My story “The Brigade Storyboard Artist” was republished this week on the Wrath-Bearing Tree website. Originally appearing as “Captain Athens and Sergeant Arrack” on Time Now in 2016, the story portrays internal drama within a brigade Tactical Operations Center in Afghanistan. The Wrath-Bearing Tree reissue has gotten a fair amount of attention and praise, by my standards, so check it out please if you haven’t already. It took every day of my 25+ years in the Army to accumulate enough observed detail about soldiers, operations, military processes, and Army culture to write “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” and most of what I include in the story has some resemblance to things I’ve witnessed or participated in. Most particularly, the story allows me to explore my interest in military “storyboards.” I had never seen nor heard of storyboards before arriving in Afghanistan as the leader of an advisor team in 2008. But I soon learned that storyboards, which can be roughly described as a Power Point presentation reduced to one-slide and injected with steroids, were the coin-of-the-realm in terms of information-sharing and narrative-shaping up-and-down and across the chain-of-command.
The specific genesis of “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” as a story, however, was an assignment I gave to cadets when I was teaching a literature course at West Point. The course director, Elizabeth Samet, made Ovid’s The Metamorphoses mandatory reading, along with an assignment to write stories that adapted myths related by Ovid into modern settings. Intrigued by the assignment, I wrote five adaptations myself, including what eventually became “The Brigade Storyboard Artist.” It’s based on Ovid’s telling of a mighty competition between Athena, the goddess of arts, and Arachne, a talented upstart, to sew the most magnificent tapestry. Central to The Metamorphoses myth is a transformation at each tale’s end. Typically, the transformation involves a human who is changed into an animal or material object; in Ovid’s telling of the Athena and Arachne competition, Arachne is turned into a spider when she loses the contest. I don’t go quite that far, but I’ve tried to find a realistic analogy.
I’ve also written four other stories based on myths related by Ovid in The Metamorphoses:
“Cy and Ali” is based on Ceyx and Alcyone, one of Ovid’s saddest stories. In my version, Cy is a gunner in a convoy caught in an ambush and Ali is his wife waiting at home for his return from war.
“Ari and Theodopulous” is based on the Minotaur myth. In Ovid, Theseus slays the Minotaur but is only able to escape the labyrinth with the help of King Minos’s daughter Ariadne. Theseus and Ariadne flee Crete, but Thesesus inexplicably abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Soon, however, Ariadne is taken up by Bacchus, the god of revelry. In my story, I find parallels for all that by telling a tale about a veteran who becomes a mixed-martial-arts champion.
“Junior and Io” is based on Ovid’s Jupiter, Juno, and Io myth. In Ovid, Jupiter, who is married to Juno, pursues Io, who he turns into a cow to hide her from Juno. In my story, Jupiter is a deployed soldier who is dumped, probably for good reason, by his girl Io.
“Captains Dietz and Avis” is based on Ovid’s Daphne and Apollo myth. In the myth, Apollo pursues Daphne, who finally escapes him when she is turned into a tree. In my story, a male Army captain with the hots for a female fellow officer comes on too strong and ruins her tour.
So what do you get when you use Ovid as the basis for telling stories about modern war? One issue is that of tone—almost all of Ovid’s stories end badly for the characters he wants us to care most deeply about—and yet somehow the stories are not tragic, but more comic or whimsical or detached. A few, very few, such as Ceyx and Alcyone, are tender and heartbreakingly sad.
Second, many or most of Ovid’s stores involve romance, desire, infatuation, and unrequited love. Since not so many modern war stories do love and relationships well, Ovid’s myths provide a framework by which a modern writer might begin to think about telling a story about the romantic and erotic lives of soldiers.
The third issue is dealing with the characters’ transformations. What to make of the them? Scholars suggest that the constant change reflects the capriciousness of the gods (or fate), who can punish or reward unexpectedly. They also suggest that Ovid’s message is that because change is constant, the ability to deal with change is not just a desired quality, but a necessity and a great good.
I can see those things, but also disagree. For me, the important aspect of Ovid’s stories is the permanent nature of the characters’ transformations and the corresponding ruin of their social relationships. When a character is transformed into a bird or animal or material object, he or she is gone forever from the human realm. Like death, yes, but more like disappearance and loss while still alive. It always happens for a reason, and maybe is for the best, but still. Think of people you once knew well and who were important to you, but who are now estranged or lost from contact, probably never to be seen or spoken to again. For me, it’s the destroyed human connections at the end of Ovid’s stories that account for their emotional force.
Many thanks to everyone at Wrath-Bearing Tree, a great journal featuring always interesting fiction, poetry, reviews, and commentary about war and the military.