Summer of 17: Women Fighting and Writing

Posted August 4, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

A scene from Bullet Catchers, currently running in New York.

“All wars are boyish and fought by boys,” wrote Herman Melville a long time ago, but it’s hard not to notice all the women-authored and women-centric war-writing that has appeared in the summer of 2017. Much of the new work has taken the shape of memoir and journalism, but new fiction and theater also contribute to the feel that something different and exciting is happening. Some of the new work is by “First Wave” women war writers such as Siobhan Fallon and Helen Benedict–familiar names in the war-writing scene–but appearing also are many new writers–a “Second Wave”–describing subjects and representing perspectives previously unheard or overlooked. The new work is appearing in print or being performed on stage, but online venues seem to be the medium of choice for publication and discussion of this up-to-the-moment phenomenon. Much credit goes to a highly motivated-and-resourced new organization called The War Horse, of which a profile of founder Thomas Brennan can be found here. The War Horse in particular has taken upon itself to promote writing by women-veterans, and even more specifically a War Horse writing workshop that took place in New York City in April, led by David Chrisinger, though not limited to women, has been enormously generative of first-person narratives detailing aspects of life in uniform for women in all its variety and implication. Some examples include:

“Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD,” by Army veteran Jenny Pacanowski.

“Drown Proofing, Khaki Shorts. Some Things About Dive School Don’t Change,” by Coast Guard veteran Tenley Lozano.

“Circumstances, Fortunes, or Misfortunes, by USMC veteran Teresa Fazio.

The titles of Pacanowski’s and Lozano’s pieces preview their intriguing storylines; Fazio’s title doesn’t give her story away so readily, but the article describes the author’s post-service trip to India to find meaning in the Sikh tradition of Prasad. Fazio’s not the only female vet with a spiritual bent, either; another War Horse seminar participant (and my former central New Jersey neighbor), Army veteran Supriya Venkatesan, describes her own search for tranquility through Transcendental Meditation in an article titled “I Lived in a Town Where Everyone Meditated Together. Every Day.” Venkatesan already has a list of non-war-related publishing credits as long as your arm on exotic subjects such as bio-hacking, eco-sex, and home-birth, fyi for all aspiring vet-writers searching to break out of rigid identification as a mil-and-war writer. 

In the articles I’ve posted, Pacanowski, Lozano, Fazio, and Venkatesan don’t directly address military sexism and toxic military masculinity, but awareness of the difficulty of being a woman in uniform underwrites the ethos and worldview of their writing. Not coincidentally, The War Horse broke the story of the Marine Corps photo-sharing scandal early in 2017—Thomas Brennan’s post-Marine career began as an investigative journalist. Fellow ex-Marine Elliot Ackerman, the author of the novels Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing, profiled Brennan this summer in a telling piece for Esquire titled “Inside the Nude Photo Scandal That Rocked the Marine Corps”—the despair of two proud Marines as they confront the easily-held misogyny of fellow male Marines is palpable. Appearing at almost the same time as Ackerman’s piece was Andria Williams’ story “The List,” a fictional dramatization of a photo-sharing scandal involving two Air Force officers, published on Afghan Post author Adrian Bonenberger’s The Wrath-Bearing Tree web journal. Williams, whose blog The Military Spouse Book Review has long tracked women’s war writing and military family issues, notes that she presciently first drafted her story in 2013, but filed it away thinking it too far-fetched. Little did she know…. the one-two punch of Ackerman’s article and Williams’ story reinforces the impression that the military’s ability to satisfactorily resolve its gender and sexual harassment/sexual abuse issues anytime soon and without outside help is slim, but if identifying the problem is the first step to a solution, then the authors have done their part.

The battle goes on on other fronts, too. On stage, a new play called Bullet Catchers, currently running in New York City, portrays life in an Army unit through the perspective of the women who occupy leadership positions, as well those who serve in the ranks. Bullet Catchers has already elicited at least two shrewd reviews from wise observers of the passing scene: Bullet Catchers: Women’s Modern Warfare” by Rachel Kambury posted on the New York City Veterans Alliance website and “A Plausible Reality by Teresa Fazio, written for Consequence magazine.

Finally (though I’m bound to be forgetting something significant), are the appearance of four books in 2017 by First Wave contemporary war-writing women authors. Already out are Elyse Fenton’s volume of verse Sweet Insurgent and Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages and soon to come are poet Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes and novelist Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season. And finally finally, just published is long-time editor of the Veterans Writing Project journal 0-Dark-Thirty editor Jerri Bell’s and Tracy Crow’s anthology It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to AfghanistanIt’s My Country Too’s historical perspective reminds us that the current perfect storm of First and Second Wave women’s war-writing didn’t appear brand new spun out of whole cloth. Not to push things back to 1776, as Bell and Crow do, but to a more-recent 2016, important precedents began appearing last year when anthologies such as Retire the Colors, edited by Dario DiBattista, and The Road Ahead, edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, offered robust mixtures of powerful stories by both men and women veterans.

So what to make of it all? The first step, it seems to me, is recognizing, respecting, and encouraging the development. The second step is assessing what women’s war-writing has to tell us, both about life-in-uniform for women and masculine traditions and conventions of war-writing. Third, preparing for the backlash, which will inevitably come in the form of sneers about “the feminization of war-writing” and efforts to reestablish its manly basis. Fourth, ever-more precisely disentangling current notions about military culture, war-winning, and fighting ability from their unproductive entwinement with accepted cultural ideas about manhood and patriarchy, so that the military becomes a better place for all Americans to serve, rather than being a big boy’s club, and applies itself more effectively to winning wars, rather than being an endless employment and get-rich opportunity for flag-wavers, war addicts, mercenaries, and profiteers.

