Archive for the ‘Art and War’ category

Veterans Day Iraq and Afghanistan War Movie Guide

November 8, 2019

A still from 2018’s 12 Strong: The Declassified Story of the Horse Soldiers.

Just in time for Veterans Day weekend binge-watching, or binge-reading, here are links to all Time Now posts that review movies about twenty-first century war in Iraq and Afghanistan. No Generation Kill, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, or 12 Strong, unfortunately, because I’ve yet to write on them. Also, no Captain Phillips, Act of Valor, or 13 Hours, for the same reason and because they’re not set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Finally, no Jarhead, since it’s about the Gulf War, nor the Jarhead sequels, because either their location is indeterminate or I haven’t watched them yet. Still, there’s plenty more to keep you entertained. What will I be watching? Generation Kill again, and I hope to finally get to 12 Strong.

Sand Castle (2017). US Army soldiers struggle to complete a civil affairs project in Iraq. Starring Nicholas Hoult as Private Matt Ocre.

Thank You for Your Service (2017). US Army Iraq veterans cope with PTSD after leaving the service. Starring Miles Teller as Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann.

War Machine (2017). An idiosyncratic US Army general takes charge of the war in Afghanistan. Starring Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon.

The Yellow Birds (2017). Two US Army soldiers are tormented by the death of a third in Iraq. Starring Alden Ehrenreich as Private John Bartle. Also discussed at length here.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016). An unlikely Iraq War hero is feted by the American public. Starring Joe Alwyn as US Army Specialist Billy Lynn.

Nobel (2016). The long reach of war in Afghanistan follows Norwegian soldiers home after deployment. Starring Aksel Hennie as Lieutenant Erling Riiser.

War Dogs (2016). Two in-over-their-heads arms entrepreneurs try to make it big selling ammo to the Afghan National Army. Starring Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli and Miles Teller as David Packouz.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016). A female journalist parties hard while exposing problems with the US military effort in Afghanistan. Starring Tina Fey as Kim Barker.

Hyena Road (2015). Canadian soldiers debate whether counterinsurgency operations or combat action is the path to victory in Afghanistan. Starring Paul Goss as Captain Pete Mitchell and Rossif Sutherland as Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders.

A War (2016). The long reach of war in Afghanistan follows Danish soldiers home after deployment. Starring Pilou Asbaek as Commander Michael Pedersen.

American Sniper (1) (2014). A Navy SEAL at first excels in battle in Iraq but eventually cracks under the stress of repeated tours. Starring Bradley Cooper as Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle. American Sniper (2)

Fort Bliss (2014). A female US Army sergeant, a battlefield hero in Afghanistan, fights for respect on return to the States. Starring Michelle Monaghan as Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann.

Lone Survivor (2013). A Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan goes awry. Starring Mark Wahlberg as Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell.

Zero Dark Thirty (1) (2012). A bold female CIA agent leads the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Starring Jessica Chastain as “Maya.” Zero Dark Thirty (2)

Green Zone (2010). A swashbuckling US Army officer fights not just insurgents in Iraq, but enemies within his own ranks. Starring Matt Damon as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller.

The Messenger (2009). Two US Army soldiers notify next-of-kin of loved ones’ deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Starring Woody Harrelson as Captain Tony Stone and Ben Fisher as Sergeant Will Montgomery.

The Hurt Locker (2008). A cocky US Army bomb disposal expert wages war in Iraq on his own terms. Starring Jeremy Renner as Sergeant First Class William James.

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Postscript: After publishing the post above, I read the following in Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In, a 2007 novel narrated by an embedded journalist assigned to a Marine unit at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A Marine named Martinez opines on whether reporters should carry and fire weapons when attached to a unit going into combat:

“I’ve seen We Were Soldiers, with Mel Gibson,” Martinez continued. “That reporter said the same thing. When the time cam, he started popping like his name was Dirty Harry.” A civilian stateside might feel inadequate for imagining war in terms of movies. After he lived with a Marine rifle company, that feeling would vanish. Everything was related in terms of movies, Braveheart and Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket, and with the reverence reserved for canonical texts, Black Hawk Down. It said a lot for the movie that Marines would hold a film about Army Rangers in such high regard. If a reporter had shot people in We Were Soldiers, by the Marine logic, it must be so.

War Fiction: Benjamin Buchholz’s One Hundred and One Nights

November 3, 2019

US Army veteran Benjamin Buchholz’s 2011 novel One Hundred and One Nights’ first-person narrator is an unlikely Iraqi participant in the war against America in the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Abu Saheeh (his name a pseudonym meaning “Father Truth” in Arabic) is a middle-aged doctor from a prominent Baghdad family who, after studying and practicing medicine in Chicago for thirteen years, returns to Iraq to assist the transition to post-Ba’athist rule. An unwelcome reunion with a hated older brother, however, leads to the death of Abu Saheeh’s daughter and sends him on a downward spiral fueled by remorse, anger, and alcohol that eventually result in psychosis and extreme narrator unreliability. The narrative proper of One Hundred and One Nights takes place in a small town on the Iraq-Kuwait border named Sufwan, where at the novel’s opening we find Abu Saheeh running a small shop selling mobile phones by the side of the main road from Kuwait to Baghdad. The business, however, is only a cover: Abu Saheeh’s real purpose in Sufwan is to monitor American military convoys in preparation for emplacing a roadside bomb that, as events transpire, will not only kill American soldiers but allow him to enact revenge on his brother. Abu Saheeh’s sense-of-mission in Sufwan, however, is troubled mightily by the intrusion into his life of an apparently homeless and orphaned preadolescent girl named Layla, a “market urchin” who uncannily complicates Abu Saheeh’s plans and thoughts.

That’s an intriguing set-up, and as One Hundred and One Nights is fairly unknown, I’ve already given away too much, for Buchholz skillfully hides much of Abu Saheeh’s backstory until the novel’s closing pages, even as his reliability as a narrator becomes increasingly shaky. The author’s handling of chronologically complicated narrative threads is not the only accomplished aspect of One Hundred and One Nights, for the novel excels in many other ways, too. Buchholz has done very well to create complex, memorable characters—not only Abu Saheeh, but a host of other central and minor figures–devise a plot that captivates and surprises, and situate his story in a densely-rendered culture milieu that seems not just accurate but knowing. The prose is neither gutbucket simplistic nor highly stylized, but serves nicely for explorations of mental landscapes and invocations of a ghost-land spaces where reality, image, and fantasy blur:

In my home I sit completely naked at my kitchen table for a long while. In front of me I have placed my whiskey bottle. It is empty. Behind the whiskey bottle, I have placed the bomb, the next bomb, the second and, I hope, last of those bombs bought with Sheikh Seyed Abdullah’s money, smuggled across the border in pieces behind the disguise of the whiskey bottles. The thick and rounded bottle distorts the shape of the bomb. The facets of the bottle reflect the image of my haggard face, superimposed on the curving shape of the detonation charge, so that the bomb seems to have my rough whiskers, my black tumble of hair, my untrimmed mustache, my depthless, reddened eyes.

Before writing One Hundred and One Nights, Buchholz published a memoir titled Private Soldiers (2007) about his National Guard unit deployment to southern Iraq. In Iraq, Buchholz served as a civil affairs officer in and around Sufwan. Apparently the genesis of One Hundred and One Nights were the death of a local girl and the bombing of one of his unit’s vehicles, but rather than focusing on the victims of war, especially the American victims, or on the experience of American fighting men, Buchholz has used his first novel to dramatize the events through the eyes of their killer. Buchholz’s tour in Iraq, he explains in an addendum to One Hundred and One Nights, instilled in him a desire “to understand and empathize with the types of personalized hatred and personalized loss and personalized dementia that I believe to be at the core of the mind-set required to perpetrate a bombing or kill another human being.” When asked why he chose to write from an Iraqi perspective, Buchholz writes, “I think it is an issue of empathy, of trying to understand other people,” but also, “Writing from my own point of view of someone culturally similar to me would have been boring.” Fiction rather than non-fiction, according to Buchholz, offers an “outlet for hypothesizing, a place that allows me to give structure to ideas and concepts that seem in the real world important but also ephemeral, shifty, unquantifiable, nonlinear.”

Those explanations are insightful, if more turgidly expressed than the more fluid and supple prose of One Hundred and One Nights would suggest. One Hundred and One Nights probes the limits of empathy through sympathetic character creation, at a time when issues of cultural appropriation and Orientalism are real concerns. Buchholz appears to have damned the critical torpedoes by creating a story around one of the mysterious, anonymous residents of Iraq he must have observed by the thousands during his tour. Given its subject, One Hundred and One Nights was probably not destined to ever be popular among American readers more interested in the experience of American soldiers than those whom they fought. The book’s title, which plays a little too obviously on the ur-text of Arabian literature, One Thousand and One Nights, and the book’s jacket, which features a fetching young Arab woman peaking out from under a hijab, also bespeak an uneasiness which someone, either Buchholz himself or his publishers, must have felt about bringing a book told by a radicalized middle-aged male Iraqi insurgent before American reading audiences. That the novel succeeds as well as it does is a testament not so much to Buchholz’s cultural acuity but his literary skill. Its interrogation of the limits of empathy is excellent, but its exploration of the possibilities of artful tale-telling even better.

As far as I can tell, One Hundred and One Nights is the first novel about war in Iraq written by a US military veteran and one of the first novels about the war written by any American. As such, it’s a fantastic first effort right out of the chute at the head of the tradition it helps inaugurate. As of 2019, One Hundred and One Nights and Private Soldiers remain Buchholz’s only published books, but just this year he snagged a spot as a featured columnist for the online journal The Writer, and there he announces that he has contracts for two more books forthcoming in 2020. I’m glad to hear it and I look forward to learning what they are all about.

Thanks to David Eisler for the tip on One Hundred and One Nights and another early-on novel set at least partially in Iraq, Nicholas Kulish’s 2007 Last One In, which I’m reading now and will be writing about soon.

Benjamin Buchholz, One Hundred and One Nights. Back Bay-Little Brown, 2011

Firstest With the Mostest: Turner, Bigelow, Fallon

October 11, 2019

Brian Turner’s poetry volume Here, Bullet, director Kathryn Bigelow’s movie The Hurt Locker, and Siobhan Fallon’s short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone stand at the beginning of the modern war literature, art, and film tradition Time Now documents, but I’ve never written stand-alone posts dedicated to them. One reason for the oversight is chronological: all three appeared before I began Time Now in 2012. Retrospective looks have always been possible, but I’ve never slowed down enough to write them. An independent entry on each of these pioneering and accomplished works probably isn’t going to happen now, but here I’ll offer a few comments that try to capture their essence.

Here, Bullet dazzled soldier-readers, poetry lovers, and book critics alike upon its release in 2005. There was some quibbling about whether Turner’s poems were based on real events experienced by Turner himself or imaginative dramatizations, but there was little disagreement about the book’s arresting blend of nitty-gritty soldier detail, formal excellence, and gruff emotionalism. Readers were astonished that poems such as the title poem, “The Hurt Locker,” and “Eulogy” were so fully realized, rather than primitive first-stabs at establishing tones, themes, and subjects that would define post-9/11 American soldier-writing. And who was this 21st-century American man-of-war? Judging from the verse, a sensitive observer of war brutality and military dehumanization, clinging determinedly, or even desperately, to civilian values of curiosity, kindness, and empathy among the rough company of infantrymen, while doing the things that infantrymen at war must do. And yet, far more than most infantrymen, to say nothing of most Americans, Turner’s awareness of culture, history, and noncombatants caught up in the wash of war animates the solipsistic self-focus of so much veteran writing to follow.

New York Times review pull-quote: “Turner has sent back a dispatch from a place arguably more incomprehensible than the moon — the war in Iraq — and deserves our thanks for delivering in these earnest and proficient poems the kinds of observations we would never find in a Pentagon press release…. Turner’s most consistent mode is one of brisk, precise — and nonpartisan — attention to both the terrors and the beauty he found among Iraq’s ruins.”

The Hurt Locker, released in America in 2009, garnered near universal praise from critics and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning six, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. About the exploits of a bomb disposal team driven near-mad by their death-defying duties on the streets of Baghdad, The Hurt Locker wasn’t as well-regarded by Iraq War veterans, who were quick to pounce on the film for its lapses from military verisimilitude, which many saw as reasons to damn the film entire. Re-watching The Hurt Locker today makes such carping seem even more short-sighted now than it was at the time, for the movie retains a stunning power to grip: not just the harrowing scenes depicting the soldiers defusing bombs, but the equally harrowing scenes of the soldiers at each other’s throats as they try to remain there for each other under the pressure of their job. Director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal deserve huge kudos for creating a movie that so skillfully ratchets up tension while allowing its mostly unknown cast to shine. Jeremy Renner is fantastic as an oddly-motivated bomb disposal artiste whose skill and swagger speak to the film’s epigraph: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pierce, and Suhail Aldabbach in supporting roles and cameos are nearly as good.

New York Times review pull-quote: “If The Hurt Locker is not the best action movie of the summer, I’ll blow up my car. The movie is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise…. Ms. Bigelow, practicing a kind of hyperbolic realism, distills the psychological essence and moral complications of modern warfare into a series of brilliant, agonizing set pieces.”

You Know When the Men Are Gone also arrived to critical acclaim and, as book sales go, commercial popularity. In 2011, “thanking soldiers for their service” mania was at its peak, and Fallon’s stories reminded readers that the families of fighting men deserved thanking, too, while clarifying that all concerned deserved gratitude not for their accomplishments, but for enduring so much. Fallon’s evocation of Fort Hood base life touched a nerve among readers curious about the lived-lives of the small numbers of Americans—the fighting force and their families—actually making sacrifices in the Global War on Terror. Marvelously breaking down binary distinctions between combat zone and home-front, You Know When the Men Are Gone dramatized war’s long reach and wide embrace, and it’s not bullets (though Fallon’s rendering of combat death and injury are superb), but infidelity, absence, loss, and betrayal that wreak the most havoc on the lives of soldiers and those close to them. Stories such as “Leave” might read more sensational in another author’s hands, and “Gold Star” more melodramatic, but Fallon’s touch is remarkably tender and non-histrionic. Her “worried imagination” (to use an apt phrase penned by Benjamin Busch about Fallon) rests mostly on spouses and partners fending for themselves while the husbands and boyfriends deploy, but her portraits of male soldiers are as striking and as affecting—as memorable—as those of the women in their lives.

New York Times review pull-quote: “Siobhan Fallon tells gripping, straight-up, no-nonsense stories about American soldiers and their families…. there’s not a loser in the bunch…. Ms. Fallon’s emphasis is not on the negative. It’s just that life is tough at Fort Hood. Fears tend to be justified.”

A knock on the works is that they could have been more explicit, even strident, in connecting the human travails they document to a political critique of the war. That just wasn’t to be, however; in Turner’s and Fallon’s cases I’m thinking because an essential loyalty to the people who populate their poems and stories, respectively, underwrites their art, as well as a certain unwillingness to be too hard on themselves for the life choices that brought them into war’s maw (related to the notion that they were part of an extended-family of military volunteers). For Bigelow, who was neither a vet like Turner nor a military spouse like Fallon, the loyalty is more toward an artistic vision that resists overt politicizing on the terms art often, or usually, does, by letting unstated political interpretations emerge implicitly from the story being told. This sentiment, too, would prove prescient. Neither apologism nor glorification, but a knowing quietism–sometimes maddeningly so–about the war’s larger dimensions would come to define war-writing in the wake of Turner and Fallon, and, somewhat less so, movies about Iraq and Afghanistan after The Hurt Locker.

The works’ focus on white male combat-arms soldiers and their families would eventually be viewed by some as problematic, but that two of the creative artists responsible were women heralded the expansion of male-centric war-writing parameters in the decade following. Taken together, the three works zeroed in on the difficulty of balancing dual identity as soldier and civilian in a military culture far removed from the ken of the majority of Americans–a central concern in an era of a small volunteer military charged with fighting impossible-to-win wars. One way this theme continues to resonate in works afterwards is the near-constant preoccupation with redeployment and reintegration of the soldier into civilian life following deployment and service. Another theme staked out by Turner, Bigelow, and, to a lesser extent, Fallon, is balancing one’s duties as a soldier with one’s concern for Iraqi civilians. Finally, the full extent of the physical, psychological, and emotional damage suffered by many veterans is a theme hinted at but not foregrounded in Here, Bullet, The Hurt Locker, and You Know When the Men Are Gone, in part because the works arrived so early it was impossible to yet measure war’s impact over time and changing life circumstances. In the years to come, the subject would become an all-consuming one of war-writing and art, and loom large in greater cultural conversations, as well.

Long Wars, Short Stories

September 7, 2019

Helicopter Landing Zone, Camp Clark/Camp Parsa, Afghanistan

I own eleven short-story collections about war in Afghanistan and Iraq published by major publishing houses in the last decade. Eleven such books seems like a lot–not to own so many, though there’s that, but to have been published. What accounts for the form’s popularity? Most of the collection are written by veterans who are first-time authors, so maybe short fiction provides a more accessible start point in the writing game for young authors than, say, a novel. But perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the plain difficulty of writing a novel about soldiers at war. Crafting a 200 or 400 page story focused through the eyes of a teenager or young adult can’t be easy. Creating a fictional military microcosm rich and textured enough to sustain a novel must also be tough for authors whose vista of military life and culture was that of a Joe in a rifle squad. Conjuring a suspenseful plot out of a deployment year characterized by Groundhog Day routine has got to be hard, too. Not impossible, but I’d say something about going to war presents itself as a collection of experiences to be related in the form of an event or a poignant moment, rather than as a long narrative journey with a destination firmly in mind.

In any case, here’s a list of the eleven short-story collections I own. I like them and think about them in much the same way I do favorite records and songs. I’ve read each of the collections at least twice, and some more times than that. It’s a rare week that I don’t pull one of them off the shelf and reacquaint myself with a favorite story.

Siobhan Fallon, You Know When the Men Are Gone. Amy Einhorn, 2011. Favorite story: “The Last Stand.” Second favorite: “Leave.” I write about You Know When the Men Are Gone here.

Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq. Penguin, 2013. My favorite story is “The Green Zone Rabbit.” Second favorite: “An Army Newspaper.” I write about The Corpse Exhibition here.

Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, eds., Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. Da Capo, 2013. I highly recommend all the stories in Fire and Forget; my two favorites are Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips for a Smooth Transition.” I write about Fire and Forget here and here and here.

Katey Schultz, Flashes of War. Apprentice House-Loyola, 2013. Favorite story: “The Ghost of Sanchez.” Second favorite: “Home on Leave.” I write about Flashes of War here.

Phil Klay, Redeployment. Penguin, 2014. My favorite story is “Prayer in the Furnace.” Second favorite: “Money as a Weapons System.” I write about Redeployment here.

Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead. Tim Duggan Books, 2016. Favorite story: “To the Lake.” Second favorite: “New Guidance.” I write about These Heroic, Happy Dead here.

Odie Lindsey, We Come to Our Senses. Norton, 2016. My favorite story is “So Bored in Nashville.” Second favorite: “Chicks.” I write about We Come to Our Senses here.

Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, eds. The Road Ahead. Pegasus, 2017. I highly recommend all the stories in The Road Ahead, but if I had to name two I like most they’d be Benjamin Busch’s “Into the Land of Dogs” and Kristen L. Rouse’s “Pawns.” I write about The Road Ahead here.

Caleb S. Cage, Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada. University of Nevada, 2017. My favorite story is “This Is Not Burning Man.” Second favorite: “Operation Battle Mountain.” I write about Desert Mementos here.

Jon Chopan, Veterans Crisis Hotline. University of Massachusetts, 2018. Favorite story: “Crisis Hotline.” Second favorite: “Rules of Engagement.” I write about Veterans Crisis Hotline  here.

Will Mackin, Bring Out the Dog. Random House, 2018. My favorite story is “Crossing the River No Name.” Second favorite: “Welcome Man Will Never Fly.” I write about Bring Out the Dog here.

Finally, I’ll plug my four short-stories about post-9//11 war that I’ve posted on Time Now:

“Cy and Ali”

“Junior and Io: A Guard-Tower Reverie”

Sergeant Arrack and Captain Athens”

“Ari and Theodopulous”

 

War Poetry: Brock Jones’ Cenotaph

August 18, 2019

Brock Jones writes forthrightly about his tours in Iraq as an infantryman in his 2016 poetry volume Cenotaph. Central to his experience and the poetry he writes is the death in combat or by suicide of several of his war-buddies. In particular, the suicide of one buddy, a soldier named Markose, vibrant and charismatic in life, figures in several poems. The elegiac poems serve the volume’s title, a cenotaph being “a monument to someone buried elsewhere, especially one commemorating people who died in a war.” Jones’ own near-suicidal post-war floundering are also strikingly related in several poems. The most harrowing poems, however, recount Jones’ taking of an Iraqi life—a series of poems, titled “Field of View” in the first and in subsequent poems “Alternate Ending,” document and then reimagine a sniper kill:

What I remember—
the recoil, his fall
out of the scope’s circle…

That the event is subject to embellishment, omission, reconceptualizing, and transformation is alluded to in a poem titled “Rogue Memories”:

Curator of the National Archive of Collective Memory
and War Memorabilia called with concerns about some
of my facts, dates and names…. I got a little defensive
and paused to swallow before asking him where it was he
thought all these memories came from.

But there’s no real reason to suspect that the events Jones describes are not 1) autobiographical and 2) true. Therein lies the significance of Cenotaph: very few veteran writers, other than authors of “kill memoirs,” which are beneath contempt, admit to taking of lives, or perhaps can even claim to have done so. Few, and they only with great hesitation, write openly about having killed. It’s hard, I suspect, without being sensational or unseemly or some other version of overly manipulative, and perhaps conveying the impression that one is secretly proud. It must be hard to figure out what to say and how to say it, which accounts, I’m sure, for the “alternate endings” Jones recounts. Cenotaph includes a statement from Vietnam War poet Bruce Weigl that alludes to this impulse. It’s the poet’s job, Weigl states, to find “some kind of miraculous way that if you work hard enough to get the words right, that which you call horrific and wrong is defeated.” Weigl’s words suggest that writing a poem about a specific act of taking life raises questions about the uses of poetry, poetry’s ethics and aesthetics. Billy Collins refers to these difficulties in the Preface by way of commending Jones:

It is difficult to write war poetry because the subject is pre-loaded with emotional weight, but Jones more than manages to render precisely the mess of war with tenderness and insight.

I’m reminded of something a writer, not a veteran, once told me about what she appreciates about war-writers. “Their familiarity with violence deepens them,” she claimed. I’m also reminded of a passage from Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War, in which he writes, “Ask a twenty-two-year-old vet what it is like to have killed, and he’ll probably shrug. Ask the same vet when he’s sixty, and if he’s sober enough to answer….” Cenotaph records a moment in a vet’s long after-war life, some time past the blithe disregard of Marlantes’ twenty-two year old, but not yet completely devastated or ruined. The dominant impression rendered by Cenotaph is not guilt that drags Jones down, but extreme isolation from the common run of humanity wrought by what he has lived through and learned. From the biographical notes accompanying Cenotaph, fortunately, Jones appears to be doing well, gainfully employed and happy with family. Let’s hope that holds, and that writing Cenotaph has helped him attain stability and peace-of-mind. The poem “Eleven Mile,” my favorite, offers hope for that hope:

You hook another rainbow and I forget
the drift of my tattered fly.

Yet to land a fish.  I have no way out
of buying dinner since that’s the usual deal

and there’s no way to catch you
with three fish before dark.

But this memory does not want to be
about fishing or whether real fishermen

use spinners or flies, who caught the most fish,
where to eat dinner on our way back to post,

our return from Iraq to ticker-tape,
drinks on the house and eventual emptiness.

It wants to be about sunlight
reflecting off our favorite river

today same as it did then, before falling
behind those Colorado mountains.

Maybe it is about fishing after all.
It can be about fishing.

More poems from Cenotaph can be found here.

Brock Jones, Cenotaph. University of Arkansas, 2016.

Roy Scranton Interview for Wrath-Bearing Tree

August 11, 2019

This week the website Wrath-Bearing Tree published my interview with veteran-author Roy Scranton in advance of publication of his scholarly study Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. In Total Mobilization, Scranton expands upon the concept of “the trauma hero,” which he first articulated in a provocative 2015 Los Angeles Review of Books article titled “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to “Redeployment” and “American Sniper.” The LARB article rankled many with its less-than-hallowed regard for classic and contemporary war writing and in particular its willingness to name names among Scranton’s peers in the modern war-writing scene who Scranton claims are unwittingly or too heavily invested in privileging American veterans emotionally bruised by war. I commented on some of that on Time Now at the time, but an unspoken thought was that the article was too short and that there had to be more to understand about how the trauma hero motif originated and operated. Now, Total Mobilization, the book from which the LARB essay was extracted, provides that background and more expansive explanation. In my interview, I’ve tried to give Scranton room to explain the major points of his larger argument while also probing him about personal connections to the trauma hero concept and the issues it raises.

Many thanks to Scranton for sitting for the interview and also thanks to Wrath-Bearing Tree for publishing it. While striving to make WBT the preeminent place on the web for fresh critical commentary and imaginative writing about contemporary war and conflict, the talented crew of editors and staff-authors–Adrian Bonenberger, Michael Carson, David James, Matthew Hefti, Andria Williams, Mary Doyle, Drew Pham, Amalie Flynn, and Rachel Kambury, by name—have also opened publication doors for exciting new voices too many to name.

As partial evidence of Wrath-Bearing Tree’s intellectual energy, be sure to check out Michael Carson and Matthew Hefti’s interview with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk author Ben Fountain in the current issue, as well as Carson’s review of Fountain’s latest work, the non-fiction journalistic account of the 2016 election Beautiful Country Burn Again. To attract authors of the magnitude of Fountain and Scranton to generously offer their thoughts about writing and war is proof-positive that Wrath-Bearing Tree is on to something good, and I’m honored to have played a role in the proceedings.

Finally, my interview with Scranton will not resolve arguments about “the trauma hero”; if anything it will instigate ever more trenchant discussions about veterans and war-writing. Scranton’s assertions and evidence hit hard, but are not, as is nothing, beyond criticism or complication, and nothing is ever the last word on its subject. Scranton’s claims raise real challenges to abiding premises and assumptions that govern war-writing and thinking about war-writing, and, like the Twitterati often proclaim, my RTing of them does not necessarily imply (full) endorsement. A generative follow-on discussion about the trauma hero appeared relatively unnoticed in 2018 on a Sundress Blog post associated with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), available here. In a joint interview moderated by Jane Rosenberg LaForge, Seth Brady Tucker, Jesse Goolsby, Helen Benedict, and Samuel Snoek-Brown offer perspectives on the trauma hero from a number of interesting angles. Please read their roundtable discussion, along with my interview with Scranton, and then read Total Mobilization, and let the conversation continue.

Roy Scranton, Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. University of Chicago, 2019.

War Adventure/Military Thriller

August 7, 2019

In a 2014 Los Angeles Review of Books article titled “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” author Brian Castner wonders why so few novels have been written about America’s long war in Afghanistan. One idea Castner considers is that Operation Enduring Freedom was fought mainly by special operators—serious warfighters who lacked the artistic, empathetic, and reflective bents required to write fiction. To the point, Castner quotes Brandon Willitts, a vet-writer who served in Afghanistan as intelligence analyst in support US Army Special Forces:

“These guys are such high achievers, Olympic athletes who have been trained to kill,” [Willitts] says. “They’ve spent a decade doing night raids. And now you want them to sit in a chair and write a novel? You might as well ask why more NFL players aren’t writing novels.”

Castner’s query and Willitts’ comment, rather than foreclosing future possibilities, seems to have initiated a flood of novels about war in Afghanistan, and, in truth, there were already a few out there that Castner overlooked in 2014. Some of the new arrivals are “literary” novels Castner and most LARB readers would consider most worth talking about, such as Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue. More, however, are genre fiction: war-adventure thrillers, many written by authors with impressive military pedigrees.

Thomas Greer, for example, is a former Delta Force squadron commander who capitalized on his initial foray into print, Kill Bin Laden, a memoir of his leadership of the ground force that searched for Osama Bin Laden in the eastern Afghanistan mountains in 2001, to write a series of war-action novels under the name “Dalton Fury.” Between 2012 and 2016, Dalton Fury published (by my count) six war-adventure novels before unfortunately dying of pancreatic cancer. A second Delta Force squadron commander, Brad Taylor, has also drawn on his real-life exploits and insider knowledge to pen a series of military thrillers. Taylor, whose first book also predates Castner’s article, appearing in 2011, has written (again, by my count; it’s hard to keep up) eighteen novels, each pushing 500 pages. A third former Army officer, Sean Parnell, doesn’t have the stellar military credentials of Greer and Taylor—he has but a single tour in Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader to brag about (and boy does he, here). But Parnell, like Greer, parlayed the success of his initial book, a lieutenant’s memoir titled Outlaw Platoon, into a second, the war-thriller Man of War. As the newcomer of the bunch, he has written only one novel so far, with another on the way. He is, however, a protégé of Scott Miller, a literary agent who helped Dalton Fury’s rise in the world of letters, and Parnell and Taylor cutely name characters after each other in their books, so it seems reasonable to group him with the prolific Fury and Taylor to obtain a sense of what contemporary war adventure and military thrillers are all about.

Below are capsule summaries and a few thoughts about Fury’s Black Site, Taylor’s The Forgotten Soldier, and Parnell’s Man of War. Only Black Site is directly about war in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but all are connected in their way to the Global War on Terror, so within the purview of the blog.

Dalton Fury (Thomas Greer)’s Black Site (2012). The hero of Black Site is Kolt Raynor, an ex-Delta Force operator who has been exiled from the elite unit’s ranks for a tactical mistake that led to the deaths and capture of fellow operators on a covert mission across the Afghanistan border into Pakistan. Three years later, Raynor atones for his screw-up by sneaking into Pakistan to confirm intelligence that several of his former teammates are held prisoner in a remote compound guarded by Pashtun tribesmen, Taliban zealots, and Middle-Eastern Al Qaeda operatives, and a platoon of Chechens led by an American-born Al Qaeda convert who are hatching a plan to infiltrate a CIA-run “black site” prison by posing as US Army Rangers. While not escaping the generic conventions of war adventure, Black Site executes them well. Of the three novels I read, it was the most focused on military operations–as opposed to spy-and-espionage sleuthing–which I liked, and I also enjoyed the descriptions of the Pashtun regions of western Pakistan.

Brad Taylor’s The Forgotten Soldier (2017). Taylor’s novels feature protagonist Pike Logan, a member of a top-secret spy-and-fighting force known as the “Taskforce.” In The Forgotten Warrior, a Taskforce member goes rogue after learning that his brother, a US Army Special Forces soldier, has been killed in Afghanistan by four Yemini Al Qaeda members. Seeking vengeance, the aggrieved Taskforce operator hunts-and-kills the Yemini responsible one-by-one, while also uncovering treacherous connections linking the Yemini ruling clan and the highest echelons of the US State Department. Pike Logan is dispatched by the Taskforce to retrieve his off-the-reservation teammate while minimizing damage to international relations, duties that take him from Washington, DC, to the Cayman Islands to Greece to Norway. The Forgotten War does well depicting the complicated diplomatic-strategic-economic dimensions of global conflict: how they present opportunities to be exploited by adversaries and trouble-makers and how things become personal in the hands of the upper-echelon players who wield enormous amounts of power.

Sean Parnell’s Man of War (2018). Man of War splits the difference between Black Site‘s military emphasis and The Forgotten Soldier‘s spy-vs-spy storyline. Its action hero is Eric Steele, who like Pike Logan works for an off-the-books government agency that answers directly to the President. When a former member of the unit—called the Project in Man of War—hatches a plot to steal a manpack nuclear weapon from Iran, while also kidnapping Iran’s and Pakistan’s leading nuclear engineers, Steele is dispatched to kill him before he detonates the nuke in America. Steele chases his nemesis—the man who trained him in the ways of the Project—across northern Africa and Spain, both men leaving trails littered with bodies, before they finally confront in mano-y-mano battle in southern Maryland. Man of War has a more crazed, one-thing-after-another, can-you-believe-what-happens now? feel to it than Black Site and The Forgotten Warrior, which is saying something, and which is either a virtue or a flaw depending on your taste for over-the-top characters and plot turns.

The covers of all three novels announce that their authors are “New York Times Best-Selling Authors,” which no doubt is true. It’s amusing, though, somewhat, that they draw on the prestige of the mainstream “fake news” newspaper giant to burnish their reputations and attract readers, since the works themselves are thoroughly “Red State” war fiction (as defined here by Brian Castner and Brian Van Reet) that glorify military prowess and American greatness. Or, maybe, the bold-faced references to New York Times popularity are their way of sticking it to elite taste-makers and their condescending attitudes toward what “real people” really like. Who knows? That none of the authors are great stylists or lifelong, serious students of novel form and craft is another point hardly worth dwelling on, save for an interesting comment offered by Dalton Fury. In the Acknowledgements to Black Site, Fury reports that his hatred of high school English and “the lack of grounding in proper sentence structure and point of view made life miserable as I wrote Kill Bin Laden. I needed a ton of help. In fact, I learned quickly that there is absolutely no intrinsic crossover between leading commandos and writing about commandos” (cf Willetts!). Fury then describes how his agent, the afore-mentioned Scott Miller, provided him with an “incredibly talented” ghostwriter named Mark Greaney. Greaney, the author of his own thriller series and a former collaborator with Tom Clancy, is a pro’s pro, and as a result Black Site is a much more tautly written book than Kill Bin Laden.

I can imagine authors who have devoted their life to writing burning at the effrontery of men such as Fury, Taylor, and Parnell turning to novel-writing in middle-age as if anyone could write (a good) one, and then seething even more as they watch the books by these warrior-writer Johnny-come-latelies fly up the New York Times best-seller lists. For me, however, Fury’s confession is as endearing as it is telling, but, really, who cares if war adventure novels are well-written or not? I do, but that’s not what is important here. War adventure’s all about action heroes, heinous villains, hair-raising escapades, and gee-whiz technology and weapons, for which there is a ginormous reading market, as evidenced by the New York Times rankings.

Let the record show that I read Black Site, The Forgotten Soldier, and Man of War pretty much straight through; in other words, I never stopped turning the pages. I enjoyed the glimpses of operator-and-spy craft they offered, and I appreciated how they fully incorporated technology into the lives of the men and women they describe (as opposed to so much literary war fiction that proceeds as if the Internet had never been invented). Though the enemies of America the protagonists kill by the dozens are generally Arab and South Asian Muslims (a few white Americans, Europeans, and South Africans swell the ranks of villains), there seems to be an effort across the board to avoid the worst race-and-religion baiting imaginable. Parnell can’t resist describing how highly Steele regards President Reagan, and Parnell’s Twitter feed makes it clear that he thinks President Trump is great and the problem with America is liberals and Democrats. On the other hand, the presidents and portraits of American politics in Black Site and The Forgotten Soldier are generic enough that it’s hard to tell who in the upper tiers of government is red and who is blue. That’s strange, because it seems unlikely many Democrats read war adventure, and so it would be logical that the authors play to the Red State masses by demonizing softy liberal politicians at every opportunity. In Fury and Taylor, however, I detect a determined non-partisanship and desire for unity and consensus typical of the officer lifers I’ve known who aren’t raging conservatives. Taylor’s blog, for evidence, leans right, predictably enough, but clearly avoids knee-jerk side-taking as it explores (sensibly in my mind) international security issues. Back to the novels, the protagonists’ support teams are pointedly diverse, and each novel incorporates at least one woman-of-action into the mix. The operator equivalent of “manic pixie dream girls,” war-thriller women tend to be chiseled hotties as capable of snapping a man’s neck as seducing him. The female protagonists in Black Site, The Forgotten Soldier, and Man of War prove themselves worthy sidekicks to their action-hero leading men, and each is given at least one “you go, girl” moment in which she socks it to hapless members of the patriarchy by cutting through their bullshit or kicking their ass.

All that’s good, or at least not terrible. But let’s also get serious: the comic-book hero names of the protagonists, as well as Thomas Greer’s pen-name, signal tongue-in-cheek fantasies of heroic military manliness. The authors maybe are self-consciously spoofing the conventions of war adventure, and perhaps being in-on-the-joke is one of the prerequisites for enjoying the genre; I’m reminded of an old National Lampoon parody of Sergeant Rock comics in which the hero was named Sergeant Nick Penis. And yet, despite their cartoonish qualities, the novels, with their breathless depictions of good-guy grown adults fighting bad-guy grown adults with the fate of the world at stake, project the notion that they take themselves very seriously, and I have little doubt a fair number of their readers do, too. Just spit-balling here, but it seems obvious that war adventure novels serve not merely as escape and entertainment, but as morality plays that shape, reflect, and confirm ideas and attitudes about the world. All three novels, for example, dramatize fears that America not only faces danger from threats abroad, but from within as well, by traitors, imposters, infiltrators, criminals, and power-hungry self-servers and ideological zealots. Whatever the political vision, though, the ideological message that really drives the popularity of war adventure, I’d say, is the dream of unlimited power and maximum freedom concentrated in individuals who feel they are born to wage war and are well-trained to do so. High-level operators are uniformly characterized as rough-hewn, wildly independent, and contrarian men-of-action whose capacity for bad behavior is part of their appeal and their effectiveness. The stories undoubtedly glorify the way-of-the-gun: an oft-repeated set piece is the highly-trained operator taking out three or four bad guys in seconds with an equal number of well-aimed shots, the implication being that he who has the most guns and uses them best has the most power and freedom. Another way this sensibility plays out is through constant reference to civilian politicians and bureaucrats who constrain the free exercise of the operators’ right to break rules, disobey orders, take extravagant risks, and shoot-to-kill. You can’t read four pages in a war adventure novel without coming across a passage that expresses some version of this sentiment.

In the world of the novels, the dream of unrestrained freedom sits uneasily with the tight command-and-control structure of elite military units and the presence of strong authority figures who call the shots. The books are entranced by the idea that small cells of elite warrior-spies exist that answer directly to the President, and that Presidents spend the better part of their days personally supervising clandestine operations that must be undertaken to save the country and the free world. Still, the potential for elite warriors to “go rogue” drives the plot in each of the novels; going rouge comes up so often as a plot catalyst that it acquires the tangible quality of a consummation devoutly to be wished–in other words, more freedom, more opportunity to exercise individual power. The specific spur that affords operators the chance to go rogue is revenge: in each novel, the protagonists are compelled to operate even further off the books than normal to avenge the deaths of fellow operator or family members. And yet, the revenge is typically revealed to be just, not just in personal terms, but in regard to the ongoing international battles the operators’ units exist to fight—the individual vendetta is connected to an effort to stop America’s enemies from killing our Secretary of State, stealing a portable nuclear weapon, infiltrating the United States military, or other such rigamarole. The operators’ instincts in these matters are true: the books aggressively assert that elite soldiers are not just fighting machines, but ethically astute judges of right, wrong, and what really needs to happen right now to save the country.

Brad Taylor and Dalton Fury attempt to problematize these issues in earnestly-crafted acknowledgments and introductions. Taylor, for example, writes:

The crux of repeated covert action in a democracy is that a nation can go only so far before its actions begin to erode the very ideals the unit was designed to protect, which is precisely why we have such robust oversight in US Code. The Taskforce has no such constraints, and I’ve threaded the potential for its abuse throughout my books. This time, I decided to explore it as a main theme.

Well, OK, but excuse me if I find the statement a little disingenuous, judging by the reading experience of The Forgotten Soldier—it’s a little as if an author of pornography tells us he has written the work to warn readers of the dangers of pornography. Riiight… Dalton Fury, for his part, reports that the genesis of Black Site was a remark made by a fellow operator that he was “impetuous” and thus Fury wrote Black Site to work out the role that impetuousness plays in the character and mentality of elite soldiers. Let’s just say, based on the evidence, a lot…. for better in the world of the books, but maybe for worse, understood more broadly. Impetuousness is a characteristic associated with immaturity, which is not an especially flattering trait to define men who wield the power that the operators feel entitled to. Cue Herman Melville’s great observation: “All wars are boyish and fought by boys.”

For all my carping, I’m not particularly worried that war adventure novels glamorize men-with-guns; of course they do, but that American cultural cake has been baked at least since readers went nuts over John Filson’s The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone in 1785, and whatever influence books might still have on the tide of things is a tiny rivulet feeding the mighty Mississippi of overall American fascination with guns, violence, fighting, crime, militarism, and war. An issue that comes up in reviews of Black Site and The Forgotten Soldier is the ethics and consequences of former senior Delta Force commanders such as Taylor and Fury revealing so much inside knowledge about their secret-squirrel units. For me, that’s not as interesting a question as one that asks why men who rose to the top of elite units after retiring desire to write novels that fantasize about men who are even more awesome fighting machines than they were themselves? Does that strike anyone else as curious? It’s as if, say, a very good writer were to write an un-ironical, non-satirical novel about a Nobel Prize winning author who is a dashing bon-vivant who never makes a regrettable mistake.

It’s probably just me, but as a fellow former Army officer, it’s interesting to observe other former officers write books that that settle for so little in terms of vision, craft, or smarts compared to those of ex-enlisted soldiers such as Brian Turner, Roy Scranton, and Brian Van Reet, to name three. Why are these the kind of books my peers want to write? I salute anyone who tries their hand as an author of fiction, but couldn’t Taylor and Fury have written interesting novels about Delta Force commandos and Parnell about infantry platoons that don’t reveal them—the authors–to be intoxicated by hyperbolic visions of what they actually were in real life? I’ll also salute Fury, Taylor, and Parnell for writing books that many readers and lots of soldiers (judging by the authors’ presence on military Post Exchange shelves) relate to, and God bless them if they donate huge hunks of their profits to charities that aid veterans. Still, it’s not exactly reassuring to think that the authors were possessed by such dreamy fantasies while on active duty, leading soldiers and accomplishing missions. That military thrillers exist as a genre isn’t such a big problem, but they seem like the stuff for geeky boy-men and aging armchair warriors who couldn’t cut the mustard for two seconds in the high-speed units described in the books. To return to Brian Castner’s and Brandon Willitts’ comments with which we began, it’s not so much that former special operators and hardcore infantrymen can’t write novels, it’s a question of what their novels look like when they do.

****

Final note: I greatly enjoyed the sections of Black Site set in Darra Adam Khal, a legendary arms bazaar just over the Afghanistan border near Peshawar, Pakistan. As I was reading Black Site I came across this article in (where else?) the New York Times, describing the efforts of a young man named Raj Muhammad to start a library in Darra Adam Khal. Very cool, and the library even has a Facebook page, so please like it. Books not guns, can we all agree?

Dalton Fury (Thomas Greer). Black Site: A Delta Force Novel. St. Martin’s, 2012.

Brad Taylor. The Forgotten Soldier: A Pike Logan Thriller. Dutton, 2017.

Sean Parnell. Man of War: An Eric Steele Novel. Harper’s, 2018.


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