The Imagined Wars of the Heart

In an earlier post, I wrote of the similarity of Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand.”  In each story a badly wounded Iraq war vet confronts the fact that his wife has chosen to leave him.  In Fallon’s story, the vet and his wife are so tenderly portrayed that the reader is left gasping with sympathy for both of them.  We want them each to somehow be happy again, if not together then in their now separate lives.  In Van Reet’s story, the soldier and his wife are monsters, albeit colorful ones.  They have not been just buffeted and damaged by the war, but ruined by it.

Both stories are great, just in case that needs saying.

As up-to-the-minute as they are, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and “The Last Stand” also belong to a tradition of stories about wounded male vets being jilted by wives and girlfriends.  Alice Fahs remind us of that in The Imagined Civil Wars when she describes a Civil War tale called “A Leaf From a Summer” published in Harper’s Weekly in November 1862.  Fahs writes:

“In that story a soldier faced an amputation hopefully because he had a letter from his beloved ‘next to his heart’; afterward, contrary to the surgeon’s expectations, he indeed ‘began to rally.’ But after receiving a letter telling him that his shallow lover had changed her mind and would not ‘marry a cripple,’ the hour quickly came ‘when they lowered him into the earth, and fired their volleys over him.’  As the narrator commented, ‘his enemy had struck him unarmed and unaware.’  As such the popular fiction revealed, the war only intensified a long-standing literary connection between love and war:  numerous stories claimed not only that women’s love was vital to a successful war but that love itself equaled war in its power to kill men.”

Below is a link to a web reprint of the story as it appeared in the 8 November 1862 Harper’s Weekly, for those who can’t get enough of that breathless, clichéd, one-sided 19th-century narration.

A Leaf From A Summer

“A Leaf From A Summer” is laughable, while the strength of Fallon’s and Van Reet’s stories is their ability to convey marital breakup with a sense of perspective, balance, nuance, and realism.  Examined in isolation, however, the pain of a soldier’s heartbreak is real and consequential.  A chapter called “Dear John” from Matt Gallagher’s excellent war memoir Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War describes the carnage wrought on the soldiers in his cavalry scout platoon when they were jilted while deployed.

“Dear Johns crushed men of otherwise unquestionable strength and total resoluteness.   In the time they most needed something right and theirs, it was taken away from them.  It wasn’t like getting dumped—it had a far more resounding impact on the soldier.  He became rougher, harsher, crueler…. Truthfully, it usually made him a better soldier, but he lost some vital slivers of his humanity in the process.”

Gallagher also explains that Dear Johns “didn’t just impact the recipient.  They affected the psyches of teams, sections, platoons, and troops, bringing home to everyone the recognition that the same thing could happen to them and forcing them to wonder if it was going to.  Or if it already had and they just didn’t know about it yet.  This mind fuck was the worst part for many.”

Gallagher points out that a soldier’s romantic interest represents his (or her) hope that an ideal or at least better world awaits his return and thus makes the misery of the war endurable and grounds his conduct while deployed.  But he also reminds us that many soldiers are shitty boyfriends or husbands.  Neglectful and needy by turns, they might be outraged and hurt by unfaithfulness even while being unfaithful themselves.  Gallagher doesn’t do much more to explain Dear Johns from a woman’s point of view, but Kit, the protagonist of “The Last Stand” and Sleed, the protagonist of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” also present their spouses with many issues even without the problem of their dismemberment and disfigurement.  The implication seems to be that women are attracted by the idea of loving a soldier, but find the reality very difficult to deal with.  Perhaps they also suspect that male soldiers love war and the military more than they do their wives and girlfriends, and thus determine to make their men pay.

Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” can be found in Fire and Forget:  Short Stories, published by De Capo Press in 2012.

Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” can be found in You Know When the Men are Gone, published by Amy Einhorn Books-Putnam in 2011.

Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War was published by De Capo Press in 2010.

Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War:  Popular Literature of the North and South 1861-1865 was published in 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Toni Morrison: “Words and War at West Point”

Toni Morrison Speaks at West Point

The link takes you to a New York Times article on Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s visit to West Point, where she discussed her latest novel Home with cadets and faculty.  The article makes a great case both for the relevance of Home as a text concerned with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and for the value of literature in helping future officers understand war.

The Imagined Wars

Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South 1861-1865 (2001) offers many ways to put current Iraq and Afghanistan war literature in focus. Just taking her nine chapters in order, I’ll quote two sentences from each that make claims about Civil War literature that may still ring true today.  I’ve also added comments of my own that I hope begin to help us sort out the truth and relevance of Fahs’ ideas.

Popular Literary Culture in Wartime: “From the start of the war many readers, writers, and publishers in both the North and South assumed that the war was a literary as well as military event, one that would inspire a new linking of individual and nation within poem, song, and story. Few would have admitted that market considerations played an important role in both encouraging and limiting expressions of patriotism in poetry and prose.”

Comment:  There really hasn’t been a “popular” Iraq and Afghanistan war literature in the way Fahs describes poems, songs, and stories saturating the Civil War print marketplace.  Entertainment/artworks about the current wars have appeared only intermittently, and their artist-creators from what I can tell have expressed themselves sincerely in ways that have seemed most suitable to the ideas they’ve been trying to convey.  The high regard of veterans, their fellow artists, and most intelligent, loyal readers seems to drive them more than the dollar.  Now if there was actually any kind of money to be made by telling contemporary war stories, things might change.

The Early Spirit of the War: “Increasingly, the lived, personal experience of war became the subject of war literature. Although ‘war-songs’ and ‘battle-calls’ were published throughout the conflict, they were supplemented with an extensive literature that insisted on the primacy of the individual experience of war.”

Comment:  I think this is true.  It’s a long way from Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (the Angry American)” in 2002 to Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 2012.

The Sentimental Soldier: “Yet by 1862, and then in increasing numbers as battle deaths mounted during 1863 and 1864, popular poems that asserted the importance and individuality of the ordinary soldier began to act as a counterpoint to poetry that stressed the subordination of individual interests to the needs of country. Sentimental stories and songs also focused intently on the individual experiences of the ordinary soldier on the battlefield and in the hospital, especially imagining that soldier’s thoughts at the moment of death.”

Comment:  This one’s hard to figure out.  Certainly death, killing, injury, pain, and loss are front-and-center subjects of contemporary war literature, but what is Fahs driving at by calling such business “sentimental”?  That has the ring of a sneer to it, and yet for most of us (I would say), exploring the human experience of mortality and suffering are exactly what literature should be doing.

The Feminized War: “In both the North and South throughout the conflict, a feminized war literature put white women center stage in the war, demanding recognition not only of women’s contributions to the war effort but also, as the war wore on, of their intense suffering. In doing so, such literature did not displace the importance of men in the conflict, but it did sometimes ask for equal recognition of women’s sacrifices, thus contributing to the diversity of claims to the war’s meanings to be found in the pages of popular literature.”

Comment:  Women are starting to appear in contemporary war literature, too, both as fighters and as spouses, friends, lovers, and family members affected by war.  But one of Fahs’ points is that Civil War literature was intensively market-driven, and that authors shaped stories to appeal to a huge female readership.  Is this still true today?

Kingdom Coming: “As in so many other Northern stories and novels of the war, the achievement of black heroism was, ironically, most easily imagined through sacrificial death. Nevertheless, the imagination of black heroism within popular literature marked a new phase in representations of African Americans.”

Comment:  Seemingly not an issue in contemporary war literature, but the absence or token inclusion of minorities in current war art and literature is curious, as I discussed in my post on Toni Morrison’s Home.

The Humor of War: “Instead of merely reaffirming the values of patriotism, discipline, obedience, and endurance, war humor acknowledged that sloth, laziness, cupidity, disobedience, and negligence were also among the values associated with the war. Most of all—and most transgressive of the heroic norms of patriotic literature—war humor made the simple but profoundly subversive point that war was ridiculous.”

Comment:  Bring it on!  More Colby Buzzell, more Ben Fountain, more David Abrams, please!

The Sensational War: “Although it has often been suggested that the war acted as an impetus for the development of realism in American letters, popular wartime literature reveals that the experience of war acted just as much—if not more—as the impetus for the development and wide dissemination of adventurous romance, the domain of ‘cheap’ novels…. Strongly linked to melodrama in language, plot, and characterization, sensational literature emphasized a world of moral certainty composed of dastardly villains and spotless heroes, and of pure good and evil.”

Comment:  Not such a problem today, but that’s because there really isn’t even a low-brow, pulp, popular, or “cheap” war literature market anymore. Everything that I’m aware of aims high; no one’s writing stories that gleefully depict the warzone as a realm for the uncomplicated killing of bad guys and other adventures.

A Boys’ and Girls’ War: “Yet war-related novels written for and marketed to children were subversive of antebellum familial ideals in several respects. They were attuned to patriotism and entertainment, nationalism and individualism, obedience and adventure.”

Comment:  How have the Iraq and Afghanistan wars been explained, represented, and marketed to youths?  Now that would be an interesting subject for study.

The Market Value of Memory: “As these shifts in popular literary culture remind us, memories of wars are far from static or permanent…. Whereas during the war Northern women’s experiences on the home front or African American soldiers’ exploits had been imagined as a form of participation in the war, increasingly only men’s experiences in battle counted as the ‘real’ war.”

Comment:  Too early to tell, but Hollywood’s interest in SEAL Team 6 and other special forces might be an indication that this dynamic hasn’t changed.

I hope these snatches of Fahs’ book intrigue you like they do me. Her “provocative-but-plausible” idea per page index is off the chart, in my opinion.  I have a little bit more to say about Fahs in a future post, and also plan to look at some of the scholarly work on the literature from other wars to see what they have to offer.

Wheat fields, Khowst Province, Afghanistan.
Wheat fields, Khowst Province, Afghanistan.

Will Mackin’s “Kattekoppen”: Surreal War Fiction

Will Mackin’s Kattekoppen

If this link works, it will take you to a story in this week’s New Yorker called “Kattekoppen.”  Written by a vet named Will Mackin, it is told from the point-of-view of a SEAL Team 6 member in Logar Province, Afghanistan.  The subject is the team’s effort to recruit a trustworthy artillery liaison from the battery of regular army artillerymen on their compound.  One of the candidates is of Dutch descent; his mother routinely sends him care packages full of a Dutch licorice called Kattekoppen, which accounts for the story’s title.

Mackin’s story is true to my own fleeting experiences dealing with ODAs, OGAs, Ranger task forces, and other special operators in eastern Afghanistan.  My FOB, Camp Clark, was also home to two 155mm howitzers, so “Kattekoppen”’s portrait of its “cannon-cockers” brings back fond memories, too.  One of the funny aspects of the war in Afghanistan was how ad hoc it all was.  You’d think a SEAL Team 6 would have its own organic highly-trained artillery liaisons, and wouldn’t have to go recruiting among the Joes in whatever unit had recently rotated in.  Mackin’s account of the pick-up team nature of the Afghanistan fight is humorous, but also a little scary to contemplate.

Great sentence, describing artillery rounds arcing out toward their target:  “And, soon enough, I saw iron scratches against the clear blue sky.”  Yes, yes, a hundred times yes.

Realistic touches aside, though, what’s most notable about “Kattekoppen” are its surreal, fantastical, supernaturalistic, and hallucinogenic moments.  Midway through the tale, the first-person narration comes unhinged, as if the narrator had suddenly ingested a psychological stimulant. The veneer of verisimilitude tears and the reader is left to contemplate passages such as the following:

“Outside, covering everything was a pristine layer of snow, which dawn had turned  pink. I started the pink HiLux. I honked the horn and it made a pink noise. Levi  emerged from his pink tent with his pink ruck. I drove him down a pink road to  the pink L.Z. The rotator came in sideways, and its thumping rotors kicked up a  thick pink cloud.”

Shortly after, not just the narration, but the events themselves grow increasingly strange.

Coming hard on the heels of Brian Turner’s “The Wave That Takes Them Under” in Fire and Forget, “Kattekoppen” suggests that war authors are now pushing beyond the literal and verisimilar to tell their stories.   In an earlier post, I made fun of a weird 2008 movie called The Objective, which combined special forces derring-do in Afghanistan with science-fiction and horror elements.  But perhaps The Objective was on to something.  Looking backward, the precursor texts for this magical war realism must be Tim O’Brien’s 1978 novel Going After Cacciato and 1990 short story “How to Tell a True War Story.” Thinking about it all, my working hypothesis is that nitty-gritty detail and “explaining how it really was” are fine in theory and as far as they go, but that’s not quite enough for our most imaginative and anarchic war writers and artists.

Camp Clark, Khowst Province Afghanistan, 2009.
Camp Clark, Khowst Province, Afghanistan, 2009.

Toni Morrison’s Home: The Africanist Presence in War Literature

2012 may prove to be the annus mirabilis for Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction. A year that saw the publication of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and David Abrams’ Fobbit is not to be sneered at. Many years may go by before we see even one more war novel as good as any of those three.

Also published in 2012 was Home by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, the author of acclaimed novels such as The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. Home is an odd one whose inclusion in a discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan war literature is not an easy fit. The story of a traumatized African-American Korean War vet who returns to a racist 1950s United States, it invites the question why this novel now? What is Morrison asking us to think about? The only thing that seems to recommend it as an interjection in the national conversation about the current wars is the date of its publication.

I don’t know exactly what Morrison is up to, but I think the answer lies in a long non-fiction essay she published in 1992 called Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison chides literary scholars for not recognizing the “Africanist presence” in American literature and culture. By the “Africanist presence,” Morrison does not mean just black characters in American fiction, such as Jim in Huckleberry Finn. Nor does she indict American authors for not including more black authors or addressing racial issues. Rather, she claims that American letters (and culture, too), start to finish everywhere is informed consciously and unconsciously by the nation’s five-hundred year history of a biracial existence. In Morrison’s view, über-American concepts such as individualism, preoccupation with evil and sin, and anxiety about our nation’s social cohesion owe their distinctiveness and power to white misgivings about the black American presence in the midst of their lived lives and imaginations.

So, according to Playing in the Dark, the Africanist presence is always already everywhere in literature, even in novels where there are no black characters.

Which brings us to Iraq and Afghanistan war literature, which by and large features few African-Americans and presents itself as not particularly concerned with racial matters. Whatever is important to note about the war, it suggests, it certainly is not America’s tortured history of race relations. If anything, we should applaud ourselves that whatever the hell has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, black-white issues haven’t been the problem.

Morrison wouldn’t have it, I feel. If we think we have written race out of our national narrative of war and its aftermath, she suggests, we should probably think again. Home asks us to think that a whites-only story of Iraq and Afghanistan is much less than the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

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.


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.


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.

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