Archive for the ‘Art and War’ category

The Stories Behind the Stories

January 12, 2020

Pablo Picasso, “Palette, Candlestick, and Head of Minotaur”

My story “The Brigade Storyboard Artist” was republished this week on the Wrath-Bearing Tree website. Originally appearing as “Captain Athens and Sergeant Arrack” on Time Now in 2016, the story portrays internal drama within a brigade Tactical Operations Center in Afghanistan. The Wrath-Bearing Tree reissue has gotten a fair amount of attention and praise, by my standards, so check it out please if you haven’t already. It took every day of my 25+ years in the Army to accumulate enough observed detail about soldiers, operations, military processes, and Army culture to write “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” and most of what I include in the story has some resemblance to things I’ve witnessed or participated in. Most particularly, the story allows me to explore my interest in military “storyboards.” I had never seen nor heard of storyboards before arriving in Afghanistan as the leader of an advisor team in 2008. But I soon learned that storyboards, which can be roughly described as a Power Point presentation reduced to one-slide and injected with steroids, were the coin-of-the-realm in terms of information-sharing and narrative-shaping up-and-down and across the chain-of-command.

The specific genesis of “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” as a story, however, was an assignment I gave to cadets when I was teaching a literature course at West Point. The course director, Elizabeth Samet, made Ovid’s The Metamorphoses mandatory reading, along with an assignment to write stories that adapted myths related by Ovid into modern settings. Intrigued by the assignment, I wrote five adaptations myself, including what eventually became “The Brigade Storyboard Artist.” It’s based on Ovid’s telling of a mighty competition between Athena, the goddess of arts, and Arachne, a talented upstart, to sew the most magnificent tapestry. Central to The Metamorphoses myth is a transformation at each tale’s end. Typically, the transformation involves a human who is changed into an animal or material object; in Ovid’s telling of the Athena and Arachne competition, Arachne is turned into a spider when she loses the contest. I don’t go quite that far, but I’ve tried to find a realistic analogy.

I’ve also written four other stories based on myths related by Ovid in The Metamorphoses:

“Cy and Ali” is based on Ceyx and Alcyone, one of Ovid’s saddest stories. In my version, Cy is a gunner in a convoy caught in an ambush and Ali is his wife waiting at home for his return from war.

“Ari and Theodopulous” is based on the Minotaur myth. In Ovid, Theseus slays the Minotaur but is only able to escape the labyrinth with the help of King Minos’s daughter Ariadne. Theseus and Ariadne flee Crete, but Thesesus inexplicably abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Soon, however, Ariadne is taken up by Bacchus, the god of revelry. In my story, I find parallels for all that by telling a tale about a veteran who becomes a mixed-martial-arts champion.

“Junior and Io” is based on Ovid’s Jupiter, Juno, and Io myth. In Ovid, Jupiter, who is married to Juno, pursues Io, who he turns into a cow to hide her from Juno. In my story, Jupiter is a deployed soldier who is dumped, probably for good reason, by his girl Io.

“Captains Dietz and Avis” is based on Ovid’s Daphne and Apollo myth. In the myth, Apollo pursues Daphne, who finally escapes him when she is turned into a tree. In my story, a male Army captain with the hots for a female fellow officer comes on too strong and ruins her tour.

So what do you get when you use Ovid as the basis for telling stories about modern war? One issue is that of tone—almost all of Ovid’s stories end badly for the characters he wants us to care most deeply about—and yet somehow the stories are not tragic, but more comic or whimsical or detached. A few, very few, such as Ceyx and Alcyone, are tender and heartbreakingly sad.

Second, many or most of Ovid’s stores involve romance, desire, infatuation, and unrequited love. Since not so many modern war stories do love and relationships well, Ovid’s myths provide a framework by which a modern writer might begin to think about telling a story about the romantic and erotic lives of soldiers.

The third issue is dealing with the characters’ transformations. What to make of the them? Scholars suggest that the constant change reflects the capriciousness of the gods (or fate), who can punish or reward unexpectedly. They also suggest that Ovid’s message is that because change is constant, the ability to deal with change is not just a desired quality, but a necessity and a great good.

I can see those things, but also disagree. For me, the important aspect of Ovid’s stories is the permanent nature of the characters’ transformations and the corresponding ruin of their social relationships. When a character is transformed into a bird or animal or material object, he or she is gone forever from the human realm. Like death, yes, but more like disappearance and loss while still alive. It always happens for a reason, and maybe is for the best, but still. Think of people you once knew well and who were important to you, but who are now estranged or lost from contact, probably never to be seen or spoken to again. For me, it’s the destroyed human connections at the end of Ovid’s stories that account for their emotional force.

Many thanks to everyone at Wrath-Bearing Tree, a great journal featuring always interesting fiction, poetry, reviews, and commentary about war and the military.

2020 Vision: Old Wars, New Directions

December 30, 2019

In recent months, much writing by veterans has reckoned with America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans Day, for example, elicited a larger number of vet-authored essays and opinion pieces than I remember from years past. The veterans’ ruminations described what might blandly be called “the human cost of war,” along with discussion of those human costs’ connections to national strategy and policy failures. Countering simplistic celebrations of veterans’ service and sacrifice, the pieces described lingering guilt, loss, pain, regret, and disappointment. A few days later, President Trump’s pardoning of war criminals Edward Gallagher, Mathew Golstyen, and Clint Lorance inspired another round of articles, the general gist of which expressed outrage at the men, their actions, and the pardons. Shortly thereafter, came the release of the Washington Post’s “The Afghanistan Papers,” which accused the nation’s civilian and military leadership of lying about how badly things have gone in Afghanistan the past two decades. The series subsequently generated more public opining by veteran-writers, me included. The responses in this case tempered outrage with proclamations of “duh” and “I told you so.”

I tracked the many Veterans Day, Presidential pardons, and Afghanistan Papers commentaries and agreed with much or most of what was written there-in. As always, though, my main interest has not been public sphere debate, but the parallel world of artistic expression. Not that the realm of art is “better” than political discourse, but I Iike it more, and, at the least, art is the province of the imagination, a quality that seems to be lacking in the thinking about how to bring America’s long wars to a close. It’s not that art offers specific solutions to specific problems (or rarely does), but that the art-realm serves as a constant imperative to think and live creatively and empathetically. Recent months have brought much to contemplate in this regard, too.

 

For instance, the Voices from War “Stories and Conversations on Transitions” reading at the New York Historical Society on Veterans Day weekend was fantastic. Voices from War is a long-standing New York City veterans writing workshop led by Kara Krauze, a formidable teacher and organizer. At the event, I was astonished by the diversity and uniqueness of the readers’ pieces, each of which came at the subject of war and “transition” from an interesting angle. To focus on an individual reading that combined personal reminiscence with heightened artistry, Drew Pham’s prose-poem “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” was particularly outstanding. Pham, a second-generation Vietnamese-American who served as an infantry lieutenant in Afghanistan with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, is now making a go of it as a writer and teacher in New York. Taking the concept of transition to an extreme, Pham now identifies as “they” and appeared on stage wearing make-up and a dress adorned with their Army badges and decorations.

A flamboyant stage presence, no doubt, but it’s the poem Pham read that counts most. “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” explores Pham’s personal, family, and ethnic/national history as it has played out over several generations and a number of imperialistic military projects dating back to World War I France and culminating in Pham’s service in Afghanistan. There are complicated authorial subject-positions, but it’s hard to imagine one more complicated than Pham’s: the son of immigrants whose family was deeply imbricated in Vietnam’s colonial and martial past, Pham fought in Afghanistan and there did the things American infantrymen are asked to do. In “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names,” Pham tries to make sense of it all, infused with an implicit, not explicit, wrestle with gender identity and sexual orientation. A short excerpt only begins to illustrate:

i only have this story / bits of shrapnel scattered through my family / i pieced together but never whole / the explosion that tore its way through our roots detonated so long ago / i cannot tell you whether those bits of steel i still find in my limbs belong to me / or the histories of my countrymen all so erased…

Two of the five sections of “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” are available here on the World War I Centennial Commission WWrite Blog, but the poem as a whole has not yet been published. I’ve obtained a paper copy of the poem entire, read it many times, and hope it will soon be available for all to read in full. Its five sections range stylistically from traditional lyric to highly wrought narrative prose. Central to the poem is Pham’s mother, who serves as the link connecting past and present and as the fulcrum for understanding the tangled threads of the poet’s life. In this, and in overall tone and style, “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” on page and read aloud made me think of “Kaddish,” Beat poet Alan Ginsberg’s great ode to his own mother. Whether the resemblance is intentional or not, I don’t know, but the poem’s striking imagery, momentous story-line, and exploratory emotional depth centered on war also reminds me of Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, while not being imitative or overly indebted to either Turner or Ginsberg.

Left to right, Omar Columbus, Phil Nerges, Leo Farley, Kara Krauze, Siobhan Adcock, Ellen Emerson, and Drew Pham at the Voices from War 2019 Veterans Day reading at the New York Historical Society.

Far to the southwest, the Austin Veterans Art Festival brought forth more bold expansions of war art boundaries. I wasn’t in Texas for the Festival, but the sound of distant thunder was very exciting. Not completely unconnected with the New York City scene, either; the AVAF featured new dramatic works by several artist-veterans with Big Apple credentials. New York City-based performance-poet Jenny Pacanowski, an Army vet whose poetry can be as raucous as it can be tender, authored a play titled Dionysus in America that reimagined the ancient Bacchae plays as parables for contemporary social disintegration. As its blurb states:

Dionysus in America imagines a dystopia in which women suffer endless harassment, and right-wing politics wrenches away women’s control over their own bodies; in response, American women heed the call of Dionysus, and flee to new, strange, euphoric rites in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. General Pentheus, leader of the American war machine, swears to go to the Mesopotamia, liberate the women, and drag them back to the United States. Unfortunately, he operates unaware that his uncle, a transformed and unrecognizable Dionysus, God of ritual madness, has decided to punish America’s hubris for rejecting his mother, his divinity, and his seemingly inexplicable rites of devotion.

The super-serious and somewhat staid Iraq and Afghanistan war writing and art scene has shied away from radical political critique in terms of message and from the carnivalesque and satirical in terms of aesthetics. Pacanowski, however, and to her great credit, is anything but staid, and Dionysus in America defiantly crashes and crushes barriers. One can only hope it foretells further expansions of war-story themes and styles; not all art needs to be politically outraged and theatrically over-the-top, but some of it must be.

A second play, authored and directed by Texas natives/New Jersey transplants John Myer (an Army vet) and Karen Alvarado, also did not tell a conventional story in a conventional way. Myer and Alvarado’s play Aftershock/La Réplica combined story-telling, dance, movement, drama, and music to explore the lives of Latino soldiers serving in the US military. Again, the complexity of the subject position suggests great possibility for artistic presentation: how do Hispanic-American men and women balance dual heritages and conflicting identities with military service in a contemporary national climate that makes it increasingly difficult to do so? Aftershock/La Réplica, according to its blurb, “explores new dimensions of Latinx military service, featuring soldiers and citizens who expect military service to reinforce their identity and ideas about family, patriotism, and even sexuality – but the military is often a place that mixes up the moral compass and sense of self and invents a new identity.” A video trailer here illustrates the Myer/Alvarado approach, which is never visually boring nor intellectually dull.

An aspect of Aftershock/La Réplica I like very much is that it included passages authored by former Marine Victor Inzunza. Inzunza, a poet, was the first contemporary war-writer I ever met—on the shuttle bus from the hotel to the 2011 War, Literature, and Arts conference in Colorado—and it’s been a pleasure following his work ever since and see it now incorporated within a bold theatrical endeavor by Myer and Alvarado, who are also friends.

Also performing in Austin was another New York City-based act, the wonderful Exit 12 Dance Company, about whom I’ve written about here, and Exit 12 conducted a dance workshop, as well. Finally, Veterans Writing Project founder and director Ron Capps was the featured speaker at the Veterans Health and Welfare Conference, an event affiliated with the Austin Veterans Art Festival. I also note that Capps participated in a veterans songwriting seminar near Austin that may or may not have been associated with the AVAF. It’s confusing, but I’m glad to be confused by so much creative flourishing and eager to learn more. In any case, I sympathize with Capps, a talented guitarist and singer, as he plumbs music’s power to articulate emotional nuances that can’t be expressed by cold black words on barren white pages or screens. To me, he seems much like poet Brian Turner in this turn to music, as well as a man after my own heart. But still, I like words most and Capps, like Voices from War’s Kara Krauze, is one of the long-time (mostly) unsung heroes of contemporary veteran writing. I’m especially glad to see Capps and Krauze still active as 2020 dawns and encouraging new voices, new stories, and new directions to make sense of the by now very old wars.

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This post only touches a few of the interesting contemporary war-related artistic endeavors that have caught my attention the past few months. I hope to describe some others in posts to come.

 

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction, Poetry, and Movies 2019

December 26, 2019

Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

2019 was not a bounteous year for new Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction, with only three new titles appearing by my count. Adam Kovac’s The Surge and Katey Schultz’s Still Come Home each describe Army National Guard units struggling to make the best of things in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, while Amy Waldman’s A Door in the Earth features an American NGO trying to make sense of war’s effects in rural Afghanistan. I’m also counting three full-length poetry collections appearing in 2019: Army vet Graham Barnhart’s The War Makes Everyone Lonely, cultural anthropologist and DOD-contractor Nomi Stone’s Kill Class, and Army spouse’s Abby E. Murray’s Hail and Farewell. Movies included The Kill Team, starring Alexander Skarsgard, about US Army soldiers in Afghanistan; Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightly, about perfidy in the British government in the build-up to war in Iraq, and The Report, starring former Marine Adam Driver, about perfidy in the American government regarding its “enhanced interrogation” program.

I’m sure I’m missing titles, so let me hear about them and I’ll consider, but not promise, to add them. The list is a “living document,” but it’s more idiosyncratic than authoritative. For example, the decision to list independently published titles can be subjective, based on my estimation of the work’s importance, value, and interest. Also subjective is the definition of what is and what isn’t an Iraq or Afghanistan work; i.e., why is Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages (set in Jordan) included, but not the movies Captain Phillips (set off the coast of Somalia) and 13 Hours (Libya), despite their obvious relevance to the Global War on Terror? I’ve also resisted including genre works, such as sci-fi, romance, thriller/adventure, young adult, and graphic narratives, and the number of titles originally published in languages other than English is thin. There are also books and movies out there not set in Iraq or Afghanistan or even featuring American soldiers at war, but which have fans and critics who claim that they are “really” about Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, many writers who depicted war in Iraq or Afghanistan in early works have “moved on” and are now publishing works that do not directly address Iraq or Afghanistan. In my mind I can often see linkages between previous and recent work, but they may not be strong enough to merit inclusion here.

So, please consider the lists conversation starters—not definitive, but great to discuss over a beer or in the comments section.

Titles new to the list are in bold. Many thanks to David Eisler for directing me to two early-on novels, Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In (2007) and Benjamin Buchholz’s One Hundred and One Nights (2011) that are set in Iraq near the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Much love also to Bill Putnam for the great pictures that accompany my year-end lists. Be sure to check out Bill’s body-of-work at his website here, and also on Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Bob Kornheiser, Crossing the Wire (2004)
Nicholas Kulish, Last One In (2007)
Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
Benjamin Buchholz (Army), One Hundred and One Nights (2011)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Schultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
Jonathan Raab (Army), Flight of the Blue Falcon (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Susan Aspley, Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town (2016)
The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger (Army) and Brian Castner (Air Force), eds. (2016)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Tom King and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol 1: Bang. Bang. Bang.(2016).
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)
David Abrams (Army), Brave Deeds (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Dark at the Crossing (2017)
Helen Benedict, Wolf Season (2017)
Caleb Cage (Army), Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2017)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), The Confusion of Languages (2017)
Tom King (CIA) and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (2017)
Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. (Army), The Chords of War (2017)
Brian Van Reet (Army), Spoils (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Waiting for Eden (2018)
Jon Chopan, Veterans Crisis Hotline (2018)
Raymond Hutson, Finding Sergeant Kent (2018)
Kathleen J. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018)
Will Mackin (Navy), Bring Out the Dog (2018)
Stephen Markley, Ohio (2018)
Ray McPadden (Army), And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018)
Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields (2018)
Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018)
Nico Walker (Army), Cherry (2018)
Adam Kovac (Army), The Surge (2019)
Katey Schultz, Still Come Home (2019)
Amy Waldman, A Door in the Earth (2019)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Frances Richey (Army mother), The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Frances Richey (Army mother), Voices of the Guard (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Allan Gray (Army), Overwatch (2011)
Tom Sleigh, Army Cats (2011)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Abby E. Murray, Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier’s Wife (2012)
Jason Poudrier (Army), Red Fields (2012)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), Mormon Boy (2012)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Charles Bondhus, All the Heat We Could Carry (2013)
Stanton S. Coerr (USMC), Rubicon (2013)
Kerry James Evans (Army), Bangalore (2013)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Chuck Rybak, War (2013)
David R. Dixon (USMC), Call in the Air (2014)
Frederick Foote (Navy), Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry of War (2014)
Gerardo Mena (Navy), The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters (2014)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), We Deserve the Gods We Ask For (2014)
Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015)
Victoria Kelly (spouse), When the Men Go Off to War (2015)
Philip Metres, Sand Opera (2015)
Tom Sleigh, Station Zed (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Paul David Adkins (Army), Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath (2016)
Jonathan Baxter (Army), The Ghosts of Babylon (2016)
Lance B. Brender (Army) and C. Rodney Pattan (Army), In Cadence (2016)
Brock Jones (Army), Cenotaph (2016)
Kim Garcia, Drone (2016)
Nicole Goodwin (Army), Warcries (2016)
Karen Skolfield (Army), Frost in the Low Areas (2016)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Uniform (2016)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only)
Paul David Adkins (Army), FM 101-5-1 MCRP 5-2A: Operational Terms and Graphics (2017)
Eric Chandler (USAF), Hugging This Rock (2017)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Dots & Dashes (2017)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Sweet Insurgent (2017)
Pamela Hart (Army mother), Mothers Over Nangarhar (2018)
Benjamin Hertwig (Canadian Army), Slow War (2017)
Lynn Marie Houston, Unguarded (2017)
Hugh Martin (Army), In Country (2018)
Shara Lessley (DOD civilian spouse), The Explosive Expert’s Wife (2018)
Abby Murray (Army spouse), How To Be Married After Iraq (2018)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Permanent Change of Station (2018)
Graham Barnhart (Army), The War Makes Everyone Lonely (2019)
Abby E. Murray (Army spouse), Hail and Farewell (2019)
Nomi Stone (DOD contractor), Kill Class (2019)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield, director (2007)
Body of War, Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, directors (2008)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (HBO) (2008)
The Objective, Daniel Myrick, director (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Hyena Road, Paul Gross, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
Blood Stripe, Remy Auberjonois, director (2016)
Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Clement Cogitore, director (2016)
Nobel, Per-Olav Sorensen, director (Netflix) (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)
Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, director (2017)
Sand Castle, Fernando Coimbra, director (Netflix) (2017)
Thank You For Your Service, Jason Hall, director (2017)
The Wall, Doug Liman, director (2017)
War Machine, David Michod, director (Netflix) (2017)
The Yellow Birds, Alexandre Moors, director (2017)
12 Strong, Nicolai Fuglsig, director (2018)
The Kill Team, Dan Krauss, director (2019)
Official Secrets, Gavin Hood, director (2019)
The Report, Scott C. Burns, director (2019)

On Larry Heinemann

December 22, 2019

The name Larry Heinemann meant little to me when I was asked to write his entry for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, a prestigious scholarly reference series available in university libraries. Heinemann, who died last week at age 75, was a Vietnam veteran best known for the controversial selection of his novel Paco’s Story as the National Book Award winner in 1987, where it won out, most notably, over Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and also Philip Roth’s The Counterlife. At the time the DLB contacted me, I hadn’t read Paco’s Story or Heinemann’s other Vietnam War novel Close Quarters (1977). To the extent I knew anything about Heinemann, I vaguely held what seems to have been a general sentiment: the selection of Paco’s Story as National Book Award winner constituted a great wrong to Morrison, and that Heinemann’s novel had been selected for reasons related not just to literary achievement, but race, and for which Heinemann was somehow implicated.

Still, I took the DLB assignment, because I sensed that contemporary war-writing, the subject of Time Now, might be better understood by a deep dive in a body of writing—Vietnam War literature—that preceded it. I was also curious about Heinemann, and how his name somehow had not achieved the stature of other Vietnam War writers such as Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien. Mostly though, I wanted to explore how a National Book Award winning vet-author had not just been overlooked by history, but dismissed by it.

Subsequently, I read all of Heinemann’s books: Close Quarters, Paco’s Story, a third novel titled Cooler by the Lake (1992), and his memoir Black Virgin Mountain (2005). I also read his introductions to a coffee-table book titled Changing Chicago: A Photodocumentary (1989) and Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1992), and a 1997 short story published in Atlantic titled “A Fragging.” Finally, I read as much scholarship on Heinemann as I could find, and then got to work. 5,000 words later, I submitted my entry, which eventually appeared in volume 382 of the DLB, alongside entries on Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy, Walter Mosley, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Richard Russo, Donna Tartt, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead.

I invite you too to read Heinemann’s work and also my DLB entry, if you have access to a university library. Be warned, though, by the standards of post-9/11 war-writing, Close Quarters and Paco’s Story are brutal in terms of depicting war violence and atrocity. Dosier, the protagonist of Close Quarters, and Paco, the titular hero of Paco’s Story, are soldiers in Vietnam who do monstrous things, and the novels suggest they become monsters as a result. The problem is compounded by the fact that Close Quarters is based closely on Heinemann’s own tour; he later called it “straight-up fictionalized memoir.” If we take that statement as true, it makes it unavoidable to contemplate that the author himself has done the monstrous things he describes and has become a monster himself, much like his character Dosier. I’m not joking. Imagine if recently-pardoned war criminals such as Clint Lorance, Mathew Golsteyn, and Edward Gallagher and the things they did were featured characters and events in novels written by themselves. Now multiply that by ten and suggest their criminal acts were an everyday feature of a year’s tour in a combat zone. Add in explicit racism and extreme misogyny. Take it even further: Close Quarters features a scene in which a Vietnamese camp-follower is coerced into fucking and giving head to an entire platoon. A similar scene reappears in Paco’s Story; in this case an underage Vietnamese girl is gang-raped by an Army platoon and then shot in the face.

These scenes are shocking, but Heinemann’s tone and point don’t seem sensational, or defensive or confessional or even accusatory. Instead, the scenes and the novels constitute a serious representation of a soldier’s capacity for evil as he is caught up by the forces of war. It’s almost certain that Lorance, Golsteyn, and Gallagher don’t have the inclination, talent, or perseverance to write novels, or at least good ones, but try to imagine your reaction if talented Iraq War veteran-authors Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, or Elliot Ackerman wrote novels about their platoons gang-raping an Iraqi girl and then shooting her. What is the worst thing they saw or did? What are they not proud of in the least? That’s where Heinemann takes it. Or, try to imagine Chris Kyle writing American Sniper after reading Melville and Tolstoy, authors Heinemann studied upon return from Vietnam. It’s like that, and somehow compelling instead of off-putting. An early review of Close Quarters captures some of the effect: “Dosier elicits the reader’s empathy throughout this extremely unpleasant, but somehow touching novel. Intense is the author’s (a Vietnam veteran’s)style/approach.” That intensity manifests itself by a hostility and anger that emanates from the pages of Close Quarters and Paco’s Story so vividly it makes them both hard to read and hard to put down.

What to make of it all? A quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen offers a possible response:

Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters was a novel I read when I was very young, 12-years old, it was a horrible experience. I wasn’t emotionally or literarily equipped to deal with it. So for a long time I really hated that book. But I think Heinemann actually did the right thing by unrelentingly focusing on atrocity without editorializing that these things are wrong.

Nguyen’s forgiving sentiment—one talented author to another—opens up complicated avenues for contemplation. In his memoir Black Virgin Mountain, Heinemann writes about Close Quarters and Paco’s Story:

“I wrote those two books in an attempt to make clear that this is what awaits you—or something like—the work of the war will transform you into something you don’t recognize; that the inevitable reverberations of the war are irresistible and virtually irremediable; that this is what you make when you make war.”

In Heinemann’s quote, what produces “this” is total war, fought for politically and morally suspect reasons, and badly-led by the officers responsible. Heinemann suggests that the unavoidable result of sending men to fight in such wars is barbarity on the battlefield and forever ruination of the men involved. In contrast, Iraq and Afghanistan were not total wars, but limited wars, which is important. If a cultural and military logic drove men to become monsters in Vietnam, restraints were in place in Afghanistan and Iraq to forestall that transformation. Lorance, Golsteyn, and Edward Gallagher knew what those restraints were, as did all soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and sent outside the wire with guns in their hands. They knew them in Vietnam, too, but a general reckoning prevailed that found breaches of them forgivable. A little. Sometimes. Depending on the circumstances. And how you felt about things.

In my DLB entry, I reconcile the conflux of ideas by writing:

Without validating [combat soldiers’] actions and ideas, Heinemann refuses to condemn them, either; while their brutality, racism, and sexism cannot be denied, he shows that their contempt for authority, pretense, and ignorance is estimable and their feral instincts for self-preservation justifiable. In Heinemann’s final accounting, far more reprehensible than the barbaric combat grunt and the disturbed and disturbing veteran are the people, circumstances, and events that make young men do monstrous deeds.

That certainly doesn’t close out the conversation on the subject or Heinemann. For now though, I’ll end with a brief exploration of Heinemann’s life after Paco’s Story. Though he seems to have preferred the company of fellow soldiers who had seen and done the kinds of things in Vietnam as he had, Heinemann never deified soldiering or glorified the supposed wisdom and camaraderie of the soldier brotherhood. He never lost his hatred of war and the military, while, interestingly, finding purpose and perhaps atonement through repeated return visits to Vietnam, where he came to appreciate the beauty of the land and the people and the sagacity of their military men. He also taught for many years at Texas A&M and elsewhere, pouring himself into encouraging fledgling writers of all stripes.

Heinemann seems not to have spoken out or written on Iraq and Afghanistan, but he was active on social media and occasionally I would see comments by him on the feeds of friends. One in particular I remember. On a thread about PTSD and how to help veterans post-war, he commented to the effect that the best thing any troubled vet could do to regain equilibrium was to “find something to do with your hands that helps people.” That seems common sensible and practical: boiled-down wisdom from a life spent thinking about the matter. For Heinemann, what he did with his hands that helped people was write and comment on his students’ writing. That application of his own advice probably entailed a little bit too much time alone with bad memories and worst fears, but still I like it very much, even as it suggests that the person Heinemann was really trying to help was himself. RIP.

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I have written at more length about the 1987 National Book Award controversy here. In it I suggest that Toni Morrison’s last novel Home represented a late-life response to Paco’s Story (Morrison also died in 2019). The academic scholarship on Heinemann is trenchant. If so inclined, seek out Susan Jefford’s “Tattoos, Scars, Diaries, and Writing Masculinity”; Stacey Peebles’ “The Ghost That Won’t Be Exorcised: Larry Heinemann’s Paco Story”; and Joseph Darda’s “The Ethnicization of Veteran America: Larry Heinemann, Toni Morrison, and Military Whiteness after Vietnam.”

Afghanistan Signature Shot

December 14, 2019

Personal picture, Afghanistan 2009.

When the Washington Post began running The Afghanistan Papers, its recent series on the ineptitude of the US military mission in Afghanistan, I was sure that one of the articles would feature a photograph of a US soldier perched on the opened back ramp of a Boeing CH47 Chinook looking out over an Afghanistan landscape. Such photos are ubiquitous in articles about the Afghanistan War, and it’s easy to see why. The image of the solitary soldier looking backward and downward at the “Graveyard of Empires” seems to be an apt visual symbol for how Americans can only know Afghanistan from a distance, if at all, and understand their deployments only in hindsight.

In a sense I’m suggesting that the pictures have become a generic Afghanistan motif, but, still, the photos are always striking, what with the bulb-headed helmeted soldier, framed in the door hatch, hanging precariously off the back lip of an aircraft flying over a scenic Afghanistan rural or urban locale. The pictures evoke equal amounts of tension, serenity, wonder, thoughtfulness, and thrill, which in my experience are the same emotions that come with actually flying in a Chinook while looking backward over an open ramp.

The only fictional representation of the Chinook back-ramp scene that I can remember comes in the first chapter of Kathleen J. McInnis’s war-romance The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018). The opening episode of McInnis’s novel has her first-person protagonist, a civilian Pentagon analyst, being treated to a ride on the opened ramp of a Chinook as she flies into Kabul. The narrator is tethered in, as are the aircraft crew members, but the feeling is still precarious. Here’s how McInnis’s character describes it:

“Are you sure this is safe?” I screamed over the noise of the whirling blades to the sergeant to my left. His machine gun points outward into the dusty, blue beyond, looking for anyone–or anything–that might use our helicopter for target practice….

…I peered down between my boots at the brown baked mountains of the Hindu Kush which were peppered with dried scrub brush and the occasional cluster of homes. The villages grew more frequent, eventually merging together as we flew and forming the outskirts of the city of Kabul. And although the mountains themselves looked like they were made of dust as fine as powdered sugar, somehow the houses clung halfway up the slopes and squeezed themselves into narrow valleys before spreading open into the city itself.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that hundreds of feet of air were all that was separating me from the streets below. Or that hunks of metal weighing forty tons shouldn’t be airborne.

…I looked off into the distance and saw a black speck floating behind us.  I could just make out another helicopter’s long barrel shape and dual rotors. Looking down from the city below to the hills in the distance, now partially shrouded in late afternoon haze, I remembered [an] interpreter talking about his homeland in lightly-broken English. “We could make it beautiful again,” he said, “if only there were peace.”

To return to the Washington Post series, sure enough, within a couple of days a backshot of a helicopter gunner looking out at Afghanistan accompanied the story here. To be exact, it’s of a gunner keeping watch out of the side door of a Chinook, but you get the idea. A quick search of the Internet found thirty or forty photographs shot looking out over the back ramp. Most of them are copyright protected, but I’m posting a few from public domain websites and DOD sites that will illustrate. You can also find a number of short videos depicting ramp-down Chinook rides on YouTube.

Department of Defense, May 8, 2015. Virin.

Chinook Helicopter, December 23, 2016. Co H, 4th Bn, 7th Aviation Brigade. Photographer unknown.

Stars and Stripes, June 11, 2014. Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes.

Stars and Stripes, March 17, 2015. Vernon Young/United States Air Force.

Wallhere, October 31, 2017. Photographer unknown.

Military Times, May 10, 2018. Sergeant First Class Randall Pike/US Army.

PhotoPin/US Army. Date and photographer unknown

In regard to The Afghanistan Papers, I’m following the series closely and reading as well the follow-on commentaries and social-media responses to them (many written by friends). Most of the problems described in the articles I have addressed in my two blogs, and were apparent to all of us while we were in-country. The articles mostly address “big picture” issues of national and command policy and strategy, but the problems were felt with force at our level.

Corruption, rules-of-engagement, conflicting chains-of-command, stupid reporting and briefing requirements, Pakistan aiding and abetting the insurgents (and sometimes helping fight them), green-on-blue incidents, friendly fire incidents, dealing with special operators, balancing military ops with nation-building programs, trying to figure out who was enemy and who wasn’t.… It was all part of the operating environment, and that was before the bullets, mortar rounds, and missiles started flying and the IEDs began exploding. You had to be pretty nimble to deal with it all and keep going. If you let things overwhelm you, you weren’t going to be of much use to anyone, though you could certainly use your dismay and anger to build a righteous argument that it was all stupid and worthless.

Strategically and structurally, my biggest gripe were the unit rotation policies and practices, which never kept units and key leaders in place long enough to become truly effective. My advisor team, for example, was rotated out of Khost Province at the seven-month mark of our deployment, just when we were really beginning to build trust with our Afghan counterparts and understand the lay-of-the land. Also, during my time I served under nine different chains-of-command due to constant task organization changes. Though it was kind of neat to be have been able to wear any one of nine “combat patches” representing the different units I belonged to over the course of a year, the problems with so much change are obvious.

To have complained about it at the time would to have been labeled a whiner, a naysayer, and a foot-dragger. It would have meant being fired immediately, as (among other things) it would be insubordinate to the chain-of-command, and ruinous for troop morale and unit cohesion, which was high at the time and by all accounts remains high. Besides, we were all volunteers, right? and no one told us it was going to be easy. We did the best the we could, and though our best really wasn’t all that good, we kept trying and hoped for a very limited and temporary effectiveness.

However small our results may have been, I’ve always held that advisors at least felt like we were doing the most good, compared to other Americans. I also felt like we had the highest regard for Afghans and had mostly funny or warm-hearted stories about working with them. That’s not saying much, because the soldiers in the line-force units in our area-of-operations distrusted Afghans and wanted to spend as little time around them as possible. The articles and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports on which they are based also seem hostile to Afghans as people. Continually dwelling on corruption and making blanket statements and assumptions about incompetent, unreliable Afghans is definitely off-putting to me. In my experience, if that was your attitude going in, or a “fact” “proven” to you by your suspicions and initial encounters with Afghans, well then everything that followed was going to confirm that. The Afghans we worked with made distinctions, and they sensed quickly if an American was predisposed to be snoopy and judgmental about them. If so, they pretty much acted to type. If the opposite, then they were great partners, eager to please and amenable to suggestions and direction. The negative comments about Afghans in the Post articles and the SIGAR reports seem to have been written by people who may have worked or fought side-by-side with Afghans once or twice, but never day-in, day-out for seven months in Khost and five months in Paktya.

Not entirely reassuring, I’m sure, or beyond critique, or free of self-justification, but those were my thoughts then and they mostly remain the same now.

 

Inside the Puzzle Palace: Kathleen J. McInnis’s The Heart of War

December 8, 2019

The first and last chapters of the 2018 novel The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon are set in Afghanistan, but the intervening scenes depict policy, strategy, and operational planning at the highest levels of US military command, primarily at the Pentagon, but also in adjoining locales around Washington, DC, and on a diplomatic mission to London. Mostly fanciful, but containing elements of critique and satire, The Heart of War is by turns entertaining, insightful, and troubling. Drawing on author Kathleen J. McInnis’s own tour-of-duty as a Pentagon analyst, the novel is narrated in first-person by Dr. Heather Reilly, a newly-minted PhD hired by the Department of Defense for her Afghanistan expertise to work as an “action officer,” as wonky plans-and-policy staffers are known in the military bureaucracy. In the first “misadventure” that besets Reilly, she is transferred from her initial assignment to an obscure office led by a civilian woman known as “The Wicked Witch of the Pentagon.” True to her nickname, the Wicked Witch terrorizes Reilly while also relying on her to advance a quirky project to make Moldova the centerpiece of DOD efforts to counter Russian expansionism.

Many more misadventures ensue, but ultimately The Heart of War tells the tale of Reilly’s triumph. On the strength of two memos she authors, one addressing Moldova and the other Afghanistan, she comes first to the attention of the Secretary of Defense and then to the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Rewarded with promotion to an executive-level position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Reilly at novel’s end is diverted from the Moldova project and deployed to Afghanistan, where she is to lead a peace-making initiative in consort with her new-found romantic interest: a hot-shot Army colonel who, as it happens had fought alongside her brother John on a previous tour in Afghanistan. Then and there, as it further happens, John had earned a posthumous Medal of Honor for saving the Army colonel’s life, so for Reilly to now be united in common cause with a man inextricably linked with her brother represents a fortuitous culmination of family destiny and personal accomplishment, but not one undeserved. As romance blossoms, the colonel tells Reilly her rise-in-the-world has occurred because she has “consistently proven [her]self the best analyst in the room” and because she “cares… in a way that most people can’t even comprehend.”

That’s a lot for the first six weeks on the job, no doubt, and I’ve just scratched the surface of Reilly’s “misadventures,” which are presented as zany mishaps on the way to final glory. Most of them are of the type that feature prominently in “rom-com” movies and “chick-lit” stories, as I understand those genres. While some of them are pretty fantastical (let’s just say that a couple of episodes put the “action” in “action officer”), analysis of Reilly’s mishaps might serve as the basis for an astute assessment of the workplace environment for women at the Pentagon. I’m not the target audience for rom-com and chick-lit, so I’ll pass on mansplaining The Heart of War’s breezy critique of military patriarchy and the contortions it forces upon the woman who work within it. Before moving on, however, let the record show that McInnis’s novel, for all its fantastical elements, is a hundred times more realistic than the contemporary-war fantasies authored by male Army vets such as Brad Thor, Sean Parnell, and Dalton Fury I review here. And I haven’t yet gotten to the parts about The Heart of War I like best. Or which trouble me most.

What really intrigues me about The Heart of War, and what I think McInnis gets mostly right, is the portrait of the extremely competitive work culture within the Pentagon and the entire government apparatus. It’s never just about doing what’s best for the country, or for the soldiers fighting downrange. Instead, it’s about ruthless jockeying for status and position within the bureaucratic hierarchy. It’s about striking hard when the time is right to advance one’s position, which may or not be best for the nation or fighting force, and may or may not be fervently believed in ideologically and politically, but certainly is designed to enhance one’s prestige and career prospects. The Moldova project, at first laughable in Reilly’s estimation, takes on a life of its own as it is bandied about among various Pentagon agencies, the Department of State, the Executive Branch, and foreign allies. While processing through the inside-the-Beltway sausage-making machinery, it accrues a certain amount of possibility as a legitimate way to counter Russian aggression—a real concern—and it most definitely accrues value as a (mixed metaphor alert!) high-stakes poker chip among very talented, hard-driving Pentagon players who are carefully counting cards and reading the tells of their opponents. Not so much the art of compromise, successful fruition of a program, policy, or action depends on careful coalition-building and savvy grooming of highly-placed patrons. In the Pentagon, then, no good idea wins the day on its own merits alone; instead, it must find powerful advocates to battle with powerful adversaries, as in battles between dueling wolf-packs.

Also intriguing about The Heart of War is McInnis/Reilly’s take on all this. In the opening scenes, Reilly expresses stock skepticism at Pentagon foibles. The drab physical lay-out is often described as “underwhelming.” The Pentagon’s mania for Power Point and acronyms is ridiculed. We are told that at the Pentagon “colonels pour coffee.” Reilly gets in trouble for going to the bathroom unescorted and later she screws up and sits in the wrong place at a meeting, ha-ha. Many of the men and women she meets are weirdly-behaved and seemingly selfishly-motivated, at least at first. Eventually, though, Reilly comes around—the system that aids and abets her rise in the world is revealed—mutatis mutandis—to be one that actually makes sense, or at least as much sense as possible. The brutal indoctrination turns out to be a necessary toughening regimen. The Byzantine bureaucracy turns out to be an ingeniously designed system of checks-and-balances that rewards survival-of-the-fittest perseverance and creative maneuvering. Most of all, the players, or at least the ones Reilly likes best, are not scheming self-promotors or brain-dead dullards, but “the best and the brightest” (hard to believe those words are actually used unironically). They’re super-smart, wickedly funny (in private), highly dedicated and patriotic public servants, and most of the men are decorated combat veterans, as well. They adopt personas as either ruthless ball-busters or cynical black-humorists not just to play the game, but win it.

That’s OK, if a little pie-eyed, offered to us for consideration from the perspective of a woman (the Reilly character, not McInnis) who has implausibly cut to very nearly the top of the Pentagon heap in half-a-year. I never served at the Pentagon during my Army career, but the mortar platoon-leader of my first infantry battalion later became an Assistant Secretary of the Army. Another lieutenant in that unit is now a three-star on the Army staff, and so is a captain with whom I also served. A third officer I knew had come from a position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and liked to proclaim he had once “deployed a brigade to Africa on a buck-slip”; in other words, he had circumvented laborious staffing procedures. That’s a pretty good anecdote, but it’s countered by the one told to me by the Assistant Secretary of Army, who related that a typical Pentagon scene is four full-bird colonels and three senior level civilians huddled around a computer parsing a word on a briefing slide. I haven’t seen any of those men in years, but they were all great officers when I served alongside them, and I trust and pray they were or are much the same in their Pentagon billets. The Heart of War skillfully portrays some of their world, but an even richer, deeper, more textured look awaits writing by someone who can describe them (and women like them, too), their careers, their decisions, and their concerns in fuller scope.

To close with a consideration of larger imports, The Heart of War sends mixed or confusing messages, sometimes clear, precise, and astute, and other times understated or implied. For example, the novel has little to say about Presidential politics. White House directives barely factor into the decision-making process the novel describes and notions of servitude are expressed in terms of obligation to fighting men-and-women and to the American public, but not as a response to Presidential fiat, welcome or unwelcome. Reilly’s transformation from skeptic to true-believer, academic-peacenik outsider to boots-on-the-ground woman-of-war insider, suggests a rebuke to liberal pieties about national defense and the military. On the other hand, her basic affirmation of Pentagon processes and the valor, integrity, and competence of the career military men and women who execute them contravenes anyone who believes that the modern military is comprised of mealy-mouthed bureaucrats who couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag. McInnis’s description of Pentagon culture and some of the modern-day Machiavellis who work there offers plenty of ammo to those concerned about government inefficiency—in this view, the Pentagon is a self-licking ice cream cone as interested in perpetuating the forever wars as ending them. Even more so, however, critics of the Washington “swamp” and “deep state,” if they were smart enough to think beyond Pizza Gate and Benghazi conspiracy theories, might use The Heart of War as evidence for their distrust of a slick DC insider culture whose actions are opaque to the larger world. That’s not at all what McInnis intends, but a sharp critic of the contemporary “administrative state” would deem all she describes as major problems, not virtues or necessary evils. For those of that persuasion, that so much energy and brainpower is devoted to constraining Russia, not buddying up to them, would be another problem.

Kathleen E. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon. Post Hill Press, 2018.

War Fiction: Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In

November 24, 2019

Nicholas Kulish’s 2007 novel Last One In, about an unlikely war correspondent embedded with US Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, didn’t pass unnoticed upon release. A New York Times review, for example, called it “funny, harrowing, and sympathetic,” as well as a “worthy addition to the curious but indispensable shelf of war satires.” Last One In seems not to have made much of a lasting impact, however. The contemporary war-writing fiction scene didn’t get rolling for another few years, and when it did, “war satire” never established itself as a dominant mode for depicting war in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Abrams’ great Fobbit the exception that proves the rule. Instead, a downbeat dwelling on the traumatizing costs of war as experienced by the individual soldier prevailed as the dominant subject and tone, reflected starkly in works such as Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, and the stories in the seminal anthology Fire and Forget. Last One In’s focus on Operation Iraqi Freedom’s opening act also seemed to have missed the mark of the nation’s interest, as an onslaught of later books—the ones I’ve mentioned above and many many more–about the difficulties veterans face after coming home came to define publishing and popular thinking about what it meant to write about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another factor that helped relegate Last One In to obscurity was a national literary sentiment that privileged narratives about contemporary war authored by soldier-veterans above those written by anyone else. The veteran’s voice, polished by tutelage in MFA programs and veterans’ writing workshops, exuded an authoritative credibility that has left civilian authors of war-and-mil novels, even superb ones such as Ben Fountain and Roxana Robinson, constantly having to explain themselves, perpetually fighting uphill for respect and readers. Journalists especially seem to have collectively decided not to even try to write novels about the modern wars; off the top of my head I can’t name another fictional work about war in Iraq or Afghanistan by an author who identified primarily as a reporter.

Reading Last One In recently (I had never of it before this year, and I make it my business to know about these things), Kulish’s novel struck me as of a piece with Evan Wright’s much more well-known Generation Kill (2004), and the 2008 HBO television series of the same name based on Wright’s book. Both Last One In and Generation Kill feature inside looks at Marine units as they alternatingly charge and creep from Kuwait to Baghdad in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Both works are focalized through the eyes of embedded journalists stuffed into the back of Humvees manned by Marine enlisted soldiers. In each case, the Marines swap endless insults and complaints, both to entertain each other and burn off anxiety in-between occasional moments of action. Neither Wright nor Kulish have much to say about tactics, strategy, or actual fighting, but then neither do the Marines with whom they ride. For both authors, the really interesting subject is the very masculine Marine culture they’ve been given access to, as it is for the Marines themselves, whose chatter revolves endlessly around how it is to see the world through the eyes of a Marine. The peep into Marine culture both fascinates and repulses Wright and Kulish. In the television series version of Generation Kill, for example, close-ups of the Wright character predominate as he responds silently-but-bug-eyed to the foul-mouthed, insubordinate, and politically incorrect tirades of the driver of the vehicle in which he rides. In Last One In, one suspects Kulish relied on good notes to craft lines such as:

…they talked their way through the celebrity spectrum, about who was uglier in real life, who had gained weight recently, and who was gay. Speculating on male homosexuality was the most popular subject. The only actors they didn’t seem to consider closet cases were Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. Han Solo could not be gay, the majority ruled. Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck, on the other hand, were two candelabra shy of Liberace.

Trying to determine the reporter-character/journalist-authors’ takes on the homophobia, misogyny, and racism they witness, as well as the Marines’ blatant lack of respect for many members of their chains-of-command and general disdain for Iraqis, is one of the more interesting deliberations that come with watching Generation Kill and reading Last One In. Is the casual crudeness part of the Marines’ charm, an integral verbal and mental aspect of hardened fighting men? Or is it a cringe-worthy social corollary to the surprisingly inept military proficiency and general thoughtlessness the reporter-observers often note? The decade-plus since Generation Kill and Last One In have intensified the questions, not answered them. The dominant sentiment, which I hold, is that such “toxic military masculinity” is neither charming nor necessary, and should be censored and policed by official chains-of-command and stigmatized by the media and the populace. To a certain extent, the needle has shifted within the military itself and such attitudes no longer are tolerated or even hold sway. But they are not gone, by any means, nor is there consensus that they should be. For some, the censoring and policing and stigmatizing are worse than the problem itself, if they even see it as a problem.

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Last One In’s many scenes set among Marines in the close confines of their vehicles and squad bays reflect Kulish’s journalistic eye for detail. They also give me a chance to expound briefly on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. It’s a concept that especially interests me as I read and watch stories about contemporary war and how they depict the microcosmic world of soldiers living among other soldiers. To quote from a reputable website, habitus “refers to the physical embodiment … of deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences.” To quote from Bourdieu himself, habitus is “a subjective but not individual system of internalised structures, schemes of perception, conception, and action common to all members of the same group or class.” (The Wikipedia entry on habitus is not bad in translating those ideas into plainer English).

Habitus is related to the concept of mise-en-scène, a film and stage term, but has a more literary and critical bent. Besides, one French aesthetic idea is enough to deal with in a single blog post. For me, an author’s or artist’s representation of military habitus is always the most interesting thing. I especially like thinking about habitus in relation to scenes set inside vehicles, where soldiers act and interact in ways that are learned, stylized, and performative, but also highly naturalized (or, “internalized”). When such scenes are done well, they not only make me nostalgic for my own time spent cooped up in military vehicles on long movements, but render the impression that the author or artist is highly alert to the essence of what it is like psychologically and sociologically to be a soldier. Bourdieu was a sociologist, and so for him an accurate account of a particular habitus depended on “objective,” nominally value-neutral “thick description” (another lit-crit term) depiction of observed habits and speech patterns, which are then ascribed to the holding of specific worldviews and attitudes. That’s also close to the credo of journalists and anthropologists as they observe cultures and sub-cultures and try to describe them as fairly and accurately as possible. Novelists and artists, for their part, value thick description, too, but also everywhere they constantly inflect their depictions with irony, ambiguity, and shades of perspective. They’re also aware that the very act of observation induces an “observer effect,” whereby the actions of the observed change under the act of observation. That is certainly a factor afoot in Generation Kill and Last One In, where the embedded journalist protagonists surveil with pen-and-pad in-hand the Marines with whom they pass hours, days, and weeks.

To put a point on this esoteric discussion, here’s a long passage from Last One In set in a Humvee during the slow grind to Baghdad. The embedded journalist is Jimmy, the Marines are Privates Ramos (also known as “little Macho”) and Martinez, and their squad leader Sergeant Harper.

The gaps in conversation were torture, since there was no dearth of terrible scenarios the imagination could conjure. After several minutes of miserable silence, Jimmy announced, “You know, I’ve been here for a week, and I haven’t seen one camel.”

“Oh, who fucking cares?” Martinez said.

“Yeah, fuck your camel,” Ramos added….

[Jimmy exploded:] “Every minute since you’ve met me, I’ve had one thing on my mind. Thinking, ‘I’m going to fucking die. I’m going to fucking die.’ But do I whine about it? No. Because—because it’d get pretty boring to have me screaming about dying in the backseat all the way to Baghdad. Don’t you think?” Harper didn’t answer. “Don’t you think? So maybe I fucking want to talk about camels instead.”

“Jimmy,” Martinez said at last, very gingerly, “You haven’t seen one camel?”

“No, man,” Jimmy said with a laugh for the preposterously camel-free desert. “Not a goddamned one.”

“I’ve seen a couple,” Harper said.

“Me too,” Martinez said. They were using the indulgent tones of orderlies in an asylum.

“One hump or two?” Jimmy asked.

“One, I think,” Martinez said.

“Yeah, I think they were one,” Harper said.

“Cool,” Jimmy answered.

“Motherfucker,” Ramos said.

“What now?” Harper responded.

“How come I’m the only Marine who hasn’t seen a camel?”

“Everybody shut the fuck up,” Harper said. “That’s an order.” The talking ban was surprisingly effective, lasting a full hour, probably because each was a little pissed off at the others. Harper kept leaning back like he was trying to sleep, but Jimmy found it impossible to get any rest with the fear, the bouncing of the jeep, and the sand caked against teeth, tongue, and nostrils. He took notes instead. When no one spoke, all they could hear was the groaning of the vehicle on its shocks and the static of tiny grains of sand pelting the canvas top. The sandstorm lasted longer than they could stand to listen to those sounds. It was Ramos who cracked.

“What you writing?” he asked Jimmy. “Saying we’re lost? Don’t write that shit.”

“Not saying anything. And you can’t tell me what to write anyway.”

“C’mon, Jimmy,” Martinez said. “Step up.”

“Quit censoring the civilian, Private,” Harper said.

“You saying we fucked up?” Ramos asked.

“I’m writing a letter to my mom,” Jimmy said.

“What’s it say?” the private continued to pry.

“You know what?” Jimmy told him. “It says we’re lost. Says you fucked up. What do you think now?”

“You…” Ramos began. “You tell her a real Marine says hello.”

“Yea. And tell her little Macho said hi, too,” Martinez added. Jimmy looked down at his paper and finished writing, blessedly undisturbed.

Nicholas Kulish, Last One In. Harper-Perennial, 2007.


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