Archive for the ‘Art and War’ category

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.

Two Songs, Ten Years: Music, Memories, Going to War

October 6, 2018

A couple of nights before flying from Fort Riley, Kansas, to Afghanistan in August 2008, I saw the folk-rock artist Thao Nguyen and her band The Get Down Stay Down in a bar on Massachusetts Avenue in Lawrence, Kansas. I already knew Nguyen’s music a little, and a little about her biography, which interested me as much as her music. Raised in the Vietnamese immigrant neighborhoods that surrounded my parents’ house in northern Virginia, Nguyen in an early publicity shot appears wearing a jersey adorned with the logo of the “Arlington Cubs,” a sports club for whom my brothers and I played on countless baseball, basketball, and football teams in our youth. Later, Nguyen attended William and Mary college, which is a very good school but not one known for producing rock stars. By 2008, though, she had a couple of albums out and a hit—a girl-power anthem titled “Swimming Pools”—playing frequently on my local indie-alt station.

The pre-flight concert in Lawrence was just what the doctor ordered in terms of a night out before heading into the unknown. The Get Down Stay Down were tight-and-rocking, and all the songs, even the ones I didn’t know, were accessible and engaging. While singing, Nguyen appears possessed to the point of being spastic, and her voice sometimes hits atonal notes as if her Vietnamese were in contest with her English. It’s all good, though, and in-between songs, she charmed with funny anecdotes and quips delivered in the mid-Atlantic-coast tones and cadences I knew growing up. Before she went on, Nguyen ordered whiskey at the bar and watched the warm-up band play a couple of songs, and then wandered out to the sidewalk to hang with the smokers for a while. After the show, at the merch table, I don’t think I said anything to Nguyen about Afghanistan—I mean, I hope I didn’t, it would have been too obvious—but I do remember asking her where she went to high school. She told me she had attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology—a northern Virginia magnet-school for super-smarties. I thought about asking her if she had known the baseball coach, who was one of my best friends growing up, but that seemed kind of insipid. This inconsequential exchange brought our interaction to a close, save for my purchase of her second album, Like the Linen, which I listened to often on the long flight to Afghanistan and in the year that followed.

Like the Linen is good, but it was the album that Thao & The Get Down Stay Down released next that spoke to me personally. Called Know Better, Learn Faster, it’s the post-deployment record I’ve probably listened to more than any other, and certainly more often start-to-finish than any other. For me, it’s a unique swirl of appealing sound, beat, voice, and words, never more so than in the title song, whose chorus beguiles like a mantra reflecting something of my own sense of self-reproach, felt sharply in the two-to-three years just after deployment and only somewhat diminished now.

That first flight to Afghanistan was part of an Army-thing called a “Pre-Deployment Site Survey,” or, in words barely more comprehensible, a brief leaders’ reconnaissance of the area to which we would later bring our troops. In November 2008 I began the first leg of the journey that would take my advisor team and me to Afghanistan for a year. Catching a plane at LaGuardia in NYC back to Kansas I stood in the early-morning TSA line next to a scruffy dude whose mussed hair and road-worn attire proclaimed a rock-and-roll lifer. I don’t remember who started the conversation, but the guy was a gabby type who told me that he was the sound tech for a group called The Walkmen and he had come straight to the airport from a gig. I gulped, because The Walkmen, a band I already knew, play the kind of literate rock music that’s catnip to me—something like a combination of two other bands I like a lot, The Strokes and Interpol. Thanks to the slow-moving long line, we had plenty of time to talk and our conversation ranged wide-and-far. After I told him I was in the Army, he told me that he had grown up in Arlington, where his father had been a two-star Special Forces general at the Pentagon. Well damn, I thought then and now, and I suppose, since we exchanged emails and he still appears in my Facebook and LinkedIn feeds as a suggested contact, I could find out if he was pulling my leg or not. The Walkmen, I’ve since learned, are from DC, so maybe it checks out. Whatever, I like the story as is, especially since I enjoy The Walkmen’s music so much, and, like Thao Ngueyn and her band, they are bound to my memories of going to war. Below’s a good one by them. It’s my favorite kind of song, a fast-sad one, about friends, remembering, and fighting for things that are worth fighting for.

 

Toni Morrison’s Home: A Different War Story

October 2, 2018

WLA Poster

At the War, Literature & the Arts conference in Colorado last month I read a paper titled “The Black Aesthetics of War Trauma:  Toni Morrison, Larry Heinemann, and Contemporary War Fiction.”  In it, I compared Toni Morrison’s 2012 novel Home, about a black Korean War veteran’s post-war ordeal, with Larry Heinemann’s 1987 Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, about a white veteran adrift after coming home. Here’s part of it:

Home unites Morrison’s interest in black veterans and her interest in personal healing and national coping strategies for dealing with trauma, almost as if she had deliberately taken characters, plot points, and narrative styles from Heinemann’s Paco’s Story and merged them with the ideas and ethos of her own 1987 novel Beloved.  Points on which Home and Paco’s Story resemble each other include:

-the plight of the war-torn-and-haunted veteran dramatized by means of a long journey, with many scenes set on public transportation or in diners and rooming houses.

-a heavy emphasis on survivor’s guilt, brought about by having outlived friends and comrades in combat.

-an even-more intense trigger involving sexual desire for a young Asian woman followed by actively taking the woman’s life or being complicit in murder.

-the interest in the ability of small-town America to accept and nourish returning veterans.

-the inadequacy of the medical, legal, and policing apparatuses, which effectively criminalize erratic behavior by veterans.

-the wise counsel of fellow veterans, especially elders, who are portrayed as the only ones who can connect with other veterans.

-a similarity in tone, particularly in the italicized interludes in Home, in which Frank Money cajoles and taunts the reader/writer in a bristling street/folk-idiom very much like that of used by Heinemann in Paco’s Story, which is narrated by the collective ghosts of Paco’s now-dead fellow soldiers.

Does it matter the stories resemble each other, and that Morrison composed her story after Heinemann and may have consciously drawn plot-and-style points from it?  I don’t think so, and more importantly, I don’t care; in fact, I’m glad it has happened….

