Eleven Bang-Bang

Posted May 21, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War, General

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“I’ve been outside the wire,” I said. “My vehicle was IED’d, once. But I’m not infantry.”

Rodriguez shrugged. “If you were, you’d know.”

                        -Phil Klay, “Prayer in the Furnace”

While the world waits for war novels authored by women veterans and pays lip-service to the idea that the stories by rear-echelon soldiers “need to be heard,” former infantrymen—“11Bs” or “Eleven-Bravos” in Army parlance—go right on writing, publishers go right on publishing, and readers, or at least this one, go right on reading war sagas loosely-but-obviously based on the authors’ deployments as ground-pounding foot soldiers. I’m all for diversity and definitely skeptical of the infantry’s claims to its own specialness, but I’m hardly neutral or objective:  while in, I was an infantry officer and I’m still eager to see aspects of my own service reflected and dramatized.

Ray McPadden’s 2018 novel And the Whole Mountain Burned describes the exploits of a US Army Ranger company facing constant danger, struggle, and excitement in the wild mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The subject of Adam Kovac’s 2019 novel The Surge, on the other hand, is a lackluster Illinois National Guard unit whose tour in Iraq consists of an endless succession of boring watch-tower guard shifts. Both feature as protagonists junior enlisted soldiers, which I wasn’t, but I’ve pulled enough guard duty and climbed enough mountains in eastern Afghanistan to pick up And the Whole Mountain Burned and The Surge with interest. I also wanted the inside glimpses they promised of the Ranger task forces that rotated in-and-out of the big FOB down the road from me and the National Guard units—one of them from Illinois—that guarded the walls of my tiny camp during my tour.

To begin with The Surge, Kovac’s novel is focalized through the eyes of an Army corporal named Larry Chandler. Chandler, a veteran of a tour in Afghanistan with an active-duty unit, has been recalled to duty as a “filler” in a Illinois Guard unit assigned security detail at Camp Tucson in southern Iraq.  Chandler’s tour in Afghanistan ended very badly—think death of friends for whom he feels responsible—and he had wanted nothing more than to put war behind him. But the 2007 troop “surge” reminded him of the truth of Tolstoy’s quip that “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  With his new Guard unit, Chandler is put in a difficult spot:  because of his seniority he is given a leadership position in charge of three other infantrymen. The Guardsmen know each other from civilian life, so they are more loyal to each other than to Chandler. Moreover, they detest what they perceive as the arrogance and stupidity of active-duty soldiers, even as they internalize notions of their own inferiority to “real” infantrymen. Worse, though two of Chandler’s soldiers are relatively docile and compliant, the third is a hard-charger who was in line for the leadership position Chandler occupies, and Chandler must continually assert his shaky Alpha-male bona fides to establish authority over this rival. Further, the company first sergeant, also an active-duty soldier, one with whom Chandler served in Afghanistan, is more foe than friend, even as he extends an unwelcome offer of mentorship. And, finally, worst of all, Chandler doesn’t feel worthy of the respect his previous combat tour accords him in the eyes of the Guardsmen, some of whom pine for the chance to prove themselves in battle. Chandler once had that dream, too, but knows how easily it became a nightmarish reality that ruins a man’s happiness and sense of self-worth at an early age. The last thing he wants is to face combat again, especially with the increased responsibility for the safety—both physical and mental—of his new charges. And yet, inevitably, you knew this was coming—war and duty pull Chandler and his men outside the wire and into combat.

The members of the “Newts”–the Ranger company at the center of And the Whole Mountain Burned–pull a lot of guard duty, too—“pulling security” is a fact of life in every infantry unit—but in contrast to the “lone and level sands” of Iraq the soldiers in The Surge stare at, McPadden’s Rangers are treated to views of the soaring peaks and plunging valleys of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush. Even better, guard duty is only an intermittent respite between combat missions to fight local tribesmen led by one leader known as “the Egyptian” and another known as “Sadboy.” The fired-up Rangers are only too eager to take on the wily tribal clans, and a subtext of And the Whole Mountain Burned is the affinity between the warrior cultures of the Rangers and the Pashtun mountain tribesmen. While the men in The Surge could care less about the Iraqis they must deal with, the Newts are fascinated by the folklore, by-ways, and fighting prowess of their deadly enemy. More like The Surge, And the Whole Mountain Burned is related from the perspective of Danny Shane, a junior enlisted newbie, and also much like in The Surge, the story is largely about Shane’s vexed relationship with a senior NCO, Nick Burch, who is a seasoned veteran and mighty man-of-combat-action. Burch’s story bookends the novel proper, in fact, so though the middle parts are mostly Shane’s, we might say that, again like The Surge, the overall theme of And the Whole Mountain Burned is infantry leadership, with all its attendant worrisome aspects of responsibility and hope, failure and guilt.

So, two sides of Global War on Terror infantry-life, interestingly rendered and dramatically heightened. Ranger task forces and National Guard call-ups exist at opposite ends of the infantry warfighter spectrum, but both were significant players on the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields, and their stories are underrepresented in the glut of contemporary war fiction that privileges SEALs, Special Forces, Marines, and Regular Army units. Each novel in its way is becoming in its modesty; while telling interesting stories, the authors avoid being deluded by the sense of their own importance–a common accusation levied against infantrymen, often with justification. McPadden and Kovac are alert to the social milieus and the mental makeup of the men who comprise the units they describe. And the Whole Mountain Burned and The Surge channel the mindsets of the twenty-year-old men who make up the bulk of any infantry unit, so you’re not going to get higher orders of reflection from their protagonists, but neither novel blows smoke up your ass, either. The misogyny of infantry culture is on full display in both novels: the fellow soldiers whom Chandler and Shane dislike are “pussies” (at best) and their thoughts about the women they’ve left at home are about what you’d expect. More engaging are the novels’ takes on soldier solidarity, which is conspicuously lacking in both books. Rather than extolling the bonds of fighting bands of brothers, the infantrymen distrust each other, compete and connive against each other, and don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company very much–and these tensions are not smoothed over by the pressure of combat but increase. McPadden and Kovac have done well to situate their portraits of young men on the warrior path in the context of the distinctive units they join and trust to nourish, not stunt, their journey. As the authors continue their own journeys from warriors to writers, let’s salute their first steps and be on the lookout for next moves and new directions.

Ray McPadden, And the Whole Mountain Burned. Hatchett Book Group, 2018.

Adam Kovac, The Surge. Engine Books, 2019.

 

Body of Work

Posted April 18, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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

Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. -Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, while writing Moby-Dick.

Since I began Time Now eight years ago, easily a hundred books, films, plays, musical compositions, and other artworks about America’s post-9/11 wars written-and-composed by veterans and interested civilians have appeared, and much has been published online, too.   Here I catalog and comment on six author-artists whose individual output has been robust, often across a variety of genres and artistic mediums, and I mention several more who have been almost but not quite as active. I’ve limited myself to US military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and used books published by major publishing houses as the primary (but not only) criteria for inclusion.

Elliot Ackerman (USMC) arrived late to the war-writing party, but has quickly made up lost time by publishing three novels since 2015: Green on Blue (2015), Dark at the Crossing (2017), and Waiting for Eden (2018). A memoir titled Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning (2019) will appear later this year.  Ackerman also contributed a story titled “Two Grenades” to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology of veteran-authored fiction. Links to Ackerman’s journalism and other occasional writing can be found at http://elliotackerman.com.

