Minnesota Turn-and-Burn: War Writing at AWP15

A “turn-and-burn” military convoy travels from one base to another, executes its business quickly, and then immediately returns home; the mission doesn’t allow for socializing or enjoying the destination post’s amenities. In Afghanistan, turn-and-burns were bummers, because, after risking our lives on the roads to ambushes and IEDs, we felt like we deserved to relax a bit before doing so again. My trip to the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, or AWP15, held last weekend in Minneapolis, was a bit of a turn-and-burn for me, unfortunately, for I arrived Friday morning and by mid-Saturday afternoon I was already heading back to the airport. I packed in a lot in my 30 hours in Minnesota, but I also missed a few panels and chances for fun before my arrival and after my departure.

Minnesota, first time ever to the home of so many of my musical heroes! Dylan, Prince, the Replacements, Husker Dü, and even now the great Hold Steady, and where T.S. Eliot once spoke to 17,000 people in a hockey arena….

Walking to AWP Saturday morning across the Mississippi River to downtown Minneapolis Convention Center
Walking to AWP across the Mississippi River to downtown Minneapolis on Saturday morning

Musical and poetical rhapsodies aside, I wasn’t the only war writer who arrived in town possessed by a sense of purpose. For some, the urgency was born of dissatisfaction with the way war writing was represented at last year’s AWP14 in Seattle (though hopefully not with my panel there). Flashes of War author Katey Schultz, for example, explained that she left AWP14 feeling that civilian voices on war had been neglected. Siobhan Fallon wrote that she was glad to see so many women featured on war lit panels. Taking matters in his own hands, Benjamin Busch recruited an all-star line-up of war authors—Schultz, Fallon, Brian Turner, and Phil Klay—for a panel titled “Telling Our New War Stories: Witness and Imagination across Literary Genres.” Determined not to waste a second, Busch dispensed with author readings and and allowed for only a truncated audience Q&A. Instead, Busch himself interviewed the panelists, asking damn good questions about war-writing craft and politics that elicited thoughtful, thorough responses. For my part, knowing that I wouldn’t be on the ground long, I invited every war writer and scene-supporter I knew to dinner Friday night. It was a somewhat desperate ploy for company, but one that saved me from my usual conference fate—eating alone at McDonalds–so thank you everyone who came.

Name all the war writers and scene supporters in this picture and win a free prize!
War writers, friends, and scene supporters at AWP15

My speaking role at AWP15 was moderating a panel titled “Who Can’t Handle the Truth? Memoirs by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans,” featuring Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin Halloran. I contributed ten minutes of editorial overview, all which proved totally superfluous given the power of the readings and commentary that followed. Capps, Williams, and Halloran are each fully at home behind the podium, and any one of them could have commanded the audience’s attention for an hour. Their readings recounted harrowing moments during deployment and afterwards; war, military service, and life afterwards have not been easy for Capps, Williams, and Halloran, and their memoirs unflinchingly portray events that made it so and the pain and turmoil that ensued. As I listened, the sense that I got from their books that they had been pretty damn good (conscientious, competent, and energetic) soldiers in uniform was reinforced, and I wondered about the difference between the squared-away soldierly performances and the unraveling of the personal lives—as if a mil-civ divide within had chewed them up and made their lives a tumult. Capps, Williams, and Halloran used the “T-word”—trauma—directly, but sparingly, as if mindful that the word has become an 800-pound IED in rooms where veterans and veterans writing are discussed. Speaking of PTSD, for example, Capps said, “You can control it, but you can’t hope to cure it.” Their readings made clear, however, that their service had been traumatic and that writing about it played a therapeutic, or at least an important part, in their restoration to healthy and productive happiness. The mesmerized audience had plenty of questions, so I didn’t ask the one I prepared:

“18th-century English author Samuel Johnson wrote that ‘no one ever regrets serving as a soldier or sailor.’ In your mind is that statement wisdom or foolishness, either generally or personally? To the extent that you might regret serving, was it war or military culture that did the most damage? To the extent that you do not, what got you through the hardest part—writing, medication, therapy, love, friends, time, or something else?”

Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, Colin Halloran, me.
Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, Colin Halloran, me.

Another panel, titled “Writing as Therapy for War: Developing Stories and Poems with Witnesses and Soldiers,” unabashedly promoted the use of writing as rehabilitative for individuals brutalized by war, as a means of documenting injustice, and as a means of expressing outrage to powers-that-be. Poet, playwright, and essayist Maurice Decaul, head of a New York University veterans writer collective, said that for the collective’s members “writing was not meant to be therapeutic, but it often was.” The new director of Military Experience and the Arts website, David Ervin, an Iraq veteran, spoke openly about how his road to recovery from being “pretty messed up” owed much to writing. Olivia Cerrone, part of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, described how writing gave voice to Afghan women repressed by their own culture and damaged by war, while Elena Bell said much the same on behalf of Palestinian women in Israel.

Ben Busch’s questions for his all-killer, no-filler line-up of authors focused on large issues of political implication and writerly issues of craft. Brian Turner spoke of “complicity”—his effort to imbricate civilian reading audiences in the circle of responsibility for the damage done by war. Siobhan Fallon explained that part of her motivation in writing You Know When the Men Are Gone was her sense that the American public knew little about the war experience that soldiers and their families were enduring. Phil Klay said that he began to write after returning from Iraq and asking himself, “What the hell was that all about?” Katey Schultz reported that she began to write about war when she noticed how language had begun to grow distorted and then change in the years after 9/11. “A story begins with an unanswered question, and I had a lot,” she said. Turning to issues of craft, she said, “It took me a year to get the uniforms and equipment right and another year to figure out who called who ‘sir’ and then six more months to make the characters come alive.” On a roll, Schultz explained that there are many ways to write authentically about war besides personal witness and first-hand experience. Empathy and research are great teachers, too, she said, and spoke of how Google and YouTube aided her while writing Flashes of War. All the panelists had great anecdotes about the importance of research in bringing not just realistic detail but life to their stories. Turner spoke of reading late at night about a butterfly unique to Bougainville that then became a detail in a passage in My Life as a Foreign Country about his grandfather who fought there. Fallon described asking her husband to send her examples of soldier port-a-john graffiti, which he did, but that she eventually had to make up her own to create the perfect effect in a story. Klay described trying to attain a “thick knowledge” (anthropologist Clifford Geertz reference!) that allowed him to be comfortable “making things up and knowing it’s not bullshit.” Exactly what model of PVS-4 Night Vision Goggles did the Marines use in 2004 anyway? It matters, said Klay, along with a lot of other things that matter. But each knew the limits of journalistic-like quest for verisimilitude, too. Busch quoted Ron Capps to the effect that, “We can all get the facts. It’s what you do with them afterwards.”

On the subject of trauma, though, the authors’ remarks minimized the references that were everywhere in the “Writing as Therapy for War” panel, and they turned to the topic directly only as the panel came to a close. Klay, for example, asserted that war writers should be on guard to avoid “flattening the story into trauma,” an idea echoed by Busch, who asked if we might be encouraging veterans to repeatedly tell a certain kind of story when they speak or write of war. Writing, or life, the sentiment seemed to be, need not be defined by all-abiding concern with suffering focalized through the experience of individual soldiers or non-combatants. I’m sure the panelists are sympathetic to the “Writing as Therapy for War” panelists’ goals–they would probably say they are working for the same thing–and it’s also obvious that the characters in their own stories, poems, and memoirs have been severely rattled by war. But rather than relying on trauma tropes, the authors expressed interest in thinking expansively about what war writing can do and be; even in time of war military service is not only about pain and outrage–and if it is, the subjects can be approached from a variety of directions and perspectives. “Widen the palette,” Turner urged war writers, “use more of the imagination.”

Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Siohban Fallon, Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay
Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Siohban Fallon, Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay

So, turning and burning, war writing unfolds upon itself, revealing new problems and possibilities, proceeding in different registers, with varying points-of-view, goals, and subjects of emphasis. A view of things clear-cut to one or many may be problematic or uninteresting to others. Interestingly, the non-war lit panels I attended wrestled with many of the same issues pestering the war writing community. Judging by the titles alone makes the case: “Blood Will Out: Putting Violence on the Page.” “The Politics of Empathy: Writing Through Borrowed Eyes.” “Writing Atrocity: The Novel and Memoir of Political Witness.” How sensationally or how subtly should an author describe graphic violence? What are the problems associated with white men and women portraying dark-skinned characters? Has a war novel other than Sand Queen portrayed the indiscriminate killing, torture, drone strikes, soldier misconduct, and general officer maleficence that are unfortunately-but-undeniably now part of the American way-of-war? I didn’t know the authors on these panels, but was surprised at many turns about the relevance of their comments to war writing, and I’ll be seeding upcoming posts with their ideas.

A blog post about AWP15 war lit panels by Christopher Meeks is here.

A blog post about AWP15 by Andria Williams of the Military Spouse Book Review is here.

A blog post about AWP15, racism, and violence by Vanessa Martir is here.

Thank you to my fellow panelists Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin Halloran.  I’m humbled by your eloquence and bravery and honored by your friendship.


Introductory Remarks, “Who Can’t Handle the Truth: Memoirs by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans”

The American Civil War, in my understanding of things, was the first war to generate a subsequent “battle of the memoirs” in which Union and Confederate generals entertained readers with first-hand accounts of battlefield exploits and decisions, while also serving as correctives to other accounts, all the while cajoling for their places in history.

After subsequent wars, such as World War I, World War II, and Vietnam, memoirs written by generals and statesmen were also common, but they were joined and even supplanted in public interest by accounts written by veterans far farther down the chain-of-command than the vaunted army commanders of the North and South. We value the private soldier’s memoir, we seem to feel, because we think his, and now hers, recollections speak most truthfully to what it means to serve in combat and within a military culture that seems so increasingly foreign to civilian and peacetime life.

We honor these personal testimonies because we see in them an honesty and authenticity about war that we are not likely to get from journalism and history. We enjoy these sagas because we respect the impulse to document war and suspect that memoir writers use the power of memory and language not just to tell us about places and events that are thrilling and exotic, but to remind us that war is a brutal experience—one that requires careful retrospective handling by its participants to assess the exact nature of its horror and aid the memoir writer’s transition to effective, contributing member of the society that sent him or her off to war.

Perhaps the most striking memoir of the kind I have in mind was J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. First published in 1959, 14 years after Gray returned from four years of combat in Europe to become a professor of philosophy, The Warriors contains many insightful formulations about what a memoir written by a veteran might be and do. Glenn writes from his position as a university teacher in 1959: “Now it is almost as though [the war] never took place.” But he immediately reverses that sentiment, in the next line stating, “Yet something is wrong, dreadfully wrong.” Tempted by the impulse to forget, he fights back, for he knows that forgetting is not just a cop-out, but ultimately impossible. “What protrudes and does not fit in our pasts rises to haunt us and makes us spiritually unwell in the present,” he writes, and commits himself to the act of remembering. Noting that “war compresses the greatest opposites into the smallest space and the shortest time,” he feels a personal and social obligation to not to “continue to forget.” Gray writes, “The deepest fear of my war years, one still with me, is that these happenings had no real purpose.” If the effort to remember through writing did not have “some positive significance for my future life,” Gray concludes, “it could not possibly be worth the pain it cost” [to either live through the experience or write about it afterwards].

Today, we have a chance to take stock of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memoir by listening to three notable authors of the genre. Each of our readers has explored not just what it means to go to war, and be in war, but to return from war and live healthily and happily afterwards. The journey for each has not been easy, and I salute them for the toughness they displayed in confronting challenging episodes in their lives and then the candor, insight, and sense of perspective revealed in their writing. I know from my own experience writing about war and its aftermath that such tasks are not easy—it means being honest with oneself and taking risk in revealing the full dimensions of one’s struggles with reading audiences. I’m honored to be the host and moderator for this panel and eager to hear what they intend to share with us.

Our first reader is Ron Capps, a retired Army and State Department veteran who currently is director of the Veterans Writing Project, a Washington, DC-based organization with national reach that promotes veteran writing through workshops and its publication 0-Dark-Thirty.  The wars of the 21st century were fought by members of the millennial generation, a group of young men and women notorious for their disrespect or obliviousness to age and precedence. But Ron Capps has been at the military and war fighting business for a long time, and his memoir Seriously Not All Right (2014) documents not just his experience as an officer-in-uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a longer pre-history as a State Department official on-the-ground for extensive periods in Kosovo and Africa. It is this larger, broader, longer view that I think distinguishes Capp’s perspective.

Our second panelist, Kayla Williams, has written two memoirs about her service in Iraq and afterwards. Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2006) came very early in the game and immediately staked out a position as an insightful, almost definitive articulation of what it means to be a woman in uniform, in the 21st century, during not just war but a period of intense reformulation of our ideas not just about women-in-uniform but gender and sexuality in our society at large. To my mind, no one more than Kayla has spoken as frankly about these issues as they pertain to the military that took men and women for the first time in significant numbers together overseas to fight and when not fighting co-exist together. Kayla has also published a second memoir, Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014) that is equally candid and insightful about the rocky road of marriage she and her husband Brian, who was seriously injured in war, have traveled together since first meeting on a remote hilltop in Iraq.

While Ron Capps represents age on our panel and Kayla Williams signifies what is strikingly new about contemporary war and war authorship, our third panelist, Colin D. Halloran, embodies a much more traditional authorial position—that of a young, literary, middle-class male—Colin was 19 when he deployed to Afghanistan as any infantryman—with no particular inclination or aptitude for soldiering before he joined “to see war” and “serve his country.” Colin turned to poetry to portray vividly the physical experience and even more intensely the emotional experience of combat, service, and life afterwards. His Shortly Thereafter (2012), a memoir that combines verse and prose, is not just one of the very few instances of poetry written by an Afghanistan veteran, but is one of the few biographies of war written by a young enlisted soldier—a doubly-curious phenomenon given the library shelves full of memoirs written by former officers and Navy SEALS. A few years older now, Colin teaches writing at Fairfield University in Connecticut. But Colin, as I know him, will be the last to ever forget where he came from and is currently at work at both another volume of poetry and a memoir that addresses his war years using the arguably more direct medium of prose.


Thanks to Roy Scranton for turning me on to J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors.

Yea for Minnesota, so below’s a special video insertion, the Hold Steady’s ode to the Minneapolis punk-rock scene, “Stay Positive”:

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