The Dirty South: Odie Lindsey’s We Come to Our Senses

Posted August 21, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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OD LindseyOdie Lindsey’s collection of short stories We Come to Our Senses is the first contemporary war fiction title released by Norton, one of the most prestigious publishing houses going. Lindsey, a veteran of the First Gulf War, teaches at Vanderbilt and has placed a number of his stories in estimable journals. One, “Evie M.,” was selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2014, where, as it happens, it sits next to Will Mackin’s excellent story of war in Afghanistan “Kattekoppen.” Befitting the impressive resume, the stories in We Come to Our Senses are very together: mature, surprising, and deft in all the right ways and measures. Though Lindsey is a veteran and We Come to Our Senses a first book, the stories don’t burn with the white-hot intensity of narratives by young men or women just back from Fallujah or Helmand and now eager to impress themselves upon the literary world. Instead, they illustrate how an author from a slightly older generation might depict early middle-aged veterans connecting the dots leading back from lives that have come unhinged to things that seemed reasonably innocent when lived through while young. We Come to Our Senses thus suggests usefully and beautifully what Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction might look like when contemporary veterans have let their deployment experiences simmer for a few more years, while gaining confidence and skill as writers–“we come to our senses,” indeed.

Many We Come to Our Senses stories arrive in sets linked by recurring characters, a fashion in short-story collections that works to good effect here. Several, including “Evie M.,” track a group of men and women who deploy to the First Gulf War as members of an Alabama National Guard unit. Far from the frontlines, the soldiers burn shit, get drunk, and pair off in short or long term relationships as best and often as they can. On return, with no battlefield exploits to speak of, untouched by notions of patriotism and service, and unprepared by the military to do anything of significance, they stumble-and-bumble along for the next decade or so. No horrors of combat derail them, but their minds, as was their service, are preoccupied by the romances, flings, and crushes that served as cushions against the stress of deployment. The men drift in perpetual states of wistful mopiness that seems to operate mostly as a blissful narcotic for them, but the aftermath of lusty military youth is far more dire for the women, even fatal. Evie M., whose relationship with a fellow soldier went to shit in Iraq, is suicidal, as is the eponymous protagonist of “Colleen,” who has been perversely abused by a creepy fellow soldier while deployed. Another set of stories features a young woman named Darla who carries a deadly infectious disease, the result of a one-night-stand with a soldier.

One of the best stories in We Come to Our Senses, “Chicks,” is set in Hollywood, but most of the others take place in the South, in particular that scruffy cultural space where the lingering remnants of white trash Dixie bump up against shiny new prosperity and respectability, with a verdant natural world of hot sun and creepy-crawly non-human things, along with lots of drinking and guns and odd encounters with the parallel social world of African-Americans, adding further regional color, as if the milieu had been suggested by 1000s of hours listening to the great Drive-By Truckers. My favorite, “So Bored in Nashville,” is about a young man’s last night on the town with his best friend before enlisting. Lindsey’s typical prose voice is sparse in the manner of Richard Price or maybe deadpan ironic like Chuck Palahniuk’s, but “So Bored in Nashville” accelerates into a razzed-up register that reminds me of T.C. Boyle:

Bars and booze and lacquer and glass and smoke and teevee and tourists and shots, and pit-stop at Randall’s to chop up a Xanax, to snort then smoke then back to the bars. In this city, through the bars, we wind up packed in a room full of ads. Living ads, that is, sexy and skinny young women ads. New England or Oklahoma transplants, wannabe country stars clad in fishnets and bra tops, hot pants and logos, and who proffer shots of some dye-injected Extreme Liquor product. A temp job, they swear, they serve you straight out of their navels, wherever, no problem. For ten bucks a pop they make ten bucks an hour, while your lips suckle shots of their amazing young stomachs. And they’re dying to sing, will do anything to demo. (All of this action in a Vandy sports bar, not an airport strip club, let alone a music industry hang.) And tomorrow I leave, for Forts Jackson then Benning. Signed the contract when the Army offered me 11B, Option 4: Airborne Infantry. I am twenty-six and terrified. Yet I felt compelled to follow through after the recruiters told me how difficult it was to secure this assignment. How rare it is these days to earn Option 4, Airborne, war on and all.

Hoo-ah! they barked. You tha man!

Randall and I depart that bar, we drive on. He says zero about my deployment.

Easily bored, wildly reckless, and scandalously sacrilegious, a hot mess after being dumped by a woman he still pines for, and now eager for the approval of more assured men such as his friend Randall and his recruiters, the narrator will be just fine. In fact, he’s just what they’re looking for in the airborne, and pretty much like every other young man already there, in my three years and 40+ jumps worth of experience. Perfect.

All in all, it’s a bleak vision, at points comically rendered but mostly driven home on the strength of Lindsey’s eye for detail and the right word at the right time. He hugs his characters close, but not on the terms we’re commonly asked to appreciate veterans. Forget thanking them for their service, because their service was basically nothing, and don’t bother trying to support any of his troops, unless you are personally prepared to deal with a whole lot of heartbreak and anguish.

****

Here, Benjamin Busch reviews We Come to our Senses, along with Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant, Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier, and Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead, for the New York Times.

Julia Lichtblau’s review for The Common, “War Stories for the PTSD Generation,” commends We Come to Our Senses for its realistic and empathetic portraits of women. “In its warm heart, We Come to Our Senses loves women,” Lichtblau writes.

Odie Lindsey, We Come to Our Senses. Norton, 2016.

War Writing: The Raw and the Cooked

Posted August 14, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Khost Province, Afghanistan. USAF Photograph

Khost Province, Afghanistan (USAF photograph).

A flutter of recent data points raise the questions whether veterans are natural storytellers and whether they are prone to adorn their stories to impress listeners. An article by “Angry Staff Officer” on the Task and Purpose website titled “Three Things That Make Service Members Great Storytellers” asserts that the combination of “mission, story, and time” allows men and women in uniform to “relate our cultural and personal experiences to a group, bring them into the story in an intimate setting, and reveal a shared identity.” Angry Staff Officer cites soldiers from the South as military tale-tellers par excellence, a notion corroborated in “Colleen,” from Odie Lindsey’s fine collection of stories about Southern veterans of the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom titled We Come to Our Senses. The narrator sets a scene in a VFW hall:

A couple of men asked Van Dorn how he was, and he held court as he blustered and bragged. They tolerated this, because storytelling—his or anyone’s—cued up the opportunity to indulge their own tales, to again revisit their trauma.

So the men did just that, they ran a story cycle, memory to memory, barstool to barstool, and on down to Colleen.

But it’s not just service members from below the Mason-Dixon Line. Last week, at a family reunion in upstate New York, my cousin’s kid Teddy, who served as an infantryman in Iraq, at a late night campfire related tales that were quite a bit more engaging than anyone else’s. Teddy didn’t speak of war, and he didn’t bluster or brag, but he smoothly turned routine events of his life into stories and the people who populated them into personalities. Like Angry Staff Officer describes in his post, as I listened to Teddy it was as if I was once more in an MRAP on a long conop in Afghanistan, eavesdropping through earphones to the crew members spin tales about past missions, past assignments, and past lives.

While Angry Staff Officer writes of how service members and veterans communicate among themselves, David Chrisinger explores how and why veterans frequently embellish the stories they tell or write for civilians. In a piece titled “The Redemptive Power of Lying” posted on Warhorse, Chrisinger writes, “I’m OK with lies—the ones my students need to tell themselves, and in turn, tell me—but I’m not OK with bullshit.” Matt Gallagher, who always has something good to say in these cases, picks up on Chrisinger’s theme. In a recent story published in Playboy titled “Babylon,” Gallagher has his protagonist, a female USMC vet living in Brooklyn, state:

Some of the biggest posers I’d known were vets. The pogue who never left Kuwait but needed to pretend he’d crossed the brink. The staff officer whose lone patrol off base became more dangerous with each of her retellings. Even the grunts, it was rare for them to stick to the truth, because the truth was never enough. War stories meant bullshit, that’s just how it was. Deep down, I knew I’d exaggerated what happened that day in Al Hillah to people, be they surly uncles I wanted to impress or lipstick dykes I wanted to screw. I wasn’t proud of it. But still. It’d happened, and it’d probably happen again.

Maybe we’d earned the right to bullshit….

Recently, the popular Humans of New York website and its even more popular Facebook page have been featuring Iraq and Afghanistan vets relating vignettes of intense wartime experiences. The vignettes, or anecdotes, exemplify the tendencies noted by Angry Staff Officer, Chrisinger, and Gallagher: short, well-turned, gripping accounts of extraordinary events experienced by the veterans, accompanied by poignant statements about the events’ lingering significance in their lives. The posts have been shared on Facebook upwards of 10,000 times, and the comments sections have generated hundreds of compliments, denunciations, and other expressions of belief, disbelief, support, and even accusations that the veterans’ stories were fictive.

If the Humans of New York posts offer a glimpse of the contemporary war-story-telling zeitgeist, the lessons are simple: 1) Go sensational. 2) Go emotional. 3) Keep your own experience at the center, and 4) Convey conviction that your perspective of the event you describe is the true one. Don’t mince around; what people want to hear about is either the worst thing that ever happened to you or the most triumphant. The worst thing is always the shock of learning that war is much worse than you could have imagined or can handle. The best thing is always that you acquitted yourself well in combat.

If you can’t hit those notes, well OK, but be ready for a less-than-enthusiastic response from the reading masses. Tell a subtle, nuanced tale reflecting perplexed anxiety about things that you observed while you were in the military, and five, 500, or 5,000 people might be interested. Tell a graphic story of harrowing adventure and personal tumult, and your audience will be 50,000, 500,000, five million, or more. Edgar Allan Poe wrote long ago, “But the simple truth is, that the writer who aims at impressing the people, is always wrong when he fails in forcing that people to receive the impression.” The lineaments of war story popular connection are right there for the taking. Hint—they look a lot like American Sniper. Reading suggestion—another story in Lindsey’s collection, titled “Chicks,” a funny one about a screenwriter trying to pitch his war-movie script to a producer, brilliantly dramatizes and complicates Poe’s notion. Just in case it’s not obvious–“Chicks” will never be as popular as American Sniper.

Many years ago the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed the phrase “the raw and the cooked” to distinguish between primitive and advanced indigenous populations. Lévi-Strauss’s specific subject was food preparation—the move from eating food raw to cooking it clearly demarcated a cultural advance—but lots of critics have since used the phrase to analyze all kinds of human activities, and I’m going to do the same now. War stories, says I, come in two kinds—the raw, visceral kind that use blunt language to describe combat, killing, war brutality, and the rough aspects of military life, and the more mannered and brooding efforts I am calling “the cooked,” which might be described as an attempt to represent a thinking-person’s take on war. Both terms have connotations: when it comes to war writing, “raw” is inevitably linked with “honesty,” which makes “cooked” seem overly-analytical or even evasive. If you’ve eaten twenty straight raw meat-and-potato dinners, however, you might appreciate a little imaginative culinary preparation the next meal around. No doubt, I prefer a literary “cooked” approach, but I’m also in awe of the power of the “raw” to capture the imagination of soldiers, writers, and audiences, so, really, as you work through what I say next, try to avoid thinking of either term as inherently pejorative or complimentary. Instead, consider them as poles on a spectrum of war storytelling possibility.

