Jon Chopan’s short-story collection Veterans Crisis Hotline joins a number of fictional works written by non-veterans about Americans at war in Iraq or Afghanistan and veterans of those wars when they return home: novels such as Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, Greg Baxter’s The Apartment, Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant, and Eric Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie, and short-story collections such as Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone and Katie Schultz’s Flashes of War.
That’s a lot of fiction about war and its aftermath written by civilians. Whether it’s more than what we saw after previous American wars, I don’t know. What it means that so many authors who did not serve want to write about war and veterans, I don’t know either. When non-veteran authors write stories about war, soldiers, and veterans, there’s a risk that readers, especially veterans, won’t be interested or impressed, no matter how good the writing is. In the title story to Veterans Crisis Hotline, Jon Chopan dramatizes this concern, while the other eleven stories provide context.
A few Veterans Crisis Hotline stories are set in Iraq; each documents an incident that undermines the first-person narrator’s confidence in himself and the surety of his knowledge. In “Rules of Engagement,” for example, the narrator describes his realization that the most aggressive, combat-hungry soldier in his unit is actually a blow-hard coward who is afraid to shoot his weapon, while he finds that he himself is easily capable of killing–the realization does not bring arrogance, but troubles him. “Slaughter” describes its narrator’s apprehension early in the invasion of Iraq that his fellow soldiers possess vastly different expectations about what going to war will entail. On a grizzly mission that requires them to dispose of Iraqi bodies killed by American forces, one soldier’s words and acts bespeak a quirky sympathy for the Iraqi dead, another displays a gruff “kill ‘em all” sensibility, while the author comes to terms with the idea that his ambivalent, take-things-as-they-come perspective will not suffice in the face of the stronger emotions, complex scenarios, and tough moral choices war will bring.
True to the title, however, it’s the post-war stories in Veterans Crisis Hotline that exude the most gravitas. Their first-person narrators are male combat vets who are adrift, confused, morose, and angry. Most are white, though one story features a disabled black veteran. They have marginal jobs, they drink a lot, and they get in fights. None have life goals, none are back in school, none are close to their families. The locales are northern urban—upstate Pennsylvania and New York cities such as Erie and Rochester—and the season is generally winter. There’s an old-fashioned feel to the world of the characters: cell phones and social media are barely present, one vet takes a job in a meat-packing plant, and many of the stories are set in dive bars and VFW halls.
The most oft-struck note in the collection is that the vets hate being asked to speak about their service:
I’d been back from the war for about a week, was staying at my sister’s place, sleeping all day and drinking all night, trying to avoid her. She wanted to talk and I wasn’t ready for that.
I knew he was trying to work his voodoo now, to get me talking about drinking, which would only lead me to talking about the war and about coming home and about how home wasn’t the same anymore, how it really wasn’t like being home at all.
She’d let me in because she knew I was damaged, in my own way, and she’d finally accepted me when she saw that I was just a driveling thing who needed someone to love me, someone who would not make me talk about it anymore.
Their isolation and difficulty communicating reflects a seemingly irreparable civil-military divide. Every story set in the States documents a moment of micro-vexation in which veterans and civilians communicate at cross-purposes, or just plain give up trying to communicate:
Josh had already told me what to expect. People back home were no longer interested in the war. We weren’t going to have the parades the World War II guys had, but we weren’t going to see the protests, be called baby killers, like the Vietnam guys either. Generally, people didn’t care.
The veterans aren’t very expressive themselves, and their listless lives seem to evidence lack of passion and purpose. But inside, they seethe to the point of boiling over. Far from not caring, their problem is that they care too much about things that are incomprehensible to non-veterans:
In many ways, I was a civilian. But I had not forgotten things about the war—a desire for swift justice, for example. How sometimes, when a guy from our division was hurt or killed, be it by sniper fire or an IED, we’d walk the streets and harass civilians. Or, if we were in a remote location, how we’d stand, circling an empty mosque, and fire round after round until the building was nothing but pockmarked cement. In this way, what we sought was often the quick and necessary relief men feel when they fell loss.
The idea is that veterans, if they want to talk at all, they want to talk with other veterans. But Chopan suggests that this desire is problematic. The sentiment is evident from the opening paragraph of the title story, which is the first story in the collection, about, well, answering phones at a Veterans Center:
Sometimes, when they call the hotline, they want to talk to another vet. They ask for us specifically. They have this perception that only those who’ve seen war can understand the suffering born of it. As far as I can tell, this is a myth. It is, to my mind, like asking the criminally insane to cure one another.
The story’s narrator, a vet named “Byrne,” reports that he “took the job because my friends and doctors thought it would do me good, helping other guys who were struggling with the things I’d struggled with.” The passage reminded me of something a vet-service organization leader once told me: the surest sign that a veteran needs help is his or her offer to help other vets who need help.
All in all, Veterans Crisis Hotline offers a grim, dour portrait of lost young men cut loose in a country that doesn’t seem that interested in finding them. Snow falls in enough stories to convey the idea that Chopan was greatly impressed by James Joyce’s conclusion to his short-story “The Dead,” where snowfall serves as a striking symbol of emotional coldness and smothering conformity. Another story, “The Cumulative Effect,” seems to be a reworking of Sherman Alexie’s “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.” In Chopan’s and Alexie’s stories, Hendrix’s twisted rendition of the National Anthem speaks more powerfully to damaged citizens of a divided nation than the traditional version. Within the logic of the stories they write, and in real life, too, for some, or many, it’s no wonder.
Be sure to check out Matthew Komatsu’s review of Veterans Crisis Hotline, published on The Wrath-Bearing Tree here.
Jon Chopan, Veterans Crisis Hotline. University of Massachusetts Press, 2018.