Been There, Done That: Contemporary War Writing Stock Scenes

Afghanistan 013

For all those contemplating or currently writing memoir, fiction, or poetry about war in Iraq or Afghanistan and its aftermath, I’ve listed twenty events or ways of describing events that I’ve encountered at least twice in published contemporary war writing. Not to say new writers should avoid writing about these subjects, too, but some very good authors have already done so, so the onus is now on newcomers to make their depictions fresh and vivid.

1. Deciding whether to shoot or not shoot while serving as a vehicle gunner or on checkpoint duty. This excruciating experience is the centerpiece of many Iraq and Afghanistan stories, such as Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train” from the Fire and Forget anthology, Jesse Goolsby’s novel I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, and, of course, many scenes in the movie version of American Sniper.

2. Claim that a soldier doesn’t care about politics or grand strategy, because all that is important is survival and the good regard of one’s fellow soldiers. No doubt true, but neither a brilliant nor original insight at this point.

3. The first US casualty or the death or injury of a child that “brings home the reality of war.” It’s actually hard to find a war story that doesn’t contain some version of these two signature events, so the problem becomes discovering new language and perspectives with which to relate them.

4. Death or injury to an important character by a stray mortar round that hits inside FOB walls. See Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, David Abrams’ Fobbit, and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds.  Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” (in the Fire and Forget anthology) has an interesting variation on the theme–a suicide bomber infiltrates a FOB and blows himself up in the presence of the story’s main characters.

5. Military funeral services, with first sergeant calling the roll, salute battery firing, the playing of taps, etc. The best fictional portrait of these moving ceremonies is David Abrams’ “Roll Call,” which can be found in Fire and Forget. Brian Castner describes an interesting variation on the ceremony in his memoir The Long Walk. The most moving description I’ve read of a “hero flight” processional—the movement of a dead soldier’s remains from FOB mortuary to a waiting aircraft—is in Afghan-American interpreter Saima Wahib’s memoir In My Father’s Country.

6. A charismatic-but-(possibly)-Satanic sergeant who dominates the life of a junior enlisted soldier. See Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk for examples par excellence. See also Philip Metres’ poem “The Blues of Lynndie England” in Sand Opera and check out Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives for a portrait of a charismatic female sergeant and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe, I Love You for a kick-ass female NCO in theater whose life goes off the rails back in the States.

7. Describing poverty and squalor in Iraq and Afghanistan as “unlike anything we can imagine in the United States.” Subset: calling conditions in Afghanistan “medieval.” OK, got it, now tell us something we don’t know using language we haven’t heard before. Related: Describing combat as like being in a slow-motion and long-lasting car accident. Two great writers, Ben Fountain in Billy Lynn’ Long Halftime Walk and Kevin Powers in The Yellow Birds have already used this figure-of-speech, so the rest of us should “steer” clear, to make a pun.

8. Enlisted soldier tough talk with lots of cursing, sexual reference, slang, and military lingo. To show a grunt’s apprehension of the futility of war and the rough love with which male soldiers treat other, while certifying the author’s credibility as a military insider, while also trying to inject color and humor into the story being told: almost every war story ever written by a man. When directed by male soldiers at female soldiers or a foreign citizen to show the callousness of macho military culture: Joydeep Roy-Battacharya’s The Watch and Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen.

9. Stories and poems that depend almost entirely on punch-drunk reveries and litanies of military jargon and nomenclature. Paul Wasserman’s poem “Fifteen Months, Twenty-two Days” and Phil Klay’s story “OIF” have covered this ground quite nicely already.

10. Communication from the front with loved ones at home through Skype, email, or satellite phones, particularly when the call is interrupted by incoming mortar rounds or rockets or revolve around missing birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries. After American Sniper, the movie, in which the Chris Kyle character makes sat calls to his wife in between sniper shots, no more please.

11. Contempt for a stupid order, pointless mission, or idiotic member of the chain-of-command. This dynamic drives almost every war story and memoir ever written, but it’s more interesting when the antagonism is understated or couched in terms that aren’t so self-righteously vindictive.

12. Homely scenes of soldiers opening “any soldier” care packages, as well as those showing soldiers trading MRE components and devising new recipes out of curious combinations of ingredients. David Abrams’ Fobbit takes the cake for portraying care package soldier folkways, while scenes that portray the repurposing and individualizing of MREs are too many to count.

13. Shooting stray dogs in theater, or being forced by a by-the-book first sergeant or company commander to give up a pet dog adopted by a unit or individual. In regard to the first, Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” does as much with this common experience as could possibly be done, thank you very much. Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch contains an interesting turn on the scenario, in which US soldiers almost shoot their pet when it interferes with a mission. Saima Wahab’s anecdote in her memoir In My Father’s Country about the pet dog she kept while stationed in Jalalabad is stranger than anything I’ve encountered in fiction.

14. Malaria pill dreams. See several great poems in Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and passages in Adrian Bonenburger’s memoir Afghan Post.

15. References to high-brow literature that a soldier reads while at war. These pop up all the time, as if to signify the modern warrior-author is no common, under-educated grunt, but an intrepid reader whose search for wisdom equals his or her thirst to live intensely. Lea Carpenter’s description of Navy SEAL reading habits in Eleven Days is a pretty good example of the motif. Roy Scranton, in his story in Fire and Forget titled “Red Steel India,” has a soldier on a FOB reading Noam Chomsky, so if I read now about characters who have only brought Shakespeare or Tolstoy to war with them, I’m not so impressed.

16. Analogies to classical Greek literature, history, and myth. Can we give Sparta, Achilles, Odysseus, Penelope, Ajax, Philoctetes, Antigone, Homer, Thucydides, and Sophocles a rest? Or, here’s a different idea: We bland, reason-bound Americans, who hate history and whose imaginations are fired mostly by Hollywood, aren’t anything like the passionate, excitable, mystically-minded characters, bound by family pride and tribal allegiances and historical remembrance, and intense codes of honor, reward, punishment, feud, and vengeance, and possessed by strange attitudes about violence and lust and cosmic connection, who populate Homer and the Greek roster of gods. I can’t speak about Iraq, but it seems to me that if we want to bring the literature and myth of classical Greece forward 2500 years, the best use of it would be to help us understand the exotic worldview of Afghanistan Pashtuns.

17. The long plane ride home from theater, with a sadder-but-wiser veteran contemplating all that’s happened and what might take place in the future. Brian Turner’s “Night in Blue” from Here, Bullet and Roxana Robinson’s Sparta have already set high standards depicting this veteran rite-of-passage.

18. Homecoming ceremony on the airfield tarmac or unit parade ground reuniting returning veterans with loved ones. It’s hard to top Siobhan Fallon’s depiction in the title story of You Know When the Men Are Gone or Phil Klay’s in the title story of Redeployment, but the best extended description, in my opinion, appears in Roxana Robinson’s Sparta.

19. Descriptions of how a veteran upon return home reaches for the weapon he or she carried throughout deployment. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this. Also, veterans who jump when a car backfires or insist on facing the door of a restaurant or bar or who succumb easily to road rage. No mas, por favor–do cars even backfire any more?

20. Veterans who just don’t want to talk about it (but who often do anyway): Every story so far about redeployment.

I personally experienced 19 of the 20 events I’ve listed above, or variations on them, during my deployment and upon return (no malaria pill dreams for me), so I’m not insensitive or naïve about what they mean in the lives of real soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. But lived life and writing about war are two different things, and in writing the imperative is to “make it new.” Some might disagree—a smart young writer-buck might pack all 20 of the motifs I’ve named into one super-story that then becomes more popular than American Sniper:

Specialist Jones, from his position as rear gunner in the last vehicle in an American army convoy in Iraq, saw a white Toyota rushing toward him and now had to decide whether to shoot or not. A common grunt, Specialist Jones didn’t care about politics or strategy, all he cared about was surviving the war and not letting down the guys in his unit. The deployment had been an easy one until Sergeant Smith had been killed when a lucky mortar round fired by insurgents impacted inside the FOB. Sergeant Smith’s death had brought the reality of the war home to Specialist Jones and the memorial service for him—especially when first sergeant had called the roll and taps were played–was the most emotional event Specialist Jones had ever experienced. If it hadn’t been for his platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Williams, kicking his ass, Specialist Jones didn’t think he would have made it. The squalor in Iraq was unlike anything he could have imagined in the States and combat like a succession of slow-moving car crashes.

“Screw that frickin’ Hadji,” Specialist Jones cursed under his breath, “He picked the wrong mofo to mess with.” High up in the gunner’s turret of his MRAP, he charged his M2 .50cal, cycled through the ROE in his mind, and considered whether the Toyota was on the BOLO list, the driver a MAM or not, and whether the car might be an SVBIED.

When the mortar round that killed Sergeant Smith had exploded, Specialist Jones had been talking on the phone to his wife and he had had to quickly make an excuse there was construction going on outside his tent. Now they were on another stupid mission that would accomplish nothing except make the idiot lieutenant look good in the eyes of the motherhumpin’ captain. Specialist Jones took one more bite of MRE spaghetti-and-meatballs mixed with M&Ms and spiced up with Texas Pete Hot Sauce he had found in an any-soldier care package and took aim at the onrushing Toyota. The thing that really had pissed him off most, frankly, more than even Sergeant Smith’s death and the speeding Toyota, was that the by-the-book sergeant major had shot his pet mutt Screwball in the name of unit discipline and camp hygiene. In Specialist Jones’ last malaria pill dream, Screwball had appeared as Argos, the dog who guarded the Greek warrior Ulysses’ home for nine years while Ulysses was at war, which Specialist Jones had read about in the copy of The Odyssey stored under his bunk.

Later, on the long plane ride home, Specialist Jones stared out the window and wondered whether destroying the Toyota had been the right thing to do and whether it would affect him for the rest of his life. Standing on the tarmac in the unit’s homecoming ceremony, he scanned the crowd for his wife and when the ceremony was over he ran to hug her. Later, he turned in the M4 that he had carried for a year in Iraq; for days afterward he would find himself reaching for his rifle and feeling a moment of panic that he had lost it, until he remembered it was secured in the unit arms room. He noticed other things, too, such as how he jumped when he heard a car backfire or how irritated he became when a car came too close to him on the highway. Relaxing was impossible–when he went out to dinner, for example, he insisted on facing the door of the restaurant and scanned the room for threats when he should have been paying attention to his wife. She asked him about things that happened in Iraq, but at first he didn’t want to talk about it. Later, though, he opened up.

For me, though, the most interesting war writers are those who say new things, or old things in new ways. Part of what makes Brian Turner great is that he was the first to portray artistically many of what have become the commonplace scenes and images of war literature, and how he now seems determined to push beyond them as far as he possibly can. Benjamin Busch’s memoir Dust-to-Dust takes the prize for the most determined effort to write about war without succumbing to subjects, ideas, and mannerisms that have been used before. One thing I appreciate greatly about Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War is how, fluidly Schultz, who never served, finds so many ways to tell war stories that avoid regurgitating obvious subjects and scenes. The beauty of Phil Klay’s Redeployment lies in how Klay takes popular war writing tropes and repackages them using irony, perspective, and humor—Klay’s not an unwitting user of tried-and-somewhat-true war story motifs, but a self-aware deployer and interrogator of them.

8 thoughts on “Been There, Done That: Contemporary War Writing Stock Scenes”

  1. I love it…..Really a great piece and also quite “original”, however there are many reasons for writing, especially for non pro’s writing privately for themselves or families. I dont think you meant this for them, The incidents you mention have been written about so often because they happened so often to so many of us.

    But it is a great check list for anyone presuming to write primarily for others with any pretense to art. Bravo again….-

    And so I quote TS Elliot, who when asked to write a War Poem for an upcoming literary anthology during WW2, said he would not. However,instead, he wrote a “Note on War Poetry”, and in the process, almost incidentally defined art, which is what, I think, you are talking about.

    A Note on War Poetry

    Not the expression of collective emotion
    Imperfectly reflected in the daily papers.
    Where is the point at which the merely individual
    Explosion breaks

    In the path of an action merely typical
    To create the universal, originate a symbol
    Out of the impact — This is a meeting
    On which we attend

    Of forces beyond control by experiment —
    Of Nature and the Spirit. Mostly the individual
    Experience is too large, or too small. Our emotions
    Are only ‘incidents’

    In the effort to keep day and night together.
    It seems just possible that a poem might happen
    To a very young man : but a poem is not poetry —
    That is a life.

    War is not a life : it is a situation ;
    One which may neither be ignored nor accepted,
    A problem to be met with ambush and stratagem,
    Enveloped or scattered.

    The enduring is not a substitute for the transient,
    Neither one for the other. But the abstract conception
    Of private experience at its greatest intensity
    Becoming universal, which we call ‘poetry’,
    May be affirmed in verse.

  2. Dean, thanks for the kind words and the great T.S. Eliot poem, of which I was not aware of before. You are right, I had in mind a veteran-writer eager to make his or her reputation as an author-artist; the scenes I describe might serve as workshop exercise prompts in how to “tell” a war story–I know from my own efforts at war fiction writing it is darn hard to be truly original. Veteran-writers using words and narrative privately and semi-privately to understand what they’ve gone through can and should write whatever they feel compelled to do, though they too might benefit from reading some of the texts I’ve named to see how it’s been done before.

  3. Great cautionary list-I’m guilty of five, though I’ve hopefully handled them skillfully enough to avoid summary literary execution. I’m relieved that translating OIF/OEF experiences into a science fiction setting isn’t yet on the list. In time, in time. . .

    1. Hi Liam, no need to worry–we’ll all read anything you write. I’ve been working on a war story all day myself that I think has only one or two of the motifs. Not to say it’ll be any good, but I’m trying.

  4. Good list. Except my guys in “Big Two-Hearted” weren’t wounded by a mortar. Though, I have written about mefloquine dreams, mortars, shoot-not-shoot dilemmas, shooting dogs, wanting to shoot idiot superiors, and all with enough tough guy talk to make it seem real, elsewhere.

    1. Point taken, and I’ll make the correction shortly. You are the last writer who has to worry about writing about war in ways that don’t put a unique interpretive and imaginative spin on things.

      1. Thanks for the vote of confidence, and I did enjoy the list. I worry about the guy or gal who doesn’t worry about these things. Fine line between stereotypical and archetypal.

  5. War story writing and war story reading will survive my carping criticism, that’s for sure. I like all the works I’ve listed, but want to do my bit to help the next generation of authors push into new territory.

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