War’s Long Reach

Posted May 22, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: General

1SG Robert Perez and me at the Chicopee War on Terror Monument

My tour in Afghanistan was not over when I returned to the States in November 2009. Many things have happened since that have extended its reach deep into post-deployment life. The list includes:

-the infiltration bombing of Camp Chapman in Khost Province in December 2009, a FOB I knew well, to include several of the Americans and Afghans who were stationed there.

-the awarding of the Medal of Honor to a US Army advisor I had some acquaintance with from our train-up at Fort Riley.

-a long article in the New Yorker profiling the commander of the advisor unit two or three after I commanded it that name-checked many people and places I knew well.

-a visit from Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) telling me that they had detained a Russian-born jihadist who had attacked us in Khost in June 2009, killing one of the members of my team, who was the gunner in a truck in which I was a passenger.

-a visit from another CID agent doing a background check on one of my linguists who is now translating for an American one-star general—this after emigrating to the United States, serving a tour in our Army, earning an Associates degree, and gaining his citizenship.

-a visit from two lawyers on Bowe Bergdahl’s defense team, because my name figures somewhat prominently in the Army investigation report of the circumstances leading to the severe wounding of one of the soldiers involved in the search for Bergdhal.

-the profile in a major media venue of an Afghan National Army officer whom I knew in Khost who has since emigrated to the United States.

Last weekend, I was asked to offer comments at the dedication of the Chicopee, Massachusetts, War on Terror Monument. I received the invitation because one of the six men honored by name on the Monument had been a member of my advisor team. Then-Sergeant First Class Kevin Dupont died of wounds three months after being attacked by an IED in March 2009 while on patrol in the Khost-Gardez Pass. With Sergeant Dupont that day and joining us in Chicopee was then-Staff Sergeant Robert Perez, who subsequently spent eight months recovering and rehabilitating in San Antonio from wounds suffered in the same attack that killed Sergeant Dupont.

It was an honor to help commemorate the Chicopee War on Terror Monument, catch up with now-First Sergeant Perez, and meet the family members of posthumously-promoted First Sergeant Kevin Dupont. In my remarks, I paid what tribute I could to the lives and deaths of Sergeant Dupont and Chicopee’s other fallen heroes: Sergeant Steven Larivierre (USMC), Gunnery Sergeant John Fredette (USMC), Captain John Maloney (USMC), Staff Sergeant Daniel Newsome (US Army), and Sergeant Christopher Wilson (US Army).

My remarks in Chicopee are a little too long to publish here/now, but I’ll offer a repost from my old blog of the words I offered the Camp Clark family of soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines at the memorial service we held for Sergeant First Class Dupont in Afghanistan in June 2009. Read on if you please, and no problem if you’d rather not. I’ll be back soon with more book and movie reviews.

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“We are here today to honor the life of Sergeant First Class (SFC) Kevin Dupont, who has passed away of wounds suffered in an IED attack on 8 March of this year.  With SFC Dupont, there is much to honor, for he lived a rich life and made a difference in many people’s lives.

“Those of us in the room today knew SFC Dupont as a member of the Roughrider Embedded Transition [advisor] Team, and that is an important last chapter in his life.  But there are other chapters, too, and I will touch on them first.  He was the devoted husband of ___, with whom he shared the last years of his life.  He is survived by his parents, ___ and ___, who knew him and loved him first.  He was an ex-Marine, an experience that toughened him and filled him with pride.  He was a long-time member of the Massachusetts National Guard, where he had many friends and many adventures.  He was a member of an anti-drug task force in New England, where he battled a scourge that plagues the towns and cities of the region he loved so much.

“For those of us who have read the testimonials posted on the website dedicated to SFC Dupont, it is clear that he had deeply touched those he met in each of these endeavors.  For those of those who knew him here in Afghanistan, it is easy to see why.  SFC Dupont was wise, he was competent, he was funny, and he was sociable.  He made friends easily, and naturally sought to unite people into teams, families, and communities.  He was always eager to help, to share any danger or hardship, to adapt to any new situation, and determined to have a good time while doing so.

“These qualities made SFC Dupont a perfect Embedded Transition Team member.  Being an ETT is a strange thing.  We are plucked from more traditional units and places in the Army, organized into ad hoc units with no history or lineage, processed through two months of training at Fort Riley, deployed into theater, and then reorganized into new teams with the challenging assignment to improve the armies of our allies in the War on Terror.   SFC Dupont exemplified the qualities it takes to succeed in such an assignment.   First, he was brave and feared nothing.  Though old—older than me—he was strong of body and young at heart.  More importantly, he was mature, thoughtful, and open to new experiences.  I first met SFC Dupont at Riley, when I gathered his team together because I knew that some of them would serve with me here in Afghanistan.   The rest of the team was from Virginia, and I couldn’t figure out how this ancient, silver-haired New Englander had bonded so well with young men from the Blue Ridge Mountains.   But it was clear that he had.

“In Afghanistan, SFC Dupont was assigned to the 2/1 Kandak team, comprised mostly of California and Illinois men, and again he used his good cheer and positive outlook to make his presence felt strongly within their ranks.   In particular, SFC Dupont proved his mettle on the night of 8 February 2009, when he stood side-by-side with his ETT and ANA brethren in gun-battle with anti-Afghanistan insurgents in the town of Shimbowat.  SFC Dupont never flinched or wavered, and his courage spread through the ranks of both Americans and Afghans.

“Next, SFC Dupont was assigned to FOB Wilderness, where Coalition Forces and the Afghan National Security Forces battle insurgents trying to block construction of the Khowst-Gardez highway.  At FOB Wilderness, a conglomeration of Hescos and Bhuts as desolate as its name suggests, SFC Dupont found his final community, his final home, his final family.  The crown prince of Wilderness, SFC Dupont was known and respected by all the disparate residents of that lonely but strategically important outpost.   Two Coalition task forces, a PRT team, and a PMT team learned what the Roughrider ETTs already knew:   if something needed to be done, if a problem needed to be fixed, if a helping hand was required, SFC Dupont was always ready and willing to assist.

“SFC Dupont’s team chief, MAJ ___, and I assigned SFC Dupont to FOB Wilderness because we knew it was a tough mission.  Remote and austere as Wilderness is, duty there would challenge even the best of the units.  2/1 Kandak is a new unit, and it’s no secret that they were struggling to accomplish even the most basic tasks and missions.  Even worse, the morale of 2/1 soldiers was at rock-bottom, in particular because of a devastating friendly fire incident that occurred weeks before our arrival that resulted in the death of eight of its members.   It was these challenges MAJ ___ and I hoped to reverse by sending SFC Dupont to reside and work at FOB Wilderness.  I am glad to report that we succeeded—that SFC Dupont succeeded–beyond expectations.

“It was clear from my visits to Wilderness that the ANA soldiers with whom SFC Dupont served adored him.  They would do anything he asked them, and they dreaded letting him down.  They called him “Baba”—or beloved old man—in view of his age, but they did so with respect and because they enjoyed his company to no end.  SFC Dupont, in his short time here, learned more Dari and Pashtun than any ETT on our team.  He used this skill to great effect, continually laughing and joshing—often extremely profanely—with his ANA partners.  All this came naturally to SFC Dupont, for he loved people in all their varieties, but it also enabled him to be enormously effective.  From friendship and camaraderie came trust and respect, which enabled SFC Dupont to chide, coach, correct, and encourage 2/1’s Wilderness soldiers to re-commit themselves to the mission, to keep their standards high, and to learn once again to depend on their United States Army partners.

“So here’s to you, SFC Dupont.  You may well have been the best ETT of us all, and when this War on Terror is finally won, it will be because of the contributions of great men and women like you.  I only wish you had been able to complete your tour with us, and then return to your friends and family in New England.  You gave every bit of yourself to the mission, and set an example for us all to aspire to.  You were a great American, which means you were a great man period, and the good Afghans for whom you sacrificed your life recognize that fact as clearly as we do.  Rest in peace now my brother, and we’ll see you on the other side.

“Roughriders, Ride ‘Em Hard.”

1SG Kevin Dupont

From Baghdad to Hollywood: Sand Castle

Posted May 6, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

Does every veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan believe he or she has a story that deserves a larger audience than just family and friends? The journey to and from the battlefield, hooked to larger ideas about the nation, the military, and war, seems to be the very stuff writing was made for. The urge to render the particular flavor of one’s personal voyage in just the right form so that it expresses something approximating truth in a way that connects with larger audiences is nearly irresistible. This very understandable idea helps fuel the tremendous output of memoirs and essays by veterans over the last few years.

The grandiose outcome of such thinking is Hollywood. Not content with publication in print or online, ambitious artist-veterans shoot for the stars: their story is one that deserves transformation into an entertainment-art form viewed by the millions, not one read by the dozens. Plus, the money and the fame…. The only thing that could be more gratifying to the veteran’s desire for recognition and approval is Twitter superstardom….

Such were my thoughts as I watched Sand Castle, a Netflix original film released in 2017. Based on screenwriter Chris Roessner’s tour in Iraq in 2003 as a civil affairs specialist with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, Sand Castle made me wonder how Roessner accomplished the seemingly unimaginable feat of convincing real live moviemakers and money-men to pour their energy, talent, and dough into bringing his self-penned biopic into being.

The answer to which, as it happens, is recounted by Roessner in two interesting interviews here and here. The short version: after war, undergraduate and graduate film school at the University of Southern California. Then, several years of low-paying internships and assistant positions. Finally, catching the attention of the right person on a Friday evening and waking up Monday morning one of the hottest young bucks on the Hollywood screenwriting scene.

