Archive for the ‘Art and War’ category

Mosul

April 11, 2021

The United States withdrew the bulk of its armed forces from Iraq in 2011, an endgame move that brings to mind the expression “just declare victory and then leave.” Fighting, or war, of course didn’t stop in Iraq in 2011, but the nature of it changed. With the Americans gone and Baghdad somewhat quiet, the action moved north and west of the capital. In Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, the Sinjar Mountains region, and on into Syria, Sunni-fundamentalist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters terrorized those they labeled non-believers while waging war against the Iraqi Armed Forces and various local militias. The Kurdistan city of Mosul became the locus of much of the fighting, especially since the Kurdish Peshmerga militia proved resolutely stout in the face of ISIS, by all accounts much more so than the Iraq army.

The Kurd fight against ISIS features in Mike Freedman’s 2019 novel King of the Mississippi, and the movie Mosul, directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan, also appearing in 2019.

King of the Mississippi

In truth, fighting on the ground in Mosul occurs only in the mostly-comic King of the Mississippi’s concluding chapters, when the novel’s central characters, two Houston-based business consultants, are sucked into battle with a combined U.S.-British special operations outfit operating in support of the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Armed Forces. Author Mike Freedman seems to have based these scenes on his own experience, as his bio relates that he served in the U.S. Army Special Forces (“Green Berets”) before obtaining an MBA and becoming a business consultant himself. The portrait of the special operators is extremely flattering, which is not to say it is necessarily wrong or without interest. The two consultants, in Iraq on some puffed-up, cock-eyed business scheme, are suitably unimpressed by anything the U.S. conventional Army has to show them in their camps around Baghdad, which they must pass through enroute to Kuridistan, but they, and the third-person narrator, too, are all agog at what they behold in the highly-trained A-team:

Each person on the twelve-man team had a specialty, and they all trained each other in the specialties. If this team was indicative of the talent of other Special Forces teams, Special Forces could smoke any consulting dream team in concentration of talent. Of the two communications sergeants on the team, the senior radio operator had been an investment banker in New York at Goldman Sachs until volunteering for service after the 9/11 attacks, and his no-neck junior, a half-Hispanic weightlifting beast of a man with fluency in three languages, had attended Harvard as an undergraduate on scholarship, graduating in just three years with honors.

Nothing that happens after this glowing portrait deflates the high regard with which King of the Mississippi portrays the team. The leader, “Luke,” offers a fine, no-BS pep-talk before the men roll-out on their mission:

For our two SF babies out of the Q course who joined us in country last month and are hungry to get some, be ready to get your gun on. We all accepted there would be risks when we signed up. Our mission is to influence our battlespace through combat advising. Sometimes we have to get creative to make that happen. Be cognizant of civilians on the battlefield if we get attacked. We know what ISIS’s MO is when it pertains to civilians. As always, don’t do anything that would disgrace the regiment.

The novel as a whole validates the special operater warrior-way, as one of the protagonists himself is a former Green Beret who brings his wily outside-the-box approach to high-end consulting:

For a decade I trained not only on how to operationally liberate the oppressed, but also how to free your mind from the oppression of conventional thinking…. The relevance of my graduate work in the Special Forces Qualification Course is that I have unique professional training and a record of success in solving and analyzing complex problems.

The speaker’s name is Mike Fink, like the legendary American huckster-frontiersman referred to in the novel’s title (with initials “M-F” like the author’s). Fink’s not a smooth operator, and the clunkiness and presumptuousness of his self-description, offered early in the novel, makes other characters and readers too (at least this one) wonder if he is being set up as a humorous foil. But as the novel proceeds, we learn that Fink is not to be underestimated and that Freedman is not joking: what ails big business and America at large can be remedied by letting our unconventional elite fighters take charge.   

There is much more about King of the Mississippi and author Mike Freedman that interests me, but let’s keep the focus on Mosul….

Mosul

The movie Mosul doesn’t kid around. Set in Mosul from start-to-finish over the course of a very long day, there’s no waiting for the combat action to start: it’s “guns-on” from the opening scene, a terrific shoot-out that introduces the main characters and sets the story speeding forward. Two Kurdish Mosul policemen are ambushed by a large ISIS force as they try to arrest two insurgent sympathizers, and just as they run out of bullets they are rescued by an offshoot renegade band of battle-hardened Peshmerga militiamen known as the Ninevah SWAT team. “Since when did we start arresting Daesh?” asks the team leader shortly before ordering the execution of the last two ISIS fighters alive. One of the policemen, a young recruit named Kawa, is enlisted into the Ninevah SWAT on the spot and, over the course of the movie and the day, Kawa not only develops the instinct for survival it takes to fight ISIS, he (and we) learns the humanizing backstories that drive militia-men to be as committed to each other and to their mission as they are.

Mosul is excellent–86 taught minutes of compelling story-telling and action. I watched it twice without blinking, and most war movies have me distractedly surfing the Internet ten minutes in. The plot is something of a twist on the picaresque last/lost patrol motif familiar from Saving Private Ryan and many others, but at every turn director Matt Carnahan infuses the story-line with interesting and even surprising inflections. Much of this is accomplished at the level of brisk staging of scenes and inspired camera angles, as in many interior scenes of Ninevah SWAT traveling about the Mosul battlefield in their up-armored Humvees. It’s even more so at the level of screenwriting (Mosul is based on a New Yorker story by Luke Mogelson) and acting. Carnahan focalizes the story through the perspective of his two protagonists: the wizened Ninevah SWAT leader Major Jasem, played by Suhail Dabbach, and the fresh recruit Kawa, played by Adam Bessa. Dabbach and Bessa are both outstanding, each easily capable of holding interest in sustained close-ups and even more engaging as we watch them deal with war’s circumstance and the increasingly tight bonds of their relationship. I don’t know if I’d say either Dabbach or Bessa is handsome, but both give the appearance of being intelligent and soulful, and thus compelling to watch; by contrast so many American male leads in war movies look bland and dopey. Probably just the camera lighting and make-up, right?, but still. Dabbach is an Iraqi expatriate who had small roles in The Hurt Locker and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. More please soon (and I just read more is forthcoming as Dabbach has a role in the upcoming movie version of Nico Walker’s Cherry). Bessa, a ringer for Marine vet author Elliot Ackerman, is a French-Tunisian actor with a string of acclaimed roles in European movies to his credit—I’ll be interested in anything he acts in, too.

