Gold Stars

Posted May 24, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: General

There are many ways to remember those who have died at war and honor their sacrifice. A Gold Star, affixed to the exterior of a house to signify the death in combat of a member of the family residing there, brings to the fore a particularly salient way, especially where I live.

My state is one of the long-settled, densely-populated ones on the East Coast, and it’s hard not to see houses adorned with Gold Stars as one drives about the neighborhoods, small towns, and countryside. By now, I know where I’ll see Gold Star homes on the routes I routinely drive, but when I’m off the beaten path I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before one appears. Still, I’m never not slightly taken aback when they do, familiar or unfamiliar, a feeling something akin to what Emily Dickinson writes of (in a different context) as a “tighter Breathing / and Zero at the Bone.” Inwardly I pay respect.

How many Gold Star residences there are in my home-state is something to contemplate. Some 80 state residents have died in either Iraq or Afghanistan, so most Gold Stars must reflect the 1000+ state residents who died in Vietnam, the several hundred in Korea, or the 10,000 who died in World War II. I assume the Gold Stars I see adorn houses in which the dead service members lived before joining the military and going to war, and in which family members who knew them, or heard much about them, continue to reside. Maybe I’m wrong to assume such, but the residences featuring Gold Stars usually are older ones that might easily date back to the 60s, 50s, 40s, or earlier, never one of the new townhomes or McMansions. It seems unlikely that a family would place a Gold Star on the exterior of a house that had never been lived in by a service member killed-in-action, but perhaps that happens sometimes. The point is, I’m curious that so many families live in the same homes from which previous family members went off to war and never returned. In modern transitory America, I wouldn’t think that would be the case.

As most of the Gold Stars reflect deaths from wars fought long ago, the families within—parents, brothers and sisters, most likely, and spouses, too, I suppose, and their descendants–continue residing in homes decades and generations after the loss of a member who once filled the residence with their personality and energy. The Gold Star can’t replace the living presence, but it must stimulate constant remembrance, pride, sadness, obligation, and perhaps anger. That long vigil, signaled publicly but endured mostly privately within the remembering family, seems unimaginable in the amount of grief and sense of loss to which it pays witness and renders homage. Honestly, I don’t know if I could bear it if I were in the surviving families’ shoes. For Gold Star families, every day is Memorial Day, and so it is for me, a little, too, as I drive about the state.

The story of a local Gold Star family whose son was the first from my state to die in Iraq is told here. Let it represent, respectfully, all other Gold Star families, too. Let’s also remember the local Veterans Homes that have been hit hard by coronavirus. The many veteran-residents taken before their time deserved far better.

Finally, the Wrath-Bearing Tree has published a story I wrote titled “Cy and Ali” as part of their Memorial Day observance. It’s based on events that took place on my tour in Afghanistan and was written with three of the soldiers with whom I served who didn’t return in mind. You can find it here. Wrath-Bearing Tree has also posted a video of me reading “Cy and Ali”:

 

Mother’s Day War Writing

Posted May 10, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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For Mother’s Day 2020, a post from my old blog 15-Month Adventure:

To the Moms, the Whole Love

Happy mother’s day, also my birthday this year. Moms come up quite a bit in writings about the war, I’ve discovered. Not surprisingly, authors are sensitive to how military service touches those whose children do the fighting. For example, here’s how Benjamin Busch, author of Dust to Dust, describes his mother’s reaction to the announcement that he has joined the Marine Corps:

My mother took a deep breath, her hands clamped to the edge of the table as if she were watching an accident happen in the street. Her father had been a Marine, had gone to war and almost not come back.

How to describe a mother’s anxiety about her child’s deployment? Kaboom author Matt Gallagher’s mother Deborah Scott Gallagher writes in a New York Times essay entitled “In a Hymn, Words of Courage That Ring True Long After a Son Returns”: 

“I will be stalwart,” I had said to myself on the drive home from the airport the morning I said goodbye to him. “I will be steadfast. I will read and listen to the reputable war reporters, and I will write my senators and congressmen, but I will not lose faith in my country. I will concentrate on sustaining my son rather than myself, and I will not confuse self-pity with legitimate worry and concern over him and his men. I will be proud, justifiably proud, but I will not be vainglorious! And I will never, never, never let him know how frightened I am for him.”

But, within moments of returning home, I had broken all but one of these promises to myself. I was doing laundry and, as I measured detergent into the washer, the Christmas carol CD I was playing turned to Kate Smith’s magnificent contralto, singing, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

“And in despair, I bowed my head,” she sang. “There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

And, at that moment, for only the third time in my adult life, I began to sob — not cry, not weep — but sob uncontrollably, sitting on the floor of my laundry room, surrounded by sorted piles of bed linens and dirty clothes.

And if the child comes back wounded? Siobhan Fallon, author of the short-story collection You Know When The Men Are Gone, describes here a trip to Walter Reed to meet injured soldiers and their families:

And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: “Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?”

And how does a veteran describe his mother, a lover of language and books and authors and ideas, as he watches her fade late in life? Benjamin Busch again:

She had been a librarian. All of the books and conversations about the importance of written words swelling inside her head like a star undergoing gravitational collapse into a black mass, its light still traveling out into space but its fires already burned out. Nothing left but ash.

Then he recounts her last words: “‘Oh my baby boy.'”

So much hurt. So much damage. So many memories. So much love.

Mothers, sons, daughters, fathers, everyone, make much of time.

Originally published May 13, 2012 on 15-Month Adventure.

Women at War

Posted May 3, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

The subject of Mary Douglas Vavrus’s Postfeminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex are media representations of American military women in the twenty-first century. Vavrus is not so concerned with actual accounts by women who have served—as in memoirs and first-person articles and essays—nor is she much interested in artistic-entertainment portraits in art, film, and literature. The evidence she analyzes are network news and major print-and-online accounts of high-profile subjects associated with women-in-uniform, such as their struggle to serve equitably, free of sexual harassment and assault. News media is a separate realm from the actual lived-lives of real people and different too from the art-world of imaginative and dramatic portraiture, but it is not unrelated. The trick, then, is parsing Vavrus’s argument for its connection to events as they unfolded in the military institutionally and historically, personal accounts by women who experienced those events first-hand, and the artistic-dramatic rendition of the same.

Vavrus’ argument is that the media, sometimes unwittingly but often as if in consort with the military itself, has played up stories highlighting women’s achievements and downplayed those that depict difficulties, to include the problems of harassment and assault. “Media” is a big term, of course, and by it Vavrus primarily means what right-wingers would sneer at as “the mainstream media.” Vavrus’ vantage point is from the left, but her evidence is largely drawn from and her argument is aimed at traditional outlets such as The New York Times, Time, and the evening news giants. The consequences (and possibly the motivation, too, at least insofar as the military is concerned) of journalistic complicity with military-governmental desire are two-fold: 1) positive reports help recruit women to the all-volunteer service in a time of need while generating support among the American populace for unpopular wars, and 2) positive coverage normalizes the escalating saturation of American life with what Vavrus terms “banal militarism” by extending the historically masculine martial realm to the domestic and feminine spheres.

In the 19th-century, Herman Melville wrote, “All wars are boyish and fought by boys.” Not so fast, argues Vavrus: 

I titled this book Postfeminist War because my research shows that since 2001, war- and military-themed media exhibit a mixture of resistance and capitulation to racialized patriarchy as they work to naturalize women’s support for martial values and actions. In this context, narratives about women use feminism selectively to focus on gender equality as they preclude examination of structural problems that differentially disadvantage women both inside and outside the military: chiefly racism, economic inequality, and misogyny. In so doing, such discourses advance what I call martial postfeminism, an ideology that both pushes military solutions for an array of problems that women and girls face and endorses war by either glorifying or obscuring the forms of violence it entails. Postfeminist War thus argues that martial postfeminism discourages critical investigation of the military as an institution, the wars U.S. troops fight, and the military-industrial complex that both drives and profits from war.

Chapter One of Postfeminst War uses the Lifetime television series Army Wives to illustrate how even the ultra-feminine realm of soap-opera has been militarized by the “media-military-industrial complex.” Vavrus writes, “Because Army Wives was successful by so many measures—including serving as a vehicle for Army propaganda—I start with its constructions of military marriage and family… then examine strategic alliances between the Lifetime Network, its commercial partners, and the DOD to consider how they mutually constitute meaning around military life and war for an audience of women.” Chapter Two examines several “super-Mom” public figures who use their identity as mothers of soldiers to shape national debates about war, military, and soldier issues. The first two chapters are interesting, but Postfeminist War for me really starts percolating with Chapters Three and Four.

In Chapter 3, “‘No Longer Women, but Soldiers’: The Warrior Women of Television News,” Vavrus describes positive portrayals of military women in major media in the years after 9/11, especially as women achieve a series of “firsts”:  first helicopter pilot, first Ranger, first West Point first captain, etc. The author’s argument is complex:  though she is a feminist, she doesn’t think these positive portrayals and associated claims that the military has demonstrated its commitment to women are very satisfying. Rather, Vavrus takes aim at shibboleths that the military is a healthy venue for women’s growth, empowerment, and accomplishment, and that women can compete and be accepted for who they are and their own worth within it. She finds these conceits contrived and overly hopeful, whether they in fact may be true for any individual woman (which she admits they can be). In Vavrus’s way of thinking, journalists who run feel-good stories about women in uniform should be ashamed of their complicity in helping construct media-military-industrial-complex ideology. And yet, the author is far from a conservative Phyllis Schlafly-style anti-feminist who believes a woman’s place is at home. The author’s critique comes from the far-left, and her overarching questions are to what ends are women being asked to serve and how does incorporation of women in the military instantiate militarism within the greater society.   

Journalism’s complicity in promoting the military by emphasizing its transformative potential for women is especially nefarious, according to Vavrus, in light of the armed service’s shameful lack of attention paid to military sexual discrimination, harassment, abuse, and assault. In Chapter 4, “‘This Wasn’t the Intended Sacrifice’: Warrior Women and Sexual Violence,” the author claims that the media failed to hold the military accountable for gender discrimination and sexual assault and abuse for years until the release of Helen Benedict’s groundbreaking documentary film about military rape The Invisible War in 2012. After Benedict, media coverage sharpened, but has still not achieved what it might. The biggest problem identified by Vavrus is that the press focuses on high-profile cases rather than widespread events and enduring patterns, and they care more about punishment of transgressions than analyzing toxic cultural elements that permit rape (to include man-on-man rape) to occur. A truly feminist media in Vavrus’s eyes would extract itself from its embedded sycophantic relationship with the military and expose its systematic patriarchal and misogynist shortcomings, rather than treating sexual crime with the same rote, feeble patterns of breathless finger-wagging it devotes to women’s issues as they manifest on college campuses and in the civilian workplace—a tendency that helps instantiate the military and militarism as fundamental components of American life.

I’ve taken the time to lay out Vavrus’ argument in some detail not because I want to shoot it down. Most of it seems intuitively obvious: the mainstream media over the last twenty years has clearly pinged between moments of “you go girl” celebration of milestone achievements by military women and strident denunciations of high-profile examples of military misogyny, with long periods of not-so-benign neglect in-between. Vavrus believes that a hard-hitting, left-leaning media sphere with an emphasis on long-term investigative journalism is needed, and that in regard to women in the military it is foolish to think that we are “post” the need for a thoroughly feminist approach. No doubt that’s true, but to say we’re not there right now as a country is putting it mildly, which raises the question of the possibility for real change. The obstacles being so formidable, frankly I’m just glad that the media (broadly construed) is no worse than it is, as long as I sense it’s aligned with the interests of women who are actually serving or contemplating serving, and mostly determined by women themselves. As for the military itself? It can always do better, a lot better.

One strong virtue of Vavrus’ claims, however, is they set the stage for productive follow-on lines of inquiry I’m going to unfortunately only give short-shrift to here. As I stated above, Vavrus’ subject is more media coverage than it is the military itself, if that makes sense. Though Vavrus obviously is not impressed by military efforts to, say, end sexual assault and abuse, she doesn’t go into great detail about actual military efforts to do so. Nor, as I’ve also stated, does she examine or even introduce as evidence accounts by women who have served and have negotiated in real-time the tricky swirl of ideas and imperatives she outlines. By now there is a robust collection of memoirs by women veterans—Kayla Williams, Shoshana Johnson (with help from Mary Doyle), Amber Smith, Laura Westley, Brooke King, Anuradha Baghwati, and a forthcoming one by Teresa Fazio, to name a few—as well as books about military women, such as Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s Ashley’s War, along with first-person articles and online accounts such as those featured on The War Horse website. From what I know of these women and their writings, none are dupes who have naively absorbed and regurgitated ideological constructs, though by their own admission they may not have not been totally immune to them, either. Read carefully, individually and collectively, analysis of their authors’ wrangle with “martial postfeminism” would be most welcome as they corroborate, contradict, and complicate Vavrus’s claims.

I’ve chosen not to review memoirs on Time Now, but another body-of-work we might turn to in order to test Vavrus’s claims is right in Time Now’s wheelhouse: the aesthetic realm of fiction and film. Below are links to posts about stories and movies in which women warriors serve as central characters in narratives about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within each post, I feel, is plenty of grist for contemplating how women have fared in the military since 9/11, and the books and films themselves of course contain even more. There’s still more work to do examining them in granular detail, teasing out patterns and implications, and synthesizing competing ideas and claims. It won’t get done here now, but the work awaits.     

Fiction:

Fire and Forget III: Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train”

No Thank You For Your Service: Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen

Who’s Catching Who Coming Through the Rye? Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You

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

Tim O’Brien’s “Story Truth” and “Happening Truth” in the Contemporary War Novel (more about Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty Fives)

It’s Complicated: Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant

War Stories: Helen Benedict, Brian Van Reet, David Abrams

Inside the Puzzle Palace: Kathleen J. McInnis’s The Heart of War

Movies:

Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War

“So Many Expectations”: Fort Bliss

Let Us Now Praise Mine and Megan Leavey

 

Mary Douglas Vavrus, Postfeminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex. Rutgers UP, 2019.

Special Operations in Film and Fiction

Posted April 26, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

SEAL Team 6 in action, from Zero Dark Thirty.

Below is a compendium of Time Now posts on contemporary war fiction and film featuring special operators–SEALs, Green Berets, Ranger Task Forces, CIA operatives, and the like–in action in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Fiction:

Life During Wartime, On the Other Side: Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden

Special Operations Old and New: Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days

Grillin’ Chillin’ and Killin’ with the Military 1%: Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War

Special Ops Bro-Hymn: Ross Ritchell’s The Knife

The Wild, Wild East: Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue

Will Mackin’s “Kattekoppen”: Surreal War Fiction

Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog

Making the SEAL Team SEAL-y: Literary Theory and Recent War Writing

Eleven Bang-Bang: Adam Kovac and Ray McPadden

War Adventure/Military Thriller

Film:

Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War

Zero Dark Thirty II: Special Operations

War Film: Lone Survivor

The American Sniper Situation: The Not-So-Secret Inclinations of Popular Taste

Does Anyone Remember American Sniper?

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

 

Time Now Poets and Poetry

Posted April 19, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Benjamin Busch, Dünya Mikhail, me, Jehanne Dubrow, and Brian Turner at AWP18.

For National Poetry Month 2020, a compilation of all Time Now posts featuring poetry and poets. The first link is to the most popular Time Now post ever–it contains links to 35 poems about contemporary war in Iraq and Afghanistan that are available online. The second link takes you to all Time Now posts tagged “War poetry.” There you can browse and read all, or almost all, of the posts listed below in one long scrolling screen. Below the first two links are individual links to Time Now poetry posts, beginning with Elyse Fenton in December 2012 and culminating with Drew Pham in December 2019.

35 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets

Time Now Posts Tagged “War Poetry”

War Poetry: Elyse Fenton

Paul Wasserman, Say Again All

Walter E. Piatt, Paktika

Where Did All the War Poets Go?

Brian Turner

Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Siobhan Fallon, and Exit12 at West Point

War Poetry: W.H. Auden on the FOB

Veterans Writing (Brian Turner’s “Night in Blue”)

Veterans Day Poem: Brian Turner’s “Wading Out”

Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everything with Lungs: Leftist, Postmodern, Feminist, Non-Veterans War Poetry

Her Own Private Ithaca: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside

Little Magazines 3: Prairie Schooner and Michigan Quarterly Review (Benjamin Busch’s “Subtext”)

A Marine’s Poetry: Johnson Wiley

War Poetry: Brian Turner’s “A Soldier’s Arabic”

Unhappy Memorial Day: Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

War Poetry: Colin D. Halloran’s Shortly Thereafter

War Memoir/Poetry: Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War

October in the Railroad War Lit Earth (Maurice Decaul’s “Shush”)

Dodge (War) Poetry Festival 2014

A Yik-Yak Prose Poem, Found Near Fayetteville, NC, Outside Fort Bragg, Home of the 82nd Airborne Division

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project

War Poetry: Philip Metres’ Sand Opera

Randy Brown’s Welcome to FOB Haiku

Colin D. Halloran’s Icarian Flux

War Poetry: Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers

Life During Forever Wartime: Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Elyse Fenton 

Making the SEAL Team SEAL-Y: Literary Theory and Recent War Writing (Eric Chandler and Lisa Stice)

War Poetry: Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes

Habibi: Dünya Mikhail’s The Iraqi Nights

AWP18, Tampa, FL

War, Poetry, Experience: Hugh Martin, Abby E. Murray, Nomi Stone

War, Wives, Mothers: Poetry by Shara Lessley and Pamela Hart

War Poetry: Brock Jones’ Cenotaph

Firstest With the Mostest: Turner, Bigelow, Fallon

2020 Vision: Old Wars, New Directions (Drew Pham’s “How to Remember Your Ancestors”)

Photograph by Andria Williams.

Adam Driver

Posted April 5, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

I’ve rarely mentioned former Marine Adam Driver on Time Now, but Driver is undoubtedly the 21st-century American military veteran who’s made the biggest splash in the world of art and artistic-entertainment. Upon graduation from Juilliard in 2009, Driver quickly obtained plum supporting roles on Broadway and in Hollywood. Leading roles and rave reviews in well-regarded indy films such as Paterson followed, along with star-turns as the villain Kylo Ren in three Star Wars franchise films. In the last half-year, Driver’s candle has burned even brighter, and his presence on the screen become ubiquitous. Over Christmas, for example, I watched Driver in two new films in which he starred. Marriage Story features Driver as a theater director going through a bad divorce, and in The Report Driver plays a Senate staffer investigating America’s use of torture in the Global War on Terror.  

Driver’s rise-to-fame has largely occurred without help he might have accrued by leveraging his Marine Corps experience in roles as a military man. In Paterson, for example, Driver plays a reclusive poet who keeps his USMC official picture by his bed, but it’s hard to say otherwise how the military figures in the character’s life. In the quirky-good Logan Lucky, Driver plays a vet bartender who lost an arm in Iraq. The role permits fun scenery-chewing, but the film, which remains somewhat unaccountably obscure, is the exception-that-proves-the-rule:   

The Report is especially interesting in regard to the relationship between Driver’s military tour and his film career. The movie’s very much about America’s war against fundamentalist Islamic violence. And yet Driver’s role sussing out the architects of America’s “enhanced interrogation” program depicts him not as a combat man-of-action, but as a bookish policy wonk who, as righteous as his cause may be, is far from the frontlines and the heat of battle.

Driver speaks openly of his regret at leaving the Marines before he had a chance to deploy, so perhaps his self-consciousness about not having seen combat feeds his reserve about portraying movie fighting men. Honestly, though, leaving the Star Wars movies out of it, on screen he doesn’t look like much of either a fighter or a military man, in spite of his flat belly and sturdy frame. His Wikipedia entry reports that Driver learned to dial back his Marine Corps mannerisms and attitudes while training as an actor; at Juilliard he often came on too strong and scared the hell out of people. As a result, in both life and film Driver seems to have developed an aversion to publicly asserting his views about things, as if the only thing worse than being perceived as a blow-hard pontificator is being perceived as a blow-hard pontificator veteran. In his films, Driver often plays cerebral, sensitive men who struggle to find the words to express themselves in the face of fast-talking characters full of confidence and vitality. Driver’s foils alternately tease and berate him mercilessly, with the Driver characters mostly just standing there taking it while–all power to them–remaining true to their own vision of what they want to accomplish. This characteristic mode is on full display in this revealing interview with Howard Stern, where Stern and Robin Quivers give Driver the business about his false starts in life as a vacuum cleaner salesman and Marine infantryman:  

Whether what I’m saying about Driver-the-person is true or not, I don’t know, but I’m thinking movie-makers adore his ability to play men who combine self-deprecating awkwardness with drive and talent, and thus beat paths to his door with the juicy film roles they envision for him.

If Driver’s distancing himself from war themes and roles in his movies has been a somewhat curious, if perhaps smart, career move, his achievement as founder of the mil-and-vet-friendly theatrical-arts organization Arts in the Armed Forces (AITAF) demonstrates extremely robust commitment to bringing theater into the lives of military men and women. Founded in 2008 by Driver and his wife Joanne Tucker, AITAF through 2019 was still going strong, with a full slate of scheduled performances and a very healthy list of corporate sponsors. AITAF’s bread-and-butter activity has been staging readings of classic modern theater on military bases, where they perform in front of uniformed audiences and engage in a variety of bridge-building activities linking theater-people and military personnel and families. Two years ago, AITAF began a playwriting competition, called “The Bridge Award,” designed to recognize new work by currently-serving or veteran artists. The 2018 Bridge Award winner was War Stories, by Army Iraq vet Vinnie Lyman. A short bio and description of his play, along with the announcement of its victory by Driver, can be found here. The 2019 Bridge Award winner was Tampons, Dead Dogs, and Other Disposable Things by Shairi Engle, a former air traffic controller in the Air Force. A bio, summary, and Driver’s victory announcement can be found here.

The two winning entries so far have been performed in staged readings, but have not yet been published or fully produced, nor can I find online videos of the readings. I’ll take it on faith that the plays are excellent, but I would love a chance to view them and for them to find larger audiences. I also look forward to more from Driver, especially if he begins writing, producing, and directing his own work. In the Stern interview, Driver reveals with bashful pride that he was an “Expert” marksman in the Marines. So far, he’s shooting expert in his acting career, too, but we haven’t yet been able to judge Driver’s artistic vision in its own clear pure creative form, and it’s time. 

Purnima Bose’s Intervention Narratives-Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror

Posted March 21, 2020 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

Purnima Bose’s scholarly study Intervention Narratives: Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror nicely complements Caleb Cage’s War Narratives: Shaping Beliefs, Blurring Truths in the Middle East, which I reviewe here. Much as Cage’s book does for Iraq, Intervention Narratives locates dominant themes in Afghan war-writing and film that reflect and shape American attitudes about the Afghanistan War held by war-participants, the populace, the media, and government officials. Even more so than Cage does in War Narratives, Intervention Narratives provides theoretical underpinning to explicate the narratives Bose analyzes, and Bose also offers a comprehensive thesis about what makes them persuasive, compulsively repeated, and ultimately harmful.

By “intervention narratives,” Bose directs attention to the stories told by Americans about individual endeavors within the larger historical sweep of American engagement with Afghanistan dating back to the Cold War (a few Indian and Pakistani books and films are also analyzed for contrast). The focus, then, is primarily on memoirs and movies that tell stories of highly-individualized personal efforts by Americans in Afghanistan to influence the war. Bose suggests that however grander narratives about the war might have it, the personal sagas she examines better or best reveal the cultural dreams that prohibit honest reckoning with the catastrophic failure of the Afghanistan mission over forty years. The particular target of Intervention Narratives are “feel good” books and movies that attempt to justify their subjects’ Afghanistan endeavors and try to foster sentiment that American mission in Afghanistan has been anything other than a debacle. From the Introduction:

I have argued that the ideological work of these four intervention narratives is reparative and aimed at generating positive feelings about the Afghan war. Telling ourselves that we supported ‘the good guys’ against evil communists, we inspired Afghan women to become entrepreneurs, we rescued adorable dogs, and we eliminated the ‘bad guys’ contributes to the fantasy that we are on the right side of history.

In Chapter One, Bose examines what she calls “The Premature Withdrawal Narrative,” which locates blame for the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s on the abandonment of the Afghan mujahedeen to the Taliban after the expulsion of the Soviet Union. Key to the idea of “premature withdrawal” are movies such as Charlie Wilson’s War, to use one of Bose’s examples, that glorify heroic individuals who aid the mujahedeen only to have their accomplishments undercut by the government they serve. The problem, Bose asserts, is that these stories come at the expense of truth, such as that Charlie Wilson wasn’t nearly as effective as the movie about him would have it, and to the extent that he was successful, he exacerbated patterns of violence within Afghanistan that tore the country apart in the 1980s and from which it still suffers. But belief that America, or at least one American, accomplished something significant long afterwards fueled foolish optimism that later efforts to intervene in Afghan political, cultural, and tribal dynamics might prove effective, while obscuring long-lasting, endlessly repeated mischief (read, “carnage”) generated by America’s initial support for the mujahedeen.

The next two chapters describe quirky but seemingly well-meaning non-military Afghanistan interventions by Americans in the years after 9/11. Chapter Two, titled “The Capitalist-Rescue Narrative—Afghan Women and Micro-Entrepreneurship,” examines two memoirs by American women that describe the author’s effort to help Afghan women start small businesses centered around beauty and fashion. Chapter Three, “The Canine-Rescue Narrative and Post-Humanist Humanitarianism,” identifies a corpus of stories and movies about elaborate and expensive efforts to bring military working dogs and soldier FOB pets to America from Afghanistan. Bose, however, is not impressed by these type of endeavors, finding them ineffective, misguided, and/or oblivious to the real conditions of war and culture in Afghanistan, and the books and movies written about them unfortunately more self-promotional than caring or wise.

As evidence that American ideas about helping Afghanistan could be quite loopy, beauty-and-fashion and dog-rescue sagas are damning, but not exactly consequential. In Chapter Four “The Retributive-Justice Narrative—Osama bin Laden as Simulacra” Intervention Narratives takes a much more trenchant bite into the cultural and psychological fantasies that fueled American military endeavor in Afghanistan. Bose calls SEAL memoir No Easy Day: The First-hand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden by Mark Owen (a pseudonym for ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette) an example of self-justifying “life-writing” by an elite-warrior who claims he can’t be held accountable for “minor” transgressions of just-war law, policy, and ethics because his commitment to “retributive justice”—killing bin Laden—supersedes all other considerations. The eight-to-ten pages in which Bose interrogates No Easy Day, and by extension the mythos and self-conception of all SEAL memoirs and special operations generally, is the most exciting part of Intervention Narratives, for my money:

Structured as a teleology that culminates in bin Laden’s execution, Owen’s narrative is centrally about the production of techno-military masculinity that finds its legitimization and actualization in retributive justice. No Easy Day reveals how this particular gendered and racialized subjectivity is dependent on surveillance technology and sophisticated weapons that render Owen into a quasi-cyborg. Read against the grain, the memoir discloses the fragile nature of life under the US rule of law, more often represented by Owen as burdensome bureaucracy, which can be jettisoned at will by agents of the state.

Bose continues by defining four attributes of “techno-military masculinity”: “extreme physical fitness, dependency on technological prosthetics, Euro-American male superiority, and disdain for civilian authorities.” In Bose’s view, the cultivation of techno-military masculinity has become an end in itself, an intoxicating preoccupation and identity for white males made available by contemporary war, quite independent of and even antagonistic to older conceptions of soldiering and soldierly obligation to higher authority and ethical precepts.

Hey, if the desert combat boots fit, American military war-farers will just have to wear them, and I’ve got blood on my size-12s, too. Still, one might point out that Matt Bissonnette’s ideas about the war aren’t every soldier’s ideas, and one wonders how a film such as Zero Dark Thirty, in which the female agent played by Jessica Chastain out-machos her male CIA colleagues and SEAL partners in pursuit of bin Laden, fits the “techno-military masculinity” formula. But lest I’ve given the impression that Intervention Narratives is unfair to true-blue American heroes who have done the best they can under difficult circumstances, Bose ends by asserting that responsibility for the graves we have spent forty years digging in Afghanistan starts on-high and transcends partisan politics. Finding more similarity than discontinuity in presidential policies toward Afghanistan from Bush to Obama to Trump, in spite of their differences in style (great line: “Bush’s blandness, Obama’s urbanity, and Trump’s vulgarity”), in the conclusion Bose proposes that stories centered on somewhat quixotic minor figures in the long war also help define and explain the larger perspectives and actions of its major players, complete with characteristic mistakes, blind-spots, lapses in logic and judgment, and self-serving machinations.

Intervention Narratives is one of number of scholarly studies in a welcome new series titled War Culture, published by Rutgers University Press. Many books in the War Culture series focus on 21st-century war, which is even more welcome, and I look forward to reading and thinking about them.

Purnima Bose, Intervention Narratives: Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror. Rutgers UP, 2020.


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