I went on to suggest that Morrison is not just interested in Heinemann but the corpus of war-fiction published about the same time as Home and featuring psychologically distressed white veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan:

What Morrison has done is excavate the pre-history of the troubled, war-torn veteran and relocated it from the domain of white veterans of the contemporary era to that of black veterans in the 1950s, whose alienated wandering was more fraught than modern white veterans might imagine. Mindful that the Korean War is often called “The Forgotten War,” as well as being the first American war in which blacks fought in integrated front-line units, and also mindful that African-Americans fought and suffered casualties out of proportion to their population, Morrison uses Home to make a strong statement about the centrality of black Americans in the American history of war, as well as the American history of trauma.  In so doing, Home serves as a prism that refracts present-day understandings of war trauma through an historical race consciousness that challenges assumptions, adds detail, and expands context….

I continued by suggesting that in retelling the story of the psychologically distressed veteran from an African-American perspective, Morrison has not only related an overlooked chapter in American history, her book itself constitutes an historical event that might well be looked back on in the future as game-changing. I used the conference keynote speaker, African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, to explain:

As such, they reflect Suzan-Lori Parks’ formulation of a black theatrical aesthetics, in which she states, “Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theater, for me, is the perfect place to “make” history—that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as playwright is to … locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.”

The same sentiment of “made history” is afoot in Home, I feel.  Home asserts that a whites-only story of return-from-war is at best a partial truth, true only so far as it goes.  Not only does it exclude black veterans, but its entire premise is built on and borrowed from one of the nation’s ur-trauma narratives:  500-years of racial oppression the result of which has forged an African-American population scarred physically, mentally, and emotionally, individually and collectively.

Finally, I considered what I call the “intriguingly upbeat ending” of Home:

But rather than imagining a downward trajectory for her war-torn veteran protagonist and an irredeemably debilitating social-political milieu Morrison in Home (as she does in Beloved) transcends the trap of victimhood by offering a more resilient version of the traumatized survivor.  Morrison suggests that for poor African-Americans in the Deep South in the 1950s, embracing family and community, not running from them, is a means for surviving poverty, racism, and the persistent squelching of individual dreams and opportunities.  Within that embrace, failings and sins can be forgiven and made secondary to the collective endeavor to maintain dignity and fellow-feeling.

Home thus stands as a counterpoint to the generic convention of the veteran psychologically-damaged by war on behalf of a nation that doesn’t know what to do with the victims it has created.  It’s not to blame white veteran-authors for writing works that don’t acknowledge the Africanist presence in the American history of war-trauma I speak of.  Instead, it is for alert readers and the authors of the future to understand the full range of possibilities and stakes.  One such reader and author, Jesse Goolsby, one of our hosts here at the conference and the author of an excellent post-war novel himself, reminds us:

            “There are blank pages in front of all of us.  If one wants a different war story then go write it, and I wish you well.”

Home is a great example of the “different war story” Goolsby speaks of, not one that merely confirms or rebukes familiar tropes and themes, but offers a variation on them from the point-of-view of an author as perceptive and as uniquely marked by her life and times as is Morrison.

Thank you to my fellow panelists Liam Corley, Hilary Lithgow, and Lydia Wilkes, as well as to our moderator Gregory Laski.  Special thanks to the United States Air Force Academy and the Department of English and Fine Arts there for sponsoring the conference.  Reading  lots of Toni Morrison, Larry Heinemann, Jesse Goolsby, and Suzan-Lori Parks (as well as the other conference keynote speaker, Robert Olen Butler) over the summer has been a pleasure.  I previously wrote about Home here.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ quote can be found in an essay titled “Possession,” published in The America Play and Other Works (1995).

Jesse Goolsby’s quote can be found in an AWP Roundtable conversation published on the Sundress Publications website as “Duty and Dilemma: 100 Years of Writing About War (2018).

 

War Film: The Yellow Birds

August 30, 2018

Kevin Powers’ novel The Yellow Birds arrived in 2012 to great fanfare. In company with David Abrams’ excellent Fobbit, also published that year, as the first post-9/11 war novels written by military veterans, The Yellow Birds seemed both preternaturally good and strikingly unique. Combining a heightened lyrical style, gritty scenes of combat carnage, and a psychological interest in military leadership, duty, and guilt, The Yellow Birds attracted plaudits left-and-right, including a nomination for the National Book Award. Part of what made The Yellow Birds so interesting was its prose: rather than hard-boiled grunt-speak and super-concern for realistic military detail, it featured a fractured narrative composed of sentences often more allusive than descriptive, knit together by crafted patterns of color and imagery, and punctuated by portentous stabs at profundity, as in its oft-quoted opening line, “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” Even more striking was its sensibility. The novel’s protagonists are infantryman, but they aren’t the tough guys who populate World War II and Vietnam novels. They drink, smoke, say “fuck” a lot, go to whorehouses, curse their chain-of-command, and shoot people—all the usual infantry things—but do so without the emotional hardening, or posturing, that seems de rigueur for infantrymen in real life and even more so in books and movies. More emo than hardcore, not so much Slayer as Death Cab for Cutie, the protagonists of The Yellow Birds are fragile and vulnerable, and the whole business of war leaves them in morose isolation. Disconsolate and self-loathing when they might be pissed-off and self-righteous (or even proud), they direct their capacity for violence inward, not outward.

With success came backlash, as the very things that made The Yellow Birds unique brought quick strong rebuke from a variety of angles. Powers’ prose was charged with being too mannered, too much the product of the University of Texas MFA program he attended, and too unfaithful to the vernacular idiom of “real” infantrymen. For many, Powers’ characters, in particular the first-person narrator Private First Class John Bartle, were unappealing, more listless dishrags (like Melville’s famous Bartleby; Melville’s Billy Budd also seems to be an antecedent) than decisive men-o-war. To veterans who had kicked-ass-and-taken-names in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed unconscionable that Bartle was being held forth as a representative US combat soldier, and as the far greater popularity of works such as American Sniper attested, the reading public wanted little to do with the Bartle model, either. Academics, who one might think would be sympathetic to Powers’ effort to portray the “human cost of war” in a literary way, soon piled on, too. They accused Powers of trying to recoup sympathy for emotionally traumatized young white male veterans rather than castigating them for killing Arabs in an unjust war, as if The Yellow Birds were a white nationalist stealth project designed to assert that white American soldiers were the “real victims” of the war in Iraq. It was a lot, maybe a bit much, as the overall impression rendered by the attacks was that The Yellow Birds was a book that everyone might comfortably find a reason to feel superior to. One wonders what Powers has made of it all, but he has been mostly mum on the subject, even as he continued to write and publish. 2014 brought a volume of poetry titled Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting and a novel, A Shout in the Ruins, arrived earlier this year.

In early 2017 a movie version of The Yellow Birds inconspicuously appeared to somewhat surprisingly little notice. I make it my business to track these things, but I missed it upon release, and I was not the only one, for no one I know seems to have noted its appearance or has yet watched it. The movie’s now available through Netflix, but even so seems still to be governed by mysterious forces minimizing its impact. A terrific John Mellencamp song called “The Yellow Birds,” for example, runs over the closing credits, but is not available on any of the popular music streaming services. As of a couple of weeks ago, the movie was only available by mail-order DVD, not via streaming, and a video documentary available with the DVD version that describes its making is missing commentary by the film’s director Alexandre Moors and its biggest-name star Jennifer Aniston. The signs unfortunately suggest that several of the principals who might best promote The Yellow Birds movie have distanced themselves from it.

All that’s curious, for the movie version of The Yellow Birds, while not perfect, or even great, is pretty good. In at least two ways it excels, garnering in my opinion head-of-the-pack kudos among recent war films for the excellence of its cast and the beauty of the cinematography. Alden Ehrenreich and Tye Sheridan, as Bartle and his battle buddy Private Daniel Murphy, respectively, are handsome faces and poised actors who for my money render the best GWOT cinematic portrayals of the 20-year-old white males who still make up the bulk of the fighting force. British actor Jack Huston (son of famed director John Huston) as Sergeant Sterling doesn’t quite capture the body language and rhetorical swing of the career NCOs I knew in the military, but in a stylized way he’s still impressive enough to make his dominance over Bartle and Murphy realistic and compelling. Aniston as Murphy’s mother—in the film an aging soccer-mom—and Toni Collette as Bartle’s mom—a hard-bitten country woman—are also strong. Their characters are given far more play in the movie than in the book, to include a moving scene in which they commiserate about their sons, and it’s all to good effect.

Production-values-wise, The Yellow Birds is a little shaky. The use of M113 Armored Personnel Carriers instead of modern Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and and Huey helicopters instead of Blackhawks signals cut-rate reliance on surplus Vietnam military hardware rather than the real stuff used in Iraq. The soldiers’ gear and weaponry also seem to be pared-down simulacra of actual soldiers’ “kit,” as if the film were gesturing at authenticity as in a stage-play rather than replicating it in gnat’s-ass detail. Curiously, Bartle and Murphy consistently call Sergeant Sterling, “Sir,” which is weird because every male sergeant I ever knew announced at least once, “Don’t call me ‘sir’; I work for a living.” Extremely grating from a veterans’ viewpoint is that many scenes feature actor-soldiers wearing their helmets with chinstraps unfastened “John Wayne” style—that just plain never happened in the Army I served in for twenty-eight years. On the other hand, the bang-bang combat scenes are good, and the representation of the soldiers’ blood, sweat, grime, and gore post-battle is excellent to the point of harrowing. Above and beyond reproach is the look of the film—tonally dark in scenes set both overseas and in the States, with faces framed and scenes paced thoughtfully, it has an artistically-unified feel that I’m guessing is director Moors’ effort to create an atmospheric visual style commensurate with Powers’ moody lyricism.

Alterations from the book are not especially significant thematically, but still worth noting. One example is Bartle’s first name; the scriptwriters have seen fit to replace the old-fashioned “John” of the novel with the millennial moniker “Brandon.” In the book, Murphy’s mom is a rural mail-carrier and Murphy is said to have never left the county in which he was born before joining the Army. Bartle, on the other hand, seems to be from some more middle-class place that makes his deterioration into criminality, drunkenness, prison, and isolation more calamitous. The movie reverses those backstories, with Murphy announcing that he hopes to go to UVa and study history after the Army and his mom (played by Aniston) a frosted-highlights suburbanite, while Bartle’s mother ekes out existence on the edge of poverty and respectability. There’s also the scene in the movie uniting Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Bartle that is not in the novel, which is a shrewd addition, and a long episode in the book set in Germany at the end of Bartle’s deployment is cut without loss from the film.

These are all minor switcheroos, I feel, for the movie gets the most important element of the book—the entangled web of obligation and remorse binding Bartle, Murphy, Sterling, Mrs. Bartle, and Mrs. Murphy—right in just about the same proportions that the novel does. The crux of the story is that Bartle makes a foolish promise to Mrs. Murphy that he will look out for her son on their upcoming deployment. Sterling overhears the conversation and lambastes Bartle for making a commitment that is not his to make and which will prove almost impossible to keep. Sterling, a war veteran who knows war’s capriciousness and who possesses his own over-developed sense of responsibility, lords it over his two young charges in ways that the two privates feel first charismatically, then perversely, and finally diabolically. In Iraq, Murphy begins to crumble under the stress of combat and then falls apart completely when a female soldier on whom he has developed a crush is killed. Murphy subsequently goes AWOL, or in modern parlance, DUSTWUN, and Sterling and Bartle search for him apart from the rest of their platoon. Finding Murphy’s mutilated dead body, they make a fateful decision to dispose of it (in the process killing an innocent Iraqi) rather than recovering and returning it to the States, because they want to spare Mrs. Murphy the emotional devastation they presume she will feel upon seeing her son’s ravaged corpse. In the book, Bartle compounds his duplicity by writing Mrs. Murphy a letter full of lies and evasions; it’s not as clear in the movie that this happens. In any case, the men’s plan succeeds for a while, as the Army lists Murphy as MIA rather than KIA. Over time, though, the difficulty of living with a lie renders both Sterling and Bartle suicidal, and eventually a military investigator (in the movie played by Jason Patric, another “name” cast member) puts together the clues linking Bartle to Murphy’s disappearance—an act of misguided mercy that in fact is a war crime—and brings Bartle both to legal justice and a soul-crushing apprehension of the magnitude of his mistakes and the vicissitudes of life.

As plots go, that’s not bad for an Iraq or Afghanistan war story. The attention paid to the bonds linking soldiers, with the suggestion that heroism is a delusion, leadership is a canard, and camaraderie and loyalty are traps, is fine. The effort to incorporate mothers and the homecoming into a war saga is good, too. The book as does the movie fails to explain why Murphy in particular exacts such an emotional investment on the parts of Bartle and Sterling—I’m supposing it has something to do with his innocence. Similarly, Sterling’s character emits confusing clues as to whether we should understand him as rigid military martinet, caring NCO bound by duty, or ethically-fluid shaman whose evil genius is unleashed by war’s chaos. The suggestion is that his experience is the yin to the yang of Murphy’s innocence, but the end of the novel and film complicate the matter, for it is Bartle who convinces Sterling that they should dispose of Murphy’s body, rather than vice-versa. That seems out-of-character for both of them, as well as being a dumb, under-explained decision that defies plausibility. Oh well, nothing’s perfect and everything could be better. The Yellow Birds was never going to be American Sniper, but it has its virtues and its fans nonetheless. If the film doesn’t quite succeed on all levels, the excellence of the cast and Moors’ direction suggest that Powers’ novel might ultimately find its most powerful expression on-stage as a play, where plot ambiguities and military quibbles would be incidental to the emotional force of the human interactions being dramatized.

Hilary Plum, Caleb Cage, Ahmed Saadawi

August 15, 2018

Three recent works of fiction suggest that war in Iraq was not so much an event or set of events, but a disease that infected its participants and ruined their lives. Hilary Plum’s Strawberry Fields is her follow-up to her 2013 novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (which I review here) and her 2016 book of essays Watchfires (mentioned here). Like Plum’s previous two works, Strawberry Fields’ interest is the rancid state of American society and global geo-eco-politics, in which violence, fear, militarism, crime, natural and man-made disaster, and constant surveillance overwhelm optimism, good-nature, civility, and civic feeling. War in Iraq figures in each of the works, but mainly as a breeding ground for and a corollary manifestation of rot at home. In Strawberry Fields, five Iraq veterans are found murdered; the rest of the novel details a strange alliance between a journalist named Alice and a detective named Modigliani as they search for clues to the murder in war crimes committed by contractors to whom the soldiers were connected overseas. The story is related through the perspective of multiple characters in a non-linear manner, with contextual clues scant and little sense of plot or closure. Intermixed with the main storyline are other chapters depicting harrowing scenes of human, animal, and environmental vulnerability, set in places as diverse as New Orleans after Katrina, a refugee camp in an unnamed country, a neglected zoo, a field ruined by pesticides. The textual atmosphere is sometimes lyrical but mostly clotted and bristling, so Strawberry Fields is not an easy breeze for casual readers. If, however, you, as do I, might like a novel that doesn’t just describe our malevolent times but replicates their dizzying and dismaying profusion of bad news and hostile intentions, sans happy-face band-aids, then Strawberry Fields is for you.

Caleb Cage’s dedication to Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada, his book of nine linked short services about war in Iraq and before and afterwards in Nevada, is telling. Written “For Brooke” (I presume Cage’s wife), it goes: “you are the happy story you couldn’t find on these pages.” Brooke wasn’t wrong, for I don’t think I’ve read a work of fiction about Iraq or Afghanistan that is so relentlessly dour. The protagonists of the stories in Desert Memories—soldiers of different ranks in a Nevada National Guard infantry unit—just seem miserable. The war is hopeless, the chain-of-command are fools, Iraq and Iraqis are disgusting, the soldiers screw each other’s girls, the women in theater and back home are treacherous, and the relief from it all—alcohol—is a one-way fast-track to ruin at an early age. Something like the true voice of the disaffected junior enlisted soldier and junior officer emerges in full throttle over the course of Desert Mementos. Convinced of their own superior judgment and self-righteousness, the soldiers seethe as the increasing apprehension that they now hold in contempt the military they voluntarily joined gnaws at their self-respect. What they hoped would be a transformative experience has turned out to be joyless and purposeless and they suspect that they have been made worse, not better, by Army service. Silently blaming themselves for their predicament is intolerable, however, so begins endless bitching and acts of petty insubordination directed at a military they now loathe. For all that, Desert Mementos has many virtues, or maybe all that is its virtue, or at least its point. I’ll trust there are still a lot of highly-motivated, good-natured soldiers eager to do well out there, but there are those like the soldiers described in Desert Mementos, too, and the military has only itself to blame for it. As someone who has led a lot of vehicle “CONOPS,” I liked Cage’s depiction of them in “Ghost Patrol.” As someone who has pulled many guard-tower shifts, I appreciated Cage’s portrait of the same in “Desert Island.” As someone who knows all too well the inside of a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and built many a PowerPoint presentation (and written about them here), I loved “This Is Not Burning Man.” As someone who had a vexing professional relationship with a female embedded journalist, I could relate to “Proxy War.” As someone who has had some memorable experiences driving through Nevada, I thought “Tonopah Low” was right on-point. And as someone who was witness to the killing of a fellow truck crew-member, I’ll testify that a similar event described in “Soldier’s Cross” spoke to me hard and true.

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad tells the story of a monster created out of human body parts that wreaks vengeance on Iraqis who are complicit in criminal activity—usually killing—directed against fellow Iraqis. The novel’s least interesting parts are those that give voice to the monster’s consciousness or attempt to explain it through authorial third-person description. Apparently, the modern-day Frankenstein represents a cosmic manifestation of the violence begat by violence, a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever-expanding retribution for past sins and crimes, amplified by the collapse of humane civil society in Iraq as a result of first Saddam Hussein and then the American invasion. These portions of Frankenstein in Baghdad ring kind of strident and over-determined while emitting confusing signals whether they are serious or comically fanciful. Much more winning is the rest of the novel, which consists of accounts of everyday Iraqis—the 90% who wouldn’t think of killing anyone under any circumstances–whose lives consist of trying to survive the violence instigated by the ruthless, selfish, and bloody-minded among them. The leader of the advisor team I replaced in Afghanistan told me upon arrival that “Afghans are reasonable decision-makers, but they are worried everyday about two things that we are not: that they might be killed at any time, and that they have to ensure their family’s future welfare.” That insight seems to also be the animating force for the characters in Frankenstein in Baghdad, who must deal with the chaos that tyranny, war, and most-of-all poverty have beset upon them. Living by their wits and extremely aware of the precariousness of their lives, Saadawi’s Baghdadians demonstrate a resiliency, ingeniousness, and humanity that makes us far-softer, far-safer Americans look like rigid, selfish dullards. Their stories both heart-breaking and inspiring, Saadawi relates them in a way that, against all odds, seems light-hearted, jocular, even madcap. How Iraqi fiction about the war can be so zestful, while American fiction strikes such bummer notes, is one of the wonders of literature and mysteries of life.

Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields. Fence Books, 2018.

Caleb S. Cage, Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada. University of Nevada Press, 2017.

Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad. Translated by Jonathan Wright. Penguin, 2018.

Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog

August 5, 2018

In a 2014 Los Angeles Book Review article titled “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” author Brian Castner wondered why so little fiction and poetry had been written about war in Afghanistan compared to Iraq. In the article, Brandon Willitts answers Castner’s question by noting that the special operators who were doing much of the fighting in Afghanistan were not bookish people drawn to reflection:

“These guys are such high achievers, Olympic athletes who have been trained to kill,” he says. “They’ve spent a decade doing night raids. And now you want them to sit in a chair and write a novel? You might as well ask why more NFL players aren’t writing novels.”

Will Mackin, the author of the short-story collection Bring Out the Dog, about Navy SEALs in action in Afghanistan and in Iraq and in training in America, may not fit the exact prescription Willitts offers as an impossibility, but he comes pretty close. Mackin was not technically a SEAL, for he never went through the rigorous selection process for the legendary fighting force. But through the vagrancies of a long career as a Navy officer, he found himself attached to the SEALs on several deployments as the team member responsible for coordinating “close air support”—rockets and bombs launched from Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine aircraft. Mackin, to the best of my knowledge, has also not played linebacker in the NFL. A high school football game described in one Bring Out the Dog story by the first-person narrator seems based on actual experience, however, so perhaps we can surmise that he possesses something of a jock’s good-nature, confidence, instinct for action, and sanguinity about violence. But Mackin early on was also bit hard by the writing bug, which values other qualities and a different sensibility—an affinity for underdogs and outsiders and an interest in language and the telling detail, for starters. Mackin openly acknowledges his debt to George Saunders and his epigraph comes from Barry Hannah, both authors esteemed by writing-world insiders and “fit-but-few” readers. Given all that, it’s no wonder Bring Out the Dog emits such a unique cluster of intriguing signals, as if a linebacker didn’t just write a novel about the NFL, but wrote a damn good one.

Most of the initial round of reviews for Bring Out the Dog, including mine here, fixate on Mackin’s style, which combines plain-spoken physical description and almost obsessively-rendered descriptions of distorted sensory perceptions. Mackin alludes to this practice in a New York Times interview:

The idea for this particular book came out of the sensory details of the wars. When I was deploying with a SEAL team in Iraq and Afghanistan, our mission was night raids, and we wore night vision. There was a disconnect between the actual image and the image I was seeing in the goggles, and in some of the transmission — I could hear the guy next to me speaking on the radio, and a few seconds later I’d hear his voice in my head on delay. The voice would sound different but all the words were the same.

Nothing directly appears as what it is. Especially at night, when you’re seeing things basically in three different forms: the heat-and-light image in night vision; the silhouette in darkness I’d see in my peripheral or if I looked under the goggles; and the image I knew — like, if I was looking at a teammate, the guy I was familiar with, my memory of what he looked like in daylight. That sort of sensory confusion really stuck with me.

Examples of this perspectival fluidity can be found on almost every page of Bring Out the Dog. Mackin, or his narrator, constantly calls attention to the contingency and unreliability of the senses. From the first story in the collection, “The Lost Troop”:

The windows of the MH-47 were made of Plexiglass. They were shaped like mixing bowls. Looking through them, I saw things on the outside as either close and blurry, or far away and flurry. There was a sweet spot in the lens, however, where something would emerge perfectly magnified. Thus, when we banked over the highway that ran between Kandahar and Kabul, I saw a bleary-eyed trucker behind the wheel. When we floated over the mountains into Wardak, I saw a waterfall cascading into a crystalline lake. And when we turned above the ruins of Joe’s old school, I imagined the school as it once had been—stone walls, slate roof, and leaded glass windows.

Such sensory alertness, the ability to weave permutations of impression effortlessly into the storytelling fabric, and the underlying premise that the subtle alterations of perspective infuse the plot, character, and reader response with meaning, are literary gifts. A classic example is Hawthorne in “The Custom House,” his long introduction to The Scarlet Letter. There, Hawthorne describes how the intermingling of fireplace flame, lamplight, and moonbeam illuminate a storytelling space “somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet….” out of which grow the novel that follows. Hawthorne’s interest was Romance, which he distinguished from the Novel; the debate is forgotten now, but the talent remains tangible: whatever virtues a book without it may have, the sentences are bound to feel overly literal and plodding. An author who doesn’t have the gift is like a basketball player without spring in his step, a baseball pitcher whose fastball doesn’t jump and swerve, or a linebacker who doesn’t like to hit.

All the above has been the gist of the initial reviews of Bring Out the Dog. Less detailed have been explorations of its stories as stories—what is Mackin asking us to understand about modern SEALs and SEAL warfare?

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Like many other contemporary short-story collections, Bring Out the Dog’s eleven stories are linked by recurring characters, subjects, and themes. The first-person narrator seems to be the same in all stories, an unnamed Navy Joint Terminal Attack Controller (or, “JTAC”) assigned to a SEAL unit, though in some stories the narrator also has other duties, such as being responsible for signal and electronic intelligence, host-nation liaison, and “pulling security” while the SEALs execute operations on targets. Six stories are set in Afghanistan, where the narrator belongs to a unit led by a terse, fierce, charismatic SEAL named Hal who leads the team on a series of raids and patrols. Intermixed with the Afghanistan stories are three set on training ranges in the United States, one in North Carolina and two in Utah. In these, the other main character is a senior JTAC named Reed with whom the narrator conducts training missions guiding in aircraft on bombing runs. The final two stories are set in Iraq, where the narrator is a member of a SEAL team led by Spot, who seems like a lesser version of Hal, though still formidable. While the Afghanistan missions take place in that country’s rural villages and back regions, the Iraq stories portray nighttime raids in the aptly-named city of Hit, in the Anbar region near Ramadi. Many stories feature Iraq or Afghanistan characters in minor roles who serve as agents of the narrator’s awakening, but US military personnel in line units appear only as foils for the more warrior-like SEALs. Also for better or worse, serving US women appear only once and stories set back in the States are unconcerned with the domestic sphere. A SEAL girlfriend figures in one story; predictably enough, I guess, she’s a dancer in a strip-club.

The subject of most of the stories are SEAL team operations broadly considered. The most common missions portrayed are nighttime raids on Iraq and Afghanistan households to kill-or-capture high-value targets: the SEALs helicopter in, approach their objective, blow in its doors, ransack the place while looking for targets, and then exfiltrate to the helicopter pick-up point. These missions are usually routine, except that sometimes they go haywire or something out of the ordinary happens, occurrences which serve as seeds for several of the stories the narrator wants to tell. Other stories focus on SEALs patrolling across forbidding landscapes in which the terrain as much as the Taliban or Al Qaeda are the enemy. A couple of stories are set mostly on the FOB and offer portraits of SEALs interacting among themselves or with line soldiers in non-combat scenarios. All are full of enough gnarly detail to satisfy the demands of hardcore military buffs while also establishing, without braggadocio, Mackin’s authorial credibility as a war-writer who has served with the toughest and seen a lot. Even better are the insights, usually offered as asides, that give purchase on the SEAL ethos. In one place, the narrator explains:

The variety of ideas among soldiers developed into a variety of ideas among units, which necessitated an operational priority scheme. As SEAL Team Six, we were at the top of that scheme. Our ideas about the war were the war. Therefore, we could knock any unit’s door in the middle of the night, assemble the soldiers in a room, and tell them what was what.

In another story, a SEAL is described as “a SEAL, and SEALs had their own problems, but being uptight wasn’t one of them. If anything, they’d gone too far in the opposite direction.” Elsewhere, the narrator writes, “Knowing that we were in for a gunfight, the boys were all smiles.” When team leader Spot thinks his team has grown sloppy, he chews them out. “And although he shouldn’t have to reiterate our philosophy,” the narrator writes, “he felt the need. ‘Speed and violence,’ he said. And we allowed him to say it again.” This in response to failure to kill a teen-age boy who dared to move when told to hold still–in contrast to the many scenes in recent war films and books in which soldiers err on the side of caution in shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenarios, for the SEALs hesitation is the cardinal sin.

The training range stories operate differently. From the most unpromising of dramatic material—one that not 1 in 100,000 potential readers can “relate to,” Mackin finds much of human interest in the spoken and unspoken tensions that bind the narrator and Reed as they stand at “observation points” and call in attack aircraft. Even better, given Mackin’s interest in perspective and measurement, the tales of range-finding and targeting (to include “Kattekoppen,” which is set in Afghanistan) read like parables of how to see and how to be sure of what you see.

The major theme of the stories is acceptance and belonging, earned by continuously proving one’s tactical competence, fitness for team culture, and loyalty. Often, it is the narrator who feels himself on the outside looking in—part of but not really belonging to the unit, with his tactical and social competence constantly under question by the rest of the team and himself. This feeling particularly drives the first story, “The Lost Troop,” in which the narrator feels, rightly, that the team holds him responsible for not calling in a punishing-enough airstrike to vanquish an enemy strongpoint, which led to one of the enemy survivors killing a SEAL named Yaz. In “Yankee Two,” the narrator bungles “actions on the objective,” when on a night raid he both fails to discover a mysterious electronic device that might be an IED “trigger” and takes his eye off one of their detainees. But it’s not just the narrator who reproaches himself for past mistakes and worries about future ones. “Rib Night” is about a SEAL who cements his reputation by exemplifying SEAL virtues—fighting prowess and team loyalty–while “Great Circle Route Westward Through Perpetual Night” is about another SEAL who must be reassigned after inadvertently killing the team search-dog (the canine referred to in the book’s title). In “Welcome Man Will Never Fly,” a SEAL demonstrates his unreliability at calling in airstrikes, thus forcing the narrator and his superiors to make a hard call about his fitness for an upcoming deployment. “Kattekoppen” is about a SEAL team that cycles through a number of artillery forward observers before finding the right one for the job. Illustrated by these stories is the relentless competitiveness of SEALs, their ferocious judgment of each other, and the lacerating humiliation that comes with not measuring up.

A second theme concerns SEAL team leadership. Hal and Spot dominate the lives of the other SEALs, setting the tone and upholding standards while instilling intense desire to obey and please among their troops. Their key to success seems to be a potent mixture of extreme calmness and extreme decisiveness, both in combat and in their judgment of men. In this regard Hal impresses the narrator a little more than Spot—Hal’s name calling to mind Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The narrative arc of Bring Out the Dog climaxes (spoiler alert) in “Crossing the River No Name” with Hal’s death, for which the narrator feels culpable and which leaves him not so much emotionally forlorn but cosmically adrift, as if the right order of the universe had been upset. The collection’s last two stories are set in Iraq under Spot’s leadership, which resembles in ways Hal’s, but doesn’t inspire the same confidence. We don’t quite feel that the last two stories register the cumulative force of the nine preceding stories on the narrator’s psyche—we don’t really even know if the stories are arranged in chronological order—but one can sense something setting in, if not quite disillusionment, then perhaps readiness to put SEAL life behind him.

A structural feature of the stories is that most of them end enigmatically. Narrative closure is always tricky business in short stories, and Mackin’s bent is to leave what might be the resolution unstated and hanging. In “Welcome Man Will Never Fly,” for example, the narrator, Reed, and the third man—a SEAL named Moby, the one who has just fucked up his pre-deployment test—make their way home after the training concludes. The narrator and Reed must report to their higher that Moby is unfit for deployment, even though by nature the wise-cracking and insouciant Moby is a perfect SEAL-bro who sees his mistakes as no big deal, who cares, whatever. Before arriving back at the base, however, the men are waylaid by a storm that forces them to take refuge in a motel where, by chance, a reunion of special ops pilots is in full-swing. The story’s end suggests that, confronted by the bonhomie of the retired pilots, the type of men who have all broken hundreds of military rules and buried dozens of mistakes in their long careers, the narrator and Reed will recalculate their decision. But the outcome is never portrayed directly; instead the story sets the condition for the dramatic moment to follow. Similarly, in “Yankee Two,” the narrator discovers a mysterious black box that may or may not be an IED trigger. Even after subjecting the box to a half-dozen tests, however, the narrator cannot determine whether the black box is even an electronic device. The story ends with an interrogation of the box owner—an adolescent boy—about to begin—but we never learn the result of the inquiry nor the fate of the box. Suggested, though, is the narrator’s growing sense of the futility of the mission, a feeling exacerbated by his increasing lack of confidence in Spot.

The focus throughout is clearly on fighting men whose social codes are shot through with fairly traditional ideas about manly bravery and toughness. Still, Bring Out the Dog likely is not going to please members of the special operations community and their fans, who, if they pay attention to it at all, will be suspicious of it and feel they are somehow being exposed, critiqued, or mocked. What’s there not to like about SEALs, they could ask? Mackin might even agree, for neither does Bring Out the Dog stand as a rebuke of the mountain of memoirs and films–the cultural glop–that celebrate and glorify SEALs. For critics of SEALs and their mythos, Bring Out the Dog probably doesn’t go far enough in problematizing either SEAL tactics or SEAL idolatry. Toxic masculinity and rampant militarism would seem to be on the table, but are not Mackin’s interest, nor is self-flagellation. “But ours was not a normal organization,” the narrator explains. “Sometimes what went on gave normal men pause. And if they paused, we’d send them back and demand a replacement.” In response to the books and movies about the world in which he served, Bring Out the Dog suggests Mackin wouldn’t think they are wrong in contour, merely nowhere near satisfying enough in detail and artistry.

As I’ve been intimating, it is very unusual to discover a writer of Mackin’s ability who has also been soldier-enough to accompany the SEALs not on just one mission as an observer or journalist, but dozens and probably hundreds as a participant. Not that Bring Out the Dog is Moby-Dick, but Mackin’s appearance on the literary scene resembles Melville’s in the 1840s, when fresh from a whaling voyage and living with cannibals a talented young writer seemed to emerge out of whole-cloth. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael testifies that it is best to be on good terms with the inhabitants of any realm in which one finds oneself and also that mad “Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.” Some of the same sentiments seem to apply to Mackin’s relationship to the SEALs. We might wonder that he doesn’t make more of the cumulative ethical toll from so much participation in shooting, bombing, home invasion, interrogation, and just plain brutal human interaction, even among the SEALs themselves. The narrator references psychological distress occasionally—what the narrator calls his “beleaguered conscience”—but it honestly doesn’t seem to be his thing to be tormented by war’s wanton destructiveness. That’s an aspect of combat he thinks about, but it doesn’t yet consume him, though he admits that in future years “I’d probably see good stuff as bad, and bad stuff as worse.” Perhaps it is all a matter of suppression, denial, compartmentalization, and suspended judgment—something officers are expert in, speaking from experience–but whatever, the attitude is curious and hard to understand—if the war didn’t actually traumatize you, OK, but how could literary war fiction possibly be about anything else?

One means of understanding the ethical tone of Bring Out the Dog is offered by Air Force pilot and novelist James Salter in his memoir, where he claims that he disliked writing about himself, because the “self was not the principal thing.” In other words, he, and I’m suggesting Mackin, too, is more interested in describing people and events he observed than in exploring his own mind or soul. The risk here is a certain lack of psychological or moral depth that might be judged heinous, or at least reprehensible, especially when we’re talking about breaking into Afghan and Iraq households and terrorizing the residents. I don’t think that’s the case with Mackin’s narrator, Mackin himself, or Bring Out the Dog generally. More ambivalent about special operators than other literary fiction yet written about them—I’m thinking of Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War, and Ross Ritchell’s The Knife–Bring Out the Dog emenates from a deeper place of knowingness. Still it would be ludicrous to think Mackin would throw under the bus men with whom he fought and on whom he depended for his life. “I felt proud that I’d fought, or something like proud, but also glad it was over,” states the narrator of “The Lost Troop.” Mackin’s stories set the conditions for the profounder resolution of their ambiguities, not by his characters, nor by Mackin, but by his readers.

An interview I conducted with Mackin for The Wrath-Bearing Tree can be found here.

Will Mackin, Bring Out the Dog.  Random House, 2018.

The Norwegian Way of War: Nobel

July 25, 2018

Nobel, a television drama about Norwegian special operators in Afghanistan and back home, went largely unremarked in America upon its release in 2016. Sometime since then, Netflix saw fit to slip the eight-part series into my “Recommended for Peter” queue, one more entry in the endless stream of diamonds and lumps-of-coal the video-streaming Goliath can’t stop sending my way. Fortunately and thankfully, this time Netflix is way more hit-than-miss, for Nobel is excellent.

The central story line concerns Lieutenant Erlang Riiser, a stoical and very competent man-of-war who, upon return to Norway after an eventful deployment in northern Afghanistan, receives a mysterious text telling him that a wealthy Afghan land-owner suspected of being a Taliban sympathizer has also arrived in Norway. The Taliban-friendly Afghan is in pursuit of his wife Washima, whom the Norwegians have granted refugee status out of fear for her safety, and he is also chasing a business opportunity brokered by high-placed Norwegian officials and businessmen. Riiser receives the text while attending an official function with his wife Johanne, who works as a deputy to the Norwegian minister of defense—one of said high-placed Norwegian officials. Riiser’s Ranger-danger spidey-sense tingling, he abandons his wife to chase down the anonymous lead. Finding Washima being pummeled by her husband, Riiser kills the husband and one of his henchmen and whisks Washima off to a hide-spot.

That all occurs in the first fifteen minutes of episode one. The rest of the hour and the subsequent seven episodes of Nobel spin out the aftermath and upshot of the fateful event, along with lots of back-story scene-setting in Afghanistan, as Riiser tries to discover the source of the text, deal with its consequences, smooth things out with his wife, and contend with a number of other issues, including a heroin-addicted father, a disabled teammate, the grieving mother of second teammate killed-in-action, a pesky muckraking journalist, and a troubled son coming to terms with the idea that his father is caught in a harrowing game of kill-or-be-killed. All the action is for big stakes: not only are oil-drilling rights in Afghanistan on the table, for which the Norwegians are trying to broker a deal in collaboration with a Chinese consortium, but also hanging in the balance is a Nobel Peace Prize, which, in case you don’t remember (I didn’t), is awarded by Norway, not Sweden.

That’s a lot, but the wide-ranging plot is Nobel’s strength. Its creators have crafted a complex but plausible story, one whose reach spans high and low, close and far, backwards and forwards, and they’ve imbued it with intelligence, drive, and capability of surprise. A couple of scenes strain credulity and it is paced a mite more slowly than you might think a war movie should be, but overall Nobel is dramatic without being melodramatic, exciting without being sensational, and neither reductive nor pandering in its presentation of war’s dangers and complexities. Also good are the production values. The “Afghanistan” scenes (filmed in Morocco) recoup well-trodden scenes from film and fiction—FOB life, soldierly banter and camaraderie, vehicle movement ops, IEDs, suicide bombers, the death of a buddy, shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenarios, tea-drinking schmoozefests with Afghans—with attention to detail and fresh accents, while also throwing in a few new ones—sex in the hootches, green-on-blue killing, and a buzkashi game, to name three.

Aksel Hennie is solid as Lieutenant Riiser. Neither Chris Kyle nor Jason Bourne, Riiser’s a mature man; his BMW station-wagon becomes him, while his Under Armour ballcap makes him look not youthful but slightly foolish, as if his suspect American fashion sense corresponded with suspect American ideas about things, such as the thought that joining the military and going to fight in Afghanistan was a good one. Watchful, thoughtful, and somewhat bug-eyed, he is slow to talk, leaving long pauses in the conversational flow as if he knew a little bit more or a little bit less than everyone else in the room. Only impulsive when the situation demands, Riiser is not addicted to thrill, or perhaps he keeps his addiction dampened down. Asked to deal with a lot, from international intrigue to tense combat to a shaky home life, he’s almost too stoical and practical in his responses for the other people in his life, especially his wife and kid, who practically beg him to be more there for them. His silent competence is both a virtue and a liability as the dramatic focus of the show: we understand that he represents a certain type of admirable-but-also-problematic military mindset, but the series could still do better to open him up emotionally and psychologically.

While Riiser is somewhat one-dimensional, Tuva Novotny, as Riiser’s wife Johanne, better carries off a bifurcated personality: her tightly pulled-back hair and pursed lips signal all business up-top, while her armband tattoo and leather pants below speak to something wilder and more sensual. Miffed by her husband’s remoteness, perhaps she also senses that she’s not getting her due as a very pretty woman, and she finds herself susceptible to the flirtation of a raffish international entrepreneur. This subplot plays out in did-she-or-did-she-not-succumb? fashion, which is interesting, but the tension between the Riisers is even more interesting, if not as erotic. Johanne’s desperate to prove her competence in her own realm as the equal of her husband’s in his, and the series finale brings both members of the Riiser power-couple to Afghanistan, where their marital competiveness—mixed, to be sure, with love and care, however strained—crests on a wave of competing professional interests.

Much reference in Nobel is made to “the Norwegian way” of war-fighting and international business and politics. The mostly-unstated contrast to the Norwegian way is “the American way,” but a cheap-shot delivered early on drives the point home: one of the special operators proclaims if “we were Americans” a possible target “would already be dead.” On the political-business side, “the Norwegian way” speaks to some sort of rational deal-making centered on mutual interest and cultural sensitivity, as opposed, I’m guessing, to American shock, awe, and “kill ’em all” bum-fuckery. To be fair, when first American special operators and then an American Secretary of Defense appear in Nobel, they’re not portrayed as idiots with blood dripping from their teeth, but rather as shrewd practitioners of war’s complexity. Those cameos point to a grander theme. By the end of Nobel, the idea of a superior Norwegian way lies in tatters as events at both the national and individual levels humble the Norwegians. A thematic and visual motif of the series is explosions; they are featured not only in the background of the title sequence, but three characteristic Afghanistan explosions—an anti-personnel land mine, an IED, and a suicide bomb—punctuate the narrative. By the series end, Norway’s effort to escape the worst mistakes and moral quagmires of American folly have been blown to bits, and the men and women whose lives have been ruined by Afghanistan and in Afghanistan can blame neither Afghans nor Americans, but only themselves.

Nobel is directed by Per-Olav Sorensen and written by Mette Marit Bastad and Stephen Uhlander.


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