The great example of contemporary “raw” war-writing is American Sniper. Never mind that Chris Kyle had extensive ghost-writing help, parts of his memoir may have been fabrication, and Kyle himself disavowed aspects of his own story. American Sniper resonated deeply because readers responded to and respected Kyle’s unapologetic and visceral account of his actions in a voice that they identified as authentically his own. Whether it was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or not, it just seemed honest:

I had a job to do as a SEAL: I killed the enemy—an enemy I saw day in and day out plotting to kill my fellow Americans.

The first time you shoot someone, you get a little nervous. You think, can I really shoot this guy? Is it really okay? But after you kill your enemy, you see it’s okay. You say, Great….

I loved what I did. I still do. I don’t regret any of it. I’d do it again.

I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.

There are many signature elements of a “raw” war story that help register such honesty. One of them is a blunt, hard-boiled prose style, full of profanity and tough talk, as if the author, his narrator, and his characters were really angry about something. Another is unbridled contempt for the chain-of-command; raw war stories bristle with certainty that higher-ups are stupid, vain, and selfish. A third is a thorough self-identification as a soldier or veteran and the assertion of undying brotherhood with fellow soldiers. A fourth is preoccupation with killing and battlefield carnage. A fifth is the treatment of the enemy as savages without humanity or distinction. These signature elements, in my opinion, are diluted in contemporary war writing, American Sniper excepted. If you don’t believe me compare Larry Heinemann’s Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, which won the National Book Award in 1987, with Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which won the same award for 2014. In terms of the rawness criteria I have established, Paco’s Story rates about a 9 on a scale of 10, while Redeployment gets maybe a 3 or 4. American Sniper is up there with Paco’s Story in terms of rawness, but where Heinemann’s rawness is a stylized literary effect that impressed critics and several thousand readers in its time, Kyle’s memoir has been scorned by critics, while causing the masses to build memorials in his honor.

Kyle’s last quote above—about not giving a “flying fuck” about Iraqis—is interesting, because it brings into play something I’d like to propose is true of contemporary war writing. The signature elements of raw war stories may not appear as often in war writing across the board these days, but the fifth still persists as a demarcation point separating war writing into raw and cooked segments. The main ingredient of a “raw” war story about Iraq and Afghanistan, I would say, is lack of interest in or outright contempt for Iraqis and Afghans, while a “cooked” war story manifests curiosity about them, attempts to portray them “as people,” and worries about the cost of war on them. I could without hesitation divide the 20 or more works of fiction I’ve reviewed on Time Now and the countless works I’ve read but have not (yet) reviewed, and rate them based on their empathy for the inhabitants of the land in which the Americans portrayed were fighting. Stacey Peebles also (first, really) hit on this means of evaluation in a chapter in Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq in which she compares Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and John Crawford’s Iraq War memoir The Last True War Story I’ll Ever Tell. Crawford left Iraq venomously disdainful of Iraqis, while Turner’s surfeit of empathy for Iraqi people, history, and culture threatened to overwhelm his effectiveness as an infantry sergeant. Peebles writes, “If Crawford takes in nothing of Iraq and empties himself out until he is a hollow shell, Turner takes in so much that he is full to bursting.” It follows then that Crawford’s memoir is “raw” and Turner’s poetry is “cooked.”

Which brings us back to the Humans of New York. The names of the veteran story-tellers are not given, but the second and third are both authors about whom I’ve written about on this blog, Jenny Pacanowski and Elliot Ackerman, respectively. Both are savvy writers and in Pacanowski’s case a seasoned performer of spoken-word poetry. In her scathing, ribald, and often extremely funny monologues, Pacanowski presents her tour-of-duty in the Army and Iraq as terrible to the point of traumatizing. Ackerman’s Afghanistan war novel Green on Blue, on the other hand, is practically void of American characters and instead places a Pashtun militia member at its narrative center. According to the schema I have set up, Pacanowski’s poetry is an example of “raw” war writing, while Ackerman’s novel represents the “cooked.” But in their Humans of New York vignettes, we can see them each moving toward a middle ground: Pacanowski fighting to demilitarize her all-consuming self-identification as an angry veteran, Ackerman letting down his guard to let the world take a better measure of who he is as a person. Be sure to read them, and salute to both.

Right on Time, Five Years Later: Roy Scranton’s War Porn

Posted August 3, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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War PornRoy Scranton’s Iraq war novel War Porn, out this week, by all accounts was substantially complete by 2011. Indeed, Scranton reports that he began writing War Porn while he was still in the Army in 2005, about the time of the events he portrays in the novel. That War Porn now appears in 2016 raises interesting questions. According to a 2011 The Atlantic article by Matt GallagherScranton could not at the time find a publisher. As Gallagher points out, no major house had yet put out a novel about Iraq or Afghanistan, and Scranton at the time was a fledgling, far-from-established author. Six years later, however, much has changed. War writing as a publishing genre has grown exponentially, and Scranton has compiled an impressive body of work. No doubt these factors help explain why War Porn now sees the light-of-day, but almost certainly there’s more.

In conversation a couple of years back, Scranton stated that he had maintained a “consistent line-of-thinking” throughout his writing ventures, which include editorial oversight and a contribution to the war story anthology Fire and Forget, a striking essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the war literature “trauma hero,” the end-of-the-world treatise Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, a PhD dissertation on post-WWII poetry, and numerous essays and articles in both the popular press and scholarly journals. Be that as it may, if we read War Porn as a 2011 novel it’s one thing: not just a topical novel about matters of extremely recent national interest and not just a work that anticipated major themes Scranton would revisit often, but a missed opportunity, historically, that might have significantly influenced the wave of war novels to follow, which by Scranton’s lights consistently fell into a trap of over-extending sympathy toward US soldiers with bruised feelings. If we read War Porn as a 2016 novel, it’s a look backwards at an era and events rapidly vanishing from public memory, and it also comments retroactively on the slew of Iraq and Afghanistan war novels written since 2011. But it also announces new approaches and inflections, better late-than-never, that might significantly impact war writing to come. How to reconcile the two possibilities?