More on that below, but to the movie itself…

Sand Castle begins with an extended voice-over from the Roessner character, named Private Matt Ocre in the movie and played by British actor Nicholas Hoult. His unit staging in Kuwait prior to the invasion of Iraq, Private Ocre tells us that he is no gung-ho soldier, but a misfit who joined the Army Reserves for the college money (which actually doesn’t make him that different from most soldiers–it’s the gung-ho ones who are exceptions). We witness Ocre mutilating his hand by slamming it in a Humvee door to escape combat, but the ploy only earns him a cast and a bottle of painkillers, for which the battalion surgeon tells him, “Whatever the suggested dose is, double it.” Ocre meekly rejoins his squad, a trash-talking, iron-pumping pride of lion cubs who appear to be auditioning for the next Jarhead sequel: One of Ocre’s squadmates welcomes him back by declaring, “I think I smell pussy” and another exclaims “Baghdad or bust, bitches!” when the invasion order arrives.

The voiceovers disappear when the troops roll into Iraq, and as the movie settles into some very straightforward, literal recounting of things that happen, there’s little more that demarcates Ocre’s interior thoughts or places him at the center of dramatic tension. After a bit of initial excitement, his unit’s tour turns boring, and to escape dull routine in Baghdad, Ocre’s squad leader volunteers them to assist an Army Special Forces team assigned to a remote village. Upon arrival, Ocre’s unit learns their job is to help rebuild a water-treatment facility. “Rebuilding” apparently consists of endless digging by hand a big hole that a backhoe could scoop out in ten minutes, but whatever. The soldiers try to enlist local Iraqis to assist them, but they meet resistance until they broker a deal with a kind-hearted Westward-leaning schoolteacher. A moment of forward movement on the big hole ensues, along with a moment of rapport between Americans and Iraqis, but it all goes to hell when local insurgents douse the kind-hearted schoolteacher with gasoline, hang him upside down, and burn him alive in front of his school.

Ouch.

The Americans launch a raid to kill or capture the evil-doers, which adds a little bang-bang sizzle to the movie, and somehow the Americans rally a few Iraqis to get back to work on the hole. But when a car bomb destroys the water-treatment facility, the Americans, along with the Iraqis, come to a collective “fuck it” moment, and Ocre’s unit returns to Baghdad. As the movie concludes, Ocre’s commanding officer and command sergeant major decide that he has now obtained enough war stories to interest Hollywood, and so they put him on a plane back to the States.

That last bit about being sent back to make a movie is not actually what happens in Sand Castle, but it might well be. Hoult as Private Ocre is not the deep, brooding artist-at-war the movie proposes he is, but pretty much a blank slate. Still, you can see his wheels turning as he considers how he might render his love-hate relationships with his rough-and-tumble squadmates, his tough-but-wise squad leader (Logan Marshall-Green, who is great, the best thing in the movie, he should have played the Sergeant Dime character in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and the enigmatic Special Forces captain (played by another Brit, Henry Cavill, who was voted by the British Glamour the World’s Sexiest Man in 2013) into a compelling screenplay. Sand Castle tries to get details right, like how soldiers smoke a lot (but where’s all the dip?) and give each other “A-C-E” reports after battles. It also tries to convey “what it was really like” for average Joes who don’t have American Sniper-esque tours to brag about. And yes, its point that it was pretty clear that the war was not going to go smoothly from the beginning is well-taken. But Sand Castle also flubs big-time on other efforts to bring the soldier’s experience to the big screen, primarily in the ludicrous casting choices for Ocre’s lieutenant and command sergeant major. With no major parts for women—not even a love interest back in the States for Ocre–Sand Castle is “all-dudes,” which in this day-and-age is something of a statement. The direction, by Fernando Coimbra, is mixed: scenes are paced briskly, so the movie trips along quite nicely, but the pictorial framing of each shot is flat, especially all those views of soldiers hacking away with pickaxes at the big hole.

A movie about how Private Ocre subsequently willed Sand Castle into existence would probably be a better movie than Sand Castle, to be honest. Called Hollywood or Bust, Bitches, it might mash-up Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by having Billy Lynn by-pass Albert the middle-man to take his tale direct to Tinseltown where he becomes a vet version of the crazed movie-making wanna-be portrayed by James Franco in The Disaster Artist. But Billy Lynn was too unassuming to aim for movie-making death-or-glory, or to put it differently, he didn’t have the balls and vision to turn his battlefield heroics into a cinematic selfie. And so we have Sand Castle, a minor-note addition to the canon of Hollywood war films characterized by outsized pretensions of importance. Somewhere in the admixture of Hollywood-sized vanity and small-scale accomplishment lies the movie’s charm and curiosity, its successes and failures. Watching the movie unfold is to watch it become aware of its limitations: Sand Castle tries reasonably hard to do justice to a grunt’s-eye view of Iraq, but the lead character isn’t all that interesting and the doomed mission to rebuild a village water system not all that exciting.

What Roessner thinks of all this, I don’t know, but I’m curious if he is proud of Sand Castle, in spite of its modest achievement, or if he has regrets about how a better movie got away from him in the sausage-making process. Probably he’s just happy to have punched his ticket admitting him to LA insider status. If that’s the case, I wish him well as he moves on to bigger projects, while I remain on my couch most evenings scrolling through Netflix wondering what to watch next.

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I love this sympathetic review of Sand Castle by Molly Laich that appeared in the Missoula Independent.

On Stage in New York and New Jersey

Posted April 25, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

The cast of Autumn Ever After, with John Meyer kneeling in front and Karen Alvarado holding baby Mateo.

John M. Meyer, an airborne-Ranger Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, has turned himself into a playwright-actor-director-producer of great talent and productivity. While a student at Texas, Meyer wrote and acted in a play titled American Volunteers and had another play he authored, Cryptomnesia, performed by Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Since moving to New Jersey with his wife Karen Alvarado, who just graduated from the Rutgers MFA acting program, Meyer has remained busy in theater while working on a PhD dissertation on British World War II legend Orde Wingate. I go to many Rutgers theatrical productions, and Meyer and Alvarado live across town from me, but I first met Meyer when he emailed me out of the blue to discuss a play he was writing. Called Westhusing in the House of Atreus, it was based on the life and mysterious death in Iraq of Colonel Ted Westhusing, an infantry officer and philosophy professor at West Point whom I knew well. The play—as yet unproduced—combines Meyer’s interest in contemporary war with Greek and Shakespearean theater, as the play riffs on themes from classic mythology and large swaths of it are written in blank verse. Later I watched Meyer act in two plays in New York City, Philoctetes and Our Trojan War, and Alvarado perform leading roles in two Rutgers plays, one an all-female production of Julius Caesar (she played Marc Antony) and the other Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Last summer, my wife and I hosted a parlor play in our apartment titled The Priceless Slave, written by Meyer and starring Alvarado.

I was recently drawn even further into the Meyer-Alvarado orbit when they asked me to join a writing group they had organized under the auspices of Aquila Theater’s Warrior Chorus. For several years now, Aquila Theater has robustly sponsored plays that combine interest in contemporary war and Greek classics (including the aforementioned Philoctetes and Our Trojan War). This cross-pollination speaks to the background of Aquila Theater executive director Peter Meineck, a Brit who served in his own nation’s army before obtaining a PhD in the Classics and a teaching position at NYU. Meyer’s bent is much the same as Meineck’s, and under his leadership nine of us gathered on Friday nights for two months to brainstorm ideas for a crazy-quilt adaption of Midsummer Night’s Dream and two Greek classics, Aristophanes’ Frogs and Euripides’ Hippolytus we called Autumn Ever After. The end-result, which we performed in two staged readings, did not feature a particularly martial theme, but all the participants were either veterans or family members of veterans. Our Warrior Chorus writing group was one of four, each led by a vet-theater veteran (Jenny Pacanowski, Neath Williams, and Dan Murphy, by name) and featuring vets in writing and performing roles, so many thanks to Aquila Theater for its generous support of the cause and for facilitating my stage debut, late in my late-late-late middle-age.

My theatrical debut, as Herakles, no less–a role I was born to play?

A second recent Meyer-Alvarado production, even more central to the subject of contemporary war theater, is Bride of the Gulf, a play about Iraqi civilian and British soldier interaction over ten years in Basra, Iraq. Written by Meyer and directed by and starring Alvarado, Bride of the Gulf recently completed short runs in New York City and New Brunswick, NJ, in preparation for a run at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland later this summer. A publicity blurb describes the plot economically: “Amid the violence that engulfed southern Iraq in 2007, a sharp-witted Iraqi woman searches for her missing husband at the behest of her mother-in-law.” The blurb doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the characterization, which includes British soldiers and news crews and sectarian militiamen, in addition to Iraqi non-combatants whose lives are ruined by war. The acting, featuring Alvarado as the bereaved bride (“Bride of the Gulf” is also a nickname for Basra) and a cast of American and American-Iraqi actors, was intelligent and vibrant. Even better was the staging:  a mesmerizing swirl of movement, speech, sound, music, light, and image. Overall, it was intriguing to watch a play about the Iraq war written and performed by (mostly) Americans that doesn’t make the physical suffering and moral anguish of American soldiers its subject and isn’t beholden to strict straightforward linear narration and representations of reality. From my short acquaintance with Meyer and Alvarado, I’ve learned that their sense of what a play can do and be is expansive. Never staid, too-talky, or one-dimensional, a Meyer-Alvarado production makes use of a wide range of stagecraft possibilities to generate immediate effect and lasting resonance.

Bride of the Gulf, before the lights go down.

Many thanks to my Autumn Ever After castmates, from left to right in the picture above:  Andrea Bellamore, Melina Schmidt, James P. Stanton, Frank Dolce, Lou Bullock, and Nelly Savinon.

AWP18-Tampa, FL

Posted April 20, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , ,

The annual AWP writers’ conference is a feel-good affair more suited for socializing and networking than serious literary pondering. So it was this year, too, in Tampa in March, even as the writing, reading, and publishing throngs arrived stunned by the preceding year’s political tumult. In sunny warm Tampa, however, they–we–took not just solace in each other’s company, but positive good cheer and mutual uplift. This split response—a public hail-fellow-well-met spirit belying the dismay expressed privately at home and at the keyboard—extended even to the war-writing crowd. Serious issues lay on the table, such as the increasingly problematic position of veterans in the overheated contemporary public sphere and the could-be-much-better gender and race demographics of modern war-writing. But those heavy-duty matters took a backseat to catching up with old friends and meeting new ones.

The pattern was evident at the panel I moderated, titled “Crisis, Conflict, and Verse” and featuring an all-star quartet of poet-authors: Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, and Dunya Mikhail. We drew the dreaded 9:00am Saturday morning time-slot, which, along with our forbidding title, conspired to drive attendance downward, as if our topic was just too depressing to contemplate with memories of Friday night festivity still swirling in the brain, along with the fumes of five or ten beers. And truthfully, we kind of frightened ourselves, as first Busch, then Dubrow, and finally Mikhail paradoxically found powerful words to express how their belief in the power of the word has been shaken by recent political and cultural turns. Turner, even as he reported reeling not just from the national state-of-affairs but the agony of his wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s death in 2016, sensed gloom settling in and took it upon himself to infuse our proceedings with levity and hope. Levity, by performing with the always-up-for-anything Busch an impromptu dramatic enactment of the Kay Ryan poem “The Elephant in the Room”  and hope by speaking movingly about the importance of friendship and art in the dark days of loss and despair.

The rest of AWP was, for me, a blur of hits-and-misses. I arrived too late to catch a panel organized by veterans studies scholar Mariana Grohowski titled Women, War, and the Military: How to Tell the Story featuring Helen Benedict, Jerri Bell, Tracy Crow, and Mary Doyle, so I’ll leave it to others to report on its proceedings. It’s a great subject, though, one on many people’s minds these days, as both the military and mil-writing-and-publishing scene confront a variety of gender-related problems. MIA at this year’s AWP unfortunately were the authors of several notable 2017 war novels, such as David Abrams, Brian Van Reet, Elliot Ackerman, and Siobhan Fallon, so we weren’t able to hear their thoughts about their recent books and their reception. The online war-writing community was heavily represented, however, with principals from The War Horse; War, Literature, and the Arts; Wrath-Bearing Tree; the Veterans Writing Project/O-Dark-Thirty; and Consequence on-hand, their strength-in-numbers perhaps suggestive of a movement of the war-writing center-of-gravity from the page and the book to the wide-open, fast-moving digital realm.

Mostly though, AWP was about more personal pleasures, such as meeting for the first time authors I admire such as Seth Brady Tucker, Brooke King, Phil Metres, and Steve Kiernan. A dinner with Ron Capps and a small group of Veterans Writing Program mainstays was a joy. A panel on James Salter, whom I consider one of the patron saints of Time Now, held during the last time slot of the conference and attended by me and three others in one of the largest presentation halls at the convention, was as full of inspiring things as I hoped it would be.

Finally, though it’s become a cliché to write about interesting conversations with Uber drivers (like, “OOOO, I’m SO in touch with toilers in the gig-economy boiler room”), the four I had to-and-from my faraway motel offered fascinating glimpses into the lives of south Floridians. One driver was a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt, another worked days rehabilitating sex offenders, a third reported that he was getting married in a week, starting a business, and buying a house two years after finding himself broke and homeless, and the fourth had funny tales to tell about late-nights transporting Tampa Bay Buccaneers home from the clubs. I found the drivers’ stories intriguing and encouraging, on the whole. Somewhere in them I caught glimpses of the levity and hopefulness Brian Turner would have us remember, glimpses of people who had not been defeated.

Photo of Benjamin Busch, Dunya Mikhail, me, Jehanne Dubrow, and Brian Turner by Andria Williams. More photos by Williams here.

Approaching Tampa across the causeway in the AM. That would be so cool if the round orb on the right were the moon, but alas it was just a spot on the car window.

To the Veterans Writing Project!

Posted April 1, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags:

For the last two years I’ve served as the online Mentoring Program Coordinator for the Veterans Writing Project. In the role, I arranged approximately 80 partnerships between aspiring veteran (and some active-duty) writers and seasoned authors, teachers, and writing coaches. It’s been rewarding, and not just because I think I’ve played a part in helping veterans find their writing voices. Equally gratifying has been meeting the talented, generous volunteers who have offered substantial, generous feedback and inspiration to veterans near the beginning of their writing journeys. The focus of Time Now is literary fiction and poetry (and some memoir), most of it authored by veterans with advanced degrees and published by big-time publishers and periodicals. My work with the VWP, on the other hand, has been at the grassroots level. Trying to understand the hopes of VWP aspiring writers has been a marked counterpoint to discerning the more sophisticated concerns of, say, MFA-trained veterans competing for National Book Awards. I won’t say that being the Mentoring Program Coordinator has necessarily kept me in touch with veteran-writing street (I’m a retired 05 with a PhD pushing 60, after all), but to the extent that I have helped anyone at all, I like to think that my work has aided fellow veterans who have not had the advantages I’ve had.

The veteran writers cover a wide range demographically. Many have been Vietnam veterans, still trying to sort out their war experiences fifty years later. Most though are younger—Iraq and Afghanistan veterans—and about half have been women. The majority of aspirants are writing memoir, with fiction and poetry the next largest genres, but authors of articles, essays, screenplays, drama, song, and mixed-media genres have all been well-represented. Many are dealing with traumatic experiences, have not had happy tours in uniform, or seem not to be prospering now—I’ve had many veterans without computers of their own send me drafts tapped out on phones or public library terminals. While some vet-writers have dreamed openly of commercial success, many more have couched their desire to write in terms of therapy, search for understanding, and desire to record and document. I’ve long since lost track of the number of Mentor Program vet-writers who have placed pieces in print, which is great, but the real reward has come in heartfelt testimonials vet writers have sent me thanking me for putting them in touch with their mentors.

To the mentors—thank you. Several mentors are friends and a few are familiar names to readers of Time Now, but most I will never meet, though I’ve enjoyed getting to know you and your own work electronically. It’s inspiring to know that there are people like you out there—interested in writing and ready to invest in the lives of strangers.

It’s time now (no pun intended) to give up the duty, but, fortunately, a worthy successor has already volunteered to take over as Mentoring Program Coordinator: Jacob Agatucci, an Army vet now a professor at Central Oregon Community College. If you are an aspiring vet-writer with a draft of work in hand for which you would like a sympathetic reader, contact Jake at jake@veteranswriting.org. If you are a published writer or writing teacher or coach who would like to mentor aspiring vet-writers, write Jake at the same address. To both groups, your work is important and will be appreciated, and you will not be alone going forward.

Finally, thanks to Veterans Writing Project founder and director Ron Capps and other VWP principals such as Jerri Bell, Jim Mathews, Dario DiBattista, and Carole Florman for letting me be part of the team. Don’t ever stop what you are doing!

Veterans Writing Project Mentor Program webpage here.

On to Tampa! AWP18

Posted March 7, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , ,

Now I got a reason, now I got a reason, now I got a reason, now I got a reason…. –“Holidays in the Sun,” the Sex Pistols

Thursday through Saturday this week in Tampa, Florida, is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, the largest gathering of the year for authors, readers, teachers, publishers, and other lovers of literary fiction, poetry, and memoir. Contemporary war-and-military writers are typically well-represented at AWP panels and readings. Numbers are a little down this year, though still substantial, and judging by the panel descriptions and social media chit-chat, everyone is looking forward to contemplating weighty questions: How has everyone survived the tumultuous and nerve-rattling past twelve months? What does it all portend for writing about war?? Where can the best beer selection in Tampa be found???

All answers will be revealed in the coming days, assuming those of us living in the snowy Northeast can still catch our flights to sunny Florida. My own contribution will be to moderate a panel titled Conflict, Crisis, Verse: Four Poets in Conversation featuring Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, Dunya Mikhail, and Brian Turner. This one’s an embarrassment of riches, people, like being asked to coach the 1992 Olympics basketball Dream Team, so I’ll do my best not to screw it up—you might say that all I have to do is roll out the balls, hand-out the jerseys, and then stay-the-hell-out-of-the-way.

Busch’s late-2016 The Road Ahead story “Into the Land of Dogs” really is one for our times, a surreal apocalyptic nightmare vision of war in Afghanistan and afterwards that as much as any tale I’ve read lately drains and wrecks war-and-soldiering of redeeming value, and all the better for doing so. Busch’s poetry, which I love, operates differently. Short lyrics marked by flinty stabs at experiential insight generated by close observation of nature and local event, their hardy stoicism seems forged by the long years Busch has lived in upstate North-country climes, first New York and now Michigan.

Dubrow’s 2017 poetry volume Dots & Dashes is a thing of beauty in particular and in toto. I’m not sure which I like better, the wide-angle poems that ponder the irony of being a poet in an era marked by conflict and violence, or the narrow-focused ones that plumb Dubrow’s marriage to a military officer, but they’re all good. Dubrow is a master of form and technique, as well as of observation, with the fourteen or so sonnets in Dots & Dashes especially remarkable for their exciting, pitch-perfect blends of language, image, and sentiment.

Mikhail, already recognized for her wonderful poetry collection The Iraqi Nights and her prose-poem memoir Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, will soon be made even more famous by her about-to-be-published work of journalism titled The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq. The Beekeeper’s subject is the efforts of a roguish band of smugglers, fixers, and humanitarians to save Christian women of the Iraqi Yazidi tribe who have been kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS, as well as about the strength and bravery of the Yazidi women themselves. Beautifully and movingly told, it will almost certainly attract laurels for its heroes (and author) while galvanizing contempt for ISIS brutality.

As for Brian Turner, what can you say? I’m tempted to write Brian f-ing Turner, out of respect for the quality of his writing, his eminence in the field, his generous support of other authors and his readers, and his relentless exploration of new artistic possibilities. Everything I wrote about him in this 2014 blog post is still true now, or even truer. 2017 saw Turner release a hybrid poetry-music blend under the name Interplanetary Acoustic Team that features his late wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s poetry and voice. Now, early 2018 has brought The Kiss, a splendid anthology of vignettes by talented writers (including Busch) about one of life’s tenderest moments.

Now who else would think of that but Sergeant Turner? The author Chuck Klosterman has proposed that as long as we are going to elect entertainment celebrities for President, he’d vote for the wise, generous, calm, and patient Willie Nelson. I like that, but Willie’s a little long-in-the-tooth, so how about if we just vote right now Turner for President, if not of the nation, then of the United States of Poetry?

For a list of all AWP panels focused on contemporary war and conflict, see Charlie Sherpa’s Red Bull Rising post here.

Hyena Road: Bullets-and-Bodies or Hearts-and-Minds?

Posted February 24, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War, General

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The 2015 Canadian film Hyena Road, directed by and starring Paul Gross, represents a modestly competent effort to portray the complexity of war in Afghanistan. Though not completely successful, the movie, about a Canadian Army mission to build a paved road into the heart of Taliban country outside Kandahar, can’t be faulted for not trying to pack a lot in: the problem of attempting nation-building and infrastructure improvement in a combat zone, the life-or-death aggravation of following rules-of-engagement, the variety of viewpoints up-and-down the chain-of-command, the burden of trying to balance romance and duty while on deployment, the difficulty determining which Afghans can be trusted, and the diversity of motivations among the Afghans themselves.

And all that’s just for starters, for, most of all, Hyena Road is interested in the big question whose unanswerability is one of the main reasons war in Afghanistan has dragged on for over 17 years: whether special operations kill-and-capture or counterinsurgency (COIN) advise-and-assist tactics might best bring victory. In other words, bodies-and-bullets or hearts-and-minds? Something of a cross between War Machine and American Sniper, Hyena Road strives to be both a thinking-man’s war movie and a sensational shoot-‘em-up, a movie that plumbs strategy and psychology at the same time it celebrates masculine fighting ability.

The movie’s approach to dramatizing the kill-or-COIN dilemma is reflected in its two male leads. One, Captain Pete Mitchell, is a civil affairs/intelligence/effects staff officer trusted by the high command, cool with the butch-y women in the HQ, and on the same page, though firmly in the friend zone, with the hot-chick battle captain who runs the Tactical Operations Center that is his primary duty station. Mitchell doesn’t just grind through 12-hour shifts preparing briefing slides, however. Possessing an array of Afghan contacts and a deep knowledge of the country’s history, he also undertakes solo missions through Kandahar’s back alleys and independently leads patrols into the hinterlands. Believing that the royal road to victory is best traveled by drinking tea with Afghans to earn their loyalty and commitment, Mitchell asserts that he trusts Afghan soldiers with his life and that it is “their war, we’re only along for the ride,” while also cynically observing, “Hearts-and-minds is mostly just PR. The Afghans just want our money and a little bit of stability.” Rarely losing his sense of humor, even in the middle of an ambush, he quips when asked if he can shoot, “Fuck no, I’m intel.” A very suave COINdinista-warrior for the modern working-day, Mitchell is played by Gross himself, who, though largely unknown to American audiences, is apparently something of a Canadian George Clooney.

Hyena Road’s other male lead is Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders, the leader of an elite sniper unit composed of burly bearded special operations bubbas. The shooting side of war all he knows, Sanders believes that victory is best achieved by killing bad men doing bad things, or, as he states, “I believe in the possibility of changing everything with one bullet.” Comparisons are said to be odious, but it’s hard not to measure Sanders against Chris Kyle and the actor who plays Sanders, Rossif Sutherland (brother of Kiefer, son of Donald), to Bradley Cooper. (The cheapest shot the movie opens itself up to is wondering why Gross didn’t call it Canadian Sniper, ha-ha.) Sanders is not as uncomplicated as Kyle, which is fine, but as an actor playing a man with more confirmed kills than he count, Sutherland is a little weak in the jawline and puppy-doggish of eye to compare favorably with Cooper.

Mitchell and Sanders join forces to protect the engineers, contractors, and local nationals building Hyena Road (why doesn’t the movie call it “Route Hyena,” in convention with military naming practices?); Mitchell by forging an alliance with a legendary mujahedeen fighter known as “the Ghost,” Sanders by taking out the IED emplacers and other Taliban fighters obstructing the road building project, who may or may not work for the Ghost. Things get dicey, though, when it turns out that treacherous allied militia prove most responsible for the obstruction, and tricky when it turns out the the Ghost is the most reliable partner the Canadians have. Mitchell and Sanders establish an easy rapport when Mitchell congratulates Sanders for bedding the smoking-hot battle captain–“On behalf of the entire battle group,” Mitchell states, ‘I’d like to express our collective fucking jealousy”—but later, after things get dicey and tricky, the two engage in several manly-men-shouting-at-each-other debates about the best way to win the war:

Mitchell: “Unless you see weapons, do not intervene…. Do not engage…. Those are the rules of engagement!”

Sanders: “What kind of fucking war are we fighting here?!”

Mitchell: “It’s not one war, it’s many wars! It’s like playing 3D chess!”

I’m the last one to recommend killing our way to victory in Afghanistan, and I had my own truck with special operators during my deployment there, where I had a job much like Mitchell’s and a major road-building effort of my own to facilitate. Still, Mitchell gets the worst of it in these debates, which I’m not sure is exactly what Gross had in mind. Given the scenarios offered within the movie, Sanders’ focused and righteous indignation at not being able to shoot all the evil people he meets registers truer than Mitchell’s long-range, wide-view, kaleidoscopic perspective that seems to require an awful lot of tea-drinking with people who want you gone, if not dead. But then, it’s complicated, and Hyena Road at its best dramatizes the complications in somewhat cartoonish, but also somewhat compelling, terms.

Hyena Road’s subplot traces the lusty little FOB romance between Sanders and the battle-captain babe, Captain Jennifer Bowman. Worried that their dalliance is attracting attention, which it is, Captain Bowman decides to break things off, even as she tells Sanders, “There’s nothing I’d like to do more than fraternize the shit out of you.” Sanders, his softiness showing after being cut-off from probably the best-he’s-ever-had, replies, “Don’t say things like that. It hurts.” They’ve already done the dirty deed often enough, however, that one of super-sniper Sanders’ bullets—the fertile, not the deadly, kind—has found its mark, as a sonogram reveals Bowman is with baby (oops, someone forgot to wear his wet-weather-jacket…). The development reunites Bowman and Sanders in gooey-eyed contemplation of a shared future, but, spoiler alert, the effort to build Hyena Road doesn’t end well for Sanders (think Platoon), or, for that matter, since single motherhood now beckons, for Bowman either. Christine Horne, as Bowman, is a little too skinny and angular for a thoroughly buffed-up or puffed-up modern military woman, but she looks terrific nonetheless, with gorgeous crinkly worry lines around her eyes and mouth, as she strides about the TOC barking out orders like a cross between Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty and Michelle Rodriguez in Fort Bliss: seriously frowny-faced serious war women who seriously want everyone to know just how seriously serious they seriously are. I joke, in part, but in truth a more interesting movie than Hyena Road would be one that explored war thoroughly and, er, seriously, through the eyes of Horne’s character.

Also very serious—and also terrific—is Clark Johnson as Brigadier General Rilman, the Canadian general who, because his ass is on the line if Hyena Road doesn’t get built, puts everyone else’s ass on the line, too. A man under extreme pressure, General Rilman communicates his orders and desires as bluntly and coarsely as possible to make sure no one has any doubt about exactly what he wants. It’s a fantasy of male decisiveness that many military leaders aspire to (as does our current commander-in-chief) and in truth it’s a pretty appealing leadership style when it works well: lots and lots of smart people don’t mind working for a boss who keeps things very simple for them, and even if such Alpha males are loud-mouthed buffoons it’s often best just to stash them on top “in-charge” because expecting them to handle the details and nuances of staff work is more trouble than it’s worth. General Rilman is not a buffoon, but one of the nicest moments in Hyena Road captures Captain Mitchell eyeballing him as he lets everyone know that completing Hyena Road is his number one priority—you can see Mitchell’s gears turning as he contemplates how such an apparently impossible mission is one that he alone, or he with the help of a few friends, might be able to accomplish.

Hyena Road’s good intentions and best parts unfortunately are undercut by tilts toward half-baked ridiculousness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the portrayal of Afghan characters. Whether their parts are underwritten or the actors themselves are just plain bad, it’s hard to tell, but the result is the same clichéd good guys, bad guys, and comic foils (most given cornball nicknames like “the Ghost” or “the Cleaner”) who populate other movies about Afghanistan, such as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Lone Survivor, War Dogs, and War Machine, to name a few. I don’t think Hollywood, or its Canadian offshoot, has it in itself to portray a realistic Afghan any more than it did in the old days to portray a realistic Native American, but maybe when someone gets around to filming Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue or one of Nadeem Aslam’s novels, I’ll be proven wrong. One can only hope….

Not to end on such a bummer note, Hyena Road does a few things very well. The recreation of Kandahar airfield is excellent, as is the replication of a modern computer-work-station and big-screen-filled operations center. Although the major battles are a little on the cowboys-and-Indians side, the sniper scenes are great. A scene in which one of the sniper’s wives offers her hubby a boob-shot via Skype strikes a nice contemporary note (yay, technology), though in truly predictable movie fashion, the sniper gets waxed the next time he goes outside the wire. A vignette in which Sanders’ men prepare their weapons and gear for a nighttime mission to the thumping soundtrack of a rousing blues-rocker is fantastic gun-porn for our gun-addled times—who cares if Hyena Road ever gets built as long as forever war gives boys endless opportunity to play with the toys they love so much and filmmakers opportunity to make movies about them?


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