Post-War Blues

Early in the emergence of Iraq and Afghanistan war-writing as a recognizable genre, the center-of-gravity, to use military-speak, shifted from interest in events experienced on deployment and the battlefield to the difficulty of the homecoming and reintegration into civilian life. At first, this interest was focused on the individual veteran, often wracked by guilt, as he or she tried to find their way post-service. Later, interest in veterans as a cohort emerged, as they represented a demographic block within the greater populace asserting their views and needs in the wake of the end of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the election of President Trump, Covid, and all else. The first theme has found countless expression in fiction, poetry, and memoir, with Phil Klay’s Redeployment stories most famously addressing the veterans’ search for equilibrium and purpose in a society that little understood them. The second theme plays out daily in the news and on social media, but has yet to find robust expression in imaginative literature, though Matt Gallagher’s novel Empire City has admirably pioneered exploration of the contentious ways veterans position themselves, and are positioned by others, for recognition in the cultural and political sphere, as well as the consequential and cumulative effect of prolonged overseas war-faring on the shape of everyday American life.

Recently, two events have given me opportunity to consider anew these trends. First, an offer from the Task & Purpose online veterans journal to review The Shot: The Harrowing Journey of a Marine in the War on Terror, the memoir of former-Marine Bill Bee, brought the theme of the struggling veteran back into focus. You can read the review here; in sum, Bee describes a ten-year journey post-deployment to settle down after the intense highs and lows of four deployments to Afghanistan. In the review, I don’t use Stacey Peebles’ prescient line about contemporary war-lit’s dominant narrative arc—the story of a veteran who thought he or she was prepared for what they might face at war, only to find out how wrong they were—but it well applies. Bee seems to have come to writing only recently. Though he describes being a big reader as a youth, he doesn’t portray himself as now or ever being a budding member of the vet-writing literati, nor does writing as a means of dealing with his troubles seem to have occurred to him as he cycled through a number of treatment programs for PTSD and TBI and various life-changes. The Shot is all the more interesting for that. Prompted into writing by co-author Wills Robinson, Bee conveys in The Shot an “as told to” feel characteristic of sports-star and entertainment-celebrity autobiographies. The clear retelling of battlefield events and home-front struggle is a bracing reminder of how intense was the fighting and how serious and long-lasting were the physical and emotional wounds.

The Shot

Regarding the societal consequences of long-lasting war, I recently watched the play Thou Shalt Not, staged in New Brunswick, NJ (where I live) and written, directed, and acted in by Iraq and Afghanistan veteran J.M. Meyer (along with his wife and co-collaborator Karen Alvarado). The play concerns a famous 1922 double-murder and subsequent trial that took place in New Brunswick; Meyer and his acting troupe Thinkery & Verse recreate the events, as told mostly through the eyes of the daughter of one of the victims, with an added fillip of interest being that they stage the play in the actual church where both victims worshipped. Nothing in the play directly references World War I, and it might be slightly specious to suggest that the murder in its time and the play now helps us understand the 1920s cultural climate as it was influenced by World War I, to say nothing of the current post-GWOT era. But perhaps not entirely so. The case, known as the Hall-Mills murder, was interpreted in its time as a symptom of a society that in the go-go 1920s had lost its collective mind by, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who incorporated elements of the case into The Great Gatsby, which has often been explained as the story of an America reeling in the social tumult occasioned by The Great War. Among the larger themes channeled in Thou Shalt Not are loss of community, religious hypocrisy, media frenzy, judicial bias, and class inequity, all of which have their counterparts today. Most of all, Thou Shalt Not’s interest in the daughter’s plight, left to cope with the disreputable life-events that led to her mother’s murder as they were bandied in the press for the better part of a decade, shrewdly reflects vet-writing’s preoccupation with post-trauma guilt and confusion.

I know J.M. Meyer (and have written about him here), but not well enough to say whether he consciously wrote contemporary war themes into his play. No matter the source, the artistic imagining on display in Thou Shalt Not is dazzling. Far from being a staid dinner-theater whodunnit, Thou Shalt Not is highly inventive, shot through with theatrical artifice and interesting casting and staging choices. Meyer immerses the audience into the proceedings at several points, and when spectators are left alone to contemplate the murders and trial they are exposed to a barrage of conflicting perspectives and often-spectacular recreations of events that trouble easy understanding while delighting the desire to be entertained. I’ve always been curious about veterans who are drawn to theater and film, especially in roles as playwrights, directors, and producers. In this line Myer reminds me of more well-known vet-dramatists such as Maurice Decaul, Benjamin Busch, and even Adam Driver (and now comes news that Veterans Writing Project founder Ron Capps is writing and staging plays, too). All are former infantryman, now highly cerebral and creative artists, attracted to ensemble performative endeavor, and who find it impossible to tell simple stories in simple ways. What’s up with that?  

Thinkery and Verse

War, Literature & the Arts Conferences, 2010 and 2018

Below are the schedules of presentations taken from the programs for the War, Literature & the Arts (WLA) conferences held at the United States Air Force Academy in 2010 and 2018.

The 2010 WLA conference marked the beginning of a very fertile period in GWOT vet-mil writing. I was lucky enough to attend in those pre-Time Now days. I already knew Brian Turner, but almost every other artist and presenter was new to me. It was all very inspiring; from chance conversations with poets Elyse Fenton and Victor Inzunza on the shuttle-bus from the conference hotel to the Air Force Academy grounds to a great panel featuring Matt Gallagher and Siobhan Fallon, where the idea for Time Now hatched while I was listening to them read, and everything in-between. I don’t think I met Gallagher, Fallon, or Benjamin Busch–one of the featured speakers–at the time, but I was later able to invite all of them to read at West Point, where I taught until 2015.

Looking at the 2010 program now, it’s remarkable how many names are obscure now. The same can’t be said about the 2018 WLA conference; stacked with writers, artists, and academics in the now-robust contemporary war-lit scene, along with selected speakers and readers and scholars from pre-9/11 wars, it was an embarrassment of riches. If you missed so much as a day, you missed a lot, and choice panels competed with each other for attention. And it, too, like the 2010 conference, was enormously generative in terms of sowing the seeds for future writing projects and collaborations.

Read the programs below if you please, and if you have thoughts or questions about any of the presentations, let me know in the comments and we’ll talk it up.

Kudos to the Department of English and Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy for sponsoring both conferences. It was very prescient and magnanimous of them to have done so. Colonel Kathleen Harrington, the head of the department in both 2010 and 2018, deserves major thanks, as does Donald Anderson, a member of the faculty, the editor of War, Literature & the Arts, and a fantastic memoirist in his own right. Helping out behind the scenes at the first conference as members of the Department of English and Fine Arts were war-lit mainstays Jesse Goolsby, Jay Moad, and Brandon Lingle, among others.

The current head of the Department of English and Fine Arts is Colonel David Buchanan, the author of Going Scapegoat: Post-9/11 War, Literature, and Culture (2016), one of the few book-length studies of contemporary war-literature out there. Hope he has it in mind to host another WLA conference under his tenure.

2010:

2018:

Time Now Shorts

Some things old, some things new, some things borrowed, some things blue….

Lions for Lambs. I finally caught up with Lions for Lambs, a 2007 film directed by Robert Redford and featuring Redford, Tom Cruise, and Meryl Streep. Thinking about its celebrity cast and the year of its release, it occurred to me that Hollywood, with Generation Kill, The Hurt Locker, and Brothers all released about that time, was far in advance of the nation’s literati or the waves of vet-authors to-come in artistically portraying war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Checking out the reviews of Lions for Lambs as I tuned in, I was surprised how scathing they were. How could a movie starring Cruise as charismatic conservative Senator with a plan to win the war in Afghanistan, Streep as a cynical liberal journalist, and Redford as a well-seasoned college professor go wrong? The performances of the Big Three are good, and surprise surprise the action scenes set in Afghanistan are not bad either, particularly the ones set in a battalion command post and on-board a Chinook flying into battle. But it’s not hard to see what didn’t impress the reviewers. The movie consists of three storylines, each told in spurts, that connect thematically in terms of staging a debate about Army strategy in Afghanistan and the life possibilities of young men with and without privilege, but there’s little intertwining of the three storylines, nor much of a plot at all. Instead, in the scenes featuring Redford and those featuring Cruise and Streep there’s lots of snappy fast-talking dialogue in the manner of The West Wing that resolves nothing on the home-front, and a jimmied-up action sequence in Afghanistan is far-fetched, to put it mildly, and which (spoiler alert) does not end triumphantly for two former students of the Redford character. One review says it best for me by calling it “the movie equivalent of an off-Broadway play” that hopes to be saved by the luminance of its cast. I like The West Wing and off-Broadway plays as much as anyone, but movie-goers, to include this one, might also not unreasonably expect more narrative effort and imagination stitching together disparate storylines than Lions for Lambs delivers.

The military episode in Lions for Lambs involves two soldiers who survive a fall out of a Chinook and the effort to rescue them—much like Brothers, which was released two years later. NYU professor Patrick Deer has written a scholarly article that argues that recovery of “missing bodies” is a dominant motif of Post-9/11 narrative; Deer doesn’t discuss Lions for Lambs, but he might have.

Continue reading “Time Now Shorts”

Catch-(20)22

Matthew Komatsu, an Air Force pararescue jumper, has twice now published articles reflecting his love for Joseph Heller’s satirical World War II novel Catch-22. Both pieces argue that Catch-22, great in-and-of-itself, especially resonates for Iraq and Afghanistan vets by accurately reflecting the inanity of military bureaucracy and the self-serving incompetence of senior military officers they themselves observed on deployments. In other words, Komatsu believes that as much as looking back at World War II, Catch-22, published in 1961, anticipates the devolution of America’s military from a world-beating titan to a force expert at perpetuating wars ad infinitum, but never winning them. The proverbial self-licking ice-cream cone….

It’s an argument hard-to-argue with, at least the part that pertains to actual US Army military endeavor in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I encourage you to read both of Komatsu’s articles; if you have served, you will certainly find many parts to which you can relate.

Why ‘Catch-22’ Is The Closest Thing To The Truth About The War

Somewhere in The Great Beyond, Joseph Heller is Having a Bitter Laugh About ‘The Afghanistan Papers’

Not as easily available is an essay on Catch-22 I contributed to a student study-guide anthology published in 2021 by Salem Press. The guide, titled Critical Insights: Catch-22, is part of a series aimed at undergraduates and advanced high-school students. My piece, co-authored with Iraq and Afghanistan vet J. M. Meyer, is titled “Yossarian bleated faintly: Catch-22 and Military Experience in the New Millennium.” In the volume Introduction, editors Laura and James F. Nicosia write, “This essay is an eye-opening contribution by scholars who have first-hand experience in and knowledge of the military.”

Critical Insights Catch-22

My contribution to “Yossarian bleated faintly” is a run-down of reasons Iraq and Afghanistan veterans continue to reference Catch-22 to describe their own wars. I reference Komatsu’s “Somewhere in the Great Beyond” Catch-22 article, and I also explore some of the war-lit authored by vets that clearly pays homage to Catch-22. From there, Meyer mounts a more ambitious, trenchant argument about how Catch-22 relates to larger matters of contemporary culture and political discourse.

There’s no digital version of the chapter available (yet), and it’s still too soon post-publication to just reproduce it for free here, so I’ll summarize my contribution and offer a couple of passages.

On rereading Catch-22 last year, I was struck by how dark and grim much of it is. In my memory were all the funny bits lampooning military absurdity and dysfunction. Also in mind was a notion of the protagonist/anti-hero Yossarian riding above the fray, his anti-authoritarian cleverness keeping him one-step ahead of the madness. That’s there, but there’s a lot I didn’t remember as well, such as how genuinely shaken is Yossarian by what befalls him, to the point, by the end of the novel, of mental instability (an instability that is reflected in increasingly hallucinogenic scenes and episodes, as well as in the prose style). In the essay, I invoke two au courant words, trauma and PTSD, and consider their relevance to Catch-22:

The unpleasant consequence of Yossarian’s psychological turmoil, grounded in moments of real terror in the sky, is trauma, which adds emotional resonance experienced personally to the larger critique of military dysfunction in ‘Catch-22.’

Toward the end of my section, I try to reconcile Yossarian the traumatized war-victim with Yossarian the insubordinate provocateur, and then link those traits to the jaded-and-wounded outlook of many Iraq and Afghanistan junior enlisted and junior officer vets:

His colorful contempt for military bureaucracy and the chain of command, as well as his acuity in knowing how to push the buttons of stuffed shirts and uptight frauds, are generally humorous to behold and arguable safe to indulge in even by soldiers who volunteered for service.

Reconciling the insubordinate mischief-maker with the death-shaken traumatized victim of war is central to understanding Yossarian’s enduring influence, especially among twenty-first century soldiers and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. In response to nonsensical wars, a modern soldier sensibility has emerged that blends elements of Yossarian’s dominant characteristics and and given them contemporary expression, primarily by using humor to convey a righteous moral and intellectual superiority that has brought soldiers to war on ludicrous premises and then ineptly organized itself to fight. The sentiment accounts for the emergence of two distinct cohorts of disgruntled soldiers and junior officers prominent within the modern soldier-and-veteran community. Known respectively as the “E4-Mafia” and the “jaded junior officer,” these unofficial cohorts constitute most evidently the spirit of ‘Catch-22’ in the modern military. The E4-Mafia (or, as they are know in the Marines, “Terminal Lances”; thus the title of Maximilian Uriarte’s satirical comic strip) consists of soldiers in the rank just below that of sergeant who, in the manner of ‘Catch-22”s ex-PFC Wintergreen, claim to be the true agents of military daily duty, adept at pulling strings and making things happen in the name of making the bureaucracy run, while all-the-while possessing jaundiced contempt for the military that makes them defer [obsequiously] to superior officers. The jaded junior officer motif refers to lieutenants and captains exasperated by military rigamarole and incompetent senior officers. Feeling marginalized and unappreciated, veterans of this stripe have turned to memoir, fiction, and the Internet to exact their vengeance….

In other words, ridicule, satire, and laughter serve as dominant modes of expression for soldiers who don’t like what they see, and in fact may be really hurting, but also understand they damn well volunteered for it. I have much more to say on the issue, to include a breakdown of contemporary war lit works that most directly reflect the spirit of Catch-22, but this is all I’m going to give away here. If you really want to read more, and I know you and like you, write me an email, and I’ll share a PDF of the entire piece. Otherwise, Critical Insights: Catch-22 is available for sale online and might be available in your local school or college library.

Critical Insights: ‘Catch-22.’ Edited by Laura Nicosia and James F. Nicosia. Salem Press, 2021.

 

 

 

 

 

Brothers (and Sister-in-Law)

BrothersIn terms of military actualities, the set-up that drives the action of the 2009 film Brothers is intriguing, if not preposterous. On his fourth tour overseas, US Marine Captain Sam Cahill and Private Joe Willis are the only survivors when their helicopter is shot down by the Taliban. Both are quickly taken prisoner, but the Marines unwittingly declare Captain Cahill and Private Willis dead, leaving their wives in grief and despair. The peremptory announcement seems like an egregious breach of military protocol, which would be loathe to declare service members dead in the absence of absolute proof, but is necessary in terms of the plot as it unfolds. Then, while in captivity, Captain Cahill cracks and on orders of the Taliban bludgeons Private Willis to death. This seems excessive, too, not just in terms of what might actually happen but in terms of pinpointing a reason why Captain Cahill is so tormented by guilt when he is rescued and returns home. Such a deed would per force break almost any man, making any semblance of mental equilibrium and re-socialization fraught forever after.

The thing is, it doesn’t take so much to leave soldiers wracked by guilt for their failings while at war; many a less dramatic scenario would do the job, while leaving a fighting chance that their spouses and loved ones can bring them back to health and happiness.

In terms of portrayal of military types and the emotional circuitry that binds Captain Cahill, his wife Grace, and Captain Cahill’s brother Tommy, Brothers is much surer. It helps that Hollywood superstars Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Sam Cahill, Grace Cahill, and Tommy Cahill, respectively, are on top of their games, as are esteemed actors Sam Shepard and Carey Mulligan in smaller roles. Director Jim Sheridan is also a pro, and though there is nothing fancy-dancy about the movie artistry, he tells the story intelligently and compellingly.

Playing a Marine captain, Maguire seems to fulfill the great description of author John Renehan of many military officers as “nerds made good.” Somewhat wimpy in demeanor and too uptight and by-the-book to be a great leader of men (dare I say more Peter Parker than Spider-Man?), he ultimately is not up to the admittedly extraordinary demands placed on him. His wife Grace is a beauty, but she too seems coiled in on herself, admirably protective of her husband, two kids, and station-in-life without perceiving that she has sacrificed a great deal of her vitality and potential to make it all work. Emotional vulnerable in the days after learning that her husband has supposedly died, she is more susceptible than she realizes to the charms of Sam’s black-sheep brother Tommy, a bigger, brawnier, and bolder version of Sam. Tommy and Grace don’t sleep together, but they almost do, and the chemistry is definitely there. When Sam returns from Afghanistan, he not only is roiled by guilt over Private Willis’ death, he recognizes in two seconds that his wife and brother are connected in a way they weren’t before his deployment, which further wrecks his relationship with Grace.

