October in the Railroad War Lit Earth

Fort Riley, Kansas, October 2008

Fort Riley, Kansas, October 2008

“October in the Railroad Earth” is the title of a beautiful prose-poem by Jack Kerouac, who served for about a week in the Navy during World War II and somewhat longer in the Merchant Marine. I have already used the title of Kerouac’s fantastic ode to autumn for the title of a post on my old blog. There it actually made a lot of sense as I wrote about long, glorious days of training in the warm Kansas sunshine while we prepared to deploy to Afghanistan. But I can’t resist repurposing the title, so here we go. A potpourri of miscellaneous war-lit notes is not my usual modus, but ideas, events, and publications have been accumulating so fast that I can’t possibly give each the extended consideration it deserves, so please bear with me.

Late in August, I attended a Sunday afternoon writing workshop co-sponsored by New Jersey branches of the Combat Paper Project and WarriorWriters. With veterans of Somalia and Vietnam I traded writing prompts relevant to military experience and we read each other our responses. Here’s one I wrote on “environment”:

I find very few soldiers wax poetical about Iraq.  Nothing about the flat desert, the hot sun, and the squalid chaos of the cities seems to have impressed them.  Afghanistan, on the other hand, exerted an enchanting allure on many of the soldiers who served there.  The high mountains, often snow-capped and surprisingly forested, the clean air (at least outside of Kabul), the ancient villages built into the sides of wadi and mountain walls, and the roads that snake through the treacherous mountain passes all possess intoxicating powers. Quickening everyone’s step and filling them with wonder, the landscape makes soldiers fall halfway in love with a country that might kill them.

Speaking of falling in love with soldiering in Afghanistan, check out Brian Castner’s impressive essay in the LA Review of Books called “Afghanistan, A Stage Without a Play” on why so little fiction has been written about Afghanistan compared to Iraq. It’s curious, Castner wonders, why Afghanistan seems to have inspired triumphalist memoirs by Navy SEAL team members and infantry lieutenants, while the literary output of Iraq has been fiction and poetry written by disillusioned enlisted soldiers. I’m honored to have been quoted by Castner alongside several other veteran-writers. Along the same lines, I was fortunate to view the movie Korengal and hear Sebastian Junger speak about his love for the soldiers he filmed in action on COP Restrepo in Afghanistan. The next night, in contrast, at Penumbra, a hip photography exhibition space in New York City, I heard Benjamin Busch speak more grimly about the photographs he took in Iraq first as a deployed Marine and earlier this year when he returned to write a story for Harper’s called “Today is Better than Yesterday.” The twinned events inspired many reflections about the linkage of war, words, and images about which I hope to write soon. On a more personal level, Junger and Busch are men-after-my-own-heart, for sure: older, deeply cerebral and artistic gentlemen driven to delve deep into the mysteries of the manly realm of war. Speaking of which, I spent a fun, rewarding afternoon in New York with Maurice Decaul, ex-USMC Iraq vet, ex-Columbia, and now in NYU’s graduate fiction writing program. Decaul writes like the second coming of John Keats, as illustrated by a New York Times essay titled “Memory Lapse” and the poem “Shush,” featured below. But more importantly, Decaul is a genial warm soul who instinctively gravitates towards helping people and getting them organized for effective action and life. As he regaled with me stories about the Columbia and NYU veterans’ programs, I realized exactly how curmudgeonly have been my own efforts in this regard.

Another gentleman, Brian Turner, is reading several times in the NY-NJ-Conn area in the coming months following the release of his memoir My Life as a Foreign Country. I hope to make a couple of the readings, in particular the Dodge Poetry festival “Another Kind of Courage war poetry event on Saturday October 25 in Newark, NJ. The bill also includes Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Nelson, Jehanne Dubrow, and Elyse Fenton, all poets whose work I know and admire. On Veterans Day, I’ll join several other vet-writers to read selections from our favorite World War I authors at an event organized by Words After War and Brooklyn Reading Works at The Old Stone House in Brooklyn.

I also have two conference presentations lined up for next spring. In March, in Seattle, I am moderating a panel at the American Comparative Literature Association conference on literature inspired by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan written by non-Americans. As I write, nobody has submitted a paper proposal, which honestly I kind of anticipated. But if you are an academic and know of a work about the post-9/11 wars written by someone who wasn’t born in the US of A, please consider joining me. In April, I will participate on a panel on war memoir at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Minneapolis. Also on the panel are Ron Capps, Colin Halloran, and Kayla Williams, so I’m very excited to take part. AWP is a huge party, for those who have never been, in addition to being an intellectual feast for the literary-inclined, so please join us if you can.

And so it goes, on and on. To Jack-y Kerouac-y, maybe not a patron saint of war writing, but certainly a kindred spirit and fellow traveller of all who burned to live intensely and then express themselves through their art.

Jack Kerouac's Navy enlistment photo, 1942.

Jack Kerouac’s Navy enlistment photo, 1942.

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