War Stories: Helen Benedict, Brian Van Reet, David Abrams

Posted July 2, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , ,

2017 brings novels by three contemporary war lit “plank-holders”–Navy SEAL-speak for members who were in on the game at its founding. Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season takes contemporary war-and-mil-writing preoccupation with dogs to its fantastical-yet-logical extension; Brian Van Reet’s Spoils reimagines the female-soldier captivity narrative first presented by Jessica Lynch’s and Shoshana Johnson’s memoirs, and David Abrams’ Brave Deeds riffs on the rogue soldier motif familiar from Bowe Bergdahl’s and Robert Bale’s real-life sagas.

Helen Benedict, Wolf Season. Bellevue Literary Press, 2017.

Helen Benedict’s 2011 Sand Queen was by my count the first Iraq War novel; if I’m wrong, someone please correct me. A story about the intersecting lives of two women, an American soldier named Kate and an Iraqi medical student named Naema Jassim, Sand Queen eviscerated the American conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom by portraying the ruin of its two protagonists’ lives as a result, primarily, of the American military’s toxic masculine culture. The sequel to Sand Queen, Wolf Season takes place in America, where Naema has unexpectedly taken up residence in a small upstate New York town where she serves as a doctor in a VA clinic. One of her patients is, not Kate, who doesn’t figure in Wolf Season, but another female veteran named Rin Drummond. Rin’s time in service has ended badly, leaving her widowed, badly wracked by PTSD, the mother of a blind daughter, and the caretaker of three semi-domesticated wolves. Rin wants nothing more than to be left alone, protected by and protective of her wolfpack, but life in a small-town home to Iraqi refugees and overly-macho military men still on frequent deployment cycle to America’s forever wars ensure that’s not going to happen. Rin and Naema are compellingly drawn, as are Rin’s daughter Juney and Naema’s son Tariq and the three wolves, Gray, Silver, and Ebony. Most striking, however, are two male characters, Louis Martin and Todd Wycombe, both veterans struggling to be men worthy of respect. Benedict’s not completely hostile to the idea that military service might be improving or even ennobling, but two novels’ worth of portraits of America boy-men whose propensity for self-delusion, misogyny, and violence are exacerbated by time in uniform make it clear she’s skeptical that those things are happening very often these days. One could almost feel sorry for Benedict’s male veterans, if they didn’t bring on so much trouble for themselves through their stupidity and vanity, and if they didn’t fuck things up so badly for everyone around them.

Brian Van Reet, Spoils. Little, Brown and Company, 2017.

Spoils, US Army veteran Brian Van Reet’s long-anticipated novel of war in Iraq, comes many years after the author established his reputation as a war short-story author par excellence. Even before the fine “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” appeared in the 2013 Fire and Forget anthology, Van Reet was placing striking short fiction in literary journals, and “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is, if anything, surpassed by a story titled “Eat the Spoil” published in the Spring 2014 Missouri Review. Van Reet attended, as did I, the University of Virginia, where he was an Echols Scholar, which I most definitely wasn’t, so I have a high regard for the intellect he brings to bear on the consideration of war. Van Reet was a tank crewman in the early days of Iraq, where he earned a Bronze Star with a V device for valor, which is also saying something. A tanker named Specialist Sleed figures in both the aforementioned stories and now appears again in Spoils, but he’s not much of a scholar and as a soldier one more likely to get an Article 15 for misconduct than a medal. A follower rather than a leader of soldiers even more indifferently motivated than he is, Sleed, in true “E4-Mafia” fashion, is good in spurts but more typically wavers between commitment to mission and impulses to “get over.” Scenes describing tank battle in Iraq especially intrigue, but Sleed’s just one of a trio of protagonists in Spoils; another is a young woman named Cassandra Wigheard who serves in Sleed’s unit. Wigheard’s not exactly a super-soldier, either, but she tries, and she can’t be blamed when she is captured by a group of insurgents led by the third principal, a very conflicted and not especially fanatical Egyptian jihadist named Abu Al-Hool. Van Reet seems to be making a point about how war unfolds in the contemporary trenches—whatever the clarity, fervor, and righteousness of the political and ideological rhetoric, for the participants on both sides it’s a haphazard, highly contingent, badly conceptualized and realized mess that’s likely to get them killed through sheer sloppiness. We can see Sleed as Van Reet’s alter ego, while Al-Hool joins the Pashtun protagonist of Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue as a rounded literary portrait of one of our War on Terror opponents, but it’s the depiction of Cassandra that really stands out as the author’s effort to represent “the Other,” with all the attendant risks that endeavor brings. Sleed and Al-Hool narrate their stories in first-person, but Van Reet, UVa-educated gentleman that he is, circumspectly renders Cassandra’s voice and thoughts in third-person, perhaps thinking graciously that full, extended novelistic inhabitation of a woman warrior’s subjectivity and depiction of perspective should be left to, well, a woman veteran. That will come, in time, but what Van Reet offers here rings true; for example, on Cassandra contemplating a career in the Army: “Yet more and more, the thought of going for a twenty-year pension has begun to feel like prolonged suffocation in a cavernous, airtight room.”

David Abrams, Brave Deeds. Black Cat, 2017.

Few things could possibly be more welcome than a second novel from David Abrams, the author of 2012’s highly entertaining and shrewdly perceptive black comedy Fobbit. No one would blame Abrams if he moved on from Iraq—surely he has it in him and will do so one day—but I for one am glad that he has kept his eye on the Tigris and Euphrates battlefield for at least one more novel, this summer’s Brave Deeds. If anything, Brave Deeds is more of a war novel than Fobbit, a work that has its boom-boom moments, but which is largely more interested in military culture than combat action. Where Fobbit explored a wide range of Army types and ranks as they frittered away their deployments doing busy work on the FOB, Brave Deeds relentlessly focuses on the actions of fighting men outside the wire, observing the unities of time and place to follow the journey of six junior enlisted infantry soldiers as they cross Baghdad, AWOL, to attend the memorial service of a beloved, at least by some, squad leader. Along the way, adventures ensue, distinctiveness of character emerges, and back-stories get told in the manner of picaresque war tales ranging from the Odyssey to Going After Cacciato, but Brave Deeds feels far from derivative. Rather, it is fired up, that is to say inspired, by an animus that Fobbit hinted at but softened with its comic punch-pulling: Abrams’ interest in, which is to say love for, young enlisted soldiers bereft of the quote-unquote leadership of NCOs and officers, two military demographics whose authority and credibility are discredited in the eyes of the Brave Deeds soldiers, probably Abrams’ as well, and, frankly, my own, looking back at the negligible achievements of long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The David Abrams I know—a career NCO, for what it’s worth–is a kind, gentle, and sweet soul, but Brave Deeds reflects an intense class-war and age-based generation gap sensibility that exposes military lifers as the vapid and ultimately incompetent self-servers that many junior enlisted suspect them to be within weeks of joining. Abrams’ achievement here, people, is immense: many contemporary war fiction titles strive to portray the worldview of junior enlisted service members—“Joe” in Army-speak, or the “Terminal Lance” as they are known in the Marines—and much of it falters for want of craft, over-reliance on clichés, and limitation of vision. Those are not Abrams’ problems in the least; Brave Deeds‘ focus on the infantry squad and young male soldier may be traditional, but the view rendered through Abrams’ eyes is up-to-the-minute.

22 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets

Posted April 12, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

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

Soldiers Patrolling Wheatfield, Khost Province, Afghanistan (USAF-ISAF photo)

To honor National Poetry Month, below are poems by twenty-two American writers whose poems reflect and engage America’s twenty-first century wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, directly, indirectly, or possibly only in my mind. They run the gamut from the nation’s poet-laureate to MFA-honed to raw, and are written by veterans, spouses, and interested civilian observers, but they’re all great individually and collectively they articulate the nation’s crazy play of emotions as it sought redress for the sting of the 9/11 attacks. Many thanks to the authors for writing them and much love also for online media sites that feature poets and poetry–please read them, support them, share them, and spread the word.

The links should take you directly to each of the poems, except for Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren’s and Maurice Decaul’s, which are featured on the Warrior Writers page. An additional click on “Writing” will get you in the ballpark, and you can figure it out from there.

1. Chantelle Bateman, “PTSD.” Apiary Magazine.

2. Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, “Real Vet, Fake Vet.” Warrior Writers.

3. Benjamin Busch, “Madness in the Wild.” Slippery Elm.

4. Eric Chandler, “Maybe I Should Have Lied.” Ash and Bones.

5. Maurice Decaul, “Shush.” Warrior Writers.

6. Jehanne Dubrow, “Much Tattooed Sailor Aboard the USS New Jersey.” poets.org.

7. Elyse Fenton, “Word from the Front.” Reed Magazine.

8. Amalie Flynn, “Where” and “Know.” New York Times.

9. Colin D. Halloran, “I Remember.” Drunken Boat.

10. Victor Inzunza, “The Part of Ourselves We’re Afraid Of.” Pacific Review.

11. Hugh Martin, “Ways of Looking at an IED.” Blackbird.

12. Phil Metres, “Hung Lyres (for Mohamedou Ould Slahi).” Poets Reading the News.

13. Dunya Mikhail, “The Iraqi Nights.” Poetry Foundation.

14. Jenny Pacanowski, “Strength in Vulnerability.” Women Veterans’ Rhetoric.

15. Robert Pinsky, “The Forgetting.” Poetry in Multimedia.

16. Kevin Powers, “Improvised Explosive Device.” Bookanista.

17. Roy Scranton, “And nevermore shall we turn back to the 7-11.” Painted Bride Quarterly.

18. Solmaz Sharif, “Look.” PEN America.

19. Charlie Sherpa, “Toward an understanding of war and poetry told (mostly) in aphorisms.”  Wrath-Bearing Tree.

20. Juliana Spahr, “December 2, 2002.” poets.org.

21. Brian Turner, “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.” Poetry Daily.

22. Paul Wasserman, “Fifteen Months, Twenty-Two Days.” Time Now.

Life During Forever Wartime: Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Elyse Fenton

Posted April 2, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , ,

The contemporary war literature genre, a decade or so old, now sees the welcome appearance of second titles by authors whose first books helped create the genre. This year, for example, brings the release of You Know When the Men Are Gone author Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages, Elliot Ackerman’s novel Dark at the Crossing, his follow-up to Green on Blue, and Elyse Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, her second volume of poetry following Clamor. Though none of the works directly concern war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are of interest to this blog for what they tell of the growth of their authors as writers, as well as the direction of their thoughts, formed by war and now exploring new themes and subjects, or, more accurately, variations on old ones: the human cost of America’s endless warfaring.

Fallon’s The Confusion of Languages takes place in Jordan in 2011 against the backdrop of the Arab Spring rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Its primary narrator is Cassandra “Cass” Hugo, the wife of a mid-ranks US Army foreign service officer named Dan. Cass and Dan are not as happy as they might be, unwanted childlessness having withered their love and Dan, consumed by his job, working long hours. Cass finds herself bored and uneasy, nominally a dutiful military spouse interested in keeping up appearances, but a little more susceptible to intrigue and drama than she realizes. Into the lives of Dan and Cass come Creighton “Crick” Brickshaw, another Army officer, and his wife Margaret, along with their baby son Mather. Dan and Cass are Crick and Margaret’s sponsors, and while Dan and Crick bond easily enough, as officers on deployment generally do, Margaret and Cass circle each other tentatively, separated by disposition and outlook. Cass is conscientious and meticulous and Margaret thoughtless and sloppy, but both are sensitive to the point of skittishness, and their dependence on their mostly-absent husbands for love, lifestyle, and security makes them extremely vulnerable. Acting out their impulses against the backdrop of a culture and people they little understand, each makes major mistakes. The catalyst for the novel’s plot is a car accident, not a big mishap as things go, but one here with awful consequences. When Margaret departs for the police station to file a report, Cass volunteers to watch Mather. Alone with Mather for hours, Cass finds Margaret’s journal, which she begins reading, though she knows she shouldn’t. In a second narration revealed by the diary, Cass learns of a hidden life full of disturbing events that now helps account for Margaret’s failure to return.

Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing portrays an Iraqi-American protagonist named Haris who travels to Syria to fight against the repressive government of President Bashar al-Assad. Haris has fought alongside Americans in Iraq, but troubled by the experience and finding life in America unsatisfying, he yearns for redemption and purpose. Most of the novel takes place not in Syria, though, but in and around the southern Turkey town of Antep, as Haris finds crossing the closed border between the two countries no easy task. Adventures and mysteries quickly accumulate; as an Arab and Muslim, Haris possesses advantages the all-American characters in The Confusion of Languages lack, but he too has been softened by American life, and subsequently finds himself constantly outmatched by the complex and damaged Turks and Syrians he encounters. The advisor team chief I replaced in Afghanistan in 2008 told me that Afghans were rational decision-makers, as long as you understood that their families had already suffered much violence and early death, they were aware that they themselves might be killed any moment, and they were perpetually worried about their families’ financial prosperity in the event of their sudden death. That proved good advice during my year in Afghanistan, and some of that same insecurity underlies the portraits of Syrians, Turks, and Iraqis in Dark at the Crossing. American characters, a Special Forces officer with whom Haris fought in Iraq and thinks about often and an NGO Haris meets in Antep, seem slow in comparison: much like Fallon’s Dan and Crick, if not exactly blustering oafs, they are over-confident and about as self-aware as bricks, whatever claims to professional competence they might project.

Ackerman’s tone is dark and ominous, in the manner of Graham Greene, and so it seems only a matter of time before things go bad for Haris, which they do, by turns worse-and-worse in ever-more surprising plot twists. Things don’t end well for Fallon’s characters, either, though their chin-up and chirpy tones, as conveyed by the novel’s dual narrations, masks the catastrophe, put into play by their naivety, that awaits them–while Haris seems to know things are bound to end badly, the two young American women in Fallon’s novel have trouble imagining anything really terrible can befall them. Both stories interest through their portrayal of adults, rather than the post-adolescents who populate most contemporary war literature, and both authors tap an ages-old theme, now truer than ever, regarding Americans abroad: their delusions and essential immaturity poorly equips them to understand the complexities of a region ravaged by recent conflict on top of the thousands of years of near-continuous strife that preceded it.

The end-of-American-innocence is also on display in Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, though the poems are situated domestically within the author’s household and hometown. An epigraph reveals that Fenton’s daughter is the “sweetest insurgent,” but the poems themselves don’t document the redemptive power of motherhood or the promise of youth, but the blighted cultural landscape with which marriage, motherhood, and youth must now contend. The forever wars (Fenton’s husband is a veteran) linger in the backdrop of Fenton’s meditations, figuring most prominently by providing harrowing new vocabulary that speaks to the angst of the time: “insurgent,” “human shield,” “innocent victim,” “double tap,” and “interrogation report.” The final lines of the title poem provide a vivid example:

….not every bomb can be
dismantled so it must stay buried,
one good ear bent & ticking in the dirt.                                                          

Images of fires, helicopters, and other variations on human crisis, along with those depicting death in the natural world, filter through the poems, too, as actual occurrences, things to worry about, and metaphors for emotional and psychological stress. Professions of vulnerability compete with avowals to fortify; the report of the senses, linked to the urges of desire, is ambiguously pitched between rush to disaster and instinct for survival. In “Wild Deer,” for example, Fenton forebodingly dwells on the death of animals with which she identifies:

Wild Deer

They come down from the hill wilds overnight, three wild deer
drawn to the morning glory’d wire of our lies, our rows

of plenty drawn between the spanse of scrub and road.

In the deer pen of my mind the wildest thoughts nose through
the scurf to nibble juniper, forget what green desire brought them

here. More timid than their summer kin October deer step

soft-shod through the frosted noose of breath that ropes
each hornless head. How easily they start and scare. How easily

I turn from them before the sun-gilt leaves they hungered for

leave them starved of any thought but home. No gentling I know
will lead them out. They’ll lunge themselves to death by a neighbor’s

buckshot or a broken neck. But first they’ll eat their fill.

The tone is terse, fragmented, and haunted; Fenton, I believe, distrusts sensational images (as well as clichéd ones) and thus fights to bring into being a new survivalist rhetoric adequate to life during perpetual wartime. When words such as courage and community are exhausted, she implies, concepts such as love and family are imperiled, too.

The last poem in Sweet Insurgent is titled “Independence Day,” and it’s not a celebration; Ackerman’s, Fallon’s, and Fenton’s excellent books each dramatize deeply-seated concern connected to the downward spiral of America’s frazzled empire. Reverberating through the three works in varying pitches, dawning on the reader with the force of epiphany, is the realization that Americans are having a lot of trouble dealing with problems that being an American has brought on.

Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing.  Knopf, 2017.

Siobhan Fallon, The Confusion of Languages. GP Putnam’s Sons, forthcoming in June, 2017.

Elyse Fenton, Sweet Insurgent. Saturnalia Books, 2017.

Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead

Posted March 14, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead, a collection of ten linked short-stories, ingeniously portrays the ways men make messes of their lives, especially as they are touched by military service and war. Fully functional adult manhood is apparently beyond reach for These Heroic, Happy Dead protagonists, all of whom blunder from one catastrophe to another, exacerbated by alcoholism, poverty, and poor decision-making. Too unsettled to maintain relationships or hold steady jobs, they wreak havoc on family, friends, and strangers who come within their orbit. Mostly untouched by notions of good, many seem oddly proud of the mayhem they cause, as if their instability was not a flaw but an assertion of independence and it’s just too bad their impulses are so destructive. In this light, little about their military service is redemptive; if anything, confused notions about their identity as soldiers amplifies their worst qualities and behaviors. In the moral universe of These Heroic, Happy Dead, unrepentant male foolishness and seething anger are damn near badges of honor that time in uniform has helped the characters earn.

The narrator of the first story, “To the Lake,” illustrates the self-deluded thinking and impulsive behavior Mogelson excels at imagining. The narrator, an Afghan vet, has been left by his wife Lilly, who has now returned to her parents. The narrator harasses her with drunken midnight calls her father Bill won’t put through:

I called again—every few minutes, then every minute—but he wouldn’t answer. In the end Bill was the same as Lilly, same as everyone. People who did not respect the covenant of human relationships. People who believed you could just hang up, walk out. When the Stolichnaya ran dry, I fetched my Bushmaster and a box of ammo, stowed them behind the bench seat of my truck, and headed north.

Crime, arrest, police, jail, and prison lap at the edges of These Heroic, Happy Dead characters’ lives, but Mogelson’s gift is for understanding that stupid people reveal themselves more constantly through the dumb ideas they have about things. A character in the second story, “Sea Bass,” for example, rejoins the Army after some fifteen years when his life has fallen apart. His incredulous son reports, “I listened with amazement. It was true: my father was going back. Not just back to Bragg and the army and the war, but to the life he lived before he met my mother, and before I was born.” Mogelson, through the son, then reveals the depth of the father’s delusion through a fiercely understated description of the father’s fantasy of returning to restaurant outside Fort Bragg where he once enjoyed a meal:

“I’m gonna take you somewhere when you come visit me,” he said, “A restaurant. You go in there and it’s Joes wall to wall, not a civilian in the place. They got a dish there. This dish is the best dish you’ve ever tasted.”
….

“So what’s this dish?”

“Good old Clyde,” my father said [lost in reverie about the dish’s cook].

I swiveled on my stool to face him.

He smiled. “Sea bass,” he said.

“Sea bass.”

“You just wait,” my father said.

While some characters in These Heroic, Happy Dead are delusional, others are perverse. “Peacetime,” for example, is narrated by a National Guardsman named Papadopoulos:

It was peacetime, more or less. It was for us, the New York national guard, at least. Between drills, I worked as a paramedic for a hospital in Queens. My partner on the ambulance, Karen, had applied to the police academy. She wanted to be a detective. This, for me, was troublesome: as a rule, from every residence we visited, I took stuff.

Characters portrayed in theater fare no better. The protagonist of “A Beautiful Country,” a contractor in Afghanistan, is robbed and left stranded in the middle of nowhere within days of arrival in country. The journalist who recounts “Total Solar” describes his notebook: “Many of the pages featured detailed sketches of me killing myself by various means.” Soldiers spiral downward equally quickly; Feldman, a character in “Kids,” is said to be “Too smart for the infantry, anyhow—although, fatally, not smart enough to have seen that in the first place.” In Mogelson’s army, no good deed goes unpunished or uninfected by moral rot. The narrator of “Peacetime,” describes war’s mockery of virtue: “On the last day of our last deployment, Nevins was in the turret of an MRAP, climbing a small hill to bid farewell to the Afghan Army soldiers who manned an observation post on top. A high-voltage, low-hanging electrical wire caught Nevins right between his flak and Kevlar, right where it could kill him.” It turns out, though, that Papadopoulos is probably lying, but the story of another soldier doomed to die seems to have really happened:

Corporal Kahananui had been killed just two weeks prior. Kahananui had signed up under the relaxed enlistment standards of the late-aughts, between surges, when the army was desperate for bodies and taking any man or woman who could fog a mirror. What I mean to say is that he was fat. It wasn’t his fault. He hailed from fat people—fat was in his blood. His broad skeleton, good humor, and squat neck all seemed specially designed to accommodate the inheritance. How he’d made it through basic was the subject of much chow-hall speculation. No way could he have qualified in the push-up, let alone the sit-up, let alone the run. Rather, some drill with a quota must have fudged his score a point or ten. That drill, turned out, did us a favor: Kahananui was the greatest, most casualty-producingest machine gunner I’d ever commanded. He’d fallen for the SAW the first time he felt it chugging in his arms, spraying metal down the range at Benning. Call it an affinity, like the fat kid who chooses the tuba….

Mogelson’s hapless war adventurers and wrecked veterans are colorful, but they aren’t going to win kudos from “vet rising” advocacy groups, help bridge the civil-military divide, or have anyone thanking them for their service. They’re not “traumatized” warriors seeking forgiveness and redemption, nor are they emblems of misunderstood underbelly America waging class war on respectability and prosperity. They don’t try very hard to be anything other than the messes that they are, and, for them, the military and endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan beckon as easy-way-out places where they can indulge their worst tendencies. The most that can be said of them is they realize that the military might reward and channel their crudeness to help defeat a deserving enemy, but that doesn’t work out very well for anyone, either.

Mogelson doesn’t view his characters as tragic, and despite the crazy escapades they find themselves in, they’re not exactly comic, either. As literary creatures, they resemble the Southern Gothic grotesques of Harry Crews, the middle-class failures of T.C. Boyle, and the always-already off-the-tracks youth of Tobias Wolff: half-baked white American masculinity at its most self-destructive helplessness. They’re fun enough to contemplate in fiction, though not so much as real life possibilities.

Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead.  Tim Duggan Books, 2016.

****

These Heroic, Happy Dead has attracted some sharp reviews, such as this one by Justin Taylor and this one by Benjamin Busch. The Busch piece also contains sterling capsule reviews of Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier, Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant, and Odie Lindsey’s We Come to Our Senses.

 

It’s Complicated: Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant

Posted March 7, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,

Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant dares to be different. For starters, the novel’s protagonist, a young lieutenant named Emma Fowler, the platoon leader of an Army unit in Iraq tasked with recovering damaged American vehicles, is not a white male combat arms soldier, the usual hero of war fiction. That’s excellent right there; during my own deployment in Afghanistan I met many young women lieutenants, graduates of service academies and ROTC programs, perched in charge of units that were “all dudes,” or mostly so. They all seemed like the “good lieutenants” Terrell writes of: eager to do well, trying to project competence and fit in while also aware of their status as fiercely-judged pioneers and role models. Terrell, a former war correspondent, must have had his curiosity piqued by seeing the same while embedded with units in Iraq. The recent revelation of a popular Facebook page devoted to sharing pictures of female Marines and commenting on their looks and sex lives reinforces the notion that the military is deeply sexist and hostile to women, despite official policies and programs promoting gender equality. Very relevantly, then, The Good Lieutenant portrays the difficulties women face trying to honorably negotiate a culture that cherishes traditional masculine values to the point of pervasive misogyny. Even better, the novel details the particulars of character and situation that make Fowler’s effort to be “good” so hard.

The Good Lieutenant’s interest in gender is not all that makes it different. Against the grain of most fiction, Terrell narrates Fowler’s war in reverse chronological order. The most recent, most eventful act in the novel—an IED explosion in Iraq–arrives in the first chapter, with the subsequent chapters recounting scenes prior to the climactic introduction, not told “in retrospect” as Fowler remembers things, but portrayed sequentially backwards through time to Fowler’s unit’s train-up at Fort Riley, Kansas. I’ve read a lot, but it took for me a smart review of The Good Lieutenant in New Statesman to identify literary precedents for Terrell’s flipped narration in avant-garde theater and film. Telling a story in reverse order forfeits much of narrative’s dependable suspense-then-climax allure. Sure enough, in The Good Lieutenant, sensational combat scenes, dastardly war crimes, and treacherous military perfidy give way to events that are, frankly, mundane in comparison, but which Terrell’s narrative logic insists we contemplate as cumulatively most important and engaging. Even more unsettling is the disappearance of characters who occupy considerable page space in the opening chapters. An Iraqi interpreter and a mute Iraqi youth who figure prominently in scenes set in Iraq, for examples, drop out of the book one-third of the way in for the simple reasons that Fowler has not yet met them and Terrell chooses not to trace their backstories any further.

The effect is disorienting, which is at least half the point: Terrell’s not interested in programmatic depictions, but in having us respond slowly and cerebrally, rather than quickly and emotionally, to a complicated set of circumstances and events. He helpfully provides an epilogue that brings us back to the IED explosion to make final sense of things, but he’s not especially interested in coddling readers. Like the narratological pyrotechnics, the prose surface of The Good Lieutenant confounds easy apprehension. Terrell offers minimal exposition to help to stage and connect events, with most scenes joined in media res and ended just as abruptly, and he’s apt to describe things suggestively rather than literally. Fowler and the other characters speak to each other in much the same way: clipped, enigmatic comments whose meaning might be understood by each other in context but must be guessed at by readers. Not that this is a bad thing, it bears emphasizing; literalness is a problem in much war fiction, and while The Good Lieutenant demands alert, not-easily-intimidated readers, it’s not Ulysses, either. Terrell’s interest in the pre-history of a traumatizing event, rather than its post-history, is bracing. Combat death is almost always personal, as the survivors interrogate their own complicity in the deaths of fellow soldiers with whom they have lived and worked intensively, and for officers the onus of responsibility is especially strong: The Good Lieutenant illustrates how in a military at war, choices and relationships, born of character and biography, work inexorably to bring soldiers to the point where some live and some die.

All the above said, it’s Terrell’s portrait of Fowler that interests most. The view is of a complicated and flawed young woman, one who wants to do right, but who tends to over-think things and yet still is not able to satisfactorily or effectively stitch together the disparate pieces of her life. Fowler is indeed, by appearances, “good”—her troops call her “Family Values” for her constant admonishments to live wholesomely. She leads by-the-book and tries to be a team player, which is not always a smart move for any officer and which proves disastrous for Fowler. Her goody-two-shoes approach to military leadership is inspired by a dysfunctional family history that left her in charge of a younger brother from an early age. Fowler’s over-developed senses of responsibility and fairness aren’t the worst things in the world, all things considered, but her brother’s contempt for her cues Fowler that her dutiful approach to life reflects insecurity and rigidity rather than reason and kindness.

In uniform, Fowler is mostly isolated from her peers until finding a friend in Lieutenant Pulowski, a signal officer who works at regimental headquarters. Pulowski is also an outlier; he hates the Army and, a proud fobbit, is scared to go outside the wire. He hides his fears behind a misanthropic contempt for gung-ho officers such as Fowler’s company commander Captain Hartz and regimental commander Colonel Seacourt. Pulowski rightly identifies both as nitwits completely made stupid by taking Army dogma too seriously, but his alienation isolates him from playing a meaningful role in the unit. Pulowski might hate Fowler on the same grounds he hates Hartz and Seacourt, but to his credit he recognizes under her Ms. Perfect exterior a darker, more cynical, better self awaiting nurture. Something about Pulowski’s insouciance appeals to Fowler, and soon they are not just hang-out buddies but clandestine lovers. Both recognize the oddness of the pairing; it’s not just for the sake of propriety they keep down-low the friends-with-benefits side of their relationship, it’s as much that, cowards at heart, they cringe at confronting the regiments’s amusement at discovering Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong and the most useless officer in the unit have paired up.

What Pulowski didn’t understand was the that when he said, “Go with the flow,” what she heard was, “Give in,” which happened to be her specialty, not his.  It was exactly what she was doing when, an hour later, she crunched her way up to the E Company TOC and manned her desk in the plywood-floored front room of a double-wide trailer, starting a twelve-hour shift.  The Army was all about giving in.  Every decision, every order, every mission, every battalion update, every PT session.  If your colonel ordered you to set up concrete T-walls inside the wire, you gave in–even if you thought that the walls could have been better used outside the wire.  The flip side was that you belonged to a structure you could trust, with rules that you didn’t have to just make up.  So the giving went both ways, and there was noting to distinguish one person from the next, nothing too embarrassing or too horrible to share.  So far, despite everything, it had pretty much worked this way.  The one exception had been her relationship with Pulowski, and she wouldn’t have had to keep that a secret if she’d been a guy.  Then she could’ve told people that she fucked Pulowski.  Boasted about it.  She could’ve said, Goddamn, I banged the living hell out of this lieutenant an hour ago, which was true.

Fowler and Pulowski are happy together, which counts for something, and good for each other, too–she needs to loosen up and he needs to get motivated–but The Good Lieutenant’s plot works out twists of fate, situation, event, and character that result in catastrophe for them and several others. Their cowardice is part of the issue—prone to overcompensation, both lieutenants act rashly in efforts to prove themselves. Concern for appearances also factors. Constant exposure to the judgment of troops, NCOs, and superiors can cause any lieutenant to wither rather than thrive, and for women the problem is especially acute, as their looks and romantic lives are not only subjects of extreme interest to men but fretful ones in their own minds, too. Terrell makes this point in a short passage describing a visit by Fowler to the gym:

Army of One was the motto that hung over the mirrors in the Fort Riley weight room, right next to the porny photographs of competitors for the Mr. and Mrs. Fort Riley competition flexing and oiled up in their bathing suits. Fowler was in her regulation ARMY T-shirt and black gym shorts wondering what the hell Pulowski was seeing when he praised her body in bed. After three solid weeks of paperwork and overseeing [predeployment] packing, she looked like an Army of about fifteen. Her shorts felt a size too small and the small bung of soft flesh that drooped over the waistband was visible when she kept her shirt tucked in (as regulations required), giving her the profile of a deflated gray balloon, so she strove to keep her eyes on SportsCenter as much as possible instead.

That’s harsh, bringing up many touchy issues about the male gaze and female body issues, and it’s not certain that Terrell’s own authorial gaze doesn’t reinstantiate what it purports to dramatize and critique (nor am I completely innocent in this regard). To tread lightly around these issues, it’s not just women officers but male officers sans 20-inch arms and flat bellies who can relate. The point is Fowler’s realization that, for an officer, looking good is as important as being good and that, once more, she is falling short of the standard. The novel’s title is ironic, but in truth Fowler is far from a bad officer. Her junior enlisted soldiers, for example, seem to like her just fine, and her relations with her superior officers run the usual gamut from terrifying to supportive. Hartz and Seacourt, being fools and thus dismissible, really aren’t the problem in any case.

It’s the disapproval of hardcore male lifers in the unit that makes things complicated for Fowler and where Terrell locates most precisely the difficulty of being a “good lieutenant,” especially when the lieutenant is a woman. Fowler’s platoon sergeant Staff Sergeant Beale, an infantry company commander named Captain Masterson, and a Headquarters officer named Major McKutcheon, all Alpha-male hard-asses who reduce every problem and solution to their most brutal dimensions, dominate Fowler’s thoughts and make her keenly conscious of her shortcomings. She bungles even the easiest conversations with them, emitting flurries of passive-aggressive sparks they register as either disrespect or attempts at sucking up. In turn, they just ride her shit at every opportunity, not in a teasing, helpful way but to drive home the point that she is screwed-up and they are offended by her. They don’t taunt her sexually (though one can imagine how they talk about her behind her back), but it’s clear they are assholes who associate any and all of Fowler’s shortcomings with her gender. And what gives them the right to judge so harshly? Their willingness to brave danger and fight are not issues, but otherwise they make bad decision after bad decision, only to escape culpability by embodying and performing the tough-guy masculinity the military values most. From this perspective, they are exemplars of the toxic patriarchy that makes the military intolerable for many women. Classic examples of how hegemonic thinking perpetuates itself, they are crude men who insist their crudeness is what makes them great soldiers, and they justify their crudeness by flaunting their military savvy and warfighting prowess–as if there necessarily had to be a correlation and there were no other possibilities and if you didn’t agree you were in denial.

But Fowler, and Terrell, too, I believe, are not so sure it’s as simple as that. Beneath the insults, rudeness, and insubordination, the men collectively—Pulowski, also–pressure Fowler to understand she needs to drop her idealism, naivety, and basic dishonesty to be a more effective leader of soldiers in combat—or, at least, of soldiers like Beale, Masterson, and McKutcheon. Not to let them off the hook, but the best that could be said of them is that they want Fowler to be tougher, more decisive, less afraid to break a few rules, to speak more freely and be less guarded, be more dependably “one of them.” As the events of the novel play out, it’s hard to say they are entirely wrong, as the ending–or, rather, the beginning–seems to leave Fowler much sadder but also much wiser and toughened because of the death blows dealt soldiers under her leadership. Lieutenants learning the hard way is the stuff of many war tales, as in Tim O’Brien’s classic “The Things They Carried,” but The Good Lieutenant excels by portraying in detail and complexity what it’s like when the problems are compounded by gender. Now that we know Lieutenant Fowler’s backstory, we are left wondering what she makes of her life going forward.

Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016.

The Watched Pot Begins to Bubble: War Writing at AWP17

Posted February 18, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: ,
Matthew Hefti, Ben Busch, and Mary Doyle in the background, Whitney Terrell in the foreground. Photo by Bill Putnam.

War writers Matt Hefti, Ben Busch, and Mary Doyle in the background, Whitney Terrell in the foreground. Photo by Bill Putnam.

By rough count, the number of war-writing panels at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Washington, DC, last week were fewer than in past years. Of the panels I attended, there was not much presentation of new work, consideration of contentious current events, or anticipation of future possibilities. Last year in Los Angeles, AWP16 celebrated the diversification of veteran voices: now not just white male combat vets, but women, people-of-color, and non-combat military jobs and experiences. At AWP17, that interest was muted, not foregrounded, though curiosity about Iraqi, Afghan, and other Islamic perspectives emerged on panels on adventure-and-conflict journalism and Iraqi fiction in translation. Both panels broached important matters of ethics, aesthetics, and methodology inherent in writing about the Middle East and southwest Asia after fifteen years of nonstop fighting and intense American involvement, but their focus was on journalism and translation, not war fiction, memoir, and poetry written by Americans. Two panels asked veteran authors to reflect on teaching war writing in classrooms and workshops, a subject I care a lot about, but one a step or two removed from the current political hurly-burly or consideration of the panelists’ own craft. Only panels on using poetry to bridge the civil-military divide and on war-writing in the Midwestern “flyover states”—both led by Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa”–explored the love-hate relationship between the American public and war, the military, and militarism. The two panels began to connect the dots between individual military experience and national trends since America first went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, for which I was grateful, but the small taste left me wanting more.

If the war-writing panels themselves were not particularly sharp-edged, that’s not to say that AWP17 reflected a diminution of the vitality of the contemporary war-writing field. If anything, the case was quite the opposite: collectively, the large war-writing contingent in Washington positively bubbled with conviviality, encouragement, and excitement. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know the hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie that comes with arriving safely to a FOB after a long convoy. There was much the same high-five euphoria in the air in DC, as if we found ourselves surprised by finding such welcome and comfort in the midst of troubled times.

What accounts for the upward-trending spirit? Many attendees were animated by Writers Resist Trump activism, particularly as it was organized by Andrew Slater, one of the original Fire and Forget authors, who led a contingent of war writers to the Capitol to lobby on behalf of interpreters affected by the new president’s restrictions on immigration. Another sign of health was the frequent presence of veteran-authors on panels devoted to subjects other than Iraq and Afghanistan—evidence that talented scene stalwarts were now finding fresh subjects and audiences. A cohort of interesting recently-published authors, including Eric Chandler, John Renehan, Whitney Terrell, Matthew Komatsu, Matthew Hefti, and Odie Lindsey, brought energy and new thinking to ongoing discussions as they mixed with familiar AWP faces. Equally exciting was the return to the war-writing fold of many of the field’s pioneers—David Abrams, Elyse Fenton, Kevin Powers, and Helen Benedict, among them—who had not been seen at AWP recently and who now were eagerly met by old hands and newcomers alike. A related factor was anticipation of new work arriving soon by Abrams, Fenton, Powers, Benedict, Jehanne Dubrow, Brian Van Reet, and Siobhan Fallon. With second books on the way from the writers who trailblazed the contemporary war-writing surge, the genre’s enduring worth seems assured. More importantly, war authors with two books or more out, along with occasional published pieces and social media pronouncements, have begun to stake out characteristic themes and subjects, adding maturity and depth to individual bodies of work and collective conversations.

My own contribution to AWP17 consisted of moderating a panel titled From Verse to Stage and Screen: Veterans Adapt. The conceit was to explore the artistic transformation of printed words to public multi-media performance. Bringing the subject to life, panelists Jay Moad, Jenny Pacanowski, Benjamin Busch, and Brian Turner read or performed passages of their work as examples of the process. Moad, a last-minute replacement for playwright Maurice Decaul, led off with a gripping rendition of a scene from Outside Paducah, his one-man play about three generations of war-torn veterans. Pacanowski followed with a raucous spoken-word poem titled “Combat Dick”—surely an instant classic in the annals of writing by women veterans. Busch read an intriguing scene about the peeling of an orange (really!–only Busch could have pulled this off) from his movie Bright and invited us to consider how art that speaks not the name of war can be about war nonetheless. Turner concluded by leading the audience in a group “hum” (literally!) that he recorded for use as ambient noise in a future mixed-media project. He then had us repeat our hum as the backdrop for an incantatory freestyle based on a refrain from an unpublished poem.

At the end of our allotted time, I had not yet asked the panelists to connect their interest in performance with larger worldviews and issues, so I might stand guilty of the same quietist-escapist tendencies I noted above: Was our panel a retreat into the pure realm of art or the fantasy-land of entertainment? That’s not how I felt about it then, though, nor now. Rather, the marvelous performances by Moad, Pacanowksi, Busch, and Turner modeled the imagination, courage, humor, and found moments of joy that are in short supply these days and in fact seem under threat. In the Q&A, an audience member, obviously inspired by the panelists’ ability to turn a drab conference room into a magical collective performance space, wondered if they might be able to work similar transformations in public places full of unwitting, unsolicited people. The concept was hard to understand, but the question-asker seemed to have in mind a Situationist-style performance-art infusion of the mundane world with the restorative and righteous properties of interactive theater. That seemed a lot to ask of artists even as fearless and creative as Moad, Pacanowski, Busch, and Turner, who remained noncommittal while taking in the idea. The question made me think, though: what it asked for seems already to apply to the ongoing national political spectacle, as we’ve all been turned by the new president into participating members of The Trump Show. Here’s to an equal-but-opposite-and-worthier counter-assault, mounted by writers who know what it means to fight, using all available tools and energy to strengthen the artistic and intellectual might of the nation, and hence its social, cultural, and political health, too.


%d bloggers like this: