Ariella Azoulay and the Photographic Situation

Posted February 16, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , ,

In my last post on the Theater of Operations exhibition at MoMA PS1, I referred to Ariella Azoulay as an important theorist of war photography. Since she is perhaps not well-known to most Time Now readers, below I’ve posted the paper I presented on Azoulay at the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference in 2015.

****

At the Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA) 2014 conference I participated in a roundtable discussion of visual representation of conflict and war that had much the same intent and methodology as this one here at ACLA. At NEMLA, I spoke of a vibrant strain of recent scholarship on the subject that began with Susan Sontag’s seminal books On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others and then was joined by heavyweight thinkers such as Judith Butler and Jacques Ranciere, as well as exciting new voices such as Dora Apel and Maggie Nelson (I might also say that the line-of-debate is also deeply indebted to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). While scholarship and theorizing about contemporary war literature remains nascent, the inquiry begun by Sontag has proven robust, generative, and contentious. At NEMLA, I learned of Ariella Azoulay, an Israeli scholar and curator who now teaches at Brown University. Azoulay, as I understood the conversation, was doing the most exciting theoretical work on photography and, moreover, had married her academic investments with political advocacy on behalf of Palestinians denied full citizenship by the state of Israel. Since the link between aesthetic contemplation and real-world action, especially as it involved photography, is one of the touchstone issues debated by Sontag, Butler, Ranciere, and the others, I made it a point to find out more about Azoulay. Now, thanks to this panel, I have a chance to share my findings with you.

I don’t know how familiar everyone in the room is with Azoulay—for all I know I am the last to discover her. If so I apologize, ask your indulgence, and hope my comments at least help generate a fresh round of debate.

The phrase most often associated with Azoulay is “the photographic situation.” I think the phrase might already have become dis-associated from her, as I’ve seen it bandied in places (websites, newspapers and magazines, advertisements) with no clear linkage to Azoulay herself and little awareness of how she uses it. But the phrase has the tang of an up-to-the-minute formulation of insider knowingness about photography, which says something, maybe just a little, about its usefulness and suggestiveness. Azoulay herself doesn’t use the phrase in the first of three works that I will discuss today, Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy (2001), which by title and cover alone would seem to have the most bearing on our panel’s discussion. In this, her first book, Azoulay examines photographs that portray dead bodies and acts of murder, mostly of Palestinians but also the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin by a Jewish right-wing zealot. The work is densely theoretical, with Azoulay building on a variety of literary theorists—primarily Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault—to construct a wide-ranging argument that claims public representations of death shape not just our ideas about mortality, but other subjects (as if mortality wasn’t enough) such as aesthetics, modernity, social justice, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Azoulay closes Death’s Showcase by discussing a report from Bosnia about a photographer who documented a sniper who killed innocent civilians as they crossed a street. The sniper is eventually brought to trial, but Azoulay’s interest is with the photographer. She writes, “For the photographer to be only a photographer—that neutral position that merely documents—the murderer-sniper must be only a murderer-sniper. From the moment at which the photographer is not only a photographer, he becomes a murderer or at least an accomplice to murder. And, at that very moment, the murderer becomes an accomplice to the photographic act” (287). The passage is enigmatic (especially given the way I’ve presented it), but its interest in “the photographic act” hints at directions Azoulay will travel in subsequent books. Death’s Showcase is not totally devoid of hints, or even explanations, of her expansive sense of what photography entails. Regarding the “basic questions” of judgment, responsibility, and interpretation, a photograph’s content or message resides within the “conditions of production, with the means of production, with the positions of production, with the means of distribution, with the conditions of distribution, with the conditions of visibility, and with the means of visibility” (282). Piling Deleuzean terms on top of Marxist ones, Azoulay writes of the new “scopic” discursive regime she is trying to call into being: “it takes place in networks of presences in which neither the subject nor the object has a privileged position, depth is unfolded as another surface, repetition takes the place of singularity and uniqueness, and the demarcated location for the appearance of the image becomes the network’s terminals and links” (284-85).

What is unclear and jargon-ish in Death’s Showcase becomes more lucid and compelling in The Civil Contract of Photography (2008), as Azoulay finds confidence in her own voice and ability to name her ideas more precisely. Here for the first time is a reference to “the photographic situation”:

Photography is much more than what is printed on photographic paper. The photograph bears the seal of the photographic event, and reconstructing this event requires more than just identifying what is shown in the photograph. One needs to stop looking at the photograph and instead start watching it. The verb ‘to watch’ is usually used for regarding phenomena or moving pictures. It entails dimensions of time and movement that need to be reinscribed in the interpretation of the still photographic image. When and where the subject of the photograph is a person who has suffered some form of injury, a viewing of the photograph that reconstructs the photographic situation and allows a reading of the injury on others becomes a civic skill, not an exercise in aesthetic appreciation (14).

Within this space, the point of departure … cannot be empathy or mercy. It must be a covenant for the rehabilitation of … citizenship in the political sphere (17).

The theory of photography proposed in this book is founded on a new ontological-political understanding of photography. It takes into account all the participants in photographic acts—camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator—approaching the photograph (and its meaning) as an unintentional effect of the encounter between all of these (23).

Emphasized in Azoulay’s theory of photography is that photography must serve as a means of critique of existing power relations and rehabilitation of social injustice, but not in narrow ways predicated on the authority and artistry of the photographer or the ability of the spectator to “feel right” about his or her act of observation. If only it were as easy as Azoulay suggests in a chapter titled “Emergency Claims” that focuses specifically on photographs that explicitly generate horror through violent and even sensational subject matter. The problem Azoulay analyzes in detail is the way that the relationships of photographer, subject, photograph, and viewer are not stable; every variable in the process of transmission is apt to be contingent and thus subject to the forces of interpretation, counterinterpretation, selection, manipulation, suppression, and repurposing. “This is the ontology of photography—it always includes more than what one wants it to contain. The photographer is responsible for photography, and his act is a necessary, though small link in the chain of acts responsible for fulfilling the injunction ‘to watch’ or ‘to show’” (355). Photography, almost ideally so, both instantiates reigning paradigms and constituted authority, and creates space for critique and transformation.

Azoulay’s most recent work, Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography refines the arguments made in The Civil Contract of Photography by parsing the deep structural lineaments of photography itself. Key to the work’s importance is its assertion that understanding how photographs, endlessly retransmittable and easily divorced from the intentions of its creator, ceaselessly place demands on viewers to shuttle between aesthetic and political interpretive nodes to make sense of a picture. Such shuttling, in Azoulay’s account, is primarily one of imagination, but a particular kind of imaginative gaze that Azoulay calls “civil.” The “civil gaze,” as opposed to the “orienteering” (basic comprehension) and “professional” (judging technical and artistic merit) gaze, requires “interpretive effort” because “nothing is given in advance of the photograph” (121). “The civil gaze,” Azoulay writes, “enables the spectator to use the reconstruction of the situation photographed in order to become aware that the photographer does not stand opposite the figure photographed on his own, nor does the spectator herself confront the photographed figure alone. The spectator also comes to realize that she does not stand outside the regime within whose framework the photographic encounter becomes possible. Civil intention allows the spectator to recognize the presence of those absent from the frame, extending awareness to all those who took part in the production of the visible, and allowing all participants populating the civil space the photograph to meet on the same plane, even if only momentarily, and to ratify their inclusion within its space” (121). The intent, if the above quotation does not make it clear, is to understand how any photograph both instantiates realms of unequal status and serves as the means of critiquing, undermining, and transforming them—never all at once one way or the other, but instead fleetingly, as if too much emphasis on one interpretive possibility will not make it stronger, but engender its dissolution.

Azoulay’s argument, as I have stated it, does not seem especially difficult to understand or execute. The detail lies in her grounding of her claim in Western theoretical discussions of aesthetics and citizenship and her conceptualizing of photography’s place vis-à-vis other artistic and documentary postmodern realms. She also offers several examples of how civil interpretations of specific photographs might occur. One or two of these would be worth looking at in detail, but in the time I have remaining I’m more interested in applying what we can of the concept of the civil gaze to the photographic situation of two pictures taken by the same photographer of conflict in Iraq. The examples I use I first encountered in Michael Kamber’s superb 2013 compilation of journalistic photography taken by some of the war’s best-known photographers called Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq.  Kamber asks the photographers, heretofore generally silent and unqueried, to explain the circumstances by which their pictures were taken and offer their thoughts about the variables we might loosely call, after Azoulay, their “situation.” Azoulay would absolutely not want to privilege the intentions and authority of the photographer-creator, we all understand, but the photographer is probably best able to at least begin construction of Azoulay’s ideal of civil interpretation.

The first picture I want to examine was taken by American photographer Lucien Read while embedded with Marines in Fallujah in 2004. Its subject is First Sergeant Bradley Kasal, who has just been injured by grenade fragments while clearing a house occupied by insurgents.  Now, in the picture, even as he is being evacuated by fellow Marines, his fighting spirit is reflected by the look on his face and the weapon he retains in his hand.

[The picture can be found at many places online, but is protected by serious rights warnings, so I’m not reproducing it without permission (irony). Here is a link to one place it can be viewed.]

The second picture was taken by Read in the city of Haditha in 2005. It shows bodies of civilians, to include women and children, killed by Marines, wrapped in tunics prior to burial.  The bodies are among 24 Iraqi civilians allegedly murdered by Marines in retaliation for the death of one of their own by a roadside bomb.

[This picture is not easily viewable online anymore, but can be found in this article by Lucian Read himself.]

The first features bright primary colors, the second is shrouded in shadows and slants of light. The first is in daylight and outdoors, or coming out of doors. The second is inside, and dimly lighted.

The first picture features no Iraqis. The second features no Americans.

The Americans in the first are bloody, but still alive. The Iraqis in the second are cleansed and prepared for burial after death.

The first features faces, in the second none are visible.

In the first, physical bodies are upright, in the second they are prone.

One might view the first and salute the Marine’s bravery, determination, and camaraderie.  One might pity them. One might be repulsed by them. One might view the second and be saddened. Or outraged. Or one might want to know who they are and how, or better, why they were killed.

The first picture was subsequently used by Marines as recruiting tool and to inspire bravery and commitment in other Marines. The second picture was used as evidence of Marine brutality in charges filed against eight Marines. Seven Marines were exonerated before trial, while one was court-martialed in 2012 and found guilty of a single count of negligent duty.  The case and verdict received extensive media coverage and generated outrage in both Iraq and America. Some felt that an atrocity on the order of Vietnam’s My Lai murder had been swept under the carpet, while others felt that Marines with good reputations had been slandered for actions taken in the heat of the moment under unclear circumstances.

As we look at the pictures and think about them in ways that transcend the “orienteering” or “professional,” we participate in a process of which Azoulay states, “With the invention of photography, a new relation toward the visible came into being—one which may, admittedly, have existed partially in the past but not in precisely the same fashion or with the same frequency” (68). She continues, “The fairly simple possibility arose of sharing a certain space with other people and objects without having to be physically present beside them in the same place.”

Photography, Azoulay asserts, unlike text, painting, sculpture, drama, or other forms of representation, is particularly able to bind us in shared meaning-making with other humans and, she feels, generate meaningful obligation toward one another. This new civil gaze, properly understood, places us in relation thanks to photography to “objects, situations, customs, figures, images or places” (68) that formerly were inaccessible to all of us at the same time and were in effect deemed unworthy of us to view, or consider at all. If in fact we are all together in the same room at the same time, as we are here, a very salient fact is that as we observe the pictures I am presenting, our individual gazes interact not just with the subjects of the photographs but with all the other acts of observation taking place; concurrently we gaze and are gazed upon and our gazes together constitute an interpretive domain larger and different than any one perspective or the sum of them all. The dynamic, in Azoullay’s account, creates interpretive possibilities and an array of responses and obligations that transcend the aesthetic and political to become civil. Thus we see the infinite power and potential of the photographic situation: an always expanding, and never predictable optic force field engendered by the structural uniqueness of photography.

****

I only had 15-20 minutes at ACLA, so had to keep things short. There’s much more to say about Azoulay’s concepts of the “photographic situation” and “the civil gaze,” as well as ways we might “complicate,” “trouble,” “interrogate,” or “problematize” them. I’m not going to do much of that here, but I am sympathetic to the concepts. One of Azoulay’s points is that journalistic photography foregrounding violence exemplarily creates opportunities for the interpretive dynamic she describes. I think, however, that the critical stance works for artistic photography and art generally. When thinking about war novels, for example, I think everything counts–the words on the page, the author’s intentions, the context, my reactions, other people’s reactions, the reactions of the people on whom the characters might be based–and all interpretations are necessarily contingent and malleable. Meaning doesn’t reside in any one place, nor does one locus of meaning dominate the others. Instead, the book, like Azoulay’s photographs, acts as an agent for shared complex interpretive experiences.

Ariella Azoulay, Death’s Showcase: The Power of Images in Contemporary Democracy. MIT, 2001.

Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography. MIT, 2008.

Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination:  A Political Ontology of Photography. Verso, 2015.

Michael Kamber. Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. University of Texas, 2013.

 

Theater of Operations at MoMA PS1

Posted February 12, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags:

The Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars, 1991-2011 exhibit currently running at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 annex in Long Island City, Queens, New York, has all the trappings of a major art-world event. Not just the MoMA imprimatur, but its size and obvious commitment to showcasing major artists signal intent to make a significant statement about how the First and Second Iraq Wars were fought and how they have been portrayed in art in Iraq and America and Great Britain. As such, when Theater of Operations opened last November, it was covered by mainstream press giants such as the New York Times and The Guardian. The Times and Guardian reviews were mostly approving, but a discordant, brooding note was struck by the New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl, who seemed irritated by the spirit of the exhibit and unimpressed by much that he observed.

In Schjeldahl’s review, which at best damned Theater of Operations with faint praise, the author ruminated on the relationship of art and war, and his skepticism that great art might result from war resonated loud and clear. Adding poignancy to and perhaps justification for the bummer review was a long article called “The Art of Dying” by Schjeldahl in the next week’s New Yorker, in which the author not only revealed he was dying of cancer but spent significant page-space reminiscing about the long sad after-effects of his father’s service in Europe in World War II as an infantryman. Since Schjeldahl felt war had ruined his father and the Schjeldahl family happiness, it was hard not to think that his life’s commitment to art lay in belief that art constituted a realm of human endeavor opposite to and incompatible with warfaring and militarism.