War Porn consists of three interrelated storylines. One is narrated by an American soldier, Specialist Wilson, and describes Wilson’s service as a Humvee driver in Iraq in the war’s early years. Wilson is arguably no-better-and-no-worse than he should be as a person or soldier, but his banal complicity in the Army’s military occupation of Iraq illustrates how the military dehumanizes even those “just doing their duty.” The consequential damage on Iraqi civil society of an occupation force made up of 100,000+ men-and-women much like Wilson are illustrated in a second storyline depicting an Iraqi US Army interpreter named Qasim al-Zabadi. Things end badly for Qasim, and though he is more victim than victimizer, with far less options than Wilson, and no escape at the end of a year’s deployment, he too has made at least one disastrous choice and must now must endure the consequences of foolishly trusting Americans. The third storyline involves a group of liberal, late-20-something residents of Utah, whose comfy life and beliefs are upset by the arrival to their Columbus Day barbecue of an Iraq War vet named Aaron. Aaron has been a guard at a US military detention facility, and he has a thumb drive full of photos to prove it—the “war porn” of the novel’s title. Aaron even more than Wilson is unrepentant about his involvement in war atrocity and not above using his stash of prison photos to titillate the other party-goers. Far from being “traumatized” and equally far from being a dedicated citizen-soldier ennobled by his time in service, Aaron’s roguish familiarity with evil intimidates the hell out of his male host while dizzying up his host’s wife’s libido. Linking the three storylines are prose-poem interludes in which Scranton channels a collective unconscious voice declaiming the amalgamated collection of fables, lies, half-truths, myths, delusions, and anxieties that underwrote the Iraq War in the American and Iraqi cultural climate.

It’s a lot to take in, but the storylines, scenes, and episodes are carefully integrated, while also serving the purpose of providing a kaleidoscopic view of war experience without privileging the perspective of any one participant, particularly that of a twenty-year-old American male combatant. The prose-poems can be a little polemical, though the one I like best, an hallucinogenic deconstruction of the allure of movie war heroes, worked beautifully when read by Scranton at War Porn’s book launch last week in New York. In contrast to the fired-up prose-poems, Scranton’s narrative prose voice is understated, somehow millennial slacker-ish, focused on acts and words rather than thoughts and emotions, a textural effect that schmoozes the reader into underestimating the grimness of Scranton’s vision until the book’s concluding pages. The chapters featuring Qasim portray Iraqi discourse as laden with Islamic parables and platitudes, which I guess has some relation to the way Muslims really speak in their native languages, though it may also be as much a Western literary mode of representing exotic speech as anything. A passage such as the following, on the other hand, which describes Qasim’s short stay in Scotland as a student, shows Scranton’s talent as a lyrical prose stylist:

Qasim had been north only a few gloomy months–cold, humiliating months full of unnerving lessons in the limits of his talent; dismal months of constipation, headaches, and a constantly running nose; lonesome months where the English he so struggled to master always seemed to bend back on his tongue into gibberish; nightmare months where he wandered the streets in a muddle, baffled and awed by the strange stone city around him and the cruel, doughy faces of the Scots who lived there; despairing months where each night, curled under his duvet with the door shut against his roommates, he struggled desperately to keep from weeping, to keep them from hearing him weep, despondent for home and exhausted from working so hard and falling behind and the unending gray skies pissing rain–when at last the phone rang and his mother told him in a stern, quiet voice that his father was ill and the doctors did not expect him to survive the winter.

The chapters featuring Wilson and Aaron are heavily conversational, and Scranton’s ear for distinguishing between characters by the shape and flavor of their speech rings true to me. The characters banter and parry with each other in that way that signifies cleverness and relaxed conviviality from the inside, but from the outside seems like just a lot of aggressive posturing, as if so-called pals were really “frenemies” who secretly hated and were in competition with each other–which they do and which they are.

All the characters are interesting, even charismatic to a degree, but War Porn’s final scenes makes clear that Scranton’s not interested in giving any of them, save Qasim, a break. The word “choice” appears often in the mouths of the novel’s characters, and the accumulated effect makes the point that if you are an American, your attitude and ideas about Iraq, as well as your actions, whether you served there or not, are the result of decisions, and not just things you drifted into unwittingly when you were young and thus easily excusable. Once stained by the war in Iraq, the American veterans in War Porn in the name of honesty pretty much stop trying to be good people, as they learn just how capable they are of sadistically manipulating and dominating those over whom they hold authority. Much as the civilians at the Utah barbecue must recalibrate their ideas about Iraq when troubled by Aaron and his photos, so the novel’s readers will also have to perform mental gyrations to reestablish their moral equilibrium in regard to a war most experienced only second-hand–pornographically?–through the words and images of those who have fought.

So why wasn’t War Porn published in 2011? At his book launch, Scranton offered a couple of reasons that went beyond the facts that he was a young unknown and war novels were not yet a thing. 2011, he reminded the audience, was a time when “supporting the troops” and “thanking soldiers for their service” was all the rage. War Porn, alas, offers precious little grounds for thanking any of its soldier-characters for anything. Further, Scranton continued, a tenuous truce characterized Iraq circa 2011, which made it not the time for unremittingly bleak novels about a failed invasion, populated with unredeemable characters. Instead, the national literary appetite pined for stories about sensitive soldiers buffeted by service and combat, the sentiment against which Scranton’s “trauma hero” essay seethed. In War Porn, Scranton spends little time tracing the psychology and mental processes of his characters, as if to make a statement that it’s by one’s acts and words that one’s character and morality must be judged, not by some impossible-to-prove literary sketch of a person’s interior landscape.

In the last three years, the rise of ISIS and the disintegration of peace in Iraq have created space for more skeptical looks at the Iraq War, especially the early years, when the ethical rottenness and intellectual ineptitude, in addition to the practical difficulty, of the occupation was on display for anyone who cared to look closely. Also, the simplistic sanctimony of uncritically thanking guys like Wilson and Aaron for their service has begun to wane, making unflattering literary portraits of veterans possible in the name of somehow working toward a more even-handed consensus on what it actually means to be a veteran. Scranton’s notion that war “dehumanizes” its participants might be said to be as much a trope as the idea that it “traumatizes” them, and critics will object that Scranton himself lacks a basic humane attitude toward his characters and that he willfully neglects the sacrifice, patriotism, courage, and real suffering of young Americans sent to war. Let it happen–the conversation needs to take place, and Scranton’s literary skill and fierceness of vision make him a stout antagonist for anyone who wants to take him on. War Porn, written in the 00s, finds its moment in 2016, five-to-ten years late, but also right on time. Here’s to Scranton for reminding us not to repeat the military mistakes of 2003-2005 nor replicate the publishing trends of 2011-2015, though we probably will, as these things go, in both cases, despite his fine warning.

Roy Scranton, War Porn. Soho, 2016.

The War Writing Rhetorical Triangle

Posted July 28, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , ,

The concept of a “rhetorical triangle” is well-known to graduate students of composition, rhetoric, and communications. A way of imagining any particular act of communication, but especially that of public speakers and authors in the act of argument and persuasion, the rhetorical triangle attempts to depict the relationship between speakers and authors, their subjects, and their audiences. Graduate students ground their academic interest in the rhetorical triangle in Aristotelian definitions of ethos, pathos, and logos, each linked to a specific corner of the triangle, and put their understanding to practical use in undergraduate composition classes. There, the rhetorical triangle helps students understand the importance of author and speaker subject positions and the notion of intended audiences. Often, the rhetorical triangle is embellished in textbooks and slide presentations with the addition of circle that envelops the triangle, meant to represent “context”—why a particular subject is under discussion at all, what outside pressures bear on it, what underlying assumptions impact the effort being made at communication, etc. Figures A and B below depict the rhetorical triangle and the rhetorical triangle + contextual circle as they typically are represented.

Slide1

Slide2

All good, but I’ve long thought that the typical rhetorical triangle, as it exists as a visual metaphor, was a little too rigid, unsubtle, and unimaginative to portray the complexity of any “communicative situation,” to borrow another phrase from the rhetoric-and-composition world. My misgivings crystallized as I began thinking about how the rhetorical triangle might apply to war writing, by which I mostly mean fiction and poetry about war authored by veterans of war, though not without application to memoir, non-fiction, and veterans-in-the-classroom scenarios, as well as works written by journalists, historians, and civilian authors of imaginative literature who have studied war closely. Still, if we retain the basic equilateral triangle and round circle shapes of the standard rhetorical triangle + contextual circle, we might enhance it as follows in Figure C to portray what traditionally might be said to be the relationship of veteran-writers, war, and civilian readers who have not been to war:

Slide3

As my thinking about this pictorial representation of war writing dynamics proliferated, or perhaps festered, I began to question whether the circle representing context adequately conveyed what is most salient about the attempt to render the experience of war to readers who had not seen combat. Rather than a benign circle hovering on the outskirts of the acts of writing and reading, I thought that a grid imposed over the top of the triangle might better depict how war writing as a genre is forcibly shaped by an array of recurring events, attitudes, themes, tropes, scenes, and expectations, as well as reliance on a short list of time-honored antecedents as literary models, that together harmfully solidified the relationships of writer, subject, and reader into hardened positions, perilously close to cliché, stereotype, “confirmation biased” patterns of cause-and-effect, and self-prophecizing conclusions. Figure D shows my effort to portray context as an imposed grid:

Slide4What might be a work of literature, or a movie, that could be given as an example of war writing that conforms to the Figure D model? There’s no perfect example—the diagram is a cartoon, after all—but let’s for the sake of argument posit works such as Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front as the ur-novels of modern warfare: stories that concern themselves not just with describing the “horrors of combat” and the possibility of transcending them, but the psychological effect of witnessing and enduring the horrors. Yes, I know Crane was not a veteran, but he ventriloquized one admirably, and like I said, the examples are not perfect. What’s important is that many many works of fiction, as well as memoirs and movies, have repeated, with various amounts of skill, motifs and manners-of-treatment originating or advanced in exemplary fashion by Crane and Remarque.

But as war writing evolved and permutated over the course of the 20th century, differences in style, perspective, and approaches also emerged. A very common refrain found in Vietnam War writing is the idea that “the truth of war cannot be conveyed,” sometimes expressed as “you had to be there to understand it,” notions that would seem to undermine the whole effort of writing about war. They didn’t, however, and in practice the sentiment seems to operate more as a marker of authenticity than a confession of ineptitude. The arch-expression of the idea is Tim O’Brien’s well-known “How to Tell a True War Story,” which compellingly dramatizes a veteran-author’s difficulty in conveying to civilians the essence of what fighting in Vietnam was all about. O’Brien’s famous last line, “It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen,” drives home the point that in the narrator’s mind at least one corner of the rhetorical triangle, that of the audience, is drastically estranged from both the veteran-author and whatever might be said to be the truth and reality of war.

A post-9/11 war reiteration of the fractured war-writing rhetorical triangle appears in Matt Gallagher’s novel Youngblood. In the Prologue, the narrator-veteran describes several instances of difficulty connecting with civilians who ask him what Iraq was like. He ends by stating,

What was it like? Hell if I know. But next time someone asks, I won’t answer straight and clean. I’ll answer crooked, and I’ll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I’ll smile. Finally, I’ll think. Someone who understands.

Here, Gallagher’s narrator’s hoped-for “communicative situation” is marked by frustration and distortion, which, if only those miserable qualities could be attained, would stand as a great improvement on the incomprehension and indifference that have so far governed his attempt to describe war.

The contemporary emphasis on “failure to communicate” might be reflected in the following variation on the war-writing rhetorical triangle (Figure E):

Slide5

Features of the contemporary model include:

  1. The veteran-author’s personal relationship to his or her subject of war is intense and intimate, as represented by a thickened, shortened line, but the connection is obfuscated by that very closeness, as well as the more general difficulty of apprehending the truth or reality of combat described as “the fog of war.”
  2. The civilian reader’s relationship to the veteran-writer, and vice-versa, is distant and beset by communication difficulties, as portrayed by the long, broken line.
  3. The civilian reader’s understanding of war is also remote, indistinct, and untrustworthy, as depicted by the thin, wavering line.

In Figure F below, I have added in a contextual circle that names what I think are the most important contemporary social, political, cultural, and technological influences on war, the men and women who go to war and then write about it, and the nation-at-large. I’ve also noted some changes in the composition of the corners of the triangle to reflect modern trends.

Slide6

I won’t take time here to explain these factors or how they put pressure on the legs and corners of my war writing rhetorical triangle. Many are obvious or self-explanatory, and none are beyond the ken of readers who have made it this far and who now choose to roll them around in their minds to consider their relevance. I might well have portrayed them as a grid, as in Figure D above, but for the sake of clarity, mostly, I haven’t. Taken together, the diagram suggests a contemporary war writing field characterized by multiple variables, full of complexity, ambiguity, perspectival variations, and tenuous, arguable intersections joining war, writing about war, and readers.

Might the broken-and-distorted contemporary war writing rhetorical triangle be as much a trope, or even a cliché, as anything that’s come before? Some very good veteran-authors have taken up the question. Benjamin Busch, in “To the Veteran,” his introduction to the veteran writing anthology Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, states, “We often feel there is a certain authenticity lost somewhere, that language cannot completely express our experience to those who do not share it,” but ultimately he concludes that the stories in Standing Down “prove that transference of experience is possible with language.” Similarly, Phil Klay in a New York Times essay titled “After War, A Failure of Imagination,” 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.” Busch and Klay are formidable writers, but I’m not sure everyone, including many veterans, agrees that veterans can express the reality of war in a way that is perceived as meaningful and reasonably fulsome by civilians. The fact that Busch and Klay have to assert their case proves the sentiment they hope to rectify is both real and a problem. Whether their perception is an enduring and truly true structural feature of war writing or merely a passing truism-of-the-day remains to be seen.

Many thanks to the organizers and participants of the 2016 Veterans in Society seminar at Virginia Tech, where I first presented on the “War Writing Rhetorical Triangle.”

War Songs: Khost, Afghanistan in the Western Musical Imagination

Posted July 10, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,
Khost City, Afghanistan

The Great Mosque, Khost City, Afghanistan, 2009

The seven months I served in Khost province were certainly the most interesting and intense part of my year in Afghanistan. A small place, as Afghan provinces go, about the size of a fair-sized American county, ringed by peaks ranging up to 12,000 feet high, Khost (sometimes spelled “Khowst”) is tucked up against the Pakistan border about four hours from Kabul, accessible by road only through a treacherous mountain pass. Though not as well-known as storied battleground provinces such as Kunar, Helmand, or Paktika, Khost has been the site of many important episodes relevant to the Global War on Terror and Operation Enduring Freedom. Osama Bin Laden, for example, is said to have first fought Russian infidel occupiers in Khost and later to have been in Khost when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. In 2004, Pat Tillman was killed in Khost and in 2009 FOB Chapman, located just outside of Khost city, was infiltrated by an Al Qaeda operative who detonated a suicide vest in the presence of CIA agents, killing seven of them—an event portrayed in the movie Zero Dark Thirty.

My job in Khost, as an advisor to the Afghan Army, took me throughout the province and brought me in constant contact with Khost residents of every station, experiences that preoccupied me then and now in terms as much sociological as military. Overall, there were some successes, some defeats, a lot of wonderment, and a great deal of ambiguity about what it all amounted to. Through it all, the very name Khost, whose etymology I do not know, struck me with an almost mystical power of suggestiveness, and still today it conjures up memories and emotions that, try as I might to contain them within the realm of the factual and rational, remain infused with the aura of dream, nightmare, romance, epic, and odyssey.

Apparently, I’ve learned in the last week, Khost has also generated evocative associations in the minds of musically-minded young men in places as far afoot as Vancouver, Canada; Birmingham, England; and Austin, Texas, places where Khost or derivations of Khost are being used as band names. As far as I can tell, no one in any of the groups has served in Khost or is Afghan, but each of the far-flung musical Khosts is making distinctive, idiosyncratic music, not for the masses, perhaps, but informed by a unique artistic vision that we can assume they hope their band name helps transmit.

First up is Khøst, a Vancouver, Canada, DJ duo who specialize in Electronic Dance Music remakes of popular songs such as Coldplay’s “Yellow.” I’m not sure where the “slashed-o” comes from, but band member Tyler Mead describes how his partner Grayson Repp chose their name:

The name was a spontaneous idea really… After having already tried to build to different aliases, this one seemed to stand out. Originally, Grayson had seen the word in a movie [Zero Dark Thirty?] and liked the sound of it. It wasn’t until about a month later that we realized the potential, having the sound “khost” be representative of the west coast where our sound had originated.

