Archive for the ‘Art and War’ category

War Fiction, Poetry, and Film 2018

December 1, 2018

USASOC #7, by Bill Putnam, used with permission.

2018 was a bounteous year for new fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Titles by veterans Elliot Ackerman, Will Mackin, Ray McPadden, and Nico Walker burst with interest and talent, and works by non-veterans Raymond Hutson, Kathleen McInnis, Hilary Plum, Stephen Markley, and Ahmed Saadawi offer as much or more.

2018 poetry titles include new work by Army vet Hugh Martin, Marine spouse Lisa Stice, and Army spouse Abby Murray. As far as I have noted, the only major movie about war in Iraq or Afghanistan to have appeared in 2018 is 12 Strong, about Special Forces in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, though Vice, about war architect Vice-President Dick Cheney, is set to hit theaters on Christmas.

What am I missing? Let me know and I’ll add it to the lists.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Bob Kornheiser, Crossing the Wire (2004)
Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (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 Shultz, 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)
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)
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)

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)
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)
Benjamin Hertwig (Canadian Army), Slow War (2017)
Lynn Marie Houston, Unguarded (2017)
Hugh Martin (Army), In Country (2018)
Abby Murray (Army spouse), How To Be Married After Iraq (2018)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Permanent Change of Station (2018)

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)
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)
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)

Can You Take a Five Finger Death Punch?

November 26, 2018

How you feel about the American metal band Five Finger Death Punch’s extensive use of military terminology, imagery, themes, characters, and narratives in their songs and videos probably has a lot to do with how you feel about metal generally. If you find metal cartoonish at best and unlistenable the rest of the time, you probably won’t be very impressed by Five Finger Death Punch’s musical efforts to give voice to the concerns of  soldiers and veterans. If you love metal, Five Finger Death Punch’s mil-and-war songs and videos probably strike you as moving, sincere, and laudable. I suppose you could love Five Finger Death Punch, but have reservations about their exploitation of military motifs, and I suppose you could whole-heartedly “support the troops” while hating on Five Finger Death Punch. The numbers, however, suggest that Five Finger Death Punch has captured the true, beating heart of what many soldiers really like when it comes to seeing their lives reflected in art, and what hundreds of thousands of non-veterans (to include the members of Five Finger Death Punch) think it means to thank veterans for their service. The video for “Wrong Side of Heaven” has been viewed 230 million times, people, and the YouTube comments ooze with testimonials from vets who find much to appreciate in Five Finger Death Punch’s music and messages. It’s also hard to gainsay the band’s concentrated commitment to helping struggling veterans, as reflected in their organization 5FDP4VETS.

Still, the matter of Five Finger Death Punch’s popularity is not without its complications, as explored in a 2015 Stereogum article titled “How Five Finger Death Punch Got Huge By Writing Songs for Soldiers” by Phil Freeman. Freeman frames the issue as such:

Five Finger Death Punch are probably the least cool metal band around right now. Critics pretty much hate them (a reaction that’s likely to get worse, now that guitarist Zoltan Bathory has endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign on Twitter); metal elitists sneer at them and consider them knuckle-dragging, lowest-common-denominator purveyors of post-Pantera crap. But they’re able to sell 114,000 albums in a week, which means they’re reaching an audience your average blog-friendly metal band can’t even dream of. And I have a theory about that audience: I think Five Finger Death Punch have succeeded by building a relationship with listeners in the military, in a way other bands haven’t.

I’ll let you sort out your own feelings about the subject while reading the rest of Freeman’s article and checking out the Five Finger Death Punch music-video evidence below.

“Bad Company” (2010). A cover of the Bad Company classic-rocker, accompanied by footage of Five Finger Death Punch’s tour of US military FOBs in Iraq.

“Remember Everything” (2012). About the impossibility of forgetting war-related horror after returning home.

“Wrong Side of Heaven” (2014). Focuses attention on veteran trauma and homelessness while castigating an ungrateful nation.

“Gone Away” (2017). A young man, torn by guilt when his best friend is killed in an IED blast overseas, decides to enlist. A cover of a song by the Offspring.

“When the Seasons Change” (2018). Dedicated to Charleston Hartfield, US Army Iraq veteran and Las Vegas policeman killed in the 2017 mass shooting there.

 

Red Beards, Restrepo, Benito Cereno

November 16, 2018

The most popular blog post I’ve ever written was not for Time Now, but for my old blog 15-Month Adventure, about my year in Afghanistan from 2008-2009. One post, titled “Red Beard,” still gets lots of hits, especially after the movie Restrepo shows somewhere on TV. A scene featuring an Afghan elder with a henna-dyed beard sends curious viewers to the Internet to find out more about the practice. By some Google trickery my post pops up near the top for searches for “Red Beard Afghanistan.” Looking at the post the other day for the first time in a while, I remembered that in it I riffed on Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno. Benito Cereno? Restrepo? That’s close enough to “Art, Film, and Literature” for me to reprise the original post on Time Now for readers who didn’t know me back then. I can’t carry over the “Comments” from the old post, however, so be sure to check them out here–they’re where I discuss the practices of male hair-and-beard dyeing and wearing eyeliner and fingernail polish with “h,” one of my Afghanistan interpreters.

****

Red Beard

This video appeared in several places on the web this week [in 2010].  It shows 101stAirborne Division soldiers engaged in a battle in Shimbowat wadi, near Camp Clark in Khowst province, Afghanistan. Toward the end, American soldiers are seen speaking with an Afghan elder whose hair and beard are died a hideous shade of red.

I recognized the terrain because I walked and drove up Shimbowat wadi many times when I was in Khowst in 2008 and 2009. I’m about 90% sure I recognize the elder, whom I’ll call “Red Beard.”  I was thinking of writing about him even before I saw the video.

One night we positively identified that a rocket had been launched in our direction from the vicinity of Red Beard’s kalat. We countered with artillery fire of our own and at first light we rode out to inspect the damage.

The smell of explosives hung in the air and fresh shrapnel marks splattered the kalat‘s exterior walls.

Red Beard and six other “MAMs” (Military Age Males) stood around a table. Cleavers in hand, they were butchering a cow that had been killed by the artillery rounds. The carcass was a bloody mess and the men’s hands and the sleeves and fronts of their shirts were also smeared with blood.  Red Beard greeted us jovially.

“No we haven’t seen any Taliban.”

“They come down from the hills, shoot their rockets and mortars and then leave.”

“All these men are my family and they are here for a wedding.”

“Don’t worry about the cow.  We were going to kill it anyway.”

We learned that one of Red Beard’s sons was currently in detention at Bagram Air Force Base and another had been killed fighting the government. Still, he professed his desire for peace in Afghanistan and his respect for the military. We didn’t have any evidence to detain him; in fact, before we left we gave him script he could redeem for the value of the cow.  A few days later, though, we went back and arrested him on the basis of a tip from an Afghan informant.  But after three days we had to let him go, again for lack of evidence.

A report filtered in that our artillery had wounded three children. Another arrived stating that it had been three insurgents. We never determined if either was true.

The men with cleavers in hand, all chopping away at the cow carcass, reminded me of Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” In that story, a naïve American ship captain boards a slave ship on which a mutiny has taken place but which the mutineers attempt to hide from the American. The captain, Amasa Delano, sees a lot of strange things, including a row of slaves furiously polishing hatchets. The hatchet-polishers look like a work party, but in actuality stand guard over the white crew members who are now their prisoners. I’m not saying that Afghanistan is like Melville’s San Dominick, the ship the slaves have taken control of.  But operating there one can feel a lot like Amasa Delano.

We took pictures and retina scans of all the military-age males in the vicinity of Red Beard’s kalat.

A Veterans Day Photo Anthology

November 10, 2018

Phil Klay, USMC.

Benjamin Busch, USMC.

Matt Gallagher, US Army.

John Renehan, US Army.

Elyse Fenton, US Army spouse.

Siobhan Fallon, US Army spouse.

Brian Van Reet, US Army.

Bill Putnam, US Army.

