Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” had me with its opening lines:
A few weeks ago, Sleed and I loaded onto a sleek tour bus. We filed behind a gaggle of other “wounded warriors” –the term the Army used to refer to us in official memoranda. I guess it’s what we were, but the phrase was too cute to do our ugliness justice.
The second contemporary story I know of to take the plight of wounded, disabled, and disfigured veterans as its subject—Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” is the first—“Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” recounts its narrator Rooster and his best friend Sleed’s participation in an Army-sponsored fishing trip for long-term Walter Reed patients. The tale obviously tips its hat to “Big Two-Hearted River” and other stories published in 1925 in Ernest Hemingway’s great return-from-war collection In Our Time. In “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” Rooster’s face has been horribly scarred and a hand mangled by a bomb in Iraq. Now, seething with anger and regret, he contemplates a life “transformed in a flash I could not remember.” He lashes out against his parents and is prone to fits of rage-induced impulsive behavior, such as biting the head off a rainbow trout he cannot properly fillet.
And Rooster’s the healthy one compared to his friend Sleed, who lost a leg and his private parts in the same blast that injured Rooster. A charismatic and energetic soldier when whole, Sleed is now “Jake Barnes and Ahab rolled into one,” his self-hatred and grouse against the world amplified by the fact that his wife has left him and is now, according to a detective Sleed has hired, having public sex with her new boyfriend: “‘Restrooms, parked cars–my man said he got footage of them in the car outside my baby’s daycare.’”
Spoiling for vengeance, Sleed stalks two teenage girls playing hooky from…. Well, I don’t want to give away the plot details more than I have already. It’s a brutal, ugly tale, but great for all that. Fully imagined and instantly memorable, Rooster and Sleed owe more to Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque purveyors of evil in stories such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” than Hemingway’s stoic Jake Barnes, the emasculated hero of The Sun Also Rises. But lord let’s hope Van Reet really is trying to work the same black comic vein for which O’Connor is famous. If his rendering of the despair and self-loathing of badly-wounded soldiers is meant to be literally true and representative, then we’ve all got a lot to answer for.
According to the Contributors notes in Fire and Forget, Van Reet is a University of Virginia (Wahoo-wah!) drop-out who earned a Bronze Star with “V” Device for action in Baghdad. More power to him in all things.
Fire and Forget is a new collection of war-themed short stories written mostly by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The collection features well-known authors such as Brian Turner, Colby Buzzell, David Abrams, and Siobhan Fallon, as well as group of lesser known veteran authors associated with the New York University Veteran Writers Workshop. Editors Matt Gallagher (author of the war memoir Kaboom and an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America mainstay) and Roy Scranton (a former artilleryman and now a grad student at Princeton) are both members of the Workshop and have also contributed stories to the collection.
The forward to Fire and Forget is provided by Colum McCann—not a vet, but a prominent Irish-American author who has served as mentor for many of the Fire and Forget authors. McCann’s interest in the project is much the same as mine in this blog: the protracted but inevitable emergence of a body of literature by which the wars will accrue their definitive representation and legacy. He writes: “The stories of the wars that defined the first decade of the twenty-first century are just beginning to be told. Television programs, newspaper columns, Internet blogs. We’ve even had a couple of average Hollywood movies, but we don’t yet have all the stories, the kind of re-interpretive truth-telling that fiction and poetry can offer.”
The phrase “fire and forget” is a militaryism that describes missiles that once launched do not require further guidance from their operators to be accurate. Such smart missiles hone in on their targets through the use of laser and infrared optic systems or internal radars. As such, fire and forget missiles have not been weapons especially associated with the IED and dumb bomb-wracked wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so editors Gallagher and Scranton take time to explain how the phrase serves their purpose in other ways. On one hand, Fire and Forget stories, once launched into the world, might catalyze within public consciousness with the unerring aim of a smart missile, alerting readers to what they have not paid enough attention to in regard to the wars. On the other hand, the stories represent catharsis for their authors. Haunted by memories of their war experience, they write, and as they write, they cease to be haunted.
All of Fire and Forget’s stories deserve focused attention, and I’ll give that to them in future posts if my energy permits. Here, though, I’ll attempt just a brief survey. The stories divide into two camps: those that are set in-theater, and those which situate themselves in the States upon the return home. An example of the first is Brian Turner’s “The Wave That Takes them Under,” the war poet’s first published fiction as far as I know. The story of a patrol lost in an Iraq desert sandstorm, the tale dramatizes notions of temporal instability Turner also explores in one of my favorite poems from Here, Bullet, “To Sand.” Another, Roy Scranton’s “Red Steel India” places its characters in a much more mundane deployment experience, that of fighting off hours of endless boredom on duty at a FOB Entry Control Point, where the only excitement consists of seriously strained interactions with Iraqi soldiers, interpreters, and camp workers. Whether portraying the fantastical or the banal, the in-theater tales feature grunts’ eye perspectives on deployment, far from the sterile perspectives recounted in more official histories, memoirs, journalism, and government pronouncements. By such narratives, we begin to feel how the war was experienced by those who in most cases were most vulnerable, without the armor of degrees, age, or rank.
The stories set on the homefront reflect the difficulty so many vets have reestablishing relations with family and loved ones and reintegrating into society. Several feature plots that reunite soldiers who served together overseas; the nostalgia for the camaraderie of deployment is palpable. Quite a few feature violent incidents in the lives of their vet protagonists, ranging from a rage-induced killing of a chicken in Matt Gallagher’s “And Bugs Don’t Bleed” to a drunken smash-up of a fast-food franchise in Colby Buzzell’s “Play the Game” to a grotesque act of public indecency in Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek.” The stories suggest that vets’ most basic problem, stated in the most basic way, is calming the heck down. Siobhan Fallon—not a vet, but the spouse of one—works in a somewhat quieter, more domestic key. Her tale “Tips for a Smooth Transition” updates the ages-old saga of Odysseus’s return to Penelope after the Trojan Wars, complete with the misrecognitions, tests of trustworthiness, and bedroom dramatics of Homer’s original. It portrays an Army officer, home for the third time, whose multiple deployments have turned him into a joke or poor imitation of a husband, not malicious or unfaithful, but Will Ferrell-like in his obliviousness and self-absorption. And yet, his wife, through whose eyes the story is told, is riven by doubts in her own right to judge, since, as we learn, she herself has been less than circumspect while her husband’s been gone. Smart in its observed detail, astute in its psychological insight, and even funny at moments in a way the other stories in Fire and Forget generally are not, “Tips for a Smooth Transition” seems to have the fullest sense of the subtle, as opposed to sensational, ways the wars have wreaked havoc on their participants’ happiness and emotional health.
In closing, for now, hat’s off to all the Fire and Forget authors and editors. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about their stories as I turn them over in my mind in the weeks and months ahead, and I look forward to reading anything the authors publish in the future.
Very few serving US military field-grade officers have written books about their war experience. Only one that I know—Walter E. Piatt–has published poetry. As fate would have it, then-Lieutenant Piatt and I were roommates and fellow platoon leaders in B Company, 5-20 Infantry many years ago. Back then, Piatt was the crown prince of the “Regulars”—the most competent, poised, and physically tough lieutenant in the battalion. He just seemed to have it all together, and was rightfully loved by the brass, admired by peers, and respected by troops. Neither arrogant nor a stick in the mud, he was at the center of whatever fun was to be had and ever ready to turn the most harrowing event into laughter. I don’t know if he was writing poetry when we were roommates, but I knew he had a thoughtful side in addition to everything else.
Obviously destined for Army greatness, Piatt moved quickly up through the ranks. By March 2004 he was the battalion commander of the 2-27 Infantry “Wolfhounds” and had deployed with his battalion to Paktika province, Afghanistan. He since has commanded a brigade and now is an assistant division commander of the 10th Mountain Division. But it wasn’t until the last month or so that I learned that Piatt had published a book called Paktika: The Story of the 2nd Battalion 27th Infantry “Wolfhounds” in Paktika, Afghanistan (2006) that recounts–mostly in poetry–the story of the Wolfhounds’ year in that dangerous province pushed up against the Pakistan border.
Paktika combines short prose passages describing deployment-related events with verse ruminations on the events’ human aspects. The prose passages are worthy of attention in their own right. I particularly enjoyed an account of the Wolfhounds’ first battalion-sized operation against the Taliban, a mission marked by mishaps and unexpected occurrences. Another passage interestingly recounts the Wolfhounds’ participation in the 2004 Afghan election—an event that next to the killing of Osama Bin Laden marks the high water mark in the long war.
But it is the verse that intrigues most. Piatt’s typical poem consists of 2-4 syllable lines arranged without punctuation over the length of a page. Not very interested in subtleties of thought and language, Piatt uses poetry to convey in clear, concentrated terms emotions associated with the responsibilities of command and deployment. One I appreciated (and could relate to, based on my own deployment experience) recounts his anxiety in the wake of the first round of rocket attacks the Wolfhounds were to endure:
On a day
When all felt safe
The first were off
Then seven more
Came crashing in
And for most
This was their first
As they ran
They clung to life
The next few minutes
And the soldier
Realized he was mortal
As the rockets fell
The most surprising and endearing poems in Paktika are those written from the point-of-view of others than Piatt himself. Poems told through the eyes of his wife, his sister, and his Afghan Army counterpart, for examples, demonstrate Piatt’s ability to empathize, to see the mission in terms other than the win/loss calculation of victory. Sometimes this empathetic ability leads Piatt into bouts of self-exploration. “Sergeant on Duty” articulates Piatt’s misgiving that his sympathy for Afghans might be a weakness that disqualifies him from being hard enough to be successful:
The soldier spoke
And I listened
He hated them
He cannot understand
His belief be damned
God could not help
His hatred pours
He is here
These are not men
They are not humans
Incapable of feeling
Of our compassion
The only emotion
He could feel
Then he looked at me
You like them
I struggled to respond
Will not allow
My emotion to speak
For I see
In all of the them
I see the man
Not the differences
Yet the soldier
Struck a nerve
Closer to the truth
Than I wanted it to be
There is not enough hatred
What I came here to do
And in the end
I won’t be strong enough
My fellow man
Such a poem, to me, packs an extraordinarily complex array of emotions and ideas into an extremely compressed space. The Lieutenant Piatt I knew was never afraid to admit he was wrong or that he did not know an answer. Such ability is rare among officers; typically most are anxiety-ridden about revealing doubt or hesitation. But in “Sergeant on Duty” I think Piatt might be worrying a bit too much. In Shakespeare’s great play Henry V, King Henry walks among his troops at night taking measure of their fears and his own. It is a quiet, somber scene, but not a foreboding one. The next day in the battle of Agincourt, Henry leads the English to victory against the French in the face of overwhelming odds.
Could it be similar for Piatt? I think his ability to take others’ views seriously–reflected in the penchant for turning his encounters with them into verse–is a source of his strength. That the strength is there should be no question. The testimony of one of his men, recounted in an Amazon review of Paktika, provides the evidence:
“I had the pleasure to serve under Col. Piatt as a Wolfhound in the Paktika province of Afghanistan. It is an experience I will always treasure. I learned more about myself and the nobility of soldiering in that year than any other. I can say that Col. Piatt is an officer who lives his beliefs and leads by example. He was the soldier with the most “wheel time” and the longest time “outside the wire” in the Battalion. In essence that meant he spent more of our deployment in a vehicle, on the frontiers, in the face of danger than any of the soldiers in his command. This behavior goes a long way to inspire an Infantryman who is tired, scared and homesick. Thanks again Sir, No Fear!”
Paul Wasserman served in Iraq as an Army NCO aircrewman. That terse job description might reflect a job as a helicopter crewchief or gunner, but reading between the lines of his poetry chapbook Say Again All suggests something more esoteric. It seems that Wasserman’s job entailed signal or intelligence support of special operation forces, carried out in planes circling high overhead rather than, say, Chinooks or Blackhawks ferrying ground warriors to and from combat. He brings to the task of portraying such service in poetry master’s degrees in philosophy and comparative literature. He now lives in New York City, part of the thriving veteran artists’ scene there.
Befitting Wasserman’s refined education and dark-side operational experience, Say Again All does not describe his war experience literally or sensationally. Various poems allude high-mindedly to Socrates, Homer, and NYC poetry giant Delmore Schwartz, though pop culture icons such as The Clash and Charles Bukowski are also name-checked. The closest Wasserman gets to a straightforward evocation of his deployment comes in the clever “Fifteen Months, Twenty-Two Days”:
1228.5 flight hours
30 rounds, unfired
15 days rest
1 case of friendly fire in the unit
2 cases of cowardice
1 case of cancer
52 steak nights
1 unauthorized brewery
2 acts of bestiality, witnessed
2 overseas bars, right sleeve.
In most poems, however, Wasserman more subtly explores war and deployment as they profoundly order and reorder his experience of time and space. Say Again All‘s epigraph from Delmore Schwartz reveals that interest: “‘Only the past is immortal.” The theme is returned to in, among many other poems, “The Moon Here is Lower”:
And time is pooling in our eyes
The spill of it burning off noise
Everyone got issued a year in theater
We signed for it while our vaccinations dried
We crush it in our pockets
And let the tunnel-fill fall the length of us
Out over our boots
The way we lift the desert
Sifting an exit
Into the greenless rock and powder
A private act of distance
On daily trips to the airfield
Wasserman’s interest in language is given full play by the magical military lingo that enchants everyone, educated or not, who comes in contact with it. The title Say Again All is radio shorthand for “Repeat everything you just said, I didn’t get it the first time”–a good title for a book that won’t give away all its secrets in one read. In “Dead Wounded Missing,” Wasserman deconstructs the military’s use of the title phrase as a more-than-slightly-crude means of classifying casualties and lost or captured soldiers:
the first two words put together
might be a new way of exhaustion
useful, perhaps for the last time
one is ever exhausted
the growth of language
words to be used once.
Other poems display a keen eye for the surreal or absurdist moments of the war, not the least of them being the incongruity of being an aircrewman who holds master’s degrees in philosophy and literature. In “Artifacts,” Wasserman finds much company in the ranks of the over-educated. He describes a supply sergeant who studies “New Persian,” an MP who uses her leave to go trekking in Spain, and a pilot with a history degree who narrates the history of the Babylonian sites of antiquity over which they fly. “Artifacts” also references Yossarian, the anti-hero protagonist of Catch 22, the great black comedy of Army Air Force service in World War II. The allusion aptly refers to Wasserman’s own airborne perspective. Even total commitment to unit and mission, with life or death at stake, can’t efface the fact that the war is relentlessly experienced socially and personally as efforts to find connection and understanding in the midst of isolation and confusion.
Say Again All is available through Lulu Books, the online self-publishing venue.
Brian Turner dominates conversations about contemporary war poetry, and I will write plenty about Turner in coming posts. But let’s start the blog’s inventory of war-themed poetry with discussion of two other poets, one this post and the second to come. By thinking about their achievement, we can begin to mark the current contours of possibility.
First up is Elyse Fenton, whose Clamor (2010) has won prizes in America and overseas, including the Dylan Thomas Award from the University of Wales for best work in any genre by an author under thirty.
“Clamor” is one of those double-edged words that have two opposing definitions. Just as “cleave” means to both split apart and fuse together, clamor can mean noise and also, in an older archaic definition, silence. The aural doubleness is apt: it expresses the need to speak in conflict with the pressure to remain silent or the struggle to find the right words. Fenton’s husband apparently saw much as an enlisted medic in Iraq, while Fenton, not in the military, remained stateside. Clamor’s poems trace the dual experience of deployment from the vantage point of a couple trying to fathom the unexpected entrance of so much violence, death, injury, pain, and anger into their lives. In many poems, Fenton searches for images and words that stitch together her and her husband’s experiences, geographically separated as they were. Many poems suggest that Fenton poured her nervous energy into gardening, an endeavor that only fitfully proves nourishing. More often the fruit Fenton’s garden yields are blasted images of futility and despair:
Across the yard
each petal dithers from the far pear one white
cheek at a time like one blade of snow into
the next until the yard looks like the sound
of a television screen tuned last night to late-
night static. White as a page or a field where
I often go to find the promise of evidence of you
or your unit’s safe return.
Not surprisingly Fenton’s husband serves as her locus for understanding the inscrutable and horrible war. Sometimes she imaginatively depicts events he experienced in Iraq, as in the poem “Aftermath,” where she writes, “His job was not to salvage / but to bundle the clothes–trash bags full of uniforms / Rorschached in blood.” The event described here is the grisly act of burning the uniform remnants of soldiers killed or wounded, but the aftermath Fenton seems most interested in is her post-deployment relation with her husband. It was he, after all, who volunteered to go, which at one level or another insinuated a rejection of her and which irreversibly bruised the pre-war wholeness of their life together:
No one marries during war,
I’m told and yet I’m married to the thought
of you returning home to marry me
to my former self. The war is everywhere
at once. Each eggplant that I pick
is ripe and sun-dark in its own inviolable
skin. Except there is no inviolable anything
And you’ve been home now for a year.
A poem titled “By Omission” records the strain, reflected as a failure of communication, of a husband so preoccupied by truths he is incapable of sharing that he is driven into speechlessness toward his wife: “…when he said nothing / she knew every silence was a lie he couldn’t tell.” And in return, Fenton confesses her own wartime crimes of the heart: “Forgive me, love, this last // infidelity: I never dreamed you whole” (“Infidelity”). So much resentment, so much silent seething, so much lashing out. So much clamor.
A production of Macbeth I saw last weekend featured modern war trappings such as Hesco barriers and plywood staircases set among crumbled stand-alone stone columns. Anyone who has soldiered in an ancient Iraq or Afghanistan fortress, now blown apart by war and reconstituted using American military building materials, would recognize the look. The actors patrolled the stage with M4s hanging from three-point slings, red dot aiming lasers shining center mass on dog tags jangling on their adversaries’ chests.
“Out, damned spot!” indeed, as Lady Macbeth’s signature line has it. “Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier and afeard?”
So what do you get when you pay Macbeth four hundred years forward and place it in a heavily militarized Eurasian setting? The play’s nods toward clan warfare might seem to foretell the tribal rivalries of Iraq and Afghanistan, but Macbeth’s murderous ambition is so deeply rooted in psychology that the play’s social-historical dimensions barely register. Nor does the homicidal jockeying for power in Shakespeare’s Scotland suggest imperial wrangling for control of semi-sovereign foreign states. Perhaps it could be read allegorically as a commentary on Washington D.C. leadership dynamics, but, again, the play seems way more personal than political.
What Macbeth seems to be about most is what many of Shakespeare’s plays are about: the life after war of a man of combat. When one thinks about it, it’s surprising how often and with such intensity Shakespeare returns to this subject. Macbeth, Richard III, Othello, and Coriolanus, for starters. Shakespeare’s warrior kings rage through civil society like wounded lions let loose at a county fair. Their recklessness, restlessness, easily-pricked pride, propensity for violence, and vulnerability to flattery and blandishment spell bad news to peace and happiness. It’s evil because it looks like evil and does evil, but the prophecies of the witches that infect Macbeth’s psyche suggest not that he makes poor choices or is ethically corrupt, but the inevitability of his destructive behavior.
Macbeth, directed by Paul Kassel, recently closed at the State University of New York-New Paltz’s McKenna Theater.
Many veterans want to be writers or filmmakers, while others aspire to be photographers or painters. But few, I’m guessing, dream of becoming ballet dancers or directors of contemporary dance troupes.
Veteran artists use their art to explore and comment on their war experiences. But how do you tell a war story using dance?
Roman Baca, the director and manager of the Exit12 Dance Company, is a USMC veteran of Iraq. Prior to joining the Marines, he was a ballet dancer and instructor. Below is his account of how he started Exit12 :
Five years ago, 2007, I was still enlisted in the Marines, and fulfilling my end of contract in the IRR, Inactive Ready Reserve. I had purchased a condo in Connecticut as an investment, and had a secure job as a CAD technician for a firm that manufactured stormwater chambers. Five years ago in February was the day that my girlfriend Lisa, who is now my wife, sat me down in my condo and told me that things were not ok. She told I was different from serving in Fallujah and that she couldn’t handle my mood-swings, lack of purpose, anxiety, and depression. She challenged me to make a change in my life, and asked me what I would do if I could do anything in the world. I told her I would start a dance company, that it was something I always wanted to do, thinking that she would call me an idiot and move on. Instead she said, “Then why don’t we do it?” So we, along with a ballerina she knew from before, started working on my choreography at a dance studio in NYC. That studio wasn’t far from exit 12 off of FDR drive, so to be true to our small beginnings, we called ourselves Exit12.
Baca’s statement speaks to the desire to serve, related to the desire to see combat, those strong compulsions that grip so many young men and women of all backgrounds, including dancers. It also speaks to the love and wisdom of his wife, who recognized how different and unhappy Baca was upon his return from Iraq, confronted him about it, and stood by him while helping him reach a better place. Third, Baca’s statement raises the notion that art is both therapeutic and a reason-for-being.
Exit12 uses dance to explore martial themes and contemporary events marked by hostility and violence. A dance titled “Conflicted” addresses US military attitudes toward women in the Muslim countries in which they have been fighting. Another, “Re-E-volution,” dramatizes the Arab Spring revolts. Ambitious subjects, certainly, and as one watches the mind contemplates the link between theme and action. Dance, it seems to me, is both highly literal and highly suggestive. Deprived of words, the dancers convey meaning through gesture and pantomine. Deprived of words, the swirl of movement and sound creates space for speculation and imagination.
Significant stagings of plays about Iraq and Afghanistan are accumulating. The Great Game, a compendium of 12 short plays exploring Afghanistan history from antiquity to the current period, opened in London in 2009, went on tour in America in 2010, and has continued to be performed in various venues since. Robin Williams starred in 2011’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a play set in the post-invasion Iraq of 2003. Blood and Gifts, about Cold War battles for influence in Afghanistan in the 1980s, ran at the Lincoln Center in New York City over the 2011-2012 winter season.
Last summer, I had a chance to see a less known but still interesting production called Home of the Soldier. Written by Ben Cunis and staged by the Synetic Theater, an experimental troupe based in Arlington, VA, Home of the Soldier portrays US soldiers in training and on deployment to an unspecified foreign country. Iraq and Afghanistan are never mentioned, but the hyper-edgy staging make it pretty clear that the play has our contemporary wars in mind. On deployment, the soldiers’ camaraderie and ethics are challenged by the complexities of modern war. The play was wonderful to watch. Light, sound, and set were terrific. The young, lithe actors were charismatic as hell. A scene that portrays an IED explosion actually rung true in a way that I wasn’t prepared for at all. In most ways, then, Home of the Soldier was up to the challenge of portraying war, even in a highly stylized way featuring electronic music, athletic dance, and multi-media visual effects.
The plot, however, was a little loopy. Besides depicting the loss of innocence of its protagonists—a war story cliché–it involved a weird and implausible amalgam of father-son Oedipal dynamics and a Hurt Locker-style individual venture outside the wire to help innocent noncombatants. I take its interest in showing US soldiers in more personal contact with local nationals than military missions typically allow to be a theme that writers and artists are attracted to. Perhaps they feel it is THE story that needs to be told, or perhaps the story with the most dramatic potential.
I don’t think these things are true, though, in part because the shape of deployment makes them unfathomable. Soldiers experience war most intensely in human terms on FOBs in their relations with other soldiers; outside the wire they operate as teams and units and their interactions with local civilians are highly impersonal, business-like, and fleeting. Home of the Soldier’s effort to personalize an engagement with individual foreign citizens might represent a critique of how we actually have waged our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it doesn’t jibe with how most of the 100s of thousands of soldiers who have deployed have actually experienced them.
So, if no story yet that I know of has portrayed or even could portray a realistic relationship with an Iraq or Afghanistan citizen over the course of a soldier’s deployment, what are some other possibilities? Well, no writer yet has told the story of a unit embarked on a mission to accomplish something interesting or important. No one yet has explored the nuances of squad dynamics or brought an intense leader-led relationship into the highest relief. No one yet has told the story of a unit over the period of its deployment, with all the individual and group tales that would mark its deployed life. Even the memoir and historical record of these things is scant.
The general problem is that of creating a plausible and compelling storyline to animate a fictional representation of deployment “in theater” (meaning not in the playhouse, but the Iraq/Afghanistan area of operations). Literature, drama, and film so far have centered on exploration of psychology and emotional affect and political implication. These stories and artworks do well with scene, vignette, incident, mood, and idea, but their narrative drive has been feeble. They struggle at the level of time and duration and suspense–the representation of emotional lives and interpersonal relationships under pressure to change.
One way to illustrate this is to examine, quickly, how writers have sought to portray soldiers’ romantic relationships. There’s got to be a girl or guy, right, but what’s the story to tell? The romantic life of real deployed soldiers is mediated through electronic technology such as Skype, email, social media, and chat. It might also take the shape of crushes on or even illicit affairs with fellow soldiers. Each of these options is a stunted, malnourished approximation of a real relationship, hard to be traced with the richness of experience and impression that characterizes and energizes narrative. A quick synopsis of the romantic subplots of some war fiction reveals the extent to which authors must contort their stories to capture the narrative power of romance:
Siobhan Fallon has written one story, “Camp Liberty,” about a soldier who develops feelings for a female interpreter. It’s a great story and actually not an impossible scenario at all. In “Inside the Break,” a wife back home puts the kabosh on her soldier-husband’s fling with another soldier on his FOB. But other than those two stories, Fallon trains her eye on the relationship of soldiers and spouses after deployment.
Ben Fountain, in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, has his hero, back in the States, fall for a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader who, amazingly enough, reciprocates his attention. Totally crazy, but also totally awesome how well Fountain pulls it off.
Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds portrays an unconsummated relationship of a male soldier with a female soldier. Also very plausible, but in The Yellow Birds the relationship is so faint as to be more a fantasy than an actuality.
I haven’t read David Abrams’ Fobbit, but if it’s as good and funny as everyone says it is, it will hold up the romantic and erotic circuitry of FOB-life for satirical description and evaluation. I’m looking forward to finding out. In the meantime, this Washington Post opinion piece by a woman vet about sex in a war zone hints at some possibilities:
Benjamin Busch is a Vassar graduate and two-time veteran of USMC tours in Iraq. Now out of the service, he has proven a dynamo of artistic production, most if it directly and I suspect all of it implicitly related to his war experience. He’s acted in TV series such as Generation Kill and The Wire, directed several short films, and written a memoir titled Dust to Dust. He’s the son of novelist Frederick Busch, whose influence weighs heavy on his mind in Dust to Dust. Father-son relationships get played out in lots of war literature, which I plan to document in upcoming posts. For now, I’ll just say that perhaps Busch gets his amazing productivity from his father, who published at least 16 novels. Or maybe it’s a Marine thing.
I haven’t read any of Frederick Busch’s novels, but Benjamin Busch might get his whimsical yet cerebral style from his father, too. That quality certainly characterizes the photographs in The Art in War, a book of snaps taken during his Iraq tours. In the book, Busch writes short explanations for each photograph. In public performance, as he projects his pictures Busch reads the written commentary in a way that I find mesmerizing. An example of Busch’s one-two image-word punch:
I went into a building near the entrance of an abandoned amusement park to take a picture of Mickey Mouse that was painted on a window from the inside. As I focused the lens on the series of American cartoon characters, a Marine appeared in the missing window that I had come through. There is an innocent wonder in his expression and despite his weapons and combat equipment he seems to be what he is, young and misplaced. An American child grown into armed maturity who still looks into the room, empty aside from me, for something that he expects to recognize. To see an Iraqi interpretation of an American icon next to the reality of American occupation made this photograph important to me. In the window beside Mickey is a cartoon image of an Indian, our Native American. This makes the triptych even more powerful as our own nation, America, began as an occupation of theirs.
Another, not so whimsical, but also reflective of Busch’s sensitivity to the material artifacts that structure and define our lives:
I caught this image in an evidence examination room in the Al Anbar Criminal Investigations Building. It had been abandoned for over a year and these plaster casts of feet from crime scenes had been moved onto a couch as former Iraqi police had sifted the room for valuable items. It is one of the most important photographs that I have ever taken in that, in the absence of a single person, it is completely human. I seek imagery that proves human presence without relying on the presence of people. The recent hand print in the dust on the back of the couch made this image speak to past, present and evidence of what is uniquely human.
The notion of imagery that “proves human presence without relying on the presence of people” returns me to an idea I introduced earlier: that Busch’s art, even when it doesn’t explicitly reflect martial images and themes, is about war. I like toying with this idea in relation to lots of artistic production of the 2000s. For here, I’ll suggest that Busch’s wonderful short film Bright (2011) is one such work that can be interpreted in the context of our nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though it doesn’t mention them. In Bright, actor Eric Nenninger plays a young white man so traumatized by an unspecified event that he is not just afraid of the dark but darn near paralyzed in life, too. He lives in a brightly lit house with an older black blind man—played by Robert Wisdom—who seems to do better coping with his disability than his housemate. Their post-trauma issues play out in a plot that evokes a national storyline set in motion by 9/11, and perhaps Busch’s personal journey, too.
Tim Hetherington was the British photojournalist who collaborated with Sebastian Junger on the making of Restrepo, the documentary of life on a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Later, in 2011, Hetherington was killed in Libya during the civil wars there. His pictures that interest me most are those taken “inside the wire”—soldiers lounging about, roughhousing, or sleeping in their forlorn combat outposts. The times in-between the patrols and other missions that take them “outside the wire” into the much more dangerous open spaces.
The two pictures below generate impressions and bring back memories. The first presents a study in shades and textures of brown:
Considered as a slice of deployed life, the photo strikes a nerve that those who haven’t served might not understand completely. In the Army, “uniform discipline” is a big deal. The idea is that it is important for soldiers to adhere to uniform standards—everyone at all times in the prescribed uniform. To uniformity zealots, that soldiers are allowed to idle about shirtless in the daytime is probably the reason things aren’t going so well in Afghanistan on the grand scale. The breakdown of uniform standards, the thinking goes, is a clear indication of a sloppy, badly-led unit. More than half believing this sentiment myself, I never let my soldiers in Afghanistan be “out of uniform” in my presence or when they were outside the wire, conducting missions, and otherwise representing the unit. Be that as it may, the photo speaks more directly to another aspect of the war experience. The happy soldiers suggest that, death and petty uniform policies aside, life on a combat outpost was a man’s man’s idyll of guns, muscles, and tattoos. Smoking and joking, they wait for the next battle to begin.
This second picture reflects a more homely moment in outpost life:
Everything about it is characteristic: the low light, the wood bunk, the “poncho liner” blanket, the gear and water bottles stewn about, the blue bedding and green white-flecked tiles—apparently standard issue across Afghanistan. The bare feet adding poignancy to it all. In the first picture, the soldiers laugh by day, stripped nearly naked. In the second, the soldier, contorted and not looking very comfortable at all, sleeps at night with his uniform on.