War Adventure/Military Thriller

Posted August 7, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , ,

In a 2014 Los Angeles Review of Books article titled “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” author Brian Castner wonders why so few novels have been written about America’s long war in Afghanistan. One idea Castner considers is that Operation Enduring Freedom was fought mainly by special operators—serious warfighters who lacked the artistic, empathetic, and reflective bents required to write fiction. To the point, Castner quotes Brandon Willitts, a vet-writer who served in Afghanistan as intelligence analyst in support US Army Special Forces:

“These guys are such high achievers, Olympic athletes who have been trained to kill,” [Willitts] says. “They’ve spent a decade doing night raids. And now you want them to sit in a chair and write a novel? You might as well ask why more NFL players aren’t writing novels.”

Castner’s query and Willitts’ comment, rather than foreclosing future possibilities, seems to have initiated a flood of novels about war in Afghanistan, and, in truth, there were already a few out there that Castner overlooked in 2014. Some of the new arrivals are “literary” novels Castner and most LARB readers would consider most worth talking about, such as Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue. More, however, are genre fiction: war-adventure thrillers, many written by authors with impressive military pedigrees.

Thomas Greer, for example, is a former Delta Force squadron commander who capitalized on his initial foray into print, Kill Bin Laden, a memoir of his leadership of the ground force that searched for Osama Bin Laden in the eastern Afghanistan mountains in 2001, to write a series of war-action novels under the name “Dalton Fury.” Between 2012 and 2016, Dalton Fury published (by my count) six war-adventure novels before unfortunately dying of pancreatic cancer. A second Delta Force squadron commander, Brad Taylor, has also drawn on his real-life exploits and insider knowledge to pen a series of military thrillers. Taylor, whose first book also predates Castner’s article, appearing in 2011, has written (again, by my count; it’s hard to keep up) eighteen novels, each pushing 500 pages. A third former Army officer, Sean Parnell, doesn’t have the stellar military credentials of Greer and Taylor—he has but a single tour in Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader to brag about (and boy does he, here). But Parnell, like Greer, parlayed the success of his initial book, a lieutenant’s memoir titled Outlaw Platoon, into a second, the war-thriller Man of War. As the newcomer of the bunch, he has written only one novel so far, with another on the way. He is, however, a protégé of Scott Miller, a literary agent who helped Dalton Fury’s rise in the world of letters, and Parnell and Taylor cutely name characters after each other in their books, so it seems reasonable to group him with the prolific Fury and Taylor to obtain a sense of what contemporary war adventure and military thrillers are all about.

Below are capsule summaries and a few thoughts about Fury’s Black Site, Taylor’s The Forgotten Soldier, and Parnell’s Man of War. Only Black Site is directly about war in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but all are connected in their way to the Global War on Terror, so within the purview of the blog.

Dalton Fury (Thomas Greer)’s Black Site (2012). The hero of Black Site is Kolt Raynor, an ex-Delta Force operator who has been exiled from the elite unit’s ranks for a tactical mistake that led to the deaths and capture of fellow operators on a covert mission across the Afghanistan border into Pakistan. Three years later, Raynor atones for his screw-up by sneaking into Pakistan to confirm intelligence that several of his former teammates are held prisoner in a remote compound guarded by Pashtun tribesmen, Taliban zealots, and Middle-Eastern Al Qaeda operatives, and a platoon of Chechens led by an American-born Al Qaeda convert who are hatching a plan to infiltrate a CIA-run “black site” prison by posing as US Army Rangers. While not escaping the generic conventions of war adventure, Black Site executes them well. Of the three novels I read, it was the most focused on military operations–as opposed to spy-and-espionage sleuthing–which I liked, and I also enjoyed the descriptions of the Pashtun regions of western Pakistan.

Brad Taylor’s The Forgotten Soldier (2017). Taylor’s novels feature protagonist Pike Logan, a member of a top-secret spy-and-fighting force known as the “Taskforce.” In The Forgotten Warrior, a Taskforce member goes rogue after learning that his brother, a US Army Special Forces soldier, has been killed in Afghanistan by four Yemini Al Qaeda members. Seeking vengeance, the aggrieved Taskforce operator hunts-and-kills the Yemini responsible one-by-one, while also uncovering treacherous connections linking the Yemini ruling clan and the highest echelons of the US State Department. Pike Logan is dispatched by the Taskforce to retrieve his off-the-reservation teammate while minimizing damage to international relations, duties that take him from Washington, DC, to the Cayman Islands to Greece to Norway. The Forgotten War does well depicting the complicated diplomatic-strategic-economic dimensions of global conflict: how they present opportunities to be exploited by adversaries and trouble-makers and how things become personal in the hands of the upper-echelon players who wield enormous amounts of power.

Sean Parnell’s Man of War (2018). Man of War splits the difference between Black Site‘s military emphasis and The Forgotten Soldier‘s spy-vs-spy storyline. Its action hero is Eric Steele, who like Pike Logan works for an off-the-books government agency that answers directly to the President. When a former member of the unit—called the Project in Man of War—hatches a plot to steal a manpack nuclear weapon from Iran, while also kidnapping Iran’s and Pakistan’s leading nuclear engineers, Steele is dispatched to kill him before he detonates the nuke in America. Steele chases his nemesis—the man who trained him in the ways of the Project—across northern Africa and Spain, both men leaving trails littered with bodies, before they finally confront in mano-y-mano battle in southern Maryland. Man of War has a more crazed, one-thing-after-another, can-you-believe-what-happens now? feel to it than Black Site and The Forgotten Warrior, which is saying something, and which is either a virtue or a flaw depending on your taste for over-the-top characters and plot turns.

The covers of all three novels announce that their authors are “New York Times Best-Selling Authors,” which no doubt is true. It’s amusing, though, somewhat, that they draw on the prestige of the mainstream “fake news” newspaper giant to burnish their reputations and attract readers, since the works themselves are thoroughly “Red State” war fiction (as defined here by Brian Castner and Brian Van Reet) that glorify military prowess and American greatness. Or, maybe, the bold-faced references to New York Times popularity are their way of sticking it to elite taste-makers and their condescending attitudes toward what “real people” really like. Who knows? That none of the authors are great stylists or lifelong, serious students of novel form and craft is another point hardly worth dwelling on, save for an interesting comment offered by Dalton Fury. In the Acknowledgements to Black Site, Fury reports that his hatred of high school English and “the lack of grounding in proper sentence structure and point of view made life miserable as I wrote Kill Bin Laden. I needed a ton of help. In fact, I learned quickly that there is absolutely no intrinsic crossover between leading commandos and writing about commandos” (cf Willetts!). Fury then describes how his agent, the afore-mentioned Scott Miller, provided him with an “incredibly talented” ghostwriter named Mark Greaney. Greaney, the author of his own thriller series and a former collaborator with Tom Clancy, is a pro’s pro, and as a result Black Site is a much more tautly written book than Kill Bin Laden.

I can imagine authors who have devoted their life to writing burning at the effrontery of men such as Fury, Taylor, and Parnell turning to novel-writing in middle-age as if anyone could write (a good) one, and then seething even more as they watch the books by these warrior-writer Johnny-come-latelies fly up the New York Times best-seller lists. For me, however, Fury’s confession is as endearing as it is telling, but, really, who cares if war adventure novels are well-written or not? I do, but that’s not what is important here. War adventure’s all about action heroes, heinous villains, hair-raising escapades, and gee-whiz technology and weapons, for which there is a ginormous reading market, as evidenced by the New York Times rankings.

Let the record show that I read Black Site, The Forgotten Soldier, and Man of War pretty much straight through; in other words, I never stopped turning the pages. I enjoyed the glimpses of operator-and-spy craft they offered, and I appreciated how they fully incorporated technology into the lives of the men and women they describe (as opposed to so much literary war fiction that proceeds as if the Internet had never been invented). Though the enemies of America the protagonists kill by the dozens are generally Arab and South Asian Muslims (a few white Americans, Europeans, and South Africans swell the ranks of villains), there seems to be an effort across the board to avoid the worst race-and-religion baiting imaginable. Parnell can’t resist describing how highly Steele regards President Reagan, and Parnell’s Twitter feed makes it clear that he thinks President Trump is great and the problem with America is liberals and Democrats. On the other hand, the presidents and portraits of American politics in Black Site and The Forgotten Soldier are generic enough that it’s hard to tell who in the upper tiers of government is red and who is blue. That’s strange, because it seems unlikely many Democrats read war adventure, and so it would be logical that the authors play to the Red State masses by demonizing softy liberal politicians at every opportunity. In Fury and Taylor, however, I detect a determined non-partisanship and desire for unity and consensus typical of the officer lifers I’ve known who aren’t raging conservatives. Taylor’s blog, for evidence, leans right, predictably enough, but clearly avoids knee-jerk side-taking as it explores (sensibly in my mind) international security issues. Back to the novels, the protagonists’ support teams are pointedly diverse, and each novel incorporates at least one woman-of-action into the mix. The operator equivalent of “manic pixie dream girls,” war-thriller women tend to be chiseled hotties as capable of snapping a man’s neck as seducing him. The female protagonists in Black Site, The Forgotten Soldier, and Man of War prove themselves worthy sidekicks to their action-hero leading men, and each is given at least one “you go, girl” moment in which she socks it to hapless members of the patriarchy by cutting through their bullshit or kicking their ass.

All that’s good, or at least not terrible. But let’s also get serious: the comic-book hero names of the protagonists, as well as Thomas Greer’s pen-name, signal tongue-in-cheek fantasies of heroic military manliness. The authors maybe are self-consciously spoofing the conventions of war adventure, and perhaps being in-on-the-joke is one of the prerequisites for enjoying the genre; I’m reminded of an old National Lampoon parody of Sergeant Rock comics in which the hero was named Sergeant Nick Penis. And yet, despite their cartoonish qualities, the novels, with their breathless depictions of good-guy grown adults fighting bad-guy grown adults with the fate of the world at stake, project the notion that they take themselves very seriously, and I have little doubt a fair number of their readers do, too. Just spit-balling here, but it seems obvious that war adventure novels serve not merely as escape and entertainment, but as morality plays that shape, reflect, and confirm ideas and attitudes about the world. All three novels, for example, dramatize fears that America not only faces danger from threats abroad, but from within as well, by traitors, imposters, infiltrators, criminals, and power-hungry self-servers and ideological zealots. Whatever the political vision, though, the ideological message that really drives the popularity of war adventure, I’d say, is the dream of unlimited power and maximum freedom concentrated in individuals who feel they are born to wage war and are well-trained to do so. High-level operators are uniformly characterized as rough-hewn, wildly independent, and contrarian men-of-action whose capacity for bad behavior is part of their appeal and their effectiveness. The stories undoubtedly glorify the way-of-the-gun: an oft-repeated set piece is the highly-trained operator taking out three or four bad guys in seconds with an equal number of well-aimed shots, the implication being that he who has the most guns and uses them best has the most power and freedom. Another way this sensibility plays out is through constant reference to civilian politicians and bureaucrats who constrain the free exercise of the operators’ right to break rules, disobey orders, take extravagant risks, and shoot-to-kill. You can’t read four pages in a war adventure novel without coming across a passage that expresses some version of this sentiment.

In the world of the novels, the dream of unrestrained freedom sits uneasily with the tight command-and-control structure of elite military units and the presence of strong authority figures who call the shots. The books are entranced by the idea that small cells of elite warrior-spies exist that answer directly to the President, and that Presidents spend the better part of their days personally supervising clandestine operations that must be undertaken to save the country and the free world. Still, the potential for elite warriors to “go rogue” drives the plot in each of the novels; going rouge comes up so often as a plot catalyst that it acquires the tangible quality of a consummation devoutly to be wished–in other words, more freedom, more opportunity to exercise individual power. The specific spur that affords operators the chance to go rogue is revenge: in each novel, the protagonists are compelled to operate even further off the books than normal to avenge the deaths of fellow operator or family members. And yet, the revenge is typically revealed to be just, not just in personal terms, but in regard to the ongoing international battles the operators’ units exist to fight—the individual vendetta is connected to an effort to stop America’s enemies from killing our Secretary of State, stealing a portable nuclear weapon, infiltrating the United States military, or other such rigamarole. The operators’ instincts in these matters are true: the books aggressively assert that elite soldiers are not just fighting machines, but ethically astute judges of right, wrong, and what really needs to happen right now to save the country.

Brad Taylor and Dalton Fury attempt to problematize these issues in earnestly-crafted acknowledgments and introductions. Taylor, for example, writes:

The crux of repeated covert action in a democracy is that a nation can go only so far before its actions begin to erode the very ideals the unit was designed to protect, which is precisely why we have such robust oversight in US Code. The Taskforce has no such constraints, and I’ve threaded the potential for its abuse throughout my books. This time, I decided to explore it as a main theme.

Well, OK, but excuse me if I find the statement a little disingenuous, judging by the reading experience of The Forgotten Soldier—it’s a little as if an author of pornography tells us he has written the work to warn readers of the dangers of pornography. Riiight… Dalton Fury, for his part, reports that the genesis of Black Site was a remark made by a fellow operator that he was “impetuous” and thus Fury wrote Black Site to work out the role that impetuousness plays in the character and mentality of elite soldiers. Let’s just say, based on the evidence, a lot…. for better in the world of the books, but maybe for worse, understood more broadly. Impetuousness is a characteristic associated with immaturity, which is not an especially flattering trait to define men who wield the power that the operators feel entitled to. Cue Herman Melville’s great observation: “All wars are boyish and fought by boys.”

For all my carping, I’m not particularly worried that war adventure novels glamorize men-with-guns; of course they do, but that American cultural cake has been baked at least since readers went nuts over John Filson’s The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone in 1785, and whatever influence books might still have on the tide of things is a tiny rivulet feeding the mighty Mississippi of overall American fascination with guns, violence, fighting, crime, militarism, and war. An issue that comes up in reviews of Black Site and The Forgotten Soldier is the ethics and consequences of former senior Delta Force commanders such as Taylor and Fury revealing so much inside knowledge about their secret-squirrel units. For me, that’s not as interesting a question as one that asks why men who rose to the top of elite units after retiring desire to write novels that fantasize about men who are even more awesome fighting machines than they were themselves? Does that strike anyone else as curious? It’s as if, say, a very good writer were to write an un-ironical, non-satirical novel about a Nobel Prize winning author who is a dashing bon-vivant who never makes a regrettable mistake.

