In late 2013 I received an email from Roy Scranton, whom I didn’t know at the time, inviting me to join him on a vet-writing panel at the 2014 Association of Writers and Writing Program conference in Seattle. I had never heard of “AWP,” as it’s called, but I soon learned it was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, conferences in America for authors of creative literature—memoir, fiction, and poetry. I did not think of myself as a writer in that way, but I also didn’t say no to Scranton.
That began a streak of five years where I attended AWP, each after the first in the capacity as organizer of panels dedicated to giving voice to war-and-mil writers. Each conference brought a slew of memories and new friendships, acquaintances, and contacts, as well a handful of titles purchased from the tables at AWP’s mammoth book-fair. Also, beginning with Minneapolis, and continuing with LA, DC, and Tampa, I organized a war-writers’ social so we could all meet and have a few, which was fun for me and seemed to be appreciated by others.
A reflection-essay about the highlights and the connective strands awaits, while here I only list the writers with whom I presented and repost my Time Now write-ups of each event.
Seattle 2014: Phil Klay, Hillary Plum, Roy Scranton
I wasn’t able to attend AWP 2019 in Portland or AWP 2020 in San Antonio, and now I won’t be attending the online AWP 2021. I understand AWP 2022 will be in Philadelphia, which is an easy drive for me and hopefully will be in-person. Maybe time for a return?
The Wrath-Bearing Tree website offered me a chance to host their podcast this month and I wasn’t about to say no. I asked my friend Patrick Deer, the head of New York University’s Cultures of War symposium, if he would join me in talking to Matt Gallagher about Gallagher’s Empire City, a dystopian novel that presciently portrays a dysfunctional America wracked by endless war-faring, rampant militarism, and dueling tribes of veterans. Deer said “yes,” Gallagher said “yes,” and so off we went. Give us a listen please, and no problem if you fast forward to passages that interest you most:
Matthew Komatsu reviews Empire City for The Wrath-Bearing Tree here.
Peter Lucier’s reviewof Empire City for The Strategy Bridge is also recommended.
Matt Gallagher is the author of Kaboom (2010), Youngblood (2016), and Empire City (2020). With Roy Scranton, he is the editor of the veterans-fiction anthology Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (2013).
Patrick Deer is Associate Professor of English at New York University and the author of Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (2009). His current book projects are titled Deep England: Forging British Culture After Empire and Surge and Silence: Understanding America’s Cultures of War.
Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades” can be found in anthology The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War (2016), edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner.
Thanks to Adrian Bonenberger and The Wrath-Bearing Tree for everything they do.
2020 saw the continuing emergence of a vibrant cohort of veteran fiction-writers formed by war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Phil Klay’s Missionaries, Matt Gallagher’s Empire City, and Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black and White solidified their authors’ positions on the top of the war-writing mountain, as defined by major publishing contracts, critical acclaim in high-profile venues, and substantive ancillary writing opportunities. Odie Lindsey’s Some Go Home and Jessie Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours announced that two more war-writing scene vets were also back in action with something to say. Maximillian Uriarte’s graphic novel Battle Born: Lapus Lazuli did not receive the acclaim or the popularity of his most excellent White Donkey or Terminal Lance cartoons, but riches lie waiting exploration by alert readers. Likewise with Perry O’Brien’s Fire in the Blood, significant, if for nothing else (but not just), because it’s new work by yet-one-more vet-author first launched into print by the seminal 2013 Fire and Forget anthology.
Equally notable, from my point-of-view, has been the continued or even re-energized vibrancy of the online vet-writing scene. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention for a few years, but for whatever reason, pandemic or otherwise, this year I’ve been frequently entertained and often impressed by the vet stories and verse I’ve read online in venues such as The Wrath-Bearing Tree; Military Experience & the Arts; War, Literature & the Arts; and 0-Dark-Thirty. In the same vein, the anthology of Line of Advance award-winning poetry and prose Our Best War Stories is full of striking stories and fresh voices that I mostly missed upon their release, going back to 2016. The divide between professional and amateur vet-writing is a thing, but cross-boundary pleasure and pollination are everywhere possible.
Small and indie presses help bridge the divide between professional publishing realm and amateur online authorial ranks (does an analogy to distinctions separating Special Operations, Regular Army, and National Guard troops work here?). I’ve just got my hands on two small-press novels, Brett Allen’s Kilroy Was Here, about war in Afghanistan, and Travis Klempan’s Have Snakes, Need Birds, set in Iraq, and am looking forward to reading them.
New poetry was scarcer in 2020. Volume-length works include Colin Halloran’s American Etiquette and Phil Metres’ Shrapnel Maps, neither of which directly portray fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, though they seem extensions of previous work by their authors that did.
The only 2020 movie I’m aware of about Iraq and Afghanistan is The Outpost, directed by Rod Lurie, about “the battle of Kamdesh” (COP Keating) in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, in 2009. The Outpost joins two excellent episodes of the Netflix series Medal of Honor in recounting the heroics of the soldiers who fought that day.
A reason for worry in 2020 was the low-profile or absence of many veteran-authors whose early works delighted and promised much. Yes, the gestation period for new writing can be long, but I’m not even hearing peeps and blips signaling activity from authors whose voices I admire and miss….
I’m also curious how the next round of new fiction, poetry, and film portrays the continuing cultural reverberations of the post-9/11 Forever Wars. Taking war to Iraq and Afghanistan seems now an even worse idea than it was at the time, and the execution of the wars has been, if anything, worse than their intent and design. Even worse than worse, many veterans are full of atrocious ideas fervently held about what their veteran status entitles them to and what their deployments have taught them. I’m not sure that fiction and art can do much in the face of such “passionate intensity,” as Yeats called it, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try.
Anyway, here’s the list. I haven’t included new works such as Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black and White that don’t directly portray scenes set in Iraq or Afghanistan, while I include those such as Phil Klay’s Missionaries, where deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan serve as a significant back-story to the main action. If I’m missing anything let me know; additions and corrections are easy. New entries are bolded.
Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction
Bob Kornheiser, Crossing the Wire (2004) Nicholas Kulish, Last One In (2007) Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008) David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010) Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011) Benjamin Buchholz (Army), One Hundred and One Nights (2011) Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011) David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012) Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012) Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012) Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013) Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013) Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013) Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013) Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013) Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013) J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) Katey Schultz, Flashes of War (2013) Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013) Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014) Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014) Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014) Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014) Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014) Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014) Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014) Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014) Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015) Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015) Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015) Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015) Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015) Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015) Jonathan Raab (Army), Flight of the Blue Falcon (2015) John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015) Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015) Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015) Susan Aspley, Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town (2016) The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger (Army) and Brian Castner (Air Force), eds. (2016) Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016) Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016) Tom King and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol 1: Bang. Bang. Bang.(2016). Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016) Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016) Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016) Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016) Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016) Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016) Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016) Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016) David Abrams (Army), Brave Deeds (2017) Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Dark at the Crossing (2017) Helen Benedict, Wolf Season (2017) Caleb Cage (Army), Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2017) Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), The Confusion of Languages (2017) Tom King (CIA) and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (2017) Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. (Army), The Chords of War (2017) Brian Van Reet (Army), Spoils (2017) Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Waiting for Eden (2018) Jon Chopan, Veterans Crisis Hotline (2018) Raymond Hutson, Finding Sergeant Kent (2018) Kathleen J. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018) Will Mackin (Navy), Bring Out the Dog (2018) Stephen Markley, Ohio (2018) Ray McPadden (Army), And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018) Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields (2018) Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018) Nico Walker (Army), Cherry (2018) Adam Kovac (Army), The Surge (2019) Katey Schultz, Still Come Home (2019) Amy Waldman, A Door in the Earth (2019) Brett Allen (Army), Kilroy Was Here (2020) Phil Klay (USMC), Missionaries (2020) Travis Klempan (Navy), Have Snakes, Need Birds (2020) Odie Lindsey (Army), Some Go Home (2020) Perry O’Brien (Army), Fire in the Blood (2020) Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), Battle Born: Lapus Lazuli (2020)
Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry
Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005) Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005) Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006) Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008) Frances Richey (Army mother), The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (2008) Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010) Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010) Frances Richey (Army mother), Voices of the Guard (2010) Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010) Allan Gray (Army), Overwatch (2011) Tom Sleigh, Army Cats (2011) Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012) Abby E. Murray, Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier’s Wife (2012) Jason Poudrier (Army), Red Fields (2012) Seth Brady Tucker (Army), Mormon Boy (2012) Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012) Charles Bondhus, All the Heat We Could Carry (2013) Stanton S. Coerr (USMC), Rubicon (2013) Kerry James Evans (Army), Bangalore (2013) Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013) Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013) Chuck Rybak, War (2013) David R. Dixon (USMC), Call in the Air (2014) Frederick Foote (Navy), Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry of War (2014) Gerardo Mena (Navy), The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters (2014) Seth Brady Tucker (Army), We Deserve the Gods We Ask For (2014) Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014) Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers (2015) Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015) Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015) Victoria Kelly (spouse), When the Men Go Off to War (2015) Philip Metres, Sand Opera (2015) Tom Sleigh, Station Zed (2015) Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015) Paul David Adkins (Army), Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath (2016) Jonathan Baxter (Army), The Ghosts of Babylon (2016) Lance B. Brender (Army) and C. Rodney Pattan (Army), In Cadence (2016) Brock Jones (Army), Cenotaph (2016) Kim Garcia, Drone (2016) Nicole Goodwin (Army), Warcries (2016) Karen Skolfield (Army), Frost in the Low Areas (2016) Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Uniform (2016) Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only) Paul David Adkins (Army), FM 101-5-1 MCRP 5-2A: Operational Terms and Graphics (2017) Eric Chandler (USAF), Hugging This Rock (2017) Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Dots & Dashes (2017) Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Sweet Insurgent (2017) Pamela Hart (Army mother), Mothers Over Nangarhar (2018) Benjamin Hertwig (Canadian Army), Slow War (2017) Lynn Marie Houston, Unguarded (2017) Hugh Martin (Army), In Country (2018) Shara Lessley (DOD civilian spouse), The Explosive Expert’s Wife (2018) Abby Murray (Army spouse), How To Be Married After Iraq (2018) Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Permanent Change of Station (2018) Graham Barnhart (Army), The War Makes Everyone Lonely (2019) Abby E. Murray (Army spouse), Hail and Farewell (2019) Nomi Stone (DOD contractor), Kill Class (2019)
Iraq and Afghanistan War Film
In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007) Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007) Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield, director (2007) Body of War, Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, directors (2008) The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008) Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008) Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008) Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (HBO) (2008) The Objective, Daniel Myrick, director (2008) Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009) Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009) The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009) Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010) Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011) Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012) Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013) American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014) Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014) The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014) Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014) Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015) A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015) Hyena Road, Paul Gross, director (2015) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016) Blood Stripe, Remy Auberjonois, director (2016) Mine, Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro, directors (2016) Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Clement Cogitore, director (2016) Nobel, Per-Olav Sorensen, director (Netflix) (2016) War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016) Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016) Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, director (2017) Megan Leavey, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director (2017) Sand Castle, Fernando Coimbra, director (Netflix) (2017) Thank You For Your Service, Jason Hall, director (2017) The Wall, Doug Liman, director (2017) War Machine, David Michod, director (Netflix) (2017) The Yellow Birds, Alexandre Moors, director (2017) 12 Strong, Nicolai Fuglsig, director (2018) The Kill Team, Dan Krauss, director (2019) Official Secrets, Gavin Hood, director (2019) The Report, Scott C. Burns, director (2019) The Outpost, Rod Lurie, director (2020)
For the last year I’ve been a member of a civilian-military reading group sponsored by a local community college. The formal name of the group is “No Man’s Land: Dialogues on the Experience of War.” The veterans in the group represent all branches of service and periods of service, divided evenly between Vietnam, post-Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan. The civilians for the most part are associated with the school, either as students or faculty. There’s about a 50/50 split between men and women. Last year we met in person, while this past fall we’ve met by Zoom. During our in-person sessions, we averaged between 15 and 20 participants. Online, it’s been five to ten.
The stories we discussed this fall are below.
Thom Jones, “The Pugilist at Rest.” Jones served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, but never fought in Vietnam. After years of anonymous drift, he hit it big in 1991 when The New Yorker published “The Pugilist at Rest,” about a former Marine, now old, contemplating how violence has shaped his life. The title refers to a Greek statue of a boxer that serves as the artistic inspiration for the narrator’s reflections on boot camp, Vietnam, his own boxing exploits, and the epilepsy about which we learn he is about to undergo brain surgery to cure. Asked about what it takes to make one’s literary debut in The New Yorker, Jones is reported as saying, “Make your story so good they can’t say no.” Oh yea, The Pugilist at Rest definitely punches hard.
Siobhan Fallon, “The Last Stand” and “Gold Star.” Both stories feature Kit Murphy, an Army junior enlisted soldier back from Iraq with a leg mangled from an IED explosion that killed his squad leader Sergeant Shaeffer. In “The Last Stand,” we witness the end of Murphy’s marriage to his high-school sweetheart Helena. In “Gold Star,” Murphy pays his respects to Sergeant Shaeffer’s widow. Full of wonderful detail regarding modern military life, and as tender as tales featuring wounded vets riding barroom bucking broncos and widows shopping in the commissary on payday can be, the twinned stories point to the lonely despair that comes when war dishes out its full measure of pain, damage, loss, and heartbreak.
Philip Caputo, “Lines of Departure.” Caputo is an old pro whose long career as a respected author and journalist after service as a Marine officer in Vietnam would seem to be the model for the Matt Gallaghers, Phil Klays, and Elliot Ackermans of our day. In this late-life tale about a meet-up between Vietnam vets and Iraq/Afghanistan vets at a veterans’ retreat, we get a sense of the quiet wisdom and eloquence that might await GWOT’s literary stars. Caputo’s narrator, a former correspondent for the Marines in Vietnam, is deeply ambivalent about much, especially the prospect that the unspeakable horrors of war can be communicated, let alone be recovered from. In the story, the divide between the Vietnam and GWOT vets looms large, at least as large as the oft-mentioned divide between civilians and veterans, and yet, and yet…. things happen.
Last spring we read and discussed Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,”Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” Jacob Siegel’s “Smile, There are IEDs Everywhere,” and Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train.” We were set to host a visit by Brian Turner when the pandemic shut us down. In two separate off-shoot groups, we discussed Phil Klay’s “Prayer in the Furnace” and Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Nada.”
Overall it’s been great. Everyone speaks, no one dominates, everyone cocks their ear to listen. The veterans explain military terms and relate how they connect to various aspects of the stories. The civilians offer perspective and insight born of their own experiences. It’s always interesting to see what the folks who haven’t served are drawn to within the stories, and often, even usually, it’s they who see deepest into the emotional and ethical twists presented by the narrators, leaving the vets in the room, or this one, anyway, sometimes taken aback, even aghast, that we’ve become so accustomed, even blithe, about the implications and consequences of military culture and mindsets, to say nothing of war, that are revealed so stunningly in the tales. And I’m not just talking about damage done to other people, or abstractly, either, if you know what I’m saying. Each meeting feels like a journey, and at the end, I feel like I’ve learned something significant about the story, the author of the story, the others in the room, and myself.
I encourage everyone to seek out stories about men and women who have seen war, and to find good people to talk about them with.
The discussion group is hosted by Bergen Community College in northern New Jersey. I built a website to support our group, which you can find here. Check it out, please–there’s pages on all the stories I’ve listed above and many more, and I offer more information about the program’s goals and organizers. Thank you Bergen Community College for inviting me to participate, and thank you National Endowment of the Humanities’ Dialogues on the Experience of War program for sponsoring.
2020’s brought four anticipated novels by acclaimed veteran-authors of contemporary war fiction, courtesy of major publishing houses. I’ve written on Matt Gallagher’s Empire City previously, and here will survey Odie Lindsey’s Some Go Home, Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black & White, and Phil Klay’s Missionaries, with a little more attention paid to Missionaries, befitting Klay’s status within the vet-writing and national literary scenes. None of the novels make events in Iraq and Afghanistan central to their plots, but the 21st-century Global War on Terror wars percolate more-or-less in the background of the events and characters described. Each novel illustrates in its way GWOT vet-authors transitioning from sagas of junior-enlisted and junior-officer deployment exploits and rocky homecomings with more general reckoning of how forever war has wrenched the lives of adult men-and-women (often now with spouses and children), the national commonweal, and the international polity.
Spoiler alert: My write-ups address events in each novel that occur at or near their ends, so be advised.
Odie Lindsey, Some Go Home.Some Go Home covers much the same ground as Lindsey’s excellent collection of short stories We Come to Our Senses: the interplay of modern war and the modern American south, as viewed through the eyes of veterans trying to connect their military experience with the vibrant New South cultural landscape shaped by intense social change and incessant regard for history. The south is widely held to be more supportive of soldiers and patriotic war-faring than other parts of the country, but Some Go Home portrays Iraq and Afghanistan war as being as distant and unknown in Dixie as elsewhere in the country. The protagonist of Some Go Home, an Iraq War Army veteran named Colleen, is viewed as something of an oddity by the other residents of the fictional town of Pitchlynn, Mississippi. The locals are too preoccupied by time-consuming and sometimes crazy events of their own lives to be anything but politely bemused by her tour and whatever battle-tested wisdom she might have obtained. Colleen herself struggles to put the pieces together; she is a bit of a cypher, not especially thoughtful or expressive and prone to odd fits of inscrutable behavior, even as she wins beauty pageants, suffers through opioid addiction, and marries into a prominent local family embroiled in multi-generational race-related drama. Though Colleen presides over Some Go Home’s opening and closing chapters, she is only an intermittent presence in the novel’s long middle, which alternately trace laughable and deadly serious aspects of contemporary Pitchlynn—the point being that the south’s piquant flavor is the result of the intensity of its polar extremes. As the novel concludes, Colleen departs Pitchlynn on what is depicted as a search for coherent and independent self-hood that can be obtained only by leaving, much as Stephen Daedalus must flee Dublin at the end of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. Stephen is determined “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of his race,” which to a certain extent is what Joyce offers us in subsequent works Dubliners and Ulysses. Perhaps Some Go Home is the prequel for Lindsay’s next novel, in which Colleen makes sense of the swirling personal, regional, national, and international imperatives traced so interestingly in this one.
Elliot Ackerman, Red Dress in Black & White. As in two of Ackerman’s previous novels, the locale of Red Dress in Black & White is a frayed corner of the American-dominated global order. In this case, the setting is modern Istanbul, where a glitzy new-fangled Western-sheen threaten to erase Islamic traditions and older life-rhythms. One protagonist is Catherine, a bored, unfulfilled American wife of a Turkish business tycoon. Another is Peter, an American war-photojournalist now embarked on an artistic project photographing everyday Turks. Catherine has affairs, and Peter doesn’t scruple about sleeping with married women, so it’s not surprising what ensues when they meet to plan a showing of Peter’s work in a Turkish museum of which Catherine is a director. Their romance plays out against a backdrop of Turkish civil strife and political intrigue that eventually ensnares Catherine and Peter, both in the corridors of power and out in the streets, and Peter is given to philosophizing about photography aesthetics, so there’s a lot going on in Red Dress in Black & White (the title refers to a photograph that figures prominently in the novel). Ackerman’s wont, however, is to touch things quickly rather than dwell on them, and thus the novel, depending greatly on atmosphere and suggestion, reads briskly. Catherine and Peter are cosmopolitan sophisticates, and the novel suggests their affair is not to be condemned, but understood as an inevitable by-product of expatriate rootlessness, or perhaps commensurate with the tangled complexity of Turkish society and politics, especially as it is informed, or infected, by US interventionism. That comes in the form of Kristen, a CIA operative who pulls strings from behind the façade of a bland embassy job—she’s a modern-day Madame Defarge whose array of constantly buzzing cell-phones replaces the click-clacking needles in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Ackerman is fond of big reveals and unexpected denouements, and I won’t spoil the main one that arrives in Red Dress & Blackand White, but the gradual emergence of Kristin as a key player in Turkish politics and finance and as the novel’s major character in its last third is another development not apparent from the novel’s opening chapters. That the CIA might still wield such power, and have it flexed so proficiently by a junior analyst, is not what I would have guessed is true of the world these days, but Red Dress in Black & White nicely suggests how it might be so.
Phil Klay, Missionaries.Missionaries is Klay’s first novel and first book since his 2014 National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment. Redeployment’s stories featured thoughtful, even cerebral, veterans ruminating about their experience, often in dialogue with interlocutors or in first-person confessional mode with the reader. Much of that reflective working-out of events is on display in Missionaries, too, only the characters are older, with more life experience and lessons-learned under their belts than the typical Redeployment protagonist—as does Klay himself, funny as that is to say about an author with a National Book Award under his belt. In any case, Missionaries manifests facets of literary craft not evident in Redeployment: thick physical descriptions of landscapes and social milieus, vivid action scenes, deep dives into characters’ thoughts and back-stories, and deft flavoring of the characters’ perspectives with the author’s own. The sentences, both those narrated and those spoken by characters, sparkle with unexpected turns and insights.
The plot recounts a fictional minor episode late in the very-real decades-long conflict among regional paramilitaries, drug-running “narcos,” and the legitimate government of Columbia. That conflict that resolved itself circa 2015–the year the novel is set–in favor of the government, which by accounts is reasonably democratic, committed to fairness and legality, and respected in the eyes of the Columbian people and the world. To the extent that American military aid has helped achieve this state, Columbia is an example, as one character puts it, of a war that “America is not losing.” But the actual Americans portrayed in Missionaries, two former Special Operators named Mason and Diego, and a war-journalist named Lisette, are hapless, almost pathetic, fully considered. Mason and Diego were team buddies in Iraq and Afghanistan—a scene describing a big battle they fought in Afghanistan is terrific. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Mason and Diego were on top of their game, while Columbia, by contrast, for them is an extreme diminution, encountered full-stop just as they are entering peak-adult maturity and vitality. Mason as a military advisor and Diego as a security contractor have little to offer the Columbians that might either help the Columbians or reinforce their self-images as warfighters whose authority should be respected. As Mason rues, all the competent and battle-tested Columbian army really wants from him are helicopters for troop transport; they’ll take care of everything else just fine themselves (I heard much the same from Afghan army officers on my tour as an advisor). Lisette, like Mason and Diego, is now past 30 with little to show for it. Burned-out in Afghanistan, she arrives in Columbia looking for a career-revitalizing story, and instead becomes the big story herself when she is kidnapped by one of the factions in the Columbian civil war.
For all that, the principal characters in Missionaries are Columbians: Abel, whose penchant for business makes him a valuable pawn in the internecine civil war, and Juan Pablo, an army lieutenant colonel whose savvy cynicism gives him a curiously sanguine view of things, even when war threatens not so much his life, but his job and his family. Late in Missionaries, we find Juan Pablo in retirement from the Columbian army and now working as an intelligence analyst contractor in the Middle East, where his American counterparts strike him as naïve and foolish. Juan Pablo’s take seems to be that when you are fighting pure evil, or a greater evil, one mustn’t be fussy about breaking a few eggs to make the war-“not losing” omelet. As we read about him lecturing Americans about—get this—not just the necessity but the success of the War on Terror in curbing Islamic terrorism, we wonder what Missionaries is trying to tell us. Something about man’s capacity for brutality, something about what happens when politics is warped by violence, something about wars’ all-encompassing reach, certainly, but also something too about the relationship of means and ends, and how winning might be measured by different yardsticks than conventionally supposed. It’s an idea about the forever wars bold of Klay to express out-loud, if only in the mouth of a fictional character. Juan Pablo is not just another character, though, but one with most-favored-nation status within Missionaries, so does the novel endorse his view, or are we meant to see him now as a degraded apologist for endless war and a deluded cog in the war machine? Hard to tell, and who’s to say?
All three novels give prominent page space to women characters, as if a woman’s negotiation with endless war and its consequences were as interesting or important to consider as a man’s—gasp–or a story that has not yet been often or well-told. Indeed, the men in the novels are more predictable and obviously motivated, as if their ideas and actions responded to well-worn social imperatives and considerations. The women characters, on the other hand, are inscrutable and mysterious, and given to impulsive and unpredictable, even reckless, behavior, predilections that also bespeak courage and imagination. That’s part of their allure, no doubt, but also proof-positive of their need to improvise in the face of circumstances, as well as ability to do so. The exception that proves the rule is Red Dress in Black & White’s Kristin, whose methodical exploitation of opportunities and relentless eye-on-the-main-prize are so formidable they make many of the other characters spread across the three novels appear aimless and feeble in comparison.
Odie Lindsey, Some Go Home. Norton, 2020.
Elliot Ackerman, Red Dress in Black & White. Knopf Doubleday, 2020.
Time Now’s pace-of-production has slowed down recently, no doubt. Part of it’s that I’m busy, part of it’s that I’m moving on personally, part of it’s because it doesn’t seem as urgent now to document and catalog works about war in Iraq and Afghanistan as it did in, say, 2014. Frankly, there’s not as much to report on, though recent movies such as The Outpost suggest that the wars have not completely lost the interest of audiences and artists. Still, for the most part I’ve written on the novels, short-story collections, poetry volumes, movies, and art about the wars that I know of and which engage me, so I’m not even sure what more there’s to say until a second wave of titles comes along.
Time Now dates back to 2011, but only last night did I figure out how to search for a list of the most popular posts. The top post, “39 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets,” didn’t surprise me, since it’s perennially affixed at the top of my publicly-visible recently-viewed feature. The next nine for the most part did surprise me, and so too did the absence of some posts that I thought had made more of an impression, but which didn’t crack the Top 10. Below’s the list of the Top 10 with capsule reflections on each:
1. “39 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets.” This post has been viewed nearly three times more than the runner-up in popularity. All good; all power to the poets and the online sites that publish them. I don’t know why someone doesn’t publish a print anthology along these lines—I’m sure it would sell as much as any poetry volume sells, and even better it would stand a chance of being a lasting historical document.
2. “Tim O’Brien’s ‘Story Truth’ and ‘Happening Truth’ in the Contemporary War Novel.”Go figure one of the top posts on a blog about Iraq and Afghanistan war lit features the dean of Vietnam War novelists, Tim O’Brien, but whatever—O’Brien’s influence indeed looms large over the contemporary scene. I’m happy as well to shine light on Michael Pitre’s very interesting Fives and Twenty-Fives (and when will we see more from Pitre?).
3. “Iraqi Iraq War Short Fiction: Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Green Zone Rabbit.'”I’ve tried to pay attention to literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan written by Iraqis and Afghans, and no one represents that cohort of writers better than Blasim. Funny though, I’ve never written a dedicated post on Blasim’s superb short-story collection The Corpse Exhibition, even as arranging a reading by Blasim at West Point in 2014 remains a literary-life highlight.
4. “War Poetry: Brian Turner’s ‘A Soldier’s Arabic.'” A short post about one of Turner’s most beautiful poems, featuring a wonderful pictorial representation by Giulia Alvarez, a student at Horace Mann Prep school in NYC I met while visiting a class there.
6. “Fire and Forget III: Mariette Kalinowski’s ‘The Train.'”Works by women veterans have been a salient feature of post-9/11 war-writing, but they’ve been concentrated in the forms of memoir and verse. Kalinowski’s great story makes me wish we had more fiction titles by her and other women vets.
7. “Paul Wasserman, Say Again All.” USAF vet Paul Wasserman read at a war-writing-and-art event I organized at West Point, self-published this hard-to-find chapbook, and since seems to have not published anything else and dropped out of the writing game altogether. Say Again All is excellent, though, and I’m happy that readers continue to make their way to this tribute to it.
8. “Fire and Forget: Short Stories.” Should probably be first on this list, judging by achievement and importance. What a talented and ambitious group of young vet-writers (plus Siobhan Fallon, no slouch herself) brought together between the two covers! The story of how the Fire and Forget authors joined forces and their divergent career paths afterwards is THE story waiting to be written about the Iraq and Afghanistan war-writing scene.
10. “A Contemporary War Short Fiction Listicle.” Honestly, this post was pretty-much a throwaway, done quickly to fill a gap between more trenchant ones. Also honestly: it holds-up, or at least the stories to which I point to do, and I’m not so sure how I would write it differently today.
When I was in the Army, every soldier, or at least every male combat-arms soldier, could recite swaths of dialogue from 80s and 90s war-movie classics such as Full Metal Jacket and Blackhawk Down. Save for Jarhead, I’ve never heard anyone quote a post-9/11 war film with the same gleeful enthusiasm, or really at all, and truth be told, Jarhead is about the First Gulf War, not Operation Iraqi Freedom. Whatever, of the many films released after 9/11 that portray American men-and-women fighting in desert places, here are some of my favorite scenes, in chronological order of date-of-release.
1. Jarhead (2005). Like I said, not technically a Global War on Terror film, but it might as well be for how popular and influential it has been among those in the ranks. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s full of life-defining scenes for young Marines, or young men dreaming of joining them.
2. The Hurt Locker (2008). Veterans love to assert their contempt for The Hurt Locker for all sorts of reasons, but no other GWOT film cranks up the tension scene-by-scene like it does, nor hits as hard in the feels. Starring Jeremy Renner, first the tension:
3. The Hurt Locker (2008). Now the feels:
4. The Messenger (2009). Woody Harrelson can chew the scenery with the best of them, and he’s in fine form here. But guess what? He’s outdone by Yaya DaCosta and the unknown actress who plays her mother.
5. Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Jessica Chastain as CIA operative “Mia” owns Zero Dark Thirty from start-to-finish, and I could have chosen a dozen scenes to highlight. Love here the bit about “your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit.”
6. Lone Survivor (2013). The portrayal of the death of SEAL lieutenant Michael Murphy in the book version of Lone Survivor is superb. The movie version for some reason changes details from the book and drains some of the emotional and dramatic wallop, but the scene still makes the list. Taylor Kitsch as Lieutenant Murphy.
7. Captain Phillips (2013). Danielle Albert, the Navy corpsman who treats Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Phillips is a real sailor, not an actor, but she holds her own and then some. My favorite on the list.
8. American Sniper (2014). Say what you will about Chris Kyle and the memoir American Sniper, Bradley Cooper is so great in the movie version he can almost make you forget the faults of the actual man and his book.
9. Mine (2016).Mine is basically a one-man-show starring Armie Hammer, but for the short time he’s in it, Tom Cullen runs away with the movie.
10. Thank You For Your Service (2017). The scenes I like best from Thank You for Your Service aren’t on YouTube, so this one featuring Miles Teller will have to stand-in for them.
11. Meaghan Leavey (2017). Kata Mara is good as the title character in this Marine-and-her-dog flick, but this scene belongs to rap star Common, who plays her gunnery sergeant.
BONUS! 10 Days to War (2008). Kenneth Branagh, Mr. Henry V himself, playing a British commander who gives a rousing-but-thoughtful speech to his troops on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.
The title of Graham Barnhart’s 2019 poetry volume The War Makes Everyone Lonely reflects the author’s interest in the destructive effects of war. An epigraph from Robert Persons’ film documentary General Orders No. 9 about the aftermath of the American Civil War in the South reinforces the point: “You are not a witness to ruin. / You are the ruin to be witnessed.” The biographical details made available by Barnhart’s poems suggest that Barnhart is from Pittsburgh, not the American South, but the significance of participation in failed wars, though unstated, may be pertinent. The poetry does not suggest that Barnhart, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Special Forces medic, is physically disabled, incarcerated, or wracked by drug-and-alcohol abuse. He may be, but the ruination, as expressed, is mostly mental. The symptom, and maybe the root problem, too, consists primarily of being easily triggered by events post-war to remember details, sometimes large and graphic, sometimes small and mundane, associated with his military service. Spoiler alert: the stimulated memories are interesting, but they are never reassuring.
Triggers figure prominently in the second poem in the volume, “What Being in the Army Did.” Featured first in a list of esoteric details describing things the poet learned in uniform is, “Things you’d expect. / Taught me a trigger’s weight– // its pull….” In this case, the weight of a trigger’s pull is just a technical detail, but the image presciently describes the narrative logic of many poems in The War Makes Everyone Lonely. In “The Coffee Aisle,” for example, brand names such as “Columbian Supremos” and “Jamaica Blue Mountains” inspire memories of joe drunk in theater to decompress after treating traumatic medical injuries. In another poem, a night drive through a snowstorm with his mother and grandmother brings back memories of a convoy in the snow in Afghanistan. A gunshot heard in the distance while attending an outdoor wedding induces an instinctive calculation of distance and direction toward the gunman, along with memories of having done the same “all those nights before” in training and on deployment. In “1900,” mountains viewed in Greece mobilize memories of hills designated as targets in theater: “X-ray, Juliet, Hotel, Romeo. / Recite their names. Your catalog of fire.”
The poet addresses the subject of easily-invoked memories directly in “Everything in Sunlight I Can’t Stop Seeing”:
don’t announce themselves.
It takes so little. I want to say the hinged arm
of a driver-side mirror balled with plastic wrap
looks like a reckless stump dressing….
Though The War Makes Everyone Lonely is defined by its interest in the unbidden mental association of events and scenes across time, not every poem is about the dynamics, logic, and rhetoric of unprovoked memory. Many are short vignettes describing common military experiences “reflected in tranquility” (to use Wordsworth’s great phrase): two are about gas-chambers and another one (a great one, in fact) called “Range Detail” makes much of a dreary rifle range chore “picking up brass” (expended shells) after the day’s shooting is done. Another excellent one, “How to Stay Awake on a Training Exercise,” inspired personal flashbacks to sleepless stints in the field desperately trying to keep eyes open. Others plumb more exotic events, related to Barnhart’s training as a combat medic and experience on deployment, such as survival training, working with Afghans, and patching up wounded bodies. Many images and events are graphic and even sensational, but Barnhart overall seems more interested in the subtle ways military service shapes and creates awareness and influences the mind and behavior long afterward.
The overall vision is bleak, but the impression that the author uses well the power of poetry to hold things together rings true. I’m not a poet, so take it for what it’s worth, but the handling of subjects and themes seems right to me in choice of words, images, line-breaks, tone, and all the other accoutrements of poetic craft. If you don’t trust me, trust the fact that he’s been able to place so many individual poems in elite poetry journals and find a prestigious publisher such as the University of Chicago Press—he’s good.
We now have a solid cohort of warrior poets from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who combine outside-the-wire credibility with refined poetic chops: Brian Turner, of course, Colin Halloran, Hugh Martin, and Brock Jones, for starters. We might also note other vet-poets from the Midwest, as are Barnhart and Martin—I’m thinking of Eric Chandler and Randy Brown (Charley Sherpa)–who against-expectations-and-odds have found poetry the medium of expression for sorting out their thoughts about waging war on America’s behalf in the twenty-first century. To paraphrase from the title of one of Barnhart’s poems, these veterans are very good at “noticing and focusing.” Who’s next? What’s next?
Graham Barnhart, The War Makes Everyone Lonely. University of Chicago Press, 2019.
What does military service and veteran status mean to black American veterans? Few full-length novels, short-story collections, plays, poetry volumes, memoirs, or non-fiction studies by or about black American soldiers in the 21st-century have been published to help us answer the question. Off the top of my head, the only biographies I can think of are two co-authored by M.L. Doyle, herself a black veteran. One is I’m Still Standing, by Shoshana Johnson, the Army soldier who was wounded and captured in the same convoy ambush as Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003. I’m Still Standing is one of my favorite memoirs of the GWOT-era: The opposite of “kill-memoirs” such as American Sniper in every way, it portrays life in uniform and going to war from the perspective of a lower-enlisted “low-density MOS” soldier (Johnson’s “Military Occupational Specialty” was 92G, Military Culinary Specialist—i.e., a cook) and person-of-color. The other, which I have not yet read, is titled A Promise Fulfilled. It’s a biography of Brigadier General Julia Jeter Cleckley, who before retiring in 2002 was the first African-American woman to attain the rank of general in the Army.
We should also note that Doyle also writes genre fiction, published independently. One of her novels, called The Bonding Spell, is a work of speculative fiction set in the States, but its plot is set in motion by events that occur in Iraq. The Bonding Spell is good, and even better is Doyle’s detective novel about US Army soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina titled The Peacekeeper’s Photograph. The protagonists of both stories are savvy black military women who have navigated patriarchal and white-dominated military culture without being broken by it. Thus does genre fiction—speculative and detective, respectively, in the case of Doyle–fulfill its potential to create delightfully-inspired imagined worlds rooted in real possibilities.
The only other full-length work by a black vet on my bookshelf is Nicole S. Goodwin’s poetry volume Warcries. Goodwin served in the Army in Iraq and writes searingly about the deployment and the return home; her themes and tones are more bitter than Doyle’s. In “Unsaid (Confession)”, for example, Goodwin describes watching white fellow soldiers berate and humiliate Iraqi prisoners. It puts into play a number of troubling ideas about what it means to be a black soldier or veteran, especially as that experience is shaped in relation to white fellow soldiers.
The other soldiers—female guarded duty. Boy, how could those white girls powertrip….
Hearing those noises, compulsed inward cringes….
I and the other black girls. Never did that. Never lost cool. Not on my watch. Not once.
Maybe ‘cause we knew….
But as the poem proceeds, Goodwin recounts her shame at watching a black NCO forcefully restrain a screaming prisoner:
And when the Sergeant First Class’ hands reached over and put the ziptie on to Muzzle the howler I was pinched by the irony.
Of one black man enslaving another. Of this sin I have barely spoken. Confession—I became accomplice to this action.
This deed inhumane.
The sequence of events triggers remorse and guilt:
Replays. Over. My head…
The tape records. Rewinds. Focus. I am volcanic with fear.
Didn’t rock the boat. Stayed in my hole.
The publishing industry record regarding African-American veteran-authors does not impress, but the vibrant vet-writing/spoken-word and performance/theatrical scenes in New York City and Philadelphia, in which Goodwin participates, offers access to many black voices and perspectives. I first became aware of the multi-racial East Coast vet-writing realm when I attended a reading at Pete’s Candy Shop, a bar in Brooklyn, in 2014. There I was struck by the poetry of former-Marine Johnson Wiley, and I obtained Wiley’s permission to publish two of his poems, “Shooting Stars of Kuwait” and “A Mother’s Son Returned,” on Time Now here.
Wiley seems to no longer be writing, but many other black NYC, Philly, and Jersey-based writers and artists dazzle with the range of their talents and interests. The first impression rendered by this plentitude of creativity is that artistic expression emerges out of the imagination of artists as it will, unbound by rules or expectation. Sometimes the stories told by black veterans foreground race consciousness and racial politics, and sometimes they don’t. It’s not always clear whether they do or not. The sculpture-photograph titled “Warrior” at the top of the page by black Army vet Donna Zephrine, for example, portrays a woman’s face, but the facial features and skin color are indeterminate–is she definitely black, or could it be a white face smeared with the grime of war? Zephrine’s vignette “The Gas Chamber,” about one of the most common-but-memorable experiences of all who have served, seems universal in its viewpoint and outreach, but does it pack a little more punch knowing it was written by a black woman? A poem by Zephrine, “War Sees No Color,” explicitly posits that a close-knit, functioning military unit under the duress of war goes a long way to suppressing racial divisiveness, thus echoing the commonly-heard maxim that in the Army “everyone is green.” If only it were so, all the time! And why does it take war to take us to state of unity we long to be peaceably? Be those questions as they may, Zephrine’s artwork to my mind does not convey outrage or pain associated with black skin and white racism, though I also little doubt that they do not reflect the totality and complexity of Zephrine’s thoughts about the matters.
In contrast, outrage and pain are on full display in former Marine Chantelle Bateman’s poem “PTSD”and even more so in her poems “Someday I’ll Love Chantelle” and “Thank You for Calling,” which can be found in the anthology Holding It Down Philadelphia: A Collection of Writing by Veterans. But Bateman’s verse, which is also raucously funny, does not foreground race so much as sexual assault and male misogyny as the forces that ruin honorable and rewarding military service for her and often enough for women generally. As such, it speaks to the intersectional truth that vet identity reflects overlapping strains of race, gender, class, and sexuality, blended by particular military experiences and life choices.
In the same vein, most of the multi-talented Maurice Decaul’s work seems not directly concerned with racial identity or racial tension, either in the Marines in which he served or in America at large. His great poem “Shush,”for example, is about PTSD. His play Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates explores the cultural conflict between American Marines and Iraqi insurgents in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His story “Death of Time” (published in the anthology The Road Ahead) portrays the sexual subjugation of a young woman by a Taliban-like militia in a mythologized space that reads much like Afghanistan. Several opinion pieces for the New York Times speak of his deep desire as a young man to be a Marine and how it was to serve with them in combat. In a long presentation titled “War and Poetry,”available on YouTube, Decaul describes how he became a writer, but racial identity doesn’t seem to be the issue or even an issue, even as he cites the mentorship of the great Vietnam War poet Yusef Komunyakaa. And yet, enough is enough, and poems Decaul published on The Wrath-Bearing Treeabout a 2017 trip to Virginia in the wake of the Charlottesville protests record not just fear, but despair at how unsafe he feels in his own country. In one, titled “Blue Ridges,” he asks:
When is a plantation no longer a plantation? On the lake shore, with nutria, turtles, brown recluse & copperheads, I know, I know these waters. The small voice in my head says leap it says, these waters will mask your smell. How will I live here, in the south? When my belly warns me, be home by dark.
That spirit of a long life’s journey to explicit engagement with race informs the work of another New York City African-American vet-writer, Christopher Paul Wolfe. In a personal essay titled “‘Sir, I Never Thought I’d See the Day I’d Be Working for a Colored Officer,'”published in the New York Times, Wolfe writes of the influence of his father, a career Army officer, as Wolfe first attends West Point and then serves in Iraq. Anguish and regret for having tried so hard to serve a system and a country that doesn’t have his best interests at heart emerge full-force:
As a black veteran, I find it hard to reconcile my pride in my service with a sense of complicity in upholding my country’s legacy of white supremacy while deployed. I still remember the black and brown faces of Iraqis that I helped to round up, zip-tie and detain using tactics similar to stop and frisk, the use of which some courts in America have found to be unconstitutional. These experiences created a moral chasm with which I continue to grapple.
Wolfe’s contribution to the vet-fiction anthology The Road Ahead stunningly portrays that torment. Called “Another Brother’s Conviction,” it is set years after the first-person narrator completes service in the Army, to include a tour in Iraq. The narrator enters a Brooklyn bodega and in short-order undergoes charged interactions with the Iranian-born owner, a white woman customer, and finally a Dominican customer accompanied by a black man just released from prison. The narrator is desperate to avoid being sucked into conversation with the other customers, in part because he knows what will well up within him if he does: “Son of a bitch… the ripple. I just want an egg-and-cheese… on wheat toast… with one slice of cheese; not whatever-the-fuck this is going to be.” The word “conviction” carries weight in the story, as the narrator reflects on his participation in acts he’d rather not remember in Iraq: “I’d […] played my part in something I’d come to regret, I had no conviction. There was no conviction. There still is no conviction…” The story concludes enigmatically but presciently, in a way that speaks to the impasse America has found itself in in 2020:
There’s just Akh and the Dominican, the ex-con and his five years, and me and my egg and cheese. And somewhere, out there, in the streets of Bedstuy, there’s a missing white girl.
There are several ways to interpret the story, but to me the last line suggests that the “missing white girl” should have stayed in the bodega rather than exiting as quickly as she could. She, like the narrator, wanted to avoid being drawn into the maelstrom of emotions connecting the other characters, male and dark-skinned as they are. Her departure, however, speaks to a lost opportunity to learn, connect, and grow. And the loss is not just hers, but theirs, and theirs together, as they try to figure out, as the anthology title pronounces, “the road ahead.”
The vibrant northeast vet writing-and-arts scene seems to repopulate yearly, bringing forth new voices and talents. In the months just before the pandemic shutdown, for example, I became acquainted with the work of Air Force Iraq-vet Omar Columbus, who is active in writing, theatrical, and performance circles in New York. A man after my own heart, Columbus not only contributes his own excellent writing to these circles, he seems to have a natural bent for organizing events and bringing people together. If it’s not unseemly to close on a ray-of-light, however thin, successful negotiation of the road ahead may depend on vet artists and impresarios such as Columbus. Cooling the hot-house tension of the bodega, to use Wolfe’s term, will be tough business. If anything can bring us closer to a peaceful and equitable resolution, it is the generative spirit of men and women such as Columbus.
In closing, hats off to the many admirable vet-writing and vet-theater collectives of New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia: Words After War; Voices from War; Combat Paper; the vet war-writing seminars at NYU, Columbia, and elsewhere; Poetic Theater; Aquila Theater; Theater of War; and Warrior Writers chapters in all three states, with apologies to any I have forgotten to mention. These organizations and programs carry far more than their fair share of the load fostering veteran artistic expression equal to the diversity of the uniformed services themselves. On the other hand, the mainstream publishing industry based in New York City could do much more to promote minority writers, and we look for more white authors to address race-related subjects and themes, too (works already out there that do some of that are Phil Klay’s short-story “Psychological Operations” and Eric Bennett’s novel A Big Enough Lie ((with the caveat that Bennett is not a veteran))). Critics and scholars can also continue interrogating war-writing, mine included, for witting or unwitting signs of bias.
Without claiming too much on behalf of white vet-writers, I’ll praise those who have succeeded in the literary publishing biz and have also made it a point to promote upcoming vet-writers of color. Roy Scranton, for instance, introduced me to Johnson Wiley. Matt Gallagher did the same for me with Christopher Paul Wolfe, and together Gallagher and I once shared a fun reading stage with Chantelle Bateman (and Mariette Kalinowski, too). The editors of The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Caster, opened their anthology to black voices such as Decaul’s and Wolfe’s, as well as those of an impressive cohort of underrepresented women vet-writers. Individual isolated good works, we understand, do little by themselves to resolve centuries of systemic wrong-doing. But steps in the right direction still count for something and I hope are appreciated.
To bring this post to an end, let’s salute once more the work already published by M.L. Doyle, Nicole Goodwin, Johnson Wiley, Donna Zephrine, Chantelle Bateman, Maurice Decaul, and Christopher Paul Wolfe, and here’s to much more writing by them in the future, along with more writing by other black veterans.
Released today is news that Russian operatives paid Taliban fighters in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. The story makes me think about the Russian military-officer- turned-jihadist named Irek Hamidullin who in 2015 was tried and convicted in a Richmond, Virginia, court for his participation in an attack that threatened American lives in Khost, Afghanistan. The case can be read about in this Military Timesarticle.
I’ve always thought that story didn’t receive as much play as it deserved, but then, I’m personally invested. Near the same time in 2009 as the attack for which Hamidullin was convicted took place, he allegedly participated in or directed another attack on a US Army convoy in Khost. I was the patrol leader of that convoy; we were ambushed minutes after departing Camp Clark to inspect Afghan National Army outposts. I can’t claim to have seen Hamidullin that day, but I can vouch for the attack. We killed two insurgents, but they killed a very good American, one who stood next to me as the .50-cal gunner in my truck.
Army CID agents interviewed me about the attack, but my testimony ultimately was not used in the case against Hamidullin, and so is not mentioned in articles about it. At his trial, Hamidullin stridently pronounced his commitment to fundamentalist Islam. Though I have no real reason to doubt his word, I’ve always wondered about his motivation and backstory. To what extent might he go to hide his true allegiance? And if he was sincere, how ironic is it that Russian agents were paying Taliban to do what dissidents from their own regime were already committed to doing?
Later, I used the attack as the basis of my short-story “Cy and Ali,” a video of which the Wrath-Bearing Tree was generous enough to recently post on their YouTube page: