Convoy Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

American and Afghan army vehicles on the move in Khost province, 2008

A few years ago, I wrote a Time Now post that poked fun at stock scenes often found in contemporary war-fiction. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, although I was, a little, for what do we expect from war-writing but vivid portraits of common experiences shared by soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan? Since that post, I’ve continued to keep an eye on the representation of characteristic deployment moments, and have become something of a connoisseur of how and how well they are carried off by the writers who offer them.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how war writers have portrayed the vehicle movements that were so integral to deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Life on the Forward Operating Base and Combat Outpost offer much grist for fiction, as do scenes of urban combat in Iraq and rural combat in Afghanistan, as well as night-time raids in both places. For all that, the quintessential combat experience for many deployed soldiers and Marines, as well as deployed airmen and sailors, were the vehicle movements that took them from FOB to FOB, or out of the FOB into sector on patrols and missions.

These vehicle movements were almost always made in convoys of at least three, and usually four, vehicles, either “up-armored” Humvees, or tank-like “MRAPs” (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles). Within each vehicle the important crew positions were that of the driver, the “TC” (or truck/track/tank commander), who rode in the shotgun seat and was usually the senior member on-board, and the gunner, who stood in a roof-turret manning a machine gun and keeping look-out. Other occupants were generically designated “guys- in-back” or “GIBs.” The driver, TC, and gunner were linked by an intercom system and had visibility of the road ahead, with the gunner able to view to the sides and rear as well. The TC could also speak to the other vehicles via radio and to the headquarters back at the FOB. The guys-in-back had little or no visibility and were typically not linked into the intercom, and, jammed in tight with one another, had little to do but stare at each other until the movement was over.

In the sector of Afghanistan where I deployed, we called vehicle movements “CONOPs,” an abbreviation for “convoy operations” (or maybe a misapplication of “concept of operations”–a phrase from the military mission order format). CONOPs were always high-tension, as ambushes and IED attacks were a constant threat, and once they occurred there was little crews could do but hope they lived through them. Also possible were vehicle breakdowns and getting lost. But as ratcheted up as the tension was, there was also boredom, as most drives were uneventful and often excruciatingly long and slow. But there was also exhilaration, too; exiting the confines of the FOB and heading out into “bad guy country” is the stuff that many or most soldiers and Marines joined their respective services to do. To while away the time and defuse pitched emotions while on CONOPs, those on the vehicle intercom talked about everything under the sun and listened to music jerry-rigged through the vehicle radios. The admixture of boredom, danger, and heightened expectation, as well as the camaraderie enforced by joint endeavor in close quarters, is ripe for depiction by skilled authors.

Non-fiction portraits of CONOPs are scattered throughout books on Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’ll focus on fictional and artistic depictions here. Before we get rolling (pun), I’ll recommend the mini-series Generation Kill and Colin Halloran’s volume of poetry Shortly Thereafter for their representations of vehicle movements in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.

In fiction, several novels make vehicle movements central to the stories they tell. In other words, what happens during the journey is the story, not the mission that awaits at the end of the journey. Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives (set in Iraq) is exemplary in this regard, as is Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road (set in Afghanistan). Works that portray well, in my opinion, the fine-grain detail of the CONOP, while also using the scene to describe the social interaction and psychological outlook of the vehicle crewmen, include John Renehan’s The Valley and Brian Van Reet’s Spoils.

The Valley, for example, begins with a passage describing from the point-of-view of protagonist Lieutenant Black as he rides as a passenger in a night convoy of Humvees from a large Afghanistan FOB to a tiny COP high up in the mountains:

The convoy wove its way through the buildings and trailers of the base, radios chirping as vehicle commanders made their perfunctory commo checks with one another. Black looked out the little armored glass windows as the buildings fell behind, replaced by sandbags and blast barriers on either side.

The convoy rolled to a stop at the FOB’s east gate, in the exit channel. Electronic jamming equipment was switched on, and the vehicles filled with the clatter of weapons being charged. The manifest was passed to the guards, and the gate was opened.

The convoy rolled forward beneath the guard towers and machine-gun nests and wove left-right-left-right through a serpentine channel designed to slow down car bombs. They cleared the walls and the golden plain opened up before them, mountains rising from the horizon ahead.

Another passage from The Valley renders the flavor of convoy radio traffic:

“Vega X-Ray, this is Cyclone Mobile, over.”

The sound of the sergeant speaking the name of their destination into the radio roused Black from a near trance.

He pushed the light on his digital watch. It had been another ninety minutes of slogging wet travel. The ride had gotten bumpier and slower the farther they went.

The sergeant keyed the hand mic again. Tried his call again.

Moments passed as the signal made its way up into the dark, dancing among the windswept peaks and stone faces above them. Black wondered how far they were from the outpost, how many mountain passes or switchbacks still lay ahead of them. The vehicles ground on through the muck.

A burst of static from the radio.

“Cyclone Mobile, Vega X-Ray,” came a scratchy call back.

“X-Ray” denoted a command post or operation center. The voice on the other end was probably a soldier pulling late-night duty in Vega’s radio room.

The sergeant keyed the mic.

“Cyclone Mobile inbound, six vehicles, twenty-five personnel. Checkpoint Grapevine, time now.”

“Roger,” came the voice through the static and interference….

The sergeant turned to the driver.

Hit it,” he said.

The kid pulled off a glove and reached up to the ceiling, touching something with a bare finger. A square of sky blue illuminated on a tiny MP3 music player. He tapped it.

The vehicle erupted in sound. Black jumped.

The crew had wired speakers into the four corners of the Humvee. Not regulation, but not uncommon. Black hadn’t noticed the black boxes until now.

An obviously old rock recording echoed in the crew compartment….

In Old Silk Road, Brandon Caro’s first-person narrator, a medic named “Doc” Rodgers, describes duty as a gunner on CONOP in Afghanistan:

Grunting and straining, I managed to pull open the two-hundred-pound door of the Humvee and throw my bag in the back. I then climbed up over the hood of the truck, onto the roof, dropping down through the opened hatch, and settled into the turret. The hole in the roof was about three feet across. My feet were able to touch down on the steel of the interior even if I was seated on the thick leather strap that hung from either side of the hatch. I rotated the .50-cal forty-five degrees to the right…. The gunners of the convoy were supposed to stagger their weapons to protect the trucks from all angles….

My mind wandered carelessly as our convoy moved unobstructed and unthreatened through enemy territory…. It served me well whenever I was in the turret, I always felt, to try and put myself somewhere else in my mind while remaining in the moment somewhat in case we were ever attacked and I had to respond either with the .50-cal or with my medbag or with both.

In Spoils, Van Reet opens with a scene describing drowsy enlisted soldiers waiting out dreary checkpoint duty on a cold, rainy Iraq night. The gunner, Cassandra Wigheard, has been called back inside the troop compartment to warm up and get dry. Nothing’s happening, or seems likely to happen:

Her eyes have grown inflamed from lack of sleep and the recycled hot air steadily blowing, and she blinks to wet them, losing focus sleepily… She’s lulled by the darkness and the roaring heater and the rain that pools on the gunner’s hatch and drips through a leaky rubber seal. Like Chinese water torture. Like they are trapped in an unsound submarine. With the hatch closed it has grown muggy inside, hot and slimy as a locker room with all the showerheads blasting steam. Beads of condensation join in branched rivulets that dart down the windows, themselves no more than flexible sheets of vinyl. Their crew wasn’t lucky enough to draw an up-armored truck. Lieutenant Choi and his bunch have received the only one allotted for the platoon. Their own is nothing but a rolling coffin. No, not even that sturdy. Oak would at least stop some shrapnel, but these vinyl doors wouldn’t stop a pellet gun.

The heater, the rain, sleeplessness, bring on a rheumy-eyed stupor, fuzzy and electronic. Her pruned hands twitch involuntarily, a hypnic jerk acute enough to bring her back. She wills her eyes open. McGinnis and Crump are both nodded off in the front seats. Radio and GPS cables lie kinkded around them like black umbilical cords; there’s the humming sound of the truck, and half dreaming, caught in the tripping sensation of present eternity dwarfing the past, for a moment she forgets herself and might be convinced that all her days have been lived like this, in here, the truck, the only solid place in the universe.  

Vehicle breakdowns and vehicle recovery operations were facts of life, especially when convoys were forced off the hard-ball main roads and onto goat trails in the Afghanistan mountains or canal-berm paths in Iraq. In Green on Blue, Elliot Ackerman vividly describes a vehicle recovery op in Afghanistan, but one with a twist: the vehicle is one of the “HiLux” pickups favored by the Afghan army and various Afghan militias, friendly and otherwise:

Our truck was now set to back out. This would be the most dangerous part, reversing down the steep and narrow switchback. All of the Special Lashkar’s trucks had a winch in front—two hundred or so feet of steel cable wrapped tightly around a motor that could pull a tree from its roots. The soldier wearing the balaclava hooked his winch under the front axle of Atal’s HiLux. On the far side of the crater, the driver took in all the slack. In theory the winch would lower us along the tight switchbacks and ensure that we didn’t topple down the mountainside, but the driver took no chances. He left his door open and both his legs dangled from the side of his seat. If he had to jump he’d be ready, even as his truck, as well as ours, toppled into the ravine below. Whoever drove our truck would have to sit behind the steering wheel. This made jumping a more difficult prospect….

Atal shifted into reverse and the winch ground as the steel cables pulled taut. I shouted out directions: Come right, come right. Straight! STRAIGHT! Atal leaned his head out the driver’s window. Then he shot across the cab, planting his face in the passenger’s side mirror. He continued to weave back and forth in this way as we inched out our descent. The winch strained and the steel cable slide against our front axle. The air filled with a hot metal burn. We soon dipped out of sight from the soldiers above us, be we were still tethered to their winch. I continued to shout my directions and Atal, unable to see the space around our truck, followed each one blindly. Come left. Straight. Now, right, right! RIGHT!

IED strikes and vehicle ambushes do not figure prominently in contemporary war-writing, but one very memorable such scene occurs in Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing. The protagonist, Levi, is riding in a Humvee in Iraq in a convoy in which another soldier named Tom Hooper is riding in the vehicle in front of him:

They had spent many hours crawling down the dusty canal roads. The monotony of it all, the slow pace, the lack of conversation, and the crash from the day’s earlier adrenaline rushnearly caused Levi to fall asleep. He stretched as well as he could in such a small space, and he complained about being bored.

His driver, Specialist Pete White, looked over at him and nodded in commiseration, but had nothing to say.

After Levi saw his best friend’s Humvee disappear into a cloud of fire, dust, and gravel, both time and sound stopped, which left Tom Hooper flying through the air, suspended against a backdrop of smoke and flames, weightless and serene. His unbloused DCU-patterned pants were rumpled by the wind; his limbs were spread against the sky, one foot bootless but still covered by a green sock. Levi stared in wonder at his friend, who was not flying, but was simply the subject of a photograph, oblivious to his surroundings, or to gravity.

When Levi lurched forward because White had slammed on the brakes, time started again and Tom hit the gravel on the side of the road. Despite the height from which he fell, his form did not bounce, roll down the shallow embankment into the tall grass, or move in any way at all. He simply stopped when his body met resistance. Tom lay supine, staring up into the sky, one arm stretched out, the other seemingly twisted under his back.  Levi looked left at White, but he only saw wide eyes and a moving mouth….

As Levi neared the truck he heard a tumultuous crash. A great crack stung his ears and he felt the peal rumble through his stomach. He wondered why it would be thundering when there were no clouds in the sky. It was only after the second crack of thunder shook his head and nearly knocked him over that he realized it was not thunder at all; but rather, it was the warheads of rocket-propelled grenades exploding near the left side of the truck. With this realization came other realizations. The smaller cracks he had been ignoring were bullets snapping past him. The more sporadic and lower-pitched pops were rounds burning and exploding like popcorn in the rear of the Humvee….

These are just some of the characteristic elements of vehicle movements and their representation. This post has already gone on long enough, but we might also mention the “mission brief” that precedes every convoy operation (both Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood and Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives have great passages describing this important and interesting event); the decision by vehicle gunners to identify friend-or-foe/shoot-or-don’t-shoot decision-making in regard to oncoming traffic; and the exuberant, almost euphoric feeling that overtakes soldiers when they “RTB” (return-to-base) or arrive at their destination safely. Maybe a part II for this post?

My thought is that, with time, vehicle movements will be seen as a characteristic military scene associated with Iraq and Afghanistan soldier fiction, one at right up there with portraits of night-time Special Operations raids, gun-battles on Combat Outposts, in-theater memorial services, and welcome-home ceremonies. If that’s true, interested readers will turn back to the scenes above in the way Civil War buffs like to read about cavalry charges, World War I students read about trench warfare, and Vietnam narratives relish depictions of helicopter air assaults.

Climb to Glory! 10th Mountain Division, War-Writing, and Afghanistan

10th Mountain Division Logo

With the publication of Ray McPadden’s war memoir We March at Midnight, hard upon his novel And the Whole Mountain Burned, the already-robust body of war writing published by former soldiers (all officers, as it happens) of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division grows stronger. Joining McPadden, the count includes Adrian Bonenberger, Drew Pham, Kristin L. Rouse, Sean Parnell, and Brett Allen—each with one or more book-length works and/or many occasional pieces published in vet-writing journals and elsewhere, most about or inspired by deployments to Afghanistan with 10th Mountain. I include myself, too, by affiliation. Though I did not deploy with 10th Mountain to Iraq or Afghanistan, as the post-9/11 era dawned I was stationed at Fort Drum, NY, with the division, where I served first as the Secretary of the General Staff and then as the Executive Officer of 2-14 Infantry “Golden Dragons” in the division’s Second Brigade. Late in 2001, 2-14 did deploy to Kosovo on a peacekeeping mission, where we seethed with jealousy as sister battalions from 10th Mountain were among the first to fight in Afghanistan.

10th Mountain, as I remember it, was a no-frills, no-nonsense light infantry division. We had no sense of ourselves as an elite unit such as the 82nd Airborne or 75th Rangers, but we still took pride in our competency and toughness, which was honed by the brutal winter weather of New York state’s “North Country” hard-by Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. It’s fair to say that few requested assignment to 10th Mountain and Fort Drum, but once there we made the best of it. The “Mountain” part of the division name was an ode to the unit’s World War II roots in mountain-warfare and had little relation to flat Fort Drum save for the cold, snowy winters we endured. Still, the name and the heritage infused us with knowledge that to be a member of 10th Mountain stood for values and a tradition we better not let down. We trained hard and deployed often, even before 9/11. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfolded, 10th Mountain units were on near-constant rotation to one of the two countries, leading to the claim that 10th Mountain has been the most deployed division in the Army since 2001. I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but if not, it’s got to be pretty close.

So, just based on sheer numbers, it’s probably not surprising that so many 10th Mountain soldiers sought expression for their stories and views-of-things in print. But is there anything more that might account for their impulse to write following service? And is there a particular tenor to the body of work by 10th Mountain vets? If so, what is it, and why?

Short answer: I don’t know. It might just be coincidence. It might be though that I’m afeard to face the truth, for at first blush 10th Mountain doesn’t come off very well in the memoirs and fiction written by its veterans. None of them in particular take aim at 10th Mountain as a flawed entity distinct from other, better units, but almost all give full vent to unsatisfactory deployment experiences. The dissatisfaction takes many shapes. For some, it was crystallization of the awareness of the futility and stupidity of the overall mission. For others, it was horrendous combat experiences that deprived them of their ability to take pride in their fighting prowess. Others describe toxic command climates and poor leadership. These last sting me in particular, for I know personally or by reputation many of the leaders mentioned by name or described fictionally in the works. Some I consider friends, and most I had a reasonably high regard for. Hell, I was a field-grade officer myself, and though a lowly one, probably more part of the problem than an antidote to it in the eyes of disgruntled and disappointed junior officers and soldiers.

Oh well, I’ll just have to deal with that. For students of America’s war in Afghanistan, there is much to be gleaned from the words of 10th Mountain veterans. If you want to know what fighting was like at battalion-level in work-a-day units in eastern Afghanistan, or what the range of attitudes toward the military, the mission, and Afghans were held by those who belonged to such units might be, Bonenberger, Parnell, Rouse, Pham, McPadden, and Allen have left quite a record. Much is admirable, some is not, most is understandable, and none is beyond critique. I don’t love it all equally, and it’s not all the same, but now’s not the time to make distinctions. It’s easy to tell the writers tried hard to do well while in Afghanistan as members of 10th Mountain, and now while trying to convey what was special about their experience in their books–even if by “special” we really mean “troubling.” Thank you all for writing, and I hope you find many more readers.

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A selected list of fiction and memoir by 10th Mountain Division veterans. I’ve also included links to articles the authors have written about the end of the American war in Afghanistan.

Bret Allen, Kilroy Was Here (novel)

Adrian Bonenberger, Afghan Post (memoir) and The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War (short-stories)

Also: “America’s War in Afghanistan is Over but Our Big Lies About It Live On.”

Ray McPadden, And the Whole Mountain Burned (novel) and We March at Midnight (memoir)

Sean Parnell, Outlaw Platoon (memoir). Parnell has also written a military-thriller titled Man of War.

Drew Pham,  “On Their Lips, The Name of God”

“Brother Forgive Me. I Cannot Bear the Consequences of This War Alone.”

“From Vietnam to Afghanistan and Back: An Offering”

Kristen L. Rouse, “Pawns” (short story included in the anthology The Road Ahead) and many non-fiction articles, to include this recent one:

“A US Veteran Says the Afghans She Served With Believe They Are Going to Die.”

Finally, a memoir about life at Fort Drum as the wife of a many-times deployed officer is Angie Ricketts’ No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife.

UPDATE: I’m reminded that poet Brian Turner soldiered as an enlisted infantryman in 10th Mountain Division and deployed with them to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000. An impressive addition to the roster of 10th Mountain writers!

Afghanistan Beginnings and Endings

As it happened, I finished Pat Barker’s 2004 novel Double Vision on the day that US forces completed their evacuation from Kabul airport last week, thus unceremoniously bringing to a close America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan. The correspondence is interesting because Barker’s novel is the first I know of to reference post-9/11 war in Afghanistan. The novel is set in England, but features two characters linked to a third, a photojournalist shot and killed while on assignment in Afghanistan.

The circumstances of the death—the politics, rationale, and execution of the far-flung front in the Global War on Terror—are not prominently explored in Double Vision, but first is first, and the focus on the effect of war death on friends and family back home was prescient in foretelling one of the main themes of fiction, and culture, too, about Afghanistan and Iraq in the coming years.

War in Iraq is referenced in Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday, which I also just recently read, much more prominently than Afghanistan is in Double Vision. Saturday is also set in England, and in it the protagonist, a well-to-do neurosurgeon, ruminates about the brewing invasion against a backdrop of anti-war protests in London. The neurosurgeon is actually vaguely pro-war, in that he detests Saddam Hussein and thinks it is at least worthy of consideration that any pretext to remove him is a good one. As he goes about his day, some interesting thoughts cross his mind. For example, as he stares at the bustling activity in a  London public square, he speculates about its spatial dynamic in contrast to the streets that surround it. He thinks, “…this could be the attraction of the Iraqi desert—the flat and supposedly empty landscape approximating a strategist’s map on which fury of industrial proportions can let loose. A desert, it is said, is a military planner’s dream. A city square is the private equivalent.”

Later he considers the news-media environment, which seems designed to de-stabilize truth claims and make everyone nervous. As he considers a news report, he wonders:

Have his anxieties been making a fool of him? It’s part of the new order, this narrowing of mental freedom, of his right to roam. Not so long ago his thoughts ranged more unpredictably, over a longer list of subjects. He suspects he’s become a dupe, the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder, opinion, speculation and of all the crumbs the authorities let fall. He’s a docile citizen, watching Leviathan grow stronger while he creeps under its shadow for protection. This Russian plane flew right into his insomnia [the novel begins with the protagonist observing in the middle-of-the-night a plane from Russia that has caught fire as it approaches Heathrow], and he’s been only too happy to let the story and every little nervous shift of the daily news process color his emotional state. It’s an illusion, to believe himself active in the story. Does he think he’s contributing something, watching news programs, or lying on his back on the sofa on Saturday afternoons, reading more opinion columns of ungrounded certainties, more long articles about what really lies behind this or that development, or about what is most surely going to happen next, predictions forgotten as soon as they are read, well before events disprove them? For or against the war on terror, or the war in Iraq; for the termination of an odious tyrant and his crime family, for the ultimate weapons inspection, the opening of the torture prisons, locating the mass graves, the chance of liberty and prosperity, and a warning to other despots; or against the bombing of civilians, the inevitable refugees and famine, illegal international action, the wrath of Arab nations and the swelling of Al-Qaeda’s ranks. Either way, it amounts to a consensus of a kind, an orthodoxy of attention, a mild subjugation in itself. Does he think that his ambivalence—if that’s what it really is—excuses him from the general conformity? He’s deeper in than most. His nerves, like tautened strings, vibrate obediently with each news “release.”  He’s lost the habits of skepticism, he’s becoming dim with contradictory opinion, he isn’t thinking clearly, and just as bad, he senses he isn’t thinking independently.

That’s a pretty good summation of the precarious state-of-mind that would come to govern the next twenty years, at least for many. It certainly gets to some of the ambivalence and hesitancy I felt as I watched the endgame in Afghanistan the last two weeks (even as I did everything I could to help the escape of friends and allies I knew from my own tour in 2008-2009). As new aspects presented themselves for consideration, I couldn’t find better words for my thoughts looking backward than I published here a couple of years ago following the release of “The Afghanistan Papers” detailing corruption, subterfuge, and incompetency by American war planners and the Afghan government and military. Quoting from my own recent Facebook post:

Now, as Afghanistan appears lost to Taliban rule for the foreseeable future, I’m more sanguine than outraged. It might just be the long passage of time, and perhaps I should be more upset: the year deployment unsettled my family while I was gone and when I returned in ways too painful to recount, and three good members of our advisor team didn’t even get a chance to return home at all. While in Afghanistan, we worked hard with and got to know personally many Afghans who hated the Taliban with a passion and were grateful we Americans were there to help fight them; I hate to think of what their fates might be now. On the other hand, I’m happy that I was able to help three of my interpreters reach the United States, and I would also be happy enough keeping a small American force in Afghanistan for a long time to bolster the Afghan government, if that were to be the case. It’s not, but I believe at least some Afghans will find it within themselves to mount resistance to the Taliban soon enough, or that the Taliban of 2021 is not the same Taliban as that of 1991. If there is resistance, the questions are who will comprise it, who will lead it, who will support it, and who will fight by their side?

When the Washington Post published “The Afghanistan Papers” a couple of years ago, I wrote the following, which goes into a little bit more detail about my impressions and thoughts looking backward:

“Corruption, rules-of-engagement, conflicting chains-of-command, stupid reporting and briefing requirements, Pakistan aiding and abetting the insurgents (and sometimes helping fight them), green-on-blue incidents, friendly fire incidents, dealing with special operators with different agendas, balancing military missions with nation-building programs, trying to figure out who was enemy and who wasn’t.… It was all part of the operating environment, and that was before the bullets, mortar rounds, and missiles started flying and the IEDs began exploding. You had to be pretty nimble to deal with it all and keep going. If you let things overwhelm you, you weren’t going to be of much use to anyone, though you could certainly use your dismay and anger to build a righteous argument that it was all stupid and worthless.

“Strategically and structurally, my biggest gripe were the unit rotation policies and practices, which never kept units and key leaders in place long enough to become truly effective. My advisor team, for example, was rotated out of Khost Province at the seven-month mark of our deployment, just when we were really beginning to build trust with our Afghan counterparts and understand the lay-of-the land. Also, during my time I served under nine different chains-of-command due to constant task organization changes. Though it was kind of neat to be have been able to wear any one of nine “combat patches” representing the different units I belonged to over the course of a year, the problems with so much change are obvious.

“To have complained about it at the time would to have been labeled a whiner, a naysayer, and a foot-dragger. It would have meant being fired immediately, as (among other things) it would be insubordinate to the chain-of-command, and ruinous for troop morale and unit cohesion, which was solid at the time and by all accounts remains strong. Besides, we were all volunteers, right? and no one told us it was going to be easy. We did the best we could, and though our best really wasn’t all that good, we kept trying and hoped for a very limited and temporary effectiveness.

“However small our results may have been, I’ve always held that advisors at least felt like we were doing the most good, compared to other Americans. I also felt like we had the highest regard for Afghans and had mostly funny or warm-hearted stories about working with them. That’s not saying much, because the soldiers in the line-force units in our area-of-operations distrusted Afghans and wanted to spend as little time around them as possible. Continually dwelling on corruption and making blanket statements and assumptions about incompetent, unreliable Afghans is definitely off-putting to me. In my experience, if that was your attitude going in, or a “fact” “proven” to you by your suspicions and initial encounters with Afghans, well then everything that followed was going to confirm that. The Afghans we worked with made distinctions, and they sensed quickly if an American was predisposed to be snoopy and judgmental about them. If so, they pretty much acted to type. If the opposite, then they were great partners, eager to please and amenable to suggestions and direction. Negative comments about Afghans seem to have been written by people who may have worked or fought side-by-side with Afghans once or twice, but never day-in, day-out for seven months in Khost and five months in Paktya, where Afghans did much to try to do as I asked or suggested and most of all protect me.”

Not entirely reassuring, I’m sure, or beyond critique, or free of self-justification, but those were my thoughts then and they mostly remain the same now.

Of the many opinion pieces and personal reflections recently published by veterans and media commentators, I was most struck by a short piece written by a former infantryman in Afghanistan who now plays guitar in a heavy-metal band. Dustin Tooker’s comments about his service in Afghanistan seemed sensible, even shrewd, and he touched on an aspect relevant to Time Now’s purpose: the influence of war on subsequent art. Here Tooker speaks of his music, but his ideas are relevant going forward for all artists and writers:

As a musician I draw from my past and use it as inspiration for my art. These recent events have changed how those experiences and memories sit in my soul. I know it will show in the music I create and if you listen close, I think others will be able to tell I just got a little darker. It’s likely you’ve gotten a bit darker as well.

A truism often expressed about war in Afghanistan is that the most telling novel about it couldn’t be written until we knew how it ended. Without historical closure, how could there by narrative closure, the sentiment goes. I’ve never been too sure about this truism; novels it seems to me can be written and get written in real time all the time as they will without waiting for real-life finality, and their quality and significance take care of themselves. But surely Tooker is on to something. The futility, guilt, disappointment, and outrage expressed in Afghanistan (and Iraq) war art and fiction, already present in published works so far, can only intensify as veteran writers and artists, as well as interested civilian artists and writers such as Barker and McEwan, reckon with how badly it turned out and their own stake in the outcome.

Pat Barker, Double Vision. Picador, 2004.

Ian McEwan, Saturday. Doubleday, 2005.

Time Now Theory and Scholarship Compendium

Below are links to Time Now posts that engage with literary theory and academic scholarship. It’s primarily for those working on academic studies of contemporary war literature, but it aims also to be accessible for any reader who might be interested. Over the years, Time Now has been cited approvingly in many scholarly articles, books, and dissertations, for which I’m flattered and grateful. But that’s also part of the design: I wrote my own dissertation on the emergence of a literary scene in antebellum-era Baltimore, and many of the ideas and precepts undergirding that project have informed my approach to contemporary war-writing, which I sensed around 2012 beginning to coalesce not just as a genre, but as a “scene,” whatever that word means to you. Also, as I wrote my own dissertation, I depended heavily on obscure chronicles that noted and described the salient publications, authors, and literary and cultural events as they occurred in Baltimore 200 years ago. I doubt Time Now is destined to survive so long, but I still hope to do some of the same work for those interested in art, film, and literature about war in Iraq and Afghanistan that the chroniclers of yore did for me as I wrote my dissertation. 

The list is roughly in the order that the posts were written.

Toni Morrison’s Home: The Africanist Presence in Contemporary War Literature. Morrison’s seminal work Playing in the Dark is considered in regard to war-writing.

Toni Morrison’s Home: A Different War Story. Further consideration of Morrison’s Home and Playing in the Dark.

The Imagined Wars.  Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865 reveals many parallels with the contemporary war-writing scene.

The Civil-Military Divide Within: Going After Bergdahl.  Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq packs a potent 1-2 punch: the central themes of vet fiction-and-memoir are 1) the effort of soldiers to hold onto civilian identities as they serve and as afterwards, and 2) the realization by soldiers that they are not prepared for the horror of war by their education, training, and upbringing.

More on Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck.  Further consideration of Peebles’ ideas and arguments. 

Tim O’Brien’s Story Truth and Happening Truth in the Contemporary War Novel. O’Brien’s distinction between “story truth” and “happening truth” is central to consideration of war-writing sensibility, aesthetics, and reception.

Ikram Masmoudi’s War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction.  Masmoudi’s analysis of Iraqi war-writing offers much in terms of its analysis of Iraqi literature and especially the portrayal of the American invasion.

Never Trust an Officer Over 30? Elizabeth Samet’s No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America.  Samet’s work was an early-on unpacking of the stories soldiers and the military liked to tell about themselves in regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

War-Writing Anxiety of Influence: Bobbie Ann Mason and Tim O’Brien. Harold Bloom’s famous concept is explored by studying the influence on contemporary war-writers of Vietnam-era authors Bobbie Ann Mason and Tim O’Brien

The War-Writing Rhetorical Triangle. Seymour Chatman’s rhetorical-triangle formulation, important in rhetoric-and-composition and narratology studies, can be applied to war-writing as well.

War Writing: The Raw and the Cooked. Roland Barthe’s famous concept is used to analyze various styles of war-writing.

Making the SEAL Team SEAL-y: Literary Theory and Recent War Writing.  Viktor Shklovsy’s famous concept of “defamiliarization” is applied to Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog.

Caleb Cage’s War Narratives: Shaping Beliefs, Blurring Truths in the Middle East. Cage explores several of the narratives that govern thinking (or make clear thinking difficult) about war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

War Fiction: Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In. Kulish’s novel is considered in regard to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus.” “Habitus” is also explored in Iraq by the Numbers: On the Road with Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives.

On Larry Heinemann. I was asked to write the Dictionary of Literary Biography entry on Vietnam War writer Larry Heinemann.

Ariella Azoulay and The Photographic Situation.  Azoulay’s theory of “the photographic situation” makes sense in regard to war photography and provides a foundational premise for Time Now’s own methodology.

Purnima Bose’s Intervention Narratives: Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror. Bose’s critique of “techno-military-masculinity” as it is reflected in SEAL memoirs is excellent.

Women at War. Mary Douglas Favrus’ Post-Feminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex analyzes the vexed conceptual underpinnings and practical difficulties regarding women’s service in the military.

Black Voices in Contemporary War-Writing. My survey of writing by black American veterans was inspired by African-American historian Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.

Joseph Darda’s Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Perpetual War.  Darda’s claim that contemporary war-writing is inherently racist is considered.

Structures of Feeling in Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier and Dewaine Farria’s Revolutions of All Colors.  Raymond Williams’ famous concept is explored in regard to two recent war-fiction titles.

The FOB as Heterotopia (True War Stories).  Michel Foucault’s famous concept is considered in reference to the graphic-memoir anthology True War Stories.

Afghanistan 072
                                       A US Army advisor team, Afghanistan, 2008.

The FOB as Heterotopia (True War Stories)

Hi everyone, I have a chance to revise and expand this post for print publication, so I’ve taken the original down while I work on it. Let’s see what happens, and when circumstances permit I’ll repost the original or the expanded version.

By all means though, check out the graphic-memoir first-person stories recounted in the excellent True War Stories: Tales of Deployment from Vietnam to Today, edited by Alex de Campi and Khai Krumbhaar. 

True War Stories

True War Stories: Tales of Deployment from Vietnam to Today. Edited by Alex de Campi and Khai Krumbhaar. Z2 Comics, 2020.

Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” 1967. PDF

Structures of Feeling in Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier and Dewaine Farria’s Revolutions of All Colors

Good fiction offers exemplary opportunity to consider what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling”—the mindset and emotional disposition and cognitive frames and processes that are experienced individually as part of a larger collective of similarly-minded people. Two recent works of fiction by veterans excel in their portrait of the structure of feeling of distinct cohorts: Army infantrymen in Afghanistan and young black Americans shaped by war and political conflict.

Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War

Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier is a collection of short-stories that draw on Bonenberger’s two tours in Afghanistan as an Army infantry officer and subsequent malaise in his first few years after service. Far from being rote auto-fiction describing familiar scenes frequently found in contemporary veterans’ writing, the stories draw artistic inspiration from the fanciful, often absurd and satirical, and mostly dark literary fiction Bonenberger enjoyed growing up. As Bonenberger writes in his Introduction, it was in his childhood and adolescent reading that he “first encountered the insane logic of Catch-22, there that I read The Good Soldier and Gulliver’s Travels.” Later, Bonenberger writes, “This collection was written in good faith, for a small but discerning audience in the spirit of a non-literal search for truth.”

The “non-literal” aspect of the stories reveals itself in flights of allegorical fancy that re-arrange realistic details and plausible soldier experience to heighten incongruities and dislocations of American warfaring in Afghanistan and its aftermath. In one story, for example, “The Uniform,” a soldier’s uniform comes to life, serving as the alter-ego or doppelganger to its owner’s civilian identity. Another example is the story “Captain America,” in which an Army officer named John Appleseed America returns to the same geographic locale on multiple tours in Afghanistan. The conceit allows the story to comment on military tactical and strategic success, or lack of, over years of repetitive endeavors to “win” in Afghanistan. Like “The Uniform,” it’s fairly obvious in description but graphic and resonant in execution through Bonenberger’s rendering of physical and emotional detail. In these regards the stories are very literal. It’s said that one of Bonenberger’s heroes, Joseph Heller, didn’t have to make anything up to write Catch-22, he just “had to take good notes.” Bonenberger eschews “nothing-but-the-facts” literary aesthetics as both dull and incapable of rendering the highest and most interesting truths, but Bonenberger has observed much of infantry battalion culture and its byways, as well as the tactics of contemporary warfighting, and he gets more of these specifics into his stories than most.

Connecting everything in The Disappointed Soldier is a sense of what short-story master O. Henry describes as the classic short-story plot: a man (or person) who bets on himself and comes up short. A deep-seated sense of how personal failure is linked to the impossibility of the Afghanistan mission is reflected in the collection’s title story, and many other stories also channel the spirit of the sadder-but-wiser protagonists of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wonderful tales “Young Goodman Brown,” “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” and “My Kinsman Major Molineux.” Much veteran fiction and memoir reflects its authors’ sense they have been cheated out of honorable, productive, self-affirming deployments by incompetent military leadership and stupid, incoherent missions. Bonenberger’s aware of these things but refuses to give his protagonists a pass: he susses that the more interesting story to tell is of a soldier’s recognition of how their own shortcomings lead to disillusionment, with little room left to blame anyone but themselves. Understanding that military social capital and self-esteem are built out of a house-of-cards in which the four suits are vanity, ambition, self-delusion, and concern for status and appearance, the stories in The Disappointed Soldier dissect this impossible-to-sustain admixture and depict the despair when the cards come tumbling down.

Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors

The story proper in Dewaine Farria’s novel Revolutions of All Colors recounts the lives of three young black men who come of age in the period from 1995-2005. Putting the men’s exploits and thoughts in perspective is a long first chapter set in New Orleans in 1970 that describes a police crackdown on a local Black Panther chapter, with one of the characters involved a black woman whose job as a city official brings her ideas about black uplift in tension with the much more militant ideas about the same held by the Panthers. The first chapter is terrific: the period-and-place detail thick and rich and the worldviews and personalities of the actors—animated by rage but distinct in their manifestation—vividly described. Not to pour it on too much, but the first chapter reminded me of the fiery fiction and commentary I associate with Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, and I leaned forward in anticipation of how Farria would bring his critical and literary acumen to bear on his more contemporary protagonists’ lives and what might be said of race relations in America in the 21st century.

By contrast, however, the interlinked lives of his three modern black Americans—Simon (the son of the woman featured in Chapter One) and brothers Michael and Gabriel are much more placid and unfocused. The young men, from relatively prosperous and stable families, come-of-age in a small Oklahoma town, and while race is never not an issue, the young men seem to feel far less keenly the effects of racism than do their parents, whose constant admonishments that black Americans must never let their guards down seem to lack practical everyday relevance. As the young men explore life possibilities, they appear, frankly, more bemused by white people than at war with them, and just as adrift as many of their young white contemporaries, and they cycle through young-adult career options such as the military, grad school, overseas employment, mixed-martial arts fighting, metropolitan artiste-life, and the like in ways that don’t seem especially tinged by racial hostility and foreclosure of opportunities. All this, I believe, is by design and Farria’s point: he’s describing an interregnum in modern black American life set midway between the Civil Rights/black-militant era and the post-Obama resurgence of much more overt racial tension, when a false calm in the historical storm of American race-relations seemed to prevail and young blacks (perhaps much as Farria himself) struggled to define their relation to the peculiar social-historical circumstances in which they found themselves. Events in Revolutions of All Colors bring the three protagonists to begin a more sustained and mature appraisal of their elders’ lives and ideas, and I can’t help but think that if Farria were to write a sequel that follows his protagonists into the present, their thoughts would grow even more piquant and their actions more consequential.

Farria has served as a Marine and United Nations security advisor in numerous global hotspots, to include Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military and war enter into Revolutions of All Colors not so much in regard to Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom but Vietnam and political-social strife in Ukraine and Somalia. One of his protagonists—Simon–serves in Afghanistan as an Air Force pararescueman and later does a stint in Somalia as a security contractor during a period of factional fighting, while other episodes featuring Gabriel are set in Ukraine, where the “Orange Revolution” launched against Russia serves as a backdrop. Simon’s and Gabriel’s thoughts about political violence, however, are cursory in comparison to the weight given in the novel to Vietnam as a crucible of life-forming worldview for many of the Black Panthers described in Chapter One and the father of Michael and Gabriel described in following chapters. For black men who served in Vietnam, a racist military intensified their political awakening while combat inculcated ideas and values about the discipline and training required to fight for one’s rights and stand one’s ground. They also learned to love, or at least appreciate, the thrill of the fight and the sometime necessity of violence, for better or worse in roughly equal measures, though probably mostly better given the precarity and watchfulness required of black life in white-dominated America. This proposition is very interesting to consider, both as it is fuzzily refracted in Simon’s martial inclinations and Gabriel’s and Michael’s lack of the same, and in contemplation of the ways war in Iraq and Afghanistan might shape the outlook of contemporary veterans, both black and white, as they move forward into adulthood.

Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War. Kolo, 2021.

Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors. Syracuse University Press, 2020.

Talk Talk: Interviews with Mary Doyle, Will Mackin, Roy Scranton, Matt Gallagher, Hassan Blasim

Interviews with prominent authors in the war-mil-vet-conflict scene are always a treat, even when the subjects go to dark places. Below are links to and excerpts from five such interviews I’ve been fortunate to conduct, in one case for the Veterans Writing Project‘s literary journal 0-Dark-Thirty and in the others for The Wrath-Bearing Tree.

Mary Doyle interview for 0-Dark-Thiry, Fall 2016 (begins on page 67). Doyle, a former Army NCO, is the author of The Bonding Spell, a speculative fiction novel, and The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, a military-detective novel featuring Master Sergeant Lauren Harper. Excerpt: 

Molin: Master Sergeant Harper’s sense of what’s important about her identity is intriguing—it blends and balances her awareness of her status as a woman, a senior Army NCO, an African American, and the unique circumstances of her family history and her personal outlook on life. Is that how you see her too, and what more would you like us to understand about her?

Doyle: Harper is like so many black women soldiers I know. She joined the military with the hope of improving her lot in life. She comes from a loving family but one that had its challenges. Her upbringing is in a single parent household with a matriarchal example that she strives to emulate. She is an older sister to a sibling that she ends up having primary responsibility for. And as her career develops, she is surprised to discover that the job she took as a means to an end, ends up being a life she loves.

What she struggles with, and what so many dedicated female service members struggle with, is her love life. How does a woman soldier balance her dedication to a job that has 24/7 demands, with a courtship? When you are in a career that can call on you to drop everything, pack a bag and be gone for long lengths of time, how to you maintain a love life through demands like that? And what about children?

Will Mackin interview  for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, April 2018. Mackin, a career  Navy officer, served alongside Navy SEALs in Iraq and Afghanistan coordinating air-and-artillery support. He is the author of the short-story collection Bring Out the Dog. Excerpt:

Molin: From “Kattekoppen”: “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.” How are SEALs different from soldiers in line-units? What motivates them and what’s important to them? What were you surprised to learnabout the SEALs, as individuals and as a collective fighting force?

Mackin: The main thing that differentiated our unit from “straightleg” units was our budget. We had a lot of money to throw around. There was also a genuine desire on the part of the operators to fight, kill, and vanquish, and absolutely zero tolerance for administrative bullshit. This would sometimes bite us in the ass because no one ever wanted to plan. What we lost in lack of planning, however, was often made up for in execution. As individuals I was surprised to find those who I wouldn’t have expected to be SEALs. In other words, guys who didn’t fit the mold of the tattooed, bearded, Harley-riding Alpha male. They were just normal dudes with this ridiculous and well-disguised drive…. Most SEALs were personable one-on-one, but I found them to be very insular as a group. I never felt like I truly belonged.

Roy Scranton interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, August 2019. Scranton deployed to Iraq with the US Army in the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His published books include the novel War Porn and the scholarly study Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. Excerpt:

Molin:  In practical terms, how can understanding the trauma hero as a literary trope and cultural myth help us think better, more clearly, about actual veterans psychologically damaged and emotionally troubled by war?  What might the nation, or its military-medical apparatus, do to help them?

Scranton: Well, I’ve written a work of literary and cultural history, not a practical guide to coping with trauma. I would say, though, that the entire way that we understand “actual veterans psychologically damaged and emotionally troubled by war” must be understood as process of collective meaning-making. The psychologically damaged veteran is certainly suffering, but that suffering takes shape in performing a specific social role, which is the “traumatized veteran.” As long as we stay within the bounds of the discourse, there’s no way to “help” such a person by pointing out that their genuine suffering is culturally produced. I suppose we might tell them “trauma isn’t real,” but then what? They have to make sense of their experience somehow, and the best that could come from delegitimating a culturally dominant way of making sense of experience would be the emergence of a new way of making sense of experience. Are there better and worse ways of making meaning? I think so. But that’s another discussion. The only practical help my project might offer is, I would hope, some understanding of the ways that the “actual veteran” exists in relation to the “nation.”

I’m a Spinozist at heart, which means I’m a materialist, but it also means that I believe freedom comes first of all from understanding. Until you understand what compels you to understand your experience through certain roles, frameworks, and practices, you’ll be stuck performing those roles, seeing through those frameworks, and acting out those practices. Understanding may never provide physical or social liberation, but it can at least open a space for some freedom of thought and movement, and the possibility of equanimity toward the world as it exists, which is to say a sense of peace.

Matt Gallagher interview/podcast for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, April 2021 (via SoundCloud). Gallagher, a US Army Iraq vet is the author of the memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Dirty Little War and the novels Youngblood and Empire City. Excerpt:

Molin: You’ve been on the veterans writing scene for a long time. When did you get a sense that a common standpoint or viewpoint among veterans was starting to diverge so drastically, so politically, and so heatedly? What were the significant events or touchstones for you?

Gallagher:  A lot of the seeds for Empire City happened during the years I worked as a speechwriter for the veterans non-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in 2011-2013….  At the time I was writing Youngblood, so my professional headspace was in the veterans’ world while my writing head was still in Iraq….. At IAVA I saw how just how personally our members took the policy issues we were fighting for, both on the legislative side and also on the street-level, with the everyday members who weren’t necessarily going down to DC to meet with congressmen and senators to advocate for position-x or position-y, and how quickly issues that should be apolitical, like the GI Bill, become a left-or-right issue, and how thing worked for the organization when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended or the Bowe Bergdahl situation broke. All these things became instantly political and polarized, in a way that was disheartening for a young veteran, but were fantastic fodder for future writing.

Hassan Blasim interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree (July 2021). Blasim, an Iraqi expatriate now living in Finland, is the author of the short-story collection The Corpse Exhibition and the novel God 99. Excerpt:

Molin: What about fiction attracts you?

Blasim: It’s important for English and American readers to know that I don’t only write fiction, I write poetry, criticism, plays, and essays, too, that haven’t yet been translated into English. I also write a lot in support of refugees, gay rights, and Iraq and the Middle East. But as for fiction, it’s what I have loved most all my life, from the time I was a boy. I always liked the way stories could contain extremes and opposites, such as how a story could be both a love story and a horror story, a funny story and a sad story, both tender and violent. Fiction is serious for me, but it’s also play and pleasure. In my writing, I enjoy trying to make all these parts come together. A lot of my sense of how to write fiction comes from my love of movies, from which early on I was impressed by how easily they switched between different types of scenes and moods. In my stories I want that same effect, something unexpected happening, something changing all the time. That’s how I try to write, too, I don’t plan anything ahead of time, I just enjoy the rhythm of writing and the chance to play. I open my laptop and I type….

Thank you Mary Doyle, Will Mackin, Roy Scranton, Matt Gallagher, and Hassan Blasim for being so generous with your time and your thoughts.

War Fiction, Summer 2021

Time Now’s pace-of-production has dramatically slowed this year for a variety of reasons, even as Time Now itself celebrated its 10th birthday on June 23. From 40 or so posts a year circa 2015, this is only my fifth so far in 2021. Part of the reason for the decline is technical: for reasons inexplicable WordPress has forced me to change the lay-out of the blog, and I have to say the new look has unsettled me. Whatever gain in readability may have accrued, the loss of the familiar format has deflated inspiration. Even worse, behind the public face of Time Now I’ve lost the ability to easily edit posts on the WordPress platform—a serious liability that must be fixable, but which has thus far proven beyond me to do so. Very demoralizing, not because I often go back and substantially revise old posts, but it changes the nature of how I compose and publish, and even small corrections of typos and formatting glitches are hard.

That said, here I’m going to quickly consider a series of war-writing events and works that in past years might have merited much more attention. This will have to suffice for now, but perhaps I can circle back to any or all of the subjects I offer brief descriptions of below.

1. Be sure to check-out my interview with Iraqi expatriate author Hassan Blasim recently published by The Wrath-Bearing Tree. Blasim may more definitively be described as “conflict-and-violence” than a “war” writer, but his work has always struck me and others in the war-writing scene as an important counterpoint to the American-centric focus of contemporary war-and-mil writing by American authors. In the interview Blasim describes the artistic genesis of his new novel God 99, which he firmly locates in the experience of growing up in Iraq under the influence of Saddam Hussein and Iraq war.

https://www.wrath-bearingtree.com/2021/07/new-interview-of-author-hassan-blasim-by-peter-molin/

Hassan Blasim

2.  I just participated in a war-writing panel at the American Literature Association conference—a welcome return to public academic consideration of war-writing following fifteen months of social isolation. The title of our panel and the individual presentations speak to the focus and range of our concerns:

Writing War in the 21st-Century: Unbound Perspectives on the Global War on Terror

Hilary Lithgow: “A 21st Century Chapter for [Samuel Hynes’] The Soldier’s Tale.”

Peter Molin: “Wayward Warfaring: Black Voices in Contemporary War-Writing”

Stacey Peebles: “‘A precious jewel among the wreckage of this country’: Contemporary Iraqi War Fiction.”

Brian Williams: “What kind of crazy fits this war?: Considering the ‘Global’ in the Global War on Terror” [focused on Phil Klay’s Missionaries].

Thanks to Brian Williams for organizing and Melissa Parrish for moderating, as well as to my fellow panelists.

3. Keeping up with new war-writing titles has continued apace. Below are capsule descriptions of recent releases, with a focus on summary rather than assessment and analysis. Buy and read any that sound appealing!

a.  Maximilian Uriarte’s Battle-Born: Lapis Lazuli. Uriarte’s follow-up graphic novel to his impressive and important The White Donkey is set in Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, and expands The White Donkey’s focus on soldier trauma to a much wider range of concerns: racism, misogyny, economic exploitation of natural resources, and the lives and perspectives of civilians caught in the turmoil of war and conflict, while also introducing new characters serving in Uriarte’s beloved Marines. Befitting the expanded range of concerns, Battle Born’s artwork is much more lavish than The White Donkey’s, featuring a more striking color palette and more panoramic and detailed drawings.

b.  Perry O’Brien’s Fire in the Blood is a welcome full-length novel by the latest (but hopefully not the last) vet-author who first came to prominence as a contributor to the seminal Fire and Forget anthology in 2013. Fire in the Blood begins as a detective whodunit, as its protagonist, a soldier AWOL from duty in Afghanistan, tries to solve the mystery of his wife’s death in New York City. Morphing as it goes, Fire in the Blood evolves into something of an action-thriller as the vet-protagonist battles richy-rich and super-sketchy antagonists who stymie the vet’s pursuit of justice. The descriptions of exotically-sordid characters and places in The Bronx excel. 

c.  Brett Allen’s Kilroy Was Here’s first-person narrator is a junior officer stuck on battalion staff during his Army unit’s dismal rotation in Afghanistan in 2008-2009. Underappreciated and marginalized by his chain-of-command, the narrator paints a striking picture of toxic military leadership that sometimes comically but ultimately sadly seems to reflect reports by many junior officers who feel they were cheated out of more rewarding tours by their own leaders. Satire and ridicule are the narrator’s primary weapons for exacting revenge, and a plot that allows the narrator’s superior understanding of events and fighting prowess to eventually shine furthers the comeuppance. The portrait of a battalion deployment and internal dynamics, as well as the complexities of missions in Afghanistan, will resonate with readers who have experienced such things, such as me.

d.  Travis Klempan’s Have Snakes, Need Birds’ subject is an Army battalion’s tour in Iraq, with the focus on a sergeant of mysterious provenance and talents (he communicates telepathically with birds, for starters) with no specific assignment except to accompany the designated platoon sergeant of an infantry platoon to add experience and be ready to take over “just-in-case.” The reason for this odd setup is not fully explained, and as the novel proceeds, Klempan adds further mysterious and fantastical elements that bespeak an interest in magical realism and speculative-horror fiction. Determined not to be just another war-novel, Have Snakes, Need Bird’s strength lies in its protagonist’s wrangle with his own doubts as he only half-understands how supernatural forces, a vexing mission, and an enigmatic romantic interest collude to bring him to a rendezvous with combat-zone destiny.

4. Two more titles await reading: Former Marine Dewaine Farria’s Revolutions of All Colors, about, among other things, a black Special Forces veteran trying to make his way in the complicated contemporary social and political landscape, and Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War, a collection of darkly absurdist tales and ruminations about war and military by the author of the excellent memoir Afghan Post and the founder of the estimable The Wrath-Bearing Tree website.     

That’s all folks–and now back to your regularly scheduled summers. 

****

Brett Allen, Kilroy Was Here. A15 Publishing, 2020.

Hassan Blasim, God 99. Comma Press, 2020. Translated by Jonathan Wright.

Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War. KOLO, 2021.

Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors. Syracuse University Press, 2020.

Travis Klempan, Have Snakes, Need Birds. Koehlerbooks, 2020.

Perry O’Brien, Fire in the Blood. Random House, 2020.

Maximilian Uriarte, Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli. Little, Brown and Company, 2020.

Mosul

The United States withdrew the bulk of its armed forces from Iraq in 2011, an endgame move that brings to mind the expression “just declare victory and then leave.” Fighting, or war, of course didn’t stop in Iraq in 2011, but the nature of it changed. With the Americans gone and Baghdad somewhat quiet, the action moved north and west of the capital. In Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, the Sinjar Mountains region, and on into Syria, Sunni-fundamentalist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters terrorized those they labeled non-believers while waging war against the Iraqi Armed Forces and various local militias. The Kurdistan city of Mosul became the locus of much of the fighting, especially since the Kurdish Peshmerga militia proved resolutely stout in the face of ISIS, by all accounts much more so than the Iraq army.

The Kurd fight against ISIS features in Mike Freedman’s 2019 novel King of the Mississippi, and the movie Mosul, directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan, also appearing in 2019.

King of the Mississippi

In truth, fighting on the ground in Mosul occurs only in the mostly-comic King of the Mississippi’s concluding chapters, when the novel’s central characters, two Houston-based business consultants, are sucked into battle with a combined U.S.-British special operations outfit operating in support of the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Armed Forces. Author Mike Freedman seems to have based these scenes on his own experience, as his bio relates that he served in the U.S. Army Special Forces (“Green Berets”) before obtaining an MBA and becoming a business consultant himself. The portrait of the special operators is extremely flattering, which is not to say it is necessarily wrong or without interest. The two consultants, in Iraq on some puffed-up, cock-eyed business scheme, are suitably unimpressed by anything the U.S. conventional Army has to show them in their camps around Baghdad, which they must pass through enroute to Kuridistan, but they, and the third-person narrator, too, are all agog at what they behold in the highly-trained A-team:

Each person on the twelve-man team had a specialty, and they all trained each other in the specialties. If this team was indicative of the talent of other Special Forces teams, Special Forces could smoke any consulting dream team in concentration of talent. Of the two communications sergeants on the team, the senior radio operator had been an investment banker in New York at Goldman Sachs until volunteering for service after the 9/11 attacks, and his no-neck junior, a half-Hispanic weightlifting beast of a man with fluency in three languages, had attended Harvard as an undergraduate on scholarship, graduating in just three years with honors.

Nothing that happens after this glowing portrait deflates the high regard with which King of the Mississippi portrays the team. The leader, “Luke,” offers a fine, no-BS pep-talk before the men roll-out on their mission:

For our two SF babies out of the Q course who joined us in country last month and are hungry to get some, be ready to get your gun on. We all accepted there would be risks when we signed up. Our mission is to influence our battlespace through combat advising. Sometimes we have to get creative to make that happen. Be cognizant of civilians on the battlefield if we get attacked. We know what ISIS’s MO is when it pertains to civilians. As always, don’t do anything that would disgrace the regiment.

The novel as a whole validates the special operater warrior-way, as one of the protagonists himself is a former Green Beret who brings his wily outside-the-box approach to high-end consulting:

For a decade I trained not only on how to operationally liberate the oppressed, but also how to free your mind from the oppression of conventional thinking…. The relevance of my graduate work in the Special Forces Qualification Course is that I have unique professional training and a record of success in solving and analyzing complex problems.

The speaker’s name is Mike Fink, like the legendary American huckster-frontiersman referred to in the novel’s title (with initials “M-F” like the author’s). Fink’s not a smooth operator, and the clunkiness and presumptuousness of his self-description, offered early in the novel, makes other characters and readers too (at least this one) wonder if he is being set up as a humorous foil. But as the novel proceeds, we learn that Fink is not to be underestimated and that Freedman is not joking: what ails big business and America at large can be remedied by letting our unconventional elite fighters take charge.   

There is much more about King of the Mississippi and author Mike Freedman that interests me, but let’s keep the focus on Mosul….

Mosul

The movie Mosul doesn’t kid around. Set in Mosul from start-to-finish over the course of a very long day, there’s no waiting for the combat action to start: it’s “guns-on” from the opening scene, a terrific shoot-out that introduces the main characters and sets the story speeding forward. Two Kurdish Mosul policemen are ambushed by a large ISIS force as they try to arrest two insurgent sympathizers, and just as they run out of bullets they are rescued by an offshoot renegade band of battle-hardened Peshmerga militiamen known as the Ninevah SWAT team. “Since when did we start arresting Daesh?” asks the team leader shortly before ordering the execution of the last two ISIS fighters alive. One of the policemen, a young recruit named Kawa, is enlisted into the Ninevah SWAT on the spot and, over the course of the movie and the day, Kawa not only develops the instinct for survival it takes to fight ISIS, he (and we) learns the humanizing backstories that drive militia-men to be as committed to each other and to their mission as they are.

Mosul is excellent–86 taught minutes of compelling story-telling and action. I watched it twice without blinking, and most war movies have me distractedly surfing the Internet ten minutes in. The plot is something of a twist on the picaresque last/lost patrol motif familiar from Saving Private Ryan and many others, but at every turn director Matt Carnahan infuses the story-line with interesting and even surprising inflections. Much of this is accomplished at the level of brisk staging of scenes and inspired camera angles, as in many interior scenes of Ninevah SWAT traveling about the Mosul battlefield in their up-armored Humvees. It’s even more so at the level of screenwriting (Mosul is based on a New Yorker story by Luke Mogelson) and acting. Carnahan focalizes the story through the perspective of his two protagonists: the wizened Ninevah SWAT leader Major Jasem, played by Suhail Dabbach, and the fresh recruit Kawa, played by Adam Bessa. Dabbach and Bessa are both outstanding, each easily capable of holding interest in sustained close-ups and even more engaging as we watch them deal with war’s circumstance and the increasingly tight bonds of their relationship. I don’t know if I’d say either Dabbach or Bessa is handsome, but both give the appearance of being intelligent and soulful, and thus compelling to watch; by contrast so many American male leads in war movies look bland and dopey. Probably just the camera lighting and make-up, right?, but still. Dabbach is an Iraqi expatriate who had small roles in The Hurt Locker and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. More please soon (and I just read more is forthcoming as Dabbach has a role in the upcoming movie version of Nico Walker’s Cherry). Bessa, a ringer for Marine vet author Elliot Ackerman, is a French-Tunisian actor with a string of acclaimed roles in European movies to his credit—I’ll be interested in anything he acts in, too.

Americans barely figure in Mosul, which makes it something of a wonder that the movie was made by an American studio and directed by an American director, with dialogue in Arabic with English subtitles. No one interested in the human side of ISIS (whatever that might look like) is going to love Mosul, as it firmly wears its allegiance to Kurds and the victims of ISIS on its sleeve, but the movie soars above partisanship on the strengths of its vision of the violence of war and the vivid characterization of those forced to fight for their lives against a hated and ruthless enemy.

Mike Freedman, King of the Mississippi. Random House-Hogarth, 2019.

Mosul, directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan. AGBO, Conde Nast Entertainment, 2019.

*****

NOTE: My blog platform, WordPress, has changed its editing feature in such a way that makes it much harder for me to upload pictures and videos, so until I can figure that out I’ll do without. Ah well, for ten years, creating Time Now posts has been the same simple process, so not a big fan of the change, but will carry on as we can.

Joseph Darda’s Empire of Defense

In “Chapter Five: The Craft of Counterinsurgent Whiteness” of Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Permanent War Joseph Darda places the literary-fiction titans of contemporary veterans-writing—Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, Kevin Powers—under the microscope of scholarly analysis.

In the larger argument of Empire of Defense, Darda offers a theory for how race and racism factor in the endless warfaring and escalating militarism of everyday life in America. He pinpoints the National Security Act of 1947 and the creation of the Secretary of Defense in 1949 as pivotal historical moments, arguing that the renaming and reorganization of our national security apparatus were attempts to mitigate the excesses of old-style colonialism and racism while allowing the prerogatives of national authority to remain in the hands of the powers-that-be, who, it goes almost without saying, were white males. Post WWII, legal racial oppression and global empire building were no longer tenable, but a new liberal humanism organized around “defense” allowed for a modicum of progressive social change, while insidiously normalizing a new regime of white values and outlooks, both at home and abroad. The name-change from “Secretary of War” to “Secretary of Defense,” for example, diminished awareness of  imperialistic projections of power and uses of violence that usually involved killing or subordinating people-of-color. Instead, in a semantic sleight-of-hand, our military would now “defend” America against various “isms” and causes that obscure racialized motives. So, instead of fighting yellow-skinned people in Korea and Vietnam, we fight “communism.” Instead of fighting Mexicans, we fight a “war on drugs.” And instead of fighting Arabs and Muslims, we fight “terrorism.” The linguistic trickery pays lip service to notions of respect, diversity, equity, inclusion, and equality when convenient, and it has been very convenient to do so in order to recruit African-Americans into the military. It has also been convenient to preserve reputation in the eyes of liberal voters, intellectuals, and journalists—at least those who were not, per Darda, in on the treachery.

In Darda’s account, war fiction participates in anti-racist/racist duplicity by consistently creating heroes out of a few “good white men” who embody liberal values without giving up the actual perks of whiteness, and in fact instantiate the notion that ideas held by white men constitute foundational moral values. He writes, “The sensitive white soldier, from Hemingway’s Frederic Henry to Joseph Heller’s John Yossarian and O’Brien’s Paul Berlin, though celebrated for shaking off ideological constraints, defends, above all else, himself and his own liberal consciousness.” So, too, per Darda, for the white heroes of post-9/11 war fiction, and so too for their authors:

Although veteran-writers [Matt] Gallagher, Kevin Powers, and Phil Klay have been critical of the wars in which they fought, their fiction aligns with the state’s militarization of cultural knowledge.

“Chapter Five: The Craft of Counterinsurgent Whiteness” begins with two passages that set-up analysis of Powers’ novel The Yellow Birds, Klay’s story “Psychological Operations,” and Gallagher’s novel Youngblood. The first passage, unfortunately for fans of contemporary war-fiction, excoriates Gallagher’s 2011 Atlantic magazine article “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?”, Gallagher himself, and the contemporary veteran fiction-writing scene. We’ll hurry past that section to summarize more fully the chapter’s second preamble, which explores the writing and rhetoric of US Army Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, published in 2006 at the behest of General David Petraeus. Darda focuses his attention on the third chapter, “Intelligence in Counterinsurgency,” which (the FM 3-24 chapter) was mostly authored by “Yale University-trained cultural anthropologist” Montgomery McFate. Darda explains how in the chapter McFate promulgates the idea that modern war requires “cultural awareness” to craft compelling “narratives” to shape understanding and achieve objectives. Darda offers a good line re McFate: “Her chapter reads like critical theory that has been reverse engineered to reinforce rather than challenge hegemony.”

The FM 3-24 discussion leads to a damning argument about contemporary war fiction: “The thesis of the McFate-authored chapter of Field Manual 3-24—a thesis that resurfaces in American veteran fiction—is that successful counterinsurgency necessitates the militarization of cultural narrative.” A little later: “Some of the most acclaimed new veteran-writers—Gallagher, Klay, Powers—served in counterinsurgent forces, and their writing reflects the doctrine’s utilitarian understanding of cultural narrative.” This seems on-to-something, as The Yellow Birds, “Psychological Operations,” and Youngblood are indeed written by soldiers who fought in Iraq according to counterinsurgency principles while more-or-less believing that they were trying to fight more humanely and also more smartly. They dramatize that struggle in their works, and their first-person narrators speak directly about the difficulty of constructing coherent narratives of their deployments.

Darda could have done even more with this line-of-analysis, but he’s after bigger fish than narrative meta-anxiety. About the authors’ investments in whiteness and the cultural work done by their stories, he writes:

…and the first, foremost, and only thing that happens when a white male author picks up a pen to write a story is validation of himself and his white characters.

That these writers are all white men is not a coincidence, because whiteness has continued to be a condition for conducting defense (counterinsurgency), as a means of dictating the uneven distribution of life chances (racialization) in the counterterror era.

The statements seem remarkably unsubtle and hostile literary analysis, especially coming from an English professor, while containing serious charges about war-fiction authors’ thoughts, motives, and actions. Unfortunately for Darda, the examination of the aspects of The Yellow Birds, “Psychological Operations,” and Youngblood that he argues perpetuate racist ideology and practice aren’t as persuasive as the passages that explore narrative angst and instability. I won’t say much here except that his argument doesn’t make much allowance for the idea that art and fiction can critique politics, ideology, official discourse, and popular opinion rather than merely reflect and instantiate them, especially deliberately so on the part of artists and writers. I also note two factual errors in Darda’s recounting of character-and-plot details of Youngblood–not confidence-inspiring given how the novel and its author figure so prominently in Darda’s argument. Fans of contemporary war-writing probably won’t like or agree with what Darda has to say, but students of the intersection of 20th and 21st-century race, culture, politics, war, and war-literature might consider checking out Empire of Defense for themselves.

Joseph Darda, Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Permanent War. University of Chicago Press, 2019.