Archive for the ‘Art and War’ category

Wars, Wives, Mothers: Poetry by Shara Lessley and Pamela Hart

June 29, 2019

The title of Shara Lessley’s poetry volume The Explosive Expert’s Wife refers to the poet’s husband’s job as a post-blast investigator and demining specialist. The specific biographical stimulus for the poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife is the husband’s three-year tour in Amman, Jordan, where his wife accompanied him. The poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife reflect a connected fascination with violence associated with war, mines, and bombs and the geography and culture of the Arab world. Three poems in the volume are literally titled “The Explosive Expert’s Wife”; these speak to the author’s concern that her identity and lived-life depend heavily on her husband’s job. Explosive-related technical language saturate them, but the insider knowledge does little to efface, and in fact contributes to, the dominant tones of loneliness and fear. Loneliness not just in the face of her husband’s frequent deployment, but in that even when her husband is home he is not fully “there” because of the all-consuming nature of his job. Fear, for the obvious reasons:

…I don’t know // where the dead go, only that / you promise to make it home // by supper, the hem of your pants / singed with ash.

In other poems, Lessley describes the incongruity of maintaining domestic tranquility and familial pretense with such a husband, with such a job, while on the edges of war. Other poems contemplate bombings in America: the Boston Marathon bombing, a school bombing, an abortion clinic bombing, among others. The idea here is that a weapon emblematic of terrorist and fundamentalist war overseas is also employed frighteningly frequently on native grounds, too, thus troubling easy distinctions between home-front and war-zone.  Throughout, Lessley employs mine, bomb, and explosion imagery to figuratively portray poetry as an expression of inner turmoil and potential danger—a conceit prefigured in the work’s epigraph from Emily Dickinson:

The Soul has moments of Escape— / When bursting all the doors— / She dances like a Bomb, abroad, / And swings upon the Hours

For all the above, the subject of most of the poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife is the Jordanian world that Lessley comes to know intimately. Her sensibility defined by curiosity and empathy, Lessley’s alert vision and facility for nuance are given play by views not available to most–several poems reference her experience giving birth to one of her children in a Jordanian hospice. Lessley’s poetry, along with the works of former-Marine Elliot Ackerman and Army spouse Siobhan Fallon, render the impression that some of the most alert, knowing inside looks at contemporary Arab and Muslim life written by Americans are coming from writers, for better or worse, like it or not, associated with American military might. The effort to transcend platitude and stereotype plays out in many poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife. “Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife,” for example, sardonically lists the reductive, brutalizing “wisdom” passed on to Lessley by other ex-pat Americans:

…Blondes are often mistaken / for hookers; consider dying your hair. / By September or October you’ll learn to / tune out the call for prayer.

In a similar vein, “The Marine Ball” describes the incongruity of a fancy-dress military ball held in a hotel that previously was the site of a suicide bombing attack—a recognition of an historical dimension that only Lessley considers important, or even remembers. Set against the backdrop of such cultural-historical obliviousness are poems that display finer powers of observation and subtler processing of impressions. “Scent of the Gods,” (my favorite) juxtaposes the flatulent stench of modern Jordanian public spaces with the rich aromas and other sensory splendors of a traditional bazaar. Another, “In Arabic” packs a surprising amount of Arabic grammatical and calligraphic detail into a short lyrical meditation on linguistic meaning-making. Some of these poems record the poet’s movement into closer empathetic alignment with Arab customs and sensibility, while others address cultural differences that prompt dismay and even aggravation. Among these are several poems that contemplate the subjugation of women in Jordanian public life while remaining alert for hints of rebellion and moments of connection. One of the most arresting poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife, “The Ugly American,” describes an event that brings an American woman to the point of violent interjection into a troubling Jordanian street scene. Coming upon a group of boys tormenting a helpless donkey, Lessley writes:

The boys beat the jennet because they could, / out of boredom, because she was in heat, // they beat her with sticks and switches and clods / of dirt.

In response, the American woman described in the poem clenches a rock in her hand and prepares to defend the donkey against the youth, when at poem’s end a native elder steps in to shoo the boys away. Does the poem describe an isolated instance or is it exemplary evidence of something profound? Is it an epiphany offering self-understanding or is it a parable of power and conflict? These are complexities facing the character in the poem as the action unfolds, the poet as she describes the event, and readers in their moment of interpretation.

Shara Lessley’s webpage can be found here.

In her 2018 poetry volume Mothers Over Nangarhar, Pamela Hart describes a crisis-of-understanding generated by her son’s enlistment in the Army and subsequent deployment to Afghanistan. Several poems explain that Hart’s son, against her mother’s wishes, was fascinated by the military from childhood; the poet asserts, sans question-mark, “Did I raise him to be a warrior,” as if the words had ceased being a query and were now a fundamental reality. Hart’s son’s actual deployment intensifies the stakes: “This is the story of the idea of war and the son who might kill or be killed,” she writes. Linking the poems in Mothers Over Nangarhar is the conceit that mother and son learn about military culture and war together: “My pencil writing its way into the story of a son.” The start-point for this epistemological journey, for the mother at least, is incomprehension: “The signs are signs of other things. What do I as a mother know of this. Nothing.” Trying to resist being a helicopter mom, to make a cringe-worthy analogy, nor implying that she now lives vicariously through her son, Hart stakes out a familial and authorial position in which she retains dignity while searching for wisdom in the midst of dismay and fear. As the poems follow one another, she gains understanding, and she establishes a small foothold in the military world through participation in family support activities. The increasing knowledge and surer social position brings worry, however, that the military now dominates her life—her thoughts, her social relationships, her daily activities—as much as it does her son’s. As Rowan Ricardo Phillips states in his fine introduction, “The book circles its subject with the poignant uncertainty of whether it is merely observing or being dragged down into the depths.” Or, as “The Women” puts it:

We unspool our biggest / dread and make / it into a beautiful spider

What Phillips calls Hart’s “poignant uncertainty” makes some of the images and lines in Mothers Over Nangarhar, to quote Phillips some more, “mazy,” suggestive in the way of the book’s epigram from Rimbaud—“Arriving from always, you’ll go away everywhere.” In other words, evocative and possibly profound, but not especially concrete in terms of detail, intent and effect, and explanations of higher-order links between individual service and global warfare. Others, however, pop with unexpected impression and connection. On a personal level, I was delighted to read of the “stucco houses, the red-tiled roofs” of Fort Benning, GA, since I once lived in such a house at the “Home of the Infantry” (as the Army, not Hart, calls it), and both my sons were born at Fort Benning. Another poem, “My Soldier,” about a visit to Mount Vernon the poet makes with her son, astonished me with its coincidental relevance, since I had just visited Mount Vernon myself two weeks before reading Hart’s poem. There, as does Hart in her poem, I had mused about the circuits connecting domestic space, family, “The Father of Our Country,” war-fighting, and my own military career. Several poems (to include the title poem) use maps, land navigation, satellite images, and drone perspectives as geo-visual metaphors for the quest for knowledge; in so doing they, again to quote Phillips, operate “[s]omewhere between theory and therapy but free of the constraints of both.” My favorite poems in Mothers Over Nangarhar emit a distinct, confident sense of themselves from start-to-finish. For me, these are “Praise Song,” “At the Shooting Range,” “Jalalabad,” and most of all “Kevlar Poem,” about Stephanie Kwolek, the Dupont scientist who invented Kevlar. “Praise Song” and “Kevlar Poem” are not available online, but “At the Shooting Range” and another excellent one, “Jalalabad,” are, at Hart’s webpage, so I invite you to check them out and then read Mothers Over Nangarhar entire.

Shara Lessley, The Explosive Expert’s Wife. Wisconsin UP, 2018.

Pamela Hart, Mothers Over Nangarhar. Sarabande Books, 2018.

Eleven Bang-Bang

May 21, 2019

“I’ve been outside the wire,” I said. “My vehicle was IED’d, once. But I’m not infantry.”

Rodriguez shrugged. “If you were, you’d know.”

                        -Phil Klay, “Prayer in the Furnace”

While the world waits for war novels authored by women veterans and pays lip-service to the idea that the stories of rear-echelon soldiers “need to be heard,” former infantrymen—“11Bs” or “Eleven-Bravos” in Army parlance—go right on writing, publishers go right on publishing, and readers, or at least this one, go right on reading war sagas loosely-but-obviously based on the authors’ deployments as ground-pounding foot soldiers. I’m all for diversity and definitely skeptical of the infantry’s claims to its own specialness, but I’m hardly neutral or objective:  while in, I was an infantry officer and I’m still eager to see aspects of my own service reflected and dramatized.

Ray McPadden’s 2018 novel And the Whole Mountain Burned describes the exploits of a US Army Ranger company facing constant danger, struggle, and excitement in the wild mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The subject of Adam Kovac’s 2019 novel The Surge, on the other hand, is a lackluster Illinois National Guard unit whose tour in Iraq consists of an endless succession of boring watch-tower guard shifts. Both feature as protagonists junior enlisted soldiers, which I wasn’t, but I’ve pulled enough guard duty and climbed enough mountains in eastern Afghanistan to pick up And the Whole Mountain Burned and The Surge with interest. I also wanted the inside glimpses they promised of the Ranger task forces that rotated in-and-out of the big FOB down the road from me and the National Guard units—one of them from Illinois—that guarded the walls of my tiny camp during my tour.

To begin with The Surge, Kovac’s novel is focalized through the eyes of an Army corporal named Larry Chandler. Chandler, a veteran of a tour in Afghanistan with an active-duty unit, has been recalled to duty as a “filler” in a Guard unit assigned security detail at Camp Tucson in southern Iraq. Chandler’s tour in Afghanistan ended very badly—think “death of friends for whom he feels responsible”—and he had wanted nothing more than to put war behind him. But the 2007 troop “surge” reminded him of the truth of Tolstoy’s quip that “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” With his new Guard unit, Chandler is put in a difficult spot:  because of his seniority he is given a leadership position in charge of three other infantrymen. The Guardsmen know each other from civilian life, so they are more loyal to each other than to Chandler. Moreover, they detest what they perceive as the arrogance and stupidity of active-duty soldiers, even as they internalize notions of their own inferiority to “real” infantrymen. Worse, though two of Chandler’s soldiers are relatively docile and compliant, the third is a hard-charger who was in line for the leadership position Chandler occupies, and Chandler must continually assert his shaky Alpha-male bona fides to establish authority over this rival. Further, the company first sergeant, also an active-duty soldier, one with whom Chandler served in Afghanistan, is more foe than friend, even as he extends an unwelcome offer of mentorship. And, finally, worst of all, Chandler doesn’t feel worthy of the respect his previous combat tour accords him in the eyes of the Guardsmen, some of whom pine for the chance to prove themselves in battle. Chandler once had that dream, too, but knows how easily it became a nightmarish reality that ruins a man’s happiness and sense of self-worth at an early age. The last thing he wants is to face combat again, especially with the increased responsibility for the safety—both physical and mental—of his new charges. And yet, inevitably, you knew this was coming—war and duty pull Chandler and his men outside the wire and into combat.

The members of the “Newts”–the Ranger platoon at the center of And the Whole Mountain Burned–pull a lot of guard duty, too—“pulling security” is a fact of life in every infantry unit—but in contrast to the “lone and level sands” of Iraq the soldiers in The Surge stare at, McPadden’s Rangers are treated to views of the soaring peaks and plunging valleys of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush. Even better, guard duty is only an intermittent respite between combat missions to fight local tribesmen led by one leader known as “the Egyptian” and another known as “Sadboy.” The fired-up Rangers are only too eager to take on the wily tribal clans, and a subtext of And the Whole Mountain Burned is the affinity between the warrior cultures of the Rangers and the Pashtun mountain tribesmen. While the men in The Surge could care less about the Iraqis they must deal with, the Newts are fascinated by the folklore, by-ways, and fighting prowess of their deadly enemy. More like The Surge, And the Whole Mountain Burned is related from the perspective of Danny Shane, a junior enlisted newbie, and also much like in The Surge, the story is largely about Shane’s vexed relationship with a senior NCO, Nick Burch, who is a seasoned veteran and mighty man-of-combat-action. Burch’s story bookends the novel proper, in fact, so though the middle parts are mostly Shane’s, we might say that, again like The Surge, the overall theme of And the Whole Mountain Burned is infantry leadership, with all its attendant worrisome aspects of responsibility and hope, failure and guilt.

