Archive for the ‘General’ category

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

February 24, 2018

The 2015 Canadian film Hyena Road, directed by and starring Paul Gross, represents a modestly competent effort to portray the complexity of war in Afghanistan. Though not completely successful, the movie, about a Canadian Army mission to build a paved road into the heart of Taliban country outside Kandahar, can’t be faulted for not trying to pack a lot in: the problem of attempting nation-building and infrastructure improvement in a combat zone, the life-or-death aggravation of following rules-of-engagement, the variety of viewpoints up-and-down the chain-of-command, the burden of trying to balance romance and duty while on deployment, the difficulty determining which Afghans can be trusted, and the diversity of motivations among the Afghans themselves.

And all that’s just for starters, for, most of all, Hyena Road is interested in the big question whose unanswerability is one of the main reasons war in Afghanistan has dragged on for over 17 years: whether special operations kill-and-capture or counterinsurgency (COIN) advise-and-assist tactics might best bring victory. In other words, bodies-and-bullets or hearts-and-minds? Something of a cross between War Machine and American Sniper, Hyena Road strives to be both a thinking-man’s war movie and a sensational shoot-‘em-up, a movie that plumbs strategy and psychology at the same time it celebrates masculine fighting ability.

The movie’s approach to dramatizing the kill-or-COIN dilemma is reflected in its two male leads. One, Captain Pete Mitchell, is a civil affairs/intelligence/effects staff officer trusted by the high command, cool with the butch-y women in the HQ, and on the same page, though firmly in the friend zone, with the hot-chick battle captain who runs the Tactical Operations Center that is his primary duty station. Mitchell doesn’t just grind through 12-hour shifts preparing briefing slides, however. Possessing an array of Afghan contacts and a deep knowledge of the country’s history, he also undertakes solo missions through Kandahar’s back alleys and independently leads patrols into the hinterlands. Believing that the royal road to victory is best traveled by drinking tea with Afghans to earn their loyalty and commitment, Mitchell asserts that he trusts Afghan soldiers with his life and that it is “their war, we’re only along for the ride,” while also cynically observing, “Hearts-and-minds is mostly just PR. The Afghans just want our money and a little bit of stability.” Rarely losing his sense of humor, even in the middle of an ambush, he quips when asked if he can shoot, “Fuck no, I’m intel.” A very suave COINdinista-warrior for the modern working-day, Mitchell is played by Gross himself, who, though largely unknown to American audiences, is apparently something of a Canadian George Clooney.

Hyena Road’s other male lead is Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders, the leader of an elite sniper unit composed of burly bearded special operations bubbas. The shooting side of war all he knows, Sanders believes that victory is best achieved by killing bad men doing bad things, or, as he states, “I believe in the possibility of changing everything with one bullet.” Comparisons are said to be odious, but it’s hard not to measure Sanders against Chris Kyle and the actor who plays Sanders, Rossif Sutherland (brother of Kiefer, son of Donald), to Bradley Cooper. (The cheapest shot the movie opens itself up to is wondering why Gross didn’t call it Canadian Sniper, ha-ha.) Sanders is not as uncomplicated as Kyle, which is fine, but as an actor playing a man with more confirmed kills than he count, Sutherland is a little weak in the jawline and puppy-doggish of eye to compare favorably with Cooper.

Mitchell and Sanders join forces to protect the engineers, contractors, and local nationals building Hyena Road (why doesn’t the movie call it “Route Hyena,” in convention with military naming practices?); Mitchell by forging an alliance with a legendary mujahedeen fighter known as “the Ghost,” Sanders by taking out the IED emplacers and other Taliban fighters obstructing the road building project, who may or may not work for the Ghost. Things get dicey, though, when it turns out that treacherous allied militia prove most responsible for the obstruction, and tricky when it turns out the the Ghost is the most reliable partner the Canadians have. Mitchell and Sanders establish an easy rapport when Mitchell congratulates Sanders for bedding the smoking-hot battle captain–“On behalf of the entire battle group,” Mitchell states, ‘I’d like to express our collective fucking jealousy”—but later, after things get dicey and tricky, the two engage in several manly-men-shouting-at-each-other debates about the best way to win the war:

Mitchell: “Unless you see weapons, do not intervene…. Do not engage…. Those are the rules of engagement!”

Sanders: “What kind of fucking war are we fighting here?!”

Mitchell: “It’s not one war, it’s many wars! It’s like playing 3D chess!”

I’m the last one to recommend killing our way to victory in Afghanistan, and I had my own truck with special operators during my deployment there, where I had a job much like Mitchell’s and a major road-building effort of my own to facilitate. Still, Mitchell gets the worst of it in these debates, which I’m not sure is exactly what Gross had in mind. Given the scenarios offered within the movie, Sanders’ focused and righteous indignation at not being able to shoot all the evil people he meets registers truer than Mitchell’s long-range, wide-view, kaleidoscopic perspective that seems to require an awful lot of tea-drinking with people who want you gone, if not dead. But then, it’s complicated, and Hyena Road at its best dramatizes the complications in somewhat cartoonish, but also somewhat compelling, terms.

Hyena Road’s subplot traces the lusty little FOB romance between Sanders and the battle-captain babe, Captain Jennifer Bowman. Worried that their dalliance is attracting attention, which it is, Captain Bowman decides to break things off, even as she tells Sanders, “There’s nothing I’d like to do more than fraternize the shit out of you.” Sanders, his softiness showing after being cut-off from probably the best-he’s-ever-had, replies, “Don’t say things like that. It hurts.” They’ve already done the dirty deed often enough, however, that one of super-sniper Sanders’ bullets—the fertile, not the deadly, kind—has found its mark, as a sonogram reveals Bowman is with baby (oops, someone forgot to wear his wet-weather-jacket…). The development reunites Bowman and Sanders in gooey-eyed contemplation of a shared future, but, spoiler alert, the effort to build Hyena Road doesn’t end well for Sanders (think Platoon), or, for that matter, since single motherhood now beckons, for Bowman either. Christine Horne, as Bowman, is a little too skinny and angular for a thoroughly buffed-up or puffed-up modern military woman, but she looks terrific nonetheless, with gorgeous crinkly worry lines around her eyes and mouth, as she strides about the TOC barking out orders like a cross between Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty and Michelle Rodriguez in Fort Bliss: seriously frowny-faced serious war women who seriously want everyone to know just how seriously serious they seriously are. I joke, in part, but in truth a more interesting movie than Hyena Road would be one that explored war thoroughly and, er, seriously, through the eyes of Horne’s character.

Also very serious—and also terrific—is Clark Johnson as Brigadier General Rilman, the Canadian general who, because his ass is on the line if Hyena Road doesn’t get built, puts everyone else’s ass on the line, too. A man under extreme pressure, General Rilman communicates his orders and desires as bluntly and coarsely as possible to make sure no one has any doubt about exactly what he wants. It’s a fantasy of male decisiveness that many military leaders aspire to (as does our current commander-in-chief) and in truth it’s a pretty appealing leadership style when it works well: lots and lots of smart people don’t mind working for a boss who keeps things very simple for them, and even if such Alpha males are loud-mouthed buffoons it’s often best just to stash them on top “in-charge” because expecting them to handle the details and nuances of staff work is more trouble than it’s worth. General Rilman is not a buffoon, but one of the nicest moments in Hyena Road captures Captain Mitchell eyeballing him as he lets everyone know that completing Hyena Road is his number one priority—you can see Mitchell’s gears turning as he contemplates how such an apparently impossible mission is one that he alone, or he with the help of a few friends, might be able to accomplish.

Hyena Road’s good intentions and best parts unfortunately are undercut by tilts toward half-baked ridiculousness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the portrayal of Afghan characters. Whether their parts are underwritten or the actors themselves are just plain bad, it’s hard to tell, but the result is the same clichéd good guys, bad guys, and comic foils (most given cornball nicknames like “the Ghost” or “the Cleaner”) who populate other movies about Afghanistan, such as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Lone Survivor, War Dogs, and War Machine, to name a few. I don’t think Hollywood, or its Canadian offshoot, has it in itself to portray a realistic Afghan any more than it did in the old days to portray a realistic Native American, but maybe when someone gets around to filming Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue or one of Nadeem Aslam’s novels, I’ll be proven wrong. One can only hope….

Not to end on such a bummer note, Hyena Road does a few things very well. The recreation of Kandahar airfield is excellent, as is the replication of a modern computer-work-station and big-screen-filled operations center. Although the major battles are a little on the cowboys-and-Indians side, the sniper scenes are great. A scene in which one of the sniper’s wives offers her hubby a boob-shot via Skype strikes a nice contemporary note (yay, technology), though in truly predictable movie fashion, the sniper gets waxed the next time he goes outside the wire. A vignette in which Sanders’ men prepare their weapons and gear for a nighttime mission to the thumping soundtrack of a rousing blues-rocker is fantastic gun-porn for our gun-addled times—who cares if Hyena Road ever gets built as long as forever war gives boys endless opportunity to play with the toys they love so much and filmmakers opportunity to make movies about them?

Theater of War, Battle of Words

October 24, 2015

Theater of WarSo this is interesting. A classics scholar named Sarah Ruden published on a website called Books and Culture: A Christian Review a scathing review of a book called The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. On another website, Vice, Iraq veteran Colby Buzzell published a glowing review of the same book and included a flattering interview with its author Bryan Doerries. Vice is decidedly not a “Christian Review,” but, war, not religion, is the issue here.

The Theater of War is an off-shoot of a theatrical project of nearly the same name. Formed by Doerries to address battle-related trauma, Theater of War the dramatic project stages readings of classic Greek plays such as Ajax and Philoctetes whose plots feature military heroes in exile and anguish in the years after war. Theater of War productions feature veterans and, sometimes, famous actors, in the lead parts. After the readings are over, Doerries moderates a question-and-answer session that allows cast and audience members to discuss the plays’ relevance to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their difficulty reintegrating into civilian society. The idea is that the plays concern themselves with the psychological damage of war in ways that can be helpful to veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as bringing military and civilian audience members together in dialogue. Theater of War has proven popular, and performances have been staged on several military bases, as well as on many college campuses. Upcoming performances on October 27 and 28 are set for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Ruden, however, is not impressed by The Theater of War. In her review, titled “Art for All of Us: Greek Tragedy and War Veterans,” she offers a few token compliments that praise Doerries’ translating and directing ability, and then switches her critical selector switch from “safe” to “full automatic” and begins engaging targets left-and-right. Ancient Greek tragedy, properly understood, according to Ruden, has little to do with war-related trauma. The Greeks themselves didn’t understand the concept, nor did they ever single out veterans as objects of special social concern who needed public coddling. Jonathan Shay, the psychiatrist who popularized the idea that Greek classics could teach us how to heal veterans with psychological and moral injury, had it all wrong. So does Doerries. The whole belief that “storytelling” can be therapeutic is preposterous. The misuse of art for utilitarian, didactic purposes is a disgrace. Doerries would be better off staging Greek plays for general audiences, to include veterans, and drop the canard that the plays speak meaningfully specifically on behalf of veterans or help bridge the civil-military divide:

“But not only does [Doerries’] set-up keep really glorious adaptations away from the mainstream; it seems apt to deprive the tragedies of the most plausible benefit they could have for the traumatized, which is the benefit of universally shared beauty and meaning. We already ghettoize veterans, not to mention the dehumanizing of and profiteering from prisoners and the terminally ill. ‘Here’s a piece of art designed just for you in your pitiable state’ seems at best a pretty condescending prescription….”

In his review titled “How Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Help Veterans Deal With PTSD,” Buzzell describes approaching the assignment to examine The Theater of War with a skepticism much like Ruden’s, which he expresses equally forcefully, though in the infantryman’s idiom for which he is known:

“To be honest, when I first received this book, I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? As someone who’s witnessed the theater of war up close and personal as an infantryman in the United States Army (Iraq 2003–4) and has lived to tell about it, I found the whole concept to be a bit absurd. I know there’s all sorts of crazy shit out there beyond the conventional VA-prescribed prescription medication and/or therapy sessions to help those returning home after war “adjust”: yoga, nature hiking, scuba diving, filmmaking, horseback riding, tai chi, herbal and dietary supplements, group drum circles, art projects, meditation, ballet dancing, getaway vacations, bright-light therapy, music therapy, companion dogs, medical marijuana, acupuncture, and other such things. But now there’s this bright idea of exposing soldiers to Greek tragedies that were written 2,500 years ago as a way to help those struggling with readjustment issues and PTSD? Get the fuck outta here.”

But Buzzell is also open-minded and curious, in addition to being penetrating and eloquent, and he tells us that after completing The Theater of War he saw a lot in it to like. Buzzell relates especially to Doerries’ descriptions of Ajax, who as Buzzell puts it, “returns home from war and feels as if he’s been betrayed, gets depressed, snaps, goes on a blind killing spree, then kills himself with his own sword.” Yikes! Presumably Buzzell appreciates something Doerries explains about how Ajax might have been saved from himself and restored to health and happiness, but beyond recommending that Theater of War be read by a “larger audience,” Buzzell doesn’t go into much detail about exactly what excites him. The interview with Doerries, however, generously allows the author-director to explain for himself his goals, and more importantly, what he has observed after staging dozens or hundreds of performances of Theater of War. Buzzell’s questions are more interesting, in fact, than Doerries’ answers, but Doerries acquits himself well—modest about making great claims for Theater of War’s scholarly or medical legitimacy, he defends his project on the empirical grounds that audiences have been moved by it and many veterans in addition to Buzzell claim to have been helped by it.

A curiosity of this critical duel, such as it is, is that it seems neither Ruden nor Buzzell have seen an actual performance of Theater of War. I have, and came away from the experience in ways that make me sympathetic to both reviewers (I have not yet read Doerries’ book). On this blog, I have been skeptical of contemporary war lit’s propensity to identify too readily with classic Greek literature, but I certainly welcome chances to view modern adaptations of ancient myths and plays as they come along. Aloof and analytical as I am, though, I was determined to resist notions that the town-hall-cum-Dr.-Phil atmosphere of the performance Q&A meaningfully connected Greek warriors and modern soldiers, or being seduced by the idea that I was participating in an event that channeled the spirit of Athenian dramatic festivals. But the large audience with whom I sat had few such qualms. They responded to the reading with vigorous applause and energetic participation in the post-reading discussion. Even more telling, the specific group with whom I watched Theater of War—a group of military academy cadets who included several deployment veterans—were also enthralled. On the drive home from the theater, we stopped at a McDonalds in the middle-of-nowhere and after eating our meals (a bus-driver’s discount for me for bringing in the group!), we talked late into the night about the performance and how it related to modern war, soldiering, and military leadership. It was as spontaneous and free-flowing a conversation with officers-to-be as I’ve ever been part of, and much of the credit goes to Doerries, Theater of War, and the power of Greek tragedy.

Anybody else think it would be a great idea to invite both Ruden and Buzzell to the upcoming productions of Theater of War at the Guggenheim?

This week I made my first visit to a VA hospital, this one located in East Orange, NJ. All initial impressions are positive, I'm glad to say.

I made my first visit to a VA hospital this week. All initial impressions are positive, I’m happy to report.

Bryan Doerries, The Theater of War:  What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.  Knopf, 2015.

2011: The Year Contemporary War Fiction Became a Thing

August 21, 2015

In a 2011 Atlantic magazine article titled “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?” Matt Gallagher, the author of the Iraq War memoir Kaboom, explores reasons why, as of the time he writes, so little fiction had appeared that addressed America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Almost a decade after the first bombs were dropped in Afghanistan,” Gallagher writes, “even the most avid bookworm would be hard-pressed to identify a war novel that could be considered definitive of this new generation’s battles.” The title of Gallagher’s article bears an eery similarity to a question posed by German critic Walter Benjamin in a 1936 piece called “The Storyteller.” Looking back at World War I, Benjamin wrote, “Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent–not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?”

Benjamin continues by suggesting that “the flood of war books”–particularly novels–that began appearing in Germany ten years after World War I’s end shortchanged “experience,” or wisdom, for what he derisively called “information.” Be that as it may, let’s keep our eye on Gallagher here, for he wasn’t wrong surveying America’s recent publishing past. In my search for war fiction published prior to 2011 I can find only a few short stories scattered here-and-there. Frederick Busch (Benjamin Busch’s father) published two short tales, “Good to Go” and “Patrols,” for examples, in small literary magazines before including them in his 2006 collection titled Rescue Missions. Annie Proulx’s “Tits-Up in a Ditch” about a woman who loses an arm to an IED in Iraq, appeared in the New Yorker in 2008, as well as in Proulx’s collection of short stories titled Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3. Busch and Proulx were both established authors—each over 60 years old at the time they wrote their stories–with many published titles and critical laurels to their credit. I’m glad they turned their attention to the nation’s millennial wars, but not sure why a younger cohort of writers, to include veteran-authors, didn’t make Iraq and Afghanistan their subjects sooner than they did.

Gallagher notes the publication of Siobhan Fallon’s collection of tales about life at Fort Hood, Texas, You Know When The Men Are Gone, which appeared in January 2011. But he’s skeptical that more fiction might be forthcoming in the years to come. Iraq and Afghanistan, he suggests, just might go undocumented by authors of fiction, much like, say, the Filipino-American War (his example, not mine). Gallagher, bless him, wasn’t right in this case. 2011 would see the publication not only of You Know When The Men Are Gone, but Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, and the years after 2011 would see much more fiction about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, authored by veterans and civilians alike. Let’s give credit to Fallon and Benedict for initiating the contemporary war lit surge, and by no means should we succumb to Benjamin-like skepticism about their achievement. Benedict, an academic and activist writing as a critic-from-outside unimpressed by the military effort, and Fallon, an Army spouse writing as a military insider full of knowing sympathy, established twin poles of literary possibility that virtually every writer since has followed one-way-or-the-other. That You Know When the Men Are Gone and Sand Queen were authored by women and featured women protagonists is also important. The great wave of war novels that arrived in 2012–The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Watch, and Fobbit–was “all dudes,” as the saying goes, but 2013 and onwards featured many war fiction titles by and about women.

Let’s note also that Gallagher’s novel about Iraq, Youngblood, and Roy Scranton’s War Porn, which Gallagher mentions as an example of a war novel having trouble finding a publisher, will be out in 2016. Finally, Time Now, which I began in 2012, owes much to a comment by Gallagher I heard while in the audience for his presentation at the War, Literature, and the Arts conference at the United States Air Force Academy in 2010. Gallagher remarked that any war writer seeking to establish him or herself in our modern era had better have an online presence. I already kept a blog going about my Afghanistan deployment, so I wasn’t thunderstruck by Gallagher’s claim, but it occurred to me then that the art, film, and literature of the current wars might benefit from dedicated digital coverage and critique. Hence this blog, and hence, Matt Gallagher, thanks.

While we’re rendering thanks, let’s also commend the organizers of that 2010 War, Literature, and the Arts conference, which was so seminal in its recognition of contemporary war writing as a genre and so inspiring not just to me but to many others.  At the time, I was already aware of Brian Turner’s work, but the WLA conference was my initial exposure to writing by Fallon, Gallagher, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, Elyse Fenton, and quite a few others (though note Fallon as the only author of fiction). So here’s to WLA editor Donald Anderson and conference organizers Jesse Goolsby and Brandon Lingle. Excellent writers themselves, they nourish excellence in others, storytellers interested not in purveying information but communicating experience.


Been There, Done That: Contemporary War Writing Stock Scenes

June 11, 2015

Afghanistan 013

For all those contemplating or currently writing memoir, fiction, or poetry about war in Iraq or Afghanistan and its aftermath, I’ve listed twenty events or ways of describing events that I’ve encountered at least twice in published contemporary war writing. Not to say new writers should avoid writing about these subjects, too, but some very good authors have already done so, so the onus is now on newcomers to make their depictions fresh and vivid.

1. Deciding whether to shoot or not shoot while serving as a vehicle gunner or on checkpoint duty. This excruciating experience is the centerpiece of many Iraq and Afghanistan stories, such as Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train” from the Fire and Forget anthology, Jesse Goolsby’s novel I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, and, of course, many scenes in the movie version of American Sniper.

2. Claim that a soldier doesn’t care about politics or grand strategy, because all that is important is survival and the good regard of one’s fellow soldiers. No doubt true, but neither a brilliant nor original insight at this point.

3. The first US casualty or the death or injury of a child that “brings home the reality of war.” It’s actually hard to find a war story that doesn’t contain some version of these two signature events, so the problem becomes discovering new language and perspectives with which to relate them.

4. Death or injury to an important character by a stray mortar round that hits inside FOB walls. See Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, David Abrams’ Fobbit, and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds.  Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” (in the Fire and Forget anthology) has an interesting variation on the theme–a suicide bomber infiltrates a FOB and blows himself up in the presence of the story’s main characters.

5. Military funeral services, with first sergeant calling the roll, salute battery firing, the playing of taps, etc. The best fictional portrait of these moving ceremonies is David Abrams’ “Roll Call,” which can be found in Fire and Forget. Brian Castner describes an interesting variation on the ceremony in his memoir The Long Walk. The most moving description I’ve read of a “hero flight” processional—the movement of a dead soldier’s remains from FOB mortuary to a waiting aircraft—is in Afghan-American interpreter Saima Wahib’s memoir In My Father’s Country.

6. A charismatic-but-(possibly)-Satanic sergeant who dominates the life of a junior enlisted soldier. See Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk for examples par excellence. See also Philip Metres’ poem “The Blues of Lynndie England” in Sand Opera and check out Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives for a portrait of a charismatic female sergeant and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe, I Love You for a kick-ass female NCO in theater whose life goes off the rails back in the States.

7. Describing poverty and squalor in Iraq and Afghanistan as “unlike anything we can imagine in the United States.” Subset: calling conditions in Afghanistan “medieval.” OK, got it, now tell us something we don’t know using language we haven’t heard before. Related: Describing combat as like being in a slow-motion and long-lasting car accident. Two great writers, Ben Fountain in Billy Lynn’ Long Halftime Walk and Kevin Powers in The Yellow Birds have already used this figure-of-speech, so the rest of us should “steer” clear, to make a pun.

8. Enlisted soldier tough talk with lots of cursing, sexual reference, slang, and military lingo. To show a grunt’s apprehension of the futility of war and the rough love with which male soldiers treat other, while certifying the author’s credibility as a military insider, while also trying to inject color and humor into the story being told: almost every war story ever written by a man. When directed by male soldiers at female soldiers or a foreign citizen to show the callousness of macho military culture: Joydeep Roy-Battacharya’s The Watch and Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen.

9. Stories and poems that depend almost entirely on punch-drunk reveries and litanies of military jargon and nomenclature. Paul Wasserman’s poem “Fifteen Months, Twenty-two Days” and Phil Klay’s story “OIF” have covered this ground quite nicely already.

10. Communication from the front with loved ones at home through Skype, email, or satellite phones, particularly when the call is interrupted by incoming mortar rounds or rockets or revolve around missing birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries. After American Sniper, the movie, in which the Chris Kyle character makes sat calls to his wife in between sniper shots, no more please.

11. Contempt for a stupid order, pointless mission, or idiotic member of the chain-of-command. This dynamic drives almost every war story and memoir ever written, but it’s more interesting when the antagonism is understated or couched in terms that aren’t so self-righteously vindictive.

12. Homely scenes of soldiers opening “any soldier” care packages, as well as those showing soldiers trading MRE components and devising new recipes out of curious combinations of ingredients. David Abrams’ Fobbit takes the cake for portraying care package soldier folkways, while scenes that portray the repurposing and individualizing of MREs are too many to count.

13. Shooting stray dogs in theater, or being forced by a by-the-book first sergeant or company commander to give up a pet dog adopted by a unit or individual. In regard to the first, Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” does as much with this common experience as could possibly be done, thank you very much. Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch contains an interesting turn on the scenario, in which US soldiers almost shoot their pet when it interferes with a mission. Saima Wahab’s anecdote in her memoir In My Father’s Country about the pet dog she kept while stationed in Jalalabad is stranger than anything I’ve encountered in fiction.

14. Malaria pill dreams. See several great poems in Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and passages in Adrian Bonenburger’s memoir Afghan Post.

15. References to high-brow literature that a soldier reads while at war. These pop up all the time, as if to signify the modern warrior-author is no common, under-educated grunt, but an intrepid reader whose search for wisdom equals his or her thirst to live intensely. Lea Carpenter’s description of Navy SEAL reading habits in Eleven Days is a pretty good example of the motif. Roy Scranton, in his story in Fire and Forget titled “Red Steel India,” has a soldier on a FOB reading Noam Chomsky, so if I read now about characters who have only brought Shakespeare or Tolstoy to war with them, I’m not so impressed.

16. Analogies to classical Greek literature, history, and myth. Can we give Sparta, Achilles, Odysseus, Penelope, Ajax, Philoctetes, Antigone, Homer, Thucydides, and Sophocles a rest? Or, here’s a different idea: We bland, reason-bound Americans, who hate history and whose imaginations are fired mostly by Hollywood, aren’t anything like the passionate, excitable, mystically-minded characters, bound by family pride and tribal allegiances and historical remembrance, and intense codes of honor, reward, punishment, feud, and vengeance, and possessed by strange attitudes about violence and lust and cosmic connection, who populate Homer and the Greek roster of gods. I can’t speak about Iraq, but it seems to me that if we want to bring the literature and myth of classical Greece forward 2500 years, the best use of it would be to help us understand the exotic worldview of Afghanistan Pashtuns.

17. The long plane ride home from theater, with a sadder-but-wiser veteran contemplating all that’s happened and what might take place in the future. Brian Turner’s “Night in Blue” from Here, Bullet and Roxana Robinson’s Sparta have already set high standards depicting this veteran rite-of-passage.

18. Homecoming ceremony on the airfield tarmac or unit parade ground reuniting returning veterans with loved ones. It’s hard to top Siobhan Fallon’s depiction in the title story of You Know When the Men Are Gone or Phil Klay’s in the title story of Redeployment, but the best extended description, in my opinion, appears in Roxana Robinson’s Sparta.

19. Descriptions of how a veteran upon return home reaches for the weapon he or she carried throughout deployment. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this. Also, veterans who jump when a car backfires or insist on facing the door of a restaurant or bar or who succumb easily to road rage. No mas, por favor–do cars even backfire any more?

20. Veterans who just don’t want to talk about it (but who often do anyway): Every story so far about redeployment.

I personally experienced 19 of the 20 events I’ve listed above, or variations on them, during my deployment and upon return (no malaria pill dreams for me), so I’m not insensitive or naïve about what they mean in the lives of real soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. But lived life and writing about war are two different things, and in writing the imperative is to “make it new.” Some might disagree—a smart young writer-buck might pack all 20 of the motifs I’ve named into one super-story that then becomes more popular than American Sniper:

Specialist Jones, from his position as rear gunner in the last vehicle in an American army convoy in Iraq, saw a white Toyota rushing toward him and now had to decide whether to shoot or not. A common grunt, Specialist Jones didn’t care about politics or strategy, all he cared about was surviving the war and not letting down the guys in his unit. The deployment had been an easy one until Sergeant Smith had been killed when a lucky mortar round fired by insurgents impacted inside the FOB. Sergeant Smith’s death had brought the reality of the war home to Specialist Jones and the memorial service for him—especially when first sergeant had called the roll and taps were played–was the most emotional event Specialist Jones had ever experienced. If it hadn’t been for his platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Williams, kicking his ass, Specialist Jones didn’t think he would have made it. The squalor in Iraq was unlike anything he could have imagined in the States and combat like a succession of slow-moving car crashes.

“Screw that frickin’ Hadji,” Specialist Jones cursed under his breath, “He picked the wrong mofo to mess with.” High up in the gunner’s turret of his MRAP, he charged his M2 .50cal, cycled through the ROE in his mind, and considered whether the Toyota was on the BOLO list, the driver a MAM or not, and whether the car might be an SVBIED.

When the mortar round that killed Sergeant Smith had exploded, Specialist Jones had been talking on the phone to his wife and he had had to quickly make an excuse there was construction going on outside his tent. Now they were on another stupid mission that would accomplish nothing except make the idiot lieutenant look good in the eyes of the motherhumpin’ captain. Specialist Jones took one more bite of MRE spaghetti-and-meatballs mixed with M&Ms and spiced up with Texas Pete Hot Sauce he had found in an any-soldier care package and took aim at the onrushing Toyota. The thing that really had pissed him off most, frankly, more than even Sergeant Smith’s death and the speeding Toyota, was that the by-the-book sergeant major had shot his pet mutt Screwball in the name of unit discipline and camp hygiene. In Specialist Jones’ last malaria pill dream, Screwball had appeared as Argos, the dog who guarded the Greek warrior Ulysses’ home for nine years while Ulysses was at war, which Specialist Jones had read about in the copy of The Odyssey stored under his bunk.

Later, on the long plane ride home, Specialist Jones stared out the window and wondered whether destroying the Toyota had been the right thing to do and whether it would affect him for the rest of his life. Standing on the tarmac in the unit’s homecoming ceremony, he scanned the crowd for his wife and when the ceremony was over he ran to hug her. Later, he turned in the M4 that he had carried for a year in Iraq; for days afterward he would find himself reaching for his rifle and feeling a moment of panic that he had lost it, until he remembered it was secured in the unit arms room. He noticed other things, too, such as how he jumped when he heard a car backfire or how irritated he became when a car came too close to him on the highway. Relaxing was impossible–when he went out to dinner, for example, he insisted on facing the door of the restaurant and scanned the room for threats when he should have been paying attention to his wife. She asked him about things that happened in Iraq, but at first he didn’t want to talk about it. Later, though, he opened up.

For me, though, the most interesting war writers are those who say new things, or old things in new ways. Part of what makes Brian Turner great is that he was the first to portray artistically many of what have become the commonplace scenes and images of war literature, and how he now seems determined to push beyond them as far as he possibly can. Benjamin Busch’s memoir Dust-to-Dust takes the prize for the most determined effort to write about war without succumbing to subjects, ideas, and mannerisms that have been used before. One thing I appreciate greatly about Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War is how, fluidly Schultz, who never served, finds so many ways to tell war stories that avoid regurgitating obvious subjects and scenes. The beauty of Phil Klay’s Redeployment lies in how Klay takes popular war writing tropes and repackages them using irony, perspective, and humor—Klay’s not an unwitting user of tried-and-somewhat-true war story motifs, but a self-aware deployer and interrogator of them.

The Ever-Changing War Lit Scene

April 12, 2015

petescandystoreTwo weeks ago I was invited to read fiction on stage in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, bar called Pete’s Candy Store. Pete’s often hosts readings, but only once a year dedicates a night to veteran writing. This year’s event was hosted by Kaboom author and Words After War mainstay Matt Gallagher, who had many nice things to say about me and my fellow readers Paul Wolfe, Teresa Fazio, and Brandon Willitts. Wolfe, a former Army officer now at Columbia, read fiction set in Iraq. Fazio, a former Marine officer, read from a memoir-in-progress. Willitts, a Navy enlisted veteran, read fiction set in the American west. I read an adaptation of a myth I first encountered in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses called “Cyex and Alceone.” My adaptation, called “Cy and Ali,” holds true to the outlines of Ovid’s myth, but I placed my updated story in the modern era, with action set in Afghanistan and back home. The story wasn’t new—I first published it on my old blog 15-Month Adventure then later republished it in Time Now, but no one seemed to notice or mind. Two listeners liked the way I included a woman’s point-of-view, which was cool. Another told me that the story made her choke up a bit. That’s what you get I guess with stories based on myth: big emotions. “If you want to make your readers feel loss, make them love something and then take it away,” the writing workshop maxim goes.

Brandon Willitts, Matt Gallagher, me, Teresa Fazio,  Paul Wolfe

Brandon Willitts, Matt Gallagher, me, Teresa Fazio, Paul Wolfe

I’m working on a series of stories based on Ovid. The war lit scene has done ancient Greece to death—Sparta, Odysseus, Penelope, Antigone, etc.—so my schtick is to do classical Rome. The physical transformations of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, when updated in the vernacular of fiction, give your stories a magical realist bent, with people changing into trees and birds and such things, which really wrenches your stories out of the mode of journalistic rendering of realistic detail in a hurry, if that’s what you want. I’ll let you know how it works out.

The expanding and permeable borders of the veterans writing scene continue to admit new members and permute in interesting ways. In the audience at Pete’s were two Army friends, Sean Case and Erin Hadlock. Both veterans, each has contributed significantly to veterans writing. Sean, who keeps an eye on the latest-and-greatest in Arabic literature, was the first to alert me to Hassan Blasim—until someone tells me otherwise, Case was the man who “broke” Blasim in America, no small achievement. Hadlock recently published an essay co-written with Sue Doe in Generation Vet: Composition, Student-Veterans, and the Post-9/11 University (2014) called “Not Just ‘Yes Sir,’ ‘No Sir’: How Genre and Agency Interact in Student-Veteran Writing” that was referred to left-and-right in panels at the recent Conference on College Composition and Communication. Apparently, “military literacy genres”—think awards, evaluations, mission orders, field manuals, storyboards, etc.—are red-hot subjects of study in academia. But Hadlock’s bigger claim to fame is that she was Matt Gallagher’s first squad leader in ROTC way back when at Wake Forest. Now that’s saying something….

Me, Erin Hadlock, Sean Case, Matt Gallagher.

Me, Erin Hadlock, Sean Case, Matt Gallagher.

Thanks to Jillian Capewell and Lindsay Hood, the organizers of Pete’s Candy Store Reading Series.

Congratulations, Phil Klay!

October 15, 2014
Phil Klay outside Siobhan Fallon's father's bar, the South Gate Tavern, Highland Falls, New York.

Phil Klay outside Siobhan Fallon’s father’s bar, the South Gate Tavern, Highland Falls, New York, spring 2014.

The National Book Foundation announced its prestigious National Book Awards today, and Phil Klay’s collection of Iraq war short stories Redeployment was one of five finalists in the fiction category. Redeployment joins Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, both finalists in 2012, as recent war lit short-list fiction nominees.

The Aesthetics of Traumatic Injury

September 8, 2013

In October I will present at the American Literature Association War and Literature Conference on the portrayal of badly-wounded and disabled veterans in contemporary war literature. Two stories that prompted my thinking about the subject are Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” and Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” which I first wrote about in this blog here. I’m open to other suggestions,  and I am reading lots of on-line veterans’ writing for more examples of the genre. The major war novels so far don’t seem to concern themselves so much with physical disability, though we might wonder about author Ben Fountain’s extended satirical skewering of Billy Lynn’s father in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The demented, debilitated family patriarch, confined to a wheelchair after a stroke, doesn’t do much to enhance sympathetic understanding of the impaired, that’s for sure. Instead, his physical disability seems to symbolically manifest the lameness of his arch-conservative political views, the blindness of his hypocritical morals, and the impotence of his control over his family, his life, and the world.

Lameness, blindness, and impotence…. Disability activists would say those are good examples of how our language is infested with figures of speech that stigmatize the handicapped.  Hmm….

So, the issue is vexed, both in life and literature, but that’s no reason not to explore it more fully, right? Below are three pictures taken from the popular domain of badly wounded and handicapped veterans. What are your thoughts as you view them? What do you think the photographers were trying to achieve?  How are the photographs formally composed to be arresting?  What are their ethics and politics? What about the “backstory” and post-publication history of each picture would you be interested in knowing and might help you understand them better?

Photographer:  Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Photographer: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Photographer: Nina Berman

Photographer: Nina Berman


Photographer: Gerald Herbert

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