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: 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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’ novelThe Yellow Birds, Klay’s story “Psychological Operations,” and Gallagher’s novelYoungblood. The first passage, unfortunately for fans of contemporary war-fiction, excoriates Gallagher’s 2011Atlanticmagazine 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 ofUS 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 (theFM 3-24chapter) 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.”
TheFM 3-24discussion leads to a damning argument about contemporary war fiction: “The thesis of the McFate-authored chapter ofField 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, asThe Yellow Birds, “Psychological Operations,” andYoungblood 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 seriously ad hominem 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.
In late 2013 I received an email from Roy Scranton, whom I didn’t know at the time, inviting me to join him on a vet-writing panel at the 2014 Association of Writers and Writing Program conference in Seattle. I had never heard of “AWP,” as it’s called, but I soon learned it was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, conferences in America for authors of creative literature—memoir, fiction, and poetry. I did not think of myself as a writer in that way, but I also didn’t say no to Scranton.
That began a streak of five years where I attended AWP, each after the first in the capacity as organizer of panels dedicated to giving voice to war-and-mil writers. Each conference brought a slew of memories and new friendships, acquaintances, and contacts, as well a handful of titles purchased from the tables at AWP’s mammoth book-fair. Also, beginning with Minneapolis, and continuing with LA, DC, and Tampa, I organized a war-writers’ social so we could all meet and have a few, which was fun for me and seemed to be appreciated by others.
A reflection-essay about the highlights and the connective strands awaits, while here I only list the writers with whom I presented and repost my Time Now write-ups of each event.
Seattle 2014: Phil Klay, Hillary Plum, Roy Scranton
I wasn’t able to attend AWP 2019 in Portland or AWP 2020 in San Antonio, and now I won’t be attending the online AWP 2021. I understand AWP 2022 will be in Philadelphia, which is an easy drive for me and hopefully will be in-person. Maybe time for a return?
The Wrath-Bearing Tree website offered me a chance to host their podcast this month and I wasn’t about to say no. I asked my friend Patrick Deer, the head of New York University’s Cultures of War symposium, if he would join me in talking to Matt Gallagher about Gallagher’s Empire City, a dystopian novel that presciently portrays a dysfunctional America wracked by endless war-faring, rampant militarism, and dueling tribes of veterans. Deer said “yes,” Gallagher said “yes,” and so off we went. Give us a listen please, and no problem if you fast forward to passages that interest you most:
Matthew Komatsu reviews Empire City for The Wrath-Bearing Tree here.
Peter Lucier’s reviewof Empire City for The Strategy Bridge is also recommended.
Matt Gallagher is the author of Kaboom (2010), Youngblood (2016), and Empire City (2020). With Roy Scranton, he is the editor of the veterans-fiction anthology Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (2013).
Patrick Deer is Associate Professor of English at New York University and the author of Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (2009). His current book projects are titled Deep England: Forging British Culture After Empire and Surge and Silence: Understanding America’s Cultures of War.
Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades” can be found in anthology The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War (2016), edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner.
Thanks to Adrian Bonenberger and The Wrath-Bearing Tree for everything they do.
2020 saw the continuing emergence of a vibrant cohort of veteran fiction-writers formed by war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Phil Klay’s Missionaries, Matt Gallagher’s Empire City, and Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black and White solidified their authors’ positions on the top of the war-writing mountain, as defined by major publishing contracts, critical acclaim in high-profile venues, and substantive ancillary writing opportunities. Odie Lindsey’s Some Go Home and Jessie Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours announced that two more war-writing scene vets were also back in action with something to say. Maximillian Uriarte’s graphic novel Battle Born: Lapus Lazuli did not receive the acclaim or the popularity of his most excellent White Donkey or Terminal Lance cartoons, but riches lie waiting exploration by alert readers. Likewise with Perry O’Brien’s Fire in the Blood, significant, if for nothing else (but not just), because it’s new work by yet-one-more vet-author first launched into print by the seminal 2013 Fire and Forget anthology.
Equally notable, from my point-of-view, has been the continued or even re-energized vibrancy of the online vet-writing scene. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention for a few years, but for whatever reason, pandemic or otherwise, this year I’ve been frequently entertained and often impressed by the vet stories and verse I’ve read online in venues such as The Wrath-Bearing Tree; Military Experience & the Arts; War, Literature & the Arts; and 0-Dark-Thirty. In the same vein, the anthology of Line of Advance award-winning poetry and prose Our Best War Stories is full of striking stories and fresh voices that I mostly missed upon their release, going back to 2016. The divide between professional and amateur vet-writing is a thing, but cross-boundary pleasure and pollination are everywhere possible.
Small and indie presses help bridge the divide between professional publishing realm and amateur online authorial ranks (does an analogy to distinctions separating Special Operations, Regular Army, and National Guard troops work here?). I’ve just got my hands on two small-press novels, Brett Allen’s Kilroy Was Here, about war in Afghanistan, and Travis Klempan’s Have Snakes, Need Birds, set in Iraq, and am looking forward to reading them.
New poetry was scarcer in 2020. Volume-length works include Colin Halloran’s American Etiquette and Phil Metres’ Shrapnel Maps, neither of which directly portray fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, though they seem extensions of previous work by their authors that did.
The only 2020 movie I’m aware of about Iraq and Afghanistan is The Outpost, directed by Rod Lurie, about “the battle of Kamdesh” (COP Keating) in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, in 2009. The Outpost joins two excellent episodes of the Netflix series Medal of Honor in recounting the heroics of the soldiers who fought that day.
A reason for worry in 2020 was the low-profile or absence of many veteran-authors whose early works delighted and promised much. Yes, the gestation period for new writing can be long, but I’m not even hearing peeps and blips signaling activity from authors whose voices I admire and miss….
I’m also curious how the next round of new fiction, poetry, and film portrays the continuing cultural reverberations of the post-9/11 Forever Wars. Taking war to Iraq and Afghanistan seems now an even worse idea than it was at the time, and the execution of the wars has been, if anything, worse than their intent and design. Even worse than worse, many veterans are full of atrocious ideas fervently held about what their veteran status entitles them to and what their deployments have taught them. I’m not sure that fiction and art can do much in the face of such “passionate intensity,” as Yeats called it, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try.
Anyway, here’s the list. I haven’t included new works such as Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black and White that don’t directly portray scenes set in Iraq or Afghanistan, while I include those such as Phil Klay’s Missionaries, where deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan serve as a significant back-story to the main action. If I’m missing anything let me know; additions and corrections are easy. New entries are bolded.
Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction
Bob Kornheiser, Crossing the Wire (2004) Nicholas Kulish, Last One In (2007) Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008) David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010) Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011) Benjamin Buchholz (Army), One Hundred and One Nights (2011) Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011) David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012) Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012) Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012) Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013) Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013) Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013) Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013) Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013) Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013) J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) Katey Schultz, Flashes of War (2013) Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013) Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014) Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014) Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014) Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014) Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014) Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014) Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014) Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014) Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015) Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015) Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015) Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015) Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015) Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015) Jonathan Raab (Army), Flight of the Blue Falcon (2015) John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015) Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015) Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015) Susan Aspley, Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town (2016) The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger (Army) and Brian Castner (Air Force), eds. (2016) Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016) Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016) Tom King and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol 1: Bang. Bang. Bang.(2016). Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016) Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016) Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016) Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016) Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016) Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016) Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016) Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016) David Abrams (Army), Brave Deeds (2017) Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Dark at the Crossing (2017) Helen Benedict, Wolf Season (2017) Caleb Cage (Army), Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2017) Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), The Confusion of Languages (2017) Tom King (CIA) and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (2017) Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. (Army), The Chords of War (2017) Brian Van Reet (Army), Spoils (2017) Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Waiting for Eden (2018) Jon Chopan, Veterans Crisis Hotline (2018) Raymond Hutson, Finding Sergeant Kent (2018) Kathleen J. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018) Will Mackin (Navy), Bring Out the Dog (2018) Stephen Markley, Ohio (2018) Ray McPadden (Army), And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018) Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields (2018) Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018) Nico Walker (Army), Cherry (2018) Adam Kovac (Army), The Surge (2019) Katey Schultz, Still Come Home (2019) Amy Waldman, A Door in the Earth (2019) Brett Allen (Army), Kilroy Was Here (2020) Phil Klay (USMC), Missionaries (2020) Travis Klempan (Navy), Have Snakes, Need Birds (2020) Odie Lindsey (Army), Some Go Home (2020) Perry O’Brien (Army), Fire in the Blood (2020) Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), Battle Born: Lapus Lazuli (2020)
Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry
Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005) Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005) Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006) Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008) Frances Richey (Army mother), The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (2008) Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010) Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010) Frances Richey (Army mother), Voices of the Guard (2010) Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010) Allan Gray (Army), Overwatch (2011) Tom Sleigh, Army Cats (2011) Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012) Abby E. Murray, Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier’s Wife (2012) Jason Poudrier (Army), Red Fields (2012) Seth Brady Tucker (Army), Mormon Boy (2012) Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012) Charles Bondhus, All the Heat We Could Carry (2013) Stanton S. Coerr (USMC), Rubicon (2013) Kerry James Evans (Army), Bangalore (2013) Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013) Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013) Chuck Rybak, War (2013) David R. Dixon (USMC), Call in the Air (2014) Frederick Foote (Navy), Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry of War (2014) Gerardo Mena (Navy), The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters (2014) Seth Brady Tucker (Army), We Deserve the Gods We Ask For (2014) Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014) Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers (2015) Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015) Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015) Victoria Kelly (spouse), When the Men Go Off to War (2015) Philip Metres, Sand Opera (2015) Tom Sleigh, Station Zed (2015) Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015) Paul David Adkins (Army), Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath (2016) Jonathan Baxter (Army), The Ghosts of Babylon (2016) Lance B. Brender (Army) and C. Rodney Pattan (Army), In Cadence (2016) Brock Jones (Army), Cenotaph (2016) Kim Garcia, Drone (2016) Nicole Goodwin (Army), Warcries (2016) Karen Skolfield (Army), Frost in the Low Areas (2016) Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Uniform (2016) Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only) Paul David Adkins (Army), FM 101-5-1 MCRP 5-2A: Operational Terms and Graphics (2017) Eric Chandler (USAF), Hugging This Rock (2017) Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Dots & Dashes (2017) Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Sweet Insurgent (2017) Pamela Hart (Army mother), Mothers Over Nangarhar (2018) Benjamin Hertwig (Canadian Army), Slow War (2017) Lynn Marie Houston, Unguarded (2017) Hugh Martin (Army), In Country (2018) Shara Lessley (DOD civilian spouse), The Explosive Expert’s Wife (2018) Abby Murray (Army spouse), How To Be Married After Iraq (2018) Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Permanent Change of Station (2018) Graham Barnhart (Army), The War Makes Everyone Lonely (2019) Abby E. Murray (Army spouse), Hail and Farewell (2019) Nomi Stone (DOD contractor), Kill Class (2019)
Iraq and Afghanistan War Film
In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007) Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007) Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield, director (2007) Body of War, Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, directors (2008) The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008) Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008) Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008) Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (HBO) (2008) The Objective, Daniel Myrick, director (2008) Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009) Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009) The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009) Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010) Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011) Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012) Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013) American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014) Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014) The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014) Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014) Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015) A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015) Hyena Road, Paul Gross, director (2015) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016) Blood Stripe, Remy Auberjonois, director (2016) Mine, Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro, directors (2016) Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Clement Cogitore, director (2016) Nobel, Per-Olav Sorensen, director (Netflix) (2016) War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016) Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016) Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, director (2017) Megan Leavey, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director (2017) Sand Castle, Fernando Coimbra, director (Netflix) (2017) Thank You For Your Service, Jason Hall, director (2017) The Wall, Doug Liman, director (2017) War Machine, David Michod, director (Netflix) (2017) The Yellow Birds, Alexandre Moors, director (2017) 12 Strong, Nicolai Fuglsig, director (2018) The Kill Team, Dan Krauss, director (2019) Official Secrets, Gavin Hood, director (2019) The Report, Scott C. Burns, director (2019) The Outpost, Rod Lurie, director (2020)
For the last year I’ve been a member of a civilian-military reading group sponsored by a local community college. The formal name of the group is “No Man’s Land: Dialogues on the Experience of War.” The veterans in the group represent all branches of service and periods of service, divided evenly between Vietnam, post-Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan. The civilians for the most part are associated with the school, either as students or faculty. There’s about a 50/50 split between men and women. Last year we met in person, while this past fall we’ve met by Zoom. During our in-person sessions, we averaged between 15 and 20 participants. Online, it’s been five to ten.
The stories we discussed this fall are below.
Thom Jones, “The Pugilist at Rest.” Jones served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, but never fought in Vietnam. After years of anonymous drift, he hit it big in 1991 when The New Yorker published “The Pugilist at Rest,” about a former Marine, now old, contemplating how violence has shaped his life. The title refers to a Greek statue of a boxer that serves as the artistic inspiration for the narrator’s reflections on boot camp, Vietnam, his own boxing exploits, and the epilepsy about which we learn he is about to undergo brain surgery to cure. Asked about what it takes to make one’s literary debut in The New Yorker, Jones is reported as saying, “Make your story so good they can’t say no.” Oh yea, The Pugilist at Rest definitely punches hard.
Siobhan Fallon, “The Last Stand” and “Gold Star.” Both stories feature Kit Murphy, an Army junior enlisted soldier back from Iraq with a leg mangled from an IED explosion that killed his squad leader Sergeant Shaeffer. In “The Last Stand,” we witness the end of Murphy’s marriage to his high-school sweetheart Helena. In “Gold Star,” Murphy pays his respects to Sergeant Shaeffer’s widow. Full of wonderful detail regarding modern military life, and as tender as tales featuring wounded vets riding barroom bucking broncos and widows shopping in the commissary on payday can be, the twinned stories point to the lonely despair that comes when war dishes out its full measure of pain, damage, loss, and heartbreak.
Philip Caputo, “Lines of Departure.” Caputo is an old pro whose long career as a respected author and journalist after service as a Marine officer in Vietnam would seem to be the model for the Matt Gallaghers, Phil Klays, and Elliot Ackermans of our day. In this late-life tale about a meet-up between Vietnam vets and Iraq/Afghanistan vets at a veterans’ retreat, we get a sense of the quiet wisdom and eloquence that might await GWOT’s literary stars. Caputo’s narrator, a former correspondent for the Marines in Vietnam, is deeply ambivalent about much, especially the prospect that the unspeakable horrors of war can be communicated, let alone be recovered from. In the story, the divide between the Vietnam and GWOT vets looms large, at least as large as the oft-mentioned divide between civilians and veterans, and yet, and yet…. things happen.
Last spring we read and discussed Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,”Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” Jacob Siegel’s “Smile, There are IEDs Everywhere,” and Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train.” We were set to host a visit by Brian Turner when the pandemic shut us down. In two separate off-shoot groups, we discussed Phil Klay’s “Prayer in the Furnace” and Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Nada.”
Overall it’s been great. Everyone speaks, no one dominates, everyone cocks their ear to listen. The veterans explain military terms and relate how they connect to various aspects of the stories. The civilians offer perspective and insight born of their own experiences. It’s always interesting to see what the folks who haven’t served are drawn to within the stories, and often, even usually, it’s they who see deepest into the emotional and ethical twists presented by the narrators, leaving the vets in the room, or this one, anyway, sometimes taken aback, even aghast, that we’ve become so accustomed, even blithe, about the implications and consequences of military culture and mindsets, to say nothing of war, that are revealed so stunningly in the tales. And I’m not just talking about damage done to other people, or abstractly, either, if you know what I’m saying. Each meeting feels like a journey, and at the end, I feel like I’ve learned something significant about the story, the author of the story, the others in the room, and myself.
I encourage everyone to seek out stories about men and women who have seen war, and to find good people to talk about them with.
The discussion group is hosted by Bergen Community College in northern New Jersey. I built a website to support our group, which you can find here. Check it out, please–there’s pages on all the stories I’ve listed above and many more, and I offer more information about the program’s goals and organizers. Thank you Bergen Community College for inviting me to participate, and thank you National Endowment of the Humanities’ Dialogues on the Experience of War program for sponsoring.