Archive for the ‘Art and War’ category

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.

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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!

 

Caleb S. Cage’s War Narratives

January 25, 2020

“Our ideas about the war were the war.” -Will Mackin, “Kattekoppen”

“Lieutenants write the histories of their wars.” -Gore Vidal, Burr

Caleb S. Cage’s War Narratives: Shaping Beliefs, Blurring Truths in the Middle East, published in 2019, is a most curious, almost surprising, arrival on the war-writing scene. Organized around an easy-to-grasp conceit, War Narratives argues that true understanding of America’s twenty-first century wars, particularly Iraq, has been clouded by competing story-like interpretations of what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, why what happened happened, and why any of it matters. Analytical and historical in approach and arriving at a time when war-mil-and-vet writing seems stuck on a limited number of predictable tracks, War Narratives offers striking relief from the parade of first-person memoirs, biographical accounts, and journalistic commentary on topical events. Though not perfect in its argument or its argument’s development, War Narratives succeeds by being provocative and inspirational, and, best of all, by being mostly right.

War Narratives’ thesis that understanding of the war has taken the form of understanding stories about the war is in some respects obvious—everyone has heard canards about “controlling the narrative” from the mouths of generals, politicians, and journalists—but Cage takes the nostrum seriously and unpacks it in a number of interesting and illuminating ways. Each chapter is organized around a simple-but-sturdy rubric: examination of two competing narratives (some of which seem more like ideas or beliefs than stories, but no matter) about Iraq and Afghanistan. Chapter One begins things by analyzing competing explanations for extremist Islamic jihad offered by Al Qaeda and ISIS. The virtue in starting this way is that two of America’s arch enemies publicly proclaim differing “official” narratives. This fortuitous event allows Cage to dissect clearly-enunciated, highly-visible examples of narrative construction and dissemination before turning to Western narratives that coalesce in more nebulous ways at the level of public opinion, political positions, media debate, book battles, and ideology.

Chapters Two through Five examine key aspects of twenty-first century American warfaring politics and strategy in a similar pattern. In each chapter, Cage identifies first a dominant, conventional, or accepted interpretation of events and then undermines it by considering an alternative version not generally given enough credence in Cage’s estimation. Chapter Two, for example, takes issue with the idea that the decision to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan was a matter of “choice” by President Bush, rather than a more complicated, wide-ranging accretion of events and processes that involved many players. Chapter Three argues against the idea that President Bush was just a “cowboy” enamored of tough-guy talk and action. Instead, Cage demonstrates, President Bush was also consumed by the idea of making war as pain-free and risk-adverse for soldiers and the nation as he could. Chapter Four counters conventional belief that the chaotic Reconstruction “Phase IV” of Operation Iraqi Freedom was neglected by war-planners and leaders such as General Tommy Franks. Cage proposes that the real problem was not neglect, but too much uncoordinated effort, and the real failure was inability to synchronize competing plans and planning agencies to maximum effect. Chapter Five explores debates about the value of COIN strategy, the Iraq War “Surge,” and the cult-like preeminence given (for a while) to General David Petraeus as the savior of a war gone-very-badly-wrong. Here, Cage goes beyond description of competing sides to make a larger, more trenchant argument: debates about COIN, the Surge, and General Petraeus had more to do with domestic political posturing than people and actions on the ground in Iraq. Not that things on the ground didn’t actually happen, but they were interpreted through competing rhetorical frameworks that advanced pre-confirmed political beliefs and agendas.

All good, so far, and a nice trip down memory lane to revisit events that already seem like they occurred a million years ago. The last three chapters of War Narratives, however, are more germane to Time Now’s interest in the artistic representation of war, the human experience of war, and literary analysis. Chapters Six through Eight identify dominant motifs in the stories that soldiers actually tell about themselves in oral histories, memoirs, and fiction. Chapter Seven, on oral history, describes a body of soldier stories that escape characterization of military men and women as either “heroes” or “victims.” Chapter Seven, titled “On Chickenshit,” asserts that contempt for military bureaucratic rigamarole, both in the way it affected efforts to fight the enemy and in the way it defined the military’s own internal processes, as the animating energy in war blogs and memoirs such as those by Colby Buzzell, Matt Gallagher, Christopher Hartley, and Benjamin Tupper. Cage is not wrong, at all, and his most salient point in War Narratives, for my money, is made in this chapter. Describing the way that contempt for military chickenshit, horseshit, and bullshit reflected particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan soldier narratives, he writes:

In these wars, instances of chickenshit evoke a sense of dishonesty often used in political rhetoric to persuade, and political cowardice that allowed for a poorly planned invasion and the belief in a painless war, all resulting in a risk-averse approach to combat. And because those who served in the military during these wars did so voluntarily, it helps explain why those who endure chickenshit in the military can complain about, but how they do not see themselves as heroes or victims for doing so.

There’s much to unpack in the above quote, but to comment on just two aspects: characteristic here is Cage’s attention to the importance of the all-volunteer military in shaping the peculiar nature of war narratives in the twenty-first century. In almost every chapter, the fact that a large unknowing populace and a small cohort of military volunteers exist on opposite sides of a chasm is the driving force for the creation of stories told on each side of the chasm about those on the other side. In specific regard to soldier narratives, Cage puts his finger on the contempt and rage so prominent in war narratives, which is directed at every member of the chain-of-command above the rank of lieutenant for constructing such an unsatisfying war and military experience for the junior enlisted and junior officers who write the bulk of soldier-narratives. And yet, as Cage explains, the authors know they volunteered, and so while in suffered more-or-less silently what they feel more liberty to vehemently vent when out.

As Johnny Rotten famously proclaimed from the stage at the last Sex Pistols’ gig: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” For me, that’s pretty much the author’s attitude in many memoirs written by contemporary veterans.

Chapter Eight turns attention to war fiction as a war-writing corpus that not only honestly proclaims its identity as “narrative” but which offers more-worthy counter-stories to the self-serving and politicized tales examined in War Narratives’ early chapters. This line-of-thinking is music to my ears, though presented a little uncritically by Cage:

Those seeking to find the real war, not the war as it is filtered through political, social, and cultural narratives, but as told in an honest, forthright, nuanced, and sincere way, can turn to fiction for a larger unmediated variety of stories. Thanks to the fiction writers of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the real war is finally in the books…. The way the wars were presented by the media, through some memoirs, and through other outlets was more sensational, it was more superficial, and it was more political, reflecting more of what the broader civilian public wanted to hear than the true and complex experiences of those who were deployed on their nation’s behalf.

Cage rightfully expands on the idea that “true and complex experiences” of war might best be written by veteran authors to include civilian authors as well. He proceeds by examining four literary fiction titles that he asserts offer the complex truth-telling richness he values: Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Laura McBride’s We Are Called to Rise, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, and Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood. I’m down with that, but the chapter leaves me wanting a little more than Cage delivers. Rather than diving deep into the narratives the authors have created to demonstrate how fiction’s “true and complex” representations improve upon sanctified general understandings, the chapter concludes with summaries of interviews Cage conducted with the authors about why they wrote the stories they did. I’m not not interested in the authors’ ideas, but especially in a book about narrative strategies, the dictum “trust the tale, not the teller” has some purchase, so would liked to have seen more in-depth exploration of the authors’ actual stories.

Carpenter’s, McBride’s, Klay’s, and Gallagher’s fictions are indeed complex and contain truths, so getting specific about the narrative discourses in which they participate, we might say: Carpenter’s Eleven Days explores the mythology of Special Operations (particularly SEALs) (boy is that ever a narrative worth interrogating), McBride’s We Are Called to Rise asks us to think about traumatized veterans, Klay’s Redeployment stories ponder veteran complicity with evil, and Gallagher’s Youngblood might be read as a parable of the difficulty of knowing who one was fighting while in Iraq and the vexed nature of tale-telling after the war. Honestly, as much as I love those books, they seem (to varying degrees) to instantiate prevailing cultural beliefs about fighting men-and-women as much as critique them or offer compelling alternatives. Be that as it may, with just a little work, the fictional works Cage examines at the end of War Narratives might be linked back to the public sphere narratives he analyzes in Chapters One through Five to resolve, synthesize, or undermine them. The possibilities are there….

A great virtue of War Narratives is that it is short and apprehensible. It can be read over a weekend, the arguments absorbed and evidence digested easily, and the personal wrangle, as I have done here, commenced quickly. Also, War Narratives is a book-wonk’s dream, with Cage offering splendid capsule summaries and analyses of dozens of war-related biographies, memoirs, and journalistic and historical accounts. That Cage himself is a vet, a graduate of West Point, no less, and also the author of a very good short-story collection titled Desert Mementos, makes War Narratives’ arrival so much the sweeter. One only wishes it weren’t so alone in its orientation, and that it joined a robust collection of works exploring contemporary war and contemporary war-writing more holistically and conceptually than what we currently have.

The chapter “On Chickenshit” can be read here on the War, Literature, & the Arts journal website.

Caleb S. Cage. War Narratives: Shaping Beliefs, Blurring Truths in the Middle East. Texas A&M University Press, 2019.

The Stories Behind the Stories

January 12, 2020

Pablo Picasso, “Palette, Candlestick, and Head of Minotaur”

My story “The Brigade Storyboard Artist” was republished this week on the Wrath-Bearing Tree website. Originally appearing as “Captain Athens and Sergeant Arrack” on Time Now in 2016, the story portrays internal drama within a brigade Tactical Operations Center in Afghanistan. The Wrath-Bearing Tree reissue has gotten a fair amount of attention and praise, by my standards, so check it out please if you haven’t already. It took every day of my 25+ years in the Army to accumulate enough observed detail about soldiers, operations, military processes, and Army culture to write “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” and most of what I include in the story has some resemblance to things I’ve witnessed or participated in. Most particularly, the story allows me to explore my interest in military “storyboards.” I had never seen nor heard of storyboards before arriving in Afghanistan as the leader of an advisor team in 2008. But I soon learned that storyboards, which can be roughly described as a Power Point presentation reduced to one-slide and injected with steroids, were the coin-of-the-realm in terms of information-sharing and narrative-shaping up-and-down and across the chain-of-command.

