The War Writing Rhetorical Triangle

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

Tags: , , , ,

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Features of the contemporary model include:

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

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


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

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

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

War Songs: Khost, Afghanistan in the Western Musical Imagination

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

Tags: ,
Khost City, Afghanistan

The Great Mosque, Khost City, Afghanistan, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Khost Yellow

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

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

Khost UK

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

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

Good question….

The Khost Stella MarisKhost Waking Indigo








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

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

Map of downtown Khost that I made in 2009

Map of downtown Khost that I made in 2009

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

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

Tags: ,

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic Novel: Maximilian Uriarte’s The White Donkey

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

Tags: , ,

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

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

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


White Donkey Heads

The White Donkey 3


White Donkey Form

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

War Writing Longform: Thinking Outside the Wire

Posted June 15, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , ,
USAFA Photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez (in 2009, TSGt Chavez and I served together on FOB Lightning, Afghanistan)

USAF photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez

Elizabeth Samet’s Washington Post review of J. Kael Weston’s The Mirror Test intrigued me. Samet, in my reading, simultaneously approves of Weston’s fiery indictment of the United States’ poor execution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is irritated by it. Weston, a veteran of many tours in both countries as a US State Department political advisor, castigates US policy makers in Washington and generals in the big command headquarters while celebrating the bravery and grunt’s-eye view of reality of the Marines and soldiers with whom he often confronted Iraqis and Afghans “outside the wire” and “on the ground.” Those are fair positions, Samet posits, based on Weston’s extensive experience and the reports of many others. The problem, Samet seems to be saying, is that Weston’s arguments aren’t exactly novel, especially coming this late in the game from someone with all the advantages of education and position Weston possesses and now expresses so righteously as if no one had ever said them before. Declaring one’s hatred for Beltway insiders and rear-echelon fobbits, while pronouncing one’s affiliation with common soldiers, are ideas that the nation might still benefit from by heeding, but in June 2016, they’re hardly the basis of an original critique of government and military policy and operations. Anyone who cares has heard the song many times, and no one who has not already memorized the words will begin singing it now.

What’s needed, if I read Samet correctly, or maybe it’s just me, are new ideas about what the wars entailed and what they mean. Fresher thinking about the experience of soldiers. Deeper exploration of American militarism in national and global affairs. Intriguing new terms and more complex arguments and counter-arguments, more ingenious processing of the data about what happened, and surprising discoveries of heretofore unobserved connections. It’s all well-and-good that someone’s been outside the wire to face danger and complexity, but how can one’s writing and thinking also venture outside the wire?

In other domains—medicine, technology, education, science, for examples,—”longform” journalism is typically a place, maybe the place, where new ideas by authors of skill and gravitas are seriously proposed and tried out. I was recently asked to compile a list of articles, web postings, and book excerpts, publicly available on the Internet, that did some of that work in regard to America’s twenty-first century wars, and the results are below. Most of the articles I read when they appeared, while others are new finds discovered just the last couple of weeks. A few are buried behind pay-and-registration walls, for which I apologize, but all are well worth seeking out. Many corroborate my own impressions and war experiences and serve as the intellectual basis for my understanding of how the wars unfolded and what have been their consequences. Others, however, contradict my own thoughts, or report on facets of the war of which I have little other knowledge. The best don’t just report events, but make bold judgments about assumptions and values underwriting the things they describe.

