The first Time Now post, reprinted below, was published on June 23, 2012. Things started slowly, and the next post didn’t come until November, 2012, but by 2013 we were off and running. From 2013 through 2018 I published some 35-40 posts a year. I’ve slowed down since, but more posts are coming, rest-assured. No promises though that I’ll keep it going another ten years….
“Time now,” in military radio-speak, refers to the present moment. Most commonly the phrase is used in reports such as, “We’re returning to base, time now,” or, “Request artillery support, time now.” I like its urgency, the way it doesn’t just name but intensifies the temporal dimension of the event to which it refers. Kind of like the way art intensifies the life it represents, so as to make it both more understandable and more deeply felt.
This blog features art, film, and literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I write this post, in June 2012, imaginative representations of the wars have begun to accrue complexity and depth. Still, no site I know of devotes itself to cataloging and discussing these artworks–a great lack in my opinion, since in the final analysis our artists will explain best how the wars were experienced and how they are remembered.
I was an active-duty career Army officer. I served in infantry units at Fort Drum, New York; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and in Korea. In 2008-2009, I was an advisor to Afghan National Army forces in Khowst and Paktya provinces in Afghanistan. You can read about my experiences there in my blog 15-Month Adventure.
I was happy to be in the Zoom audience this week for a panel discussion featuring Consequence Forum’s Matthew Krajniak, Wrath-Bearing Tree’s Andria Williams, and Military Experience and the Arts’ David Ervin. The event was set-up by Consequence Forum and Matthew hinted at future events, with the goal of making vet-writing journal editors accessible to writers of military-themed fiction, poetry, and essays, while demystifying the submission process.
An extremely worthy goal, imo. I’m often contacted by vet-writers who are unaware of the many outlets online for military, war, and conflict authors (how do they find me first, I wonder). So once more, a roll-call of some of the venues most open to aspiring writers seems appropriate: Not just the aforementioned Consequence Forum, Wrath-Bearing Tree, and Military Experience and the Arts, but also O-Dark-Thirty; War, Literature & the Arts, The Aiming Circle, The War Horse, and The Line—and I’m sure I’m leaving out others.
Everything Matthew, Andria, and David said on the panel is gold, so I highly recommend watching the YouTube video. I have a few speaking parts as well, between the 38:00 and 45:00 minute marks, if you are interested.
Great Andria Williams pull-quote: “They are sending you their imagination, and we have to treat that with respect.”
Quote from my Tweet re this post: “Vet journal editors are not gatekeepers or kingmakers, but care-takers of the war-writing scene.”
Relevant to it all are my opening comments from my AWP22 panel on Veterans Writing Online. There’s not only a mini-overview of the panel subject, but a look back at prescient article from the first Veterans Writing Project issue of O-Dark-Thirty from 2012:
Veterans writing in the 21st century came-of-age at the same time as the digital writing boom generally. The milestones are many, but we might start with the emergence of the soldier blog in Iraq, most prominently Colby Buzzell’s CBFTW (2004) and then later Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom (2007-2008). Predating both, we should mention, is the Iraqi woman blogger known as Riverbend, active from 2003-2007. By 2010, websites dedicated to soldier-writing were emerging as forces to be reckoned with by writers and readers within the war-writing community, as was social media. I remember Matt Gallagher from the podium at the 2010 War, Literature, and the Arts conference pronouncing that he “couldn’t imagine being a war writer today without having an online presence.”
By 2010, two long-standing print war-writing journals, Consequence Forum and War, Literature, and the Arts were both publishing fully online. The full emergence of online journals was to come in the following years: the Veterans Writing Project’s O-Dark-Thirty (2012), The Wrath-Bearing Tree (2013), and Military Experience and the Arts (2014), joined by The War Horse (2016), provided outlets for veteran fiction, poetry, and first-person narrative, as well as essays, artwork, and mixed-genre pieces.
To get a sense of what was going on in the early days, I went back and read the first issue of O-Dark-Thirty, from fall 2012. I was surprised to find an article that not only was on-point about the online writing boom, but was authored by an Army officer, Justin Platt, with whom I once served. The article, titled “The Words I Read,” is told by Jimmy, a young public affairs specialist in Iraq, who recounts a conversation with an embedded journalist. In the scene excerpted below, the journalist berates Jimmy for abandoning hard-copy books and magazines:
“What do you guys read? Are war books still popular? You know I have written a few-just look [me] up on the internet and you’ll find most of my stuff. Too bad there are so many pirated electronic versions of [my book] out there. I’m just glad I’m not doing this for the money. It’s just sad, that’s all,” Gordon lamented.
We nodded in agreement. I double checked to see that my e-reader was stuffed completely inside my cargo pocket, as to not draw fire. But it was too late.
“I saw your PAO reading an e-book. And you too, Jimmy,” he continued.
“Yes.” I conceded, “we’ve gone over to the dark side…..”
By this time, the age of social media had fully arrived, impossible to ignore, and great fun and exasperating to equal degrees. It quickly came to seem that sites such as Facebook and Twitter were not just adjuncts to writing and publication, but where a heck of a lot of the action was taking place.
Lately, the Covid pandemic has intensified veterans’ writing online commitments. In the age of Zoom, the in-person vet-writing workshop morphed into an online phenomenon, adding one more fillip to a writing life that now seemed to take place almost entirely in the digital realm. Books and journals, workshops and writing conferences still exist, but are more nice-to-have than essential. Or so I’ll propose….
Finally, Charlie Sherpa’s Red Bull Rising blog post on the 2017 AWP conference in Washington DC, recently was brought to my attention. If you want to mourn the days when war-mil-vet writing rode high “in real life,” read the capsule descriptions of the sixteen panels featuring vet and vet-adjacent writers and try not to weep:
I didn’t realize I had written so many posts about Memorial Day or which paid tribute to fallen soldiers until I went back and counted them up. But maybe it was destined to be. I grew up in Arlington, VA, and one of my first summer jobs was cutting grass at the Fort Myer chapel outside the gates of the famous military cemetery. I would have to stop mowing when a funeral took place—sometimes two, three, or four times a day. When that happened, I would sit under a tree and watch and think about the proceedings.
Many years later, I met Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Fenty in the parking lot next to the chapel and we went for an early-morning run. Fenty and I were friends from Fort Drum, and now he was about to deploy to Afghanistan as commander of 3-71 Cavalry. While in Afghanistan Fenty was killed when the helicopter he was riding in crashed while resupplying a remote mountain outpost in Kunar province.
Punk poet-rocker Jim Carroll was famous for a song called “People Who Died.” In it he recounts the names and causes of death of a dozen or more childhood friends who did not survive the tough New York streets of Carroll’s youth. I always liked Carroll plenty, but never that song so much. It seemed to be trying too hard to be clever and sensational. It was frustratingly inconclusive about what we were supposed to make of the deaths of Carroll’s friends. How was it honoring them? Does it glorify their wild, unruly lives, or are we supposed to despair? The title of the song alone seems oddly understated, not equal to the occasion.
But maybe that’s the point. The litany of the dead being both the most and the least we can say.
On this Memorial Day, I remember friends Ted Westhusing, Joe Fenty, David Taylor, and Bill Hecker.
I remember soldiers with whom I served in Afghanistan Kevin Dupont, John Blair, Alex French, Peter Courcy, and Jason Watson.
I remember former students I taught at West Point Dennis Pintor, Todd Lambka, Taylor Force, and Brian Freeman.
The photograph featured at the top of this post shows Army Captain David Taylor, on the right, standing with another soldier on a hilltop in Kosovo in 2002. Previous to serving with me in Kosovo, then-Lieutenant Taylor was my mortar platoon leader in HHC, 4-325 Airborne Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg. In 2006, now-Major Taylor died in an IED explosion in Iraq. The photograph is by Bill Putnam, who was a public affairs specialist on that deployment to Kosovo and who remains a friend to this day, as well as a frequent contributor to Time Now.
Not entirely unrelated to Memorial Day pondering, I wrote a review of Phil Klay’s collected essays, titled Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War for Task & Purpose:
One of Klay’s themes is that war in Iraq and Afghanistan soon expanded outside the borders of those countries and the associated violence and killing has permeated US domestic life. Sort of a modern variation on the “regeneration through violence” explanation of American history articulated by Richard Slotkin–each successive generation of Americans propagates a renewed cycle of death. In the wake of recent national and international events, the idea seems all too true, unfortunately. Another of Klay’s themes, though, is that commitment to serve is commendable and the sacrifice that service entails is noble. Memorial Day reminds us of the force of the second theme.
UPDATE: Below are two pictures from Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery I took this Memorial Day weekend. Section 60 is where most of the Iraq and Afghanistan vets who are buried in Arlington are buried. Though the pictures here don’t show it, there were many family members and friends paying respect and keeping vigil.
Driving to Philadelphia for this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I wondered what I would find. I was on two panels, one as a speaker and one as moderator, but they were the only two panels in the program that specifically targeted vet writers and war-mil-conflict subjects. Several vet-writing mainstays I know had begged out of attending, and others I hadn’t heard from. There was little buzz on social media—especially ominous since the panel I was moderating—Veterans Online—was fueled by the proposition that much of the action these days in the vet-writing world takes place in the virtual realm. Also distressing, there was no signs-of-participation from Warrior Writers, a Philadelphia-based writing collective I think of as synonymous with Philadelphia vet writing and usually prominent players at AWP. What was up? Even the conference keynote speakers were unknown to me—another sign of that AWP was shaping up to be a curiously-diminished, minor-key affair.
Fortunately, such brooding and misgivings proved very misleading. The site of the conference, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, bustled with writers and writer wannabees of all stripes, including lots of vet-writers and fellow-travelers, old and new. Attendance at my two panels was solid, as these things go, and my fellow panelists were in fine form. Even more heartening, at the book-fair tables dedicated to war-and-vet writing the foot-traffic was steady, as far as I could tell. Every time I stopped by the table of, say, the Wrath-Bearing Tree, Collateral, or the Veterans Writing Project, I ran into a familiar face or met an “emerging” writer, as the new term for literary tyros and aspirants has it. Capitalizing on the high spirits and good cheer, we quickly organized a vet-writers social where everyone had a blast (or at least I did) and various lunches, dinners, readings, and special events channeled the same vibe.
A quick roll call of old-hand war-lit writers in attendance and/or presenting at this year’s AWP includes Adrian Bonenberger, Jerri Bell, Ron Capps, Dario Dibattista, Rebecca Evans, Teresa Fazio, Mariette Kalinowski, Kara Krauze, Abby E. Murray, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, Drew Pham, Suzanne Rancourt, Connie Ruzich, Seth Brady Tucker, Brian Turner, and Jeremy Warneke. Hugh Martin, Olivia Kate Cerrone, and Pamela Hart were also around, according to the program, but unfortunately I didn’t run into them (and apologies for anyone whose name I’ve left out).
As good as it was to hang with old friends, it was also great to meet for the first time at least six writers who were either veterans or were working on fiction featuring veterans, and I know the journal editors working the tables met many more. Good luck to them all, and I’ll mention two who are already in print and whom I highly recommend keeping an eye on:
Brian O’Hare is a former Marine whose short-story collection Surrender will come out this fall. O’Hare is the winner of the Syracuse Veterans Writing Award in 2021, read about him here:
Bettina Hindes is an Army veteran currently living in Germany. Her excellent reminiscence “Adjustment Disorder” can be found in Wrath-Bearing Tree:
The panel I moderated was titled “Veterans Writing Online: A Field Guide for Negotiating the Digital Writing Sphere.” Soldier blogs, online vet-writing journals, online vet-writing workshops, digital publishing possibilities, and social-media striving for popularity and reputation were our subjects, and to help me explore them were Ron Capps, Kara Krauze, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Teresa Fazio. It was a big subject and we barely got going, but Ron’s, Kara’s, Jennifer’s, and Teresa’s comments were on-point and trenchant and provocative, as I knew they would be. The online print sphere is a new structural element for writers to manage, negotiate, and exploit, and cannot be ignored even if you wanted. No doubt writing for online publication seeps into the bones of the writing itself, but exactly how? Is the medium the message? It seems to me there is a heightened level of performativity and audience awareness at play, but exactly how so remains to be worked out.
I also participated on a panel titled “Family Heritage, Violent History: WWI’s Lost Transversality in War Poetry Today,” organized by Jennifer Orth-Veillon. All of us on the panel presented versions of articles previously published on Jennifer’s fantastic WWrite Blog, selections from which will be published in book form later this year. Listening to poets Seth Brady Tucker and Drew Pham and scholar Connie Ruzich spin word-webs about their connections to World War I and its literary tradition transported me into an extremely pleasant haze of contemplation about the relation of war, words, and history as they percolate in individuals with their own unique experiences and outlooks. For my part, I spoke about poet Aline Kilmer; the highlight was being approached afterward by an audience member (an aspiring vet-writer) who told me that he thought Kilmer’s verse was very “metal.” I laughed, and he wasn’t wrong!
I have fought with stars in their courses
and dreamed I have won,
I have charged full tilt with my levelled lance
straight into the flaming sun
And because of the darkness that swallowed me I
have dreamed that the fight was done.
What to make of this rekindled energy and interest? Not sure, exactly. There was definitely an eagerness to reconnect and get back into circulation on the part of the old hands. There was definitely an eagerness on the part of younger writers to be part of something bigger than themselves. All to the good, and now the question becomes how to keep the party going in Seattle for 2023. I won’t be there, as AWPs so far from my New Jersey home are just “too much,” but there are plenty of possibilities. Two non-mil panels I attended this year seem naturals for adaptation by the vet-writing community.
“Emotional Pacing in the Trauma Narrative” explored literary techniques for framing trauma-based stories so they avoid overwhelming readers with melodramatic excess. The panelists kept it mostly at the level of craft, which was great, but just as interestingly they spoke of the difficulty of life after publication after revealing and recounting harrowing, enormously disturbing private events and thoughts. All aspects of the subject, to my mind, would be a great for exploration by a panel composed of veteran memoirists, if they dare.
“Craft Lessons from the Submission Queue: Writing and Editing Short Fiction” featured the editors of four online journals that publish literary fiction. The editors passed on guidance for successfully placing stories in their journals, while also recounting lessons learned from reading thousands of submissions they have applied to their own writing. The panelists were full of interesting tips, observations, and anecdotes and the huge audience hung on their words as if they were gospel. How cool would it be if Veterans Writing Project, Military Experience and the Arts, Wrath-Bearing Tree, Consequence, The War Horse and/or Collateral teamed up for a similar panel for the war-writing crowd (hint/hint, foot-stomp/foot-stomp)?
Special AWP shout-outs to Ron Capps and Jennifer Orth-Veillon. It was great to see Capps and the Veterans Writing Project back in action and specifically thanks to Ron for forking out the smackers to reserve a two-lane bowling alley at the war-writers social bar where we held an impromptu first-ever War-Writers Bowling Tournament. For her part, Jennifer was my stalwart ally organizing two panels that helped put vet-and-war-writing back on the map at AWP. It was a close-run thing, and victory was never assured, but we did pretty well with it, I’d say, and I don’t think either of us could have done it alone.
Now, onward to Seattle!
Coming in October 2022: Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Contemporary Writers on the Lingering Stories of World War I. Edited by Jennifer Orth-Veillon, forward by Monique Brouillet Seefried. MilSpeak Books.
I’ll be on two panels at the upcoming Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference this week in Philadelphia.
I’m moderating one panel titled “Veterans Writing Online: A Field Guide for Negotiating the Digital Writing Sphere.” Here’s the program blurb:
Iraq and Afghanistan military-and-veteran writers have enthusiastically embraced the internet to amplify their voices and build audiences through blogging, online publishing, remote workshopping, and social media promotion, and as a bridge to traditional print publication. The members of the panel, all accomplished authors, online journal editors, and teachers in the veteran-writing field, offer a range of perspectives regarding best online publishing practices, lessons learned, and future possibilities.
And a little more:
The vibrant veterans online writing realm emphasizes its commitment to new voices, diverse and radical perspectives, post-trauma growth, building communities, and bridging the civil-military divide. The panel explores how online writing supplements and serves as an alternative to traditional print publication by encouraging literary expression by new authors, women, non-binary, minority, and dissident veterans, as well as concerned-citizen writers, family members, and non-combatants.
After a little jockeying, the panel line-up has solidified in exciting ways: Ron Capps, Teresa Fazio, Kara Krauze, and Jennifer Orth-Veillon.
Showtime is Saturday, March 26, 10:35-11:50am in Room 124 in the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
I’m also participating on a panel sponsored by Jennifer Orth-Veillon titled “Family Heritage, Violent History: WWI’s Lost Transversality in War Poetry Today.” I’m honored for the chance to talk about World War I poet Aline Kilmer’s relevance to the current war-writing scene alongside panelists Seth Tucker, Connie Ruzich, and Drew Pham. Here’s the blurb:
WWI’s Centennial offered chances for today’s war writers to reflect upon literary debts owed to 1914-1918 poets in blogs, articles, and new work. This panel fuses history, literary analysis, and creative writing to explore this phenomenon. Members include veteran poets addressing issues of religion, family, sexuality, gender, and PTSD through WWI’s lens. WWI poetry and contemporary war literature experts propose insight into the intersections of personal experience, history, and literary craft.
WWI represents one of the first times in history poetry was responsible for exposing the new complexity of war wounds to the public. WWI elicited responses from diverse voices on the home front and battlefield that opened artistic spaces expressing war’s horrors in innovative ways. This panel reaches far beyond the traditional WWI canon and explores how these poets not only shaped civilian responses or crafted legacy but how they also set precedents for writers confronting today’s conflicts.
We’re meeting on Thursday, March 24 from 1:45 to 3:00pm in Room 121A in the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Looking forward to it all, and join us please if you will be at AWP. I’m not seeing any other panels on the program that directly address contemporary war-writing, which has me thinking. The conference used to be an important locus for the GWOT war-writing community, with many panels each year on war-and-vet writing and much socializing. That luster was beginning to fade even before Covid, and nothing I know of has replaced it (everything’s online!), but I’m hoping we can rekindle the spirt a little.
This week brought a CNN news report, hosted by Anderson Cooper, about two US Army veterans and one USMC veteran who traveled to Ukraine on their own dime to train Ukrainian home defense forces in basic infantry tactics. This training, of course, was meant to provide Ukrainians without military experience a modicum of self-defense and offensive prowess in anticipation of fighting off Russian invasion of their hometown, which, also of course, seems inevitable at this point.
The veterans featured in the report are well-known in vet-writing circles: Adrian Bonenberger, Benjamin Busch, and Matt Gallagher. Each is featured prominently in the Cooper report and the reasons they offer to explain themselves are heartfelt, eloquent, and inspirational. Even more than their words, their actions speak loud and strong. In support of a cause that is just, they are contributing their talents as best they can.
I have written often about Bonenberger, Gallagher, and Busch on Time Now over the years. Below are links to many of the posts. Within the posts, I think my regard for the men’s writing and art shines clear, as well as my regard for the men themselves. My posts may provide insight or at least some of the backstory as to how Bonenberger, Busch, and Gallagher connect their own war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan with their sense of what the current moment demands. In a nutshell, I would say their infantryman’s instinct to “move to the sound of the guns” is married to their ethical and political sensibilities and principles to a very high degree.
A few years ago, I wrote a Time Now post that poked fun at stock scenes often found in contemporary war-fiction. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, although I was, a little, for what do we expect from war-writing but vivid portraits of common experiences shared by soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan? Since that post, I’ve continued to keep an eye on the representation of characteristic deployment moments, and have become something of a connoisseur of how and how well they are carried off by the writers who offer them.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how war writers have portrayed the vehicle movements that were so integral to deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Life on the Forward Operating Base and Combat Outpost offer much grist for fiction, as do scenes of urban combat in Iraq and rural combat in Afghanistan, as well as night-time raids in both places. For all that, the quintessential combat experience for many deployed soldiers and Marines, as well as deployed airmen and sailors, were the vehicle movements that took them from FOB to FOB, or out of the FOB into sector on patrols and missions.
These vehicle movements were almost always made in convoys of at least three, and usually four, vehicles, either “up-armored” Humvees, or tank-like “MRAPs” (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles). Within each vehicle the important crew positions were that of the driver, the “TC” (or truck/track/tank commander), who rode in the shotgun seat and was usually the senior member on-board, and the gunner, who stood in a roof-turret manning a machine gun and keeping look-out. Other occupants were generically designated “guys- in-back” or “GIBs.” The driver, TC, and gunner were linked by an intercom system and had visibility of the road ahead, with the gunner able to view to the sides and rear as well. The TC could also speak to the other vehicles via radio and to the headquarters back at the FOB. The guys-in-back had little or no visibility and were typically not linked into the intercom, and, jammed in tight with one another, had little to do but stare at each other until the movement was over.
In the sector of Afghanistan where I deployed, we called vehicle movements “CONOPs,” an abbreviation for “convoy operations” (or maybe a misapplication of “concept of operations”–a phrase from the military mission order format). CONOPs were always high-tension, as ambushes and IED attacks were a constant threat, and once they occurred there was little crews could do but hope they lived through them. Also possible were vehicle breakdowns and getting lost. But as ratcheted up as the tension was, there was also boredom, as most drives were uneventful and often excruciatingly long and slow. But there was also exhilaration, too; exiting the confines of the FOB and heading out into “bad guy country” is the stuff that many or most soldiers and Marines joined their respective services to do. To while away the time and defuse pitched emotions while on CONOPs, those on the vehicle intercom talked about everything under the sun and listened to music jerry-rigged through the vehicle radios. The admixture of boredom, danger, and heightened expectation, as well as the camaraderie enforced by joint endeavor in close quarters, is ripe for depiction by skilled authors.
Non-fiction portraits of CONOPs are scattered throughout books on Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’ll focus on fictional and artistic depictions here. Before we get rolling (pun), I’ll recommend the mini-series Generation Killand Colin Halloran’s volume of poetry Shortly Thereafter for their representations of vehicle movements in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.
In fiction, several novels make vehicle movements central to the stories they tell. In other words, what happens during the journey is the story, not the mission that awaits at the end of the journey. Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives (set in Iraq) is exemplary in this regard, as is Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road (set in Afghanistan). Works that portray well, in my opinion, the fine-grain detail of the CONOP, while also using the scene to describe the social interaction and psychological outlook of the vehicle crewmen, include John Renehan’s The Valley and Brian Van Reet’s Spoils.
The Valley, for example, begins with a passage describing from the point-of-view of protagonist Lieutenant Black as he rides as a passenger in a night convoy of Humvees from a large Afghanistan FOB to a tiny COP high up in the mountains:
The convoy wove its way through the buildings and trailers of the base, radios chirping as vehicle commanders made their perfunctory commo checks with one another. Black looked out the little armored glass windows as the buildings fell behind, replaced by sandbags and blast barriers on either side.
The convoy rolled to a stop at the FOB’s east gate, in the exit channel. Electronic jamming equipment was switched on, and the vehicles filled with the clatter of weapons being charged. The manifest was passed to the guards, and the gate was opened.
The convoy rolled forward beneath the guard towers and machine-gun nests and wove left-right-left-right through a serpentine channel designed to slow down car bombs. They cleared the walls and the golden plain opened up before them, mountains rising from the horizon ahead.
Another passage from The Valley renders the flavor of convoy radio traffic:
“Vega X-Ray, this is Cyclone Mobile, over.”
The sound of the sergeant speaking the name of their destination into the radio roused Black from a near trance.
He pushed the light on his digital watch. It had been another ninety minutes ofslogging wet travel. The ride had gotten bumpier and slower the farther they went.
The sergeant keyed the hand mic again. Tried his call again.
Moments passed as the signal made its way up into the dark, dancing among the windswept peaks and stone faces above them. Black wondered how far they were from the outpost, how many mountain passes or switchbacks still lay ahead of them. The vehicles ground on through the muck.
A burst of static from the radio.
“Cyclone Mobile, Vega X-Ray,” came a scratchy call back.
“X-Ray” denoted a command post or operation center. The voice on the other end was probably a soldier pulling late-night duty in Vega’s radio room.
The sergeant keyed the mic.
“Cyclone Mobile inbound, six vehicles, twenty-five personnel. Checkpoint Grapevine, time now.”
“Roger,” came the voice through the static and interference….
The sergeant turned to the driver.
“Hit it,” he said.
The kid pulled off a glove and reached up to the ceiling, touching something with a bare finger. A square of sky blue illuminated on a tiny MP3 music player. He tapped it.
The vehicle erupted in sound. Black jumped.
The crew had wired speakers into the four corners of the Humvee. Not regulation, but not uncommon. Black hadn’t noticed the black boxes until now.
An obviously old rock recording echoed in the crew compartment….
In Old Silk Road, Brandon Caro’s first-person narrator, a medic named “Doc” Rodgers, describes duty as a gunner on CONOP in Afghanistan:
Grunting and straining, I managed to pull open the two-hundred-pound door of the Humvee and throw my bag in the back. I then climbed up over the hood of the truck, onto the roof, dropping down through the opened hatch, and settled into the turret. The hole in the roof was about three feet across. My feet were able to touch down on the steel of the interior even if I was seated on the thick leather strap that hung from either side of the hatch. I rotated the .50-cal forty-five degrees to the right…. The gunners of the convoy were supposed to stagger their weapons to protect the trucks from all angles….
My mind wandered carelessly as our convoy moved unobstructed and unthreatened through enemy territory…. It served me well whenever I was in the turret, I always felt, to try and put myself somewhere else in my mind while remaining in the moment somewhat in case we were ever attacked and I had to respond either with the .50-cal or with my medbag or with both.
In Spoils, Van Reet opens with a scene describing drowsy enlisted soldiers waiting out dreary checkpoint duty on a cold, rainy Iraq night. The gunner, Cassandra Wigheard, has been called back inside the troop compartment to warm up and get dry. Nothing’s happening, or seems likely to happen:
Her eyes have grown inflamed from lack of sleep and the recycled hot airsteadily blowing, and she blinks to wet them, losing focus sleepily… She’s lulled by the darkness and the roaring heater and the rain that pools on the gunner’s hatch and drips through a leaky rubber seal. Like Chinese water torture. Like they are trapped in an unsound submarine. With the hatch closed it has grown muggy inside, hot and slimy as a locker room with all the showerheads blasting steam. Beads of condensation join in branched rivulets that dart down the windows, themselves no more than flexible sheets of vinyl. Their crew wasn’t lucky enough to draw an up-armored truck. Lieutenant Choi and his bunch have received the only one allotted for the platoon. Their own is nothing but a rolling coffin. No, not even that sturdy. Oak would at least stop some shrapnel, but these vinyl doors wouldn’t stop a pellet gun.
The heater, the rain, sleeplessness, bring on a rheumy-eyed stupor, fuzzy and electronic. Her pruned hands twitch involuntarily, a hypnic jerk acute enough to bring her back. She wills her eyes open. McGinnis and Crump are both nodded off in the front seats. Radio and GPS cables lie kinkded around them like black umbilical cords; there’s the humming sound of the truck, and half dreaming, caught in the tripping sensation of present eternity dwarfing the past, for a moment she forgets herself and might be convinced that all her days have been lived like this, in here, the truck, the only solid place in the universe.
Vehicle breakdowns and vehicle recovery operations were facts of life, especially when convoys were forced off the hard-ball main roads and onto goat trails in the Afghanistan mountains or canal-berm paths in Iraq. In Greenon Blue, Elliot Ackerman vividly describes a vehicle recovery op in Afghanistan, but one with a twist: the vehicle is one of the “HiLux” pickups favored by the Afghan army and various Afghan militias, friendly and otherwise:
Our truck was now set to back out. This would be the most dangerous part, reversing down the steep and narrow switchback. All of the Special Lashkar’s trucks had a winch in front—two hundred or so feet of steel cable wrapped tightly around a motor that could pull a tree from its roots. The soldier wearing the balaclava hooked his winch under the front axle of Atal’s HiLux. On the far side of the crater, the driver took in all the slack. In theory the winch would lower us along the tight switchbacks and ensure that we didn’t topple down the mountainside, but the driver took no chances. He left his door open and both his legs dangled from the side of his seat. If he had to jump he’d be ready, even as his truck, as well as ours, toppled into the ravine below. Whoever drove our truck would have to sit behind the steering wheel. This made jumping a more difficult prospect….
Atal shifted into reverse and the winch ground as the steel cables pulled taut. I shouted out directions: Come right, come right. Straight! STRAIGHT! Atal leaned his head out the driver’s window. Then he shot across the cab, planting his face in the passenger’s side mirror. He continued to weave back and forth in this way as we inched out our descent. The winch strained and the steel cable slide against our front axle. The air filled with a hot metal burn. We soon dipped out of sight from the soldiers above us, be we were still tethered to their winch. I continued to shout my directions and Atal, unable to see the space around our truck, followed each one blindly. Come left. Straight. Now, right, right! RIGHT!
IED strikes and vehicle ambushes do not figure prominently in contemporary war-writing, but one very memorable such scene occurs in Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing. The protagonist, Levi, is riding in a Humvee in Iraq in a convoy in which another soldier named Tom Hooper is riding in the vehicle in front of him:
They had spent many hours crawling down the dusty canal roads. The monotony of it all, the slow pace, the lack of conversation, and the crash from the day’s earlier adrenaline rushnearly caused Levi to fall asleep. He stretched as well as he could in such a small space, and he complained about being bored.
His driver, Specialist Pete White, looked over at him and nodded in commiseration, but had nothing to say.
After Levi saw his best friend’s Humvee disappear into a cloud of fire, dust, and gravel, both time and sound stopped, which left Tom Hooper flying through the air, suspended against a backdrop of smoke and flames, weightless and serene. His unbloused DCU-patterned pants were rumpled by the wind; his limbs were spread against the sky, one foot bootless but still covered by a green sock. Levi stared in wonder at his friend, who was not flying, but was simply the subject of a photograph, oblivious to his surroundings, or to gravity.
When Levi lurched forward because White had slammed on the brakes, time started again and Tom hit the gravel on the side of the road. Despite the height from which he fell, his form did not bounce, roll down the shallow embankment into the tall grass, or move in any way at all. He simply stopped when his body met resistance. Tom lay supine, staring up into the sky, one arm stretched out, the other seemingly twisted under his back. Levi looked left at White, but he only saw wide eyes and a moving mouth….
As Levi neared the truck he heard a tumultuous crash. A great crack stung his ears and he felt the peal rumble through his stomach. He wondered why it would be thundering when there were no clouds in the sky. It was only after the second crack of thunder shook his head and nearly knocked him over that he realized it was not thunder at all; but rather, it was the warheads of rocket-propelled grenades exploding near the left side of the truck. With this realization came other realizations. The smaller cracks he had been ignoring were bullets snapping past him. The more sporadic and lower-pitched pops were rounds burning and exploding like popcorn in the rear of the Humvee….
These are just some of the characteristic elements of vehicle movements and their representation. This post has already gone on long enough, but we might also mention the “mission brief” that precedes every convoy operation (both Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood and Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives have great passages describing this important and interesting event); the decision by vehicle gunners to identify friend-or-foe/shoot-or-don’t-shoot decision-making in regard to oncoming traffic; and the exuberant, almost euphoric feeling that overtakes soldiers when they “RTB” (return-to-base) or arrive at their destination safely. Maybe a part II for this post?
My thought is that, with time, vehicle movements will be seen as a characteristic military scene associated with Iraq and Afghanistan soldier fiction, one at right up there with portraits of night-time Special Operations raids, gun-battles on Combat Outposts, in-theater memorial services, and welcome-home ceremonies. If that’s true, interested readers will turn back to the scenes above in the way Civil War buffs like to read about cavalry charges, World War I students read about trench warfare, and Vietnam narratives relish depictions of helicopter air assaults.
With the publication of Ray McPadden’s war memoir We March at Midnight, hard upon his novel And the Whole Mountain Burned, the already-robust body of war writing published by former soldiers (all officers, as it happens) of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division grows stronger. Joining McPadden, the count includes Adrian Bonenberger, Drew Pham, Kristin L. Rouse, Sean Parnell, and Brett Allen—each with one or more book-length works and/or many occasional pieces published in vet-writing journals and elsewhere, most about or inspired by deployments to Afghanistan with 10th Mountain. I include myself, too, by affiliation. Though I did not deploy with 10th Mountain to Iraq or Afghanistan, as the post-9/11 era dawned I was stationed at Fort Drum, NY, with the division, where I served first as the Secretary of the General Staff and then as the Executive Officer of 2-14 Infantry “Golden Dragons” in the division’s Second Brigade. Late in 2001, 2-14 did deploy to Kosovo on a peacekeeping mission, where we seethed with jealousy as sister battalions from 10th Mountain were among the first to fight in Afghanistan.
10th Mountain, as I remember it, was a no-frills, no-nonsense light infantry division. We had no sense of ourselves as an elite unit such as the 82nd Airborne or 75th Rangers, but we still took pride in our competency and toughness, which was honed by the brutal winter weather of New York state’s “North Country” hard-by Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. It’s fair to say that few requested assignment to 10th Mountain and Fort Drum, but once there we made the best of it. The “Mountain” part of the division name was an ode to the unit’s World War II roots in mountain-warfare and had little relation to flat Fort Drum save for the cold, snowy winters we endured. Still, the name and the heritage infused us with knowledge that to be a member of 10th Mountain stood for values and a tradition we better not let down. We trained hard and deployed often, even before 9/11. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfolded, 10th Mountain units were on near-constant rotation to one of the two countries, leading to the claim that 10th Mountain has been the most deployed division in the Army since 2001. I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but if not, it’s got to be pretty close.
So, just based on sheer numbers, it’s probably not surprising that so many 10th Mountain soldiers sought expression for their stories and views-of-things in print. But is there anything more that might account for their impulse to write following service? And is there a particular tenor to the body of work by 10th Mountain vets? If so, what is it, and why?
Short answer: I don’t know. It might just be coincidence. It might be though that I’m afeard to face the truth, for at first blush 10th Mountain doesn’t come off very well in the memoirs and fiction written by its veterans. None of them in particular take aim at 10th Mountain as a flawed entity distinct from other, better units, but almost all give full vent to unsatisfactory deployment experiences. The dissatisfaction takes many shapes. For some, it was crystallization of the awareness of the futility and stupidity of the overall mission. For others, it was horrendous combat experiences that deprived them of their ability to take pride in their fighting prowess. Others describe toxic command climates and poor leadership. These last sting me in particular, for I know personally or by reputation many of the leaders mentioned by name or described fictionally in the works. Some I consider friends, and most I had a reasonably high regard for. Hell, I was a field-grade officer myself, and though a lowly one, probably more part of the problem than an antidote to it in the eyes of disgruntled and disappointed junior officers and soldiers.
Oh well, I’ll just have to deal with that. For students of America’s war in Afghanistan, there is much to be gleaned from the words of 10th Mountain veterans. If you want to know what fighting was like at battalion-level in work-a-day units in eastern Afghanistan, or what the range of attitudes toward the military, the mission, and Afghans were held by those who belonged to such units might be, Bonenberger, Parnell, Rouse, Pham, McPadden, and Allen have left quite a record. Much is admirable, some is not, most is understandable, and none is beyond critique. I don’t love it all equally, and it’s not all the same, but now’s not the time to make distinctions. It’s easy to tell the writers tried hard to do well while in Afghanistan as members of 10th Mountain, and now while trying to convey what was special about their experience in their books–even if by “special” we really mean “troubling.” Thank you all for writing, and I hope you find many more readers.
A selected list of fiction and memoir by 10th Mountain Division veterans. I’ve also included links to articles the authors have written about the end of the American war in Afghanistan.
Bret Allen, Kilroy Was Here (novel)
Adrian Bonenberger, Afghan Post (memoir) and The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War (short-stories)
Finally, a memoir about life at Fort Drum as the wife of a many-times deployed officer is Angie Ricketts’ No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife.
UPDATE: I’m reminded that poet Brian Turner soldiered as an enlisted infantryman in 10th Mountain Division and deployed with them to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000. An impressive addition to the roster of 10th Mountain writers!
As it happened, I finished Pat Barker’s 2004 novel Double Vision on the day that US forces completed their evacuation from Kabul airport last week, thus unceremoniously bringing to a close America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan. The correspondence is interesting because Barker’s novel is the first I know of to reference post-9/11 war in Afghanistan. The novel is set in England, but features two characters linked to a third, a photojournalist shot and killed while on assignment in Afghanistan.
The circumstances of the death—the politics, rationale, and execution of the far-flung front in the Global War on Terror—are not prominently explored in Double Vision, but first is first, and the focus on the effect of war death on friends and family back home was prescient in foretelling one of the main themes of fiction, and culture, too, about Afghanistan and Iraq in the coming years.
War in Iraq is referenced in Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday, which I also just recently read, much more prominently than Afghanistan is in Double Vision. Saturday is also set in England, and in it the protagonist, a well-to-do neurosurgeon, ruminates about the brewing invasion against a backdrop of anti-war protests in London. The neurosurgeon is actually vaguely pro-war, in that he detests Saddam Hussein and thinks it is at least worthy of consideration that any pretext to remove him is a good one. As he goes about his day, some interesting thoughts cross his mind. For example, as he stares at the bustling activity in a London public square, he speculates about its spatial dynamic in contrast to the streets that surround it. He thinks, “…this could be the attraction of the Iraqi desert—the flat and supposedly empty landscape approximating a strategist’s map on which fury of industrial proportions can let loose. A desert, it is said, is a military planner’s dream. A city square is the private equivalent.”
Later he considers the news-media environment, which seems designed to de-stabilize truth claims and make everyone nervous. As he considers a news report, he wonders:
Have his anxieties been making a fool of him? It’s part of the new order, this narrowing of mental freedom, of his right to roam. Not so long ago his thoughts ranged more unpredictably, over a longer list of subjects. He suspects he’s become a dupe, the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder, opinion, speculation and of all the crumbs the authorities let fall. He’s a docile citizen, watching Leviathan grow stronger while he creeps under its shadow for protection. This Russian plane flew right into his insomnia [the novel begins with the protagonist observing in the middle-of-the-night a plane from Russia that has caught fire as it approaches Heathrow], and he’s been only too happy to let the story and every little nervous shift of the daily news process color his emotional state. It’s an illusion, to believe himself active in the story. Does he think he’s contributing something, watching news programs, or lying on his back on the sofa on Saturday afternoons, reading more opinion columns of ungrounded certainties, more long articles about what really lies behind this or that development, or about what is most surely going to happen next, predictions forgotten as soon as they are read, well before events disprove them? For or against the war on terror, or the war in Iraq; for the termination of an odious tyrant and his crime family, for the ultimate weapons inspection, the opening of the torture prisons, locating the mass graves, the chance of liberty and prosperity, and a warning to other despots; or against the bombing of civilians, the inevitable refugees and famine, illegal international action, the wrath of Arab nations and the swelling of Al-Qaeda’s ranks. Either way, it amounts to a consensus of a kind, an orthodoxy of attention, a mild subjugation in itself. Does he think that his ambivalence—if that’s what it really is—excuses him from the general conformity? He’s deeper in than most. His nerves, like tautened strings, vibrate obediently with each news “release.” He’s lost the habits of skepticism, he’s becoming dim with contradictory opinion, he isn’t thinking clearly, and just as bad, he senses he isn’t thinking independently.
That’s a pretty good summation of the precarious state-of-mind that would come to govern the next twenty years, at least for many. It certainly gets to some of the ambivalence and hesitancy I felt as I watched the endgame in Afghanistan the last two weeks (even as I did everything I could to help the escape of friends and allies I knew from my own tour in 2008-2009). As new aspects presented themselves for consideration, I couldn’t find better words for my thoughts looking backward than I published here a couple of years ago following the release of “The Afghanistan Papers” detailing corruption, subterfuge, and incompetency by American war planners and the Afghan government and military. Quoting from my own recent Facebook post:
Now, as Afghanistan appears lost to Taliban rule for the foreseeable future, I’m more sanguine than outraged. It might just be the long passage of time, and perhaps I should be more upset: the year deployment unsettled my family while I was gone and when I returned in ways too painful to recount, and three good members of our advisor team didn’t even get a chance to return home at all. While in Afghanistan, we worked hard with and got to know personally many Afghans who hated the Taliban with a passion and were grateful we Americans were there to help fight them; I hate to think of what their fates might be now. On the other hand, I’m happy that I was able to help three of my interpreters reach the United States, and I would also be happy enough keeping a small American force in Afghanistan for a long time to bolster the Afghan government, if that were to be the case. It’s not, but I believe at least some Afghans will find it within themselves to mount resistance to the Taliban soon enough, or that the Taliban of 2021 is not the same Taliban as that of 1991. If there is resistance, the questions are who will comprise it, who will lead it, who will support it, and who will fight by their side?
When the Washington Post published “The Afghanistan Papers” a couple of years ago, I wrote the following, which goes into a little bit more detail about my impressions and thoughts looking backward:
“Corruption, rules-of-engagement, conflicting chains-of-command, stupid reporting and briefing requirements, Pakistan aiding and abetting the insurgents (and sometimes helping fight them), green-on-blue incidents, friendly fire incidents, dealing with special operators with different agendas, balancing military missions with nation-building programs, trying to figure out who was enemy and who wasn’t.… It was all part of the operating environment, and that was before the bullets, mortar rounds, and missiles started flying and the IEDs began exploding. You had to be pretty nimble to deal with it all and keep going. If you let things overwhelm you, you weren’t going to be of much use to anyone, though you could certainly use your dismay and anger to build a righteous argument that it was all stupid and worthless.
“Strategically and structurally, my biggest gripe were the unit rotation policies and practices, which never kept units and key leaders in place long enough to become truly effective. My advisor team, for example, was rotated out of Khost Province at the seven-month mark of our deployment, just when we were really beginning to build trust with our Afghan counterparts and understand the lay-of-the land. Also, during my time I served under nine different chains-of-command due to constant task organization changes. Though it was kind of neat to be have been able to wear any one of nine “combat patches” representing the different units I belonged to over the course of a year, the problems with so much change are obvious.
“To have complained about it at the time would to have been labeled a whiner, a naysayer, and a foot-dragger. It would have meant being fired immediately, as (among other things) it would be insubordinate to the chain-of-command, and ruinous for troop morale and unit cohesion, which was solid at the time and by all accounts remains strong. Besides, we were all volunteers, right? and no one told us it was going to be easy. We did the best we could, and though our best really wasn’t all that good, we kept trying and hoped for a very limited and temporary effectiveness.
“However small our results may have been, I’ve always held that advisors at least felt like we were doing the most good, compared to other Americans. I also felt like we had the highest regard for Afghans and had mostly funny or warm-hearted stories about working with them. That’s not saying much, because the soldiers in the line-force units in our area-of-operations distrusted Afghans and wanted to spend as little time around them as possible. Continually dwelling on corruption and making blanket statements and assumptions about incompetent, unreliable Afghans is definitely off-putting to me. In my experience, if that was your attitude going in, or a “fact” “proven” to you by your suspicions and initial encounters with Afghans, well then everything that followed was going to confirm that. The Afghans we worked with made distinctions, and they sensed quickly if an American was predisposed to be snoopy and judgmental about them. If so, they pretty much acted to type. If the opposite, then they were great partners, eager to please and amenable to suggestions and direction. Negative comments about Afghans seem to have been written by people who may have worked or fought side-by-side with Afghans once or twice, but never day-in, day-out for seven months in Khost and five months in Paktya, where Afghans did much to try to do as I asked or suggested and most of all protect me.”
Not entirely reassuring, I’m sure, or beyond critique, or free of self-justification, but those were my thoughts then and they mostly remain the same now.
Of the many opinion pieces and personal reflections recently published by veterans and media commentators, I was most struck by a short piece written by a former infantryman in Afghanistan who now plays guitar in a heavy-metal band. Dustin Tooker’s comments about his service in Afghanistan seemed sensible, even shrewd, and he touched on an aspect relevant to Time Now’s purpose: the influence of war on subsequent art. Here Tooker speaks of his music, but his ideas are relevant going forward for all artists and writers:
As a musician I draw from my past and use it as inspiration for my art. These recent events have changed how those experiences and memories sit in my soul. I know it will show in the music I create and if you listen close, I think others will be able to tell I just got a little darker. It’s likely you’ve gotten a bit darker as well.
A truism often expressed about war in Afghanistan is that the most telling novel about it couldn’t be written until we knew how it ended. Without historical closure, how could there by narrative closure, the sentiment goes. I’ve never been too sure about this truism; novels it seems to me can be written and get written in real time all the time as they will without waiting for real-life finality, and their quality and significance take care of themselves. But surely Tooker is on to something. The futility, guilt, disappointment, and outrage expressed in Afghanistan (and Iraq) war art and fiction, already present in published works so far, can only intensify as veteran writers and artists, as well as interested civilian artists and writers such as Barker and McEwan, reckon with how badly it turned out and their own stake in the outcome.
Below are links to Time Now posts that engage with literary theory and academic scholarship. It’s primarily for those working on academic studies of contemporary war literature, but it aims also to be accessible for any reader who might be interested. Over the years, Time Now has been cited approvingly in many scholarly articles, books, and dissertations, for which I’m flattered and grateful. But that’s also part of the design: I wrote my own dissertation on the emergence of a literary scene in antebellum-era Baltimore, and many of the ideas and precepts undergirding that project have informed my approach to contemporary war-writing, which I sensed around 2012 beginning to coalesce not just as a genre, but as a “scene,” whatever that word means to you. Also, as I wrote my own dissertation, I depended heavily on obscure chronicles that noted and described the salient publications, authors, and literary and cultural events as they occurred in Baltimore 200 years ago. I doubt Time Now is destined to survive so long, but I still hope to do some of the same work for those interested in art, film, and literature about war in Iraq and Afghanistan that the chroniclers of yore did for me as I wrote my dissertation.
The list is roughly in the order that the posts were written.
The Imagined Wars. Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865 reveals many parallels with the contemporary war-writing scene.
The Civil-Military Divide Within: Going After Bergdahl. Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq packs a potent 1-2 punch: the central themes of vet fiction-and-memoir are 1) the effort of soldiers to hold onto civilian identities as they serve and as afterwards, and 2) the realization by soldiers that they are not prepared for the horror of war by their education, training, and upbringing.
Women at War. Mary Douglas Favrus’ Post-Feminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex analyzes the vexed conceptual underpinnings and practical difficulties regarding women’s service in the military.