The specific genesis of “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” as a story, however, was an assignment I gave to cadets when I was teaching a literature course at West Point. The course director, Elizabeth Samet, made Ovid’s The Metamorphoses mandatory reading, along with an assignment to write stories that adapted myths related by Ovid into modern settings. Intrigued by the assignment, I wrote five adaptations myself, including what eventually became “The Brigade Storyboard Artist.” It’s based on Ovid’s telling of a mighty competition between Athena, the goddess of arts, and Arachne, a talented upstart, to sew the most magnificent tapestry. Central to The Metamorphoses myth is a transformation at each tale’s end. Typically, the transformation involves a human who is changed into an animal or material object; in Ovid’s telling of the Athena and Arachne competition, Arachne is turned into a spider when she loses the contest. I don’t go quite that far, but I’ve tried to find a realistic analogy.

I’ve also written four other stories based on myths related by Ovid in The Metamorphoses:

“Cy and Ali” is based on Ceyx and Alcyone, one of Ovid’s saddest stories. In my version, Cy is a gunner in a convoy caught in an ambush and Ali is his wife waiting at home for his return from war.

“Ari and Theodopulous” is based on the Minotaur myth. In Ovid, Theseus slays the Minotaur but is only able to escape the labyrinth with the help of King Minos’s daughter Ariadne. Theseus and Ariadne flee Crete, but Thesesus inexplicably abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Soon, however, Ariadne is taken up by Bacchus, the god of revelry. In my story, I find parallels for all that by telling a tale about a veteran who becomes a mixed-martial-arts champion.

“Junior and Io” is based on Ovid’s Jupiter, Juno, and Io myth. In Ovid, Jupiter, who is married to Juno, pursues Io, who he turns into a cow to hide her from Juno. In my story, Jupiter is a deployed soldier who is dumped, probably for good reason, by his girl Io.

“Captains Dietz and Avis” is based on Ovid’s Daphne and Apollo myth. In the myth, Apollo pursues Daphne, who finally escapes him when she is turned into a tree. In my story, a male Army captain with the hots for a female fellow officer comes on too strong and ruins her tour.

So what do you get when you use Ovid as the basis for telling stories about modern war? One issue is that of tone—almost all of Ovid’s stories end badly for the characters he wants us to care most deeply about—and yet somehow the stories are not tragic, but more comic or whimsical or detached. A few, very few, such as Ceyx and Alcyone, are tender and heartbreakingly sad.

Second, many or most of Ovid’s stores involve romance, desire, infatuation, and unrequited love. Since not so many modern war stories do love and relationships well, Ovid’s myths provide a framework by which a modern writer might begin to think about telling a story about the romantic and erotic lives of soldiers.

The third issue is dealing with the characters’ transformations. What to make of the them? Scholars suggest that the constant change reflects the capriciousness of the gods (or fate), who can punish or reward unexpectedly. They also suggest that Ovid’s message is that because change is constant, the ability to deal with change is not just a desired quality, but a necessity and a great good.

I can see those things, but also disagree. For me, the important aspect of Ovid’s stories is the permanent nature of the characters’ transformations and the corresponding ruin of their social relationships. When a character is transformed into a bird or animal or material object, he or she is gone forever from the human realm. Like death, yes, but more like disappearance and loss while still alive. It always happens for a reason, and maybe is for the best, but still. Think of people you once knew well and who were important to you, but who are now estranged or lost from contact, probably never to be seen or spoken to again. For me, it’s the destroyed human connections at the end of Ovid’s stories that account for their emotional force.

Many thanks to everyone at Wrath-Bearing Tree, a great journal featuring always interesting fiction, poetry, reviews, and commentary about war and the military.

2020 Vision: Old Wars, New Directions

December 30, 2019

In recent months, much writing by veterans has reckoned with America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans Day, for example, elicited a larger number of vet-authored essays and opinion pieces than I remember from years past. The veterans’ ruminations described what might blandly be called “the human cost of war,” along with discussion of those human costs’ connections to national strategy and policy failures. Countering simplistic celebrations of veterans’ service and sacrifice, the pieces described lingering guilt, loss, pain, regret, and disappointment. A few days later, President Trump’s pardoning of war criminals Edward Gallagher, Mathew Golstyen, and Clint Lorance inspired another round of articles, the general gist of which expressed outrage at the men, their actions, and the pardons. Shortly thereafter, came the release of the Washington Post’s “The Afghanistan Papers,” which accused the nation’s civilian and military leadership of lying about how badly things have gone in Afghanistan the past two decades. The series subsequently generated more public opining by veteran-writers, me included. The responses in this case tempered outrage with proclamations of “duh” and “I told you so.”

I tracked the many Veterans Day, Presidential pardons, and Afghanistan Papers commentaries and agreed with much or most of what was written there-in. As always, though, my main interest has not been public sphere debate, but the parallel world of artistic expression. Not that the realm of art is “better” than political discourse, but I Iike it more, and, at the least, art is the province of the imagination, a quality that seems to be lacking in the thinking about how to bring America’s long wars to a close. It’s not that art offers specific solutions to specific problems (or rarely does), but that the art-realm serves as a constant imperative to think and live creatively and empathetically. Recent months have brought much to contemplate in this regard, too.

 

For instance, the Voices from War “Stories and Conversations on Transitions” reading at the New York Historical Society on Veterans Day weekend was fantastic. Voices from War is a long-standing New York City veterans writing workshop led by Kara Krauze, a formidable teacher and organizer. At the event, I was astonished by the diversity and uniqueness of the readers’ pieces, each of which came at the subject of war and “transition” from an interesting angle. To focus on an individual reading that combined personal reminiscence with heightened artistry, Drew Pham’s prose-poem “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” was particularly outstanding. Pham, a second-generation Vietnamese-American who served as an infantry lieutenant in Afghanistan with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, is now making a go of it as a writer and teacher in New York. Taking the concept of transition to an extreme, Pham now identifies as “they” and appeared on stage wearing make-up and a dress adorned with their Army badges and decorations.

A flamboyant stage presence, no doubt, but it’s the poem Pham read that counts most. “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” explores Pham’s personal, family, and ethnic/national history as it has played out over several generations and a number of imperialistic military projects dating back to World War I France and culminating in Pham’s service in Afghanistan. There are complicated authorial subject-positions, but it’s hard to imagine one more complicated than Pham’s: the son of immigrants whose family was deeply imbricated in Vietnam’s colonial and martial past, Pham fought in Afghanistan and there did the things American infantrymen are asked to do. In “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names,” Pham tries to make sense of it all, infused with an implicit, not explicit, wrestle with gender identity and sexual orientation. A short excerpt only begins to illustrate:

i only have this story / bits of shrapnel scattered through my family / i pieced together but never whole / the explosion that tore its way through our roots detonated so long ago / i cannot tell you whether those bits of steel i still find in my limbs belong to me / or the histories of my countrymen all so erased…

Two of the five sections of “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” are available here on the World War I Centennial Commission WWrite Blog, but the poem as a whole has not yet been published. I’ve obtained a paper copy of the poem entire, read it many times, and hope it will soon be available for all to read in full. Its five sections range stylistically from traditional lyric to highly wrought narrative prose. Central to the poem is Pham’s mother, who serves as the link connecting past and present and as the fulcrum for understanding the tangled threads of the poet’s life. In this, and in overall tone and style, “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” on page and read aloud made me think of “Kaddish,” Beat poet Alan Ginsberg’s great ode to his own mother. Whether the resemblance is intentional or not, I don’t know, but the poem’s striking imagery, momentous story-line, and exploratory emotional depth centered on war also reminds me of Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, while not being imitative or overly indebted to either Turner or Ginsberg.

Left to right, Omar Columbus, Phil Nerges, Leo Farley, Kara Krauze, Siobhan Adcock, Ellen Emerson, and Drew Pham at the Voices from War 2019 Veterans Day reading at the New York Historical Society.

Far to the southwest, the Austin Veterans Art Festival brought forth more bold expansions of war art boundaries. I wasn’t in Texas for the Festival, but the sound of distant thunder was very exciting. Not completely unconnected with the New York City scene, either; the AVAF featured new dramatic works by several artist-veterans with Big Apple credentials. New York City-based performance-poet Jenny Pacanowski, an Army vet whose poetry can be as raucous as it can be tender, authored a play titled Dionysus in America that reimagined the ancient Bacchae plays as parables for contemporary social disintegration. As its blurb states:

Dionysus in America imagines a dystopia in which women suffer endless harassment, and right-wing politics wrenches away women’s control over their own bodies; in response, American women heed the call of Dionysus, and flee to new, strange, euphoric rites in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. General Pentheus, leader of the American war machine, swears to go to the Mesopotamia, liberate the women, and drag them back to the United States. Unfortunately, he operates unaware that his uncle, a transformed and unrecognizable Dionysus, God of ritual madness, has decided to punish America’s hubris for rejecting his mother, his divinity, and his seemingly inexplicable rites of devotion.

The super-serious and somewhat staid Iraq and Afghanistan war writing and art scene has shied away from radical political critique in terms of message and from the carnivalesque and satirical in terms of aesthetics. Pacanowski, however, and to her great credit, is anything but staid, and Dionysus in America defiantly crashes and crushes barriers. One can only hope it foretells further expansions of war-story themes and styles; not all art needs to be politically outraged and theatrically over-the-top, but some of it must be.

A second play, authored and directed by Texas natives/New Jersey transplants John Myer (an Army vet) and Karen Alvarado, also did not tell a conventional story in a conventional way. Myer and Alvarado’s play Aftershock/La Réplica combined story-telling, dance, movement, drama, and music to explore the lives of Latino soldiers serving in the US military. Again, the complexity of the subject position suggests great possibility for artistic presentation: how do Hispanic-American men and women balance dual heritages and conflicting identities with military service in a contemporary national climate that makes it increasingly difficult to do so? Aftershock/La Réplica, according to its blurb, “explores new dimensions of Latinx military service, featuring soldiers and citizens who expect military service to reinforce their identity and ideas about family, patriotism, and even sexuality – but the military is often a place that mixes up the moral compass and sense of self and invents a new identity.” A video trailer here illustrates the Myer/Alvarado approach, which is never visually boring nor intellectually dull.

An aspect of Aftershock/La Réplica I like very much is that it included passages authored by former Marine Victor Inzunza. Inzunza, a poet, was the first contemporary war-writer I ever met—on the shuttle bus from the hotel to the 2011 War, Literature, and Arts conference in Colorado—and it’s been a pleasure following his work ever since and see it now incorporated within a bold theatrical endeavor by Myer and Alvarado, who are also friends.

Also performing in Austin was another New York City-based act, the wonderful Exit 12 Dance Company, about whom I’ve written about here, and Exit 12 conducted a dance workshop, as well. Finally, Veterans Writing Project founder and director Ron Capps was the featured speaker at the Veterans Health and Welfare Conference, an event affiliated with the Austin Veterans Art Festival. I also note that Capps participated in a veterans songwriting seminar near Austin that may or may not have been associated with the AVAF. It’s confusing, but I’m glad to be confused by so much creative flourishing and eager to learn more. In any case, I sympathize with Capps, a talented guitarist and singer, as he plumbs music’s power to articulate emotional nuances that can’t be expressed by cold black words on barren white pages or screens. To me, he seems much like poet Brian Turner in this turn to music, as well as a man after my own heart. But still, I like words most and Capps, like Voices from War’s Kara Krauze, is one of the long-time (mostly) unsung heroes of contemporary veteran writing. I’m especially glad to see Capps and Krauze still active as 2020 dawns and encouraging new voices, new stories, and new directions to make sense of the by now very old wars.

****

This post only touches a few of the interesting contemporary war-related artistic endeavors that have caught my attention the past few months. I hope to describe some others in posts to come.

 

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction, Poetry, and Movies 2019

December 26, 2019

Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

2019 was not a bounteous year for new Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction, with only three new titles appearing by my count. Adam Kovac’s The Surge and Katey Schultz’s Still Come Home each describe Army National Guard units struggling to make the best of things in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, while Amy Waldman’s A Door in the Earth features an American NGO trying to make sense of war’s effects in rural Afghanistan. I’m also counting three full-length poetry collections appearing in 2019: Army vet Graham Barnhart’s The War Makes Everyone Lonely, cultural anthropologist and DOD-contractor Nomi Stone’s Kill Class, and Army spouse’s Abby E. Murray’s Hail and Farewell. Movies included The Kill Team, starring Alexander Skarsgard, about US Army soldiers in Afghanistan; Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightly, about perfidy in the British government in the build-up to war in Iraq, and The Report, starring former Marine Adam Driver, about perfidy in the American government regarding its “enhanced interrogation” program.

I’m sure I’m missing titles, so let me hear about them and I’ll consider, but not promise, to add them. The list is a “living document,” but it’s more idiosyncratic than authoritative. For example, the decision to list independently published titles can be subjective, based on my estimation of the work’s importance, value, and interest. Also subjective is the definition of what is and what isn’t an Iraq or Afghanistan work; i.e., why is Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages (set in Jordan) included, but not the movies Captain Phillips (set off the coast of Somalia) and 13 Hours (Libya), despite their obvious relevance to the Global War on Terror? I’ve also resisted including genre works, such as sci-fi, romance, thriller/adventure, young adult, and graphic narratives, and the number of titles originally published in languages other than English is thin. There are also books and movies out there not set in Iraq or Afghanistan or even featuring American soldiers at war, but which have fans and critics who claim that they are “really” about Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, many writers who depicted war in Iraq or Afghanistan in early works have “moved on” and are now publishing works that do not directly address Iraq or Afghanistan. In my mind I can often see linkages between previous and recent work, but they may not be strong enough to merit inclusion here.

So, please consider the lists conversation starters—not definitive, but great to discuss over a beer or in the comments section.

Titles new to the list are in bold. Many thanks to David Eisler for directing me to two early-on novels, Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In (2007) and Benjamin Buchholz’s One Hundred and One Nights (2011) that are set in Iraq near the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Much love also to Bill Putnam for the great pictures that accompany my year-end lists. Be sure to check out Bill’s body-of-work at his website here, and also on Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

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

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

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

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

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

On Larry Heinemann

December 22, 2019

The name Larry Heinemann meant little to me when I was asked to write his entry for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, a prestigious scholarly reference series available in university libraries. Heinemann, who died last week at age 75, was a Vietnam veteran best known for the controversial selection of his novel Paco’s Story as the National Book Award winner in 1987, where it won out, most notably, over Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and also Philip Roth’s The Counterlife. At the time the DLB contacted me, I hadn’t read Paco’s Story or Heinemann’s other Vietnam War novel Close Quarters (1977). To the extent I knew anything about Heinemann, I vaguely held what seems to have been a general sentiment: the selection of Paco’s Story as National Book Award winner constituted a great wrong to Morrison, and that Heinemann’s novel had been selected for reasons related not just to literary achievement, but race, and for which Heinemann was somehow implicated.

Still, I took the DLB assignment, because I sensed that contemporary war-writing, the subject of Time Now, might be better understood by a deep dive in a body of writing—Vietnam War literature—that preceded it. I was also curious about Heinemann, and how his name somehow had not achieved the stature of other Vietnam War writers such as Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien. Mostly though, I wanted to explore how a National Book Award winning vet-author had not just been overlooked by history, but dismissed by it.

Subsequently, I read all of Heinemann’s books: Close Quarters, Paco’s Story, a third novel titled Cooler by the Lake (1992), and his memoir Black Virgin Mountain (2005). I also read his introductions to a coffee-table book titled Changing Chicago: A Photodocumentary (1989) and Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1992), and a 1997 short story published in Atlantic titled “A Fragging.” Finally, I read as much scholarship on Heinemann as I could find, and then got to work. 5,000 words later, I submitted my entry, which eventually appeared in volume 382 of the DLB, alongside entries on Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy, Walter Mosley, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Richard Russo, Donna Tartt, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead.

I invite you too to read Heinemann’s work and also my DLB entry, if you have access to a university library. Be warned, though, by the standards of post-9/11 war-writing, Close Quarters and Paco’s Story are brutal in terms of depicting war violence and atrocity. Dosier, the protagonist of Close Quarters, and Paco, the titular hero of Paco’s Story, are soldiers in Vietnam who do monstrous things, and the novels suggest they become monsters as a result. The problem is compounded by the fact that Close Quarters is based closely on Heinemann’s own tour; he later called it “straight-up fictionalized memoir.” If we take that statement as true, it makes it unavoidable to contemplate that the author himself has done the monstrous things he describes and has become a monster himself, much like his character Dosier. I’m not joking. Imagine if recently-pardoned war criminals such as Clint Lorance, Mathew Golsteyn, and Edward Gallagher and the things they did were featured characters and events in novels written by themselves. Now multiply that by ten and suggest their criminal acts were an everyday feature of a year’s tour in a combat zone. Add in explicit racism and extreme misogyny. Take it even further: Close Quarters features a scene in which a Vietnamese camp-follower is coerced into fucking and giving head to an entire platoon. A similar scene reappears in Paco’s Story; in this case an underage Vietnamese girl is gang-raped by an Army platoon and then shot in the face.

These scenes are shocking, but Heinemann’s tone and point don’t seem sensational, or defensive or confessional or even accusatory. Instead, the scenes and the novels constitute a serious representation of a soldier’s capacity for evil as he is caught up by the forces of war. It’s almost certain that Lorance, Golsteyn, and Gallagher don’t have the inclination, talent, or perseverance to write novels, or at least good ones, but try to imagine your reaction if talented Iraq War veteran-authors Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, or Elliot Ackerman wrote novels about their platoons gang-raping an Iraqi girl and then shooting her. What is the worst thing they saw or did? What are they not proud of in the least? That’s where Heinemann takes it. Or, try to imagine Chris Kyle writing American Sniper after reading Melville and Tolstoy, authors Heinemann studied upon return from Vietnam. It’s like that, and somehow compelling instead of off-putting. An early review of Close Quarters captures some of the effect: “Dosier elicits the reader’s empathy throughout this extremely unpleasant, but somehow touching novel. Intense is the author’s (a Vietnam veteran’s)style/approach.” That intensity manifests itself by a hostility and anger that emanates from the pages of Close Quarters and Paco’s Story so vividly it makes them both hard to read and hard to put down.

What to make of it all? A quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen offers a possible response:

Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters was a novel I read when I was very young, 12-years old, it was a horrible experience. I wasn’t emotionally or literarily equipped to deal with it. So for a long time I really hated that book. But I think Heinemann actually did the right thing by unrelentingly focusing on atrocity without editorializing that these things are wrong.

Nguyen’s forgiving sentiment—one talented author to another—opens up complicated avenues for contemplation. In his memoir Black Virgin Mountain, Heinemann writes about Close Quarters and Paco’s Story:

“I wrote those two books in an attempt to make clear that this is what awaits you—or something like—the work of the war will transform you into something you don’t recognize; that the inevitable reverberations of the war are irresistible and virtually irremediable; that this is what you make when you make war.”

In Heinemann’s quote, what produces “this” is total war, fought for politically and morally suspect reasons, and badly-led by the officers responsible. Heinemann suggests that the unavoidable result of sending men to fight in such wars is barbarity on the battlefield and forever ruination of the men involved. In contrast, Iraq and Afghanistan were not total wars, but limited wars, which is important. If a cultural and military logic drove men to become monsters in Vietnam, restraints were in place in Afghanistan and Iraq to forestall that transformation. Lorance, Golsteyn, and Edward Gallagher knew what those restraints were, as did all soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and sent outside the wire with guns in their hands. They knew them in Vietnam, too, but a general reckoning prevailed that found breaches of them forgivable. A little. Sometimes. Depending on the circumstances. And how you felt about things.

In my DLB entry, I reconcile the conflux of ideas by writing:

Without validating [combat soldiers’] actions and ideas, Heinemann refuses to condemn them, either; while their brutality, racism, and sexism cannot be denied, he shows that their contempt for authority, pretense, and ignorance is estimable and their feral instincts for self-preservation justifiable. In Heinemann’s final accounting, far more reprehensible than the barbaric combat grunt and the disturbed and disturbing veteran are the people, circumstances, and events that make young men do monstrous deeds.

That certainly doesn’t close out the conversation on the subject or Heinemann. For now though, I’ll end with a brief exploration of Heinemann’s life after Paco’s Story. Though he seems to have preferred the company of fellow soldiers who had seen and done the kinds of things in Vietnam as he had, Heinemann never deified soldiering or glorified the supposed wisdom and camaraderie of the soldier brotherhood. He never lost his hatred of war and the military, while, interestingly, finding purpose and perhaps atonement through repeated return visits to Vietnam, where he came to appreciate the beauty of the land and the people and the sagacity of their military men. He also taught for many years at Texas A&M and elsewhere, pouring himself into encouraging fledgling writers of all stripes.

Heinemann seems not to have spoken out or written on Iraq and Afghanistan, but he was active on social media and occasionally I would see comments by him on the feeds of friends. One in particular I remember. On a thread about PTSD and how to help veterans post-war, he commented to the effect that the best thing any troubled vet could do to regain equilibrium was to “find something to do with your hands that helps people.” That seems common sensible and practical: boiled-down wisdom from a life spent thinking about the matter. For Heinemann, what he did with his hands that helped people was write and comment on his students’ writing. That application of his own advice probably entailed a little bit too much time alone with bad memories and worst fears, but still I like it very much, even as it suggests that the person Heinemann was really trying to help was himself. RIP.

****

I have written at more length about the 1987 National Book Award controversy here. In it I suggest that Toni Morrison’s last novel Home represented a late-life response to Paco’s Story (Morrison also died in 2019). The academic scholarship on Heinemann is trenchant. If so inclined, seek out Susan Jefford’s “Tattoos, Scars, Diaries, and Writing Masculinity”; Stacey Peebles’ “The Ghost That Won’t Be Exorcised: Larry Heinemann’s Paco Story”; and Joseph Darda’s “The Ethnicization of Veteran America: Larry Heinemann, Toni Morrison, and Military Whiteness after Vietnam.”

Afghanistan Signature Shot

December 14, 2019

Personal picture, Afghanistan 2009.

When the Washington Post began running The Afghanistan Papers, its recent series on the ineptitude of the US military mission in Afghanistan, I was sure that one of the articles would feature a photograph of a US soldier perched on the opened back ramp of a Boeing CH47 Chinook looking out over an Afghanistan landscape. Such photos are ubiquitous in articles about the Afghanistan War, and it’s easy to see why. The image of the solitary soldier looking backward and downward at the “Graveyard of Empires” seems to be an apt visual symbol for how Americans can only know Afghanistan from a distance, if at all, and understand their deployments only in hindsight.

In a sense I’m suggesting that the pictures have become a generic Afghanistan motif, but, still, the photos are always striking, what with the bulb-headed helmeted soldier, framed in the door hatch, hanging precariously off the back lip of an aircraft flying over a scenic Afghanistan rural or urban locale. The pictures evoke equal amounts of tension, serenity, wonder, thoughtfulness, and thrill, which in my experience are the same emotions that come with actually flying in a Chinook while looking backward over an open ramp.

The only fictional representation of the Chinook back-ramp scene that I can remember comes in the first chapter of Kathleen J. McInnis’s war-romance The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018). The opening episode of McInnis’s novel has her first-person protagonist, a civilian Pentagon analyst, being treated to a ride on the opened ramp of a Chinook as she flies into Kabul. The narrator is tethered in, as are the aircraft crew members, but the feeling is still precarious. Here’s how McInnis’s character describes it:

“Are you sure this is safe?” I screamed over the noise of the whirling blades to the sergeant to my left. His machine gun points outward into the dusty, blue beyond, looking for anyone–or anything–that might use our helicopter for target practice….

…I peered down between my boots at the brown baked mountains of the Hindu Kush which were peppered with dried scrub brush and the occasional cluster of homes. The villages grew more frequent, eventually merging together as we flew and forming the outskirts of the city of Kabul. And although the mountains themselves looked like they were made of dust as fine as powdered sugar, somehow the houses clung halfway up the slopes and squeezed themselves into narrow valleys before spreading open into the city itself.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that hundreds of feet of air were all that was separating me from the streets below. Or that hunks of metal weighing forty tons shouldn’t be airborne.

…I looked off into the distance and saw a black speck floating behind us.  I could just make out another helicopter’s long barrel shape and dual rotors. Looking down from the city below to the hills in the distance, now partially shrouded in late afternoon haze, I remembered [an] interpreter talking about his homeland in lightly-broken English. “We could make it beautiful again,” he said, “if only there were peace.”

To return to the Washington Post series, sure enough, within a couple of days a backshot of a helicopter gunner looking out at Afghanistan accompanied the story here. To be exact, it’s of a gunner keeping watch out of the side door of a Chinook, but you get the idea. A quick search of the Internet found thirty or forty photographs shot looking out over the back ramp. Most of them are copyright protected, but I’m posting a few from public domain websites and DOD sites that will illustrate. You can also find a number of short videos depicting ramp-down Chinook rides on YouTube.

Department of Defense, May 8, 2015. Virin.

Chinook Helicopter, December 23, 2016. Co H, 4th Bn, 7th Aviation Brigade. Photographer unknown.

Stars and Stripes, June 11, 2014. Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes.

Stars and Stripes, March 17, 2015. Vernon Young/United States Air Force.

Wallhere, October 31, 2017. Photographer unknown.

Military Times, May 10, 2018. Sergeant First Class Randall Pike/US Army.

PhotoPin/US Army. Date and photographer unknown

In regard to The Afghanistan Papers, I’m following the series closely and reading as well the follow-on commentaries and social-media responses to them (many written by friends). Most of the problems described in the articles I have addressed in my two blogs, and were apparent to all of us while we were in-country. The articles mostly address “big picture” issues of national and command policy and strategy, but the problems were felt with force at our level.

Corruption, rules-of-engagement, conflicting chains-of-command, stupid reporting and briefing requirements, Pakistan aiding and abetting the insurgents (and sometimes helping fight them), green-on-blue incidents, friendly fire incidents, dealing with special operators, balancing military ops with nation-building programs, trying to figure out who was enemy and who wasn’t.… It was all part of the operating environment, and that was before the bullets, mortar rounds, and missiles started flying and the IEDs began exploding. You had to be pretty nimble to deal with it all and keep going. If you let things overwhelm you, you weren’t going to be of much use to anyone, though you could certainly use your dismay and anger to build a righteous argument that it was all stupid and worthless.

Strategically and structurally, my biggest gripe were the unit rotation policies and practices, which never kept units and key leaders in place long enough to become truly effective. My advisor team, for example, was rotated out of Khost Province at the seven-month mark of our deployment, just when we were really beginning to build trust with our Afghan counterparts and understand the lay-of-the land. Also, during my time I served under nine different chains-of-command due to constant task organization changes. Though it was kind of neat to be have been able to wear any one of nine “combat patches” representing the different units I belonged to over the course of a year, the problems with so much change are obvious.

To have complained about it at the time would to have been labeled a whiner, a naysayer, and a foot-dragger. It would have meant being fired immediately, as (among other things) it would be insubordinate to the chain-of-command, and ruinous for troop morale and unit cohesion, which was high at the time and by all accounts remains high. Besides, we were all volunteers, right? and no one told us it was going to be easy. We did the best the we could, and though our best really wasn’t all that good, we kept trying and hoped for a very limited and temporary effectiveness.

However small our results may have been, I’ve always held that advisors at least felt like we were doing the most good, compared to other Americans. I also felt like we had the highest regard for Afghans and had mostly funny or warm-hearted stories about working with them. That’s not saying much, because the soldiers in the line-force units in our area-of-operations distrusted Afghans and wanted to spend as little time around them as possible. The articles and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports on which they are based also seem hostile to Afghans as people. Continually dwelling on corruption and making blanket statements and assumptions about incompetent, unreliable Afghans is definitely off-putting to me. In my experience, if that was your attitude going in, or a “fact” “proven” to you by your suspicions and initial encounters with Afghans, well then everything that followed was going to confirm that. The Afghans we worked with made distinctions, and they sensed quickly if an American was predisposed to be snoopy and judgmental about them. If so, they pretty much acted to type. If the opposite, then they were great partners, eager to please and amenable to suggestions and direction. The negative comments about Afghans in the Post articles and the SIGAR reports seem to have been written by people who may have worked or fought side-by-side with Afghans once or twice, but never day-in, day-out for seven months in Khost and five months in Paktya.

Not entirely reassuring, I’m sure, or beyond critique, or free of self-justification, but those were my thoughts then and they mostly remain the same now.

 


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