Strike Through the Mask! #4

This month for Wrath-Bearing Tree I write about American veterans fighting in Ukraine. The piece was prompted by attendance at a public memorial ceremony honoring former-Marine Peter Reed in Bordentown, New Jersey. In February of this year Reed was killed fighting in Ukraine. Bordentown, as it happens, was the American home of Englishman Thomas Paine, the famous Revolutionary War author of the lines that begin with “These are the times that try men’s souls,” which got me thinking about what it meant to pledge one’s life for another nation’s cause. Read my article here.

Strike Through the Mask! #3

This month for The Wrath-Bearing Tree I write about a veterans-writing workshop I led for So Say We All, the San Diego-based writing-and-performance collective. I also have a little something to say about Leatherman utility tools. Read it all here.


As a reminder, the title “Strike Through the Mask” comes from Moby-Dick: “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”

Strike Through The Mask!

For the next 12 months I’ll be writing a monthly column for The Wrath-Bearing Tree online journal. My first post, on Elliot Ackerman’s The Fifth Act and Jamal Jan Kochai’s The Haunting of Haji Hotak is already up and can be read here:

Peter Molin’s “Strike Through the Mask!”

The name of my column is “Strike Through the Mask!” It’s a quote from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The full passage, spoken by Ahab, goes:

Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.

Strike Through the Mask! will mostly be book reviews, like Time Now, but not entirely so, so stay tuned. For Time Now, I’ve limited myself to fiction, poetry, art, music, and theater, but for The Wrath-Bearing Tree I am expanding my range to include non-fiction, memoir, and journalism.

While I’m writing Strike Through the Mask! Time Now will be more-or-less in abeyance. In a year’s time, I’ll regroup and decide if more Time Now posts are in order.

Thank you for reading Time Now over the years. It’s been a rich, rewarding ride.

Veterans Writing Workshop, March 22

I’m leading a Zoom writing workshop for veterans and people with veterans in their lives on March 22. The workshop is co-sponsored by the San Diego-based So Say We All spoken-word/performance collective and the online journal Wrath-Bearing Tree (thank you!).

Please pass the word and consider joining yourself! Whether you are an old friend or we’ve never met, an experienced writer or one just starting out, I’d love to see you there and I promise to make it good for you. I’m already thinking of writing prompts and short pieces from contemporary vet-writing for us to talk about.

Don’t tarry–the deadline for signing up is February 26. Below’s the link for more information and for signing-up through Submittable:

Veteran Writers Masterclass Series sign-up

Before Time Now: Military Review Book Reviews, 2001-2009

Between 2001 and 2009, I reviewed five military-themed books for the Military Review, a professional journal associated with the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. As I remember, I chose the books from a list of titles offered by the book review editors. I enjoyed all the books and appreciated the chance to write about them. Looking back at them now, I like to think my writing holds up, as well as my judgments. The books I reviewed are all non-fiction, not the fiction and poetry that Time Now specializes in, but reviewing them sowed some of the seeds that would eventuate in Time Now when I began it a few years later.

Below are short synopses of each review, along with a pull-quote from my review (not the book being reviewed). Most of the reviews are available in the Military Review archive here, but in most cases you’ll have to scroll through the back issues to find them. That’s not a bad thing, actually; my own scroll reminded me how interesting and trenchant were so many of the articles and book reviews written during the peak years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Good job Military Review–noted and appreciated. In a couple of cases, I’ve provided a direct link or a picture.

1. Jan-Feb 2001 FIRE IN THE NIGHT: Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia, and Zion, by John Bierman and Colin Smith (1999)

My first Military Review article was on a biography of the charismatic World War II British commando Orde Wingate. The focus on this proto- special-operator proved prescient, as the role of Special Forces in the GWOT wars-to-come expanded in controversial ways. A pull-quote speaks to the tension:

To his critics, Wingate’s forces produced few tactical victories and contributed little to operational or strategic success. To his fans, Wingate was a gadfly who restored initiative and energy to his units and a visionary who accurately foresaw the shape of future wars. His critics counter that Wingate was a shameless self-promoter whose antics created antagonism that detracted from overall mission accomplishment. His premature death in Burma in 1944 gave his life a tragic aura of greatness cut down in its prime–or just short of it.

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2. May-June 2001 THE BOER WAR GENERALS, by Peter Trew (1999)

My second Military Review review also pointed forward to the upcoming wars, as I pinpointed the difficulty faced by conventional armies fighting against a fully-mobilized insurgent force.

The Boer War Generals suggests just how determined an army has to be to defeat an opponent totally mobilized for self-defense, fighting on its own turf and reliant on unconventional tactics.

3. Nov-Dec 2007 BUDA’S WAGON: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, by Mike Davis (2007)

My third review came a few years later, just before my own deployment to Afghanistan. Buda’s Wagon was written by the noted radical historian Mike Davis (who recently died, RIP). It brings back the horrible memory of how defenseless were US forces against the IED and Vehicle-Borne IED threat in Iraq:

For the serving military professional, Buda’s Wagon places into historical and contemporary focus a weapon that, along with the roadside bomb and the sectarian execution, has shaped the face of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Implicit in his commentary is that American political and military leaders might have better anticipated that our enemies would employ these readily available and profoundly modern weapons to disrupt our plans and operations.

4. Sep-Oct 2008 SECURING THE STATE: Reforming the National Security Decisionmaking Process at the Civil-Military Nexus, by Christopher P. Gibson (2008)

Securing the State was written by US Army Colonel Chris Gibson, who was then a brigade commander in the 82nd Airborne Division, later was a two-term US Congressman, and is now president of Sienna College in New York. In 2002, I replaced then-Major Gibson as the Executive Officer of 2-14 Infantry Battalion, 10th Mountain Division.

Colonel Gibson argues that the U.S. government lacks sufficient institutional structures and protocols to ensure that its “civil-military nexus” functions efficiently and effectively.

As war with Iraq loomed, for example, Gibson claims that the Joint Chiefs of Staff found themselves in such a subordinate and deferential position vis-à-vis Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that they were unable to communicate wise military advice, unfiltered by the Secretary’s political and personal biases, to the president and the Congress, the nation’s elected leaders. Nor were military leaders allowed to develop plans as prudent, detailed, or as fully resourced as required for success in Iraq.

Here is a direct link to my review of Securing the State.

5. Jan-Feb 2009 TERRORISM  FINANCING AND STATE RESPONSES: A Comparative Perspective, edited by Jeanne K. Giraldo and Harold A. Trinkunas (2007)

This review explored a wonky and still murky and still important subject.

…the book plumbs the murky financial infrastructures and processes of terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Therein lies the book’s value, as well as tactical and strategic possibilities.

Military PowerPoint Storyboards

I was invited to speak as part of a 2023 American Historical Association panel titled “Toward an Illustrated History of a Global War on Terror” because the panel organizer, vet scholar-and-playwright John Myer, liked my short story, “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” as it was published by The Wrath-Bearing Tree.

John thought that should I approach the subject of military storyboards from an academic perspective my ideas would interest an audience of historians.

So I did. Here’s how my presentation “PowerPoint Rangers: The Aesthetics and Historical Significance of Military Storyboards” began:

By now, the use of PowerPoint presentations as an institutional communication medium in education, business, and the military has been widely studied. Here, though, I’m interested in one facet of PowerPoint that has not been widely-considered: the use of one-slide PowerPoints known as “storyboards” in the United States military, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, to plan and document activities and operations at battalion and brigade level. Storyboards, whether viewed on individual computers, projected on screens in meeting rooms, or printed out in paper copies, were a fact of life for officers at these levels of command; their use was ubiquitous and ability to create coherent storyboards in-line with command expectations and conventions a necessary skill for staff-officers and unit leaders. Typically storyboards were created by operations and intelligence officers—30-year-old captains, 35-year-old-majors and 40-year-old lieutenant colonels—and then circulated up-and-down the chain-of-command. In my own one-year tour as an advisor to the Afghan National Army I was asked to prepare dozens of storyboards (in addition to longer PowerPoint presentations) and read hundreds of them. Neither I nor my peers received training in their preparation, nor were there handbooks or guides; in my experience I was expected to get the hang of their creation quickly as I realized they were the informational coin-of-the-realm, supplanting other established military genres such as operations orders and after-action reports, as well as longer multi-slide PowerPoint presentations. My purpose here today is to explain various aspects of their use and suggest some implications for historians. My argument is that they represent an archive of information about how the military, particularly the Army, communicated internally about events as they happened and were meant to be understood and remembered, and yet they remain difficult, if not impossible to access, and, once obtained, must be handled with care.

Here are two examples of storyboards, both taken from a 2015 Intercept article written by Ryan Devereaux titled, “The Drone Papers: Manhunting in the Hindu Kush” and then republished on the Transcend Media Service website here.

The first storyboard documents a request to kill a Taliban insurgent named Qari Munib (code-named “Lethal Burwyn”) in Pech District, Konar (Kunar) Province in 2013.  

The second storyboard documents the successful completion of the mission:

Here is how I concluded my presentation:

My argument has been that the challenges of recovering and interpreting storyboards is a goal well worth pursuing for historians writing on war in Afghanistan or Iraq. More so than command post logs, operation orders, official assessments, and command statements, they constitute the official-unofficial, or unofficial-official diary of the war. When studied carefully, in conjunction with other means of collecting evidence and doing primary research, they will add granular real-time detail to personal testimony, authorized accounts, and broader-brush journalistic and historical narrations. One thing I am sure of is that if anything occurred in Afghanistan or Iraq that the military was significantly involved in, PowerPoint storyboards were built in regard to it, and those storyboards might still exist somewhere.   


We also included in our panel a “flash” round in which each panelist presented an image and offered a short comment. I chose this famous image:

Here’s what I said about it:

My image first came to public light in a 2010 New York Times article about the use, overuse, and abuse of PowerPoint in the military in the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is an intelligence assessment that purports to illustrate the complicated tangle of factors that underwrote the military operating environment in Afghanistan. The image in fact is not a stand-alone PowerPoint, nor taken from a longer PowerPoint presentation. Rather, it was an illustration extracted from a 31-page report prepared by the PA Consulting Group for the highest-level of military command in Afghanistan. In terms of genre it is a “causal loop diagram,” as prepared by specialists in the field of System Dynamics. Be that as it may, in the NY Times article and afterwards, the image was widely derided as an exemplary example of form over substance and product over action—evidence that the military was so caught up in over-analyzation of the political-military situation at the headquarters level that it had lost sight of the clear focus and directives necessary for effectively doing something about winning the war in Afghanistan. I won’t deny any of that, and speaking from experience, have a special level of commiseration with the officers and troops on the ground who were supposed to translate any of it to an actual military operation. But I will note, that within the rarified air of headquarters staffs there is a way that this slide makes sense to the highly-literate senior officers and officials who were the intended audience. In fact, it perhaps can be said that it provides the necessary level of connected detail that might be a necessary first step to developing strategies and tactics that could actually help the US help Afghanistan government defeat the Taliban while attending to the real needs of the Afghan people. Perhaps.

GWOT Soldier Art

The instinct and talent to paint pictures is mysterious to those of us who possess neither. I suppose the inclination and some of the talent is god-given and then is nourished by training and practice. When it comes to soldier-and-veteran artwork, many of the same questions arise as in regard to writing about war: What story does the painting tell? What were the circumstances of its production? What were the artists trying to achieve? How do we measure quality and achievement? What constitutes a “beautiful” war painting? Can a war painting be an “anti-war” painting? How are stock scenes transformed and transcended? Can they be, or should they even try? Who are the artists, and what is their story? What makes them tick? Do paintings romanticize or glorify war? Can creating art about war experience be therapeutic?  

From the viewer’s perspective, paintings, far-more-so than writing, are instantaneously apprehensible. An emotional response and aesthetic judgement is formed as soon as a painting is viewed. And yet, lasting cultural presence is harder to establish for art than for writing: The mechanisms of cultural memory so at-hand in book publication and book sales and preservation in libraries are diffuse when it comes to art. Exhibitions are acclaimed in the moment, but pictures are viewed quickly and easily moved-on from. The exhibit is soon over, paintings are sold or not, and most will never be publicly viewed again. No one bats an eye at reading a reproduction of an author’s narrative, but paintings somehow imply that contemplating anything but the original artwork is a necessarily diminished experience. And even if saved on the Internet, paintings can languish unnoticed for years and decades, orphaned from all but most determined of curious observers, the sites buried more deeply in digital obscurity than even the dustiest of books on a library shelf.

Such were my sobering thoughts as I dedicated a few days to exploring contemporary soldier art available on the  Internet. An interesting aspect of war-art is that the military itself sanctions and supports it, through official “combat-artist” programs and also links to artwork featured on military museum and archive websites. Search-term entries took me first to a book published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History called Army Artists Look at the War on Terrorism, 2001 to the Present, and available in full online in PDF and HTML. Army Artists Look at the War on Terrorism features eight artists, all of whom served in the Army or were associated with it on deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait, as well as train-ups for deployment in the US. The volume is silent about what “the Present” date is that it refers to in the title, but I am guessing it was published sometime around 2010.

Over 90 paintings are included, in a variety of mediums such as oil, watercolor, pencil, etc. All the pictures are representational rather than figurative, with the most obvious artistic effect being heightened coloring and various ways of situating the paintings’ principal subjects. The collection clearly intends to represent different facets of a soldier’s experience—from pre-deployment to combat to camp life to interaction with locals to various maintenance and support activities. Below are three pictures I enjoyed contemplating:

Stopping for Directions
Darrold Peters, “Stopping for Directions”
Fallujah Elzie Golden1
Elzie Golden, “Fallujah”
Sunset on the Airfield Heather Englebert
Heather Englebert, “Sunset on the Airfield”

A second stop on the Internet journey was an issue of the National Endowment of the Arts journal NEA Arts published in 2012 themed “The Soul of America: The Arts and the Military.” All the articles in the issue connect artistic expression to contemporary soldiering. A particular emphasis is on art as a means of understanding complicated war experiences; one article, for example, profiles Veterans Writing Project founder Ron Capps. An article titled “Seeing is Believing: War Through the Eyes of a Combat Artist” zeroes in on former-Marine combat-artist Michael Fay and his project to honor wounded veterans The Joe Bonham Project (named after the war-wounded quadriplegic protagonist of Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun), which is affiliated with the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Fay’s painting below is striking, but far more startling are the others that accompany the article, featuring badly wounded soldiers and Marines:

Seeing is Believing (dragged)

My search next took me to the work of civilian painter Steve Mumford. Mumford has a large presence on the web, and a solid introduction to his work is an article he himself authored titled, “Fifteen Years Into the War in Afghanistan, an Embedded Artist Looks Back.” In it, Mumford describes how many of his paintings were inspired by multiple tours as an embedded artist with US military forces. In several pictures Mumford captures the deployment experience of female soldiers, such as this one:

Steve Mumford Female Barracks in Samarra
Steve Mumford, “Female Barracks in Samarra”

Mumford also painted this stunner of a picture, which is perhaps my favorite of all the paintings I discovered over several days of searching:

Steve Mumford Large IED
Steve Mumford, “Large IED”

A final stop on this Internet tour was an article that explored in detail the use of painting as therapy: “Creating Battle Signs: Iraq/Afghanistan, War Veterans, Art Therapy, and Rehabilitation.” As the title suggests, the article takes seriously the idea that grievously wounded veterans (physically and psychologically) might find expression for or escape from their pain by making art. The paintings offered for contemplation are by far the most non-representational, obviously figurative of any I’ve mentioned so far:

Joshua Ferguson Modified Pain Scale
Joshua Ferguson, “Modified Pain Scale: Three Canvases”

So, much art, all interesting and all to my eye accomplished. All put to different purposes: to document, to honor, to shock, to evoke, to help, to express. I invite you to spend more time with the artists, paintings, articles, and books I have canvassed here.

War Film: 12 Strong

12 Strong

12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers, an action-war film about the real-life exploits of a Special Forces A-team in northern Afghanistan in 2001, exudes the vibe that it might be THE war-film to galvanize appreciation of American fighting-man derring-do in the Post-9/11 era. Like Lone Survivor and American Sniper, but without the mopey parts and bad-news endings, 12 Strong celebrates old-school combat prowess, marries it to portrayal of the wonders of high-tech weapon wizardry, links everything to a righteous cause, and suggests that the movie’s heroes are beyond reproach. To add an element of bittersweet gravitas, 12 Strong also proposes that the heroics of the A-team never received due recognition in their time and in fact, properly appreciated and heeded, offered a way of waging war in Afghanistan that might have avoided the messy failures of the ensuing twenty years of war.

This heightened sense of itself is rendered by portentous textual preludes and prologues, swelling music at every turn, big-budget visual effects, and in the leading role of Captain Mike Nelson, super-star Chris Hemsworth, he of Star Wars, Thor, and Avengers action-hero fame. Captain Nelson and his band of burly, bearded operators are the kind of soldiers who turn over tables and break things when they are angry, because it shows how much they care. They preface almost every response to superior officers by saying, “With all due respect….,” and when left to themselves, give each other shit and play grab-ass as if in homo-social steroid-driven overdrive. Far from being carousing hooligans, though, 12 Strong depicts the operators as highly-patriotic family men when not waging war, and, when waging war, men who easily bond with local children and who avoid collateral damage even as they kill Taliban by the score. Character development is not 12 Strong’s strong suit, but a lightly touched upon subplot is how Captain Nelson, who has never seen combat before, must earn his warrior bona-fides in the eyes of his team, his superiors, and most of all the Afghan warlord with whom they fight, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Spoiler alert: after busting his combat cherry, Captain Nelson has a dark nanosecond of the soul. But after a good bro-talk with a more seasoned operator and some mystical-spiritual claptrap about the warrior way from General Dostum, he is right back in the fight, even better than before.

But to a more systematic cataloging of 12 Strong’s virtues and flaws. On the downside, 12 Strong is too long, and the superfluous, repetitive, and over-extended scenes stick out like sore thumbs. It also succumbs to war-movie cliches left-and-right—bottomless machine-gun magazines, anyone? The big battles featuring Marvel Cinematic Universe-style explosions come off as cheesy. The movie’s signature scenes–rousing charges into battle on horseback—underwhelm. How could they screw those up? (For far-more exciting depiction of horse-mounted US military operations in Afghanistan, read Aaron Gwyn’s 2014 novel Wynne’s War.) The script is awful; even given that they are often speaking in pidgin English to their Afghan counterparts, Captain Nelson and his crew render the impression that they are not very intelligent men. I hope and little doubt that the real soldiers upon whom the characters are based are not as leaden as they are shown here; Captain Nelson, for example, seems almost Will Ferrell-like in his strained efforts to appear thoughtful, and he’s the smart one. Navid Negahban as General Dostum is a cut above the typical GWOT movie Afghan, and the movie tries to render some of his significance as a major player in contemporary Afghanistan history. Perhaps understandably, because it’s a tough nut to crack, 12 Strong falls short in capturing the mercurial combination of emotional excitability and shrewd intelligence that, in my experience, characterized adult Afghan males in leadership positions—always always always calculating advantage and possible outcomes, wary to the max of overextending themselves.

On the good side, 12 Strong offers quite a bit to contemplate. It was shot in New Mexico, and though I can’t vouch for how close the landscape is to the terrain surrounding Mazar-i Sharif in Afghanistan, where the real action took place, the mountainous desert portrayed in the film is gorgeous. Further, 12 Strong is not wrong in many of its particulars, such as General Dostum’s concern that the Americans not die while under his watch as “guests”—on my tour my Afghan allies expressed the same sentiment to me many times, and I believe they meant it. The modern-day cavalry charge may not have impressed me much, but Captain Nelson’s efforts throughout the movie to coordinate air-support to vanquish the Taliban from above was on-point: that’s the modern way of war previewed in 2001 that I connected to most.

Most importantly, the events portrayed in 12 Strong actually did happen, and that counts for something. Plenty, really. America’s first ventures in Afghanistan after 9/11—the Mazar-I Sharif battle recounted here, the search for Bin Laden in Tora Bora, and Operation Anaconda–are tremendously interesting, and I’ll lap up any book or movie that portrays or describes them. They’ll never get the details or the feel exactly right, that’s to be expected, but all are helpful trying to decipher whether the military response reflected quixotic misadventure, the evolving nature of American war-faring, or both.

Released in 2018, 12 Strong has the big-time movie-making sheen of 2016’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, another movie that non-stop glorifies “warfighters.” Whereas 13 Hours deployed stupendous production qualities in support of its anti-Hillary agenda, 12 Strong aims to split the red-state/blue-state difference: its manly men may be rugged killing machines, but they believe in respecting cultural difference, forging alliances, and handing out lollipops, too. Or, rather than split the difference, 12 Strong tries to unite red-and-blue audiences in celebration of perhaps the only chapter in the long sad history of Operation Enduring Freedom that went well. It doesn’t fully succeed, which in the end makes me feel a little bit sorry for it. Good intentions count when it comes to movie-making, as they do in war, but great execution counts even more.

ChatGPT Meets GWOT War-Fiction


ChatGPT, a sophisticated artificial-intelligence text-producing application, launched in November 2022. Immediately, a flurry of reviews and articles appeared, many of them wondering what might be the import of ChatGPT for academic-writing. The possibilities for cut-and-paste plagiarism seemed bountiful, as ChatGPT not just coughed-up instantaneous chunks-of-information, a la Wikipedia and Google, but was capable of rendering judgment and organizing responses into arguments, “written” in bland-but-serviceable Standard Academic English.

I teach a college research-writing class, so I tried out ChatGPT on some of the subjects my students were writing on this semester. Xenotransplantation—the use of animal organs to replace human ones—was the subject of a couple of papers, so I plugged in the following question:

Question: How can xenotransplantation become more popular?

ChatGPT Response: Xenotransplantation can become more popular by increasing public awareness of the potential benefits and safety of the procedure. Education campaigns can raise awareness of the potential clinical uses of xenotransplantation, as well as the safety of the procedure. Additionally, research and development of xenotransplantation should be supported to ensure that the procedure is conducted in a safe and ethical manner. Furthermore, international regulations and protocols should be established and implemented to ensure that xenotransplantation is used in a responsible and ethical manner. Finally, governments should provide incentives for medical professionals and organizations to use the procedure.

My teacherly opinion is that such writing (and thinking) is not as fluid or nuanced as my best students produce, but far superior to that of less-accomplished ones. In the context of a research-paper, the passage could certainly be usable, especially if supplemented with evidence and quotations, or its ideas developed and complicated in ensuing paragraphs.

Oh well, the implications for the classroom will work themselves out as they will. Thinking about my interest in war-writing, I began musing about how ChatGPT could aggregate what might be said to be the hive-mind on a subject and give it the force of authoritative expression. In other words, what is the potential of ChatGPT wisdom to become the constituted collective wisdom on any given subject?

Pushing on, I tapped-in the following question:

Q1. What are the three best novels on war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

ChatGPT Response: 1. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers 2. The Good Soldiers by David Finkel 3. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

That response can immediately be seen as problematic. Only The Yellow Birds is a novel, while The Good Soldiers and The Forever War are journalistic non-fiction. I next asked ChatGPT the following:

Q2. What is the best novel on war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

ChatGPT Response: The best novel on war in Iraq and Afghanistan is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. This award-winning novel is a powerful telling of two young soldiers’ wartime experiences and the difficult moral choices they must make. It captures the psychological toll of war for soldiers, their families, and those left in the wake of the conflict.

This is more promising, and also intriguing. How was ChatGPT able to spit that out in less than 10 seconds? I’m certain there’s no preexisting databank of responses, so somehow the program was able to canvass a fair amount of reviews, articles, and book-jacket blurbs to offer a sensible, though still fairly generic, response. Next I asked the following:

Q3: What is the reputation of Phil Klay’s Redeployment?

ChatGPT Response: Phil Klay’s Redeployment is a highly regarded work of fiction that has received widespread critical acclaim for its portrayal of the experiences of soldiers during and after the Iraq War. The book, which is a collection of short stories, was published in 2014 and won the National Book Award for Fiction the same year.

Redeployment has been praised for its immersive and realistic depiction of the psychological and emotional toll of war on soldiers, as well as for its nuanced exploration of the complex moral and ethical toll of war surrounding the Iraq War. Klay, who served in the US Marine Corps in Iraq, brings a unique perspective to his writing and his portrayal of the lives of soldiers has been praised as both sensitive and insightful.

In addition to the National Book Award, Redeployment has received numerous other awards and accolades, including the John Leonard Prize, the Chautauqua Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. It has also been included on numerous “best books” lists and has received widespread coverage in the media. Overall, Redeployment has a strong reputation as a powerful and poignant work of fiction that offers a unique and valuable perspective on the Iraq War and its aftermath.

What to make of this? Though largely fact-based, the response organizes and articulates its response coherently, fluidly, and reasonably thoroughly, as if the product of an intelligent, no-nonsense author. Some of the language is obviously boiler-plate, but it’s not copied from any Internet source I could find. Determined to push ChatGPT even harder, I submitted the following:

Q4: What are the best qualities of Roy Scranton’s novel War Porn?

ChatGPT Response: 1. Thoughtful exploration of trauma: Roy Scranton’s War Porn touches on many difficult subject matters, ranging from addiction, PTSD, and the psychological effects of war. He explores these issues in a sensitive and nuanced manner that helps to provide a greater understanding of how war and its aftermath can shape a person’s life.

2. Emotional depth: Despite its light-hearted title, War Porn dives deep into the emotional tolls of war and how they linger in our lives even after the fighting is over. Scranton captures the complexities of war, humanizing those affected by it in order to emphasize the intense psychological and emotional trauma caused by conflict.

3. Innovative storytelling: With its unique blend of short stories, poems, and vignettes, War Porn is an innovative collection. It combines a variety of forms to create an engaging, immersive experience that often leaves the reader stunned and deeply moved.

4. Unflinching insight: War Porn also has an unflinching look at the devastation of war, particularly in the lives of those who are forced to bear witness to it firsthand. Roy Scranton provides an honest and often heartbreaking commentary on the effects of warfare on both individuals and a wider population.

I’ve organized the response into the 1-2-3-4 categories listed, but otherwise this response is verbatim. Much of it could be generic description of many war novels—and readers who know Scranton’s “The Trauma Hero” essay will chuckle at the description of War Porn as “thoughtful exploration of trauma”—but it also seems written from a place of some familiarity with the novel. In particular, #3 “Innovative storytelling,” though not exactly accurate in terms of “short stories, poems, and vignettes,” is alert to the blended stylistic quality of War Porn, which combines two distinct narratives with poetry passages. On display is a great weakness of ChatGPT as it currently exists: its inability to incorporate quotes from the text under discussion or from secondary-sources. But one could easily imagine taking the four categories of “thoughtful exploration of trauma,” “emotional depth,” “innovative storytelling,” and “unflinching insight” as start-points for one’s own examination of War Porn, even if to argue that it doesn’t do those things especially well; the categories get the conversation going as well as anything.

With my question about War Porn, my ChatGPT free trial ran out. Further experiments and thoughts to follow as they occur….

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