by Pari. Grayson Books, 2015.

The Long War Forever: Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them

Posted April 23, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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JG I'd WalkI’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, Jesse Goolsby’s soon-to-be-released novel about three US Army male soldiers bound by shared horrific experience in Afghanistan, offers plenty of reasons to be excited about the expanding possibilities of contemporary war fiction. Both in subject matter and manner of narration, it does things no Iraq or Afghanistan war novel has yet done, which makes it fresh and delightful–though also harrowing–while its determination to tell a different story in a different way serves as a subtle critique of war fiction heretofore published. I’d Walk With My Friends’ greatest achievement is the rich imagining of its protagonists’ lives before they joined the military and long—generations long—after they returned from Afghanistan. Chapters set in Afghanistan ring true in terms of details and emotional exactitude, but Goolsby’s bigger point is that war experience exists in a continuum of life events that precede any soldier’s deployment and play-out directly and indirectly in the days, weeks, years, and decades following, with war’s insidious ruination affecting not just the returning veteran but his or her family and friends, too, incrementally mostly but often cataclysmically. It is this capacious ability to envision the “human cost of war” that distinguishes I’d Walk With My Friends from other war novels, whose tighter focus in comparison seems more a failure of imagination than a literary virtue.

Goolsby’s an active-duty Air Force officer, and I often wondered what the many Air Force personnel I met in Afghanistan thought about the Army folks who by-and-large did most of the fighting. I’d Walk With My Friends suggests that Goolsby,  though not an Afghanistan veteran, has indeed been given to speculation about the men and women who volunteered to serve on the ground in the nation’s recent wars. A tour working in a DoD office charged with managing the military’s human resource programs seems to have made him especially sympathetic towards soldiers whose time overseas, let us say, did not go so well and left him curious about the long-term consequences. The novel’s protagonists are enlisted US Army soldiers who bring their distinctive regional backgrounds, personalities, and family histories to the shared experience of the warzone. Wintric Ellis is a chill rural California kid, a small-town hot shot who dreams of escape and grandeur. Armando Torres hails from an assimilated Colorado Hispanic family presided over by a charismatic con-man of a father whom Armando worships. Big Dax is a 6’6” New Jersey-ite, physically imposing and impressive at first glance, but actually timidly deferential to anyone more self-assured than he is and given to impulsive fits of bravado to try to prove himself. In Afghanistan, the three squad-mates endure a vexing humanitarian mission, survive a suicide bomber attack in Kabul, and together are complicit in the death of an Afghan girl who approaches them on checkpoint duty in the middle of nowhere. One of them is also victimized–let’s not be coy, the incident is a man-on-man rape–on-base in a way that is far more consequential than anything that happens outside the wire—a scenario that suggests the horrible possibility that it is American military culture itself, rather than war, that wreaks the most damage on its members.

But a mark of Goolsby’s skill is that he refuses to blame military service or war single-mindedly on the troubles that befall Wintric, Torres, and Big Dax. They are catalysts, certainly, but it’s more than that. The men’s personalities, as made clear in the scenes depicting life before service, shape—indeed, almost bring them inevitably to—the events they encounter in Afghanistan, as if the nostrum “fate is character” were all too true, and their personalities are also complicit in their unraveling afterwards. Goolsby excels at portraying the complex relationship between character and circumstance. Debilitated by inadequate personal resources, Wintric’s, Torres’, and Big Dax’s inability to deal with their Afghanistan experience is exacerbated by their crumb-bum high school educations and the impoverishment of the junk-food-and-pop-culture American milieu, both feeble preparations for life’s storms. And yet we feel for I’d Walk With My Friends’ tragic heroes, as quotidian as their downward spirals are, much as we do for the befuddled, overmatched heroes of Thomas Hardy novels such as Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge. We can’t hate them, because we recognize ourselves in them, and because Goolsby makes us love them by making their dissolution so vivid.

The vitality stems from Goolsby’s ingenious ability to devise scenes that portray characters in the full clutches of their unique defects and also from the manner of the novel’s narration. I’d Walk With My Friends is related entirely in present tense, which renders a real-time, documentary feel to the episodic events the characters endure. The protagonists’ sagas are not related in first-person, but the third-person descriptions are heavily focalized through the eyes of the main characters, so that descriptions of physical environment are limited to what Wintric, Torres, and Big Dax would actually be observing. There is almost no effort to render interior thinking, so the characters’ thoughts must be dramatized through spoken speech, though Goolsby’s ability to portray realistic and entertaining conversation is, again, excellent. What Goolsby doesn’t offer at all, though, is authorial commentary on the events he portrays, so readers are left to their own wits to make sense of the characters and events described. Nor does Goolsby employ much figurative language; if there is a metaphor or simile in the book that is not offered by one of the characters, I missed it.

So what to make of the lean-and-mean stylistic texture of the book? The parts that Goolsby leaves out by design are the parts his characters repress to their detriment. United by their horrible war experience, Wintric, Torres, and Big Dax lack the power of comprehension and articulation to resolve its complications. Instead, they lie, misrepresent, and refuse to confront what needs confronting most. Life metastasized by war for them is best lived by reducing things to simplicities, trivialities, escapes, half-measures, and evasions, which is basically what they did before before war, too. But now, following war, the consequences–self-destruction unto death and familial wreckage into perpetuity–are far more dire. The beauty of I’d Walk With My Friends lies in the fine-grained particularity with which Goolsby imagines how it is so.

Jesse Goolsby, I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Minnesota Turn-and-Burn: War Writing at AWP15

Posted April 18, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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A “turn-and-burn” military convoy travels from one base to another, executes its business quickly, and then immediately returns home; the mission doesn’t allow for socializing or enjoying the destination post’s amenities. In Afghanistan, turn-and-burns were bummers, because, after risking our lives on the roads to ambushes and IEDs, we felt like we deserved to relax a bit before doing so again. My trip to the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, or AWP15, held last weekend in Minneapolis, was a bit of a turn-and-burn for me, unfortunately, for I arrived Friday morning and by mid-Saturday afternoon I was already heading back to the airport. I packed in a lot in my 30 hours in Minnesota, but I also missed a few panels and chances for fun before my arrival and after my departure.

Minnesota, first time ever to the home of so many of my musical heroes! Dylan, Prince, the Replacements, Husker Dü, and even now the great Hold Steady, and where T.S. Eliot once spoke to 17,000 people in a hockey arena….

Walking to AWP Saturday morning across the Mississippi River to downtown Minneapolis Convention Center

Walking to AWP across the Mississippi River to downtown Minneapolis on Saturday morning

Musical and poetical rhapsodies aside, I wasn’t the only war writer who arrived in town possessed by a sense of purpose. For some, the urgency was born of dissatisfaction with the way war writing was represented at last year’s AWP14 in Seattle (though hopefully not with my panel there). Flashes of War author Katey Schultz, for example, explained that she left AWP14 feeling that civilian voices on war had been neglected. Siobhan Fallon wrote that she was glad to see so many women featured on war lit panels. Taking matters in his own hands, Benjamin Busch recruited an all-star line-up of war authors—Schultz, Fallon, Brian Turner, and Phil Klay—for a panel titled “Telling Our New War Stories: Witness and Imagination across Literary Genres.” Determined not to waste a second, Busch dispensed with author readings and and allowed for only a truncated audience Q&A. Instead, Busch himself interviewed the panelists, asking damn good questions about war-writing craft and politics that elicited thoughtful, thorough responses. For my part, knowing that I wouldn’t be on the ground long, I invited every war writer and scene-supporter I knew to dinner Friday night. It was a somewhat desperate ploy for company, but one that saved me from my usual conference fate—eating alone at McDonalds–so thank you everyone who came.

Name all the war writers and scene supporters in this picture and win a free prize!

War writers, friends, and scene supporters at AWP15

My speaking role at AWP15 was moderating a panel titled “Who Can’t Handle the Truth? Memoirs by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans,” featuring Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin Halloran. I contributed ten minutes of editorial overview, all which proved totally superfluous given the power of the readings and commentary that followed. Capps, Williams, and Halloran are each fully at home behind the podium, and any one of them could have commanded the audience’s attention for an hour. Their readings recounted harrowing moments during deployment and afterwards; war, military service, and life afterwards have not been easy for Capps, Williams, and Halloran, and their memoirs unflinchingly portray events that made it so and the pain and turmoil that ensued. As I listened, the sense that I got from their books that they had been pretty damn good (conscientious, competent, and energetic) soldiers in uniform was reinforced, and I wondered about the difference between the squared-away soldierly performances and the unraveling of the personal lives—as if a mil-civ divide within had chewed them up and made their lives a tumult. Capps, Williams, and Halloran used the “T-word”—trauma—directly, but sparingly, as if mindful that the word has become an 800-pound IED in rooms where veterans and veterans writing are discussed. Speaking of PTSD, for example, Capps said, “You can control it, but you can’t hope to cure it.” Their readings made clear, however, that their service had been traumatic and that writing about it played a therapeutic, or at least an important part, in their restoration to healthy and productive happiness. The mesmerized audience had plenty of questions, so I didn’t ask the one I prepared:

“18th-century English author Samuel Johnson wrote that ‘no one ever regrets serving as a soldier or sailor.’ In your mind is that statement wisdom or foolishness, either generally or personally? To the extent that you might regret serving, was it war or military culture that did the most damage? To the extent that you do not, what got you through the hardest part—writing, medication, therapy, love, friends, time, or something else?”

Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, Colin Halloran, me.

Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, Colin Halloran, me.

Another panel, titled “Writing as Therapy for War: Developing Stories and Poems with Witnesses and Soldiers,” unabashedly promoted the use of writing as rehabilitative for individuals brutalized by war, as a means of documenting injustice, and as a means of expressing outrage to powers-that-be. Poet, playwright, and essayist Maurice Decaul, head of a New York University veterans writer collective, said that for the collective’s members “writing was not meant to be therapeutic, but it often was.” The new director of Military Experience and the Arts website, David Ervin, an Iraq veteran, spoke openly about how his road to recovery from being “pretty messed up” owed much to writing. Olivia Cerrone, part of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, described how writing gave voice to Afghan women repressed by their own culture and damaged by war, while Elena Bell said much the same on behalf of Palestinian women in Israel.

Ben Busch’s questions for his all-killer, no-filler line-up of authors focused on large issues of political implication and writerly issues of craft. Brian Turner spoke of “complicity”—his effort to imbricate civilian reading audiences in the circle of responsibility for the damage done by war. Siobhan Fallon explained that part of her motivation in writing You Know When the Men Are Gone was her sense that the American public knew little about the war experience that soldiers and their families were enduring. Phil Klay said that he began to write after returning from Iraq and asking himself, “What the hell was that all about?” Katey Schultz reported that she began to write about war when she noticed how language had begun to grow distorted and then change in the years after 9/11. “A story begins with an unanswered question, and I had a lot,” she said. Turning to issues of craft, she said, “It took me a year to get the uniforms and equipment right and another year to figure out who called who ‘sir’ and then six more months to make the characters come alive.” On a roll, Schultz explained that there are many ways to write authentically about war besides personal witness and first-hand experience. Empathy and research are great teachers, too, she said, and spoke of how Google and YouTube aided her while writing Flashes of War. All the panelists had great anecdotes about the importance of research in bringing not just realistic detail but life to their stories. Turner spoke of reading late at night about a butterfly unique to Bougainville that then became a detail in a passage in My Life as a Foreign Country about his grandfather who fought there. Fallon described asking her husband to send her examples of soldier port-a-john graffiti, which he did, but that she eventually had to make up her own to create the perfect effect in a story. Klay described trying to attain a “thick knowledge” (anthropologist Clifford Geertz reference!) that allowed him to be comfortable “making things up and knowing it’s not bullshit.” Exactly what model of PVS-4 Night Vision Goggles did the Marines use in 2004 anyway? It matters, said Klay, along with a lot of other things that matter. But each knew the limits of journalistic-like quest for verisimilitude, too. Busch quoted Ron Capps to the effect that, “We can all get the facts. It’s what you do with them afterwards.”

On the subject of trauma, though, the authors’ remarks minimized the references that were everywhere in the “Writing as Therapy for War” panel, and they turned to the topic directly only as the panel came to a close. Klay, for example, asserted that war writers should be on guard to avoid “flattening the story into trauma,” an idea echoed by Busch, who asked if we might be encouraging veterans to repeatedly tell a certain kind of story when they speak or write of war. Writing, or life, the sentiment seemed to be, need not be defined by all-abiding concern with suffering focalized through the experience of individual soldiers or non-combatants. I’m sure the panelists are sympathetic to the “Writing as Therapy for War” panelists’ goals–they would probably say they are working for the same thing–and it’s also obvious that the characters in their own stories, poems, and memoirs have been severely rattled by war. But rather than relying on trauma tropes, the authors expressed interest in thinking expansively about what war writing can do and be; even in time of war military service is not only about pain and outrage–and if it is, the subjects can be approached from a variety of directions and perspectives. “Widen the palette,” Turner urged war writers, “use more of the imagination.”

Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Siohban Fallon, Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay

Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Siohban Fallon, Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay

So, turning and burning, war writing unfolds upon itself, revealing new problems and possibilities, proceeding in different registers, with varying points-of-view, goals, and subjects of emphasis. A view of things clear-cut to one or many may be problematic or uninteresting to others. Interestingly, the non-war lit panels I attended wrestled with many of the same issues pestering the war writing community. Judging by the titles alone makes the case: “Blood Will Out: Putting Violence on the Page.” “The Politics of Empathy: Writing Through Borrowed Eyes.” “Writing Atrocity: The Novel and Memoir of Political Witness.” How sensationally or how subtly should an author describe graphic violence? What are the problems associated with white men and women portraying dark-skinned characters? Has a war novel other than Sand Queen portrayed the indiscriminate killing, torture, drone strikes, soldier misconduct, and general officer maleficence that are unfortunately-but-undeniably now part of the American way-of-war? I didn’t know the authors on these panels, but was surprised at many turns about the relevance of their comments to war writing, and I’ll be seeding upcoming posts with their ideas.

A blog post about AWP15 war lit panels by Christopher Meeks is here.

A blog post about AWP15 by Andria Williams of the Military Spouse Book Review is here.

A blog post about AWP15, racism, and violence by Vanessa Martir is here.

Thank you to my fellow panelists Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin Halloran.  I’m humbled by your eloquence and bravery and honored by your friendship.

***

Introductory Remarks, “Who Can’t Handle the Truth: Memoirs by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans”

The American Civil War, in my understanding of things, was the first war to generate a subsequent “battle of the memoirs” in which Union and Confederate generals entertained readers with first-hand accounts of battlefield exploits and decisions, while also serving as correctives to other accounts, all the while cajoling for their places in history.

After subsequent wars, such as World War I, World War II, and Vietnam, memoirs written by generals and statesmen were also common, but they were joined and even supplanted in public interest by accounts written by veterans far farther down the chain-of-command than the vaunted army commanders of the North and South. We value the private soldier’s memoir, we seem to feel, because we think his, and now hers, recollections speak most truthfully to what it means to serve in combat and within a military culture that seems so increasingly foreign to civilian and peacetime life.

We honor these personal testimonies because we see in them an honesty and authenticity about war that we are not likely to get from journalism and history. We enjoy these sagas because we respect the impulse to document war and suspect that memoir writers use the power of memory and language not just to tell us about places and events that are thrilling and exotic, but to remind us that war is a brutal experience—one that requires careful retrospective handling by its participants to assess the exact nature of its horror and aid the memoir writer’s transition to effective, contributing member of the society that sent him or her off to war.

Perhaps the most striking memoir of the kind I have in mind was J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. First published in 1959, 14 years after Gray returned from four years of combat in Europe to become a professor of philosophy, The Warriors contains many insightful formulations about what a memoir written by a veteran might be and do. Glenn writes from his position as a university teacher in 1959: “Now it is almost as though [the war] never took place.” But he immediately reverses that sentiment, in the next line stating, “Yet something is wrong, dreadfully wrong.” Tempted by the impulse to forget, he fights back, for he knows that forgetting is not just a cop-out, but ultimately impossible. “What protrudes and does not fit in our pasts rises to haunt us and makes us spiritually unwell in the present,” he writes, and commits himself to the act of remembering. Noting that “war compresses the greatest opposites into the smallest space and the shortest time,” he feels a personal and social obligation to not to “continue to forget.” Gray writes, “The deepest fear of my war years, one still with me, is that these happenings had no real purpose.” If the effort to remember through writing did not have “some positive significance for my future life,” Gray concludes, “it could not possibly be worth the pain it cost” [to either live through the experience or write about it afterwards].

Today, we have a chance to take stock of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memoir by listening to three notable authors of the genre. Each of our readers has explored not just what it means to go to war, and be in war, but to return from war and live healthily and happily afterwards. The journey for each has not been easy, and I salute them for the toughness they displayed in confronting challenging episodes in their lives and then the candor, insight, and sense of perspective revealed in their writing. I know from my own experience writing about war and its aftermath that such tasks are not easy—it means being honest with oneself and taking risk in revealing the full dimensions of one’s struggles with reading audiences. I’m honored to be the host and moderator for this panel and eager to hear what they intend to share with us.

Our first reader is Ron Capps, a retired Army and State Department veteran who currently is director of the Veterans Writing Project, a Washington, DC-based organization with national reach that promotes veteran writing through workshops and its publication 0-Dark-Thirty.  The wars of the 21st century were fought by members of the millennial generation, a group of young men and women notorious for their disrespect or obliviousness to age and precedence. But Ron Capps has been at the military and war fighting business for a long time, and his memoir Seriously Not All Right (2014) documents not just his experience as an officer-in-uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a longer pre-history as a State Department official on-the-ground for extensive periods in Kosovo and Africa. It is this larger, broader, longer view that I think distinguishes Capp’s perspective.

Our second panelist, Kayla Williams, has written two memoirs about her service in Iraq and afterwards. Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2006) came very early in the game and immediately staked out a position as an insightful, almost definitive articulation of what it means to be a woman in uniform, in the 21st century, during not just war but a period of intense reformulation of our ideas not just about women-in-uniform but gender and sexuality in our society at large. To my mind, no one more than Kayla has spoken as frankly about these issues as they pertain to the military that took men and women for the first time in significant numbers together overseas to fight and when not fighting co-exist together. Kayla has also published a second memoir, Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014) that is equally candid and insightful about the rocky road of marriage she and her husband Brian, who was seriously injured in war, have traveled together since first meeting on a remote hilltop in Iraq.

While Ron Capps represents age on our panel and Kayla Williams signifies what is strikingly new about contemporary war and war authorship, our third panelist, Colin D. Halloran, embodies a much more traditional authorial position—that of a young, literary, middle-class male—Colin was 19 when he deployed to Afghanistan as any infantryman—with no particular inclination or aptitude for soldiering before he joined “to see war” and “serve his country.” Colin turned to poetry to portray vividly the physical experience and even more intensely the emotional experience of combat, service, and life afterwards. His Shortly Thereafter (2012), a memoir that combines verse and prose, is not just one of the very few instances of poetry written by an Afghanistan veteran, but is one of the few biographies of war written by a young enlisted soldier—a doubly-curious phenomenon given the library shelves full of memoirs written by former officers and Navy SEALS. A few years older now, Colin teaches writing at Fairfield University in Connecticut. But Colin, as I know him, will be the last to ever forget where he came from and is currently at work at both another volume of poetry and a memoir that addresses his war years using the arguably more direct medium of prose.

***

Thanks to Roy Scranton for turning me on to J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors.

Yea for Minnesota, so below’s a special video insertion, the Hold Steady’s ode to the Minneapolis punk-rock scene, “Stay Positive”:

The Ever-Changing War Lit Scene

Posted April 12, 2015 by Peter Molin
Categories: General

Tags: , ,

petescandystoreTwo weeks ago I was invited to read fiction on stage in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, bar called Pete’s Candy Store. Pete’s often hosts readings, but only once a year dedicates a night to veteran writing. This year’s event was hosted by Kaboom author and Words After War mainstay Matt Gallagher, who had many nice things to say about me and my fellow readers Paul Wolfe, Teresa Fazio, and Brandon Willitts. Wolfe, a former Army officer now at Columbia, read fiction set in Iraq. Fazio, a former Marine officer, read from a memoir-in-progress. Willitts, a Navy enlisted veteran, read fiction set in the American west. I read an adaptation of a myth I first encountered in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses called “Cyex and Alceone.” My adaptation, called “Cy and Ali,” holds true to the outlines of Ovid’s myth, but I placed my updated story in the modern era, with action set in Afghanistan and back home. The story wasn’t new—I first published it on my old blog 15-Month Adventure then later republished it in Time Now, but no one seemed to notice or mind. Two listeners liked the way I included a woman’s point-of-view, which was cool. Another told me that the story made her choke up a bit. That’s what you get I guess with stories based on myth: big emotions. “If you want to make your readers feel loss, make them love something and then take it away,” the writing workshop maxim goes.

Brandon Willitts, Matt Gallagher, me, Teresa Fazio,  Paul Wolfe

Brandon Willitts, Matt Gallagher, me, Teresa Fazio, Paul Wolfe

I’m working on a series of stories based on Ovid. The war lit scene has done ancient Greece to death—Sparta, Odysseus, Penelope, Antigone, etc.—so my schtick is to do classical Rome. The physical transformations of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, when updated in the vernacular of fiction, give your stories a magical realist bent, with people changing into trees and birds and such things, which really wrenches your stories out of the mode of journalistic rendering of realistic detail in a hurry, if that’s what you want. I’ll let you know how it works out.

The expanding and permeable borders of the veterans writing scene continue to admit new members and permute in interesting ways. In the audience at Pete’s were two Army friends, Sean Case and Erin Hadlock. Both veterans, each has contributed significantly to veterans writing. Sean, who keeps an eye on the latest-and-greatest in Arabic literature, was the first to alert me to Hassan Blasim—until someone tells me otherwise, Case was the man who “broke” Blasim in America, no small achievement. Hadlock recently published an essay co-written with Sue Doe in Generation Vet: Composition, Student-Veterans, and the Post-9/11 University (2014) called “Not Just ‘Yes Sir,’ ‘No Sir’: How Genre and Agency Interact in Student-Veteran Writing” that was referred to left-and-right in panels at the recent Conference on College Composition and Communication. Apparently, “military literacy genres”—think awards, evaluations, mission orders, field manuals, storyboards, etc.—are red-hot subjects of study in academia. But Hadlock’s bigger claim to fame is that she was Matt Gallagher’s first squad leader in ROTC way back when at Wake Forest. Now that’s saying something….

Me, Erin Hadlock, Sean Case, Matt Gallagher.

Me, Erin Hadlock, Sean Case, Matt Gallagher.

Thanks to Jillian Capewell and Lindsay Hood, the organizers of Pete’s Candy Store Reading Series.


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