Khost Yellow

Over in Birmingham, England, Khost has also been appropriated by Andy Swan and Damian Bennett, a duo whose musical genre is metal industrial noise. This Khost musical enterprise’s sonic landscape is brutal to the extreme, as described in the following review:

The end result is akin to an apocalyptic machine devouring all traces of humankind from the face of the earth before setting its sights on the planet itself. The tracks grind, rumble, strain and teeter on the brink of collapse to create an all-out sense of stifling claustrophobia.

Khost UK

I’m fine with music that’s both weird and tries to be dangerous, but I couldn’t find an explanation for why Swan and Bennett chose “Khost” as the name of their band. For all I know it’s also some Scandinavian or German word for “land of the underground where people wear helmets with horns, drink blood, and play detuned electric guitars.” One review I read, however, posits that the sound of the band’s name is as harsh as the music the duo make, with connotations of “cost” and “ghost.” That take was interesting to me, because I never thought the word “Khost” sounded ugly, even given a few horrific experiences I endured in the province. In fact, contra to both the Canadian and English bands’ usage, Khost as far as I know is pronounced with a very soft emphasis on the “k,” so that it is pronounced more like “host,” but with a small hitch in the throat at the beginning of the word and a larger push of air on the “h” that doesn’t come naturally to English speakers, an effect that softens the word’s clipped terseness as it is written.

Be that as it may, the third appropriators of Khost, a band in Texas who call themselves The Khost, would also probably be surprised at the English reviewer’s opinion.  A post-rock band in the mode of their fellow Texans Explosions in the Sky, but with vocals, The Khost’s aural impact is as mellow and gentle as the industrial Khost’s is abrasive, though not without its own sense of drama. I texted back-and-forth with a member of The Khost, who informed me they were inspired by stories of military service in Khost province told by a friend of the band’s. I asked if any of their songs addressed militaristic subjects, and The Khost member replied, “All the songs are pretty much about more inner psych and personal revelations so nothing directly about war. Does our music remind you of Khost?”

Good question….

The Khost Stella MarisKhost Waking Indigo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EDM doesn’t do a lot for me, though I salute its impulse toward ecstatic celebrations of collective dance. I’m more intrigued by the heavy duty sounds of industrial, and I thoroughly enjoy post-rock. I listened to a ton of Explosions in the Sky while in Afghanistan, have composed many Time Now posts with their music playing in the background, and I was glad to see the band’s music featured prominently in the movie version of Lone Survivor. So, in answer to The Khost’s question, well, yeah.

All told, here’s to the Canadian EDM Khøst, the English industrial Khost, and the Texan post-rock The Khost. None of their songs, as far as I know, reference Afghanistan or things military, nor do they channel the Pashtun spirit or musical signatures of the real Khost, but that’s OK. An academic argument could be made that their use of Khost is somehow inappropriate in an Orientalism kind-of-way, but that’s an argument I wouldn’t support. If the name of an exotic dot-on-the-map halfway around the world has somehow inspired Western musicians to be more imaginative and adventurous, that’s the greater good. That a word important in their artistic dreamworld is also huge in my personal lexicon of suggestive terms is so much the better.

Map of downtown Khost that I made in 2009

Map of downtown Khost that I made in 2009

LBGT MIA in War Lit No More: Scott D. Pomfret’s You Are the One

Posted July 3, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

YouThe contemporary war lit corpus of poetry, fiction, and memoir has covered a lot of ground, but has had little to say so far about the presence of gay men and women in uniform. Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them contains a gruesome male-on-male rape scene, and Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood features a cameo appearance by a closeted company commander, but that’s about it in terms of fiction published by big-name publishing houses. Poetry, nothing comes to mind, either, though an exhaustive search of vet writing anthologies and web publishing sites would surely turn up something. Jeffrey McGowan’s memoir One Gay Man’s Life in the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell Military, published in 2005, is interesting, but McGowan left the Army in 1998. Playing by the Rules, by gay former Marine Justin Elzie, was published in 2010, but Elzie was out of the Marines long before 9/11. Amazingly, as far as I can tell, no book-length memoir by a gay or lesbian Iraq or Afghanistan veteran has yet appeared. Please, somebody, tell me that I’m wrong.

Maybe what I’m describing is a good thing. Everyone’s more accepting now, right, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed and gay Americans can finally serve openly. There’s nothing about a service member’s sexual orientation that would by itself make it an interesting subject for fiction, verse, or memoir, correct? No war writer I know is a homophobe (or misogynist or racist), so I’ll bet if you asked them about the absence of gay characters in their works they would say it just didn’t occur to them, given the story they were trying to write. Heck, hetero-normative soldier sexuality has barely been touched in published fiction, save for, on the crude side, passing references in a number of works to FOB port-a-pottie coitus, and on the deft side, the short fiction of Siobhan Fallon and the under-the-grandstand quickie flamboyantly described by Ben Fountain in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Maybe that’s fair—too much relationship and erotic stuff and a war novel becomes something other than a war novel, the way these things are probably understood by those most interested in writing and reading war stories. Romance, maybe, or erotica, or least interesting of all, women’s fiction, whatever that phrase means in the minds of book buyers and readers.

