Archive for the ‘General’ category

The Ever-Changing War Lit Scene

April 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Me, Erin Hadlock, Sean Case, Matt Gallagher.

Me, Erin Hadlock, Sean Case, Matt Gallagher.

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

Congratulations, Phil Klay!

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

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

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

The Aesthetics of Traumatic Injury

September 8, 2013

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

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

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

Photographer:  Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Photographer: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Photographer: Nina Berman

Photographer: Nina Berman


Photographer: Gerald Herbert

Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War

February 2, 2013

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

November 29, 2012

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:

The Bright IMDb page:

All quoted text from War, Literature, and the Arts

%d bloggers like this: