War Films: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and War Machine

Posted August 13, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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I wish the movies Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and War Machine were better than they are, but after watching both  several times, it’s hard to argue with the mixed reviews and lukewarm popular reception each earned upon release. Defeating hope that Hollywood might compellingly portray the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that bite hard politically and psychologically, both squander the potential of their print sources and the talent of their proven actors and filmmakers.

In the case of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the Ang Lee-directed movie version of Ben Fountain’s National Book Award-winning novel just plays flat. The beauty of Fountain’s novel about a misbegotten effort to honor the members of an infantry squad at a Dallas Cowboys game lay in its ingenious imagining of the multiple ways the infantrymen, known as the Bravos, exposed a modern America desperately looking for heroes at the same time it has divorced itself from real investment in the wars that might generate them. The allures of big money, big time sports, military idolatry, Hollywood fame, evangelical salvation, and conservative talk radio that consume the citizenry gathered to watch the Cowboys and fete the Bravos quickly reveal their shallowness when bumped up against the Bravos’, and particularly Billy’s, skepticism toward everything that lies beyond the realm of their shared warfighting experience. Holding things together in the novel are Fountain’s stylistic pyrotechnics, which supercharged even the most mundane physical descriptions while giving crazed articulation to Billy’s muddled misgivings. Driving everything forward was a very basic set of questions that generated suspense as the game clock ticked: Would the Bravos make fools of themselves in the halftime ceremony? Would Billy and his cheerleader crush Faison find a way to be together? Would Billy succumb to the pleas of his peacenik sister and a hippie preacher and refuse to return to Iraq? Would the film deal that a big shot Hollywood producer named Albert is trying to put together come to fruition?

Unfortunately, little of this works in the movie, the slackness of which renders the trenchant social critique and human drama of the novel pointless, disconnected, and tedious. The first couple of scenes, which introduce Billy and the Bravos, their military escort Major Mac, Albert, and Dallas Cowboys PR factotum “Pussy Boy Josh” while setting up the basic premises of the Bravos’ battlefield heroics and their arrival at Cowboys Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day orgy of congratulations and celebration, are OK, but just OK. Within minutes of the somewhat-promising start, however, scenes begin to fizzle, storylines start to slog, and soon the actors, and Lee, too, seem to have lost interest in the movie they are making, and the viewing experience becomes a slow grind to the end. Why exactly this is so, and whether it need be so, is a good question. To my mind, many scenes, such as those featuring Billy’s sister (played by Kristen Stewart), and especially the final showdown involving Billy, his squad leader Staff Sergeant Dime (Garrett Hedlund), Albert (Chris Tucker), and Cowboys owner Norm (Steve Martin) over the proposed movie deal, could have been better staged and more vibrantly acted. A.O. Scott, in an otherwise favorable New York Times review, writes that Billy Lynn feels “more like a filmed play than an adapted novel” and that “the acting has a studied, stagy quality.” I agree, but am not as forgiving as Scott; honestly, some of the scenes have the turgid, blocky quality of 70s and 80s TV dramas such as Mannix and Vega$, shows featuring lunky and ponderous men taking turns delivering very serious lines.

Perhaps, though, something deeper, maybe even structural, drains the movie’s energy. The hole at the center of it all might be Billy himself: sweet and something of an idiot savant, he is also passive and inarticulate—though the formula worked for Forrest Gump, it’s not exactly what you want as the star of a movie that strives to be a blockbuster. Joe Alwyn looks great as Billy Lynn, and God Bless Billy I hope he gets to sleep with Faison as soon as possible and then lives happily ever after with her, but still…. The book strives to make us think that Billy’s battlefield heroics have some connection to his integrity and sound sensibility, as does the movie, but the movie struggles more than the book to make us feel his nobility to the same degree that the other characters do. It’s not hard to imagine Billy ten years on living a low-key life much like that of the protagonist of another recent film: the Adam Driver character in the indie movie Paterson—a former Marine now loved by a woman better-looking than he seemingly deserves, a good man basically, but otherwise so cowed by the complexity of life—in particular his own past life–that he determines to keep everything as simple, as routine, and as repetitive as possible. This is all by the way of suggesting that Fountain’s novel, despite the stylistic razzmatazz and the glitzy trappings of the NFL and Destiny’s Child, is at heart another quiet, minor-key portrait of a brooding combat veteran—a hard act to pull off in Hollywood and an even harder sell in American cineplexes.

In the failure of Billy to establish himself as the dynamic center of the film, Staff Sergeant Dime and Billy’s squadmates takes precedence, with multiple scenes showing them baiting well-meaning Cowboys fans, and the film’s climax consists of several long-winded speeches by Dime defending the Bravos against the manipulation and exploitation of Norm and Albert. But something goes awry with Lee’s effort to consolidate virtue and honor on behalf of Billy and the Bravos. Without Fountain’s wise contextualizing of the Bravos’ hard-earned integrity, their aggressive irritability comes off as more problematic than justifiable or admirable, and eventually one’s sympathy starts shifting toward the subjects of their taunts and accusations, and one begins to wonder why the Bravos don’t just take the damn film deal, no matter the terms—like, who wouldn’t? In so doing, the film inadvertently flips the novel’s perspective on the civil-military divide: rather than demonstrating an American populace out of touch with its warrior class, Ang’s movie suggests that military men such as the Bravos have withdrawn into a self-protective sense of their own superiority they defend by lashing out at civilians they consider lame, which is almost all of them.

War Machine, directed by David Michod and starring Brad Pitt as Glen McMahon, a four-star general based on General Stanley McChrystal, has its own interesting relationship to its source material, its own troubled effort to organize a compelling movie around its central character, and its own interesting take on the civil-military divide. Where Joe Alwyn and the rest of the Bravo junior enlisted soldiers are well-cast as 19-year-old infantrymen, Brad Pitt—far from his Tyler Durden fighting trim–is too doughy to play a convincing McChrystal, a lean, mean running machine if ever there was one. As any YouTube video of McChrystal illustrates, McChrystal epitomizes the Civil-War-reenactor gauntness of the highly-driven modern infantry officer; Michael Hastings in The Operators, the book War Machine fancifully adapts, describes McChrystal as resembling Christian Bale, and based on what I know of Bale, I’d say hell yea, that would work.

Pitt and Michod, however, seem torn between realistic and parodic portrayal of McChrystal—McMahon comes off as a cross between George C. Scott’s portrait of General George Patton in Patton (loud, profane, complex, and admirable) and George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson character in Dr. Strangelove (loud, profane, stupid, and reprehensible), leaving the audience to figure out whether McMahon is a larger-than-life, charismatic warrior-leader-intellectual or a buffoon, a fool who doesn’t know that he is a fool. A voiceover (which we learn halfway through the movie is the Hastings character’s) alludes to McChrystal’s cerebral approach toward modern war and his ability to organize “systems” to defeat enemies, but in scene-after-scene, as portrayed by Pitt, General McMahon comes off as neither a Patton or a genius, but a dunce who over-explains things to people who know better as if they were 5th-graders. Similarly, McChrystal was notorious for gleaning information from seized cell phones and laptops, and the intel-and-targeting processes he pioneered in Iraq were highly digitized, but a running joke in War Machine is that General McMahon is an old school low-tech throwback who gets flustered by the challenge of hooking up his computer. Which would be OK, if Michod and Pitt were playing everything for laughs, as the attached advertising poster implies, but it’s clear that they are not, or not always.

Pitt’s over-the-top performance is so bizarre as to short-circuit War Machine’s thematic interest in documenting the failure of military “COIN,” or Counterinsurgency, strategy in Afghanistan, of which McChrystal is portrayed as a primary proponent. The way Pitt’s characterization makes the most sense is that Michod and Pitt make McChrystal ridiculous to reinforce the point that COIN was a foolish and doomed strategy. One of the interesting aspects about The Operators is Hastings’ own working out of his feelings toward McChrystal. Initially charmed, then intrigued, and finally appalled by McChrystal and his inner circle’s insouciant trash-talking, he comes to see them as evil, disloyal, and reprehensible in light of what he perceives as the failure of McChrystal’s leadership in Afghanistan as commander-in-chief there. In Hastings’ telling, it’s not smearing the Vice-President and the French while on a three-day binge in Europe that is McChrystal’s worst crime (to say nothing of his cover-ups of the Abu Ghraib and Pat Tillman fiascos), it’s his promotion of COIN, a strategy that was hated by both Afghans and the US troops who had to implement it. In Hasting’s view, McChrystal is neither a hero nor a joke, but something worse: tangible evidence that one of America’s leading general lives in a bubble comprised of arrogant sycophants deeply hostile to civilian leadership and out of touch with the troops they lead and the people of the country they are nominally helping, men who purvey dubious strategies that might prolong war forever, but never win it.

Michod and Pitt appear to get all that, but torn between parody and biopic, War Machine reduces Hasting’s argumentative edge and subtler portraiture to Saturday Night Live-levels of characterization, and for some reason—given its basic contempt for McChrystal–spins the story to be one of McChrystal’s redemption through an epiphany that the troops in the field hate his COIN strategy and his subsequent avowal at movie’s end to reshape war goals to brutal extermination of the enemy: “Give ‘em hell, boys. Kill those motherfuckers. Eat them alive,” General McMahon tells a group of special operators preparing for a mission. McChrystal, according to Hastings, never publicly renounced COIN strategy, for what it’s worth, but OK, the movie’s allowed to take some liberties to hammer home the point that COIN sucks. Still, more interesting and important aspects of Hastings’ book and the larger saga of McChrystal’s rise-and-fall are left unexamined. The ethics of the McChrystal staff’s shit-talking their civilian leadership, for example, are barely raised, nor are the ethics of Hastings reporting of what might be defended as late night beer-talk among fighting men used to bluntly speaking their minds. Though War Machine portrays at length General McMahon’s staff, it does so for comic and cinematic effect, as if to fill the screen with the type of jazzed-up fast-talkers who populate movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short, and War Dogs. Michod makes little effort to link McMahon’s staff to corresponding members of McChrystal’s real staff, which might have been a useful way to comment artistically on real historical figures, and he seems to validate the staff’s self-perceptions that they are colorful, tell-it-like-it-is swashbucklers—like grown men still acting like the Bravos in Billy Lynn–not drunken yes-men who naively sabotage their boss’s career, as Hastings ultimately concludes them to be.

So, we’re left with a movie about a foolish man who tries to implement a foolish strategy, but which hints that it might have been about a talented man who tries to implement a flawed strategy under difficult circumstances, and is done in by hubris and the men he trusted most. For the record, I don’t think either The Operators or War Machine has it quite right. Hastings glosses over McChrystal’s effort to bring Joint Special Operations Command operations in Afghanistan to their Iraq-like levels of targeted-killing refinement, and so too does War Machine, save for General McMahon’s final exhortation to the special operations team. McChrystal’s investment in COIN was always inch-deep lip-service, and his real interest in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, was organizing special operators—SEALS, Delta Force, SAS, Green Berets, and Ranger Task Forces—for dark-side raids to kill or capture high-value targets. From that perspective, anything that involved mollifying Afghans or establishing a framework that made the war understandable to line troops (such as the Bravos) was a cover for missions launched by special operations bubbas after the sun went down—pain-in-the-ass elements of the job that McChrystal took upon himself so others wouldn’t have to. The movie about McChrystal I would like to see, then, would be a much tauter tracing, sans satire, of his transformation (with the help of Admiral William McRaven) of Joint Special Operations Command into the real 21st century “war machine.” Sort of what Zero-Dark-Thirty might have been, if Katherine Bigelow had not made her subject a Global War on Terror side-show organization such as the Central Intelligence Agency and her protagonist a low-ranks bit player like the Jessica Chastain character.

Oh well, the issue is not what films I would have made, but that two recent big-time productions fail on their own terms to be the best movies they might be. With seven years of service in infantry battalions, two years on general officer staffs, and a year in Afghanistan while McChrystal was in charge there, I was eager to see how Hollywood portrayed life in the ranks and at the top of the command pyramid. Perhaps, though, all that has made me too picky: Why in one scene in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is Staff Sergeant Dime wearing an Expert Infantryman’s Badge and in another a Combat Infantryman’s Badge? Why in the battle scene are the Bravos firing their M4s on full automatic, a capability most issue M4s don’t have? Watching War Machine, I noted that the representation of overstuffed, high-tech command posts stuffed with computer terminals and big screens seemed a little thin compared to the upper-echelon headquarters I had peeps of. But ultra-realistic verisimilitude is not the ground on which the two movies struggle most, or something I really care much about. I’m beginning to think that it is beyond Hollywood to make movies contemptuous of war in Iraq or Afghanistan that are both critical and popular successes—with the lack of popularity easier to understand than the failure of so many talented people to successfully stitch together story, character, cinematography, and point-of-view in entertaining, insightful, and aesthetically pleasing ways. Legendary French filmmaker Jean Renoir purportedly said that all war-writing is inherently anti-war, while all war movies inevitably glamorize war. Whether Renoir’s statement is true factually or logically, the most captivating and best-made movies about Iraq and Afghanistan, such as American Sniper and Lone Survivor, are ones that portray soldiers unambiguously proud of their identities and devoted to their missions and that represent battlefield courage and skill without irony or ridicule.

Ben Fountain’s take on Ang Lee’s adaptation of his novel can be found here.

A positive review of War Machine that focuses on Brad Pitt’s performance, from the Village Voice here.

Another positive review of War Machine, from Task and Purpose, that focuses on its portrayal of COIN here.

A negative review of War Machine, from The Atlantic here.

Thanks to Andria Williams for pointing out that the Adam Driver character in Paterson, named Paterson, is a former Marine–a fact revealed only by a quick shot of a bedside portrait. Driver himself, as has been well-documented, is a former Marine who besides achieving acting success has promoted the cause of veterans arts in many forms and venues.

Time Now Fiction: Captains Dietz and Avis

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

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Apollo and Daphne, by Francesco Albini, circa 1615-1620.

This story, titled “Captains Dietz and Avis,” is based on Ovid’s retelling of the Daphne and Apollo myth.  It is the third or maybe fourth and last myth I’ve written and posted that adapt Ovid’s The Metamorphosis in ways relevant to America’s 21st-century wars.  It can also be read as a companion piece to my last blog post, about 2017’s flurry of women-authored and women-centric war-writing.

****

Captain Avis, male, married, had been at the FOB for three months when Captain Dietz, female, also married, but not to Captain Avis, arrived. One of the other new arrivals reported that Captain Dietz had been in tears on the helicopter ride in. She never expected to end up so far downrange, and now she faced a year apart from her husband, who was stationed on another FOB elsewhere in Afghanistan. Captain Avis had helped calm Captain Dietz down, speaking to her kindly, helping get her stuff to her quarters, and taking her to the dining facility for her first meal there. All seemed good, but not really, because everyone could tell Captain Dietz was already being a little too solicitous. “Be wary of the guy who just wants to be your friend,” was the by-word for the women on the camp, because it always turned out such men wanted more than friendship. Truth-be-told, within the admonishment was the hint that the women themselves might not trust their own desires and defenses as their year downrange unfolded. Better to hang with the other women, the wisdom was, or the cohort of men and women with whom you arrived, or the men and women who worked in your immediate vicinity.

In this case, though, it didn’t help that Captain Avis and Captain Dietz were both signal officers assigned to the commo shop, which meant they were together roughly 18 hours a day. At first it didn’t look so bad, as Captain Avis showed her the ropes and Captain Dietz loosened up. Soon, she was volunteering for missions outside the wire and had made many friends among the other soldiers across the camp. But then things got worse. It began when insurgents targeted the camp with accurate mortar and rocket fire, which put everyone on edge and made restful sleep difficult. Then one of the most popular soldiers on camp was killed by an IED. As the war’s dangers overtook the camp, everyone’s mood tightened and Captain Dietz especially began to go downhill. First her good cheer vanished and then she began dropping weight. She didn’t say anything to anyone about Captain Avis, but she asked the commander about reassignment to her husband’s FOB, or to be allowed to go visit him. That couldn’t happen, though, and Captain Avis continued to hover about her, only now it clearly didn’t seem healthy, or even appropriate. He was always with her and in a way, such as when they ate alone together in the dining facility, that made it seem that others weren’t welcome to join them. Everyone could see that he was always talking to her and that she wasn’t enjoying it.

After three steadily deteriorating weeks, Captain Dietz collapsed from exhaustion and strain. It wasn’t just the combat. Captain Avis had told her that he was divorcing his wife and that he now considered Captain Dietz his confidante, or even his soulmate, possibly his destiny. He wanted her to leave her spouse, too, so they could be together. He explained how he felt they had bonded under the stress of combat and that their shared experience in Afghanistan would serve as the basis for their future together. Captain Dietz tried unsuccessfully to hold Captain Avis at arm’s length, but it didn’t work and no one interceded to help. She never let Captain Avis touch her, but instead of getting the message that she wasn’t interested, Captain Avis took her rejection as a sign that Captain Dietz was really meant for him. Captain Dietz missed her husband terribly and blamed Captain Avis, not the war, for ruining her deployment. After passing out on the way from her hootch to the laundry facility, Captain Dietz spent three days in the Troop Medical Clinic. Then she was transferred to another FOB, where she served out her tour without any real work to do. She killed time listlessly in her hootch, marking off days on the calendar nailed to the plywood partition in the women’s bay and emailing and chatting with her husband. When her husband sent Captain Avis’s commander photocopies of the love-struck laments Captain Avis had posted on his Facebook page that were clearly directed at Captain Dietz, the commander used them as the basis for a letter of reprimand to be placed in Captain Avis’s file. Captain Avis protested that it was all a misunderstanding and that he and Captain Dietz were just friends, but the commander ordered Captain Avis to never contact Captain Dietz again and to cut out the crazy Facebook postings.

Summer of 17: Women Fighting and Writing

Posted August 4, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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A scene from Bullet Catchers, currently running in New York.

“All wars are boyish and fought by boys,” wrote Herman Melville a long time ago, but it’s hard not to notice all the women-authored and women-centric war-writing that has appeared in the summer of 2017. Much of the new work has taken the shape of memoir and journalism, but new fiction and theater also contribute to the feel that something different and exciting is happening. Some of the new work is by “First Wave” women war writers such as Siobhan Fallon and Helen Benedict–familiar names in the war-writing scene–but appearing also are many new writers–a “Second Wave”–describing subjects and representing perspectives previously unheard or overlooked. The new work is appearing in print or being performed on stage, but online venues seem to be the medium of choice for publication and discussion of this up-to-the-moment phenomenon. Much credit goes to a highly motivated-and-resourced new organization called The War Horse, of which a profile of founder Thomas Brennan can be found here. The War Horse in particular has taken upon itself to promote writing by women-veterans, and even more specifically a War Horse writing workshop that took place in New York City in April, led by David Chrisinger, though not limited to women, has been enormously generative of first-person narratives detailing aspects of life in uniform for women in all its variety and implication. Some examples include:

“Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD,” by Army veteran Jenny Pacanowski.

“Drown Proofing, Khaki Shorts. Some Things About Dive School Don’t Change,” by Coast Guard veteran Tenley Lozano.

“Circumstances, Fortunes, or Misfortunes, by USMC veteran Teresa Fazio.

The titles of Pacanowski’s and Lozano’s pieces preview their intriguing storylines; Fazio’s title doesn’t give her story away so readily, but the article describes the author’s post-service trip to India to find meaning in the Sikh tradition of Prasad. Fazio’s not the only female vet with a spiritual bent, either; another War Horse seminar participant (and my former central New Jersey neighbor), Army veteran Supriya Venkatesan, describes her own search for tranquility through Transcendental Meditation in an article titled “I Lived in a Town Where Everyone Meditated Together. Every Day.” Venkatesan already has a list of non-war-related publishing credits as long as your arm on exotic subjects such as bio-hacking, eco-sex, and home-birth, fyi for all aspiring vet-writers searching to break out of rigid identification as a mil-and-war writer. 

In the articles I’ve posted, Pacanowski, Lozano, Fazio, and Venkatesan don’t directly address military sexism and toxic military masculinity, but awareness of the difficulty of being a woman in uniform underwrites the ethos and worldview of their writing. Not coincidentally, The War Horse broke the story of the Marine Corps photo-sharing scandal early in 2017—Thomas Brennan’s post-Marine career began as an investigative journalist. Fellow ex-Marine Elliot Ackerman, the author of the novels Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing, profiled Brennan this summer in a telling piece for Esquire titled “Inside the Nude Photo Scandal That Rocked the Marine Corps”—the despair of two proud Marines as they confront the easily-held misogyny of fellow male Marines is palpable. Appearing at almost the same time as Ackerman’s piece was Andria Williams’ story “The List,” a fictional dramatization of a photo-sharing scandal involving two Air Force officers, published on Afghan Post author Adrian Bonenberger’s The Wrath-Bearing Tree web journal. Williams, whose blog The Military Spouse Book Review has long tracked women’s war writing and military family issues, notes that she presciently first drafted her story in 2013, but filed it away thinking it too far-fetched. Little did she know…. the one-two punch of Ackerman’s article and Williams’ story reinforces the impression that the military’s ability to satisfactorily resolve its gender and sexual harassment/sexual abuse issues anytime soon and without outside help is slim, but if identifying the problem is the first step to a solution, then the authors have done their part.

The battle goes on on other fronts, too. On stage, a new play called Bullet Catchers, currently running in New York City, portrays life in an Army unit through the perspective of the women who occupy leadership positions, as well those who serve in the ranks. Bullet Catchers has already elicited at least two shrewd reviews from wise observers of the passing scene: Bullet Catchers: Women’s Modern Warfare” by Rachel Kambury posted on the New York City Veterans Alliance website and “A Plausible Reality by Teresa Fazio, written for Consequence magazine.

Finally (though I’m bound to be forgetting something significant), are the appearance of four books in 2017 by First Wave contemporary war-writing women authors. Already out are Elyse Fenton’s volume of verse Sweet Insurgent and Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages and soon to come are poet Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes and novelist Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season. And finally finally, just published is long-time editor of the Veterans Writing Project journal 0-Dark-Thirty editor Jerri Bell’s and Tracy Crow’s anthology It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to AfghanistanIt’s My Country Too’s historical perspective reminds us that the current perfect storm of First and Second Wave women’s war-writing didn’t appear brand new spun out of whole cloth. Not to push things back to 1776, as Bell and Crow do, but to a more-recent 2016, important precedents began appearing last year when anthologies such as Retire the Colors, edited by Dario DiBattista, and The Road Ahead, edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, offered robust mixtures of powerful stories by both men and women veterans.

So what to make of it all? The first step, it seems to me, is recognizing, respecting, and encouraging the development. The second step is assessing what women’s war-writing has to tell us, both about life-in-uniform for women and masculine traditions and conventions of war-writing. Third, preparing for the backlash, which will inevitably come in the form of sneers about “the feminization of war-writing” and efforts to reestablish its manly basis. Fourth, ever-more precisely disentangling current notions about military culture, war-winning, and fighting ability from their unproductive entwinement with accepted cultural ideas about manhood and patriarchy, so that the military becomes a better place for all Americans to serve, rather than being a big boy’s club, and applies itself more effectively to winning wars, rather than being an endless employment and get-rich opportunity for flag-wavers, war addicts, mercenaries, and profiteers.

War Stories: Helen Benedict, Brian Van Reet, David Abrams

Posted July 2, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , ,

2017 brings novels by three contemporary war lit “plank-holders”–Navy SEAL-speak for members who were in on the game at its founding. Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season takes contemporary war-and-mil-writing preoccupation with dogs to its fantastical-yet-logical extension; Brian Van Reet’s Spoils reimagines the female-soldier captivity narrative first presented by Jessica Lynch’s and Shoshana Johnson’s memoirs, and David Abrams’ Brave Deeds riffs on the rogue soldier motif familiar from Bowe Bergdahl’s and Robert Bale’s real-life sagas.

Helen Benedict, Wolf Season. Bellevue Literary Press, 2017.

Helen Benedict’s 2011 Sand Queen was by my count the first Iraq War novel; if I’m wrong, someone please correct me. A story about the intersecting lives of two women, an American soldier named Kate and an Iraqi medical student named Naema Jassim, Sand Queen eviscerated the American conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom by portraying the ruin of its two protagonists’ lives as a result, primarily, of the American military’s toxic masculine culture. The sequel to Sand Queen, Wolf Season takes place in America, where Naema has unexpectedly taken up residence in a small upstate New York town where she serves as a doctor in a VA clinic. One of her patients is, not Kate, who doesn’t figure in Wolf Season, but another female veteran named Rin Drummond. Rin’s time in service has ended badly, leaving her widowed, badly wracked by PTSD, the mother of a blind daughter, and the caretaker of three semi-domesticated wolves. Rin wants nothing more than to be left alone, protected by and protective of her wolfpack, but life in a small-town home to Iraqi refugees and overly-macho military men still on frequent deployment cycle to America’s forever wars ensure that’s not going to happen. Rin and Naema are compellingly drawn, as are Rin’s daughter Juney and Naema’s son Tariq and the three wolves, Gray, Silver, and Ebony. Most striking, however, are two male characters, Louis Martin and Todd Wycombe, both veterans struggling to be men worthy of respect. Benedict’s not completely hostile to the idea that military service might be improving or even ennobling, but two novels’ worth of portraits of America boy-men whose propensity for self-delusion, misogyny, and violence are exacerbated by time in uniform make it clear she’s skeptical that those things are happening very often these days. One could almost feel sorry for Benedict’s male veterans, if they didn’t bring on so much trouble for themselves through their stupidity and vanity, and if they didn’t fuck things up so badly for everyone around them.

Brian Van Reet, Spoils. Little, Brown and Company, 2017.

Spoils, US Army veteran Brian Van Reet’s long-anticipated novel of war in Iraq, comes many years after the author established his reputation as a war short-story author par excellence. Even before the fine “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” appeared in the 2013 Fire and Forget anthology, Van Reet was placing striking short fiction in literary journals, and “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is, if anything, surpassed by a story titled “Eat the Spoil” published in the Spring 2014 Missouri Review. Van Reet attended, as did I, the University of Virginia, where he was an Echols Scholar, which I most definitely wasn’t, so I have a high regard for the intellect he brings to bear on the consideration of war. Van Reet was a tank crewman in the early days of Iraq, where he earned a Bronze Star with a V device for valor, which is also saying something. A tanker named Specialist Sleed figures in both the aforementioned stories and now appears again in Spoils, but he’s not much of a scholar and as a soldier one more likely to get an Article 15 for misconduct than a medal. A follower rather than a leader of soldiers even more indifferently motivated than he is, Sleed, in true “E4-Mafia” fashion, is good in spurts but more typically wavers between commitment to mission and impulses to “get over.” Scenes describing tank battle in Iraq especially intrigue, but Sleed’s just one of a trio of protagonists in Spoils; another is a young woman named Cassandra Wigheard who serves in Sleed’s unit. Wigheard’s not exactly a super-soldier, either, but she tries, and she can’t be blamed when she is captured by a group of insurgents led by the third principal, a very conflicted and not especially fanatical Egyptian jihadist named Abu Al-Hool. Van Reet seems to be making a point about how war unfolds in the contemporary trenches—whatever the clarity, fervor, and righteousness of the political and ideological rhetoric, for the participants on both sides it’s a haphazard, highly contingent, badly conceptualized and realized mess that’s likely to get them killed through sheer sloppiness. We can see Sleed as Van Reet’s alter ego, while Al-Hool joins the Pashtun protagonist of Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue as a rounded literary portrait of one of our War on Terror opponents, but it’s the depiction of Cassandra that really stands out as the author’s effort to represent “the Other,” with all the attendant risks that endeavor brings. Sleed and Al-Hool narrate their stories in first-person, but Van Reet, UVa-educated gentleman that he is, circumspectly renders Cassandra’s voice and thoughts in third-person, perhaps thinking graciously that full, extended novelistic inhabitation of a woman warrior’s subjectivity and depiction of perspective should be left to, well, a woman veteran. That will come, in time, but what Van Reet offers here rings true; for example, on Cassandra contemplating a career in the Army: “Yet more and more, the thought of going for a twenty-year pension has begun to feel like prolonged suffocation in a cavernous, airtight room.”

David Abrams, Brave Deeds. Black Cat, 2017.

Few things could possibly be more welcome than a second novel from David Abrams, the author of 2012’s highly entertaining and shrewdly perceptive black comedy Fobbit. No one would blame Abrams if he moved on from Iraq—surely he has it in him and will do so one day—but I for one am glad that he has kept his eye on the Tigris and Euphrates battlefield for at least one more novel, this summer’s Brave Deeds. If anything, Brave Deeds is more of a war novel than Fobbit, a work that has its boom-boom moments, but which is largely more interested in military culture than combat action. Where Fobbit explored a wide range of Army types and ranks as they frittered away their deployments doing busy work on the FOB, Brave Deeds relentlessly focuses on the actions of fighting men outside the wire, observing the unities of time and place to follow the journey of six junior enlisted infantry soldiers as they cross Baghdad, AWOL, to attend the memorial service of a beloved, at least by some, squad leader. Along the way, adventures ensue, distinctiveness of character emerges, and back-stories get told in the manner of picaresque war tales ranging from the Odyssey to Going After Cacciato, but Brave Deeds feels far from derivative. Rather, it is fired up, that is to say inspired, by an animus that Fobbit hinted at but softened with its comic punch-pulling: Abrams’ interest in, which is to say love for, young enlisted soldiers bereft of the quote-unquote leadership of NCOs and officers, two military demographics whose authority and credibility are discredited in the eyes of the Brave Deeds soldiers, probably Abrams’ as well, and, frankly, my own, looking back at the negligible achievements of long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The David Abrams I know—a career NCO, for what it’s worth–is a kind, gentle, and sweet soul, but Brave Deeds reflects an intense class-war and age-based generation gap sensibility that exposes military lifers as the vapid and ultimately incompetent self-servers that many junior enlisted suspect them to be within weeks of joining. Abrams’ achievement here, people, is immense: many contemporary war fiction titles strive to portray the worldview of junior enlisted service members—“Joe” in Army-speak, or the “Terminal Lance” as they are known in the Marines—and much of it falters for want of craft, over-reliance on clichés, and limitation of vision. Those are not Abrams’ problems in the least; Brave Deeds‘ focus on the infantry squad and young male soldier may be traditional, but the view rendered through Abrams’ eyes is up-to-the-minute.

22 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets

Posted April 12, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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

Soldiers Patrolling Wheatfield, Khost Province, Afghanistan (USAF-ISAF photo)

To honor National Poetry Month, below are poems by twenty-two American writers whose poems reflect and engage America’s twenty-first century wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, directly, indirectly, or possibly only in my mind. They run the gamut from the nation’s poet-laureate to MFA-honed to raw, and are written by veterans, spouses, and interested civilian observers, but they’re all great individually and collectively they articulate the nation’s crazy play of emotions as it sought redress for the sting of the 9/11 attacks. Many thanks to the authors for writing them and much love also for online media sites that feature poets and poetry–please read them, support them, share them, and spread the word.

The links should take you directly to each of the poems, except for Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren’s and Maurice Decaul’s, which are featured on the Warrior Writers page. An additional click on “Writing” will get you in the ballpark, and you can figure it out from there.

1. Chantelle Bateman, “PTSD.” Apiary Magazine.

2. Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, “Real Vet, Fake Vet.” Warrior Writers.

3. Benjamin Busch, “Madness in the Wild.” Slippery Elm.

4. Eric Chandler, “Maybe I Should Have Lied.” Ash and Bones.

5. Maurice Decaul, “Shush.” Warrior Writers.

6. Jehanne Dubrow, “Much Tattooed Sailor Aboard the USS New Jersey.” poets.org.

7. Elyse Fenton, “Word from the Front.” Reed Magazine.

8. Amalie Flynn, “Where” and “Know.” New York Times.

9. Colin D. Halloran, “I Remember.” Drunken Boat.

10. Victor Inzunza, “The Part of Ourselves We’re Afraid Of.” Pacific Review.

11. Hugh Martin, “Ways of Looking at an IED.” Blackbird.

12. Phil Metres, “Hung Lyres (for Mohamedou Ould Slahi).” Poets Reading the News.

13. Dunya Mikhail, “The Iraqi Nights.” Poetry Foundation.

14. Jenny Pacanowski, “Strength in Vulnerability.” Women Veterans’ Rhetoric.

15. Robert Pinsky, “The Forgetting.” Poetry in Multimedia.

16. Kevin Powers, “Improvised Explosive Device.” Bookanista.

17. Roy Scranton, “And nevermore shall we turn back to the 7-11.” Painted Bride Quarterly.

18. Solmaz Sharif, “Look.” PEN America.

19. Charlie Sherpa, “Toward an understanding of war and poetry told (mostly) in aphorisms.”  Wrath-Bearing Tree.

20. Juliana Spahr, “December 2, 2002.” poets.org.

21. Brian Turner, “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.” Poetry Daily.

22. Paul Wasserman, “Fifteen Months, Twenty-Two Days.” Time Now.

Life During Forever Wartime: Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Elyse Fenton

Posted April 2, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , ,

The contemporary war literature genre, a decade or so old, now sees the welcome appearance of second titles by authors whose first books helped create the genre. This year, for example, brings the release of You Know When the Men Are Gone author Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages, Elliot Ackerman’s novel Dark at the Crossing, his follow-up to Green on Blue, and Elyse Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, her second volume of poetry following Clamor. Though none of the works directly concern war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are of interest to this blog for what they tell of the growth of their authors as writers, as well as the direction of their thoughts, formed by war and now exploring new themes and subjects, or, more accurately, variations on old ones: the human cost of America’s endless warfaring.

Fallon’s The Confusion of Languages takes place in Jordan in 2011 against the backdrop of the Arab Spring rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Its primary narrator is Cassandra “Cass” Hugo, the wife of a mid-ranks US Army foreign service officer named Dan. Cass and Dan are not as happy as they might be, unwanted childlessness having withered their love and Dan, consumed by his job, working long hours. Cass finds herself bored and uneasy, nominally a dutiful military spouse interested in keeping up appearances, but a little more susceptible to intrigue and drama than she realizes. Into the lives of Dan and Cass come Creighton “Crick” Brickshaw, another Army officer, and his wife Margaret, along with their baby son Mather. Dan and Cass are Crick and Margaret’s sponsors, and while Dan and Crick bond easily enough, as officers on deployment generally do, Margaret and Cass circle each other tentatively, separated by disposition and outlook. Cass is conscientious and meticulous and Margaret thoughtless and sloppy, but both are sensitive to the point of skittishness, and their dependence on their mostly-absent husbands for love, lifestyle, and security makes them extremely vulnerable. Acting out their impulses against the backdrop of a culture and people they little understand, each makes major mistakes. The catalyst for the novel’s plot is a car accident, not a big mishap as things go, but one here with awful consequences. When Margaret departs for the police station to file a report, Cass volunteers to watch Mather. Alone with Mather for hours, Cass finds Margaret’s journal, which she begins reading, though she knows she shouldn’t. In a second narration revealed by the diary, Cass learns of a hidden life full of disturbing events that now helps account for Margaret’s failure to return.

Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing portrays an Iraqi-American protagonist named Haris who travels to Syria to fight against the repressive government of President Bashar al-Assad. Haris has fought alongside Americans in Iraq, but troubled by the experience and finding life in America unsatisfying, he yearns for redemption and purpose. Most of the novel takes place not in Syria, though, but in and around the southern Turkey town of Antep, as Haris finds crossing the closed border between the two countries no easy task. Adventures and mysteries quickly accumulate; as an Arab and Muslim, Haris possesses advantages the all-American characters in The Confusion of Languages lack, but he too has been softened by American life, and subsequently finds himself constantly outmatched by the complex and damaged Turks and Syrians he encounters. The advisor team chief I replaced in Afghanistan in 2008 told me that Afghans were rational decision-makers, as long as you understood that their families had already suffered much violence and early death, they were aware that they themselves might be killed any moment, and they were perpetually worried about their families’ financial prosperity in the event of their sudden death. That proved good advice during my year in Afghanistan, and some of that same insecurity underlies the portraits of Syrians, Turks, and Iraqis in Dark at the Crossing. American characters, a Special Forces officer with whom Haris fought in Iraq and thinks about often and an NGO Haris meets in Antep, seem slow in comparison: much like Fallon’s Dan and Crick, if not exactly blustering oafs, they are over-confident and about as self-aware as bricks, whatever claims to professional competence they might project.

Ackerman’s tone is dark and ominous, in the manner of Graham Greene, and so it seems only a matter of time before things go bad for Haris, which they do, by turns worse-and-worse in ever-more surprising plot twists. Things don’t end well for Fallon’s characters, either, though their chin-up and chirpy tones, as conveyed by the novel’s dual narrations, masks the catastrophe, put into play by their naivety, that awaits them–while Haris seems to know things are bound to end badly, the two young American women in Fallon’s novel have trouble imagining anything really terrible can befall them. Both stories interest through their portrayal of adults, rather than the post-adolescents who populate most contemporary war literature, and both authors tap an ages-old theme, now truer than ever, regarding Americans abroad: their delusions and essential immaturity poorly equips them to understand the complexities of a region ravaged by recent conflict on top of the thousands of years of near-continuous strife that preceded it.

The end-of-American-innocence is also on display in Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, though the poems are situated domestically within the author’s household and hometown. An epigraph reveals that Fenton’s daughter is the “sweetest insurgent,” but the poems themselves don’t document the redemptive power of motherhood or the promise of youth, but the blighted cultural landscape with which marriage, motherhood, and youth must now contend. The forever wars (Fenton’s husband is a veteran) linger in the backdrop of Fenton’s meditations, figuring most prominently by providing harrowing new vocabulary that speaks to the angst of the time: “insurgent,” “human shield,” “innocent victim,” “double tap,” and “interrogation report.” The final lines of the title poem provide a vivid example:

….not every bomb can be
dismantled so it must stay buried,
one good ear bent & ticking in the dirt.                                                          

Images of fires, helicopters, and other variations on human crisis, along with those depicting death in the natural world, filter through the poems, too, as actual occurrences, things to worry about, and metaphors for emotional and psychological stress. Professions of vulnerability compete with avowals to fortify; the report of the senses, linked to the urges of desire, is ambiguously pitched between rush to disaster and instinct for survival. In “Wild Deer,” for example, Fenton forebodingly dwells on the death of animals with which she identifies:

Wild Deer

They come down from the hill wilds overnight, three wild deer
drawn to the morning glory’d wire of our lies, our rows

of plenty drawn between the spanse of scrub and road.

In the deer pen of my mind the wildest thoughts nose through
the scurf to nibble juniper, forget what green desire brought them

here. More timid than their summer kin October deer step

soft-shod through the frosted noose of breath that ropes
each hornless head. How easily they start and scare. How easily

I turn from them before the sun-gilt leaves they hungered for

leave them starved of any thought but home. No gentling I know
will lead them out. They’ll lunge themselves to death by a neighbor’s

buckshot or a broken neck. But first they’ll eat their fill.

The tone is terse, fragmented, and haunted; Fenton, I believe, distrusts sensational images (as well as clichéd ones) and thus fights to bring into being a new survivalist rhetoric adequate to life during perpetual wartime. When words such as courage and community are exhausted, she implies, concepts such as love and family are imperiled, too.

The last poem in Sweet Insurgent is titled “Independence Day,” and it’s not a celebration; Ackerman’s, Fallon’s, and Fenton’s excellent books each dramatize deeply-seated concern connected to the downward spiral of America’s frazzled empire. Reverberating through the three works in varying pitches, dawning on the reader with the force of epiphany, is the realization that Americans are having a lot of trouble dealing with problems that being an American has brought on.

Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing.  Knopf, 2017.

Siobhan Fallon, The Confusion of Languages. GP Putnam’s Sons, forthcoming in June, 2017.

Elyse Fenton, Sweet Insurgent. Saturnalia Books, 2017.

Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead

Posted March 14, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead, a collection of ten linked short-stories, ingeniously portrays the ways men make messes of their lives, especially as they are touched by military service and war. Fully functional adult manhood is apparently beyond reach for These Heroic, Happy Dead protagonists, all of whom blunder from one catastrophe to another, exacerbated by alcoholism, poverty, and poor decision-making. Too unsettled to maintain relationships or hold steady jobs, they wreak havoc on family, friends, and strangers who come within their orbit. Mostly untouched by notions of good, many seem oddly proud of the mayhem they cause, as if their instability was not a flaw but an assertion of independence and it’s just too bad their impulses are so destructive. In this light, little about their military service is redemptive; if anything, confused notions about their identity as soldiers amplifies their worst qualities and behaviors. In the moral universe of These Heroic, Happy Dead, unrepentant male foolishness and seething anger are damn near badges of honor that time in uniform has helped the characters earn.

The narrator of the first story, “To the Lake,” illustrates the self-deluded thinking and impulsive behavior Mogelson excels at imagining. The narrator, an Afghan vet, has been left by his wife Lilly, who has now returned to her parents. The narrator harasses her with drunken midnight calls her father Bill won’t put through:

I called again—every few minutes, then every minute—but he wouldn’t answer. In the end Bill was the same as Lilly, same as everyone. People who did not respect the covenant of human relationships. People who believed you could just hang up, walk out. When the Stolichnaya ran dry, I fetched my Bushmaster and a box of ammo, stowed them behind the bench seat of my truck, and headed north.

Crime, arrest, police, jail, and prison lap at the edges of These Heroic, Happy Dead characters’ lives, but Mogelson’s gift is for understanding that stupid people reveal themselves more constantly through the dumb ideas they have about things. A character in the second story, “Sea Bass,” for example, rejoins the Army after some fifteen years when his life has fallen apart. His incredulous son reports, “I listened with amazement. It was true: my father was going back. Not just back to Bragg and the army and the war, but to the life he lived before he met my mother, and before I was born.” Mogelson, through the son, then reveals the depth of the father’s delusion through a fiercely understated description of the father’s fantasy of returning to restaurant outside Fort Bragg where he once enjoyed a meal:

“I’m gonna take you somewhere when you come visit me,” he said, “A restaurant. You go in there and it’s Joes wall to wall, not a civilian in the place. They got a dish there. This dish is the best dish you’ve ever tasted.”
….

“So what’s this dish?”

“Good old Clyde,” my father said [lost in reverie about the dish’s cook].

I swiveled on my stool to face him.

He smiled. “Sea bass,” he said.

“Sea bass.”

“You just wait,” my father said.

While some characters in These Heroic, Happy Dead are delusional, others are perverse. “Peacetime,” for example, is narrated by a National Guardsman named Papadopoulos:

It was peacetime, more or less. It was for us, the New York national guard, at least. Between drills, I worked as a paramedic for a hospital in Queens. My partner on the ambulance, Karen, had applied to the police academy. She wanted to be a detective. This, for me, was troublesome: as a rule, from every residence we visited, I took stuff.

Characters portrayed in theater fare no better. The protagonist of “A Beautiful Country,” a contractor in Afghanistan, is robbed and left stranded in the middle of nowhere within days of arrival in country. The journalist who recounts “Total Solar” describes his notebook: “Many of the pages featured detailed sketches of me killing myself by various means.” Soldiers spiral downward equally quickly; Feldman, a character in “Kids,” is said to be “Too smart for the infantry, anyhow—although, fatally, not smart enough to have seen that in the first place.” In Mogelson’s army, no good deed goes unpunished or uninfected by moral rot. The narrator of “Peacetime,” describes war’s mockery of virtue: “On the last day of our last deployment, Nevins was in the turret of an MRAP, climbing a small hill to bid farewell to the Afghan Army soldiers who manned an observation post on top. A high-voltage, low-hanging electrical wire caught Nevins right between his flak and Kevlar, right where it could kill him.” It turns out, though, that Papadopoulos is probably lying, but the story of another soldier doomed to die seems to have really happened:

Corporal Kahananui had been killed just two weeks prior. Kahananui had signed up under the relaxed enlistment standards of the late-aughts, between surges, when the army was desperate for bodies and taking any man or woman who could fog a mirror. What I mean to say is that he was fat. It wasn’t his fault. He hailed from fat people—fat was in his blood. His broad skeleton, good humor, and squat neck all seemed specially designed to accommodate the inheritance. How he’d made it through basic was the subject of much chow-hall speculation. No way could he have qualified in the push-up, let alone the sit-up, let alone the run. Rather, some drill with a quota must have fudged his score a point or ten. That drill, turned out, did us a favor: Kahananui was the greatest, most casualty-producingest machine gunner I’d ever commanded. He’d fallen for the SAW the first time he felt it chugging in his arms, spraying metal down the range at Benning. Call it an affinity, like the fat kid who chooses the tuba….

Mogelson’s hapless war adventurers and wrecked veterans are colorful, but they aren’t going to win kudos from “vet rising” advocacy groups, help bridge the civil-military divide, or have anyone thanking them for their service. They’re not “traumatized” warriors seeking forgiveness and redemption, nor are they emblems of misunderstood underbelly America waging class war on respectability and prosperity. They don’t try very hard to be anything other than the messes that they are, and, for them, the military and endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan beckon as easy-way-out places where they can indulge their worst tendencies. The most that can be said of them is they realize that the military might reward and channel their crudeness to help defeat a deserving enemy, but that doesn’t work out very well for anyone, either.

Mogelson doesn’t view his characters as tragic, and despite the crazy escapades they find themselves in, they’re not exactly comic, either. As literary creatures, they resemble the Southern Gothic grotesques of Harry Crews, the middle-class failures of T.C. Boyle, and the always-already off-the-tracks youth of Tobias Wolff: half-baked white American masculinity at its most self-destructive helplessness. They’re fun enough to contemplate in fiction, though not so much as real life possibilities.

Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead.  Tim Duggan Books, 2016.

****

These Heroic, Happy Dead has attracted some sharp reviews, such as this one by Justin Taylor and this one by Benjamin Busch. The Busch piece also contains sterling capsule reviews of Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier, Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant, and Odie Lindsey’s We Come to Our Senses.

 


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