2011: The Year Contemporary War Fiction Became a Thing

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

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

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

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

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


Been There, Done That: Contemporary War Writing Stock Scenes

Afghanistan 013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ever-Changing War Lit Scene

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

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

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

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

Me, Erin Hadlock, Sean Case, Matt Gallagher.
Me, Erin Hadlock, Sean Case, Matt Gallagher.

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

Congratulations, Phil Klay!

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

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

The Aesthetics of Traumatic Injury

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

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

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

Photographer:  Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Photographer: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Photographer: Nina Berman
Photographer: Nina Berman
Photographer: Gerald Herbert

Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War

The part in Zero Dark Thirty that most interested me was the infiltration of FOB Chapman, a CIA compound in Khowst, Afghanistan. If you remember, in December 2009 at FOB Chapman a Jordanian whom the agency thought would offer usable intelligence about Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts instead blew himself up inside the compound, killing seven CIA personnel. Having left Khowst myself in June 2009, and having been on FOB Chapman enough to know what went on there, I was amazed at the lapse in security then and wondered how it might be portrayed in the film.

Whatever happened in December 2009, I was sure the Afghan security force personnel on Chapman had been left out of the planning. There is no way that those savvy, hardened fighters, survivors of two decades of absolutely treacherous warfare, would have been caught inside their own compound with their guard so far down. The movie version doesn’t portray the breach in that light, but it does suggest that a naïve CIA agent—a fetching young woman at that—ignored the advice of her American Special Forces advisors in letting the deadly double agent through the gates unsearched. The movie even highlights the essential girly-ness of the security lapse; while the CIA agent waits for the Jordanian to arrive, she engages in chatty text banter with her CIA BFF, complete with “whassups?” and “cools!”

So, within the context of the film, the scene serves nicely in terms of an overarching narrative about how the CIA learned many hard lessons along the way to a rousing finale. In this story, the fiasco at FOB Chapman isn’t even the agency’s biggest blunder. The film’s much ballyhooed torture scenes, for instance, don’t actually seem to produce much bang for their buck. Instead, they appear to be the flailing about of an organization that didn’t have a clue early on how to get what it wanted. By the film’s second half, and probably in the war’s late reaches, too, the CIA becomes much more adept at using signal intercepts and competent fieldcraft to find Bin Laden.

Within the film’s logic it’s a female agent named Maya whose smarts and determination energize the agency and lead directly to its success. Not an Erin Brockovich-like melodrama of a sexy, strong-minded woman triumphing over patriarchy, Zero Dark Thirty suggests that a soft–dare I say feminized?–American security apparatus could only be saved by a tough modern woman who makes a military virtue out of a stone-cold sense of her own rightness and entitlement. In the process of valorizing Maya, even when at times she seems nothing but a petulant child, the film actually misses what to me seems most important about her personality: her always already there ruthlessness not just in the pursuit of Bin Laden, but in her professional ambition. The poor male operative who presides over the torture scenes in the beginning of the film only thinks he is tougher and harder than Maya, but when the blood on his hands causes him to falter, she is more than willing to continue the brutality on her own. In other words, Maya is fine with torture if it seems to work, especially for her–and that’s the extent of her ethical contemplation of the matter.

Likewise with the CIA’s Pakistan station chief, so full of male bluster, whose surprise removal in part as a result of Maya’s organizational subterfuge reveals just how badly he misjudged the sharpness of her bite. Maya isn’t oppressed in the least by such men; rather, she quickly sizes them up and then vanquishes them as unworthy weaklings. Her sister CIA agent who screws up so badly in Khowst merits even less respect; it’s clear that Maya thinks from the start that she is a ditz. In a scene in which Maya and her middling peers in the CIA’s Bin Laden team are chewed out by their boss, Maya grates at being lumped with such a sad collection of obvious second-raters. As she stews, she plots her infiltration of the heavy hitters in the top echelon of CIA headquarters and the badass bubbas of SEAL Team 6: super-charged Alpha males whom she sees as her rightful consorts, even if she is given to withering insults of their competence and pretensions.

Maya to the SEAL Team 6 commander:  “Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb. So they’re using you guys as canaries. And, in theory, if Bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser. But Bin Laden is there. And you’re going to kill him for me.”

Pretty good crack, actually, that line about “dip and velcro and all your gear bullshit,” though Maya is a gear fiend herself, what with her Ray-bans, sports bras, and designer combat boots.  But I digress.

Ultimately, the film sends mixed messages whether the CIA becomes tougher or smarter as the war grinds on. I hope the real life answer is smarter, because in my experience most hard-ass rhetoric just seems to be an excuse for laziness and stupidity. Zero Dark Thirty is at its most Hollywoodish when Maya asserts that she is going to “smoke” everyone involved in the infiltration of FOB Chapman. The Army actually cans commanders who engage in such bravado-laden talk. Well it knows how dangerous such sentiments become as they trickle down through the ranks and settle in the minds of scared 19-year-old soldiers who must be relied upon to exercise restraint in their daily contact with locals. Similarly, Maya’s profanity-laden outburst in a meeting full of CIA big shots twenty years her senior is a subaltern bureaucrat’s pipedream. In real life such grandstand plays get people written off, if not fired.  My sentiments probably reflect the cautiousness the film finds problematic in the pursuit of Bin Laden, but I’m trying to suggest a complexity that undermines the easy answers the film promotes.

In contrast to the theatrics of Maya’s wrangle with bureaucracy, the scenes depicting SEAL Team 6’s raid to kill or capture Bin Laden seem preternaturally calm and understated, and all the better for it.  But that’s a subject for another post.  I’ll circle back to it when I write about the representation of special ops forces in literature and film.

Zero Dark Thirty was directed by Kathryn Bigelow.  It was written by Mark Boal.  Maya is played by Jessica Chastain.


Benjamin Busch

Busch-Crossing, 2005

Benjamin Busch is a Vassar graduate and two-time veteran of USMC tours in Iraq.  Now out of the service, he has proven a dynamo of artistic production, most if it directly and I suspect all of it implicitly related to his war experience.   He’s acted in TV series such as Generation Kill and The Wire, directed several short films, and written a memoir titled Dust to Dust.  He’s the son of novelist Frederick Busch, whose influence weighs heavy on his mind in Dust to Dust.  Father-son relationships get played out in lots of war literature, which I plan to document in upcoming posts.  For now, I’ll just say that perhaps Busch gets his amazing productivity from his father, who published at least 16 novels.  Or maybe it’s a Marine thing.

I haven’t read any of Frederick Busch’s novels, but Benjamin Busch might get his whimsical yet cerebral style from his father, too.  That quality certainly characterizes the photographs in The Art in War, a book of snaps taken during his Iraq tours.  In the book, Busch writes short explanations for each photograph.   In public performance, as he projects his pictures Busch reads the written commentary in a way that I find mesmerizing.  An example of Busch’s one-two image-word punch:


I went into a building near the entrance of an abandoned amusement park to take a picture of Mickey Mouse that was painted on a window from the inside. As I focused the lens on the series of American cartoon characters, a Marine appeared in the missing window that I had come through. There is an innocent wonder in his expression and despite his weapons and combat equipment he seems to be what he is, young and misplaced. An American child grown into armed maturity who still looks into the room, empty aside from me, for something that he expects to recognize. To see an Iraqi interpretation of an American icon next to the reality of American occupation made this photograph important to me. In the window beside Mickey is a cartoon image of an Indian, our Native American. This makes the triptych even more powerful as our own nation, America, began as an occupation of theirs.

Another, not so whimsical, but also reflective of Busch’s sensitivity to the material artifacts that structure and define our lives:

“Hand and Feet”

I caught this image in an evidence examination room in the Al Anbar Criminal Investigations Building. It had been abandoned for over a year and these plaster casts of feet from crime scenes had been moved onto a couch as former Iraqi police had sifted the room for valuable items. It is one of the most important photographs that I have ever taken in that, in the absence of a single person, it is completely human. I seek imagery that proves human presence without relying on the presence of people. The recent hand print in the dust on the back of the couch made this image speak to past, present and evidence of what is uniquely human.

The notion of imagery that “proves human presence without relying on the presence of people” returns me to an idea I introduced earlier:  that Busch’s art, even when it doesn’t explicitly reflect martial images and themes, is about war.  I like toying with this idea in relation to lots of artistic production of the 2000s.  For here, I’ll suggest that Busch’s wonderful short film Bright (2011) is one such work that can be interpreted in the context of our nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though it doesn’t mention them.  In Bright, actor Eric Nenninger plays a young white man so traumatized by an unspecified event that he is not just afraid of the dark but darn near paralyzed in life, too.  He lives in a brightly lit house with an older black blind man—played by Robert Wisdom—who seems to do better coping with his disability than his housemate.  Their post-trauma issues play out in a plot that evokes a national storyline set in motion by 9/11, and perhaps Busch’s personal journey, too.

Short Bright clip:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N97HA1hCczs

The Bright IMDb page:  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1798611/

All quoted text from War, Literature, and the Artshttp://www.wlajournal.com/19_1-2/busch.pdf

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