In a 2014 Los Angeles Book Review article titled “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” author Brian Castner wondered why so little fiction and poetry had been written about war in Afghanistan compared to Iraq. In the article, Brandon Willitts answers Castner’s question by noting that the special operators who were doing much of the fighting in Afghanistan were not bookish people drawn to reflection:
“These guys are such high achievers, Olympic athletes who have been trained to kill,” he says. “They’ve spent a decade doing night raids. And now you want them to sit in a chair and write a novel? You might as well ask why more NFL players aren’t writing novels.”
Will Mackin, the author of the short-story collection Bring Out the Dog, about Navy SEALs in action in Afghanistan and in Iraq and in training in America, may not fit the exact prescription Willitts offers as an impossibility, but he comes pretty close. Mackin was not technically a SEAL, for he never went through the rigorous selection process for the legendary fighting force. But through the vagrancies of a long career as a Navy officer, he found himself attached to the SEALs on several deployments as the team member responsible for coordinating “close air support”—rockets and bombs launched from Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine aircraft. Mackin, to the best of my knowledge, has also not played linebacker in the NFL. A high school football game described in one Bring Out the Dog story by the first-person narrator seems based on actual experience, however, so perhaps we can surmise that he possesses something of a jock’s good-nature, confidence, instinct for action, and sanguinity about violence. But Mackin early on was also bit hard by the writing bug, which values other qualities and a different sensibility—an affinity for underdogs and outsiders and an interest in language and the telling detail, for starters. Mackin openly acknowledges his debt to George Saunders and his epigraph comes from Barry Hannah, both authors esteemed by writing-world insiders and “fit-but-few” readers. Given all that, it’s no wonder Bring Out the Dog emits such a unique cluster of intriguing signals, as if a linebacker didn’t just write a novel about the NFL, but wrote a damn good one.
Most of the initial round of reviews for Bring Out the Dog, including mine here, fixate on Mackin’s style, which combines plain-spoken physical description and almost obsessively-rendered descriptions of distorted sensory perceptions. Mackin alludes to this practice in a New York Times interview:
The idea for this particular book came out of the sensory details of the wars. When I was deploying with a SEAL team in Iraq and Afghanistan, our mission was night raids, and we wore night vision. There was a disconnect between the actual image and the image I was seeing in the goggles, and in some of the transmission — I could hear the guy next to me speaking on the radio, and a few seconds later I’d hear his voice in my head on delay. The voice would sound different but all the words were the same.
Nothing directly appears as what it is. Especially at night, when you’re seeing things basically in three different forms: the heat-and-light image in night vision; the silhouette in darkness I’d see in my peripheral or if I looked under the goggles; and the image I knew — like, if I was looking at a teammate, the guy I was familiar with, my memory of what he looked like in daylight. That sort of sensory confusion really stuck with me.
Examples of this perspectival fluidity can be found on almost every page of Bring Out the Dog. Mackin, or his narrator, constantly calls attention to the contingency and unreliability of the senses. From the first story in the collection, “The Lost Troop”:
The windows of the MH-47 were made of Plexiglass. They were shaped like mixing bowls. Looking through them, I saw things on the outside as either close and blurry, or far away and flurry. There was a sweet spot in the lens, however, where something would emerge perfectly magnified. Thus, when we banked over the highway that ran between Kandahar and Kabul, I saw a bleary-eyed trucker behind the wheel. When we floated over the mountains into Wardak, I saw a waterfall cascading into a crystalline lake. And when we turned above the ruins of Joe’s old school, I imagined the school as it once had been—stone walls, slate roof, and leaded glass windows.
Such sensory alertness, the ability to weave permutations of impression effortlessly into the storytelling fabric, and the underlying premise that the subtle alterations of perspective infuse the plot, character, and reader response with meaning, are literary gifts. A classic example is Hawthorne in “The Custom House,” his long introduction to The Scarlet Letter. There, Hawthorne describes how the intermingling of fireplace flame, lamplight, and moonbeam illuminate a storytelling space “somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet….” out of which grow the novel that follows. Hawthorne’s interest was Romance, which he distinguished from the Novel; the debate is forgotten now, but the talent remains tangible: whatever virtues a book without it may have, the sentences are bound to feel overly literal and plodding. An author who doesn’t have the gift is like a basketball player without spring in his step, a baseball pitcher whose fastball doesn’t jump and swerve, or a linebacker who doesn’t like to hit.
All the above has been the gist of the initial reviews of Bring Out the Dog. Less detailed have been explorations of its stories as stories—what is Mackin asking us to understand about modern SEALs and SEAL warfare?
Like many other contemporary short-story collections, Bring Out the Dog’s eleven stories are linked by recurring characters, subjects, and themes. The first-person narrator seems to be the same in all stories, an unnamed Navy Joint Terminal Attack Controller (or, “JTAC”) assigned to a SEAL unit, though in some stories the narrator also has other duties, such as being responsible for signal and electronic intelligence, host-nation liaison, and “pulling security” while the SEALs execute operations on targets. Six stories are set in Afghanistan, where the narrator belongs to a unit led by a terse, fierce, charismatic SEAL named Hal who leads the team on a series of raids and patrols. Intermixed with the Afghanistan stories are three set on training ranges in the United States, one in North Carolina and two in Utah. In these, the other main character is a senior JTAC named Reed with whom the narrator conducts training missions guiding in aircraft on bombing runs. The final two stories are set in Iraq, where the narrator is a member of a SEAL team led by Spot, who seems like a lesser version of Hal, though still formidable. While the Afghanistan missions take place in that country’s rural villages and back regions, the Iraq stories portray nighttime raids in the aptly-named city of Hit, in the Anbar region near Ramadi. Many stories feature Iraq or Afghanistan characters in minor roles who serve as agents of the narrator’s awakening, but US military personnel in line units appear only as foils for the more warrior-like SEALs. Also for better or worse, serving US women appear only once and stories set back in the States are unconcerned with the domestic sphere. A SEAL girlfriend figures in one story; predictably enough, I guess, she’s a dancer in a strip-club.
The subject of most of the stories are SEAL team operations broadly considered. The most common missions portrayed are nighttime raids on Iraq and Afghanistan households to kill-or-capture high-value targets: the SEALs helicopter in, approach their objective, blow in its doors, ransack the place while looking for targets, and then exfiltrate to the helicopter pick-up point. These missions are usually routine, except that sometimes they go haywire or something out of the ordinary happens, occurrences which serve as seeds for several of the stories the narrator wants to tell. Other stories focus on SEALs patrolling across forbidding landscapes in which the terrain as much as the Taliban or Al Qaeda are the enemy. A couple of stories are set mostly on the FOB and offer portraits of SEALs interacting among themselves or with line soldiers in non-combat scenarios. All are full of enough gnarly detail to satisfy the demands of hardcore military buffs while also establishing, without braggadocio, Mackin’s authorial credibility as a war-writer who has served with the toughest and seen a lot. Even better are the insights, usually offered as asides, that give purchase on the SEAL ethos. In one place, the narrator explains:
The variety of ideas among soldiers developed into a variety of ideas among units, which necessitated an operational priority scheme. As SEAL Team Six, we were at the top of that scheme. Our ideas about the war were the war. Therefore, we could knock any unit’s door in the middle of the night, assemble the soldiers in a room, and tell them what was what.
In another story, a SEAL is described as “a SEAL, and SEALs had their own problems, but being uptight wasn’t one of them. If anything, they’d gone too far in the opposite direction.” Elsewhere, the narrator writes, “Knowing that we were in for a gunfight, the boys were all smiles.” When team leader Spot thinks his team has grown sloppy, he chews them out. “And although he shouldn’t have to reiterate our philosophy,” the narrator writes, “he felt the need. ‘Speed and violence,’ he said. And we allowed him to say it again.” This in response to failure to kill a teen-age boy who dared to move when told to hold still–in contrast to the many scenes in recent war films and books in which soldiers err on the side of caution in shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenarios, for the SEALs hesitation is the cardinal sin.
The training range stories operate differently. From the most unpromising of dramatic material—one that not 1 in 100,000 potential readers can “relate to,” Mackin finds much of human interest in the spoken and unspoken tensions that bind the narrator and Reed as they stand at “observation points” and call in attack aircraft. Even better, given Mackin’s interest in perspective and measurement, the tales of range-finding and targeting (to include “Kattekoppen,” which is set in Afghanistan) read like parables of how to see and how to be sure of what you see.
The major theme of the stories is acceptance and belonging, earned by continuously proving one’s tactical competence, fitness for team culture, and loyalty. Often, it is the narrator who feels himself on the outside looking in—part of but not really belonging to the unit, with his tactical and social competence constantly under question by the rest of the team and himself. This feeling particularly drives the first story, “The Lost Troop,” in which the narrator feels, rightly, that the team holds him responsible for not calling in a punishing-enough airstrike to vanquish an enemy strongpoint, which led to one of the enemy survivors killing a SEAL named Yaz. In “Yankee Two,” the narrator bungles “actions on the objective,” when on a night raid he both fails to discover a mysterious electronic device that might be an IED “trigger” and takes his eye off one of their detainees. But it’s not just the narrator who reproaches himself for past mistakes and worries about future ones. “Rib Night” is about a SEAL who cements his reputation by exemplifying SEAL virtues—fighting prowess and team loyalty–while “Great Circle Route Westward Through Perpetual Night” is about another SEAL who must be reassigned after inadvertently killing the team search-dog (the canine referred to in the book’s title). In “Welcome Man Will Never Fly,” a SEAL demonstrates his unreliability at calling in airstrikes, thus forcing the narrator and his superiors to make a hard call about his fitness for an upcoming deployment. “Kattekoppen” is about a SEAL team that cycles through a number of artillery forward observers before finding the right one for the job. Illustrated by these stories is the relentless competitiveness of SEALs, their ferocious judgment of each other, and the lacerating humiliation that comes with not measuring up.
A second theme concerns SEAL team leadership. Hal and Spot dominate the lives of the other SEALs, setting the tone and upholding standards while instilling intense desire to obey and please among their troops. Their key to success seems to be a potent mixture of extreme calmness and extreme decisiveness, both in combat and in their judgment of men. In this regard Hal impresses the narrator a little more than Spot—Hal’s name calling to mind Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The narrative arc of Bring Out the Dog climaxes (spoiler alert) in “Crossing the River No Name” with Hal’s death, for which the narrator feels culpable and which leaves him not so much emotionally forlorn but cosmically adrift, as if the right order of the universe had been upset. The collection’s last two stories are set in Iraq under Spot’s leadership, which resembles in ways Hal’s, but doesn’t inspire the same confidence. We don’t quite feel that the last two stories register the cumulative force of the nine preceding stories on the narrator’s psyche—we don’t really even know if the stories are arranged in chronological order—but one can sense something setting in, if not quite disillusionment, then perhaps readiness to put SEAL life behind him.
A structural feature of the stories is that most of them end enigmatically. Narrative closure is always tricky business in short stories, and Mackin’s bent is to leave what might be the resolution unstated and hanging. In “Welcome Man Will Never Fly,” for example, the narrator, Reed, and the third man—a SEAL named Moby, the one who has just fucked up his pre-deployment test—make their way home after the training concludes. The narrator and Reed must report to their higher that Moby is unfit for deployment, even though by nature the wise-cracking and insouciant Moby is a perfect SEAL-bro who sees his mistakes as no big deal, who cares, whatever. Before arriving back at the base, however, the men are waylaid by a storm that forces them to take refuge in a motel where, by chance, a reunion of special ops pilots is in full-swing. The story’s end suggests that, confronted by the bonhomie of the retired pilots, the type of men who have all broken hundreds of military rules and buried dozens of mistakes in their long careers, the narrator and Reed will recalculate their decision. But the outcome is never portrayed directly; instead the story sets the condition for the dramatic moment to follow. Similarly, in “Yankee Two,” the narrator discovers a mysterious black box that may or may not be an IED trigger. Even after subjecting the box to a half-dozen tests, however, the narrator cannot determine whether the black box is even an electronic device. The story ends with an interrogation of the box owner—an adolescent boy—about to begin—but we never learn the result of the inquiry nor the fate of the box. Suggested, though, is the narrator’s growing sense of the futility of the mission, a feeling exacerbated by his increasing lack of confidence in Spot.
The focus throughout is clearly on fighting men whose social codes are shot through with fairly traditional ideas about manly bravery and toughness. Still, Bring Out the Dog likely is not going to please members of the special operations community and their fans, who, if they pay attention to it at all, will be suspicious of it and feel they are somehow being exposed, critiqued, or mocked. What’s there not to like about SEALs, they could ask? Mackin might even agree, for neither does Bring Out the Dog stand as a rebuke of the mountain of memoirs and films–the cultural glop–that celebrate and glorify SEALs. For critics of SEALs and their mythos, Bring Out the Dog probably doesn’t go far enough in problematizing either SEAL tactics or SEAL idolatry. Toxic masculinity and rampant militarism would seem to be on the table, but are not Mackin’s interest, nor is self-flagellation. “But ours was not a normal organization,” the narrator explains. “Sometimes what went on gave normal men pause. And if they paused, we’d send them back and demand a replacement.” In response to the books and movies about the world in which he served, Bring Out the Dog suggests Mackin wouldn’t think they are wrong in contour, merely nowhere near satisfying enough in detail and artistry.
As I’ve been intimating, it is very unusual to discover a writer of Mackin’s ability who has also been soldier-enough to accompany the SEALs not on just one mission as an observer or journalist, but dozens and probably hundreds as a participant. Not that Bring Out the Dog is Moby-Dick, but Mackin’s appearance on the literary scene resembles Melville’s in the 1840s, when fresh from a whaling voyage and living with cannibals a talented young writer seemed to emerge out of whole-cloth. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael testifies that it is best to be on good terms with the inhabitants of any realm in which one finds oneself and also that mad “Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.” Some of the same sentiments seem to apply to Mackin’s relationship to the SEALs. We might wonder that he doesn’t make more of the cumulative ethical toll from so much participation in shooting, bombing, home invasion, interrogation, and just plain brutal human interaction, even among the SEALs themselves. The narrator references psychological distress occasionally—what the narrator calls his “beleaguered conscience”—but it honestly doesn’t seem to be his thing to be tormented by war’s wanton destructiveness. That’s an aspect of combat he thinks about, but it doesn’t yet consume him, though he admits that in future years “I’d probably see good stuff as bad, and bad stuff as worse.” Perhaps it is all a matter of suppression, denial, compartmentalization, and suspended judgment—something officers are expert in, speaking from experience–but whatever, the attitude is curious and hard to understand—if the war didn’t actually traumatize you, OK, but how could literary war fiction possibly be about anything else?
One means of understanding the ethical tone of Bring Out the Dog is offered by Air Force pilot and novelist James Salter in his memoir, where he claims that he disliked writing about himself, because the “self was not the principal thing.” In other words, he, and I’m suggesting Mackin, too, is more interested in describing people and events he observed than in exploring his own mind or soul. The risk here is a certain lack of psychological or moral depth that might be judged heinous, or at least reprehensible, especially when we’re talking about breaking into Afghan and Iraq households and terrorizing the residents. I don’t think that’s the case with Mackin’s narrator, Mackin himself, or Bring Out the Dog generally. More ambivalent about special operators than other literary fiction yet written about them—I’m thinking of Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War, and Ross Ritchell’s The Knife–Bring Out the Dog emenates from a deeper place of knowingness. Still it would be ludicrous to think Mackin would throw under the bus men with whom he fought and on whom he depended for his life. “I felt proud that I’d fought, or something like proud, but also glad it was over,” states the narrator of “The Lost Troop.” Mackin’s stories set the conditions for the profounder resolution of their ambiguities, not by his characters, nor by Mackin, but by his readers.
An interview I conducted with Mackin for The Wrath-Bearing Tree can be found here.
Will Mackin, Bring Out the Dog. Random House, 2018.