Jan Barry, US Army.

Brian Turner, US Army.

John Myer, US Army.

Brandon Willitts, US Navy,

Chris Wolfe, US Army.

Roy Scranton, US Army, and Jacob Siegel, US Army.

Maurice Decaul, USMC, with Alex Mallory.

Emily Yates, US Army, and Jenny Pacanowski, US Army.

Elyse Fenton, US Army spouse, and Andria Williams, US Navy spouse.

Jay Moad II (USAF) and Jesse Goolsby (USAF)

Matt Gallagher, US Army, Andrew Slater, US Army, Fred Marchant, USMC.

Benjamin Busch, USMC, Siobhan Fallon, US Army spouse, and Brian Turner, US Army.

Hugh Martin, US Army, Matt Gallagher, US Army, Chantelle Bateman, USMC, and Mariette Kalinowski, USMC.

Ron Capps, US Army, Peter Molin, US Army, Kayla Williams, US Army, Maurice Decaul, USMC, and Colby Buzzell, US Army.

Brandon Willitts, US Navy, Matt Gallagher, US Army, Peter Molin, US Army, Teresa Fazio, USMC, and Chris Wolfe.

Adrian Bonenberger, US Army, Roxana Robinson, David Abrams, US Army, and Matt Gallagher, US Army.

Roman Baca, USMC, Siobhan Fallon, US Army spouse, Brian Turner, US Army, and Benjamin Busch, USMC.

Nate Bethea, US Army, Eric Nelson, US Army, Adrian Bonenberger, US Army, Brandon Willitts, US Navy, Mariette Kalinowski, USMC, Vic Zlatonovic, US Army, Lisbeth Prifogle, USMC, Peter Molin, US Army, and Jacob Sotak, US Army.

I took all the pictures except for the group photos in which I am included. The pictures of me with Matt Gallagher, Chris Wolfe, Brandon Willitts, and Teresa Fazio and with Nate Bethea, Eric Nelson, and others were taken by Sang Hui Molin. I can’t remember exactly who took the picture of me with Ron Capps, Maurice Decaul, Kayla Williams, and Colby Buzzell, but it was probably Andria Williams. The picture of Andria Williams and Elyse Fenton was taken by me with Andria Williams’ camera and first displayed on her blogpost here.

Terminal Lance in the Art Museum

November 8, 2018


I wandered into Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum recently and was pleased to see the work of Marine Iraq veteran-turned-cartoonist-and-graphic-novelist Maximilian Uriarte unexpectedly featured. Part of an exhibit titled Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel, Uriarte is grouped with two other artists in support of the main attraction, Bechdel, a graphic-novel pioneer whose work explores the difficulty of growing up gay in small-town America. Alongside Bechdel and Uriarte are Thi Bui, who writes about her experience as a second-generation American, and Elle Forney, whose subjects grow out of her own life-wrestle with disability and a medical profession that struggles to help her.

That’s an odd grouping on the face of it—Uriarte might be an alienated, disgruntled, and traumatized vet, but I don’t think of the politics of his Terminal Lance comic strips and his graphic novel The White Donkey as radically left-progressive as Bechdel’s, Bui’s, and Forney’s clearly are. Still, there’s no denying his skill or his influence, more so based on the achievement of Terminal Lance than The White Donkey. While The White Donkey portrays in-service disillusionment and post-deployment despair in relatively conventional melodramatic and moralistic tones, Terminal Lance practically invented the snarky “view-from-below” humor that dominates soldier and veteran online rhetoric today. Where the Terminal Lance character of The White Donkey is a hapless victim of the Marines’ dehumanizing processes, the Terminal Lance in the cartoon strips is a wily counterpuncher against the Corps’ assaults on his intelligence and his dignity, with slacking, shamming, and acts of petty insubordination his primary tactics. Taking aim at a bloated, outdated military culture and an officer corps stuck on auto-pilot, the raunchy-and-blasphemous Terminal Lance first-and-most-cleverly expressed the contempt of junior enlisted soldiers for a military machinery badly in need of not just a tune-up, but a complete overhaul. And yet, it’s not entirely clear that Uriarte, or Terminal Lance, hates the Marines. It’s as if he loves the Corps most when it shows its warts, when it deviates from its stated ideals and goals, and he feels fortunate, not unfortunate, that he is there to witness or endure it, because at some level it strikes him as funny.

One of the least blasphemous and raunchy Terminal Lance strips I could find.

Uriarte was the pioneering original, and those in his wake continue to score many direct hits, but zinging military absurdities can be a little like shooting fish in a barrel:  taking pot-shots at guppies in a tank is not quite the same thing as landing a marlin in the open sea. In other words, the modern brand of “GI humor” launched by Terminal Lance and now finding its fullest expression on Twitter often settles for knocking down easy targets, not in good fun but as if its aggrieved outrage and witty hot-takes were beyond reproach and really accomplishing something. Whether a similar sense of inflated achievement might also be true of graphic novels is open for discussion, but there’s little denying their popularity and synchronicity with the times. Whatever the message, it’s probably more about the artwork and the medium, and Self-Confessed! offers great opportunity to view full-scale versions and blow-ups of Uriarte’s work, rough drafts, and storyboards and outlines for longer works. The Self-Confessed! exhibit prospectus had some neat things to say about graphic novels as a genre:

In recent decades, comics and graphic novels have embraced history, medical and self-help literature, stories of war and history…. Each revisits the past to re-imagine not only what occurred, but also how it looked as it was happening. The process of remembering and reconstructing the past is well-served by the graphic narrative in that the structure of comics—the framing of moments, the breaks between panels, the rhythm and pacing that creates the flow of the book—are all part of remembering and telling. And for the reader, the combination of words and pictures slows down the process of reading, complicates the structure of time, and provides an opportunity to linger.

White Donkey 1

Randy Brown, better known as the gifted military humorist and poet “Charlie Sherpa,” offers his own musings about graphic novels in a recent review published in Army magazine titled “Graphic Novels Present War Panel by Panel.” Examining two graphic novels about war in Afghanistan, Brown notes that the genre’s name is often a misnomer: “Despite the … inclusion of the term ‘novel,’ these are works of nonfiction–memoirs–and are based on factual events and reporting, or at least personal recollections”–i.e., “Self-Confessed!” That basic-but-necessary point made, Brown reminds us that “American military history is full of cartoons and comic books–from Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe to Sgt. Rock to PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly” and that “Comics are more than pictures and words: Intangibles can be communicated via color palette choices, in character facial expressions, in dialogue, and even in the number and shapes of panels on the page.” Combined with the ease with which graphic novels can present scenes “flashing between memories and present-day conversations,” Brown notes the form “delivers immediate rapport and opportunities for empathy.”

Theorizing aside, Brown makes the two graphic novels he reviews (their covers pictured below) sound well-worth checking out. Here’s to the progeny of Uriarte, Terminal Lance, and The White Donkey.

Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel is on display at the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey through Saturday, December 30.

Kosovo: Quiet Prelude to the War on Terror

October 24, 2018

In 1999 US Army forces deployed to the Serbian province of Kosovo as part of a peacekeeping mission to halt the killing and forced relocation of the region’s majority Muslim Albanian population by Christian Serbs. In the two years prior to the American-led intervention, Kosovo Serbs, backed by the Serbian army, used violence to halt a demographic makeover they feared would sever the region’s political and cultural allegiance with greater Serbia. Some 1,500 Albanians were killed and 400,000 driven from their homes by Serbian military, police, para-military forces, and local zealots.

The American intervention, part of a NATO-led task force known as “KFOR,” was largely successful, in that Serbian-Albanian violence quickly diminished. The province began to develop a political identity as an Albanian-dominated independent state that culminated in a declaration of sovereignty in 2008. The KFOR mission, on the heels of and modeled after the bigger US and NATO peacekeeping effort in Bosnia-Herzegovina earlier in the decade, continues today, but consists of less than 700 US soldiers in Kosovo at any time. By another measure of bottom-line cost—American casualties—the mission has also been successful. In the years since American forces first put “boots on the ground,” fewer than twenty Americans have died in Kosovo, most as a result of illness or accident. For whatever reasons, the “Global War on Terror” following 9/11 has been able to quell or ignore Christian-Muslim tension in the Balkans. While war raged and then dragged-on in Iraq and Afghanistan, KFOR has also continued, largely peaceful and out-of-the-spotlight. As early as 2001, when the infantry battalion I was part of rotated into the US sector and took up residence at Camp Monteith near the northeastern city of Gnjilane, the KFOR mission had a decided side-show quality in the Army at large and the world’s mind as well. A sister battalion from our brigade was already fighting in Afghanistan, and many of us were jealous of them beyond words because they were where the action was, and we weren’t.

Photographer Bill Putnam was a soldier in the Public Affairs unit of the infantry task force of which I was the executive officer, or second-in-command. Putnam would return to Kosovo in 2002 and go on to take striking photographs in Iraq while still in the Army and later as an embedded photojournalist in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Only recently I returned to look closely at Putnam’s archive of Kosovo pictures. My sense was that Army operations in Kosovo foreshadowed and rehearsed similar approaches the US military would employ in Iraq and Afghanistan. As late as 2001, though, the material appearance of American soldiers was different from what it would soon come to be. But if one looks closely one can see not traces of a vanished past, but a soon-to-be-present future in the process of its emergence.

Putnam’s photographs for the most part have a long-ago and far-away feel that sets them apart from his war photography of Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of it is the landscapes are different—European farms-and-forests, not southwest Asian cities and desert. So, too are the white faces of the Kosovars and their Western dress.

It is also the uniforms—US soldiers are dressed in their dark-green “Battle Dress Uniforms” just prior to giving them up for the desert camouflage of “chocolate chips” and  “Army Combat Uniforms.” Not only are the uniforms of an older vintage, but so too is the equipment—load bearing web-gear, canteens, and M16 rifles, not armored vests, Camelbacks, and M4s. The visages of officers and enlisted men reflect purposefulness and enthusiasm, not anxiety, doubt, or confusion.

American forces patrolled in unarmored vehicles, usually in pairs but often individually. IEDs were unheard of and ambushes only a remote concern. The biggest danger was sliding off the narrow roads, especially in winter, when they were very icy. US KFOR forces often interacted with other members of the coalition, such as the two Russian soldiers standing at a checkpoint in the picture second below.

Cramped, impoverished villages built of shoddily-constructed concrete blocks vaguely resembled picture-postcards of European life. They conveyed a sense of provincialism and backwardness that would easily acquiesce to superior American ways of dealing with problems.

Cities were more bustling. Residents seemed too preoccupied by everyday life to kill in the name of politics and religion. But by the time we arrived, the Albanian makeover was nearly complete. Serbs huddled forlornly in their own neighborhoods and enclaves, and we protected their churches, not Muslim mosques, from destruction.

Overall, though, violence was rare, and could be handled with “crowd control” techniques, not combat.

Serbians and Albanians eager to fight were seen as hooligans with local agendas and grievances, not as operatives in a larger nationalist movement or global jihadist conspiracy. Detaining a troublemaker required extensive chain-of-command coordination, but the feel of such operations was that of locking up a small-town punk in the county jail for a few days until his anger subsided.

Most missions were “key leader engagements” with local officials, always negotiated with the help of interpreters, many of them women, wearing US Army camouflage.

American forces lived on Camp Monteith, an old Serbian Army base, and Camp Bondsteel, a proto-FOB magically construed out of nothing in an abandoned field by well-paid contractors. Many soldiers never left Monteith and Bondsteel, encampments complete with pizza parlors and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation centers. Mortar and rocket attacks that threatened the lives of soldiers on the camps just didn’t happen.

Kosovo allowed the US military to rehearse deployment, peacekeeping, and counterinsurgency tasks that would later characterize Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. FOB life, vehicle patrols, religious conflict, security operations, interpreters, and key leader engagements seemed manageable and relatively benign. Very often though, KFOR approaches, such as traveling in one or two vehicle convoys, would prove inadequate for dealing with far-deadlier threats to come. Missions that were routine in KFOR  metastasized in Iraq and Afghanistan and become much more fraught. What came peacefully and relatively easily in Kosovo might have inspired a false confidence in US capability that quickly unraveled in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hints of all this, I believe, can be found in Putnam’s photographs, if one knows where and how to look.

On the right of the picture below is Captain David Taylor, a company commander in our infantry task force. The picture is taken on Hill 874 outside Gnjilane, Kosovo in 2002. In 2006, Major Taylor was killed by an IED in Baghdad, Iraq.

More Bill Putnam photography can be found here.

War Film: Thank You For Your Service

October 14, 2018

Thank You For Your Service and The Yellow Birds, two movies released in 2017 about traumatized Iraq veterans, are so much alike that one wonders if they were the result of an Apprentice-style contest in which two film-making teams were assigned the same set of ingredients and tasks and told to do their best. Among the similarities:

Source and title: Well-regarded books about war in Iraq (The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel).
Characters: Male soldiers distressed by survivor’s guilt, and women (moms, wives, and girlfriends) upset by the men’s behavior.
Setting: Rural places and small towns in Red State America (Virginia for The Yellow Birds and Kansas for Thank You For Your Service; both movies were filmed in Georgia).
Cast: Pleasant-looking young up-and-comers in the leading roles, with minor roles featuring big-name female stars (Jennifer Aniston in The Yellow Birds and Amy Schumer in Thank You For Your Service).
Pivotal scenes: Suicide and suicide attempts.
Closing soundtracks:  Plaintive laments by classic-rock elder statesmen (John Mellencamp in The Yellow Birds and Bruce Springsteen in Thank You For Your Service).

All the above might be coincidental, but other shared attributes can’t be denied: both films flopped at the box office and critics didn’t seem to like them too much, either. Why? Grueling portraits of soldier trauma and family disfunction, punctuated by graphic scenes of suicide and attempted suicide, are probably never box-office dynamite, no matter how grippingly they are dramatized. The movies’ lack of success is also certainly linked to public indifference to the ongoing war-on-terror, reflected in the irony of Thank You For Your Service‘s title and in the oft-cited phrase “civil-military divide.” But the real problem is probably more aesthetic than cultural: Thank You For Your Service especially has a heavy-handed feel, as if its makers tried too earnestly to make a significant statement and forgot about making their movie entertaining. Kudos to them for caring-and-sharing, but even I, in a position more than most to like and respect such efforts, can at best give each movie a B, and even then for different reasons. The Yellow Birds, quirkier and more artistic, blends A moments (its cast and pictorial look) with C moments (plot and production values). Thank You For Your Service, on the other hand, is a pretty solid drive down the middle of the fairway. More firmly constructed than The Yellow Birds, it makes no major mistakes, but neither does it excel, excite, or generate the outrage that would seem to be its intent.

It’s been a while since I read Finkel’s book, a non-fiction work about veterans of the Army’s First Infantry Division in the years after they exited the service, so I won’t dwell too much on aspects that did or did not make it into the film version. Directed by Jason Hall, the screenwriter of American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service the movie elaborates on the parts of American Sniper in which supersniper Chris Kyle mopes about his home in Texas after his final deployment. The central figure in Thank You For Your Service the movie is Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann, an infantry squad leader wracked by guilt over the death of his platoon sergeant in Iraq, a bungled effort to rescue one his men wounded-in-action, and the suicide of another shortly after the unit returns to the States. That’s an awful 1-2-3 punch, and out of the military, Schumann drifts moodily. His deep silences are a source of refuge for him but severely rattle his wife Saskia, with whom he has a daughter he barely knows. Not working and struggling to obtain benefits and help, Schumann bonds with another former soldier, Specialist Solo Aeiti, who is in even worse shape than Schumann due to traumatic brain injury caused by multiple IED blasts. Their friendship is not immediately fruitful, however, as each man slides deep into depression and erratic behavior, their marriages dissolving and the men haunted by flashbacks to battle in Iraq and hallucinations of their now-dead platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Doster. An added torment for Schumann is that he and Saskia have been forced to rent out their beloved home while taking residence in a cheaper, dumpier place. Grating Schumann to no end is that his wife unbeknownst to him has rented the old home to Sergeant Doster’s wife—a move that constantly reminds him of his guilt over Doster’s death, complicates efforts to evict Mrs. Doster, and contributes greatly to friction between Schumann and Saskia.

Miles Teller as Sergeant Schumann and Beulah Kole as Specialist Aeiti try hard, but they are less charismatic actors than the two male leads of The Yellow Birds, Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan. Amy Schumer, as Mrs. Doster, also does not compare favorably with Jennifer Aniston, though credit to Schumer for being brave enough to play a very dowdy, undesirable woman (in The Yellow Birds the chemistry between Ehrenreich and Aniston is palpable, while in Thank You For Your Service Schumann physically recoils from Mrs. Doster in a way that seems beyond “just acting”). More galvanizing on-screen than Teller and Kole are the minor male characters: Joe Cole as a dopey manchild who kills himself in front of the wife who abandons him while he is overseas; Brad Byer in very brief scenes as Sergeant Doster, Omar Dorsey as a drug-dealer who takes an interest in Aeiti, and, most of all, Scott Haze, who channels his inner-Christian Bale/Heath Ledger to portray a badly-disabled and manically-crazed fellow veteran of Sergeant Doster’s platoon. Also strong are the women who (along with Schumer) play the wives of the soldiers: Erin Darke, Keisha Castle-Hughes, and especially Haley Bennett as Saskia. Frankly, the movie picks up steam when any of the supporting cast joins Teller and Kole on-screen, and it subsides to a well-meaning trudge when it’s just one or both of them on display, which unfortunately is a lot of the movie.

Thank You For Your Service is a serious movie about difficult subjects: suicide, PTSD, TBI, physical disability, family turmoil, an uncaring Army, Department of Veterans Affairs ineptitude, and the plight of struggling veterans. Hall’s intent to treat his subjects with gravity and dignity comes through loud-and-clear, but he overdoes it. The movie is daintier about showing the soldiers’ warts than the book (as I remember it) and the characters’ reserve and docility drains the movie’s energy; Schumann and Aeiti just seem too old and well-behaved, even for “good” soldiers who value order and discipline and desire to do the right things. Several scenes gesture toward the raunchy dishevelment, emotional neediness, and chaotic, often ugly thought-processes of 20-something veterans in full meltdown mode, but for all the anguish and violence it depicts, Thank You For Your Service comes off as chaste, sedate, and tasteful, as if it were afraid of making its protagonists unsympathetic. Sexual infidelity is never an issue, for example, and the characters’ bad behavior flirts with but stops short of actual crime and physical abuse of loved ones–three omnipresent elements in the annals of veteran breakdowns. Well, good, but the only character in Thank You For Your Service who seems truly out-there and dangerous, the Scott Haze character, makes you wish for an entire movie entirely about him. And, go figure, though severely disabled and living in poverty and squalor, he’s still doing better emotionally and psychologically than Schumann and Aeiti.

Finally, the movie Thank You For Your Service concludes by suggesting that both Schumann and Aeiti eventually find the help they need through a private charity. That’s tying a happier bow on things than (once again) I remember from Finkel’s book, which ends with the protagonists’ fates in doubt (The Yellow Birds movie also concludes with a smilier face than Powers’ novel). I suppose the hopeful ending is meant to be an uplifting bone thrown to audiences who have come to love Schumann and Aieti and now want only the best for them and their families. The conclusion feels a little pie-in-the-sky, however, in keeping with the movie’s overall too-mannered dramatization of the titanic fury of soldiers’ lives spinning out of control while in the military and after. As of 2018, the movie that captures that spirit while also capturing an audience still awaits making.

***

Thank You For Your Service is also the name of a documentary about veterans’ mental healthcare released in 2016.


%d bloggers like this: