Epigraphs

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

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“An epigraph is an effective literary tool that some writers utilize to focus the reader toward the theme, purpose, or concerns behind the work. It is included at the beginning of the piece of literature to offer insight into the motivation behind the artist’s vision. Generally a brief quotation taken from another piece of literature, the epigraph is oftentimes not a direct commentary upon the work but used to establish a mindset or offer insight into the factors that contributed to the manifestation of the work.”

-University of Michigan English 217 student website

Epigraphs are curious. First of all, I have trouble remembering the word and often confuse it with “epigram” and “epitaph.” Second, if I bother to read an epigraph before starting a book, I rarely remember it while reading the narrative proper. If an epigraph is too long, I mostly just let my eyes glaze over it. This is unusual, because epigraphs clearly have an important relation to the story that follows, and authors obviously go to some care to choose them and place them in front of us for consideration. But lots of books don’t have epigraphs. I recently pulled the Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction and poetry I own off the shelf and checked them for epigraphs. Most of the fiction employs epigraphs, but not all of it. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, and Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition are five that don’t, for instance. As if to make up for the books that don’t feature epigraphs, some authors provide two. Overall, reading a number of epigraphs in this way–very quickly, back-to-back–was enjoyable. The epigraphs definitely brought back strong memories of the book to which they were attached and together they created a thick literary web of intertextual references and signals. They made me think that epigraphs might be better read after reading the main text, not before.

Of the fiction that does include epigraphs, the most frequent source for them are the Greek classics. Many works, from Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, published in 2011, to Brian Van Reet’s Spoils, published last year, quote Homer, Socrates, Aeschylus, or another writer from antiquity. Of the non-Greeks, many are from American and English canonical authors, some known as war-writers and some not. W.H. Auden provides epigraphs for Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days and Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season. Stephen Crane is quoted by both David Abrams in Fobbit and by Matt Gallagher in Youngblood. The rest are from here-and-there, ranging in surprising exoticness from Sir Thomas Browne, used by Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, to Jean Baudrillard, quoted by Odie Lindsey in We Come to Our Senses. Not to play favorites, but the one that jumped out at me as being both unexpected and particularly apt for the story the author tells is Jesse Goolsby’s use of Whitman for I’d Walk With My Friends If I Knew Where to Find Them. Whitman’s insistence on the procreative urge of the world seems very near to the American-flavored cosmic force Goolsby suggests shapes the lives of his protagonists, not in a crude sexual way, but in terms of existential yearning only half-understood.

For some reason, not as many volumes of contemporary poetry employ epigraphs. Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers quotes Crane, so that’s three for the author of The Red Badge of Courage. Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes includes an epigraph, but her Stateside doesn’t. Nor do Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor and Sweet Insurgent, Colin Halloran’s Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux, Eric Chandler’s Hugging This Rock, and Charlie Sherpa’s Welcome to FOB Haiku, to name a few more.

I haven’t surveyed the dozens of memoirs I’ve read for epigraphs, but do note their presence in two of the more literary-minded of them, Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust (the epigraph quotes his father, the novelist Frederick Busch, who is also referenced by David Abrams in Fobbit) and Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, which draws from the Italian poet Eugenio Montale.

Retire the Colors, an excellent anthology of war-themed essays by veterans and non-veterans edited by Dario DiBattista, uses a quote from Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp for an epigraph, which is the only case I know of a contemporary war work quoting another. On the hunt, I tracked down Demon Camp to see what the always-interesting Percy might have used for an epigraph. I found two, one by Kierkegaard and the other by one of my favorite authors, James Salter, from a book I just finished reading and loved, his memoir Burning the Days. That was cool.

FICTION

Fobbit, David Abrams (2012)

Wars are nothing, in the end, but stories.

-Frederick Busch, The Night Inspector

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

 Brave Deeds, David Abrams (2017)

“Tell brave deeds of war.”

Then they recounted tales,—
“There were stern stands
And better runs for glory.”

Ah, I think there were braver
deeds.

-Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines

Green on Blue, Elliot Ackerman (2015)

 Allah’s Apostle said, “War is deceit.”

-Iman Al-Bukhari, 846 AD

The Corpse Washer, Sinan Antoon (2013)

In both gardens are fruit, palm trees, and pomegranates

-The Qur’an

Sand Queen, Helen Benedict (2011)

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

-Shakespeare, “Sonnet 94”

Wolf Season, Helen Benedict (2017)

Behind each sociable home-loving eye
The private massacres are taking place…

-W.H. Auden, “In a Time of War,” 1939

Mothers have been stolen from their own tears.

-Kareem Shugaidil, “Flour Below Zero,” 2005

A Big Enough Lie, Eric Bennet (2015)

I thought about Tolstoy and about what a great advantage an experience of war was to a writer. It was one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of, and those writers who had not seen it were always very jealous and tried to make it seem unimportant, or abnormal, or a disease as a subject, while, really it was just something quite irreplaceable that they had missed.

-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

mundus vult decripi ergo decipiatur [the world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived]

-Petronius

The Watch, Joydeep-Roy Bhattacharya (2012)

I know that I must die,
E’en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death
Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain.
For death is gain to him whose life, like mine,
Is full of misery.  Thus my lot appears
Not sad, but blissful; for had I endured
To leave my mother’s son unburied there,
I should have grieved with reason, but not now.

-Sophocles, Antigone

Eleven Days, Lea Carpenter (2013)

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead

-W.H. Auden, “The Shield of Achilles”

You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon (2011)

She turned to descend the stair, her heart
in tumult.  Had she better keep her distance
and question him, her husband?  Should she run
up to him, take his hands, kiss him now?

…And she, for a long time, sat deathly still
in wonderment—for sometimes as she gazed
she found him—yes, clearly—like her husband,
but sometimes blood and rags were all she saw.

-Penelope upon recognizing Odysseus, The Odyssey

 Youngblood, Matt Gallagher (2016)

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

-Stephen Crane

I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, Jesse Goolsby (2015)

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

 Wynne’s War, Aaron Gwyn (2014)

He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shpe to hold. His own father said that no man who has not to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.

-Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

What Changes Everything, Masha Hamilton (2013)

You don’t need a war.
You don’t need to go anywhere.
It’s a myth: if you hurl
Yourself at chaos
Chaos will catch you.

-Eliza Griswold

Beirut. Bagdad. Sarajevo.
Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of
course here.

-Adrienne Rich

Be Safe, I Love You, Cara Hoffman (2014)

 Even from ten or fifteen miles away you get a good view of a burning village.  It was a merry sight. A tiny hamlet that you wouldn’t even notice in the daytime, with ugly, uninteresting country around it, you can’t imagine how impressive it can be when it’s on fire at night! You’d think it was Notre-Dame! A village, even a small one, takes at least all night to burn, in the end it looks like an enormous flower, then there’s only a bud, after that nothing.

-Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Journey to the End of the Night

 We Come to Our Senses, Odie Lindsey (2016)

 But, ultimately, what have you got against aphrodisiacs?

-J. Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place

 Bring Out the Dog, Will Mackin (2018)

We saw victory and defeat
and they were both wonderful.

-Barry Hannah, “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet”

These Heroic, Happy Dead, Luke Mogelson (2016)

…why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead…

-e.e. cummings, “next to of course god america i”

 The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers (2012)

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head…

-Traditional U.S. Army Marching Cadence

To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.

-Sir Thomas Browne

War of the Encyclopaedists, Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (2015)

Nor do we doubt that many things have escaped us also,
for we are but human, and beset with duties…

-Pliny the Elder, the Original Encyclopaedist

 Sparta, Roxana Robinson (2013)

The man who does not wear the armour of the lie cannot
Experience force without being touched by it to the very soul.

-Simone Weil, The Iliad, or, the Poem of Force

 War Porn, Roy Scranton (2016)

Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night.

-Wallace Stevens

Spoils, Brian Van Reet (2017)

Low lie the shattered towers whereas they fell,
And I—ah burning heart!—shall soon lie low as well.

-Aeschylus

POETRY

Dots & Dashes, Jehanne Dubrow (2017)

War feels to me an oblique place

-Emily Dickinson

the dear sound of your footstep
and light dancing in your eyes
would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry

-Sappho

The Stick Soldiers, Hugh Martin (2013)

He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth.

-Stephen Crane

OTHER

Dust to Dust, Benjamin Busch (2012)

Stories are … in a sense, about ending and about endings, and of course they are also the heartfelt prayer, the valiant promise, that what we have loved might live forever.

-Frederick Busch, “Deaths”

My Life as a Foreign Country, Brian Turner (2014)

Too many lives go into the making of just one.

-Eugenio Montale

Retire the Colors:  Veterans and Civilians on Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Dario DiBattista (2016)

“They spent millions training me but they never taught me to come home.”

-Army Sergeant Caleb Joseph from Demon Camp by Jennifer Percy

Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, Jennifer Percy (2014)

To understand original sin is to understand Adam, which is to understand that one is an individual and one is also part of the whole race.

-Kierkegaard, The Concept of the Dead

Dreams remained. For years afterwards in nightmares stark as archive footage. I was what I had been.

-James Salter, Burning the Days

Does Anyone Remember American Sniper?

Posted July 1, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Chris Kyle’s memoir American Sniper was a best-seller in 2012, and in 2014, when the movie version was released, the film was even bigger. I’m not exactly sure, but I’d bet American Sniper the book has outsold all other Iraq and Afghanistan war books combined. Likewise, the movie. Both seemed to matter; for a while they were all people talked about. What you thought about Chris Kyle the person and his book and how you felt about Clint Eastwood’s movie meant something: how you felt about them was how you felt about the wars, how you felt about the military, how you felt about veterans, pretty much how you felt about, well, America.

2018 is not 2014, and it’s been a couple of years since anyone I know has wanted to talk about American Sniper. The other week I caught a bit of the movie on TV on a Sunday afternoon while flipping channels between innings of a Mets game. That struck me as an ominous marker of American Sniper‘s place in the cultural memory–a sign that it was quickly moving past irrelevancy toward oblivion. Why has this happened? I don’t know, maybe it was just the flavor-of-the-day to begin with, possessing as much long-lasting significance as a Tamagotchi. Maybe it was more; I can throw out some possibilities. I think the facts of Kyle’s death, at the hands of a former Marine he was trying to help, really screws with people’s ability to decide whether he was a hero, a victim, or something else. His death in that way, as with Pat Tillman’s death in a friendly-fire incident, really short-circuits the logic of respect and reverence that might be or should be his due. Or, maybe it’s all the after-the-fact stuff that’s emerged about the real Chris Kyle that has deflated his reputation and caused people to temper their enthusiasm and lose interest. Maybe his star as a polarizing love-him-or-hate-him national figure has been eclipsed by the even more polarizing ascent of Donald Trump.

Whatever, I think our contemporary moment is an emptier place without Chris Kyle and Pat Tillman. They should be our war-heroes, and surely if they were still alive millions of Americans would hang on their every word. What if they still lived and had Twitter accounts? Veterans Twitter, and to a certain extent, the public veteran presence generally, is a mess, full of pretenders, profiteers, and self-promoters, men and women with thin voices lacking moral and military gravitas, incapable of calming the anxieties and shouldering the burdens of a worried divided people. In other words, leaderless. It’s easy to speculate that Kyle would be a conservative icon for like-minded veterans and members of the public, racking up millions of followers and thousands of likes proclaiming the virtues of a good-man-with-a-gun while “owning the libs” with his well-aimed Twitter shots. In contrast, Tillman might be the Democratic Party savior: a warrior of the highest order who despises Trump, everything he stands for, and everyone who supports him. I don’t know, maybe I have their politics completely wrong. Maybe the two wouldn’t even be on Twitter, but retired to the farm. I doubt it, though–no one’s retiring to the farm these days. Maybe they would be false gods, with feet-of-clay like everyone else. Maybe they could speak across party lines, wise voices for unity and reconciliation, leading us in a national singalong of Kumbaya. As we drift toward Civil War II in their absence we can only wonder.

To return to American Sniper, here are ten questions that I think are important to think about in regard to (mostly) the movie.

  1. Why was American Sniper so popular?
  2. Is American Sniper a pro-war or anti-war movie? Just because a movie shows “the human cost of war,” does that make it “anti-war”?
  3. Is Chris Kyle a hero or a victim?
  4. Does American Sniper exploit and demean Iraqis?
  5. What accounts for American fascination with SEALs and snipers?
  6. What does American Sniper ask us to think about Chris Kyle’s wife Taya?
  7. What do we make of the end of the movie—Chris Kyle’s battle with PTSD, his death, and his funeral? How do those events shape or change our perceptions of the early parts of the movie?
  8. How is American Sniper the movie different from American Sniper the book?
  9. What qualities do director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall bring to the movie that help make it so striking?
  10. What qualities do actors Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller bring to the movie to make it so compelling?

Below I’ve excerpted bits-and-pieces from several reviews of American Sniper that appeared upon its release and also comments from interviews with director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall. I’ve also added a sentence of my own comment to each excerpt.

Army Iraq vet (infantry) and poet Brian Turner, “I Served in Iraq and American SniperGets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need.”  The Vulture, Jan 22, 2015.

The film made me remember something else, too: the oft-repeated phrase We should just drop a nuke and turn this whole goddamn place into a glass fucking parking lot. This was an enlargement of what I’d regularly heard prior to deploying from Ft. Lewis, Washington: I’m going to go over there and shoot somebody in the face. And so, what started as an erasure of the signature of one’s identity, their face, evolved into the complete erasure of a civilization. But the thing is, I don’t think there was any clue about what was actually being erased in the first place. And in that cluelessness lays the problem with American Sniper….

The biggest problem I have with American Sniper is also a problem I have with myself. It’s a problem I sometimes find in my own work, and it’s an American problem: We don’t see, or even try to see, actual Iraqi people. We lack the empathy necessary to see them as fully human. In American Sniper, Iraqi men, women, and children are known and defined only in relation to combat and the potential threat they pose. Their bodies are the site and source of violence. In both the film and our collective imagination, their humanity is reduced in ways that, ultimately, define our own narrow humanity. In American Sniper, Iraqis are called “savages,” and the “streets are crawling” with them.

Comment:  Turner decries American desire to reduce war to simplistic acts of violence and bemoans American obliviousness to Iraqi history, culture, and people.

Army Iraq vet (artillery) and author Roy Scranton, “The Trauma Hero:  From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment to American Sniper. LARB, Jan 25, 2015.

American Sniperfocuses in tight on one man’s story of trauma, leaving out the complex questions of why Kyle was in Iraq being traumatized in the first place. The Iraqis in the film are villains, caricatures, and targets, and the only real opinion on them the film offers is Kyle’s. The Iraqis are all “savages” who threaten American lives and need to be killed. There’s some truth in this representation, insofar as this is how a lot of American soldiers thought. Yet the film obviates the questions of why any American soldiers were in Iraq, why they stayed there for eight years, why they had to kill thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilians, and how we are to understand the long and ongoing bloodbath once called the “war on terror.” It does that precisely by turning a killer into a victim, a war hero into a trauma hero.

Comment:  Scranton wonders about the sympathetic portrait of Kyle at the expense of the hundreds of Iraqis he killed and the thousands more killed by other American soldiers.

Journalist Susannah George, “Here’s What Moviegoers In Baghdad Think of American Sniper.” Global Post, Jan 28, 2015.

In Baghdad, where much of the film is set, the movie drew full crowds at one of the city’s new upscale cinemas. Dressed in a fur-collared coat and loafers, Mohammed says many of the showings were sold out, and he knows of people who had to book their tickets a day in advance during opening week.

But after just a week on screens, the Mansour Mall theater pulled the controversial war movie. A theater employee sitting at the box office says management made the decision “because the hero of this film boasts of killing more than 160 Muslims.”  The employee declined to give his name because he did not have permission to speak to journalists.

Comment:  George points out that many Iraqis wanted the same people dead that Americans did—insurgents, Al Qaeda, jihadists, future ISIS members, and sectarian warfarers.

Army Iraq vet (infantry) and author Colby Buzzell, “Chris Kyle and the Iraq War are More Complex Than American Sniper—Or Criticism of It.”  The Guardian, Jan 23, 2015.

I still didn’t get all the criticism. I liked Kyle – at least, the Kyle in the movie, as I know nothing about the one on the page or off camera. In the movie he did his job, did it well and hit all his enemy combatant targets with not a civilian killed. He followed the rules of engagement and, if anything, was a pretty squared away soldier – one I’d be honored to serve along side – and, if people think that the real Kyle was a monster for doing the job that our country sent him to do, then that must mean that they think I’m a monster as well. I also tried to do my job to the best of my abilities while over there, just so that we could all go home and nobody in my platoon would get killed.

Did I give a shit about the Iraq people? Yes, but I, too, joined the military and not the Peace Corps. I had a pretty good idea what I was getting myself into. War is shades of grey, but I had to view it in black and white while doing my job over there. I’d have gone mad if I hadn’t. It was us vs them, kill them before they kill you, and, as my Battalion Commander once told us all right before rolling into a heavily insurgent occupied city of Tal Afar, “Shoot first, shoot straight, protect the innocent and punish the deserving.”

Comment:  Buzzell sees a lot of himself in Kyle—a pretty good guy who did the job the military asked him to—and wonders whether if people hate Kyle, they hate him, too.

Marine Iraq vet (infantry) Jon Davis, “A Former Marine’s Review of American Sniper.” Time, Feb 9, 2015.

The scene that meant the most to me when thinking about Cooper’s acting ability was one that most people were probably bored by. I’ll throw a spoiler because the plot point really doesn’t matter. It was the scene where Kyle and his family are having the tire on their car changed. A Marine recognizes Kyle and comes up to thank him with all the “you saved me in, blah, blah, blah… and ‘a lot of guys didn’t come back, blah, blah, blah’” tropes that are in every war movie. What you probably didn’t notice about that scene was Cooper. To moviegoers he was boring, but what I saw was something I don’t understand how he got right.

In that scene, Cooper displays classic signs of a veteran who doesn’t enjoy being thanked. He immediately deeply retreats upon being recognized and becomes politely evasive. His speech breaks down into monosyllabic chirps of general acknowledgement, while not maintaining eye contact and attempting to not carry the conversation further. While I’ve never saved anybody, I’ve had this experience dozens of times when random strangers thank me for my service. You really can’t describe the feeling that follows, but last Veterans’ Day when my boss made a big deal about thanking me in front of all my students, a motive I am deeply appreciative of, I was overwhelmed with a feeling I can only describe as a profound and sudden sense of humiliation which I can’t begin to quite understand. All I can say is Cooper’s portrayal of this feeling was something I saw in his short chirps and expressionless awkward glances that communicated a level of detailed research, coaching, and acting, to say the least of getting to know realveterans that needs to be known and acknowledged.

Comment:  Davis is attracted to the scene that shows Kyle’s discomfort at being thanked for his service, and sees it as representative of the skill the Clint Eastwood/Jason Hall/Bradley Cooper team brought to the film. 

Army Afghanistan vet (infantry) and author Adrian Bonenberger, “There Are No War Heroes: A Veteran’s Review of American Sniper.”  The Concourse, Jan 23, 2015.

Kyle embraces his role as a Navy SEAL sniper, which is central to both the plot and his identity. It’s interesting that the literary and cinematic history of snipers goes unaddressed in the film; up until the 1990s or so, it’s difficult to find them mentioned in valorous or positive terms. (America’s first unequivocal sniper heroes were Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, the Delta duo who insisted on landing amid hundreds of hostile Somalis during the Battle of Mogadishu, sacrificing themselves to save a wounded comrade during the events portrayed in both the book and the film Black Hawk Down). For much of human history, a person who stayed back from combat and killed the enemy from afar was seen as unscrupulous at best. The original sniper is Paris, who dastardly kills the Greek hero Achilles from long range with a bow and arrow; Michael Moore, always a lightning rod for progressives and conservatives alike, stated the case more strongly in a tweet this past weekend suggesting that snipers were cowards.

Comment:  Bonenberger explores America’s new-found fascination with snipers as emblematic of the modern American way-of-war.

Movie-maker Michael Moore, Tweet, Jan 18, 2015.

My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders r worse

Comment: Moore gets to the point quickly why he doesn’t like American Sniper.

American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall interview with Charles Thorp.  Rolling Stone, Jan 28, 2015.

Q:  So how much of the script was pulled from the book American Sniper?

A:  The book was written less than a year after he got back from combat. There was a lot of great material in there, but I absolutely knew there was more to this guy than was in those pages. It was more about what happened when he was over there, which was useful. You could tell he still had his armor on when he was writing; however; there was a lot of edge there. It didn’t really get into what happened when he came home and what going to war had cost him. I wanted to take a deeper look at that.

Comment:  Hall explains that he knew there was a more complicated man and a better story than was revealed in the book version of American Sniper.

Jason Hall interview with Ted Johnson.  Variety, Jan 10, 2015.

“The cost is man, the toll is man, and it’s this man and every other soldier that fights.  If we understand that, maybe we won’t be so hasty into jumping into war, and if we understand that, maybe we’ll find a way of welcoming [veterans] home better.”

Comment:  Hall explains that the real point of American Sniper is the human cost of being a combat soldier.

American Sniper director Clint Eastwood interview with Stephen Galloway.  The Hollywood Reporter, March 16, 2015.

Q:  The film became quite controversial when it came out because there were… People said it, you know, glorifies war or glorifies American snipers. Is that how you view it?

A:  No I don’t think it glorifies… I think it glorifies it, sure. I mean in the first sequence he shoots down… Yeah, the sniping part is. But you know then eventually as that scene indicates that he’s getting… You can see it’s starting to tell on him and later on when he visits a psychiatrist and has to talk to him and the psychiatrist says did you do anything along the way over there that you maybe or you felt you shouldn’t have. And you could tell by the look on his face that yeah, he’s got some regrets in there. And that’s just the way it is. I think it’s anti and it’s… It just depends on how you want to look at it. It’s probably… I think the whole picture and with him dying and everything it’s no good deed going unpunished.

Comment:  Eastwood ponders whether or not American Sniper glorifies war.

 

 

DIY and Indie War Fiction

Posted May 26, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War, General

Tags:

Below is a short survey of some of the self-published, indie-published, or small press novels I’ve read the last few years that are either directly or indirectly about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s hard to distinguish between publication categories sometimes, but taken as a group, such offerings occupy a mid-range position in the spectrum of war-writing, somewhere between the manicured literary works offered by major publishing houses and the vast sea of veterans writing published online and in small journals.

Crossing the Wire, Bob Kornhiser
The Brooklyn Bridge Press, 2004

Crossing the Wire features two intriguing plot-lines: one about an American unit at war in Iraq after 2003, in which the first-person narrator, a lieutenant, finds love with a mysterious Iraqi woman, and a second that recounts the rise to power of Saddam Hussein and his fall in the wake of the American invasion. Author Bob Kornhiser, a Brooklyn-born New York City schoolteacher and author, never served in the military, but claims front-of-the-line status for publishing fiction about American soldiers at war in Iraq.

First line: We moved down the narrow street, wrapped in G.I.-issue night-vision goggles, armed spooks in the night, making a sweep.

To Kill the Other, Danuta Hinc
Tate Publishing, 2010

Not about American soldiers at war in Iraq or Afghanistan, To Kill the Other artfully portrays the radicalization of one of the 9/11 bombers and his participation in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Hinc, a native of Poland who teaches writing at the University of Maryland and has published widely, gets credit for such a sustained effort to dramatize the biographical details and interior thoughts of one of our War on Terror enemies.

First line: Tahir examined his reflection in the lavatory mirror—long shadows cast down in sharp strokes—and suddenly felt exhausted.

The Peacekeeper’s Photograph: A Master Sergeant Harper Mystery, M.L. Doyle
Vine Hill Road (VHR) Press, 2013

Set in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the American intervention of the 1990s, so, like Hinc’s work, not technically about Iraq or Afghanistan, still The Peacekeeper’s Photograph pleasantly introduces readers to Doyle, an Army veteran who has written a number of well-worth-reading military-themed fiction, romance, and, as a ghost-writer, memoir titles more directly linked to post-9/11 war. Among other virtues, The Peacekeeper’s Photograph features a senior female NCO as its protagonist, a point-of-view rarely—like never, to my knowledge—represented at length in other fiction.

First line: Mud covered my boots, splattered my uniform, and served as an unavoidable annoyance every single day of our Bosnian deployment.

What Changes Everything, Masha Hamilton
Unbridled Books, 2013

A very satisfying novel that weaves together domestic drama and foreign intervention in Afghanistan by a woman whose NGO husband has been captured and held for ransom by insurgents, while also incorporating imagined letters written by Mohammad Najibullah, the last president of Afghanistan. An accomplished writing pro, Hamilton has published widely as a journalist and once served as Director of Communications in the US Embassy in Kabul.

Prophetic epigraph from poet Adrienne Rich: Beirut. Baghdad. Sarajevo. Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of course here.

Tattoo Zoo, Paul Avallone
St. Martian’s Press, 2014

Both intense and sprawling (554 pages of small print), this novel about hard-bitten infantrymen in Afghanistan grows out of Avallone’s experience as a Special Forces officer and embedded journalist. The testosterone level is off the charts, for better or worse, but Tattoo Zoo is packed with gritty detail and burns with conviction that the grunt’s-eye view of war is the sharpest and most righteous.

From the front material: The novel was born out of the author’s own original screenplay Tattoo Zoo, which was inspired by Captain Roger Hill and First Sergeant Tommy Scott and their Dog Company soldiers who were dishonored by a command that was morally corrupt or just fearful of hurting their careers, from silver oak leaves to stars.

Old Silk Road, Brandon Caro
Post Hill Press, 2015

An oddly charming or charmingly odd picaresque road novel about a long “CONOP” mission in Afghanistan, narrated by a surly drug-addicted junior-enlisted medic attached to an advisor unit, and authored by a former Navy corpsman who himself was attached to an advisor unit in Afghanistan (and who post-deployment battled addiction, as movingly recounted here). In addition to being an engaging story, Old Silk Road features one of the best titles and, for my money, the best cover of the many Iraq and Afghanistan novels I’ve read.

First line: The sun shone hard and the wind billowed in from the west the day I first killed a man.

Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town, Susanne Aspley
WTF Press, 2016

As the title of her novel suggests, Aspley, a Peace Corps veteran and an oft-deployed Army Reservist, aims for a madcap take on small-town life in the Midwest in which quote-unquote normal folkways are interrupted when an African-American Afghanistan veteran arrives on the scene. Succeeding nicely, Granola, MN dives deep below its light-hearted surface to explore several big issues—patriotism/militarism, race, PTSD, and Heartland drinking culture, for starters.

First line: What begins as an ordinary day, the way most days do in Granola, veers a little off course when the first customer, a young black man, walks into the hardware store.

The Chords of War: Inspired by a True Story of Love, War, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr.
White Whisker Books, 2016

Based on the life of co-author Gonzalez, The Chords of War admirably tells the tale of an indie-rock musician who joins the military when his career falters, only to have his music take new shape in theater when he becomes a FOB rock-star. I blurbed The Chords of War (“….millennial-era men and women stalled between adolescence and adulthood.…”), so hey it’s got to be good, and if you don’t trust me, check out the cool trailer here.

First two lines: Music filled his mind. Specifically, seventeen-year-old Max Rivera dreamed of his last great gig with the Mad Suburbans.

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Four of the novels on my list portray young male fighting men: Crossing the Wire and Tattoo Zoo emit an old-school vibe—think, “I’ve been in the shit” Nam-style–while the Old Silk Road and The Chords of War protagonists (and their authors, too) exude a more twenty-first century sensibility, along the lines of the many “Terminal Lance” and “E4 Mafia” vets who dish out snark on Twitter. The other four novels usefully and entertainingly lift the lid on less-explored aspects of the war, from the domestic homefront to peacekeeping to humanitarian endeavors in-theater to fulsome portraits of the enemy “Other.” None of these novels shy away from extensive and graphic presentation of their characters’ romantic and sex lives and thoughts in-theater and out. Which is cool, because this department is one the Nortons and Random Houses of the world are shy about letting their war-and-military authors explore with much gusto. Or, maybe, it’s their authors themselves who are demure. In any case, love and sex are admittedly difficult to get right in war fiction—both too much and too little are problems—but the big houses tend to err on the side of caution while, based on the evidence of the titles presented here, the indies are much less inhibited.

In regard to music, I’ve always had a soft spot for small-label bands—punk, indie, underground, alternative, etc.—that constitute a rebuke to the aesthetically flaccid conventions of major-label pop and rock. The dynamic doesn’t quite work the same in the book-publishing business. I can’t quite work up the contempt for big-time houses and their favored authors that I generally possess for the makers and purveyors of corporate musical schlock. Nor can I unequivocally tout indie fiction as the home of real talent and true heart-and-soul overlooked by the suits and the masses. But something of that rock-n-roll spirit still burns within me, so kudos here to the authors I’ve named and all the authors who write at book-length for little recognition and small gain. If my short descriptions make the titles seem interesting to you, please search out and read them.

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A subcategory of the DIY and indie genre (at least in my mind) is war fiction published by university presses. Examples include Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War (2013), published by Apprentice-Loyola University, Maryland, and Hilary Plum’s they dragged them through the streets (2013), published by the University of Alabama Press. I like both very much, which makes me eager to read later this summer Caleb Cage’s Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2018), published by the University of Nevada Press. At some point I’d like to write more about this subgenre, but just in case I don’t, let this too-short paragraph be their tribute.

 

War’s Long Reach

Posted May 22, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: General

1SG Robert Perez and me at the Chicopee War on Terror Monument

My tour in Afghanistan was not over when I returned to the States in November 2009. Many things have happened since that have extended its reach deep into post-deployment life. The list includes:

-the infiltration bombing of Camp Chapman in Khost Province in December 2009, a FOB I knew well, to include several of the Americans and Afghans who were stationed there.

-the awarding of the Medal of Honor to a US Army advisor I had some acquaintance with from our train-up at Fort Riley.

-a long article in the New Yorker profiling the commander of the advisor unit two or three after I commanded it that name-checked many people and places I knew well.

-a visit from Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) telling me that they had detained a Russian-born jihadist who had attacked us in Khost in June 2009, killing one of the members of my team, who was the gunner in a truck in which I was a passenger.

-a visit from another CID agent doing a background check on one of my linguists who is now translating for an American one-star general—this after emigrating to the United States, serving a tour in our Army, earning an Associates degree, and gaining his citizenship.

-a visit from two lawyers on Bowe Bergdahl’s defense team, because my name figures somewhat prominently in the Army investigation report of the circumstances leading to the severe wounding of one of the soldiers involved in the search for Bergdhal.

-the profile in a major media venue of an Afghan National Army officer whom I knew in Khost who has since emigrated to the United States.

Last weekend, I was asked to offer comments at the dedication of the Chicopee, Massachusetts, War on Terror Monument. I received the invitation because one of the six men honored by name on the Monument had been a member of my advisor team. Then-Sergeant First Class Kevin Dupont died of wounds three months after being attacked by an IED in March 2009 while on patrol in the Khost-Gardez Pass. With Sergeant Dupont that day and joining us in Chicopee was then-Staff Sergeant Robert Perez, who subsequently spent eight months recovering and rehabilitating in San Antonio from wounds suffered in the same attack that killed Sergeant Dupont.

It was an honor to help commemorate the Chicopee War on Terror Monument, catch up with now-First Sergeant Perez, and meet the family members of posthumously-promoted First Sergeant Kevin Dupont. In my remarks, I paid what tribute I could to the lives and deaths of Sergeant Dupont and Chicopee’s other fallen heroes: Sergeant Steven Larivierre (USMC), Gunnery Sergeant John Fredette (USMC), Captain John Maloney (USMC), Staff Sergeant Daniel Newsome (US Army), and Sergeant Christopher Wilson (US Army).

My remarks in Chicopee are a little too long to publish here/now, but I’ll offer a repost from my old blog of the words I offered the Camp Clark family of soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines at the memorial service we held for Sergeant First Class Dupont in Afghanistan in June 2009. Read on if you please, and no problem if you’d rather not. I’ll be back soon with more book and movie reviews.

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“We are here today to honor the life of Sergeant First Class (SFC) Kevin Dupont, who has passed away of wounds suffered in an IED attack on 8 March of this year.  With SFC Dupont, there is much to honor, for he lived a rich life and made a difference in many people’s lives.

“Those of us in the room today knew SFC Dupont as a member of the Roughrider Embedded Transition [advisor] Team, and that is an important last chapter in his life.  But there are other chapters, too, and I will touch on them first.  He was the devoted husband of ___, with whom he shared the last years of his life.  He is survived by his parents, ___ and ___, who knew him and loved him first.  He was an ex-Marine, an experience that toughened him and filled him with pride.  He was a long-time member of the Massachusetts National Guard, where he had many friends and many adventures.  He was a member of an anti-drug task force in New England, where he battled a scourge that plagues the towns and cities of the region he loved so much.

“For those of us who have read the testimonials posted on the website dedicated to SFC Dupont, it is clear that he had deeply touched those he met in each of these endeavors.  For those of those who knew him here in Afghanistan, it is easy to see why.  SFC Dupont was wise, he was competent, he was funny, and he was sociable.  He made friends easily, and naturally sought to unite people into teams, families, and communities.  He was always eager to help, to share any danger or hardship, to adapt to any new situation, and determined to have a good time while doing so.

“These qualities made SFC Dupont a perfect Embedded Transition Team member.  Being an ETT is a strange thing.  We are plucked from more traditional units and places in the Army, organized into ad hoc units with no history or lineage, processed through two months of training at Fort Riley, deployed into theater, and then reorganized into new teams with the challenging assignment to improve the armies of our allies in the War on Terror.   SFC Dupont exemplified the qualities it takes to succeed in such an assignment.   First, he was brave and feared nothing.  Though old—older than me—he was strong of body and young at heart.  More importantly, he was mature, thoughtful, and open to new experiences.  I first met SFC Dupont at Riley, when I gathered his team together because I knew that some of them would serve with me here in Afghanistan.   The rest of the team was from Virginia, and I couldn’t figure out how this ancient, silver-haired New Englander had bonded so well with young men from the Blue Ridge Mountains.   But it was clear that he had.

“In Afghanistan, SFC Dupont was assigned to the 2/1 Kandak team, comprised mostly of California and Illinois men, and again he used his good cheer and positive outlook to make his presence felt strongly within their ranks.   In particular, SFC Dupont proved his mettle on the night of 8 February 2009, when he stood side-by-side with his ETT and ANA brethren in gun-battle with anti-Afghanistan insurgents in the town of Shimbowat.  SFC Dupont never flinched or wavered, and his courage spread through the ranks of both Americans and Afghans.

“Next, SFC Dupont was assigned to FOB Wilderness, where Coalition Forces and the Afghan National Security Forces battle insurgents trying to block construction of the Khowst-Gardez highway.  At FOB Wilderness, a conglomeration of Hescos and Bhuts as desolate as its name suggests, SFC Dupont found his final community, his final home, his final family.  The crown prince of Wilderness, SFC Dupont was known and respected by all the disparate residents of that lonely but strategically important outpost.   Two Coalition task forces, a PRT team, and a PMT team learned what the Roughrider ETTs already knew:   if something needed to be done, if a problem needed to be fixed, if a helping hand was required, SFC Dupont was always ready and willing to assist.

“SFC Dupont’s team chief, MAJ ___, and I assigned SFC Dupont to FOB Wilderness because we knew it was a tough mission.  Remote and austere as Wilderness is, duty there would challenge even the best of the units.  2/1 Kandak is a new unit, and it’s no secret that they were struggling to accomplish even the most basic tasks and missions.  Even worse, the morale of 2/1 soldiers was at rock-bottom, in particular because of a devastating friendly fire incident that occurred weeks before our arrival that resulted in the death of eight of its members.   It was these challenges MAJ ___ and I hoped to reverse by sending SFC Dupont to reside and work at FOB Wilderness.  I am glad to report that we succeeded—that SFC Dupont succeeded–beyond expectations.

“It was clear from my visits to Wilderness that the ANA soldiers with whom SFC Dupont served adored him.  They would do anything he asked them, and they dreaded letting him down.  They called him “Baba”—or beloved old man—in view of his age, but they did so with respect and because they enjoyed his company to no end.  SFC Dupont, in his short time here, learned more Dari and Pashtun than any ETT on our team.  He used this skill to great effect, continually laughing and joshing—often extremely profanely—with his ANA partners.  All this came naturally to SFC Dupont, for he loved people in all their varieties, but it also enabled him to be enormously effective.  From friendship and camaraderie came trust and respect, which enabled SFC Dupont to chide, coach, correct, and encourage 2/1’s Wilderness soldiers to re-commit themselves to the mission, to keep their standards high, and to learn once again to depend on their United States Army partners.

“So here’s to you, SFC Dupont.  You may well have been the best ETT of us all, and when this War on Terror is finally won, it will be because of the contributions of great men and women like you.  I only wish you had been able to complete your tour with us, and then return to your friends and family in New England.  You gave every bit of yourself to the mission, and set an example for us all to aspire to.  You were a great American, which means you were a great man period, and the good Afghans for whom you sacrificed your life recognize that fact as clearly as we do.  Rest in peace now my brother, and we’ll see you on the other side.

“Roughriders, Ride ‘Em Hard.”

1SG Kevin Dupont

From Baghdad to Hollywood: Sand Castle

Posted May 6, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

Does every veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan believe he or she has a story that deserves a larger audience than just family and friends? The journey to and from the battlefield, hooked to larger ideas about the nation, the military, and war, seems to be the very stuff writing was made for. The urge to render the particular flavor of one’s personal voyage in just the right form so that it expresses something approximating truth in a way that connects with larger audiences is nearly irresistible. This very understandable idea helps fuel the tremendous output of memoirs and essays by veterans over the last few years.

The grandiose outcome of such thinking is Hollywood. Not content with publication in print or online, ambitious artist-veterans shoot for the stars: their story is one that deserves transformation into an entertainment-art form viewed by the millions, not one read by the dozens. Plus, the money and the fame…. The only thing that could be more gratifying to the veteran’s desire for recognition and approval is Twitter superstardom….

Such were my thoughts as I watched Sand Castle, a Netflix original film released in 2017. Based on screenwriter Chris Roessner’s tour in Iraq in 2003 as a civil affairs specialist with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, Sand Castle made me wonder how Roessner accomplished the seemingly unimaginable feat of convincing real live moviemakers and money-men to pour their energy, talent, and dough into bringing his self-penned biopic into being.

The answer to which, as it happens, is recounted by Roessner in two interesting interviews here and here. The short version: after war, undergraduate and graduate film school at the University of Southern California. Then, several years of low-paying internships and assistant positions. Finally, catching the attention of the right person on a Friday evening and waking up Monday morning one of the hottest young bucks on the Hollywood screenwriting scene.

More on that below, but to the movie itself…

Sand Castle begins with an extended voice-over from the Roessner character, named Private Matt Ocre in the movie and played by British actor Nicholas Hoult. His unit staging in Kuwait prior to the invasion of Iraq, Private Ocre tells us that he is no gung-ho soldier, but a misfit who joined the Army Reserves for the college money (which actually doesn’t make him that different from most soldiers–it’s the gung-ho ones who are exceptions). We witness Ocre mutilating his hand by slamming it in a Humvee door to escape combat, but the ploy only earns him a cast and a bottle of painkillers, for which the battalion surgeon tells him, “Whatever the suggested dose is, double it.” Ocre meekly rejoins his squad, a trash-talking, iron-pumping pride of lion cubs who appear to be auditioning for the next Jarhead sequel: One of Ocre’s squadmates welcomes him back by declaring, “I think I smell pussy” and another exclaims “Baghdad or bust, bitches!” when the invasion order arrives.