Whether all the above is a result of publisher decision-making or authorial disinclination to address Don’t Ask Don’t Tell-related issues, I don’t know. But these musings bring us to Scott D. Pomfret’s You Are the One, which came out earlier this year. Pomfret is a many-times-published author in the thriving gay literature underground; You Are the One is one of six books he’s written for gay-oriented publishers. You Are the One contains thirteen stores published in gay literary journals between 2005 and 2015, four of them directly portray gay military members before, during, and after deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan and all interestingly open up heretofore unexamined vistas on the lives and worldviews of soldiers that both help describe modern sexual behavior and transcend the merely prurient sexual. In “You Are the One,” a super-femme civilian narrator finds himself in strange cahoots with his lover’s company commander to guard the sexual orientation of the narrator’s lover. In “Transport,” a battle-hardened sergeant preys on one of his junior enlisted soldiers while on mission in Iraq. “Swagger” describes a bar hook-up between a special operator and the son of a Vietnam veteran. In “The Casualty Assistant,” a gay casualty assistance officer consoles the widow of a soldier killed overseas.

All are interestingly conceived and plausible enough, given what I’ve seen and read over the years. Though Pomfret is not a veteran, he gets the details right and his stories engage on many levels beyond the erotic; he is a fine writer in terms of his eye for nuance and ability to craft a quality sentence. All the stories, save “The Casualty Assistant,” contain graphic sexual scenes, which though cool in terms of frankness and cheap voyeurism, distract somewhat from the larger tales being told. In “The Casualty Assistant,” on the other hand, we learn that the narrator is gay, and it matters in terms of his perspective on things, and because the story is not about seduction and getting off, it speaks more clear-mindedly to what gay soldiers must have always already been noticing about the hetero-dominant culture in which they furtively served during the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As such, it hints at what insights we might garner from other LBGT-authored stories, should they ever make it into print.

Scott D. Pomfret, You Are the One. Ninestar Press, 2016.

Graphic Novel: Maximilian Uriarte’s The White Donkey

Posted June 27, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

White Donkey 1I’ve haven’t read a bad word yet about Maximilian Uriarte’s graphic novel The White Donkey, and you won’t find one here, either. It would be hard to top Charlie Sherpa’s review of The White Donkey on Red Bull Rising, so I’ll keep things short. The story of a young Marine, morose and purposeless to begin with, disillusioned by the military in general and traumatized specifically by combat in Iraq, The White Donkey plot recoups many scenes and characters now commonplace in contemporary war writing. The protagonist, Lance Corporal Abe Belatzeko, is a listless and adrift young man who had hoped that the Marines might provide the purpose and motivation he couldn’t muster as a civilian. That doesn’t happen, however, as Abe finds life in the Marines mostly dull and senseless, frequently miserable, and rarely inspiring or rewarding. His lack of gung-ho spirit is quickly perceived by his peers and sergeants, who either are “all in” or better able to “fake it until they make it.” As The Valley author John Renehen (an Army veteran) described the Semper Fi Do or Die ethos to me in an email, “I remember realizing in Ramadi that the typical Marine is not some jarhead muscle man but a clean-scrubbed eager-beaver kid who looks like he’s 15 and just wants you to tell him to do something, anything, so he can do it 110% and have you tell him he did a good job.”

Abe can’t muster that level of commitment, and foolishly he thinks that his constant complaining and emotional distance constitutes a worthy critique of USMC dysfunction. When his best friend Garcia rips him a new one for his slacker attitude, however, Abe realizes how off-putting his belly-aching and ass-dragging have become. He resolves to get his act together, but unfortunately, things completely unravel when his truck hits an IED while on mission and Garcia is killed. The IED strike occurs as the men are singing along to The Killers’ “All These Things That I Have Done”—“I got soul, but I’m not a soldier”—the chant, known by all who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, getting very near to the heart of contemporary civ-mil split identity: willing to wear the uniform, willing to go to war, but refusing to accept total indoctrination into the warrior way asked for by service, and in fact commenting ironically on the incongruity of hapless boy-men, raised on Call of Duty and South Park, now armed to the teeth and on behalf of their nation heading into battle with ruthless Islamic radicals. The disaster that befalls Abe precipitates further decline and provides proof positive of Stacey Peebles’ articulation of the defining story line of Iraq and Afghan War memoirs and narratives: a young man who trusts that his upbringing and his branch-of-service will protect him from the worst of war, only to learn the hard way how badly he has miscalculated.

Uriarte’s majestically simple narrative and drawings distill stock war story elements and artistically re-invigorate them. Above all, he makes Abe worthy of sympathy, in contrast to some other portraits of alienated veterans who come off as unlikeable louts. Frankly, many similar narratives, of which there are by now dozens, seem crude and tedious in comparison, though they try much harder, while The White Donkey storyline effortlessly pulls readers forward, even as they may be tempted to linger on each page to marvel at Uriarte’s ability to portray story, scene, and character through image. Perhaps the graphic novel–unable to render complex adult interiority and extended authorial commentary–is a form ideally suited to portray a young man’s experience of war and redeployment. But that notion shortchanges Uriarte’s achievement, to say nothing of the interior life of young men. A veteran of tours in Iraq as both an infantryman and a combat artist, Uriarte also possesses a degree from the California College of Arts, a potent blend of experience and education. For years Uriarte has authored the cartoon strip Terminal Lance, which features sardonic looks at military life from the viewpoint of fictional junior enlisted Marines, including Abe and Garcia. Terminal Lance is excellent, but only hints at the imaginative enhancements Uriarte has wrought on the cartoon’s characters, subjects, themes, and sensibility in The White Donkey, as if its larger canvas sought to expose the limits of junior enlisted sarcastic wise-assery. What The White Donkey forgoes in terms of the Terminal Lance cartoon’s humor, it more than makes up for on the strength of its strong storyline, poignant perspective, and evocative artwork.

 

White Donkey Heads

The White Donkey 3

 

White Donkey Form

Maximilian Uriarte, The White Donkey/Terminal Lance. Little, Brown, and Company, 2016.


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