It’s probably just me, but as a fellow former Army officer, it’s interesting to observe other former officers write books that that settle for so little in terms of vision, craft, or smarts compared to those of ex-enlisted soldiers such as Brian Turner, Roy Scranton, and Brian Van Reet, to name three. Why are these the kind of books my peers want to write? I salute anyone who tries their hand as an author of fiction, but couldn’t Taylor and Fury have written interesting novels about Delta Force commandos and Parnell about infantry platoons that don’t reveal them—the authors–to be intoxicated by hyperbolic visions of what they actually were in real life? I’ll also salute Fury, Taylor, and Parnell for writing books that many readers and lots of soldiers (judging by the authors’ presence on military Post Exchange shelves) relate to, and God bless them if they donate huge hunks of their profits to charities that aid veterans. Still, it’s not exactly reassuring to think that the authors were possessed by such dreamy fantasies while on active duty, leading soldiers and accomplishing missions. That military thrillers exist as a genre isn’t such a big problem, but they seem like the stuff for geeky boy-men and aging armchair warriors who couldn’t cut the mustard for two seconds in the high-speed units described in the books. To return to Brian Castner’s and Brandon Willitts’ comments with which we began, it’s not so much that former special operators and hardcore infantrymen can’t write novels, it’s a question of what their novels look like when they do.

****

Final note: I greatly enjoyed the sections of Black Site set in Darra Adam Khal, a legendary arms bazaar just over the Afghanistan border near Peshawar, Pakistan. As I was reading Black Site I came across this article in (where else?) the New York Times, describing the efforts of a young man named Raj Muhammad to start a library in Darra Adam Khal. Very cool, and the library even has a Facebook page, so please like it. Books not guns, can we all agree?

Dalton Fury (Thomas Greer). Black Site: A Delta Force Novel. St. Martin’s, 2012.

Brad Taylor. The Forgotten Soldier: A Pike Logan Thriller. Dutton, 2017.

Sean Parnell. Man of War: An Eric Steele Novel. Harper’s, 2018.

No Answer: Jon Chopan’s Veterans Crisis Hotline

Posted July 18, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

Jon Chopan’s short-story collection Veterans Crisis Hotline joins a number of fictional works written by non-veterans about Americans at war in Iraq or Afghanistan and veterans of those wars when they return home: novels such as Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, Greg Baxter’s The Apartment, Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant, and Eric Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie, and short-story collections such as Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone and Katie Schultz’s Flashes of War.

That’s a lot of fiction about war and its aftermath written by civilians. Whether it’s more than what we saw after previous American wars, I don’t know. What it means that so many authors who did not serve want to write about war and veterans, I don’t know either. When non-veteran authors write stories about war, soldiers, and veterans, there’s a risk that readers, especially veterans, won’t be interested or impressed, no matter how good the writing is. In the title story to Veterans Crisis Hotline, Jon Chopan dramatizes this concern, while the other eleven stories provide context.

A few Veterans Crisis Hotline stories are set in Iraq; each documents an incident that undermines the first-person narrator’s confidence in himself and the surety of his knowledge. In “Rules of Engagement,” for example, the narrator describes his realization that the most aggressive, combat-hungry soldier in his unit is actually a blow-hard coward who is afraid to shoot his weapon, while he finds that he himself is easily capable of killing–the realization does not bring arrogance, but troubles him. “Slaughter” describes its narrator’s apprehension early in the invasion of Iraq that his fellow soldiers possess vastly different expectations about what going to war will entail. On a grizzly mission that requires them to dispose of Iraqi bodies killed by American forces, one soldier’s words and acts bespeak a quirky sympathy for the Iraqi dead, another displays a gruff “kill ‘em all” sensibility, while the author comes to terms with the idea that his ambivalent, take-things-as-they-come perspective will not suffice in the face of the stronger emotions, complex scenarios, and tough moral choices war will bring.

True to the title, however, it’s the post-war stories in Veterans Crisis Hotline that exude the most gravitas. Their first-person narrators are male combat vets who are adrift, confused, morose, and angry. Most are white, though one story features a disabled black veteran. They have marginal jobs, they drink a lot, and they get in fights. None have life goals, none are back in school, none are close to their families. The locales are northern urban—upstate Pennsylvania and New York cities such as Erie and Rochester—and the season is generally winter. There’s an old-fashioned feel to the world of the characters: cell phones and social media are barely present, one vet takes a job in a meat-packing plant, and many of the stories are set in dive bars and VFW halls.

The most oft-struck note in the collection is that the vets hate being asked to speak about their service:

I’d been back from the war for about a week, was staying at my sister’s place, sleeping all day and drinking all night, trying to avoid her. She wanted to talk and I wasn’t ready for that.

I knew he was trying to work his voodoo now, to get me talking about drinking, which would only lead me to talking about the war and about coming home and about how home wasn’t the same anymore, how it really wasn’t like being home at all.

She’d let me in because she knew I was damaged, in my own way, and she’d finally accepted me when she saw that I was just a driveling thing who needed someone to love me, someone who would not make me talk about it anymore.

Their isolation and difficulty communicating reflects a seemingly irreparable civil-military divide. Every story set in the States documents a moment of micro-vexation in which veterans and civilians communicate at cross-purposes, or just plain give up trying to communicate:

Josh had already told me what to expect. People back home were no longer interested in the war. We weren’t going to have the parades the World War II guys had, but we weren’t going to see the protests, be called baby killers, like the Vietnam guys either. Generally, people didn’t care.

The veterans aren’t very expressive themselves, and their listless lives seem to evidence lack of passion and purpose. But inside, they seethe to the point of boiling over. Far from not caring, their problem is that they care too much about things that are incomprehensible to non-veterans:

In many ways, I was a civilian. But I had not forgotten things about the war—a desire for swift justice, for example. How sometimes, when a guy from our division was hurt or killed, be it by sniper fire or an IED, we’d walk the streets and harass civilians. Or, if we were in a remote location, how we’d stand, circling an empty mosque, and fire round after round until the building was nothing but pockmarked cement. In this way, what we sought was often the quick and necessary relief men feel when they fell loss.

The idea is that veterans, if they want to talk at all, they want to talk with other veterans. But Chopan suggests that this desire is problematic. The sentiment is evident from the opening paragraph of the title story, which is the first story in the collection, about, well, answering phones at a Veterans Center:

Sometimes, when they call the hotline, they want to talk to another vet. They ask for us specifically. They have this perception that only those who’ve seen war can understand the suffering born of it. As far as I can tell, this is a myth. It is, to my mind, like asking the criminally insane to cure one another.

The story’s narrator, a vet named “Byrne,” reports that he “took the job because my friends and doctors thought it would do me good, helping other guys who were struggling with the things I’d struggled with.” The passage reminded me of something a vet-service organization leader once told me: the surest sign that a veteran needs help is his or her offer to help other vets who need help.

All in all, Veterans Crisis Hotline offers a grim, dour portrait of lost young men cut loose in a country that doesn’t seem that interested in finding them. Snow falls in enough stories to convey the idea that Chopan was greatly impressed by James Joyce’s conclusion to his short-story “The Dead,” where snowfall serves as a striking symbol of emotional coldness and smothering conformity. Another story, “The Cumulative Effect,” seems to be a reworking of Sherman Alexie’s “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.” In Chopan’s and Alexie’s stories, Hendrix’s twisted rendition of the National Anthem speaks more powerfully to damaged citizens of a divided nation than the traditional version. Within the logic of the stories they write, and in real life, too, for some, or many, it’s no wonder.

Be sure to check out Matthew Komatsu’s review of Veterans Crisis Hotline, published on The Wrath-Bearing Tree here.

Jon Chopan, Veterans Crisis Hotline. University of Massachusetts Press, 2018.

Wars, Wives, Mothers: Poetry by Shara Lessley and Pamela Hart

Posted June 29, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

The title of Shara Lessley’s poetry volume The Explosive Expert’s Wife refers to the poet’s husband’s job as a post-blast investigator and demining specialist. The specific biographical stimulus for the poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife is the husband’s three-year tour in Amman, Jordan, where his wife accompanied him. The poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife reflect a connected fascination with violence associated with war, mines, and bombs and the geography and culture of the Arab world. Three poems in the volume are literally titled “The Explosive Expert’s Wife”; these speak to the author’s concern that her identity and lived-life depend heavily on her husband’s job. Explosive-related technical language saturate them, but the insider knowledge does little to efface, and in fact contributes to, the dominant tones of loneliness and fear. Loneliness not just in the face of her husband’s frequent deployment, but in that even when her husband is home he is not fully “there” because of the all-consuming nature of his job. Fear, for the obvious reasons:

…I don’t know // where the dead go, only that / you promise to make it home // by supper, the hem of your pants / singed with ash.

In other poems, Lessley describes the incongruity of maintaining domestic tranquility and familial pretense with such a husband, with such a job, while on the edges of war. Other poems contemplate bombings in America: the Boston Marathon bombing, a school bombing, an abortion clinic bombing, among others. The idea here is that a weapon emblematic of terrorist and fundamentalist war overseas is also employed frighteningly frequently on native grounds, too, thus troubling easy distinctions between home-front and war-zone.  Throughout, Lessley employs mine, bomb, and explosion imagery to figuratively portray poetry as an expression of inner turmoil and potential danger—a conceit prefigured in the work’s epigraph from Emily Dickinson:

The Soul has moments of Escape— / When bursting all the doors— / She dances like a Bomb, abroad, / And swings upon the Hours

For all the above, the subject of most of the poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife is the Jordanian world that Lessley comes to know intimately. Her sensibility defined by curiosity and empathy, Lessley’s alert vision and facility for nuance are given play by views not available to most–several poems reference her experience giving birth to one of her children in a Jordanian hospice. Lessley’s poetry, along with the works of former-Marine Elliot Ackerman and Army spouse Siobhan Fallon, render the impression that some of the most alert, knowing inside looks at contemporary Arab and Muslim life written by Americans are coming from writers, for better or worse, like it or not, associated with American military might. The effort to transcend platitude and stereotype plays out in many poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife. “Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife,” for example, sardonically lists the reductive, brutalizing “wisdom” passed on to Lessley by other ex-pat Americans:

…Blondes are often mistaken / for hookers; consider dying your hair. / By September or October you’ll learn to / tune out the call for prayer.

In a similar vein, “The Marine Ball” describes the incongruity of a fancy-dress military ball held in a hotel that previously was the site of a suicide bombing attack—a recognition of an historical dimension that only Lessley considers important, or even remembers. Set against the backdrop of such cultural-historical obliviousness are poems that display finer powers of observation and subtler processing of impressions. “Scent of the Gods,” (my favorite) juxtaposes the flatulent stench of modern Jordanian public spaces with the rich aromas and other sensory splendors of a traditional bazaar. Another, “In Arabic” packs a surprising amount of Arabic grammatical and calligraphic detail into a short lyrical meditation on linguistic meaning-making. Some of these poems record the poet’s movement into closer empathetic alignment with Arab customs and sensibility, while others address cultural differences that prompt dismay and even aggravation. Among these are several poems that contemplate the subjugation of women in Jordanian public life while remaining alert for hints of rebellion and moments of connection. One of the most arresting poems in The Explosive Expert’s Wife, “The Ugly American,” describes an event that brings an American woman to the point of violent interjection into a troubling Jordanian street scene. Coming upon a group of boys tormenting a helpless donkey, Lessley writes:

The boys beat the jennet because they could, / out of boredom, because she was in heat, // they beat her with sticks and switches and clods / of dirt.

In response, the American woman described in the poem clenches a rock in her hand and prepares to defend the donkey against the youth, when at poem’s end a native elder steps in to shoo the boys away. Does the poem describe an isolated instance or is it exemplary evidence of something profound? Is it an epiphany offering self-understanding or is it a parable of power and conflict? These are complexities facing the character in the poem as the action unfolds, the poet as she describes the event, and readers in their moment of interpretation.

Shara Lessley’s webpage can be found here.

In her 2018 poetry volume Mothers Over Nangarhar, Pamela Hart describes a crisis-of-understanding generated by her son’s enlistment in the Army and subsequent deployment to Afghanistan. Several poems explain that Hart’s son, against her mother’s wishes, was fascinated by the military from childhood; the poet asserts, sans question-mark, “Did I raise him to be a warrior,” as if the words had ceased being a query and were now a fundamental reality. Hart’s son’s actual deployment intensifies the stakes: “This is the story of the idea of war and the son who might kill or be killed,” she writes. Linking the poems in Mothers Over Nangarhar is the conceit that mother and son learn about military culture and war together: “My pencil writing its way into the story of a son.” The start-point for this epistemological journey, for the mother at least, is incomprehension: “The signs are signs of other things. What do I as a mother know of this. Nothing.” Trying to resist being a helicopter mom, to make a cringe-worthy analogy, nor implying that she now lives vicariously through her son, Hart stakes out a familial and authorial position in which she retains dignity while searching for wisdom in the midst of dismay and fear. As the poems follow one another, she gains understanding, and she establishes a small foothold in the military world through participation in family support activities. The increasing knowledge and surer social position brings worry, however, that the military now dominates her life—her thoughts, her social relationships, her daily activities—as much as it does her son’s. As Rowan Ricardo Phillips states in his fine introduction, “The book circles its subject with the poignant uncertainty of whether it is merely observing or being dragged down into the depths.” Or, as “The Women” puts it:

We unspool our biggest / dread and make / it into a beautiful spider

What Phillips calls Hart’s “poignant uncertainty” makes some of the images and lines in Mothers Over Nangarhar, to quote Phillips some more, “mazy,” suggestive in the way of the book’s epigram from Rimbaud—“Arriving from always, you’ll go away everywhere.” In other words, evocative and possibly profound, but not especially concrete in terms of detail, intent and effect, and explanations of higher-order links between individual service and global warfare. Others, however, pop with unexpected impression and connection. On a personal level, I was delighted to read of the “stucco houses, the red-tiled roofs” of Fort Benning, GA, since I once lived in such a house at the “Home of the Infantry” (as the Army, not Hart, calls it), and both my sons were born at Fort Benning. Another poem, “My Soldier,” about a visit to Mount Vernon the poet makes with her son, astonished me with its coincidental relevance, since I had just visited Mount Vernon myself two weeks before reading Hart’s poem. There, as does Hart in her poem, I had mused about the circuits connecting domestic space, family, “The Father of Our Country,” war-fighting, and my own military career. Several poems (to include the title poem) use maps, land navigation, satellite images, and drone perspectives as geo-visual metaphors for the quest for knowledge; in so doing they, again to quote Phillips, operate “[s]omewhere between theory and therapy but free of the constraints of both.” My favorite poems in Mothers Over Nangarhar emit a distinct, confident sense of themselves from start-to-finish. For me, these are “Praise Song,” “At the Shooting Range,” “Jalalabad,” and most of all “Kevlar Poem,” about Stephanie Kwolek, the Dupont scientist who invented Kevlar. “Praise Song” and “Kevlar Poem” are not available online, but “At the Shooting Range” and another excellent one, “Jalalabad,” are, at Hart’s webpage, so I invite you to check them out and then read Mothers Over Nangarhar entire.

Shara Lessley, The Explosive Expert’s Wife. Wisconsin UP, 2018.

Pamela Hart, Mothers Over Nangarhar. Sarabande Books, 2018.

Eleven Bang-Bang

Posted May 21, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

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

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

                        -Phil Klay, “Prayer in the Furnace”

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

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

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

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

So, two sides of Global War on Terror infantry-life, interestingly rendered and dramatically heightened. Ranger task forces and National Guard call-ups exist at opposite ends of the infantry warfighter spectrum, but both were significant players on the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields, and their stories are underrepresented in the glut of contemporary war fiction that privileges SEALs, Special Forces, Marines, and Regular Army units. Each novel in its way is becoming in its modesty; while telling interesting stories, the authors avoid being deluded by the sense of their own importance–a common accusation levied against infantrymen, often with justification. McPadden and Kovac are alert to the social milieus and the mental makeup of the men who comprise the units they describe. And the Whole Mountain Burned and The Surge channel the mindsets of the twenty-year-old men who make up the bulk of any infantry unit, so you’re not going to get higher orders of reflection from their protagonists, but neither novel blows smoke up your ass, either. The misogyny of infantry culture is on full display in both novels: weakness and failure to live up to group norms are routinely characterized as womanly and the soldiers’ thoughts about the actual women they knew in the States are about what you’d expect. More engaging are the novels’ takes on soldier solidarity, which is conspicuously lacking in both books. Rather than extolling the bonds of fighting bands of brothers, the infantrymen distrust and don’t respect each other, compete and connive against one another, play favorites, hold grudges, form cliques, and just plain don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company very much–and these tensions are not smoothed over by the pressure of combat but increase. That’s not exactly true to my memory of how infantrymen were and related to each other, but perhaps my view from on high as an officer was rose-tinted. In any case, McPadden and Kovac have done well to situate their portraits of young men on the warrior path in the context of the distinctive units they join and trust to nourish, not stunt, their journey. As the authors continue their own journeys from warriors to writers, let’s salute their first steps and be on the lookout for next moves and new directions.

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

Adam Kovac, The Surge. Engine Books, 2019.

 

Body of Work

Posted April 18, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. -Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, while writing Moby-Dick.

Since I began Time Now eight years ago, easily a hundred books, films, plays, musical compositions, and other artworks about America’s post-9/11 wars written-and-composed by veterans and interested civilians have appeared, and much has been published online, too.   Here I catalog and comment on six author-artists whose individual output has been robust, often across a variety of genres and artistic mediums, and I mention several more who have been almost but not quite as active. I’ve limited myself to US military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and used books published by major publishing houses as the primary (but not only) criteria for inclusion.

Elliot Ackerman (USMC) arrived late to the war-writing party, but has quickly made up lost time by publishing three novels since 2015: Green on Blue (2015), Dark at the Crossing (2017), and Waiting for Eden (2018). A memoir titled Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning (2019) will appear later this year.  Ackerman also contributed a story titled “Two Grenades” to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology of veteran-authored fiction. Links to Ackerman’s journalism and other occasional writing can be found at http://elliotackerman.com.

The characteristic subject of Ackerman’s novels is a fringe-actor on the margins of America’s 21st-century wars: a Pashtun militiaman on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, an Iraqi who formerly interpreted for American forces now trying to join the Syrian civil war, the wife of a severely wounded Marine who keeps a lonely vigil over her disabled husband, both largely abandoned or neglected by the greater America.  In his published work so far, then, Ackerman has avoided the solipsistic trap of writing about his own (substantial) war experience as if it were the only thing that matters.  In his upcoming memoir Places and Names, however, Ackerman begins to stitch together autobiographical elements and his interest in the people who fight the wars that, to paraphrase a John Milton quote on the cover of Places and Names,“hath determined them.”

Benjamin Busch (USMC) was arguably the first contemporary veteran to turn war experience into aesthetic expression, as the photos-and-commentary that would eventually comprise The Art in War first began appearing in 2003.  Befitting his college background as a fine arts major, Busch also displays, again arguably, the most artistic diversity: he has acted in The Wire (2004) and Generation Kill (2008), directed films such as Bright (2011), authored a memoir titled Dust to Dust (2012), written a striking set of nature poems for the journal Epiphany (2016), and contributed both a short story (“Into the Land of Dogs”) and hand-drawn illustrations to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology. Busch has also written incisive reviews of the movie Lone Survivor and contemporary war fiction, long-form journalism for Harper’s about a return visit to Iraq, a poignant contribution to the vet-writing anthology Incoming titled “Home Invasion,” and an eloquent introduction to another anthology titled Standing Down.  Oh, and let’s not forget a pre-Marine life as the singer in a hair-metal band.

A superb stylist, Busch is the master of the apt image and the well-turned line, sentence, passage, or short poem, with his memoir Dust to Dust being the book-length exception that proves the rule.  Busch’s thematic impulse is to find order and meaning in randomness, disorder, and chaos.  The urge is on full display in The Art in War and manifests itself even more intensely in Dust to Dust and “Home Invasion”; in these works, loss, ruination, and mortality emerge as the most salient organizing imperatives to be found, save for the author’s own imagination.  War, irrational and death-soaked, was Busch’s subject starting out, but more recent poems such as “Madness in the Wild” suggest that Mother Nature is now the most fertile source of material for Busch’s “blessed rage for order,” to borrow from Wallace Stevens.

Brian Castner’s (USAF) first published book was the war memoir The Long Walk (2012), followed by a second book titled All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016) that combines more war memoir with journalistic investigation.  A third work, not (directly) related to war, Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage (2018), joins travel-memoir and historical research.  An opera has been made of The Long Walk, and Castner, with Adrian Boneberger, edited The Road Ahead (2017), an anthology of veteran-authored fiction to which he also contributed a story called “The Wild Hunt.”  Journalism, essays, and reviews by Castner can be found at https://briancastner.com/.

While Castner’s memoir The Long Walk contains elements of artistic heightening that appealed to the opera composers who adapted it, the next two books are the ones that best illustrate Castner’s forte: extensive historical and journalistic research that supplements the lived experiences of his own life—first serving as an EOD-technician in the case of All the Ways We Kill and Die and then making a thousand-mile canoe journey in the case of Disappointment River.  The influence of war on Disappointment River may bubble below the surface (pun intended), but the surface impression is that Castner more so than most other war-writers can find subjects beyond war-and-mil ones that still command the full measure of his interest and talent.

Matt Gallagher (US Army), with Colby Buzzell, pioneered the use of the Internet as a means of literary arrival when his war-blog appeared in book form as Kaboom (2010).  Gallagher next edited the seminal vet-fiction anthology Fire and Forget (2013) with Roy Scranton and contributed to it a story titled “Bugs Don’t Bleed.”  Then arrived the novel Youngblood (2016) and two short stories, “Babylon” (2016), published in Playboy, and “Know Your Enemy” (2016), published in Wired.  Gallagher also has served at the forefront of the veterans writing scene, as a prime mover in first the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop that gave birth to Fire and Forget and then the New York-based collective Words After War.  A number of Gallagher’s occasional pieces can be found at http://www.mattgallagherauthor.com/disc.htm and a second novel will arrive soon.

A consistent tone connecting Gallagher’s own voice and that of his fictional characters is sardonic detachment from the full negative import of the events they experience; in other words, Gallagher tests the limits of irony and perspective as means of dealing with the confusion of war and the resultant damage to self and society.  Bemusement would seem to be an underpowered coping strategy in these troubled times, but Gallagher’s amiable prose surfaces welcome readers to consider his point-of-view long enough that the darker cynicism and deeper commitment lurking within eventually reveal themselves and grab hold.

Roy Scranton (US Army) published short stories and poems in small journals before co-editing Fire and Forget (2013) with Matt Gallagher and contributing a story to it titled “Red Steel India.”  Next came the philosophical treatise Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), the novel War Porn (2016), an anthology titled What Future: The Year’s Best Ideas to Reclaim, Reanimate, and Reinvent Our Future (2017) for which he served as editor, and a collected edition of essays and journalism titled We’re Doomed, Now What? (2018). Later this year will arrive a literary history titled Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature (2019) and a novel called I ♥ Oklahoma (2019).  More journalism, essays, short stories, and reviews can be found at http://royscranton.com.

There’s busy, and then there’s Roy Scranton busy, but the extraordinary rate of production and the prickly integrity of the viewpoint are endearing counterpoints to the starkness of the message: Scranton is ruthless in his indictment of the Iraq War in which he served, and he’s not letting anyone from enlisted “Joe’s” to generals to civilian war architects to a passive citizenry off the hook for their complicity in the debacle. Though he’s never quite said so bluntly, the implication is that vet-authors, whose ink might well be the blood of war dead, should seriously consider their own culpability, too. Scranton unsparingly connects America’s spastic post-9/11 response to Islamic fundamentalist violence with a host of other social, political, and environmental ills brought about by what academics like to call “the cultural logic of late capitalism.”

Brian Turner (US Army) arrived on the literary-artistic scene seemingly fully-formed, as his first poetry volume Here, Bullet (2005) won enormous acclaim from critics, readers, and poetry insiders alike.  Next came a second volume of poems titled Phantom Noise (2010), an anthology of writing about poetry he co-edited titled The Strangest of Theaters (2013), a contribution to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology titled “The Wave That Takes Us Under,” the memoir My Life as a Foreign Country (2014), and another co-edited anthology titled The Kiss (2018).  Turner has also had a number of his poems set to music, perhaps most significant of which is a collaboration with composer Rob Deemer on Turner’s poem “Eulogy.”  Turner makes music himself, first as a member of The Dead Quimbys and more recently as the leader of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team.  Occasional writing can be found at http://www.brianturner.org.

A wise, inspirational senior-statesman within the war-writing community, Turner combines encouragement of fledgling writers with an uncanny ability to stay one or more steps ahead of the pack in terms of vision, craft, and surprising shifts of direction. The artistic tension manifest in Turner’s work is the product of two imperatives:  the martial heritage bequeathed to him by family, culture, and history, and his natural impulse to be empathetic, curious, kind, and helpful. His latest works each in their way represent solutions or, better, absolutions, for the tension; the music of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team invokes a collective cosmic spirit and consciousness, while The Kiss sanctifies physical intimacy as a hallowed form of human connection.

****

Several veteran writers are one or two published works short of joining the author-artists I name above.  For these writers, their NEXT work will be most interesting for how it confirms previous inclinations and preoccupations, modifies them, or points in new directions:

David Abrams (US Army) has published two novels, Fobbit (2012) and Brave Deeds (2017), and he contributed “Roll Call” to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology.  Shorter pieces can be found at http://www.davidabramsbooks.com. Abrams’ gift for creating characters, sketching scenes, and writing pleasing and often very funny sentences is substantial.  So far, his interest seems to be the cultural divide separating rear-echelon soldiers from their hardened warrior-brethren in the combat arms; given his comic and warm-hearted sensibility, his modus inclines to exposing foibles associated with military masculinity rather than harshly judging and accusing their owners.

Colby Buzzell (US Army) pioneered the blog-to-book trend with My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005) and he later published two books of essays and journalism: Lost in America: A Dead End Journey (2011) and Thank You for Being Expendable, and Other Experiences (2015).  The only work of fiction of which I’m aware of is his story “Play the Game” in the Fire and Forget anthology (2013), but Buzzell’s hostility toward authority and power, his affinity for oddballs and misfits, and the verve of his sentences create the impression of a distinctly “punk” literary sensibility–one that has proven very popular and influential. Buzzell’s webpage contains links to his writing that can be found online: http://www.colbybuzzell.com/stories.

Phil Klay (USMC) contributed the short story “Redeployment” to Fire and Forget (2013), which later became the title story of his National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment (2014).  A large number of essays and long-form journalism pieces are at http://www.philklay.com.  Klay’s characteristic concern is the moral culpability of soldiers who joined the military and did their bit in Iraq or Afghanistan without too much post-war mental anguish or blood on their hands—to what extent should they (be made to) feel worse (in another word, guiltier) than they do about their decisions and actions? For me, that’s the subject of two representative stories in Redeployment, “Ten Klicks South” and “Prayer in the Furnace,” as well as that of the long, trenchant essay Klay published for the Brookings Institute titled “The Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”  Finally, although I’m not sure when Klay’s next book will appear or what it will be about, while we wait for it, I recommend listening to the intellectually-knotty podcast Manifesto! Klay hosts with fellow vet-writer and Fire and Forget contributor Jacob Siegel.

Kevin Powers (US Army)’s first novel was The Yellow Birds (2012).  Next came the poetry volume Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, followed by a second novel A Shout in the Ruins (2018).  Journalism, essays, and reviews can be found at http://kevincpowers.com. It’s easy to forget the hullabaloo that greeted The Yellow Birds upon arrival. Following upon Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Army spouse Siobhan Fallon’s short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), The Yellow Birds reinforced the notion that 21st-century American writing about the war was going to cook at a very high literary level.  But the backlash against The Yellow Birds arrived just as quickly, as for many it promoted and even celebrated the idea that modern American soldiers were easily-traumatized snowflakes too tender to win wars. In the wake of The Yellow Birds, a counter-formation of memoirs and short-stories appeared, stories of war by ex-combat-arms bubbas seemingly delighted to assert that they were hard men capable of doing hard things.  I’m not inclined to be harsh in my assessment of The Yellow Birds, but Powers seems to have distanced himself from his poetry volume, and I haven’t yet read A Shout in the Ruins, so categorical statements about the arc of his career will have to wait.

Kayla Williams (US Army) has written two memoirs, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2005) and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014).  Williams has also contributed a short-story, “There’s Always One,” to the veteran-writer short-story anthology The Road Ahead (2017).  Given her job as a Washington DC think-tank analyst and the impression she renders that she’s bound for big things in the public sector, it’s not hard to imagine a third memoir might be needed someday to document further chapters in Williams’ life.  Detailing the long story of any vet’s life (especially a woman vet’s) after war will be immensely interesting and valuable, but I hope in the future Williams finds time to write more fiction, too.

Quite a few other writers merit consideration for inclusion on this list. Among them are Adrian Bonenberger (US Army, Afghan Post, memoir; The Road Ahead, fiction anthology editor (with Brian Castner); “American Fapper,” story in The Road Ahead); Maurice Decaul (USMC, Dijla Was Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates, play; multiple poems published in small journals and online; a musical collaboration with contemporary jazz great Vijay Iyer); Colin Halloran (US Army, Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux, poetry); Hugh Martin (Stick Soldiers and In Country, poetry); Brian Van Reet (US Army, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” short-story contribution to Fire and Forget and much short-fiction published in literary journals; Spoils, novel). Three women Iraq-Afghanistan veterans, Teresa Fazio (USMC), Kristen Rouse (US Army), and Supriya Venkatesan (US Army), write with distinctive voice and great eye for the telling subject and detail, and each has published widely, though more in the vein of journalism, memoir, and essay than fiction or poetry (the exceptions being Fazio’s and Rouse’s stories “Little” and “Pawns,” respectively, both included in The Road Ahead anthology), and none has yet found book-length publication.

My judgments about each author’s body-of-work are far from beyond dispute, and I welcome discussion, as well as any factual corrections to the record.  An extended contemplation about the collective import of these writers is in order, but I’ll end with just two brief points:  1) The accomplishment of these vet writers is substantial and the potential for further achievement is strong; barring misfortune, everyone I’ve mentioned still has decades of productive creative life to come.  2) Women veteran-authors and male or female African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American vet-writers are noticeably missing.  If I’ve overlooked a worthy candidate to add to the list, let me know, and if conversation about publishing trends and marketplace dynamics interests you, let’s talk about that, too.  Though my focus here is the unfolding of a writer-artist’s characteristic concerns over multiple works, the story is also one of professional ambition, literary politics, and publishing biz calculation. What I’m describing as the birthing of an estimable generation of veteran-writers, another may see as the solidifying of a literary establishment limited by its own blinders and mostly interested in preserving its own prerogatives.  That’s not how I feel about it, but I hope that should I compile this list again in another eight years, the demographic make-up will reflect the military in which I served and the overall achievement so much the better.

Khost Province, Afghanistan, 2009.

Back to School at NYU and Wesleyan

Posted April 8, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

Back to School I:  Time Now at NYU

The invitation from New York University’s Patrick Deer to speak at his Cultures of War  interdisciplinary seminar was simple:  What is the story of Time Now? Deer asked.  Why did you begin it?  Where did you get ideas for what it could be?  What has the experience of “live-blogging” the contemporary war lit scene been like? I’m not especially given to writing about myself, but if you ask me I’ll be glad to talk about such things.  I was flattered by the invitation and welcomed the chance to think meta-reflectively about a project that’s been a big part of my life for the last six years.  Here’s a snippet from my notes for my opening remarks:

Why I started Time Now.  Because my old blog 15-Month Adventure about my deployment to Afghanistan had run its course.  Because I heard Matt Gallagher at a conference state that he couldn’t imagine being a contemporary vet-and-mil writer without having an online presence. Because I thought I had a unique personal angle:  a PhD in American Lit who served a pretty intense year’s deployment in Afghanistan. Because my boss in the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point, where I taught at the time, put me in charge of a program designed to bring veteran artists and writers to West Point and the blog seemed congruent with that. Mostly because I had a sense that something good was happening—Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Matt Gallagher, and Siobhan Fallon were writers already on my radar and I’d heard-tell that novels about Iraq and Afghanistan by David Abrams, Ben Fountain, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and Kevin Powers were enroute… and I wanted to be part of it all….

Once I stopped blabbing, the conversation and Q&A opened up in interesting, wide-ranging ways. I was honored to have in the audience Teresa Fazio, who held forth with more insight and credibility than I could ever muster about the status of women war-mil-vet authors in the publishing biz, and I was delighted when Matt Gallagher arrived to walk back a little his statement that an online presence was essential for an aspiring writer—his own very solid Twitter-game notwithstanding. Many thanks to Patrick Deer and all who attended, especially those who chimed in with questions and comments, all of which continue to bubble in my mind and will certainly find expression in Time Now posts to come.  Keep an eye out for Patrick Deer’s own books—Culture in Camouflage:  War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (2009) and the forthcoming Surge and Silence:  Understanding America’s Cultures of War, and if you’re ever so lucky to get an invitation to speak at or attend a Cultures of War event, grab it.

Back to School II: Time Now at Wesleyan

A week later I was the guest of college friend William “Vijay” Pinch on the campus of  Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  Pinch grew up in India and Pakistan and now is a professor of South Asian history at Wesleyan. This semester he is teaching a course on “The Great Game”:  the centuries-long battle by imperial powers (first England and Russia, now largely supplanted by the US and China) for control of Afghanistan.  Last fall, Pinch asked me for a recommendation for a novel about 21st-century war in Afghanistan that might appeal to his students, and I quickly nominated Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, about a young Pashtun militia member’s toughening by endless war on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pinch thought that was a great idea, and to further liven up things, he invited Ackerman to Wesleyan to meet his class and participate in a series of related events. Lucky me, Pinch was kind enough to ask his old college basketball-buddy to tag along.

The day was full of excellent things, with Ackerman in fine form at every event.  In Pinch’s class he proclaimed that his rationale for writing Green on Blue was to answer the question “What type of war was Afghanistan?”, with the answer being, “It was being fought for every reason except one… to win it.”  And THIS was Ackerman’s expression of the view of things held by the Afghans, who he explained are just as caught up in “forever war” cycles-of-violence as is America.  At a writing workshop, Ackerman had wise, funny advice for students (many of them vets) seeking careers in journalism, and at a reading that night he spoke of creating the characters who populate his latest novel Waiting for Eden and the implications of the John Milton quote—“War hath determined us”–on the dust-jacket of his forthcoming memoir Places and Names:  On War, Revolution, and Returning.  Ackerman apparently is incapable of saying dull things, and he has the added virtue of answering questions in individualized and personalized ways so that their askers feel the full force of his empathy and intellectual curiosity for why they might have posed the question they did.

I’ll close with an anecdote that occurred while we were walking about Wesleyan.  Inspired by his own return to a collegiate setting, Ackerman began riffing on scenes from the classic Rodney Dangerfield film comedy Back to School.  I don’t know if Pinch knows the movie, but I do, kind of.  Unfortunately, though I can remember every song I’ve heard since 1964, I have a horrible memory for remembering film dialogue, which puts me at odds with most military folks I’ve known, for whom reeling off lines from shared favorites serves as great fun and folk wisdom.  So, I wasn’t able to exchange funnies with Ackerman, but the mere mention of Back to School brought back memories of my first sergeant when I commanded a company in the 82ndAirborne Division and how much pleasure he got from reciting lines and recalling scenes from the film. Upon returning home, I spent an evening on YouTube chuckling over Back to School videos, including this great one featuring Sam Kinison that reminds us that Back to School was in fact a post-war film:

And so the work of defining the contours of vet-writing about Iraq and Afghanistan and what it means to live as a veteran afterwards proceeds on many levels and in many places, but with special trenchancy at places like NYU and Wesleyan.  If the link below works, it will take you to a slide show of pictures I took in Afghanistan that offer some sense of the world described by Ackerman in Green on Blue.

The Look of War, Afghanistan 2009

War, Poetry, Experience: Hugh Martin, Abby E. Murray, Nomi Stone

Posted March 3, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , ,

Recent poetry volumes by Hugh Martin, Abby E. Murray, and Nomi Stone reflect the ongoing pull of war and military themes on poets and the authors’ fascination with the poetry as a means of reflecting on their experiences as soldiers, military spouses, and military observers, respectively. “Experience,” it seems to me, is a key word for sussing out the nature of the books’ achievements. I remember a telling Tweet or Facebook post from Lauren Kay Johnson a few years back in which she queried veteran friends and followers about a word that might be used as a synonym or alternative to the word “experience” to categorize their time in the military and on deployment. Responses were mixed, or not especially helpful, as I recall: more evidence that the word might be both overused and under-interrogated as an all-purpose label for how we conceptualize time spent in uniform, at war, or rubbing up against the strange culture of the military in ways that seem interesting, important, or even transformative.

Hugh Martin, In Country

Most of the poems in Hugh Martin’s In Country, as in his first volume, The Stick Soldiers, consist of vignettes of events Martin lived through on his tour in Iraq as an Ohio National Guardsman in 2004. A few poems are set afterwards, and these more directly address what it means to live-on following service on the ground in combat in Iraq. Some, such as the title and title-poem, which reference Bobbie Ann Mason’s great Vietnam novel of the same name, touch on even larger circles of historical-cultural signification. Martin is not given to over-arching pronouncements or editorializing within the space of his poems, however. Instead, he emphasizes observed detail and understated tactics of suggestion and inference. What I get from his poems, and it may not be at all what Martin intended, is a need to document the idea and fact that he, the poet Hugh Martin, in 2018, is the same young man who went to war in 2005 and with a gun strapped to his body did the things war asks soldiers to do–break down doors and shoot people, for starters. The dots connecting the two Hugh Martins go mostly implied or unconnected or too-scary to face directly, which is OK by me, since they go largely unresolved in my own mind in regard to my own deployment and life afterwards, too. So, I can relate to the perceived overall sensibility of In Country, just as I can easily relate to the vignettes of actual deployed experience that Martin captures in verse, such as this one:

“Test Fire”
-south of Jalawala

After we drive through
the barren hills
where the earth unrolls

itself for miles, where the soil’s
as stale as boxed cookies
sent from the Youngstown

USO, the gunners fire
machineguns at the ridge
wall’s face—small

dust-explosions lift
to the sky like faded desert
larks while the rest of us

shoot from our knees, our
chests, as copper casings
rain like loose change

across the dirt, then
as we convoy back
to Cobra from nowhere

the Bedouin come
to collect the shells
& stuff them in sacks

& after they go: only
boot & footprints,
a careful cursive of tire-tracks.

Abby E. Murray, How to Be Married After Iraq

Many of the poems in Abby E. Murray’s How to Be Married After Iraq reflect the authors’s felt disjunction between her identity as a woman and a poet with an MFA and PhD in literature and her role, or chosen life, as the wife of a career infantry officer. Those poetic moments ring with whimsical irony, but the best poems in How to Be Married After Iraq do much more than express bemusement and ambivalence. Murray, much like fellow military-spouse poet Elyse Fenton, is a superb chronicler of the distortions on her own psyche and the nation’s wrought by endless life during wartime, distortions on which her vantage point in the inner-circle of the warrior kingdom gives her exemplary purchase. The social milieu of officer marriages, and, speaking from (again) personal knowledge, especially that of infantry officer marriages, is strange and cloistered, so much so that I sense it can be off-putting to observers from the outside. The almost perverse blend of intense competitiveness, ambition, physical vitality, and homosociality of the men as they are observed by their wives has been ably recounted by Siobhan Fallon in fiction and Angela Ricketts in non-fiction, and part of their accomplishment lies in noting the tension inspired by their own complicity in the experience. Fallon, Ricketts, and now Murray have missed nothing, taken great notes, and, when they are so inclined, punch very hard. Here’s the beginning of a Murray poem that begs to be paired with Brian Turner’s “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center”:

“Sitting in a Simulated Living Space at the Seattle Ikea”

To sit in a simulated living space at Ikea
is to know what sand knows
as it rests inside the oyster.
This is how you might arrange your life
if you were to start from scratch:
a newer, better version of yourself applied
coat by coat, beginning with lamplight
from the simulated living room.
The man who lives here has never killed.
There is no American camouflage drying
over the backs of his kitchen chairs,
no battle studies on the coffee table.
He travels without a weapon,
hangs photographs of the Taj Mahal,
the Eiffel Tower above the sofa.
The woman who lives here has no need
for prescriptions or self-help,
her mirror cabinet holds a pump
for lotion and a rose-colored water glass,
her nightstand is stacked with hardcovers
on Swedish architecture….

And onward to a striking set of closing lines:

you wish you could say this place
is not enough for you, that you’re better off
in the harsh light of the parking garage,
a light that shows your skin beneath your skin,
the color of your past self,
pale in places, flushed in others.

Nomi Stone, Kill Class

As a veteran of the Army’s National Training Center, Joint Readiness Training Center, Jungle Operations Training Center, and most valuably, pre-Afghanistan deployment scenario-training at Fort Riley, I for one am fascinated by the idea of a verse volume that takes these places as its subject. Voilá, Nomi Stone in Kill Class has written a series of linked poems inspired by her anthropological field work at several US military training centers that prepare soldiers for Iraq and Afghanistan by putting them through role-playing scenarios staged by émigrés from the war-ravaged regions to which the soldiers will deploy. Stone’s poems are not especially interested in presenting themselves as accessible and easily absorbed, however. Narrative linearity, connective explanations, and summarizing statements are few; instead Stone offers shards, impressions, aggressive line-breaks, non-standard punctuation, abrupt transitions, and oblique references. The intimidating verse surface in Kill Class reflects the complexity of Stone’s background and subject position: educated as a poet in the manner of formidable modern masters such as Jorie Graham and as a Columbia-trained cultural anthropologist, Stone appears to have sometimes or often crossed lines and became a role-player herself named “Gypsy” in the training scenarios, so, like Jen Percy in Demon Camp, she deliberately foregrounds her (un)trustworthiness as an objective observer while at the same time asserting her insider bona-fides. Stone’s critique of war and the military is no more savage than they deserve, and her human sympathies extend almost equally to Muslim role players and American paratroopers, while the complicated poetics mirror the complexities of twenty-first century war, culture, militarism, identity, performativity, and the subjective nature of reality and the elusive processes of meaning-making. Kill Class may not give away its insights cheaply, but readers who invest the time will find much to appreciate about the interpretive experience it summons.

“War Game: Plug and Play”

Wait. Begin Again.
Reverse loop. Enter the stage.
The war scenario has: [vegetable stalls], [roaming animals],
and [people] in it.    The people speak

the language of a country we are trying
to make into a kinder country. Some
of the people over there are good /
others evil / others circumstantially

bad / some only want
cash / some just want
their family to not die.
The games says figure

out which
are which.

Finally, it’s almost certainly against the reading strategies proposed by Kill Class to read for conventionally “poetic” images, but Stone is quite capable of some stunners, such as the following lines from “War Game: America”:

There is a door in every word;
behind it, someone grieving.

****

Hugh Martin, In Country. BOA, 2018.

Abby E. Murray, How to Be Married After Iraq. Finishing Line Press, 2018.

Nomi Stone, Kill Class. Tupelo Press, 2019.


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