Are Veterans Violent? Time Now Fiction

Posted January 1, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Pablo Picasso, "Palette, Candlestick, and Head of Minotaur"

Pablo Picasso, “Palette, Candlestick, and Head of Minotaur”

CJ Chivers’ excellent profile of Marine veteran Sam Siatta in a New York Times article called “The Fighter” has a lot in common with Phil Zabriskie’s equally excellent The Kill Switch, in which Zabriskie explores how fighting men learn to kill in combat and how they feel about it afterwards by examining the thoughts and actions of two Marines. Both authors, for example, are curious about the connection between combat prowess and post-deployment violent behavior. Reading “The Fighter” and The Kill Switch together, along with a dozen or more other memoirs and profiles I have read over the years, it’s hard not to get the impression that at least some and probably many and maybe most combat veterans like to fight. Whether they are driven by short tempers and familiarity with violence associated with military service and combat or some other consideration is an important question. For the veterans themselves, it seems clear that fighting is a big part of their self-image, as well a preferred way of dealing with things that bother them. What’s not clear is whether they see fighting as a problem, at least until destructive personal consequences become too large to deny. The impression is that they associate fighting with bravery, independence, and excitement, all of which they value very much.

Among other things, both Chivers and Zabriskie describe the interest of Marine combat veterans in mixed-martial-arts fighting, or “MMA.” For their protagonists, MMA provides a “legit” outlet for aggression, and maybe even a means of productively structuring their lives and making a living. But whether MMA reinforces or exacerbates aggression, rather than channeling it, is another question to consider. In any case, after reading The Kill Switch about a year ago, I was inspired to write the following adaptation of Ovid’s Minotaur myth, updated for our modern times. In the original Minotaur myth, a Greek hero named Theseus enters a labyrinth on the island of Crete to fight the half-man/half-bull monster called the Minotaur, who is owned by King Minos. Theseus defeats the Minotaur, but on the way out of the labyrinth he becomes lost until assisted by King Minos’s daughter Ariadne. Theseus runs away with Ariadne, but then Theseus inexplicably dumps Ariadne on the island of Naxos. All is not lost, however, for Ariadne eventually is rescued by Bacchus, the legendary god of revelry and theater.

Ari and Theodopulous

(based on “The Minotaur,” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses)

Ari’s gaze drifted to the TV above the bar. It was tuned to a news channel and though Ari could not hear the broadcast, she could read the banner across the bottom of the screen and she recognized the face on display. It was that of a former boyfriend, a Marine veteran named John “Killer” Theodopulous. A legend for his exploits in Afghanistan, Theodopulous earned his nickname as a captain leading a company of Marines during the hard fighting in Helmand province in 2008. Ari hadn’t known him then, but while they had been together after he left the Corps he had become a successful mixed-martial arts fighter, winning bout after bout in events staged by Ari’s father, himself a larger-than-life entertainment entrepreneur. Ari and Theodopulous had made a great couple for a while, but the relationship didn’t last. After they moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, Theodopulous found someone else and so too, after a while, had Ari. Now she was in Naxos, an artist and musician hangout, with her new boyfriend Baker. On the screen, Theodopulous was proclaiming the need for better health care for veterans. Capitalizing on his legendary fighting prowess, he was now a spokesperson for a large veterans organization. While Baker and his band buddies chattered on about their next gig, Ari thought about when she and Theodopulous had been together.

They met when Theodopulous was in training for a fight with the reigning champion in his weight-class, a fighter known as “The Beast.” “The Beast” had been Ari’s father’s protégé, and now “The Killer” vs. “The Beast” was a natural match for promotion and he had played up the two men’s nicknames to the hilt. Ari’s father had introduced Ari to Theodopulous at a press conference and the two had hit it off immediately. Ari was 25, pretty and popular, and a mixed-martial arts fighter herself who could keep up with Theodopulous’s furious physical energy, which found outlets not just in fighting, but punishing Crossfit workouts and extreme endurance races, as well as beyond-belief all-night drinking bouts with war buddies and, at times, titanic rages directed at people who offended him, such as those who expressed the opinion that duty in Afghanistan shouldn’t have consisted of killing as many Taliban as possible. Theodopulous, decisive and energetic, didn’t have much of a sensitive or inquisitive side, and Ari also didn’t spend much time thinking about things other than the next workout or party. She might have thought her new boyfriend needed help, at some level, that all the physical exertion and fighting prowess was a call for help, but Theodopulous on the surface was such a combination of bluster, bravado, male-one-upmanship, and competitive drive that it would have been hard to convince him, and most of the world, that there was anything wrong with him at all.

During the fight with The Beast, Ari had stood in Theodopulous’s corner along with his trainer and cut-man. In the first round, The Beast had bludgeoned Theodopulous with his fists and then taken him to the mat and nearly pinned him. In the second round, The Beast opened up a nasty cut below one of Theodopulous’s eyes; if the cut had been above the eye, the bleeding would have surely blinded him and the fight would have been called, but as it was blood from the cut merely painted the bottom half of Theodopulous’s face red. In the corner before the third round, Theodopulous tuned out the words his trainer yelled at him and, for the first time in the fight made eye contact with Ari. Ari without hesitation mouthed a single word, “low.” The cryptic suggestion registered immediately and as soon as round three opened Theodopuloous took down The Beast with a short, fast move to the left leg. Within seconds Theodopulous had The Beast in a submission hold and moments later The Beast tapped out. In the ring after the fight, Ari posed with Theodopulous and her father, with Theodopulous wearing his newly-earned title belt and holding an oversized check.

Ari and Theodopulous were on top of the world. Soon they moved to Southern California in pursuit of more lucrative fights and the good life. Theodopulous never acknowledged the help Ari had given him, but neither did he seem unhappy in their relationship. Given their outgoing and active lives, women swirled around them, but when Theodopulous began to drift away from Ari, she couldn’t find evidence that he had found someone else. Still Theodopulous was soon gone, on to other things, things that didn’t include her. Ari brooded for a while, but then began hanging out in Naxos and other places along the shore. Not so long later, she met Baker and now she was with him. Baker was about as different from Theodopulous the Killer as you would expect a musician to be from a mixed-martial-arts champion, but he was cool too in his own way. His band was going places, their local concerts selling out and talk of a national tour and recording contract bubbling. Ari never spoke about Theodopulous with Baker, except to say that she had once gone out with a Marine, and she no longer fought MMA, did Crossfit, or any of the stuff she used to do with Theodopulous. Now, in Naxos, she ran her hand across Baker’s back while watching Theodopulous’s face on the TV screen above the bar.

Giorgio de Chirico, "Ariadne on Naxos"

Giorgio de Chirico, “Ariadne on Naxos”

Studying Veterans

Posted December 23, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Where now?

Where now?

The title of an article about World War II caught my eye. It proposed that those affected by the war might be “heroes,” “victims,” or “survivors.” The answer, based on what I could tell from the abstract, resolved on “survivors.” Not that a “veteran-survivor” might not be a hero or a victim, too, or both, but the implication was that those who had seen war were chastened and humbled by the experience, toughened also, but mostly just glad to be alive and content to occupy a quiet place in worldly affairs afterwards. The idea made me think about veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It made me wonder if the definition of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans could be reduced to such clear-cut one-word options. In 100 years, when scholars look back at 2016, probably yes, but in our current moment the choices are more confusing.

We might discard “survivor” right off the bat, for the term doesn’t reflect a prevailing sentiment, as far as I can see, either in veterans’ own minds or in the nation’s collective consciousness. But there’s plenty of evidence that “hero” and “victim” demarcate an either/or range of possibility for how veterans perceive themselves and present themselves and also for how they are viewed by society-at-large. The celebration of the military prowess of Medal of Honor winners, super-snipers, and combat leaders such as General James Mattis, as well as the frequency with which ex-military members of both major political parties are elected to public office, point to the respect accorded veterans. But the presence of troubled vets and a large national conversation about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Department of Veterans Affairs signal the strength of the image at the other end of the spectrum: veterans in need of sympathy, pity, and help, veterans who place demands on the nation to explain exactly what it owes its fighting men and women and how much it shares responsibility for their pain.

The literature written by veterans and by civilians about veterans favors the latter image; in 2016 alone, novels such as Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, Maximilian Uriarte’s The White Donkey, Elizabeth Marro’s Casualties, and Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood portray modern veterans post-war either traumatized or rendered ambivalent and alienated by time in uniform and duty in Iraq. War fiction seems not yet to have figured out how to portray protagonists unproblematically as heroes or as more complex blends of the hero-victim binary. Even American Sniper, the most important, compelling, and popular life-story of an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran, pings between the two poles. In both the memoir and the biopic, Chris Kyle is a legendary fighter, but he also breaks down as a result of multiple deployments. Still, it’s not unfair to say that both book and movie tilt heavily toward celebrating Kyle’s heroic aspects. Only Aaron, the bad-seed veteran portrayed in Roy Scranton’s 2016 novel War Porn, seems to be a robust effort to break down the hero-victim binary or propose an alternative—the veteran-villain? But Aaron, deeply unsympathetic, might be the iconoclastic exception that proves the rule.

Literature is not real life, and veterans every day decide to what degree their military experience is important and how much of it they want the people they meet to consider. These decisions range from whether to wear a ball cap displaying a unit insignia to deciding to run for elected office as a distinguished warfighter. On the part of the non-veteran public, everyone that meets a vet is honored, intrigued, or made uneasy by the encounter; for veterans, the feeling of being given the judgmental once-over is palpable. In turns, veterans are uncomfortable about being honored, outraged by hostility, and try not to disappoint when met by curious interest. The individualized process of judgment plays out writ-large on the national scale. Even the fact that there are so few actual veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan becomes a major source of debate: is it a problem, and if so, what should we do about it?

Both reflecting the times and helping us understand such questions is the rise of the academic field of veterans studies. This summer, Virginia Tech hosted a three-week symposium titled American Veterans in Society. I was fortunate enough to attend for a day and learn something of the program’s goals and tenets. One of the co-directors, an old Army friend named James Dubinsky, whom I first met in graduate school many years ago, explained his belief that veterans have always exerted an important but understudied force in American public life, from the post-Revolutionary War era onwards. In other words, war is important, but also important are the social permutations wrought afterwards as returning veterans in numbers enter adult private and public life. The University of Missouri-Saint Louis is one of two colleges that to my knowledge have formally created a “Department of Military and Veterans Studies” (the other is Eastern Kentucky University). An outgrowth of the UMSL veteran services office (a feature on almost every college campus these days), the “MVS” initiative offers classes leading to a minor in which students obtain “a nuanced understanding of the military and veteran experience, the role veterans play in our society, and the obligations our society might hold towards this subset of our population” (from the UMSL MVS website). Concurrent with the Virginia Tech and UMSL programs, Mariana Grohowski, a professor at Indiana University-Southeast, has begun an online scholarly journal titled the Journal of Veterans Studies. Recently the JVS has acquired an official online home in the academy, courtesy of Colorado State University Open Press.  Here is a self-description of the JVS mandate:

We understand veterans studies as a multi-faceted, scholarly investigation of military veterans and their families. Topics within that investigation could include, but are not limited to, combat exposure, reintegration challenges, and the complex systems that shape the veteran experience. Veterans studies, by its very nature, may analyze experiences closely tied to military studies, but the emphasis of veterans studies is the “veteran experience,” i.e., what happens after the service member departs the armed forces.

Elsewhere, the JVS asks:

1. Who is “the veteran in society?”
2. How do power structures like race, class, gender, and sexuality affect the veteran from claiming his/her
3. Who “counts” as a veteran?

The second question is bound to be perceived by many white, male, politically-conservative veterans as finicky academic hair-splitting that emits the whiff of a liberal social agenda. That’s to their detriment, but even staunchly conservative veterans know in real terms the force of the first and third questions. In which branch did you serve and what was your job? How many times did you deploy? Did you see combat? The answers are the first and last things veterans want to know about each other and for better or worse order and underwrite a veteran’s credibility and right-to-speak. The simple questions and gut responses have deep historical, social, and psychological roots and long political and practical consequences that the academic veterans studies aims to investigate.

My particular interest—contemporary war literature, art, and film—is only one aspect of the new veterans studies field and hardly the most important one. Still, the world of imaginative representation is never too distant from the real world it tries to reflect and illuminate, and things are about to get very interesting in the realm of war art and narrative. Looking back at the portraits of modern veterans in fictional works such as the Fire and Forget anthology (2013), edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, and Phil Klay’s collection of stories Redeployment (2014), one can’t help but notice how physically static are the depictions. In story after story in both works, veterans don’t do much but sit and talk, usually in bars, but also classrooms, dorm rooms, apartments, and any number of other private and public places typically occupied by young people who have not yet gotten started in life. That’s OK, because they are fresh from war, but the portraits offer little evidence by which we might judge how a veteran’s military service informs an adult life full of decisions, actions, commitments, and complicated human relationships.

But five years on from the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, ten years from the hard fighting in Fallujah, and some fifteen years from the beginnings of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, the adult lives of Global War on Terror veterans are now taking shape in unpredictable ways. Veterans have placed a lot of distance between themselves and their deployments, life-wise, but emotionally the import of their service, only half-sensed as young men and women, might now reside within them more coherently and consequentially and given firm expression through significant life choices and expressions of opinion. The election of President Trump certainly adds new dimensions to the dynamic. For every Iraq and Afghanistan veteran disheartened by Trump’s election and worried about his stated hostility toward the Department of Veteran Affairs, there’s probably three who welcome his ascendancy as correspondent with their own viewpoints, while others are ambivalent, thinking that it just doesn’t matter in terms of their personal lives who’s at the top. It will be very interesting to see how the new veteran sensibility plays out in the Age of Trump, both in life and in the stories and artworks that accompany life.


Posted December 16, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , ,
Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

Photo by Bill Putnam, used with permission.

By my count, 2016 saw ten contemporary war fiction titles published, one more than in 2015. 2017 promises new novels by David Abrams, Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Brian Van Reet, as well as a short-fiction anthology edited by Brian Castner and Adrian Bonenberger called The Road Ahead, so that’s a lot to anticipate. The only new poetry collection published in 2016 was a British anthology titled Home Front that reprints two great books authored by American military spouses—Elyse Fenton’s Clamor and Jehanne Dubow’s Stateside—alongside work by two British authors, Bryony Doran and Isabel Palmer. Happy to say, both Dubrow and Fenton will have new work appearing in 2017, titled Dots & Dashes and Sweet Insurgent, respectively. Hollywood released three Iraq or Afghanistan movies in 2016; 2017 will bring the movie adaptation of The Yellow Birds, but I’m not sure what else.

Below is my annual compendium of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction, poetry, and movies. Works appearing in 2016 are in bold. If you think I’ve missed anything let me know. A separate list of romance, male adventure, and young adult fiction is in the works.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only).

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)

I’ve not listed the important theatrical and literary memoir titles that I’ve included in past years, because I haven’t tracked them as closely in the past twelve months as I have previously. To make up for that omission, I’ve compiled a list of interesting and substantial contemporary war non-fiction books published in 2016, which in my mind was a banner year for such works.

2016 Iraq and Afghanistan Non-fiction

Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Middle East (2016)
Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (2016)
Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer (2016)
Eric Fair, Consequence: A Memoir (2016)
Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016)
David J. Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (2016)
Mary Roach, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016)
J. Kael Weston, The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (2016)

…and not to overlook two books that offer glimpses of the strategic thinking and worldviews of the leaders of newly-elected President Trump’s national security team:

Kori Schake and Jim Mattis, editors, Warriors and Citizens: American Views of the Military (2016)
Michael Flynn, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies (2016)

I haven’t yet read all the non-fiction named above, but one that impressed me greatly is Brian Castner’s All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner, for my money, gets the nitty-gritty of Iraq and Afghanistan combat—complete with accounts of mIRC communication systems, combined ground-air ops, and insurgent IED tactics—better than any work I’ve seen previously. He combines attention to detail with eloquent expression of what it means to belong to close-knit organizations of fighting men and women. Castner, who served three tours in the Middle East as an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, knows of what he writes, and he uses his narrative to interrogate his decade-long obsession with war’s allure and consequences.

I read All the Ways We Kill and Die alongside a second work that does much the same, but from a very different angle: Hilary Plum’s memoir Watchfires (2016). The follow-up to Plum’s intriguing novel about domestic anti-war radicalism They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013), Watchfires explores connections between Plum’s personal and familial experience of illness and dysfunction with national and global currents of war, terrorism, and aggression. “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life,” wrote Thoreau, and though Plum’s account is not simple, she seems to have accomplished in Watchfires what Castner has also done, and what every thinking person might try, according to Thoreau: define honestly and precisely how one’s private life and thoughts relate to the violent spirit of the times.

Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer. Arcade, 2016.

Hilary Plum, Watchfires. Rescue Press, 2016.

War Poetry: Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers

Posted December 8, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

the-stick-soldiersSomehow I missed Hugh Martin’s excellent poetry volume The Stick Soldiers when it was released in 2013, so now let me make amends. Martin’s accessible and very affecting verse attempts to make sense of the author’s deployment to Iraq and the disorienting times afterwards in ways that to me seem valuable and fresh. Neither overwrought nor undernourished, the poems in The Stick Soldiers strike notes that allow clearly-rendered physical description to give way to higher, unanticipated orders of meaning. A fine example is “The Range”:

“The Range”

We shoot green silhouettes
of men. Their blank faces

are painted beige, their plastic
chests checkered with holes,

but still, they rise in the July sunlight
like a boy too stupid to know

when to stay down, when to quit.
Drill Sergeant Grant paces

the gravel walk. He stops
to lie beside me on the beaten grass.

Between shots in the deep hush
of some, he says breathe, breathe

as we watch the targets fall
flat to the earth. I never

speak, but only fire, study
the range for the next one—

hold my breath, tap
the trigger, take them down,

one by one, like it was all
the world needed done.

A second example is “The Rocket”:

“The Rocket”

Blue as the pale sky this rocket
lay beside a dry wadi
alone where there was nothing
for miles, as if a man too tired
to take it any further
had set it here years ago, this spot
on the sun-hardened ground.
There was no wind. There was no one
but us, our trucks parked
at the edge of the valley. Sergeant Sumey,
tired of staring, walked to the rocket.
We all knew better than to touch
a thing like this, but all of us, all our hands,
had done it many times before. Sumey grabbed
the rocket like a handle to the earth,
lifted it—no longer than his M-4—
above his shoulder, and leaned back,
widened his stance, as if about to throw it
to the barren hills in the east,
so we could watch its arc, its twirl,
as if doing the rocket the favor
of making sure it left the world in pieces.

While “The Range” and “The Rocket” have a set-piece feel describing events experienced by many soldiers, other poems render more sustained looks at Martin, or his narrator, in interaction with those close to him personally. A stanza from “Four-Letter Word,” for instance, places unwitting family members in juxtaposition with a soldier who can’t help but note the triteness of their conversational gambits. It also demonstrates what for me is Martin’s great ear and eye for the exact word and right line-length:

“Four-Letter Word”


Home for Christmas leave.

This is our son, he’s going to Iraq.
He’s leaving for Iraq.
His unit is being mobilized for Iraq.

He has to go to Iraq.
I’ll get you a drink, you’re going to Iraq.
E-mail me when you get to Iraq.

Hopefully things will get better when you get to Iraq.
Are you scared about going to Iraq?
Did you know you would have to go to Iraq?

I can’t imagine going to Iraq.
Is there a chance you might not go to Iraq?
Where will you be in Iraq?

What will you be doing in Iraq?
How long will you be in Iraq?
Iraq? Really? Iraq?

The perspectival chasm dividing the narrator and his family in “Four-Letter Word” is amplified in the volume’s title poem, in which the soldier-narrator describes drawings sent to his unit by American schoolchildren:

“The Stick Soldiers”

We tape our favorites to the door.
In blue crayon, a stick-figure soldier poses
as he’s about to toss
a black ball,
fuse burning,
at three other stick figures,
red cloth wrapped over faces,
Iraki written
across stick chests […]

The narrator then places those pictures in contrast with the drawings by Iraqi schoolchildren on sides of buildings the soldiers drive by:

Further down the wall, a stick man holds
an RPG
aimed toward the Humvee,
the waving soldier’s head […]

A number of other poems describe Martin post-deployment and post-service. These too work in a quiet vein: not traumatized, the narrator just thinks a lot about what he lived through in Iraq, and he is discomfited more than he is alienated, outraged, or made dysfunctional. Though the volume’s subjects have been well-covered by other veteran-writers, Martin’s calmness about it all distinguishes his approach. Our current political and cultural moment is not one for understated emotional control and nuanced ambivalence, but if the nation ever settles down again enough to value thoughtfulness and eloquence, The Stick Soldiers’ wise view of a soldier’s experience of war awaits.

Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers, with a foreword by Cornelius Eady. BOA Editions, Ltd., 2013.

Mary “M.L.” Doyle: Not the Same Old Same Old War Stories

Posted November 27, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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the-peacekeepers-photographI’m very happy to have my interview with veteran-author Mary “M.L.” Doyle appear in the latest issue of 0-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal published by the Veterans Writing Project. Getting to know Doyle and her work has been both enjoyable and illuminating. As the headnote to the interview explains, the uniqueness of Doyle’s perspectives and the variety of her titles are impressive. Both her personal background and her writing ventures—an African-American former Army sergeant first class who writes military crime fiction and military-themed urban romance/fantasy while co-authoring memoirs of prominent minority women-in-uniform—intrigued me greatly upon learning about them. Our interview fulfilled expectations that her thoughts about it all would be as interesting as the works themselves.

For readers interested in exploring Doyle’s books, I suggest starting with her military crime novel debut The Peacekeeper’s Photograph (2013). Set in Bosnia on an Army FOB in the 1990s, The Peacekeeper’s Photograph is the first of three “Master Sergeant Harper” mysteries Doyle has now authored. It features many elements relatively untouched by most contemporary war lit: not just Bosnia, but a female senior NCO’s perspective, command group treachery, soldier romance, Army racial dynamics, and the threat of rape faced by military women if captured. Readers might also try The Bonding Spell (2015), about a female Iraq War veteran who channels the spirit of an ancient Sumerian goddess after picking up a magical relic while deployed. I also recommend I’m Still Standing: From Captive US Soldier to Free Citizen (2011), Specialist Shoshana Johnson’s memoir that Doyle co-wrote. Johnson, if you will remember, was the African-American junior enlisted cook who was captured by Iraqi insurgents along with Jessica Lynch in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Considering Johnson’s view of war alongside that of not Lynch’s, but, say, ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette’s, as expressed in his memoir No Easy Day, which I also read recently, juxtaposes the diverse experiences of Americans who serve the nation in uniform–and all the advantages and rectitude do not necessarily accrue to sagas of white male combat-arms super-warriors. To be clear, I thought No Easy Day was fascinating and salute Bissonnette’s combat prowess, but I’m Still Standing, as does everything Doyle writes, demonstrates how the military is many people and many things.

The interview offers Doyle’s insights about all I’ve mentioned above and much else, to include her views on the rewards of independent publishing. Please read it and then seek out Doyle’s own remarkable body of work—really, start anywhere and you won’t go wrong.


A final note: As the Mentor Program Coordinator for the Veterans Writing Project, I’ve matched up some 30 aspiring veteran-writers with experienced authors and teachers in online mentoring relationships. We now need more mentors, so if you have time, inclination, and ability, I’d love to hear from you.  The aspiring writers are wide-ranging in age and writing interests, but some basic splits are between male/female, Vietnam/Iraq-Afghanistan, and fiction/memoir/poetry/screenwriting, and I do my best to match veterans and mentors who will prove compatible. No military experience is required for mentors–just a capacity to teach and a desire to help. You can reach me at

Veterans War Writing: Anthologies R Us

Posted November 20, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War


“Corregidor in Wait” by Rachel McNeill, from After Action Review (2011). Used with permission.

Anthologies of writing by veterans have been a significant feature of contemporary war literature since the genre emerged as a recognizable form circa 2005. Single-author memoirs, blogs, novels, graphic novels, poetry volumes, and assorted other literary endeavors have been plenty, but the most impactful publishing format arguably has been the collection of short fiction, non-fiction, or poetry pieces assembled and published by enterprising editors. Often growing out of writers’ workshops and regional literary collectives, anthologies have served as gateway vehicles of expression and publication for hundreds of veterans while comfortably repurposing military camaraderie in the name of authorship. Below are the anthologies of which I’m aware, most of which I own and have read; I’m sure there are many others. I’ve also noted the editors and listed the authors who were reasonably prominent at the time of publication or since have become so—apologies in advance for the many names I’m sure I’ve erred by not including.

1. Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families (2006). Edited by Andrew Carroll with a preface by Dana Gioia. Operation Homecoming, as far as I know, stands at the head of the field and thus gets all the kudos that come with being first. In addition to less renown voices among its 89 contributors, Operation Homecoming features work by authors such as Benjamin Busch, Colby Buzzell, and Brian Turner, highly literate veterans who had already achieved some fame as authors and in ensuing years would become leaders of the war lit field.

2. Move, Shoot and Communicate (2007). The first of five anthologies published by Warrior Writers, a veterans-writing organization headquartered in Philadelphia and led by Lovella Calica, whose contribution to veterans writing began early and continues impressively to this day. I have not personally read Move, Shoot, and Communicate, but it is available through the Warrior Writers website.

3. Re-Making Sense (2008). Edited by Lovella Calica. A second Warrior Writers anthology—again, I have not personally seen Re-Making Sense.

4. After Action Review: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans of the Global War on Terror (2011). Edited by Lovella Calica, with a foreword by Brian Turner and an afterword by James A. Moad II. Yet another anthology from the very industrious Warrior Writers. This one, which I have read, contains poems and narratives by Roy Scranton, Victor Inzunza, Chantelle Bateman, Rachel McNeill, Emily Yates, Paul Wasserman, Jennifer Pacanowski, and Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, among others.

5. Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (2013). Edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, with an introduction by Colum McCann. A seminal work featuring fiction by several already well-known war writers such as Siobhan Fallon, Brian Turner, Matt Gallagher, and Colby Buzzell and a number of talented, ambitious newcomers who would find their way into print many times in the ensuing years, to include Scranton, Phil Klay, David Abrams, Gavin Ford Kovite, Mariette Kalinowski, and Brian Van Reet among them.

6. Outside the Wire: American Soldiers Voices from Afghanistan (2013). Edited by Christine Dumaine Leche with a foreword by Brian Turner. A very interesting collection of essays and vignettes composed by soldier-students of editor Christine Leche in classes she taught on US Army FOBs in Afghanistan. Leche includes a number of ingenious prompts she used in her classes that seem to have inspired her students to address war subjects and themes from a variety of fresh angles.

7. Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian (2013). Selected and edited by Donald H. Whitfield with a foreword by Benjamin Busch. A work sponsored by the high-powered, highly resourced National Endowment for the Humanities, Standing Down features already published work by David Finkel, Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, and Siobhan Fallon among other moderns, in addition to essays and reminiscences from pre-9/11 wars. The biggest of all the anthologies of which I am aware of, checking in at 494 pages.

8. Warrior Writers: A Collection of Writing & Artwork by Veterans (2014). Published by Warrior Writers and edited by Lovella Calica and Kevin Basl. One more from Warrior Writers, this eponymous collection includes writing by most of the authors who also appear in After Action Review, plus Maurice Decaul, Brian Turner, Hugh Martin, and Vietnam era vet-author stalwarts Bruce Weigl and Fred Marchant—80 authors total, the second most of the anthologies I’ve read.

9. Incoming: Veteran Writers on Coming Home. Edited by Justin Hudnall (2015). A product of Hudnall’s San Diego-based story-telling collective So Say We All, Incoming features non-fiction essays and stories by Benjamin Busch, Brandon Lingle, Brooke King, Tenley Lozano, Natalie Lovejoy, Lizbeth Prifogle, William Corley, and Adam Stone.

10. See Me For Who I Am: Student Veterans’ Stories of War and Coming Home (2016). Edited by David Chrisinger and with a foreword by Brian Castner. See Me For Who I Am features essays written by student veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where Chrisinger teaches a veterans reintegration course.

11. Retire the Colors: Veterans & Civilians on Iraq and Afghanistan (2016). Edited by Dario DiBattista with an introduction by Ron Capps. Featuring work by Brooke King, Lauren Kay Halloran, David Chrisinger, Matthew J. Hefti, Colin D. Halloran, Teresa Fazio, and Brian Castner.

12. Our Voices United: 9 Women Veteran Authors (2016). Edited by Sergeant Stephanie J. Shannon. I know that women veterans’ stories are foregrounded in books such as Kirsten Holdmstedt’s Band of Sisters (2007) and Helen Benedict’s The Lonely Soldier (2010), but this recently published small collection is the only stand-alone collection of essays by contemporary war veterans I could find. That can’t possibly be, so please correct me and I will make adjustments to the post.

13. Holding It Down Philadelphia: A Collection of Writing by Veterans (2016). Edited by Warrior Writers’ Lovella Calica and Kevin Basl, Holding It Down Philadelphia features poetry by several Philly-based veterans.

14. The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever Wars (forthcoming in 2017). Edited by Adrian Bonenburger and Brian Castner with a foreword by Roxana Robinson. An unofficial sequel to Fire and Forget featuring fiction by (mostly) established war writers, including Elliot Ackerman, Benjamin Busch, Brandon Caro, Maurice Decaul, Teresa Fazio, Thomas Gibbons Neff, Aaron Gwyn, Alex Horton, Chris Wolfe, Kristen L. Rouse, Kayla M. Williams, and Brandon Willitts.

Mention should also be made of the Veterans Writing Project journal 0-Dark-Thirty (online and print), the United States Air Force Academy journal War, Literature, and the Arts (online and print), and Military Experience and the Arts (online). All three journals partake of the spirit of the anthology by showcasing a wide range of veteran stories and perspectives.

I could write at length on each of these collections and may well do so in the future. A necessary first step is making more precise distinctions among them, because each anthology, to say nothing of the pieces within them, features a unique approach, ethos, and publishing history. The Warrior Writers anthologies, for example, reflect the raw anger of veterans troubled by service and deployment, while Fire and Forget channels a more polished literary vibe. Incoming and 0-Dark-Thirty, among others, juxtapose contemporary veteran voices with those from past wars. While early anthologies took pride in showcasing as many veteran writers as possible and blending unknown and established writers, more recent anthologies such as Retire the Colors and The Road Ahead feature established authors who have already made their mark on the war writing scene. Each of the anthologies might also be characterized by how earnestly they offer page space to women, minority, and non-combat arms veterans, as well as family members of veterans. At a more refined level of analysis, each anthology speaks to its particular political and cultural moment–roughly defined by the President in office when it is published–with varying degrees of relation, passion, nuance, and focus. One wonders for instance, how the forthcoming The Road Ahead will constitute a response to the new era ushered in by the election of President Trump—at what roads ahead will they both be looking?

In regard to sins of omission, no one yet, to my knowledge, has organized an anthology on the basis of rank (junior enlisted, NCO, junior officer, field grade officer), which I think would be a helpful way of understanding the viewpoints of service members based on that crucial determining factor. Same for anthologies based on branch of service. I’m also somewhat surprised to discover that anthologies showcasing writing by women or wounded and disabled vets seem to be mostly missing-in-action (and all the more reason to look forward to 2017’s It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan, edited by Tracy Crow and Jerri Bell, with a foreword by Kayla Williams). Many many anthologies focus on redeployment, which is OK, but which also seems to short-change consideration of aspects of deployed military life that might interest. There’s very little, for instance, that offers factual, fictional, or poetic recounting of unit chain-of-command conflicts and personalities and just as little on the romantic and erotic lives of soldiers. Interest in Iraqis and Afghans is notably lacking, and, at the level of style, most anthology entries sacrifice literary flair for directness of expression.

Finally, the anthologies’ introductions, forewords, and afterwords alone are worth examining for how they frame each project. Common themes include giving voice to diverse military experiences; seeking clarity about troubling events; rendering the particular reality of deployment, combat, and redeployment; and, always, bridging the communication and understanding divide between the small percentage of Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the large percentage who haven’t. To let the editor who seems to have started it all have the last word, Andrew Carroll writes in the introduction to Operation Homecoming, “…now that the idea of seeking out the undiscovered literature of our nation’s troops and their loved ones has taken hold, it is exhilarating to think of all that is yet to be found and of everything, ultimately that is still to be written.” Hear hear, and salute to the editors, publishers, authors, and readers of the nation’s twenty-first century veterans’ anthologies.

Canon Wars: 20th and 21st Century War Fiction Authored by Veterans

Posted October 31, 2016 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,


I was asked to compile a list of twentieth and twenty-first century novels and short-story collections about war authored by American veterans. I was limited to ten titles—two for each of our major conflicts—but I broke the rules and chose three each for World War II and the Global War on Terror. Here’s my list:

World War I

John Dos Passos (US Army Medical Corps), Three Soldiers (1919)
Ernest Hemingway (American Red Cross), A Farewell to Arms (1929)

I know Hemingway wasn’t technically in the military, and Dos Passos only served for a short time, but it’s too hard to ignore the connection between their war-time exploits and the books they authored about the war. I was tempted to include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby because I’ve always been intrigued by the reference to Gatsby’s service in a “machine gun battalion” in The Great War, and I know Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise while in uniform at Fort Leavenworth. But neither of those reasons are fulsome enough to include either work. I also wish two other WWI veterans who turned out to be estimable writers, E.E. Cummings and Malcolm Cowley, had written fiction based on the war, but it was not to be.

World War II

Joseph Heller (Army Air Corps), Catch-22 (1961)
James Jones (Army), The Thin Red Line (1962)
Kurt Vonnegut (Army), Slaughterhouse Five (1969)

All three works are marvels. Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five I read when young and they helped me understand how war might best be described using humor, satire, and irony. The Thin Red Line I read recently and was stunned by how interesting and perceptive it was.


James Salter (Air Force), The Hunters (1956)
Richard Hooker (H. Richard Hornberger) (Army), MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors (1969)

Salter’s novel about Air Force fighter pilots is great; any writer who can write sentences as finely tuned as the following has my respect:

“Flying with him was like being responsible for a child in a crowd.”

“He was not fully at ease. It was still like being a guest at a family reunion, with all the unfamiliar references.”

“It was still adventure, as exciting as love, as terrible as fear.”

“The sky seemed calm but hostile, like an empty stadium.”

MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors affects the insouciant air toward military authority and bureaucracy that the popular TV show it inspired excelled at. Honestly, though, MASH-the-novel seems a little thin and, in some aspects, such as its racial humor, dated.


Larry Heinemann (Army), Paco’s Story (1986)
Tim O’Brien (Army), The Things They Carried (1990)

Rereading these two highly-regarded works made me realize how entrenched in their time they are: They privilege the experience and views of the combat grunt and the angry veteran to the point of mythologizing them and they’re obsessed with authority, credibility, authenticity, and right-to-speak issues. Vietnam War fiction badly needs historicizing to measure its preoccupations and how much it really has to say to to contemporary war fiction.

Iraq and Afghanistan

David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Phil Klay (Marines), Redeployment (2014)

Cutting things off somewhat arbitrarily at 2014, I’m limiting the contemporary war listings to two National Book Award nominees (The Yellow Birds and Redeployment, with Klay’s short-story collection taking the prize) and one (Fobbit) that might well have been. All of them pay homage to the tradition of veteran-authored war fiction while working changes upon it, commensurate with the changing times and their authors’ unique perspectives.

So that’s my veteran-author war fiction canon for your consideration and debate. It’s a great tradition, all-in-all, and I enjoyed reading or rereading these books and many others over the summer and making my choices. The books that impressed me most were James Salter’s The Hunters and James Jones’ The Thin Red Line. Saving The Hunters for another day, I say a little more about The Thin Red Line below. Considering Jones’ achievement made me wonder why no contemporary veteran-author has yet written a novel about the year-long deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan of a platoon, company, or battalion with the same anthropological overview as Jones. It would seem like a natural. Most soldiers experienced the wars as cogs in complex social organizations artificially and temporarily arranged to both protect them and prepare them to give up their lives. Arguably what was going on around them and outside of them was of more interest and importance—and definitely more various—than what was happening to them and inside of them individually.


What People Mean When They Talk About “Panoramic” War Novels:  James Jones’ The Thin Red Line

ttrlThe literary artistry of James Jones’ novel The Thin Red Line is hard to define and in some ways hard even to detect. On one level, his account of a US Army infantry company’s exploits from their arrival on Guadalcanal during World War II to their departure proceeds at the level of realistic description that resembles journalism and history. Even when we factor in his attention to the human stories of the members of “C-for-Charlie” Company—their fears, desires, backstories, and emotions—it still seems, in many respects, to aspire to a common sort of long-form non-fiction narrative that embraces both big events and individual profiles.

The particular and peculiar way that Jones manipulates the register between exterior actions and interior views is what is so hard to pin down. That The Thin Red Line is panoramic in a way no contemporary war novel is a testament as much to Jones’ imagination as it is to the fact that he must have taken good notes while he was in the Army. Jones provides extensive accounts of the actions and thoughts of roughly fifteen members of C-for-Charlie, from privates through the four company commanders who lead them on Guadalcanal, and maybe thirty other enlisted soldiers and officers appear as minor characters. He describes the men as they prepare to disembark from their troop transport ship, in their early days on the island as they acclimatize to the jungle climate and prepare to go into battle, a week’s worth of harrowing combat on a hill mass known as The Dancing Elephant, a couple of weeks recouping in a rest area, and then another week of combat to seize a hill named The Giant Boiled Shrimp and a village named Boola Boola, followed by a brief period of recovery before they depart Guadalcanal enroute to another South Pacific island.

Jones, who fought on Guadalcanal, tells us in a forward that the physical geography and battles he describes are imaginary, but surely he wants to relate in as much detail as possible what infantry combat looks like tactically and feels like emotionally, seemingly in a corrective to other authors’ accounts of battle. Tactically, he precisely and compellingly explains how platoons, companies, and battalions go into battle and how the land on which they fight—the hills, dales, dips, furrows, outcroppings, and other geographical features, plus the vegetation—impact the fighting at every turn, both for the bigger units and the individual soldier. He is very interested in what happens when a unit comes under fire, takes casualties, and then collects itself to seize objectives and complete missions. His account of how the dread felt by infantrymen before battle intensifies in combat and threatens to paralyze them until they become hardened to the prospect of their death is especially astute. He is very interested in the fact that some men perform well in combat and others don’t; while some of C-for-Charlie’s heroes are predictably wily, feisty types whom you might think would do well in a fight, not all are, and the distribution of fear and courage is anything but systematic: men brave in one instance, freeze up in another, while some men who know themselves to be cowards find ways to perform well under fire, at least sometimes. Jones is also interested in leadership, how NCOs and officers through some peculiar amalgamation of judgment, decisiveness, words, actions, luck, and circumstance cement their ability to lead troops in combat in the eyes of their superiors, their men, and in their own minds. Three successive commanders of C-for-Charlie, for example, are relieved-for-cause, and it doesn’t always seem fair, but rather than rendering judgment, Jones traces the contours by which faith in their ability ebbs away. Among the enlisted soldiers, a steady rate of attrition opens up opportunities for the most ambitious and combat-capable of underlings to rise to the top in a process that would be almost Darwinian were it not for the fact that death and injury in battle often strike without regard for who’s fittest.

Considered as a social organism, C-for-Charlie in Jones’ portrait seems organized not so much by rank, but by a ruthless jockeying for regard by its members, which is usually framed in terms of manhood—who is toughest, who is most aggressive, who is most cocksure, who is most competitive, who wants whatever he wants the most. In this milieu, men are quick to judge each other as punks, lightweights, and cowards, and are driven by furious impulses toward revenge, jealousy, and entitlement, engendered by sleights and perceived grievances big and small. The camaraderie of men bound by a sense of family is documented, but selfishness and contempt more than love and care define the soldierly bond. The C-for-Charlie family is perverse in other ways, too, most notably by the flux of its membership engendered by death, evacuation for wounds, or reassignment, as in the case of its commanders. Characters are whisked out of the book on nearly every page, rarely to be heard from again, an effect that is as unsettling for readers as it must have been for the unit, and each removal generates a seismic recalibration not just of the official rank structure, but of the homosocial lineaments of C-for-Charlie culture.

Jones’ attitude toward his soldier-characters is part of The Thin Red Line’s curious allure. The odd use of “C-for-Charlie”—a way of referring to an infantry unit I’ve never seen before (yes, I know there are C Companies, often called Charlie Company, in infantry battalions, but consistent use of “C-for-Charlie” is idiosyncratic)—has the effect of anthropomorphizing a military organization, but Jones doesn’t privilege the point-of-view or experiences of any of its individual members. The company first sergeant, a philosophical type with a drinking problem, appears in the novel’s opening and closing scenes, but seems to have changed little from beginning to end and doesn’t loom especially large in the events that befall C-for-Charlie. A second character, a company clerk named Fife, a coward at heart who finds himself at least temporarily capable of battlefield prowess, occupies the most page space in the novel. But he too is whisked off the page short of the conclusion, and The Thin Red Line can hardly be said to be his story.

Jones seems interested in every aspect of C-for-Charlie’s existence on Guadalcanal, so scenes in the rear area receive almost as much attention as scenes of battle, and he also seems very interested in telling a war story without resorting to sentimentalism and sensationalism. Nor does he seem to be telling an “anti-war” story, though its clear enough after reading The Thin Red Line that war is a horrible human endeavor, and the military is a horrible way of organizing people socially. Though dramatic things happen—many of them—drama is never milked for effect—that some soldiers might butt-fuck each other the night before battle is related in the same register as scenes of horrific wounding or tremendous acts of bravery or a drunken brawl in a rest area after battle. And yet the forward pace of the novel proceeds inexorably; Jones’ artistry finds the right word-web to mirror how the propulsive forces of military culture and war shape the little lives of its participants, yet where the military and war disdain human life, Jones manages the tricky feat of inculcating interest in his characters without saturating them and his readers in a goo of sympathetic identification. The soldiers’ lives play out or end on Guadalcanal somewhat as if subject to fate as hypothesized by Shakespeare’s Gloucester, “As flies to wanton boys are we to Gods, they kill us for their sport,” but that implies that men’s lives, precious to the men themselves, are at least of sadistic interest to higher powers. In The Thin Red Line’s cosmos, men live and die more as if subject to James Joyce’s vision of God, one who pares his nails indifferently while looking down on his creations. To search for other analogies in literature, the men of C-for-Charlie seem like the battling ants described by Thoreau in Walden, viewed from on high with forensic interest, but in Jones now endowed with thoughts and personalities. The Thin Red Line not only is not character-driven, it’s not plot-driven, either, and yet still—again, Jones’ artistry at work—it is not just a “one thing after another” chronological narrative. The sense that a novel creates a social microcosm that replicates the cosmic working out of character and event of real life is a tenet of the realist and naturalist novel, which are outdated genres, but The Thin Red Line feels anything but dated—if anything it is a bracing reminder of what supremely talented authors are capable of. It’s hard not to think that no one writes novels like The Thin Red Line anymore because Jones has done it as well as it can be done, but still, I’d like to see contemporary authors try.

Finally, all my praise above would just be moot if it were not for Jones’ greatest gift: his ability to consistently write amazing sentences, to say things in ways that just startled me with their unanticipated aptness. I can’t remember a book that I found myself turning down more page corners to remind myself of passages to which I wanted to return. I could list quite a few, but in the name of even-handedness, there are a few clinkers, too. In the library copy I read, a previous reader circled the words “more good” where Jones might have used “better” and placed a question mark in the margin. Toward the end of the novel, a lieutenant loses part of his hand when a grenade he is throwing explodes prematurely. Jones attributes it to the neglect of the distracted, careless woman who cut the fuse too short in the ordnance factory where it was assembled; the aside seems contrived and crude. Finally, I didn’t like the book’s epigram, in which Jones thanks “war” for providing so much material of interest. The tone is satirical and manic and not a good prelude at all for the cool and laconic prose voice of the novel’s narrative. But those are minor exceptions in a 500-page book that otherwise impresses on every page.

Many thanks to Roy Scranton, Rachel Kambury, and Drew Pham–fellow members of an informal TTRL admiration society.pham-scranton-kambury-molin

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