War Writing 2022

As memories of ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan fade into history, so too slows the pace of narratives that depict fighting men and women in post-9/11 combat action. From what I observe, the large American publishing houses have little interest in publishing novels about war in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor does there appear to be a mass reading audience clamoring for such fare. The big three vet-authors who have undeniably made it as professional writers—Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, and Elliot Ackerman—are moving on to other subjects and writing identities not strictly identified with their formative years deployed on Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. The same might be said of some of the vet-poets who were prominent a decade or so ago. A number of other vet-writers and affiliated civilian-authors in the war-making scene appear to have gone fallow or given up. New lights might shine for a season, but sustained achievement and acclaim await.

And yet… and yet….

On a smaller scale, fiction and poetry in which Iraq and Afghanistan figure, or serves as a backdrop, or as the genesis for the writing impulse keeps coming. Here’s to the authors, to the readers, and most of all to the publishing houses who keep war-and-mil writing alive. More than just alive, really, but expanding and developing. It’s not enough to tell an old story in an old way, and new perspectives and story-lines aplenty are on display in the titles I survey below.

Michael Anthony, with art by Chai Simone, Just Another Meat-Eating Dirtbag. Street Noise Books, 2022.

Anthony’s memoir Civilianized is one of the best traumatized-and-dysfunctional vet sagas going, and now his graphic-memoir Just Another Meat-Eating Dirtbag spins the story of his long journey back from war in unexpected and completely original directions. Finding love with a vegan animal rights activist, the title character, named Michael, grapples with his own ideas and beliefs about the subjects and discovers they are more deeply seated in his war experience than he cares to confront. Though packed with vegan and animal-rights polemics, Just Another Meat-Eating Dirtbag manages to avoid preachiness while also telling a very human story about strained relationships and the redemptive power of love.

Anthony-Just Another

Amber Adams, Becoming Ribbons. Unicorn Press, 2022.

Becoming Ribbons features several poems about Adams’ own deployment as an Army reservist, but the bulk of the poems relate the story of her long-term relationship with a Marine spouse. Looking back at high school and courtship, then exploring marriage in the midst of multiple deployments, moving on to her spouse’s wounding and rehabilitation, and then followed by divorce, her ex-husband’s suicide, and then her own new love, Becoming Ribbons covers a lot of narrative ground, even as each individual poem stands on its own as a unique, discreet verse. Adams’ poetry is deft and mature, while also being remarkably open about fraught events and vexed emotional responses.

Adams-Becoming Ribbons

M.C. Armstrong, American Delphi. Family of Lights Books, 2022.

Armstrong is not a vet, but he crafted a perceptive and finely-wrought memoir about a short-stint as a journalist with a Special Forces team in Iraq titled The Mysteries of Haditha. Now comes American Delphi, a Young Adult novel about a troubled adolescent girl and her troubled combat-veteran father. I haven’t read American Delphi yet, but as Time Now has regrettably not paid much attention to GWOT YA, I hope to soon. Bonus points for what American Delphi promises are futuristic tech-y elements and a trenchant engagement with social-media-based political activism.

Armstrong-American Delphi

Randy Brown, Twelve O’Clock Haiku: Leadership Lessons from Old War Movies and New Poems. Middle West Press, 2022.

The war-writing scene knows well Randy Brown under his nom-de-plume Charlie Sherpa. Whatever name he goes by, Brown combines his own writing talent with endless support of other vet-authors. Now comes Twelve O’Clock Haiku, an ingenious amalgamation of critical reflections on the WWII Air Force classic-movie Twelve O’Clock High, haikus on the same, and a sampling of previous published verse. Avoiding cant, bromides, and tired wisdom about military leadership, Twelve O’Clock Haiku delights with insights that hit first as clever, and then as poignant and profound.

Brown-12 O'Clock Haiku

Eric Chandler, Kekekabic. Finishing Line Press, 2022.

Chandler, a retired Air Force pilot, wrote at length about war in his first book of poetry Hugging This Rock. War is barely mentioned in his latest collection Kekekabic, but lurks everywhere. Nominally a set of poetic meditations on a year spent running-and-hiking, the taught poetic forms Chandler employs—haibun and haiku—bespeak the “blessed rage for order” of a combat vet still simmering down from overseas war, even as cultural wars and politicized violence burns ever hotter on the home-front. The calm, observant wisdom on display in Kekekabic is the farthest thing imaginable from the overheated discourse of today’s public sphere, and all the better for it.

Chandler-Kekekabic

Brian O’Hare, Surrender. Syracuse UP, 2022.

O’Hare’s Iraq was Operation Desert Storm, not Iraqi Freedom, but the sensibility binding the linked stories featuring a disenchanted Marine lieutenant in Surrender will be very familiar to GWOT vets. Taking aim at toxic paternal authority, whether in the form of an overbearing combat-vet father, a tyrannical high-school football coach, or an incompetent and delusional Marine battalion commander, Surrender’s stories are remarkably varied, even, and accomplished. It took O’Hare thirty years to find his voice; his debt to GWOT war-writing is prominent in Surrender, which he well admits in this astute essay for Electric Lit titled “9 Books That Take Aim at the Myth of the American Hero.”

O'Hare-Surrender

Jennifer Orth-Veillon, editor, Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Contemporary Writers and Veterans on the Lingering Stories of World War I. MilSpeak Books, 2022.

Featuring a who’s-who of contemporary war-writing authors, Beyond Their Limits of Longing asks its contributors to ruminate on an aspect of World War I that is personally meaningful and not generally well-known. Combining scholarship, personal essays, fiction, and poetry, there’s not a mundane piece among the 70+ chapters. Editor Jennifer Orth-Veillon astutely discerned that GWOT vet-writers’ connection to World War I—both the battlefields and the literature that resulted—might be profound, and Beyond Their Limits of Longing rewards that intuition in spades.

Beyond Their Limits

Ben Weakley, Heat + Pressure: Poems from War. Middle West Press, 2022.

I’ve yet to read Heat + Pressure, but if it’s published by Randy Brown’s Middle West Press and blurbed by Brian Turner, it’s got to be good. Its Amazon page relates that Weakley, an Army combat vet, found his inclination to write in post-service vet-writing workshops. That’s a story right there—one of the great through-lines of the vet-writing scene, now in its fifteenth year or so, is how writing workshops have encouraged writing initiative and created opportunity for talent to flourish.

Weakley Heat Pressure

Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Today’s War-and-Mil Writers on World War I

Beyond Their Limits

Just in time for Veterans Day arrives the vet-mil anthology Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Contemporary Writers and Veterans on the Lingering Stories of World War I. A collection of posts first published online and now in a very handsome paperback edition, Beyond Their Limits of Longing offers reflections on World War I by a who’s who of prominent contemporary vet-writers, as well as interested civilian-authors and scholars. Individual entries focus primarily on World War I’s impressive literary legacy, but also range far-and-wide to explore overlooked military and cultural aspects of the Great War. Throughout, the veteran writers make heartfelt and often bold connections between their own war experience and those that came before, while the contributions by authors who haven’t served offer equally trenchant connections between our time and World War I.

When I say “a who’s who” of contemporary vet-writers I’m not kidding. The first two-pages of the Beyond Their Limits of Longing table-of-contents feature, for starters, Iraq and Afghanistan vet-writer stalwarts Brian Turner, Phil Klay, Seth Brady Tucker, Teresa Fazio, Elliot Ackerman, Brian Castner, Benjamin Busch, Eric Chandler, Colin Halloran, David James, Jenny Pacanowksi, Brandon Caro, and Shannon Huffman Polson. Also listed are vet-writers whose service predates 9/11 Robert Olen Butler and Jeffrey Hess, as well as David Chrisinger, whose sympathetic facilitation of vet-writing is well-known among members of the vet-writing community. The parade doesn’t slow down in the following pages of the table-of-contents, and I’m proud to say that I make an appearance as well, with a piece on Aline Kilmer, the wife of WWI poet Joyce Kilmer and also a formidable, though overlooked, poet in her own right. Throughout a consistent theme is honoring the World War I contributions of women both as participants and authors and the fighting experience of non-white soldiers not just in the French trenches but on far-distant battlefields as well. The commitment to non-traditional voices is also reflected in the contributors’ biographies. Besides the aforementioned Fazio, Pacanowski, and Polson, Beyond Their Limits of Longing features articles by Jerri Bell, Kayla Williams, Andria Williams, and Roxana Robinson, all prominent female voices in the war-writing scene, and authors-of-color and ethnic identification such as Mary Doyle, Drew Pham, Faleeha Hassan, and Philip Metres.     

The maestro behind Beyond Their Limits of Longing is author and scholar Jennifer Orth-Veillon. An American currently living in Lyon, France, Orth-Veillon first conceived of the project and sold it to the World War Centennial Commission as a worthy way to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the end of WWI in 2018. The conceit of asking contemporary veterans to contribute was genius, and Orth-Veillon’s persuasive power and editing prowess made the project’s realization soar. Now, in finding book form, we also owe a healthy debt to publisher Tracy Crow’s MilSpeak Foundation. Crow, who also contributes a piece to Beyond Their Limits of Longing, could not have been more actively supportive of war-writing the past few years. MilSpeak has published a long string of veteran-authored and vet-centric titles, all worthy in my mind, and now culminating in Beyond Their Limits of Longing.

In her Introduction, Orth-Veillon explains the genesis of Beyond Their Limits of Longing in a war-literature class she taught in that uncovered parallels between the contemporary veteran experience and that of World War I veterans:

Frustration over the lack of individual voices in public war narratives was a theme I found not only in the WWI and other literature I studied with my students while teaching at the Georgia Institute of Technology but also in the creative writing workshops I led for student-veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. In each case, soldier-writers I encountered from past or present wars expressed resentment because the soldier’s experience had been neglected by other kinds of stories told by the media, Hollywood, or history books.

Conversations with Seth Brady Tucker and Brian Castner helped Orth-Veillon zero in on World War I as the crucial point of connection to past wars:

I realized today’s war writers owed a debt not only to the service of WWI soldiers but also to the unprecedented way they wrote about the war… It could be said that WWI writing, for the first time in history, was responsible for exposing the severity, variety, and complexity of war wounds to the public.

Kudos to Orth-Veillon for recognizing that today’s war-writers, as she first noted with Tucker and Castner, connected seismically with World War I and that a chance to write on it would elicit such alert and evocative responses. I don’t dare name favorite contributions to Beyond Their Limits of Longing (they’re all great!) nor do I have space to begin itemizing themes and making connections between the pieces. But the prompt to write on a distant past war seems to have been extremely productive, even for talented writers with plenty to say without prompting. What immediately jumps out from the reflections are a profound sense of history and empathetic understanding for World War I participants—two qualities that were sorely missing from America’s apprehension of what was at stake in our twenty-first century wars.

Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Contemporary Writers and Veterans of the Lingering Stories of World War I. Edited by Jennifer Orth-Veillon, with a forward by Monique Brouillet Seefried. Milspeak Foundation, 2022.

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Jennifer Orth-Veillon front-and-center, with Beyond Their Limits contributor Connie Ruzich to her left and me in the background.

On Reading Grant’s Memoirs

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An interesting passage on General Braxton Bragg, whom Grant defeated at Chattanooga.

Prompted by a query from Brian Turner, I began reading Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs recently. For a while, we exchanged texts regarding our progress and impressions. The texts dropped off after a while, and as I write I’m not sure if Brian is still reading or has finished the 763-page tome, but I soldiered on to the end and completed it last week. Soldiering on in fact wasn’t so hard, although the book contains a multitude of detail-oriented descriptive passages, offered without flourish, along the lines of “McPherson’s corps was on the right, Hooker’s corps in the center, and Thomas’s division on the left.” These sentences and the book’s length won’t appeal to everyone, but they also don’t account for its cumulative power. Grant’s Memoirs have been often praised, but here I’ll offer a few of my own impressions, which hopefully connect to Time Now’s preoccupation with post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Before I began reading, I had it mind that I had attempted it before without finishing. Early on though, I realized this wasn’t true and so surprising to me I was in the presence of a 19th-century soldier’s memoir, the genre contours with which I was familiar, but one which was both fresher and shot through with gravitas and an almost uncanny sense of purpose. Upon completion, I was struck by the fact that it ended with the end of the Civil War. There’s almost nothing about the post-war period, to include Reconstruction and Grant’s two terms as President. Somehow I wasn’t expecting that; in fact, I was expecting quite the opposite. As they stand, the Memoirs are remarkably coherent, but I wonder if they–as with Grant’s life–would have that same unity if they had followed Grant into his presidency.

Grant’s account of his boyhood and West Point years are hurried through, but the pace slows as he describes his participation as a junior officer in the Mexican War. He was always in staff positions, never in command, but in his supporting roles was able to see first-hand the deliberations of the generals in charge of the US army. Generally admiring, Grant clearly saw much and took good notes. Lessons learned about maneuvering forces to gain advantage while being alert to the requisites of transportation, communication, infrastructure, and logistics proved invaluable in the Civil War, writ far larger in scale and with far greater implications. He also saw enough fighting to apprehend what battle entailed, particularly how to recognize the key moment when an enemy wavers and victory is achievable. Grant doesn’t say so, but it’s clear that his superb judgement in military matters and supreme sense of purpose were honed by his early years as a lieutenant in Mexico.

The interwar years and early days of the Civil War are again hurried through, with Grant slowing the pace once more to recount the maneuvering that led to his first big victory at Vicksburg. Following that account, Grant meticulously takes the reader through the campaign to seize Chattanooga. Following description of victory there, Grant is placed in charge of all Union forces, and the Memoirs describe in detail how he beat Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia and seized Richmond, the twin victories that led to the surrender of the Confederacy.

It’s in the slow methodical depiction of these campaigns that the Memoirs gain force. The sense rendered is that Grant was unstoppable and that the Confederate generals and troops he faced were crushed as surely as a boa constrictor squeezes to death its prey. It’s clear that Grant is firmly trying to refute the reputation (often self-proclaimed, but also touted in the North) of the supremacy of Southern fighting prowess; in his account, and without bragging or even saying “I” at every turn, he and his army outmaneuvered and outfought their Southern counterparts on their own turf. In this, the prolonged descriptions accrue the same cumulative strength as Grant’s forces did in reality. While the Southern press remained hyperbolically optimistic until the end, knowing Southern leaders such as Lee and CSA president Jefferson Davis must have discerned the tenacity and shrewdness with which Grant kept coming, coming, and coming and consequently began to dread. From their point of view, the Memoirs might be read as horror-fiction, as if it were the story of an unstoppable evil genius who was going to vanquish the true heroes and ultimate victims of the story of the Civil War. Frankly, I don’t think they believed at the beginning of the war that the North would fight the secession hard, or could beat them if they tried. As Grant (greatly aided by Sherman and Sheridan) took their cities and destroyed their armies one-by-one, not only did their hope for success evaporate, but so did their sense of their moral and martial supremacy and their belief that their presumed rightness of cause would ensure their victory. As they began to understand what they were up against, it’s a wonder they didn’t make Grant’s death their goal and strive to attain it by any means possible. From the perspective of the North, it’s hard not to believe Grant’s own assertion that his design, if not his leadership, led to the fastest resolution of the war possible, and perhaps even was the only path to victory.

The Memoirs contain remarkably little personal anecdotes and description of soldiering beyond the grand sweep of moving corps and divisions left or right, and only terse evaluations of other generals on either side of the conflict. But those offered are impactful. Witnessing the carnage in the aftermath of a direct hit on a Navy gunboat on the Mississippi seems to have sparked his utmost apprehension of the gruesomeness of combat (and this after Shiloh!). Grant speaks with admiration of the toughness of the Union soldiers, especially toward the end of the war, when they could march and fight for days on half-rations and no sleep, while becoming expert in ancillary arts of war such as trench-digging, bridge-building and both destroying and laying railroad tracks. His most common praise for junior officers is “gallant,” by which he seems to mean courage in battle. Of his senior officers he appreciated prompt obedience to orders, smart decision-making in the absence of orders, and willingness to press the battle unto victory. Officers who were slow to act or too independent of his designs irritated him to no end, and he found ways to get rid of or sideline them. He hated self-promotion, and in one place writes to the effect that an officer who actively agitated for a higher position almost never did as well as a humbler, quieter officer who took care of the business in front of him until asked to take on bigger responsibilities. Grant never admits for a second that the South had any right to secede, and never grants them the dignity of suggesting that they were a true independent nation. Likewise, he never waivers in affirming that slavery was wrong and was the root cause of the rebellion.

So much of Grant’s military ethos informs the doctrine of the Army in which I served as an officer for 28 years that I wonder that no one ever told me how much of it was on display in the Memoirs and perhaps even distilled from them. Combined arms and maneuver warfare, unity of action concentrated at decisive points, and the importance of commander’s intent were staple concepts of Grant’s Army and the late 20th and early 21st century Army, too, at least in peacetime and in training. Grant was never not aware that the North’s resolve to win the war was never as great as his own, and that victories first small and then big were important to maintain enthusiasm and support. He never let the wavering enthusiasm of the Northern populace and press trouble his own resolve, except as a reminder that he needed to pursue victory firmly and quickly. He was also ever-aware that fighting on offense against the South while in the South, surrounded by an unfriendly population and far from bases of support, made his job astronomically more difficult than that of Pemberton, Bragg, and Lee, the generals respectively in charge of the defenses of Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Richmond.

Reflecting on these matters as they pertain to Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s clear that they all had correlatives but also that they all went kablooey in our 15+ years of military muddling in those countries. That’s not to say that a Grant might have saved those wars, although the cycling through of four-star general commanders betrayed something of a hope that one of them might have miraculously turned out to be another Grant. Reading the Memoirs places in high relief the differences between how we waged war unto victory then and how we have not done so more recently.

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Edited by John F. Marszalek with David S. Nolen & Louie P. Gallo. Belknap-Harvard, 2017.

Post-War Blues

Early in the emergence of Iraq and Afghanistan war-writing as a recognizable genre, the center-of-gravity, to use military-speak, shifted from interest in events experienced on deployment and the battlefield to the difficulty of the homecoming and reintegration into civilian life. At first, this interest was focused on the individual veteran, often wracked by guilt, as he or she tried to find their way post-service. Later, interest in veterans as a cohort emerged, as they represented a demographic block within the greater populace asserting their views and needs in the wake of the end of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the election of President Trump, Covid, and all else. The first theme has found countless expression in fiction, poetry, and memoir, with Phil Klay’s Redeployment stories most famously addressing the veterans’ search for equilibrium and purpose in a society that little understood them. The second theme plays out daily in the news and on social media, but has yet to find robust expression in imaginative literature, though Matt Gallagher’s novel Empire City has admirably pioneered exploration of the contentious ways veterans position themselves, and are positioned by others, for recognition in the cultural and political sphere, as well as the consequential and cumulative effect of prolonged overseas war-faring on the shape of everyday American life.

Recently, two events have given me opportunity to consider anew these trends. First, an offer from the Task & Purpose online veterans journal to review The Shot: The Harrowing Journey of a Marine in the War on Terror, the memoir of former-Marine Bill Bee, brought the theme of the struggling veteran back into focus. You can read the review here; in sum, Bee describes a ten-year journey post-deployment to settle down after the intense highs and lows of four deployments to Afghanistan. In the review, I don’t use Stacey Peebles’ prescient line about contemporary war-lit’s dominant narrative arc—the story of a veteran who thought he or she was prepared for what they might face at war, only to find out how wrong they were—but it well applies. Bee seems to have come to writing only recently. Though he describes being a big reader as a youth, he doesn’t portray himself as now or ever being a budding member of the vet-writing literati, nor does writing as a means of dealing with his troubles seem to have occurred to him as he cycled through a number of treatment programs for PTSD and TBI and various life-changes. The Shot is all the more interesting for that. Prompted into writing by co-author Wills Robinson, Bee conveys in The Shot an “as told to” feel characteristic of sports-star and entertainment-celebrity autobiographies. The clear retelling of battlefield events and home-front struggle is a bracing reminder of how intense was the fighting and how serious and long-lasting were the physical and emotional wounds.

The Shot

Regarding the societal consequences of long-lasting war, I recently watched the play Thou Shalt Not, staged in New Brunswick, NJ (where I live) and written, directed, and acted in by Iraq and Afghanistan veteran J.M. Meyer (along with his wife and co-collaborator Karen Alvarado). The play concerns a famous 1922 double-murder and subsequent trial that took place in New Brunswick; Meyer and his acting troupe Thinkery & Verse recreate the events, as told mostly through the eyes of the daughter of one of the victims, with an added fillip of interest being that they stage the play in the actual church where both victims worshipped. Nothing in the play directly references World War I, and it might be slightly specious to suggest that the murder in its time and the play now helps us understand the 1920s cultural climate as it was influenced by World War I, to say nothing of the current post-GWOT era. But perhaps not entirely so. The case, known as the Hall-Mills murder, was interpreted in its time as a symptom of a society that in the go-go 1920s had lost its collective mind by, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who incorporated elements of the case into The Great Gatsby, which has often been explained as the story of an America reeling in the social tumult occasioned by The Great War. Among the larger themes channeled in Thou Shalt Not are loss of community, religious hypocrisy, media frenzy, judicial bias, and class inequity, all of which have their counterparts today. Most of all, Thou Shalt Not’s interest in the daughter’s plight, left to cope with the disreputable life-events that led to her mother’s murder as they were bandied in the press for the better part of a decade, shrewdly reflects vet-writing’s preoccupation with post-trauma guilt and confusion.

I know J.M. Meyer (and have written about him here), but not well enough to say whether he consciously wrote contemporary war themes into his play. No matter the source, the artistic imagining on display in Thou Shalt Not is dazzling. Far from being a staid dinner-theater whodunnit, Thou Shalt Not is highly inventive, shot through with theatrical artifice and interesting casting and staging choices. Meyer immerses the audience into the proceedings at several points, and when spectators are left alone to contemplate the murders and trial they are exposed to a barrage of conflicting perspectives and often-spectacular recreations of events that trouble easy understanding while delighting the desire to be entertained. I’ve always been curious about veterans who are drawn to theater and film, especially in roles as playwrights, directors, and producers. In this line Myer reminds me of more well-known vet-dramatists such as Maurice Decaul, Benjamin Busch, and even Adam Driver (and now comes news that Veterans Writing Project founder Ron Capps is writing and staging plays, too). All are former infantrymen, now highly cerebral and creative artists, attracted to ensemble performative endeavor, and with little desire to tell simple stories in simple ways. What’s up with that?  

Thinkery and Verse

War, Literature & the Arts Conferences, 2010 and 2018

Below are the schedules of presentations taken from the programs for the War, Literature & the Arts (WLA) conferences held at the United States Air Force Academy in 2010 and 2018.

The 2010 WLA conference marked the beginning of a very fertile period in GWOT vet-mil writing. I was lucky enough to attend in those pre-Time Now days. I already knew Brian Turner, but almost every other artist and presenter was new to me. It was all very inspiring; from chance conversations with poets Elyse Fenton and Victor Inzunza on the shuttle-bus from the conference hotel to the Air Force Academy grounds to a great panel featuring Matt Gallagher and Siobhan Fallon, where the idea for Time Now hatched while I was listening to them read, and everything in-between. I don’t think I met Gallagher, Fallon, or Benjamin Busch–one of the featured speakers–at the time, but I was later able to invite all of them to read at West Point, where I taught until 2015.

Looking at the 2010 program now, it’s remarkable how many names are obscure now. The same can’t be said about the 2018 WLA conference; stacked with writers, artists, and academics in the now-robust contemporary war-lit scene, along with selected speakers and readers and scholars from pre-9/11 wars, it was an embarrassment of riches. If you missed so much as a day, you missed a lot, and choice panels competed with each other for attention. And it, too, like the 2010 conference, was enormously generative in terms of sowing the seeds for future writing projects and collaborations.

Read the programs below if you please, and if you have thoughts or questions about any of the presentations, let me know in the comments and we’ll talk it up.

Kudos to the Department of English and Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy for sponsoring both conferences. It was very prescient and magnanimous of them to have done so. Colonel Kathleen Harrington, the head of the department in both 2010 and 2018, deserves major thanks, as does Donald Anderson, a member of the faculty, the editor of War, Literature & the Arts, and a fantastic memoirist in his own right. Helping out behind the scenes at the first conference as members of the Department of English and Fine Arts were war-lit mainstays Jesse Goolsby, Jay Moad, and Brandon Lingle, among others.

The current head of the Department of English and Fine Arts is Colonel David Buchanan, the author of Going Scapegoat: Post-9/11 War, Literature, and Culture (2016), one of the few book-length studies of contemporary war-literature out there. Hope he has it in mind to host another WLA conference under his tenure.

2010:

2018:

Time Now Shorts

Some things old, some things new, some things borrowed, some things blue….

Lions for Lambs. I finally caught up with Lions for Lambs, a 2007 film directed by Robert Redford and featuring Redford, Tom Cruise, and Meryl Streep. Thinking about its celebrity cast and the year of its release, it occurred to me that Hollywood, with Generation Kill, The Hurt Locker, and Brothers all released about that time, was far in advance of the nation’s literati or the waves of vet-authors to-come in artistically portraying war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Checking out the reviews of Lions for Lambs as I tuned in, I was surprised how scathing they were. How could a movie starring Cruise as charismatic conservative Senator with a plan to win the war in Afghanistan, Streep as a cynical liberal journalist, and Redford as a well-seasoned college professor go wrong? The performances of the Big Three are good, and surprise surprise the action scenes set in Afghanistan are not bad either, particularly the ones set in a battalion command post and on-board a Chinook flying into battle. But it’s not hard to see what didn’t impress the reviewers. The movie consists of three storylines, each told in spurts, that connect thematically in terms of staging a debate about Army strategy in Afghanistan and the life possibilities of young men with and without privilege, but there’s little intertwining of the three storylines, nor much of a plot at all. Instead, in the scenes featuring Redford and those featuring Cruise and Streep there’s lots of snappy fast-talking dialogue in the manner of The West Wing that resolves nothing on the home-front, and a jimmied-up action sequence in Afghanistan is far-fetched, to put it mildly, and which (spoiler alert) does not end triumphantly for two former students of the Redford character. One review says it best for me by calling it “the movie equivalent of an off-Broadway play” that hopes to be saved by the luminance of its cast. I like The West Wing and off-Broadway plays as much as anyone, but movie-goers, to include this one, might also not unreasonably expect more narrative effort and imagination stitching together disparate storylines than Lions for Lambs delivers.

The military episode in Lions for Lambs involves two soldiers who survive a fall out of a Chinook and the effort to rescue them—much like Brothers, which was released two years later. NYU professor Patrick Deer has written a scholarly article that argues that recovery of “missing bodies” is a dominant motif of Post-9/11 narrative; Deer doesn’t discuss Lions for Lambs, but he might have.

Continue reading “Time Now Shorts”

Catch-(20)22

Matthew Komatsu, an Air Force pararescue jumper, has twice now published articles reflecting his love for Joseph Heller’s satirical World War II novel Catch-22. Both pieces argue that Catch-22, great in-and-of-itself, especially resonates for Iraq and Afghanistan vets by accurately reflecting the inanity of military bureaucracy and the self-serving incompetence of senior military officers they themselves observed on deployments. In other words, Komatsu believes that as much as looking back at World War II, Catch-22, published in 1961, anticipates the devolution of America’s military from a world-beating titan to a force expert at perpetuating wars ad infinitum, but never winning them. The proverbial self-licking ice-cream cone….

It’s an argument hard-to-argue with, at least the part that pertains to actual US Army military endeavor in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I encourage you to read both of Komatsu’s articles; if you have served, you will certainly find many parts to which you can relate.

Why ‘Catch-22’ Is The Closest Thing To The Truth About The War

Somewhere in The Great Beyond, Joseph Heller is Having a Bitter Laugh About ‘The Afghanistan Papers’

Not as easily available is an essay on Catch-22 I contributed to a student study-guide anthology published in 2021 by Salem Press. The guide, titled Critical Insights: Catch-22, is part of a series aimed at undergraduates and advanced high-school students. My piece, co-authored with Iraq and Afghanistan vet J. M. Meyer, is titled “Yossarian bleated faintly: Catch-22 and Military Experience in the New Millennium.” In the volume Introduction, editors Laura and James F. Nicosia write, “This essay is an eye-opening contribution by scholars who have first-hand experience in and knowledge of the military.”

Critical Insights Catch-22

My contribution to “Yossarian bleated faintly” is a run-down of reasons Iraq and Afghanistan veterans continue to reference Catch-22 to describe their own wars. I reference Komatsu’s “Somewhere in the Great Beyond” Catch-22 article, and I also explore some of the war-lit authored by vets that clearly pays homage to Catch-22. From there, Meyer mounts a more ambitious, trenchant argument about how Catch-22 relates to larger matters of contemporary culture and political discourse.

There’s no digital version of the chapter available (yet), and it’s still too soon post-publication to just reproduce it for free here, so I’ll summarize my contribution and offer a couple of passages.

On rereading Catch-22 last year, I was struck by how dark and grim much of it is. In my memory were all the funny bits lampooning military absurdity and dysfunction. Also in mind was a notion of the protagonist/anti-hero Yossarian riding above the fray, his anti-authoritarian cleverness keeping him one-step ahead of the madness. That’s there, but there’s a lot I didn’t remember as well, such as how genuinely shaken is Yossarian by what befalls him, to the point, by the end of the novel, of mental instability (an instability that is reflected in increasingly hallucinogenic scenes and episodes, as well as in the prose style). In the essay, I invoke two au courant words, trauma and PTSD, and consider their relevance to Catch-22:

The unpleasant consequence of Yossarian’s psychological turmoil, grounded in moments of real terror in the sky, is trauma, which adds emotional resonance experienced personally to the larger critique of military dysfunction in ‘Catch-22.’

Toward the end of my section, I try to reconcile Yossarian the traumatized war-victim with Yossarian the insubordinate provocateur, and then link those traits to the jaded-and-wounded outlook of many Iraq and Afghanistan junior enlisted and junior officer vets:

His colorful contempt for military bureaucracy and the chain of command, as well as his acuity in knowing how to push the buttons of stuffed shirts and uptight frauds, are generally humorous to behold and arguable safe to indulge in even by soldiers who volunteered for service.

Reconciling the insubordinate mischief-maker with the death-shaken traumatized victim of war is central to understanding Yossarian’s enduring influence, especially among twenty-first century soldiers and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. In response to nonsensical wars, a modern soldier sensibility has emerged that blends elements of Yossarian’s dominant characteristics and and given them contemporary expression, primarily by using humor to convey a righteous moral and intellectual superiority that has brought soldiers to war on ludicrous premises and then ineptly organized itself to fight. The sentiment accounts for the emergence of two distinct cohorts of disgruntled soldiers and junior officers prominent within the modern soldier-and-veteran community. Known respectively as the “E4-Mafia” and the “jaded junior officer,” these unofficial cohorts constitute most evidently the spirit of ‘Catch-22’ in the modern military. The E4-Mafia (or, as they are know in the Marines, “Terminal Lances”; thus the title of Maximilian Uriarte’s satirical comic strip) consists of soldiers in the rank just below that of sergeant who, in the manner of ‘Catch-22”s ex-PFC Wintergreen, claim to be the true agents of military daily duty, adept at pulling strings and making things happen in the name of making the bureaucracy run, while all-the-while possessing jaundiced contempt for the military that makes them defer [obsequiously] to superior officers. The jaded junior officer motif refers to lieutenants and captains exasperated by military rigamarole and incompetent senior officers. Feeling marginalized and unappreciated, veterans of this stripe have turned to memoir, fiction, and the Internet to exact their vengeance….

In other words, ridicule, satire, and laughter serve as dominant modes of expression for soldiers who don’t like what they see, and in fact may be really hurting, but also understand they damn well volunteered for it. I have much more to say on the issue, to include a breakdown of contemporary war lit works that most directly reflect the spirit of Catch-22, but this is all I’m going to give away here. If you really want to read more, and I know you and like you, write me an email, and I’ll share a PDF of the entire piece. Otherwise, Critical Insights: Catch-22 is available for sale online and might be available in your local school or college library.

Critical Insights: ‘Catch-22.’ Edited by Laura Nicosia and James F. Nicosia. Salem Press, 2021.

 

 

 

 

 

Brothers (and Sister-in-Law)

BrothersIn terms of military actualities, the set-up that drives the action of the 2009 film Brothers is intriguing, if not preposterous. On his fourth tour overseas, US Marine Captain Sam Cahill and Private Joe Willis are the only survivors when their helicopter is shot down by the Taliban. Both are quickly taken prisoner, but the Marines unwittingly declare Captain Cahill and Private Willis dead, leaving their wives in grief and despair. The peremptory announcement seems like an egregious breach of military protocol, which would be loathe to declare service members dead in the absence of absolute proof, but is necessary in terms of the plot as it unfolds. Then, while in captivity, Captain Cahill cracks and on orders of the Taliban bludgeons Private Willis to death. This seems excessive, too, not just in terms of what might actually happen but in terms of pinpointing a reason why Captain Cahill is so tormented by guilt when he is rescued and returns home. Such a deed would per force break almost any man, making any semblance of mental equilibrium and re-socialization fraught forever after.

The thing is, it doesn’t take so much to leave soldiers wracked by guilt for their failings while at war; many a less dramatic scenario would do the job, while leaving a fighting chance that their spouses and loved ones can bring them back to health and happiness.

In terms of portrayal of military types and the emotional circuitry that binds Captain Cahill, his wife Grace, and Captain Cahill’s brother Tommy, Brothers is much surer. It helps that Hollywood superstars Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Sam Cahill, Grace Cahill, and Tommy Cahill, respectively, are on top of their games, as are esteemed actors Sam Shepard and Carey Mulligan in smaller roles. Director Jim Sheridan is also a pro, and though there is nothing fancy-dancy about the movie artistry, he tells the story intelligently and compellingly.

Playing a Marine captain, Maguire seems to fulfill the great description of author John Renehan of many military officers as “nerds made good.” Somewhat wimpy in demeanor and too uptight and by-the-book to be a great leader of men (dare I say more Peter Parker than Spider-Man?), he ultimately is not up to the admittedly extraordinary demands placed on him. His wife Grace is a beauty, but she too seems coiled in on herself, admirably protective of her husband, two kids, and station-in-life without perceiving that she has sacrificed a great deal of her vitality and potential to make it all work. Emotional vulnerable in the days after learning that her husband has supposedly died, she is more susceptible than she realizes to the charms of Sam’s black-sheep brother Tommy, a bigger, brawnier, and bolder version of Sam. Tommy and Grace don’t sleep together, but they almost do, and the chemistry is definitely there. When Sam returns from Afghanistan, he not only is roiled by guilt over Private Willis’ death, he recognizes in two seconds that his wife and brother are connected in a way they weren’t before his deployment, which further wrecks his relationship with Grace.

As a family-romance/domestic-drama clothed in war-film garb, Brothers takes smart aim at the troubled veteran motif and intensifies it by setting it within the context of a military family. Brothers has a lot in common with Thank You For Your Service, a 2017 film that also portrays a sensible, caring wife struggling to deal with a husband fucked-up by deployment. But even more so than Thank You For Your Service, Grace’s mixed feelings and actions resemble Mary’s, the lead in Elliot Ackerman’s novel Waiting for Eden. I write about Thank You For Your Service here, and Waiting for Eden here, and I invite you especially to read or reread the post on Waiting for Eden. The novel was very generative of my own thoughts regarding military marriages and romantic triangles, in ways that reflect directly on Grace’s dilemma in Brothers. In a movie nominally about male siblings, the wife/sister-in-law’s tribulations are equally fascinating

Brothers trailer

Generation Kill

Generation Kill 2

Generation Kill, the 2008 HBO seven-part miniseries produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, the two savants behind the massively acclaimed miniseries The Wire, was based on Evan Wright’s 2004 non-fiction book of the same name. Both book and film recount the exploits of the US Marines’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Wright rode as an embedded reporter with 1st Recon, and his account first appeared in Rolling Stone before being extended to book-length. Upon a quick reread of Wright’s book, the mini-series faithfully follows the book in detail and spirit, with many lines of dialogue and scenes transported verbatim from page to screen.

Continue reading “Generation Kill”

Time Now 10th Anniversary

The first Time Now post, reprinted below, was published on June 23, 2012. Things started slowly, and the next post didn’t come until November, 2012, but by 2013 we were off and running. From 2013 through 2018 I published some 35-40 posts a year. I’ve slowed down since, but more posts are coming, rest-assured. No promises though that I’ll keep it going another ten years….

*****

“Time now,” in military radio-speak, refers to the present moment. Most commonly the phrase is used in reports such as, “We’re returning to base, time now,” or, “Request artillery support, time now.” I like its urgency, the way it doesn’t just name but intensifies the temporal dimension of the event to which it refers. Kind of like the way art intensifies the life it represents, so as to make it both more understandable and more deeply felt.

This blog features art, film, and literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I write this post, in June 2012, imaginative representations of the wars have begun to accrue complexity and depth. Still, no site I know of devotes itself to cataloging and discussing these artworks–a great lack in my opinion, since in the final analysis our artists will explain best how the wars were experienced and how they are remembered.

I was an active-duty career Army officer. I served in infantry units at Fort Drum, New York; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and in Korea. In 2008-2009, I was an advisor to Afghan National Army forces in Khowst and Paktya provinces in Afghanistan. You can read about my experiences there in my blog 15-Month Adventure.

Me, at Afghanistan’s Royal Palace, Kabul, November 2008. Be sure to read the graffiti.

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