So, two sides of Global War on Terror infantry-life, interestingly rendered and dramatically heightened. Ranger task forces and National Guard call-ups exist at opposite ends of the infantry warfighter spectrum, but both were significant players on the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields, and their stories are underrepresented in the glut of contemporary war fiction that privileges SEALs, Special Forces, Marines, and Regular Army units. Each novel in its way is becoming in its modesty; while telling interesting stories, the authors avoid being deluded by the sense of their own importance–a common accusation levied against infantrymen, often with justification. McPadden and Kovac are alert to the social milieus and the mental makeup of the men who comprise the units they describe. And the Whole Mountain Burned and The Surge channel the mindsets of the twenty-year-old men who make up the bulk of any infantry unit, so you’re not going to get higher orders of reflection from their protagonists, but neither novel blows smoke up your ass, either. The misogyny of infantry culture is on full display in both novels: weakness and failure to live up to group norms are routinely characterized as womanly and the soldiers’ thoughts about the actual women they knew in the States are about what you’d expect. More engaging are the novels’ takes on soldier solidarity, which is conspicuously lacking in both books. Rather than extolling the bonds of fighting bands of brothers, the infantrymen distrust and don’t respect each other, compete and connive against one another, play favorites, hold grudges, form cliques, and just plain don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company very much–and these tensions are not smoothed over by the pressure of combat but increase. That’s not exactly true to my memory of how infantrymen were and related to each other, but perhaps my view from on high as an officer was rose-tinted. In any case, McPadden and Kovac have done well to situate their portraits of young men on the warrior path in the context of the distinctive units they join and trust to nourish, not stunt, their journey. As the authors continue their own journeys from warriors to writers, let’s salute their first steps and be on the lookout for next moves and new directions.

Ray McPadden, And the Whole Mountain Burned. Hatchett Book Group, 2018.

Adam Kovac, The Surge. Engine Books, 2019.

 

Body of Work

April 18, 2019

Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. -Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, while writing Moby-Dick.

Since I began Time Now eight years ago, easily a hundred books, films, plays, musical compositions, and other artworks about America’s post-9/11 wars written-and-composed by veterans and interested civilians have appeared, and much has been published online, too.   Here I catalog and comment on six author-artists whose individual output has been robust, often across a variety of genres and artistic mediums, and I mention several more who have been almost but not quite as active. I’ve limited myself to US military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and used books published by major publishing houses as the primary (but not only) criteria for inclusion.

Elliot Ackerman (USMC) arrived late to the war-writing party, but has quickly made up lost time by publishing three novels since 2015: Green on Blue (2015), Dark at the Crossing (2017), and Waiting for Eden (2018). A memoir titled Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning (2019) will appear later this year.  Ackerman also contributed a story titled “Two Grenades” to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology of veteran-authored fiction. Links to Ackerman’s journalism and other occasional writing can be found at http://elliotackerman.com.

The characteristic subject of Ackerman’s novels is a fringe-actor on the margins of America’s 21st-century wars: a Pashtun militiaman on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, an Iraqi who formerly interpreted for American forces now trying to join the Syrian civil war, the wife of a severely wounded Marine who keeps a lonely vigil over her disabled husband, both largely abandoned or neglected by the greater America.  In his published work so far, then, Ackerman has avoided the solipsistic trap of writing about his own (substantial) war experience as if it were the only thing that matters.  In his upcoming memoir Places and Names, however, Ackerman begins to stitch together autobiographical elements and his interest in the people who fight the wars that, to paraphrase a John Milton quote on the cover of Places and Names,“hath determined them.”

Benjamin Busch (USMC) was arguably the first contemporary veteran to turn war experience into aesthetic expression, as the photos-and-commentary that would eventually comprise The Art in War first began appearing in 2003.  Befitting his college background as a fine arts major, Busch also displays, again arguably, the most artistic diversity: he has acted in The Wire (2004) and Generation Kill (2008), directed films such as Bright (2011), authored a memoir titled Dust to Dust (2012), written a striking set of nature poems for the journal Epiphany (2016), and contributed both a short story (“Into the Land of Dogs”) and hand-drawn illustrations to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology. Busch has also written incisive reviews of the movie Lone Survivor and contemporary war fiction, long-form journalism for Harper’s about a return visit to Iraq, a poignant contribution to the vet-writing anthology Incoming titled “Home Invasion,” and an eloquent introduction to another anthology titled Standing Down.  Oh, and let’s not forget a pre-Marine life as the singer in a hair-metal band.

A superb stylist, Busch is the master of the apt image and the well-turned line, sentence, passage, or short poem, with his memoir Dust to Dust being the book-length exception that proves the rule.  Busch’s thematic impulse is to find order and meaning in randomness, disorder, and chaos.  The urge is on full display in The Art in War and manifests itself even more intensely in Dust to Dust and “Home Invasion”; in these works, loss, ruination, and mortality emerge as the most salient organizing imperatives to be found, save for the author’s own imagination.  War, irrational and death-soaked, was Busch’s subject starting out, but more recent poems such as “Madness in the Wild” suggest that Mother Nature is now the most fertile source of material for Busch’s “blessed rage for order,” to borrow from Wallace Stevens.

Brian Castner’s (USAF) first published book was the war memoir The Long Walk (2012), followed by a second book titled All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016) that combines more war memoir with journalistic investigation.  A third work, not (directly) related to war, Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage (2018), joins travel-memoir and historical research.  An opera has been made of The Long Walk, and Castner, with Adrian Boneberger, edited The Road Ahead (2017), an anthology of veteran-authored fiction to which he also contributed a story called “The Wild Hunt.”  Journalism, essays, and reviews by Castner can be found at https://briancastner.com/.

While Castner’s memoir The Long Walk contains elements of artistic heightening that appealed to the opera composers who adapted it, the next two books are the ones that best illustrate Castner’s forte: extensive historical and journalistic research that supplements the lived experiences of his own life—first serving as an EOD-technician in the case of All the Ways We Kill and Die and then making a thousand-mile canoe journey in the case of Disappointment River.  The influence of war on Disappointment River may bubble below the surface (pun intended), but the surface impression is that Castner more so than most other war-writers can find subjects beyond war-and-mil ones that still command the full measure of his interest and talent.

Matt Gallagher (US Army), with Colby Buzzell, pioneered the use of the Internet as a means of literary arrival when his war-blog appeared in book form as Kaboom (2010).  Gallagher next edited the seminal vet-fiction anthology Fire and Forget (2013) with Roy Scranton and contributed to it a story titled “Bugs Don’t Bleed.”  Then arrived the novel Youngblood (2016) and two short stories, “Babylon” (2016), published in Playboy, and “Know Your Enemy” (2016), published in Wired.  Gallagher also has served at the forefront of the veterans writing scene, as a prime mover in first the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop that gave birth to Fire and Forget and then the New York-based collective Words After War.  A number of Gallagher’s occasional pieces can be found at http://www.mattgallagherauthor.com/disc.htm and a second novel will arrive soon.

A consistent tone connecting Gallagher’s own voice and that of his fictional characters is sardonic detachment from the full negative import of the events they experience; in other words, Gallagher tests the limits of irony and perspective as means of dealing with the confusion of war and the resultant damage to self and society.  Bemusement would seem to be an underpowered coping strategy in these troubled times, but Gallagher’s amiable prose surfaces welcome readers to consider his point-of-view long enough that the darker cynicism and deeper commitment lurking within eventually reveal themselves and grab hold.

Roy Scranton (US Army) published short stories and poems in small journals before co-editing Fire and Forget (2013) with Matt Gallagher and contributing a story to it titled “Red Steel India.”  Next came the philosophical treatise Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), the novel War Porn (2016), an anthology titled What Future: The Year’s Best Ideas to Reclaim, Reanimate, and Reinvent Our Future (2017) for which he served as editor, and a collected edition of essays and journalism titled We’re Doomed, Now What? (2018). Later this year will arrive a literary history titled Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature (2019) and a novel called I ♥ Oklahoma (2019).  More journalism, essays, short stories, and reviews can be found at http://royscranton.com.

There’s busy, and then there’s Roy Scranton busy, but the extraordinary rate of production and the prickly integrity of the viewpoint are endearing counterpoints to the starkness of the message: Scranton is ruthless in his indictment of the Iraq War in which he served, and he’s not letting anyone from enlisted “Joe’s” to generals to civilian war architects to a passive citizenry off the hook for their complicity in the debacle. Though he’s never quite said so bluntly, the implication is that vet-authors, whose ink might well be the blood of war dead, should seriously consider their own culpability, too. Scranton unsparingly connects America’s spastic post-9/11 response to Islamic fundamentalist violence with a host of other social, political, and environmental ills brought about by what academics like to call “the cultural logic of late capitalism.”

Brian Turner (US Army) arrived on the literary-artistic scene seemingly fully-formed, as his first poetry volume Here, Bullet (2005) won enormous acclaim from critics, readers, and poetry insiders alike.  Next came a second volume of poems titled Phantom Noise (2010), an anthology of writing about poetry he co-edited titled The Strangest of Theaters (2013), a contribution to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology titled “The Wave That Takes Us Under,” the memoir My Life as a Foreign Country (2014), and another co-edited anthology titled The Kiss (2018).  Turner has also had a number of his poems set to music, perhaps most significant of which is a collaboration with composer Rob Deemer on Turner’s poem “Eulogy.”  Turner makes music himself, first as a member of The Dead Quimbys and more recently as the leader of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team.  Occasional writing can be found at http://www.brianturner.org.

A wise, inspirational senior-statesman within the war-writing community, Turner combines encouragement of fledgling writers with an uncanny ability to stay one or more steps ahead of the pack in terms of vision, craft, and surprising shifts of direction. The artistic tension manifest in Turner’s work is the product of two imperatives:  the martial heritage bequeathed to him by family, culture, and history, and his natural impulse to be empathetic, curious, kind, and helpful. His latest works each in their way represent solutions or, better, absolutions, for the tension; the music of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team invokes a collective cosmic spirit and consciousness, while The Kiss sanctifies physical intimacy as a hallowed form of human connection.

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Several veteran writers are one or two published works short of joining the author-artists I name above.  For these writers, their NEXT work will be most interesting for how it confirms previous inclinations and preoccupations, modifies them, or points in new directions:

David Abrams (US Army) has published two novels, Fobbit (2012) and Brave Deeds (2017), and he contributed “Roll Call” to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology.  Shorter pieces can be found at http://www.davidabramsbooks.com. Abrams’ gift for creating characters, sketching scenes, and writing pleasing and often very funny sentences is substantial.  So far, his interest seems to be the cultural divide separating rear-echelon soldiers from their hardened warrior-brethren in the combat arms; given his comic and warm-hearted sensibility, his modus inclines to exposing foibles associated with military masculinity rather than harshly judging and accusing their owners.

Colby Buzzell (US Army) pioneered the blog-to-book trend with My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005) and he later published two books of essays and journalism: Lost in America: A Dead End Journey (2011) and Thank You for Being Expendable, and Other Experiences (2015).  The only work of fiction of which I’m aware of is his story “Play the Game” in the Fire and Forget anthology (2013), but Buzzell’s hostility toward authority and power, his affinity for oddballs and misfits, and the verve of his sentences create the impression of a distinctly “punk” literary sensibility–one that has proven very popular and influential. Buzzell’s webpage contains links to his writing that can be found online: http://www.colbybuzzell.com/stories.

Phil Klay (USMC) contributed the short story “Redeployment” to Fire and Forget (2013), which later became the title story of his National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment (2014).  A large number of essays and long-form journalism pieces are at http://www.philklay.com.  Klay’s characteristic concern is the moral culpability of soldiers who joined the military and did their bit in Iraq or Afghanistan without too much post-war mental anguish or blood on their hands—to what extent should they (be made to) feel worse (in another word, guiltier) than they do about their decisions and actions? For me, that’s the subject of two representative stories in Redeployment, “Ten Klicks South” and “Prayer in the Furnace,” as well as that of the long, trenchant essay Klay published for the Brookings Institute titled “The Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”  Finally, although I’m not sure when Klay’s next book will appear or what it will be about, while we wait for it, I recommend listening to the intellectually-knotty podcast Manifesto! Klay hosts with fellow vet-writer and Fire and Forget contributor Jacob Siegel.

Kevin Powers (US Army)’s first novel was The Yellow Birds (2012).  Next came the poetry volume Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, followed by a second novel A Shout in the Ruins (2018).  Journalism, essays, and reviews can be found at http://kevincpowers.com. It’s easy to forget the hullabaloo that greeted The Yellow Birds upon arrival. Following upon Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Army spouse Siobhan Fallon’s short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), The Yellow Birds reinforced the notion that 21st-century American writing about the war was going to cook at a very high literary level.  But the backlash against The Yellow Birds arrived just as quickly, as for many it promoted and even celebrated the idea that modern American soldiers were easily-traumatized snowflakes too tender to win wars. In the wake of The Yellow Birds, a counter-formation of memoirs and short-stories appeared, stories of war by ex-combat-arms bubbas seemingly delighted to assert that they were hard men capable of doing hard things.  I’m not inclined to be harsh in my assessment of The Yellow Birds, but Powers seems to have distanced himself from his poetry volume, and I haven’t yet read A Shout in the Ruins, so categorical statements about the arc of his career will have to wait.

Kayla Williams (US Army) has written two memoirs, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2005) and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014).  Williams has also contributed a short-story, “There’s Always One,” to the veteran-writer short-story anthology The Road Ahead (2017).  Given her job as a Washington DC think-tank analyst and the impression she renders that she’s bound for big things in the public sector, it’s not hard to imagine a third memoir might be needed someday to document further chapters in Williams’ life.  Detailing the long story of any vet’s life (especially a woman vet’s) after war will be immensely interesting and valuable, but I hope in the future Williams finds time to write more fiction, too.

Quite a few other writers merit consideration for inclusion on this list. Among them are Adrian Bonenberger (US Army, Afghan Post, memoir; The Road Ahead, fiction anthology editor (with Brian Castner); “American Fapper,” story in The Road Ahead); Maurice Decaul (USMC, Dijla Was Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates, play; multiple poems published in small journals and online; a musical collaboration with contemporary jazz great Vijay Iyer); Colin Halloran (US Army, Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux, poetry); Hugh Martin (Stick Soldiers and In Country, poetry); Brian Van Reet (US Army, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” short-story contribution to Fire and Forget and much short-fiction published in literary journals; Spoils, novel). Three women Iraq-Afghanistan veterans, Teresa Fazio (USMC), Kristen Rouse (US Army), and Supriya Venkatesan (US Army), write with distinctive voice and great eye for the telling subject and detail, and each has published widely, though more in the vein of journalism, memoir, and essay than fiction or poetry (the exceptions being Fazio’s and Rouse’s stories “Little” and “Pawns,” respectively, both included in The Road Ahead anthology), and none has yet found book-length publication.

My judgments about each author’s body-of-work are far from beyond dispute, and I welcome discussion, as well as any factual corrections to the record.  An extended contemplation about the collective import of these writers is in order, but I’ll end with just two brief points:  1) The accomplishment of these vet writers is substantial and the potential for further achievement is strong; barring misfortune, everyone I’ve mentioned still has decades of productive creative life to come.  2) Women veteran-authors and male or female African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American vet-writers are noticeably missing.  If I’ve overlooked a worthy candidate to add to the list, let me know, and if conversation about publishing trends and marketplace dynamics interests you, let’s talk about that, too.  Though my focus here is the unfolding of a writer-artist’s characteristic concerns over multiple works, the story is also one of professional ambition, literary politics, and publishing biz calculation. What I’m describing as the birthing of an estimable generation of veteran-writers, another may see as the solidifying of a literary establishment limited by its own blinders and mostly interested in preserving its own prerogatives.  That’s not how I feel about it, but I hope that should I compile this list again in another eight years, the demographic make-up will reflect the military in which I served and the overall achievement so much the better.

Khost Province, Afghanistan, 2009.

Back to School at NYU and Wesleyan

April 8, 2019

Back to School I:  Time Now at NYU

The invitation from New York University’s Patrick Deer to speak at his Cultures of War  interdisciplinary seminar was simple:  What is the story of Time Now? Deer asked.  Why did you begin it?  Where did you get ideas for what it could be?  What has the experience of “live-blogging” the contemporary war lit scene been like? I’m not especially given to writing about myself, but if you ask me I’ll be glad to talk about such things.  I was flattered by the invitation and welcomed the chance to think meta-reflectively about a project that’s been a big part of my life for the last six years.  Here’s a snippet from my notes for my opening remarks:

Why I started Time Now.  Because my old blog 15-Month Adventure about my deployment to Afghanistan had run its course.  Because I heard Matt Gallagher at a conference state that he couldn’t imagine being a contemporary vet-and-mil writer without having an online presence. Because I thought I had a unique personal angle:  a PhD in American Lit who served a pretty intense year’s deployment in Afghanistan. Because my boss in the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point, where I taught at the time, put me in charge of a program designed to bring veteran artists and writers to West Point and the blog seemed congruent with that. Mostly because I had a sense that something good was happening—Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Matt Gallagher, and Siobhan Fallon were writers already on my radar and I’d heard-tell that novels about Iraq and Afghanistan by David Abrams, Ben Fountain, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and Kevin Powers were enroute… and I wanted to be part of it all….

Once I stopped blabbing, the conversation and Q&A opened up in interesting, wide-ranging ways. I was honored to have in the audience Teresa Fazio, who held forth with more insight and credibility than I could ever muster about the status of women war-mil-vet authors in the publishing biz, and I was delighted when Matt Gallagher arrived to walk back a little his statement that an online presence was essential for an aspiring writer—his own very solid Twitter-game notwithstanding. Many thanks to Patrick Deer and all who attended, especially those who chimed in with questions and comments, all of which continue to bubble in my mind and will certainly find expression in Time Now posts to come.  Keep an eye out for Patrick Deer’s own books—Culture in Camouflage:  War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (2009) and the forthcoming Surge and Silence:  Understanding America’s Cultures of War, and if you’re ever so lucky to get an invitation to speak at or attend a Cultures of War event, grab it.

Back to School II: Time Now at Wesleyan

A week later I was the guest of college friend William “Vijay” Pinch on the campus of  Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  Pinch grew up in India and Pakistan and now is a professor of South Asian history at Wesleyan. This semester he is teaching a course on “The Great Game”:  the centuries-long battle by imperial powers (first England and Russia, now largely supplanted by the US and China) for control of Afghanistan.  Last fall, Pinch asked me for a recommendation for a novel about 21st-century war in Afghanistan that might appeal to his students, and I quickly nominated Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, about a young Pashtun militia member’s toughening by endless war on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pinch thought that was a great idea, and to further liven up things, he invited Ackerman to Wesleyan to meet his class and participate in a series of related events. Lucky me, Pinch was kind enough to ask his old college basketball-buddy to tag along.

The day was full of excellent things, with Ackerman in fine form at every event.  In Pinch’s class he proclaimed that his rationale for writing Green on Blue was to answer the question “What type of war was Afghanistan?”, with the answer being, “It was being fought for every reason except one… to win it.”  And THIS was Ackerman’s expression of the view of things held by the Afghans, who he explained are just as caught up in “forever war” cycles-of-violence as is America.  At a writing workshop, Ackerman had wise, funny advice for students (many of them vets) seeking careers in journalism, and at a reading that night he spoke of creating the characters who populate his latest novel Waiting for Eden and the implications of the John Milton quote—“War hath determined us”–on the dust-jacket of his forthcoming memoir Places and Names:  On War, Revolution, and Returning.  Ackerman apparently is incapable of saying dull things, and he has the added virtue of answering questions in individualized and personalized ways so that their askers feel the full force of his empathy and intellectual curiosity for why they might have posed the question they did.

I’ll close with an anecdote that occurred while we were walking about Wesleyan.  Inspired by his own return to a collegiate setting, Ackerman began riffing on scenes from the classic Rodney Dangerfield film comedy Back to School.  I don’t know if Pinch knows the movie, but I do, kind of.  Unfortunately, though I can remember every song I’ve heard since 1964, I have a horrible memory for remembering film dialogue, which puts me at odds with most military folks I’ve known, for whom reeling off lines from shared favorites serves as great fun and folk wisdom.  So, I wasn’t able to exchange funnies with Ackerman, but the mere mention of Back to School brought back memories of my first sergeant when I commanded a company in the 82ndAirborne Division and how much pleasure he got from reciting lines and recalling scenes from the film. Upon returning home, I spent an evening on YouTube chuckling over Back to School videos, including this great one featuring Sam Kinison that reminds us that Back to School was in fact a post-war film:

And so the work of defining the contours of vet-writing about Iraq and Afghanistan and what it means to live as a veteran afterwards proceeds on many levels and in many places, but with special trenchancy at places like NYU and Wesleyan.  If the link below works, it will take you to a slide show of pictures I took in Afghanistan that offer some sense of the world described by Ackerman in Green on Blue.

The Look of War, Afghanistan 2009

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

March 3, 2019

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

Hugh Martin, In Country

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

“Test Fire”
-south of Jalawala

After we drive through
the barren hills
where the earth unrolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abby E. Murray, How to Be Married After Iraq

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

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

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

And onward to a striking set of closing lines:

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

Nomi Stone, Kill Class

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

“War Game: Plug and Play”

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

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

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

out which
are which.

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

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

****

Hugh Martin, In Country. BOA, 2018.

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

Nomi Stone, Kill Class. Tupelo Press, 2019.

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

February 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That other MacDougal was getting rocked by IEMacDougals.”

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

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

Stephen Markley, Ohio. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Yale, the Great War and Modern War-Writing

December 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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