Afghanistan Signature Shot

Posted December 14, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Personal picture, Afghanistan 2009.

When the Washington Post began running The Afghanistan Papers, its recent series on the ineptitude of the US military mission in Afghanistan, I was sure that one of the articles would feature a photograph of a US soldier perched on the opened back ramp of a Boeing CH47 Chinook looking out over an Afghanistan landscape. Such photos are ubiquitous in articles about the Afghanistan War, and it’s easy to see why. The image of the solitary soldier looking backward and downward at the “Graveyard of Empires” seems to be an apt visual symbol for how Americans can only know Afghanistan from a distance, if at all, and understand their deployments only in hindsight.

In a sense I’m suggesting that the pictures have become a generic Afghanistan motif, but, still, the photos are always striking, what with the bulb-headed helmeted soldier, framed in the door hatch, hanging precariously off the back lip of an aircraft flying over a scenic Afghanistan rural or urban locale. The pictures evoke equal amounts of tension, serenity, wonder, thoughtfulness, and thrill, which in my experience are the same emotions that come with actually flying in a Chinook while looking backward over an open ramp.

The only fictional representation of the Chinook back-ramp scene that I can remember comes in the first chapter of Kathleen J. McInnis’s war-romance The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018). The opening episode of McInnis’s novel has her first-person protagonist, a civilian Pentagon analyst, being treated to a ride on the opened ramp of a Chinook as she flies into Kabul. The narrator is tethered in, as are the aircraft crew members, but the feeling is still precarious. Here’s how McInnis’s character describes it:

“Are you sure this is safe?” I screamed over the noise of the whirling blades to the sergeant to my left. His machine gun points outward into the dusty, blue beyond, looking for anyone–or anything–that might use our helicopter for target practice….

…I peered down between my boots at the brown baked mountains of the Hindu Kush which were peppered with dried scrub brush and the occasional cluster of homes. The villages grew more frequent, eventually merging together as we flew and forming the outskirts of the city of Kabul. And although the mountains themselves looked like they were made of dust as fine as powdered sugar, somehow the houses clung halfway up the slopes and squeezed themselves into narrow valleys before spreading open into the city itself.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that hundreds of feet of air were all that was separating me from the streets below. Or that hunks of metal weighing forty tons shouldn’t be airborne.

…I looked off into the distance and saw a black speck floating behind us.  I could just make out another helicopter’s long barrel shape and dual rotors. Looking down from the city below to the hills in the distance, now partially shrouded in late afternoon haze, I remembered [an] interpreter talking about his homeland in lightly-broken English. “We could make it beautiful again,” he said, “if only there were peace.”

To return to the Washington Post series, sure enough, within a couple of days the picture immediately below appeared to accompany the story here. To be exact, it’s of a gunner keeping watch out of the side window of a Chinook, but you get the idea. A quick search of the Internet found thirty or forty photographs shot looking out over the back ramp. Most of them are copyright protected, but I’m posting a few from public domain websites and DOD sites that will illustrate. You can also find a number of short videos depicting ramp-down Chinook rides on YouTube.

Washington Post, December 12, 2019. Lorenzo Tugnoli/FTWP.

Department of Defense, May 8, 2015. Virin.

Chinook Helicopter, December 23, 2016. Co H, 4th Bn, 7th Aviation Brigade. Photographer unknown.

Stars and Stripes, June 11, 2014. Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes.

Stars and Stripes, March 17, 2015. Vernon Young/United States Air Force.

Wallhere, October 31, 2017. Photographer unknown.

Military Times, May 10, 2018. Sergeant First Class Randall Pike/US Army.

PhotoPin/US Army. Date and photographer unknown

In regard to The Afghanistan Papers, I’m following the series closely and reading as well the follow-on commentaries and social-media responses to them (many written by friends). Most of the problems described in the articles I have addressed in my two blogs, and were apparent to all of us while we were in-country. The articles mostly address “big picture” issues of national and command policy and strategy, but the problems were felt with force at our level.

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, balancing military ops with nation-building programs, trying to figure out who was enemy and who wasn’t.… It was all part of the operating environment, and 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 an 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. 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 constant 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 high at the time and by all accounts remains high. Besides, we were all volunteers, right? and no one told us it was going to be easy. We did the best the we could, and though our best really wasn’t all that good, we kept trying and hoped for a very limited and temporary effectiveness.

Finally, the articles and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports on which they are based seem hostile to Afghans themselves. 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. The Post articles and the SIGAR reports seem to have been written by someone who never fought side-by-side with Afghans, not once, but dozens of times.

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.

 

Inside the Puzzle Palace: Kathleen J. McInnis’s The Heart of War

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

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The first and last chapters of the 2018 novel The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon are set in Afghanistan, but the intervening scenes depict policy, strategy, and operational planning at the highest levels of US military command, primarily at the Pentagon, but also in adjoining locales around Washington, DC, and on a diplomatic mission to London. Mostly fanciful, but containing elements of critique and satire, The Heart of War is by turns entertaining, insightful, and troubling. Drawing on author Kathleen J. McInnis’s own tour-of-duty as a Pentagon analyst, the novel is narrated in first-person by Dr. Heather Reilly, a newly-minted PhD hired by the Department of Defense for her Afghanistan expertise to work as an “action officer,” as wonky plans-and-policy staffers are known in the military bureaucracy. In the first “misadventure” that besets Reilly, she is transferred from her initial assignment to an obscure office led by a civilian woman known as “The Wicked Witch of the Pentagon.” True to her nickname, the Wicked Witch terrorizes Reilly while also relying on her to advance a quirky project to make Moldova the centerpiece of DOD efforts to counter Russian expansionism.

Many more misadventures ensue, but ultimately The Heart of War tells the tale of Reilly’s triumph. On the strength of two memos she authors, one addressing Moldova and the other Afghanistan, she comes first to the attention of the Secretary of Defense and then to the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Rewarded with promotion to an executive-level position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Reilly at novel’s end is diverted from the Moldova project and deployed to Afghanistan, where she is to lead a peace-making initiative in consort with her new-found romantic interest: a hot-shot Army colonel who, as it happens had fought alongside her brother John on a previous tour in Afghanistan. Then and there, as it further happens, John had earned a posthumous Medal of Honor for saving the Army colonel’s life, so for Reilly to now be united in common cause with a man inextricably linked with her brother represents a fortuitous culmination of family destiny and personal accomplishment, but not one undeserved. As romance blossoms, the colonel tells Reilly her rise-in-the-world has occurred because she has “consistently proven [her]self the best analyst in the room” and because she “cares… in a way that most people can’t even comprehend.”

That’s a lot for the first six weeks on the job, no doubt, and I’ve just scratched the surface of Reilly’s “misadventures,” which are presented as zany mishaps on the way to final glory. Most of them are of the type that feature prominently in “rom-com” movies and “chick-lit” stories, as I understand those genres. While some of them are pretty fantastical (let’s just say that a couple of episodes put the “action” in “action officer”), analysis of Reilly’s mishaps might serve as the basis for an astute assessment of the workplace environment for women at the Pentagon. I’m not the target audience for rom-com and chick-lit, so I’ll pass on mansplaining The Heart of War’s breezy critique of military patriarchy and the contortions it forces upon the woman who work within it. Before moving on, however, let the record show that McInnis’s novel, for all its fantastical elements, is a hundred times more realistic than the contemporary-war fantasies authored by male Army vets such as Brad Thor, Sean Parnell, and Dalton Fury I review here. And I haven’t yet gotten to the parts about The Heart of War I like best. Or which trouble me most.

What really intrigues me about The Heart of War, and what I think McInnis gets mostly right, is the portrait of the extremely competitive work culture within the Pentagon and the entire government apparatus. It’s never just about doing what’s best for the country, or for the soldiers fighting downrange. Instead, it’s about ruthless jockeying for status and position within the bureaucratic hierarchy. It’s about striking hard when the time is right to advance one’s position, which may or not be best for the nation or fighting force, and may or may not be fervently believed in ideologically and politically, but certainly is designed to enhance one’s prestige and career prospects. The Moldova project, at first laughable in Reilly’s estimation, takes on a life of its own as it is bandied about among various Pentagon agencies, the Department of State, the Executive Branch, and foreign allies. While processing through the inside-the-Beltway sausage-making machinery, it accrues a certain amount of possibility as a legitimate way to counter Russian aggression—a real concern—and it most definitely accrues value as a (mixed metaphor alert!) high-stakes poker chip among very talented, hard-driving Pentagon players who are carefully counting cards and reading the tells of their opponents. Not so much the art of compromise, successful fruition of a program, policy, or action depends on careful coalition-building and savvy grooming of highly-placed patrons. In the Pentagon, then, no good idea wins the day on its own merits alone; instead, it must find powerful advocates to battle with powerful adversaries, as in battles between dueling wolf-packs.

Also intriguing about The Heart of War is McInnis/Reilly’s take on all this. In the opening scenes, Reilly expresses stock skepticism at Pentagon foibles. The drab physical lay-out is often described as “underwhelming.” The Pentagon’s mania for Power Point and acronyms is ridiculed. We are told that at the Pentagon “colonels pour coffee.” Reilly gets in trouble for going to the bathroom unescorted and later she screws up and sits in the wrong place at a meeting, ha-ha. Many of the men and women she meets are weirdly-behaved and seemingly self-motivated, at least at first. Eventually, though, Reilly comes around—the system that aids and abets her rise in the world is revealed—mutatis mutandis—to be one that actually makes sense, or at least as much sense as possible. The brutal indoctrination turns out to be a necessary toughening regimen. The Byzantine bureaucracy turns out to be an ingeniously designed system of checks-and-balances that rewards survival-of-the-fittest perseverance and creative maneuvering. Most of all, the players, or at least the ones Reilly likes best, are not scheming self-promotors or brain-dead dullards, but “the best and the brightest” (hard to believe those words are actually used unironically). They’re super-smart, wickedly funny (in private), highly dedicated and patriotic public servants, and most of the men are decorated combat veterans, as well. They adopt personas as either ruthless ball-busters or cynical black-humorists not just to play the game, but win it.

That’s OK, if a little pie-eyed, offered to us for consideration from the perspective of a woman (the Reilly character, not McInnis) who has implausibly cut to very nearly the top of the Pentagon heap in half-a-year. I never served at the Pentagon during my Army career, but the mortar platoon-leader of my first infantry battalion later became an Assistant Secretary of the Army. Another lieutenant in that unit is now a three-star on the Army staff, and so is a captain with whom I also served. A third officer I knew had come from a position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and liked to proclaim he had once “deployed a brigade to Africa on a buck-slip”; in other words, he had circumvented laborious staffing procedures. That’s a pretty good anecdote, but it’s countered by the one told to me by the Assistant Secretary of Army, who related that a typical Pentagon scene is four full-bird colonels and three senior level civilians huddled around a computer parsing a word on a briefing slide. I haven’t seen any of those men in years, but they were all great officers when I served alongside them, and I trust and pray they were or are much the same in their Pentagon billets. The Heart of War skillfully portrays some of their world, but an even richer, deeper, more textured look awaits writing by someone who can describe them (and women like them, too), their careers, their decisions, and their concerns in fuller scope.

To close with a consideration of larger imports, The Heart of War sends mixed or confusing messages, sometimes clear, precise, and astute, and other times understated or implied. For example, the novel has little to say about Presidential politics. White House directives barely factor into the decision-making process the novel describes and notions of servitude are expressed in terms of obligation to fighting men-and-women and to the American public, but not as a response to Presidential fiat, welcome or unwelcome. Reilly’s transformation from skeptic to true-believer, academic-peacenik outsider to boots-on-the-ground woman-of-war insider, suggests a rebuke to liberal pieties about national defense and the military. On the other hand, her basic affirmation of Pentagon processes and the valor, integrity, and competence of the career military men and women who execute them contravenes anyone who believes that the modern military is comprised of mealy-mouthed bureaucrats who couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag. McInnis’s description of Pentagon culture and some of the modern-day Machiavellis who work there offers plenty of ammo to those concerned about government inefficiency—in this view, the Pentagon is a self-licking ice cream cone as interested in perpetuating the forever wars as ending them. Even more so, however, critics of the Washington “swamp” and “deep state,” if they were smart enough to think beyond Pizza Gate and Benghazi conspiracy theories, might use The Heart of War as evidence for their distrust of a slick DC insider culture whose actions are opaque to the larger world. That’s not at all what McInnis intends, but a sharp critic of the contemporary “administrative state” would deem all she describes as major problems, not virtues or necessary evils. For those of that persuasion, that so much energy and brainpower is devoted to constraining Russia, not buddying up to them, would be another problem.

Kathleen E. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon. Post Hill Press, 2018.

War Fiction: Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In

Posted November 24, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Nicholas Kulish’s 2007 novel Last One In, about an unlikely war correspondent embedded with US Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, didn’t pass unnoticed upon release. A New York Times review, for example, called it “funny, harrowing, and sympathetic,” as well as a “worthy addition to the curious but indispensable shelf of war satires.” Last One In seems not to have made much of a lasting impact, however. The contemporary war-writing fiction scene didn’t get rolling for another few years, and when it did, “war satire” never established itself as a dominant mode for depicting war in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Abrams’ great Fobbit the exception that proves the rule. Instead, a downbeat dwelling on the traumatizing costs of war as experienced by the individual soldier prevailed as the dominant subject and tone, reflected starkly in works such as Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, and the stories in the seminal anthology Fire and Forget. Last One In’s focus on Operation Iraqi Freedom’s opening act also seemed to have missed the mark of the nation’s interest, as an onslaught of later books—the ones I’ve mentioned above and many many more–about the difficulties veterans face after coming home came to define publishing and popular thinking about what it meant to write about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another factor that helped relegate Last One In to obscurity was a national literary sentiment that privileged narratives about contemporary war authored by soldier-veterans above those written by anyone else. The veteran’s voice, polished by tutelage in MFA programs and veterans’ writing workshops, exuded an authoritative credibility that has left civilian authors of war-and-mil novels, even superb ones such as Ben Fountain and Roxana Robinson, constantly having to explain themselves, perpetually fighting uphill for respect and readers. Journalists especially seem to have collectively decided not to even try to write novels about the modern wars; off the top of my head I can’t name another fictional work about war in Iraq or Afghanistan by an author who identified primarily as a reporter.

Reading Last One In recently (I had never of it before this year, and I make it my business to know about these things), Kulish’s novel struck me as of a piece with Evan Wright’s much more well-known Generation Kill (2004), and the 2008 HBO television series of the same name based on Wright’s book. Both Last One In and Generation Kill feature inside looks at Marine units as they alternatingly charge and creep from Kuwait to Baghdad in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Both works are focalized through the eyes of embedded journalists stuffed into the back of Humvees manned by Marine enlisted soldiers. In each case, the Marines swap endless insults and complaints, both to entertain each other and burn off anxiety in-between occasional moments of action. Neither Wright nor Kulish have much to say about tactics, strategy, or actual fighting, but then neither do the Marines with whom they ride. For both authors, the really interesting subject is the very masculine Marine culture they’ve been given access to, as it is for the Marines themselves, whose chatter revolves endlessly around how it is to see the world through the eyes of a Marine. The peep into Marine culture both fascinates and repulses Wright and Kulish. In the television series version of Generation Kill, for example, close-ups of the Wright character predominate as he responds silently-but-bug-eyed to the foul-mouthed, insubordinate, and politically incorrect tirades of the driver of the vehicle in which he rides. In Last One In, one suspects Kulish relied on good notes to craft lines such as:

…they talked their way through the celebrity spectrum, about who was uglier in real life, who had gained weight recently, and who was gay. Speculating on male homosexuality was the most popular subject. The only actors they didn’t seem to consider closet cases were Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. Han Solo could not be gay, the majority ruled. Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck, on the other hand, were two candelabra shy of Liberace.

Trying to determine the reporter-character/journalist-authors’ takes on the homophobia, misogyny, and racism they witness, as well as the Marines’ blatant lack of respect for many members of their chains-of-command and general disdain for Iraqis, is one of the more interesting deliberations that come with watching Generation Kill and reading Last One In. Is the casual crudeness part of the Marines’ charm, an integral verbal and mental aspect of hardened fighting men? Or is it a cringe-worthy social corollary to the surprisingly inept military proficiency and general thoughtlessness the reporter-observers often note? The decade-plus since Generation Kill and Last One In have intensified the questions, not answered them. The dominant sentiment, which I hold, is that such “toxic military masculinity” is neither charming nor necessary, and should be censored and policed by official chains-of-command and stigmatized by the media and the populace. To a certain extent, the needle has shifted within the military itself and such attitudes no longer are tolerated or even hold sway. But they are not gone, by any means, nor is there consensus that they should be. For some, the censoring and policing and stigmatizing are worse than the problem itself, if they even see it as a problem.

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Last One In’s many scenes set among Marines in the close confines of their vehicles and squad bays reflect Kulish’s journalistic eye for detail. They also give me a chance to expound briefly on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. It’s a concept that especially interests me as I read and watch stories about contemporary war and how they depict the microcosmic world of soldiers living among other soldiers. To quote from a reputable website, habitus “refers to the physical embodiment … of deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences.” To quote from Bourdieu himself, habitus is “a subjective but not individual system of internalised structures, schemes of perception, conception, and action common to all members of the same group or class.” (The Wikipedia entry on habitus is not bad in translating those ideas into plainer English).

For me, an author’s or artist’s representation of military habitus is always the most interesting thing. I especially like thinking about habitus in relation to scenes set inside vehicles, where soldiers act and interact in ways that are learned, stylized, and performative, but also highly naturalized (or, “internalized”). When such scenes are done well, they not only make me nostalgic for my own time spent cooped up in military vehicles on long movements, but render the impression that the author or artist is highly alert to the essence of what it is like psychologically and sociologically to be a soldier. Bourdieu was a sociologist, and so for him an accurate account of a particular habitus depended on “objective,” nominally value-neutral “thick description” (another lit-crit term) depiction of observed habits and speech patterns, which are then ascribed to the holding of specific worldviews and attitudes. That’s also close to the credo of journalists and anthropologists as they observe cultures and sub-cultures and try to describe them as fairly and accurately as possible. Novelists and artists, for their part, value thick description, too, but also everywhere they constantly inflect their depictions with irony, ambiguity, and shades of perspective. They’re also aware that the very act of observation induces an “observer effect,” whereby the actions of the observed change under the act of observation. That is certainly a factor afoot in Generation Kill and Last One In, where the embedded journalist protagonists surveil with pen-and-pad in-hand the Marines with whom they pass hours, days, and weeks.

To put a point on this esoteric discussion, here’s a long passage from Last One In set in a Humvee during the slow grind to Baghdad. The embedded journalist is Jimmy, the Marines are Privates Ramos (also known as “little Macho”) and Martinez, and their squad leader Sergeant Harper.

The gaps in conversation were torture, since there was no dearth of terrible scenarios the imagination could conjure. After several minutes of miserable silence, Jimmy announced, “You know, I’ve been here for a week, and I haven’t seen one camel.”

“Oh, who fucking cares?” Martinez said.

“Yeah, fuck your camel,” Ramos added….

[Jimmy exploded:] “Every minute since you’ve met me, I’ve had one thing on my mind. Thinking, ‘I’m going to fucking die. I’m going to fucking die.’ But do I whine about it? No. Because—because it’d get pretty boring to have me screaming about dying in the backseat all the way to Baghdad. Don’t you think?” Harper didn’t answer. “Don’t you think? So maybe I fucking want to talk about camels instead.”

“Jimmy,” Martinez said at last, very gingerly, “You haven’t seen one camel?”

“No, man,” Jimmy said with a laugh for the preposterously camel-free desert. “Not a goddamned one.”

“I’ve seen a couple,” Harper said.

“Me too,” Martinez said. They were using the indulgent tones of orderlies in an asylum.

“One hump or two?” Jimmy asked.

“One, I think,” Martinez said.

“Yeah, I think they were one,” Harper said.

“Cool,” Jimmy answered.

“Motherfucker,” Ramos said.

“What now?” Harper responded.

“How come I’m the only Marine who hasn’t seen a camel?”

“Everybody shut the fuck up,” Harper said. “That’s an order.” The talking ban was surprisingly effective, lasting a full hour, probably because each was a little pissed off at the others. Harper kept leaning back like he was trying to sleep, but Jimmy found it impossible to get any rest with the fear, the bouncing of the jeep, and the sand caked against teeth, tongue, and nostrils. He took notes instead. When no one spoke, all they could hear was the groaning of the vehicle on its shocks and the static of tiny grains of sand pelting the canvas top. The sandstorm lasted longer than they could stand to listen to those sounds. It was Ramos who cracked.

“What you writing?” he asked Jimmy. “Saying we’re lost? Don’t write that shit.”

“Not saying anything. And you can’t tell me what to write anyway.”

“C’mon, Jimmy,” Martinez said. “Step up.”

“Quit censoring the civilian, Private,” Harper said.

“You saying we fucked up?” Ramos asked.

“I’m writing a letter to my mom,” Jimmy said.

“What’s it say?” the private continued to pry.

“You know what?” Jimmy told him. “It says we’re lost. Says you fucked up. What do you think now?”

“You…” Ramos began. “You tell her a real Marine says hello.”

“Yea. And tell her little Macho said hi, too,” Martinez added. Jimmy looked down at his paper and finished writing, blessedly undisturbed.

Nicholas Kulish, Last One In. Harper-Perennial, 2007.

War Songs: Time Now Greatest Hits

Posted November 16, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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Hard to believe I’ve only written about music nine times since starting Time Now, but so it is the case. Honestly, there just doesn’t seem that many songs about Iraq and Afghanistan out there, although the list here names a few of which I wasn’t previously aware, and I’m sure there are others. Whatever, I enjoy writing about music and several of the posts below rank among my favorites. Some of them speak more personally of my own deployment than the typical Time Now post. The songs I loved were vitally important to me while I was in Afghanistan. I’m sure it was the same for most of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with whom I deployed, and remained so in the jangled-up years after return.

Can You Take a Five Finger Death Punch? November 26, 2018. Artist featured: Five Finger Death Punch.

Two Songs, Ten Years: Music, Memories, and Going to War, October 6, 2018. Artists featured: Thao Nguyen, The Walkmen.

Khost, Afghanistan in the Western Musical Imagination, July 10, 2016. Artists featured: Three bands, each named “Khost.”

Where Have All the War Songs Gone? February 7, 2015. Artists featured: Old Crow Medicine Show, Jason Isbell, The Offspring, Josh Ritter.

Newsted’s Heavy Metal Tribute to Pat Tillman, January 3, 2014. Artist featured: Jason Newsted.

A War Music Sampler: Country, Folk, Hip-Hop, July 11, 2013. Artists featured: Jimmy Rose, Zac Charles, Jason Moon, Emily Yates, Chamillionaire, Soldier Hard.

Jason Everman, July 4, 2013. Artist featured: Jason Everman.

Daniel Somers, June 29, 2013. Artist featured: Daniel Somers.

Mike Doughty, June 22, 2013. Artists featured: Mike Doughty, Linkin Park, Adele.

Veterans Day Iraq and Afghanistan War Movie Guide

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

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A still from 2018’s 12 Strong: The Declassified Story of the Horse Soldiers.

Just in time for Veterans Day weekend binge-watching, or binge-reading, here are links to all Time Now posts that review movies about twenty-first century war in Iraq and Afghanistan. No Generation Kill, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, or 12 Strong, unfortunately, because I’ve yet to write on them. Also, no Captain Phillips, Act of Valor, or 13 Hours, for the same reason and because they’re not set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Finally, no Jarhead, since it’s about the Gulf War, nor the Jarhead sequels, because either their location is indeterminate or I haven’t watched them yet. Still, there’s plenty more to keep you entertained. What will I be watching? Generation Kill again, and I hope to finally get to 12 Strong.

Sand Castle (2017). US Army soldiers struggle to complete a civil affairs project in Iraq. Starring Nicholas Hoult as Private Matt Ocre.

Thank You for Your Service (2017). US Army Iraq veterans cope with PTSD after leaving the service. Starring Miles Teller as Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann.

War Machine (2017). An idiosyncratic US Army general takes charge of the war in Afghanistan. Starring Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon.

The Yellow Birds (2017). Two US Army soldiers are tormented by the death of a third in Iraq. Starring Alden Ehrenreich as Private John Bartle. Also discussed at length here.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016). An unlikely Iraq War hero is feted by the American public. Starring Joe Alwyn as US Army Specialist Billy Lynn.

Nobel (2016). The long reach of war in Afghanistan follows Norwegian soldiers home after deployment. Starring Aksel Hennie as Lieutenant Erling Riiser.

War Dogs (2016). Two in-over-their-heads arms entrepreneurs try to make it big selling ammo to the Afghan National Army. Starring Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli and Miles Teller as David Packouz.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016). A female journalist parties hard while exposing problems with the US military effort in Afghanistan. Starring Tina Fey as Kim Barker.

Hyena Road (2015). Canadian soldiers debate whether counterinsurgency operations or combat action is the path to victory in Afghanistan. Starring Paul Goss as Captain Pete Mitchell and Rossif Sutherland as Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders.

A War (2016). The long reach of war in Afghanistan follows Danish soldiers home after deployment. Starring Pilou Asbaek as Commander Michael Pedersen.

American Sniper (1) (2014). A Navy SEAL at first excels in battle in Iraq but eventually cracks under the stress of repeated tours. Starring Bradley Cooper as Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle. American Sniper (2)

Fort Bliss (2014). A female US Army sergeant, a battlefield hero in Afghanistan, fights for respect on return to the States. Starring Michelle Monaghan as Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann.

Lone Survivor (2013). A Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan goes awry. Starring Mark Wahlberg as Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell.

Zero Dark Thirty (1) (2012). A bold female CIA agent leads the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Starring Jessica Chastain as “Maya.” Zero Dark Thirty (2)

Green Zone (2010). A swashbuckling US Army officer fights not just insurgents in Iraq, but enemies within his own ranks. Starring Matt Damon as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller.

The Messenger (2009). Two US Army soldiers notify next-of-kin of loved ones’ deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Starring Woody Harrelson as Captain Tony Stone and Ben Fisher as Sergeant Will Montgomery.

The Hurt Locker (2008). A cocky US Army bomb disposal expert wages war in Iraq on his own terms. Starring Jeremy Renner as Sergeant First Class William James.

****

Postscript: After publishing the post above, I read the following in Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In, a 2007 novel narrated by an embedded journalist assigned to a Marine unit at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A Marine named Martinez opines on whether reporters should carry and fire weapons when attached to a unit going into combat:

“I’ve seen We Were Soldiers, with Mel Gibson,” Martinez continued. “That reporter said the same thing. When the time cam, he started popping like his name was Dirty Harry.” A civilian stateside might feel inadequate for imagining war in terms of movies. After he lived with a Marine rifle company, that feeling would vanish. Everything was related in terms of movies, Braveheart and Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket, and with the reverence reserved for canonical texts, Black Hawk Down. It said a lot for the movie that Marines would hold a film about Army Rangers in such high regard. If a reporter had shot people in We Were Soldiers, by the Marine logic, it must be so.

War Fiction: Benjamin Buchholz’s One Hundred and One Nights

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

Tags: ,

US Army veteran Benjamin Buchholz’s 2011 novel One Hundred and One Nights’ first-person narrator is an unlikely Iraqi participant in the war against America in the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Abu Saheeh (his name a pseudonym meaning “Father Truth” in Arabic) is a middle-aged doctor from a prominent Baghdad family who, after studying and practicing medicine in Chicago for thirteen years, returns to Iraq to assist the transition to post-Ba’athist rule. An unwelcome reunion with a hated older brother, however, leads to the death of Abu Saheeh’s daughter and sends him on a downward spiral fueled by remorse, anger, and alcohol that eventually result in psychosis and extreme narrator unreliability. The narrative proper of One Hundred and One Nights takes place in a small town on the Iraq-Kuwait border named Sufwan, where at the novel’s opening we find Abu Saheeh running a small shop selling mobile phones by the side of the main road from Kuwait to Baghdad. The business, however, is only a cover: Abu Saheeh’s real purpose in Sufwan is to monitor American military convoys in preparation for emplacing a roadside bomb that, as events transpire, will not only kill American soldiers but allow him to enact revenge on his brother. Abu Saheeh’s sense-of-mission in Sufwan, however, is troubled mightily by the intrusion into his life of an apparently homeless and orphaned preadolescent girl named Layla, a “market urchin” who uncannily complicates Abu Saheeh’s plans and thoughts.

That’s an intriguing set-up, and as One Hundred and One Nights is fairly unknown, I’ve already given away too much, for Buchholz skillfully hides much of Abu Saheeh’s backstory until the novel’s closing pages, even as his reliability as a narrator becomes increasingly shaky. The author’s handling of chronologically complicated narrative threads is not the only accomplished aspect of One Hundred and One Nights, for the novel excels in many other ways, too. Buchholz has done very well to create complex, memorable characters—not only Abu Saheeh, but a host of other central and minor figures–devise a plot that captivates and surprises, and situate his story in a densely-rendered culture milieu that seems not just accurate but knowing. The prose is neither gutbucket simplistic nor highly stylized, but serves nicely for explorations of mental landscapes and invocations of a ghost-land spaces where reality, image, and fantasy blur:

In my home I sit completely naked at my kitchen table for a long while. In front of me I have placed my whiskey bottle. It is empty. Behind the whiskey bottle, I have placed the bomb, the next bomb, the second and, I hope, last of those bombs bought with Sheikh Seyed Abdullah’s money, smuggled across the border in pieces behind the disguise of the whiskey bottles. The thick and rounded bottle distorts the shape of the bomb. The facets of the bottle reflect the image of my haggard face, superimposed on the curving shape of the detonation charge, so that the bomb seems to have my rough whiskers, my black tumble of hair, my untrimmed mustache, my depthless, reddened eyes.

Before writing One Hundred and One Nights, Buchholz published a memoir titled Private Soldiers (2007) about his National Guard unit deployment to southern Iraq. In Iraq, Buchholz served as a civil affairs officer in and around Sufwan. Apparently the genesis of One Hundred and One Nights were the death of a local girl and the bombing of one of his unit’s vehicles, but rather than focusing on the victims of war, especially the American victims, or on the experience of American fighting men, Buchholz has used his first novel to dramatize the events through the eyes of their killer. Buchholz’s tour in Iraq, he explains in an addendum to One Hundred and One Nights, instilled in him a desire “to understand and empathize with the types of personalized hatred and personalized loss and personalized dementia that I believe to be at the core of the mind-set required to perpetrate a bombing or kill another human being.” When asked why he chose to write from an Iraqi perspective, Buchholz writes, “I think it is an issue of empathy, of trying to understand other people,” but also, “Writing from my own point of view of someone culturally similar to me would have been boring.” Fiction rather than non-fiction, according to Buchholz, offers an “outlet for hypothesizing, a place that allows me to give structure to ideas and concepts that seem in the real world important but also ephemeral, shifty, unquantifiable, nonlinear.”

Those explanations are insightful, if more turgidly expressed than the more fluid and supple prose of One Hundred and One Nights would suggest. One Hundred and One Nights probes the limits of empathy through sympathetic character creation, at a time when issues of cultural appropriation and Orientalism are real concerns. Buchholz appears to have damned the critical torpedoes by creating a story around one of the mysterious, anonymous residents of Iraq he must have observed by the thousands during his tour. Given its subject, One Hundred and One Nights was probably not destined to ever be popular among American readers more interested in the experience of American soldiers than those whom they fought. The book’s title, which plays a little too obviously on the ur-text of Arabian literature, One Thousand and One Nights, and the book’s jacket, which features a fetching young Arab woman peaking out from under a hijab, also bespeak an uneasiness which someone, either Buchholz himself or his publishers, must have felt about bringing a book told by a radicalized middle-aged male Iraqi insurgent before American reading audiences. That the novel succeeds as well as it does is a testament not so much to Buchholz’s cultural acuity but his literary skill. Its interrogation of the limits of empathy is excellent, but its exploration of the possibilities of artful tale-telling even better.

As far as I can tell, One Hundred and One Nights is the first novel about war in Iraq written by a US military veteran and one of the first novels about the war written by any American. As such, it’s a fantastic first effort right out of the chute at the head of the tradition it helps inaugurate. As of 2019, One Hundred and One Nights and Private Soldiers remain Buchholz’s only published books, but just this year he snagged a spot as a featured columnist for the online journal The Writer, and there he announces that he has contracts for two more books forthcoming in 2020. I’m glad to hear it and I look forward to learning what they are all about.

Thanks to David Eisler for the tip on One Hundred and One Nights and another early-on novel set at least partially in Iraq, Nicholas Kulish’s 2007 Last One In, which I’m reading now and will be writing about soon.

Benjamin Buchholz, One Hundred and One Nights. Back Bay-Little Brown, 2011

15 Months, 10 Years After

Posted October 20, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: General

On the move in Khost Province, June 2009.

Before I started Time Now, I kept a blog called 15-Month Adventure, about my service as a US Army advisor to the Afghan National Army from 2008-2009. In its time, 15-Month Adventure was more popular than Time Now has ever been, measured by number of views. Still, it was never a blog for the masses, and you could easily be a reader of Time Now and not even know 15-Month Adventure existed.

If you care to check them out, below are links to several 15-Month Adventure posts that tell some of the most significant and interesting stories related to my deployment. The posts here are largely drawn from the first seven months in Afghanistan, when I was the leader of an advisor team (known as “ETTs,” or “Embedded Transition Team”) on Camp Clark in Khost Province. Camp Clark was co-located with Camp Parsa, the home of the Afghan National Army 1st Brigade, 203 Corps, which was the unit with whom my advisor team worked.

Looking back at the posts, I’d say most of them concern the ambiguity of the events I lived through and the Afghans I met, while others record the respect for the men and women with whom I served. There’s also a few that describe combat or events that happened after I redeployed.

Afghans

Red Beard. A strange encounter with an Afghan elder.

LACKA-LACKA. Afghans relished verbal back-and-forth.

Orientalism. We knew so little about the Afghans with whom we worked.

Big Tent. Encounters with Afghan women were few, but telling.

A Little Bit of Afghan Goofiness. When things got crazy, you had to laugh.

500 Mattresses. About corruption and knowing who to trust.

New Yorker: More about corruption and knowing who to trust.

Sabari. A hardcore Pashtun elder was surprisingly easy to work with.

Americans

The BSO. BSO stands for “Battle Space Owner.” I learned a lot from the BSO in Khost.

Swenson. A fellow advisor was awarded the Medal of Honor.

War Horses. In praise of my XO and Sergeant Major.

All Hail the Defenders of Spera COP. My worst fear was that our tiny outpost on the Pakistan border might be overrun.

Spera COP Sector Sketch. More on Spera COP.

Afghanistan Combat Medic. One of our medics was a true hero.

The Best ETT of Us All. In memoriam.

Me Time. How we tried to take care of each other and relax in our down time.

Afghanistan

The KG.  Every trip into the Khost-Gardez Pass was epic.

Tani. While we were there, Tani was a quiet place that inspired reverie.

Up Sabari Way. In Sabari, anything could happen, and usually did.

Pat Tillman. We traveled to Spera District Center, near where Pat Tillman was killed.

Action

The Death of Hekmatullah. About a gun-battle just outside of Camp Clark.

On the Border. Two ambushes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.

Big Battle. Insurgents occupied a government office building in downtown Khost.

12 May 2009 Redux. More pictures from the big battle in downtown Khost.

Bronze Star with V Device. An award recommendation for a Special Forces sergeant. Not written by me, I should say, though I heartily approve.

RPG Boom-Boom. When rocket propelled grenades come your way, it is no joke.

Gun Run. Calling in two Kiowa Warrior helicopter gunships.

Afterwards

Still. Thinking about a very bad day in Afghanistan.

The Road That Dare Not Speak Its Name. The name of the main road through our sector was classified.

The Prettiest of Trees The Dogwood Now. Encountering a former student, now a disabled veteran.

Man Down. About a motorcycle accident.

Fallen Soldier. A picture from a memorial service in Khost.

 


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