The voiceovers disappear when the troops roll into Iraq, and as the movie settles into some very straightforward, literal recounting of things that happen, there’s little more that demarcates Ocre’s interior thoughts or places him at the center of dramatic tension. After a bit of initial excitement, his unit’s tour turns boring, and to escape dull routine in Baghdad, Ocre’s squad leader volunteers them to assist an Army Special Forces team assigned to a remote village. Upon arrival, Ocre’s unit learns their job is to help rebuild a water-treatment facility. “Rebuilding” apparently consists of endless digging by hand a big hole that a backhoe could scoop out in ten minutes, but whatever. The soldiers try to enlist local Iraqis to assist them, but they meet resistance until they broker a deal with a kind-hearted Westward-leaning schoolteacher. A moment of forward movement on the big hole ensues, along with a moment of rapport between Americans and Iraqis, but it all goes to hell when local insurgents douse the kind-hearted schoolteacher with gasoline, hang him upside down, and burn him alive in front of his school.

Ouch.

The Americans launch a raid to kill or capture the evil-doers, which adds a little bang-bang sizzle to the movie, and somehow the Americans rally a few Iraqis to get back to work on the hole. But when a car bomb destroys the water-treatment facility, the Americans, along with the Iraqis, come to a collective “fuck it” moment, and Ocre’s unit returns to Baghdad. As the movie concludes, Ocre’s commanding officer and command sergeant major decide that he has now obtained enough war stories to interest Hollywood, and so they put him on a plane back to the States.

That last bit about being sent back to make a movie is not actually what happens in Sand Castle, but it might well be. Hoult as Private Ocre is not the deep, brooding artist-at-war the movie proposes he is, but pretty much a blank slate. Still, you can see his wheels turning as he considers how he might render his love-hate relationships with his rough-and-tumble squadmates, his tough-but-wise squad leader (Logan Marshall-Green, who is great, the best thing in the movie, he should have played the Sergeant Dime character in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and the enigmatic Special Forces captain (played by another Brit, Henry Cavill, who was voted by the British Glamour the World’s Sexiest Man in 2013) into a compelling screenplay. Sand Castle tries to get details right, like how soldiers smoke a lot (but where’s all the dip?) and give each other “A-C-E” reports after battles. It also tries to convey “what it was really like” for average Joes who don’t have American Sniper-esque tours to brag about. And yes, its point that it was pretty clear that the war was not going to go smoothly from the beginning is well-taken. But Sand Castle also flubs big-time on other efforts to bring the soldier’s experience to the big screen, primarily in the ludicrous casting choices for Ocre’s lieutenant and command sergeant major. With no major parts for women—not even a love interest back in the States for Ocre–Sand Castle is “all-dudes,” which in this day-and-age is something of a statement. The direction, by Fernando Coimbra, is mixed: scenes are paced briskly, so the movie trips along quite nicely, but the pictorial framing of each shot is flat, especially all those views of soldiers hacking away with pickaxes at the big hole.

A movie about how Private Ocre subsequently willed Sand Castle into existence would probably be a better movie than Sand Castle, to be honest. Called Hollywood or Bust, Bitches, it might mash-up Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by having Billy Lynn by-pass Albert the middle-man to take his tale direct to Tinseltown where he becomes a vet version of the crazed movie-making wanna-be portrayed by James Franco in The Disaster Artist. But Billy Lynn was too unassuming to aim for movie-making death-or-glory, or to put it differently, he didn’t have the balls and vision to turn his battlefield heroics into a cinematic selfie. And so we have Sand Castle, a minor-note addition to the canon of Hollywood war films characterized by outsized pretensions of importance. Somewhere in the admixture of Hollywood-sized vanity and small-scale accomplishment lies the movie’s charm and curiosity, its successes and failures. Watching the movie unfold is to watch it become aware of its limitations: Sand Castle tries reasonably hard to do justice to a grunt’s-eye view of Iraq, but the lead character isn’t all that interesting and the doomed mission to rebuild a village water system not all that exciting.

What Roessner thinks of all this, I don’t know, but I’m curious if he is proud of Sand Castle, in spite of its modest achievement, or if he has regrets about how a better movie got away from him in the sausage-making process. Probably he’s just happy to have punched his ticket admitting him to LA insider status. If that’s the case, I wish him well as he moves on to bigger projects, while I remain on my couch most evenings scrolling through Netflix wondering what to watch next.

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I love this sympathetic review of Sand Castle by Molly Laich that appeared in the Missoula Independent.

On Stage in New York and New Jersey

Posted April 25, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

The cast of Autumn Ever After, with John Meyer kneeling in front and Karen Alvarado holding baby Mateo.

John M. Meyer, an airborne-Ranger Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, has turned himself into a playwright-actor-director-producer of great talent and productivity. While a student at Texas, Meyer wrote and acted in a play titled American Volunteers and had another play he authored, Cryptomnesia, performed by Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Since moving to New Jersey with his wife Karen Alvarado, who just graduated from the Rutgers MFA acting program, Meyer has remained busy in theater while working on a PhD dissertation on British World War II legend Orde Wingate. I go to many Rutgers theatrical productions, and Meyer and Alvarado live across town from me, but I first met Meyer when he emailed me out of the blue to discuss a play he was writing. Called Westhusing in the House of Atreus, it was based on the life and mysterious death in Iraq of Colonel Ted Westhusing, an infantry officer and philosophy professor at West Point whom I knew well. The play—as yet unproduced—combines Meyer’s interest in contemporary war with Greek and Shakespearean theater, as the play riffs on themes from classic mythology and large swaths of it are written in blank verse. Later I watched Meyer act in two plays in New York City, Philoctetes and Our Trojan War, and Alvarado perform leading roles in two Rutgers plays, one an all-female production of Julius Caesar (she played Marc Antony) and the other Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Last summer, my wife and I hosted a parlor play in our apartment titled The Priceless Slave, written by Meyer and starring Alvarado.

I was recently drawn even further into the Meyer-Alvarado orbit when they asked me to join a writing group they had organized under the auspices of Aquila Theater’s Warrior Chorus. For several years now, Aquila Theater has robustly sponsored plays that combine interest in contemporary war and Greek classics (including the aforementioned Philoctetes and Our Trojan War). This cross-pollination speaks to the background of Aquila Theater executive director Peter Meineck, a Brit who served in his own nation’s army before obtaining a PhD in the Classics and a teaching position at NYU. Meyer’s bent is much the same as Meineck’s, and under his leadership nine of us gathered on Friday nights for two months to brainstorm ideas for a crazy-quilt adaption of Midsummer Night’s Dream and two Greek classics, Aristophanes’ Frogs and Euripides’ Hippolytus we called Autumn Ever After. The end-result, which we performed in two staged readings, did not feature a particularly martial theme, but all the participants were either veterans or family members of veterans. Our Warrior Chorus writing group was one of four, each led by a vet-theater veteran (Jenny Pacanowski, Neath Williams, and Dan Murphy, by name) and featuring vets in writing and performing roles, so many thanks to Aquila Theater for its generous support of the cause and for facilitating my stage debut, late in my late-late-late middle-age.

My theatrical debut, as Herakles, no less–a role I was born to play?

A second recent Meyer-Alvarado production, even more central to the subject of contemporary war theater, is Bride of the Gulf, a play about Iraqi civilian and British soldier interaction over ten years in Basra, Iraq. Written by Meyer and directed by and starring Alvarado, Bride of the Gulf recently completed short runs in New York City and New Brunswick, NJ, in preparation for a run at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland later this summer. A publicity blurb describes the plot economically: “Amid the violence that engulfed southern Iraq in 2007, a sharp-witted Iraqi woman searches for her missing husband at the behest of her mother-in-law.” The blurb doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the characterization, which includes British soldiers and news crews and sectarian militiamen, in addition to Iraqi non-combatants whose lives are ruined by war. The acting, featuring Alvarado as the bereaved bride (“Bride of the Gulf” is also a nickname for Basra) and a cast of American and American-Iraqi actors, was intelligent and vibrant. Even better was the staging:  a mesmerizing swirl of movement, speech, sound, music, light, and image. Overall, it was intriguing to watch a play about the Iraq war written and performed by (mostly) Americans that doesn’t make the physical suffering and moral anguish of American soldiers its subject and isn’t beholden to strict straightforward linear narration and representations of reality. From my short acquaintance with Meyer and Alvarado, I’ve learned that their sense of what a play can do and be is expansive. Never staid, too-talky, or one-dimensional, a Meyer-Alvarado production makes use of a wide range of stagecraft possibilities to generate immediate effect and lasting resonance.

Bride of the Gulf, before the lights go down.

Many thanks to my Autumn Ever After castmates, from left to right in the picture above:  Andrea Bellamore, Melina Schmidt, James P. Stanton, Frank Dolce, Lou Bullock, and Nelly Savinon.

AWP18-Tampa, FL

Posted April 20, 2018 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , ,

The annual AWP writers’ conference is a feel-good affair more suited for socializing and networking than serious literary pondering. So it was this year, too, in Tampa in March, even as the writing, reading, and publishing throngs arrived stunned by the preceding year’s political tumult. In sunny warm Tampa, however, they–we–took not just solace in each other’s company, but positive good cheer and mutual uplift. This split response—a public hail-fellow-well-met spirit belying the dismay expressed privately at home and at the keyboard—extended even to the war-writing crowd. Serious issues lay on the table, such as the increasingly problematic position of veterans in the overheated contemporary public sphere and the could-be-much-better gender and race demographics of modern war-writing. But those heavy-duty matters took a backseat to catching up with old friends and meeting new ones.

The pattern was evident at the panel I moderated, titled “Crisis, Conflict, and Verse” and featuring an all-star quartet of poet-authors: Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, and Dunya Mikhail. We drew the dreaded 9:00am Saturday morning time-slot, which, along with our forbidding title, conspired to drive attendance downward, as if our topic was just too depressing to contemplate with memories of Friday night festivity still swirling in the brain, along with the fumes of five or ten beers. And truthfully, we kind of frightened ourselves, as first Busch, then Dubrow, and finally Mikhail paradoxically found powerful words to express how their belief in the power of the word has been shaken by recent political and cultural turns. Turner, even as he reported reeling not just from the national state-of-affairs but the agony of his wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s death in 2016, sensed gloom settling in and took it upon himself to infuse our proceedings with levity and hope. Levity, by performing with the always-up-for-anything Busch an impromptu dramatic enactment of the Kay Ryan poem “The Elephant in the Room”  and hope by speaking movingly about the importance of friendship and art in the dark days of loss and despair.

The rest of AWP was, for me, a blur of hits-and-misses. I arrived too late to catch a panel organized by veterans studies scholar Mariana Grohowski titled Women, War, and the Military: How to Tell the Story featuring Helen Benedict, Jerri Bell, Tracy Crow, and Mary Doyle, so I’ll leave it to others to report on its proceedings. It’s a great subject, though, one on many people’s minds these days, as both the military and mil-writing-and-publishing scene confront a variety of gender-related problems. MIA at this year’s AWP unfortunately were the authors of several notable 2017 war novels, such as David Abrams, Brian Van Reet, Elliot Ackerman, and Siobhan Fallon, so we weren’t able to hear their thoughts about their recent books and their reception. The online war-writing community was heavily represented, however, with principals from The War Horse; War, Literature, and the Arts; Wrath-Bearing Tree; the Veterans Writing Project/O-Dark-Thirty; and Consequence on-hand, their strength-in-numbers perhaps suggestive of a movement of the war-writing center-of-gravity from the page and the book to the wide-open, fast-moving digital realm.

Mostly though, AWP was about more personal pleasures, such as meeting for the first time authors I admire such as Seth Brady Tucker, Brooke King, Phil Metres, and Steve Kiernan. A dinner with Ron Capps and a small group of Veterans Writing Program mainstays was a joy. A panel on James Salter, whom I consider one of the patron saints of Time Now, held during the last time slot of the conference and attended by me and three others in one of the largest presentation halls at the convention, was as full of inspiring things as I hoped it would be.

Finally, though it’s become a cliché to write about interesting conversations with Uber drivers (like, “OOOO, I’m SO in touch with toilers in the gig-economy boiler room”), the four I had to-and-from my faraway motel offered fascinating glimpses into the lives of south Floridians. One driver was a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt, another worked days rehabilitating sex offenders, a third reported that he was getting married in a week, starting a business, and buying a house two years after finding himself broke and homeless, and the fourth had funny tales to tell about late-nights transporting Tampa Bay Buccaneers home from the clubs. I found the drivers’ stories intriguing and encouraging, on the whole. Somewhere in them I caught glimpses of the levity and hopefulness Brian Turner would have us remember, glimpses of people who had not been defeated.

Photo of Benjamin Busch, Dunya Mikhail, me, Jehanne Dubrow, and Brian Turner by Andria Williams. More photos by Williams here.

Approaching Tampa across the causeway in the AM. That would be so cool if the round orb on the right were the moon, but alas it was just a spot on the car window.


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