  1. “Force and Futility: Is It Time to Leave Afghanistan?” Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker (2010).
  2. “American Imperium: Uncovering Truth and Fiction in an Age of Perpetual War.” Andrew J. Bacevich, Harpers (2016).
  3. “The Killing Machines: How to Think About Drones.” Mark Bowden, The Atlantic (2013).
  4. “Today is Better Than Yesterday: A Marine Returns to a Divided Iraq.” Ben Busch, Harpers (2014).
  5. “The Real Muslims of Irving, Texas.” Colby Buzzell, Esquire (2016).
  6. “One Degree of Separation in the Forever Wars.” Brian Castner, Vice-Motherboard (2015).
  7. “The Problem With Biometrics at War.” Brian Castner, Vice-Motherboard (2016). Excerpt from All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016).
  8. “Words in a Time of War: On Rhetoric, Truth, and Power.” Mark Danner, excerpt from What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics (2007).
  9. “The Tragedy of the American Military.” James Fallows, The Atlantic (2015).
  10. “Excerpt from The Good Soldiers.” David Finkel, The Washington Post (2009).
  11. “Prologue to Thank You For Your Service.” David Finkel, MSNBC (2013).
  12. “Crimes in Iraqi’s Triangle of Death.” Jim Frederick, Time. Excerpt from Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraqi’s Triangle of Death (2010).
  13. “Soldiers on the Fault Line: War, Rhetoric, and Reality.” Ben Fountain, War, Literature, and the Arts (2013).
  14. “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.” Sebastian Junger, Vanity Fair (2015).
  15. “The Citizen Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”  Phil Klay, Brookings Institute (2016).
  16. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, But Alan Rogers Was a Hero to Everyone Who Knew Him.” Ben McGrath, The New Yorker (2008).
  17. “Introduction: Moral Injury Then and Now.” Robert Emmet Meagher. Excerpt from Killing From the Inside Out (2014).
  18. “Playing Defense Against Drones.” Amanda Ripley, Atlantic (2015).
  19. “Between Scylla and Charybdis.” Elizabeth Samet. Excerpt from No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014).
  20. “Inside America’s Dirty Wars: How Three US Citizens Were Killed by Their Own Government in the Space of One Month in 2011.” Jeremy Scahill, The Nation (2013). Excerpt from Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (2016).
  21. “Reborn But Not Dead.” Nancy Sherman. Excerpt from Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Soldiers (2015).
  22. “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.” Roy Scranton, The New York Times (2013).
  23. “Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom.” Roy Scranton, Rolling Stone (2014).
  24. “The Trauma Hero from Wilfred Owen to American Sniper and Redeployment.” Roy Scranton, The Los Angeles Review of Books. (2015).
  25. “I Said Infantry.” Brian Turner, Guernica. Adapted from My Life as a Foreign Country (2015).

Bonus reading: “Jumpstarting a Discussion: Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars.” Stacey Peebles, Roy Scranton, Patrick Deer, AB Huber, Ikram Masmoudi, and Peter Molin, An MLA Roundtable (2016).

Many apologies for the great writers and articles I’ve left out. I could compile a second list, and probably will someday, composed of dozens of worthy articles on less prominent sites than the Harpers/Atlantic/New Yorker -type web places I’ve privileged here. Another list could also feature more diverse voices, by gender, race, religion, and country of origin. Many articles address PTSD and technology, but there’s a few subjects, such as the repeal of DADT, the rise of special operations, the expanded role of women in the military, and the revaluation of the laws of war occasioned by Islamic terrorism that are underrepresented in my list. I looked, maybe not hard enough, entirely possible, but my initial search found few on those subjects that rose above the level of reportage and advocacy to the realm of idea and concept.

Call me greedy, but I want even more. The articles above, good as they are, might now serve most usefully as a seedbed for better things to come, as if everything they propose had to be said first in order now that more creative and perceptive writers can build on them. Here’s an example of what I have in mind, taken from the literary domain I know best. Say what you will about Roy Scranton’s concept of the “trauma hero,” describing a veteran who seems to relish a little too much his or her post-war distress, it got everyone’s attention when it first appeared in a Los Angeles Review of Books essay early in 2015. The memorable phrase defines both a common way that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are being represented in fiction, poetry, and film, and suggests some of the motif’s moral implications and cultural significance, little of which Scranton approved. Many didn’t like Scranton’s essay; they said it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t subtle, and even if it were true, the tone was off, as if Scranton were guilty of not being supportive either of veterans or veteran-authors—the sum total of the responses reinforcing the notion that Scranton’s darts had struck close to the bone.

Phil Klay, for one, might not have liked the not-so-implicit sneer inherit in the phrase “trauma hero,” since his striking short-story “Redeployment” was singled out by Scranton as definitively portraying a veteran confused and reeling from his tour-of-duty. Recently, in a Brookings non-fiction think-piece, Klay refined his sense of the ethical landscape inhabited by those who volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and who continue to weigh the consequences of their decision. Klay advances the notion that the war service of “citizen-soldiers” (he thankfully refrains from using “warriors,” though he might have interrogated how that term has come to serve as a popular descriptor for men and women in uniform) has put them in a position of “moral risk”: a heightened capacity for understanding the complexity of human experience, based on their personal engagement with war folly and darkness, their own and the nation’s, naively volunteered for when young, true, but still an experience they must own and be responsible toward going forward. But knowing how military service might lead to ethical compromise, Klay’s argument goes, is not necessarily debilitating. It can also, Klay argues hopefully and with examples, generate purposeful commitment to being as good as one can be in the aftermath.

The essay is learned and eloquent; Klay fights like the devil to keep from celebrating veterans as forged-by-fire explorers of morally ambiguous wastelands who now know better than the rest of Americans, even as his essay conjures this possible understanding of them into being. But it’s not really so important whether Klay wins the war of ideas by more fully and accurately sketching the moral psychology of veterans better than Scranton. What counts first is that engaged readers consider for themselves the logic and evidence for his claims. What counts second is consideration of the tension now in play, with the self-indulgent distressed veteran constituting one pole of an interpretive force-field and the veteran as ethical avatar the other. And what counts even more is not what either Scranton or Klay has already said, but the response to come by an equally formidable commentator.

Whether that writer splits the difference between Scranton and Klay or takes the argument in a new direction remains to be seen, but the result will certainly be exciting and helpful. It’s not just an intellectual exercise, either; consequential decisions affecting the lives of real people are on the line. The debate’s importance isn’t best measured looking backward at events that have already occurred, but in how its implications will influence difficult choices to come and how they are absorbed internally by those whom they affect most. And to bring things back to fiction, which I love most, we’ll all be able to see how Scranton himself riffs on the trauma hero theme in his soon-to-be-published novel War Porn. I don’t know if Klay’s next fictional work will portray war and veterans, but I’m betting it features characters dealing with intensely problematic experiences they lived through when young.

Photo by USAFA Staff Sergeant Evelyn Chavez, with whom I served on FOB Lightning, Afghanistan, 2009.

USAF photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez. In 2009, TSgt Chavez and I served together on FOB Lightning, Paktya Province, Afghanistan.

Here, There, and Everywhere: War Writing Notes From All Over

Posted June 4, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

1. For the past year, I’ve been the Mentor Program coordinator for Ron Capps’ Washington, DC-based Veterans Writing Project. As such as I’ve connected many aspiring veteran-writers with experienced authors, teachers, and editors. The duty has brought me in pleasant and productive contact with many literary-minded folks, while also providing numerous looks at the range of interests, subjects, and attitudes characteristic of veterans using words to explore their military and war experiences. The veterans generally fall in two camps:  Vietnam vets working on memoirs and unit histories and Iraq and Afghanistan vets writing memoir, fiction, and poetry. The mentors are all published authors and experienced teachers, some with military experience, but many who have never served. If you are either interested in serving as a mentor or working with a mentor, see the VWP Mentor Program webpage and write me at Right now, we have several vet-writers waiting for mentors, so I’m hoping some of the authors and teachers who read Time Now will volunteer to help out.


2.  I had the pleasure recently of reading a short story on stage at New York City’s The Wild Project theater as part of an event titled Kicking Down Doors: Veterans in America and Their Families in America. The event, sponsored by a group called Poetic License, was organized by veterans Everett Cox and Jenny Pacanowski, two mainstays in the New York and New Jersey veteran writing and arts communities. Many thanks to Cox and Pacanowski for including me on the bill and coaching me through my pre-performance jitters, and many thanks also to my fellow readers and performers Katelyn Sheehan, Nancy Elkin Nybard, Camilo Mac Bica, John D. Manley, and John M. Meyer, as well as Cox and Pacanowski, and even more thanks to everyone who came. I’m very interested in the movement of war writing from the page to the stage, which is happening in many interesting ways across the nation, and was happy to participate in a small way in the phenomenon.

Poetic License

My name and me in lights.

Jenny Pacanowski and Everett Case

Jenny Pacanowski and Everett Case.

3. One place that has already staged a number of veterans-oriented dramatic productions is Wisconsin, the state whose vibrant veterans writing community I profiled a couple of weeks ago in a post on Matthew J. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing. Since the appearance of that post, I’ve heard from Martin McClendon, the Theater Department Chair at Carthage College in Wisconsin, who offers the following report detailing a number of veterans-oriented dramatic productions in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest:

My colleague Alvaro Rios at UW-Milwaukee is working on a new play, he is himself a vet and it will deal with vet issues. Several years ago at UW-Stevens Point there was a play called Soldier’s Circle based on blogs of soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. At Augustana [College] in Illinois, they commissioned a play called A Green River, dealing with veteran suicide. I saw it 2 years ago at the American College Theater Festival festival in Milwaukee. Lastly, I am starting a conversation with Edwin Olvera, Milwuakee-based choreographer and dancer, who has created numerous works based on his experiences and impressions of service. I’m hoping we can somehow work with him here at Carthage in the near future, as part of our dance program.

4. Another place already actively staging exciting, well-attended dramatic readings of veterans’ stories is San Diego (the locale, as it happens, for another novel I also recently reviewed, Elizabeth Marro’s Casualties). The driving force in San Diego is Justin Hudnall, the executive director of a literary and performing arts non-profit organization called So Say We All. Hudnall, a school-trained actor who has worked around the world as an emergency relief coordinator, is an artistic-entrepreneur of the first order. Besides organizing readings that attract audiences upwards of 300, So Say We All produces podcasts and radio shows featuring the stories of veterans. Hudnall has also published an anthology titled Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home, which features essays on life post-deployment and post-service by Benjamin Busch, Brandon Lingle, Brooke King, Nathan Webster, and Natalie Lovejoy, among others.

5.  No war fiction made the final cut of stories reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2015, but at least four war writers made the list of “Other Distinguished Stories of 2014.” Congratulations to Elliot Ackerman for “A Hunting Trip” (originally published in Salamander), Phil Klay for “War Stories” (Consequence), Luke Mogelson for “To the Lake” (Paris Review), and Brian Van Reet for “Eat the Spoil” (Missouri Review). This year’s Best American Short Stories was edited by T.C. Boyle, an author I’ve long read and admired, and, for what it’s worth, a review of The Best American Short Stories 1984, edited by John Updike, that I wrote for the Daily Californian, the UC-Berkeley student newspaper, was one of the first articles I ever published. Speaking of Phil Klay, I was asked to compile the “Additional Reading” list for the entry on Klay for his entry in in Gale-Cenage Learning’s scholarly compilation Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 389. It’s a measure of Klay’s achievement that he was included in CLC, a serious academic resource, and it was enjoyable to read or re-read the many reviews Redeployment inspired on its release in 2014.


6. A final note about AWP 16, a good one. The real MVP, if I can be forgiven a lapse into idiotic modern parlance, of the war writers contingent in Los Angeles was Kayla Williams, the author of the memoirs Love My Rifle More Than You and Plenty of Time When We Get Home. Whether speaking from the platform at two panels, in attendance at other war writing panels, or in informal discussions between events, Williams was everywhere impressive. Now comes news that she has been named the director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans, a senior executive position with real authority and clout. One of the tenets of  Time Now is that contemporary war writers and artists are not just doing remarkable things now, but are on the cusp of long productive careers as authors, artists, and public figures, so it is very cool to see Williams move into a position of such great significance in national affairs. And since, as I understand it, she will have a story appearing in the upcoming second volume of the Fire and Forget anthology of short contemporary war fiction, we have more of Williams’ writing to look forward to, as well.

MWG7. Finally, I’ve been a member now for a couple of years of a group called the Military Writers Guild, a consortium of writers, mostly veterans, but not all so, interested in military subjects and dedicated to mutually supporting members’ writing efforts. MWG authors primarily address strategy and policy, but open their arms to creative writers as well—Jesse Goolsby and Charlie Sherpa, for example, are also members of MWG. I recently attended an MWG BBQ in Arlington, VA, and was happy to meet in person many fellow members whom I previously knew only through email or by reading their articles, to include Ty Mayfield, David A. Mattingly, and Adin Dobkin, and enjoyed hearing their stories and learning about their current writing projects. Enthusiasm for joining the analytical and artistic sides of the MWG house is strong, and I look forward to helping the cause in the coming year. The presence of AWP in Washington, DC, for example, in 2017 might serve as a focal point for boosting awareness of MWG within the literary writing community, and vice-versa.

As a famous rabbit used to say, “That’s all folks.” I hope everyone’s summer is off to a good start.

Memorial Day 2016: Westhusing

Posted May 30, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War


Westhusing 1When Colonel Theodore S. “Ted” Westhusing died in Iraq in 2005, he was the highest-ranking US military officer to have lost his life in either Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. Most signs point to suicide, just a few weeks before he was due to rotate home, but some evidence suggests, and some believe fervently in this evidence, that he was killed by the American contracted security operatives he supervised. Either way, it was clear that he was distressed by the unethical behavior of his American subordinates and the elite Iraqi police his unit was in charge of training and the failure of his commanders, notably then-Lieutenant General David Petraeus, to heed his warnings about the fraud, waste, and abuse he observed. That Westhusing had written a PhD dissertation on military honor, based on his study of classical Greek philosophy, and that he was on-track to become the head of West Point’s Department of English and Philosophy and thus in charge of the ethical education of military academy cadets adds to the tragedy, the irony, or the poignancy of his story. One read of Westhusing’s life is that his rigid principles made him too brittle to deal with the vagrancies of war. Another is that his death was an important early sign of just how badly the Army was struggling to accomplish its many-sizes-too-big mission to modernize and Westernize Iraqi security forces. A third casts Westhusing’s example as a cautionary tale that the war was destined to chew up, in one form or another, any good man or woman sent to fight it. Personally, I think Westhusing was a victim of a collision between two war-fighting ideologies: an ethical approach predicated on the laws of war that Westhusing believed the 1990s United States military exemplified, and the new brutal, results-oriented way of war, based on targeted assassinations and enhanced interrogation tactics, that the American security contractors and Iraqi secret police were bringing into being.

Westhusing’s death was the story of a moment, but even its time it did not really grip the American public, who wanted to hear about heroes, not senior officers who cracked up and couldn’t take it any more. They probably wondered if Westhusing didn’t reveal the basic incongruity of academic scholarship and tough-minded warfighting—any major fool might say the two disciplines are incompatible. Perplexed or ambivalent or maybe embarrassed about this ambitious military officer who campaigned for the position that eventually overwhelmed him, many might have also have wondered why he couldn’t have just gutted out a few more weeks, returned to his wife and three children, settled into his comfy and distinguished West Point position, and put the whole mess behind him. That’s what any sane man would do, right, and who’s to say that’s not what any good man might do, too? Westhusing himself described his life’s journey in terms of goodness—his wife Michelle reports that her husband told her she didn’t need to study philosophy because she was, according to him, “already good.” For Westhusing, then, the military built and tested character in defense of what was right and honorable, and not a dismal human endeavor organized around obedience and violence. Duty in Iraq was for Westhusing a chance to meld personal philosophy with on-the-ground experience. He didn’t dream of being a hero, in other words, he was entranced by the idea that being a soldier offered the greatest possible opportunity to be good.

That’s a lot to contemplate, notions as simultaneously naïve, arrogant, and idealistic as those that drove Chris McCandless into the Alaska backcountry (Westhusing took his PhD at Emory in Atlanta, where McCandless studied as an undergraduate, for what it’s worth). Predictably, not many have lingered over them, but a few observers over the years have viewed Westhusing’s life and death in terms of their metaphorical or even dramatic possibility. Los Angeles Times writer T. Christian Miller in Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, Corporate Greed in Iraq (2006) uses Westhusing to frame his exposé of Bush administration fraud and negligence. A West Point classmate of Westhusing named D. Richard Tucker wrote and staged a one-act play titled Duty, Honor, Profit in Seattle in 2008. I haven’t seen Duty, Honor, Profit, but parts of it can be read online. A description on Tucker’s website suggests that his play is not so much an exploration of character under duress, but a criminal procedural: “The Army’s investigation attributed his death to suicide, but a large amount of evidence pointed towards conspiracy and murder. As Ted’s friends attempt to uncover the mystery, they come to even more disturbing conclusions. This is a true story.”

Recently, I’ve learned that US Army veteran John Michael Meyer is bringing towards production a new play called Westhusing in the House of Atreus. The title refers to a cursed royal family in the Greek mythos from which sprung the warriors Agamemnon and Menelaus; Meyer here repurposes the myth to suggest that the American officer corps, or greater military family, in Iraq, led by General Petraeus, was rife with similar treachery and conflict. Meyer’s credentials are interesting: a Ranger-qualified enlisted infantryman who has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, he is completing a PhD in social sciences at the University of Texas. While an undergraduate at Texas (at roughly the same time Kevin Powers and Brian Van Reet were in the UT MFA program—wow!), Meyer’s play American Volunteers (2010)—about US soldiers at war on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border—won a distinguished prize. Meyer has staged other plays as well, and he also acts: just a couple of weeks ago I saw him play the part of Neoptolemus in a production of Sophocles’ Philoctetes that revisioned Sophocles’ play as a parable of the plight of contemporary veterans. Meyer tells me he was first alerted to Westhusing’s story by one of Westhusing’s old professors; perhaps Meyer saw something of his own effort to combine serious scholarship and hardcore soldiering writ large in Westhusing’s story.

I’ve read a draft of Westhusing in the House of Atreus and loved it. Not only is much of the dialogue in remarkable blank verse, but Westhusing’s last days are plausibly imagined by Meyer and so too is his effort to place Westhusing’s thoughts and acts in the context of the Greek traditions of philosophy, tragedy, and military service that meant so much to him. Meyer also skillfully envisions rich stage roles not just for Westhusing but for secondary characters: General Petraeus, Michelle Westhusing, two contractors who work for Westhusing, his department head at West Point, a female interpreter, and a female military lawyer. The result is not a fawning portrait or vindication of Westhusing, but something even better:  an assessment in full of his complex and often contradictory impulses, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

Here’s to hoping that Westhusing in the House of Atreus makes it to the stage and succeeds in bringing the problems presented by Westhusing into sharp public focus while also telling us much about the man and those closest to him at the end of his life. One issue is that of how we remember military suicides as we honor the nation’s war dead on Memorial Day and throughout the year. I’m magnanimous on the point, for reasons personal as much as abstract. I didn’t know Westhusing in his last days, but I served a tour with him at West Point in the 1990s, where, among other things, he and Michelle were my family’s sponsors when we arrived, helping us choose quarters and making us feel welcome. Later, we played countless hours of basketball and touch football together as members of our department teams. On the “fields of friendly strife,” Westhusing was our fearless captain, and off the field, he was the funny organizer of much merriment, so it’s hard for me to imagine why later in life he would either kill himself or inspire another American to kill him. He could sometimes be aloof, lost in the realm of philosophical thought and his exalted dream of what being an officer meant, but there were many more moments of generosity, good cheer, and wit, and his love for Michelle and their children was clear and strong. I had the chance to meet his high school basketball coach and his family, and it was obvious they adored Westhusing and viewed him as something of a crown prince, which pretty much all of us did, too. Without doubt, Westhusing felt that not just his philosophy but his identity were stained during his short unhappy overseas tour; I’m with Michelle, who, when asked why her husband died, tersely replied, “Iraq,” but feel the story’s reach is also longer and more complicated. What I can state safely, and I’m sensing Meyer agrees, is that Westhusing did not have to die and the world would be a better place if he hadn’t, which, speaking of stories writ large, is basically true of every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine whose life ended in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The greatest tribute paid by a nation to its war dead on Memorial Day is recognition that they, when called upon, fought and gave all, which inspires determination to fight for what’s right in the rest of us. The greatest hope expressed is that those who lost their lives in war did not do so in vain; unfortunately, the deplorable circumstances of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make it hard to cherish that hope in regard to the roughly 7,000 Americans who died in them. But Memorial Days also give the living a chance to remember and honor fighting men and women lost in war as individuals, almost all whom died while young and by their lights trying to be good and do good, and now their lives over long before they fulfilled their potential to become even better people and improve the lives of others. RIP Memorial Day 2016 those with whom I once served and who later died either in Iraq or Afghanistan: Ted Westhusing, Joe Fenty, David Taylor, and Bill Hecker. Also, members of Camp Clark, Afghanistan, units with whom I served in 2008-2009: John Blair, Kevin Dupont, Alex French, Peter Courcy, and Jason Watson. Finally, former students Dennis Pintor, Todd Lambka, and Taylor Force.


West Point, NY. Picture taken May 30, 2016, by John Nelson.



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