Just as I was taking all this in, another furor arose: Apparently, Theater of Operations is partially funded by a corporation directly connected to Blackwater. O unholy alliance of money, blood, and art! Was it ever not so? Can it ever not be so?

Eager to make sense of things for myself, I visited MoMA PS1 a couple of weekends ago. The Theater of Operations exhibit occupies the better part of three floors of the renovated schoolhouse that constitutes the museum. Most of the artworks in Theater of Operations stem from the First Gulf War, and most are creations of Iraqi artists. Many of these artworks portray horrifying images of forty years of nearly continuous war in Iraq, while others are non-representational works that allow viewers to consider their relation to war obliquely. The artworks by Americans are almost all polemically anti-war and anti-Republican administration in intent and execution. Very few, though, are of or by soldiers; the American soldiers’ experience of war is largely limited to a series of photographs of deploying soldiers, their faces etched with both gravity and innocence, and another series of photographs illustrating political protests by veterans against the war.

Many of the artworks by American artists are not especially subtle:

“Stop Bush,” by Richard Serra

“Landscape with Dollar Sign,” by Richard Hamilton

Others reflect more artistic or less strident processing of war events and impressions.

“Gladiators,” by Martha Rosler

“Florida National Guard Patrol Looking for Weapons Cache by the Tigris,” by Steve Mumford

A few large-scale installations work hard to impress themselves upon viewers. “Untitled (Iraq Book Project),” for example, by Rachel Khedoori, features everything available on the Internet about the Second Iraq War printed out and presented for inspection in bound volumes. The piece seems to speak to the over-saturation of words about the war and the strained effort to find words equal to the real events, anguish, and loss on the ground.

Another piece, “Hotel Democracy” by Thomas Hirschhorn, features twenty-some cubicle like living spaces, some reflective of soldier quarters on military FOBs and others the living spaces of Iraqi civilians hunkered down in tiny rooms, the inhabitants reduced to poverty and trying to survive sans community. The message here seems to address both the drive for individuals to personalize their living spaces in the face of war’s deprivations, while also speaking to the essentially cloistered and unnourishing inhumanity of those same living spaces.

Many many many pieces feature TV, drone, and video footage, as if to comment on how the war was made known through the unreliable necessity of second-hand images.

“War Games,” by Richard Hamilton

Schjeldahl objected in particular to this aspect of Theater of Operations. He suggested that the exhibit’s acknowledged debt to Jean Baudrillard’s famous “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” manifesto was morally facile and factually incorrect (real people, he implied, and I’m thinking he was thinking of his father, understand war not through images but by killing other people while trying to stay alive themselves). The sense was also that creating artwork around TV footage of, say, a news pundit describing “shock and awe,” was artistically lazy and cliched. Hmm, maybe…. One video installation I appreciated very much, “Shadow Sites II” by Jananne Al-ani, projects a series of drone or satellite shots of sculpted Iraqi landscapes on a giant screen in a darkened room. I found the slow-moving, nearly static videos engrossing—an overwhelming sensory experience at once ominous and soothing.

Some of the artworks by Iraqi artists also riff on the shock power of photographic images:

“Saddam is Here,” by Jamal Penjweny

All told, my favorite pieces were paintings by Iraqi artists. I might say I “liked” them, but that seems wrong, for pleasurable enjoyment is not what the art of war is all about. English appears to lack the word to properly describe apprehension of artworks inspired by carnage and documenting atrocity. The most we can do, I’d say, is appreciate the drive to create art under terrible circumstances and contemplate their terrifying majesty.

“Mesopotamia,” by Ali Talib

“Victim’s Portrait,” by Dia al-Azzawi

“Mission of Destruction,” by Dia al-Azzawi

The exhibition’s intent is clearly not to privilege American soldier perspectives and for God’s sake not to cultivate sympathy for American soldiers or absolve them of their complicity in the wars. That’s OK, but just OK—I think exhibition attendees would like to balance consideration of work by Iraqi and American civilian-artists with that of art created by military veterans. In my mind, the picture-and-text assemblages of Benjamin Busch (displayed at the 2010 War, Literature and the Arts conference), the FOB barrier murals collected by Graffiti of War (displayed at West Point in 2014), and Maximilian Uriarte’s superb Terminal Lance line drawings (as displayed in 2018 at Rutgers’ Zimmerli Art Museum) all would have sat very well alongside the artists and art featured in Theater of Operations. And what art might we find, if we looked, created by Iraqi soldiers and insurgents?

Further proof of the intent to exclude the voice of the American soldier was found in the museum bookstore offerings associated with the exhibit. On my visit, the only fiction featured  were three titles by Iraqi-American author Sinan Antoon. Antoon’s great, but conspicuous by its absence was fiction by American author Iraq War veterans such as Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, or even the scathingly dissident Roy Scranton, or “anti-war” novels by civilians such as Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, or the searching and complex Iraq War poetry of civilian Philip Metres and veteran Brian Turner. The shelves were also missing titles by terrific and important Iraqi authors such as Hassan Blasim and Ahmed Saadawi, which was curious. And finally, I appreciated seeing Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, whose ideas about war imagery are central, but I would have loved to have also seen works by Ariella Azoulay, whose extrapolations of Sontag’s ideas takes us ever-nearer to understanding the vexed intertwining of violence, image, and art.

OK, OK, everyone’s a critic, and everyone is potentially a curator, right? Be all the above as it may, I invite you to reflect on the MoMA PS1 Theater of Operations exhibit as you will and as you can, hopefully in person or if not that, then by reading the articles it has inspired.

****

A little outside the purview of the exhibition review, but perhaps not too far: I was struck by the MoMA P1’s exterior and interior appearance, which makes little effort to hide the time-worn wrinkles and scars of the old school, even as it tacks on a number of modern adornments. The postindustrial-chic building and the jury-rigged exhibition spaces made me think of the half-wrecked government buildings repurposed as army outposts I inhabited on deployments to Kosovo and Afghanistan. I never served in Iraq, but I’m sure it was something of the same there.

The museum combines a refurbished brick schoolhouse, a poured-concrete addition, a prefab semi-permanent structure, wooden plank walkways, and improvised pipe scaffolding (for an awning, I think).

An unused courtyard/sculpture-garden reminded me of the corner of a FOB motor-pool.

This stairwell made me think of the great novel “Up the Down Staircase,” about teaching in New York City public schools.

Some exhibition spaces are gorgeous. This one made me wonder how it was used in the old schoolhouse.

Let Us Now Praise Mine and Megan Leavey

Posted February 6, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

World War I movies such as They Shall Not Grow Old and 1917 are made by famous directors, feature big production and publicity budgets, and attract critical acclaim and popular audiences. Movies about contemporary war, on the other hand, occupy a smaller place in the Hollywood realm. Take, for examples, two 2017 releases, Mine, about a Marine sniper caught in a minefield, and Megan Leavey, about a female Marine dog-handler, both made by low-profile directors and exuding budget-rate production values. I missed both movies upon release, and never heard or read anything about them in the three years since their arrival until I discovered them last week while net-surfing. Though neither movie is perfect, I enjoyed both, and found in them much of interest. So, while others write mighty reviews of epic films about tremendous battles, I’ll sing the virtues of forgotten movies about America’s forever wars.

Mine was co-directed by two Italian first-time Hollywood directors, Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro. Set in an unspecified Global War on Terror desert location, Mine opens as does American Sniper and the Canadian sniper-flick Hyena Road: an elite-force sniper and his spotter lie poised to take out Muslim bad-guys. In Mine, as in its predecessors, the mission goes awry, and the sniper team must walk across six miles of mine-filled desert to their extraction site. Predictably, first the spotter steps on a mine, suffers a double-amputation of his legs at the knee, and subsequently succumbs to his wounds. Next, the sniper, as he steps toward his dying buddy, detects the tell-tale click of an anti-personnel mine set to detonate beneath his foot. If he lifts his boot, the mine explodes, and he dies along with his buddy. Frozen in place, he contacts his higher headquarters by radio and is told it will be 52 hours until help arrives. Can he hold on? What will happen to him as he waits? How will he be rescued?  These questions drive the remainder of the film.

The set-up is contrived, but intriguing as it plays out. Fair warning, though–many critics have called Mine pure hokum—its 17% positive critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes is the lowest I’ve ever seen. Whatever, I liked Armie Hammer as the sniper, Sergeant Mike Stevens. The lunky-and-hunky Hammer certainly looks the part, and he works hard to keep not just his character but the film alive. Caught in a nightmare scenario that tests both his wits and his stamina, Sergeant Stevens must summon more physical resources than even the toughest Marine might be expected to possess, and confront psychological terrors brought on by stress and fatigue he’d rather suppress. For directors Guaglione and Resinaro, the challenge is developing plausible and exciting events and plot turns to fill ninety minutes of screen time. They’re not entirely up to the task, but they have a nice visual style. As one review puts it, “The Fabios appear to have some talent, but not a lot of common sense” (watch the movie, you’ll see). For my money, though, their work honors Italian filmmaker legend Sergio Leone’s films The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars, which star Clint Eastwood. A celebration of masculine hardiness, perseverance, and ingenuity, Mine is a spaghetti Western for our times.

After a taut first twenty minutes, Mine’s pace become languid and somewhat repetitive. In contrast, Megan Leavey, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, trips along nicely, with each scene crisply and economically contributing to a satisfactory whole. Starring Kata Mara in the title role, Megan Leavey is based on a true story about the actual Megan Leavey’s battle to reunite with the bomb-sniffing dog with whom she worked in Iraq as a Marine. Meagan Leavey, then, is not just a biopic of Leavey, but also the story of her canine partner, a magnificently ferocious German Shepherd named Rex. Mara is excellent as Leavey and more than up to the task of sharing the screen with the charismatic Rex. Pint-sized and narrow-shouldered, Leavey is swallowed up by the baggy uniforms and cumbersome combat gear she wears. On appearance not promising, underestimate Leavey at your peril, for beneath the unimpressive exterior lies a basic competence and formidable desire to succeed.

Not to say she is perfect; part of the movie’s charm lies in showing how Leavey, as a young woman, is often confused and mistake-prone. But the potential is there and is recognized by her chain-of-command, who suss out that Leavey contains the requisite blend of toughness and tenderness to bond with Rex, who heretofore has resisted training by male dog-handlers. In all this Mara resembles a younger version of the Jessica Chastain character in Zero Dark Thirty. Leavey is not yet that film’s Maya–a bad-ass capable of vanquishing professional rivals and torturing and killing enemies without flinching—but she is on the way to becoming a smart, strong-minded woman easily able to hold her own in a man’s world. First though, she must confront a series of hurdles as terrifying in their way as the landmines faced by Sergeant Stevens in Mine: rage-prone Marine sergeants, stiff qualification tests for dog-handler school, intimidating initial encounters with Rex, and finally the horror of combat, where she is wounded and evacuated from the battlefield. Those obstacles surmounted, fighting the military bureaucracy post-deployment for permission to adopt Rex doesn’t seem much of a challenge at all.

So, two movies about heroic triumph over adversity leading to personal achievement and transformation. An interesting point of comparison is how the two films portray their protagonists’ relationship to their chains-of-command and the larger military culture they have joined. In Mine, Sergeant Stevens is virtually abandoned by his higher headquarters, whose radio communiques to him have an oddly sterile remoteness that make them sound like they are being transmitted by aliens from outer-space. The other-worldly effect suggests that individual Marines such as Sergeant Stevens are disposable factotums in the eyes of the higher-up machinery. In Megan Leavey, the chain-of-command is all too present and emotionally engaged with Leavey, as they tell her in loud voices and no uncertain terms that she must get her act together to achieve the things she really wants (in graphic military slang not used in this family-friendly film, she must “un-fuck” herself). Cowperthwaite might have made Leavey’s story one of victory over a misogynist patriarchy (as does Zero Dark Thirty), but Leavey doesn’t seem to understand her lot that way. Instead, the suggestion is that she knows she’s a participant in an older, sweeter, and sometimes truer tale: how the military, in its “tough love” way, serves as the means by which young men and women maximize their potential. Which is kind of the point of Mine, too, though no thanks to the chain-of-command there.

****

Not to hate on World War I films, RIP Kirk Douglas, star of what might be the greatest WWI film of them all, Paths of Glory. A couple of years ago I was asked to participate in a panel discussion of Paths of Glory at Yale by vet-author Adrian Bonenberger, along with Benjamin Busch, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Brianne Bilsky. It was a wonderful opportunity, a great time, and a fond memory.

 

Contemporary War Fiction by Category

Posted February 1, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags:

Brian Castner and Phil Klay at AWP16 in Los Angeles

I’ve compiled lists of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction by category as a reference for those interested. The focus is on novels and short-story collections published by major and medium-sized publishers. Comprehensive lists of self-published and smaller-press titles await compiling, as do catalogs of romance, war-adventure/mil-thriller, young-adult, and graphic novels. I know they’re out there in numbers, and don’t gainsay their importance, but it’s beyond me to account for them right now.

I’ve identified authors by branch-of-service or civilian status, since that’s a breakdown oft-inquired about. Most of my categories are obvious and self-explanatory (ie, Iraq vs. Afghanistan), but a few reflect more specialized queries I’ve received over the years. If there’s a categorization you think important that I haven’t provided, please let me know.

Mistakes and omissions are inevitable and corrections are easy, so if you spot a problem let me know.

2020 is shaping up to be fruitful year for new fiction by established vet-writers, with work due to arrive from heavy-hitters Elliot Ackerman, Matt Gallagher, Jesse Goolsby, and Phil Klay. Hoo-wah!

Novels Set Mostly in Iraq

Last One In (2007) Nicholas Kulish (Civilian)
The Sandbox (2010), David Zimmerman (Civilian)
Sand Queen (2011) Helen Benedict (Civilian)
One Hundred and One Nights (2011), Benjamin Buchholz (Army)
Fobbit (2012), David Abrams (Army)
The Yellow Birds (2012), Kevin Powers (Army)
War of the Encyclopaedists (2014), Gavin Kovite (Army) and Christopher Robinson (Civilian)
Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014), Michael Pitre (Army)
Youngblood (2016), Matt Gallagher (Army)
The Good Lieutenant (2016), Whitney Terrell (Civilian)
The Baghdad Eucharist (2017), Sinan Antoon (Civilian)
Brave Deeds (2017), David Abrams (Army)
Spoils (2017), Brian Van Reet (Army)
The Book of Collateral Damage (2019), Sinan Antoon (Civilian)
The Surge (2019), Adam Kovacs (Army)

Novels Set Mostly in Afghanistan

The Wasted Vigil (2008), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
The Watch (2012), Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya (Civilian)
The Blind Man’s Garden (2013), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
What Changes Everything (2013), Masha Hamilton (Civilian)
Wynne’s War (2014), Aaron Gwyn (Civilian)
Green on Blue (2015), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
Old Silk Road (2015), Brandon Caro (Army)
The Valley (2015), John Renehan (Army)
Anatomy of a Soldier (2016), Harry Parker (British Army)
And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018), Ray McPadden (Army)
Still Come Home (2019), Katey Schultz (Civilian)

Fictional Global War on Terror Setting:

The Knife (2015), Ross Ritchell (Army)

Novels Set Stateside and/or Post-Deployment

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012), Ben Fountain (Civilian)
Sparta (2013), Roxana Robinson (Civilian)
The Apartment (2014), Greg Baxter (Civilian)
Be Safe, I Love You (2014), Cara Hoffman (Civilian)
Preparation for the Next Life (2014), Atticus Lish (Marines)
I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015), Jesse Goolsby (Air Force)
Casualties (2016), Elizabeth Marro (Civilian)
A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016), Matthew Hefti (Air Force)
War Porn (2016), Roy Scranton (Army)
Wolf Season (2017), Helen Benedict (Civilian)
Waiting for Eden (2018), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
The Heart of War (2018), Kathleen McInnis (Civilian)
Cherry (2018), Nico Walker (Army)

Short Story Collections and Anthologies

You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), Siobhan Fallon (Civilian)
Fire and Forget (2013), Matt Gallagher (Army) and Roy Scranton (Army), eds.
Flashes of War (2013), Katie Schultz (Civilian)
The Corpse Exhibition (2014), Hassan Blasim (Iraqi-Finnish civilian)
Redeployment (2014), Phil Klay (Marines)
The Road Ahead (2016), Brian Castner (Air Force) and Adrian Bonenberger (Army), eds.
We Come to Our Senses (2016), Odie Lyndsey (Army)
These Heroic Happy Dead (2016), Luke Mogelson (Civilian)
Desert Mementos (2017), Caleb S. Cage (Army)
Veterans Crisis Hotline (2018), Jonathan Chopan (Civilian)
Bring Out the Dog (2018), Will Mackin (Navy)

Novels and Short-Story Collections by Women

Sand Queen (2011) Helen Benedict (Civilian)
You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), Siobhan Fallon (Civilian)
Eleven Days, (2013), Lea Carpenter (Civilian)
What Changes Everything (2013), Masha Hamilton (Civilian)
Sparta (2013), Roxana Robinson (Civilian)
Flashes of War (2013), Katie Schultz (Civilian)
Be Safe, I Love You (2014), Cara Hoffman (Civilian)
Casualties (2016), Elizabeth Marro (Civilian)
Wolf Season (2017), Helen Benedict (Civilian)
The Heart of War (2018), Kathleen McInnis (Civilian)
Still Come Home (2019), Katey Schultz (Civilian)

Novels and Short-Story Collections Portraying Special Operations Forces

Eleven Days (2013), Lea Carpenter (Civilian)
Wynne’s War (2014), Aaron Gwyn (Civilian)
The Knife (2015) Ross Ritchell (Army)
Bring Out the Dog (2018) Will Mackin (Navy)
And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018), Ray McPadden (Army)

Translations and Novels by Foreign Authors

The Wasted Vigil (2008), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
The Corpse Washer (2013), Sinan Antoon (Iraqi-American)
The Blind Man’s Garden (2013), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
The Corpse Exhibition (2014), Hassan Blasim (Iraqi-Finnish civilian)
Anatomy of a Soldier (2016), Harry Parker (British)
Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018), Amed Saadawi (Iraqi)
The Baghdad Eucharist (2017), Sinan Antoon (Iraqi-American)
The Book of Collateral Damage (2019), Sinan Antoon (Iraqi-American)

Novels in Which War in Iraq or Afghanistan Serves as an Important Backdrop

The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), Robert Gailbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) (Civilian)
They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013), Hilary Plum (Civilian)
A Big Enough Lie (2015), Eric Bennett (Civilian)
Dark at the Crossing (2017), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
The Confusion of Languages (2017), Siobhan Fallon (Civilian)
Ohio (2018), Stephen Markley (Civilian)
Strawberry Fields (2018), Hilary Plum (Civilian)

Novels Featuring Unconventional Narration and/or Fantastical Elements

A Big Enough Lie (2015), Eric Bennett (Civilian). Contains a “novel-within-a-novel” portraying combat in Iraq authored by a character who pretends to be a disabled vet.

The Old Silk Road (2015), Brandon Caro (Navy). Features extended passages describing drug-induced time-travel.

The War of the Encyclopaedists (2015), Gavin Kovite (Army) and Christopher Robinson (Civilian). Co-written by a civ-mil author team, with alternating sections focused on characters resembling the authors.

Anatomy of a Soldier (2016), Harry Parker (British Army). Narrated by material objects associated with soldiering and war in Afghanistan.

The Good Lieutenant (2016), Whitney Terrell (Civilian). Narrated in reverse chronological order, chapter-by-chapter.

Waiting for Eden (2018), Elliot Ackerman (Marines). Narrated by the now-dead soldier-friend of a badly-wounded, near-comatose Marine who can neither move nor speak.

Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018), Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq). A monster built out of the human remains of war-dead stalks the streets of Baghdad.

Second and Third Acts: Subsequent novels by veteran-authors (and one military spouse) listed above, but not directly depicting war in Iraq or Afghanistan

The Confusion of Languages (2017), Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse)
A Shout in the Ruins (2018), Kevin Powers (Army)
I [Heart] Oklahoma (2019), Roy Scranton (Army)
Red Dress in Black and White (2020), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
Empire City (2020), Matt Gallagher (Army)
Acceleration Hours (2020), Jesse Goolsby (Air Force)
Missionaries (2020), Phil Klay (Marines)

Five unconventionally narrated contemporary war novels–check them out everybody!

 

Caleb S. Cage’s War Narratives

Posted January 25, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

“Our ideas about the war were the war.” -Will Mackin, “Kattekoppen”

“Lieutenants write the histories of their wars.” -Gore Vidal, Burr

Caleb S. Cage’s War Narratives: Shaping Beliefs, Blurring Truths in the Middle East, published in 2019, is a most curious, almost surprising, arrival on the war-writing scene. Organized around an easy-to-grasp conceit, War Narratives argues that true understanding of America’s twenty-first century wars, particularly Iraq, has been clouded by competing story-like interpretations of what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, why what happened happened, and why any of it matters. Analytical and historical in approach and arriving at a time when war-mil-and-vet writing seems stuck on a limited number of predictable tracks, War Narratives offers striking relief from the parade of first-person memoirs, biographical accounts, and journalistic commentary on topical events. Though not perfect in its argument or its argument’s development, War Narratives succeeds by being provocative and inspirational, and, best of all, by being mostly right.

War Narratives’ thesis that understanding of the war has taken the form of understanding stories about the war is in some respects obvious—everyone has heard canards about “controlling the narrative” from the mouths of generals, politicians, and journalists—but Cage takes the nostrum seriously and unpacks it in a number of interesting and illuminating ways. Each chapter is organized around a simple-but-sturdy rubric: examination of two competing narratives (some of which seem more like ideas or beliefs than stories, but no matter) about Iraq and Afghanistan. Chapter One begins things by analyzing competing explanations for extremist Islamic jihad offered by Al Qaeda and ISIS. The virtue in starting this way is that two of America’s arch enemies publicly proclaim differing “official” narratives. This fortuitous event allows Cage to dissect clearly-enunciated, highly-visible examples of narrative construction and dissemination before turning to Western narratives that coalesce in more nebulous ways at the level of public opinion, political positions, media debate, book battles, and ideology.

Chapters Two through Five examine key aspects of twenty-first century American warfaring politics and strategy in a similar pattern. In each chapter, Cage identifies first a dominant, conventional, or accepted interpretation of events and then undermines it by considering an alternative version not generally given enough credence in Cage’s estimation. Chapter Two, for example, takes issue with the idea that the decision to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan was a matter of “choice” by President Bush, rather than a more complicated, wide-ranging accretion of events and processes that involved many players. Chapter Three argues against the idea that President Bush was just a “cowboy” enamored of tough-guy talk and action. Instead, Cage demonstrates, President Bush was also consumed by the idea of making war as pain-free and risk-adverse for soldiers and the nation as he could. Chapter Four counters conventional belief that the chaotic Reconstruction “Phase IV” of Operation Iraqi Freedom was neglected by war-planners and leaders such as General Tommy Franks. Cage proposes that the real problem was not neglect, but too much uncoordinated effort, and the real failure was inability to synchronize competing plans and planning agencies to maximum effect. Chapter Five explores debates about the value of COIN strategy, the Iraq War “Surge,” and the cult-like preeminence given (for a while) to General David Petraeus as the savior of a war gone-very-badly-wrong. Here, Cage goes beyond description of competing sides to make a larger, more trenchant argument: debates about COIN, the Surge, and General Petraeus had more to do with domestic political posturing than people and actions on the ground in Iraq. Not that things on the ground didn’t actually happen, but they were interpreted through competing rhetorical frameworks that advanced pre-confirmed political beliefs and agendas.

All good, so far, and a nice trip down memory lane to revisit events that already seem like they occurred a million years ago. The last three chapters of War Narratives, however, are more germane to Time Now’s interest in the artistic representation of war, the human experience of war, and literary analysis. Chapters Six through Eight identify dominant motifs in the stories that soldiers actually tell about themselves in oral histories, memoirs, and fiction. Chapter Seven, on oral history, describes a body of soldier stories that escape characterization of military men and women as either “heroes” or “victims.” Chapter Seven, titled “On Chickenshit,” asserts that contempt for military bureaucratic rigamarole, both in the way it affected efforts to fight the enemy and in the way it defined the military’s own internal processes, as the animating energy in war blogs and memoirs such as those by Colby Buzzell, Matt Gallagher, Christopher Hartley, and Benjamin Tupper. Cage is not wrong, at all, and his most salient point in War Narratives, for my money, is made in this chapter. Describing the way that contempt for military chickenshit, horseshit, and bullshit reflected particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan soldier narratives, he writes:

In these wars, instances of chickenshit evoke a sense of dishonesty often used in political rhetoric to persuade, and political cowardice that allowed for a poorly planned invasion and the belief in a painless war, all resulting in a risk-averse approach to combat. And because those who served in the military during these wars did so voluntarily, it helps explain why those who endure chickenshit in the military can complain about, but how they do not see themselves as heroes or victims for doing so.

There’s much to unpack in the above quote, but to comment on just two aspects: characteristic here is Cage’s attention to the importance of the all-volunteer military in shaping the peculiar nature of war narratives in the twenty-first century. In almost every chapter, the fact that a large unknowing populace and a small cohort of military volunteers exist on opposite sides of a chasm is the driving force for the creation of stories told on each side of the chasm about those on the other side. In specific regard to soldier narratives, Cage puts his finger on the contempt and rage so prominent in war narratives, which is directed at every member of the chain-of-command above the rank of lieutenant for constructing such an unsatisfying war and military experience for the junior enlisted and junior officers who write the bulk of soldier-narratives. And yet, as Cage explains, the authors know they volunteered, and so while in suffered more-or-less silently what they feel more liberty to vehemently vent when out.

As Johnny Rotten famously proclaimed from the stage at the last Sex Pistols’ gig: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” For me, that’s pretty much the author’s attitude in many memoirs written by contemporary veterans.

Chapter Eight turns attention to war fiction as a war-writing corpus that not only honestly proclaims its identity as “narrative” but which offers more-worthy counter-stories to the self-serving and politicized tales examined in War Narratives’ early chapters. This line-of-thinking is music to my ears, though presented a little uncritically by Cage:

Those seeking to find the real war, not the war as it is filtered through political, social, and cultural narratives, but as told in an honest, forthright, nuanced, and sincere way, can turn to fiction for a larger unmediated variety of stories. Thanks to the fiction writers of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the real war is finally in the books…. The way the wars were presented by the media, through some memoirs, and through other outlets was more sensational, it was more superficial, and it was more political, reflecting more of what the broader civilian public wanted to hear than the true and complex experiences of those who were deployed on their nation’s behalf.

Cage rightfully expands on the idea that “true and complex experiences” of war might best be written by veteran authors to include civilian authors as well. He proceeds by examining four literary fiction titles that he asserts offer the complex truth-telling richness he values: Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Laura McBride’s We Are Called to Rise, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, and Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood. I’m down with that, but the chapter leaves me wanting a little more than Cage delivers. Rather than diving deep into the narratives the authors have created to demonstrate how fiction’s “true and complex” representations improve upon sanctified general understandings, the chapter concludes with summaries of interviews Cage conducted with the authors about why they wrote the stories they did. I’m not not interested in the authors’ ideas, but especially in a book about narrative strategies, the dictum “trust the tale, not the teller” has some purchase, so would liked to have seen more in-depth exploration of the authors’ actual stories.

Carpenter’s, McBride’s, Klay’s, and Gallagher’s fictions are indeed complex and contain truths, so getting specific about the narrative discourses in which they participate, we might say: Carpenter’s Eleven Days explores the mythology of Special Operations (particularly SEALs) (boy is that ever a narrative worth interrogating), McBride’s We Are Called to Rise asks us to think about traumatized veterans, Klay’s Redeployment stories ponder veteran complicity with evil, and Gallagher’s Youngblood might be read as a parable of the difficulty of knowing who one was fighting while in Iraq and the vexed nature of tale-telling after the war. Honestly, as much as I love those books, they seem (to varying degrees) to instantiate prevailing cultural beliefs about fighting men-and-women as much as critique them or offer compelling alternatives. Be that as it may, with just a little work, the fictional works Cage examines at the end of War Narratives might be linked back to the public sphere narratives he analyzes in Chapters One through Five to resolve, synthesize, or undermine them. The possibilities are there….

A great virtue of War Narratives is that it is short and apprehensible. It can be read over a weekend, the arguments absorbed and evidence digested easily, and the personal wrangle, as I have done here, commenced quickly. Also, War Narratives is a book-wonk’s dream, with Cage offering splendid capsule summaries and analyses of dozens of war-related biographies, memoirs, and journalistic and historical accounts. That Cage himself is a vet, a graduate of West Point, no less, and also the author of a very good short-story collection titled Desert Mementos, makes War Narratives’ arrival so much the sweeter. One only wishes it weren’t so alone in its orientation, and that it joined a robust collection of works exploring contemporary war and contemporary war-writing more holistically and conceptually than what we currently have.

The chapter “On Chickenshit” can be read here on the War, Literature, & the Arts journal website.

Caleb S. Cage. War Narratives: Shaping Beliefs, Blurring Truths in the Middle East. Texas A&M University Press, 2019.

The Stories Behind the Stories

Posted January 12, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags:

Pablo Picasso, “Palette, Candlestick, and Head of Minotaur”

My story “The Brigade Storyboard Artist” was republished this week on the Wrath-Bearing Tree website. Originally appearing as “Captain Athens and Sergeant Arrack” on Time Now in 2016, the story portrays internal drama within a brigade Tactical Operations Center in Afghanistan. The Wrath-Bearing Tree reissue has gotten a fair amount of attention and praise, by my standards, so check it out please if you haven’t already. It took every day of my 25+ years in the Army to accumulate enough observed detail about soldiers, operations, military processes, and Army culture to write “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” and most of what I include in the story has some resemblance to things I’ve witnessed or participated in. Most particularly, the story allows me to explore my interest in military “storyboards.” I had never seen nor heard of storyboards before arriving in Afghanistan as the leader of an advisor team in 2008. But I soon learned that storyboards, which can be roughly described as a Power Point presentation reduced to one-slide and injected with steroids, were the coin-of-the-realm in terms of information-sharing and narrative-shaping up-and-down and across the chain-of-command.

The specific genesis of “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” as a story, however, was an assignment I gave to cadets when I was teaching a literature course at West Point. The course director, Elizabeth Samet, made Ovid’s The Metamorphoses mandatory reading, along with an assignment to write stories that adapted myths related by Ovid into modern settings. Intrigued by the assignment, I wrote five adaptations myself, including what eventually became “The Brigade Storyboard Artist.” It’s based on Ovid’s telling of a mighty competition between Athena, the goddess of arts, and Arachne, a talented upstart, to sew the most magnificent tapestry. Central to The Metamorphoses myth is a transformation at each tale’s end. Typically, the transformation involves a human who is changed into an animal or material object; in Ovid’s telling of the Athena and Arachne competition, Arachne is turned into a spider when she loses the contest. I don’t go quite that far, but I’ve tried to find a realistic analogy.

I’ve also written four other stories based on myths related by Ovid in The Metamorphoses:

“Cy and Ali” is based on Ceyx and Alcyone, one of Ovid’s saddest stories. In my version, Cy is a gunner in a convoy caught in an ambush and Ali is his wife waiting at home for his return from war.

“Ari and Theodopulous” is based on the Minotaur myth. In Ovid, Theseus slays the Minotaur but is only able to escape the labyrinth with the help of King Minos’s daughter Ariadne. Theseus and Ariadne flee Crete, but Thesesus inexplicably abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Soon, however, Ariadne is taken up by Bacchus, the god of revelry. In my story, I find parallels for all that by telling a tale about a veteran who becomes a mixed-martial-arts champion.

“Junior and Io” is based on Ovid’s Jupiter, Juno, and Io myth. In Ovid, Jupiter, who is married to Juno, pursues Io, who he turns into a cow to hide her from Juno. In my story, Jupiter is a deployed soldier who is dumped, probably for good reason, by his girl Io.

“Captains Dietz and Avis” is based on Ovid’s Daphne and Apollo myth. In the myth, Apollo pursues Daphne, who finally escapes him when she is turned into a tree. In my story, a male Army captain with the hots for a female fellow officer comes on too strong and ruins her tour.

So what do you get when you use Ovid as the basis for telling stories about modern war? One issue is that of tone—almost all of Ovid’s stories end badly for the characters he wants us to care most deeply about—and yet somehow the stories are not tragic, but more comic or whimsical or detached. A few, very few, such as Ceyx and Alcyone, are tender and heartbreakingly sad.

Second, many or most of Ovid’s stores involve romance, desire, infatuation, and unrequited love. Since not so many modern war stories do love and relationships well, Ovid’s myths provide a framework by which a modern writer might begin to think about telling a story about the romantic and erotic lives of soldiers.

The third issue is dealing with the characters’ transformations. What to make of the them? Scholars suggest that the constant change reflects the capriciousness of the gods (or fate), who can punish or reward unexpectedly. They also suggest that Ovid’s message is that because change is constant, the ability to deal with change is not just a desired quality, but a necessity and a great good.

I can see those things, but also disagree. For me, the important aspect of Ovid’s stories is the permanent nature of the characters’ transformations and the corresponding ruin of their social relationships. When a character is transformed into a bird or animal or material object, he or she is gone forever from the human realm. Like death, yes, but more like disappearance and loss while still alive. It always happens for a reason, and maybe is for the best, but still. Think of people you once knew well and who were important to you, but who are now estranged or lost from contact, probably never to be seen or spoken to again. For me, it’s the destroyed human connections at the end of Ovid’s stories that account for their emotional force.

Many thanks to everyone at Wrath-Bearing Tree, a great journal featuring always interesting fiction, poetry, reviews, and commentary about war and the military.

2020 Vision: Old Wars, New Directions

Posted December 30, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

In recent months, much writing by veterans has reckoned with America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans Day, for example, elicited a larger number of vet-authored essays and opinion pieces than I remember from years past. The veterans’ ruminations described what might blandly be called “the human cost of war,” along with discussion of those human costs’ connections to national strategy and policy failures. Countering simplistic celebrations of veterans’ service and sacrifice, the pieces described lingering guilt, loss, pain, regret, and disappointment. A few days later, President Trump’s pardoning of war criminals Edward Gallagher, Mathew Golstyen, and Clint Lorance inspired another round of articles, the general gist of which expressed outrage at the men, their actions, and the pardons. Shortly thereafter, came the release of the Washington Post’s “The Afghanistan Papers,” which accused the nation’s civilian and military leadership of lying about how badly things have gone in Afghanistan the past two decades. The series subsequently generated more public opining by veteran-writers, me included. The responses in this case tempered outrage with proclamations of “duh” and “I told you so.”

