Archive for the ‘Art and War’ category

A Veterans Day Photo Anthology

November 10, 2018

Phil Klay, USMC.

Benjamin Busch, USMC.

Matt Gallagher, US Army.

John Renehan, US Army.

Elyse Fenton, US Army spouse.

Siobhan Fallon, US Army spouse.

Brian Van Reet, US Army.

Bill Putnam, US Army.

Jan Barry, US Army.

Brian Turner, US Army.

John Myer, US Army.

Brandon Willitts, US Navy,

Chris Wolfe, US Army.

Roy Scranton, US Army, and Jacob Siegel, US Army.

Maurice Decaul, USMC, with Alex Mallory.

Emily Yates, US Army, and Jenny Pacanowski, US Army.

Elyse Fenton, US Army spouse, and Andria Williams, US Navy spouse.

Matt Gallagher, US Army, Andrew Slater, US Army, Fred Marchant, USMC.

Benjamin Busch, USMC, Siobhan Fallon, US Army spouse, and Brian Turner, US Army.

Hugh Martin, US Army, Matt Gallagher, US Army, Chantelle Bateman, USMC, and Mariette Kalinowski, USMC.

Ron Capps, US Army, Peter Molin, US Army, Kayla Williams, US Army, Maurice Decaul, USMC, and Colby Buzzell, US Army.

Brandon Willitts, US Navy, Matt Gallagher, US Army, Peter Molin, US Army, Teresa Fazio, USMC, and Chris Wolfe.

Adrian Bonenberger, US Army, Roxana Robinson, David Abrams, US Army, and Matt Gallagher, US Army.

Roman Baca, USMC, Siobhan Fallon, US Army spouse, Brian Turner, US Army, and Benjamin Busch, USMC.

Nate Bethea, US Army, Eric Nelson, US Army, Adrian Bonenberger, US Army, Brandon Willitts, US Navy, Mariette Kalinowski, USMC, Vic Zlatonovic, US Army, Lisbeth Prifogle, USMC, Peter Molin, US Army, and Jacob Sotak, US Army.

I took all the pictures except for the group photos in which I am included. The pictures of me with Matt Gallagher, Chris Wolfe, Brandon Willitts, and Teresa Fazio and with Nate Bethea, Eric Nelson, and others were taken by Sang Hui Molin. I can’t remember exactly who took the picture of me with Ron Capps, Maurice Decaul, Kayla Williams, and Colby Buzzell, but it was probably Andria Williams. The picture of Andria Williams and Elyse Fenton was taken by me with Andria Williams’ camera and first displayed on her blogpost here.

Terminal Lance in the Art Museum

November 8, 2018


I wandered into Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum recently and was pleased to see the work of Marine Iraq veteran-turned-cartoonist-and-graphic-novelist Maximilian Uriarte unexpectedly featured. Part of an exhibit titled Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel, Uriarte is grouped with two other artists in support of the main attraction, Bechdel, a graphic-novel pioneer whose work explores the difficulty of growing up gay in small-town America. Alongside Bechdel and Uriarte are Thi Bui, who writes about her experience as a second-generation American, and Elle Forney, whose subjects grow out of her own life-wrestle with disability and a medical profession that struggles to help her.

That’s an odd grouping on the face of it—Uriarte might be an alienated, disgruntled, and traumatized vet, but I don’t think of the politics of his Terminal Lance comic strips and his graphic novel The White Donkey as radically left-progressive as Bechdel’s, Bui’s, and Forney’s clearly are. Still, there’s no denying his skill or his influence, more so based on the achievement of Terminal Lance than The White Donkey. While The White Donkey portrays in-service disillusionment and post-deployment despair in relatively conventional melodramatic and moralistic tones, Terminal Lance practically invented the snarky “view-from-below” humor that dominates soldier and veteran online rhetoric today. Where the Terminal Lance character of The White Donkey is a hapless victim of the Marines’ dehumanizing processes, the Terminal Lance in the cartoon strips is a wily counterpuncher against the Corps’ assaults on his intelligence and his dignity, with slacking, shamming, and acts of petty insubordination his primary tactics. Taking aim at a bloated, outdated military culture and an officer corps stuck on auto-pilot, the raunchy-and-blasphemous Terminal Lance first-and-most-cleverly expressed the contempt of junior enlisted soldiers for a military machinery badly in need of not just a tune-up, but a complete overhaul. And yet, it’s not entirely clear that Uriarte, or Terminal Lance, hates the Marines. It’s as if he loves the Corps most when it shows its warts, when it deviates from its stated ideals and goals, and he feels fortunate, not unfortunate, that he is there to witness or endure it, because at some level it strikes him as funny.

One of the least blasphemous and raunchy Terminal Lance strips I could find.

Uriarte was the pioneering original, and those in his wake continue to score many direct hits, but zinging military absurdities can be a little like shooting fish in a barrel:  taking pot-shots at guppies in a tank is not quite the same thing as landing a marlin in the open sea. In other words, the modern brand of “GI humor” launched by Terminal Lance and now finding its fullest expression on Twitter often settles for knocking down easy targets, not in good fun but as if its aggrieved outrage and witty hot-takes were beyond reproach and really accomplishing something. Whether a similar sense of inflated achievement might also be true of graphic novels is open for discussion, but there’s little denying their popularity and synchronicity with the times. Whatever the message, it’s probably more about the artwork and the medium, and Self-Confessed! offers great opportunity to view full-scale versions and blow-ups of Uriarte’s work, rough drafts, and storyboards and outlines for longer works. The Self-Confessed! exhibit prospectus had some neat things to say about graphic novels as a genre:

In recent decades, comics and graphic novels have embraced history, medical and self-help literature, stories of war and history…. Each revisits the past to re-imagine not only what occurred, but also how it looked as it was happening. The process of remembering and reconstructing the past is well-served by the graphic narrative in that the structure of comics—the framing of moments, the breaks between panels, the rhythm and pacing that creates the flow of the book—are all part of remembering and telling. And for the reader, the combination of words and pictures slows down the process of reading, complicates the structure of time, and provides an opportunity to linger.

White Donkey 1

Randy Brown, better known as the gifted military humorist and poet “Charlie Sherpa,” offers his own musings about graphic novels in a recent review published in Army magazine titled “Graphic Novels Present War Panel by Panel.” Examining two graphic novels about war in Afghanistan, Brown notes that the genre’s name is often a misnomer: “Despite the … inclusion of the term ‘novel,’ these are works of nonfiction–memoirs–and are based on factual events and reporting, or at least personal recollections”–i.e., “Self-Confessed!” That basic-but-necessary point made, Brown reminds us that “American military history is full of cartoons and comic books–from Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe to Sgt. Rock to PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly” and that “Comics are more than pictures and words: Intangibles can be communicated via color palette choices, in character facial expressions, in dialogue, and even in the number and shapes of panels on the page.” Combined with the ease with which graphic novels can present scenes “flashing between memories and present-day conversations,” Brown notes the form “delivers immediate rapport and opportunities for empathy.”

Theorizing aside, Brown makes the two graphic novels he reviews (their covers pictured below) sound well-worth checking out. Here’s to the progeny of Uriarte, Terminal Lance, and The White Donkey.

Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel is on display at the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey through Saturday, December 30.

Kosovo: Quiet Prelude to the War on Terror

October 24, 2018

In 1999 US Army forces deployed to the Serbian province of Kosovo as part of a peacekeeping mission to halt the killing and forced relocation of the region’s majority Muslim Albanian population by Christian Serbs. In the two years prior to the American-led intervention, Kosovo Serbs, backed by the Serbian army, used violence to halt a demographic makeover they feared would sever the region’s political and cultural allegiance with greater Serbia. Some 1,500 Albanians were killed and 400,000 driven from their homes by Serbian military, police, para-military forces, and local zealots.

The American intervention, part of a NATO-led task force known as “KFOR,” was largely successful, in that Serbian-Albanian violence quickly diminished. The province began to develop a political identity as an Albanian-dominated independent state that culminated in a declaration of sovereignty in 2008. The KFOR mission, on the heels of and modeled after the bigger US and NATO peacekeeping effort in Bosnia-Herzegovina earlier in the decade, continues today, but consists of less than 700 US soldiers in Kosovo at any time. By another measure of bottom-line cost—American casualties—the mission has also been successful. In the years since American forces first put “boots on the ground,” fewer than twenty Americans have died in Kosovo, most as a result of illness or accident. For whatever reasons, the “Global War on Terror” following 9/11 has been able to quell or ignore Christian-Muslim tension in the Balkans. While war raged and then dragged-on in Iraq and Afghanistan, KFOR has also continued, largely peaceful and out-of-the-spotlight. As early as 2001, when the infantry battalion I was part of rotated into the US sector and took up residence at Camp Monteith near the northeastern city of Gnjilane, the KFOR mission had a decided side-show quality in the Army at large and the world’s mind as well. A sister battalion from our brigade was already fighting in Afghanistan, and many of us were jealous of them beyond words because they were where the action was, and we weren’t.

Photographer Bill Putnam was a soldier in the Public Affairs unit of the infantry task force of which I was the executive officer, or second-in-command. Putnam would return to Kosovo in 2002 and go on to take striking photographs in Iraq while still in the Army and later as an embedded photojournalist in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Only recently I returned to look closely at Putnam’s archive of Kosovo pictures. My sense was that Army operations in Kosovo foreshadowed and rehearsed similar approaches the US military would employ in Iraq and Afghanistan. As late as 2001, though, the material appearance of American soldiers was different from what it would soon come to be. But if one looks closely one can see not traces of a vanished past, but a soon-to-be-present future in the process of its emergence.

Putnam’s photographs for the most part have a long-ago and far-away feel that sets them apart from his war photography of Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of it is the landscapes are different—European farms-and-forests, not southwest Asian cities and desert. So, too are the white faces of the Kosovars and their Western dress.

It is also the uniforms—US soldiers are dressed in their dark-green “Battle Dress Uniforms” just prior to giving them up for the desert camouflage of “chocolate chips” and  “Army Combat Uniforms.” Not only are the uniforms of an older vintage, but so too is the equipment—load bearing web-gear, canteens, and M16 rifles, not armored vests, Camelbacks, and M4s. The visages of officers and enlisted men reflect purposefulness and enthusiasm, not anxiety, doubt, or confusion.

American forces patrolled in unarmored vehicles, usually in pairs but often individually. IEDs were unheard of and ambushes only a remote concern. The biggest danger was sliding off the narrow roads, especially in winter, when they were very icy. US KFOR forces often interacted with other members of the coalition, such as the two Russian soldiers standing at a checkpoint in the picture second below.

Cramped, impoverished villages built of shoddily-constructed concrete blocks vaguely resembled picture-postcards of European life. They conveyed a sense of provincialism and backwardness that would easily acquiesce to superior American ways of dealing with problems.

Cities were more bustling. Residents seemed too preoccupied by everyday life to kill in the name of politics and religion. But by the time we arrived, the Albanian makeover was nearly complete. Serbs huddled forlornly in their own neighborhoods and enclaves, and we protected their churches, not Muslim mosques, from destruction.

Overall, though, violence was rare, and could be handled with “crowd control” techniques, not combat.

Serbians and Albanians eager to fight were seen as hooligans with local agendas and grievances, not as operatives in a larger nationalist movement or global jihadist conspiracy. Detaining a troublemaker required extensive chain-of-command coordination, but the feel of such operations was that of locking up a small-town punk in the county jail for a few days until his anger subsided.

Most missions were “key leader engagements” with local officials, always negotiated with the help of interpreters, many of them women, wearing US Army camouflage.

American forces lived on Camp Monteith, an old Serbian Army base, and Camp Bondsteel, a proto-FOB magically construed out of nothing in an abandoned field by well-paid contractors. Many soldiers never left Monteith and Bondsteel, encampments complete with pizza parlors and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation centers. Mortar and rocket attacks that threatened the lives of soldiers on the camps just didn’t happen.

Kosovo allowed the US military to rehearse deployment, peacekeeping, and counterinsurgency tasks that would later characterize Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. FOB life, vehicle patrols, religious conflict, security operations, interpreters, and key leader engagements seemed manageable and relatively benign. Very often though, KFOR approaches, such as traveling in one or two vehicle convoys, would prove inadequate for dealing with far-deadlier threats to come. Missions that were routine in KFOR  metastasized in Iraq and Afghanistan and become much more fraught. What came peacefully and relatively easily in Kosovo might have inspired a false confidence in US capability that quickly unraveled in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hints of all this, I believe, can be found in Putnam’s photographs, if one knows where and how to look.

On the right of the picture below is Captain David Taylor, a company commander in our infantry task force. The picture is taken on Hill 874 outside Gnjilane, Kosovo in 2002. In 2006, Major Taylor was killed by an IED in Baghdad, Iraq.

More Bill Putnam photography can be found here.

War Film: Thank You For Your Service

October 14, 2018

Thank You For Your Service and The Yellow Birds, two movies released in 2017 about traumatized Iraq veterans, are so much alike that one wonders if they were the result of an Apprentice-style contest in which two film-making teams were assigned the same set of ingredients and tasks and told to do their best. Among the similarities:

Source and title: Well-regarded books about war in Iraq (The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel).
Characters: Male soldiers distressed by survivor’s guilt, and women (moms, wives, and girlfriends) upset by the men’s behavior.
Setting: Rural places and small towns in Red State America (Virginia for The Yellow Birds and Kansas for Thank You For Your Service; both movies were filmed in Georgia).
Cast: Pleasant-looking young up-and-comers in the leading roles, with minor roles featuring big-name female stars (Jennifer Aniston in The Yellow Birds and Amy Schumer in Thank You For Your Service).
Pivotal scenes: Suicide and suicide attempts.
Closing soundtracks:  Plaintive laments by classic-rock elder statesmen (John Mellencamp in The Yellow Birds and Bruce Springsteen in Thank You For Your Service).

All the above might be coincidental, but other shared attributes can’t be denied: both films flopped at the box office and critics didn’t seem to like them too much, either. Why? Grueling portraits of soldier trauma and family disfunction, punctuated by graphic scenes of suicide and attempted suicide, are probably never box-office dynamite, no matter how grippingly they are dramatized. The movies’ lack of success is also certainly linked to public indifference to the ongoing war-on-terror, reflected in the irony of Thank You For Your Service‘s title and in the oft-cited phrase “civil-military divide.” But the real problem is probably more aesthetic than cultural: Thank You For Your Service especially has a heavy-handed feel, as if its makers tried too earnestly to make a significant statement and forgot about making their movie entertaining. Kudos to them for caring-and-sharing, but even I, in a position more than most to like and respect such efforts, can at best give each movie a B, and even then for different reasons. The Yellow Birds, quirkier and more artistic, blends A moments (its cast and pictorial look) with C moments (plot and production values). Thank You For Your Service, on the other hand, is a pretty solid drive down the middle of the fairway. More firmly constructed than The Yellow Birds, it makes no major mistakes, but neither does it excel, excite, or generate the outrage that would seem to be its intent.

It’s been a while since I read Finkel’s book, a non-fiction work about veterans of the Army’s First Infantry Division in the years after they exited the service, so I won’t dwell too much on aspects that did or did not make it into the film version. Directed by Jason Hall, the screenwriter of American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service the movie elaborates on the parts of American Sniper in which supersniper Chris Kyle mopes about his home in Texas after his final deployment. The central figure in Thank You For Your Service the movie is Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann, an infantry squad leader wracked by guilt over the death of his platoon sergeant in Iraq, a bungled effort to rescue one his men wounded-in-action, and the suicide of another shortly after the unit returns to the States. That’s an awful 1-2-3 punch, and out of the military, Schumann drifts moodily. His deep silences are a source of refuge for him but severely rattle his wife Saskia, with whom he has a daughter he barely knows. Not working and struggling to obtain benefits and help, Schumann bonds with another former soldier, Specialist Solo Aeiti, who is in even worse shape than Schumann due to traumatic brain injury caused by multiple IED blasts. Their friendship is not immediately fruitful, however, as each man slides deep into depression and erratic behavior, their marriages dissolving and the men haunted by flashbacks to battle in Iraq and hallucinations of their now-dead platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Doster. An added torment for Schumann is that he and Saskia have been forced to rent out their beloved home while taking residence in a cheaper, dumpier place. Grating Schumann to no end is that his wife unbeknownst to him has rented the old home to Sergeant Doster’s wife—a move that constantly reminds him of his guilt over Doster’s death, complicates efforts to evict Mrs. Doster, and contributes greatly to friction between Schumann and Saskia.

Miles Teller as Sergeant Schumann and Beulah Kole as Specialist Aeiti try hard, but they are less charismatic actors than the two male leads of The Yellow Birds, Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan. Amy Schumer, as Mrs. Doster, also does not compare favorably with Jennifer Aniston, though credit to Schumer for being brave enough to play a very dowdy, undesirable woman (in The Yellow Birds the chemistry between Ehrenreich and Aniston is palpable, while in Thank You For Your Service Schumann physically recoils from Mrs. Doster in a way that seems beyond “just acting”). More galvanizing on-screen than Teller and Kole are the minor male characters: Joe Cole as a dopey manchild who kills himself in front of the wife who abandons him while he is overseas; Brad Byer in very brief scenes as Sergeant Doster, Omar Dorsey as a drug-dealer who takes an interest in Aeiti, and, most of all, Scott Haze, who channels his inner-Christian Bale/Heath Ledger to portray a badly-disabled and manically-crazed fellow veteran of Sergeant Doster’s platoon. Also strong are the women who (along with Schumer) play the wives of the soldiers: Erin Darke, Keisha Castle-Hughes, and especially Haley Bennett as Saskia. Frankly, the movie picks up steam when any of the supporting cast joins Teller and Kole on-screen, and it subsides to a well-meaning trudge when it’s just one or both of them on display, which unfortunately is a lot of the movie.

Thank You For Your Service is a serious movie about difficult subjects: suicide, PTSD, TBI, physical disability, family turmoil, an uncaring Army, Department of Veterans Affairs ineptitude, and the plight of struggling veterans. Hall’s intent to treat his subjects with gravity and dignity comes through loud-and-clear, but he overdoes it. The movie is daintier about showing the soldiers’ warts than the book (as I remember it) and the characters’ reserve and docility drains the movie’s energy; Schumann and Aeiti just seem too old and well-behaved, even for “good” soldiers who value order and discipline and desire to do the right things. Several scenes gesture toward the raunchy dishevelment, emotional neediness, and chaotic, often ugly thought-processes of 20-something veterans in full meltdown mode, but for all the anguish and violence it depicts, Thank You For Your Service comes off as chaste, sedate, and tasteful, as if it were afraid of making its protagonists unsympathetic. Sexual infidelity is never an issue, for example, and the characters’ bad behavior flirts with but stops short of actual crime and physical abuse of loved ones–three omnipresent elements in the annals of veteran breakdowns. Well, good, but the only character in Thank You For Your Service who seems truly out-there and dangerous, the Scott Haze character, makes you wish for an entire movie entirely about him. And, go figure, though severely disabled and living in poverty and squalor, he’s still doing better emotionally and psychologically than Schumann and Aeiti.

Finally, the movie Thank You For Your Service concludes by suggesting that both Schumann and Aeiti eventually find the help they need through a private charity. That’s tying a happier bow on things than (once again) I remember from Finkel’s book, which ends with the protagonists’ fates in doubt (The Yellow Birds movie also concludes with a smilier face than Powers’ novel). I suppose the hopeful ending is meant to be an uplifting bone thrown to audiences who have come to love Schumann and Aieti and now want only the best for them and their families. The conclusion feels a little pie-in-the-sky, however, in keeping with the movie’s overall too-mannered dramatization of the titanic fury of soldiers’ lives spinning out of control while in the military and after. As of 2018, the movie that captures that spirit while also capturing an audience still awaits making.

***

Thank You For Your Service is also the name of a documentary about veterans’ mental healthcare released in 2016.

Two Songs, Ten Years: Music, Memories, Going to War

October 6, 2018

A couple of nights before flying from Fort Riley, Kansas, to Afghanistan in August 2008, I saw the folk-rock artist Thao Nguyen and her band The Get Down Stay Down in a bar on Massachusetts Avenue in Lawrence, Kansas. I already knew Nguyen’s music a little, and a little about her biography, which interested me as much as her music. Raised in the Vietnamese immigrant neighborhoods that surrounded my parents’ house in northern Virginia, Nguyen in an early publicity shot appears wearing a jersey adorned with the logo of the “Arlington Cubs,” a sports club for whom my brothers and I played on countless baseball, basketball, and football teams in our youth. Later, Nguyen attended William and Mary college, which is a very good school but not one known for producing rock stars. By 2008, though, she had a couple of albums out and a hit—a girl-power anthem titled “Swimming Pools”—playing frequently on my local indie-alt station.

The pre-flight concert in Lawrence was just what the doctor ordered in terms of a night out before heading into the unknown. The Get Down Stay Down were tight-and-rocking, and all the songs, even the ones I didn’t know, were accessible and engaging. While singing, Nguyen appears possessed to the point of being spastic, and her voice sometimes hits atonal notes as if her Vietnamese were in contest with her English. It’s all good, though, and in-between songs, she charmed with funny anecdotes and quips delivered in the mid-Atlantic-coast tones and cadences I knew growing up. Before she went on, Nguyen ordered whiskey at the bar and watched the warm-up band play a couple of songs, and then wandered out to the sidewalk to hang with the smokers for a while. After the show, at the merch table, I don’t think I said anything to Nguyen about Afghanistan—I mean, I hope I didn’t, it would have been too obvious—but I do remember asking her where she went to high school. She told me she had attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology—a northern Virginia magnet-school for super-smarties. I thought about asking her if she had known the baseball coach, who was one of my best friends growing up, but that seemed kind of insipid. This inconsequential exchange brought our interaction to a close, save for my purchase of her second album, Like the Linen, which I listened to often on the long flight to Afghanistan and in the year that followed.

Like the Linen is good, but it was the album that Thao & The Get Down Stay Down released next that spoke to me personally. Called Know Better, Learn Faster, it’s the post-deployment record I’ve probably listened to more than any other, and certainly more often start-to-finish than any other. For me, it’s a unique swirl of appealing sound, beat, voice, and words, never more so than in the title song, whose chorus beguiles like a mantra reflecting something of my own sense of self-reproach, felt sharply in the two-to-three years just after deployment and only somewhat diminished now.

That first flight to Afghanistan was part of an Army-thing called a “Pre-Deployment Site Survey,” or, in words barely more comprehensible, a brief leaders’ reconnaissance of the area to which we would later bring our troops. In November 2008 I began the first leg of the journey that would take my advisor team and me to Afghanistan for a year. Catching a plane at LaGuardia in NYC back to Kansas I stood in the early-morning TSA line next to a scruffy dude whose mussed hair and road-worn attire proclaimed a rock-and-roll lifer. I don’t remember who started the conversation, but the guy was a gabby type who told me that he was the sound tech for a group called The Walkmen and he had come straight to the airport from a gig. I gulped, because The Walkmen, a band I already knew, play the kind of literate rock music that’s catnip to me—something like a combination of two other bands I like a lot, The Strokes and Interpol. Thanks to the slow-moving long line, we had plenty of time to talk and our conversation ranged wide-and-far. After I told him I was in the Army, he told me that he had grown up in Arlington, where his father had been a two-star Special Forces general at the Pentagon. Well damn, I thought then and now, and I suppose, since we exchanged emails and he still appears in my Facebook and LinkedIn feeds as a suggested contact, I could find out if he was pulling my leg or not. The Walkmen, I’ve since learned, are from DC, so maybe it checks out. Whatever, I like the story as is, especially since I enjoy The Walkmen’s music so much, and, like Thao Ngueyn and her band, they are bound to my memories of going to war. Below’s a good one by them. It’s my favorite kind of song, a fast-sad one, about friends, remembering, and fighting for things that are worth fighting for.

 

Toni Morrison’s Home: A Different War Story

October 2, 2018

WLA Poster

At the War, Literature & the Arts conference in Colorado last month I read a paper titled “The Black Aesthetics of War Trauma:  Toni Morrison, Larry Heinemann, and Contemporary War Fiction.”  In it, I compared Toni Morrison’s 2012 novel Home, about a black Korean War veteran’s post-war ordeal, with Larry Heinemann’s 1987 Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, about a white veteran adrift after coming home. Here’s part of it:

Home unites Morrison’s interest in black veterans and her interest in personal healing and national coping strategies for dealing with trauma, almost as if she had deliberately taken characters, plot points, and narrative styles from Heinemann’s Paco’s Story and merged them with the ideas and ethos of her own 1987 novel Beloved.  Points on which Home and Paco’s Story resemble each other include:

-the plight of the war-torn-and-haunted veteran dramatized by means of a long journey, with many scenes set on public transportation or in diners and rooming houses.

-a heavy emphasis on survivor’s guilt, brought about by having outlived friends and comrades in combat.

-an even-more intense trigger involving sexual desire for a young Asian woman followed by actively taking the woman’s life or being complicit in murder.

-the interest in the ability of small-town America to accept and nourish returning veterans.

-the inadequacy of the medical, legal, and policing apparatuses, which effectively criminalize erratic behavior by veterans.

-the wise counsel of fellow veterans, especially elders, who are portrayed as the only ones who can connect with other veterans.

-a similarity in tone, particularly in the italicized interludes in Home, in which Frank Money cajoles and taunts the reader/writer in a bristling street/folk-idiom very much like that of used by Heinemann in Paco’s Story, which is narrated by the collective ghosts of Paco’s now-dead fellow soldiers.

Does it matter the stories resemble each other, and that Morrison composed her story after Heinemann and may have consciously drawn plot-and-style points from it?  I don’t think so, and more importantly, I don’t care; in fact, I’m glad it has happened….

I went on to suggest that Morrison is not just interested in Heinemann but the corpus of war-fiction published about the same time as Home and featuring psychologically distressed white veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan:

What Morrison has done is excavate the pre-history of the troubled, war-torn veteran and relocated it from the domain of white veterans of the contemporary era to that of black veterans in the 1950s, whose alienated wandering was more fraught than modern white veterans might imagine. Mindful that the Korean War is often called “The Forgotten War,” as well as being the first American war in which blacks fought in integrated front-line units, and also mindful that African-Americans fought and suffered casualties out of proportion to their population, Morrison uses Home to make a strong statement about the centrality of black Americans in the American history of war, as well as the American history of trauma.  In so doing, Home serves as a prism that refracts present-day understandings of war trauma through an historical race consciousness that challenges assumptions, adds detail, and expands context….

I continued by suggesting that in retelling the story of the psychologically distressed veteran from an African-American perspective, Morrison has not only related an overlooked chapter in American history, her book itself constitutes an historical event that might well be looked back on in the future as game-changing. I used the conference keynote speaker, African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, to explain:

As such, they reflect Suzan-Lori Parks’ formulation of a black theatrical aesthetics, in which she states, “Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theater, for me, is the perfect place to “make” history—that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as playwright is to … locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.”

The same sentiment of “made history” is afoot in Home, I feel.  Home asserts that a whites-only story of return-from-war is at best a partial truth, true only so far as it goes.  Not only does it exclude black veterans, but its entire premise is built on and borrowed from one of the nation’s ur-trauma narratives:  500-years of racial oppression the result of which has forged an African-American population scarred physically, mentally, and emotionally, individually and collectively.

Finally, I considered what I call the “intriguingly upbeat ending” of Home:

But rather than imagining a downward trajectory for her war-torn veteran protagonist and an irredeemably debilitating social-political milieu Morrison in Home (as she does in Beloved) transcends the trap of victimhood by offering a more resilient version of the traumatized survivor.  Morrison suggests that for poor African-Americans in the Deep South in the 1950s, embracing family and community, not running from them, is a means for surviving poverty, racism, and the persistent squelching of individual dreams and opportunities.  Within that embrace, failings and sins can be forgiven and made secondary to the collective endeavor to maintain dignity and fellow-feeling.

Home thus stands as a counterpoint to the generic convention of the veteran psychologically-damaged by war on behalf of a nation that doesn’t know what to do with the victims it has created.  It’s not to blame white veteran-authors for writing works that don’t acknowledge the Africanist presence in the American history of war-trauma I speak of.  Instead, it is for alert readers and the authors of the future to understand the full range of possibilities and stakes.  One such reader and author, Jesse Goolsby, one of our hosts here at the conference and the author of an excellent post-war novel himself, reminds us:

            “There are blank pages in front of all of us.  If one wants a different war story then go write it, and I wish you well.”

Home is a great example of the “different war story” Goolsby speaks of, not one that merely confirms or rebukes familiar tropes and themes, but offers a variation on them from the point-of-view of an author as perceptive and as uniquely marked by her life and times as is Morrison.

Thank you to my fellow panelists Liam Corley, Hilary Lithgow, and Lydia Wilkes, as well as to our moderator Gregory Laski.  Special thanks to the United States Air Force Academy and the Department of English and Fine Arts there for sponsoring the conference.  Reading  lots of Toni Morrison, Larry Heinemann, Jesse Goolsby, and Suzan-Lori Parks (as well as the other conference keynote speaker, Robert Olen Butler) over the summer has been a pleasure.  I previously wrote about Home here.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ quote can be found in an essay titled “Possession,” published in The America Play and Other Works (1995).

Jesse Goolsby’s quote can be found in an AWP Roundtable conversation published on the Sundress Publications website as “Duty and Dilemma: 100 Years of Writing About War (2018).

 

War Film: The Yellow Birds

August 30, 2018

Kevin Powers’ novel The Yellow Birds arrived in 2012 to great fanfare. In company with David Abrams’ excellent Fobbit, also published that year, as the first post-9/11 war novels written by military veterans, The Yellow Birds seemed both preternaturally good and strikingly unique. Combining a heightened lyrical style, gritty scenes of combat carnage, and a psychological interest in military leadership, duty, and guilt, The Yellow Birds attracted plaudits left-and-right, including a nomination for the National Book Award. Part of what made The Yellow Birds so interesting was its prose: rather than hard-boiled grunt-speak and super-concern for realistic military detail, it featured a fractured narrative composed of sentences often more allusive than descriptive, knit together by crafted patterns of color and imagery, and punctuated by portentous stabs at profundity, as in its oft-quoted opening line, “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” Even more striking was its sensibility. The novel’s protagonists are infantryman, but they aren’t the tough guys who populate World War II and Vietnam novels. They drink, smoke, say “fuck” a lot, go to whorehouses, curse their chain-of-command, and shoot people—all the usual infantry things—but do so without the emotional hardening, or posturing, that seems de rigueur for infantrymen in real life and even more so in books and movies. More emo than hardcore, not so much Slayer as Death Cab for Cutie, the protagonists of The Yellow Birds are fragile and vulnerable, and the whole business of war leaves them in morose isolation. Disconsolate and self-loathing when they might be pissed-off and self-righteous (or even proud), they direct their capacity for violence inward, not outward.

With success came backlash, as the very things that made The Yellow Birds unique brought quick strong rebuke from a variety of angles. Powers’ prose was charged with being too mannered, too much the product of the University of Texas MFA program he attended, and too unfaithful to the vernacular idiom of “real” infantrymen. For many, Powers’ characters, in particular the first-person narrator Private First Class John Bartle, were unappealing, more listless dishrags (like Melville’s famous Bartleby; Melville’s Billy Budd also seems to be an antecedent) than decisive men-o-war. To veterans who had kicked-ass-and-taken-names in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed unconscionable that Bartle was being held forth as a representative US combat soldier, and as the far greater popularity of works such as American Sniper attested, the reading public wanted little to do with the Bartle model, either. Academics, who one might think would be sympathetic to Powers’ effort to portray the “human cost of war” in a literary way, soon piled on, too. They accused Powers of trying to recoup sympathy for emotionally traumatized young white male veterans rather than castigating them for killing Arabs in an unjust war, as if The Yellow Birds were a white nationalist stealth project designed to assert that white American soldiers were the “real victims” of the war in Iraq. It was a lot, maybe a bit much, as the overall impression rendered by the attacks was that The Yellow Birds was a book that everyone might comfortably find a reason to feel superior to. One wonders what Powers has made of it all, but he has been mostly mum on the subject, even as he continued to write and publish. 2014 brought a volume of poetry titled Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting and a novel, A Shout in the Ruins, arrived earlier this year.

In early 2017 a movie version of The Yellow Birds inconspicuously appeared to somewhat surprisingly little notice. I make it my business to track these things, but I missed it upon release, and I was not the only one, for no one I know seems to have noted its appearance or has yet watched it. The movie’s now available through Netflix, but even so seems still to be governed by mysterious forces minimizing its impact. A terrific John Mellencamp song called “The Yellow Birds,” for example, runs over the closing credits, but is not available on any of the popular music streaming services. As of a couple of weeks ago, the movie was only available by mail-order DVD, not via streaming, and a video documentary available with the DVD version that describes its making is missing commentary by the film’s director Alexandre Moors and its biggest-name star Jennifer Aniston. The signs unfortunately suggest that several of the principals who might best promote The Yellow Birds movie have distanced themselves from it.

All that’s curious, for the movie version of The Yellow Birds, while not perfect, or even great, is pretty good. In at least two ways it excels, garnering in my opinion head-of-the-pack kudos among recent war films for the excellence of its cast and the beauty of the cinematography. Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan, as Bartle and his battle buddy Private Daniel Murphy, respectively, are handsome faces and poised actors who for my money render the best GWOT cinematic portrayals of the 20-year-old white males who still make up the bulk of the fighting force. British actor Jack Huston (son of famed director John Huston) as Sergeant Sterling doesn’t quite capture the body language and rhetorical swing of the career NCOs I knew in the military, but in a stylized way he’s still impressive enough to make his dominance over Bartle and Murphy realistic and compelling. Aniston as Murphy’s mother—in the film an aging soccer-mom—and Toni Collette as Bartle’s mom—a hard-bitten country woman—are also strong. Their characters are given far more play in the movie than in the book, to include a moving scene in which they commiserate about their sons, and it’s all to good effect.

Production-values-wise, The Yellow Birds is a little shaky. The use of M113 Armored Personnel Carriers instead of modern Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and and Huey helicopters instead of Blackhawks signals cut-rate reliance on surplus Vietnam military hardware rather than the real stuff used in Iraq. The soldiers’ gear and weaponry also seem to be pared-down simulacra of actual soldiers’ “kit,” as if the film were gesturing at authenticity as in a stage-play rather than replicating it in gnat’s-ass detail. Curiously, Bartle and Murphy consistently call Sergeant Sterling, “Sir,” which is weird because every male sergeant I ever knew announced at least once, “Don’t call me ‘sir’; I work for a living.” Extremely grating from a veterans’ viewpoint is that many scenes feature actor-soldiers wearing their helmets with chinstraps unfastened “John Wayne” style—that just plain never happened in the Army I served in for twenty-eight years. On the other hand, the bang-bang combat scenes are good, and the representation of the soldiers’ blood, sweat, grime, and gore post-battle is excellent to the point of harrowing. Above and beyond reproach is the look of the film—tonally dark in scenes set both overseas and in the States, with faces framed and scenes paced thoughtfully, it has an artistically-unified feel that I’m guessing is director Moors’ effort to create an atmospheric visual style commensurate with Powers’ moody lyricism.

Alterations from the book are not especially significant thematically, but still worth noting. One example is Bartle’s first name; the scriptwriters have seen fit to replace the old-fashioned “John” of the novel with the millennial moniker “Brandon.” In the book, Murphy’s mom is a rural mail-carrier and Murphy is said to have never left the county in which he was born before joining the Army. Bartle, on the other hand, seems to be from some more middle-class place that makes his deterioration into criminality, drunkenness, prison, and isolation more calamitous. The movie reverses those backstories, with Murphy announcing that he hopes to go to UVa and study history after the Army and his mom (played by Aniston) a frosted-highlights suburbanite, while Bartle’s mother ekes out existence on the edge of poverty and respectability. There’s also the scene in the movie uniting Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Bartle that is not in the novel, which is a shrewd addition, and a long episode in the book set in Germany at the end of Bartle’s deployment is cut without loss from the film.

These are all minor switcheroos, I feel, for the movie gets the most important element of the book—the entangled web of obligation and remorse binding Bartle, Murphy, Sterling, Mrs. Bartle, and Mrs. Murphy—right in just about the same proportions that the novel does. The crux of the story is that Bartle makes a foolish promise to Mrs. Murphy that he will look out for her son on their upcoming deployment. Sterling overhears the conversation and lambastes Bartle for making a commitment that is not his to make and which will prove almost impossible to keep. Sterling, a war veteran who knows war’s capriciousness and who possesses his own over-developed sense of responsibility, lords it over his two young charges in ways that the two privates feel first charismatically, then perversely, and finally diabolically. In Iraq, Murphy begins to crumble under the stress of combat and then falls apart completely when a female soldier on whom he has developed a crush is killed. Murphy subsequently goes AWOL, or in modern parlance, DUSTWUN, and Sterling and Bartle search for him apart from the rest of their platoon. Finding Murphy’s mutilated dead body, they make a fateful decision to dispose of it (in the process killing an innocent Iraqi) rather than recovering and returning it to the States, because they want to spare Mrs. Murphy the emotional devastation they presume she will feel upon seeing her son’s ravaged corpse. In the book, Bartle compounds his duplicity by writing Mrs. Murphy a letter full of lies and evasions; it’s not as clear in the movie that this happens. In any case, the men’s plan succeeds for a while, as the Army lists Murphy as MIA rather than KIA. Over time, though, the difficulty of living with a lie renders both Sterling and Bartle suicidal, and eventually a military investigator (in the movie played by Jason Patric, another “name” cast member) puts together the clues linking Bartle to Murphy’s disappearance—an act of misguided mercy that in fact is a war crime—and brings Bartle both to legal justice and a soul-crushing apprehension of the magnitude of his mistakes and the vicissitudes of life.

As plots go, that’s not bad for an Iraq or Afghanistan war story. The attention paid to the bonds linking soldiers, with the suggestion that heroism is a delusion, leadership is a canard, and camaraderie and loyalty are traps, is fine. The effort to incorporate mothers and the homecoming into a war saga is good, too. The book as does the movie fails to explain why Murphy in particular exacts such an emotional investment on the parts of Bartle and Sterling—I’m supposing it has something to do with his innocence. Similarly, Sterling’s character emits confusing clues as to whether we should understand him as rigid military martinet, caring NCO bound by duty, or ethically-fluid shaman whose evil genius is unleashed by war’s chaos. The suggestion is that his experience is the yin to the yang of Murphy’s innocence, but the end of the novel and film complicate the matter, for it is Bartle who convinces Sterling that they should dispose of Murphy’s body, rather than vice-versa. That seems out-of-character for both of them, as well as being a dumb, under-explained decision that defies plausibility. Oh well, nothing’s perfect and everything could be better. The Yellow Birds was never going to be American Sniper, but it has its virtues and its fans nonetheless. If the film doesn’t quite succeed on all levels, the excellence of the cast and Moors’ direction suggest that Powers’ novel might ultimately find its most powerful expression on-stage as a play, where plot ambiguities and military quibbles would be incidental to the emotional force of the human interactions being dramatized.


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