Archive for the ‘Art and War’ category

War, Poetry, Experience: Hugh Martin, Abby E. Murray, Nomi Stone

March 3, 2019

Recent poetry volumes by Hugh Martin, Abby E. Murray, and Nomi Stone reflect the ongoing pull of war and military themes on poets and the authors’ fascination with the poetry as a means of reflecting on their experiences as soldiers, military spouses, and military observers, respectively. “Experience,” it seems to me, is a key word for sussing out the nature of the books’ achievements. I remember a telling Tweet or Facebook post from Lauren Kay Johnson a few years back in which she queried veteran friends and followers about a word that might be used as a synonym or alternative to the word “experience” to categorize their time in the military and on deployment. Responses were mixed, or not especially helpful, as I recall: more evidence that the word might be both overused and under-interrogated as an all-purpose label for how we conceptualize time spent in uniform, at war, or rubbing up against the strange culture of the military in ways that seem interesting, important, or even transformative.

Hugh Martin, In Country

Most of the poems in Hugh Martin’s In Country, as in his first volume, The Stick Soldiers, consist of vignettes of events Martin lived through on his tour in Iraq as an Ohio National Guardsman in 2004. A few poems are set afterwards, and these more directly address what it means to live-on following service on the ground in combat in Iraq. Some, such as the title and title-poem, which reference Bobbie Ann Mason’s great Vietnam novel of the same name, touch on even larger circles of historical-cultural signification. Martin is not given to over-arching pronouncements or editorializing within the space of his poems, however. Instead, he emphasizes observed detail and understated tactics of suggestion and inference. What I get from his poems, and it may not be at all what Martin intended, is a need to document the idea and fact that he, the poet Hugh Martin, in 2018, is the same young man who went to war in 2005 and with a gun strapped to his body did the things war asks soldiers to do–break down doors and shoot people, for starters. The dots connecting the two Hugh Martins go mostly implied or unconnected or too-scary to face directly, which is OK by me, since they go largely unresolved in my own mind in regard to my own deployment and life afterwards, too. So, I can relate to the perceived overall sensibility of In Country, just as I can easily relate to the vignettes of actual deployed experience that Martin captures in verse, such as this one:

“Test Fire”
-south of Jalawala

After we drive through
the barren hills
where the earth unrolls

itself for miles, where the soil’s
as stale as boxed cookies
sent from the Youngstown

USO, the gunners fire
machineguns at the ridge
wall’s face—small

dust-explosions lift
to the sky like faded desert
larks while the rest of us

shoot from our knees, our
chests, as copper casings
rain like loose change

across the dirt, then
as we convoy back
to Cobra from nowhere

the Bedouin come
to collect the shells
& stuff them in sacks

& after they go: only
boot & footprints,
a careful cursive of tire-tracks.

Abby E. Murray, How to Be Married After Iraq

Many of the poems in Abby E. Murray’s How to Be Married After Iraq reflect the authors’s felt disjunction between her identity as a woman and a poet with an MFA and PhD in literature and her role, or chosen life, as the wife of a career infantry officer. Those poetic moments ring with whimsical irony, but the best poems in How to Be Married After Iraq do much more than express bemusement and ambivalence. Murray, much like fellow military-spouse poet Elyse Fenton, is a superb chronicler of the distortions on her own psyche and the nation’s wrought by endless life during wartime, distortions on which her vantage point in the inner-circle of the warrior kingdom gives her exemplary purchase. The social milieu of officer marriages, and, speaking from (again) personal knowledge, especially that of infantry officer marriages, is strange and cloistered, so much so that I sense it can be off-putting to observers from the outside. The almost perverse blend of intense competitiveness, ambition, physical vitality, and homosociality of the men as they are observed by their wives has been ably recounted by Siobhan Fallon in fiction and Angela Ricketts in non-fiction, and part of their accomplishment lies in noting the tension inspired by their own complicity in the experience. Fallon, Ricketts, and now Murray have missed nothing, taken great notes, and, when they are so inclined, punch very hard. Here’s the beginning of a Murray poem that begs to be paired with Brian Turner’s “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center”:

“Sitting in a Simulated Living Space at the Seattle Ikea”

To sit in a simulated living space at Ikea
is to know what sand knows
as it rests inside the oyster.
This is how you might arrange your life
if you were to start from scratch:
a newer, better version of yourself applied
coat by coat, beginning with lamplight
from the simulated living room.
The man who lives here has never killed.
There is no American camouflage drying
over the backs of his kitchen chairs,
no battle studies on the coffee table.
He travels without a weapon,
hangs photographs of the Taj Mahal,
the Eiffel Tower above the sofa.
The woman who lives here has no need
for prescriptions or self-help,
her mirror cabinet holds a pump
for lotion and a rose-colored water glass,
her nightstand is stacked with hardcovers
on Swedish architecture….

And onward to a striking set of closing lines:

you wish you could say this place
is not enough for you, that you’re better off
in the harsh light of the parking garage,
a light that shows your skin beneath your skin,
the color of your past self,
pale in places, flushed in others.

Nomi Stone, Kill Class

As a veteran of the Army’s National Training Center, Joint Readiness Training Center, Jungle Operations Training Center, and most valuably, pre-Afghanistan deployment scenario-training at Fort Riley, I for one am fascinated by the idea of a verse volume that takes these places as its subject. Voilá, Nomi Stone in Kill Class has written a series of linked poems inspired by her anthropological field work at several US military training centers that prepare soldiers for Iraq and Afghanistan by putting them through role-playing scenarios staged by émigrés from the war-ravaged regions to which the soldiers will deploy. Stone’s poems are not especially interested in presenting themselves as accessible and easily absorbed, however. Narrative linearity, connective explanations, and summarizing statements are few; instead Stone offers shards, impressions, aggressive line-breaks, non-standard punctuation, abrupt transitions, and oblique references. The intimidating verse surface in Kill Class reflects the complexity of Stone’s background and subject position: educated as a poet in the manner of formidable modern masters such as Jorie Graham and as a Columbia-trained cultural anthropologist, Stone appears to have sometimes or often crossed lines and became a role-player herself named “Gypsy” in the training scenarios, so, like Jen Percy in Demon Camp, she deliberately foregrounds her (un)trustworthiness as an objective observer while at the same time asserting her insider bona-fides. Stone’s critique of war and the military is no more savage than they deserve, and her human sympathies extend almost equally to Muslim role players and American paratroopers, while the complicated poetics mirror the complexities of twenty-first century war, culture, militarism, identity, performativity, and the subjective nature of reality and the elusive processes of meaning-making. Kill Class may not give away its insights cheaply, but readers who invest the time will find much to appreciate about the interpretive experience it summons.

“War Game: Plug and Play”

Wait. Begin Again.
Reverse loop. Enter the stage.
The war scenario has: [vegetable stalls], [roaming animals],
and [people] in it.    The people speak

the language of a country we are trying
to make into a kinder country. Some
of the people over there are good /
others evil / others circumstantially

bad / some only want
cash / some just want
their family to not die.
The games says figure

out which
are which.

Finally, it’s almost certainly against the reading strategies proposed by Kill Class to read for conventionally “poetic” images, but Stone is quite capable of some stunners, such as the following lines from “War Game: America”:

There is a door in every word;
behind it, someone grieving.

****

Hugh Martin, In Country. BOA, 2018.

Abby E. Murray, How to Be Married After Iraq. Finishing Line Press, 2018.

Nomi Stone, Kill Class. Tupelo Press, 2019.

Stephen Markley’s Ohio: What the MacDougal is Wrong With the Buckeye State?

February 23, 2019

Dan schooled him: “Uh, Lebron James? The Black Keys, Chrissie Hynde, Steven Spielberg? John Brown spent his formative years in Ohio.”

“Christ, don’t get you started on Ohio. You’re a fucking walking Wikipedia entry.”

“Johnny Appleseed. Ever heard of him? Ohian.”

So goes a conversation between two soldiers deployed to FOB Langman in Afghanistan portrayed in Stephen Markley’s 2018 novel Ohio. As a native Ohian myself (born in Athens), the snatch of dialogue piqued my interest, among many things in Markley’s excellent novel that intrigued me, for its description of the role the Buckeye State plays in what academics call “the cultural imaginary.” Ohio seems to be an appealing place for examination of such things these days, as Ohio-the-novel joins Nico Walker’s novel Cherry (set in Cleveland) and Hugh Martin’s poetry volume In Country as recent imaginative works dissecting the ties between Midwestern political and economic malaise and the twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s not forget either a recent spate of books about Ohio’s most famous warrior-son Ulysses S. Grant, the drift of which seeks to recoup respect for Grant’s military, political, and literary achievements as an antidote not just to Robert E. Lee idolatry but in marked counterpoint to our current Commander-in-Chief. To gather it all together, these works seem to address two common concerns: What’s the matter with Ohio, and what, if anything, can Ohio, at its best, offer the nation?

Markley’s Ohio makes an especially apt companion piece to Walker’s Cherry, as reviewers such as Christian Lorentzen and Nathan S. Webster have noted. Both novels feature young Ohio men of no particular means or ambition who join the military, fight overseas, and return (or, at least some of them return) to Ohio locales defined by few economic prospects and rampant drug use-and-abuse. Stylistically, the novels couldn’t be more different; where Cherry exudes a terse, minimalist ethos uninterested in literary flourishes, narrative trickery, or grandiloquent pontification, Ohio revels in novelistic excess, as if Cherry had been given a makeover by Ben Fountain (the two works exemplify “the raw” and “the cooked” war-and-mil writing poles I stake out in this blog post). The two novels differ in their basic regard for the military, too. In Cherry, the narrator, based on Walker himself, is contemptuous of the Army he joins, finding little value in its ideals, missions, and methods, or in the people with whom he serves. Markley, not a veteran, portrays two characters, one, Rick Brinklan, who joins the Marines and one, Dan Eaton, who joins the Army, differently. Each, within the range of possibilities offered to them and their peers in the fictional small town of New Canaan, embodies honor and good sense, and the military, whatever its shortcomings, is more generative of human commonweal than anything available back home. Not perfect, mind you—Rick is killed in Iraq and Dan loses an eye in the process of committing a war-crime in Afghanistan—but better by far than the failed state and blighted social microcosm from which the two men use the military to escape. In the exploration of this irony lies Ohio’s contribution to interminable debates about “the civil-military divide” and “thanking soldiers for their service.”

For starters, Ohio suggests that the 9/11 attacks accelerated the polarization of America into two political-ideological camps whose formation blasted any sense of shared American ideals and endeavor, here suggested in a divide that separates Rick Brinklan and his childhood friend Bill Ashcraft:

Then two planes hit the World Trade Center towers, one hit the Pentagon, and a final one dug a crater in a Pennsylvania field, and almost that same day, he felt a divergence occur between them. Bill observed the flag-waving, the brainless nationalism, the invocation of military might as a panacea for sorrow, and it felt to him like a bad movie, a gloss of convenient worship for shared bloodletting. Rick got into it. Really into it….

To be fair, the ideas in this passage are expressed through the wonders of free indirect discourse as those of Bill’s, so they may not precisely be Markley’s, but they don’t seem too far off, either. That 9/11 served to divide the nation, not unite it, is linked to a longer-term economic deterioration precipitated primarily by greedy charlatans who grew rich while skillfully escaping blame for the catastrophic damage they inflicted on the Midwest:

Ohio hadn’t gone throught the same real estate boom as the Sun Belt, but the vultures had circled the carcasses of dying industrial towns—Dayton, Toledo, Mansfield, Youngstown, Akron—peddling home equity loans and refinancing… The foreclosures began to crop up and then turn into fields of fast-moving weeds, reducing whole neighborhoods to abandoned husks or drug pens. Ameriquest, Countrywide, CitiFinancial—all those devious motherfuckers watching the state’s job losses, plant closings, its struggles, its heartache, and figuring out a way to make a buck on people’s desperation. Every city or town in the state had big gangrenous swaths that looked like New Canaan, the same cancer-patient-looking strip mall geography with brightly lit outposts hawking variations on usurious consumer credit.

Helpless in the face of such exploitation, or clueless about its true nature, the dazed denizens of Midwest wastelands lack the wherewithal to save themselves. One of the characters in Ohio notes that a factory abandoned some thirty years past still dominates downtown New Canaan like a wrecked cathedral, which the residents don’t seem to mind, or notice, and perhaps even like, oblivious that they might be expected to muster some sort of collective agency to revitalize or remove it.

In the years following 9/11, the nation’s actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan figure almost irrelevantly in the lives of New Canaan’s residents, even as quite a few of the town’s sons and daughters go off to fight in them. The real after-effect of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror is the home-front growth of frenzied xenophobia about the danger posed by brown-skinned Muslim immigrants to the warp-and-woof of American and Ohioan life. Almost to a man, and even more so among the young than among the silver-haired Fox News-watchers, the male residents of New Canaan are driven to rhetorical apoplexy and actual violence by their sense that someone—namely Democrats and liberals—has allowed the very people the nation is fighting to infiltrate the nation’s ranks and threaten its character. In the mostly-white New Canaan, old-school black-white tension exists, but in almost diluted, benign form compared to the venomous hatred now directed toward non-Christian immigrants by young white men without education, their sputtering rage and impotence in the face of demographic change and diversity exacerbated by excessive drinking and drug use.

Whether all of this is true or not, or rings true or not, probably depends on where you lie on the Red-Blue spectrum. Ohio’s Amazon reviews suggest as much. There’s lots of 5-star ratings, but many 1-star reviews too, the tenor of which suggest that Ohio is a liberal hit-job launched from the elitist coasts. The issue is complicated by Markley’s portrait of characters with liberal, progressive, and radical politics and world-views. By-and-large they are described as possessed by their own form of self-hatred, one generated by internalizing the idea that to be out of step with the New Canaan mainstream is an act of self-marginalization born not of superior intelligence but of character perversity equal to or greater than the irrationalism of the xenophobes. They hate themselves, and thus are neither liked nor trusted by their more conservative peers, who find them deeply inauthentic and not credible:

What an important lesson for every young person to learn: If you defy the collective psychosis of nationalism, of imperial war, you will pay for it. And the people in your community, your home, who you thought knew and loved you, will be the ones to collect the debt.

In that space between deplorable provincial conservatives and enfeebled liberal exiles Markley situates Rick and Dan. If we ascribe a liberal politics to Markley, as do many of his Amazon reviewers, then one of the conundrums he tries to reconcile in Ohio is the irony that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as stupid and wasteful as they are, serve as venues for redemption of a modern America that is equally as stupid and has squandered its riches and its virtues. Rick’s no goody-goody, but as a former high school football star he possesses a Pat Tillman-like stalwartness that commands respect. Dan’s more ordinary, but his essential decency and kindness is recognized by everyone. Military service doesn’t inculcate in them a love of force, guns, and hyper-aggressive masculinity—the men who don’t serve are far more infected by these traits—but rather reinforces an inherent understanding of how an individual contributes responsibly to a social collective. Unfortunately, Rick’s and Dan’s potential is blighted by the military and war that also nourishes them—Rick by death and Dan by disability, guilt, and shame for the war-crime he is horrified to have committed—so not only do they ultimately not thrive in the military but they are unable to return to New Canaan and live out long lives as grown men contributing to the civic polity.

The implications of that last point are too dismal to contemplate, so let’s end with brief consideration of a capsule portrait of a soldier named Greg Coyle with whom Dan serves in Iraq. In my last post on Cherry, I praised Nico Walker’s description of a soldier named Jimenez, who is fated to be killed in combat. An emerging truism of war-writing is that any minor character described with any love and attention-to-detail will soon be vanquished and vanished from the story, but be that as it may, such capsule portraits are often among the most memorable passages in the works that contain them. Here’s an example of such an unwitting obituary from Ohio:

When they stood for inspections, Dan, like everyone, would get ripped, maybe because he’d stored his compression bandages in the wrong place or always tried to get away with not wearing the side plates of his body armor (those heavy, awkward five-by-five bastards). Greg Coyle, no matter how goofy he was, never got ripped, was always on point. Coyle, who referred to everything as a “MacDougal.” A bore snake, pliers, a target at the range, military-age males, MREs, ops, battalion—they were all just MacDougals to him. To the dismay of the whole company, within weeks of their deployment everyone was saying it.

“We’re getting those up-armored MacDougals next month.”

“Those powdered MacDougals—goddamn! Better than Mom’s homemade MacDougal.”

“That other MacDougal was getting rocked by IEMacDougals.”

They landed in Iraq in 2006, when the country was no joke, but that joke worked right through rocket attacks and EFPs.

The second thing Dan did after he got out and visited Rudy in the hospital was attend Bren Della Terza’s wedding in Austin, Texas. A lot of his friends from Iraq were there, guys he hadn’t seen in a while because they’d gotten out after two tours. Badamier, Lieutenant Holt, Cleary, Wong, Doc Laymon, Drake in his wheelchair, “Other James” Streiss, now with two robot hands. They of course got drunk and began referring to everything as a “MacDougal,” annoying the hell out of those piqued Texas bridesmaids. Decent, churchgoing women who had never seen soldiers cut loose. How hilariously stupid they could be. In his buzz, Dan found himself wishing to return to 2006, to be back on patrol with his friends.

Stephen Markley, Ohio. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Yale, the Great War and Modern War-Writing

December 26, 2018

Many thanks to the Yale University Veterans Association for the invitation to moderate a World War I Armistice Day Commemoration panel on WWI literature and film. The event was coordinated and hosted by Adrian Bonenberger, a Yale graduate, 173rd Airborne paratrooper, author of the memoir Afghan Post, co-editor (with Brian Castner) of the collection of contemporary war short-fiction The Road Ahead, and currently an editor of a Yale medical-science journal. Bonenberger invited an eclectic group of war artists and scholars to participate in a very cool endeavor: linking contemporary war-writing to precedents established by veterans and talented artists during and after “The Great War.” Joining me on the panel, which served as the capstone for a week of commemorative events, were Benjamin Busch, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Brianne Bilsky. Busch, well-known to readers of Time Now, is a film-maker, poet, photographer, actor, and memoirist of very high order. Orth-Veillon is the editor of the fantastic WWriteBlog, where she has published reflections on World War I by many modern war-writers. Bilsky, now a dean of one of Yale’s residential colleges, is a former colleague on the faculty of the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point, where we frequently taught World War I writing to cadets.

The set-up for the occasion was intriguing, as it demonstrated the appetite of the Yale community for honoring veterans and for thinking about war-related issues in serious, complex ways. After an informative and enjoyable lecture by Yale historian Paul Kennedy on World War I memorials, we, along with our audience, watched Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 movie Paths of Glory, about French soldiers court-martialed for cowardice in World War I, and then discussed it in relation to the post-World War I artistic tradition. Next, we segued into discussion of World War I writing to which we felt personally connected. Finally, we tried to suggest the wider impact of World War I writing on contemporary veteran-authors and culture-wide thinking about war.

A broad charge, to be sure, one perhaps too broad for the time allotted, save for the acuity of the panelists, each of whom is apparently incapable of saying a dull thing. Watching Paths of Glory was galvanizing, as it offered chance to admire Kubrick’s superb direction and Kirk Douglas’s riveting acting, but the film in my opinion is a bit of a counterpoint to the general trend of World War I art. Not so much concerned with the impact of war on individual soldiers as with the moral bankruptcy of the chain-of-command that keeps the war machine going, Paths of Glory is a late-stage addition to the Great War artistic legacy. Arguably, it is as much about post-World War II Cold War conformity as it is about the historical work performed by World War I in erasing 19th-century modes-of-thought and bringing our modern era into being. Still, discussion of Paths of Glory set the stage for return to the canonical literary works of World War I, as well as the publicizing of voices neglected by the decades but resonant now. Here are the works each panelist read from and commented on:

Jennifer Orth-Veillon: Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms
Benjamin Busch: Wilfred Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” followed by Hemingway’s short-story “Soldier Home”
Brianne Bilsky: Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Counter-Attack”
Me: Aline Kilmer’s poem “To a Young Aviator”

What can be said about World War I writing that hasn’t been said before? To some extent, perhaps not much, because that’s some very well-trod critical ground. The better question is what rings particularly true today? Below are some of my thoughts on the matter, inspired by our panel.

One is the general truth that World War I veteran-writers and contemporary war-writers are both well-read participants in the literary traditions they hope to join. Each cohort has gone to war and then written about it with a swirl of precursor works in mind, the Western tradition of classics for World War I writers and the 20th-century body of war writing-and-film for modern veteran authors. Another link is a characteristic subject: the disillusionment of the individual soldier, caused not just by the slaughter and stupidity he (or she) witnesses, but in the collapse of the dream of heroism, inflected with huge amounts of survivor guilt. This morphing of heroic possibility into lacerating self-reproach is related to the way that soldiers were randomly and unglamorously killed in the two wars: by gas, artillery barrage, and mowed down by machine-gun in World War I, and blasted instantly off the face-of-the-earth by IED explosions in Iraq or Afghanistan. A third is a similarity in tone, different from the hard-boiled feel of the great World War II novels and the moral outrage of Vietnam War fiction—a tone more elegiac or hesitant or softer or somehow regretful. While World War II and Vietnam writing often seems testosterone-soaked, few World War I or Iraq/Afghanistan authors come off as tough guys, and most give the impression that he or she would view extreme masculine competitive aggressiveness as a pathetic pose in the face of circumstance. Connected to this last notion is a shared sense of futility about the respective war efforts, and a distancing from responsibility or even care for strategic goals and national aspirations, which are typically categorized as vain, foolish, or irrelevant to the individual soldier experience.

These are just some ideas, surely there are others. Not every aspect of contemporary war-writing need have an antecedent in World War I, and the World War I canon is not beyond criticism—in fact, the canon cries out for “problematizing,” to use academic-speak, on several grounds. Still, it would be a foolish contemporary war-writer who set pen to paper without first reading the works authored by World War I combatants and interested non-combatants touched by the war, and it would be a very good one who surpasses or transforms the marks they established.

****

The event had a special family significance for me: My grandmother’s brother left Yale during World War I to fight in France, where he suffered wounds in a gas attack from which he never fully recovered.

Jennifer Orth-Vellion, Brianne Bilsky, Benjamin Busch, Adrian Bonenberger, me.

Elliot Ackerman’s Waiting for Eden

December 11, 2018

Elliot Ackerman, as much as any contemporary veteran, has turned himself into a working professional author. With three novels in three years published by prestigious publishing houses and a collection of journalism and essays on the way, he’s making the rest of the veteran war-writing crew look a little sluggish, as if they were struggling to generate sellable story ideas. Time will tell who is the Tim O’Brien of the current cohort of war authors, but Ackerman is well on his way to being its Robert Olen Butler: the author of a steady stream of distinctive war-related fiction; books that fuse contemporary concerns with literary antecedents and private vision, that may be more loss-leaders than cash-cows for their publishers, but cumulatively adding up to a successful career and a laudable body-of-work.

Ackerman’s latest work-of-fiction, Waiting for Eden, is novella-length, so not as tight and focused as a short-story nor as expansive as a novel. Shorting commentary, context and portrayal of social milieu while still taking time to reveal its secrets and generate impact, Waiting for Eden aims for evocativeness rather than detail as it presents the story of a grievously wounded and near-comatose Iraq veteran lying in a San Antonio hospital bed years after his wounding. The veteran, Eden Malcolm by name, is kept alive by the miracles of medicine and the refusal of his wife Mary to let doctors pull the plug on him. Eden in this regard resembles the protagonist of Dalton Trumbo’s acclaimed novel Johnny Got His Gun, published in 1938, about a World War I quadruple-amputee trapped alone with his thoughts inside his mangled body. Waiting for Eden is narrated by Eden’s Marine Corps buddy, an unnamed friend killed in the same IED explosion that injures Eden and who now tells the story from beyond the grave. The parallels between Waiting for Eden and Johnny Got His Gun have been noted by reviewers, but no one, to my knowledge, has noticed the similarity of the narration to Larry Heinemann’s 1987 National Book Award-winning Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, which is related by the collective voice of the dead soldiers killed in a big battle that leaves the title character physically disabled and mentally anguished.

With this intriguing buddy-pair–neither narrator nor protagonist fully there in the real world to tell his story and interact with living people–demanding attention at first read, reviews of Waiting for Eden have tended to explain it in terms of its exploration of war disability, soldierly camaraderie, survivor guilt, and national responsibility for war-wounded. The novella also asks readers to consider the plight of the families of wounded veterans and the ethical-medical-legal quandaries of extending life by technology and pharmaceuticals. To the extent that Waiting for Eden actually does explore these weighty themes, it’s interesting to speculate how other contemporary war-writers might have handled them:

-Phil Klay might philosophize about the ethics of life preservation and the oaths soldiers and families make to each other unto eternity.
-Matt Gallagher might infuse the story with self-deprecating humor and existential bemusement.
-Roy Scranton might critique sanctimonious dwelling on wounded American soldiers and the feebleness of “thanking soldiers for their service.”
-Will Mackin might have a field day describing the porous boundaries between life and death.

This fanciful mind-game actually has a point: Ackerman, or his narrator, is not especially interested in the cosmic dynamics of the life-death continuum nor the politics of caring for wounded veterans. The reviews that focus on these matters have missed what the narrator clearly states in the opening lines of Waiting for Eden:

I want you to understand Mary and what she did. But I don’t know if you will. You’ve got to wonder if in the end you’d make the same choice, circumstances being similar, or even the same, God help you.

In other words, the focus is on Mary, a problematic care-taker of her disabled husband and object of fascination and desire for the narrator, and it’s also a referendum on the narrator’s own thoughts and actions. It’s too soon after publication to reveal key plot details and discuss the story’s finale, but events before Iraq and after her husband’s wounding reveal that Mary’s choices and motives in regard to Eden are not exactly beyond reproach, nor are the narrator’s. Without giving away too much, let’s just say marital dissatisfaction and sexual impotence are issues, and matters of infidelity and paternity also come into play. The narrator’s intent (and I am assuming Ackerman’s too) is to save Mary and himself from harsh judgment, which is cool by me. The issue is complicated, however, by the narrator’s unreliability, his failure to clarify important plot points, and most of all, his failure or inability to offer fulsome portraits of Mary’s thoughts, though he is quite omniscient about other aspects of the story he tells. The problem is compounded by the fact that the narrator is a disembodied voice, not a ghost who interjects himself in the lives of the living, and Mary isolates herself from family, hometown, friends, fellow military spouses, medical care-givers, and even her daughter, which makes it hard to evaluate them in the context of social relations. Readers who feel they don’t have enough information to properly “understand” Mary and “what she did” might be left in a perplexed state by Waiting for Eden, which I believe is by design. Whether they approve of Mary and the narrator or not, readers will certainly be eager to discuss their ideas with other readers, which any author should welcome, and which I would certainly enjoy doing over a beer or two, if anyone’s interested.

To situate Ackerman once more among his war-writer peers, Waiting for Eden explores the precincts of military marriage also patrolled by Siobhan Fallon. Fallon’s latest novel, The Confusion of Languages, features a character much like Waiting for Eden’s narrator–in Fallon’s case, a self-important male Army officer eager to preserve plausible deniability that he’s not your average, ordinary horndog with the hots for his best friend’s wife. Fallon’s best stories—“Leave,” “The Last Stand,” and “Tips for a Smooth Transition”—feature military couples in scenes set not just in any domestic space, but in the “rank sweat of an enseamed bed,” as Hamlet puts it, where the jealousy, resentment, and pay-back meters can ping off the charts. A great line from the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof spoken by the family matriarch, Big Mama, played by Judith Anderson, helps define the parameters of Waiting for Eden‘s odd ménage-à-trois and the centrality of the hospital bed where all the action happens, or doesn’t happen. While sitting on her daughter-in-law’s bed, Big Mama barks at Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie-the-Cat character, who is married to Big Mama’s dysfunctional son Brick, played by Paul Newman: “You’re childless and my son drinks, and the problem starts right here,” at the same time slapping the unhappy couple’s mattress. Brick, it turns out, pines for his childhood friend Skipper, who has committed suicide after Maggie-the-Cat attempts to seduce him in order to ruin his friendship with Brick, which she resents.

Complicated, yes, but something of the same is at work in Waiting for Eden. Eden’s hospital bed, haunted by the narrator’s vigil, serves, if we can borrow from William Blake, as “the Marriage hearse” for Eden and Mary’s ruptured dream of conjugal bliss and fruitful procreation. The romantic triangle formed by Mary, Eden, and the narrator also nicely illustrates literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theory of “homosociality”: one deal-e-o going down is the psychodrama of the two men, locked in passive-aggressive one-upmanship manifested as desire for Mary, which is quickly transformed into dependence on her, and not just need for her body and approval, but for very existence. In a startlingly apt description, Benjamin Busch writes of Fallon’s “worried imagination,” and in many of her stories it’s not wives worrying about their husband’s fidelity that’s the issue, but wives worrying about their own potential for betrayal, along with the evident ability they have to emotionally crush their naïve, oblivious, trusting, and child-like husbands, should they choose to. This sentiment also informs Waiting for Eden. Ackerman’s achievement is tracing the narrator’s growing respect for Mary’s increasing consciousness of the power she holds over the men in her life, and their death, while moving the reader to understand and respect her growing awareness, too.

That’s an enigmatic, perhaps not entirely helpful way to close this invitation to read Waiting for Eden, which I urge you to accept nonetheless. The book ends (as does Benjamin Busch’s memoir Dust to Dust, by the by) by quoting the final lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which describe Adam and Eve, sadder but wiser after Eve eats the apple, leaving the Garden of Eden on “thir solitarie way.” It’s a stirring image, but its exact relation to the story Waiting for Eden tells is one more thing we can talk about when we have that beer together.

Elliot Ackerman, Waiting for Eden. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

War Fiction, Poetry, and Film 2018

December 1, 2018

USASOC #7, by Bill Putnam, used with permission.

2018 was a bounteous year for new fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Titles by veterans Elliot Ackerman, Will Mackin, Ray McPadden, and Nico Walker burst with interest and talent, and works by non-veterans Raymond Hutson, Kathleen McInnis, Hilary Plum, Stephen Markley, and Ahmed Saadawi offer as much or more.

2018 poetry titles include new work by Army vet Hugh Martin, Marine spouse Lisa Stice, and Army spouse Abby Murray. As far as I have noted, the only major movie about war in Iraq or Afghanistan to have appeared in 2018 is 12 Strong, about Special Forces in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, though Vice, about war architect Vice-President Dick Cheney, is set to hit theaters on Christmas.

What am I missing? Let me know and I’ll add it to the lists.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Bob Kornheiser, Crossing the Wire (2004)
Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (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 Shultz, 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)
Eliot 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)
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)
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)

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 (USMC), 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)
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)
Benjamin Hertwig (Canadian Army), Slow War (2017)
Lynn Marie Houston, Unguarded (2017)
Hugh Martin (Army), In Country (2018)
Abby Murray (Army spouse), How To Be Married After Iraq (2018)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Permanent Change of Station (2018)

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)

Can You Take a Five Finger Death Punch?

November 26, 2018

How you feel about the American metal band Five Finger Death Punch’s extensive use of military terminology, imagery, themes, characters, and narratives in their songs and videos probably has a lot to do with how you feel about metal generally. If you find metal cartoonish at best and unlistenable the rest of the time, you probably won’t be very impressed by Five Finger Death Punch’s musical efforts to give voice to the concerns of  soldiers and veterans. If you love metal, Five Finger Death Punch’s mil-and-war songs and videos probably strike you as moving, sincere, and laudable. I suppose you could love Five Finger Death Punch, but have reservations about their exploitation of military motifs, and I suppose you could whole-heartedly “support the troops” while hating on Five Finger Death Punch. The numbers, however, suggest that Five Finger Death Punch has captured the true, beating heart of what many soldiers really like when it comes to seeing their lives reflected in art, and what hundreds of thousands of non-veterans (to include the members of Five Finger Death Punch) think it means to thank veterans for their service. The video for “Wrong Side of Heaven” has been viewed 230 million times, people, and the YouTube comments ooze with testimonials from vets who find much to appreciate in Five Finger Death Punch’s music and messages. It’s also hard to gainsay the band’s concentrated commitment to helping struggling veterans, as reflected in their organization 5FDP4VETS.

Still, the matter of Five Finger Death Punch’s popularity is not without its complications, as explored in a 2015 Stereogum article titled “How Five Finger Death Punch Got Huge By Writing Songs for Soldiers” by Phil Freeman. Freeman frames the issue as such:

Five Finger Death Punch are probably the least cool metal band around right now. Critics pretty much hate them (a reaction that’s likely to get worse, now that guitarist Zoltan Bathory has endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign on Twitter); metal elitists sneer at them and consider them knuckle-dragging, lowest-common-denominator purveyors of post-Pantera crap. But they’re able to sell 114,000 albums in a week, which means they’re reaching an audience your average blog-friendly metal band can’t even dream of. And I have a theory about that audience: I think Five Finger Death Punch have succeeded by building a relationship with listeners in the military, in a way other bands haven’t.

I’ll let you sort out your own feelings about the subject while reading the rest of Freeman’s article and checking out the Five Finger Death Punch music-video evidence below.

“Bad Company” (2010). A cover of the Bad Company classic-rocker, accompanied by footage of Five Finger Death Punch’s tour of US military FOBs in Iraq.

“Remember Everything” (2012). About the impossibility of forgetting war-related horror after returning home.

“Wrong Side of Heaven” (2014). Focuses attention on veteran trauma and homelessness while castigating an ungrateful nation.

“Gone Away” (2017). A young man, torn by guilt when his best friend is killed in an IED blast overseas, decides to enlist. A cover of a song by the Offspring.

“When the Seasons Change” (2018). Dedicated to Charleston Hartfield, US Army Iraq veteran and Las Vegas policeman killed in the 2017 mass shooting there.

 

Red Beards, Restrepo, Benito Cereno

November 16, 2018

The most popular blog post I’ve ever written was not for Time Now, but for my old blog 15-Month Adventure, about my year in Afghanistan from 2008-2009. One post, titled “Red Beard,” still gets lots of hits, especially after the movie Restrepo shows somewhere on TV. A scene featuring an Afghan elder with a henna-dyed beard sends curious viewers to the Internet to find out more about the practice. By some Google trickery my post pops up near the top for searches for “Red Beard Afghanistan.” Looking at the post the other day for the first time in a while, I remembered that in it I riffed on Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Benito Cereno? Restrepo? That’s close enough to “Art, Film, and Literature” for me to reprise the original post on Time Now for readers who didn’t know me back then. I can’t carry over the “Comments” from the old post, however, so be sure to check them out here–they’re where I discuss the practices of male hair-and-beard dyeing and wearing eyeliner and fingernail polish with “h,” one of my Afghanistan interpreters.

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Red Beard

This video appeared in several places on the web this week [in 2010].  It shows 101stAirborne Division soldiers engaged in a battle in Shimbowat wadi, near Camp Clark in Khowst province, Afghanistan. Toward the end, American soldiers are seen speaking with an Afghan elder whose hair and beard are died a hideous shade of red.

I recognized the terrain because I walked and drove up Shimbowat wadi many times when I was in Khowst in 2008 and 2009. I’m about 90% sure I recognize the elder, whom I’ll call “Red Beard.”  I was thinking of writing about him even before I saw the video.

One night we positively identified that a rocket had been launched in our direction from the vicinity of Red Beard’s kalat. We countered with artillery fire of our own and at first light we rode out to inspect the damage.

The smell of explosives hung in the air and fresh shrapnel marks splattered the kalat‘s exterior walls.

Red Beard and six other “MAMs” (Military Age Males) stood around a table. Cleavers in hand, they were butchering a cow that had been killed by the artillery rounds. The carcass was a bloody mess and the men’s hands and the sleeves and fronts of their shirts were also smeared with blood.  Red Beard greeted us jovially.

“No we haven’t seen any Taliban.”

“They come down from the hills, shoot their rockets and mortars and then leave.”

“All these men are my family and they are here for a wedding.”

“Don’t worry about the cow.  We were going to kill it anyway.”

We learned that one of Red Beard’s sons was currently in detention at Bagram Air Force Base and another had been killed fighting the government. Still, he professed his desire for peace in Afghanistan and his respect for the military. We didn’t have any evidence to detain him; in fact, before we left we gave him script he could redeem for the value of the cow.  A few days later, though, we went back and arrested him on the basis of a tip from an Afghan informant.  But after three days we had to let him go, again for lack of evidence.

A report filtered in that our artillery had wounded three children. Another arrived stating that it had been three insurgents. We never determined if either was true.

The men with cleavers in hand, all chopping away at the cow carcass, reminded me of Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” In that story, a naïve American ship captain boards a slave ship on which a mutiny has taken place but which the mutineers attempt to hide from the American. The captain, Amasa Delano, sees a lot of strange things, including a row of slaves furiously polishing hatchets. The hatchet-polishers look like a work party, but in actuality stand guard over the white crew members who are now their prisoners. I’m not saying that Afghanistan is like Melville’s San Dominick, the ship the slaves have taken control of.  But operating there one can feel a lot like Amasa Delano.

We took pictures and retina scans of all the military-age males in the vicinity of Red Beard’s kalat.


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