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.

Onward to DC–War Writing at AWP17

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


In advance of next week’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) 2017 conference in Washington, DC, below are pictures I took of contemporary war fiction titles on the shelves of the New Brunswick, NJ, public library. Here is a schedule of events featuring war writers, compiled by Charlie Sherpa. I’ll be moderating a panel titled From Verse to Stage and Screen: Veterans Adapt featuring Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Maurice Decaul, and Jenny Pacanowski, and I hope to see you there or at one of the other war writing panels. There are also many off-the-program and after-hours events featuring war writing stalwarts and newcomers, so stay tuned to your social media feeds for details. I’m sensing that the war-lit community really wants to gather, no doubt in response to these troubled times, and that’s how I’m feeling, too. Thanks for reading and writing everybody, support your local library, and see you in DC.




The Road Ahead: Obama to Trump

Posted January 26, 2017 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , ,


Congratulations to everyone involved in the writing and release of The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, a new anthology of short war fiction that features twenty-four intriguing and well-crafted stories about war in Iraq and Afghanistan and its aftermath. The authors are all veterans who have risen to prominence in war-writing circles since the 2012 success of contemporary war novels The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and The Watch, and the early 2013 publication of the war fiction anthology Fire and Forget.

In the wake of these pioneering works, upwards of thirty novels and short-story volumes portraying military men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan and upon their return to the States have been published. This wave of war story-telling suggests the burden of finding new tales to tell and fresh ways to tell them must have been heavy for The Road Ahead authors, whose published work heretofore has largely been essays, memoirs, poetry, and journalism, not fiction. Fortunately, the authors bring to narrative life many interesting nooks in the war-and-veteran experience, and they do so with verve and imagination. Editors Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, assisted by Teresa Fazio and Aaron Gywn, have selected well and inspired excellence in their contributors, who represent a wide range of military experiences and demographic diversity. The editors have applied their touch to ensure each story is both taut and capable of surprise, even when the tales-told fall well within war-writing conventions. Benjamin Busch provides a title-appropriate cover photo, a story of his own, and best of all, marvelous drawings to illustrate each contributor’s story. Both Sparta author Roxana Robinson and the editors offer introductions that alertly explore the phenomenon of veterans writing in the years after the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taken together, The Road Ahead stories imaginatively and perceptively dramatize prevalent concerns of a talented and ambitious cohort of veteran-authors who paid attention while in uniform and then while observing the post-war literary surge.

I enjoyed all the stories, but the most prudent consideration of them individually will take a few more reads, so here I’ll concentrate on collective impressions. In keeping with the anthology’s title, for example, several tales depict protagonists taking long road trips, either as drivers or passengers, to include an excellent one by Kristen L. Rouse, titled “Pawns,” that features Afghan truck drivers. Military vehicle movement in-theater and car-travel back in America figure throughout The Road Ahead as catalysts for action and thought, a literal equivalent of the characters’ sense of their lives as journeys that began prior to service, extend through deployment, and continue to unfold post-war. Most stories take place either during deployment or within a few days, weeks, or months after redeployment–only one, Christopher Paul Wolfe’s moving “Another Brother’s Conviction,” looks back on war from the vantage point of a few years. War thus still burns hot in the lives of the veterans portrayed in The Road Ahead; at least two characters express outright desire to “go back,” as if the warzone were preferable to civilian life. The nostalgic sentiment seems to prevail in many other tales as well, if only as a lament to either be given a second chance to do better or to return to a state of innocent naivety prior to war’s horror. Across the board, almost every story concerns the tightly focused experience of an individual; few feature multiple principle characters, and only one by my count–Christopher Paul Wolfe’s, again–places individual service in the U.S. military in larger political or national contexts.

Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades,” Nate Bethea’s “Funeral Conversation,” and several other stories depict war in Afghanistan and Iraq from the point-of-view of “boots-on-the-ground” male combat-arms soldiers. In the literary microcosm of the squad, platoon, and company, higher-ups rarely figure, and when they do they are held in contempt. The interesting tension these tales portray pits official codes-of-conduct and notions of honor against more cynical–or pure, depending on how you look at it–ones that value toughness, fighting ability, and loyalty to fellow soldiers above all else. This is pretty well-trodden war lit ground, but the interest here lies in how quickly combat in Iraq and Afghanistan drove highly-trained, presumably highly-motivated volunteers to abandon their professionalism and discredit themselves by their actions. Another set of stories portrays the signature subject of contemporary war fiction: post-deployment emotional anguish, especially as it is caused by memories and guilt associated with the death of fellow soldiers. Again, the interest lies in the particulars and specifics of this by-now common subject. Eric Nelson’s “Blake’s Girl” and David F. Eisler’s “Different Kinds of Infinity” especially delight by working variations on two classic Poe tales, “The Purloined Letter” and “The Black Cat,” respectively, while Brandon Willitts’s “Winter on the Rim” impresses by never mentioning war, soldiers, or veterans at all. Brandon Caro’s “The Morgan House,” about severely-wounded veterans stuck in the military’s hapless rehabilitation apparatus, works much the same ground as Brian Van Reet’s great contribution to Fire and Forget, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” with equally wicked, in a good way, results. Quite a few authors in addition to Kristen L. Rouse portray Afghans or Iraqis either possessed by the spirit of jihad or, more interestingly, conflicted by jihad’s disruptive demands. A half-dozen or so stories by male veterans depict masculine sexual behavior–masturbation, prostitution, getting laid, getting dumped, etc.–as it played out in Iraq, Afghanistan, and afterwards, but even more striking are Kayla M. Williams’ “There’s Always One,” Lauren Kay Halloran’s “Operation Slut,” and Teresa Fazio’s “Little,” all of which chart female sexuality on-and-post-deployment. While the essential integrity and values of most story protagonists are rarely threatened, at least two stories–Adrian Bonenberger’s “American Fapper” and Brian Castner’s “The Wild Hunt” (stories written by the editors, go figure) treat their main characters roughly, as if to suggest that there were something deficient with how they view and conduct themselves. Both these stories, interestingly, also comment reflexively on war-story-telling conventions by satirizing popular motifs. Humor is only evident here-and-there, but Benjamin Busch’s “Into the Land of Dogs” and Maurice Emerson Decaul’s “Death of Time” among a few others, complicate earnest, straightforward narration by incorporating dream, fantasy, surrealism, allegory, and other extravagant literary effects.

One quibble is that the title ominously invites readers to wonder what the future will bring, but the introductions and stories stop short of considering the relationship of war-writing and the lives of veterans and veteran-authors to the most up-to-the-minute political, cultural, and literary moment: the end of the age of Obama and the beginning of the age of Trump. Understandably so, because the stories were written and assembled before the Trump juggernaut loomed large in the literary windshield, but The Road Ahead points more clearly to where we were on November 7, 2016, than to where we are going after January 20, 2017. In other words, it documents the state of war fiction at a moment just before the social context from which its authors drew inspiration began to rapidly shift and the stakes escalate, processes that will inevitably morph the shape and texture of war-writing. The range and variety of the subjects, styles, and themes on display in The Road Ahead are as impressive as the craft that governs their presentation, but the road ahead of The Road Ahead promises to be even more interesting, as the collection’s shrewd contributors measure the import of the new President’s ideas and actions on their own thoughts about war, the military, soldiers, and veterans.

The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, foreword by Roxana Robinson, cover photo and interior illustrations by Benjamin Busch. Pegasus, 2017.


The new administration has already targeted the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for elimination. I’m against both moves; I think the government should increase spending on art, scholarship, and historical inquiry, not reduce or eliminate it. In particular, I’ll be sad to see the NEH program Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of War and the NEA program Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network go, since they are dedicated to remembering and honoring the service and sacrifice of veterans and promoting their well-being.


This week, through a quirk of my social media feed, I learned that yet another of my former students at West Point died in combat. Captain Brian S. Freeman was killed in Iraq in 2007 while serving with a Civil Affairs team. I recollect Cadet Freeman as perhaps the most handsome cadet I ever taught, and that’s saying something, as well as possessing an intelligent and lively approach to life. Reading his obituary, for example, it didn’t surprise me at all to learn that he was a world-class bobsledder in addition to being a fine officer and beloved husband and father. RIP Captain Brian Freeman, thank you, you are remembered.

Iraq War Memorial, Raritan Bay Waterfront Park, NJ

Iraq War Memorial, Raritan Bay Waterfront Park, NJ, Jan 2017

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.

%d bloggers like this: