War Fiction: Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In

Posted November 24, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

Nicholas Kulish’s 2007 novel Last One In, about an unlikely war correspondent embedded with US Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, didn’t pass unnoticed upon release. A New York Times review, for example, called it “funny, harrowing, and sympathetic,” as well as a “worthy addition to the curious but indispensable shelf of war satires.” Last One In seems not to have made much of a lasting impact, however. The contemporary war-writing fiction scene didn’t get rolling for another few years, and when it did, “war satire” never established itself as a dominant mode for depicting war in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Abrams’ great Fobbit the exception that proves the rule. Instead, a downbeat dwelling on the traumatizing costs of war as experienced by the individual soldier prevailed as the dominant subject and tone, reflected starkly in works such as Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, and the stories in the seminal anthology Fire and Forget. Last One In’s focus on Operation Iraqi Freedom’s opening act also seemed to have missed the mark of the nation’s interest, as an onslaught of later books—the ones I’ve mentioned above and many many more–about the difficulties veterans face after coming home came to define publishing and popular thinking about what it meant to write about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another factor that helped relegate Last One In to obscurity was a national literary sentiment that privileged narratives about contemporary war authored by soldier-veterans above those written by anyone else. The veteran’s voice, polished by tutelage in MFA programs and veterans’ writing workshops, exuded an authoritative credibility that has left civilian authors of war-and-mil novels, even superb ones such as Ben Fountain and Roxana Robinson, constantly having to explain themselves, perpetually fighting uphill for respect and readers. Journalists especially seem to have collectively decided not to even try to write novels about the modern wars; off the top of my head I can’t name another fictional work about war in Iraq or Afghanistan by an author who identified primarily as a reporter.

Reading Last One In recently (I had never of it before this year, and I make it my business to know about these things), Kulish’s novel struck me as of a piece with Evan Wright’s much more well-known Generation Kill (2004), and the 2008 HBO television series of the same name based on Wright’s book. Both Last One In and Generation Kill feature inside looks at Marine units as they alternatingly charge and creep from Kuwait to Baghdad in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Both works are focalized through the eyes of embedded journalists stuffed into the back of Humvees manned by Marine enlisted soldiers. In each case, the Marines swap endless insults and complaints, both to entertain each other and burn off anxiety in-between occasional moments of action. Neither Wright nor Kulish have much to say about tactics, strategy, or actual fighting, but then neither do the Marines with whom they ride. For both authors, the really interesting subject is the very masculine Marine culture they’ve been given access to, as it is for the Marines themselves, whose chatter revolves endlessly around how it is to see the world through the eyes of a Marine. The peep into Marine culture both fascinates and repulses Wright and Kulish. In the television series version of Generation Kill, for example, close-ups of the Wright character predominate as he responds silently-but-bug-eyed to the foul-mouthed, insubordinate, and politically incorrect tirades of the driver of the vehicle in which he rides. In Last One In, one suspects Kulish relied on good notes to craft lines such as:

…they talked their way through the celebrity spectrum, about who was uglier in real life, who had gained weight recently, and who was gay. Speculating on male homosexuality was the most popular subject. The only actors they didn’t seem to consider closet cases were Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. Han Solo could not be gay, the majority ruled. Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck, on the other hand, were two candelabra shy of Liberace.

Trying to determine the reporter-character/journalist-authors’ takes on the homophobia, misogyny, and racism they witness, as well as the Marines’ blatant lack of respect for many members of their chains-of-command and general disdain for Iraqis, is one of the more interesting deliberations that come with watching Generation Kill and reading Last One In. Is the casual crudeness part of the Marines’ charm, an integral verbal and mental aspect of hardened fighting men? Or is it a cringe-worthy social corollary to the surprisingly inept military proficiency and general thoughtlessness the reporter-observers often note? The decade-plus since Generation Kill and Last One In have intensified the questions, not answered them. The dominant sentiment, which I hold, is that such “toxic military masculinity” is neither charming nor necessary, and should be censored and policed by official chains-of-command and stigmatized by the media and the populace. To a certain extent, the needle has shifted within the military itself and such attitudes no longer are tolerated or even hold sway. But they are not gone, by any means, nor is there consensus that they should be. For some, the censoring and policing and stigmatizing are worse than the problem itself, if they even see it as a problem.

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Last One In’s many scenes set among Marines in the close confines of their vehicles and squad bays reflect Kulish’s journalistic eye for detail. They also give me a chance to expound briefly on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. It’s a concept that especially interests me as I read and watch stories about contemporary war and how they depict the microcosmic world of soldiers living among other soldiers. To quote from a reputable website, habitus “refers to the physical embodiment … of deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences.” To quote from Bourdieu himself, habitus is “a subjective but not individual system of internalised structures, schemes of perception, conception, and action common to all members of the same group or class.” (The Wikipedia entry on habitus is not bad in translating those ideas into plainer English).

Habitus is related to the concept of mise-en-scène, a film and stage term, but has a more literary and critical bent. Besides, one French aesthetic idea is enough to deal with in a single blog post. For me, an author’s or artist’s representation of military habitus is always the most interesting thing. I especially like thinking about habitus in relation to scenes set inside vehicles, where soldiers act and interact in ways that are learned, stylized, and performative, but also highly naturalized (or, “internalized”). When such scenes are done well, they not only make me nostalgic for my own time spent cooped up in military vehicles on long movements, but render the impression that the author or artist is highly alert to the essence of what it is like psychologically and sociologically to be a soldier. Bourdieu was a sociologist, and so for him an accurate account of a particular habitus depended on “objective,” nominally value-neutral “thick description” (another lit-crit term) depiction of observed habits and speech patterns, which are then ascribed to the holding of specific worldviews and attitudes. That’s also close to the credo of journalists and anthropologists as they observe cultures and sub-cultures and try to describe them as fairly and accurately as possible. Novelists and artists, for their part, value thick description, too, but also everywhere they constantly inflect their depictions with irony, ambiguity, and shades of perspective. They’re also aware that the very act of observation induces an “observer effect,” whereby the actions of the observed change under the act of observation. That is certainly a factor afoot in Generation Kill and Last One In, where the embedded journalist protagonists surveil with pen-and-pad in-hand the Marines with whom they pass hours, days, and weeks.

To put a point on this esoteric discussion, here’s a long passage from Last One In set in a Humvee during the slow grind to Baghdad. The embedded journalist is Jimmy, the Marines are Privates Ramos (also known as “little Macho”) and Martinez, and their squad leader Sergeant Harper.

The gaps in conversation were torture, since there was no dearth of terrible scenarios the imagination could conjure. After several minutes of miserable silence, Jimmy announced, “You know, I’ve been here for a week, and I haven’t seen one camel.”

“Oh, who fucking cares?” Martinez said.

“Yeah, fuck your camel,” Ramos added….

[Jimmy exploded:] “Every minute since you’ve met me, I’ve had one thing on my mind. Thinking, ‘I’m going to fucking die. I’m going to fucking die.’ But do I whine about it? No. Because—because it’d get pretty boring to have me screaming about dying in the backseat all the way to Baghdad. Don’t you think?” Harper didn’t answer. “Don’t you think? So maybe I fucking want to talk about camels instead.”

“Jimmy,” Martinez said at last, very gingerly, “You haven’t seen one camel?”

“No, man,” Jimmy said with a laugh for the preposterously camel-free desert. “Not a goddamned one.”

“I’ve seen a couple,” Harper said.

“Me too,” Martinez said. They were using the indulgent tones of orderlies in an asylum.

“One hump or two?” Jimmy asked.

“One, I think,” Martinez said.

“Yeah, I think they were one,” Harper said.

“Cool,” Jimmy answered.

“Motherfucker,” Ramos said.

“What now?” Harper responded.

“How come I’m the only Marine who hasn’t seen a camel?”

“Everybody shut the fuck up,” Harper said. “That’s an order.” The talking ban was surprisingly effective, lasting a full hour, probably because each was a little pissed off at the others. Harper kept leaning back like he was trying to sleep, but Jimmy found it impossible to get any rest with the fear, the bouncing of the jeep, and the sand caked against teeth, tongue, and nostrils. He took notes instead. When no one spoke, all they could hear was the groaning of the vehicle on its shocks and the static of tiny grains of sand pelting the canvas top. The sandstorm lasted longer than they could stand to listen to those sounds. It was Ramos who cracked.

“What you writing?” he asked Jimmy. “Saying we’re lost? Don’t write that shit.”

“Not saying anything. And you can’t tell me what to write anyway.”

“C’mon, Jimmy,” Martinez said. “Step up.”

“Quit censoring the civilian, Private,” Harper said.

“You saying we fucked up?” Ramos asked.

“I’m writing a letter to my mom,” Jimmy said.

“What’s it say?” the private continued to pry.

“You know what?” Jimmy told him. “It says we’re lost. Says you fucked up. What do you think now?”

“You…” Ramos began. “You tell her a real Marine says hello.”

“Yea. And tell her little Macho said hi, too,” Martinez added. Jimmy looked down at his paper and finished writing, blessedly undisturbed.

Nicholas Kulish, Last One In. Harper-Perennial, 2007.

War Songs: Time Now Greatest Hits

Posted November 16, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags:

Hard to believe I’ve only written about music nine times since starting Time Now, but so it is the case. Honestly, there just doesn’t seem that many songs about Iraq and Afghanistan out there, although the list here names a few of which I wasn’t previously aware, and I’m sure there are others. Whatever, I enjoy writing about music and several of the posts below rank among my favorites. Some of them speak more personally of my own deployment than the typical Time Now post. The songs I loved were vitally important to me while I was in Afghanistan. I’m sure it was the same for most of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with whom I deployed, and remained so in the jangled-up years after return.

Can You Take a Five Finger Death Punch? November 26, 2018. Artist featured: Five Finger Death Punch.

Two Songs, Ten Years: Music, Memories, and Going to War, October 6, 2018. Artists featured: Thao Nguyen, The Walkmen.

Khost, Afghanistan in the Western Musical Imagination, July 10, 2016. Artists featured: Three bands, each named “Khost.”

Where Have All the War Songs Gone? February 7, 2015. Artists featured: Old Crow Medicine Show, Jason Isbell, The Offspring, Josh Ritter.

Newsted’s Heavy Metal Tribute to Pat Tillman, January 3, 2014. Artist featured: Jason Newsted.

A War Music Sampler: Country, Folk, Hip-Hop, July 11, 2013. Artists featured: Jimmy Rose, Zac Charles, Jason Moon, Emily Yates, Chamillionaire, Soldier Hard.

Jason Everman, July 4, 2013. Artist featured: Jason Everman.

Daniel Somers, June 29, 2013. Artist featured: Daniel Somers.

Mike Doughty, June 22, 2013. Artists featured: Mike Doughty, Linkin Park, Adele.

Veterans Day Iraq and Afghanistan War Movie Guide

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

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A still from 2018’s 12 Strong: The Declassified Story of the Horse Soldiers.

Just in time for Veterans Day weekend binge-watching, or binge-reading, here are links to all Time Now posts that review movies about twenty-first century war in Iraq and Afghanistan. No Generation Kill, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, or 12 Strong, unfortunately, because I’ve yet to write on them. Also, no Captain Phillips, Act of Valor, or 13 Hours, for the same reason and because they’re not set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Finally, no Jarhead, since it’s about the Gulf War, nor the Jarhead sequels, because either their location is indeterminate or I haven’t watched them yet. Still, there’s plenty more to keep you entertained. What will I be watching? Generation Kill again, and I hope to finally get to 12 Strong.

Sand Castle (2017). US Army soldiers struggle to complete a civil affairs project in Iraq. Starring Nicholas Hoult as Private Matt Ocre.

Thank You for Your Service (2017). US Army Iraq veterans cope with PTSD after leaving the service. Starring Miles Teller as Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann.

War Machine (2017). An idiosyncratic US Army general takes charge of the war in Afghanistan. Starring Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon.

The Yellow Birds (2017). Two US Army soldiers are tormented by the death of a third in Iraq. Starring Alden Ehrenreich as Private John Bartle. Also discussed at length here.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016). An unlikely Iraq War hero is feted by the American public. Starring Joe Alwyn as US Army Specialist Billy Lynn.

Nobel (2016). The long reach of war in Afghanistan follows Norwegian soldiers home after deployment. Starring Aksel Hennie as Lieutenant Erling Riiser.

War Dogs (2016). Two in-over-their-heads arms entrepreneurs try to make it big selling ammo to the Afghan National Army. Starring Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli and Miles Teller as David Packouz.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016). A female journalist parties hard while exposing problems with the US military effort in Afghanistan. Starring Tina Fey as Kim Barker.

Hyena Road (2015). Canadian soldiers debate whether counterinsurgency operations or combat action is the path to victory in Afghanistan. Starring Paul Goss as Captain Pete Mitchell and Rossif Sutherland as Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders.

A War (2016). The long reach of war in Afghanistan follows Danish soldiers home after deployment. Starring Pilou Asbaek as Commander Michael Pedersen.

American Sniper (1) (2014). A Navy SEAL at first excels in battle in Iraq but eventually cracks under the stress of repeated tours. Starring Bradley Cooper as Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle. American Sniper (2)

Fort Bliss (2014). A female US Army sergeant, a battlefield hero in Afghanistan, fights for respect on return to the States. Starring Michelle Monaghan as Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann.

Lone Survivor (2013). A Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan goes awry. Starring Mark Wahlberg as Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell.

Zero Dark Thirty (1) (2012). A bold female CIA agent leads the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Starring Jessica Chastain as “Maya.” Zero Dark Thirty (2)

Green Zone (2010). A swashbuckling US Army officer fights not just insurgents in Iraq, but enemies within his own ranks. Starring Matt Damon as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller.

The Messenger (2009). Two US Army soldiers notify next-of-kin of loved ones’ deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Starring Woody Harrelson as Captain Tony Stone and Ben Fisher as Sergeant Will Montgomery.

The Hurt Locker (2008). A cocky US Army bomb disposal expert wages war in Iraq on his own terms. Starring Jeremy Renner as Sergeant First Class William James.

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Postscript: After publishing the post above, I read the following in Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In, a 2007 novel narrated by an embedded journalist assigned to a Marine unit at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A Marine named Martinez opines on whether reporters should carry and fire weapons when attached to a unit going into combat:

“I’ve seen We Were Soldiers, with Mel Gibson,” Martinez continued. “That reporter said the same thing. When the time cam, he started popping like his name was Dirty Harry.” A civilian stateside might feel inadequate for imagining war in terms of movies. After he lived with a Marine rifle company, that feeling would vanish. Everything was related in terms of movies, Braveheart and Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket, and with the reverence reserved for canonical texts, Black Hawk Down. It said a lot for the movie that Marines would hold a film about Army Rangers in such high regard. If a reporter had shot people in We Were Soldiers, by the Marine logic, it must be so.

War Fiction: Benjamin Buchholz’s One Hundred and One Nights

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

Tags: ,

US Army veteran Benjamin Buchholz’s 2011 novel One Hundred and One Nights’ first-person narrator is an unlikely Iraqi participant in the war against America in the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Abu Saheeh (his name a pseudonym meaning “Father Truth” in Arabic) is a middle-aged doctor from a prominent Baghdad family who, after studying and practicing medicine in Chicago for thirteen years, returns to Iraq to assist the transition to post-Ba’athist rule. An unwelcome reunion with a hated older brother, however, leads to the death of Abu Saheeh’s daughter and sends him on a downward spiral fueled by remorse, anger, and alcohol that eventually result in psychosis and extreme narrator unreliability. The narrative proper of One Hundred and One Nights takes place in a small town on the Iraq-Kuwait border named Sufwan, where at the novel’s opening we find Abu Saheeh running a small shop selling mobile phones by the side of the main road from Kuwait to Baghdad. The business, however, is only a cover: Abu Saheeh’s real purpose in Sufwan is to monitor American military convoys in preparation for emplacing a roadside bomb that, as events transpire, will not only kill American soldiers but allow him to enact revenge on his brother. Abu Saheeh’s sense-of-mission in Sufwan, however, is troubled mightily by the intrusion into his life of an apparently homeless and orphaned preadolescent girl named Layla, a “market urchin” who uncannily complicates Abu Saheeh’s plans and thoughts.

That’s an intriguing set-up, and as One Hundred and One Nights is fairly unknown, I’ve already given away too much, for Buchholz skillfully hides much of Abu Saheeh’s backstory until the novel’s closing pages, even as his reliability as a narrator becomes increasingly shaky. The author’s handling of chronologically complicated narrative threads is not the only accomplished aspect of One Hundred and One Nights, for the novel excels in many other ways, too. Buchholz has done very well to create complex, memorable characters—not only Abu Saheeh, but a host of other central and minor figures–devise a plot that captivates and surprises, and situate his story in a densely-rendered culture milieu that seems not just accurate but knowing. The prose is neither gutbucket simplistic nor highly stylized, but serves nicely for explorations of mental landscapes and invocations of a ghost-land spaces where reality, image, and fantasy blur:

In my home I sit completely naked at my kitchen table for a long while. In front of me I have placed my whiskey bottle. It is empty. Behind the whiskey bottle, I have placed the bomb, the next bomb, the second and, I hope, last of those bombs bought with Sheikh Seyed Abdullah’s money, smuggled across the border in pieces behind the disguise of the whiskey bottles. The thick and rounded bottle distorts the shape of the bomb. The facets of the bottle reflect the image of my haggard face, superimposed on the curving shape of the detonation charge, so that the bomb seems to have my rough whiskers, my black tumble of hair, my untrimmed mustache, my depthless, reddened eyes.

Before writing One Hundred and One Nights, Buchholz published a memoir titled Private Soldiers (2007) about his National Guard unit deployment to southern Iraq. In Iraq, Buchholz served as a civil affairs officer in and around Sufwan. Apparently the genesis of One Hundred and One Nights were the death of a local girl and the bombing of one of his unit’s vehicles, but rather than focusing on the victims of war, especially the American victims, or on the experience of American fighting men, Buchholz has used his first novel to dramatize the events through the eyes of their killer. Buchholz’s tour in Iraq, he explains in an addendum to One Hundred and One Nights, instilled in him a desire “to understand and empathize with the types of personalized hatred and personalized loss and personalized dementia that I believe to be at the core of the mind-set required to perpetrate a bombing or kill another human being.” When asked why he chose to write from an Iraqi perspective, Buchholz writes, “I think it is an issue of empathy, of trying to understand other people,” but also, “Writing from my own point of view of someone culturally similar to me would have been boring.” Fiction rather than non-fiction, according to Buchholz, offers an “outlet for hypothesizing, a place that allows me to give structure to ideas and concepts that seem in the real world important but also ephemeral, shifty, unquantifiable, nonlinear.”

Those explanations are insightful, if more turgidly expressed than the more fluid and supple prose of One Hundred and One Nights would suggest. One Hundred and One Nights probes the limits of empathy through sympathetic character creation, at a time when issues of cultural appropriation and Orientalism are real concerns. Buchholz appears to have damned the critical torpedoes by creating a story around one of the mysterious, anonymous residents of Iraq he must have observed by the thousands during his tour. Given its subject, One Hundred and One Nights was probably not destined to ever be popular among American readers more interested in the experience of American soldiers than those whom they fought. The book’s title, which plays a little too obviously on the ur-text of Arabian literature, One Thousand and One Nights, and the book’s jacket, which features a fetching young Arab woman peaking out from under a hijab, also bespeak an uneasiness which someone, either Buchholz himself or his publishers, must have felt about bringing a book told by a radicalized middle-aged male Iraqi insurgent before American reading audiences. That the novel succeeds as well as it does is a testament not so much to Buchholz’s cultural acuity but his literary skill. Its interrogation of the limits of empathy is excellent, but its exploration of the possibilities of artful tale-telling even better.

As far as I can tell, One Hundred and One Nights is the first novel about war in Iraq written by a US military veteran and one of the first novels about the war written by any American. As such, it’s a fantastic first effort right out of the chute at the head of the tradition it helps inaugurate. As of 2019, One Hundred and One Nights and Private Soldiers remain Buchholz’s only published books, but just this year he snagged a spot as a featured columnist for the online journal The Writer, and there he announces that he has contracts for two more books forthcoming in 2020. I’m glad to hear it and I look forward to learning what they are all about.

Thanks to David Eisler for the tip on One Hundred and One Nights and another early-on novel set at least partially in Iraq, Nicholas Kulish’s 2007 Last One In, which I’m reading now and will be writing about soon.

Benjamin Buchholz, One Hundred and One Nights. Back Bay-Little Brown, 2011

15 Months, 10 Years After

Posted October 20, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: General

On the move in Khost Province, June 2009.

Before I started Time Now, I kept a blog called 15-Month Adventure, about my service as a US Army advisor to the Afghan National Army from 2008-2009. In its time, 15-Month Adventure was more popular than Time Now has ever been, measured by number of views. Still, it was never a blog for the masses, and you could easily be a reader of Time Now and not even know 15-Month Adventure existed.

If you care to check them out, below are links to several 15-Month Adventure posts that tell some of the most significant and interesting stories related to my deployment. The posts here are largely drawn from the first seven months in Afghanistan, when I was the leader of an advisor team (known as “ETTs,” or “Embedded Transition Team”) on Camp Clark in Khost Province. Camp Clark was co-located with Camp Parsa, the home of the Afghan National Army 1st Brigade, 203 Corps, which was the unit with whom my advisor team worked.

Looking back at the posts, I’d say most of them concern the ambiguity of the events I lived through and the Afghans I met, while others record the respect for the men and women with whom I served. There’s also a few that describe combat or events that happened after I redeployed.

Afghans

Red Beard. A strange encounter with an Afghan elder.

LACKA-LACKA. Afghans relished verbal back-and-forth.

Orientalism. We knew so little about the Afghans with whom we worked.

Big Tent. Encounters with Afghan women were few, but telling.

A Little Bit of Afghan Goofiness. When things got crazy, you had to laugh.

500 Mattresses. About corruption and knowing who to trust.

New Yorker: More about corruption and knowing who to trust.

Sabari. A hardcore Pashtun elder was surprisingly easy to work with.

Americans

The BSO. BSO stands for “Battle Space Owner.” I learned a lot from the BSO in Khost.

Swenson. A fellow advisor was awarded the Medal of Honor.

War Horses. In praise of my XO and Sergeant Major.

All Hail the Defenders of Spera COP. My worst fear was that our tiny outpost on the Pakistan border might be overrun.

Spera COP Sector Sketch. More on Spera COP.

Afghanistan Combat Medic. One of our medics was a true hero.

The Best ETT of Us All. In memoriam.

Me Time. How we tried to take care of each other and relax in our down time.

Afghanistan

The KG.  Every trip into the Khost-Gardez Pass was epic.

Tani. While we were there, Tani was a quiet place that inspired reverie.

Up Sabari Way. In Sabari, anything could happen, and usually did.

Pat Tillman. We traveled to Spera District Center, near where Pat Tillman was killed.

Action

The Death of Hekmatullah. About a gun-battle just outside of Camp Clark.

On the Border. Two ambushes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.

Big Battle. Insurgents occupied a government office building in downtown Khost.

12 May 2009 Redux. More pictures from the big battle in downtown Khost.

Bronze Star with V Device. An award recommendation for a Special Forces sergeant. Not written by me, I should say, though I heartily approve.

RPG Boom-Boom. When rocket propelled grenades come your way, it is no joke.

Gun Run. Calling in two Kiowa Warrior helicopter gunships.

Afterwards

Still. Thinking about a very bad day in Afghanistan.

The Road That Dare Not Speak Its Name. The name of the main road through our sector was classified.

The Prettiest of Trees The Dogwood Now. Encountering a former student, now a disabled veteran.

Man Down. About a motorcycle accident.

Fallen Soldier. A picture from a memorial service in Khost.

 

Firstest With the Mostest: Turner, Bigelow, Fallon

Posted October 11, 2019 by Peter Molin
Categories: Art and War

Tags: , ,

Brian Turner’s poetry volume Here, Bullet, director Kathryn Bigelow’s movie The Hurt Locker, and Siobhan Fallon’s short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone stand at the beginning of the modern war literature, art, and film tradition Time Now documents, but I’ve never written stand-alone posts dedicated to them. One reason for the oversight is chronological: all three appeared before I began Time Now in 2012. Retrospective looks have always been possible, but I’ve never slowed down enough to write them. An independent entry on each of these pioneering and accomplished works probably isn’t going to happen now, but here I’ll offer a few comments that try to capture their essence.

Here, Bullet dazzled soldier-readers, poetry lovers, and book critics alike upon its release in 2005. There was some quibbling about whether Turner’s poems were based on real events experienced by Turner himself or imaginative dramatizations, but there was little disagreement about the book’s arresting blend of nitty-gritty soldier detail, formal excellence, and gruff emotionalism. Readers were astonished that poems such as the title poem, “The Hurt Locker,” and “Eulogy” were so fully realized, rather than primitive first-stabs at establishing tones, themes, and subjects that would define post-9/11 American soldier-writing. And who was this 21st-century American man-of-war? Judging from the verse, a sensitive observer of war brutality and military dehumanization, clinging determinedly, or even desperately, to civilian values of curiosity, kindness, and empathy among the rough company of infantrymen, while doing the things that infantrymen at war must do. And yet, far more than most infantrymen, to say nothing of most Americans, Turner’s awareness of culture, history, and noncombatants caught up in the wash of war animates the solipsistic self-focus of so much veteran writing to follow.

New York Times review pull-quote: “Turner has sent back a dispatch from a place arguably more incomprehensible than the moon — the war in Iraq — and deserves our thanks for delivering in these earnest and proficient poems the kinds of observations we would never find in a Pentagon press release…. Turner’s most consistent mode is one of brisk, precise — and nonpartisan — attention to both the terrors and the beauty he found among Iraq’s ruins.”

The Hurt Locker, released in America in 2009, garnered near universal praise from critics and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning six, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. About the exploits of a bomb disposal team driven near-mad by their death-defying duties on the streets of Baghdad, The Hurt Locker wasn’t as well-regarded by Iraq War veterans, who were quick to pounce on the film for its lapses from military verisimilitude, which many saw as reasons to damn the film entire. Re-watching The Hurt Locker today makes such carping seem even more short-sighted now than it was at the time, for the movie retains a stunning power to grip: not just the harrowing scenes depicting the soldiers defusing bombs, but the equally harrowing scenes of the soldiers at each other’s throats as they try to remain there for each other under the pressure of their job. Director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal deserve huge kudos for creating a movie that so skillfully ratchets up tension while allowing its mostly unknown cast to shine. Jeremy Renner is fantastic as an oddly-motivated bomb disposal artiste whose skill and swagger speak to the film’s epigraph: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pierce, and Suhail Aldabbach in supporting roles and cameos are nearly as good.

New York Times review pull-quote: “If The Hurt Locker is not the best action movie of the summer, I’ll blow up my car. The movie is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise…. Ms. Bigelow, practicing a kind of hyperbolic realism, distills the psychological essence and moral complications of modern warfare into a series of brilliant, agonizing set pieces.”

You Know When the Men Are Gone also arrived to critical acclaim and, as book sales go, commercial popularity. In 2011, “thanking soldiers for their service” mania was at its peak, and Fallon’s stories reminded readers that the families of fighting men deserved thanking, too, while clarifying that all concerned deserved gratitude not for their accomplishments, but for enduring so much. Fallon’s evocation of Fort Hood base life touched a nerve among readers curious about the lived-lives of the small numbers of Americans—the fighting force and their families—actually making sacrifices in the Global War on Terror. Marvelously breaking down binary distinctions between combat zone and home-front, You Know When the Men Are Gone dramatized war’s long reach and wide embrace, and it’s not bullets (though Fallon’s rendering of combat death and injury are superb), but infidelity, absence, loss, and betrayal that wreak the most havoc on the lives of soldiers and those close to them. Stories such as “Leave” might read more sensational in another author’s hands, and “Gold Star” more melodramatic, but Fallon’s touch is remarkably tender and non-histrionic. Her “worried imagination” (to use an apt phrase penned by Benjamin Busch about Fallon) rests mostly on spouses and partners fending for themselves while the husbands and boyfriends deploy, but her portraits of male soldiers are as striking and as affecting—as memorable—as those of the women in their lives.

New York Times review pull-quote: “Siobhan Fallon tells gripping, straight-up, no-nonsense stories about American soldiers and their families…. there’s not a loser in the bunch…. Ms. Fallon’s emphasis is not on the negative. It’s just that life is tough at Fort Hood. Fears tend to be justified.”

A knock on the works is that they could have been more explicit, even strident, in connecting the human travails they document to a political critique of the war. That just wasn’t to be, however; in Turner’s and Fallon’s cases I’m thinking because an essential loyalty to the people who populate their poems and stories, respectively, underwrites their art, as well as a certain unwillingness to be too hard on themselves for the life choices that brought them into war’s maw (related to the notion that they were part of an extended-family of military volunteers). For Bigelow, who was neither a vet like Turner nor a military spouse like Fallon, the loyalty is more toward an artistic vision that resists overt politicizing on the terms art often, or usually, does, by letting unstated political interpretations emerge implicitly from the story being told. This sentiment, too, would prove prescient. Neither apologism nor glorification, but a knowing quietism–sometimes maddeningly so–about the war’s larger dimensions would come to define war-writing in the wake of Turner and Fallon, and, somewhat less so, movies about Iraq and Afghanistan after The Hurt Locker.

The works’ focus on white male combat-arms soldiers and their families would eventually be viewed by some as problematic, but that two of the creative artists responsible were women heralded the expansion of male-centric war-writing parameters in the decade following. Taken together, the three works zeroed in on the difficulty of balancing dual identity as soldier and civilian in a military culture far removed from the ken of the majority of Americans–a central concern in an era of a small volunteer military charged with fighting impossible-to-win wars. One way this theme continues to resonate in works afterwards is the near-constant preoccupation with redeployment and reintegration of the soldier into civilian life following deployment and service. Another theme staked out by Turner, Bigelow, and, to a lesser extent, Fallon, is balancing one’s duties as a soldier with one’s concern for Iraqi civilians. Finally, the full extent of the physical, psychological, and emotional damage suffered by many veterans is a theme hinted at but not foregrounded in Here, Bullet, The Hurt Locker, and You Know When the Men Are Gone, in part because the works arrived so early it was impossible to yet measure war’s impact over time and changing life circumstances. In the years to come, the subject would become an all-consuming one of war-writing and art, and loom large in greater cultural conversations, as well.

Long Wars, Short Stories

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

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Helicopter Landing Zone, Camp Clark/Camp Parsa, Afghanistan

I own eleven short-story collections about war in Afghanistan and Iraq published by major publishing houses in the last decade. Eleven such books seems like a lot–not to own so many, though there’s that, but to have been published. What accounts for the form’s popularity? Most of the collection are written by veterans who are first-time authors, so maybe short fiction provides a more accessible start point in the writing game for young authors than, say, a novel. But perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the plain difficulty of writing a novel about soldiers at war. Crafting a 200 or 400 page story focused through the eyes of a teenager or young adult can’t be easy. Creating a fictional military microcosm rich and textured enough to sustain a novel must also be tough for authors whose vista of military life and culture was that of a Joe in a rifle squad. Conjuring a suspenseful plot out of a deployment year characterized by Groundhog Day routine has got to be hard, too. Not impossible, but I’d say something about going to war presents itself as a collection of experiences to be related in the form of an event or a poignant moment, rather than as a long narrative journey with a destination firmly in mind.

In any case, here’s a list of the eleven short-story collections I own. I like them and think about them in much the same way I do favorite records and songs. I’ve read each of the collections at least twice, and some more times than that. It’s a rare week that I don’t pull one of them off the shelf and reacquaint myself with a favorite story.

Siobhan Fallon, You Know When the Men Are Gone. Amy Einhorn, 2011. Favorite story: “The Last Stand.” Second favorite: “Leave.” I write about You Know When the Men Are Gone here.

Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq. Penguin, 2013. My favorite story is “The Green Zone Rabbit.” Second favorite: “An Army Newspaper.” I write about The Corpse Exhibition here.

Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, eds., Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. Da Capo, 2013. I highly recommend all the stories in Fire and Forget; my two favorites are Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips for a Smooth Transition.” I write about Fire and Forget here and here and here.

Katey Schultz, Flashes of War. Apprentice House-Loyola, 2013. Favorite story: “The Ghost of Sanchez.” Second favorite: “Home on Leave.” I write about Flashes of War here.

Phil Klay, Redeployment. Penguin, 2014. My favorite story is “Prayer in the Furnace.” Second favorite: “Money as a Weapons System.” I write about Redeployment here.

Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead. Tim Duggan Books, 2016. Favorite story: “To the Lake.” Second favorite: “New Guidance.” I write about These Heroic, Happy Dead here.

Odie Lindsey, We Come to Our Senses. Norton, 2016. My favorite story is “So Bored in Nashville.” Second favorite: “Chicks.” I write about We Come to Our Senses here.

Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, eds. The Road Ahead. Pegasus, 2017. I highly recommend all the stories in The Road Ahead, but if I had to name two I like most they’d be Benjamin Busch’s “Into the Land of Dogs” and Kristen L. Rouse’s “Pawns.” I write about The Road Ahead here.

Caleb S. Cage, Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada. University of Nevada, 2017. My favorite story is “This Is Not Burning Man.” Second favorite: “Operation Battle Mountain.” I write about Desert Mementos here.

Jon Chopan, Veterans Crisis Hotline. University of Massachusetts, 2018. Favorite story: “Crisis Hotline.” Second favorite: “Rules of Engagement.” I write about Veterans Crisis Hotline  here.

Will Mackin, Bring Out the Dog. Random House, 2018. My favorite story is “Crossing the River No Name.” Second favorite: “Welcome Man Will Never Fly.” I write about Bring Out the Dog here.

Finally, I’ll plug my four short-stories about post-9//11 war that I’ve posted on Time Now:

“Cy and Ali”

“Junior and Io: A Guard-Tower Reverie”

Sergeant Arrack and Captain Athens”

“Ari and Theodopulous”

 


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