Fire and Forget is a new collection of war-themed short stories written mostly by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The collection features well-known authors such as Brian Turner, Colby Buzzell, David Abrams, and Siobhan Fallon, as well as group of lesser known veteran authors associated with the New York University Veteran Writers Workshop. Editors Matt Gallagher (author of the war memoir Kaboom and an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America mainstay) and Roy Scranton (a former artilleryman and now a grad student at Princeton) are both members of the Workshop and have also contributed stories to the collection.
The forward to Fire and Forget is provided by Colum McCann—not a vet, but a prominent Irish-American author who has served as mentor for many of the Fire and Forget authors. McCann’s interest in the project is much the same as mine in this blog: the protracted but inevitable emergence of a body of literature by which the wars will accrue their definitive representation and legacy. He writes: “The stories of the wars that defined the first decade of the twenty-first century are just beginning to be told. Television programs, newspaper columns, Internet blogs. We’ve even had a couple of average Hollywood movies, but we don’t yet have all the stories, the kind of re-interpretive truth-telling that fiction and poetry can offer.”
The phrase “fire and forget” is a militaryism that describes missiles that once launched do not require further guidance from their operators to be accurate. Such smart missiles hone in on their targets through the use of laser and infrared optic systems or internal radars. As such, fire and forget missiles have not been weapons especially associated with the IED and dumb bomb-wracked wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so editors Gallagher and Scranton take time to explain how the phrase serves their purpose in other ways. On one hand, Fire and Forget stories, once launched into the world, might catalyze within public consciousness with the unerring aim of a smart missile, alerting readers to what they have not paid enough attention to in regard to the wars. On the other hand, the stories represent catharsis for their authors. Haunted by memories of their war experience, they write, and as they write, they cease to be haunted.
All of Fire and Forget’s stories deserve focused attention, and I’ll give that to them in future posts if my energy permits. Here, though, I’ll attempt just a brief survey. The stories divide into two camps: those that are set in-theater, and those which situate themselves in the States upon the return home. An example of the first is Brian Turner’s “The Wave That Takes them Under,” the war poet’s first published fiction as far as I know. The story of a patrol lost in an Iraq desert sandstorm, the tale dramatizes notions of temporal instability Turner also explores in one of my favorite poems from Here, Bullet, “To Sand.” Another, Roy Scranton’s “Red Steel India” places its characters in a much more mundane deployment experience, that of fighting off hours of endless boredom on duty at a FOB Entry Control Point, where the only excitement consists of seriously strained interactions with Iraqi soldiers, interpreters, and camp workers. Whether portraying the fantastical or the banal, the in-theater tales feature grunts’ eye perspectives on deployment, far from the sterile perspectives recounted in more official histories, memoirs, journalism, and government pronouncements. By such narratives, we begin to feel how the war was experienced by those who in most cases were most vulnerable, without the armor of degrees, age, or rank.
The stories set on the homefront reflect the difficulty so many vets have reestablishing relations with family and loved ones and reintegrating into society. Several feature plots that reunite soldiers who served together overseas; the nostalgia for the camaraderie of deployment is palpable. Quite a few feature violent incidents in the lives of their vet protagonists, ranging from a rage-induced killing of a chicken in Matt Gallagher’s “And Bugs Don’t Bleed” to a drunken smash-up of a fast-food franchise in Colby Buzzell’s “Play the Game” to a grotesque act of public indecency in Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek.” The stories suggest that vets’ most basic problem, stated in the most basic way, is calming the heck down. Siobhan Fallon—not a vet, but the spouse of one—works in a somewhat quieter, more domestic key. Her tale “Tips for a Smooth Transition” updates the ages-old saga of Odysseus’s return to Penelope after the Trojan Wars, complete with the misrecognitions, tests of trustworthiness, and bedroom dramatics of Homer’s original. It portrays an Army officer, home for the third time, whose multiple deployments have turned him into a joke or poor imitation of a husband, not malicious or unfaithful, but Will Ferrell-like in his obliviousness and self-absorption. And yet, his wife, through whose eyes the story is told, is riven by doubts in her own right to judge, since, as we learn, she herself has been less than circumspect while her husband’s been gone. Smart in its observed detail, astute in its psychological insight, and even funny at moments in a way the other stories in Fire and Forget generally are not, “Tips for a Smooth Transition” seems to have the fullest sense of the subtle, as opposed to sensational, ways the wars have wreaked havoc on their participants’ happiness and emotional health.
In closing, for now, hat’s off to all the Fire and Forget authors and editors. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about their stories as I turn them over in my mind in the weeks and months ahead, and I look forward to reading anything the authors publish in the future.