The characteristic subject of Ackerman’s novels is a fringe-actor on the margins of America’s 21st-century wars: a Pashtun militiaman on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, an Iraqi who formerly interpreted for American forces now trying to join the Syrian civil war, the wife of a severely wounded Marine who keeps a lonely vigil over her disabled husband, both largely abandoned or neglected by the greater America.  In his published work so far, then, Ackerman has avoided the solipsistic trap of writing about his own (substantial) war experience as if it were the only thing that matters.  In his upcoming memoir Places and Names, however, Ackerman begins to stitch together autobiographical elements and his interest in the people who fight the wars that, to paraphrase a John Milton quote on the cover of Places and Names,“hath determined them.”

Benjamin Busch (USMC) was arguably the first contemporary veteran to turn war experience into aesthetic expression, as the photos-and-commentary that would eventually comprise The Art in War first began appearing in 2003.  Befitting his college background as a fine arts major, Busch also displays, again arguably, the most artistic diversity: he has acted in The Wire (2004) and Generation Kill (2008), directed films such as Bright (2011), authored a memoir titled Dust to Dust (2012), written a striking set of nature poems for the journal Epiphany (2016), and contributed both a short story (“Into the Land of Dogs”) and hand-drawn illustrations to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology. Busch has also written incisive reviews of the movie Lone Survivor and contemporary war fiction, long-form journalism for Harper’s about a return visit to Iraq, a poignant contribution to the vet-writing anthology Incoming titled “Home Invasion,” and an eloquent introduction to another anthology titled Standing Down.  Oh, and let’s not forget a pre-Marine life as the singer in a hair-metal band.

A superb stylist, Busch is the master of the apt image and the well-turned line, sentence, passage, or short poem, with his memoir Dust to Dust being the book-length exception that proves the rule.  Busch’s thematic impulse is to find order and meaning in randomness, disorder, and chaos.  The urge is on full display in The Art in War and manifests itself even more intensely in Dust to Dust and “Home Invasion”; in these works, loss, ruination, and mortality emerge as the most salient organizing imperatives to be found, save for the author’s own imagination.  War, irrational and death-soaked, was Busch’s subject starting out, but more recent poems such as “Madness in the Wild” suggest that Mother Nature is now the most fertile source of material for Busch’s “blessed rage for order,” to borrow from Wallace Stevens.

Brian Castner’s (USAF) first published book was the war memoir The Long Walk (2012), followed by a second book titled All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016) that combines more war memoir with journalistic investigation.  A third work, not (directly) related to war, Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage (2018), joins travel-memoir and historical research.  An opera has been made of The Long Walk, and Castner, with Adrian Boneberger, edited The Road Ahead (2017), an anthology of veteran-authored fiction to which he also contributed a story called “The Wild Hunt.”  Journalism, essays, and reviews by Castner can be found at https://briancastner.com/.

While Castner’s memoir The Long Walk contains elements of artistic heightening that appealed to the opera composers who adapted it, the next two books are the ones that best illustrate Castner’s forte: extensive historical and journalistic research that supplements the lived experiences of his own life—first serving as an EOD-technician in the case of All the Ways We Kill and Die and then making a thousand-mile canoe journey in the case of Disappointment River.  The influence of war on Disappointment River may bubble below the surface (pun intended), but the surface impression is that Castner more so than most other war-writers can find subjects beyond war-and-mil ones that still command the full measure of his interest and talent.

Matt Gallagher (US Army), with Colby Buzzell, pioneered the use of the Internet as a means of literary arrival when his war-blog appeared in book form as Kaboom (2010).  Gallagher next edited the seminal vet-fiction anthology Fire and Forget (2013) with Roy Scranton and contributed to it a story titled “Bugs Don’t Bleed.”  Then arrived the novel Youngblood (2016) and two short stories, “Babylon” (2016), published in Playboy, and “Know Your Enemy” (2016), published in Wired.  Gallagher also has served at the forefront of the veterans writing scene, as a prime mover in first the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop that gave birth to Fire and Forget and then the New York-based collective Words After War.  A number of Gallagher’s occasional pieces can be found at http://www.mattgallagherauthor.com/disc.htm and a second novel will arrive soon.

A consistent tone connecting Gallagher’s own voice and that of his fictional characters is sardonic detachment from the full negative import of the events they experience; in other words, Gallagher tests the limits of irony and perspective as means of dealing with the confusion of war and the resultant damage to self and society.  Bemusement would seem to be an underpowered coping strategy in these troubled times, but Gallagher’s amiable prose surfaces welcome readers to consider his point-of-view long enough that the darker cynicism and deeper commitment lurking within eventually reveal themselves and grab hold.

Roy Scranton (US Army) published short stories and poems in small journals before co-editing Fire and Forget (2013) with Matt Gallagher and contributing a story to it titled “Red Steel India.”  Next came the philosophical treatise Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), the novel War Porn (2016), an anthology titled What Future: The Year’s Best Ideas to Reclaim, Reanimate, and Reinvent Our Future (2017) for which he served as editor, and a collected edition of essays and journalism titled We’re Doomed, Now What? (2018). Later this year will arrive a literary history titled Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature (2019) and a novel called I ♥ Oklahoma (2019).  More journalism, essays, short stories, and reviews can be found at http://royscranton.com.

There’s busy, and then there’s Roy Scranton busy, but the extraordinary rate of production and the prickly integrity of the viewpoint are endearing counterpoints to the starkness of the message: Scranton is ruthless in his indictment of the Iraq War in which he served, and he’s not letting anyone from enlisted “Joe’s” to generals to civilian war architects to a passive citizenry off the hook for their complicity in the debacle. Though he’s never quite said so bluntly, the implication is that vet-authors, whose ink might well be the blood of war dead, should seriously consider their own culpability, too. Scranton unsparingly connects America’s spastic post-9/11 response to Islamic fundamentalist violence with a host of other social, political, and environmental ills brought about by what academics like to call “the cultural logic of late capitalism.”

Brian Turner (US Army) arrived on the literary-artistic scene seemingly fully-formed, as his first poetry volume Here, Bullet (2005) won enormous acclaim from critics, readers, and poetry insiders alike.  Next came a second volume of poems titled Phantom Noise (2010), an anthology of writing about poetry he co-edited titled The Strangest of Theaters (2013), a contribution to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology titled “The Wave That Takes Us Under,” the memoir My Life as a Foreign Country (2014), and another co-edited anthology titled The Kiss (2018).  Turner has also had a number of his poems set to music, perhaps most significant of which is a collaboration with composer Rob Deemer on Turner’s poem “Eulogy.”  Turner makes music himself, first as a member of The Dead Quimbys and more recently as the leader of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team.  Occasional writing can be found at http://www.brianturner.org.

A wise, inspirational senior-statesman within the war-writing community, Turner combines encouragement of fledgling writers with an uncanny ability to stay one or more steps ahead of the pack in terms of vision, craft, and surprising shifts of direction. The artistic tension manifest in Turner’s work is the product of two imperatives:  the martial heritage bequeathed to him by family, culture, and history, and his natural impulse to be empathetic, curious, kind, and helpful. His latest works each in their way represent solutions or, better, absolutions, for the tension; the music of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team invokes a collective cosmic spirit and consciousness, while The Kiss sanctifies physical intimacy as a hallowed form of human connection.

****

Several veteran writers are one or two published works short of joining the author-artists I name above.  For these writers, their NEXT work will be most interesting for how it confirms previous inclinations and preoccupations, modifies them, or points in new directions:

David Abrams (US Army) has published two novels, Fobbit (2012) and Brave Deeds (2017), and he contributed “Roll Call” to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology.  Shorter pieces can be found at http://www.davidabramsbooks.com. Abrams’ gift for creating characters, sketching scenes, and writing pleasing and often very funny sentences is substantial.  So far, his interest seems to be the cultural divide separating rear-echelon soldiers from their hardened warrior-brethren in the combat arms; given his comic and warm-hearted sensibility, his modus inclines to exposing foibles associated with military masculinity rather than harshly judging and accusing their owners.

Colby Buzzell (US Army) pioneered the blog-to-book trend with My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005) and he later published two books of essays and journalism: Lost in America: A Dead End Journey (2011) and Thank You for Being Expendable, and Other Experiences (2015).  The only work of fiction of which I’m aware of is his story “Play the Game” in the Fire and Forget anthology (2013), but Buzzell’s hostility toward authority and power, his affinity for oddballs and misfits, and the verve of his sentences create the impression of a distinctly “punk” literary sensibility–one that has proven very popular and influential. Buzzell’s webpage contains links to his writing that can be found online: http://www.colbybuzzell.com/stories.

Phil Klay (USMC) contributed the short story “Redeployment” to Fire and Forget (2013), which later became the title story of his National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment (2014).  A large number of essays and long-form journalism pieces are at http://www.philklay.com.  Klay’s characteristic concern is the moral culpability of young soldiers who joined the military and did their bit in Iraq or Afghanistan without too much post-war mental anguish or blood on their hands—to what extent should they (be made to) feel worse (in another word, guiltier) than they do about their decisions and actions? For me, that’s the subject of a representative story in Redeployment, “Ten Klicks South,” and of the long, trenchant essay Klay published for the Brookings Institute titled “The Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”  Finally, although I’m not sure when Klay’s next book will appear or what it will be about, while we wait for it, I recommend listening to the intellectually-knotty podcast Manifesto! Klay hosts with fellow vet-writer and Fire and Forget contributor Jacob Siegel.

Kevin Powers (US Army)’s first novel was The Yellow Birds (2012).  Next came the poetry volume Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, followed by a second novel A Shout in the Ruins (2018).  Journalism, essays, and reviews can be found at http://kevincpowers.com. It’s easy to forget the hullabaloo that greeted The Yellow Birds upon arrival. Following upon Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Army spouse Siobhan Fallon’s short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), The Yellow Birds reinforced the notion that 21st-century American writing about the war was going to cook at a very high literary level.  But the backlash against The Yellow Birds arrived just as quickly, as for many it promoted and even celebrated the idea that modern American soldiers were easily-traumatized snowflakes too tender to win wars. In the wake of The Yellow Birds, a counter-formation of memoirs and short-stories appeared, stories of war by ex-combat-arms bubbas seemingly delighted to assert that they were hard men capable of doing hard things.  I’m not inclined to be harsh in my assessment of The Yellow Birds, but Powers seems to have distanced himself from his poetry volume, and I haven’t yet read A Shout in the Ruins, so categorical statements about the arc of his career will have to wait.

Kayla Williams (US Army) has written two memoirs, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2005) and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014).  Williams has also contributed a short-story, “There’s Always One,” to the veteran-writer short-story anthology The Road Ahead (2017).  Given her job as a Washington DC think-tank analyst and the impression she renders that she’s bound for big things in the public sector, it’s not hard to imagine a third memoir might be needed someday to document further chapters in Williams’ life.  Detailing the long story of any vet’s life (especially a woman vet’s) after war will be immensely interesting and valuable, but I hope in the future Williams finds time to write more fiction, too.

Quite a few other writers merit consideration for inclusion on this list. Among them are Adrian Bonenberger (US Army, Afghan Post, memoir; The Road Ahead, fiction anthology editor (with Brian Castner); “American Fapper,” story in The Road Ahead); Maurice Decaul (USMC, Dijla Was Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates, play; multiple poems published in small journals and online; a musical collaboration with contemporary jazz great Vijay Iyer); Colin Halloran (US Army, Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux, poetry); Hugh Martin (Stick Soldiers and In Country, poetry); Brian Van Reet (US Army, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” short-story contribution to Fire and Forget and much short-fiction published in literary journals; Spoils, novel). Three women Iraq-Afghanistan veterans, Teresa Fazio (USMC), Kristen Rouse (US Army), and Supriya Venkatesan (US Army), write with distinctive voice and great eye for the telling subject and detail, and each has published widely, though more in the vein of journalism, memoir, and essay than fiction or poetry (the exceptions being Fazio’s and Rouse’s stories “Little” and “Pawns,” respectively, both included in The Road Ahead anthology), and none has yet found book-length publication.

My judgments about each author’s body-of-work are far from beyond dispute, and I welcome discussion, as well as any factual corrections to the record.  An extended contemplation about the collective import of these writers is in order, but I’ll end with just two brief points:  1) The accomplishment of these vet writers is substantial and the potential for further achievement is strong; barring misfortune, everyone I’ve mentioned still has decades of productive creative life to come.  2) Women veteran-authors and male or female African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American vet-writers are noticeably missing.  If I’ve overlooked a worthy candidate to add to the list, let me know, and if conversation about publishing trends and marketplace dynamics interests you, let’s talk about that, too.  Though my focus here is the unfolding of a writer-artist’s characteristic concerns over multiple works, the story is also one of professional ambition, literary politics, and publishing biz calculation. What I’m describing as the birthing of an estimable generation of veteran-writers, another may see as the solidifying of a literary establishment limited by its own blinders and mostly interested in preserving its own prerogatives.  That’s not how I feel about it, but I hope that should I compile this list again in another eight years, the demographic make-up will reflect the military in which I served and the overall achievement so much the better.

Khost Province, Afghanistan, 2009.

Back to School at NYU and Wesleyan

Posted April 8, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

Back to School I:  Time Now at NYU

The invitation from New York University’s Patrick Deer to speak at his Cultures of War  interdisciplinary seminar was simple:  What is the story of Time Now? Deer asked.  Why did you begin it?  Where did you get ideas for what it could be?  What has the experience of “live-blogging” the contemporary war lit scene been like? I’m not especially given to writing about myself, but if you ask me I’ll be glad to talk about such things.  I was flattered by the invitation and welcomed the chance to think meta-reflectively about a project that’s been a big part of my life for the last six years.  Here’s a snippet from my notes for my opening remarks:

Why I started Time Now.  Because my old blog 15-Month Adventure about my deployment to Afghanistan had run its course.  Because I heard Matt Gallagher at a conference state that he couldn’t imagine being a contemporary vet-and-mil writer without having an online presence. Because I thought I had a unique personal angle:  a PhD in American Lit who served a pretty intense year’s deployment in Afghanistan. Because my boss in the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point, where I taught at the time, put me in charge of a program designed to bring veteran artists and writers to West Point and the blog seemed congruent with that. Mostly because I had a sense that something good was happening—Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Matt Gallagher, and Siobhan Fallon were writers already on my radar and I’d heard-tell that novels about Iraq and Afghanistan by David Abrams, Ben Fountain, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and Kevin Powers were enroute… and I wanted to be part of it all….

Once I stopped blabbing, the conversation and Q&A opened up in interesting, wide-ranging ways. I was honored to have in the audience Teresa Fazio, who held forth with more insight and credibility than I could ever muster about the status of women war-mil-vet authors in the publishing biz, and I was delighted when Matt Gallagher arrived to walk back a little his statement that an online presence was essential for an aspiring writer—his own very solid Twitter-game notwithstanding. Many thanks to Patrick Deer and all who attended, especially those who chimed in with questions and comments, all of which continue to bubble in my mind and will certainly find expression in Time Now posts to come.  Keep an eye out for Patrick Deer’s own books—Culture in Camouflage:  War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (2009) and the forthcoming Surge and Silence:  Understanding America’s Cultures of War, and if you’re ever so lucky to get an invitation to speak at or attend a Cultures of War event, grab it.

Back to School II: Time Now at Wesleyan

A week later I was the guest of college friend William “Vijay” Pinch on the campus of  Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  Pinch grew up in India and Pakistan and now is a professor of South Asian history at Wesleyan. This semester he is teaching a course on “The Great Game”:  the centuries-long battle by imperial powers (first England and Russia, now largely supplanted by the US and China) for control of Afghanistan.  Last fall, Pinch asked me for a recommendation for a novel about 21st-century war in Afghanistan that might appeal to his students, and I quickly nominated Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, about a young Pashtun militia member’s toughening by endless war on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pinch thought that was a great idea, and to further liven up things, he invited Ackerman to Wesleyan to meet his class and participate in a series of related events. Lucky me, Pinch was kind enough to ask his old college basketball-buddy to tag along.

The day was full of excellent things, with Ackerman in fine form at every event.  In Pinch’s class he proclaimed that his rationale for writing Green on Blue was to answer the question “What type of war was Afghanistan?”, with the answer being, “It was being fought for every reason except one… to win it.”  And THIS was Ackerman’s expression of the view of things held by the Afghans, who he explained are just as caught up in “forever war” cycles-of-violence as is America.  At a writing workshop, Ackerman had wise, funny advice for students (many of them vets) seeking careers in journalism, and at a reading that night he spoke of creating the characters who populate his latest novel Waiting for Eden and the implications of the John Milton quote—“War hath determined us”–on the dust-jacket of his forthcoming memoir Places and Names:  On War, Revolution, and Returning.  Ackerman apparently is incapable of saying dull things, and he has the added virtue of answering questions in individualized and personalized ways so that their askers feel the full force of his empathy and intellectual curiosity for why they might have posed the question they did.

I’ll close with an anecdote that occurred while we were walking about Wesleyan.  Inspired by his own return to a collegiate setting, Ackerman began riffing on scenes from the classic Rodney Dangerfield film comedy Back to School.  I don’t know if Pinch knows the movie, but I do, kind of.  Unfortunately, though I can remember every song I’ve heard since 1964, I have a horrible memory for remembering film dialogue, which puts me at odds with most military folks I’ve known, for whom reeling off lines from shared favorites serves as great fun and folk wisdom.  So, I wasn’t able to exchange funnies with Ackerman, but the mere mention of Back to School brought back memories of my first sergeant when I commanded a company in the 82ndAirborne Division and how much pleasure he got from reciting lines and recalling scenes from the film. Upon returning home, I spent an evening on YouTube chuckling over Back to School videos, including this great one featuring Sam Kinison that reminds us that Back to School was in fact a post-war film:

And so the work of defining the contours of vet-writing about Iraq and Afghanistan and what it means to live as a veteran afterwards proceeds on many levels and in many places, but with special trenchancy at places like NYU and Wesleyan.  If the link below works, it will take you to a slide show of pictures I took in Afghanistan that offer some sense of the world described by Ackerman in Green on Blue.

The Look of War, Afghanistan 2009

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

Posted March 3, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , ,

Recent poetry volumes by Hugh Martin, Abby E. Murray, and Nomi Stone reflect the ongoing pull of war and military themes on poets and the authors’ fascination with the poetry as a means of reflecting on their experiences as soldiers, military spouses, and military observers, respectively. “Experience,” it seems to me, is a key word for sussing out the nature of the books’ achievements. I remember a telling Tweet or Facebook post from Lauren Kay Johnson a few years back in which she queried veteran friends and followers about a word that might be used as a synonym or alternative to the word “experience” to categorize their time in the military and on deployment. Responses were mixed, or not especially helpful, as I recall: more evidence that the word might be both overused and under-interrogated as an all-purpose label for how we conceptualize time spent in uniform, at war, or rubbing up against the strange culture of the military in ways that seem interesting, important, or even transformative.

Hugh Martin, In Country

Most of the poems in Hugh Martin’s In Country, as in his first volume, The Stick Soldiers, consist of vignettes of events Martin lived through on his tour in Iraq as an Ohio National Guardsman in 2004. A few poems are set afterwards, and these more directly address what it means to live-on following service on the ground in combat in Iraq. Some, such as the title and title-poem, which reference Bobbie Ann Mason’s great Vietnam novel of the same name, touch on even larger circles of historical-cultural signification. Martin is not given to over-arching pronouncements or editorializing within the space of his poems, however. Instead, he emphasizes observed detail and understated tactics of suggestion and inference. What I get from his poems, and it may not be at all what Martin intended, is a need to document the idea and fact that he, the poet Hugh Martin, in 2018, is the same young man who went to war in 2005 and with a gun strapped to his body did the things war asks soldiers to do–break down doors and shoot people, for starters. The dots connecting the two Hugh Martins go mostly implied or unconnected or too-scary to face directly, which is OK by me, since they go largely unresolved in my own mind in regard to my own deployment and life afterwards, too. So, I can relate to the perceived overall sensibility of In Country, just as I can easily relate to the vignettes of actual deployed experience that Martin captures in verse, such as this one:

“Test Fire”
-south of Jalawala

After we drive through
the barren hills
where the earth unrolls

itself for miles, where the soil’s
as stale as boxed cookies
sent from the Youngstown

USO, the gunners fire
machineguns at the ridge
wall’s face—small

dust-explosions lift
to the sky like faded desert
larks while the rest of us

shoot from our knees, our
chests, as copper casings
rain like loose change

across the dirt, then
as we convoy back
to Cobra from nowhere

the Bedouin come
to collect the shells
& stuff them in sacks

& after they go: only
boot & footprints,
a careful cursive of tire-tracks.

Abby E. Murray, How to Be Married After Iraq

Many of the poems in Abby E. Murray’s How to Be Married After Iraq reflect the authors’s felt disjunction between her identity as a woman and a poet with an MFA and PhD in literature and her role, or chosen life, as the wife of a career infantry officer. Those poetic moments ring with whimsical irony, but the best poems in How to Be Married After Iraq do much more than express bemusement and ambivalence. Murray, much like fellow military-spouse poet Elyse Fenton, is a superb chronicler of the distortions on her own psyche and the nation’s wrought by endless life during wartime, distortions on which her vantage point in the inner-circle of the warrior kingdom gives her exemplary purchase. The social milieu of officer marriages, and, speaking from (again) personal knowledge, especially that of infantry officer marriages, is strange and cloistered, so much so that I sense it can be off-putting to observers from the outside. The almost perverse blend of intense competitiveness, ambition, physical vitality, and homosociality of the men as they are observed by their wives has been ably recounted by Siobhan Fallon in fiction and Angela Ricketts in non-fiction, and part of their accomplishment lies in noting the tension inspired by their own complicity in the experience. Fallon, Ricketts, and now Murray have missed nothing, taken great notes, and, when they are so inclined, punch very hard. Here’s the beginning of a Murray poem that begs to be paired with Brian Turner’s “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center”:

“Sitting in a Simulated Living Space at the Seattle Ikea”

To sit in a simulated living space at Ikea
is to know what sand knows
as it rests inside the oyster.
This is how you might arrange your life
if you were to start from scratch:
a newer, better version of yourself applied
coat by coat, beginning with lamplight
from the simulated living room.
The man who lives here has never killed.
There is no American camouflage drying
over the backs of his kitchen chairs,
no battle studies on the coffee table.
He travels without a weapon,
hangs photographs of the Taj Mahal,
the Eiffel Tower above the sofa.
The woman who lives here has no need
for prescriptions or self-help,
her mirror cabinet holds a pump
for lotion and a rose-colored water glass,
her nightstand is stacked with hardcovers
on Swedish architecture….

And onward to a striking set of closing lines:

you wish you could say this place
is not enough for you, that you’re better off
in the harsh light of the parking garage,
a light that shows your skin beneath your skin,
the color of your past self,
pale in places, flushed in others.

Nomi Stone, Kill Class

As a veteran of the Army’s National Training Center, Joint Readiness Training Center, Jungle Operations Training Center, and most valuably, pre-Afghanistan deployment scenario-training at Fort Riley, I for one am fascinated by the idea of a verse volume that takes these places as its subject. Voilá, Nomi Stone in Kill Class has written a series of linked poems inspired by her anthropological field work at several US military training centers that prepare soldiers for Iraq and Afghanistan by putting them through role-playing scenarios staged by émigrés from the war-ravaged regions to which the soldiers will deploy. Stone’s poems are not especially interested in presenting themselves as accessible and easily absorbed, however. Narrative linearity, connective explanations, and summarizing statements are few; instead Stone offers shards, impressions, aggressive line-breaks, non-standard punctuation, abrupt transitions, and oblique references. The intimidating verse surface in Kill Class reflects the complexity of Stone’s background and subject position: educated as a poet in the manner of formidable modern masters such as Jorie Graham and as a Columbia-trained cultural anthropologist, Stone appears to have sometimes or often crossed lines and became a role-player herself named “Gypsy” in the training scenarios, so, like Jen Percy in Demon Camp, she deliberately foregrounds her (un)trustworthiness as an objective observer while at the same time asserting her insider bona-fides. Stone’s critique of war and the military is no more savage than they deserve, and her human sympathies extend almost equally to Muslim role players and American paratroopers, while the complicated poetics mirror the complexities of twenty-first century war, culture, militarism, identity, performativity, and the subjective nature of reality and the elusive processes of meaning-making. Kill Class may not give away its insights cheaply, but readers who invest the time will find much to appreciate about the interpretive experience it summons.

“War Game: Plug and Play”

Wait. Begin Again.
Reverse loop. Enter the stage.
The war scenario has: [vegetable stalls], [roaming animals],
and [people] in it.    The people speak

the language of a country we are trying
to make into a kinder country. Some
of the people over there are good /
others evil / others circumstantially

bad / some only want
cash / some just want
their family to not die.
The games says figure

out which
are which.

Finally, it’s almost certainly against the reading strategies proposed by Kill Class to read for conventionally “poetic” images, but Stone is quite capable of some stunners, such as the following lines from “War Game: America”:

There is a door in every word;
behind it, someone grieving.

****

Hugh Martin, In Country. BOA, 2018.

Abby E. Murray, How to Be Married After Iraq. Finishing Line Press, 2018.

Nomi Stone, Kill Class. Tupelo Press, 2019.

Stephen Markley’s Ohio: What the MacDougal is Wrong With the Buckeye State?

Posted February 23, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

Dan schooled him: “Uh, Lebron James? The Black Keys, Chrissie Hynde, Steven Spielberg? John Brown spent his formative years in Ohio.”

“Christ, don’t get you started on Ohio. You’re a fucking walking Wikipedia entry.”

“Johnny Appleseed. Ever heard of him? Ohian.”

So goes a conversation between two soldiers deployed to FOB Langman in Afghanistan portrayed in Stephen Markley’s 2018 novel Ohio. As a native Ohian myself (born in Athens), the snatch of dialogue piqued my interest, among many things in Markley’s excellent novel that intrigued me, for its description of the role the Buckeye State plays in what academics call “the cultural imaginary.” Ohio seems to be an appealing place for examination of such things these days, as Ohio-the-novel joins Nico Walker’s novel Cherry (set in Cleveland) and Hugh Martin’s poetry volume In Country as recent imaginative works dissecting the ties between Midwestern political and economic malaise and the twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s not forget either a recent spate of books about Ohio’s most famous warrior-son Ulysses S. Grant, the drift of which seeks to recoup respect for Grant’s military, political, and literary achievements as an antidote not just to Robert E. Lee idolatry but in marked counterpoint to our current Commander-in-Chief. To gather it all together, these works seem to address two common concerns: What’s the matter with Ohio, and what, if anything, can Ohio, at its best, offer the nation?

Markley’s Ohio makes an especially apt companion piece to Walker’s Cherry, as reviewers such as Christian Lorentzen and Nathan S. Webster have noted. Both novels feature young Ohio men of no particular means or ambition who join the military, fight overseas, and return (or, at least some of them return) to Ohio locales defined by few economic prospects and rampant drug use-and-abuse. Stylistically, the novels couldn’t be more different; where Cherry exudes a terse, minimalist ethos uninterested in literary flourishes, narrative trickery, or grandiloquent pontification, Ohio revels in novelistic excess, as if Cherry had been given a makeover by Ben Fountain (the two works exemplify “the raw” and “the cooked” war-and-mil writing poles I stake out in this blog post). The two novels differ in their basic regard for the military, too. In Cherry, the narrator, based on Walker himself, is contemptuous of the Army he joins, finding little value in its ideals, missions, and methods, or in the people with whom he serves. Markley, not a veteran, portrays two characters, one, Rick Brinklan, who joins the Marines and one, Dan Eaton, who joins the Army, differently. Each, within the range of possibilities offered to them and their peers in the fictional small town of New Canaan, embodies honor and good sense, and the military, whatever its shortcomings, is more generative of human commonweal than anything available back home. Not perfect, mind you—Rick is killed in Iraq and Dan loses an eye in the process of committing a war-crime in Afghanistan—but better by far than the failed state and blighted social microcosm from which the two men use the military to escape. In the exploration of this irony lies Ohio’s contribution to interminable debates about “the civil-military divide” and “thanking soldiers for their service.”

For starters, Ohio suggests that the 9/11 attacks accelerated the polarization of America into two political-ideological camps whose formation blasted any sense of shared American ideals and endeavor, here suggested in a divide that separates Rick Brinklan and his childhood friend Bill Ashcraft:

Then two planes hit the World Trade Center towers, one hit the Pentagon, and a final one dug a crater in a Pennsylvania field, and almost that same day, he felt a divergence occur between them. Bill observed the flag-waving, the brainless nationalism, the invocation of military might as a panacea for sorrow, and it felt to him like a bad movie, a gloss of convenient worship for shared bloodletting. Rick got into it. Really into it….

To be fair, the ideas in this passage are expressed through the wonders of free indirect discourse as those of Bill’s, so they may not precisely be Markley’s, but they don’t seem too far off, either. That 9/11 served to divide the nation, not unite it, is linked to a longer-term economic deterioration precipitated primarily by greedy charlatans who grew rich while skillfully escaping blame for the catastrophic damage they inflicted on the Midwest:

Ohio hadn’t gone throught the same real estate boom as the Sun Belt, but the vultures had circled the carcasses of dying industrial towns—Dayton, Toledo, Mansfield, Youngstown, Akron—peddling home equity loans and refinancing… The foreclosures began to crop up and then turn into fields of fast-moving weeds, reducing whole neighborhoods to abandoned husks or drug pens. Ameriquest, Countrywide, CitiFinancial—all those devious motherfuckers watching the state’s job losses, plant closings, its struggles, its heartache, and figuring out a way to make a buck on people’s desperation. Every city or town in the state had big gangrenous swaths that looked like New Canaan, the same cancer-patient-looking strip mall geography with brightly lit outposts hawking variations on usurious consumer credit.

Helpless in the face of such exploitation, or clueless about its true nature, the dazed denizens of Midwest wastelands lack the wherewithal to save themselves. One of the characters in Ohio notes that a factory abandoned some thirty years past still dominates downtown New Canaan like a wrecked cathedral, which the residents don’t seem to mind, or notice, and perhaps even like, oblivious that they might be expected to muster some sort of collective agency to revitalize or remove it.

In the years following 9/11, the nation’s actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan figure almost irrelevantly in the lives of New Canaan’s residents, even as quite a few of the town’s sons and daughters go off to fight in them. The real after-effect of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror is the home-front growth of frenzied xenophobia about the danger posed by brown-skinned Muslim immigrants to the warp-and-woof of American and Ohioan life. Almost to a man, and even more so among the young than among the silver-haired Fox News-watchers, the male residents of New Canaan are driven to rhetorical apoplexy and actual violence by their sense that someone—namely Democrats and liberals—has allowed the very people the nation is fighting to infiltrate the nation’s ranks and threaten its character. In the mostly-white New Canaan, old-school black-white tension exists, but in almost diluted, benign form compared to the venomous hatred now directed toward non-Christian immigrants by young white men without education, their sputtering rage and impotence in the face of demographic change and diversity exacerbated by excessive drinking and drug use.

Whether all of this is true or not, or rings true or not, probably depends on where you lie on the Red-Blue spectrum. Ohio’s Amazon reviews suggest as much. There’s lots of 5-star ratings, but many 1-star reviews too, the tenor of which suggest that Ohio is a liberal hit-job launched from the elitist coasts. The issue is complicated by Markley’s portrait of characters with liberal, progressive, and radical politics and world-views. By-and-large they are described as possessed by their own form of self-hatred, one generated by internalizing the idea that to be out of step with the New Canaan mainstream is an act of self-marginalization born not of superior intelligence but of character perversity equal to or greater than the irrationalism of the xenophobes. They hate themselves, and thus are neither liked nor trusted by their more conservative peers, who find them deeply inauthentic and not credible:

What an important lesson for every young person to learn: If you defy the collective psychosis of nationalism, of imperial war, you will pay for it. And the people in your community, your home, who you thought knew and loved you, will be the ones to collect the debt.

In that space between deplorable provincial conservatives and enfeebled liberal exiles Markley situates Rick and Dan. If we ascribe a liberal politics to Markley, as do many of his Amazon reviewers, then one of the conundrums he tries to reconcile in Ohio is the irony that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as stupid and wasteful as they are, serve as venues for redemption of a modern America that is equally as stupid and has squandered its riches and its virtues. Rick’s no goody-goody, but as a former high school football star he possesses a Pat Tillman-like stalwartness that commands respect. Dan’s more ordinary, but his essential decency and kindness is recognized by everyone. Military service doesn’t inculcate in them a love of force, guns, and hyper-aggressive masculinity—the men who don’t serve are far more infected by these traits—but rather reinforces an inherent understanding of how an individual contributes responsibly to a social collective. Unfortunately, Rick’s and Dan’s potential is blighted by the military and war that also nourishes them—Rick by death and Dan by disability, guilt, and shame for the war-crime he is horrified to have committed—so not only do they ultimately not thrive in the military but they are unable to return to New Canaan and live out long lives as grown men contributing to the civic polity.

The implications of that last point are too dismal to contemplate, so let’s end with brief consideration of a capsule portrait of a soldier named Greg Coyle with whom Dan serves in Iraq. In my last post on Cherry, I praised Nico Walker’s description of a soldier named Jimenez, who is fated to be killed in combat. An emerging truism of war-writing is that any minor character described with any love and attention-to-detail will soon be vanquished and vanished from the story, but be that as it may, such capsule portraits are often among the most memorable passages in the works that contain them. Here’s an example of such an unwitting obituary from Ohio:

When they stood for inspections, Dan, like everyone, would get ripped, maybe because he’d stored his compression bandages in the wrong place or always tried to get away with not wearing the side plates of his body armor (those heavy, awkward five-by-five bastards). Greg Coyle, no matter how goofy he was, never got ripped, was always on point. Coyle, who referred to everything as a “MacDougal.” A bore snake, pliers, a target at the range, military-age males, MREs, ops, battalion—they were all just MacDougals to him. To the dismay of the whole company, within weeks of their deployment everyone was saying it.

“We’re getting those up-armored MacDougals next month.”

“Those powdered MacDougals—goddamn! Better than Mom’s homemade MacDougal.”

“That other MacDougal was getting rocked by IEMacDougals.”

They landed in Iraq in 2006, when the country was no joke, but that joke worked right through rocket attacks and EFPs.

The second thing Dan did after he got out and visited Rudy in the hospital was attend Bren Della Terza’s wedding in Austin, Texas. A lot of his friends from Iraq were there, guys he hadn’t seen in a while because they’d gotten out after two tours. Badamier, Lieutenant Holt, Cleary, Wong, Doc Laymon, Drake in his wheelchair, “Other James” Streiss, now with two robot hands. They of course got drunk and began referring to everything as a “MacDougal,” annoying the hell out of those piqued Texas bridesmaids. Decent, churchgoing women who had never seen soldiers cut loose. How hilariously stupid they could be. In his buzz, Dan found himself wishing to return to 2006, to be back on patrol with his friends.

Stephen Markley, Ohio. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Red and Blue: The Death of Jimenez

Posted February 2, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: General

Tags: , ,

A red war novel and a blue one side-by-side on the shelves.

 

The battle roster number was EAJ-0888, and we were trying to think of who that was. We knew it was a guy from First Platoon because Staff Sergeant White had called it in. We knew it wasn’t Specialist Jackson, First Platoon’s medic, since line medics weren’t attached to Bravo from HHC and if the dead guy were Jackson the battle roster number would have started with HHC and not E. The first initial A wasn’t much help was we weren’t in the habit of calling one another by our first name. It took us the better part of ten minutes to come up with a guy from Third Platoon whose last name started with the letter J.

Private Jimenez.

Brian Van Reet, in a recent speech given at the American Library in Paris titled “The Red and the Blue: Writing War in a Divided America,” proposes that the contemporary war-writing landscape reflects the geo-political realities of the Age of Trump. Expanding on ideas suggested to him by veteran-writer Brian Castner, Van Reet argues that there are “red” war books that appeal to conservative, Red-State readers and “blue” war books popular among liberal Blue-State readers. Red war books, in this dichotomy, unproblematically extoll fighting-and-killing prowess and patriotic fervor as virtues, while blue war books ambivalently brood about these qualities. Blue books are marked by literary aspirations, while red books play for, and often receive, mass approval.

We cleared houses like we normally did when these things happened. It had been just a klick away, south of us, past the bend in the road, down a little past OP1, so we didn’t need to go anywhere. And with nothing to the west but a short field and the river, we turned east off the road and went about it.

As examples of red war books, Van Reet names American Sniper, Lone Survivor, No Easy Day, and “kill memoirs” (a phrase Van Reet coined) such as Dillard Johnson’s Carnivore. As examples of blue books, Van Reet names fiction such as Redeployment, The Yellow Birds, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and journalism such as Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War and Sebastian Junger’s War.

A blind retard was chained to a palm tree in front of the first house we came to. An old woman, presumably the retard’s mother, stood near the gate of the courtyard, and some of us filed in. There were four rooms around the courtyard so we split off to see about each one and I kicked a door in and went into an unlit room. The room was empty except for a haji lying on the floor with his eyes closed. I said, “Get the fuck up, motherfucker.”

But he didn’t move.

I moved closer to him, rifle trained down on him. “GET THE FUCK UP, MOTHERFUCKER.”

He opened one eye and looked at me, stayed unmoved, closed the eye. So I had my mind made up to kick him in the face. I didn’t go around kicking hajis in the face for no reason and I didn’t know anyone who did, but Jimenez was dead and I was going to kick the haji in the face. I brought the kick as hard as I could, aiming center mass. But I stopped halfway to connecting. It was all I could do to stay on the one foot and not fall on my ass. The haji got up and stretched and he shuffled out of the room. I can’t remember when it had occurred to me that maybe he was also retarded. I unfucked myself and went outside to see where the haji had gone. He was heading off into the fields, looking up into the sun. Nobody touched him.

Breaking down binary distinctions is always possible and tempting, but that Van Reet is basically correct, there can be no doubt. Beyond the evidence he provides, one can point to the fact that President Obama several times praised Phil Klay’s Redeployment. It’s impossible to imagine President Trump reading Redeployment, but if he did, it’s easy to think that he would hate it and Tweet that if it didn’t demonstrate why America should never have gone to war in Iraq (he wouldn’t be so wrong about that), then it was proof positive that the American military was full of losers and sissies who didn’t have the balls to crush their enemies.

Jimenez was a cherry. He was one of the replacements who had come to the company after First Platoon lost the four guys killed out on Route Polk. He hadn’t been around two months and he was dead. It was unlucky.

Sometimes the dead guy was really an asshole, or you could make the case that he was. Not so with Jimenez. For all intents and purposes, Jimenez was a saint. That’s why he stuck out like a sore thumb in an infantry company.

The thing is your average infantryman is no worse than your garden-variety sonofabitch. But he talks in dick jokes and aspires to murder and it doesn’t come off as a very saintly mode of being. Yet Jimenez was a saint. It wasn’t like he was soft or anything like that; he was a tough kid. He’d only just turned 19 but he was strong with a deep chest and the kind of unbreakable wrists one gets from working with his hands. And he’d work. The sergeants liked him for that. But he was so goddamn nice that he drove people crazy sometimes. Like he’d play poker with the poker players and he’d play bad hands. Dealt a queen-four off-suited, he was liable to call two preflop raises and hit a boat on the river. And when people got mad at him for playing garbage he’d apologize and try to give them back their chips. But it didn’t work like that.

The last time I saw Jimenez was about eight hours before Haji killed him. He’d been boxing Staff Sergeant Castro in the weight room, sparring, and Castro had popped him on the nose pretty good so his nose was bleeding—not broken or anything, just bleeding. And Castro told him to go see a medic and Jimenez did what he was told and when he came around looking for a medic I gave him a hard time. I said, “What the fuck are you coming to me about a bloody fucking nose for, cherry?”

And he didn’t say anything. He just smiled, all awkward, like he was embarrassed for me.

I said, “C’mon, cherry. I’m tired. Please don’t come to me with dumb shit, okay? I’m really fucking tired, you know?”

In the course of his speech, Van Reet includes Nico Walker’s Cherry as an example par excellence of a “blue” literary war novel. That’s interesting to me, because Cherry presents itself as a very raw, un-doctored, and un-mannered account by a junior-enlisted soldier who unapologetically describes life-in-the-ranks on deployment with brutal honesty. If I were to point to a war novel released last year that demonstrated serious literary chops and aspirations, it would be Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog, not Cherry. Still, that Walker’s author-narrator persona is a bit of a façade is revealed by the narrator’s admission that post-deployment, even while in the grips of serious heroin addiction, he was submitting poems to the New Yorker, and corroborated in the Acknowledgements where Walker reveals that he rewrote Cherry endlessly under the tutelage of literary publishing pros. So, a little like American Sniper, which was ghost-written by a seasoned novelist, Cherry manages to convey authenticity despite all the evidence that it was highly stylized and worked-over by a young man with serious literary ambitions and a team of helpmates.

He went out with a fire team in the morning. They set up a TCP on Route Martha. They’d gone out when it was still dark and they hadn’t had a good look at the spot where they were set up and they didn’t know Haji had laid a one-five-five round underneath the road there. The road was just a paved berm and it was easy to mine. And the Haj was watching them. He saw Jimenez stand on the spot he had mined.

I heard Koljo talk about it. It was later in that same day. He was telling some joes what it had been like. He said, “It looked like something out of a horror movie.”

The one-five-five round took off both Jimenez’s legs and severed one of his arms almost completely. But he was still awake and he knew what was happening. He was screaming. The fire team traded shots with two fucking murderers, but the murderers got away, north through a palm grove. The fire team couldn’t go after them because they couldn’t leave Jimenez there by himself.

Be that as it may, many passages in Cherry are strikingly vivid and moving, to include the one I’ve been excerpting, which come from Chapter 33. Though the chapter is unnamed in the book, it might be called “The Death of Jimenez.” For me, it’s up there, if not quite better than, the portrait of the death of Snowden at the end of Catch-22, which sets the bar high for depiction of the death of American soldiers in combat. Read Chapter 33, read Cherry entire, and judge for yourself.

Nico Walker, Cherry. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Nico Walker’s Cherry: First Thoughts and Questions

Posted December 29, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: General

Tags: ,

Is Nico Walker’s novel Cherry about war in Iraq or heroin addiction? Or is it about both? If so, what connects Iraq and heroin in the life and mind of its unnamed but clearly autobiographical first-person narrator? The first half of Cherry recounts the narrator’s life through deployment to Iraq as a medic in a combat unit in ways similar to Matthew J. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road, and Maximillian Uriarte’s The White Donkey: purposeless young white male junior-enlisted soldiers, mostly unimpressed by anything the military has to offer, confront horrifying events that overwhelm their defense-mechanisms and occasion their dissolution into drugs, drink, violence, and anti-sociality. But the formula doesn’t quite work for Cherry. The second-half of the novel, in which the narrator describes his heroin addiction and the criminal capers he undertakes to finance it, refracted through his love for his fellow addict and soulmate Emily, seems thematically and tonally disconnected from the war-and-military sections. I came away from the novel thinking that military deployment mostly bored the narrator, and not much happened overseas that he connects to the verve of his drug-addicted, crime-ridden romance with Emily except that for a while it paid the post-war bills for love and debauchery:

There was nothing better than to be young and on heroin. Emily and I were living together. The days were bright. You didn’t worry about jobs because there weren’t any. But you could go to school so you could get FAFSA, you could get student loans and Pell Grants. And if you were getting G.I. Bill, that’d cover your tuition; then you didn’t need your FAFSA for school and you could go and buy dope with it instead. Which was all you really wanted. You could kill yourself real slow and feel like a million dollars. You could grow high-class weed in your basement and pay the rent like that. Of course the future looked bad—you went into debt, you got sick all the time, you couldn’t shit, everyone you met was a fucker, your new friends would eat the eyes out of your head for a spoon or twenty dollars, your old friends stayed away—but you could do more heroin and that would usually serve to settle you down, when you were going on 25, back when you could still fake it, and there was nothing better than to be young and on heroin.

For the narrator, heroin addiction is the logical culmination of love of getting high. He was plenty attracted to drugs before he joined the Army and deployment seems a soon-forgotten side-episode in what he considers the real story of his life. The military didn’t reform or save him, but it wasn’t his ruin, either.

Heroin addiction and overdose have wrecked my extended family’s happiness far more than anything associated with my blood-soaked and death-tinged deployment to Afghanistan, too, so I may be more receptive to Cherry‘s druggie aspects than most. But Cherry’s marketing material—book-jacket blurbs and Amazon testimonials—seems to agree with me that the novel is more junkie-romance than war-story.  Lea Carpenter writes on the dust-jacket, for example, “Cherry is the debut novel America needs now, a letter from the front line of opioid addiction and, almost subliminally, a war story.” That “almost subliminally” is intriguing. Does Carpenter mean that Walker himself doesn’t quite understand how war and drugs are mixed up in his mind and life, or is she suggesting that the real war central to the American 21st-century is not the “war on terror” but the “war on drugs”? The great article or book connecting the two wars is there for the writing.

What’s without question is Cherry’s striking critical and public reception upon release. At last check, Cherry was far-outpacing other 2018 war-fiction releases on Amazon’s best-seller list. Advance readers and reviewers have been lavish in their praise; the quote from Lea Carpenter above is restrained compared to its dust-jacket companions:

“Someone once said there are two things worth writing about, love and death. Nico Walker may know more about these two subjects than 99.9 percent of fiction writers working today.”

“After reading this, you’ll say only one thing: Nico Walker is one of the best writers alive.”

“a powerful book that declares the arrival of a real writer who has made art out of anguish.”

Far more measured is a remarkable blogpost by Spoils author Brian Van Reet, a rumination on Walker and Cherry described by Fire and Forget author Jacob Siegel on Twitter as “one of the only essential pieces of cultural criticism that I read this year.” Van Reet nicely captures the dilemma of judging Cherry work-and-author fairly:

When I first heard of him [Walker] and his autobiographical novel, I confess my reaction to it was not-so-gentle bemusement. Oh great, I thought. An Iraq-veteran-junkie-bank-robber novelist. We have truly jumped the shark in this genre. Blame our sensationalistic media culture, which often functions to seek out and reward the very worst people. I feared the rest of us, in the wake of his book, would now have to deal with its confirmation of a damaging stereotype about this generation of veterans: that we are no more than mindless thugs who, by virtue of our participation in a criminal war, are criminals at heart, if not by the letter of the law.

On top of that, it seemed to me a dizzying moral abdication that so many literary journalists and book critics had taken it upon themselves to celebrate work by a convicted violent criminal from an affluent background, in a cultural moment when any number of male authors and editors have been lately accused of inappropriate behavior, which may not rise to the level of criminal offense, but which is nevertheless deemed toxic enough to warrant the ruination of their careers. Meanwhile, some of the same institutions and people most responsible for tearing down these “shitty men” in literature were now elevating Walker to literary celebrity, his career launched precisely because of his outrageously bad behavior.

So, another question: Is Cherry the apotheosis of modern war fiction, the book critics and readers have been waiting for all along? Or, is it the nadir, the repudiation of literary possibilities suggested by veteran authors such as Kevin Powers, David Abrams, Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, and Van Reet himself? To be fair to Van Reet, following his skeptical start-point, he works toward recognition of Cherry’s appeal and achievement: the startlingly visceral illusion of clarity and honesty with which Walker presents the narrator, his tour in Iraq, and his love for heroin. In describing both hair-raising (and sometimes comic) scenes of combat and junkie degeneracy, Walker’s understated language mostly avoids sensationalist and melodramatic excess. The narrator doesn’t waste time in self-reflection or analytical explanation, which is a virtue in terms of sprightly story-telling, but also a weakness for readers curious to learn what Walker knows about “love and death” better than “99.9 percent of fiction writers working today.” More decidedly a plus, there’s a thankful lack of either apologizing or humble-bragging in the narrator’s account of his walks-on-the-wild-side, and even better is that Walker avoids the trap of stale media and public health buzz-words to describe his drug-taking: there’s very little mention of “abuse,” “addiction,” “rehabilitation,” “opioid epidemic,” “monkey on my back,” “overdose,” “clean,” “OD,” “drug fiend,” “junkie,” “addict,” or “war on drugs.”

The narrator’s prose voice seems intuitive and unrehearsed, though by Walker’s own report in the Acknowledgements the finished book is the product of many rewrites and much tough-tutelage administered by his publishing team. In other words, he worked harder on Cherry than anything he ever worked on in his life, save for scoring heroin and (perhaps, hopefully) making Emily happy, and the unadorned feel of natural genius is the product of extensive editorial curation. Whatever, Walker’s self-presentation is Cherry‘s strength; in the Acknowledgments Walker relates that he knew Cherry was getting good when one of his editors tells him that after a few dozen revisions the main character was no longer just an “asshole,” but an asshole “she kind of liked.” More Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries than Colby Buzzell’s My War, more Sid and Nancy than American Sniper, Cherry awaits your reading.

Also recommended:  Jenny Pacanowki’s “Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD.”

Nico Walker, Cherry. Knopf, 2018.


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