Posted tagged ‘Adrian Bonenberger’

Yale, the Great War and Modern War-Writing

December 26, 2018

Many thanks to the Yale University Veterans Association for the invitation to moderate a World War I Armistice Day Commemoration panel on WWI literature and film. The event was coordinated and hosted by Adrian Bonenberger, a Yale graduate, 173rd Airborne paratrooper, author of the memoir Afghan Post, co-editor (with Brian Castner) of the collection of contemporary war short-fiction The Road Ahead, and currently an editor of a Yale medical-science journal. Bonenberger invited an eclectic group of war artists and scholars to participate in a very cool endeavor: linking contemporary war-writing to precedents established by veterans and talented artists during and after “The Great War.” Joining me on the panel, which served as the capstone for a week of commemorative events, were Benjamin Busch, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Brianne Bilsky. Busch, well-known to readers of Time Now, is a film-maker, poet, photographer, actor, and memoirist of very high order. Orth-Veillon is the editor of the fantastic WWriteBlog, where she has published reflections on World War I by many modern war-writers. Bilsky, now a dean of one of Yale’s residential colleges, is a former colleague on the faculty of the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point, where we frequently taught World War I writing to cadets.

The set-up for the occasion was intriguing, as it demonstrated the appetite of the Yale community for honoring veterans and for thinking about war-related issues in serious, complex ways. After an informative and enjoyable lecture by Yale historian Paul Kennedy on World War I memorials, we, along with our audience, watched Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 movie Paths of Glory, about French soldiers court-martialed for cowardice in World War I, and then discussed it in relation to the post-World War I artistic tradition. Next, we segued into discussion of World War I writing to which we felt personally connected. Finally, we tried to suggest the wider impact of World War I writing on contemporary veteran-authors and culture-wide thinking about war.

A broad charge, to be sure, one perhaps too broad for the time allotted, save for the acuity of the panelists, each of whom is apparently incapable of saying a dull thing. Watching Paths of Glory was galvanizing, as it offered chance to admire Kubrick’s superb direction and Kirk Douglas’s riveting acting, but the film in my opinion is a bit of a counterpoint to the general trend of World War I art. Not so much concerned with the impact of war on individual soldiers as with the moral bankruptcy of the chain-of-command that keeps the war machine going, Paths of Glory is a late-stage addition to the Great War artistic legacy. Arguably, it is as much about post-World War II Cold War conformity as it is about the historical work performed by World War I in erasing 19th-century modes-of-thought and bringing our modern era into being. Still, discussion of Paths of Glory set the stage for return to the canonical literary works of World War I, as well as the publicizing of voices neglected by the decades but resonant now. Here are the works each panelist read from and commented on:

Jennifer Orth-Veillon: Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms
Benjamin Busch: Wilfred Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” followed by Hemingway’s short-story “Soldier Home”
Brianne Bilsky: Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Counter-Attack”
Me: Aline Kilmer’s poem “To a Young Aviator”

What can be said about World War I writing that hasn’t been said before? To some extent, perhaps not much, because that’s some very well-trod critical ground. The better question is what rings particularly true today? Below are some of my thoughts on the matter, inspired by our panel.

One is the general truth that World War I veteran-writers and contemporary war-writers are both well-read participants in the literary traditions they hope to join. Each cohort has gone to war and then written about it with a swirl of precursor works in mind, the Western tradition of classics for World War I writers and the 20th-century body of war writing-and-film for modern veteran authors. Another link is a characteristic subject: the disillusionment of the individual soldier, caused not just by the slaughter and stupidity he (or she) witnesses, but in the collapse of the dream of heroism, inflected with huge amounts of survivor guilt. This morphing of heroic possibility into lacerating self-reproach is related to the way that soldiers were randomly and unglamorously killed in the two wars: by gas, artillery barrage, and mowed down by machine-gun in World War I, and blasted instantly off the face-of-the-earth by IED explosions in Iraq or Afghanistan. A third is a similarity in tone, different from the hard-boiled feel of the great World War II novels and the moral outrage of Vietnam War fiction—a tone more elegiac or hesitant or softer or somehow regretful. While World War II and Vietnam writing often seems testosterone-soaked, few World War I or Iraq/Afghanistan authors come off as tough guys, and most give the impression that he or she would view extreme masculine competitive aggressiveness as a pathetic pose in the face of circumstance. Connected to this last notion is a shared sense of futility about the respective war efforts, and a distancing from responsibility or even care for strategic goals and national aspirations, which are typically categorized as vain, foolish, or irrelevant to the individual soldier experience.

These are just some ideas, surely there are others. Not every aspect of contemporary war-writing need have an antecedent in World War I, and the World War I canon is not beyond criticism—in fact, the canon cries out for “problematizing,” to use academic-speak, on several grounds. Still, it would be a foolish contemporary war-writer who set pen to paper without first reading the works authored by World War I combatants and interested non-combatants touched by the war, and it would be a very good one who surpasses or transforms the marks they established.

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The event had a special family significance for me: My grandmother’s brother left Yale during World War I to fight in France, where he suffered wounds in a gas attack from which he never fully recovered.

Jennifer Orth-Vellion, Brianne Bilsky, Benjamin Busch, Adrian Bonenberger, me.

The Road Ahead: Obama to Trump

January 26, 2017

the-road-ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iraq War Memorial, Raritan Bay Waterfront Park, NJ

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

War Memoir: Adrian Bonenberger’s Afghan Post

May 4, 2014

Afghan PostI draw a line between remembrance and imagination, so I don’t review many memoirs on Time Now.  I’m interested in the artistic representation of war more than its factual rendition, and I don’t want to be lured into judging someone’s life or disputing a soldier’s understanding of what he or she lived through.  Plus, there’s just a whole heck of a lot of memoirs out there, and not so many stories, and I think writing a great story is more of an achievement than writing a great memoir. I make exceptions, though, when a memoir strives for interesting literary effect or manifests something I think important.  I was impressed by Colby Buzzell’s My War, for instance.  Not only did it begin life as an early-on warzone blog, Buzzell’s prose voice is exhilarating.  Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War likewise originated as Internet dispatches from the Iraq front and then played hide-and-seek with military authority before finding print upon Gallagher’s discharge from the Army.  Walt Piatt’s Paktika and Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War are memoirs in verse. Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust is by far the most highly wrought contemporary war memoir, as befits a book by the son of the fine novelist Frederick Busch.  In a New Yorker article titled “Home Fires,” George Packer writes that Dust to Dust is “organized not chronologically but around certain materials—metal, bone, blood, ash. Fragments are perhaps the most honest literary form available to writers who fought so recently.”

Last week I moderated a reading titled Writers on War at The Strand Bookstore in New York City.  The event honored the publication of Adrian Bonenberger’s Afghan Post, an epistolary memoir comprised of letters and journal entries Bonenberger mostly composed while undergoing infantry officer training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and on two tours in Afghanistan. Also on the panel were David Abrams, Roxana Robinson, the authors of the novels Fobbit and Sparta respectively, and the aforementioned Matt Gallagher.  Abrams has written entertainingly about the event on his blog The Quivering Pen and also linked to some funny cartoons of us drawn by a member of the audience named Jess Ruliffson.  I can’t top Abrams and Ruliffson, but will say just a few words about Afghan Post.

Left to right, Adrian Bonenberger, me, Roxana Robinson, Matt Gallagher, David Abrams

Left to right, Adrian Bonenberger, me, Roxana Robinson, Matt Gallagher, David Abrams

Bonenberger is a Yale graduate whose parents are members of the artistic intelligentsia, which makes his military service de facto interesting–one more data point in liberal, educated America’s sorting out of its relationship with a nation that is a lot more militaristic than it is.  That Bonenberger was a compulsive letter writer who somehow found the means to save or retrieve his correspondence is also intriguing.  The best things about Afghan Post, though, are the quality of Bonenberger’s writing and his observations, both those descriptive and those reflective. Describing the things he sees and does, ruminating about bigger pictures, and cogitating upon his performance as a platoon leader and company commander, Bonenberger makes new many already twice-told warfaring episodes while filling in cracks and margins untouched by other memoirs and histories.  An excerpt, for example, from a letter to his parents:

The Afghans live in unimaginable poverty; if you haven’t seen it, you can’t picture what it’s like.  Mom, I’m guessing it’s even worse than whatever you saw on the Navajo reservation in the ‘70s.  Except replace “alcoholism” with “the ever-present specter of warfare” as the proximate cause of said poverty (I’m trying to be generous and not suggest anything else could be responsible lest others accuse me of cultural imperialism).  Walking through the market recently with a dismounted patrol, we passed a butcher’s shop, where they had skinned goats hanging—you could see the cloud of flies around the meat—the butcher’s assistant slapped the corpse to keep the flies off when a customer walked in.  That afternoon I had kabob with the mayor—probably the same goat.  There’s a medicine here, Cipro, that I take like candy to keep the pathogens away.  God only knows what it’s doing to my insides.

Our anti-malarial medicine is Mefloquin, which is a weekly pill (we all take it on Monday, which is called “Mefloquin Monday” as a consequence) that causes some seriously weird, super-realistic dreams.  I look forward to taking it; the dreams fade in intensity as the week goes on, but Monday and Tuesday night are usually fun, almost spiritual journeys.  I had one dream that was so much like reality that when I woke up, I wondered if I’d been to sleep at all, or if I’d just remembered the day before and not dreamt at all—then I thought, “Ah, this what they mean when they say ‘having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality.’”  Although when fantasy is exactly like reality, that’s not much of a problem.

The primary recipients of Bonenberger’s correspondence vary greatly—parents, girlfriends, old Yale friends, new Army buddies, etc.–so each is a separate exercise in rhetorical selection and emphasis.  Who needs to hear what and why?  As the letters accumulate, drama ensues as the author’s relationships torque under the pressure of change and need. The private side the letters reveal is often playful, open, and curious, but also prone to fits of brooding.  The dominant impression is that of a young man living through very challenging and exciting events who is both eager to explain it all and desperate for affirmation that family and old friends don’t disapprove of his decisions to join the Army.  The letters, it seems, allow Bonenberger, who never intended to stay in, to maintain distance from the all-consuming martial culture he has entered.  At the same time, they document the powerful imperatives that drive young officers to fanatically seek the respect of their soldiers, peers, and superiors.  The negotiation between distance and immersion imbues Afghan Post with personality and tension that other memoirs sometimes lack.

Afghan Post might be read usefully alongside Outlaw Platoon, Sean Parnell’s memoir of service as a platoon leader in Paktika province, Afghanistan, where much of Afghan Post also takes place.  Parnell’s memoir swaggers with portraits of soldiers, Afghans, tactics, fighting, and Parnell’s growing prowess as a combat leader; Afghan Post’s strengths are passages that depict honestly Bonenberger’s internal struggle with doubt and failure.  While we’re reading Parnell and Bonenberger we might also read Craig Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute, about the author’s own platoon leader experience in Paktika and Walt Piatt’s memoir-in-verse mentioned above, about his tenure as a battalion commander there.  Something about that wild, far-away battleground, full of mountains and angry Pashtuns, is inspiring America’s fighting men to write very well.

Adrian Bonenberger’s Afghan Post:  One Soldier’s Correspondence from America’s Forgotten War was published in 2014 by The Head and The Hand Press.


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