Archive for the ‘Art and War’ category

Women at War

May 3, 2020

The subject of Mary Douglas Vavrus’s Postfeminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex are media representations of American military women in the twenty-first century. Vavrus is not so concerned with actual accounts by women who have served—as in memoirs and first-person articles and essays—nor is she much interested in artistic-entertainment portraits in art, film, and literature. The evidence she analyzes are network news and major print-and-online accounts of high-profile subjects associated with women-in-uniform, such as their struggle to serve equitably, free of sexual harassment and assault. News media is a separate realm from the actual lived-lives of real people and different too from the art-world of imaginative and dramatic portraiture, but it is not unrelated. The trick, then, is parsing Vavrus’s argument for its connection to events as they unfolded in the military institutionally and historically, personal accounts by women who experienced those events first-hand, and the artistic-dramatic rendition of the same.

Vavrus’ argument is that the media, sometimes unwittingly but often as if in consort with the military itself, has played up stories highlighting women’s achievements and downplayed those that depict difficulties, to include the problems of harassment and assault. “Media” is a big term, of course, and by it Vavrus primarily means what right-wingers would sneer at as “the mainstream media.” Vavrus’ vantage point is from the left, but her evidence is largely drawn from and her argument is aimed at traditional outlets such as The New York Times, Time, and the evening news giants. The consequences (and possibly the motivation, too, at least insofar as the military is concerned) of journalistic complicity with military-governmental desire are two-fold: 1) positive reports help recruit women to the all-volunteer service in a time of need while generating support among the American populace for unpopular wars, and 2) positive coverage normalizes the escalating saturation of American life with what Vavrus terms “banal militarism” by extending the historically masculine martial realm to the domestic and feminine spheres.

In the 19th-century, Herman Melville wrote, “All wars are boyish and fought by boys.” Not so fast, argues Vavrus: 

I titled this book Postfeminist War because my research shows that since 2001, war- and military-themed media exhibit a mixture of resistance and capitulation to racialized patriarchy as they work to naturalize women’s support for martial values and actions. In this context, narratives about women use feminism selectively to focus on gender equality as they preclude examination of structural problems that differentially disadvantage women both inside and outside the military: chiefly racism, economic inequality, and misogyny. In so doing, such discourses advance what I call martial postfeminism, an ideology that both pushes military solutions for an array of problems that women and girls face and endorses war by either glorifying or obscuring the forms of violence it entails. Postfeminist War thus argues that martial postfeminism discourages critical investigation of the military as an institution, the wars U.S. troops fight, and the military-industrial complex that both drives and profits from war.

Chapter One of Postfeminst War uses the Lifetime television series Army Wives to illustrate how even the ultra-feminine realm of soap-opera has been militarized by the “media-military-industrial complex.” Vavrus writes, “Because Army Wives was successful by so many measures—including serving as a vehicle for Army propaganda—I start with its constructions of military marriage and family… then examine strategic alliances between the Lifetime Network, its commercial partners, and the DOD to consider how they mutually constitute meaning around military life and war for an audience of women.” Chapter Two examines several “super-Mom” public figures who use their identity as mothers of soldiers to shape national debates about war, military, and soldier issues. The first two chapters are interesting, but Postfeminist War for me really starts percolating with Chapters Three and Four.

In Chapter Three, “‘No Longer Women, but Soldiers’: The Warrior Women of Television News,” Vavrus describes positive portrayals of military women in major media in the years after 9/11, especially as women achieve a series of “firsts”:  first helicopter pilot, first Ranger, first West Point first captain, etc. The author’s argument is complex:  though she is a feminist, she doesn’t think these positive portrayals and associated claims that the military has demonstrated its commitment to women are very satisfying. Rather, Vavrus takes aim at shibboleths that the military is a healthy venue for women’s growth, empowerment, and accomplishment, and that women can compete and be accepted for who they are and their own worth within it. She finds these conceits contrived and overly hopeful, whether they in fact may be true for any individual woman (which she admits they can be). In Vavrus’s way of thinking, journalists who run feel-good stories about women in uniform should be ashamed of their complicity in helping construct media-military-industrial-complex ideology. And yet, the author is far from a conservative Phyllis Schlafly-style anti-feminist who believes a woman’s place is at home. The author’s critique comes from the far-left, and her overarching questions are to what ends are women being asked to serve and how does incorporation of women in the military instantiate militarism within the greater society.   

Journalism’s complicity in promoting the military by emphasizing its transformative potential for women is especially nefarious, according to Vavrus, in light of the armed service’s shameful lack of attention paid to military sexual discrimination, harassment, abuse, and assault. In Chapter Four, “‘This Wasn’t the Intended Sacrifice’: Warrior Women and Sexual Violence,” the author claims that the media failed to hold the military accountable for gender discrimination and sexual assault and abuse for years until the release of Helen Benedict’s groundbreaking documentary film about military rape The Invisible War in 2012. After Benedict, media coverage sharpened, but has still not achieved what it might. The biggest problem identified by Vavrus is that the press focuses on high-profile cases rather than widespread events and enduring patterns, and they care more about punishment of transgressions than analyzing toxic cultural elements that permit rape (to include man-on-man rape) to occur. A truly feminist media in Vavrus’s eyes would extract itself from its embedded sycophantic relationship with the military and expose its systematic patriarchal and misogynist shortcomings, rather than treating sexual crime with the same rote, feeble patterns of breathless finger-wagging it devotes to women’s issues as they manifest on college campuses and in the civilian workplace—a tendency that helps instantiate the military and militarism as fundamental components of American life.

I’ve taken the time to lay out Vavrus’ argument in some detail not because I want to shoot it down. Most of it seems intuitively obvious: the mainstream media over the last twenty years has clearly pinged between moments of “you go girl” celebration of milestone achievements by military women and strident denunciations of high-profile examples of military misogyny, with long periods of not-so-benign neglect in-between. Vavrus believes that a hard-hitting, left-leaning media sphere with an emphasis on long-term investigative journalism is needed, and that in regard to women in the military it is foolish to think that we are “post” the need for a thoroughly feminist approach. No doubt that’s true, but to say we’re not there right now as a country is putting it mildly, which raises the question of the possibility for real change. The obstacles being so formidable, frankly I’m just glad that the media (broadly construed) is no worse than it is, as long as I sense it’s aligned with the interests of women who are actually serving or contemplating serving, and mostly determined by women themselves. As for the military itself? It can always do better, a lot better.

One strong virtue of Vavrus’ claims, however, is they set the stage for productive follow-on lines of inquiry I’m going to unfortunately only give short-shrift to here. As I stated above, Vavrus’ subject is more media coverage than it is the military itself, if that makes sense. Though Vavrus obviously is not impressed by military efforts to, say, end sexual assault and abuse, she doesn’t go into great detail about actual military efforts to do so. Nor, as I’ve also stated, does she examine or even introduce as evidence accounts by women who have served and have negotiated in real-time the tricky swirl of ideas and imperatives she outlines. By now there is a robust collection of memoirs by women veterans—Kayla Williams, Shoshana Johnson (with help from Mary Doyle), Amber Smith, Laura Westley, Brooke King, Anuradha Baghwati, and a forthcoming one by Teresa Fazio, to name a few—as well as books about military women, such as Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s Ashley’s War, along with first-person articles and online accounts such as those featured on The War Horse website. From what I know of these women and their writings, none are dupes who have naively absorbed and regurgitated ideological constructs, though by their own admission they may not have not been totally immune to them, either. Read carefully, individually and collectively, analysis of their authors’ wrangle with “martial postfeminism” would be most welcome as they corroborate, contradict, and complicate Vavrus’s claims.

I’ve chosen not to review memoirs on Time Now, but another body-of-work we might turn to in order to test Vavrus’s claims is right in Time Now’s wheelhouse: the aesthetic realm of fiction and film. Below are links to posts about stories and movies in which women warriors serve as central characters in narratives about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within each post, I feel, is plenty of grist for contemplating how women have fared in the military since 9/11, and the books and films themselves of course contain even more. There’s still more work to do examining them in granular detail, teasing out patterns and implications, and synthesizing competing ideas and claims. It won’t get done here now, but the work awaits.     

Fiction:

Fire and Forget III: Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train”

No Thank You For Your Service: Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen

Who’s Catching Who Coming Through the Rye? Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You

Iraq by the Numbers: On the Road with Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty Fives

Tim O’Brien’s “Story Truth” and “Happening Truth” in the Contemporary War Novel (more about Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty Fives)

It’s Complicated: Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant

War Stories: Helen Benedict, Brian Van Reet, David Abrams

Inside the Puzzle Palace: Kathleen J. McInnis’s The Heart of War

Movies:

Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War

“So Many Expectations”: Fort Bliss

Let Us Now Praise Mine and Megan Leavey

 

Mary Douglas Vavrus, Postfeminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex. Rutgers UP, 2019.

Special Operations in Film and Fiction

April 26, 2020

SEAL Team 6 in action, from Zero Dark Thirty.

Below is a compendium of Time Now posts on contemporary war fiction and film featuring special operators–SEALs, Green Berets, Ranger Task Forces, CIA operatives, and the like–in action in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Fiction:

Life During Wartime, On the Other Side: Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden

Special Operations Old and New: Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days

Grillin’ Chillin’ and Killin’ with the Military 1%: Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War

Special Ops Bro-Hymn: Ross Ritchell’s The Knife

The Wild, Wild East: Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue

Will Mackin’s “Kattekoppen”: Surreal War Fiction

Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog

Making the SEAL Team SEAL-y: Literary Theory and Recent War Writing

Eleven Bang-Bang: Adam Kovac and Ray McPadden

War Adventure/Military Thriller

Film:

Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War

Zero Dark Thirty II: Special Operations

War Film: Lone Survivor

The American Sniper Situation: The Not-So-Secret Inclinations of Popular Taste

Does Anyone Remember American Sniper?

Hyena Road: Bullets-and-Bodies or Hearts-and-Minds?

 

Time Now Poets and Poetry

April 19, 2020

Benjamin Busch, Dünya Mikhail, me, Jehanne Dubrow, and Brian Turner at AWP18.

For National Poetry Month 2020, a compilation of all Time Now posts featuring poetry and poets. The first link is to the most popular Time Now post ever–it contains links to 35 poems about contemporary war in Iraq and Afghanistan that are available online. The second link takes you to all Time Now posts tagged “War poetry.” There you can browse and read all, or almost all, of the posts listed below in one long scrolling screen. Below the first two links are individual links to Time Now poetry posts, beginning with Elyse Fenton in December 2012 and culminating with Drew Pham in December 2019.

35 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets

Time Now Posts Tagged “War Poetry”

War Poetry: Elyse Fenton

Paul Wasserman, Say Again All

Walter E. Piatt, Paktika

Where Did All the War Poets Go?

Brian Turner

Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Siobhan Fallon, and Exit12 at West Point

War Poetry: W.H. Auden on the FOB

Veterans Writing (Brian Turner’s “Night in Blue”)

Veterans Day Poem: Brian Turner’s “Wading Out”

Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everything with Lungs: Leftist, Postmodern, Feminist, Non-Veterans War Poetry

Her Own Private Ithaca: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside

Little Magazines 3: Prairie Schooner and Michigan Quarterly Review (Benjamin Busch’s “Subtext”)

A Marine’s Poetry: Johnson Wiley

War Poetry: Brian Turner’s “A Soldier’s Arabic”

Unhappy Memorial Day: Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

War Poetry: Colin D. Halloran’s Shortly Thereafter

War Memoir/Poetry: Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War

October in the Railroad War Lit Earth (Maurice Decaul’s “Shush”)

Dodge (War) Poetry Festival 2014

A Yik-Yak Prose Poem, Found Near Fayetteville, NC, Outside Fort Bragg, Home of the 82nd Airborne Division

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project

War Poetry: Philip Metres’ Sand Opera

Randy Brown’s Welcome to FOB Haiku

Colin D. Halloran’s Icarian Flux

War Poetry: Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers

Life During Forever Wartime: Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Elyse Fenton 

Making the SEAL Team SEAL-Y: Literary Theory and Recent War Writing (Eric Chandler and Lisa Stice)

War Poetry: Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes

Habibi: Dünya Mikhail’s The Iraqi Nights

AWP18, Tampa, FL

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

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

War Poetry: Brock Jones’ Cenotaph

Firstest With the Mostest: Turner, Bigelow, Fallon

2020 Vision: Old Wars, New Directions (Drew Pham’s “How to Remember Your Ancestors”)

Photograph by Andria Williams.

Adam Driver

April 5, 2020

I’ve rarely mentioned former Marine Adam Driver on Time Now, but Driver is undoubtedly the 21st-century American military veteran who’s made the biggest splash in the world of art and artistic-entertainment. Upon graduation from Juilliard in 2009, Driver quickly obtained plum supporting roles on Broadway and in Hollywood. Leading roles and rave reviews in well-regarded indy films such as Paterson followed, along with star-turns as the villain Kylo Ren in three Star Wars franchise films. In the last half-year, Driver’s candle has burned even brighter, and his presence on the screen become ubiquitous. Over Christmas, for example, I watched Driver in two new films in which he starred. Marriage Story features Driver as a theater director going through a bad divorce, and in The Report Driver plays a Senate staffer investigating America’s use of torture in the Global War on Terror.  

Driver’s rise-to-fame has largely occurred without help he might have accrued by leveraging his Marine Corps experience in roles as a military man. In Paterson, for example, Driver plays a reclusive poet who keeps his USMC official picture by his bed, but it’s hard to say otherwise how the military figures in the character’s life. In the quirky-good Logan Lucky, Driver plays a vet bartender who lost an arm in Iraq. The role permits fun scenery-chewing, but the film, which remains somewhat unaccountably obscure, is the exception-that-proves-the-rule:   

The Report is especially interesting in regard to the relationship between Driver’s military tour and his film career. The movie’s very much about America’s war against fundamentalist Islamic violence. And yet Driver’s role sussing out the architects of America’s “enhanced interrogation” program depicts him not as a combat man-of-action, but as a bookish policy wonk who, as righteous as his cause may be, is far from the frontlines and the heat of battle.

Driver speaks openly of his regret at leaving the Marines before he had a chance to deploy, so perhaps his self-consciousness about not having seen combat feeds his reserve about portraying movie fighting men. Honestly, though, leaving the Star Wars movies out of it, on screen he doesn’t look like much of either a fighter or a military man, in spite of his flat belly and sturdy frame. His Wikipedia entry reports that Driver learned to dial back his Marine Corps mannerisms and attitudes while training as an actor; at Juilliard he often came on too strong and scared the hell out of people. As a result, in both life and film Driver seems to have developed an aversion to publicly asserting his views about things, as if the only thing worse than being perceived as a blow-hard pontificator is being perceived as a blow-hard pontificator veteran. In his films, Driver often plays cerebral, sensitive men who struggle to find the words to express themselves in the face of fast-talking characters full of confidence and vitality. Driver’s foils alternately tease and berate him mercilessly, with the Driver characters mostly just standing there taking it while–all power to them–remaining true to their own vision of what they want to accomplish. This characteristic mode is on full display in this revealing interview with Howard Stern, where Stern and Robin Quivers give Driver the business about his false starts in life as a vacuum cleaner salesman and Marine infantryman:  

Whether what I’m saying about Driver-the-person is true or not, I don’t know, but I’m thinking movie-makers adore his ability to play men who combine self-deprecating awkwardness with drive and talent, and thus beat paths to his door with the juicy film roles they envision for him.

If Driver’s distancing himself from war themes and roles in his movies has been a somewhat curious, if perhaps smart, career move, his achievement as founder of the mil-and-vet-friendly theatrical-arts organization Arts in the Armed Forces (AITAF) demonstrates extremely robust commitment to bringing theater into the lives of military men and women. Founded in 2008 by Driver and his wife Joanne Tucker, AITAF through 2019 was still going strong, with a full slate of scheduled performances and a very healthy list of corporate sponsors. AITAF’s bread-and-butter activity has been staging readings of classic modern theater on military bases, where they perform in front of uniformed audiences and engage in a variety of bridge-building activities linking theater-people and military personnel and families. Two years ago, AITAF began a playwriting competition, called “The Bridge Award,” designed to recognize new work by currently-serving or veteran artists. The 2018 Bridge Award winner was War Stories, by Army Iraq vet Vinnie Lyman. A short bio and description of his play, along with the announcement of its victory by Driver, can be found here. The 2019 Bridge Award winner was Tampons, Dead Dogs, and Other Disposable Things by Shairi Engle, a former air traffic controller in the Air Force. A bio, summary, and Driver’s victory announcement can be found here.

The two winning entries so far have been performed in staged readings, but have not yet been published or fully produced, nor can I find online videos of the readings. I’ll take it on faith that the plays are excellent, but I would love a chance to view them and for them to find larger audiences. I also look forward to more from Driver, especially if he begins writing, producing, and directing his own work. In the Stern interview, Driver reveals with bashful pride that he was an “Expert” marksman in the Marines. So far, he’s shooting expert in his acting career, too, but we haven’t yet been able to judge Driver’s artistic vision in its own clear pure creative form, and it’s time. 

Purnima Bose’s Intervention Narratives-Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror

March 21, 2020

Purnima Bose’s scholarly study Intervention Narratives: Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror nicely complements Caleb Cage’s War Narratives: Shaping Beliefs, Blurring Truths in the Middle East, which I reviewe here. Much as Cage’s book does for Iraq, Intervention Narratives locates dominant themes in Afghan war-writing and film that reflect and shape American attitudes about the Afghanistan War held by war-participants, the populace, the media, and government officials. Even more so than Cage does in War Narratives, Intervention Narratives provides theoretical underpinning to explicate the narratives Bose analyzes, and Bose also offers a comprehensive thesis about what makes them persuasive, compulsively repeated, and ultimately harmful.

By “intervention narratives,” Bose directs attention to the stories told by Americans about individual endeavors within the larger historical sweep of American engagement with Afghanistan dating back to the Cold War (a few Indian and Pakistani books and films are also analyzed for contrast). The focus, then, is primarily on memoirs and movies that tell stories of highly-individualized personal efforts by Americans in Afghanistan to influence the war. Bose suggests that however grander narratives about the war might have it, the personal sagas she examines better or best reveal the cultural dreams that prohibit honest reckoning with the catastrophic failure of the Afghanistan mission over forty years. The particular target of Intervention Narratives are “feel good” books and movies that attempt to justify their subjects’ Afghanistan endeavors and try to foster sentiment that American mission in Afghanistan has been anything other than a debacle. From the Introduction:

I have argued that the ideological work of these four intervention narratives is reparative and aimed at generating positive feelings about the Afghan war. Telling ourselves that we supported ‘the good guys’ against evil communists, we inspired Afghan women to become entrepreneurs, we rescued adorable dogs, and we eliminated the ‘bad guys’ contributes to the fantasy that we are on the right side of history.

In Chapter One, Bose examines what she calls “The Premature Withdrawal Narrative,” which locates blame for the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s on the abandonment of the Afghan mujahedeen to the Taliban after the expulsion of the Soviet Union. Key to the idea of “premature withdrawal” are movies such as Charlie Wilson’s War, to use one of Bose’s examples, that glorify heroic individuals who aid the mujahedeen only to have their accomplishments undercut by the government they serve. The problem, Bose asserts, is that these stories come at the expense of truth, such as that Charlie Wilson wasn’t nearly as effective as the movie about him would have it, and to the extent that he was successful, he exacerbated patterns of violence within Afghanistan that tore the country apart in the 1980s and from which it still suffers. But belief that America, or at least one American, accomplished something significant long afterwards fueled foolish optimism that later efforts to intervene in Afghan political, cultural, and tribal dynamics might prove effective, while obscuring long-lasting, endlessly repeated mischief (read, “carnage”) generated by America’s initial support for the mujahedeen.

The next two chapters describe quirky but seemingly well-meaning non-military Afghanistan interventions by Americans in the years after 9/11. Chapter Two, titled “The Capitalist-Rescue Narrative—Afghan Women and Micro-Entrepreneurship,” examines two memoirs by American women that describe the author’s effort to help Afghan women start small businesses centered around beauty and fashion. Chapter Three, “The Canine-Rescue Narrative and Post-Humanist Humanitarianism,” identifies a corpus of stories and movies about elaborate and expensive efforts to bring military working dogs and soldier FOB pets to America from Afghanistan. Bose, however, is not impressed by these type of endeavors, finding them ineffective, misguided, and/or oblivious to the real conditions of war and culture in Afghanistan, and the books and movies written about them unfortunately more self-promotional than caring or wise.

As evidence that American ideas about helping Afghanistan could be quite loopy, beauty-and-fashion and dog-rescue sagas are damning, but not exactly consequential. In Chapter Four “The Retributive-Justice Narrative—Osama bin Laden as Simulacra” Intervention Narratives takes a much more trenchant bite into the cultural and psychological fantasies that fueled American military endeavor in Afghanistan. Bose calls SEAL memoir No Easy Day: The First-hand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden by Mark Owen (a pseudonym for ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette) an example of self-justifying “life-writing” by an elite-warrior who claims he can’t be held accountable for “minor” transgressions of just-war law, policy, and ethics because his commitment to “retributive justice”—killing bin Laden—supersedes all other considerations. The eight-to-ten pages in which Bose interrogates No Easy Day, and by extension the mythos and self-conception of all SEAL memoirs and special operations generally, is the most exciting part of Intervention Narratives, for my money:

Structured as a teleology that culminates in bin Laden’s execution, Owen’s narrative is centrally about the production of techno-military masculinity that finds its legitimization and actualization in retributive justice. No Easy Day reveals how this particular gendered and racialized subjectivity is dependent on surveillance technology and sophisticated weapons that render Owen into a quasi-cyborg. Read against the grain, the memoir discloses the fragile nature of life under the US rule of law, more often represented by Owen as burdensome bureaucracy, which can be jettisoned at will by agents of the state.

Bose continues by defining four attributes of “techno-military masculinity”: “extreme physical fitness, dependency on technological prosthetics, Euro-American male superiority, and disdain for civilian authorities.” In Bose’s view, the cultivation of techno-military masculinity has become an end in itself, an intoxicating preoccupation and identity for white males made available by contemporary war, quite independent of and even antagonistic to older conceptions of soldiering and soldierly obligation to higher authority and ethical precepts.

Hey, if the desert combat boots fit, American military war-farers will just have to wear them, and I’ve got blood on my size-12s, too. Still, one might point out that Matt Bissonnette’s ideas about the war aren’t every soldier’s ideas, and one wonders how a film such as Zero Dark Thirty, in which the female agent played by Jessica Chastain out-machos her male CIA colleagues and SEAL partners in pursuit of bin Laden, fits the “techno-military masculinity” formula. But lest I’ve given the impression that Intervention Narratives is unfair to true-blue American heroes who have done the best they can under difficult circumstances, Bose ends by asserting that responsibility for the graves we have spent forty years digging in Afghanistan starts on-high and transcends partisan politics. Finding more similarity than discontinuity in presidential policies toward Afghanistan from Bush to Obama to Trump, in spite of their differences in style (great line: “Bush’s blandness, Obama’s urbanity, and Trump’s vulgarity”), in the conclusion Bose proposes that stories centered on somewhat quixotic minor figures in the long war also help define and explain the larger perspectives and actions of its major players, complete with characteristic mistakes, blind-spots, lapses in logic and judgment, and self-serving machinations.

Intervention Narratives is one of number of scholarly studies in a welcome new series titled War Culture, published by Rutgers University Press. Many books in the War Culture series focus on 21st-century war, which is even more welcome, and I look forward to reading and thinking about them.

Purnima Bose, Intervention Narratives: Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror. Rutgers UP, 2020.

Second Acts: Kevin Powers, Katey Schultz, Roy Scranton

February 23, 2020

Three authors from the first wave of contemporary war-fiction circa 2013 have now published second book-length fictional works. Though only one directly portrays war in Iraq or Afghanistan, individually the three works, all novels, illustrate the expansion of their authors’ interests. Collectively, they demonstrate the continuing development of a talented author cohort first formed by writing about twenty-first century war.

Kevin Powers, A Shout in the Ruins. John Bartle, the woebegone protagonist of Kevin Powers’ first novel The Yellow Birds makes a cameo appearance in A Shout in the Ruins, but it’s a subtext of The Yellow Birds—Powers’ deep love for his home state of Virginia–that comes to the fore in Powers’ new novel about history and race relations in the Old Dominion. As a Virginian myself, I’m receptive to Powers’ story and think he’s on to something, for to be a Virginian of any sensitivity is to be deeply aware of the state’s proud, vexed, violent history. A Shout in the Ruins tells two connected stories stretched out over multiple generations spanning from the Civil War to the 1980s. One story is that of an elderly African-American gentleman named George Seldom, who is forced out of his Richmond home in the 1950s by the building of an Interstate. Set adrift, Seldom embarks on a physical journey to the North Carolina home in which he was raised and a genealogical exploration that invokes the novel’s second story, a lurid family saga that reaches back to Reconstruction and forward to episodes set on Virginia’s Eastern Shore (where John Bartle makes his cameo). It’s a lot to pack into a short novel, and Powers sometimes shorts context and explanation for sensibility and mood, which might be described as high Southern gothic a la Faulkner, pollinated with elements of Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison. Think violence, think desire, think secrets, think vengeance, think blood, think lust for power, think “the past is never dead, it’s not even past”—all those subterranean impulses that refuse to remain buried beneath the veneer of Southern gentility, and when conjured forth, expose Southern gentility for a mask and a lie. Key to it all is Powers’ prose style, which foregoes just-the-facts simplicity for florid lyricism. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it proposition: A Shout in the Ruins was widely reviewed upon release, and critics evenly divide on whether the novel’s prose is poetically brilliant or overheated reaching for (pseudo) profundity. Me, I like it, but then I’m still a Virginian, and want language about my home-state to reflect the dark mythopoetic spirit of what that identity means to me.

Katey Schultz, Still Come Home. The promise displayed in Katey Schultz’s first book, Flashes of War, a collection of bite-sized fictional vignettes set in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the homefront, is fully realized in Still Come Home. Set in Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan, Still Come Home tells twinned narratives, one of Aaseya, a young Afghan woman whose already precarious life is troubled further by the arrival of the Taliban to her small town, and Lieutenant Nathan Miller, a National Guard infantry platoon leader charged with one last patrol before redeployment. Aaseya’s and Lieutenant Miller’s stories are told in alternating chapters until events bring them together in the novel’s climax. Schultz excels at physical description, is alert to psychological and social nuance, and plausibly devises a plot that masks its intentions and turns until the final scenes. Schultz is neither an Afghan nor a vet, and charges of cultural appropriation, a hot-button literary issue these days, might be put into play re Still Come Home, but they won’t be by me. Portraits of Afghan women are hard to come by, and Schultz’s rendering of Aaseya’s behavior, attitudes, and ideas ring true and will serve nicely until more representations authored by Afghan authors themselves arrive. And, full disclosure, I contributed ideas about Army culture and tactics to an early draft of Still Come Home, and now am glad to see how Schultz has put them to use in the final version. I especially like the portrait of Lieutenant Miller, who is old for a Regular Army lieutenant but very typical of many National Guard junior officers I’ve met, as he tries to balance the twin imperatives of accomplishing missions while taking care of his men. Still Come Home joins a library of well-turned novels by Americans about war in Afghanistan that combine interest in US military personnel and the Afghans with whom they interact: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, and Ray McPadden’s And the Whole Mountain Burned, for starters, and we might include British-Pakistani author Nadeem Aslam’s novels The Wasted Vigil and The Blind Man’s Garden, too.

Roy Scranton, I [Heart] Oklahoma! Roy Scranton’s I [Heart] Oklahoma! is that rarest of rare birds these days: a full-on experimental novel with little interest in telling an easy-to-digest story in a conventional way. Wearing its debt to William Burroughs, William Faulkner, and James Joyce on its sleeve, the novel may not be everyone’s cup-of-tea, but I for one [heart] it very much. The first half of I [Heart] Oklahoma! tells in reasonably apprehensible and often funny terms a story of three NYC-based hipster “creatives”—two men (Jim and Remy) and one woman (Susan)–charged with making a road-trip documentary of America as it frazzles under the stress of the Trump presidency. As in his first novel War Porn, Scranton excels at portraying the speech and thought of overeducated millennials who have may have imbibed newfangled Deleuzean concepts about deterritorialization, rhizomes, and the un-psychologized subject, but remain vulnerable to the ages-old forces of sexual desire, rivalry, and jealousy. Halfway across the country and halfway through the novel, the road-trip falls apart and things get weird. What happens next is hard to describe, but remarkable to behold as a reading experience. Reformulating novel conventions on deterritorialized, rhizomatic, and un-psychologized-subject grounds, Scranton describes the birthing of Susan’s literary consciousness through the medium of an alter-ego named Jane and a nightmare carnivalesque American topical dreamscape. Emerging out of the psycho-cultural stew is a long first-person narrative written by Susan in the voice of Caril Ann Fugate, the 14-year-old girlfriend and accomplice of the 1950s serial killer Charles Starkweather. Caril’s reminiscence about the Starkweather killing spree is a striking tour-de-force, a Molly Bloom monologue for our gun-addled time–I read its full 40 pages twice in succession and plan to read it again soon. The exact impulse that drives Susan to identify with Caril and exactly why Scranton directs our attention to Starkweather are not spelled out, though ripe for speculation. But the representation of an imaginative-artistic creation—Caril’s dramatic monologue–as it comes into being, and the dramatic monologue itself, are spectacular.

Kevin Powers, A Shout in the Ruins. Little, Brown and Company, 2018.

Katey Schultz, Still Come Home. Apprentice House, 2019.

Roy Scranton, I [Heart] Oklahoma! Soho, 2019.

Ariella Azoulay and the Photographic Situation

February 16, 2020

In my last post on the Theater of Operations exhibition at MoMA PS1, I referred to Ariella Azoulay as an important theorist of war photography. Since she is perhaps not well-known to most Time Now readers, below I’ve posted the paper I presented on Azoulay at the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference in 2015.

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At the Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA) 2014 conference I participated in a roundtable discussion of visual representation of conflict and war that had much the same intent and methodology as this one here at ACLA. At NEMLA, I spoke of a vibrant strain of recent scholarship on the subject that began with Susan Sontag’s seminal books On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others and then was joined by heavyweight thinkers such as Judith Butler and Jacques Ranciere, as well as exciting new voices such as Dora Apel and Maggie Nelson (I might also say that the line-of-debate is also deeply indebted to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). While scholarship and theorizing about contemporary war literature remains nascent, the inquiry begun by Sontag has proven robust, generative, and contentious. At NEMLA, I learned of Ariella Azoulay, an Israeli scholar and curator who now teaches at Brown University. Azoulay, as I understood the conversation, was doing the most exciting theoretical work on photography and, moreover, had married her academic investments with political advocacy on behalf of Palestinians denied full citizenship by the state of Israel. Since the link between aesthetic contemplation and real-world action, especially as it involved photography, is one of the touchstone issues debated by Sontag, Butler, Ranciere, and the others, I made it a point to find out more about Azoulay. Now, thanks to this panel, I have a chance to share my findings with you.

I don’t know how familiar everyone in the room is with Azoulay—for all I know I am the last to discover her. If so I apologize, ask your indulgence, and hope my comments at least help generate a fresh round of debate.

The phrase most often associated with Azoulay is “the photographic situation.” I think the phrase might already have become dis-associated from her, as I’ve seen it bandied in places (websites, newspapers and magazines, advertisements) with no clear linkage to Azoulay herself and little awareness of how she uses it. But the phrase has the tang of an up-to-the-minute formulation of insider knowingness about photography, which says something, maybe just a little, about its usefulness and suggestiveness. Azoulay herself doesn’t use the phrase in the first of three works that I will discuss today, Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy (2001), which by title and cover alone would seem to have the most bearing on our panel’s discussion. In this, her first book, Azoulay examines photographs that portray dead bodies and acts of murder, mostly of Palestinians but also the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin by a Jewish right-wing zealot. The work is densely theoretical, with Azoulay building on a variety of literary theorists—primarily Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault—to construct a wide-ranging argument that claims public representations of death shape not just our ideas about mortality, but other subjects (as if mortality wasn’t enough) such as aesthetics, modernity, social justice, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Azoulay closes Death’s Showcase by discussing a report from Bosnia about a photographer who documented a sniper who killed innocent civilians as they crossed a street. The sniper is eventually brought to trial, but Azoulay’s interest is with the photographer. She writes, “For the photographer to be only a photographer—that neutral position that merely documents—the murderer-sniper must be only a murderer-sniper. From the moment at which the photographer is not only a photographer, he becomes a murderer or at least an accomplice to murder. And, at that very moment, the murderer becomes an accomplice to the photographic act” (287). The passage is enigmatic (especially given the way I’ve presented it), but its interest in “the photographic act” hints at directions Azoulay will travel in subsequent books. Death’s Showcase is not totally devoid of hints, or even explanations, of her expansive sense of what photography entails. Regarding the “basic questions” of judgment, responsibility, and interpretation, a photograph’s content or message resides within the “conditions of production, with the means of production, with the positions of production, with the means of distribution, with the conditions of distribution, with the conditions of visibility, and with the means of visibility” (282). Piling Deleuzean terms on top of Marxist ones, Azoulay writes of the new “scopic” discursive regime she is trying to call into being: “it takes place in networks of presences in which neither the subject nor the object has a privileged position, depth is unfolded as another surface, repetition takes the place of singularity and uniqueness, and the demarcated location for the appearance of the image becomes the network’s terminals and links” (284-85).

What is unclear and jargon-ish in Death’s Showcase becomes more lucid and compelling in The Civil Contract of Photography (2008), as Azoulay finds confidence in her own voice and ability to name her ideas more precisely. Here for the first time is a reference to “the photographic situation”:

Photography is much more than what is printed on photographic paper. The photograph bears the seal of the photographic event, and reconstructing this event requires more than just identifying what is shown in the photograph. One needs to stop looking at the photograph and instead start watching it. The verb ‘to watch’ is usually used for regarding phenomena or moving pictures. It entails dimensions of time and movement that need to be reinscribed in the interpretation of the still photographic image. When and where the subject of the photograph is a person who has suffered some form of injury, a viewing of the photograph that reconstructs the photographic situation and allows a reading of the injury on others becomes a civic skill, not an exercise in aesthetic appreciation (14).

Within this space, the point of departure … cannot be empathy or mercy. It must be a covenant for the rehabilitation of … citizenship in the political sphere (17).

The theory of photography proposed in this book is founded on a new ontological-political understanding of photography. It takes into account all the participants in photographic acts—camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator—approaching the photograph (and its meaning) as an unintentional effect of the encounter between all of these (23).

Emphasized in Azoulay’s theory of photography is that photography must serve as a means of critique of existing power relations and rehabilitation of social injustice, but not in narrow ways predicated on the authority and artistry of the photographer or the ability of the spectator to “feel right” about his or her act of observation. If only it were as easy as Azoulay suggests in a chapter titled “Emergency Claims” that focuses specifically on photographs that explicitly generate horror through violent and even sensational subject matter. The problem Azoulay analyzes in detail is the way that the relationships of photographer, subject, photograph, and viewer are not stable; every variable in the process of transmission is apt to be contingent and thus subject to the forces of interpretation, counterinterpretation, selection, manipulation, suppression, and repurposing. “This is the ontology of photography—it always includes more than what one wants it to contain. The photographer is responsible for photography, and his act is a necessary, though small link in the chain of acts responsible for fulfilling the injunction ‘to watch’ or ‘to show’” (355). Photography, almost ideally so, both instantiates reigning paradigms and constituted authority, and creates space for critique and transformation.

Azoulay’s most recent work, Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography refines the arguments made in The Civil Contract of Photography by parsing the deep structural lineaments of photography itself. Key to the work’s importance is its assertion that understanding how photographs, endlessly retransmittable and easily divorced from the intentions of its creator, ceaselessly place demands on viewers to shuttle between aesthetic and political interpretive nodes to make sense of a picture. Such shuttling, in Azoulay’s account, is primarily one of imagination, but a particular kind of imaginative gaze that Azoulay calls “civil.” The “civil gaze,” as opposed to the “orienteering” (basic comprehension) and “professional” (judging technical and artistic merit) gaze, requires “interpretive effort” because “nothing is given in advance of the photograph” (121). “The civil gaze,” Azoulay writes, “enables the spectator to use the reconstruction of the situation photographed in order to become aware that the photographer does not stand opposite the figure photographed on his own, nor does the spectator herself confront the photographed figure alone. The spectator also comes to realize that she does not stand outside the regime within whose framework the photographic encounter becomes possible. Civil intention allows the spectator to recognize the presence of those absent from the frame, extending awareness to all those who took part in the production of the visible, and allowing all participants populating the civil space the photograph to meet on the same plane, even if only momentarily, and to ratify their inclusion within its space” (121). The intent, if the above quotation does not make it clear, is to understand how any photograph both instantiates realms of unequal status and serves as the means of critiquing, undermining, and transforming them—never all at once one way or the other, but instead fleetingly, as if too much emphasis on one interpretive possibility will not make it stronger, but engender its dissolution.

Azoulay’s argument, as I have stated it, does not seem especially difficult to understand or execute. The detail lies in her grounding of her claim in Western theoretical discussions of aesthetics and citizenship and her conceptualizing of photography’s place vis-à-vis other artistic and documentary postmodern realms. She also offers several examples of how civil interpretations of specific photographs might occur. One or two of these would be worth looking at in detail, but in the time I have remaining I’m more interested in applying what we can of the concept of the civil gaze to the photographic situation of two pictures taken by the same photographer of conflict in Iraq. The examples I use I first encountered in Michael Kamber’s superb 2013 compilation of journalistic photography taken by some of the war’s best-known photographers called Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq.  Kamber asks the photographers, heretofore generally silent and unqueried, to explain the circumstances by which their pictures were taken and offer their thoughts about the variables we might loosely call, after Azoulay, their “situation.” Azoulay would absolutely not want to privilege the intentions and authority of the photographer-creator, we all understand, but the photographer is probably best able to at least begin construction of Azoulay’s ideal of civil interpretation.

The first picture I want to examine was taken by American photographer Lucien Read while embedded with Marines in Fallujah in 2004. Its subject is First Sergeant Bradley Kasal, who has just been injured by grenade fragments while clearing a house occupied by insurgents.  Now, in the picture, even as he is being evacuated by fellow Marines, his fighting spirit is reflected by the look on his face and the weapon he retains in his hand.

[The picture can be found at many places online, but is protected by serious rights warnings, so I’m not reproducing it without permission (irony). Here is a link to one place it can be viewed.]

The second picture was taken by Read in the city of Haditha in 2005. It shows bodies of civilians, to include women and children, killed by Marines, wrapped in tunics prior to burial.  The bodies are among 24 Iraqi civilians allegedly murdered by Marines in retaliation for the death of one of their own by a roadside bomb.

[This picture is not easily viewable online anymore, but can be found in this article by Lucian Read himself.]

The first features bright primary colors, the second is shrouded in shadows and slants of light. The first is in daylight and outdoors, or coming out of doors. The second is inside, and dimly lighted.

The first picture features no Iraqis. The second features no Americans.

The Americans in the first are bloody, but still alive. The Iraqis in the second are cleansed and prepared for burial after death.

The first features faces, in the second none are visible.

In the first, physical bodies are upright, in the second they are prone.

One might view the first and salute the Marine’s bravery, determination, and camaraderie.  One might pity them. One might be repulsed by them. One might view the second and be saddened. Or outraged. Or one might want to know who they are and how, or better, why they were killed.

The first picture was subsequently used by Marines as recruiting tool and to inspire bravery and commitment in other Marines. The second picture was used as evidence of Marine brutality in charges filed against eight Marines. Seven Marines were exonerated before trial, while one was court-martialed in 2012 and found guilty of a single count of negligent duty.  The case and verdict received extensive media coverage and generated outrage in both Iraq and America. Some felt that an atrocity on the order of Vietnam’s My Lai murder had been swept under the carpet, while others felt that Marines with good reputations had been slandered for actions taken in the heat of the moment under unclear circumstances.

As we look at the pictures and think about them in ways that transcend the “orienteering” or “professional,” we participate in a process of which Azoulay states, “With the invention of photography, a new relation toward the visible came into being—one which may, admittedly, have existed partially in the past but not in precisely the same fashion or with the same frequency” (68). She continues, “The fairly simple possibility arose of sharing a certain space with other people and objects without having to be physically present beside them in the same place.”

Photography, Azoulay asserts, unlike text, painting, sculpture, drama, or other forms of representation, is particularly able to bind us in shared meaning-making with other humans and, she feels, generate meaningful obligation toward one another. This new civil gaze, properly understood, places us in relation thanks to photography to “objects, situations, customs, figures, images or places” (68) that formerly were inaccessible to all of us at the same time and which were in effect previously deemed unworthy of us to view, or consider at all. If in fact we are all together in the same room at the same time, as we are here, a very salient fact is that as we observe the pictures I am presenting, our individual gazes interact not just with the subjects of the photographs but with all the other acts of observation taking place; concurrently we gaze and are gazed upon and our gazes together constitute an interpretive domain larger and different than any one perspective or the sum of them all. The dynamic, in Azoullay’s account, creates interpretive possibilities and an array of responses and obligations that transcend the aesthetic and political to become civil. Thus we see the infinite power and potential of the photographic situation: an always expanding, and never predictable optic force field engendered by the structural uniqueness of photography.

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I only had 15-20 minutes at ACLA, so had to keep things short. There’s much more to say about Azoulay’s concepts of the “photographic situation” and “the civil gaze,” as well as ways we might “complicate,” “trouble,” “interrogate,” or “problematize” them. I’m not going to do much of that here, but I am sympathetic to the concepts. One of Azoulay’s points is that journalistic photography foregrounding violence exemplarily creates opportunities for the interpretive dynamic she describes. I think, however, that the critical stance works for artistic photography and art generally. When thinking about war novels, for example, I think everything counts–the words on the page, the author’s intentions, the context, my reactions, other people’s reactions, the reactions of the people on whom the characters might be based–and all interpretations are necessarily contingent and malleable. Meaning doesn’t reside in any one place, nor does one locus of meaning dominate the others. Instead, the book, like Azoulay’s photographs, acts as an agent for shared complex interpretive experiences.

Ariella Azoulay, Death’s Showcase: The Power of Images in Contemporary Democracy. MIT, 2001.

Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography. MIT, 2008.

Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination:  A Political Ontology of Photography. Verso, 2015.

Michael Kamber. Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. University of Texas, 2013.

 

Theater of Operations at MoMA PS1

February 12, 2020

The Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars, 1991-2011 exhibit currently running at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 annex in Long Island City, Queens, New York, has all the trappings of a major art-world event. Not just the MoMA imprimatur, but its size and obvious commitment to showcasing major artists signal intent to make a significant statement about how the First and Second Iraq Wars were fought and how they have been portrayed in art in Iraq and America and Great Britain. As such, when Theater of Operations opened last November, it was covered by mainstream press giants such as the New York Times and The Guardian. The Times and Guardian reviews were mostly approving, but a discordant, brooding note was struck by the New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl, who seemed irritated by the spirit of the exhibit and unimpressed by much that he observed.

In Schjeldahl’s review, which at best damned Theater of Operations with faint praise, the author ruminated on the relationship of art and war, and his skepticism that great art might result from war resonated loud and clear. Adding poignancy to and perhaps justification for the bummer review was a long article called “The Art of Dying” by Schjeldahl in the next week’s New Yorker, in which the author not only revealed he was dying of cancer but spent significant page-space reminiscing about the long sad after-effects of his father’s service in Europe in World War II as an infantryman. Since Schjeldahl felt war had ruined his father and the Schjeldahl family happiness, it was hard not to think that his life’s commitment to art lay in belief that art constituted a realm of human endeavor opposite to and incompatible with warfaring and militarism.

Just as I was taking all this in, another furor arose: Apparently, Theater of Operations is partially funded by a corporation directly connected to Blackwater. O unholy alliance of money, blood, and art! Was it ever not so? Can it ever not be so?

Eager to make sense of things for myself, I visited MoMA PS1 a couple of weekends ago. The Theater of Operations exhibit occupies the better part of three floors of the renovated schoolhouse that constitutes the museum. Most of the artworks in Theater of Operations stem from the First Gulf War, and most are creations of Iraqi artists. Many of these artworks portray horrifying images of forty years of nearly continuous war in Iraq, while others are non-representational works that allow viewers to consider their relation to war obliquely. The artworks by Americans are almost all polemically anti-war and anti-Republican administration in intent and execution. Very few, though, are of or by soldiers; the American soldiers’ experience of war is largely limited to a series of photographs of deploying soldiers, their faces etched with both gravity and innocence, and another series of photographs illustrating political protests by veterans against the war.

Many of the artworks by American artists are not especially subtle:

“Stop Bush,” by Richard Serra

“Landscape with Dollar Sign,” by Richard Hamilton

Others reflect more artistic or less strident processing of war events and impressions.

“Gladiators,” by Martha Rosler

“Florida National Guard Patrol Looking for Weapons Cache by the Tigris,” by Steve Mumford

A few large-scale installations work hard to impress themselves upon viewers. “Untitled (Iraq Book Project),” for example, by Rachel Khedoori, features everything available on the Internet about the Second Iraq War printed out and presented for inspection in bound volumes. The piece seems to speak to the over-saturation of words about the war and the strained effort to find words equal to the real events, anguish, and loss on the ground.

Another piece, “Hotel Democracy” by Thomas Hirschhorn, features twenty-some cubicle like living spaces, some reflective of soldier quarters on military FOBs and others the living spaces of Iraqi civilians hunkered down in tiny rooms, the inhabitants reduced to poverty and trying to survive sans community. The message here seems to address both the drive for individuals to personalize their living spaces in the face of war’s deprivations, while also speaking to the essentially cloistered and unnourishing inhumanity of those same living spaces.

Many many many pieces feature TV, drone, and video footage, as if to comment on how the war was made known through the unreliable necessity of second-hand images.

“War Games,” by Richard Hamilton

Schjeldahl objected in particular to this aspect of Theater of Operations. He suggested that the exhibit’s acknowledged debt to Jean Baudrillard’s famous “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” manifesto was morally facile and factually incorrect (real people, he implied, and I’m thinking he was thinking of his father, understand war not through images but by killing other people while trying to stay alive themselves). The sense was also that creating artwork around TV footage of, say, a news pundit describing “shock and awe,” was artistically lazy and cliched. Hmm, maybe…. One video installation I appreciated very much, “Shadow Sites II” by Jananne Al-ani, projects a series of drone or satellite shots of sculpted Iraqi landscapes on a giant screen in a darkened room. I found the slow-moving, nearly static videos engrossing—an overwhelming sensory experience at once ominous and soothing.

Some of the artworks by Iraqi artists also riff on the shock power of photographic images:

“Saddam is Here,” by Jamal Penjweny

All told, my favorite pieces were paintings by Iraqi artists. I might say I “liked” them, but that seems wrong, for pleasurable enjoyment is not what the art of war is all about. English appears to lack the word to properly describe apprehension of artworks inspired by carnage and documenting atrocity. The most we can do, I’d say, is appreciate the drive to create art under terrible circumstances and contemplate their terrifying majesty.

“Mesopotamia,” by Ali Talib

“Victim’s Portrait,” by Dia al-Azzawi

“Mission of Destruction,” by Dia al-Azzawi

The exhibition’s intent is clearly not to privilege American soldier perspectives and for God’s sake not to cultivate sympathy for American soldiers or absolve them of their complicity in the wars. That’s OK, but just OK—I think exhibition attendees would like to balance consideration of work by Iraqi and American civilian-artists with that of art created by military veterans. In my mind, the picture-and-text assemblages of Benjamin Busch (displayed at the 2010 War, Literature and the Arts conference), the FOB barrier murals collected by Graffiti of War (displayed at West Point in 2014), and Maximilian Uriarte’s superb Terminal Lance line drawings (as displayed in 2018 at Rutgers’ Zimmerli Art Museum) all would have sat very well alongside the artists and art featured in Theater of Operations. And what art might we find, if we looked, created by Iraqi soldiers and insurgents?

Further proof of the intent to exclude the voice of the American soldier was found in the museum bookstore offerings associated with the exhibit. On my visit, the only fiction featured  were three titles by Iraqi-American author Sinan Antoon. Antoon’s great, but conspicuous by its absence was fiction by American author Iraq War veterans such as Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, or even the scathingly dissident Roy Scranton, or “anti-war” novels by civilians such as Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, or the searching and complex Iraq War poetry of civilian Philip Metres and veteran Brian Turner. The shelves were also missing titles by terrific and important Iraqi authors such as Hassan Blasim and Ahmed Saadawi, which was curious. And finally, I appreciated seeing Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, whose ideas about war imagery are central, but I would have loved to have also seen works by Ariella Azoulay, whose extrapolations of Sontag’s ideas takes us ever-nearer to understanding the vexed intertwining of violence, image, and art.

OK, OK, everyone’s a critic, and everyone is potentially a curator, right? Be all the above as it may, I invite you to reflect on the MoMA PS1 Theater of Operations exhibit as you will and as you can, hopefully in person or if not that, then by reading the articles it has inspired.

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A little outside the purview of the exhibition review, but perhaps not too far: I was struck by the MoMA P1’s exterior and interior appearance, which makes little effort to hide the time-worn wrinkles and scars of the old school, even as it tacks on a number of modern adornments. The postindustrial-chic building and the jury-rigged exhibition spaces made me think of the half-wrecked government buildings repurposed as army outposts I inhabited on deployments to Kosovo and Afghanistan. I never served in Iraq, but I’m sure it was something of the same there.

The museum combines a refurbished brick schoolhouse, a poured-concrete addition, a prefab semi-permanent structure, wooden plank walkways, and improvised pipe scaffolding (for an awning, I think).

An unused courtyard/sculpture-garden reminded me of the corner of a FOB motor-pool.

This stairwell made me think of the great novel “Up the Down Staircase,” about teaching in New York City public schools.

Some exhibition spaces are gorgeous. This one made me wonder how it was used in the old schoolhouse.

Let Us Now Praise Mine and Megan Leavey

February 6, 2020

World War I movies such as They Shall Not Grow Old and 1917 are made by famous directors, feature big production and publicity budgets, and attract critical acclaim and popular audiences. Movies about contemporary war, on the other hand, occupy a smaller place in the Hollywood realm. Take, for examples, two 2017 releases, Mine, about a Marine sniper caught in a minefield, and Megan Leavey, about a female Marine dog-handler, both made by low-profile directors and exuding budget-rate production values. I missed both movies upon release, and never heard or read anything about them in the three years since their arrival until I discovered them last week while net-surfing. Though neither movie is perfect, I enjoyed both, and found in them much of interest. So, while others write mighty reviews of epic films about tremendous battles, I’ll sing the virtues of forgotten movies about America’s forever wars.

Mine was co-directed by two Italian first-time Hollywood directors, Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro. Set in an unspecified Global War on Terror desert location, Mine opens as does American Sniper and the Canadian sniper-flick Hyena Road: an elite-force sniper and his spotter lie poised to take out Muslim bad-guys. In Mine, as in its predecessors, the mission goes awry, and the sniper team must walk across six miles of mine-filled desert to their extraction site. Predictably, first the spotter steps on a mine, suffers a double-amputation of his legs at the knee, and subsequently succumbs to his wounds. Next, the sniper, as he steps toward his dying buddy, detects the tell-tale click of an anti-personnel mine set to detonate beneath his foot. If he lifts his boot, the mine explodes, and he dies along with his buddy. Frozen in place, he contacts his higher headquarters by radio and is told it will be 52 hours until help arrives. Can he hold on? What will happen to him as he waits? How will he be rescued?  These questions drive the remainder of the film.

The set-up is contrived, but intriguing as it plays out. Fair warning, though–many critics have called Mine pure hokum—its 17% positive critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes is the lowest I’ve ever seen. Whatever, I liked Armie Hammer as the sniper, Sergeant Mike Stevens. The lunky-and-hunky Hammer certainly looks the part, and he works hard to keep not just his character but the film alive. Caught in a nightmare scenario that tests both his wits and his stamina, Sergeant Stevens must summon more physical resources than even the toughest Marine might be expected to possess, and confront psychological terrors brought on by stress and fatigue he’d rather suppress. For directors Guaglione and Resinaro, the challenge is developing plausible and exciting events and plot turns to fill ninety minutes of screen time. They’re not entirely up to the task, but they have a nice visual style. As one review puts it, “The Fabios appear to have some talent, but not a lot of common sense” (watch the movie, you’ll see). For my money, though, their work honors Italian filmmaker legend Sergio Leone’s films The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars, which star Clint Eastwood. A celebration of masculine hardiness, perseverance, and ingenuity, Mine is a spaghetti Western for our times.

After a taut first twenty minutes, Mine’s pace become languid and somewhat repetitive. In contrast, Megan Leavey, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, trips along nicely, with each scene crisply and economically contributing to a satisfactory whole. Starring Kata Mara in the title role, Megan Leavey is based on a true story about the actual Megan Leavey’s battle to reunite with the bomb-sniffing dog with whom she worked in Iraq as a Marine. Meagan Leavey, then, is not just a biopic of Leavey, but also the story of her canine partner, a magnificently ferocious German Shepherd named Rex. Mara is excellent as Leavey and more than up to the task of sharing the screen with the charismatic Rex. Pint-sized and narrow-shouldered, Leavey is swallowed up by the baggy uniforms and cumbersome combat gear she wears. On appearance not promising, underestimate Leavey at your peril, for beneath the unimpressive exterior lies a basic competence and formidable desire to succeed.

Not to say she is perfect; part of the movie’s charm lies in showing how Leavey, as a young woman, is often confused and mistake-prone. But the potential is there and is recognized by her chain-of-command, who suss out that Leavey contains the requisite blend of toughness and tenderness to bond with Rex, who heretofore has resisted training by male dog-handlers. In all this Mara resembles a younger version of the Jessica Chastain character in Zero Dark Thirty. Leavey is not yet that film’s Maya–a bad-ass capable of vanquishing professional rivals and torturing and killing enemies without flinching—but she is on the way to becoming a smart, strong-minded woman easily able to hold her own in a man’s world. First though, she must confront a series of hurdles as terrifying in their way as the landmines faced by Sergeant Stevens in Mine: rage-prone Marine sergeants, stiff qualification tests for dog-handler school, intimidating initial encounters with Rex, and finally the horror of combat, where she is wounded and evacuated from the battlefield. Those obstacles surmounted, fighting the military bureaucracy post-deployment for permission to adopt Rex doesn’t seem much of a challenge at all.

So, two movies about heroic triumph over adversity leading to personal achievement and transformation. An interesting point of comparison is how the two films portray their protagonists’ relationship to their chains-of-command and the larger military culture they have joined. In Mine, Sergeant Stevens is virtually abandoned by his higher headquarters, whose radio communiques to him have an oddly sterile remoteness that make them sound like they are being transmitted by aliens from outer-space. The other-worldly effect suggests that individual Marines such as Sergeant Stevens are disposable factotums in the eyes of the higher-up machinery. In Megan Leavey, the chain-of-command is all too present and emotionally engaged with Leavey, as they tell her in loud voices and no uncertain terms that she must get her act together to achieve the things she really wants (in graphic military slang not used in this family-friendly film, she must “un-fuck” herself). Cowperthwaite might have made Leavey’s story one of victory over a misogynist patriarchy (as does Zero Dark Thirty), but Leavey doesn’t seem to understand her lot that way. Instead, the suggestion is that she knows she’s a participant in an older, sweeter, and sometimes truer tale: how the military, in its “tough love” way, serves as the means by which young men and women maximize their potential. Which is kind of the point of Mine, too, though no thanks to the chain-of-command there.

****

Not to hate on World War I films, RIP Kirk Douglas, star of what might be the greatest WWI film of them all, Paths of Glory. A couple of years ago I was asked to participate in a panel discussion of Paths of Glory at Yale by vet-author Adrian Bonenberger, along with Benjamin Busch, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Brianne Bilsky. It was a wonderful opportunity, a great time, and a fond memory.

 

Contemporary War Fiction by Category

February 1, 2020

Brian Castner and Phil Klay at AWP16 in Los Angeles

I’ve compiled lists of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction by category as a reference for those interested. The focus is on novels and short-story collections published by major and medium-sized publishers. Comprehensive lists of self-published and smaller-press titles await compiling, as do catalogs of romance, war-adventure/mil-thriller, young-adult, and graphic novels. I know they’re out there in numbers, and don’t gainsay their importance, but it’s beyond me to account for them right now.

I’ve identified authors by branch-of-service or civilian status, since that’s a breakdown oft-inquired about. Most of my categories are obvious and self-explanatory (ie, Iraq vs. Afghanistan), but a few reflect more specialized queries I’ve received over the years. If there’s a categorization you think important that I haven’t provided, please let me know.

Mistakes and omissions are inevitable and corrections are easy, so if you spot a problem let me know.

2020 is shaping up to be fruitful year for new fiction by established vet-writers, with work due to arrive from heavy-hitters Elliot Ackerman, Matt Gallagher, Jesse Goolsby, and Phil Klay. Hoo-wah!

Novels Set Mostly in Iraq

Last One In (2007) Nicholas Kulish (Civilian)
The Sandbox (2010), David Zimmerman (Civilian)
Sand Queen (2011) Helen Benedict (Civilian)
One Hundred and One Nights (2011), Benjamin Buchholz (Army)
Fobbit (2012), David Abrams (Army)
The Yellow Birds (2012), Kevin Powers (Army)
War of the Encyclopaedists (2014), Gavin Kovite (Army) and Christopher Robinson (Civilian)
Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014), Michael Pitre (Army)
Youngblood (2016), Matt Gallagher (Army)
The Good Lieutenant (2016), Whitney Terrell (Civilian)
The Baghdad Eucharist (2017), Sinan Antoon (Civilian)
Brave Deeds (2017), David Abrams (Army)
Spoils (2017), Brian Van Reet (Army)
The Book of Collateral Damage (2019), Sinan Antoon (Civilian)
The Surge (2019), Adam Kovacs (Army)

Novels Set Mostly in Afghanistan

The Wasted Vigil (2008), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
The Watch (2012), Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya (Civilian)
The Blind Man’s Garden (2013), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
What Changes Everything (2013), Masha Hamilton (Civilian)
Wynne’s War (2014), Aaron Gwyn (Civilian)
Green on Blue (2015), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
Old Silk Road (2015), Brandon Caro (Army)
The Valley (2015), John Renehan (Army)
Anatomy of a Soldier (2016), Harry Parker (British Army)
And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018), Ray McPadden (Army)
Still Come Home (2019), Katey Schultz (Civilian)

Fictional Global War on Terror Setting:

The Knife (2015), Ross Ritchell (Army)

Novels Set Stateside and/or Post-Deployment

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012), Ben Fountain (Civilian)
Sparta (2013), Roxana Robinson (Civilian)
The Apartment (2014), Greg Baxter (Civilian)
Be Safe, I Love You (2014), Cara Hoffman (Civilian)
Preparation for the Next Life (2014), Atticus Lish (Marines)
I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015), Jesse Goolsby (Air Force)
Casualties (2016), Elizabeth Marro (Civilian)
A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016), Matthew Hefti (Air Force)
War Porn (2016), Roy Scranton (Army)
Wolf Season (2017), Helen Benedict (Civilian)
Waiting for Eden (2018), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
The Heart of War (2018), Kathleen McInnis (Civilian)
Cherry (2018), Nico Walker (Army)

Short Story Collections and Anthologies

You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), Siobhan Fallon (Civilian)
Fire and Forget (2013), Matt Gallagher (Army) and Roy Scranton (Army), eds.
Flashes of War (2013), Katie Schultz (Civilian)
The Corpse Exhibition (2014), Hassan Blasim (Iraqi-Finnish civilian)
Redeployment (2014), Phil Klay (Marines)
The Road Ahead (2016), Brian Castner (Air Force) and Adrian Bonenberger (Army), eds.
We Come to Our Senses (2016), Odie Lyndsey (Army)
These Heroic Happy Dead (2016), Luke Mogelson (Civilian)
Desert Mementos (2017), Caleb S. Cage (Army)
Veterans Crisis Hotline (2018), Jonathan Chopan (Civilian)
Bring Out the Dog (2018), Will Mackin (Navy)

Novels and Short-Story Collections by Women

Sand Queen (2011) Helen Benedict (Civilian)
You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), Siobhan Fallon (Civilian)
Eleven Days, (2013), Lea Carpenter (Civilian)
What Changes Everything (2013), Masha Hamilton (Civilian)
Sparta (2013), Roxana Robinson (Civilian)
Flashes of War (2013), Katie Schultz (Civilian)
Be Safe, I Love You (2014), Cara Hoffman (Civilian)
Casualties (2016), Elizabeth Marro (Civilian)
Wolf Season (2017), Helen Benedict (Civilian)
The Heart of War (2018), Kathleen McInnis (Civilian)
Still Come Home (2019), Katey Schultz (Civilian)

Novels and Short-Story Collections Portraying Special Operations Forces

Eleven Days (2013), Lea Carpenter (Civilian)
Wynne’s War (2014), Aaron Gwyn (Civilian)
The Knife (2015) Ross Ritchell (Army)
Bring Out the Dog (2018) Will Mackin (Navy)
And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018), Ray McPadden (Army)

Translations and Novels by Foreign Authors

The Wasted Vigil (2008), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
The Corpse Washer (2013), Sinan Antoon (Iraqi-American)
The Blind Man’s Garden (2013), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
The Corpse Exhibition (2014), Hassan Blasim (Iraqi-Finnish civilian)
Anatomy of a Soldier (2016), Harry Parker (British)
Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018), Amed Saadawi (Iraqi)
The Baghdad Eucharist (2017), Sinan Antoon (Iraqi-American)
The Book of Collateral Damage (2019), Sinan Antoon (Iraqi-American)

Novels in Which War in Iraq or Afghanistan Serves as an Important Backdrop

The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), Robert Gailbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) (Civilian)
They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013), Hilary Plum (Civilian)
A Big Enough Lie (2015), Eric Bennett (Civilian)
Dark at the Crossing (2017), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
The Confusion of Languages (2017), Siobhan Fallon (Civilian)
Ohio (2018), Stephen Markley (Civilian)
Strawberry Fields (2018), Hilary Plum (Civilian)

Novels Featuring Unconventional Narration and/or Fantastical Elements

A Big Enough Lie (2015), Eric Bennett (Civilian). Contains a “novel-within-a-novel” portraying combat in Iraq authored by a character who pretends to be a disabled vet.

The Old Silk Road (2015), Brandon Caro (Navy). Features extended passages describing drug-induced time-travel.

The War of the Encyclopaedists (2015), Gavin Kovite (Army) and Christopher Robinson (Civilian). Co-written by a civ-mil author team, with alternating sections focused on characters resembling the authors.

Anatomy of a Soldier (2016), Harry Parker (British Army). Narrated by material objects associated with soldiering and war in Afghanistan.

The Good Lieutenant (2016), Whitney Terrell (Civilian). Narrated in reverse chronological order, chapter-by-chapter.

Waiting for Eden (2018), Elliot Ackerman (Marines). Narrated by the now-dead soldier-friend of a badly-wounded, near-comatose Marine who can neither move nor speak.

Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018), Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq). A monster built out of the human remains of war-dead stalks the streets of Baghdad.

Second and Third Acts: Subsequent novels by veteran-authors (and one military spouse) listed above, but not directly depicting war in Iraq or Afghanistan

The Confusion of Languages (2017), Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse)
A Shout in the Ruins (2018), Kevin Powers (Army)
I [Heart] Oklahoma (2019), Roy Scranton (Army)
Red Dress in Black and White (2020), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
Empire City (2020), Matt Gallagher (Army)
Acceleration Hours (2020), Jesse Goolsby (Air Force)
Missionaries (2020), Phil Klay (Marines)

Five unconventionally narrated contemporary war novels–check them out everybody!

 


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