This month for Wrath-Bearing Tree I write about American veterans fighting in Ukraine. The piece was prompted by attendance at a public memorial ceremony honoring former-Marine Peter Reed in Bordentown, New Jersey. In February of this year Reed was killed fighting in Ukraine. Bordentown, as it happens, was the American home of Englishman Thomas Paine, the famous Revolutionary War author of the lines that begin with “These are the times that try men’s souls,” which got me thinking about what it meant to pledge one’s life for another nation’s cause. Read my article here.
Strike Through the Mask! #3
This month for The Wrath-Bearing Tree I write about a veterans-writing workshop I led for So Say We All, the San Diego-based writing-and-performance collective. I also have a little something to say about Leatherman utility tools. Read it all here.
As a reminder, the title “Strike Through the Mask” comes from Moby-Dick: “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”
Strike Through the Mask! #2
For The Wrath-Bearing Tree April issue, I wrote on Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars (2022), edited by Andrew Bacevich and Daniel A. Sjursen. Check it out here, if you please.
Memorial Day Then and Now
I didn’t realize I had written so many posts about Memorial Day or which paid tribute to fallen soldiers until I went back and counted them up. But maybe it was destined to be. I grew up in Arlington, VA, and one of my first summer jobs was cutting grass at the Fort Myer chapel outside the gates of the famous military cemetery. I would have to stop mowing when a funeral took place—sometimes two, three, or four times a day. When that happened, I would sit under a tree and watch and think about the proceedings.
Many years later, I met Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Fenty in the parking lot next to the chapel and we went for an early-morning run. Fenty and I were friends from Fort Drum, and now he was about to deploy to Afghanistan as commander of 3-71 Cavalry. While in Afghanistan Fenty was killed when the helicopter he was riding in crashed while resupplying a remote mountain outpost in Kunar province.
Punk poet-rocker Jim Carroll was famous for a song called “People Who Died.” In it he recounts the names and causes of death of a dozen or more childhood friends who did not survive the tough New York streets of Carroll’s youth. I always liked Carroll plenty, but never that song so much. It seemed to be trying too hard to be clever and sensational. It was frustratingly inconclusive about what we were supposed to make of the deaths of Carroll’s friends. How was it honoring them? Does it glorify their wild, unruly lives, or are we supposed to despair? The title of the song alone seems oddly understated, not equal to the occasion.
But maybe that’s the point. The litany of the dead being both the most and the least we can say.
On this Memorial Day, I remember friends Ted Westhusing, Joe Fenty, David Taylor, and Bill Hecker.
I remember soldiers with whom I served in Afghanistan Kevin Dupont, John Blair, Alex French, Peter Courcy, and Jason Watson.
I remember former students I taught at West Point Dennis Pintor, Todd Lambka, Taylor Force, and Brian Freeman.
The photograph featured at the top of this post shows Army Captain David Taylor, on the right, standing with another soldier on a hilltop in Kosovo in 2002. Previous to serving with me in Kosovo, then-Lieutenant Taylor was my mortar platoon leader in HHC, 4-325 Airborne Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg. In 2006, now-Major Taylor died in an IED explosion in Iraq. The photograph is by Bill Putnam, who was a public affairs specialist on that deployment to Kosovo and who remains a friend to this day, as well as a frequent contributor to Time Now.
Not entirely unrelated to Memorial Day pondering, I wrote a review of Phil Klay’s collected essays, titled Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War for Task & Purpose:
One of Klay’s themes is that war in Iraq and Afghanistan soon expanded outside the borders of those countries and the associated violence and killing has permeated US domestic life. Sort of a modern variation on the “regeneration through violence” explanation of American history articulated by Richard Slotkin–each successive generation of Americans propagates a renewed cycle of death. In the wake of recent national and international events, the idea seems all too true, unfortunately. Another of Klay’s themes, though, is that commitment to serve is commendable and the sacrifice that service entails is noble. Memorial Day reminds us of the force of the second theme.
UPDATE: Below are two pictures from Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery I took this Memorial Day weekend. Section 60 is where most of the Iraq and Afghanistan vets who are buried in Arlington are buried. Though the pictures here don’t show it, there were many family members and friends paying respect and keeping vigil.
A Time Now Photography Posts Compendium
War photography doesn’t fall precisely within the Time Now rubric of “art, film, and literature,” but it’s not unrelated either. Even when photographs are obviously journalistic, it’s not hard to see and admire any artistry inherent in their staging and note the highly aesthetic allure the most compelling ones project. I darn sure wasn’t going to not try and harness that allure to enhance the themes and tones I’ve tried to convey in Time Now. Even more basically, posts featuring photography and photographs have been some of my favorites to compose and many remain favorites to which I often return. Prominently featured over the years have been pictures by Bill Putnam, with whom I once served on a deployment to Kosovo, but there’s lots of great work by other photographers, too, including Tim Hetherington, Benjamin Busch, Ed Drew, Anja Niedringhaus, and Evelyn Chavez, a USAF photojournalist with whom I served in Afghanistan.
Below are links to the posts.
All posts tagged “War Photography” in one screen
Ariella Azoulay and the Photographic Situation
Kosovo: Quiet Prelude to the War on Terror
On War Photography: Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures
Death in Tani: RIP Photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus
A Night Out with Photographer Bill Putnam
War Photos: Bill Putnam’s Sleepers
War Photography: Ed Drew’s Wild Blue Yonder
Bill Putnam Photographs, Iraq, September-November 2005
Bonus: A Veterans Day Photo Anthology. Photographic portraits of war-and-mil artists and writers, most taken by me.
There are many ways to remember those who have died at war and honor their sacrifice. A Gold Star, affixed to the exterior of a house to signify the death in combat of a member of the family residing there, brings to the fore a particularly salient way, especially where I live.
My state is one of the long-settled, densely-populated ones on the East Coast, and it’s hard not to see houses adorned with Gold Stars as one drives about the neighborhoods, small towns, and countryside. By now, I know where I’ll see Gold Star homes on the routes I routinely drive, but when I’m off the beaten path I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before one appears. Still, I’m never not slightly taken aback when they do, familiar or unfamiliar, a feeling something akin to what Emily Dickinson writes of (in a different context) as a “tighter Breathing / and Zero at the Bone.” Inwardly I pay respect.
How many Gold Star residences there are in my home-state is something to contemplate. Some 80 state residents have died in either Iraq or Afghanistan, so most Gold Stars must reflect the 1000+ state residents who died in Vietnam, the several hundred in Korea, or the 10,000 who died in World War II. I assume the Gold Stars I see adorn houses in which the dead service members lived before joining the military and going to war, and in which family members who knew them, or heard much about them, continue to reside. Maybe I’m wrong to assume such, but the residences featuring Gold Stars usually are older ones that might easily date back to the 60s, 50s, 40s, or earlier, never one of the new townhomes or McMansions. It seems unlikely that a family would place a Gold Star on the exterior of a house that had never been lived in by a service member killed-in-action, but perhaps that happens sometimes. The point is, I’m curious that so many families live in the same homes from which previous family members went off to war and never returned. In modern transitory America, I wouldn’t think that would be the case.
As most of the Gold Stars reflect deaths from wars fought long ago, the families within—parents, brothers and sisters, most likely, and spouses, too, I suppose, and their descendants–continue residing in homes decades and generations after the loss of a member who once filled the residence with their personality, energy, and ideas about things. The Gold Stars can’t replace the living presences, but they must stimulate constant remembrance, pride, sadness, obligation, and perhaps anger. That long vigil, signaled publicly but endured mostly privately within the remembering family, seems unimaginable in the amount of grief and sense of loss to which they daily pay witness and render homage. Honestly, I don’t know if I could bear it if I were in the surviving families’ shoes. For Gold Star families, every day is Memorial Day, and so it is for me, a little, too, as I drive about the state.
The story of a local Gold Star family whose son was the first from my state to die in Iraq is told here. Let it represent, respectfully, all other Gold Star families, too. Let’s also remember the local Veterans Homes that have been hit hard by coronavirus. The many veteran-residents taken before their time deserved far better.
Finally, the Wrath-Bearing Tree has published a story I wrote titled “Cy and Ali” as part of their Memorial Day observance. It’s based on events that took place on my tour in Afghanistan and was written with three of the soldiers with whom I served who didn’t return in mind. You can find it here. Wrath-Bearing Tree has also posted a video of me reading “Cy and Ali”:
15 Months, 10 Years After
Before I started Time Now, I kept a blog called 15-Month Adventure, about my service as a US Army advisor to the Afghan National Army from 2008-2009. In its time, 15-Month Adventure was more popular than Time Now has ever been, measured by number of views. Still, it was never a blog for the masses, and you could easily be a reader of Time Now and not even know 15-Month Adventure existed.
If you care to check them out, below are links to several 15-Month Adventure posts that tell some of the most significant and interesting stories related to my deployment. The posts here are largely drawn from the first seven months in Afghanistan, when I was the leader of an advisor team (known as “ETTs,” or “Embedded Transition Team”) on Camp Clark in Khost Province. Camp Clark was co-located with Camp Parsa, the home of the Afghan National Army 1st Brigade, 203 Corps, which was the unit with whom my advisor team worked.
Looking back at the posts, I’d say most of them concern the ambiguity of the events I lived through and the Afghans I met, while others record the respect for the men and women with whom I served. There’s also a few that describe combat or events that happened after I redeployed.
Red Beard. A strange encounter with an Afghan elder.
LACKA-LACKA. Afghans relished verbal back-and-forth.
Orientalism. We knew so little about the Afghans with whom we worked.
Big Tent. Encounters with Afghan women were few, but telling.
A Little Bit of Afghan Goofiness. When things got crazy, you had to laugh.
500 Mattresses. About corruption and knowing who to trust.
New Yorker: More about corruption and knowing who to trust.
Sabari. A hardcore Pashtun elder was surprisingly easy to work with.
The BSO. BSO stands for “Battle Space Owner.” I learned a lot from the BSO in Khost.
Swenson. A fellow advisor was awarded the Medal of Honor.
War Horses. In praise of my XO and Sergeant Major.
All Hail the Defenders of Spera COP. My worst fear was that our tiny outpost on the Pakistan border might be overrun.
Spera COP Sector Sketch. More on Spera COP.
Afghanistan Combat Medic. One of our medics was a true hero.
The Best ETT of Us All. In memoriam.
Me Time. How we tried to take care of each other and relax in our down time.
The KG. Every trip into the Khost-Gardez Pass was epic.
Tani. While we were there, Tani was a quiet place that inspired reverie.
Up Sabari Way. In Sabari, anything could happen, and usually did.
Pat Tillman. We traveled to Spera District Center, near where Pat Tillman was killed.
The Death of Hekmatullah. About a gun-battle just outside of Camp Clark.
On the Border. Two ambushes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.
Big Battle. Insurgents occupied a government office building in downtown Khost.
12 May 2009 Redux. More pictures from the big battle in downtown Khost.
Bronze Star with V Device. An award recommendation for a Special Forces sergeant. Not written by me, I should say, though I heartily approve.
RPG Boom-Boom. When rocket propelled grenades come your way, it is no joke.
Gun Run Calling in two Kiowa Warrior helicopter gunships.
Still. Thinking about a very bad day in Afghanistan.
The Road That Dare Not Speak Its Name. The name of the main road through our sector was classified.
The Prettiest of Trees The Dogwood Now. Encountering a former student, now a disabled veteran.
Man Down. About a motorcycle accident.
Fallen Soldier. A picture from a memorial service in Khost.
Red and Blue: The Death of Jimenez
The battle roster number was EAJ-0888, and we were trying to think of who that was. We knew it was a guy from First Platoon because Staff Sergeant White had called it in. We knew it wasn’t Specialist Jackson, First Platoon’s medic, since line medics weren’t attached to Bravo from HHC and if the dead guy were Jackson the battle roster number would have started with HHC and not E. The first initial A wasn’t much help was we weren’t in the habit of calling one another by our first name. It took us the better part of ten minutes to come up with a guy from Third Platoon whose last name started with the letter J.
Brian Van Reet, in a recent speech given at the American Library in Paris titled “The Red and the Blue: Writing War in a Divided America,” proposes that the contemporary war-writing landscape reflects the geo-political realities of the Age of Trump. Expanding on ideas suggested to him by veteran-writer Brian Castner, Van Reet argues that there are “red” war books that appeal to conservative, Red-State readers and “blue” war books popular among liberal Blue-State readers. Red war books, in this dichotomy, unproblematically extoll fighting-and-killing prowess and patriotic fervor as virtues, while blue war books ambivalently brood about these qualities. Blue books are marked by literary aspirations, while red books play for, and often receive, mass approval.
We cleared houses like we normally did when these things happened. It had been just a klick away, south of us, past the bend in the road, down a little past OP1, so we didn’t need to go anywhere. And with nothing to the west but a short field and the river, we turned east off the road and went about it.
As examples of red war books, Van Reet names American Sniper, Lone Survivor, No Easy Day, and “kill memoirs” (a phrase Van Reet coined) such as Dillard Johnson’s Carnivore. As examples of blue books, Van Reet names fiction such as Redeployment, The Yellow Birds, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and journalism such as Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War and Sebastian Junger’s War.
A blind retard was chained to a palm tree in front of the first house we came to. An old woman, presumably the retard’s mother, stood near the gate of the courtyard, and some of us filed in. There were four rooms around the courtyard so we split off to see about each one and I kicked a door in and went into an unlit room. The room was empty except for a haji lying on the floor with his eyes closed. I said, “Get the fuck up, motherfucker.”
But he didn’t move.
I moved closer to him, rifle trained down on him. “GET THE FUCK UP, MOTHERFUCKER.”
He opened one eye and looked at me, stayed unmoved, closed the eye. So I had my mind made up to kick him in the face. I didn’t go around kicking hajis in the face for no reason and I didn’t know anyone who did, but Jimenez was dead and I was going to kick the haji in the face. I brought the kick as hard as I could, aiming center mass. But I stopped halfway to connecting. It was all I could do to stay on the one foot and not fall on my ass. The haji got up and stretched and he shuffled out of the room. I can’t remember when it had occurred to me that maybe he was also retarded. I unfucked myself and went outside to see where the haji had gone. He was heading off into the fields, looking up into the sun. Nobody touched him.
Breaking down binary distinctions is always possible and tempting, but that Van Reet is basically correct, there can be no doubt. Beyond the evidence he provides, one can point to the fact that President Obama several times praised Phil Klay’s Redeployment. It’s impossible to imagine President Trump reading Redeployment, but if he did, it’s easy to think that he would hate it and Tweet that if it didn’t demonstrate why America should never have gone to war in Iraq (he wouldn’t be so wrong about that), then it was proof positive that the American military was full of losers and sissies who didn’t have the balls to crush their enemies.
Jimenez was a cherry. He was one of the replacements who had come to the company after First Platoon lost the four guys killed out on Route Polk. He hadn’t been around two months and he was dead. It was unlucky.
Sometimes the dead guy was really an asshole, or you could make the case that he was. Not so with Jimenez. For all intents and purposes, Jimenez was a saint. That’s why he stuck out like a sore thumb in an infantry company.
The thing is your average infantryman is no worse than your garden-variety sonofabitch. But he talks in dick jokes and aspires to murder and it doesn’t come off as a very saintly mode of being. Yet Jimenez was a saint. It wasn’t like he was soft or anything like that; he was a tough kid. He’d only just turned 19 but he was strong with a deep chest and the kind of unbreakable wrists one gets from working with his hands. And he’d work. The sergeants liked him for that. But he was so goddamn nice that he drove people crazy sometimes. Like he’d play poker with the poker players and he’d play bad hands. Dealt a queen-four off-suited, he was liable to call two preflop raises and hit a boat on the river. And when people got mad at him for playing garbage he’d apologize and try to give them back their chips. But it didn’t work like that.
The last time I saw Jimenez was about eight hours before Haji killed him. He’d been boxing Staff Sergeant Castro in the weight room, sparring, and Castro had popped him on the nose pretty good so his nose was bleeding—not broken or anything, just bleeding. And Castro told him to go see a medic and Jimenez did what he was told and when he came around looking for a medic I gave him a hard time. I said, “What the fuck are you coming to me about a bloody fucking nose for, cherry?”
And he didn’t say anything. He just smiled, all awkward, like he was embarrassed for me.
I said, “C’mon, cherry. I’m tired. Please don’t come to me with dumb shit, okay? I’m really fucking tired, you know?”
In the course of his speech, Van Reet includes Nico Walker’s Cherry as an example par excellence of a “blue” literary war novel. That’s interesting to me, because Cherry presents itself as a very raw, un-doctored, and un-mannered account by a junior-enlisted soldier who unapologetically describes life-in-the-ranks on deployment with brutal honesty. If I were to point to a war novel released last year that demonstrated serious literary chops and aspirations, it would be Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog, not Cherry. Still, that Walker’s author-narrator persona is a bit of a façade is revealed by the narrator’s admission that post-deployment, even while in the grips of serious heroin addiction, he was submitting poems to the New Yorker, and corroborated in the Acknowledgements where Walker reveals that he rewrote Cherry endlessly under the tutelage of literary publishing pros. So, a little like American Sniper, which was ghost-written by a seasoned novelist, Cherry manages to convey authenticity despite all the evidence that it was highly stylized and worked-over by a young man with serious literary ambitions and a team of helpmates.
He went out with a fire team in the morning. They set up a TCP on Route Martha. They’d gone out when it was still dark and they hadn’t had a good look at the spot where they were set up and they didn’t know Haji had laid a one-five-five round underneath the road there. The road was just a paved berm and it was easy to mine. And the Haj was watching them. He saw Jimenez stand on the spot he had mined.
I heard Koljo talk about it. It was later in that same day. He was telling some joes what it had been like. He said, “It looked like something out of a horror movie.”
The one-five-five round took off both Jimenez’s legs and severed one of his arms almost completely. But he was still awake and he knew what was happening. He was screaming. The fire team traded shots with two fucking murderers, but the murderers got away, north through a palm grove. The fire team couldn’t go after them because they couldn’t leave Jimenez there by himself.
Be that as it may, many passages in Cherry are strikingly vivid and moving, to include the one I’ve been excerpting, which come from Chapter 33. Though the chapter is unnamed in the book, it might be called “The Death of Jimenez.” For me, it’s up there, if not quite better than, the portrait of the death of Snowden at the end of Catch-22, which sets the bar high for depiction of the death of American soldiers in combat. Read Chapter 33, read Cherry entire, and judge for yourself.
Nico Walker, Cherry. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.
Nico Walker’s Cherry: First Thoughts and Questions
Is Nico Walker’s novel Cherry about war in Iraq or heroin addiction? Or is it about both? If so, what connects Iraq and heroin in the life and mind of its unnamed but clearly autobiographical first-person narrator? The first half of Cherry recounts the narrator’s life through deployment to Iraq as a medic in a combat unit in ways similar to Matthew J. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road, and Maximillian Uriarte’s The White Donkey: purposeless young white male junior-enlisted soldiers, mostly unimpressed by anything the military has to offer, confront horrifying events that overwhelm their defense-mechanisms and occasion their dissolution into drugs, drink, violence, and anti-sociality. But the formula doesn’t quite work for Cherry. The second-half of the novel, in which the narrator describes his heroin addiction and the criminal capers he undertakes to finance it, refracted through his love for his fellow addict and soulmate Emily, seems thematically and tonally disconnected from the war-and-military sections. I came away from the novel thinking that military deployment mostly bored the narrator, and not much happened overseas that he connects to the verve of his drug-addicted, crime-ridden romance with Emily except that for a while it paid the post-war bills for love and debauchery:
There was nothing better than to be young and on heroin. Emily and I were living together. The days were bright. You didn’t worry about jobs because there weren’t any. But you could go to school so you could get FAFSA, you could get student loans and Pell Grants. And if you were getting G.I. Bill, that’d cover your tuition; then you didn’t need your FAFSA for school and you could go and buy dope with it instead. Which was all you really wanted. You could kill yourself real slow and feel like a million dollars. You could grow high-class weed in your basement and pay the rent like that. Of course the future looked bad—you went into debt, you got sick all the time, you couldn’t shit, everyone you met was a fucker, your new friends would eat the eyes out of your head for a spoon or twenty dollars, your old friends stayed away—but you could do more heroin and that would usually serve to settle you down, when you were going on 25, back when you could still fake it, and there was nothing better than to be young and on heroin.
For the narrator, heroin addiction is the logical culmination of love of getting high. He was plenty attracted to drugs before he joined the Army and deployment seems a soon-forgotten side-episode in what he considers the real story of his life. The military didn’t reform or save him, but it wasn’t his ruin, either.
Heroin addiction and overdose have wrecked my extended family’s happiness far more than anything associated with my blood-soaked and death-tinged deployment to Afghanistan, too, so I may be more receptive to Cherry‘s druggie aspects than most. But Cherry’s marketing material—book-jacket blurbs and Amazon testimonials—seems to agree with me that the novel is more junkie-romance than war-story. Lea Carpenter writes on the dust-jacket, for example, “Cherry is the debut novel America needs now, a letter from the front line of opioid addiction and, almost subliminally, a war story.” That “almost subliminally” is intriguing. Does Carpenter mean that Walker himself doesn’t quite understand how war and drugs are mixed up in his mind and life, or is she suggesting that the real war central to the American 21st-century is not the “war on terror” but the “war on drugs”? The great article or book connecting the two wars is there for the writing.
What’s without question is Cherry’s striking critical and public reception upon release. At last check, Cherry was far-outpacing other 2018 war-fiction releases on Amazon’s best-seller list. Advance readers and reviewers have been lavish in their praise; the quote from Lea Carpenter above is restrained compared to its dust-jacket companions:
“Someone once said there are two things worth writing about, love and death. Nico Walker may know more about these two subjects than 99.9 percent of fiction writers working today.”
“After reading this, you’ll say only one thing: Nico Walker is one of the best writers alive.”
“a powerful book that declares the arrival of a real writer who has made art out of anguish.”
Far more measured is a remarkable blogpost by Spoils author Brian Van Reet, a rumination on Walker and Cherry described by Fire and Forget author Jacob Siegel on Twitter as “one of the only essential pieces of cultural criticism that I read this year.” Van Reet nicely captures the dilemma of judging Cherry work-and-author fairly:
When I first heard of him [Walker] and his autobiographical novel, I confess my reaction to it was not-so-gentle bemusement. Oh great, I thought. An Iraq-veteran-junkie-bank-robber novelist. We have truly jumped the shark in this genre. Blame our sensationalistic media culture, which often functions to seek out and reward the very worst people. I feared the rest of us, in the wake of his book, would now have to deal with its confirmation of a damaging stereotype about this generation of veterans: that we are no more than mindless thugs who, by virtue of our participation in a criminal war, are criminals at heart, if not by the letter of the law.
On top of that, it seemed to me a dizzying moral abdication that so many literary journalists and book critics had taken it upon themselves to celebrate work by a convicted violent criminal from an affluent background, in a cultural moment when any number of male authors and editors have been lately accused of inappropriate behavior, which may not rise to the level of criminal offense, but which is nevertheless deemed toxic enough to warrant the ruination of their careers. Meanwhile, some of the same institutions and people most responsible for tearing down these “shitty men” in literature were now elevating Walker to literary celebrity, his career launched precisely because of his outrageously bad behavior.
So, another question: Is Cherry the apotheosis of modern war fiction, the book critics and readers have been waiting for all along? Or, is it the nadir, the repudiation of literary possibilities suggested by veteran authors such as Kevin Powers, David Abrams, Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, and Van Reet himself? To be fair to Van Reet, following his skeptical start-point, he works toward recognition of Cherry’s appeal and achievement: the startlingly visceral illusion of clarity and honesty with which Walker presents the narrator, his tour in Iraq, and his love for heroin. In describing both hair-raising (and sometimes comic) scenes of combat and junkie degeneracy, Walker’s understated language mostly avoids sensationalist and melodramatic excess. The narrator doesn’t waste time in self-reflection or analytical explanation, which is a virtue in terms of sprightly story-telling, but also a weakness for readers curious to learn what Walker knows about “love and death” better than “99.9 percent of fiction writers working today.” More decidedly a plus, there’s a thankful lack of either apologizing or humble-bragging in the narrator’s account of his walks-on-the-wild-side, and even better is that Walker avoids the trap of stale media and public health buzz-words to describe his drug-taking: there’s very little mention of “abuse,” “addiction,” “rehabilitation,” “opioid epidemic,” “monkey on my back,” “overdose,” “clean,” “OD,” “drug fiend,” “junkie,” “addict,” or “war on drugs.”
The narrator’s prose voice seems intuitive and unrehearsed, though by Walker’s own report in the Acknowledgements the finished book is the product of many rewrites and much tough-tutelage administered by his publishing team. In other words, he worked harder on Cherry than anything he ever worked on in his life, save for scoring heroin and (perhaps, hopefully) making Emily happy, and the unadorned feel of natural genius is the product of extensive editorial curation. Whatever, Walker’s self-presentation is Cherry‘s strength; in the Acknowledgments Walker relates that he knew Cherry was getting good when one of his editors tells him that after a few dozen revisions the main character was no longer just an “asshole,” but an asshole “she kind of liked.” More Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries than Colby Buzzell’s My War, more Sid and Nancy than American Sniper, Cherry awaits your reading.
Also recommended: Jenny Pacanowki’s “Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD.”
Nico Walker, Cherry. Knopf, 2018.
DIY and Indie War Fiction
Below is a short survey of some of the self-published, indie-published, or small press novels I’ve read the last few years that are either directly or indirectly about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s hard to distinguish between publication categories sometimes, but taken as a group, such offerings occupy a mid-range position in the spectrum of war-writing, somewhere between the manicured literary works offered by major publishing houses and the vast sea of veterans writing published online and in small journals.
Crossing the Wire, Bob Kornhiser
The Brooklyn Bridge Press, 2004
Crossing the Wire features two intriguing plot-lines: one about an American unit at war in Iraq after 2003, in which the first-person narrator, a lieutenant, finds love with a mysterious Iraqi woman, and a second that recounts the rise to power of Saddam Hussein and his fall in the wake of the American invasion. Author Bob Kornhiser, a Brooklyn-born New York City schoolteacher and author, never served in the military, but claims front-of-the-line status for publishing fiction about American soldiers at war in Iraq.
First line: We moved down the narrow street, wrapped in G.I.-issue night-vision goggles, armed spooks in the night, making a sweep.
To Kill the Other, Danuta Hinc
Tate Publishing, 2010
Not about American soldiers at war in Iraq or Afghanistan, To Kill the Other artfully portrays the radicalization of one of the 9/11 bombers and his participation in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Hinc, a native of Poland who teaches writing at the University of Maryland and has published widely, gets credit for such a sustained effort to dramatize the biographical details and interior thoughts of one of our War on Terror enemies.
First line: Tahir examined his reflection in the lavatory mirror—long shadows cast down in sharp strokes—and suddenly felt exhausted.
The Peacekeeper’s Photograph: A Master Sergeant Harper Mystery, M.L. Doyle
Vine Hill Road (VHR) Press, 2013
Set in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the American intervention of the 1990s, so, like Hinc’s work, not technically about Iraq or Afghanistan, still The Peacekeeper’s Photograph pleasantly introduces readers to Doyle, an Army veteran who has written a number of well-worth-reading military-themed fiction, romance, and, as a ghost-writer, memoir titles more directly linked to post-9/11 war. Among other virtues, The Peacekeeper’s Photograph features a senior female NCO as its protagonist, a point-of-view rarely—like never, to my knowledge—represented at length in other fiction.
First line: Mud covered my boots, splattered my uniform, and served as an unavoidable annoyance every single day of our Bosnian deployment.
What Changes Everything, Masha Hamilton
Unbridled Books, 2013
A very satisfying novel that weaves together domestic drama and foreign intervention in Afghanistan by a woman whose NGO husband has been captured and held for ransom by insurgents, while also incorporating imagined letters written by Mohammad Najibullah, the last president of Afghanistan. An accomplished writing pro, Hamilton has published widely as a journalist and once served as Director of Communications in the US Embassy in Kabul.
Prophetic epigraph from poet Adrienne Rich: Beirut. Baghdad. Sarajevo. Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of course here.
Tattoo Zoo, Paul Avallone
St. Martian’s Press, 2014
Both intense and sprawling (554 pages of small print), this novel about hard-bitten infantrymen in Afghanistan grows out of Avallone’s experience as a Special Forces officer and embedded journalist. The testosterone level is off the charts, for better or worse, but Tattoo Zoo is packed with gritty detail and burns with conviction that the grunt’s-eye view of war is the sharpest and most righteous.
From the front material: The novel was born out of the author’s own original screenplay Tattoo Zoo, which was inspired by Captain Roger Hill and First Sergeant Tommy Scott and their Dog Company soldiers who were dishonored by a command that was morally corrupt or just fearful of hurting their careers, from silver oak leaves to stars.
Old Silk Road, Brandon Caro
Post Hill Press, 2015
An oddly charming or charmingly odd picaresque road novel about a long “CONOP” mission in Afghanistan, narrated by a surly drug-addicted junior-enlisted medic attached to an advisor unit, and authored by a former Navy corpsman who himself was attached to an advisor unit in Afghanistan (and who post-deployment battled addiction, as movingly recounted here). In addition to being an engaging story, Old Silk Road features one of the best titles and, for my money, the best cover of the many Iraq and Afghanistan novels I’ve read.
First line: The sun shone hard and the wind billowed in from the west the day I first killed a man.
Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town, Susanne Aspley
WTF Press, 2016
As the title of her novel suggests, Aspley, a Peace Corps veteran and an oft-deployed Army Reservist, aims for a madcap take on small-town life in the Midwest in which quote-unquote normal folkways are interrupted when an African-American Afghanistan veteran arrives on the scene. Succeeding nicely, Granola, MN dives deep below its light-hearted surface to explore several big issues—patriotism/militarism, race, PTSD, and Heartland drinking culture, for starters.
First line: What begins as an ordinary day, the way most days do in Granola, veers a little off course when the first customer, a young black man, walks into the hardware store.
The Chords of War: Inspired by a True Story of Love, War, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr.
White Whisker Books, 2016
Based on the life of co-author Gonzalez, The Chords of War admirably tells the tale of an indie-rock musician who joins the military when his career falters, only to have his music take new shape in theater when he becomes a FOB rock-star. I blurbed The Chords of War (“….millennial-era men and women stalled between adolescence and adulthood.…”), so hey it’s got to be good, and if you don’t trust me, check out the cool trailer here.
First two lines: Music filled his mind. Specifically, seventeen-year-old Max Rivera dreamed of his last great gig with the Mad Suburbans.
Four of the novels on my list portray young male fighting men: Crossing the Wire and Tattoo Zoo emit an old-school vibe—think, “I’ve been in the shit” Nam-style–while the Old Silk Road and The Chords of War protagonists (and their authors, too) exude a more twenty-first century sensibility, along the lines of the many “Terminal Lance” and “E4 Mafia” vets who dish out snark on Twitter. The other four novels usefully and entertainingly lift the lid on less-explored aspects of the war, from the domestic homefront to peacekeeping to humanitarian endeavors in-theater to fulsome portraits of the enemy “Other.” None of these novels shy away from extensive and graphic presentation of their characters’ romantic and sex lives and thoughts in-theater and out. Which is cool, because this department is one the Nortons and Random Houses of the world are shy about letting their war-and-military authors explore with much gusto. Or, maybe, it’s their authors themselves who are demure. In any case, love and sex are admittedly difficult to get right in war fiction—both too much and too little are problems—but the big houses tend to err on the side of caution while, based on the evidence of the titles presented here, the indies are much less inhibited.
In regard to music, I’ve always had a soft spot for small-label bands—punk, indie, underground, alternative, etc.—that constitute a rebuke to the aesthetically flaccid conventions of major-label pop and rock. The dynamic doesn’t quite work the same in the book-publishing business. I can’t quite work up the contempt for big-time houses and their favored authors that I generally possess for the makers and purveyors of corporate musical schlock. Nor can I unequivocally tout indie fiction as the home of real talent and true heart-and-soul overlooked by the suits and the masses. But something of that rock-n-roll spirit still burns within me, so kudos here to the authors I’ve named and all the authors who write at book-length for little recognition and small gain. If my short descriptions make the titles seem interesting to you, please search out and read them.
A subcategory of the DIY and indie genre (at least in my mind) is war fiction published by university presses. Examples include Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War (2013), published by Apprentice-Loyola University, Maryland, and Hilary Plum’s they dragged them through the streets (2013), published by the University of Alabama Press. I like both very much, which makes me eager to read later this summer Caleb Cage’s Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2018), published by the University of Nevada Press. At some point I’d like to write more about this subgenre, but just in case I don’t, let this too-short paragraph be their tribute.