Archive for the ‘General’ category

Eleven Bang-Bang

May 21, 2019

“I’ve been outside the wire,” I said. “My vehicle was IED’d, once. But I’m not infantry.”

Rodriguez shrugged. “If you were, you’d know.”

                        -Phil Klay, “Prayer in the Furnace”

While the world waits for war novels authored by women veterans and pays lip-service to the idea that the stories by rear-echelon soldiers “need to be heard,” former infantrymen—“11Bs” or “Eleven-Bravos” in Army parlance—go right on writing, publishers go right on publishing, and readers, or at least this one, go right on reading war sagas loosely-but-obviously based on the authors’ deployments as ground-pounding foot soldiers. I’m all for diversity and definitely skeptical of the infantry’s claims to its own specialness, but I’m hardly neutral or objective:  while in, I was an infantry officer and I’m still eager to see aspects of my own service reflected and dramatized.

Ray McPadden’s 2018 novel And the Whole Mountain Burned describes the exploits of a US Army Ranger company facing constant danger, struggle, and excitement in the wild mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The subject of Adam Kovac’s 2019 novel The Surge, on the other hand, is a lackluster Illinois National Guard unit whose tour in Iraq consists of an endless succession of boring watch-tower guard shifts. Both feature as protagonists junior enlisted soldiers, which I wasn’t, but I’ve pulled enough guard duty and climbed enough mountains in eastern Afghanistan to pick up And the Whole Mountain Burned and The Surge with interest. I also wanted the inside glimpses they promised of the Ranger task forces that rotated in-and-out of the big FOB down the road from me and the National Guard units—one of them from Illinois—that guarded the walls of my tiny camp during my tour.

To begin with The Surge, Kovac’s novel is focalized through the eyes of an Army corporal named Larry Chandler. Chandler, a veteran of a tour in Afghanistan with an active-duty unit, has been recalled to duty as a “filler” in a Illinois Guard unit assigned security detail at Camp Tucson in southern Iraq.  Chandler’s tour in Afghanistan ended very badly—think death of friends for whom he feels responsible—and he had wanted nothing more than to put war behind him. But the 2007 troop “surge” reminded him of the truth of Tolstoy’s quip that “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  With his new Guard unit, Chandler is put in a difficult spot:  because of his seniority he is given a leadership position in charge of three other infantrymen. The Guardsmen know each other from civilian life, so they are more loyal to each other than to Chandler. Moreover, they detest what they perceive as the arrogance and stupidity of active-duty soldiers, even as they internalize notions of their own inferiority to “real” infantrymen. Worse, though two of Chandler’s soldiers are relatively docile and compliant, the third is a hard-charger who was in line for the leadership position Chandler occupies, and Chandler must continually assert his shaky Alpha-male bona fides to establish authority over this rival. Further, the company first sergeant, also an active-duty soldier, one with whom Chandler served in Afghanistan, is more foe than friend, even as he extends an unwelcome offer of mentorship. And, finally, worst of all, Chandler doesn’t feel worthy of the respect his previous combat tour accords him in the eyes of the Guardsmen, some of whom pine for the chance to prove themselves in battle. Chandler once had that dream, too, but knows how easily it became a nightmarish reality that ruins a man’s happiness and sense of self-worth at an early age. The last thing he wants is to face combat again, especially with the increased responsibility for the safety—both physical and mental—of his new charges. And yet, inevitably, you knew this was coming—war and duty pull Chandler and his men outside the wire and into combat.

The members of the “Newts”–the Ranger company at the center of And the Whole Mountain Burned–pull a lot of guard duty, too—“pulling security” is a fact of life in every infantry unit—but in contrast to the “lone and level sands” of Iraq the soldiers in The Surge stare at, McPadden’s Rangers are treated to views of the soaring peaks and plunging valleys of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush. Even better, guard duty is only an intermittent respite between combat missions to fight local tribesmen led by one leader known as “the Egyptian” and another known as “Sadboy.” The fired-up Rangers are only too eager to take on the wily tribal clans, and a subtext of And the Whole Mountain Burned is the affinity between the warrior cultures of the Rangers and the Pashtun mountain tribesmen. While the men in The Surge could care less about the Iraqis they must deal with, the Newts are fascinated by the folklore, by-ways, and fighting prowess of their deadly enemy. More like The Surge, And the Whole Mountain Burned is related from the perspective of Danny Shane, a junior enlisted newbie, and also much like in The Surge, the story is largely about Shane’s vexed relationship with a senior NCO, Nick Burch, who is a seasoned veteran and mighty man-of-combat-action. Burch’s story bookends the novel proper, in fact, so though the middle parts are mostly Shane’s, we might say that, again like The Surge, the overall theme of And the Whole Mountain Burned is infantry leadership, with all its attendant worrisome aspects of responsibility and hope, failure and guilt.

So, two sides of Global War on Terror infantry-life, interestingly rendered and dramatically heightened. Ranger task forces and National Guard call-ups exist at opposite ends of the infantry warfighter spectrum, but both were significant players on the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields, and their stories are underrepresented in the glut of contemporary war fiction that privileges SEALs, Special Forces, Marines, and Regular Army units. Each novel in its way is becoming in its modesty; while telling interesting stories, the authors avoid being deluded by the sense of their own importance–a common accusation levied against infantrymen, often with justification. McPadden and Kovac are alert to the social milieus and the mental makeup of the men who comprise the units they describe. And the Whole Mountain Burned and The Surge channel the mindsets of the twenty-year-old men who make up the bulk of any infantry unit, so you’re not going to get higher orders of reflection from their protagonists, but neither novel blows smoke up your ass, either. The misogyny of infantry culture is on full display in both novels: the fellow soldiers whom Chandler and Shane dislike are “pussies” (at best) and their thoughts about the women they’ve left at home are about what you’d expect. More engaging are the novels’ takes on soldier solidarity, which is conspicuously lacking in both books. Rather than extolling the bonds of fighting bands of brothers, the infantrymen distrust each other, compete and connive against each other, and don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company very much–and these tensions are not smoothed over by the pressure of combat but increase. McPadden and Kovac have done well to situate their portraits of young men on the warrior path in the context of the distinctive units they join and trust to nourish, not stunt, their journey. As the authors continue their own journeys from warriors to writers, let’s salute their first steps and be on the lookout for next moves and new directions.

Ray McPadden, And the Whole Mountain Burned. Hatchett Book Group, 2018.

Adam Kovac, The Surge. Engine Books, 2019.

 

Red and Blue: The Death of Jimenez

February 2, 2019

A red war novel and a blue one side-by-side on the shelves.

 

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.

Private Jimenez.

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

December 29, 2018

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

May 26, 2018

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.

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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.

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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.

 

War’s Long Reach

May 22, 2018

1SG Robert Perez and me at the Chicopee War on Terror Monument

My tour in Afghanistan was not over when I returned to the States in November 2009. Many things have happened since that have extended its reach deep into post-deployment life. The list includes:

-the infiltration bombing of Camp Chapman in Khost Province in December 2009, a FOB I knew well, to include several of the Americans and Afghans who were stationed there.

-the awarding of the Medal of Honor to a US Army advisor I had some acquaintance with from our train-up at Fort Riley.

-a long article in the New Yorker profiling the commander of the advisor unit two or three after I commanded it that name-checked many people and places I knew well.

-a visit from Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) telling me that they had detained a Russian-born jihadist who had attacked us in Khost in June 2009, killing one of the members of my team, who was the gunner in a truck in which I was a passenger.

-a visit from another CID agent doing a background check on one of my linguists who is now translating for an American one-star general—this after emigrating to the United States, serving a tour in our Army, earning an Associates degree, and gaining his citizenship.

-a visit from two lawyers on Bowe Bergdahl’s defense team, because my name figures somewhat prominently in the Army investigation report of the circumstances leading to the severe wounding of one of the soldiers involved in the search for Bergdhal.

-the profile in a major media venue of an Afghan National Army officer whom I knew in Khost who has since emigrated to the United States.

Last weekend, I was asked to offer comments at the dedication of the Chicopee, Massachusetts, War on Terror Monument. I received the invitation because one of the six men honored by name on the Monument had been a member of my advisor team. Then-Sergeant First Class Kevin Dupont died of wounds three months after being attacked by an IED in March 2009 while on patrol in the Khost-Gardez Pass. With Sergeant Dupont that day and joining us in Chicopee was then-Staff Sergeant Robert Perez, who subsequently spent eight months recovering and rehabilitating in San Antonio from wounds suffered in the same attack that killed Sergeant Dupont.

It was an honor to help commemorate the Chicopee War on Terror Monument, catch up with now-First Sergeant Perez, and meet the family members of posthumously-promoted First Sergeant Kevin Dupont. In my remarks, I paid what tribute I could to the lives and deaths of Sergeant Dupont and Chicopee’s other fallen heroes: Sergeant Steven Larivierre (USMC), Gunnery Sergeant John Fredette (USMC), Captain John Maloney (USMC), Staff Sergeant Daniel Newsome (US Army), and Sergeant Christopher Wilson (US Army).

My remarks in Chicopee are a little too long to publish here/now, but I’ll offer a repost from my old blog of the words I offered the Camp Clark family of soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines at the memorial service we held for Sergeant First Class Dupont in Afghanistan in June 2009. Read on if you please, and no problem if you’d rather not. I’ll be back soon with more book and movie reviews.

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“We are here today to honor the life of Sergeant First Class (SFC) Kevin Dupont, who has passed away of wounds suffered in an IED attack on 8 March of this year.  With SFC Dupont, there is much to honor, for he lived a rich life and made a difference in many people’s lives.

“Those of us in the room today knew SFC Dupont as a member of the Roughrider Embedded Transition [advisor] Team, and that is an important last chapter in his life.  But there are other chapters, too, and I will touch on them first.  He was the devoted husband of ___, with whom he shared the last years of his life.  He is survived by his parents, ___ and ___, who knew him and loved him first.  He was an ex-Marine, an experience that toughened him and filled him with pride.  He was a long-time member of the Massachusetts National Guard, where he had many friends and many adventures.  He was a member of an anti-drug task force in New England, where he battled a scourge that plagues the towns and cities of the region he loved so much.

“For those of us who have read the testimonials posted on the website dedicated to SFC Dupont, it is clear that he had deeply touched those he met in each of these endeavors.  For those of those who knew him here in Afghanistan, it is easy to see why.  SFC Dupont was wise, he was competent, he was funny, and he was sociable.  He made friends easily, and naturally sought to unite people into teams, families, and communities.  He was always eager to help, to share any danger or hardship, to adapt to any new situation, and determined to have a good time while doing so.

“These qualities made SFC Dupont a perfect Embedded Transition Team member.  Being an ETT is a strange thing.  We are plucked from more traditional units and places in the Army, organized into ad hoc units with no history or lineage, processed through two months of training at Fort Riley, deployed into theater, and then reorganized into new teams with the challenging assignment to improve the armies of our allies in the War on Terror.   SFC Dupont exemplified the qualities it takes to succeed in such an assignment.   First, he was brave and feared nothing.  Though old—older than me—he was strong of body and young at heart.  More importantly, he was mature, thoughtful, and open to new experiences.  I first met SFC Dupont at Riley, when I gathered his team together because I knew that some of them would serve with me here in Afghanistan.   The rest of the team was from Virginia, and I couldn’t figure out how this ancient, silver-haired New Englander had bonded so well with young men from the Blue Ridge Mountains.   But it was clear that he had.

“In Afghanistan, SFC Dupont was assigned to the 2/1 Kandak team, comprised mostly of California and Illinois men, and again he used his good cheer and positive outlook to make his presence felt strongly within their ranks.   In particular, SFC Dupont proved his mettle on the night of 8 February 2009, when he stood side-by-side with his ETT and ANA brethren in gun-battle with anti-Afghanistan insurgents in the town of Shimbowat.  SFC Dupont never flinched or wavered, and his courage spread through the ranks of both Americans and Afghans.

“Next, SFC Dupont was assigned to FOB Wilderness, where Coalition Forces and the Afghan National Security Forces battle insurgents trying to block construction of the Khowst-Gardez highway.  At FOB Wilderness, a conglomeration of Hescos and Bhuts as desolate as its name suggests, SFC Dupont found his final community, his final home, his final family.  The crown prince of Wilderness, SFC Dupont was known and respected by all the disparate residents of that lonely but strategically important outpost.   Two Coalition task forces, a PRT team, and a PMT team learned what the Roughrider ETTs already knew:   if something needed to be done, if a problem needed to be fixed, if a helping hand was required, SFC Dupont was always ready and willing to assist.

“SFC Dupont’s team chief, MAJ ___, and I assigned SFC Dupont to FOB Wilderness because we knew it was a tough mission.  Remote and austere as Wilderness is, duty there would challenge even the best of the units.  2/1 Kandak is a new unit, and it’s no secret that they were struggling to accomplish even the most basic tasks and missions.  Even worse, the morale of 2/1 soldiers was at rock-bottom, in particular because of a devastating friendly fire incident that occurred weeks before our arrival that resulted in the death of eight of its members.   It was these challenges MAJ ___ and I hoped to reverse by sending SFC Dupont to reside and work at FOB Wilderness.  I am glad to report that we succeeded—that SFC Dupont succeeded–beyond expectations.

“It was clear from my visits to Wilderness that the ANA soldiers with whom SFC Dupont served adored him.  They would do anything he asked them, and they dreaded letting him down.  They called him “Baba”—or beloved old man—in view of his age, but they did so with respect and because they enjoyed his company to no end.  SFC Dupont, in his short time here, learned more Dari and Pashtun than any ETT on our team.  He used this skill to great effect, continually laughing and joshing—often extremely profanely—with his ANA partners.  All this came naturally to SFC Dupont, for he loved people in all their varieties, but it also enabled him to be enormously effective.  From friendship and camaraderie came trust and respect, which enabled SFC Dupont to chide, coach, correct, and encourage 2/1’s Wilderness soldiers to re-commit themselves to the mission, to keep their standards high, and to learn once again to depend on their United States Army partners.

“So here’s to you, SFC Dupont.  You may well have been the best ETT of us all, and when this War on Terror is finally won, it will be because of the contributions of great men and women like you.  I only wish you had been able to complete your tour with us, and then return to your friends and family in New England.  You gave every bit of yourself to the mission, and set an example for us all to aspire to.  You were a great American, which means you were a great man period, and the good Afghans for whom you sacrificed your life recognize that fact as clearly as we do.  Rest in peace now my brother, and we’ll see you on the other side.

“Roughriders, Ride ‘Em Hard.”

1SG Kevin Dupont

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.


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