Archive for the ‘Art and War’ category

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.

Hilary Plum, Caleb Cage, Ahmed Saadawi

August 15, 2018

Three recent works of fiction suggest that war in Iraq was not so much an event or set of events, but a disease that infected its participants and ruined their lives. Hilary Plum’s Strawberry Fields is her follow-up to her 2013 novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (which I review here) and her 2016 book of essays Watchfires (mentioned here). Like Plum’s previous two works, Strawberry Fields’ interest is the rancid state of American society and global geo-eco-politics, in which violence, fear, militarism, crime, natural and man-made disaster, and constant surveillance overwhelm optimism, good-nature, civility, and civic feeling. War in Iraq figures in each of the works, but mainly as a breeding ground for and a corollary manifestation of rot at home. In Strawberry Fields, five Iraq veterans are found murdered; the rest of the novel details a strange alliance between a journalist named Alice and a detective named Modigliani as they search for clues to the murder in war crimes committed by contractors to whom the soldiers were connected overseas. The story is related through the perspective of multiple characters in a non-linear manner, with contextual clues scant and little sense of plot or closure. Intermixed with the main storyline are other chapters depicting harrowing scenes of human, animal, and environmental vulnerability, set in places as diverse as New Orleans after Katrina, a refugee camp in an unnamed country, a neglected zoo, a field ruined by pesticides. The textual atmosphere is sometimes lyrical but mostly clotted and bristling, so Strawberry Fields is not an easy breeze for casual readers. If, however, you, as do I, might like a novel that doesn’t just describe our malevolent times but replicates their dizzying and dismaying profusion of bad news and hostile intentions, sans happy-face band-aids, then Strawberry Fields is for you.

Caleb Cage’s dedication to Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada, his book of nine linked short services about war in Iraq and before and afterwards in Nevada, is telling. Written “For Brooke” (I presume Cage’s wife), it goes: “you are the happy story you couldn’t find on these pages.” Brooke wasn’t wrong, for I don’t think I’ve read a work of fiction about Iraq or Afghanistan that is so relentlessly dour. The protagonists of the stories in Desert Memories—soldiers of different ranks in a Nevada National Guard infantry unit—just seem miserable. The war is hopeless, the chain-of-command are fools, Iraq and Iraqis are disgusting, the soldiers screw each other’s girls, the women in theater and back home are treacherous, and the relief from it all—alcohol—is a one-way fast-track to ruin at an early age. Something like the true voice of the disaffected junior enlisted soldier and junior officer emerges in full throttle over the course of Desert Mementos. Convinced of their own superior judgment and self-righteousness, the soldiers seethe as the increasing apprehension that they now hold in contempt the military they voluntarily joined gnaws at their self-respect. What they hoped would be a transformative experience has turned out to be joyless and purposeless and they suspect that they have been made worse, not better, by Army service. Silently blaming themselves for their predicament is intolerable, however, so begins endless bitching and acts of petty insubordination directed at a military they now loathe. For all that, Desert Mementos has many virtues, or maybe all that is its virtue, or at least its point. I’ll trust there are still a lot of highly-motivated, good-natured soldiers eager to do well out there, but there are those like the soldiers described in Desert Mementos, too, and the military has only itself to blame for it. As someone who has led a lot of vehicle “CONOPS,” I liked Cage’s depiction of them in “Ghost Patrol.” As someone who has pulled many guard-tower shifts, I appreciated Cage’s portrait of the same in “Desert Island.” As someone who knows all too well the inside of a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and built many a PowerPoint presentation (and written about them here), I loved “This Is Not Burning Man.” As someone who had a vexing professional relationship with a female embedded journalist, I could relate to “Proxy War.” As someone who has had some memorable experiences driving through Nevada, I thought “Tonopah Low” was right on-point. And as someone who was witness to the killing of a fellow truck crew-member, I’ll testify that a similar event described in “Soldier’s Cross” spoke to me hard and true.

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad tells the story of a monster created out of human body parts that wreaks vengeance on Iraqis who are complicit in criminal activity—usually killing—directed against fellow Iraqis. The novel’s least interesting parts are those that give voice to the monster’s consciousness or attempt to explain it through authorial third-person description. Apparently, the modern-day Frankenstein represents a cosmic manifestation of the violence begat by violence, a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever-expanding retribution for past sins and crimes, amplified by the collapse of humane civil society in Iraq as a result of first Saddam Hussein and then the American invasion. These portions of Frankenstein in Baghdad ring kind of strident and over-determined while emitting confusing signals whether they are serious or comically fanciful. Much more winning is the rest of the novel, which consists of accounts of everyday Iraqis—the 90% who wouldn’t think of killing anyone under any circumstances–whose lives consist of trying to survive the violence instigated by the ruthless, selfish, and bloody-minded among them. The leader of the advisor team I replaced in Afghanistan told me upon arrival that “Afghans are reasonable decision-makers, but they are worried everyday about two things that we are not: that they might be killed at any time, and that they have to ensure their family’s future welfare.” That insight seems to also be the animating force for the characters in Frankenstein in Baghdad, who must deal with the chaos that tyranny, war, and most-of-all poverty have beset upon them. Living by their wits and extremely aware of the precariousness of their lives, Saadawi’s Baghdadians demonstrate a resiliency, ingeniousness, and humanity that makes us far-softer, far-safer Americans look like rigid, selfish dullards. Their stories both heart-breaking and inspiring, Saadawi relates them in a way that, against all odds, seems light-hearted, jocular, even madcap. How Iraqi fiction about the war can be so zestful, while American fiction strikes such bummer notes, is one of the wonders of literature and mysteries of life.

Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields. Fence Books, 2018.

Caleb S. Cage, Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada. University of Nevada Press, 2017.

Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad. Translated by Jonathan Wright. Penguin, 2018.

Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog

August 5, 2018

In a 2014 Los Angeles Book Review article titled “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” author Brian Castner wondered why so little fiction and poetry had been written about war in Afghanistan compared to Iraq. In the article, Brandon Willitts answers Castner’s question by noting that the special operators who were doing much of the fighting in Afghanistan were not bookish people drawn to reflection:

“These guys are such high achievers, Olympic athletes who have been trained to kill,” he 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.”

Will Mackin, the author of the short-story collection Bring Out the Dog, about Navy SEALs in action in Afghanistan and in Iraq and in training in America, may not fit the exact prescription Willitts offers as an impossibility, but he comes pretty close. Mackin was not technically a SEAL, for he never went through the rigorous selection process for the legendary fighting force. But through the vagrancies of a long career as a Navy officer, he found himself attached to the SEALs on several deployments as the team member responsible for coordinating “close air support”—rockets and bombs launched from Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine aircraft. Mackin, to the best of my knowledge, has also not played linebacker in the NFL. A high school football game described in one Bring Out the Dog story by the first-person narrator seems based on actual experience, however, so perhaps we can surmise that he possesses something of a jock’s good-nature, confidence, instinct for action, and sanguinity about violence. But Mackin early on was also bit hard by the writing bug, which values other qualities and a different sensibility—an affinity for underdogs and outsiders and an interest in language and the telling detail, for starters. Mackin openly acknowledges his debt to George Saunders and his epigraph comes from Barry Hannah, both authors esteemed by writing-world insiders and “fit-but-few” readers. Given all that, it’s no wonder Bring Out the Dog emits such a unique cluster of intriguing signals, as if a linebacker didn’t just write a novel about the NFL, but wrote a damn good one.

Most of the initial round of reviews for Bring Out the Dog, including mine here, fixate on Mackin’s style, which combines plain-spoken physical description and almost obsessively-rendered descriptions of distorted sensory perceptions. Mackin alludes to this practice in a New York Times interview:

The idea for this particular book came out of the sensory details of the wars. When I was deploying with a SEAL team in Iraq and Afghanistan, our mission was night raids, and we wore night vision. There was a disconnect between the actual image and the image I was seeing in the goggles, and in some of the transmission — I could hear the guy next to me speaking on the radio, and a few seconds later I’d hear his voice in my head on delay. The voice would sound different but all the words were the same.

Nothing directly appears as what it is. Especially at night, when you’re seeing things basically in three different forms: the heat-and-light image in night vision; the silhouette in darkness I’d see in my peripheral or if I looked under the goggles; and the image I knew — like, if I was looking at a teammate, the guy I was familiar with, my memory of what he looked like in daylight. That sort of sensory confusion really stuck with me.

Examples of this perspectival fluidity can be found on almost every page of Bring Out the Dog. Mackin, or his narrator, constantly calls attention to the contingency and unreliability of the senses. From the first story in the collection, “The Lost Troop”:

The windows of the MH-47 were made of Plexiglass. They were shaped like mixing bowls. Looking through them, I saw things on the outside as either close and blurry, or far away and flurry. There was a sweet spot in the lens, however, where something would emerge perfectly magnified. Thus, when we banked over the highway that ran between Kandahar and Kabul, I saw a bleary-eyed trucker behind the wheel. When we floated over the mountains into Wardak, I saw a waterfall cascading into a crystalline lake. And when we turned above the ruins of Joe’s old school, I imagined the school as it once had been—stone walls, slate roof, and leaded glass windows.

Such sensory alertness, the ability to weave permutations of impression effortlessly into the storytelling fabric, and the underlying premise that the subtle alterations of perspective infuse the plot, character, and reader response with meaning, are literary gifts. A classic example is Hawthorne in “The Custom House,” his long introduction to The Scarlet Letter. There, Hawthorne describes how the intermingling of fireplace flame, lamplight, and moonbeam illuminate a storytelling space “somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet….” out of which grow the novel that follows. Hawthorne’s interest was Romance, which he distinguished from the Novel; the debate is forgotten now, but the talent remains tangible: whatever virtues a book without it may have, the sentences are bound to feel overly literal and plodding. An author who doesn’t have the gift is like a basketball player without spring in his step, a baseball pitcher whose fastball doesn’t jump and swerve, or a linebacker who doesn’t like to hit.

All the above has been the gist of the initial reviews of Bring Out the Dog. Less detailed have been explorations of its stories as stories—what is Mackin asking us to understand about modern SEALs and SEAL warfare?

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Like many other contemporary short-story collections, Bring Out the Dog’s eleven stories are linked by recurring characters, subjects, and themes. The first-person narrator seems to be the same in all stories, an unnamed Navy Joint Terminal Attack Controller (or, “JTAC”) assigned to a SEAL unit, though in some stories the narrator also has other duties, such as being responsible for signal and electronic intelligence, host-nation liaison, and “pulling security” while the SEALs execute operations on targets. Six stories are set in Afghanistan, where the narrator belongs to a unit led by a terse, fierce, charismatic SEAL named Hal who leads the team on a series of raids and patrols. Intermixed with the Afghanistan stories are three set on training ranges in the United States, one in North Carolina and two in Utah. In these, the other main character is a senior JTAC named Reed with whom the narrator conducts training missions guiding in aircraft on bombing runs. The final two stories are set in Iraq, where the narrator is a member of a SEAL team led by Spot, who seems like a lesser version of Hal, though still formidable. While the Afghanistan missions take place in that country’s rural villages and back regions, the Iraq stories portray nighttime raids in the aptly-named city of Hit, in the Anbar region near Ramadi. Many stories feature Iraq or Afghanistan characters in minor roles who serve as agents of the narrator’s awakening, but US military personnel in line units appear only as foils for the more warrior-like SEALs. Also for better or worse, serving US women appear only once and stories set back in the States are unconcerned with the domestic sphere. A SEAL girlfriend figures in one story; predictably enough, I guess, she’s a dancer in a strip-club.

The subject of most of the stories are SEAL team operations broadly considered. The most common missions portrayed are nighttime raids on Iraq and Afghanistan households to kill-or-capture high-value targets: the SEALs helicopter in, approach their objective, blow in its doors, ransack the place while looking for targets, and then exfiltrate to the helicopter pick-up point. These missions are usually routine, except that sometimes they go haywire or something out of the ordinary happens, occurrences which serve as seeds for several of the stories the narrator wants to tell. Other stories focus on SEALs patrolling across forbidding landscapes in which the terrain as much as the Taliban or Al Qaeda are the enemy. A couple of stories are set mostly on the FOB and offer portraits of SEALs interacting among themselves or with line soldiers in non-combat scenarios. All are full of enough gnarly detail to satisfy the demands of hardcore military buffs while also establishing, without braggadocio, Mackin’s authorial credibility as a war-writer who has served with the toughest and seen a lot. Even better are the insights, usually offered as asides, that give purchase on the SEAL ethos. In one place, the narrator explains:

The variety of ideas among soldiers developed into a variety of ideas among units, which necessitated an operational priority scheme. As SEAL Team Six, we were at the top of that scheme. Our ideas about the war were the war. Therefore, we could knock any unit’s door in the middle of the night, assemble the soldiers in a room, and tell them what was what.

In another story, a SEAL is described as “a SEAL, and SEALs had their own problems, but being uptight wasn’t one of them. If anything, they’d gone too far in the opposite direction.” Elsewhere, the narrator writes, “Knowing that we were in for a gunfight, the boys were all smiles.” When team leader Spot thinks his team has grown sloppy, he chews them out. “And although he shouldn’t have to reiterate our philosophy,” the narrator writes, “he felt the need. ‘Speed and violence,’ he said. And we allowed him to say it again.” This in response to failure to kill a teen-age boy who dared to move when told to hold still–in contrast to the many scenes in recent war films and books in which soldiers err on the side of caution in shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenarios, for the SEALs hesitation is the cardinal sin.

The training range stories operate differently. From the most unpromising of dramatic material—one that not 1 in 100,000 potential readers can “relate to,” Mackin finds much of human interest in the spoken and unspoken tensions that bind the narrator and Reed as they stand at “observation points” and call in attack aircraft. Even better, given Mackin’s interest in perspective and measurement, the tales of range-finding and targeting (to include “Kattekoppen,” which is set in Afghanistan) read like parables of how to see and how to be sure of what you see.

The major theme of the stories is acceptance and belonging, earned by continuously proving one’s tactical competence, fitness for team culture, and loyalty. Often, it is the narrator who feels himself on the outside looking in—part of but not really belonging to the unit, with his tactical and social competence constantly under question by the rest of the team and himself. This feeling particularly drives the first story, “The Lost Troop,” in which the narrator feels, rightly, that the team holds him responsible for not calling in a punishing-enough airstrike to vanquish an enemy strongpoint, which led to one of the enemy survivors killing a SEAL named Yaz. In “Yankee Two,” the narrator bungles “actions on the objective,” when on a night raid he both fails to discover a mysterious electronic device that might be an IED “trigger” and takes his eye off one of their detainees. But it’s not just the narrator who reproaches himself for past mistakes and worries about future ones. “Rib Night” is about a SEAL who cements his reputation by exemplifying SEAL virtues—fighting prowess and team loyalty–while “Great Circle Route Westward Through Perpetual Night” is about another SEAL who must be reassigned after inadvertently killing the team search-dog (the canine referred to in the book’s title). In “Welcome Man Will Never Fly,” a SEAL demonstrates his unreliability at calling in airstrikes, thus forcing the narrator and his superiors to make a hard call about his fitness for an upcoming deployment. “Kattekoppen” is about a SEAL team that cycles through a number of artillery forward observers before finding the right one for the job. Illustrated by these stories is the relentless competitiveness of SEALs, their ferocious judgment of each other, and the lacerating humiliation that comes with not measuring up.

A second theme concerns SEAL team leadership. Hal and Spot dominate the lives of the other SEALs, setting the tone and upholding standards while instilling intense desire to obey and please among their troops. Their key to success seems to be a potent mixture of extreme calmness and extreme decisiveness, both in combat and in their judgment of men. In this regard Hal impresses the narrator a little more than Spot—Hal’s name calling to mind Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The narrative arc of Bring Out the Dog climaxes (spoiler alert) in “Crossing the River No Name” with Hal’s death, for which the narrator feels culpable and which leaves him not so much emotionally forlorn but cosmically adrift, as if the right order of the universe had been upset. The collection’s last two stories are set in Iraq under Spot’s leadership, which resembles in ways Hal’s, but doesn’t inspire the same confidence. We don’t quite feel that the last two stories register the cumulative force of the nine preceding stories on the narrator’s psyche—we don’t really even know if the stories are arranged in chronological order—but one can sense something setting in, if not quite disillusionment, then perhaps readiness to put SEAL life behind him.

A structural feature of the stories is that most of them end enigmatically. Narrative closure is always tricky business in short stories, and Mackin’s bent is to leave what might be the resolution unstated and hanging. In “Welcome Man Will Never Fly,” for example, the narrator, Reed, and the third man—a SEAL named Moby, the one who has just fucked up his pre-deployment test—make their way home after the training concludes. The narrator and Reed must report to their higher that Moby is unfit for deployment, even though by nature the wise-cracking and insouciant Moby is a perfect SEAL-bro who sees his mistakes as no big deal, who cares, whatever. Before arriving back at the base, however, the men are waylaid by a storm that forces them to take refuge in a motel where, by chance, a reunion of special ops pilots is in full-swing. The story’s end suggests that, confronted by the bonhomie of the retired pilots, the type of men who have all broken hundreds of military rules and buried dozens of mistakes in their long careers, the narrator and Reed will recalculate their decision. But the outcome is never portrayed directly; instead the story sets the condition for the dramatic moment to follow. Similarly, in “Yankee Two,” the narrator discovers a mysterious black box that may or may not be an IED trigger. Even after subjecting the box to a half-dozen tests, however, the narrator cannot determine whether the black box is even an electronic device. The story ends with an interrogation of the box owner—an adolescent boy—about to begin—but we never learn the result of the inquiry nor the fate of the box. Suggested, though, is the narrator’s growing sense of the futility of the mission, a feeling exacerbated by his increasing lack of confidence in Spot.

The focus throughout is clearly on fighting men whose social codes are shot through with fairly traditional ideas about manly bravery and toughness. Still, Bring Out the Dog likely is not going to please members of the special operations community and their fans, who, if they pay attention to it at all, will be suspicious of it and feel they are somehow being exposed, critiqued, or mocked. What’s there not to like about SEALs, they could ask? Mackin might even agree, for neither does Bring Out the Dog stand as a rebuke of the mountain of memoirs and films–the cultural glop–that celebrate and glorify SEALs. For critics of SEALs and their mythos, Bring Out the Dog probably doesn’t go far enough in problematizing either SEAL tactics or SEAL idolatry. Toxic masculinity and rampant militarism would seem to be on the table, but are not Mackin’s interest, nor is self-flagellation. “But ours was not a normal organization,” the narrator explains. “Sometimes what went on gave normal men pause. And if they paused, we’d send them back and demand a replacement.” In response to the books and movies about the world in which he served, Bring Out the Dog suggests Mackin wouldn’t think they are wrong in contour, merely nowhere near satisfying enough in detail and artistry.

As I’ve been intimating, it is very unusual to discover a writer of Mackin’s ability who has also been soldier-enough to accompany the SEALs not on just one mission as an observer or journalist, but dozens and probably hundreds as a participant. Not that Bring Out the Dog is Moby-Dick, but Mackin’s appearance on the literary scene resembles Melville’s in the 1840s, when fresh from a whaling voyage and living with cannibals a talented young writer seemed to emerge out of whole-cloth. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael testifies that it is best to be on good terms with the inhabitants of any realm in which one finds oneself and also that mad “Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.” Some of the same sentiments seem to apply to Mackin’s relationship to the SEALs. We might wonder that he doesn’t make more of the cumulative ethical toll from so much participation in shooting, bombing, home invasion, interrogation, and just plain brutal human interaction, even among the SEALs themselves. The narrator references psychological distress occasionally—what the narrator calls his “beleaguered conscience”—but it honestly doesn’t seem to be his thing to be tormented by war’s wanton destructiveness. That’s an aspect of combat he thinks about, but it doesn’t yet consume him, though he admits that in future years “I’d probably see good stuff as bad, and bad stuff as worse.” Perhaps it is all a matter of suppression, denial, compartmentalization, and suspended judgment—something officers are expert in, speaking from experience–but whatever, the attitude is curious and hard to understand—if the war didn’t actually traumatize you, OK, but how could literary war fiction possibly be about anything else?

One means of understanding the ethical tone of Bring Out the Dog is offered by Air Force pilot and novelist James Salter in his memoir, where he claims that he disliked writing about himself, because the “self was not the principal thing.” In other words, he, and I’m suggesting Mackin, too, is more interested in describing people and events he observed than in exploring his own mind or soul. The risk here is a certain lack of psychological or moral depth that might be judged heinous, or at least reprehensible, especially when we’re talking about breaking into Afghan and Iraq households and terrorizing the residents. I don’t think that’s the case with Mackin’s narrator, Mackin himself, or Bring Out the Dog generally. More ambivalent about special operators than other literary fiction yet written about them—I’m thinking of Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War, and Ross Ritchell’s The Knife–Bring Out the Dog emenates from a deeper place of knowingness. Still it would be ludicrous to think Mackin would throw under the bus men with whom he fought and on whom he depended for his life. “I felt proud that I’d fought, or something like proud, but also glad it was over,” states the narrator of “The Lost Troop.” Mackin’s stories set the conditions for the profounder resolution of their ambiguities, not by his characters, nor by Mackin, but by his readers.

An interview I conducted with Mackin for The Wrath-Bearing Tree can be found here.

Will Mackin, Bring Out the Dog.  Random House, 2018.

The Norwegian Way of War: Nobel

July 25, 2018

Nobel, a television drama about Norwegian special operators in Afghanistan and back home, went largely unremarked in America upon its release in 2016. Sometime since then, Netflix saw fit to slip the eight-part series into my “Recommended for Peter” queue, one more entry in the endless stream of diamonds and lumps-of-coal the video-streaming Goliath can’t stop sending my way. Fortunately and thankfully, this time Netflix is way more hit-than-miss, for Nobel is excellent.

The central story line concerns Lieutenant Erlang Riiser, a stoical and very competent man-of-war who, upon return to Norway after an eventful deployment in northern Afghanistan, receives a mysterious text telling him that a wealthy Afghan land-owner suspected of being a Taliban sympathizer has also arrived in Norway. The Taliban-friendly Afghan is in pursuit of his wife Washima, whom the Norwegians have granted refugee status out of fear for her safety, and he is also chasing a business opportunity brokered by high-placed Norwegian officials and businessmen. Riiser receives the text while attending an official function with his wife Johanne, who works as a deputy to the Norwegian minister of defense—one of said high-placed Norwegian officials. Riiser’s Ranger-danger spidey-sense tingling, he abandons his wife to chase down the anonymous lead. Finding Washima being pummeled by her husband, Riiser kills the husband and one of his henchmen and whisks Washima off to a hide-spot.

That all occurs in the first fifteen minutes of episode one. The rest of the hour and the subsequent seven episodes of Nobel spin out the aftermath and upshot of the fateful event, along with lots of back-story scene-setting in Afghanistan, as Riiser tries to discover the source of the text, deal with its consequences, smooth things out with his wife, and contend with a number of other issues, including a heroin-addicted father, a disabled teammate, the grieving mother of second teammate killed-in-action, a pesky muckraking journalist, and a troubled son coming to terms with the idea that his father is caught in a harrowing game of kill-or-be-killed. All the action is for big stakes: not only are oil-drilling rights in Afghanistan on the table, for which the Norwegians are trying to broker a deal in collaboration with a Chinese consortium, but also hanging in the balance is a Nobel Peace Prize, which, in case you don’t remember (I didn’t), is awarded by Norway, not Sweden.

That’s a lot, but the wide-ranging plot is Nobel’s strength. Its creators have crafted a complex but plausible story, one whose reach spans high and low, close and far, backwards and forwards, and they’ve imbued it with intelligence, drive, and capability of surprise. A couple of scenes strain credulity and it is paced a mite more slowly than you might think a war movie should be, but overall Nobel is dramatic without being melodramatic, exciting without being sensational, and neither reductive nor pandering in its presentation of war’s dangers and complexities. Also good are the production values. The “Afghanistan” scenes (filmed in Morocco) recoup well-trodden scenes from film and fiction—FOB life, soldierly banter and camaraderie, vehicle movement ops, IEDs, suicide bombers, the death of a buddy, shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenarios, tea-drinking schmoozefests with Afghans—with attention to detail and fresh accents, while also throwing in a few new ones—sex in the hootches, green-on-blue killing, and a buzkashi game, to name three.

Aksel Hennie is solid as Lieutenant Riiser. Neither Chris Kyle nor Jason Bourne, Riiser’s a mature man; his BMW station-wagon becomes him, while his Under Armour ballcap makes him look not youthful but slightly foolish, as if his suspect American fashion sense corresponded with suspect American ideas about things, such as the thought that joining the military and going to fight in Afghanistan was a good one. Watchful, thoughtful, and somewhat bug-eyed, he is slow to talk, leaving long pauses in the conversational flow as if he knew a little bit more or a little bit less than everyone else in the room. Only impulsive when the situation demands, Riiser is not addicted to thrill, or perhaps he keeps his addiction dampened down. Asked to deal with a lot, from international intrigue to tense combat to a shaky home life, he’s almost too stoical and practical in his responses for the other people in his life, especially his wife and kid, who practically beg him to be more there for them. His silent competence is both a virtue and a liability as the dramatic focus of the show: we understand that he represents a certain type of admirable-but-also-problematic military mindset, but the series could still do better to open him up emotionally and psychologically.

While Riiser is somewhat one-dimensional, Tuva Novotny, as Riiser’s wife Johanne, better carries off a bifurcated personality: her tightly pulled-back hair and pursed lips signal all business up-top, while her armband tattoo and leather pants below speak to something wilder and more sensual. Miffed by her husband’s remoteness, perhaps she also senses that she’s not getting her due as a very pretty woman, and she finds herself susceptible to the flirtation of a raffish international entrepreneur. This subplot plays out in did-she-or-did-she-not-succumb? fashion, which is interesting, but the tension between the Riisers is even more interesting, if not as erotic. Johanne’s desperate to prove her competence in her own realm as the equal of her husband’s in his, and the series finale brings both members of the Riiser power-couple to Afghanistan, where their marital competiveness—mixed, to be sure, with love and care, however strained—crests on a wave of competing professional interests.

Much reference in Nobel is made to “the Norwegian way” of war-fighting and international business and politics. The mostly-unstated contrast to the Norwegian way is “the American way,” but a cheap-shot delivered early on drives the point home: one of the special operators proclaims if “we were Americans” a possible target “would already be dead.” On the political-business side, “the Norwegian way” speaks to some sort of rational deal-making centered on mutual interest and cultural sensitivity, as opposed, I’m guessing, to American shock, awe, and “kill ’em all” bum-fuckery. To be fair, when first American special operators and then an American Secretary of Defense appear in Nobel, they’re not portrayed as idiots with blood dripping from their teeth, but rather as shrewd practitioners of war’s complexity. Those cameos point to a grander theme. By the end of Nobel, the idea of a superior Norwegian way lies in tatters as events at both the national and individual levels humble the Norwegians. A thematic and visual motif of the series is explosions; they are featured not only in the background of the title sequence, but three characteristic Afghanistan explosions—an anti-personnel land mine, an IED, and a suicide bomb—punctuate the narrative. By the series end, Norway’s effort to escape the worst mistakes and moral quagmires of American folly have been blown to bits, and the men and women whose lives have been ruined by Afghanistan and in Afghanistan can blame neither Afghans nor Americans, but only themselves.

Nobel is directed by Per-Olav Sorensen and written by Mette Marit Bastad and Stephen Uhlander.

Epigraphs

July 8, 2018

“An epigraph is an effective literary tool that some writers utilize to focus the reader toward the theme, purpose, or concerns behind the work. It is included at the beginning of the piece of literature to offer insight into the motivation behind the artist’s vision. Generally a brief quotation taken from another piece of literature, the epigraph is oftentimes not a direct commentary upon the work but used to establish a mindset or offer insight into the factors that contributed to the manifestation of the work.”

-University of Michigan English 217 student website

Epigraphs are curious. First of all, I have trouble remembering the word and often confuse it with “epigram” and “epitaph.” Second, if I bother to read an epigraph before starting a book, I rarely remember it while reading the narrative proper. If an epigraph is too long, I mostly just let my eyes glaze over it. This is unusual, because epigraphs clearly have an important relation to the story that follows, and authors obviously go to some care to choose them and place them in front of us for consideration. But lots of books don’t have epigraphs. I recently pulled the Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction and poetry I own off the shelf and checked them for epigraphs. Most of the fiction employs epigraphs, but not all of it. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, and Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition are five that don’t, for instance. As if to make up for the books that don’t feature epigraphs, some authors provide two. Overall, reading a number of epigraphs in this way–very quickly, back-to-back–was enjoyable. The epigraphs definitely brought back strong memories of the book to which they were attached and together they created a thick literary web of intertextual references and signals. They made me think that epigraphs might be better read after reading the main text, not before.

Of the fiction that does include epigraphs, the most frequent source for them are the Greek classics. Many works, from Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, published in 2011, to Brian Van Reet’s Spoils, published last year, quote Homer, Socrates, Aeschylus, or another writer from antiquity. Of the non-Greeks, many are from American and English canonical authors, some known as war-writers and some not. W.H. Auden provides epigraphs for Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days and Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season. Stephen Crane is quoted by both David Abrams in Fobbit and by Matt Gallagher in Youngblood. The rest are from here-and-there, ranging in surprising exoticness from Sir Thomas Browne, used by Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, to Jean Baudrillard, quoted by Odie Lindsey in We Come to Our Senses. Not to play favorites, but the one that jumped out at me as being both unexpected and particularly apt for the story the author tells is Jesse Goolsby’s use of Whitman for I’d Walk With My Friends If I Knew Where to Find Them. Whitman’s insistence on the procreative urge of the world seems very near to the American-flavored cosmic force Goolsby suggests shapes the lives of his protagonists, not in a crude sexual way, but in terms of existential yearning only half-understood.

For some reason, not as many volumes of contemporary poetry employ epigraphs. Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers quotes Crane, so that’s three for the author of The Red Badge of Courage. Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes includes an epigraph, but her Stateside doesn’t. Nor do Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor and Sweet Insurgent, Colin Halloran’s Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux, Eric Chandler’s Hugging This Rock, and Charlie Sherpa’s Welcome to FOB Haiku, to name a few more.

I haven’t surveyed the dozens of memoirs I’ve read for epigraphs, but do note their presence in two of the more literary-minded of them, Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust (the epigraph quotes his father, the novelist Frederick Busch, who is also referenced by David Abrams in Fobbit) and Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, which draws from the Italian poet Eugenio Montale.

Retire the Colors, an excellent anthology of war-themed essays by veterans and non-veterans edited by Dario DiBattista, uses a quote from Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp for an epigraph, which is the only case I know of a contemporary war work quoting another. On the hunt, I tracked down Demon Camp to see what the always-interesting Percy might have used for an epigraph. I found two, one by Kierkegaard and the other by one of my favorite authors, James Salter, from a book I just finished reading and loved, his memoir Burning the Days. That was cool.

FICTION

Fobbit, David Abrams (2012)

Wars are nothing, in the end, but stories.

-Frederick Busch, The Night Inspector

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

 Brave Deeds, David Abrams (2017)

“Tell brave deeds of war.”

Then they recounted tales,—
“There were stern stands
And better runs for glory.”

Ah, I think there were braver
deeds.

-Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines

Green on Blue, Elliot Ackerman (2015)

 Allah’s Apostle said, “War is deceit.”

-Iman Al-Bukhari, 846 AD

The Corpse Washer, Sinan Antoon (2013)

In both gardens are fruit, palm trees, and pomegranates

-The Qur’an

Sand Queen, Helen Benedict (2011)

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

-Shakespeare, “Sonnet 94”

Wolf Season, Helen Benedict (2017)

Behind each sociable home-loving eye
The private massacres are taking place…

-W.H. Auden, “In a Time of War,” 1939

Mothers have been stolen from their own tears.

-Kareem Shugaidil, “Flour Below Zero,” 2005

A Big Enough Lie, Eric Bennet (2015)

I thought about Tolstoy and about what a great advantage an experience of war was to a writer. It was one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of, and those writers who had not seen it were always very jealous and tried to make it seem unimportant, or abnormal, or a disease as a subject, while, really it was just something quite irreplaceable that they had missed.

-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

mundus vult decripi ergo decipiatur [the world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived]

-Petronius

The Watch, Joydeep-Roy Bhattacharya (2012)

I know that I must die,
E’en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death
Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain.
For death is gain to him whose life, like mine,
Is full of misery.  Thus my lot appears
Not sad, but blissful; for had I endured
To leave my mother’s son unburied there,
I should have grieved with reason, but not now.

-Sophocles, Antigone

Eleven Days, Lea Carpenter (2013)

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead

-W.H. Auden, “The Shield of Achilles”

You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon (2011)

She turned to descend the stair, her heart
in tumult.  Had she better keep her distance
and question him, her husband?  Should she run
up to him, take his hands, kiss him now?

…And she, for a long time, sat deathly still
in wonderment—for sometimes as she gazed
she found him—yes, clearly—like her husband,
but sometimes blood and rags were all she saw.

-Penelope upon recognizing Odysseus, The Odyssey

 Youngblood, Matt Gallagher (2016)

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

-Stephen Crane

I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, Jesse Goolsby (2015)

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

 Wynne’s War, Aaron Gwyn (2014)

He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shpe to hold. His own father said that no man who has not to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.

-Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

What Changes Everything, Masha Hamilton (2013)

You don’t need a war.
You don’t need to go anywhere.
It’s a myth: if you hurl
Yourself at chaos
Chaos will catch you.

-Eliza Griswold

Beirut. Bagdad. Sarajevo.
Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of
course here.

-Adrienne Rich

Be Safe, I Love You, Cara Hoffman (2014)

 Even from ten or fifteen miles away you get a good view of a burning village.  It was a merry sight. A tiny hamlet that you wouldn’t even notice in the daytime, with ugly, uninteresting country around it, you can’t imagine how impressive it can be when it’s on fire at night! You’d think it was Notre-Dame! A village, even a small one, takes at least all night to burn, in the end it looks like an enormous flower, then there’s only a bud, after that nothing.

-Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Journey to the End of the Night

 We Come to Our Senses, Odie Lindsey (2016)

 But, ultimately, what have you got against aphrodisiacs?

-J. Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place

 Bring Out the Dog, Will Mackin (2018)

We saw victory and defeat
and they were both wonderful.

-Barry Hannah, “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet”

These Heroic, Happy Dead, Luke Mogelson (2016)

…why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead…

-e.e. cummings, “next to of course god america i”

 The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers (2012)

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head…

-Traditional U.S. Army Marching Cadence

To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.

-Sir Thomas Browne

War of the Encyclopaedists, Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (2015)

Nor do we doubt that many things have escaped us also,
for we are but human, and beset with duties…

-Pliny the Elder, the Original Encyclopaedist

 Sparta, Roxana Robinson (2013)

The man who does not wear the armour of the lie cannot
Experience force without being touched by it to the very soul.

-Simone Weil, The Iliad, or, the Poem of Force

 War Porn, Roy Scranton (2016)

Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night.

-Wallace Stevens

Spoils, Brian Van Reet (2017)

Low lie the shattered towers whereas they fell,
And I—ah burning heart!—shall soon lie low as well.

-Aeschylus

POETRY

Dots & Dashes, Jehanne Dubrow (2017)

War feels to me an oblique place

-Emily Dickinson

the dear sound of your footstep
and light dancing in your eyes
would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry

-Sappho

The Stick Soldiers, Hugh Martin (2013)

He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth.

-Stephen Crane

OTHER

Dust to Dust, Benjamin Busch (2012)

Stories are … in a sense, about ending and about endings, and of course they are also the heartfelt prayer, the valiant promise, that what we have loved might live forever.

-Frederick Busch, “Deaths”

My Life as a Foreign Country, Brian Turner (2014)

Too many lives go into the making of just one.

-Eugenio Montale

Retire the Colors:  Veterans and Civilians on Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Dario DiBattista (2016)

“They spent millions training me but they never taught me to come home.”

-Army Sergeant Caleb Joseph from Demon Camp by Jennifer Percy

Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, Jennifer Percy (2014)

To understand original sin is to understand Adam, which is to understand that one is an individual and one is also part of the whole race.

-Kierkegaard, The Concept of the Dead

Dreams remained. For years afterwards in nightmares stark as archive footage. I was what I had been.

-James Salter, Burning the Days

Does Anyone Remember American Sniper?

July 1, 2018

Chris Kyle’s memoir American Sniper was a best-seller in 2012, and in 2014, when the movie version was released, the film was even bigger. I’m not exactly sure, but I’d bet American Sniper the book has outsold all other Iraq and Afghanistan war books combined. Likewise, the movie. Both seemed to matter; for a while they were all people talked about. What you thought about Chris Kyle the person and his book and how you felt about Clint Eastwood’s movie meant something: how you felt about them was how you felt about the wars, how you felt about the military, how you felt about veterans, pretty much how you felt about, well, America.

2018 is not 2014, and it’s been a couple of years since anyone I know has wanted to talk about American Sniper. The other week I caught a bit of the movie on TV on a Sunday afternoon while flipping channels between innings of a Mets game. That struck me as an ominous marker of American Sniper‘s place in the cultural memory–a sign that it was quickly moving past irrelevancy toward oblivion. Why has this happened? I don’t know, maybe it was just the flavor-of-the-day to begin with, possessing as much long-lasting significance as a Tamagotchi. Maybe it was more; I can throw out some possibilities. I think the facts of Kyle’s death, at the hands of a former Marine he was trying to help, really screws with people’s ability to decide whether he was a hero, a victim, or something else. His death in that way, as with Pat Tillman’s death in a friendly-fire incident, really short-circuits the logic of respect and reverence that might be or should be his due. Or, maybe it’s all the after-the-fact stuff that’s emerged about the real Chris Kyle that has deflated his reputation and caused people to temper their enthusiasm and lose interest. Maybe his star as a polarizing love-him-or-hate-him national figure has been eclipsed by the even more polarizing ascent of Donald Trump.

Whatever, I think our contemporary moment is an emptier place without Chris Kyle and Pat Tillman. They should be our war-heroes, and surely if they were still alive millions of Americans would hang on their every word. What if they still lived and had Twitter accounts? Veterans Twitter, and to a certain extent, the public veteran presence generally, is a mess, full of pretenders, profiteers, and self-promoters, men and women with thin voices lacking moral and military gravitas, incapable of calming the anxieties and shouldering the burdens of a worried divided people. In other words, leaderless. It’s easy to speculate that Kyle would be a conservative icon for like-minded veterans and members of the public, racking up millions of followers and thousands of likes proclaiming the virtues of a good-man-with-a-gun while “owning the libs” with his well-aimed Twitter shots. In contrast, Tillman might be the Democratic Party savior: a warrior of the highest order who despises Trump, everything he stands for, and everyone who supports him. I don’t know, maybe I have their politics completely wrong. Maybe the two wouldn’t even be on Twitter, but retired to the farm. I doubt it, though–no one’s retiring to the farm these days. Maybe they would be false gods, with feet-of-clay like everyone else. Maybe they could speak across party lines, wise voices for unity and reconciliation, leading us in a national singalong of Kumbaya. As we drift toward Civil War II in their absence we can only wonder.

To return to American Sniper, here are ten questions that I think are important to think about in regard to (mostly) the movie.

  1. Why was American Sniper so popular?
  2. Is American Sniper a pro-war or anti-war movie? Just because a movie shows “the human cost of war,” does that make it “anti-war”?
  3. Is Chris Kyle a hero or a victim?
  4. Does American Sniper exploit and demean Iraqis?
  5. What accounts for American fascination with SEALs and snipers?
  6. What does American Sniper ask us to think about Chris Kyle’s wife Taya?
  7. What do we make of the end of the movie—Chris Kyle’s battle with PTSD, his death, and his funeral? How do those events shape or change our perceptions of the early parts of the movie?
  8. How is American Sniper the movie different from American Sniper the book?
  9. What qualities do director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall bring to the movie that help make it so striking?
  10. What qualities do actors Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller bring to the movie to make it so compelling?

Below I’ve excerpted bits-and-pieces from several reviews of American Sniper that appeared upon its release and also comments from interviews with director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall. I’ve also added a sentence of my own comment to each excerpt.

Army Iraq vet (infantry) and poet Brian Turner, “I Served in Iraq and American SniperGets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need.”  The Vulture, Jan 22, 2015.

The film made me remember something else, too: the oft-repeated phrase We should just drop a nuke and turn this whole goddamn place into a glass fucking parking lot. This was an enlargement of what I’d regularly heard prior to deploying from Ft. Lewis, Washington: I’m going to go over there and shoot somebody in the face. And so, what started as an erasure of the signature of one’s identity, their face, evolved into the complete erasure of a civilization. But the thing is, I don’t think there was any clue about what was actually being erased in the first place. And in that cluelessness lays the problem with American Sniper….

The biggest problem I have with American Sniper is also a problem I have with myself. It’s a problem I sometimes find in my own work, and it’s an American problem: We don’t see, or even try to see, actual Iraqi people. We lack the empathy necessary to see them as fully human. In American Sniper, Iraqi men, women, and children are known and defined only in relation to combat and the potential threat they pose. Their bodies are the site and source of violence. In both the film and our collective imagination, their humanity is reduced in ways that, ultimately, define our own narrow humanity. In American Sniper, Iraqis are called “savages,” and the “streets are crawling” with them.

Comment:  Turner decries American desire to reduce war to simplistic acts of violence and bemoans American obliviousness to Iraqi history, culture, and people.

Army Iraq vet (artillery) and author Roy Scranton, “The Trauma Hero:  From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment to American Sniper. LARB, Jan 25, 2015.

American Sniperfocuses in tight on one man’s story of trauma, leaving out the complex questions of why Kyle was in Iraq being traumatized in the first place. The Iraqis in the film are villains, caricatures, and targets, and the only real opinion on them the film offers is Kyle’s. The Iraqis are all “savages” who threaten American lives and need to be killed. There’s some truth in this representation, insofar as this is how a lot of American soldiers thought. Yet the film obviates the questions of why any American soldiers were in Iraq, why they stayed there for eight years, why they had to kill thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilians, and how we are to understand the long and ongoing bloodbath once called the “war on terror.” It does that precisely by turning a killer into a victim, a war hero into a trauma hero.

Comment:  Scranton wonders about the sympathetic portrait of Kyle at the expense of the hundreds of Iraqis he killed and the thousands more killed by other American soldiers.

Journalist Susannah George, “Here’s What Moviegoers In Baghdad Think of American Sniper.” Global Post, Jan 28, 2015.

In Baghdad, where much of the film is set, the movie drew full crowds at one of the city’s new upscale cinemas. Dressed in a fur-collared coat and loafers, Mohammed says many of the showings were sold out, and he knows of people who had to book their tickets a day in advance during opening week.

But after just a week on screens, the Mansour Mall theater pulled the controversial war movie. A theater employee sitting at the box office says management made the decision “because the hero of this film boasts of killing more than 160 Muslims.”  The employee declined to give his name because he did not have permission to speak to journalists.

Comment:  George points out that many Iraqis wanted the same people dead that Americans did—insurgents, Al Qaeda, jihadists, future ISIS members, and sectarian warfarers.

Army Iraq vet (infantry) and author Colby Buzzell, “Chris Kyle and the Iraq War are More Complex Than American Sniper—Or Criticism of It.”  The Guardian, Jan 23, 2015.

I still didn’t get all the criticism. I liked Kyle – at least, the Kyle in the movie, as I know nothing about the one on the page or off camera. In the movie he did his job, did it well and hit all his enemy combatant targets with not a civilian killed. He followed the rules of engagement and, if anything, was a pretty squared away soldier – one I’d be honored to serve along side – and, if people think that the real Kyle was a monster for doing the job that our country sent him to do, then that must mean that they think I’m a monster as well. I also tried to do my job to the best of my abilities while over there, just so that we could all go home and nobody in my platoon would get killed.

Did I give a shit about the Iraq people? Yes, but I, too, joined the military and not the Peace Corps. I had a pretty good idea what I was getting myself into. War is shades of grey, but I had to view it in black and white while doing my job over there. I’d have gone mad if I hadn’t. It was us vs them, kill them before they kill you, and, as my Battalion Commander once told us all right before rolling into a heavily insurgent occupied city of Tal Afar, “Shoot first, shoot straight, protect the innocent and punish the deserving.”

Comment:  Buzzell sees a lot of himself in Kyle—a pretty good guy who did the job the military asked him to—and wonders whether if people hate Kyle, they hate him, too.

Marine Iraq vet (infantry) Jon Davis, “A Former Marine’s Review of American Sniper.” Time, Feb 9, 2015.

The scene that meant the most to me when thinking about Cooper’s acting ability was one that most people were probably bored by. I’ll throw a spoiler because the plot point really doesn’t matter. It was the scene where Kyle and his family are having the tire on their car changed. A Marine recognizes Kyle and comes up to thank him with all the “you saved me in, blah, blah, blah… and ‘a lot of guys didn’t come back, blah, blah, blah’” tropes that are in every war movie. What you probably didn’t notice about that scene was Cooper. To moviegoers he was boring, but what I saw was something I don’t understand how he got right.

In that scene, Cooper displays classic signs of a veteran who doesn’t enjoy being thanked. He immediately deeply retreats upon being recognized and becomes politely evasive. His speech breaks down into monosyllabic chirps of general acknowledgement, while not maintaining eye contact and attempting to not carry the conversation further. While I’ve never saved anybody, I’ve had this experience dozens of times when random strangers thank me for my service. You really can’t describe the feeling that follows, but last Veterans’ Day when my boss made a big deal about thanking me in front of all my students, a motive I am deeply appreciative of, I was overwhelmed with a feeling I can only describe as a profound and sudden sense of humiliation which I can’t begin to quite understand. All I can say is Cooper’s portrayal of this feeling was something I saw in his short chirps and expressionless awkward glances that communicated a level of detailed research, coaching, and acting, to say the least of getting to know realveterans that needs to be known and acknowledged.

Comment:  Davis is attracted to the scene that shows Kyle’s discomfort at being thanked for his service, and sees it as representative of the skill the Clint Eastwood/Jason Hall/Bradley Cooper team brought to the film. 

Army Afghanistan vet (infantry) and author Adrian Bonenberger, “There Are No War Heroes: A Veteran’s Review of American Sniper.”  The Concourse, Jan 23, 2015.

Kyle embraces his role as a Navy SEAL sniper, which is central to both the plot and his identity. It’s interesting that the literary and cinematic history of snipers goes unaddressed in the film; up until the 1990s or so, it’s difficult to find them mentioned in valorous or positive terms. (America’s first unequivocal sniper heroes were Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, the Delta duo who insisted on landing amid hundreds of hostile Somalis during the Battle of Mogadishu, sacrificing themselves to save a wounded comrade during the events portrayed in both the book and the film Black Hawk Down). For much of human history, a person who stayed back from combat and killed the enemy from afar was seen as unscrupulous at best. The original sniper is Paris, who dastardly kills the Greek hero Achilles from long range with a bow and arrow; Michael Moore, always a lightning rod for progressives and conservatives alike, stated the case more strongly in a tweet this past weekend suggesting that snipers were cowards.

Comment:  Bonenberger explores America’s new-found fascination with snipers as emblematic of the modern American way-of-war.

Movie-maker Michael Moore, Tweet, Jan 18, 2015.

My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders r worse

Comment: Moore gets to the point quickly why he doesn’t like American Sniper.

American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall interview with Charles Thorp.  Rolling Stone, Jan 28, 2015.

Q:  So how much of the script was pulled from the book American Sniper?

A:  The book was written less than a year after he got back from combat. There was a lot of great material in there, but I absolutely knew there was more to this guy than was in those pages. It was more about what happened when he was over there, which was useful. You could tell he still had his armor on when he was writing; however; there was a lot of edge there. It didn’t really get into what happened when he came home and what going to war had cost him. I wanted to take a deeper look at that.

Comment:  Hall explains that he knew there was a more complicated man and a better story than was revealed in the book version of American Sniper.

Jason Hall interview with Ted Johnson.  Variety, Jan 10, 2015.

“The cost is man, the toll is man, and it’s this man and every other soldier that fights.  If we understand that, maybe we won’t be so hasty into jumping into war, and if we understand that, maybe we’ll find a way of welcoming [veterans] home better.”

Comment:  Hall explains that the real point of American Sniper is the human cost of being a combat soldier.

American Sniper director Clint Eastwood interview with Stephen Galloway.  The Hollywood Reporter, March 16, 2015.

Q:  The film became quite controversial when it came out because there were… People said it, you know, glorifies war or glorifies American snipers. Is that how you view it?

A:  No I don’t think it glorifies… I think it glorifies it, sure. I mean in the first sequence he shoots down… Yeah, the sniping part is. But you know then eventually as that scene indicates that he’s getting… You can see it’s starting to tell on him and later on when he visits a psychiatrist and has to talk to him and the psychiatrist says did you do anything along the way over there that you maybe or you felt you shouldn’t have. And you could tell by the look on his face that yeah, he’s got some regrets in there. And that’s just the way it is. I think it’s anti and it’s… It just depends on how you want to look at it. It’s probably… I think the whole picture and with him dying and everything it’s no good deed going unpunished.

Comment:  Eastwood ponders whether or not American Sniper glorifies war.

 

 

DIY and Indie War Fiction

May 26, 2018

Below is a short survey of some of the self-published, indie-published, or small press novels I’ve read the last few years that are either directly or indirectly about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s hard to distinguish between publication categories sometimes, but taken as a group, such offerings occupy a mid-range position in the spectrum of war-writing, somewhere between the manicured literary works offered by major publishing houses and the vast sea of veterans writing published online and in small journals.

Crossing the Wire, Bob Kornhiser
The Brooklyn Bridge Press, 2004

Crossing the Wire features two intriguing plot-lines: one about an American unit at war in Iraq after 2003, in which the first-person narrator, a lieutenant, finds love with a mysterious Iraqi woman, and a second that recounts the rise to power of Saddam Hussein and his fall in the wake of the American invasion. Author Bob Kornhiser, a Brooklyn-born New York City schoolteacher and author, never served in the military, but claims front-of-the-line status for publishing fiction about American soldiers at war in Iraq.

First line: We moved down the narrow street, wrapped in G.I.-issue night-vision goggles, armed spooks in the night, making a sweep.

To Kill the Other, Danuta Hinc
Tate Publishing, 2010

Not about American soldiers at war in Iraq or Afghanistan, To Kill the Other artfully portrays the radicalization of one of the 9/11 bombers and his participation in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Hinc, a native of Poland who teaches writing at the University of Maryland and has published widely, gets credit for such a sustained effort to dramatize the biographical details and interior thoughts of one of our War on Terror enemies.

First line: Tahir examined his reflection in the lavatory mirror—long shadows cast down in sharp strokes—and suddenly felt exhausted.

The Peacekeeper’s Photograph: A Master Sergeant Harper Mystery, M.L. Doyle
Vine Hill Road (VHR) Press, 2013

Set in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the American intervention of the 1990s, so, like Hinc’s work, not technically about Iraq or Afghanistan, still The Peacekeeper’s Photograph pleasantly introduces readers to Doyle, an Army veteran who has written a number of well-worth-reading military-themed fiction, romance, and, as a ghost-writer, memoir titles more directly linked to post-9/11 war. Among other virtues, The Peacekeeper’s Photograph features a senior female NCO as its protagonist, a point-of-view rarely—like never, to my knowledge—represented at length in other fiction.

First line: Mud covered my boots, splattered my uniform, and served as an unavoidable annoyance every single day of our Bosnian deployment.

What Changes Everything, Masha Hamilton
Unbridled Books, 2013

A very satisfying novel that weaves together domestic drama and foreign intervention in Afghanistan by a woman whose NGO husband has been captured and held for ransom by insurgents, while also incorporating imagined letters written by Mohammad Najibullah, the last president of Afghanistan. An accomplished writing pro, Hamilton has published widely as a journalist and once served as Director of Communications in the US Embassy in Kabul.

Prophetic epigraph from poet Adrienne Rich: Beirut. Baghdad. Sarajevo. Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of course here.

Tattoo Zoo, Paul Avallone
St. Martian’s Press, 2014

Both intense and sprawling (554 pages of small print), this novel about hard-bitten infantrymen in Afghanistan grows out of Avallone’s experience as a Special Forces officer and embedded journalist. The testosterone level is off the charts, for better or worse, but Tattoo Zoo is packed with gritty detail and burns with conviction that the grunt’s-eye view of war is the sharpest and most righteous.

From the front material: The novel was born out of the author’s own original screenplay Tattoo Zoo, which was inspired by Captain Roger Hill and First Sergeant Tommy Scott and their Dog Company soldiers who were dishonored by a command that was morally corrupt or just fearful of hurting their careers, from silver oak leaves to stars.

Old Silk Road, Brandon Caro
Post Hill Press, 2015

An oddly charming or charmingly odd picaresque road novel about a long “CONOP” mission in Afghanistan, narrated by a surly drug-addicted junior-enlisted medic attached to an advisor unit, and authored by a former Navy corpsman who himself was attached to an advisor unit in Afghanistan (and who post-deployment battled addiction, as movingly recounted here). In addition to being an engaging story, Old Silk Road features one of the best titles and, for my money, the best cover of the many Iraq and Afghanistan novels I’ve read.

First line: The sun shone hard and the wind billowed in from the west the day I first killed a man.

Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town, Susanne Aspley
WTF Press, 2016

As the title of her novel suggests, Aspley, a Peace Corps veteran and an oft-deployed Army Reservist, aims for a madcap take on small-town life in the Midwest in which quote-unquote normal folkways are interrupted when an African-American Afghanistan veteran arrives on the scene. Succeeding nicely, Granola, MN dives deep below its light-hearted surface to explore several big issues—patriotism/militarism, race, PTSD, and Heartland drinking culture, for starters.

First line: What begins as an ordinary day, the way most days do in Granola, veers a little off course when the first customer, a young black man, walks into the hardware store.

The Chords of War: Inspired by a True Story of Love, War, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr.
White Whisker Books, 2016

Based on the life of co-author Gonzalez, The Chords of War admirably tells the tale of an indie-rock musician who joins the military when his career falters, only to have his music take new shape in theater when he becomes a FOB rock-star. I blurbed The Chords of War (“….millennial-era men and women stalled between adolescence and adulthood.…”), so hey it’s got to be good, and if you don’t trust me, check out the cool trailer here.

First two lines: Music filled his mind. Specifically, seventeen-year-old Max Rivera dreamed of his last great gig with the Mad Suburbans.

****

Four of the novels on my list portray young male fighting men: Crossing the Wire and Tattoo Zoo emit an old-school vibe—think, “I’ve been in the shit” Nam-style–while the Old Silk Road and The Chords of War protagonists (and their authors, too) exude a more twenty-first century sensibility, along the lines of the many “Terminal Lance” and “E4 Mafia” vets who dish out snark on Twitter. The other four novels usefully and entertainingly lift the lid on less-explored aspects of the war, from the domestic homefront to peacekeeping to humanitarian endeavors in-theater to fulsome portraits of the enemy “Other.” None of these novels shy away from extensive and graphic presentation of their characters’ romantic and sex lives and thoughts in-theater and out. Which is cool, because this department is one the Nortons and Random Houses of the world are shy about letting their war-and-military authors explore with much gusto. Or, maybe, it’s their authors themselves who are demure. In any case, love and sex are admittedly difficult to get right in war fiction—both too much and too little are problems—but the big houses tend to err on the side of caution while, based on the evidence of the titles presented here, the indies are much less inhibited.

In regard to music, I’ve always had a soft spot for small-label bands—punk, indie, underground, alternative, etc.—that constitute a rebuke to the aesthetically flaccid conventions of major-label pop and rock. The dynamic doesn’t quite work the same in the book-publishing business. I can’t quite work up the contempt for big-time houses and their favored authors that I generally possess for the makers and purveyors of corporate musical schlock. Nor can I unequivocally tout indie fiction as the home of real talent and true heart-and-soul overlooked by the suits and the masses. But something of that rock-n-roll spirit still burns within me, so kudos here to the authors I’ve named and all the authors who write at book-length for little recognition and small gain. If my short descriptions make the titles seem interesting to you, please search out and read them.

****

A subcategory of the DIY and indie genre (at least in my mind) is war fiction published by university presses. Examples include Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War (2013), published by Apprentice-Loyola University, Maryland, and Hilary Plum’s they dragged them through the streets (2013), published by the University of Alabama Press. I like both very much, which makes me eager to read later this summer Caleb Cage’s Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2018), published by the University of Nevada Press. At some point I’d like to write more about this subgenre, but just in case I don’t, let this too-short paragraph be their tribute.

 


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