I tracked the many Veterans Day, Presidential pardons, and Afghanistan Papers commentaries and agreed with much or most of what was written there-in. As always, though, my main interest has not been public sphere debate, but the parallel world of artistic expression. Not that the realm of art is “better” than political discourse, but I Iike it more, and, at the least, art is the province of the imagination, a quality that seems to be lacking in the thinking about how to bring America’s long wars to a close. It’s not that art offers specific solutions to specific problems (or rarely does), but that the art-realm serves as a constant imperative to think and live creatively and empathetically. Recent months have brought much to contemplate in this regard, too.

 

For instance, the Voices from War “Stories and Conversations on Transitions” reading at the New York Historical Society on Veterans Day weekend was fantastic. Voices from War is a long-standing New York City veterans writing workshop led by Kara Krauze, a formidable teacher and organizer. At the event, I was astonished by the diversity and uniqueness of the readers’ pieces, each of which came at the subject of war and “transition” from an interesting angle. To focus on an individual reading that combined personal reminiscence with heightened artistry, Drew Pham’s prose-poem “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” was particularly outstanding. Pham, a second-generation Vietnamese-American who served as an infantry lieutenant in Afghanistan with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, is now making a go of it as a writer and teacher in New York. Taking the concept of transition to an extreme, Pham now identifies as “they” and appeared on stage wearing make-up and a dress adorned with their Army badges and decorations.

A flamboyant stage presence, no doubt, but it’s the poem Pham read that counts most. “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” explores Pham’s personal, family, and ethnic/national history as it has played out over several generations and a number of imperialistic military projects dating back to World War I France and culminating in Pham’s service in Afghanistan. There are complicated authorial subject-positions, but it’s hard to imagine one more complicated than Pham’s: the son of immigrants whose family was deeply imbricated in Vietnam’s colonial and martial past, Pham fought in Afghanistan and there did the things American infantrymen are asked to do. In “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names,” Pham tries to make sense of it all, infused with an implicit, not explicit, wrestle with gender identity and sexual orientation. A short excerpt only begins to illustrate:

i only have this story / bits of shrapnel scattered through my family / i pieced together but never whole / the explosion that tore its way through our roots detonated so long ago / i cannot tell you whether those bits of steel i still find in my limbs belong to me / or the histories of my countrymen all so erased…

Two of the five sections of “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” are available here on the World War I Centennial Commission WWrite Blog, but the poem as a whole has not yet been published. I’ve obtained a paper copy of the poem entire, read it many times, and hope it will soon be available for all to read in full. Its five sections range stylistically from traditional lyric to highly wrought narrative prose. Central to the poem is Pham’s mother, who serves as the link connecting past and present and as the fulcrum for understanding the tangled threads of the poet’s life. In this, and in overall tone and style, “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” on page and read aloud made me think of “Kaddish,” Beat poet Alan Ginsberg’s great ode to his own mother. Whether the resemblance is intentional or not, I don’t know, but the poem’s striking imagery, momentous story-line, and exploratory emotional depth centered on war also reminds me of Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, while not being imitative or overly indebted to either Turner or Ginsberg.

Left to right, Omar Columbus, Phil Nerges, Leo Farley, Kara Krauze, Siobhan Adcock, Ellen Emerson, and Drew Pham at the Voices from War 2019 Veterans Day reading at the New York Historical Society.

Far to the southwest, the Austin Veterans Art Festival brought forth more bold expansions of war art boundaries. I wasn’t in Texas for the Festival, but the sound of distant thunder was very exciting. Not completely unconnected with the New York City scene, either; the AVAF featured new dramatic works by several artist-veterans with Big Apple credentials. New York City-based performance-poet Jenny Pacanowski, an Army vet whose poetry can be as raucous as it can be tender, authored a play titled Dionysus in America that reimagined the ancient Bacchae plays as parables for contemporary social disintegration. As its blurb states:

Dionysus in America imagines a dystopia in which women suffer endless harassment, and right-wing politics wrenches away women’s control over their own bodies; in response, American women heed the call of Dionysus, and flee to new, strange, euphoric rites in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. General Pentheus, leader of the American war machine, swears to go to the Mesopotamia, liberate the women, and drag them back to the United States. Unfortunately, he operates unaware that his uncle, a transformed and unrecognizable Dionysus, God of ritual madness, has decided to punish America’s hubris for rejecting his mother, his divinity, and his seemingly inexplicable rites of devotion.

The super-serious and somewhat staid Iraq and Afghanistan war writing and art scene has shied away from radical political critique in terms of message and from the carnivalesque and satirical in terms of aesthetics. Pacanowski, however, and to her great credit, is anything but staid, and Dionysus in America defiantly crashes and crushes barriers. One can only hope it foretells further expansions of war-story themes and styles; not all art needs to be politically outraged and theatrically over-the-top, but some of it must be.

A second play, authored and directed by Texas natives/New Jersey transplants John Myer (an Army vet) and Karen Alvarado, also did not tell a conventional story in a conventional way. Myer and Alvarado’s play Aftershock/La Réplica combined story-telling, dance, movement, drama, and music to explore the lives of Latino soldiers serving in the US military. Again, the complexity of the subject position suggests great possibility for artistic presentation: how do Hispanic-American men and women balance dual heritages and conflicting identities with military service in a contemporary national climate that makes it increasingly difficult to do so? Aftershock/La Réplica, according to its blurb, “explores new dimensions of Latinx military service, featuring soldiers and citizens who expect military service to reinforce their identity and ideas about family, patriotism, and even sexuality – but the military is often a place that mixes up the moral compass and sense of self and invents a new identity.” A video trailer here illustrates the Myer/Alvarado approach, which is never visually boring nor intellectually dull.

An aspect of Aftershock/La Réplica I like very much is that it included passages authored by former Marine Victor Inzunza. Inzunza, a poet, was the first contemporary war-writer I ever met—on the shuttle bus from the hotel to the 2011 War, Literature, and Arts conference in Colorado—and it’s been a pleasure following his work ever since and see it now incorporated within a bold theatrical endeavor by Myer and Alvarado, who are also friends.

Also performing in Austin was another New York City-based act, the wonderful Exit 12 Dance Company, about whom I’ve written about here, and Exit 12 conducted a dance workshop, as well. Finally, Veterans Writing Project founder and director Ron Capps was the featured speaker at the Veterans Health and Welfare Conference, an event affiliated with the Austin Veterans Art Festival. I also note that Capps participated in a veterans songwriting seminar near Austin that may or may not have been associated with the AVAF. It’s confusing, but I’m glad to be confused by so much creative flourishing and eager to learn more. In any case, I sympathize with Capps, a talented guitarist and singer, as he plumbs music’s power to articulate emotional nuances that can’t be expressed by cold black words on barren white pages or screens. To me, he seems much like poet Brian Turner in this turn to music, as well as a man after my own heart. But still, I like words most and Capps, like Voices from War’s Kara Krauze, is one of the long-time (mostly) unsung heroes of contemporary veteran writing. I’m especially glad to see Capps and Krauze still active as 2020 dawns and encouraging new voices, new stories, and new directions to make sense of the by now very old wars.

****

This post only touches a few of the interesting contemporary war-related artistic endeavors that have caught my attention the past few months. I hope to describe some others in posts to come.

 


%d bloggers like this: