Fire and Forget III: Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train”

Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train” is the first story I know of by a woman vet who experienced combat and which portrays women in combat. If it is in fact the first such tale, then it’s guaranteed that “The Train” will be read for hundreds of years by scholars plumming the war experience of female vets.

So let’s check it out now.

Kalinowski is a USMC vet who according to the blurb in Fire and Forget served as a gunner on convoy operations during two tours in Iraq. “The Train” depicts an unnamed woman-vet haunted by guilt for her failure to save the life of her best friend and mentor, a woman named Kavanagh, when they were attacked by a suicide bomber. Much of the story is set before and after the vet’s deployment, but the scenes set in Iraq burn brightest with the vivid detail and emotional intensity of real-life deployment. I’m sure that Kalinowski in her capacity as a convoy gunner had thousands of opportunities to consider the decision that serves as the crux of “The Train”: the right now, instantaneous mental cycling through the Rules of Engagement to decide whether an approaching car or individual is a friend or foe.

Decide right and shoot, and you’ve saved American lives.  Decide right and don’t shoot and nothing happens, well, nothing has happened.  Decide wrong and shoot, and you’ve killed an innocent civilian. Decide wrong and don’t shoot, and a suicide bomber explodes in your midst.

In “The Train,” the scenario plays out badly at an Entry Control Point (or “ECP”) of a FOB in Iraq. ECPs–the gates that permit entrance and exiting of a base–figure prominently in several Fire and Forget stories, and not surprisingly so. In life and in fiction, they are liminal spaces in the lives of deployed soldiers, the place where familiar and foreign meet, the boundary point between a tense safety inside the base and the dangerous, deadly world outside. Imagined lyrically, Entry Control Point might well have served as a better title than Fire and Forget. It speaks to the guardedness with which vets control access to their inner lives.

(I know, I know, I should have edited my own damn anthology!)

The protagonist vet’s crushing sense of responsibility for Kavanagh’s death is rendered directly: “She should have died with Kavanagh. She shouldn’t be walking across the platform trying to reach the escalator. She shouldn’t be in the city at all. She had tried to forget everything; had tried to sink into drunkenness, into meds, tried to stay awake in fear of the dreams, burrow into some dark place that would give her a break from the memories, from the ECP that would come when she inevitably fell asleep.  The pain of self-abuse still felt better than the guilt.  Guilt drove it all.  Anger that things had gone so wrong.”

Survivor guilt is the theme of Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It also figures prominently in Toni Morrison’s Home, about the Korean War, but published last year like Powers’ and Fountain’s novels. Hell, it’s the theme of my own post-deployment trauma, for what that’s worth. So, nothing so new here—unless we begin to parse the particularly feminine aspects that Kalinowski brings to the depiction.  Late in the story, for example, the protagonist sizes up a woman, and the narrator comments, “Cute shoes. She looks at the sandals on the other woman’s feet. Strappy with a faint gold sheen. She could see herself wearing those shoes with a light sundress.” Now there’s a few sentences you won’t find in The Red Badge of Courage or The Naked and the Dead, so welcome, brave new world.

That’s catty of me, but Kalinowski put it out there for us to consider. More substantial is her portrait of the sisterly connection between the protagonist and Kavanagh. Here we have the first vivid description of the female flip side to the oft-described fraternal camaraderie of soldierly bands of brothers. My sense of Kavanagh and the protagonist is that they are much like many of the women with whom I have served. They enjoy each other’s company, and they really enjoy soldiering. That is, they enjoy everyday putting on the uniform and falling into formation. They like packing up their rucksacks and A-bags and moving out with their units. They like the rough love of their sergeants and contemplating the perplexing worldview of their officers. They like doing their jobs, and they like hanging out in the dining facility and talking shit with their peers. They, like Kavanagh and the protagonist, enjoy grabbing 12-packs at the end-of-the-day and drinking the evening away (in the States, not on deployment!). For them, that is as essential an aspect of service as competing for soldier-of-the-month and doing PT every morning. They like bitching a lot but still doing what they are told while “getting over” when they can and yet not earning a reputation as a fuck-up. Male soldiers like all the above, too, but for women it comes with an extra sizzle of newness and difference, and you can see it in their eyes and in their step.  They don’t experience it just as women, but they kind of do, too, sometimes, in some ways.

It’s all good, unless men in their own units ruin it for them, or they begin to sense that it’s all really just a big guy’s game that is no longer worthy of their interest or full effort.  Which does happen in real life, but doesn’t happen in “The Train” and isn’t Kalinowski’s point.

It’s all good, until the war outside the ECP makes it bad, very very bad, irreversibly bad. Which does happen to soldiers male and female and does happen in “The Train” and is Kalinowski’s point exactly.

Where Did All the War Poets Go?

Or, better, why have the Afghanistan and Iraq war poets not arrived? So asks an interesting short essay by Jason Dempsey posted on Tom Ricks’ blog at the Foreign Policy website. Dempsey is an active duty infantry officer (as am I) who served in Afghanistan in 2009 (same year as me) and now is back in Afghanistan as an advisor (same job I had). The link is below, so check it out and then read my comments beneath.

Tom Ricks-Jason Dempsey Where Are the Poems?

Great post, all-in-all.  I like most of all the fact that Dempsey values art and thinks it might have something to contribute to our understanding of the wars.  I like his informed speculation about our current dearth of culturally important works of art, especially his savage denunciation of Hollywood’s inability to do anything other than recycle cliches.  Just a few quibbles, if I may:

1. It seems odd that Dempsey does not mention–no, not my blog–but Brian Turner, whose Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise loom large in discussions of contemporary war poetry.  If Dempsey is aware of Turner, then why not specifically explore why he has not achieved wider recognition?  Or a consideration of what Turner brings to the poetry table?  If Dempsey is not aware of Turner, then he probably shouldn’t be making his claims as stridently as he does.

2.  Dempsey’s notion that the great World War I poetry by Owen, Sassoon, and others effortlessly achieved cultural prominence seems a bit thin.  I’m sure our awareness of its greatness has more to do with decades of sustained attention by the intellectual literati and academic mavens, through which it gradually permeated the consciousness of educated readers.  That is to say, I don’t think any poetry written in the 20th or 21st century has become well known through any other means than being taught in thousands and thousands of high school, college, and graduate school classrooms.

3.  Finally, Dempsey articulates the importance of World War I poetry in informing the public of the ghastly reality of trench warfare, but struggles to define exactly how he thinks contemporary poetry will contribute to a better, truer understanding of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Well, of course, he might say:  we await the poet who can tell us what we don’t yet apprehend.  But not just Turner, but other poets such as Walt Piatt, Elyse Fenton, and Paul Wasserman have already begun that work, as I try to explain in my posts on them.

More to follow on Turner in the weeks to come.  I’m very interested in explaining with as much accuracy as I can what I think is the nature of his achievement.

Zero Dark Thirty II: Special Operations

With its gripping portait of the SEAL Team 6 raid to kill Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty joins the ranks of recent films that reflect Hollywood’s love for special operations derring-do.  I’m thinking of Act of Valor, which isn’t even set in Iraq or Afghanistan (that’s curious right there) and which has racked up a not-so sterling 25% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m thinking of The Objective, a little known and undeniably loopy sci-fi war film that tracks a Special Forces mission gone terribly wrong in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. Against such lame competition, it’s not hard for Zero Dark Thirty to excel. The pleasure is exactly how well the film captures the testosterone-infused chill of the SEALs as they lounge around their base camp and their easy-going professionalism when they swing into action.

The one funny line in all of Zero Dark Thirty comes from the mouth of a SEAL team member midway through the raid in Abbottabad. “I forgot,” he jokes just before the final assault, “was crashing a helicopter part of the plan?” Perfect.

Hollywood’s interest in special forces operations mirrors a truth that vexes national strategy debates and on-the-ground operations in theater. Counterinsurgency, nation-building, and drone strikes are all good, in their way, but dark side snatch-and-grabs are far sexier and arguably more effective.

So, in the midst of all this special ops love I eagerly await the arrival of the film version of Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor later this year. Starring Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell and Taylor Kitsch (of Friday Night Lights) as the magnificent Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, and directed by Peter Berg (also of Friday Night Lights), it has a chance to be really good, or at least really interesting. Lone Survivor is the story of a SEAL mission in Afghanistan in which Lieutenant Murphy earned the Medal of Honor.  The mission cost three of the four SEALs involved their lives.  No disrespect to Lieutenant Murphy—it’s when things go wrong that heroes emerge—but the irony of Lone Survivor’s reception as an American success story should not be lost on a filmmaker as talented as Berg. With Lone Survivor, we might begin to get the human and tactical sides of special operations in some of their complexity.

Then again, Berg also directed Battleship, which like The Objective tried to combine the movie genres of war and science fiction and failed just as miserably.  What’s up with that???

SEAL Team 6 personnel chilling between missions, as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty. Life is good.
SEAL Team 6 personnel chilling between missions, as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty.
SEAL Team 6 in action, from Zero Dark Thirty.
SEAL Team 6 in action, from Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War

The part in Zero Dark Thirty that most interested me was the infiltration of FOB Chapman, a CIA compound in Khowst, Afghanistan. If you remember, in December 2009 at FOB Chapman a Jordanian whom the agency thought would offer usable intelligence about Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts instead blew himself up inside the compound, killing seven CIA personnel. Having left Khowst myself in June 2009, and having been on FOB Chapman enough to know what went on there, I was amazed at the lapse in security then and wondered how it might be portrayed in the film.

Whatever happened in December 2009, I was sure the Afghan security force personnel on Chapman had been left out of the planning. There is no way that those savvy, hardened fighters, survivors of two decades of absolutely treacherous warfare, would have been caught inside their own compound with their guard so far down. The movie version doesn’t portray the breach in that light, but it does suggest that a naïve CIA agent—a fetching young woman at that—ignored the advice of her American Special Forces advisors in letting the deadly double agent through the gates unsearched. The movie even highlights the essential girly-ness of the security lapse; while the CIA agent waits for the Jordanian to arrive, she engages in chatty text banter with her CIA BFF, complete with “whassups?” and “cools!”

So, within the context of the film, the scene serves nicely in terms of an overarching narrative about how the CIA learned many hard lessons along the way to a rousing finale. In this story, the fiasco at FOB Chapman isn’t even the agency’s biggest blunder. The film’s much ballyhooed torture scenes, for instance, don’t actually seem to produce much bang for their buck. Instead, they appear to be the flailing about of an organization that didn’t have a clue early on how to get what it wanted. By the film’s second half, and probably in the war’s late reaches, too, the CIA becomes much more adept at using signal intercepts and competent fieldcraft to find Bin Laden.

Within the film’s logic it’s a female agent named Maya whose smarts and determination energize the agency and lead directly to its success. Not an Erin Brockovich-like melodrama of a sexy, strong-minded woman triumphing over patriarchy, Zero Dark Thirty suggests that a soft–dare I say feminized?–American security apparatus could only be saved by a tough modern woman who makes a military virtue out of a stone-cold sense of her own rightness and entitlement. In the process of valorizing Maya, even when at times she seems nothing but a petulant child, the film actually misses what to me seems most important about her personality: her always already there ruthlessness not just in the pursuit of Bin Laden, but in her professional ambition. The poor male operative who presides over the torture scenes in the beginning of the film only thinks he is tougher and harder than Maya, but when the blood on his hands causes him to falter, she is more than willing to continue the brutality on her own. In other words, Maya is fine with torture if it seems to work, especially for her–and that’s the extent of her ethical contemplation of the matter.

Likewise with the CIA’s Pakistan station chief, so full of male bluster, whose surprise removal in part as a result of Maya’s organizational subterfuge reveals just how badly he misjudged the sharpness of her bite. Maya isn’t oppressed in the least by such men; rather, she quickly sizes them up and then vanquishes them as unworthy weaklings. Her sister CIA agent who screws up so badly in Khowst merits even less respect; it’s clear that Maya thinks from the start that she is a ditz. In a scene in which Maya and her middling peers in the CIA’s Bin Laden team are chewed out by their boss, Maya grates at being lumped with such a sad collection of obvious second-raters. As she stews, she plots her infiltration of the heavy hitters in the top echelon of CIA headquarters and the badass bubbas of SEAL Team 6: super-charged Alpha males whom she sees as her rightful consorts, even if she is given to withering insults of their competence and pretensions.

Maya to the SEAL Team 6 commander:  “Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb. So they’re using you guys as canaries. And, in theory, if Bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser. But Bin Laden is there. And you’re going to kill him for me.”

Pretty good crack, actually, that line about “dip and velcro and all your gear bullshit,” though Maya is a gear fiend herself, what with her Ray-bans, sports bras, and designer combat boots.  But I digress.

Ultimately, the film sends mixed messages whether the CIA becomes tougher or smarter as the war grinds on. I hope the real life answer is smarter, because in my experience most hard-ass rhetoric just seems to be an excuse for laziness and stupidity. Zero Dark Thirty is at its most Hollywoodish when Maya asserts that she is going to “smoke” everyone involved in the infiltration of FOB Chapman. The Army actually cans commanders who engage in such bravado-laden talk. Well it knows how dangerous such sentiments become as they trickle down through the ranks and settle in the minds of scared 19-year-old soldiers who must be relied upon to exercise restraint in their daily contact with locals. Similarly, Maya’s profanity-laden outburst in a meeting full of CIA big shots twenty years her senior is a subaltern bureaucrat’s pipedream. In real life such grandstand plays get people written off, if not fired.  My sentiments probably reflect the cautiousness the film finds problematic in the pursuit of Bin Laden, but I’m trying to suggest a complexity that undermines the easy answers the film promotes.

In contrast to the theatrics of Maya’s wrangle with bureaucracy, the scenes depicting SEAL Team 6’s raid to kill or capture Bin Laden seem preternaturally calm and understated, and all the better for it.  But that’s a subject for another post.  I’ll circle back to it when I write about the representation of special ops forces in literature and film.

Zero Dark Thirty was directed by Kathryn Bigelow.  It was written by Mark Boal.  Maya is played by Jessica Chastain.

zero-dark-thirty-wallpapers-e

On Stage-Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone

From San Francisco comes news that the Word for Word Performing Arts Company will stage an adaptation of Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone that features two of the collection’s short stories, “The Last Stand” and “Gold Star.”  “The Last Stand” is about a badly wounded Fort Hood soldier who, among other things, clambers upon a mechanical bull in a last ditch effort to save his pride, his marriage, and everything else worth living for.  He stays atop the bull for only a few moments and alas the marriage doesn’t last much longer.  It’s my favorite story in YKWTMAG; by the end of it your heart goes out to both the soldier and the woman who doesn’t love him enough anymore to stay married to him.  “Gold Star” is about a young war widow named Josie Schaeffer who still resides at Fort Hood in the weeks after the death of her husband overseas.  Kit Murphy, the wounded soldier whose wife ditches him in “The Last Stand,” reappears in “Gold Star.”  A soldier in Sergeant Schaeffer’s squad, he wants to pay his respects to his former sergeant’s wife–by far, it appears, the most heartfelt thing anyone in the Army has done for her after her husband’s death.  Both stories are about loss, big loss, with the slight sliver of connection between Kit and Josie at the end of “Gold Star” hardly recompense for the pain.

No doubt the shows will render well Fallon’s knack for emotional nuance and ear for dialogue.  I’m curious how they will recreate her superb eye for the physical details of military base life and sensitivity to the ambiance of Army culture.

The shows will run from 31 January to 24 February at the Z Space theater in San Francisco.

Word for Word specializes in stage adaptations of  classical and contemporary fiction.

SF-Picture

Update 23 February 2013:

Two reviews of the Word for Word/Z Space production in San Francisco of Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone are available online.  Both lavish praise on the performance.

From the San Francisco Chronicle.

From an online review called Edge.

Fire and Forget II: Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek”

Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” had me with its opening lines:

A few weeks ago, Sleed and I loaded onto a sleek tour bus.  We filed behind a gaggle of other “wounded warriors” –the term the Army used to refer to us in official memoranda.  I guess it’s what we were, but the phrase was too cute to do our ugliness justice.

The second contemporary story I know of to take the plight of wounded, disabled, and disfigured veterans as its subject—Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” is the first—“Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” recounts its narrator Rooster and his best friend Sleed’s participation in an Army-sponsored fishing trip for long-term Walter Reed patients.  The tale obviously tips its hat to “Big Two-Hearted River” and other stories published in 1925 in Ernest Hemingway’s great return-from-war collection In Our Time.  In “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” Rooster’s face has been horribly scarred and a hand mangled by a bomb in Iraq.   Now, seething with anger and regret, he contemplates a life “transformed in a flash I could not remember.”  He lashes out against his parents and is prone to fits of rage-induced impulsive behavior, such as biting the head off a rainbow trout he cannot properly fillet.

And Rooster’s the healthy one compared to his friend Sleed, who lost a leg and his private parts in the same blast that injured Rooster.  A charismatic and energetic soldier when whole, Sleed is now “Jake Barnes and Ahab rolled into one,” his self-hatred and grouse against the world amplified by the fact that his wife has left him and is now, according to a detective Sleed has hired, having public sex with her new boyfriend:  “‘Restrooms, parked cars–my man said he got footage of them in the car outside my baby’s daycare.’”

Ouch.

Spoiling for vengeance, Sleed stalks two teenage girls playing hooky from….  Well, I don’t want to give away the plot details more than I have already.  It’s a brutal, ugly tale, but great for all that.  Fully imagined and instantly memorable, Rooster and Sleed owe more to Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque purveyors of evil  in stories such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” than Hemingway’s stoic Jake Barnes, the emasculated hero of The Sun Also Rises.  But lord let’s hope Van Reet really is trying to work the same black comic vein for which O’Connor is famous.  If  his rendering of the despair and self-loathing of badly-wounded soldiers is meant to be literally true and representative, then we’ve all got a lot to answer for.

According to the Contributors notes in Fire and Forget, Van Reet is a University of Virginia (Wahoo-wah!) drop-out who earned a Bronze Star with “V” Device for action in Baghdad.  More power to him in all things.

Brian Van Reet’s Webpage

Fire and Forget: Short Stories

Fire and Forget is a new collection of war-themed short stories written mostly by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  The collection features well-known authors such as Brian Turner, Colby Buzzell, David Abrams, and Siobhan Fallon, as well as group of lesser known veteran authors associated with the New York University Veteran Writers Workshop.  Editors Matt Gallagher (author of the war memoir Kaboom and an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America mainstay) and Roy Scranton (a former artilleryman and now a grad student at Princeton) are both members of the Workshop and have also contributed stories to the collection.

The forward to Fire and Forget is provided by Colum McCann—not a vet, but a prominent Irish-American author who has served as mentor for many of the Fire and Forget authors.  McCann’s interest in the project is much the same as mine in this blog:  the protracted but inevitable emergence of a body of literature by which the wars will accrue their definitive representation and legacy.  He writes:  “The stories of the wars that defined the first decade of the twenty-first century are just beginning to be told.  Television programs, newspaper columns, Internet blogs.  We’ve even had a couple of average Hollywood movies, but we don’t yet have all the stories, the kind of re-interpretive truth-telling that fiction and poetry can offer.”

The phrase “fire and forget” is a militaryism that describes missiles that once launched do not require further guidance from their operators to be accurate.  Such smart missiles hone in on their targets through the use of laser and infrared optic systems or internal radars.  As such, fire and forget missiles have not been weapons especially associated with the IED and dumb bomb-wracked wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so editors Gallagher and Scranton take time to explain how the phrase serves their purpose in other ways. On one hand, Fire and Forget stories, once launched into the world, might catalyze within public consciousness with the unerring aim of a smart missile, alerting readers to what they have not paid enough attention to in regard to the wars.  On the other hand, the stories represent catharsis for their authors.  Haunted by memories of their war experience, they write, and as they write, they cease to be haunted.

Hopefully.

All of Fire and Forget’s stories deserve focused attention, and I’ll give that to them in future posts if my energy permits.  Here, though, I’ll attempt just a brief survey.  The stories divide into two camps:  those that are set in-theater, and those which situate themselves in the States upon the return home.  An example of the first is Brian Turner’s “The Wave That Takes them Under,” the war poet’s first published fiction as far as I know.  The story of a patrol lost in an Iraq desert sandstorm, the tale dramatizes notions of temporal instability Turner also explores in one of my favorite poems from Here, Bullet, “To Sand.”  Another, Roy Scranton’s “Red Steel India” places its characters in a much more mundane deployment experience, that of fighting off hours of endless boredom on duty at a FOB Entry Control Point, where the only excitement consists of seriously strained interactions with Iraqi soldiers, interpreters, and camp workers.  Whether portraying the fantastical or the banal, the in-theater tales feature grunts’ eye perspectives on deployment, far from the sterile perspectives recounted in more official histories, memoirs, journalism, and government pronouncements.  By such narratives, we begin to feel how the war was experienced by those who in most cases were most vulnerable, without the armor of degrees, age, or rank.

The stories set on the homefront reflect the difficulty so many vets have reestablishing relations with family and loved ones and reintegrating into society.  Several feature plots that reunite soldiers who served together overseas; the nostalgia for the camaraderie of deployment is palpable.  Quite a few feature violent incidents in the lives of their vet protagonists, ranging from a rage-induced killing of a chicken in Matt Gallagher’s “And Bugs Don’t Bleed” to a drunken smash-up of a fast-food franchise in Colby Buzzell’s “Play the Game” to a grotesque act of public indecency in Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek.”  The stories suggest that vets’ most basic problem, stated in the most basic way, is calming the heck down.  Siobhan Fallon—not a vet, but the spouse of one—works in a somewhat quieter, more domestic key.  Her tale “Tips for a Smooth Transition” updates the ages-old saga of Odysseus’s return to Penelope after the Trojan Wars, complete with the misrecognitions, tests of trustworthiness, and bedroom dramatics of Homer’s original.  It portrays an Army officer, home for the third time, whose multiple deployments have turned him into a joke or poor imitation of a husband, not malicious or unfaithful, but Will Ferrell-like in his obliviousness and self-absorption.  And yet, his wife, through whose eyes the story is told, is riven by doubts in her own right to judge, since, as we learn, she herself has been less than circumspect while her husband’s been gone.   Smart in its observed detail, astute in its psychological insight, and even funny at moments in a way the other stories in Fire and Forget generally are not, “Tips for a Smooth Transition” seems to have the fullest sense of the subtle, as opposed to sensational, ways the wars have wreaked havoc on their participants’ happiness and emotional health.

In closing, for now, hat’s off to all the Fire and Forget authors and editors.  I’m sure I’ll be writing more about their stories as I turn them over in my mind in the weeks and months ahead, and I look forward to reading anything the authors publish in the future.

Fire and Forget

Walter E. Piatt, Paktika

Very few serving US military field-grade officers have written books about their war experience.  Only one that I know—Walter E. Piatt–has published poetry.  As fate would have it, then-Lieutenant Piatt and I were roommates and fellow platoon leaders in B Company, 5-20 Infantry many years ago. Back then, Piatt was the crown prince of the “Regulars”—the most competent, poised, and physically tough lieutenant in the battalion.  He just seemed to have it all together, and was rightfully loved by the brass, admired by peers, and respected by troops.  Neither arrogant nor a stick in the mud, he was at the center of whatever fun was to be had and ever ready to turn the most harrowing event into laughter.  I don’t know if he was writing poetry when we were roommates, but I knew he had a thoughtful side in addition to everything else.

Obviously destined for Army greatness, Piatt moved quickly up through the ranks.  By March 2004 he was the battalion commander of the 2-27 Infantry “Wolfhounds” and had deployed with his battalion to Paktika province, Afghanistan.  He since has commanded a brigade and now is an assistant division commander of the 10th Mountain Division.  But it wasn’t until the last month or so that I learned that Piatt had published a book called Paktika:  The Story of the 2nd Battalion 27th Infantry “Wolfhounds” in Paktika, Afghanistan (2006) that recounts–mostly in poetry–the story of the Wolfhounds’ year in that dangerous province pushed up against the Pakistan border.

Paktika combines short prose passages describing deployment-related events with verse ruminations on the events’ human aspects.  The prose passages are worthy of attention in their own right.  I particularly enjoyed an account of the Wolfhounds’ first battalion-sized operation against the Taliban, a mission marked by mishaps and unexpected occurrences.  Another passage interestingly recounts the Wolfhounds’ participation in the 2004 Afghan election—an event that next to the killing of Osama Bin Laden marks the high water mark in the long war.

But it is the verse that intrigues most.  Piatt’s typical poem consists of 2-4 syllable lines arranged without punctuation over the length of a page.  Not very interested in subtleties of thought and language, Piatt uses poetry to convey in clear, concentrated terms emotions associated with the responsibilities of command and deployment.  One I appreciated (and could relate to, based on my own deployment experience) recounts his anxiety in the wake of the first round of rocket attacks the Wolfhounds were to endure:

     They came
     On a day
     When all felt safe
     The first were off
     Then seven more
     Came crashing in
     Destroying all
     They contacted
     All ran
     And for most
     This was their first
     As they ran
     They clung to life
     Thinking only
     Of surviving
     The next few minutes
     This war
     Became real
     And the soldier
     Realized he was mortal
     As the rockets fell
     On Orgun-E
     (“Rocket Attack”)

The most surprising and endearing poems in Paktika are those written from the point-of-view of others than Piatt himself.  Poems told through the eyes of his wife, his sister, and his Afghan Army counterpart, for examples, demonstrate Piatt’s ability to empathize, to see the mission in terms other than the win/loss calculation of victory.  Sometimes this empathetic ability leads Piatt into bouts of self-exploration.  “Sergeant on Duty” articulates Piatt’s misgiving that his sympathy for Afghans might be a weakness that disqualifies him from being hard enough to be successful:

     The soldier spoke
     And I listened
     He said
     He hated them
     These men
     He cannot understand
     His belief be damned
     God could not help
     His hatred pours
     Each day
     He is here
     These are not men
     They are not humans
     Incapable of feeling
     Not worthy
     Of our compassion
     The only emotion
     He could feel
     Was hate
     Then he looked at me
     And said
     You like them
     Don’t you
     I struggled to respond
     My duty
     Will not allow
     My emotion to speak
     For I see
     A spark
     In all of the them
     I see the man
     Not the differences
     Yet the soldier
     Struck a nerve
     Closer to the truth
     Than I wanted it to be
     Perhaps inside
     There is not enough hatred
     To do
     What I came here to do
     And in the end
     I won’t be strong enough
     To kill
     My fellow man

Such a poem, to me, packs an extraordinarily complex array of emotions and ideas into an extremely compressed space.  The Lieutenant Piatt I knew was never afraid to admit he was wrong or that he did not know an answer.  Such ability is rare among officers; typically most are anxiety-ridden about revealing doubt or hesitation.  But in “Sergeant on Duty” I think Piatt might be worrying a bit too much.  In Shakespeare’s great play Henry V, King Henry walks among his troops at night taking measure of their fears and his own.  It is a quiet, somber scene, but not a foreboding one.  The next day in the battle of Agincourt, Henry leads the English to victory against the French in the face of overwhelming odds.

Could it be similar for Piatt?  I think his ability to take others’ views seriously–reflected in the penchant for turning his encounters with them into verse–is a source of his strength. That the strength is there should be no question.  The testimony of one of his men, recounted in an Amazon review of Paktika, provides the evidence:

“I had the pleasure to serve under Col. Piatt as a Wolfhound in the Paktika province of Afghanistan. It is an experience I will always treasure. I learned more about myself and the nobility of soldiering in that year than any other. I can say that Col. Piatt is an officer who lives his beliefs and leads by example. He was the soldier with the most “wheel time” and the longest time “outside the wire” in the Battalion. In essence that meant he spent more of our deployment in a vehicle, on the frontiers, in the face of danger than any of the soldiers in his command. This behavior goes a long way to inspire an Infantryman who is tired, scared and homesick. Thanks again Sir, No Fear!”

So, strength, courage, and wisdom through poetry.

Piatt Paktika

Paul Wasserman, Say Again All

Paul Wasserman served in Iraq as an Army NCO aircrewman.  That terse job description might reflect a job as a helicopter crewchief or gunner, but reading between the lines of his poetry chapbook Say Again All suggests something more esoteric.  It seems that Wasserman’s job entailed signal or intelligence support of special operation forces, carried out in planes circling high overhead rather than, say, Chinooks or Blackhawks ferrying ground warriors to and from combat.  He brings to the task of portraying such service in poetry master’s degrees in philosophy and comparative literature.  He now lives in New York City, part of the thriving veteran artists’ scene there.

Befitting Wasserman’s refined education and dark-side operational experience, Say Again All does not describe his war experience literally or sensationally.   Various poems allude high-mindedly to Socrates, Homer, and NYC poetry giant Delmore Schwartz, though pop culture icons such as The Clash and Charles Bukowski are also name-checked.  The closest Wasserman gets to a straightforward evocation of his deployment comes in the clever “Fifteen Months, Twenty-Two Days”:

     1 war
     6 states
     5 countries
     273 missions
     1228.5 flight hours
     30 rounds, unfired
     15 days rest
     4 medals
     3 kills
     1 case of friendly fire in the unit
     2 cases of cowardice
     1 case of cancer
     52 steak nights
     1 quasi-mutiny
     5 divorces
     1 pregnancy
     1 unauthorized brewery
     2 acts of bestiality, witnessed
     34 paperbacks
     2 overseas bars, right sleeve.

In most poems, however, Wasserman more subtly explores war and deployment as they profoundly order and reorder his experience of time and space.  Say Again All‘s epigraph from Delmore Schwartz reveals that interest:  “‘Only the past is immortal.”  The theme is returned to in, among many other poems, “The Moon Here is Lower”:

     And time is pooling in our eyes
     The spill of it burning off noise
     Everyone got issued a year in theater
     We signed for it while our vaccinations dried

     We crush it in our pockets
     And let the tunnel-fill fall the length of us
     Out over our boots
     The way we lift the desert

     Sifting an exit
     Into the greenless rock and powder
     A private act of distance
     On daily trips to the airfield

Wasserman’s interest in language is given full play by the magical military lingo that enchants everyone, educated or not, who comes in contact with it.  The title Say Again All is radio shorthand for “Repeat everything you just said, I didn’t get it the first time”–a good title for a book that won’t give away all its secrets in one read.  In “Dead Wounded Missing,” Wasserman deconstructs the military’s use of the title phrase as a more-than-slightly-crude means of classifying casualties and lost or captured soldiers:

     the first two words put together
     might be a new way of exhaustion
     useful, perhaps for the last time
     one is ever exhausted

     the growth of language
     by precision
     words to be used once.

Other poems display a keen eye for the surreal or absurdist moments of the war, not the least of them being the incongruity of being an aircrewman who holds master’s degrees in philosophy and literature.  In “Artifacts,” Wasserman finds much company in the ranks of the over-educated.  He describes a supply sergeant who studies “New Persian,” an MP who uses her leave to go trekking in Spain, and a pilot with a history degree who narrates the history of the Babylonian sites of antiquity over which they fly.  “Artifacts” also references Yossarian, the anti-hero protagonist of Catch 22, the great black comedy of Army Air Force service in World War II.  The allusion aptly refers to Wasserman’s own airborne perspective.  Even total commitment to unit and mission, with life or death at stake, can’t efface the fact that the war is relentlessly experienced socially and personally as efforts to find connection and understanding in the midst of isolation and confusion.

Say Again All is available through Lulu Books, the online self-publishing venue.

Wasserman

War Poetry: Elyse Fenton

Clamor Cover

Brian Turner dominates conversations about contemporary war poetry, and I will write plenty about Turner in coming posts.  But let’s start the blog’s inventory of war-themed poetry with discussion of two other poets, one this post and the second to come.  By thinking about their achievement, we can begin to mark the current contours of possibility.

First up is Elyse Fenton, whose Clamor (2010) has won prizes in America and overseas, including the Dylan Thomas Award from the University of Wales for best work in any genre by an author under thirty.

“Clamor” is one of those double-edged words that have two opposing definitions.  Just as “cleave” means to both split apart and fuse together, clamor can mean noise and also, in an older archaic definition, silence.  The aural doubleness is apt: it expresses the need to speak in conflict with the pressure to remain silent or the struggle to find the right words.  Fenton’s husband apparently saw much as an enlisted medic in Iraq, while Fenton, not in the military, remained stateside.  Clamor’s poems trace the dual experience of deployment from the vantage point of a couple trying to fathom the unexpected entrance of so much violence, death, injury, pain, and anger into their lives.  In many poems, Fenton searches for images and words that stitch together her and her husband’s experiences, geographically separated as they were.  Many poems suggest that Fenton poured her nervous energy into gardening, an endeavor that only fitfully proves nourishing.  More often the fruit Fenton’s garden yields are blasted images of futility and despair:

                   Across the yard

     each petal dithers from the far pear one white
     cheek at a time like one blade of snow into
     the next until the yard looks like the sound
     of a television screen tuned last night to late-
     night static.  White as a page or a field where
     I often go to find the promise of evidence of you

     or your unit’s safe return.

     ("Clamor")

Not surprisingly Fenton’s husband serves as her locus for understanding the inscrutable and horrible war.  Sometimes she imaginatively depicts events he experienced in Iraq, as in the poem “Aftermath,” where she writes, “His job was not to salvage / but to bundle the clothes–trash bags full of uniforms / Rorschached in blood.”  The event described here is the grisly act of burning the uniform remnants of soldiers killed or wounded, but the aftermath Fenton seems most interested in is her post-deployment relation with her husband.  It was he, after all, who volunteered to go, which at one level or another insinuated a rejection of her and which irreversibly bruised the pre-war wholeness of their life together:

           No one marries during war,
     I’m told and yet I’m married to the thought
     of you returning home to marry me
     to my former self.  The war is everywhere

     at once.  Each eggplant that I pick
     is ripe and sun-dark in its own inviolable
     skin.  Except there is no inviolable anything
     And you’ve been home now for a year.

     ("Conversation")

A poem titled “By Omission” records the strain, reflected as a failure of communication, of a husband so preoccupied by truths he is incapable of sharing that he is driven into speechlessness toward his wife:  “…when he said nothing / she knew every silence was a lie he couldn’t tell.” And in return, Fenton confesses her own wartime crimes of the heart:   “Forgive me, love, this last // infidelity:  I never dreamed you whole”  (“Infidelity”). So much resentment, so much silent seething, so much lashing out.  So much clamor.

Elyse Fenton webpage

Fenton-Poster-ID