Americans barely figure in Mosul, which makes it something of a wonder that the movie was made by an American studio and directed by an American director, with dialogue in Arabic with English subtitles. No one interested in the human side of ISIS (whatever that might look like) is going to love Mosul, as it firmly wears its allegiance to Kurds and the victims of ISIS on its sleeve, but the movie soars above partisanship on the strengths of its vision of the violence of war and the vivid characterization of those forced to fight for their lives against a hated and ruthless enemy.

Mike Freedman, King of the Mississippi. Random House-Hogarth, 2019.

Mosul, directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan. AGBO, Conde Nast Entertainment, 2019.

*****

NOTE: My blog platform, WordPress, has changed its editing feature in such a way that makes it much harder for me to upload pictures and videos, so until I can figure that out I’ll do without. Ah well, for ten years, creating Time Now posts has been the same simple process, so not a big fan of the change, but will carry on as we can.

Joseph Darda’s Empire of Defense

March 20, 2021

In “Chapter Five: The Craft of Counterinsurgent Whiteness” of Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Permanent War Joseph Darda places the literary-fiction titans of contemporary veterans-writing—Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, Kevin Powers—under the microscope of scholarly analysis.

In the larger argument of Empire of Defense, Darda offers a theory for how race and racism factor in the endless warfaring and escalating militarism of everyday life in America. He pinpoints the National Security Act of 1947 and the creation of the Secretary of Defense in 1949 as pivotal historical moments, arguing that the renaming and reorganization of our national security apparatus were attempts to mitigate the excesses of old-style colonialism and racism while allowing the prerogatives of national authority to remain in the hands of the powers-that-be, who, it goes almost without saying, were white males. Post WWII, legal racial oppression and global empire building were no longer tenable, but a new liberal humanism organized around “defense” allowed for a modicum of progressive social change, while insidiously normalizing a new regime of white values and outlooks, both at home and abroad. The name-change from “Secretary of War” to “Secretary of Defense,” for example, diminished awareness of  imperialistic projections of power and uses of violence that usually involved killing or subordinating people-of-color. Instead, in a semantic sleight-of-hand, our military would now “defend” America against various “isms” and causes that obscure racialized motives. So, instead of fighting yellow-skinned people in Korea and Vietnam, we fight “communism.” Instead of fighting Mexicans, we fight a “war on drugs.” And instead of fighting Arabs and Muslims, we fight “terrorism.” The linguistic trickery pays lip service to notions of respect, diversity, equity, inclusion, and equality when convenient, and it has been very convenient to do so in order to recruit African-Americans into the military. It has also been convenient to preserve reputation in the eyes of liberal voters, intellectuals, and journalists—at least those who were not, per Darda, in on the treachery.

In Darda’s account, war fiction participates in anti-racist/racist duplicity by consistently creating heroes out of a few “good white men” who embody liberal values without giving up the actual perks of whiteness, and in fact instantiate the notion that ideas held by white men constitute foundational moral values. He writes, “The sensitive white soldier, from Hemingway’s Frederic Henry to Joseph Heller’s John Yossarian and O’Brien’s Paul Berlin, though celebrated for shaking off ideological constraints, defends, above all else, himself and his own liberal consciousness.” So, too, per Darda, for the white heroes of post-9/11 war fiction, and so too for their authors:

Although veteran-writers [Matt] Gallagher, Kevin Powers, and Phil Klay have been critical of the wars in which they fought, their fiction aligns with the state’s militarization of cultural knowledge.

“Chapter Five: The Craft of Counterinsurgent Whiteness” begins with two passages that set-up analysis of Powers’ novel The Yellow Birds, Klay’s story “Psychological Operations,” and Gallagher’s novel Youngblood. The first passage, unfortunately for fans of contemporary war-fiction, excoriates Gallagher’s 2011 Atlantic magazine article “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?”, Gallagher himself, and the contemporary veteran fiction-writing scene. We’ll hurry past that section to summarize more fully the chapter’s second preamble, which explores the writing and rhetoric of US Army Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, published in 2006 at the behest of General David Petraeus. Darda focuses his attention on the third chapter, “Intelligence in Counterinsurgency,” which (the FM 3-24 chapter) was mostly authored by “Yale University-trained cultural anthropologist” Montgomery McFate. Darda explains how in the chapter McFate promulgates the idea that modern war requires “cultural awareness” to craft compelling “narratives” to shape understanding and achieve objectives. Darda offers a good line re McFate: “Her chapter reads like critical theory that has been reverse engineered to reinforce rather than challenge hegemony.”

The FM 3-24 discussion leads to an damning argument about contemporary war fiction: “The thesis of the McFate-authored chapter of Field Manual 3-24—a thesis that resurfaces in American veteran fiction—is that successful counterinsurgency necessitates the militarization of cultural narrative.” A little later: “Some of the most acclaimed new veteran-writers—Gallagher, Klay, Powers—served in counterinsurgent forces, and their writing reflects the doctrine’s utilitarian understanding of cultural narrative.” This seems on-to-something, as The Yellow Birds, “Psychological Operations,” and Youngblood are indeed written by soldiers who fought in Iraq according to counterinsurgency principles while more-or-less believing that they were trying to fight more humanely and also more smartly. They dramatize that struggle in their works, and their first-person narrators speak directly about the difficulty of constructing coherent narratives of their deployments.

Darda could have done even more with this line-of-analysis, but he’s after bigger fish than narrative meta-anxiety. About the authors’ investments in whiteness and the cultural work done by their stories, he writes:

…and the first, foremost, and only thing that happens when a white male author picks up a pen to write a story is validation of himself and his white characters.

That these writers are all white men is not a coincidence, because whiteness has continued to be a condition for conducting defense (counterinsurgency), as a means of dictating the uneven distribution of life chances (racialization) in the counterterror era.

Those are serious charges about the authors’ thoughts, motives, and actions, and unfortunately for Darda the analysis of the aspects of The Yellow Birds, “Psychological Operations,” and Youngblood that he argues perpetuate racist ideology and practice aren’t as persuasive as the passages that explore narrative angst and instability. I won’t say much here except that he doesn’t make much allowance for the idea that art and writing can critique politics, ideology, official discourse, and popular opinion rather than reflect and instantiate them. I also note two factual errors in Darda’s recounting of character-and-plot details of Youngblood–not confidence-inspiring given how the novel and its author figure so prominently in Darda’s argument. Fans of contemporary war-writing probably won’t like or agree with what Darda has to say, but students of the intersection of 20th and 21st-century race, culture, politics, war, and war-literature might consider checking out Empire of Defense for themselves.

Joseph Darda, Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Permanent War. University of Chicago Press, 2019.

AWP

February 28, 2021

War-writers’ social, AWP17 in DC: Matthew Hefti, Ben Busch, and Mary Doyle in the background, Whitney Terrell in the foreground. A sliver of Teresa Fazio can also be seen. Photo by Bill Putnam.

In late 2013 I received an email from Roy Scranton, whom I didn’t know at the time, inviting me to join him on a vet-writing panel at the 2014 Association of Writers and Writing Program conference in Seattle. I had never heard of “AWP,” as it’s called, but I soon learned it was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, conferences in America for authors of creative literature—memoir, fiction, and poetry. I did not think of myself as a writer in that way, but I  also didn’t say no to Scranton.

That began a streak of five years where I attended AWP, each after the first in the capacity as organizer of panels dedicated to giving voice to war-and-mil writers. Each conference brought a slew of memories and new friendships, acquaintances, and contacts, as well a handful of titles purchased from the tables at AWP’s mammoth book-fair. Also, beginning with Minneapolis, and continuing with LA, DC, and Tampa, I organized a war-writers’ social so we could all meet and have a few, which was fun for me and seemed to be appreciated by others.

A reflection-essay about the highlights and the connective strands awaits, while here I only list the writers with whom I presented and repost my Time Now write-ups of each event.

Seattle 2014:  Phil Klay, Hillary Plum, Roy Scranton

Here’s my blog post about the conference:

The War Writing Scene at AWP14: Wolves Keep in Touch by Howling

I wrote another blog entry about AWP 2014 that was later posted on the WWrite World War 1 Centennial Commission Blog:

The Roots of Contemporary War Literature in James Joyce’s Ulyesses

Minnesota 2015: Ron Capps, Colin Halloran, Kayla Williams

Minnesota Turn-and-Burn: War Writing at AWP15

LA 2016:  #1: Matt Gallagher, Jessie Goolsby, Andria Williams (Elliot Ackerman unfortunately had to cancel); #2: Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, Colby Buzzell, Maurice Decaul

AWP16 War Writing Preview

AWP LA AAR (Association of Writers and Writing Program Los Angeles After Action Review)

DC 2017:  Benjamin Busch, Jay Moad (replacing Maurice Decaul at the last minute), Jenny Pacanowski, Brian Turner

The Watched Pot Begins to Bubble: War Writing at AWP17

Tampa 2018:  Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, Dunya Mikhail, Brian Turner

On to Tampa! AWP18

AWP18: Tampa, FL

I wasn’t able to attend AWP 2019 in Portland or AWP 2020 in San Antonio, and now I won’t be attending the online AWP 2021. I understand AWP 2022 will be in Philadelphia, which is an easy drive for me and hopefully will be in-person. Maybe time for a return?

Veterans and Forever War: Talking Empire City with Matt Gallagher

February 21, 2021

The new United States of Zoom: Patrick Deer, me, Matt Gallagher

The Wrath-Bearing Tree website offered me a chance to host their podcast this month and I wasn’t about to say no. I asked my friend Patrick Deer, the head of New York University’s Cultures of War symposium, if he would join me in talking to Matt Gallagher about Gallagher’s Empire City, a dystopian novel that presciently portrays a dysfunctional America wracked by endless war-faring, rampant militarism, and dueling tribes of veterans. Deer said “yes,” Gallagher said “yes,” and so off we went. Give us a listen please, and no problem if you fast forward to passages that interest you most:

Veterans and Forever War: Talking Empire City with Matt Gallagher

2:45:  Gallagher discusses Words After War, the writing workshop he teaches in New York City (and which is sponsored by NYU’s Cultures of War)

8:00:  We discuss Elliot Ackerman’s short-story “Two Grenades.”

27:25:  Discussion of Empire City begins.

51:00:  Gallagher offers thoughts about the veteran presence in the January 6 storming of the Capital, and what it was like knowing that his brother was one of those besieged inside.

My review of Empire City is here.

Matthew Komatsu reviews Empire City for The Wrath-Bearing Tree here.

Peter Lucier’s review of Empire City for The Strategy Bridge is also recommended.

Matt Gallagher is the author of Kaboom (2010), Youngblood (2016), and Empire City (2020). With Roy Scranton, he is the editor of the veterans-fiction anthology Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (2013).

Patrick Deer is Associate Professor of English at New York University and the author of Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (2009). His current book projects are titled Deep England: Forging British Culture After Empire and Surge and Silence: Understanding America’s Cultures of War

Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades” can be found in anthology The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War (2016), edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner.

Thanks to Adrian Bonenberger and The Wrath-Bearing Tree for everything they do. 

Matt Gallagher in Camden, NJ, 2016. I wanted to pose him in front of Walt Whitman’s house, but somehow we ended up a couple of doors down.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction, Poetry, and Film 2020

December 31, 2020

US Army Abu Company, 1-187 Infantry Regiment “Rakkasans” on patrol in Paktika province, Afghanistan. Photo by Bill Putnam.

2020 saw the continuing emergence of a vibrant cohort of veteran fiction-writers formed by war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Phil Klay’s Missionaries, Matt Gallagher’s Empire City, and Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black and White solidified their authors’ positions on the top of the war-writing mountain, as defined by major publishing contracts, critical acclaim in high-profile venues, and substantive ancillary writing opportunities. Odie Lindsey’s Some Go Home and Jessie Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours announced that two more war-writing scene vets were also back in action with something to say. Maximillian Uriarte’s graphic novel Battle Born: Lapus Lazuli did not receive the acclaim or the popularity of his most excellent White Donkey or Terminal Lance cartoons, but riches lie waiting exploration by alert readers. Likewise with Perry O’Brien’s Fire in the Blood, significant, if for nothing else (but not just), because it’s new work by yet-one-more vet-author first launched into print by the seminal 2013 Fire and Forget anthology.

Equally notable, from my point-of-view, has been the continued or even re-energized vibrancy of the online vet-writing scene. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention for a few years, but for whatever reason, pandemic or otherwise, this year I’ve been frequently entertained and often impressed by the vet stories and verse I’ve read online in venues such as The Wrath-Bearing TreeMilitary Experience & the Arts; War, Literature & the Arts; and 0-Dark-Thirty. In the same vein, the anthology of Line of Advance award-winning poetry and prose Our Best War Stories is full of striking stories and fresh voices that I mostly missed upon their release, going back to 2016. The divide between professional and amateur vet-writing is a thing, but cross-boundary pleasure and pollination are everywhere possible.

Small and indie presses help bridge the divide between professional publishing realm and amateur online authorial ranks (does an analogy to distinctions separating Special Operations, Regular Army, and National Guard troops work here?). I’ve just got my hands on two small-press novels, Brett Allen’s Kilroy Was Here, about war in Afghanistan, and Travis Klempan’s Have Snakes, Need Birds, set in Iraq, and am looking forward to reading them. 

New poetry was scarcer in 2020. Volume-length works include Colin Halloran’s American Etiquette and Phil Metres’ Shrapnel Maps, neither of which directly portray fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, though they seem extensions of previous work by their authors that did.

The only 2020 movie I’m aware of about Iraq and Afghanistan is The Outpost, directed by Rod Lurie, about “the battle of Kamdesh” (COP Keating) in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, in 2009. The Outpost joins two excellent episodes of the Netflix series Medal of Honor in recounting the heroics of the soldiers who fought that day.

A reason for worry in 2020 was the low-profile or absence of many veteran-authors whose early works delighted and promised much. Yes, the gestation period for new writing can be long, but I’m not even hearing peeps and blips signaling activity from authors whose voices I admire and miss….

I’m also curious how the next round of new fiction, poetry, and film portrays the continuing cultural reverberations of the post-9/11 Forever Wars. Taking war to Iraq and Afghanistan seems now an even worse idea than it was at the time, and the execution of the wars has been, if anything, worse than their intent and design. Even worse than worse, many veterans are full of atrocious ideas fervently held about what their veteran status entitles them to and what their deployments have taught them. I’m not sure that fiction and art can do much in the face of such “passionate intensity,” as Yeats called it, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try.  

Anyway, here’s the list. I haven’t included new works such as Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black and White that don’t directly portray scenes set in Iraq or Afghanistan, while I include those such as Phil Klay’s Missionaries, where deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan serve as a significant back-story to the main action. If I’m missing anything let me know; additions and corrections are easy. New entries are bolded.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Bob Kornheiser, Crossing the Wire (2004)
Nicholas Kulish, Last One In (2007)
Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
Benjamin Buchholz (Army), One Hundred and One Nights (2011)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Schultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
Jonathan Raab (Army), Flight of the Blue Falcon (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Susan Aspley, Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town (2016)
The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger (Army) and Brian Castner (Air Force), eds. (2016)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Tom King and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol 1: Bang. Bang. Bang.(2016).
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)
David Abrams (Army), Brave Deeds (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Dark at the Crossing (2017)
Helen Benedict, Wolf Season (2017)
Caleb Cage (Army), Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2017)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), The Confusion of Languages (2017)
Tom King (CIA) and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (2017)
Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. (Army), The Chords of War (2017)
Brian Van Reet (Army), Spoils (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Waiting for Eden (2018)
Jon Chopan, Veterans Crisis Hotline (2018)
Raymond Hutson, Finding Sergeant Kent (2018)
Kathleen J. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018)
Will Mackin (Navy), Bring Out the Dog (2018)
Stephen Markley, Ohio (2018)
Ray McPadden (Army), And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018)
Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields (2018)
Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018)
Nico Walker (Army), Cherry (2018)
Adam Kovac (Army), The Surge (2019)
Katey Schultz, Still Come Home (2019)
Amy Waldman, A Door in the Earth (2019)
Brett Allen (Army), Kilroy Was Here (2020)
Phil Klay (USMC), Missionaries (2020)
Travis Klempan (Navy), Have Snakes, Need Birds (2020)
Odie Lindsey (Army), Some Go Home (2020)
Perry O’Brien (Army), Fire in the Blood (2020)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), Battle Born: Lapus Lazuli (2020)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

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

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield, director (2007)
Body of War, Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, directors (2008)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (HBO) (2008)
The Objective, Daniel Myrick, director (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Hyena Road, Paul Gross, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
Blood Stripe, Remy Auberjonois, director (2016)
Mine, Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro, directors (2016)
Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Clement Cogitore, director (2016)
Nobel, Per-Olav Sorensen, director (Netflix) (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)
Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, director (2017)
Megan Leavey, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director (2017)
Sand Castle, Fernando Coimbra, director (Netflix) (2017)
Thank You For Your Service, Jason Hall, director (2017)
The Wall, Doug Liman, director (2017)
War Machine, David Michod, director (Netflix) (2017)
The Yellow Birds, Alexandre Moors, director (2017)
12 Strong, Nicolai Fuglsig, director (2018)
The Kill Team, Dan Krauss, director (2019)
Official Secrets, Gavin Hood, director (2019)
The Report, Scott C. Burns, director (2019)
The Outpost, Rod Lurie, director (2020)

Civ-Mil Reading Group: Thom Jones, Siobhan Fallon, Philip Caputo

December 28, 2020

For the last year I’ve been a member of a civilian-military reading group sponsored by a local community college. The formal name of the group is “No Man’s Land: Dialogues on the Experience of War.” The veterans in the group represent all branches of service and periods of service, divided evenly between Vietnam, post-Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan. The civilians for the most part are associated with the school, either as students or faculty. There’s about a 50/50 split between men and women. Last year we met in person, while this past fall we’ve met by Zoom. During our in-person sessions, we averaged between 15 and 20 participants. Online, it’s been five to ten.

The stories we discussed this fall are below.

Thom Jones, “The Pugilist at Rest.” Jones served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, but never fought in Vietnam.  After years of anonymous drift, he hit it big in 1991 when The New Yorker published “The Pugilist at Rest,” about a former Marine, now old, contemplating how violence has shaped his life. The title refers to a Greek statue of a boxer that serves as the artistic inspiration for the narrator’s reflections on boot camp, Vietnam, his own boxing exploits, and the epilepsy about which we learn he is about to undergo brain surgery to cure. Asked about what it takes to make one’s literary debut in The New Yorker, Jones is reported as saying, “Make your story so good they can’t say no.” Oh yea, The Pugilist at Rest definitely punches hard.

Siobhan Fallon, “The Last Stand” and “Gold Star.” Both stories feature Kit Murphy, an Army junior enlisted soldier back from Iraq with a leg mangled from an IED explosion that killed his squad leader Sergeant Shaeffer. In “The Last Stand,” we witness the end of Murphy’s marriage to his high-school sweetheart Helena. In “Gold Star,” Murphy pays his respects to Sergeant Shaeffer’s widow. Full of wonderful detail regarding modern military life, and as tender as tales featuring wounded vets riding barroom bucking broncos and widows shopping in the commissary on payday can be, the twinned stories point to the lonely despair that comes when war dishes out its full measure of pain, damage, loss, and heartbreak.

Philip Caputo, “Lines of Departure.” Caputo is an old pro whose long career as a respected author and journalist after service as a Marine officer in Vietnam would seem to be the model for the Matt Gallaghers, Phil Klays, and Elliot Ackermans of our day. In this late-life tale about a meet-up between Vietnam vets and Iraq/Afghanistan vets at a veterans’ retreat, we get a sense of the quiet wisdom and eloquence that might await GWOT’s literary stars. Caputo’s narrator, a former correspondent for the Marines in Vietnam, is deeply ambivalent about much, especially the prospect that the unspeakable horrors of war can be communicated, let alone be  recovered from. In the story, the divide between the Vietnam and GWOT vets looms large, at least as large as the oft-mentioned divide between civilians and veterans, and yet, and yet…. things happen.  

Last spring we read and discussed Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” Jacob Siegel’s “Smile, There are IEDs Everywhere,” and Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train.” We were set to host a visit by Brian Turner when the pandemic shut us down. In two separate off-shoot groups, we discussed Phil Klay’s “Prayer in the Furnace” and Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Nada.”

Overall it’s been great. Everyone speaks, no one dominates, everyone cocks their ear to listen. The veterans explain military terms and relate how they connect to various aspects of the stories. The civilians offer perspective and insight born of their own experiences. It’s always interesting to see what the folks who haven’t served are drawn to within the stories, and often, even usually, it’s they who see deepest into the emotional and ethical twists presented by the narrators, leaving the vets in the room, or this one, anyway, sometimes taken aback, even aghast, that we’ve become so accustomed, even blithe, about the implications and consequences of military culture and mindsets, to say nothing of war, that are revealed so stunningly in the tales. And I’m not just talking about damage done to other people, or abstractly, either, if you know what I’m saying. Each meeting feels like a journey, and at the end, I feel like I’ve learned something significant about the story, the author of the story, the others in the room, and myself.

I encourage everyone to seek out stories about men and women who have seen war, and to find good people to talk about them with.

****

The discussion group is hosted by Bergen Community College in northern New Jersey. I built a website to support our group, which you can find here. Check it out, please–there’s pages on all the stories I’ve listed above and many more, and I offer more information about the program’s goals and organizers. Thank you Bergen Community College for inviting me to participate, and thank you National Endowment of the Humanities’ Dialogues on the Experience of War program for sponsoring.

Lindsey, Ackerman, Klay

November 29, 2020

2020’s brought four anticipated novels by acclaimed veteran-authors of contemporary war fiction, courtesy of major publishing houses. I’ve written on Matt Gallagher’s Empire City previously, and here will survey Odie Lindsey’s Some Go Home, Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black & White, and Phil Klay’s Missionaries, with a little more attention paid to Missionaries, befitting Klay’s status within the vet-writing and national literary scenes. None of the novels make events in Iraq and Afghanistan central to their plots, but the 21st-century Global War on Terror wars percolate more-or-less in the background of the events and characters described. Each novel illustrates in its way GWOT vet-authors transitioning from sagas of junior-enlisted and junior-officer deployment exploits and rocky homecomings with more general reckoning of how forever war has wrenched the lives of adult men-and-women (often now with spouses and children), the national commonweal, and the international polity.

Spoiler alert: My write-ups address events in each novel that occur at or near their ends, so be advised.

Odie Lindsey, Some Go Home. Some Go Home covers much the same ground as Lindsey’s excellent collection of short stories We Come to Our Senses: the interplay of modern war and the modern American south, as viewed through the eyes of veterans trying to connect their military experience with the vibrant New South cultural landscape shaped by intense social change and incessant regard for history. The south is widely held to be more supportive of soldiers and patriotic war-faring than other parts of the country, but Some Go Home portrays Iraq and Afghanistan war as being as distant and unknown in Dixie as elsewhere in the country. The protagonist of Some Go Home, an Iraq War Army veteran named Colleen, is viewed as something of an oddity by the other residents of the fictional town of Pitchlynn, Mississippi. The locals are too preoccupied by time-consuming and sometimes crazy events of their own lives to be anything but politely bemused by her tour and whatever battle-tested wisdom she might have obtained. Colleen herself struggles to put the pieces together; she is a bit of a cypher, not especially thoughtful or expressive and prone to odd fits of inscrutable behavior, even as she wins beauty pageants, suffers through opioid addiction, and marries into a prominent local family embroiled in multi-generational race-related drama. Though Colleen presides over Some Go Home’s opening and closing chapters, she is only an intermittent presence in the novel’s long middle, which alternately trace laughable and deadly serious aspects of contemporary Pitchlynn—the point being that the south’s piquant flavor is the result of the intensity of its polar extremes. As the novel concludes, Colleen departs Pitchlynn on what is depicted as a search for coherent and independent self-hood that can be obtained only by leaving, much as Stephen Daedalus must flee Dublin at the end of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. Stephen is determined “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of his race,” which to a certain extent is what Joyce offers us in subsequent works Dubliners and Ulysses. Perhaps Some Go Home is the prequel for Lindsay’s next novel, in which Colleen makes sense of the swirling personal, regional, national, and international imperatives traced so interestingly in this one.

Elliot Ackerman, Red Dress in Black & White. As in two of Ackerman’s previous novels, the locale of Red Dress in Black & White is a frayed corner of the American-dominated global order. In this case, the setting is modern Istanbul, where a glitzy new-fangled Western-sheen threaten to erase Islamic traditions and older life-rhythms. One protagonist is Catherine, a bored, unfulfilled American wife of a Turkish business tycoon. Another is Peter, an American war-photojournalist now embarked on an artistic project photographing everyday Turks. Catherine has affairs, and Peter doesn’t scruple about sleeping with married women, so it’s not surprising what ensues when they meet to plan a showing of Peter’s work in a Turkish museum of which Catherine is a director. Their romance plays out against a backdrop of Turkish civil strife and political intrigue that eventually ensnares Catherine and Peter, both in the corridors of power and out in the streets, and Peter is given to philosophizing about photography aesthetics, so there’s a lot going on in Red Dress in Black & White (the title refers to a photograph that figures prominently in the novel). Ackerman’s wont, however, is to touch things quickly rather than dwell on them, and thus the novel, depending greatly on atmosphere and suggestion, reads briskly. Catherine and Peter are cosmopolitan sophisticates, and the novel suggests their affair is not to be condemned, but understood as an inevitable by-product of expatriate rootlessness, or perhaps commensurate with the tangled complexity of Turkish society and politics, especially as it is informed, or infected, by US interventionism. That comes in the form of Kristen, a CIA operative who pulls strings from behind the façade of a bland embassy job—she’s a modern-day Madame Defarge whose array of constantly buzzing cell-phones replaces the click-clacking needles in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Ackerman is fond of big reveals and unexpected denouements, and I won’t spoil the main one that arrives in Red Dress & Black and White, but the gradual emergence of Kristin as a key player in Turkish politics and finance and as the novel’s major character in its last third is another development not apparent from the novel’s opening chapters. That the CIA might still wield such power, and have it flexed so proficiently by a junior analyst, is not what I would have guessed is true of the world these days, but Red Dress in Black & White nicely suggests how it might be so.

Phil Klay, Missionaries. Missionaries is Klay’s first novel and first book since his 2014 National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment. Redeployment’s stories featured thoughtful, even cerebral, veterans ruminating about their experience, often in dialogue with interlocutors or in first-person confessional mode with the reader. Much of that reflective working-out of events is on display in Missionaries, too, only the characters are older, with more life experience and lessons-learned under their belts than the typical Redeployment protagonist—as does Klay himself, funny as that is to say about an author with a National Book Award under his belt. In any case, Missionaries manifests facets of literary craft not evident in Redeployment: thick physical descriptions of landscapes and social milieus, vivid action scenes, deep dives into characters’ thoughts and back-stories, and deft flavoring of the characters’ perspectives with the author’s own. The sentences, both those narrated and those spoken by characters, sparkle with unexpected turns and insights.

The plot recounts a fictional minor episode late in the very-real decades-long conflict among regional paramilitaries, drug-running “narcos,” and the legitimate government of Columbia. That conflict that resolved itself circa 2015–the year the novel is set–in favor of the government, which by accounts is reasonably democratic, committed to fairness and legality, and respected in the eyes of the Columbian people and the world. To the extent that American military aid has helped achieve this state, Columbia is an example, as one character puts it, of a war that “America is not losing.” But the actual Americans portrayed in Missionaries, two former Special Operators named Mason and Diego, and a war-journalist named Lisette, are hapless, almost pathetic, fully considered. Mason and Diego were team buddies in Iraq and Afghanistan—a scene describing a big battle they fought in Afghanistan is terrific. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Mason and Diego were on top of their game, while Columbia, by contrast, for them is an extreme diminution, encountered full-stop just as they are entering peak-adult maturity and vitality. Mason as a military advisor and Diego as a security contractor have little to offer the Columbians that might either help the Columbians or reinforce their self-images as warfighters whose authority should be respected. As Mason rues, all the competent and battle-tested Columbian army really wants from him are helicopters for troop transport; they’ll take care of everything else just fine themselves (I heard much the same from Afghan army officers on my tour as an advisor). Lisette, like Mason and Diego, is now past 30 with little to show for it. Burned-out in Afghanistan, she arrives in Columbia looking for a career-revitalizing story, and instead becomes the big story herself when she is kidnapped by one of the factions in the Columbian civil war.

For all that, the principal characters in Missionaries are Columbians: Abel, whose penchant for business makes him a valuable pawn in the internecine civil war, and Juan Pablo, an army lieutenant colonel whose savvy cynicism gives him a curiously sanguine view of things, even when war threatens not so much his life, but his job and his family. Late in Missionaries, we find Juan Pablo in retirement from the Columbian army and now working as an intelligence analyst contractor in the Middle East, where his American counterparts strike him as naïve and foolish. Juan Pablo’s take seems to be that when you are fighting pure evil, or a greater evil, one mustn’t be fussy about breaking a few eggs to make the war-“not losing” omelet. As we read about him lecturing Americans about—get this—not just the necessity but the success of the War on Terror in curbing Islamic terrorism, we wonder what Missionaries is trying to tell us. Something about man’s capacity for brutality, something about what happens when politics is warped by violence, something about wars’ all-encompassing reach, certainly, but also something too about the relationship of means and ends, and how winning might be measured by different yardsticks than conventionally supposed. It’s an idea about the forever wars bold of Klay to express out-loud, if only in the mouth of a fictional character. Juan Pablo is not just another character, though, but one with most-favored-nation status within Missionaries, so does the novel endorse his view, or are we meant to see him now as an apologist for endless war and a cog in the war machine? Hard to tell, and who’s to say?

All three novels give prominent page space to women characters, as if a woman’s negotiation with endless war and its consequences were as interesting or important to consider as a man’s—gasp–or a story that has not yet been often or well-told. Indeed, the men in the novels are predictable and obviously motivated, as if their ideas and actions responded to well-worn social imperatives and considerations. The women characters, on the other hand, are inscrutable and mysterious, and given to impulsive and unpredictable, even reckless, behavior, predilections that also bespeak courage and imagination. That’s part of their allure, no doubt, but also proof-positive of their need to improvise in the face of circumstances, as well as ability to do so. The exception that proves the rule is Red Dress in Black & White’s Kristin, whose methodical exploitation of opportunities and relentless eye-on-the-main-prize are so formidable they make many of the other characters spread across the three novels appear aimless and feeble in comparison.

Odie Lindsey, Some Go Home. Norton, 2020.

Elliot Ackerman, Red Dress in Black & White. Knopf Doubleday, 2020.

Phil Klay, Missionaries. Canongate Books, 2020.

Time Now’s Top 10 Most Popular Posts

November 7, 2020

Hassan Blasim at West Point, 2014

Time Now’s pace-of-production has slowed down recently, no doubt. Part of it’s that I’m busy, part of it’s that I’m moving on personally, part of it’s because it doesn’t seem as urgent now to document and catalog works about war in Iraq and Afghanistan as it did in, say, 2014. Frankly, there’s not as much to report on, though recent movies such as The Outpost suggest that the wars have not completely lost the interest of audiences and artists. Still, for the most part I’ve written on the novels, short-story collections, poetry volumes, movies, and art about the wars that I know of and which engage me, so I’m not even sure what more there’s to say until a second wave of titles comes along. 

Time Now dates back to 2011, but only last night did I figure out how to search for a list of the most popular posts. The top post, “39 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets,” didn’t surprise me, since it’s perennially affixed at the top of my publicly-visible recently-viewed feature. The next nine for the most part did surprise me, and so too did the absence of some posts that I thought had made more of an impression, but which didn’t crack the Top 10. Below’s the list of the Top 10 with capsule reflections on each:

1. “39 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets.” This post has been viewed nearly three times more than the runner-up in popularity. All good; all power to the poets and the online sites that publish them. I don’t know why someone doesn’t publish a print anthology along these lines—I’m sure it would sell as much as any poetry volume sells, and even better it would stand a chance of being a lasting historical document.

2. “Tim O’Brien’s ‘Story Truth’ and ‘Happening Truth’ in the Contemporary War Novel.” Go figure one of the top posts on a blog about Iraq and Afghanistan war lit features the dean of Vietnam War novelists, Tim O’Brien, but whatever—O’Brien’s influence indeed looms large over the contemporary scene. I’m happy as well to shine light on Michael Pitre’s very interesting Fives and Twenty-Fives (and when will we see more from Pitre?).

3. “Iraqi Iraq War Short Fiction: Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Green Zone Rabbit.'” I’ve tried to pay attention to literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan written by Iraqis and Afghans, and no one represents that cohort of writers better than Blasim. Funny though, I’ve never written a dedicated post on Blasim’s superb short-story collection The Corpse Exhibition, even as arranging a reading by Blasim at West Point in 2014 remains a literary-life highlight.

4. “War Poetry: Brian Turner’s ‘A Soldier’s Arabic.'” A short post about one of Turner’s most beautiful poems, featuring a wonderful pictorial representation by Giulia Alvarez, a student at Horace Mann Prep school in NYC I met while visiting a class there.  

5. “Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Bleakly Optimistic or Brightly Pessimistic?” I like almost all my posts, but Scranton’s doomsday treatise is one that I think really inspired my own powers of insight and expression, so thanks, Roy. Thanks also to my brother Jason who suggested the “bleakly optimistic or brightly pessimistic” formulation in the title.

6. Fire and Forget III: Mariette Kalinowski’s ‘The Train.'” Works by women veterans have been a salient feature of post-9/11 war-writing, but they’ve been concentrated in the forms of memoir and verse. Kalinowski’s great story makes me wish we had more fiction titles by her and other women vets.

7. “Paul Wasserman, Say Again All.” USAF vet Paul Wasserman read at a war-writing-and-art event I organized at West Point, self-published this hard-to-find chapbook, and since seems to have not published anything else and dropped out of the writing game altogether. Say Again All is excellent, though, and I’m happy that readers continue to make their way to this tribute to it.

8. Fire and Forget: Short Stories.” Should probably be first on this list, judging by achievement and importance. What a talented and ambitious group of young vet-writers (plus Siobhan Fallon, no slouch herself) brought together between the two covers! The story of how the Fire and Forget authors joined forces and their divergent career paths afterwards is THE story waiting to be written about the Iraq and Afghanistan war-writing scene.

9. “Toni Morrison’s Home: The Africanist Presence in War Literature.” Morrison wrote no fiction about Iraq or Afghanistan, but in this post and others on her I’ve tried to explain that her mammoth presence in modern American letters constituted a force to be reckoned with by contemporary war-writers and readers of all races. 

10. “A Contemporary War Short Fiction Listicle.” Honestly, this post was pretty-much a throwaway, done quickly to fill a gap between more trenchant ones. Also honestly: it holds-up, or at least the stories to which I point to do, and I’m not so sure how I would write it differently today.

Great Scenes from GWOT Movies

August 21, 2020

When I was in the Army, every soldier, or at least every male combat-arms soldier, could recite swaths of dialogue from 80s and 90s war-movie classics such as Full Metal Jacket and Blackhawk Down. Save for Jarhead, I’ve never heard anyone quote a post-9/11 war film with the same gleeful enthusiasm, or really at all, and truth be told, Jarhead is about the First Gulf War, not Operation Iraqi Freedom. Whatever, of the many films released after 9/11 that portray American men-and-women fighting in desert places, here are some of my favorite scenes, in chronological order of date-of-release.

1. Jarhead (2005). Like I said, not technically a Global War on Terror film, but it might as well be for how popular and influential it has been among those in the ranks. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s full of life-defining scenes for young Marines, or young men dreaming of joining them. 

 

2. The Hurt Locker (2008). Veterans love to assert their contempt for The Hurt Locker for all sorts of reasons, but no other GWOT film cranks up the tension scene-by-scene like it does, nor hits as hard in the feels. Starring Jeremy Renner, first the tension: 

 

3. The Hurt Locker (2008). Now the feels:

 

4. The Messenger (2009). Woody Harrelson can chew the scenery with the best of them, and he’s in fine form here. But guess what? He’s outdone by Yaya DaCosta and the unknown actress who plays her mother.

 

5. Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Jessica Chastain as CIA operative “Mia” owns Zero Dark Thirty from start-to-finish, and I could have chosen a dozen scenes to highlight. Love here the bit about “your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit.”

 

6. Lone Survivor (2013). The portrayal of the death of SEAL lieutenant Michael Murphy in the book version of Lone Survivor is superb. The movie version for some reason changes details from the book and drains some of the emotional and dramatic wallop, but the scene still makes the list. Taylor Kitsch as Lieutenant Murphy.

 

7. Captain Phillips (2013). Danielle Albert, the Navy corpsman who treats Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Phillips is a real sailor, not an actor, but she holds her own and then some. My favorite on the list. 

 

8. American Sniper (2014). Say what you will about Chris Kyle and the memoir American Sniper, Bradley Cooper is so great in the movie version he can almost make you forget the faults of the actual man and his book.

 

9. Mine (2016). Mine is basically a one-man-show starring Armie Hammer, but for the short time he’s in it, Tom Cullen runs away with the movie.

 

10. Thank You For Your Service (2017). The scenes I like best from Thank You for Your Service aren’t on YouTube, so this one featuring Miles Teller will have to stand-in for them.

 

11. Meaghan Leavey (2017). Kata Mara is good as the title character in this Marine-and-her-dog flick, but this scene belongs to rap star Common, who plays her gunnery sergeant.

 

BONUS! 10 Days to War (2008). Kenneth Branagh, Mr. Henry V himself, playing a British commander who gives a rousing-but-thoughtful speech to his troops on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.

 

A Trigger’s Weight: Graham Barnhart’s The War Makes Everyone Lonely

July 12, 2020

The title of Graham Barnhart’s 2019 poetry volume The War Makes Everyone Lonely reflects the author’s interest in the destructive effects of war. An epigraph from Robert Persons’ film documentary General Orders No. 9 about the aftermath of the American Civil War in the South reinforces the point: “You are not a witness to ruin. / You are the ruin to be witnessed.” The biographical details made available by Barnhart’s poems suggest that Barnhart is from Pittsburgh, not the American South, but the significance of participation in failed wars, though unstated, may be pertinent. The poetry does not suggest that Barnhart, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Special Forces medic, is physically disabled, incarcerated, or wracked by drug-and-alcohol abuse. He may be, but the ruination, as expressed, is mostly mental. The symptom, and maybe the root problem, too, consists primarily of being easily triggered by events post-war to remember details, sometimes large and graphic, sometimes small and mundane, associated with his military service. Spoiler alert: the stimulated memories are interesting, but they are never reassuring.

Triggers figure prominently in the second poem in the volume, “What Being in the Army Did.” Featured first in a list of esoteric details describing things the poet learned in uniform is, “Things you’d expect. / Taught me a trigger’s weight– // its pull….” In this case, the weight of a trigger’s pull is just a technical detail, but the image presciently describes the narrative logic of many poems in The War Makes Everyone Lonely. In “The Coffee Aisle,” for example, brand names such as “Columbian Supremos” and “Jamaica Blue Mountains” inspire memories of joe drunk in theater to decompress after treating traumatic medical injuries. In another poem, a night drive through a snowstorm with his mother and grandmother brings back memories of a convoy in the snow in Afghanistan. A gunshot heard in the distance while attending an outdoor wedding induces an instinctive calculation of distance and direction toward the gunman, along with memories of having done the same “all those nights before” in training and on deployment. In “1900,” mountains viewed in Greece mobilize memories of hills designated as targets in theater:  “X-ray, Juliet, Hotel, Romeo. / Recite their names. Your catalog of fire.” 

The poet addresses the subject of easily-invoked memories directly in “Everything in Sunlight I Can’t Stop Seeing”:

                               Flashbacks

                                           don’t announce themselves.

                   It takes so little. I want to say the hinged arm

                   of a driver-side mirror balled with plastic wrap

                   looks like a reckless stump dressing….

Though The War Makes Everyone Lonely is defined by its interest in the unbidden mental association of events and scenes across time, not every poem  is about the dynamics, logic, and rhetoric of unprovoked memory. Many are short vignettes describing common military experiences “reflected in tranquility” (to use Wordsworth’s great phrase): two are about gas-chambers and another one (a great one, in fact) called “Range Detail” makes much of a dreary rifle range chore “picking up brass” (expended shells) after the day’s shooting is done. Another excellent one, “How to Stay Awake on a Training Exercise,” inspired personal flashbacks to sleepless stints in the field desperately trying to keep eyes open. Others plumb more exotic events, related to Barnhart’s training as a combat medic and experience on deployment, such as survival training, working with Afghans, and patching up wounded bodies. Many images and events are graphic and even sensational, but Barnhart overall seems more interested in the subtle ways military service shapes and creates awareness and influences the mind and behavior long afterward.

The overall vision is bleak, but the impression that the author uses well the power of poetry to hold things together rings true. I’m not a poet, so take it for what it’s worth, but the handling of subjects and themes seems right to me in choice of words, images, line-breaks, tone, and all the other accoutrements of poetic craft. If you don’t trust me, trust the fact that he’s been able to place so many individual poems in elite poetry journals and find a prestigious publisher such as the University of Chicago Press—he’s good. 

We now have a solid cohort of warrior poets from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who combine outside-the-wire credibility with refined poetic chops: Brian Turner, of course, Colin Halloran, Hugh Martin, and Brock Jones, for starters. We might also note other vet-poets from the Midwest, as are Barnhart and Martin—I’m thinking of Eric Chandler and Randy Brown (Charley Sherpa)–who against-expectations-and-odds have found poetry the medium of expression for sorting out their thoughts about waging war on America’s behalf in the twenty-first century. To paraphrase from the title of one of Barnhart’s poems, these veterans are very good at “noticing and focusing.” Who’s next? What’s next?

Graham Barnhart, The War Makes Everyone Lonely. University of Chicago Press, 2019.


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