Time Now’s pace-of-production has slowed down recently, no doubt. Part of it’s that I’m busy, part of it’s that I’m moving on personally, part of it’s because it doesn’t seem as urgent now to document and catalog works about war in Iraq and Afghanistan as it did in, say, 2014. Frankly, there’s not as much to report on, though recent movies such as The Outpost suggest that the wars have not completely lost the interest of audiences and artists. Still, for the most part I’ve written on the novels, short-story collections, poetry volumes, movies, and art about the wars that I know of and which engage me, so I’m not even sure what more there’s to say until a second wave of titles comes along.
Time Now dates back to 2011, but only last night did I figure out how to search for a list of the most popular posts. The top post, “39 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets,” didn’t surprise me, since it’s perennially affixed at the top of my publicly-visible recently-viewed feature. The next nine for the most part did surprise me, and so too did the absence of some posts that I thought had made more of an impression, but which didn’t crack the Top 10. Below’s the list of the Top 10 with capsule reflections on each:
1. “39 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets.” This post has been viewed nearly three times more than the runner-up in popularity. All good; all power to the poets and the online sites that publish them. I don’t know why someone doesn’t publish a print anthology along these lines—I’m sure it would sell as much as any poetry volume sells, and even better it would stand a chance of being a lasting historical document.
2. “Tim O’Brien’s ‘Story Truth’ and ‘Happening Truth’ in the Contemporary War Novel.”Go figure one of the top posts on a blog about Iraq and Afghanistan war lit features the dean of Vietnam War novelists, Tim O’Brien, but whatever—O’Brien’s influence indeed looms large over the contemporary scene. I’m happy as well to shine light on Michael Pitre’s very interesting Fives and Twenty-Fives (and when will we see more from Pitre?).
3. “Iraqi Iraq War Short Fiction: Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Green Zone Rabbit.'”I’ve tried to pay attention to literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan written by Iraqis and Afghans, and no one represents that cohort of writers better than Blasim. Funny though, I’ve never written a dedicated post on Blasim’s superb short-story collection The Corpse Exhibition, even as arranging a reading by Blasim at West Point in 2014 remains a literary-life highlight.
4. “War Poetry: Brian Turner’s ‘A Soldier’s Arabic.'” A short post about one of Turner’s most beautiful poems, featuring a wonderful pictorial representation by Giulia Alvarez, a student at Horace Mann Prep school in NYC I met while visiting a class there.
6. “Fire and Forget III: Mariette Kalinowski’s ‘The Train.'”Works by women veterans have been a salient feature of post-9/11 war-writing, but they’ve been concentrated in the forms of memoir and verse. Kalinowski’s great story makes me wish we had more fiction titles by her and other women vets.
7. “Paul Wasserman, Say Again All.” USAF vet Paul Wasserman read at a war-writing-and-art event I organized at West Point, self-published this hard-to-find chapbook, and since seems to have not published anything else and dropped out of the writing game altogether. Say Again All is excellent, though, and I’m happy that readers continue to make their way to this tribute to it.
8. “Fire and Forget: Short Stories.” Should probably be first on this list, judging by achievement and importance. What a talented and ambitious group of young vet-writers (plus Siobhan Fallon, no slouch herself) brought together between the two covers! The story of how the Fire and Forget authors joined forces and their divergent career paths afterwards is THE story waiting to be written about the Iraq and Afghanistan war-writing scene.
10. “A Contemporary War Short Fiction Listicle.” Honestly, this post was pretty-much a throwaway, done quickly to fill a gap between more trenchant ones. Also honestly: it holds-up, or at least the stories to which I point to do, and I’m not so sure how I would write it differently today.
When I was in the Army, every soldier, or at least every male combat-arms soldier, could recite swaths of dialogue from 80s and 90s war-movie classics such as Full Metal Jacket and Blackhawk Down. Save for Jarhead, I’ve never heard anyone quote a post-9/11 war film with the same gleeful enthusiasm, or really at all, and truth be told, Jarhead is about the First Gulf War, not Operation Iraqi Freedom. Whatever, of the many films released after 9/11 that portray American men-and-women fighting in desert places, here are some of my favorite scenes, in chronological order of date-of-release.
1. Jarhead (2005). Like I said, not technically a Global War on Terror film, but it might as well be for how popular and influential it has been among those in the ranks. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s full of life-defining scenes for young Marines, or young men dreaming of joining them.
2. The Hurt Locker (2008). Veterans love to assert their contempt for The Hurt Locker for all sorts of reasons, but no other GWOT film cranks up the tension scene-by-scene like it does, nor hits as hard in the feels. Starring Jeremy Renner, first the tension:
3. The Hurt Locker (2008). Now the feels:
4. The Messenger (2009). Woody Harrelson can chew the scenery with the best of them, and he’s in fine form here. But guess what? He’s outdone by Yaya DaCosta and the unknown actress who plays her mother.
5. Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Jessica Chastain as CIA operative “Mia” owns Zero Dark Thirty from start-to-finish, and I could have chosen a dozen scenes to highlight. Love here the bit about “your dip and your Velcro and all your gear bullshit.”
6. Lone Survivor (2013). The portrayal of the death of SEAL lieutenant Michael Murphy in the book version of Lone Survivor is superb. The movie version for some reason changes details from the book and drains some of the emotional and dramatic wallop, but the scene still makes the list. Taylor Kitsch as Lieutenant Murphy.
7. Captain Phillips (2013). Danielle Albert, the Navy corpsman who treats Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Phillips is a real sailor, not an actor, but she holds her own and then some. My favorite on the list.
8. American Sniper (2014). Say what you will about Chris Kyle and the memoir American Sniper, Bradley Cooper is so great in the movie version he can almost make you forget the faults of the actual man and his book.
9. Mine (2016).Mine is basically a one-man-show starring Armie Hammer, but for the short time he’s in it, Tom Cullen runs away with the movie.
10. Thank You For Your Service (2017). The scenes I like best from Thank You for Your Service aren’t on YouTube, so this one featuring Miles Teller will have to stand-in for them.
11. Meaghan Leavey (2017). Kata Mara is good as the title character in this Marine-and-her-dog flick, but this scene belongs to rap star Common, who plays her gunnery sergeant.
BONUS! 10 Days to War (2008). Kenneth Branagh, Mr. Henry V himself, playing a British commander who gives a rousing-but-thoughtful speech to his troops on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.
The title of Graham Barnhart’s 2019 poetry volume The War Makes Everyone Lonely reflects the author’s interest in the destructive effects of war. An epigraph from Robert Persons’ film documentary General Orders No. 9 about the aftermath of the American Civil War in the South reinforces the point: “You are not a witness to ruin. / You are the ruin to be witnessed.” The biographical details made available by Barnhart’s poems suggest that Barnhart is from Pittsburgh, not the American South, but the significance of participation in failed wars, though unstated, may be pertinent. The poetry does not suggest that Barnhart, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Special Forces medic, is physically disabled, incarcerated, or wracked by drug-and-alcohol abuse. He may be, but the ruination, as expressed, is mostly mental. The symptom, and maybe the root problem, too, consists primarily of being easily triggered by events post-war to remember details, sometimes large and graphic, sometimes small and mundane, associated with his military service. Spoiler alert: the stimulated memories are interesting, but they are never reassuring.
Triggers figure prominently in the second poem in the volume, “What Being in the Army Did.” Featured first in a list of esoteric details describing things the poet learned in uniform is, “Things you’d expect. / Taught me a trigger’s weight– // its pull….” In this case, the weight of a trigger’s pull is just a technical detail, but the image presciently describes the narrative logic of many poems in The War Makes Everyone Lonely. In “The Coffee Aisle,” for example, brand names such as “Columbian Supremos” and “Jamaica Blue Mountains” inspire memories of joe drunk in theater to decompress after treating traumatic medical injuries. In another poem, a night drive through a snowstorm with his mother and grandmother brings back memories of a convoy in the snow in Afghanistan. A gunshot heard in the distance while attending an outdoor wedding induces an instinctive calculation of distance and direction toward the gunman, along with memories of having done the same “all those nights before” in training and on deployment. In “1900,” mountains viewed in Greece mobilize memories of hills designated as targets in theater: “X-ray, Juliet, Hotel, Romeo. / Recite their names. Your catalog of fire.”
The poet addresses the subject of easily-invoked memories directly in “Everything in Sunlight I Can’t Stop Seeing”:
don’t announce themselves.
It takes so little. I want to say the hinged arm
of a driver-side mirror balled with plastic wrap
looks like a reckless stump dressing….
Though The War Makes Everyone Lonely is defined by its interest in the unbidden mental association of events and scenes across time, not every poem is about the dynamics, logic, and rhetoric of unprovoked memory. Many are short vignettes describing common military experiences “reflected in tranquility” (to use Wordsworth’s great phrase): two are about gas-chambers and another one (a great one, in fact) called “Range Detail” makes much of a dreary rifle range chore “picking up brass” (expended shells) after the day’s shooting is done. Another excellent one, “How to Stay Awake on a Training Exercise,” inspired personal flashbacks to sleepless stints in the field desperately trying to keep eyes open. Others plumb more exotic events, related to Barnhart’s training as a combat medic and experience on deployment, such as survival training, working with Afghans, and patching up wounded bodies. Many images and events are graphic and even sensational, but Barnhart overall seems more interested in the subtle ways military service shapes and creates awareness and influences the mind and behavior long afterward.
The overall vision is bleak, but the impression that the author uses well the power of poetry to hold things together rings true. I’m not a poet, so take it for what it’s worth, but the handling of subjects and themes seems right to me in choice of words, images, line-breaks, tone, and all the other accoutrements of poetic craft. If you don’t trust me, trust the fact that he’s been able to place so many individual poems in elite poetry journals and find a prestigious publisher such as the University of Chicago Press—he’s good.
We now have a solid cohort of warrior poets from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who combine outside-the-wire credibility with refined poetic chops: Brian Turner, of course, Colin Halloran, Hugh Martin, and Brock Jones, for starters. We might also note other vet-poets from the Midwest, as are Barnhart and Martin—I’m thinking of Eric Chandler and Randy Brown (Charley Sherpa)–who against-expectations-and-odds have found poetry the medium of expression for sorting out their thoughts about waging war on America’s behalf in the twenty-first century. To paraphrase from the title of one of Barnhart’s poems, these veterans are very good at “noticing and focusing.” Who’s next? What’s next?
Graham Barnhart, The War Makes Everyone Lonely. University of Chicago Press, 2019.
What does military service and veteran status mean to black American veterans? Few full-length novels, short-story collections, plays, poetry volumes, memoirs, or non-fiction studies by or about black American soldiers in the 21st-century have been published to help us answer the question. Off the top of my head, the only biographies I can think of are two co-authored by M.L. Doyle, herself a black veteran. One is I’m Still Standing, by Shoshana Johnson, the Army soldier who was wounded and captured in the same convoy ambush as Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003. I’m Still Standing is one of my favorite memoirs of the GWOT-era: The opposite of “kill-memoirs” such as American Sniper in every way, it portrays life in uniform and going to war from the perspective of a lower-enlisted “low-density MOS” soldier (Johnson’s “Military Occupational Specialty” was 92G, Military Culinary Specialist—i.e., a cook) and person-of-color. The other, which I have not yet read, is titled A Promise Fulfilled. It’s a biography of Brigadier General Julia Jeter Cleckley, who before retiring in 2002 was the first African-American woman to attain the rank of general in the Army.
We should also note that Doyle also writes genre fiction, published independently. One of her novels, called The Bonding Spell, is a work of speculative fiction set in the States, but its plot is set in motion by events that occur in Iraq. The Bonding Spell is good, and even better is Doyle’s detective novel about US Army soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina titled The Peacekeeper’s Photograph. The protagonists of both stories are savvy black military women who have navigated patriarchal and white-dominated military culture without being broken by it. Thus does genre fiction—speculative and detective, respectively, in the case of Doyle–fulfill its potential to create delightfully-inspired imagined worlds rooted in real possibilities.
The only other full-length work by a black vet on my bookshelf is Nicole S. Goodwin’s poetry volume Warcries. Goodwin served in the Army in Iraq and writes searingly about the deployment and the return home; her themes and tones are more bitter than Doyle’s. In “Unsaid (Confession)”, for example, Goodwin describes watching white fellow soldiers berate and humiliate Iraqi prisoners. It puts into play a number of troubling ideas about what it means to be a black soldier or veteran, especially as that experience is shaped in relation to white fellow soldiers.
The other soldiers—female guarded duty. Boy, how could those white girls powertrip….
Hearing those noises, compulsed inward cringes….
I and the other black girls. Never did that. Never lost cool. Not on my watch. Not once.
Maybe ‘cause we knew….
But as the poem proceeds, Goodwin recounts her shame at watching a black NCO forcefully restrain a screaming prisoner:
And when the Sergeant First Class’ hands reached over and put the ziptie on to Muzzle the howler I was pinched by the irony.
Of one black man enslaving another. Of this sin I have barely spoken. Confession—I became accomplice to this action.
This deed inhumane.
The sequence of events triggers remorse and guilt:
Replays. Over. My head…
The tape records. Rewinds. Focus. I am volcanic with fear.
Didn’t rock the boat. Stayed in my hole.
The publishing industry record regarding African-American veteran-authors does not impress, but the vibrant vet-writing/spoken-word and performance/theatrical scenes in New York City and Philadelphia, in which Goodwin participates, offers access to many black voices and perspectives. I first became aware of the multi-racial East Coast vet-writing realm when I attended a reading at Pete’s Candy Shop, a bar in Brooklyn, in 2014. There I was struck by the poetry of former-Marine Johnson Wiley, and I obtained Wiley’s permission to publish two of his poems, “Shooting Stars of Kuwait” and “A Mother’s Son Returned,” on Time Now here.
Wiley seems to no longer be writing, but many other black NYC, Philly, and Jersey-based writers and artists dazzle with the range of their talents and interests. The first impression rendered by this plentitude of creativity is that artistic expression emerges out of the imagination of artists as it will, unbound by rules or expectation. Sometimes the stories told by black veterans foreground race consciousness and racial politics, and sometimes they don’t. It’s not always clear whether they do or not. The sculpture-photograph titled “Warrior” at the top of the page by black Army vet Donna Zephrine, for example, portrays a woman’s face, but the facial features and skin color are indeterminate–is she definitely black, or could it be a white face smeared with the grime of war? Zephrine’s vignette “The Gas Chamber,” about one of the most common-but-memorable experiences of all who have served, seems universal in its viewpoint and outreach, but does it pack a little more punch knowing it was written by a black woman? A poem by Zephrine, “War Sees No Color,” explicitly posits that a close-knit, functioning military unit under the duress of war goes a long way to suppressing racial divisiveness, thus echoing the commonly-heard maxim that in the Army “everyone is green.” If only it were so, all the time! And why does it take war to take us to state of unity we long to be peaceably? Be those questions as they may, Zephrine’s artwork to my mind does not convey outrage or pain associated with black skin and white racism, though I also little doubt that they do not reflect the totality and complexity of Zephrine’s thoughts about the matters.
In contrast, outrage and pain are on full display in former Marine Chantelle Bateman’s poem “PTSD”and even more so in her poems “Someday I’ll Love Chantelle” and “Thank You for Calling,” which can be found in the anthology Holding It Down Philadelphia: A Collection of Writing by Veterans. But Bateman’s verse, which is also raucously funny, does not foreground race so much as sexual assault and male misogyny as the forces that ruin honorable and rewarding military service for her and often enough for women generally. As such, it speaks to the intersectional truth that vet identity reflects overlapping strains of race, gender, class, and sexuality, blended by particular military experiences and life choices.
In the same vein, most of the multi-talented Maurice Decaul’s work seems not directly concerned with racial identity or racial tension, either in the Marines in which he served or in America at large. His great poem “Shush,”for example, is about PTSD. His play Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates explores the cultural conflict between American Marines and Iraqi insurgents in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His story “Death of Time” (published in the anthology The Road Ahead) portrays the sexual subjugation of a young woman by a Taliban-like militia in a mythologized space that reads much like Afghanistan. Several opinion pieces for the New York Times speak of his deep desire as a young man to be a Marine and how it was to serve with them in combat. In a long presentation titled “War and Poetry,”available on YouTube, Decaul describes how he became a writer, but racial identity doesn’t seem to be the issue or even an issue, even as he cites the mentorship of the great Vietnam War poet Yusef Komunyakaa. And yet, enough is enough, and poems Decaul published on The Wrath-Bearing Treeabout a 2017 trip to Virginia in the wake of the Charlottesville protests record not just fear, but despair at how unsafe he feels in his own country. In one, titled “Blue Ridges,” he asks:
When is a plantation no longer a plantation? On the lake shore, with nutria, turtles, brown recluse & copperheads, I know, I know these waters. The small voice in my head says leap it says, these waters will mask your smell. How will I live here, in the south? When my belly warns me, be home by dark.
That spirit of a long life’s journey to explicit engagement with race informs the work of another New York City African-American vet-writer, Christopher Paul Wolfe. In a personal essay titled “‘Sir, I Never Thought I’d See the Day I’d Be Working for a Colored Officer,'”published in the New York Times, Wolfe writes of the influence of his father, a career Army officer, as Wolfe first attends West Point and then serves in Iraq. Anguish and regret for having tried so hard to serve a system and a country that doesn’t have his best interests at heart emerge full-force:
As a black veteran, I find it hard to reconcile my pride in my service with a sense of complicity in upholding my country’s legacy of white supremacy while deployed. I still remember the black and brown faces of Iraqis that I helped to round up, zip-tie and detain using tactics similar to stop and frisk, the use of which some courts in America have found to be unconstitutional. These experiences created a moral chasm with which I continue to grapple.
Wolfe’s contribution to the vet-fiction anthology The Road Ahead stunningly portrays that torment. Called “Another Brother’s Conviction,” it is set years after the first-person narrator completes service in the Army, to include a tour in Iraq. The narrator enters a Brooklyn bodega and in short-order undergoes charged interactions with the Iranian-born owner, a white woman customer, and finally a Dominican customer accompanied by a black man just released from prison. The narrator is desperate to avoid being sucked into conversation with the other customers, in part because he knows what will well up within him if he does: “Son of a bitch… the ripple. I just want an egg-and-cheese… on wheat toast… with one slice of cheese; not whatever-the-fuck this is going to be.” The word “conviction” carries weight in the story, as the narrator reflects on his participation in acts he’d rather not remember in Iraq: “I’d […] played my part in something I’d come to regret, I had no conviction. There was no conviction. There still is no conviction…” The story concludes enigmatically but presciently, in a way that speaks to the impasse America has found itself in in 2020:
There’s just Akh and the Dominican, the ex-con and his five years, and me and my egg and cheese. And somewhere, out there, in the streets of Bedstuy, there’s a missing white girl.
There are several ways to interpret the story, but to me the last line suggests that the “missing white girl” should have stayed in the bodega rather than exiting as quickly as she could. She, like the narrator, wanted to avoid being drawn into the maelstrom of emotions connecting the other characters, male and dark-skinned as they are. Her departure, however, speaks to a lost opportunity to learn, connect, and grow. And the loss is not just hers, but theirs, and theirs together, as they try to figure out, as the anthology title pronounces, “the road ahead.”
The vibrant northeast vet writing-and-arts scene seems to repopulate yearly, bringing forth new voices and talents. In the months just before the pandemic shutdown, for example, I became acquainted with the work of Air Force Iraq-vet Omar Columbus, who is active in writing, theatrical, and performance circles in New York. A man after my own heart, Columbus not only contributes his own excellent writing to these circles, he seems to have a natural bent for organizing events and bringing people together. If it’s not unseemly to close on a ray-of-light, however thin, successful negotiation of the road ahead may depend on vet artists and impresarios such as Columbus. Cooling the hot-house tension of the bodega, to use Wolfe’s term, will be tough business. If anything can bring us closer to a peaceful and equitable resolution, it is the generative spirit of men and women such as Columbus.
In closing, hats off to the many admirable vet-writing and vet-theater collectives of New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia: Words After War; Voices from War; Combat Paper; the vet war-writing seminars at NYU, Columbia, and elsewhere; Poetic Theater; Aquila Theater; Theater of War; and Warrior Writers chapters in all three states, with apologies to any I have forgotten to mention. These organizations and programs carry far more than their fair share of the load fostering veteran artistic expression equal to the diversity of the uniformed services themselves. On the other hand, the mainstream publishing industry based in New York City could do much more to promote minority writers, and we look for more white authors to address race-related subjects and themes, too (works already out there that do some of that are Phil Klay’s short-story “Psychological Operations” and Eric Bennett’s novel A Big Enough Lie ((with the caveat that Bennett is not a veteran))). Critics and scholars can also continue interrogating war-writing, mine included, for witting or unwitting signs of bias.
Without claiming too much on behalf of white vet-writers, I’ll praise those who have succeeded in the literary publishing biz and have also made it a point to promote upcoming vet-writers of color. Roy Scranton, for instance, introduced me to Johnson Wiley. Matt Gallagher did the same for me with Christopher Paul Wolfe, and together Gallagher and I once shared a fun reading stage with Chantelle Bateman (and Mariette Kalinowski, too). The editors of The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Caster, opened their anthology to black voices such as Decaul’s and Wolfe’s, as well as those of an impressive cohort of underrepresented women vet-writers. Individual isolated good works, we understand, do little by themselves to resolve centuries of systemic wrong-doing. But steps in the right direction still count for something and I hope are appreciated.
To bring this post to an end, let’s salute once more the work already published by M.L. Doyle, Nicole Goodwin, Johnson Wiley, Donna Zephrine, Chantelle Bateman, Maurice Decaul, and Christopher Paul Wolfe, and here’s to much more writing by them in the future, along with more writing by other black veterans.
Released today is news that Russian operatives paid Taliban fighters in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. The story makes me think about the Russian military-officer- turned-jihadist named Irek Hamidullin who in 2015 was tried and convicted in a Richmond, Virginia, court for his participation in an attack that threatened American lives in Khost, Afghanistan. The case can be read about in this Military Timesarticle.
I’ve always thought that story didn’t receive as much play as it deserved, but then, I’m personally invested. Near the same time in 2009 as the attack for which Hamidullin was convicted took place, he allegedly participated in or directed another attack on a US Army convoy in Khost. I was the patrol leader of that convoy; we were ambushed minutes after departing Camp Clark to inspect Afghan National Army outposts. I can’t claim to have seen Hamidullin that day, but I can vouch for the attack. We killed two insurgents, but they killed a very good American, one who stood next to me as the .50-cal gunner in my truck.
Army CID agents interviewed me about the attack, but my testimony ultimately was not used in the case against Hamidullin, and so is not mentioned in articles about it. At his trial, Hamidullin stridently pronounced his commitment to fundamentalist Islam. Though I have no real reason to doubt his word, I’ve always wondered about his motivation and backstory. To what extent might he go to hide his true allegiance? And if he was sincere, how ironic is it that Russian agents were paying Taliban to do what dissidents from their own regime were already committed to doing?
Later, I used the attack as the basis of my short-story “Cy and Ali,” a video of which the Wrath-Bearing Tree was generous enough to recently post on their YouTube page:
2020 has not been a good year for America, but it’s been a great one for literary fiction authored by veterans. The year has already seen new work published by established vet-authors Matt Gallagher, Jesse Goolsby, and Elliot Ackerman, and coming soon will be novels by Odie Lindsey and Phil Klay. If we add to this group second novels by David Abrams (2017), Kevin Powers (2018), and Roy Scranton (2019), we have an impressive cohort of follow-on novels and story collections by writers at the fore of the vet-writing boom that began circa 2012. Not much of the authors’ latest work concerns war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a significant chunk takes as subjects veterans of American’s forever wars in a nation addled by infatuation with war, militarism, and violence. Such is the case for two titles I will briefly describe here: Matt Gallagher’s Empire City and Jesse Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours, both excellent.
Empire City is Gallagher’s second novel, following 2016’s Youngblood, and third book-length work, counting his 2010 lieutenant’s memoir Kaboom. Gallagher also writes stories and articles for big-ticket magazines such as Esquire, Wired, and Penthouse, and opinion pieces for mainstream journalism giants such as the New York Times. Through it all, a distinctive style emerges, equal parts witty and feisty, relaxed and righteous, literary at core but infused with Twitter-honed hot-take badinage. The array of talents and characteristics is on full display in Empire City, a summary of which can be found here. Gallagher tells this speculative and dystopian tale in a fun prose voice that sparkles with wry observations and delightfully-crafted sentences. Beneath the easy-going surface and fanciful plot elements, however, lie terrors-of-the-deep, for Empire City is at heart a novel-of-ideas—ideas about the political and social fraying of America and the love/hate relationship of the country and its military. Gallagher is a shrewd observer of the passing scene, and Empire City documents a point in the not-too-distant American future when human folly cannot be played for laughs anymore. The fractured and dysfunctional America described in Empire City is so in large part as the result of many decades of continuous war-faring and the correspondent growth of home-front militarism. Chief among the problems is that forever wars create an endless stream of veterans who, while agitating for attention in the public sphere, intimidate and confuse the hell out of the non-veteran citizenry who in-turn toggle between venerating soldiers-home-from-war and locking them up. And those soldiers-home-from-war? Possessed by special talents as a result of military experience, they’re full of themselves, jaw-gapingly so to my lights. Each one or each cohort is convinced that their ideas about things are the right ones and that it is incumbent on them to save America from itself. The America of Empire City desperately looks for saviors, but it’s not exactly clear that veterans are the heroes the country needs, no matter how much they or anybody else thinks they are.
Jesse Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours: Stories compiles writing previously published in literary magazines and Goolsby’s 2015 novel I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. Acceleration Hours’ subtitle speaks to the curious merging of genres within the collection. Stories obviously fiction sit side-by-side with others equally obviously autobiographical, while others lie indeterminately between the two poles. Bits-and-pieces that appeared in I’d Walk With My Friends, for example, are excerpted, expanded upon, and recast as personal essays. No explanation or guidance is offered in the pages of Acceleration Hours for how to take this mélange of genres, but in an insightful and helpful interview here, Goolsby explains some of the method behind the apparent madness. It’s all good, even great, and to a point: The fictional stories portray veterans muddling through life after service, while the personal essays portray Goolsby himself, a career Air Force officer still in, muddling through his own life. The characters in the stories occupy the frazzled margins of society; for examples, one features a woman who has deserted from the military rather than deploy to Iraq, while the protagonist of another is a gay musician who plays a dismal weekly gig at an old-folks home, where he meets an eccentric World War II veteran. On the other hand, the persona reflected in the first-person essays lives a much more settled and privileged existence centered around work, family, and confirmed sense of place and community. And yet, the Goolsby figure, for all his education and professional respectability, comes across as more adrift than you might expect a middle-aged career officer to be. Like the lost souls of the stories, he’s unsure of his ideas about things and more carried by the currents of life than navigating them confidently, with the pith of the events he has lived through dangling just out of reach of precise apprehension. Compared to the fervor of the veterans in Empire City, the protagonists of the stories in Acceleration Hours lack the wherewithal to know themselves or what they really want, and the last thing any of them would think is that they might be agents and actors in national political-and-media scrums, telling people what to do and how things should be. Because of Goolsby’s solicitude for his characters and his candor writing of himself, it’s an endearing portrait, one close to my own sensibility, sad as that might be to say. In Acceleration Hours, the sense of despair reflected in the title of Goolsby’s novel I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them is intensified (i.e., “accelerated”) by the increasing futility of trying to find purpose and meaning in an America that doesn’t seem to have much to offer in those ways anymore.
The trenchant exploration of the possibilities of fiction and narrative reflected in recent titles by the Generation of 2012 vet-writers is tremendously exciting. The military asks members to think in prescribed and rigid ways, so the unlicensed freedom of fiction afterwards I’m sure has been intoxicating for would-be writers. Now, with first steps taken and a certain measure of success obtained, one can sense vet-authors licking their chops and flexing their muscles as the limitless boundaries of creative story-telling become apparent, available for their trying if they only dare. More power to them going forward, and equal amounts of power to new voices, especially those of women and authors-of-color, as they emerge on the scene.
Matt Gallagher, Empire City. Atria, 2020
Jesse Goolsby. Acceleration Hours: Stories. University of Nevada Press, 2020
War photography doesn’t fall precisely within the Time Now rubric of “art, film, and literature,” but it’s not unrelated either. Even when photographs are obviously journalistic, it’s not hard to see and admire any artistry inherent in their staging and note the highly aesthetic allure the most compelling ones project. I darn sure wasn’t going to not try and harness that allure to enhance the themes and tones I’ve tried to convey in Time Now. Even more basically, posts featuring photography and photographs have been some of my favorites to compose and many remain favorites to which I often return. Prominently featured over the years have been pictures by Bill Putnam, with whom I once served on a deployment to Kosovo, but there’s lots of great work by other photographers, too, including Tim Hetherington, Benjamin Busch, Ed Drew, Anja Niedringhaus, and Evelyn Chavez, a USAF photojournalist with whom I served in Afghanistan.
There are many ways to remember those who have died at war and honor their sacrifice. A Gold Star, affixed to the exterior of a house to signify the death in combat of a member of the family residing there, brings to the fore a particularly salient way, especially where I live.
My state is one of the long-settled, densely-populated ones on the East Coast, and it’s hard not to see houses adorned with Gold Stars as one drives about the neighborhoods, small towns, and countryside. By now, I know where I’ll see Gold Star homes on the routes I routinely drive, but when I’m off the beaten path I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before one appears. Still, I’m never not slightly taken aback when they do, familiar or unfamiliar, a feeling something akin to what Emily Dickinson writes of (in a different context) as a “tighter Breathing / and Zero at the Bone.” Inwardly I pay respect.
How many Gold Star residences there are in my home-state is something to contemplate. Some 80 state residents have died in either Iraq or Afghanistan, so most Gold Stars must reflect the 1000+ state residents who died in Vietnam, the several hundred in Korea, or the 10,000 who died in World War II. I assume the Gold Stars I see adorn houses in which the dead service members lived before joining the military and going to war, and in which family members who knew them, or heard much about them, continue to reside. Maybe I’m wrong to assume such, but the residences featuring Gold Stars usually are older ones that might easily date back to the 60s, 50s, 40s, or earlier, never one of the new townhomes or McMansions. It seems unlikely that a family would place a Gold Star on the exterior of a house that had never been lived in by a service member killed-in-action, but perhaps that happens sometimes. The point is, I’m curious that so many families live in the same homes from which previous family members went off to war and never returned. In modern transitory America, I wouldn’t think that would be the case.
As most of the Gold Stars reflect deaths from wars fought long ago, the families within—parents, brothers and sisters, most likely, and spouses, too, I suppose, and their descendants–continue residing in homes decades and generations after the loss of a member who once filled the residence with their personality, energy, and ideas about things. The Gold Stars can’t replace the living presences, but they must stimulate constant remembrance, pride, sadness, obligation, and perhaps anger. That long vigil, signaled publicly but endured mostly privately within the remembering family, seems unimaginable in the amount of grief and sense of loss to which they daily pay witness and render homage. Honestly, I don’t know if I could bear it if I were in the surviving families’ shoes. For Gold Star families, every day is Memorial Day, and so it is for me, a little, too, as I drive about the state.
The story of a local Gold Star family whose son was the first from my state to die in Iraq is told here. Let it represent, respectfully, all other Gold Star families, too. Let’s also remember the local Veterans Homes that have been hit hard by coronavirus. The many veteran-residents taken before their time deserved far better.
Finally, the Wrath-Bearing Tree has published a story I wrote titled “Cy and Ali” as part of their Memorial Day observance. It’s based on events that took place on my tour in Afghanistan and was written with three of the soldiers with whom I served who didn’t return in mind. You can find it here.Wrath-Bearing Tree has also posted a video of me reading “Cy and Ali”:
For Mother’s Day 2020, a post from my old blog 15-Month Adventure:
To the Moms, the Whole Love
Happy mother’s day, also my birthday this year. Moms come up quite a bit in writings about the war, I’ve discovered. Not surprisingly, authors are sensitive to how military service touches those whose children do the fighting. For example, here’s how Benjamin Busch, author of Dust to Dust, describes his mother’s reaction to the announcement that he has joined the Marine Corps:
My mother took a deep breath, her hands clamped to the edge of the table as if she were watching an accident happen in the street. Her father had been a Marine, had gone to war and almost not come back.
“I will be stalwart,” I had said to myself on the drive home from the airport the morning I said goodbye to him. “I will be steadfast. I will read and listen to the reputable war reporters, and I will write my senators and congressmen, but I will not lose faith in my country. I will concentrate on sustaining my son rather than myself, and I will not confuse self-pity with legitimate worry and concern over him and his men. I will be proud, justifiably proud, but I will not be vainglorious! And I will never, never, never let him know how frightened I am for him.”
But, within moments of returning home, I had broken all but one of these promises to myself. I was doing laundry and, as I measured detergent into the washer, the Christmas carol CD I was playing turned to Kate Smith’s magnificent contralto, singing, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
“And in despair, I bowed my head,” she sang. “There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”
And, at that moment, for only the third time in my adult life, I began to sob — not cry, not weep — but sob uncontrollably, sitting on the floor of my laundry room, surrounded by sorted piles of bed linens and dirty clothes.
And if the child comes back wounded? Siobhan Fallon, author of the short-story collection You Know When The Men Are Gone, describes here a trip to Walter Reed to meet injured soldiers and their families:
And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: “Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?”
And how does a veteran describe his mother, a lover of language and books and authors and ideas, as he watches her fade late in life? Benjamin Busch again:
She had been a librarian. All of the books and conversations about the importance of written words swelling inside her head like a star undergoing gravitational collapse into a black mass, its light still traveling out into space but its fires already burned out. Nothing left but ash.
Then he recounts her last words: “‘Oh my baby boy.'”
So much hurt. So much damage. So many memories. So much love.
Mothers, sons, daughters, fathers, everyone, make much of time.
The subject of Mary Douglas Vavrus’s Postfeminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex are media representations of American military women in the twenty-first century. Vavrus is not so concerned with actual accounts by women who have served—as in memoirs and first-person articles and essays—nor is she much interested in artistic-entertainment portraits in art, film, and literature. The evidence she analyzes are network news and major print-and-online accounts of high-profile subjects associated with women-in-uniform, such as their struggle to serve equitably, free of sexual harassment and assault. News media is a separate realm from the actual lived-lives of real people and different too from the art-world of imaginative and dramatic portraiture, but it is not unrelated. The trick, then, is parsing Vavrus’s argument for its connection to events as they unfolded in the military institutionally and historically, personal accounts by women who experienced those events first-hand, and the artistic-dramatic rendition of the same.
Vavrus’ argument is that the media, sometimes unwittingly but often as if in consort with the military itself, has played up stories highlighting women’s achievements and downplayed those that depict difficulties, to include the problems of harassment and assault. “Media” is a big term, of course, and by it Vavrus primarily means what right-wingers would sneer at as “the mainstream media.” Vavrus’ vantage point is from the left, but her evidence is largely drawn from and her argument is aimed at traditional outlets such as The New York Times, Time, and the evening news giants. The consequences (and possibly the motivation, too, at least insofar as the military is concerned) of journalistic complicity with military-governmental desire are two-fold: 1) positive reports help recruit women to the all-volunteer service in a time of need while generating support among the American populace for unpopular wars, and 2) positive coverage normalizes the escalating saturation of American life with what Vavrus terms “banal militarism” by extending the historically masculine martial realm to the domestic and feminine spheres.
In the 19th-century, Herman Melville wrote, “All wars are boyish and fought by boys.” Not so fast, argues Vavrus:
I titled this book Postfeminist War because my research shows that since 2001, war- and military-themed media exhibit a mixture of resistance and capitulation to racialized patriarchy as they work to naturalize women’s support for martial values and actions. In this context, narratives about women use feminism selectively to focus on gender equality as they preclude examination of structural problems that differentially disadvantage women both inside and outside the military: chiefly racism, economic inequality, and misogyny. In so doing, such discourses advance what I call martial postfeminism, an ideology that both pushes military solutions for an array of problems that women and girls face and endorses war by either glorifying or obscuring the forms of violence it entails. Postfeminist War thus argues that martial postfeminism discourages critical investigation of the military as an institution, the wars U.S. troops fight, and the military-industrial complex that both drives and profits from war.
Chapter One of Postfeminst War uses the Lifetime television series Army Wives to illustrate how even the ultra-feminine realm of soap-opera has been militarized by the “media-military-industrial complex.” Vavrus writes, “Because Army Wives was successful by so many measures—including serving as a vehicle for Army propaganda—I start with its constructions of military marriage and family… then examine strategic alliances between the Lifetime Network, its commercial partners, and the DOD to consider how they mutually constitute meaning around military life and war for an audience of women.” Chapter Two examines several “super-Mom” public figures who use their identity as mothers of soldiers to shape national debates about war, military, and soldier issues. The first two chapters are interesting, but Postfeminist War for me really starts percolating with Chapters Three and Four.
In Chapter Three, “‘No Longer Women, but Soldiers’: The Warrior Women of Television News,” Vavrus describes positive portrayals of military women in major media in the years after 9/11, especially as women achieve a series of “firsts”: first helicopter pilot, first Ranger, first West Point first captain, etc. The author’s argument is complex: though she is a feminist, she doesn’t think these positive portrayals and associated claims that the military has demonstrated its commitment to women are very satisfying. Rather, Vavrus takes aim at shibboleths that the military is a healthy venue for women’s growth, empowerment, and accomplishment, and that women can compete and be accepted for who they are and their own worth within it. She finds these conceits contrived and overly hopeful, whether they in fact may be true for any individual woman (which she admits they can be). In Vavrus’s way of thinking, journalists who run feel-good stories about women in uniform should be ashamed of their complicity in helping construct media-military-industrial-complex ideology. And yet, the author is far from a conservative Phyllis Schlafly-style anti-feminist who believes a woman’s place is at home. The author’s critique comes from the far-left, and her overarching questions are to what ends are women being asked to serve and how does incorporation of women in the military instantiate militarism within the greater society.
Journalism’s complicity in promoting the military by emphasizing its transformative potential for women is especially nefarious, according to Vavrus, in light of the armed service’s shameful lack of attention paid to military sexual discrimination, harassment, abuse, and assault. In Chapter Four, “‘This Wasn’t the Intended Sacrifice’: Warrior Women and Sexual Violence,” the author claims that the media failed to hold the military accountable for gender discrimination and sexual assault and abuse for years until the release of Helen Benedict’s groundbreaking documentary film about military rape The Invisible War in 2012. After Benedict, media coverage sharpened, but has still not achieved what it might. The biggest problem identified by Vavrus is that the press focuses on high-profile cases rather than widespread events and enduring patterns, and they care more about punishment of transgressions than analyzing toxic cultural elements that permit rape (to include man-on-man rape) to occur. A truly feminist media in Vavrus’s eyes would extract itself from its embedded sycophantic relationship with the military and expose its systematic patriarchal and misogynist shortcomings, rather than treating sexual crime with the same rote, feeble patterns of breathless finger-wagging it devotes to women’s issues as they manifest on college campuses and in the civilian workplace—a tendency that helps instantiate the military and militarism as fundamental components of American life.
I’ve taken the time to lay out Vavrus’ argument in some detail not because I want to shoot it down. Most of it seems intuitively obvious: the mainstream media over the last twenty years has clearly pinged between moments of “you go girl” celebration of milestone achievements by military women and strident denunciations of high-profile examples of military misogyny, with long periods of not-so-benign neglect in-between. Vavrus believes that a hard-hitting, left-leaning media sphere with an emphasis on long-term investigative journalism is needed, and that in regard to women in the military it is foolish to think that we are “post” the need for a thoroughly feminist approach. No doubt that’s true, but to say we’re not there right now as a country is putting it mildly, which raises the question of the possibility for real change. The obstacles being so formidable, frankly I’m just glad that the media (broadly construed) is no worse than it is, as long as I sense it’s aligned with the interests of women who are actually serving or contemplating serving, and mostly determined by women themselves. As for the military itself? It can always do better, a lot better.
One strong virtue of Vavrus’ claims, however, is they set the stage for productive follow-on lines of inquiry I’m going to unfortunately only give short-shrift to here. As I stated above, Vavrus’ subject is more media coverage than it is the military itself, if that makes sense. Though Vavrus obviously is not impressed by military efforts to, say, end sexual assault and abuse, she doesn’t go into great detail about actual military efforts to do so. Nor, as I’ve also stated, does she examine or even introduce as evidence accounts by women who have served and have negotiated in real-time the tricky swirl of ideas and imperatives she outlines. By now there is a robust collection of memoirs by women veterans—Kayla Williams, Shoshana Johnson (with help from Mary Doyle), Amber Smith, Laura Westley, Brooke King, Anuradha Baghwati, and a forthcoming one by Teresa Fazio, to name a few—as well as books about military women, such as Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s Ashley’s War, along with first-person articles and online accounts such as those featured on The War Horse website. From what I know of these women and their writings, none are dupes who have naively absorbed and regurgitated ideological constructs, though by their own admission they may not have not been totally immune to them, either. Read carefully, individually and collectively, analysis of their authors’ wrangle with “martial postfeminism” would be most welcome as they corroborate, contradict, and complicate Vavrus’s claims.
I’ve chosen not to review memoirs on Time Now, but another body-of-work we might turn to in order to test Vavrus’s claims is right in Time Now’s wheelhouse: the aesthetic realm of fiction and film. Below are links to posts about stories and movies in which women warriors serve as central characters in narratives about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within each post, I feel, is plenty of grist for contemplating how women have fared in the military since 9/11, and the books and films themselves of course contain even more. There’s still more work to do examining them in granular detail, teasing out patterns and implications, and synthesizing competing ideas and claims. It won’t get done here now, but the work awaits.