What does military service and veteran status mean to black American veterans? Few full-length novels, short-story collections, plays, poetry volumes, memoirs, or non-fiction studies by or about black American soldiers in the 21st-century have been published to help us answer the question. Off the top of my head, the only biographies I can think of are two co-authored by M.L. Doyle, herself a black veteran. One is I’m Still Standing, by Shoshana Johnson, the Army soldier who was wounded and captured in the same convoy ambush as Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003. I’m Still Standing is one of my favorite memoirs of the GWOT-era: The opposite of “kill-memoirs” such as American Sniper in every way, it portrays life in uniform and going to war from the perspective of a lower-enlisted “low-density MOS” soldier (Johnson’s “Military Occupational Specialty” was 92G, Military Culinary Specialist—i.e., a cook) and person-of-color. The other, which I have not yet read, is titled A Promise Fulfilled. It’s a biography of Brigadier General Julia Jeter Cleckley, who before retiring in 2002 was the first African-American woman to attain the rank of general in the Army.
We should also note that Doyle also writes genre fiction, published independently. One of her novels, called The Bonding Spell, is a work of speculative fiction set in the States, but its plot is set in motion by events that occur in Iraq. The Bonding Spell is good, and even better is Doyle’s detective novel about US Army soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina titled The Peacekeeper’s Photograph. The protagonists of both stories are savvy black military women who have navigated patriarchal and white-dominated military culture without being broken by it. Thus does genre fiction—speculative and detective, respectively, in the case of Doyle–fulfill its potential to create delightfully-inspired imagined worlds rooted in real possibilities.
The only other full-length work by a black vet on my bookshelf is Nicole S. Goodwin’s poetry volume Warcries. Goodwin served in the Army in Iraq and writes searingly about the deployment and the return home; her themes and tones are more bitter than Doyle’s. In “Unsaid (Confession)”, for example, Goodwin describes watching white fellow soldiers berate and humiliate Iraqi prisoners. It puts into play a number of troubling ideas about what it means to be a black soldier or veteran, especially as that experience is shaped in relation to white fellow soldiers.
The other soldiers—female guarded duty.
Boy, how could those white girls powertrip….
Hearing those noises,
compulsed inward cringes….
I and the other black girls.
Never did that.
Never lost cool.
Not on my watch.
Maybe ‘cause we knew….
But as the poem proceeds, Goodwin recounts her shame at watching a black NCO forcefully restrain a screaming prisoner:
And when the Sergeant First Class’ hands
reached over and put the ziptie on to
Muzzle the howler I was pinched by the irony.
Of one black man enslaving another.
Of this sin I have barely spoken.
Confession—I became accomplice to
This deed inhumane.
The sequence of events triggers remorse and guilt:
The tape records.
I am volcanic with fear.
Didn’t rock the boat.
Stayed in my hole.
The publishing industry record regarding African-American veteran-authors does not impress, but the vibrant vet-writing/spoken-word and performance/theatrical scenes in New York City and Philadelphia, in which Goodwin participates, offers access to many black voices and perspectives. I first became aware of the multi-racial East Coast vet-writing realm when I attended a reading at Pete’s Candy Shop, a bar in Brooklyn, in 2014. There I was struck by the poetry of former-Marine Johnson Wiley, and I obtained Wiley’s permission to publish two of his poems, “Shooting Stars of Kuwait” and “A Mother’s Son Returned,” on Time Now here.
Wiley seems to no longer be writing, but many other black NYC, Philly, and Jersey-based writers and artists dazzle with the range of their talents and interests. The first impression rendered by this plentitude of creativity is that artistic expression emerges out of the imagination of artists as it will, unbound by rules or expectation. Sometimes the stories told by black veterans foreground race consciousness and racial politics, and sometimes they don’t. It’s not always clear whether they do or not. The sculpture-photograph titled “Warrior” at the top of the page by black Army vet Donna Zephrine, for example, portrays a woman’s face, but the facial features and skin color are indeterminate–is she definitely black, or could it be a white face smeared with the grime of war? Zephrine’s vignette “The Gas Chamber,” about one of the most common-but-memorable experiences of all who have served, seems universal in its viewpoint and outreach, but does it pack a little more punch knowing it was written by a black woman? A poem by Zephrine, “War Sees No Color,” explicitly posits that a close-knit, functioning military unit under the duress of war goes a long way to suppressing racial divisiveness, thus echoing the commonly-heard maxim that in the Army “everyone is green.” If only it were so, all the time! And why does it take war to take us to state of unity we long to be peaceably? Be those questions as they may, Zephrine’s artwork to my mind does not convey outrage or pain associated with black skin and white racism, though I also little doubt that they do not reflect the totality and complexity of Zephrine’s thoughts about the matters.
In contrast, outrage and pain are on full display in former Marine Chantelle Bateman’s poem “PTSD” and even more so in her poems “Someday I’ll Love Chantelle” and “Thank You for Calling,” which can be found in the anthology Holding It Down Philadelphia: A Collection of Writing by Veterans. But Bateman’s verse, which is also raucously funny, does not foreground race so much as sexual assault and male misogyny as the forces that ruin honorable and rewarding military service for her and often enough for women generally. As such, it speaks to the intersectional truth that vet identity reflects overlapping strains of race, gender, class, and sexuality, blended by particular military experiences and life choices.
In the same vein, most of the multi-talented Maurice Decaul’s work seems not directly concerned with racial identity or racial tension, either in the Marines in which he served or in America at large. His great poem “Shush,” for example, is about PTSD. His play Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates explores the cultural conflict between American Marines and Iraqi insurgents in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His story “Death of Time” (published in the anthology The Road Ahead) portrays the sexual subjugation of a young woman by a Taliban-like militia in a mythologized space that reads much like Afghanistan. Several opinion pieces for the New York Times speak of his deep desire as a young man to be a Marine and how it was to serve with them in combat. In a long presentation titled “War and Poetry,” available on YouTube, Decaul describes how he became a writer, but racial identity doesn’t seem to be the issue or even an issue, even as he cites the mentorship of the great Vietnam War poet Yusef Komunyakaa. And yet, enough is enough, and poems Decaul published on The Wrath-Bearing Tree about a 2017 trip to Virginia in the wake of the Charlottesville protests record not just fear, but despair at how unsafe he feels in his own country. In one, titled “Blue Ridges,” he asks:
When is a plantation no longer a plantation?
On the lake shore, with nutria, turtles, brown recluse
& copperheads, I know, I know these waters.
The small voice in my head says leap
it says, these waters will mask your smell.
How will I live here, in the south?
When my belly warns me, be home by dark.
That spirit of a long life’s journey to explicit engagement with race informs the work of another New York City African-American vet-writer, Christopher Paul Wolfe. In a personal essay titled “‘Sir, I Never Thought I’d See the Day I’d Be Working for a Colored Officer,'” published in the New York Times, Wolfe writes of the influence of his father, a career Army officer, as Wolfe first attends West Point and then serves in Iraq. Anguish and regret for having tried so hard to serve a system and a country that doesn’t have his best interests at heart emerge full-force:
As a black veteran, I find it hard to reconcile my pride in my service with a sense of complicity in upholding my country’s legacy of white supremacy while deployed. I still remember the black and brown faces of Iraqis that I helped to round up, zip-tie and detain using tactics similar to stop and frisk, the use of which some courts in America have found to be unconstitutional. These experiences created a moral chasm with which I continue to grapple.
Wolfe’s contribution to the vet-fiction anthology The Road Ahead stunningly portrays that torment. Called “Another Brother’s Conviction,” it is set years after the first-person narrator completes service in the Army, to include a tour in Iraq. The narrator enters a Brooklyn bodega and in short-order undergoes charged interactions with the Iranian-born owner, a white woman customer, and finally a Dominican customer accompanied by a black man just released from prison. The narrator is desperate to avoid being sucked into conversation with the other customers, in part because he knows what will well up within him if he does: “Son of a bitch… the ripple. I just want an egg-and-cheese… on wheat toast… with one slice of cheese; not whatever-the-fuck this is going to be.” The word “conviction” carries weight in the story, as the narrator reflects on his participation in acts he’d rather not remember in Iraq: “I’d […] played my part in something I’d come to regret, I had no conviction. There was no conviction. There still is no conviction…” The story concludes enigmatically but presciently, in a way that speaks to the impasse America has found itself in in 2020:
There’s just Akh and the Dominican, the ex-con and his five years, and me and my egg and cheese. And somewhere, out there, in the streets of Bedstuy, there’s a missing white girl.
There are several ways to interpret the story, but to me the last line suggests that the “missing white girl” should have stayed in the bodega rather than exiting as quickly as she could. She, like the narrator, wanted to avoid being drawn into the maelstrom of emotions connecting the other characters, male and dark-skinned as they are. Her departure, however, speaks to a lost opportunity to learn, connect, and grow. And the loss is not just hers, but theirs, and theirs together, as they try to figure out, as the anthology title pronounces, “the road ahead.”
The vibrant northeast vet writing-and-arts scene seems to repopulate yearly, bringing forth new voices and talents. In the months just before the pandemic shutdown, for example, I became acquainted with the work of Air Force Iraq-vet Omar Columbus, who is active in writing, theatrical, and performance circles in New York. A man after my own heart, Columbus not only contributes his own excellent writing to these circles, he seems to have a natural bent for organizing events and bringing people together. If it’s not unseemly to close on a ray-of-light, however thin, successful negotiation of the road ahead may depend on vet artists and impresarios such as Columbus. Cooling the hot-house tension of the bodega, to use Wolfe’s term, will be tough business. If anything can bring us closer to a peaceful and equitable resolution, it is the generative spirit of men and women such as Columbus.
In closing, hats off to the many admirable vet-writing and vet-theater collectives of New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia: Words After War; Voices from War; Combat Paper; the vet war-writing seminars at NYU, Columbia, and elsewhere; Poetic Theater; Aquila Theater; Theater of War; and Warrior Writers chapters in all three states, with apologies to any I have forgotten to mention. These organizations and programs carry far more than their fair share of the load fostering veteran artistic expression equal to the diversity of the uniformed services themselves. On the other hand, the mainstream publishing industry based in New York City could do much more to promote minority writers, and we look for more white authors to address race-related subjects and themes, too (works already out there that do some of that are Phil Klay’s short-story “Psychological Operations” and Eric Bennett’s novel A Big Enough Lie ((with the caveat that Bennett is not a veteran))). Critics and scholars can also continue interrogating war-writing, mine included, for witting or unwitting signs of bias.
Without claiming too much on behalf of white vet-writers, I’ll praise those who have succeeded in the literary publishing biz and have also made it a point to promote upcoming vet-writers of color. Roy Scranton, for instance, introduced me to Johnson Wiley. Matt Gallagher did the same for me with Christopher Paul Wolfe, and together Gallagher and I once shared a fun reading stage with Chantelle Bateman (and Mariette Kalinowski, too). The editors of The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Caster, opened their anthology to black voices such as Decaul’s and Wolfe’s, as well as those of an impressive cohort of underrepresented women vet-writers. Individual isolated good works, we understand, do little by themselves to resolve centuries of systemic wrong-doing. But steps in the right direction still count for something and I hope are appreciated.
To bring this post to an end, let’s salute once more the work already published by M.L. Doyle, Nicole Goodwin, Johnson Wiley, Donna Zephrine, Chantelle Bateman, Maurice Decaul, and Christopher Paul Wolfe, and here’s to much more writing by them in the future, along with more writing by other black veterans.
2 thoughts on “Black Voices in Contemporary War-Writing”
Great work, Peter, a much-needed compendium. These works otherwise get lost to history, not that they’re not “good” but simply got marginalized right away. Thanks.
Thanks, Jeff. The impulse behind Time Now is as much to chronicle, support, and celebrate as it is to analyze, critique, and anoint winners and losers. No doubt it inclines toward coverage of high-brow literary fiction and aspiring professional writers, but I try to show love for the veteran art-and-writing on the margins and that bubbles up from the street, too.