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.

Vet Writing Online, cont.

I was happy to be in the Zoom audience this week for a panel discussion featuring Consequence Forum’s Matthew Krajniak, Wrath-Bearing Tree’s Andria Williams, and Military Experience and the Arts’ David Ervin. The event was set-up by Consequence Forum and Matthew hinted at future events, with the goal of making vet-writing journal editors accessible to writers of military-themed fiction, poetry, and essays, while demystifying the submission process.

An extremely worthy goal, imo. I’m often contacted by vet-writers who are unaware of the many outlets online for military, war, and conflict authors (how do they find me first, I wonder). So once more, a roll-call of some of the venues most open to aspiring writers seems appropriate: Not just the aforementioned Consequence Forum, Wrath-Bearing Tree, and Military Experience and the Arts, but also O-Dark-Thirty; War, Literature & the Arts, The Aiming Circle, The War Horse, and The Line—and I’m sure I’m leaving out others.

Everything Matthew, Andria, and David said on the panel is gold, so I highly recommend watching the YouTube video. I have a few speaking parts as well, between the 38:00 and 45:00 minute marks, if you are interested.

Great Andria Williams pull-quote: “They are sending you their imagination, and we have to treat that with respect.”

Quote from my Tweet re this post: “Vet journal editors are not gatekeepers or kingmakers, but care-takers of the war-writing scene.”

Relevant to it all are my opening comments from my AWP22 panel on Veterans Writing Online. There’s not only a mini-overview of the panel subject, but a look back at prescient article from the first Veterans Writing Project issue of O-Dark-Thirty from 2012:

Veterans writing in the 21st century came-of-age at the same time as the digital writing boom generally. The milestones are many, but we might start with the emergence of the soldier blog in Iraq, most prominently Colby Buzzell’s CBFTW (2004) and then later Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom (2007-2008). Predating both, we should mention, is the Iraqi woman blogger known as Riverbend, active from 2003-2007. By 2010, websites dedicated to soldier-writing were emerging as forces to be reckoned with by writers and readers within the war-writing community, as was social media. I remember Matt Gallagher from the podium at the 2010 War, Literature, and the Arts conference pronouncing that he “couldn’t imagine being a war writer today without having an online presence.”

By 2010, two long-standing print war-writing journals, Consequence Forum and War, Literature, and the Arts were both publishing fully online. The full emergence of online journals was to come in the following years: the Veterans Writing Project’s O-Dark-Thirty (2012), The Wrath-Bearing Tree (2013), and Military Experience and the Arts (2014), joined by The War Horse (2016), provided outlets for veteran fiction, poetry, and first-person narrative, as well as essays, artwork, and mixed-genre pieces.

To get a sense of what was going on in the early days, I went back and read the first issue of O-Dark-Thirty, from fall 2012. I was surprised to find an article that not only was on-point about the online writing boom, but was authored by an Army officer, Justin Platt, with whom I once served. The article, titled “The Words I Read,” is told by Jimmy, a young public affairs specialist in Iraq, who recounts a conversation with an embedded journalist. In the scene excerpted below, the journalist berates Jimmy for abandoning hard-copy books and magazines:  

“What do you guys read? Are war books still popular? You know I have written a few-just look [me] up on the internet and you’ll find most of my stuff. Too bad there are so many pirated electronic versions of [my book] out there. I’m just glad I’m not doing this for the money. It’s just sad, that’s all,” Gordon lamented.

We nodded in agreement. I double checked to see that my e-reader was stuffed completely inside my cargo pocket, as to not draw fire. But it was too late.

“I saw your PAO reading an e-book. And you too, Jimmy,” he continued.

“Yes.” I conceded, “we’ve gone over to the dark side…..”

By this time, the age of social media had fully arrived, impossible to ignore, and great fun and exasperating to equal degrees. It quickly came to seem that sites such as Facebook and Twitter were not just adjuncts to writing and publication, but where a heck of a lot of the action was taking place.

Lately, the Covid pandemic has intensified veterans’ writing online commitments. In the age of Zoom, the in-person vet-writing workshop morphed into an online phenomenon, adding one more fillip to a writing life that now seemed to take place almost entirely in the digital realm. Books and journals, workshops and writing conferences still exist, but are more nice-to-have than essential. Or so I’ll propose….

Finally, Charlie Sherpa’s Red Bull Rising blog post on the 2017 AWP conference in Washington DC, recently was brought to my attention. If you want to mourn the days when war-mil-vet writing rode high “in real life,” read the capsule descriptions of the sixteen panels featuring vet and vet-adjacent writers and try not to weep:

Red Bull Rising

Vet Writing’s Not Dead! AWP22

Outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, site of this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Program conference.

Driving to Philadelphia for this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I wondered what I would find. I was on two panels, one as a speaker and one as moderator, but they were the only two panels in the program that specifically targeted vet writers and war-mil-conflict subjects. Several vet-writing mainstays I know had begged out of attending, and others I hadn’t heard from. There was little buzz on social media—especially ominous since the panel I was moderating—Veterans Online—was fueled by the proposition that much of the action these days in the vet-writing world takes place in the virtual realm. Also distressing, there was no signs-of-participation from Warrior Writers, a Philadelphia-based writing collective I think of as synonymous with Philadelphia vet writing and usually prominent players at AWP. What was up? Even the conference keynote speakers were unknown to me—another sign of that AWP was shaping up to be a curiously-diminished, minor-key affair.

Fortunately, such brooding and misgivings proved very misleading. The site of the conference, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, bustled with writers and writer wannabees of all stripes, including lots of vet-writers and fellow-travelers, old and new. Attendance at my two panels was solid, as these things go, and my fellow panelists were in fine form. Even more heartening, at the book-fair tables dedicated to war-and-vet writing the foot-traffic was steady, as far as I could tell. Every time I stopped by the table of, say, the Wrath-Bearing Tree, Collateral, or the Veterans Writing Project, I ran into a familiar face or met an “emerging” writer, as the new term for literary tyros and aspirants has it. Capitalizing on the high spirits and good cheer, we quickly organized a vet-writers social where everyone had a blast (or at least I did) and various lunches, dinners, readings, and special events channeled the same vibe.

A quick roll call of old-hand war-lit writers in attendance and/or presenting at this year’s AWP includes Adrian Bonenberger, Jerri Bell, Ron Capps, Dario Dibattista, Rebecca Evans, Teresa Fazio, Mariette Kalinowski, Kara Krauze, Abby E. Murray, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, Drew Pham, Suzanne Rancourt, Connie Ruzich, Seth Brady Tucker, Brian Turner, and Jeremy Warneke. Hugh Martin, Olivia Kate Cerrone, and Pamela Hart were also around, according to the program, but unfortunately I didn’t run into them (and apologies for anyone whose name I’ve left out).

As good as it was to hang with old friends, it was also great to meet for the first time at least six writers who were either veterans or were working on fiction featuring veterans, and I know the journal editors working the tables met many more. Good luck to them all, and I’ll mention two who are already in print and whom I highly recommend keeping an eye on:

Brian O’Hare is a former Marine whose short-story collection Surrender will come out this fall. O’Hare is the winner of the Syracuse Veterans Writing Award in 2021, read about him here:

Bettina Hindes is an Army veteran currently living in Germany. Her excellent reminiscence “Adjustment Disorder” can be found in Wrath-Bearing Tree:  

The panel I moderated was titled “Veterans Writing Online: A Field Guide for Negotiating the Digital Writing Sphere.” Soldier blogs, online vet-writing journals, online vet-writing workshops, digital publishing possibilities, and social-media striving for popularity and reputation were our subjects, and to help me explore them were Ron Capps, Kara Krauze, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Teresa Fazio. It was a big subject and we barely got going, but Ron’s, Kara’s, Jennifer’s, and Teresa’s comments were on-point and trenchant and provocative, as I knew they would be. The online print sphere is a new structural element for writers to manage, negotiate, and exploit, and cannot be ignored even if you wanted. No doubt writing for online publication seeps into the bones of the writing itself, but exactly how? Is the medium the message? It seems to me there is a heightened level of performativity and audience awareness at play, but exactly how so remains to be worked out.

I also participated on a panel titled “Family Heritage, Violent History: WWI’s Lost Transversality in War Poetry Today,” organized by Jennifer Orth-Veillon. All of us on the panel presented versions of articles previously published on Jennifer’s fantastic WWrite Blog, selections from which will be published in book form later this year. Listening to poets Seth Brady Tucker and Drew Pham and scholar Connie Ruzich spin word-webs about their connections to World War I and its literary tradition transported me into an extremely pleasant haze of contemplation about the relation of war, words, and history as they percolate in individuals with their own unique experiences and outlooks. For my part, I spoke about poet Aline Kilmer; the highlight was being approached afterward by an audience member (an aspiring vet-writer) who told me that he thought Kilmer’s verse was very “metal.” I laughed, and he wasn’t wrong!

I have fought with stars in their courses

            and dreamed I have won,

I have charged full tilt with my levelled lance

            straight into the flaming sun

And because of the darkness that swallowed me I

            have dreamed that the fight was done.

What to make of this rekindled energy and interest? Not sure, exactly. There was definitely an eagerness to reconnect and get back into circulation on the part of the old hands. There was definitely an eagerness on the part of younger writers to be part of something bigger than themselves. All to the good, and now the question becomes how to keep the party going in Seattle for 2023. I won’t be there, as AWPs so far from my New Jersey home are just “too much,” but there are plenty of possibilities. Two non-mil panels I attended this year seem naturals for adaptation by the vet-writing community.

“Emotional Pacing in the Trauma Narrative” explored literary techniques for framing trauma-based stories so they avoid overwhelming readers with melodramatic excess. The panelists kept it mostly at the level of craft, which was great, but just as interestingly they spoke of the difficulty of life after publication after revealing and recounting harrowing, enormously disturbing private events and thoughts. All aspects of the subject, to my mind, would be a great for exploration by a panel composed of veteran memoirists, if they dare.

“Craft Lessons from the Submission Queue: Writing and Editing Short Fiction” featured the editors of four online journals that publish literary fiction. The editors passed on guidance for successfully placing stories in their journals, while also recounting lessons learned from reading thousands of submissions they have applied to their own writing. The panelists were full of interesting tips, observations, and anecdotes and the huge audience hung on their words as if they were gospel. How cool would it be if Veterans Writing Project, Military Experience and the Arts, Wrath-Bearing Tree, Consequence, The War Horse and/or Collateral teamed up for a similar panel for the war-writing crowd (hint/hint, foot-stomp/foot-stomp)?

Special AWP shout-outs to Ron Capps and Jennifer Orth-Veillon. It was great to see Capps and the Veterans Writing Project back in action and specifically thanks to Ron for forking out the smackers to reserve a two-lane bowling alley at the war-writers social bar where we held an impromptu first-ever War-Writers Bowling Tournament. For her part, Jennifer was my stalwart ally organizing two panels that helped put vet-and-war-writing back on the map at AWP. It was a close-run thing, and victory was never assured, but we did pretty well with it, I’d say, and I don’t think either of us could have done it alone.

Now, onward to Seattle!

Brian Turner!

Coming in October 2022: Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Contemporary Writers on the Lingering Stories of World War I. Edited by Jennifer Orth-Veillon, forward by Monique Brouillet Seefried. MilSpeak Books.

War-Mil-Vet Writing at AWP22

I’ll be on two panels at the upcoming Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference this week in Philadelphia.

I’m moderating one panel titled “Veterans Writing Online: A Field Guide for Negotiating the Digital Writing Sphere.” Here’s the program blurb:

Iraq and Afghanistan military-and-veteran writers have enthusiastically embraced the internet to amplify their voices and build audiences through blogging, online publishing, remote workshopping, and social media promotion, and as a bridge to traditional print publication. The members of the panel, all accomplished authors, online journal editors, and teachers in the veteran-writing field, offer a range of perspectives regarding best online publishing practices, lessons learned, and future possibilities.

And a little more:

The vibrant veterans online writing realm emphasizes its commitment to new voices, diverse and radical perspectives, post-trauma growth, building communities, and bridging the civil-military divide. The panel explores how online writing supplements and serves as an alternative to traditional print publication by encouraging literary expression by new authors, women, non-binary, minority, and dissident veterans, as well as concerned-citizen writers, family members, and non-combatants.

After a little jockeying, the panel line-up has solidified in exciting ways: Ron Capps, Teresa Fazio, Kara Krauze, and Jennifer Orth-Veillon.

Showtime is Saturday, March 26, 10:35-11:50am in Room 124 in the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

I’m also participating on a panel sponsored by Jennifer Orth-Veillon titled “Family Heritage, Violent History: WWI’s Lost Transversality in War Poetry Today.” I’m honored for the chance to talk about World War I poet Aline Kilmer’s relevance to the current war-writing scene alongside panelists Seth Tucker, Connie Ruzich, and Drew Pham. Here’s the blurb:

WWI’s Centennial offered chances for today’s war writers to reflect upon literary debts owed to 1914-1918 poets in blogs, articles, and new work. This panel fuses history, literary analysis, and creative writing to explore this phenomenon. Members include veteran poets addressing issues of religion, family, sexuality, gender, and PTSD through WWI’s lens. WWI poetry and contemporary war literature experts propose insight into the intersections of personal experience, history, and literary craft.

WWI represents one of the first times in history poetry was responsible for exposing the new complexity of war wounds to the public. WWI elicited responses from diverse voices on the home front and battlefield that opened artistic spaces expressing war’s horrors in innovative ways. This panel reaches far beyond the traditional WWI canon and explores how these poets not only shaped civilian responses or crafted legacy but how they also set precedents for writers confronting today’s conflicts.

We’re meeting on Thursday, March 24 from 1:45 to 3:00pm in Room 121A in the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Looking forward to it all, and join us please if you will be at AWP. I’m not seeing any other panels on the program that directly address contemporary war-writing, which has me thinking. The conference used to be an important locus for the GWOT war-writing community, with many panels each year on war-and-vet writing and much socializing. That luster was beginning to fade even before Covid, and nothing I know of has replaced it (everything’s online!), but I’m hoping we can rekindle the spirt a little.

Bonenberger, Busch, and Gallagher: Fighting, Writing, Fighting Again

This week brought a CNN news report, hosted by Anderson Cooper, about two US Army veterans and one USMC veteran who traveled to Ukraine on their own dime to train Ukrainian home defense forces in basic infantry tactics. This training, of course, was meant to provide Ukrainians without military experience a modicum of self-defense and offensive prowess in anticipation of fighting off Russian invasion of their hometown, which, also of course, seems inevitable at this point.

The veterans featured in the report are well-known in vet-writing circles: Adrian Bonenberger, Benjamin Busch, and Matt Gallagher. Each is featured prominently in the Cooper report and the reasons they offer to explain themselves are heartfelt, eloquent, and inspirational. Even more than their words, their actions speak loud and strong. In support of a cause that is just, they are contributing their talents as best they can.

I have written often about Bonenberger, Gallagher, and Busch on Time Now over the years. Below are links to many of the posts. Within the posts, I think my regard for the men’s writing and art shines clear, as well as my regard for the men themselves. My posts may provide insight or at least some of the backstory as to how Bonenberger, Busch, and Gallagher connect their own war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan with their sense of what the current moment demands. In a nutshell, I would say their infantryman’s instinct to “move to the sound of the guns” is married to their ethical and political sensibilities and principles to a very high degree.

 

Convoy Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

American and Afghan army vehicles on the move in Khost province, 2008

A few years ago, I wrote a Time Now post that poked fun at stock scenes often found in contemporary war-fiction. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, although I was, a little, for what do we expect from war-writing but vivid portraits of common experiences shared by soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan? Since that post, I’ve continued to keep an eye on the representation of characteristic deployment moments, and have become something of a connoisseur of how and how well they are carried off by the writers who offer them.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how war writers have portrayed the vehicle movements that were so integral to deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Life on the Forward Operating Base and Combat Outpost offer much grist for fiction, as do scenes of urban combat in Iraq and rural combat in Afghanistan, as well as night-time raids in both places. For all that, the quintessential combat experience for many deployed soldiers and Marines, as well as deployed airmen and sailors, were the vehicle movements that took them from FOB to FOB, or out of the FOB into sector on patrols and missions.

These vehicle movements were almost always made in convoys of at least three, and usually four, vehicles, either “up-armored” Humvees, or tank-like “MRAPs” (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles). Within each vehicle the important crew positions were that of the driver, the “TC” (or truck/track/tank commander), who rode in the shotgun seat and was usually the senior member on-board, and the gunner, who stood in a roof-turret manning a machine gun and keeping look-out. Other occupants were generically designated “guys- in-back” or “GIBs.” The driver, TC, and gunner were linked by an intercom system and had visibility of the road ahead, with the gunner able to view to the sides and rear as well. The TC could also speak to the other vehicles via radio and to the headquarters back at the FOB. The guys-in-back had little or no visibility and were typically not linked into the intercom, and, jammed in tight with one another, had little to do but stare at each other until the movement was over.

In the sector of Afghanistan where I deployed, we called vehicle movements “CONOPs,” an abbreviation for “convoy operations” (or maybe a misapplication of “concept of operations”–a phrase from the military mission order format). CONOPs were always high-tension, as ambushes and IED attacks were a constant threat, and once they occurred there was little crews could do but hope they lived through them. Also possible were vehicle breakdowns and getting lost. But as ratcheted up as the tension was, there was also boredom, as most drives were uneventful and often excruciatingly long and slow. But there was also exhilaration, too; exiting the confines of the FOB and heading out into “bad guy country” is the stuff that many or most soldiers and Marines joined their respective services to do. To while away the time and defuse pitched emotions while on CONOPs, those on the vehicle intercom talked about everything under the sun and listened to music jerry-rigged through the vehicle radios. The admixture of boredom, danger, and heightened expectation, as well as the camaraderie enforced by joint endeavor in close quarters, is ripe for depiction by skilled authors.

Non-fiction portraits of CONOPs are scattered throughout books on Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’ll focus on fictional and artistic depictions here. Before we get rolling (pun), I’ll recommend the mini-series Generation Kill and Colin Halloran’s volume of poetry Shortly Thereafter for their representations of vehicle movements in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.

In fiction, several novels make vehicle movements central to the stories they tell. In other words, what happens during the journey is the story, not the mission that awaits at the end of the journey. Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives (set in Iraq) is exemplary in this regard, as is Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road (set in Afghanistan). Works that portray well, in my opinion, the fine-grain detail of the CONOP, while also using the scene to describe the social interaction and psychological outlook of the vehicle crewmen, include John Renehan’s The Valley and Brian Van Reet’s Spoils.

The Valley, for example, begins with a passage describing from the point-of-view of protagonist Lieutenant Black as he rides as a passenger in a night convoy of Humvees from a large Afghanistan FOB to a tiny COP high up in the mountains:

The convoy wove its way through the buildings and trailers of the base, radios chirping as vehicle commanders made their perfunctory commo checks with one another. Black looked out the little armored glass windows as the buildings fell behind, replaced by sandbags and blast barriers on either side.

The convoy rolled to a stop at the FOB’s east gate, in the exit channel. Electronic jamming equipment was switched on, and the vehicles filled with the clatter of weapons being charged. The manifest was passed to the guards, and the gate was opened.

The convoy rolled forward beneath the guard towers and machine-gun nests and wove left-right-left-right through a serpentine channel designed to slow down car bombs. They cleared the walls and the golden plain opened up before them, mountains rising from the horizon ahead.

Another passage from The Valley renders the flavor of convoy radio traffic:

“Vega X-Ray, this is Cyclone Mobile, over.”

The sound of the sergeant speaking the name of their destination into the radio roused Black from a near trance.

He pushed the light on his digital watch. It had been another ninety minutes of slogging wet travel. The ride had gotten bumpier and slower the farther they went.

The sergeant keyed the hand mic again. Tried his call again.

Moments passed as the signal made its way up into the dark, dancing among the windswept peaks and stone faces above them. Black wondered how far they were from the outpost, how many mountain passes or switchbacks still lay ahead of them. The vehicles ground on through the muck.

A burst of static from the radio.

“Cyclone Mobile, Vega X-Ray,” came a scratchy call back.

“X-Ray” denoted a command post or operation center. The voice on the other end was probably a soldier pulling late-night duty in Vega’s radio room.

The sergeant keyed the mic.

“Cyclone Mobile inbound, six vehicles, twenty-five personnel. Checkpoint Grapevine, time now.”

“Roger,” came the voice through the static and interference….

The sergeant turned to the driver.

Hit it,” he said.

The kid pulled off a glove and reached up to the ceiling, touching something with a bare finger. A square of sky blue illuminated on a tiny MP3 music player. He tapped it.

The vehicle erupted in sound. Black jumped.

The crew had wired speakers into the four corners of the Humvee. Not regulation, but not uncommon. Black hadn’t noticed the black boxes until now.

An obviously old rock recording echoed in the crew compartment….

In Old Silk Road, Brandon Caro’s first-person narrator, a medic named “Doc” Rodgers, describes duty as a gunner on CONOP in Afghanistan:

Grunting and straining, I managed to pull open the two-hundred-pound door of the Humvee and throw my bag in the back. I then climbed up over the hood of the truck, onto the roof, dropping down through the opened hatch, and settled into the turret. The hole in the roof was about three feet across. My feet were able to touch down on the steel of the interior even if I was seated on the thick leather strap that hung from either side of the hatch. I rotated the .50-cal forty-five degrees to the right…. The gunners of the convoy were supposed to stagger their weapons to protect the trucks from all angles….

My mind wandered carelessly as our convoy moved unobstructed and unthreatened through enemy territory…. It served me well whenever I was in the turret, I always felt, to try and put myself somewhere else in my mind while remaining in the moment somewhat in case we were ever attacked and I had to respond either with the .50-cal or with my medbag or with both.

In Spoils, Van Reet opens with a scene describing drowsy enlisted soldiers waiting out dreary checkpoint duty on a cold, rainy Iraq night. The gunner, Cassandra Wigheard, has been called back inside the troop compartment to warm up and get dry. Nothing’s happening, or seems likely to happen:

Her eyes have grown inflamed from lack of sleep and the recycled hot air steadily blowing, and she blinks to wet them, losing focus sleepily… She’s lulled by the darkness and the roaring heater and the rain that pools on the gunner’s hatch and drips through a leaky rubber seal. Like Chinese water torture. Like they are trapped in an unsound submarine. With the hatch closed it has grown muggy inside, hot and slimy as a locker room with all the showerheads blasting steam. Beads of condensation join in branched rivulets that dart down the windows, themselves no more than flexible sheets of vinyl. Their crew wasn’t lucky enough to draw an up-armored truck. Lieutenant Choi and his bunch have received the only one allotted for the platoon. Their own is nothing but a rolling coffin. No, not even that sturdy. Oak would at least stop some shrapnel, but these vinyl doors wouldn’t stop a pellet gun.

The heater, the rain, sleeplessness, bring on a rheumy-eyed stupor, fuzzy and electronic. Her pruned hands twitch involuntarily, a hypnic jerk acute enough to bring her back. She wills her eyes open. McGinnis and Crump are both nodded off in the front seats. Radio and GPS cables lie kinkded around them like black umbilical cords; there’s the humming sound of the truck, and half dreaming, caught in the tripping sensation of present eternity dwarfing the past, for a moment she forgets herself and might be convinced that all her days have been lived like this, in here, the truck, the only solid place in the universe.  

Vehicle breakdowns and vehicle recovery operations were facts of life, especially when convoys were forced off the hard-ball main roads and onto goat trails in the Afghanistan mountains or canal-berm paths in Iraq. In Green on Blue, Elliot Ackerman vividly describes a vehicle recovery op in Afghanistan, but one with a twist: the vehicle is one of the “HiLux” pickups favored by the Afghan army and various Afghan militias, friendly and otherwise:

Our truck was now set to back out. This would be the most dangerous part, reversing down the steep and narrow switchback. All of the Special Lashkar’s trucks had a winch in front—two hundred or so feet of steel cable wrapped tightly around a motor that could pull a tree from its roots. The soldier wearing the balaclava hooked his winch under the front axle of Atal’s HiLux. On the far side of the crater, the driver took in all the slack. In theory the winch would lower us along the tight switchbacks and ensure that we didn’t topple down the mountainside, but the driver took no chances. He left his door open and both his legs dangled from the side of his seat. If he had to jump he’d be ready, even as his truck, as well as ours, toppled into the ravine below. Whoever drove our truck would have to sit behind the steering wheel. This made jumping a more difficult prospect….

Atal shifted into reverse and the winch ground as the steel cables pulled taut. I shouted out directions: Come right, come right. Straight! STRAIGHT! Atal leaned his head out the driver’s window. Then he shot across the cab, planting his face in the passenger’s side mirror. He continued to weave back and forth in this way as we inched out our descent. The winch strained and the steel cable slide against our front axle. The air filled with a hot metal burn. We soon dipped out of sight from the soldiers above us, be we were still tethered to their winch. I continued to shout my directions and Atal, unable to see the space around our truck, followed each one blindly. Come left. Straight. Now, right, right! RIGHT!

IED strikes and vehicle ambushes do not figure prominently in contemporary war-writing, but one very memorable such scene occurs in Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing. The protagonist, Levi, is riding in a Humvee in Iraq in a convoy in which another soldier named Tom Hooper is riding in the vehicle in front of him:

They had spent many hours crawling down the dusty canal roads. The monotony of it all, the slow pace, the lack of conversation, and the crash from the day’s earlier adrenaline rushnearly caused Levi to fall asleep. He stretched as well as he could in such a small space, and he complained about being bored.

His driver, Specialist Pete White, looked over at him and nodded in commiseration, but had nothing to say.

After Levi saw his best friend’s Humvee disappear into a cloud of fire, dust, and gravel, both time and sound stopped, which left Tom Hooper flying through the air, suspended against a backdrop of smoke and flames, weightless and serene. His unbloused DCU-patterned pants were rumpled by the wind; his limbs were spread against the sky, one foot bootless but still covered by a green sock. Levi stared in wonder at his friend, who was not flying, but was simply the subject of a photograph, oblivious to his surroundings, or to gravity.

When Levi lurched forward because White had slammed on the brakes, time started again and Tom hit the gravel on the side of the road. Despite the height from which he fell, his form did not bounce, roll down the shallow embankment into the tall grass, or move in any way at all. He simply stopped when his body met resistance. Tom lay supine, staring up into the sky, one arm stretched out, the other seemingly twisted under his back.  Levi looked left at White, but he only saw wide eyes and a moving mouth….

As Levi neared the truck he heard a tumultuous crash. A great crack stung his ears and he felt the peal rumble through his stomach. He wondered why it would be thundering when there were no clouds in the sky. It was only after the second crack of thunder shook his head and nearly knocked him over that he realized it was not thunder at all; but rather, it was the warheads of rocket-propelled grenades exploding near the left side of the truck. With this realization came other realizations. The smaller cracks he had been ignoring were bullets snapping past him. The more sporadic and lower-pitched pops were rounds burning and exploding like popcorn in the rear of the Humvee….

These are just some of the characteristic elements of vehicle movements and their representation. This post has already gone on long enough, but we might also mention the “mission brief” that precedes every convoy operation (both Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood and Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives have great passages describing this important and interesting event); the decision by vehicle gunners to identify friend-or-foe/shoot-or-don’t-shoot decision-making in regard to oncoming traffic; and the exuberant, almost euphoric feeling that overtakes soldiers when they “RTB” (return-to-base) or arrive at their destination safely. Maybe a part II for this post?

My thought is that, with time, vehicle movements will be seen as a characteristic military scene associated with Iraq and Afghanistan soldier fiction, one at right up there with portraits of night-time Special Operations raids, gun-battles on Combat Outposts, in-theater memorial services, and welcome-home ceremonies. If that’s true, interested readers will turn back to the scenes above in the way Civil War buffs like to read about cavalry charges, World War I students read about trench warfare, and Vietnam narratives relish depictions of helicopter air assaults.

Climb to Glory! 10th Mountain Division, War-Writing, and Afghanistan

10th Mountain Division Logo

With the publication of Ray McPadden’s war memoir We March at Midnight, hard upon his novel And the Whole Mountain Burned, the already-robust body of war writing published by former soldiers (all officers, as it happens) of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division grows stronger. Joining McPadden, the count includes Adrian Bonenberger, Drew Pham, Kristin L. Rouse, Sean Parnell, and Brett Allen—each with one or more book-length works and/or many occasional pieces published in vet-writing journals and elsewhere, most about or inspired by deployments to Afghanistan with 10th Mountain. I include myself, too, by affiliation. Though I did not deploy with 10th Mountain to Iraq or Afghanistan, as the post-9/11 era dawned I was stationed at Fort Drum, NY, with the division, where I served first as the Secretary of the General Staff and then as the Executive Officer of 2-14 Infantry “Golden Dragons” in the division’s Second Brigade. Late in 2001, 2-14 did deploy to Kosovo on a peacekeeping mission, where we seethed with jealousy as sister battalions from 10th Mountain were among the first to fight in Afghanistan.

10th Mountain, as I remember it, was a no-frills, no-nonsense light infantry division. We had no sense of ourselves as an elite unit such as the 82nd Airborne or 75th Rangers, but we still took pride in our competency and toughness, which was honed by the brutal winter weather of New York state’s “North Country” hard-by Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. It’s fair to say that few requested assignment to 10th Mountain and Fort Drum, but once there we made the best of it. The “Mountain” part of the division name was an ode to the unit’s World War II roots in mountain-warfare and had little relation to flat Fort Drum save for the cold, snowy winters we endured. Still, the name and the heritage infused us with knowledge that to be a member of 10th Mountain stood for values and a tradition we better not let down. We trained hard and deployed often, even before 9/11. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfolded, 10th Mountain units were on near-constant rotation to one of the two countries, leading to the claim that 10th Mountain has been the most deployed division in the Army since 2001. I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but if not, it’s got to be pretty close.

So, just based on sheer numbers, it’s probably not surprising that so many 10th Mountain soldiers sought expression for their stories and views-of-things in print. But is there anything more that might account for their impulse to write following service? And is there a particular tenor to the body of work by 10th Mountain vets? If so, what is it, and why?

Short answer: I don’t know. It might just be coincidence. It might be though that I’m afeard to face the truth, for at first blush 10th Mountain doesn’t come off very well in the memoirs and fiction written by its veterans. None of them in particular take aim at 10th Mountain as a flawed entity distinct from other, better units, but almost all give full vent to unsatisfactory deployment experiences. The dissatisfaction takes many shapes. For some, it was crystallization of the awareness of the futility and stupidity of the overall mission. For others, it was horrendous combat experiences that deprived them of their ability to take pride in their fighting prowess. Others describe toxic command climates and poor leadership. These last sting me in particular, for I know personally or by reputation many of the leaders mentioned by name or described fictionally in the works. Some I consider friends, and most I had a reasonably high regard for. Hell, I was a field-grade officer myself, and though a lowly one, probably more part of the problem than an antidote to it in the eyes of disgruntled and disappointed junior officers and soldiers.

Oh well, I’ll just have to deal with that. For students of America’s war in Afghanistan, there is much to be gleaned from the words of 10th Mountain veterans. If you want to know what fighting was like at battalion-level in work-a-day units in eastern Afghanistan, or what the range of attitudes toward the military, the mission, and Afghans were held by those who belonged to such units might be, Bonenberger, Parnell, Rouse, Pham, McPadden, and Allen have left quite a record. Much is admirable, some is not, most is understandable, and none is beyond critique. I don’t love it all equally, and it’s not all the same, but now’s not the time to make distinctions. It’s easy to tell the writers tried hard to do well while in Afghanistan as members of 10th Mountain, and now while trying to convey what was special about their experience in their books–even if by “special” we really mean “troubling.” Thank you all for writing, and I hope you find many more readers.

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A selected list of fiction and memoir by 10th Mountain Division veterans. I’ve also included links to articles the authors have written about the end of the American war in Afghanistan.

Bret Allen, Kilroy Was Here (novel)

Adrian Bonenberger, Afghan Post (memoir) and The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War (short-stories)

Also: “America’s War in Afghanistan is Over but Our Big Lies About It Live On.”

Ray McPadden, And the Whole Mountain Burned (novel) and We March at Midnight (memoir)

Sean Parnell, Outlaw Platoon (memoir). Parnell has also written a military-thriller titled Man of War.

Drew Pham,  “On Their Lips, The Name of God”

“Brother Forgive Me. I Cannot Bear the Consequences of This War Alone.”

“From Vietnam to Afghanistan and Back: An Offering”

Kristen L. Rouse, “Pawns” (short story included in the anthology The Road Ahead) and many non-fiction articles, to include this recent one:

“A US Veteran Says the Afghans She Served With Believe They Are Going to Die.”

Finally, a memoir about life at Fort Drum as the wife of a many-times deployed officer is Angie Ricketts’ No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife.

UPDATE: I’m reminded that poet Brian Turner soldiered as an enlisted infantryman in 10th Mountain Division and deployed with them to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000. An impressive addition to the roster of 10th Mountain writers!

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