Habibi: Dunya Mikhail’s The Iraqi Nights

Posted February 4, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Poet, memoirist, and journalist Dunya Mikhail’s biography complicates the vantage point of her poetry while adding variety to the American-fighting-man-centric flavor of post-9/11 war writing. Raised a Christian in Iraq, Mikhail came off age as an artist-intellectual in the difficult last years of Saddam Hussein, the First Gulf War, and the Iraq-Iran War. Attracted to the art and thought of the West, as well as the promises of democracy and strife-free everyday life, she emigrated to America in the 1990s, where she has made a home in Michigan, completed an MA in Near Eastern Studies at Wayne State, and commenced a career teaching Arabic and Arabic Studies at the university level.

The impulse to write fomenting in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mikhail began publishing a series of works, varied in genre, that trace the war’s reverberations primarily among the non-combatant civilian populaces in both her native and adopted countries. In 2005 came The War Works Hard, a volume of poetry, 2009 brought a memoir titled Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, 2013 an anthology titled 15 Iraqi Poets, and 2014 a poetry chapbook titled The Theory of Absence (Islands or Continents). Later this year will appear The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, a series of interviews with Yazidi (a small sect of Iraqi Christians) women who faced torture and death at the hands of ISIS for refusing to convert to Islam. Mikhail’s best-known work, arguably, is The Iraqi Nights, a collection of poems originally written in Arabic and then translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and published by small-press stalwarts New Directions in 2014.

The title, playing off A Thousand-and-One Nights, casts Mikhail as a contemporary Scheherazade, a spinner of story-poems, if not to save her own life literally, then to make sense of life generally during a period in which death is omnipresent. The title poem, the first in the volume, combines prose, short lyrics, and line drawings to portray the weight of war and conflict in her native country:

In Iraq,
after a thousand and one nights,
someone will talk to someone else.
Markets will open
for regular customers.
Small feet will tickle
the giant feet of the Tigris.
Gulls will spread their wings
and no one will fire at them….

A poem called “The Plane,” about a third-of-the-way in, explicitly references American soldiers while also spatially transitioning from Iraq to the States:

The plane arriving from Baghdad
carries American soldiers:
it rises above the moon
reflected on the Tigris,
above clouds piled like corpses,
and an ancient harp,
and the beaten breasts,
and the ones who were kidnapped;
it rises above
the destruction that grows with the children,
and the long lines at the passport office,
and Pandora’s open box.
The plan and its exhausted passengers
will land six thousand miles away
from an amputated finger
lying in the sand.

Mikhail’s homeland floats in-and-out through the rest of The Iraqi Nights, as in “Iraqis and Other Monsters,” a poem that speaks to the contempt and fear Iraqis inspire in Americans, and especially American soldiers:

They are terrifying.
Their heads are dark and tremulous;
they roam the desert
in the forms of bulls and lions,
with swords gleaming in their eyes
They rub their mustaches when they make promises….

It’s one thing, I would say, to bear witness to the horrors of one’s native country and even to flee them and condemn them from abroad, but it’s probably quite another to realize that the inhabitants of your adopted homeland view people much like yourself as monsters and murderers. To escape that treacherous realization, the poems in The Iraqi Nights seek means of accommodation, reconciliation, and momentary escape.

Thus one set of The Iraqi Nights poems reference Chinese and Japanese touchstones, as if Mikhail, something of an exile in her adopted land, had gone globetrotting in search of a poetic vocabulary and cultural sensibility not so obviously infused by violence, misunderstanding, bad memories, and horrible histories. Many short lyrics adopt a mythopoetic style to register a cosmic vision informed by loss, death, the carnage of time, and the fragility of the moment, while others, such as “The Sold Parrot,” are very specific renderings of epiphanies emerging out of the everyday:

Everything is new
today
for the parrot:
Where’s the silver fish
that used to greet the parrot with its tail,
the bubbles flowing from its mouth?
Where’s the tank with all its stars?
Where’s the little boy
who always stopped
to stare at it
and sometimes even tried to touch it?
And most importantly of all:
where’s the woman who used to feed it from her hand
while he repeated after her:
habibi—“beloved.”
Habibi?

Habibi? Indeed. The poems in The Iraqi Nights are shot-through, in all meanings of the phrase, with images of love, love lost, and the continuing search for. Or, more precisely, the search for the conditions in which love is possible, or at least not so hard, as in “Footprints on the Moon”:

When I set foot on the moon
everything told me that you were there, too:
my lighter weight,
the loss of gravity,
my heart’s rapid beating,
my mind empty of everyday concerns,
the lack of memories of any kind,
the earth off in another place,
and these footprints…
All of this points to you.

Mikhail knows, if anyone knows, of whence she speaks.

****

Interviews with Dunya Mikhail here and here.

An excellent essay by Sand Opera author Phil Metres, an American-born poet also of Arab-Christian descent, on the continuing existence of Orientalism in American letters, art, and culture here.  That Metres, as much a lover of NBA basketball and American punk rock and hardcore as I am, can be so alienated within the land of his birth offers purchase on Mikhail’s “dream of a future beyond violence,” to paraphrase a back-cover blurb from The Iraqi Nights.

Dunya Mikhail, The Iraqi Nights, translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. New Directions, 2014.

War Poetry: Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes

Posted January 14, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Jehanne Dubrow’s poems are always wonderfully realized, rich and complete in sense and spirit, each word and image precisely fitted and instantly accessible while also evoking subtler or higher orders of meaning, the formal artistry as refined as the language is relaxed in syntax and diction.  Dubrow, currently an associate professor at the University of North Texas, is the author of Stateside, a 2010 collection of poems about being married to a Navy officer during a time of constant war and the concomitant possibility of separation by deployment and even death.  Stateside has many fans among the war-writing community, myself included; its achievement is aptly described by Jesse Goolsby in a Daily Beast article as “A necessary and urgent invocation of strength, fear, longing, and love.”  Dubrow defies categorization as an author primarily concerned with war in Iraq and Afghanistan, however.  Red Army Red, her next book after Stateside, explores her upbringing in Cold War Europe, where her father and mother were American diplomats.  The Arranged Marriage, published next, examines another facet of Dubrow’s biography:  her mother’s coming-of-age in Honduras, where her Jewish family fled as refugees from Nazi Germany only to encounter other forms of brutality.  Connecting the volumes has been a persistent alertness to the way geopolitical conflict and crisis infuse domestic life with the strength, fear, longing, and love noted by Goolsby.

Dubrow’s 2017 collection Dots & Dashes returns to Stateside’s interest in the complicated effects of America’s forever wars on married life and the vexing contortions of thought generated by marriage to a military career officer–what Dubrow calls in a  poem titled “Patton” “the combat of routine marriage.”  A dust-jacket blurb that reads, “I doubt the word husband appears so many times and with such varied emphases, in any other recent poetry book of comparable quality” is not wrong, for Dubrow’s often-deployed spouse is at the center of many Dots & Dashes poems, cast and shaded in various degrees of charm, curiosity, contempt, and desire.  A good example of Dubrow’s craft applied to the minutia of martial marriage is a sonnet –one of many in Dots & Dashes—titled “A Catalog of the Contents of His Nightstand”:

One orphaned oak leaf from his uniform.
Loose change.  A pair of collar stays.  A tube
of mentholated chapstick going warm.
An accordion of ancient Trojans, lube
that’s meant to tingle when it touches the skin.
The leather cuff he bought in Santa Fe.
A sample of cologne that smells like gin,
cigars, and prohibition, the satin sway
of bodies in a sweating room.  A card
his mother sent–she wonders when he’ll write
again.  A tin of peppermints now hard
and powdery as chalk.  A tiny light
he aimed at shadows as we lay in bed
(bright spheres) until the battery went dead.

“A Catalog of the Contents of His Nightstand” is one of many in the collection that reference the marital bed; Dubrow, or, more circumspectly, her narrator, is not shy about exploring the erotic contours of military marriage or admitting that she finds her husband sexy very much in part because he wears a uniform.  “When I Marry Eros,” for example, begins, “He’s dressed in the uniform / of war, our wedding photograph / a shot of cream and navy….”   In poems describing times when he’s away on deployment, she pines for him physically and even petulantly, and the fear of a wandering eye or even infidelity—mostly his but perhaps even her own–both scares and thrills her.

[If You Are Squeamish]

Don’t sift through shelves
In the officer’s quarters,
or lift a blanket from the rack

to find a photograph
of a body split, splayed,
an article of clothing made

hard by longing.  Don’t scroll
his phone’s green messages.
The ocean is another

of forgetfulness.
Whatever washes up—
those things are rubble

on a beach.  It’s best to leave
some shells unlistened, some
shards of jaded glass unseen.

The sexual frisson of the husband poems is all the more interesting in context with other Dots & Dashes poems, which generally look askance at the national military effort.  Several poems, such as “Cadets Read ‘Howl,’” “Five Poetry Readings,” and “POEM” (Personal Observation Encased in Metaphor), sardonically examine the incongruity of an elevated poetic sensibility bumping up against lumpenproletariat military culture; the difficulty of communicating across the civil-military divide is the issue here.  Others, such as “Reading Poetry on Maryland Public Radio” and “Runaway Military Surveillance Blimp Drifts from Maryland to Pennsylvania,” make more trenchant statements about the militarization of everyday life in America in the 21st-century.

Two of the best poems—too long to reprint here—make breathtaking moves to encapsulate history within the framework of Dubrow’s personal biography and perspective.  “Much Tattooed Sailor aboard USS New Jersey,” available online here, connects World War II sailors with Dubrow’s husband’s fresh ink to suggest the persistent intertwining of war, artistry and expression, pain, and desire.  Given Dubrow’s range of interest, it is not surprising, perhaps even inevitable, that one of the most intriguing poems in Dots & Dashes is “Photograph of General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell.”  “How often do we watch two people stand / like this, held undistorted in the frame?” Dubrow asks, awed by the photograph’s powerful foreshadowing of transgression and scandal. Not judgy, but in equal parts knowing and wondering, Dubrow contemplates “the perfect clarity of their mistakes.”  The poem conjoins and fulfills the promises made by Dots & Dashes’ two epigraphs to map the coordinates of intimate desire and martial glory:

War feels to me an oblique place. –Emily Dickinson

the dear sound of your footstep
and light glancing in your eyes

would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry

-Sappho

The conundrum here is that Dubrow wants to hate the military and war and examine the pain they wreak on her happiness and the nation’s, while at the same time acknowledging that the subjects animate her imagination and provide a context in which love and strength might flourish.  There may not ultimately be satisfactory reconciliation of the two imperatives, but Dubrow and her readers can take heart in the sharpness of their expression in Dots & Dashes.

Dots & Dashes won the 2016 Crab Orchard Series Open Competition.

A Jehanne Dubrow interview with  Memorius: A journal of New Verse and Fiction can be found here.

An American Literary Review interview with Jehanne Dubrow can be found here.

Jehanne Dubrow, Dots & Dashes.  Crab Orchard Review & Southern Illinois University Press, 2017.

War-Writing in the Fun-House Mirror: Eric Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie

Posted January 8, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

Are stories and novels by vets about war in Iraq and Afghanistan allegories of their authors’ struggles to make it as writers? A vet-writer once told me that the real drama, the real conflict, and real anxiety being described was not generated by the battlefield, but the MFA workshop and publishing marketplace.

This provocative idea somewhat underwrites Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s The War of the Encylopaedists. The parts drawn from Robinson’s life as a non-veteran civilian describe a neurotic English graduate student while the parts based on Kovite’s military service describe an army lieutenant’s effort to lead his platoon in Iraq. Together, the two protagonists engage in a quixotic effort to craft a fantastical Wikipedia article about themselves. The novel’s halves are not as tightly stitched together in a synchronized assault on the shared delusions of warrior heroics and authorial grandeur as they might be, but the possibilities are there. Among other things, the reader is invited to consider that whatever the challenges of duty in Iraq, on the whole graduate school is more stressful, less purposeful, and more ripe for satire.

As interesting as is The War of Encylopaedists, the work that most ruthlessly explores the warrior/writer divide is Eric Bennett’s 2015 satirical novel A Big Enough Lie. In no particular order, Bennett takes the piss out of soldiering, mil-and-war writing, MFA programs, military idolatry, literary celebrity, war folly, and publishing foibles. Nothing if not ambitious, Bennett also takes aim at contemporary gender, race, and class contortions, as well as the American rural-urban gulf, and for good measure lobs a few shots at perennial mil-writing aesthetic issues such as authorial authenticity and the literary transformation of fact-based reality into artistic presentation.

A novel of ideas if there ever was one, A Big Enough Lie defies easy explanation, but by describing the characters and plot as simply as possible one can begin to appreciate its scope and ambition.

The novel features two distinct-but-related narrative lines. One, related in third-person, tells the story of John Townley, a timid young man who grows up outside Tallahassee, Florida. Neither popular nor talented, Townley envies his neighbor and high-school classmate Marshall Stang, a brash, charismatic troublemaker. When Townley’s distant cousin, a cosmopolitan New Yorker named Emily White, visits the Townley family, Townley develops a huge unrequited crush on her. Inspired by Emily to become a writer, Townley strives to match her precocious literary sensibility by writing her 1000s of letters, to which she only fitfully responds. Meanwhile, Stang enlists in the army and deploys to Iraq, where he loses a foot.

Several years later, Townley moves to New York City to pursue his writing dream, but the better part of his time and energy is spent trying to pick up women in dive bars by using a variety of pseudonyms and made-up identities, to include Stang’s. Still pining for Emily, Townley helps her reconnect with Stang, whom she met on her first visit to Florida, to help him ghost-write a war memoir, which subsequently becomes a best-seller. Townley’s own effort to become a writer going nowhere, he somehow is accepted into an elite graduate school writing program by adopting the pseudonym Pat Crane and a fake identity as a wheelchair-bound Iraq War veteran. In grad school, Townley/Crane meets Heather Kloppenberg, a dissolute poet wannabe who, despite her liberal politics and writerly sensibility, loves (to sleep with) soldiers. Townley/Crane and Heather are a couple for half-a-semester, but when he reveals he is neither “Patrick” nor a wounded vet, she dumps him and he drops out of grad school.

Townley subsequently returns to Florida, where he writes a book titled Petting the Burning Dog that purports to be the memoir of Henry Fleming, an army officer presumed missing after his tank platoon is ambushed by insurgents in Iraq. Townley/Fleming’s contrived story is that the real Fleming escaped captivity and made his way through Turkey to Germany and back to America. An unsuspecting public doesn’t question the paper-thin rubric, and Townley/Fleming becomes the literary celebrity of the moment. Invited to appear on a talk show hosted by an Oprah-like figure named Winnie Wilson, Townley/Fleming is joined on-stage by one of the members of the real Fleming’s platoon, a brash, charismatic troublemaking African-American soldier named Antoine Greep. Rather than expose Townley, Greep affirms his identity as Fleming, for he has reasons of his own to perpetuate Townley’s charade. It transpires that Greep and Heather Kloppenberg have hooked-up, but the romance doesn’t last and as the novel nears its end Heather is taking steps to expose Townley’s fraud.

That’s half of it.

Interspersed among the chapters relating Townley’s story are others reported in first-person by the Henry Fleming character. It is not clear whether the story-within-a-story passages are from Townley’s faux-memoir Petting the Burning Dog, for they don’t read like a popular soldier saga of capture and escape. Instead, they present Fleming as a militarized version of Townley, insecure and overly analytical, hapless in the face of more aggressive peers, and more interested in castigating himself and making fun of the US military than in presenting himself as an aw-shucks genuine American hero. Many other overlaps between the two narratives suggest Townley has based Fleming largely on himself. Both men are missing fingers, for example, and Fleming is dumped by a woman named Hilary who conjoins aspects of Emily White and Heather Kloppenberg. Odd authorial intrusions also connect the two narratives, such as the fact that Henry Fleming is the name of the protagonist of The Red Badge of Courage and Townley uses Stephen Crane’s last name to get into grad school, coincidental factoids presented without explanation and thus seeming to emanate Paul-Auster-City-of-Glass style from some self-referential, extraneous narrative place. Other literary antecedents swirling in Bennett’s stew of interconnected narratives, doubled protagonists, and unreliable narrators include Poe’s “William Wilson,” Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Melville’s Pierre and The Confidence Man.

Bennett’s a smart guy, and a lot of A Big Enough Lie works well, but it could also easily be accused of being too clever by half. A graduate of the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Bennett’s an academic who has written a book critiquing MFA programs, so he knows of what he speaks. Still, it is hard to accept his verdict that everyone involved in the writing biz is a craven worm, as they are portrayed in A Big Enough Lie. And by “everyone,” Bennett means readers, too:

And what did they want all of them? They wanted nobodies who became somebodies and somebodies who fell tragically. Done and done. Every other story that made the soft headlines, if you panned out far enough, was stagecraft and exaggeration, hype and deception, entertainment and half-way hoax. John could play that game….

The war compelled the interest of Heather and Emily. It gave Stang the true proportions of heroism. It rocked with mysteries and horrors of conduct and decision, fear and bravery, technology and banality, the themes that could make a piercingly audible thing of the printed page. All the other books in vanishing bookstores bored him and more: symbolized what he himself suffered from, the nothingness of feeling and the nothingness of action.

The armed forces, like MFA programs, are fat targets for lampooning (“50-meter targets,” to use army-speak, as opposed to rifle-range targets 400 meters away), and satire’s satire, but A Big Enough Lie‘s sometime problem is that it lacks the comedic élan that, say, David Abrams or Ben Fountain bring to humorous depiction of the military, or, if we want to invoke Hall-of-Fame comic war-writing, Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut. It’s not just that A Big Enough Lie makes it hard to like its main characters, as Abrams and Fountain and the Robinson/Kovite team achieve easily, to say nothing of Heller and Vonnegut, it’s that the novel conveys the impression that readers are not welcomed in on the joke, but more likely are also targets of it. Readers of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, for instance, can smugly laugh along with Ben Fountain at the rich fat-cats and meathead football fans who fête war-hero Billy at a Cowboys game, but the laughs don’t come as readily when the literary world of writers and readers serve as foils for the author’s vision of contemporary American idiocy. Hey, I resemble that!

That’s a pun, people.

If readers—veteran or otherwise—can get over the feeling that they are being insulted by A Big Enough Lie, many passages in Fleming’s narrative are striking. Bennett must have had very good sources to craft passages such as the following:

We had seconds to mobilize. Breitbart was already out the door. In the scramble, an awareness of the futility of our training dogged me perversely. At Hohnefels and Grafenwoehr we spent days and days planning and rehearsing a single training exercise. Here in a combat zone with threats from all sides we had twenty seconds to prepare for a mission we never in our wildest dreams dreamed of. I tried to breathe deeply, to focus and operate, simply operate….

Practically every significant command in the army comes twice, takes two forms, first as a rumor, a beast as winged and strange as its apotheosis in Virgil, flapping through the ranks, stirring confusion, burring its own form….

For Greep, the American operations were a dark circus, free from the rule of law….

Moving lots of troops (somebody in the army believes) requires the pre-staging area, the post-pre-staging area, the staging area, the post-staging area, and the post-post-staging area. Imagine sitting on a scorching interstate as the wreckers clear a fatal pileup. Imagine that for an hour. Imagine that feeling: the heat, the impatience, the ignorance, the total absence of motion, the underlying premise of motion. Then imagine driving a hundred yards and doing it again for an hour. And again. And again. And one last time.

So six hours later, we hit the road.

Part of Bennett’s point here, I think, is to trivialize the achievement of veteran-authors. Writing about war isn’t that damn hard, such passages suggest, and the important thing is not that an author has personally experienced any of it, but that the writer can use words to render a simulacrum of reality with accuracy and verve. Or, perhaps, my too earnest and easily-confused brain ponders, the point is that such insightful, funny passages actually aren’t working, because their fraudulent origin and pretense disqualifies them from serious consideration. More clearly damning of vet-authors, though, is Fleming’s self-portrait, which seems to suggest that he has joined the army to both compensate for masculine inadequacies and find material to write about. Fleming describes his rationale for joining as a classic “nerd-made-good” move, to use John Renehan’s formulation, though the “made good” part remains problematic.

I wasn’t hanging Sheetrock because I was bookish, a milquetoast in his [Fleming’s father] eyes, not that he ever used that word—“pussy” would have been more in his register—and, in this upside-down world, I joined the army and became a second lieutenant and went to war because I was deficient in this way. War seemed like a cool solution, or at least the obvious one. Henry Fleming, yours truly, was just too cautious and normal otherwise to mess his life up in a newsworthy way. Any writer worth his salt has got to draw close to the flame of chaos, and if he can’t do it through his personality, he can do it through the Department of Defense. You’ll notice Ernest Hemingway didn’t spend his late adolescence hanging out in Kansas….

I had enlisted to gather textures for fiction—to place myself in situations where my life took on interest….

A Big Enough Lie works best as a lively meta-commentary for readers predisposed to think 1) the war in Iraq was foolishness, as is the desire to join the military 2) MFA programs and the publishing business are also foolishness, as is the desire to be a writer. If you are a veteran or a writer, or both, and those two ideas do not describe your natural drift of thought, A Big Enough Lie will force consideration of whether such an ugly pair of shoes fits you, given Bennett’s presentation of evidence that suggests they might do so very well.

In a Harper’s magazine review here, Sam Sacks elevates A Big Enough Lie slightly above what he finds otherwise to be a mediocre Iraq and Afghanistan war-fiction pack.

Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie. Northwestern University Press, 2015.

War Fiction: Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier

Posted December 28, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Despite noting the reviews of Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier upon its release last year, I somehow had missed a key piece of Parker’s biography when I began reading the novel itself this month. Over 200 pages in, while marveling at the acuity of Parker’s portrait of soldier disability following battlefield wounding, I rediscovered a review that reminded me that Anatomy of a Soldier is based on personal experience. Parker, it turns out, like his novel’s protagonist, Captain Tom Barnes, unfortunately lost both legs to an IED in Afghanistan while serving in the British army as an infantry officer. The realization immediately recast my reception of Anatomy of a Soldier. Rather than suggesting the exciting possibilities of a highly curious and empathic imagination, the novel now traversed somewhat less interesting terrain: the aesthetic borderland dividing reported experience and fictional dramatization.

Somewhat less interesting, though by no means entirely so. It’s mostly that I’ve read dozens of soldier memoirs and war novels, and am so used to peregrinations back-and-forth across the divide between fact and fiction, whether literary, naïve, or disingenuous, that you’d be hard-pressed to write a war memoir that impressed me as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or a war novel that I didn’t think drew on events you witnessed or participated in. Vietnam War veteran-author Larry Heinemann’s description of his first novel Close Quarters as “straight-up fictionalized memoir” seems to me a phrase that gets at the heart of the genre-anxiety of much war-writing, but my head begins to hurt and I grow tired when pondering the matter.

The point of all this me-centric musing is that Parker has also confronted these issues and has made a number of interesting authorial decisions to resolve them. The decision not to write a memoir is first and foremost, and almost every review of Anatomy of a Soldier considers Parker’s motivation for the choice and what he might have gained or lost. It’s not impossible to fathom why he did not write a memoir: fear of mawkish self-regard or promotion, hesitancy about naming names, suppression of uncomfortable truths, and so on. Given the stiff upper lip and occasional glimpses of black humor on display in Anatomy of a Soldier, I’m sure the last thing Parker would claim is that he wrote it as a therapeutic means of dealing with trauma, even if he did. In any case, a more interesting point to consider is the extremely exotic narrative technique Parker employs, I take it, to further sever the tale from the teller. Each chapter in Anatomy of a Soldier is related from the point-of-view, if that is the right word, of a material object that plays a role in Barnes’ wounding, recovery, and rehabilitation. For example, one chapter is narrated by the bomb that blows him up, another by his helmet, another by the catheter inserted in his penis, etc. Other chapters are related by material objects associated with the Afghans who Barnes tries to help and those he fights, such as a bicycle, a bag of fertilizer, and a wheelbarrow. Here’s an example, related by one of the bullets Barnes loads into a magazine before a mission:

I was spilt with twenty identical others from the cardboard box we were packaged in. I clinked against them as we rolled out across the green mattress.”

BA5799 lined us up into rows of ten and then thirty and pushed us one by one into a magazine.

BA5799—Barnes’ soldier identification number–is how the novel’s object-narrators refer to their owner, a rather obvious way of suggesting that Barnes himself is also just a cog in the big war machine and that the novel is not so much about psychology and emotion but techno-determinism. Giving voice to military equipment might be the logical culmination of the fetishizing of military gear begun by Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” but on the whole the business is a little gimmicky—the stuff of a creative writing class or an experimental modernist novel. That it succeeds as well as it does is a huge testament to Barnes’ powers of observation and creativity. None of the objects brought to life channels an individualized speaking style or consciousness that inflects our understanding of Barnes or Afghans in some way appropriate to the physical functionality of the thing doing the describing—the bullet doesn’t express itself in bullet points, for example, or short, piercing prose stabs of death-dealing wisdom (which frankly would be dumb and tedious). Instead, they have a generic, objective, understated feel that only fitfully and shallowly probes the inner workings of the characters’ minds or suggests bigger implications of the story being told. That’s partly Parker’s intent, I assume, but it’s also a tactic that forfeits two of the novel genre’s great virtues. That said, Anatomy of a Soldier provides very interesting oblique glimpses of soldier and Afghan life and medical and rehabilitative process that suggest that Parker took very good notes while living through his truncated deployment, horrific wounding, and grueling recovery. The chapters describing Afghan family-and-community mores and farm-field and water-management systems are first-in-class among the war lit depictions I’ve read and those portraying disability and rehabilitation haven’t even been attempted to the degree that Anatomy of a Soldier does very well.

To further confound reader expectation and destabilize narrative conventions, Anatomy of a Soldier unfolds Barnes’ story in a decidedly non-linear fashion, so the chronological understanding of it all doesn’t come clear until very near the end. Once revealed, the plot shows itself to have much in common with many other junior officer sagas: the tale of an idealistic young man who wants nothing more than to prove himself battle-worthy in the eyes of his superiors, peers, and subordinates. That’s some extremely old wine that Parker pours into an extravagantly fashioned new bottle, and, like many other reviewers, I wonder if the effort was worth it, for Parker has the life experience and writing chops to have written a more conventional junior officer memoir that still stands out from the pack. Platoon leader memoirs typically culminate in either triumph—things go well, with just enough failure and blackness to say you’ve tasted them—or disaster—the author doesn’t get to be the hero he dreamed of being, leaving him feeling frustrated, cheated, and somehow deficient; if wounded, his wounds proof that he wasn’t cut out for successful officership in the first place. Anatomy of a Soldier is of the second type, and the parts that pack the most emotional wallop trace the contours of Barnes’ triumph and disappointment. His helmet describes the high-water mark, when his sense of pride swells at having successfully led his men into and out of battle:

He had wondered why people thought soldiering was romantic, and knew if they swapped places with any of his men most would crumple under the pressure and fear, the smell and the heat. But he could feel the romance now as he watched the single file of men, with their day-sacks and helmets and antennas, bobbing up and down across this foreign land.

He went through the platoon from the back and smiled at every man as he passed. They crouched by walls or sat on rocks to take the weight off their backs. Their faces were exhausted and grimy with dirt. He knew and trusted each of them. They were his: he could order them into danger and they would go, but he also belonged to them and would lead them there. Each grin and nod, every gesture was trust and the bond that had tightened again that morning.

Moments later, Barnes is wounded, and the colossal import of the event on Barnes’ sense of himself as a worthy leader of fighting men is rendered by his deployment achievement medal as Barnes watches his unit march in parade upon return to England:

BA5799 watched them come. He knew them all. He’d been part of them, one of their best; he didn’t mind the arrogance of thinking that—it didn’t matter now. He’d made a mistake that confined him to the small group that looked on. Even if he’d wanted to march with them he couldn’t.

His hand tightened around me and I pushed a red mark into the folded creases of his palm. He was embarrassed that he was the one who’d made a mistake. He was supposed to be good at his job—some of them had even looked up to him, depended on him to make decisions—and it was never going to happen to him, he was meant to be lucky. But he wasn’t, and it had, and he’d failed.

Suddenly he hated the thought of them seeing him like this, broken and maimed. He didn’t want to walk out there in front of the watching crowd. He wanted to go back to the centre and its different rules and measures of achievement that none of them would understand. Where he could be the best.

He looked down at me and swept his thumb across my surface and felt the ridges and mounds of the head moulded on me. He was a maimed relic that everyone wanted to forget. None of the men in those ranks wanted to be reminded of the truth—of what might happen. I am that truth, he thought.

He watched them go and knew he would never feel part of them again. They were heading away to their R and R, convinced they were invincible and knowing it would never happen to them, while he was going back to the centre to adapt to what had happened to him. My fight goes on, he thought and slipped me into his pocket.

That’s a very honest reckoning, in my opinion, and one that for my money should be offered to the world from something other than the perspective of a bit of brass and ribbon. I could easily place Anatomy of a Soldier in dialogue with Iraq and Afghanistan junior officer memoirs written by Americans, such as those by Nathaniel Fick, Craig Mullaney, Matt Gallagher, Adrian Bonenberger, Sean Parnell, Benjamin Tupper, and Laura Westly, or, given Parker’s protagonist’s name, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Perhaps though it’s best to find English fictional antecedents to understand Parker’s achievement. One might first turn to J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith novels featuring a one-legged Afghanistan vet named Cormorant Strike—Anatomy of a Soldier might well be the prequel that helps explain Strike’s stoic independence and contempt for pretense.

But the book that Anatomy of a Soldier most resembles is another fictionalized memoir written by Siegfried Sassoon, another Englishman from another war. In Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Sassoon, who like his protagonist George Sherston, temporarily escaped the World War I trenches by pronouncing his conscientious objection to the war, seems most excited to describe how Sherston upon return to the frontlines proves himself a brave, competent, respected leader of an infantry unit in combat before suffering his own war-ending wound. For Sassoon, as with Parker, as with, I would say, virtually any young man who tries to turn himself into an infantry or combat arms officer, the moment of validation that comes with successful battlefield leadership is worth every danger and every cost, the first thing and most important thing he wants the world to know about him forever afterwards.

An informative article on Harry Parker and his thoughts about writing Anatomy of a Soldier here. Among other things, Parker clears up a bit of confusion:  Afghanistan is never mentioned in Anatomy of a Soldier, but it is, as Parker states in the article, obviously set there.

A post from my old blog with some relevance to the subject-at-hand.

Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier. Knopf, 2016.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Writing, Theater, Art, and Film 2017

Posted December 15, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , ,

Photo by Bill Putnam.

2017 brought new novels by Elliot Ackerman, David Abrams, Helen Benedict, and Siobhan Fallon, and new poetry volumes by Jehanne Dubrow and Elyse Fenton. Also arriving was a first novel by contemporary war short-fiction pioneer Brian Van Reet. By any measure, that’s a bumper crop of new contemporary war fiction and poetry by veteran mil-and-war authors. Besides these works, though, releases of novels, short story collections, and volumes of poetry by major publishing houses were in short supply. Fortunately, university, regional, and independent presses picked up some of the slack: Caleb Cage’s short-story collection Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada appeared courtesy of University of Nevada Press, Eric Chandler’s poetry collection Hugging This Rock was published by Charlie Sherpa’s Middle West Press, and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. and Christopher Meeks self-published their very interesting novel The Chords of War.

Fallon’s The Confusion of Languages and Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing only indirectly reference Iraq and Afghanistan, but the locale of each book—Jordan and Turkey, respectively—their interest in conflict and empire, and their authors’ formidable reputations as military insiders validates their inclusion on this year’s list. Other renown war-writers, such as Brian Castner and Roy Scranton, have begun to craft literary identities and build publishing histories well-beyond the confining limits of war literature, a trend that will certainly intensify in coming years.

Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing earned National Book Award short-list honors, and Van Reet’s Spoils made The Guardian and Wall Street Journal’s year-end “best of” lists. Despite such laurels, war writing as a genre seems to have fallen from major media favor—we’re far from the 2014 days when Vanity Fair and the New York Times ran fawning author portraits and glowing genre appraisals. Online writing by veteran writers has fortunately continued vibrantly apace on websites such as The War Horse, Military Experience and the Arts, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, 0-Dark-Thirty, and War, Literature, and the Arts–and thank you very much all concerned.

Our Trojan War, a modern-war/Homeric-war hybrid, and Jay Moad’s one-man-play Outside Paducah were the highlights of the year in terms of theatrical productions related to Iraq and Afghanistan staged in New York City, but elsewhere in-and-out of NYC the year saw no big-name, big-cast, big-money productions that garnered national attention. There was, however, plenty of action at the regional, local, DIY, collective, performance art, and spoken-word level. Toward the end of the year, former Marine and current movie star Adam Driver announced a $10,000 prize to the winner of a veterans playwriting competition, encouraging news for the energetic talent in the grassroots theater scene.

The only major motion picture released in 2017 about war in Iraq or Afghanistan that a caused much of a splash was War Machine, a Netflix TV-release starring Brad Pitt that I am including here by exception. American Sniper writer Jason Hall’s directorial debut Thank You For Your Service (based on David Finkel’s book) and Richard Linklater’ Last Flag Flying came-and-went quickly. Art and photography exhibition choices offered slim pickings, too, though I’m happy to report Bill Putnam’s photography–oft on display on Time Now–was featured at exhibits in Washington, DC, and New York this year.

In 2016, I included a list of notable non-fiction works about war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but, as with Hollywood movies and the art-and-photo scene, the genre seems to have dried up. I’ve long since stopped tracking veteran memoirs closely, but a Military Times list of year’s best military books offers a couple of titles worth checking out.

The poetry list includes many new entries cribbed from Charlie Sherpa’s Mother of All 21st Century War Poetry Lists, which observes these things far better than I do–many thanks.

Please notify me of any errors or omissions, and I’ll correct the record.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger (Army) and Brian Castner (Air Force), eds. (2016)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Tom King and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol 1: Bang. Bang. Bang. (2016).
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)
David Abrams (Army), Brave Deeds (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Dark at the Crossing (2017)
Helen Benedict, Wolf Season (2017)
Caleb Cage (Army), Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2017)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), The Confusion of Languages (2017)
Tom King (CIA) and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (2017)
Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. (Army), The Chords of War (2017)
Brian Van Reet (Army), Spoils (2017)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Frances Richey (Army mother), The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Frances Richey (Army mother), Voices of the Guard (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Allan Gray (Army), Overwatch (2011)
Tom Sleigh, Army Cats (2011)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Jason Poudrier (Army), Red Fields (2012)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), Mormon Boy (2012)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Charles Bondhus, All the Heat We Could Carry (2013)
Stanton S. Coerr (USMC), Rubicon (2013)
Kerry James Evans (Army), Bangalore (2013)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Chuck Rybak, War (2013)
David R. Dixon (USMC), Call in the Air (2014)
Frederick Foote (Navy), Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry of War (2014)
Gerardo Mena (USMC), The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters (2014)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), We Deserve the Gods We Ask For (2014)
Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015)
Victoria Kelly (spouse), When the Men Go Off to War (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Tom Sleigh, Station Zed (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Paul David Adkins (Army), Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath (2016)
Jonathan Baxter (Army), The Ghosts of Babylon (2016)
Lance B. Brender (Army) and C. Rodney Pattan (Army), In Cadence (2016)
Kim Garcia, Drone (2016)
Nicole Goodwin (Army), Warcries (2016)
Karen Skolfield (Army), Frost in the Low Areas (2016)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Uniform (2016)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only)
Paul David Adkins (Army), FM 101-5-1 MCRP 5-2A: Operational Terms and Graphics (2017)
Eric Chandler (USAF), Hugging This Rock (2017)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Dots & Dashes (2017)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Sweet Insurgent (2017)
Benjamin Hertwig (Canadian Army), Slow War (2017)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (HBO) (2008)
The Objective, Daniel Myrick, director (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Hyena Road, Paul Gross, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Clement Cogitore, director (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)
Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, director (2017)
Sand Castle, Fernando Coimbra (Netflix) (2017)
Thank Your For Your Service, Jason Hall, director (2017)
The Wall, Doug Liman, director (2017)
War Machine, David Michod (Netflix) (2017)

Matthew Hefti, Benjamin Busch, and Mary Doyle at AWP17, with a glimpse of Teresa Fazio in the left foreground and Whitney Terrell on the right. Photo by Bill Putnam.

 

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

Posted December 1, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , ,

In a 2005 book titled Private Perry and Mr. Poe, an Army major named William Hecker argues that Edgar Allan Poe’s essays “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle” were inspired by Poe’s service as an Army artilleryman from 1827 to 1829. Hecker researched the Army artillery manuals that Poe would have used and found in them many words and ideas that corresponded closely with those he later used in “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle” to describe literature. In the two essays, Poe explains that every element of a successful poem or story should contribute to the work’s intended meaning and reception, or, in Poe’s words, they should create “unity-of- effect.”  Poe’s duty position in the Army was that of an “artificer”:  it was his job to calculate explosive charges and cut fuse lengths so that the shells fired by his unit’s cannons exploded precisely on their targets.  In other words, he was responsible for creating the artillery shell’s unity-of-effect.

That’s a pretty good piece of work on Hecker’s part—definitely ingenious if not provable or beyond criticism.  Not many people know Poe’s essays, but most writers and readers would agree that the elements of a work of literature should contribute meaningfully in a coordinated way to the work’s theme and tone.  Poe’s essays are important articulations of the idea, so any information about their sources and origins is welcome.

Now, Michael Carson, a former Army officer and Iraq veteran, also makes a significant contribution to literary history and theory.  In “The October Revolution, Russia Occupation of Persia:  WWI Soldier Viktor Shklovsky’s Sentimental Memoirs,” a piece published on The WWrite Blog, a blog sponsored by the World War I Centennial Commission, Carson uncovers a previously unexplored war memoir written by Viktor Shklovsky, an important member of a literary theory school known as “Russian Formalism,” that describes Shklovsky’s service in the Russian Army occupying Persia (now Iran) in 1917.  Since 1917 marked the first appearance of Shklovsky’s most well-known work, an essay titled “Art as Technique,” it is at least conceivable that Shklovsky composed “Art as Technique” while preparing to go to Persia or even while there.  Carson doesn’t push the point, and it’s not as clear in Shklovsky’s case as it is in Poe’s which came first—military service or literary theory—or exactly how military service and literary theory are connected, but that’s OK.  Carson’s discovery is an important breadcrumb for future scholars, especially given the nature and stature of Shklovsky’s ideas in “Art as Technique.”

To say that Shklovsky was a “Formalist” is to confuse apprehension of his most accessible ideas, however.  Thinking of literature in terms of its forms, or genres, and its higher-order ways of organizing itself, rather than its themes, characters, plots, and style, is hard-going.  Formalists assert that what really counts in a literary work is not content but the literary vessel in which content is contained:  poetry, memoir, reportage, fiction, etc.  Among other things, formalists speculate how given genres might best represent their times, or emerge in association with something else important about their historical moment.  At one level, this is an easy, obvious concept:  sonnets thrived in Elizabethan England, the novel in the 19th-century, and creative non-fiction came into its own only in the last few decades.  It’s harder, though, to say the next smart thing about the business, to go beyond surface observations and generalizations.

War literature offers examples of the problem.  Poetry may be the mode most correspondent with World War I, the novel with World War II, journalism and reportage with Vietnam, and the graphic novel and blog that of Afghanistan and Iraq.  But is this really even true—there are so many exceptions—and if so, so what?  Besides, there are many confusing data points.  Siegfried Sassoon, known best as a World War I poet, also wrote three novels based on his experience, and three memoirs that covered the exact same ground, and according to no less than Paul Fussell, the novels are truer than the memoirs.  American Vietnam War writer Larry Heinemann called his first novel Close Quarters a “straight up fictionalized memoir,” whatever that means, and the very title of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” speaks to similar confusion about formal boundaries between “real” experience and the modes in which one might write about it.  Critics often speculate whether the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it hard for novelists to write about the two wars, because the “lack of closure” of the wars might preclude novelists from resolving their storylines and final thoughts (see Adin Dobkin’s recent LARB article for a recent example of this line of thinking).  I kind of get it—it’s one thing to write a novel about a character in a war that ends in glorious victory, and another to write one about character that ends in debacle and defeat.  Somehow, though, novelists figure it out, and novels get written.  But maybe an open-ended form, such as an ongoing serial novel, or a blog (gasp), or a more multimodal genre, such as the graphic novel, or a genre-bending hybrid, such as Brian Turner’s and Benjamin Busch’s memoirs, really is the form most congruent for writing about the forever wars.

All that said, Shklovsky’s “Art as Technique” is packed with much more accessible ideas about literature, so much so that is has become a staple in English undergraduate and graduate curriculums.  One of Shklovsky’s ideas is that art’s purpose is to revitalize human powers of perception.  A famous quote is that great art “makes the stone stoney”; that is, in the hands of master artists, descriptions of rocks express whatever is essential about a rock, while also astonishing readers with the unique vitality of the author’s power of observation and expression.  Shklovsky’s word for how people become overly familiar with objects in everyday life and how they are commonly described in mundane literature is “habitualization,” while his word for art’s power to awaken new possibilities of perception is “defamiliarization.” “Defamiliarization” might just be a fancy-pants way of saying “vivid” or “memorable” or “literary” or “better” or “what I like,” but perhaps it really is the best word to sum up all those other words.  One way literature defamiliarizes common understandings, according to Shklovsky, is through the accumulation of closely observed details.  Another way is through the poetic quality of the language used to describe objects.  Together, detail and language create a sense of a sense of wonder that readers, or at least a lot of readers, enjoy and actively seek out, not for information about the subject being described, but for the sensation of “experiencing the artfulness of an object.”

All the above makes great grist for classroom discussion and essay prompts, and also has interesting application to war writing.  Shklovsky himself uses many examples from Tolstoy to illustrate defamiliarization and writes, “In War and Peace, Tolstoy uses the same technique [defamiliarization] in describing whole battles as if battles were something new.”  For my money, there’s an interesting tension that arises from using war writing as an example of the flow between habitualization and defamiliarization, because war is an inherently exotic and thrilling experience, with a natural power to compel interest when written about halfway decently.  But as Shklovsky archly points out (“as if battles were something new”), the experience of combat has been written about so many times that war lit has become one of the most habitualized of genres, overgrown everywhere with convention, cliche, and familiar expectations.  Still, readers, or at least those who are drawn repeatedly to war writing, may actually like the only-slightly-different character of war stories; the appeal of ritualized repetition–“refamiliarization,” to coin a phrase–of combat and military tropes might be stronger than the desire to be defamiliarized.  Meanwhile, authors, it seems to me, strive to avoid writing boring descriptions and clichéd stories—most of them feel the impulse to “make it new” very strongly—but understand that veering too greatly from convention risks making the form unrecognizable while draining war stories of the power that makes them compelling in the first place.

There are other complicating factors.  Veterans and military insiders familiar with military lingo and culture look to war writing for relatable depictions of their lives and bristle at what they perceive as misrepresentations.  In other words, they resist being defamiliarized in regard to things they think they know well (though Shklovsky would argue that defamiliarization, in the hands of masters, brings readers closer to what Poe, to bring his name back into play, once called “the precincts of reality,” rather than pushing them away).  Civilians turn to war writing to learn about events unknown personally by them, but as they read they become habituated to what must be a defamiliarizing reading experience in the beginning.  As new elements appear in war—night vision goggles or drones, for recent examples—and then begin to appear in written accounts, what initially jolts and excites with vitality with each instantiation in subsequent war-writing becomes familiar, mundane, and then worn-out.

The push-pull between the familiar and the unfamiliar in contemporary war writing is illustrated well in the three stories by Will Mackin published the last few years in the New Yorker: “Kattekoppen,” “Crossing the River No Name,”  and “The Lost Troop.”  Published in advance of the release of Mackin’s short-story collection Bring Out the Dog next year, each of the New Yorker stories portrays the inner-workings of SEALs at war in Afghanistan; others in Bring Out the Dog are set in Iraq or America. Wonder of wonders, Mackin defamiliarizes the by-now completely crusted-over genre of SEAL fiction and non-fiction through a variety of techniques Shklovsky (and maybe Poe, too) would recognize.  Mackin served with the SEALs on multiple deployments as an air-support liaison responsible for calling in air strikes (shades of Poe!)—a position he wouldn’t have kept for two days if his technical competence, physical and emotional toughness, and basic good fit for SEAL-team culture were in question.  So he writes with an insider’s familiarity about SEAL team life and operations and thus renders technical and tactical detail with enough precision and authority to quicken the heart of the most hardcore judge of military detail accuracy.  He’s also at home with staple themes of SEAL-team literature–warfighting skill, easy accommodation with the business of killing, the gruff-but-powerful loyalty that unites the SEAL brotherhood—and dramatizes them convincingly, not as end points of the stories but as start points before moving on to more interesting things.  In these ways, Mackin fulfills Shklovsky’s injunction to “make the stone stoney” through the most alert portrait of how things really are, not merely how we are habituated to see them.

The real work of defamiliarization that occurs in Mackin’s stories, however, occurs on a larger scale with the reader’s increasing realization that Mackin has avoided the traps of glamorization and cliché that characterize other SEAL stories.  In Mackin’s hands, SEALs are not supermen, barbarians, or victims; an easy shorthand description of Mackin’s achievement is that he humanizes them, but that’s a tired word that’s been used too many times before. It’s more that Mackin’s found telling ways to portray the character and personality of individualized SEALs within the intensely social SEAL milieu as they execute highly specialized tactical and training operations, with the central motif being the banal, not outrageous, ways that team members jockey to prove their fitness to other members of their teams.  Adding to the defamiliarization process are surreal interjections, moments of narrator unreliability, constant references to the contingencies of observation and perception, and dislocations of the time-space continuum, as well as literary permutations of language that heighten the possibilities of everyday speech.  Not too much, mind you, but just enough to put readers on notice that the stories they are reading are at once more realistic and more artful than those that have come before.

In “Art as Technique,” Shklovsky’s interest is more fiction than in poetry, but he expresses a high regard for poetic language, which he calls “formed speech.”  He writes of how poetic language “gives satisfaction” by slowing and impeding easy apprehension of objects it describes, and quotes Artistotle to the effect that poetic language must appear “strange and wonderful.”  He distinguishes between poetic speech—“attenuated, torturous speech”–and prose—“the ‘direct’ expression of a child”—and notes how in both everyday speech and literature poetic speech and prose intermix to generate an “economy of artistic energy.”

These interesting ideas about poetic language, as well as the fluid interplay of habitualization and defamiliarization, can be put to the test by looking at recent poetry by Lisa Stice and Eric Chandler.  Stice is the wife of a Marine, and her volume Uniform explores the vexing permutations wrought on domestic life by military service.  Chandler, a retired Air Force pilot, in Hugging This Rock, writes not just of being a pilot at war, but also about more sedate experiences and observations affiliated with family and community life.  Neither Stice nor Chandler is overly literary in their word choices or figures-of-speech, but their poems register as “formed speech” through careful arrangement of lines on the page to control the cumulative release of meaning and force.  Stice’s poetry describes her effort to reconcile herself to the ways that military life pressures tranquil domestic life even as codes of military appropriateness inhibit her from confronting such truths directly and publicly.  In other words, her poems register her defamiliarized surprise at the impact of her husband’s career on her own expectations and happiness, while also documenting her habitualization to new norms of military domesticity.  A good example is a poem about the preparations every military family must make when one member deploys:

“Family Readiness”

The paper pocket-folder
you left for me
in the file drawer of our desk:
limited power-of-attorney
your social security number
logins and passwords
names of command I can’t call
because they are with you
your deployment address blank
our bank accounts
contacts for your relatives
chaplain’s email
(but he’ll be gone too)
family birth certificates
list of what you want buried with you
how you’d want to be dressed
the song you’d want played
just in case

For a reader like me, who knows the military well, the poems surprise most with their apt reflection of experiences and observations to which I can relate.  To a reader not as familiar with the military, they’re a peek through the window at a world that is bound to be seen as weird and trying, and inspire wonderment at Stice’s fortitude.

Chandler’s poetry intrigues by its author’s bio alone:  what reader wouldn’t be curious about the poetry a fighter pilot writes?  Might he be the second coming of James Salter, the Korean War Air Force ace later acclaimed as one of America’s foremost literary stylists?? Far too early to tell about that, so to return to theme…. In several of Chandler’s poems, such as the title poem, the effect of viewing the world from five miles up at Mach speed is the very point: “…but either way I’ve seen a bunch of cool things up there that I can think about / while we’re both down here hugging this rock.”  Chandler’s figure-of-speech–“hugging this rock”–suggests humility, a worldview and sense of self in which being a fighter jock is only a small part of an overall identity and life, with the most important aspects centered on human relationships, which must be defined by care and trust.  War is the subject of only about a quarter of Hugging This Rock poems, but sometimes the two halves of Chandler’s identity intersect.  “Maybe I Should Have Lied,” for example, depicts the tension of trying to reconcile being both a man-of-war and a family man:

“Maybe I Should Have Lied”

The teacher asked
Me to come to the class
And talk about flying.
He was my son’s teacher and
The jet’s always popular.

How fast? How high?
Pretty standard stuff.
I wore my flight suit
And handed out stickers even
Though they weren’t toddlers.

One kid asked
If I killed anybody.
I was surprised and
Shouldn’t have been.
I told him the truth.

Later that day,
In the squadron,
I asked a buddy
What he would’ve done.
I would’ve lied, he said.

I answered the question
In front of my son.
The only time it has come up.
“That’s what happens in combat.”
Next question, please.

In poems such as “Maybe I Should Have Lied,” Chandler portrays a civil-military divide not manifested by public debates, but by internal misgivings when compartmentalization just doesn’t work anymore. Many more poems in Hugging This Rock, and Uniform, too, also perform this kind of work, and a lot more, too, so please seek them out.

To close near where I began, some of the work left regarding Shklovsky is to figure out whether his literary ideas grew out of his experience of war, or vice-versa, or whether the relationship is more complicated, or perhaps nonexistent, or coincidental.  For now, though, kudos to the literary artificers:  Will Mackin, Lisa Stice, and Eric Chandler, Edgar Allen Poe and Viktor Shklovsky, and most of all William Hecker and Michael Carson.  Carson is one of the mainstays, along with fellow veterans Adrian Bonenberger and David James, of The Wrath-Bearing Tree, a culture, politics, and military affairs website always full of interesting things.  Hecker unfortunately is no longer with us—within a year of publishing his important work on the source of Poe’s ideas about literature, he was killed by an IED in Iraq.  RIP.

My own contribution to The WWrite Blog, on poet Joyce Kilmer’s wife Aline Kilmer, who was also a poet, can be found at the link.

William F. Hecker, editor, Private Perry and Mr. Poe:  The West Point Poems of 1831, with an epilogue by Gerard McGowan. LSU Press, 2005.

Will Mackin, Bring Out the Dog.  Random House, 2018.

Lisa Stice, Uniform.  Kelsay Books, 2016.

Eric Chandler, Hugging This Rock.  Middle West Press, 2017.

Everyone’s a Critic/War Writing Becomes Aware of Itself

Posted October 8, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags:

Scene from Our Trojan War

2017 has brought new creative work by war literature stalwarts Elliot Ackerman, Siobhan Fallon, David Abrams, Brian Van Reet, Helen Benedict, Jehanne Dubrow, and Elyse Fenton. Less noticed is that, beginning in late 2016, a steady flow of interesting reviews and scholarship has interrogated and deployed (block those military metaphors!) war writing in the name of deeper insights and larger arguments. Below’s a chronicle of some of it, done quick-and-fast, down-and-dirty, leaving the hard work of assessment and synthesis to more capable students of the genre. Still, no excuse now for not knowing what’s going on, nor for failing to recognize opportunities to make fresh contributions….

In fall 2016 appeared Joseph Darda’s essay in the scholarly journal Contemporary Literature titled “The Ethnicization of Veteran America: Larry Heinemann, Toni Morrison, and Military Whiteness after Vietnam.” Singling out Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Darda posits that “military whiteness,” a racially-charged backlash formation that privileges the heroic suffering of white veterans, characterizes not just Vietnam war fiction, but Afghanistan and Iraq war fiction, too.

The winter 2016 Contemporary Literature features Patrick Deer’s “Mapping Contemporary American War Culture,” in which Deer traces the militarization and weaponization of American domestic life in the wake of fifteen years of continuous war in works such as Redeployment, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and The Wire. Most interesting, arguably, is his take on Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, which Deer reads as subverting the dictates of “military futurism”—drones, paramilitary police, cyberwar, etc.—through its jagged, non-linear blending of personal, national, and global history.

Following the production of Our Trojan War, a NYC vet-centric play that stitched together scenes of war in Iraq with scenes and passages from classical texts, the online New Yorker ran a scathing review by James Romm titled “A Misguided Impulse to Update the Greek Classics.” Among other zingers, Romm writes, “The sight of Achilles in a flak jacket, searching for I.E.D.s with shaky hands and a twitchy trigger finger, gives us too simple and reassuring a peg on which to hang these noble old poems.”

New York City Veterans Alliance founder and director and The Road Ahead contributor Kristen Rouse fired back in a letter to the New Yorker (never published, but shared with me):

We’re not simply repackaging great literature in our tired military uniforms to feel better about ourselves. We are a new generation of veterans who are emerging as leaders, as writers, and as artists who have made it our lives’ work to let our fellow Americans know the complexity and impacts of our current wars that Americans keep failing to connect with, and that none of this is new—these lessons applied as much to the ancient hoplite as to today’s infantryman patrolling the mountains of Khost Province, Afghanistan. As a new generation of veterans, many of us are determined to use art as maybe the most urgent and important medium to connect with audiences and shake them from their boredom and disengagement…. If James Romm and the editors of The New Yorker are determined to remain unmoved—along with our still-disengaged American elites who have invested little in our wars or the men and women who have waged them—then so be it. But know that we will keep trying to shake you from your apathy.

In April, the Los Angeles Review of Books published Adin Dobkin’s “The Never-Ending Book of War,” a complex and ambitious piece in which Dobkin connects the long duration of war in Iraq and Afghanistan with literary genre instability. Drawing on theories of history promulgated by heavy-hitters such as Alfred Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, Dobkin expresses hope that a valiant “creative minority” of “soldier-authors” might yet break the impasse wrought by stalled wars and blocked imaginations.

Dobkin’s roll call of potential impasse-breakers includes Siobhan Fallon, but otherwise tilts heavily male: Roy Scranton, Elliot Ackerman, and Eric Fair, among others. The omission of more women writers didn’t pass unnoticed by Andria Williams, who writes in a Military Spouse Book Review blog post titled “Existing for Our Own Sake: Adin Dobkin’s Take on the State of War Writing,”:

I can’t help wonder what made Dobkin feel like he could write an “update” to the state of recent war literature without accounting for a single female veteran-writer, or writer of color…. the communities Dobkin fails to reference may be the very communities from which we’ll see the most, and most experimental, writing over the next few years.

Also riffing on Dobkin’s article was a Canadian Army chaplain named Michael Peterson, who blogs under the nom-de-digit The Mad Padre. Peterson wrote a helpful post titled “War and Remembrance: Notes Toward a Taxonomy of Contemporary War Literature” that covers a wide swath of familiar contemporary war-writing names to explain how easily their work fulfills the expectations of classical forms such as epic, mimesis, satire, soul work, and art.

The spring 2017 issue of The Hedgehog Review published a very interesting article titled, A Guest on This Earth: Humān al-Balwī and the Birth of Jihadist Fiction” by Nadav Samin. Samin inquires whether the terrorist who blew himself up and also seven CIA agents in a 2009 infiltration of Camp Chapman in Afghanistan was also a highly-popular author of jihadist fiction published on the Internet. Samin writes,

If the jihadist movement is at the forefront of a globally resurgent religious politics, it is in no small part because of its masterful capturing of the new mediascape with propaganda that is grandiose, macabre, and even cautiously, awfully literary.

A special edition of Modern Fiction Studies titled “Enduring Operations: The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” co-edited by Aaron DeRosa and Stacey Peebles, is dedicated to contemporary war writing. In the interest of space I’ll only list the titles of articles and their authors (while thanking all), save to say that at least four of them seem to work the same literature-history-form triad as Dobkin. Knowing and curious readers will gather the titles’ drift and seek them out if interested:

“Combat Prosthetics: Recovering the Literature of the Wounded Female Soldier in the War on Terror,” Brenda Sanfilippo

“Home/Land Insecurity, Or, un Desmadre en Aztlán: Virginia Grise’s blu,” Belinda Linn Rincón

“Domestic Aerial Photography in the Era of Drone Warfare,” J. D. Schnepf

“Imagining Afghanistan in Deep Time: Nadeem Aslam and the Aesthetics of the Geologic Turn,” Alla Ivanchikova

“Beyond Recovery: Representing History and Memory in Iraq War Writing,” Patrick Deer

“Reframing War Stories: Multivoiced Novels of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Jennifer Haytock

“Iraq War Body Counts: Reportage, Photography, and Fiction,” Roger Luckhurst

“Spectator-Citizen-Soldier: History, Genre, and Gender in The Hurt Locker,” Alex Vernon

Scott Beauchamp—a man clearly not afraid to make enemies–published an article titled “The Detached Literature of Remote Wars” for the American Affairs website that begins with a bang:

…our stories have struggled to convey the novelty of contemporary combat with the depth and significance that literature demands.  Most often, recent war fiction ends up collapsing into exhausted and facile sentimentality, or confining itself to very limited psychological renderings foregrounded by tepid and predictable political sympathies.

Beauchamp’s takedown of Klay, Ackerman, Gallagher, Fountain, et al, is accompanied by the announcement of the upcoming release of his own memoir of service in Iraq–I think we can all agree it better be good.

My own offerings to the discourse have been two-fold: I chaired a panel titled 21st-Century Veterans: Heroes or Victims? at this year’s American Literature Association conference. Below are the names of the panelists and their papers (thank you all):

“Facing Walls and Mending Wounds: Frost, Komunyakaa, and the Modern Veteran,” James Dubinsky

“Gazing at Veterans in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Sand Queen,” Deborah Daley

“Resisting Idyllic Masculinities in Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead,” Steven Johnson

I also contributed an article titled “Frederick Busch and Annie Proulx: Forebears of Contemporary War Fiction” to the current issue of War, Literature, and the Arts, the United States Air Force Academy journal that has been showcasing war writing, art, and scholarship longer than anyone else around. I’m happy to be included alongside a number of strong contributors and even happier to know that USAFA will host a conference featuring both creative artists and academic scholars titled “Representing and Remembering War,” September 20-21, 2018. Put it on the calendar, everyone.


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