As a family-romance/domestic-drama clothed in war-film garb, Brothers takes smart aim at the troubled veteran motif and intensifies it by setting it within the context of a military family. Brothers has a lot in common with Thank You For Your Service, a 2017 film that also portrays a sensible, caring wife struggling to deal with a husband fucked-up by deployment. But even more so than Thank You For Your Service, Grace’s mixed feelings and actions resemble Mary’s, the lead in Elliot Ackerman’s novel Waiting for Eden. I write about Thank You For Your Service here, and Waiting for Eden here, and I invite you especially to read or reread the post on Waiting for Eden. The novel was very generative of my own thoughts regarding military marriages and romantic triangles, in ways that reflect directly on Grace’s dilemma in Brothers. In a movie nominally about male siblings, the wife/sister-in-law’s tribulations are equally fascinating

Brothers trailer

Generation Kill

Generation Kill 2

Generation Kill, the 2008 HBO seven-part miniseries produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, the two savants behind the massively acclaimed miniseries The Wire, was based on Evan Wright’s 2004 non-fiction book of the same name. Both book and film recount the exploits of the US Marines’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Wright rode as an embedded reporter with 1st Recon, and his account first appeared in Rolling Stone before being extended to book-length. Upon a quick reread of Wright’s book, the mini-series faithfully follows the book in detail and spirit, with many lines of dialogue and scenes transported verbatim from page to screen.

Continue reading “Generation Kill”

Time Now 10th Anniversary

The first Time Now post, reprinted below, was published on June 23, 2012. Things started slowly, and the next post didn’t come until November, 2012, but by 2013 we were off and running. From 2013 through 2018 I published some 35-40 posts a year. I’ve slowed down since, but more posts are coming, rest-assured. No promises though that I’ll keep it going another ten years….

*****

“Time now,” in military radio-speak, refers to the present moment. Most commonly the phrase is used in reports such as, “We’re returning to base, time now,” or, “Request artillery support, time now.” I like its urgency, the way it doesn’t just name but intensifies the temporal dimension of the event to which it refers. Kind of like the way art intensifies the life it represents, so as to make it both more understandable and more deeply felt.

This blog features art, film, and literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I write this post, in June 2012, imaginative representations of the wars have begun to accrue complexity and depth. Still, no site I know of devotes itself to cataloging and discussing these artworks–a great lack in my opinion, since in the final analysis our artists will explain best how the wars were experienced and how they are remembered.

I was an active-duty career Army officer. I served in infantry units at Fort Drum, New York; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and in Korea. In 2008-2009, I was an advisor to Afghan National Army forces in Khowst and Paktya provinces in Afghanistan. You can read about my experiences there in my blog 15-Month Adventure.

Me, at Afghanistan’s Royal Palace, Kabul, November 2008. Be sure to read the graffiti.

Vet Writing Online, cont.

I was happy to be in the Zoom audience this week for a panel discussion featuring Consequence Forum’s Matthew Krajniak, Wrath-Bearing Tree’s Andria Williams, and Military Experience and the Arts’ David Ervin. The event was set-up by Consequence Forum and Matthew hinted at future events, with the goal of making vet-writing journal editors accessible to writers of military-themed fiction, poetry, and essays, while demystifying the submission process.

An extremely worthy goal, imo. I’m often contacted by vet-writers who are unaware of the many outlets online for military, war, and conflict authors (how do they find me first, I wonder). So once more, a roll-call of some of the venues most open to aspiring writers seems appropriate: Not just the aforementioned Consequence Forum, Wrath-Bearing Tree, and Military Experience and the Arts, but also O-Dark-Thirty; War, Literature & the Arts, The Aiming Circle, The War Horse, and The Line—and I’m sure I’m leaving out others.

Everything Matthew, Andria, and David said on the panel is gold, so I highly recommend watching the YouTube video. I have a few speaking parts as well, between the 38:00 and 45:00 minute marks, if you are interested.

Great Andria Williams pull-quote: “They are sending you their imagination, and we have to treat that with respect.”

Quote from my Tweet re this post: “Vet journal editors are not gatekeepers or kingmakers, but care-takers of the war-writing scene.”

Relevant to it all are my opening comments from my AWP22 panel on Veterans Writing Online. There’s not only a mini-overview of the panel subject, but a look back at prescient article from the first Veterans Writing Project issue of O-Dark-Thirty from 2012:

Veterans writing in the 21st century came-of-age at the same time as the digital writing boom generally. The milestones are many, but we might start with the emergence of the soldier blog in Iraq, most prominently Colby Buzzell’s CBFTW (2004) and then later Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom (2007-2008). Predating both, we should mention, is the Iraqi woman blogger known as Riverbend, active from 2003-2007. By 2010, websites dedicated to soldier-writing were emerging as forces to be reckoned with by writers and readers within the war-writing community, as was social media. I remember Matt Gallagher from the podium at the 2010 War, Literature, and the Arts conference pronouncing that he “couldn’t imagine being a war writer today without having an online presence.”

By 2010, two long-standing print war-writing journals, Consequence Forum and War, Literature, and the Arts were both publishing fully online. The full emergence of online journals was to come in the following years: the Veterans Writing Project’s O-Dark-Thirty (2012), The Wrath-Bearing Tree (2013), and Military Experience and the Arts (2014), joined by The War Horse (2016), provided outlets for veteran fiction, poetry, and first-person narrative, as well as essays, artwork, and mixed-genre pieces.

To get a sense of what was going on in the early days, I went back and read the first issue of O-Dark-Thirty, from fall 2012. I was surprised to find an article that not only was on-point about the online writing boom, but was authored by an Army officer, Justin Platt, with whom I once served. The article, titled “The Words I Read,” is told by Jimmy, a young public affairs specialist in Iraq, who recounts a conversation with an embedded journalist. In the scene excerpted below, the journalist berates Jimmy for abandoning hard-copy books and magazines:  

“What do you guys read? Are war books still popular? You know I have written a few-just look [me] up on the internet and you’ll find most of my stuff. Too bad there are so many pirated electronic versions of [my book] out there. I’m just glad I’m not doing this for the money. It’s just sad, that’s all,” Gordon lamented.

We nodded in agreement. I double checked to see that my e-reader was stuffed completely inside my cargo pocket, as to not draw fire. But it was too late.

“I saw your PAO reading an e-book. And you too, Jimmy,” he continued.

“Yes.” I conceded, “we’ve gone over to the dark side…..”

By this time, the age of social media had fully arrived, impossible to ignore, and great fun and exasperating to equal degrees. It quickly came to seem that sites such as Facebook and Twitter were not just adjuncts to writing and publication, but where a heck of a lot of the action was taking place.

Lately, the Covid pandemic has intensified veterans’ writing online commitments. In the age of Zoom, the in-person vet-writing workshop morphed into an online phenomenon, adding one more fillip to a writing life that now seemed to take place almost entirely in the digital realm. Books and journals, workshops and writing conferences still exist, but are more nice-to-have than essential. Or so I’ll propose….

Finally, Charlie Sherpa’s Red Bull Rising blog post on the 2017 AWP conference in Washington DC, recently was brought to my attention. If you want to mourn the days when war-mil-vet writing rode high “in real life,” read the capsule descriptions of the sixteen panels featuring vet and vet-adjacent writers and try not to weep:

Red Bull Rising

Memorial Day Then and Now

I didn’t realize I had written so many posts about Memorial Day or which paid tribute to fallen soldiers until I went back and counted them up. But maybe it was destined to be. I grew up in Arlington, VA, and one of my first summer jobs was cutting grass at the Fort Myer chapel outside the gates of the famous military cemetery. I would have to stop mowing when a funeral took place—sometimes two, three, or four times a day. When that happened, I would sit under a tree and watch and think about the proceedings.

Many years later, I met Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Fenty in the parking lot next to the chapel and we went for an early-morning run. Fenty and I were friends from Fort Drum, and now he was about to deploy to Afghanistan as commander of 3-71 Cavalry. While in Afghanistan Fenty was killed when the helicopter he was riding in crashed while resupplying a remote mountain outpost in Kunar province.

Punk poet-rocker Jim Carroll was famous for a song called “People Who Died.” In it he recounts the names and causes of death of a dozen or more childhood friends who did not survive the tough New York streets of Carroll’s youth. I always liked Carroll plenty, but never that song so much. It seemed to be trying too hard to be clever and sensational. It was frustratingly inconclusive about what we were supposed to make of the deaths of Carroll’s friends. How was it honoring them? Does it glorify their wild, unruly lives, or are we supposed to despair? The title of the song alone seems oddly understated, not equal to the occasion.

But maybe that’s the point. The litany of the dead being both the most and the least we can say.

On this Memorial Day, I remember friends Ted Westhusing, Joe Fenty, David Taylor, and Bill Hecker.

I remember soldiers with whom I served in Afghanistan Kevin Dupont, John Blair, Alex French, Peter Courcy, and Jason Watson.

I remember former students I taught at West Point Dennis Pintor, Todd Lambka, Taylor Force, and Brian Freeman.

2013:

2014:

2015:

2016:

2017:

2018:

2020:

The photograph featured at the top of this post shows Army Captain David Taylor, on the right, standing with another soldier on a hilltop in Kosovo in 2002. Previous to serving with me in Kosovo, then-Lieutenant Taylor was my mortar platoon leader in HHC, 4-325 Airborne Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg. In 2006, now-Major Taylor died in an IED explosion in Iraq. The photograph is by Bill Putnam, who was a public affairs specialist on that deployment to Kosovo and who remains a friend to this day, as well as a frequent contributor to Time Now.

Not entirely unrelated to Memorial Day pondering, I wrote a review of Phil Klay’s collected essays, titled Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War for Task & Purpose:

“My War Just Kept Going”

One of Klay’s themes is that war in Iraq and Afghanistan soon expanded outside the borders of those countries and the associated violence and killing has permeated US domestic life. Sort of a modern variation on the “regeneration through violence” explanation of American history articulated by Richard Slotkin–each successive generation of Americans propagates a renewed cycle of death. In the wake of recent national and international events, the idea seems all too true, unfortunately. Another of Klay’s themes, though, is that commitment to serve is commendable and the sacrifice that service entails is noble. Memorial Day reminds us of the force of the second theme.

UPDATE: Below are two pictures from Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery I took this Memorial Day weekend. Section 60 is where most of the Iraq and Afghanistan vets who are buried in Arlington are buried. Though the pictures here don’t show it, there were many family members and friends paying respect and keeping vigil.

Vet Writing’s Not Dead! AWP22

Outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, site of this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Program conference.

Driving to Philadelphia for this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I wondered what I would find. I was on two panels, one as a speaker and one as moderator, but they were the only two panels in the program that specifically targeted vet writers and war-mil-conflict subjects. Several vet-writing mainstays I know had begged out of attending, and others I hadn’t heard from. There was little buzz on social media—especially ominous since the panel I was moderating—Veterans Online—was fueled by the proposition that much of the action these days in the vet-writing world takes place in the virtual realm. Also distressing, there was no signs-of-participation from Warrior Writers, a Philadelphia-based writing collective I think of as synonymous with Philadelphia vet writing and usually prominent players at AWP. What was up? Even the conference keynote speakers were unknown to me—another sign of that AWP was shaping up to be a curiously-diminished, minor-key affair.

Fortunately, such brooding and misgivings proved very misleading. The site of the conference, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, bustled with writers and writer wannabees of all stripes, including lots of vet-writers and fellow-travelers, old and new. Attendance at my two panels was solid, as these things go, and my fellow panelists were in fine form. Even more heartening, at the book-fair tables dedicated to war-and-vet writing the foot-traffic was steady, as far as I could tell. Every time I stopped by the table of, say, the Wrath-Bearing Tree, Collateral, or the Veterans Writing Project, I ran into a familiar face or met an “emerging” writer, as the new term for literary tyros and aspirants has it. Capitalizing on the high spirits and good cheer, we quickly organized a vet-writers social where everyone had a blast (or at least I did) and various lunches, dinners, readings, and special events channeled the same vibe.

A quick roll call of old-hand war-lit writers in attendance and/or presenting at this year’s AWP includes Adrian Bonenberger, Jerri Bell, Ron Capps, Dario Dibattista, Rebecca Evans, Teresa Fazio, Mariette Kalinowski, Kara Krauze, Abby E. Murray, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, Drew Pham, Suzanne Rancourt, Connie Ruzich, Seth Brady Tucker, Brian Turner, and Jeremy Warneke. Hugh Martin, Olivia Kate Cerrone, and Pamela Hart were also around, according to the program, but unfortunately I didn’t run into them (and apologies for anyone whose name I’ve left out).

As good as it was to hang with old friends, it was also great to meet for the first time at least six writers who were either veterans or were working on fiction featuring veterans, and I know the journal editors working the tables met many more. Good luck to them all, and I’ll mention two who are already in print and whom I highly recommend keeping an eye on:

Brian O’Hare is a former Marine whose short-story collection Surrender will come out this fall. O’Hare is the winner of the Syracuse Veterans Writing Award in 2021, read about him here:

Bettina Hindes is an Army veteran currently living in Germany. Her excellent reminiscence “Adjustment Disorder” can be found in Wrath-Bearing Tree:  

The panel I moderated was titled “Veterans Writing Online: A Field Guide for Negotiating the Digital Writing Sphere.” Soldier blogs, online vet-writing journals, online vet-writing workshops, digital publishing possibilities, and social-media striving for popularity and reputation were our subjects, and to help me explore them were Ron Capps, Kara Krauze, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Teresa Fazio. It was a big subject and we barely got going, but Ron’s, Kara’s, Jennifer’s, and Teresa’s comments were on-point and trenchant and provocative, as I knew they would be. The online print sphere is a new structural element for writers to manage, negotiate, and exploit, and cannot be ignored even if you wanted. No doubt writing for online publication seeps into the bones of the writing itself, but exactly how? Is the medium the message? It seems to me there is a heightened level of performativity and audience awareness at play, but exactly how so remains to be worked out.

I also participated on a panel titled “Family Heritage, Violent History: WWI’s Lost Transversality in War Poetry Today,” organized by Jennifer Orth-Veillon. All of us on the panel presented versions of articles previously published on Jennifer’s fantastic WWrite Blog, selections from which will be published in book form later this year. Listening to poets Seth Brady Tucker and Drew Pham and scholar Connie Ruzich spin word-webs about their connections to World War I and its literary tradition transported me into an extremely pleasant haze of contemplation about the relation of war, words, and history as they percolate in individuals with their own unique experiences and outlooks. For my part, I spoke about poet Aline Kilmer; the highlight was being approached afterward by an audience member (an aspiring vet-writer) who told me that he thought Kilmer’s verse was very “metal.” I laughed, and he wasn’t wrong!

I have fought with stars in their courses

            and dreamed I have won,

I have charged full tilt with my levelled lance

            straight into the flaming sun

And because of the darkness that swallowed me I

            have dreamed that the fight was done.

What to make of this rekindled energy and interest? Not sure, exactly. There was definitely an eagerness to reconnect and get back into circulation on the part of the old hands. There was definitely an eagerness on the part of younger writers to be part of something bigger than themselves. All to the good, and now the question becomes how to keep the party going in Seattle for 2023. I won’t be there, as AWPs so far from my New Jersey home are just “too much,” but there are plenty of possibilities. Two non-mil panels I attended this year seem naturals for adaptation by the vet-writing community.

“Emotional Pacing in the Trauma Narrative” explored literary techniques for framing trauma-based stories so they avoid overwhelming readers with melodramatic excess. The panelists kept it mostly at the level of craft, which was great, but just as interestingly they spoke of the difficulty of life after publication after revealing and recounting harrowing, enormously disturbing private events and thoughts. All aspects of the subject, to my mind, would be a great for exploration by a panel composed of veteran memoirists, if they dare.

“Craft Lessons from the Submission Queue: Writing and Editing Short Fiction” featured the editors of four online journals that publish literary fiction. The editors passed on guidance for successfully placing stories in their journals, while also recounting lessons learned from reading thousands of submissions they have applied to their own writing. The panelists were full of interesting tips, observations, and anecdotes and the huge audience hung on their words as if they were gospel. How cool would it be if Veterans Writing Project, Military Experience and the Arts, Wrath-Bearing Tree, Consequence, The War Horse and/or Collateral teamed up for a similar panel for the war-writing crowd (hint/hint, foot-stomp/foot-stomp)?

Special AWP shout-outs to Ron Capps and Jennifer Orth-Veillon. It was great to see Capps and the Veterans Writing Project back in action and specifically thanks to Ron for forking out the smackers to reserve a two-lane bowling alley at the war-writers social bar where we held an impromptu first-ever War-Writers Bowling Tournament. For her part, Jennifer was my stalwart ally organizing two panels that helped put vet-and-war-writing back on the map at AWP. It was a close-run thing, and victory was never assured, but we did pretty well with it, I’d say, and I don’t think either of us could have done it alone.

Now, onward to Seattle!

Brian Turner!

Coming in October 2022: Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Contemporary Writers on the Lingering Stories of World War I. Edited by Jennifer Orth-Veillon, forward by Monique Brouillet Seefried. MilSpeak Books.

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