This week brought a CNN news report, hosted by Anderson Cooper, about two US Army veterans and one USMC veteran who traveled to Ukraine on their own dime to train Ukrainian home defense forces in basic infantry tactics. This training, of course, was meant to provide Ukrainians without military experience a modicum of self-defense and offensive prowess in anticipation of fighting off Russian invasion of their hometown, which, also of course, seems inevitable at this point.
The veterans featured in the report are well-known in vet-writing circles: Adrian Bonenberger, Benjamin Busch, and Matt Gallagher. Each is featured prominently in the Cooper report and the reasons they offer to explain themselves are heartfelt, eloquent, and inspirational. Even more than their words, their actions speak loud and strong. In support of a cause that is just, they are contributing their talents as best they can.
I have written often about Bonenberger, Gallagher, and Busch on Time Now over the years. Below are links to many of the posts. Within the posts, I think my regard for the men’s writing and art shines clear, as well as my regard for the men themselves. My posts may provide insight or at least some of the backstory as to how Bonenberger, Busch, and Gallagher connect their own war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan with their sense of what the current moment demands. In a nutshell, I would say their infantryman’s instinct to “move to the sound of the guns” is married to their ethical and political sensibilities and principles to a very high degree.
With the publication of Ray McPadden’s war memoir We March at Midnight, hard upon his novel And the Whole Mountain Burned, the already-robust body of war writing published by former soldiers (all officers, as it happens) of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division grows stronger. Joining McPadden, the count includes Adrian Bonenberger, Drew Pham, Kristin L. Rouse, Sean Parnell, and Brett Allen—each with one or more book-length works and/or many occasional pieces published in vet-writing journals and elsewhere, most about or inspired by deployments to Afghanistan with 10th Mountain. I include myself, too, by affiliation. Though I did not deploy with 10th Mountain to Iraq or Afghanistan, as the post-9/11 era dawned I was stationed at Fort Drum, NY, with the division, where I served first as the Secretary of the General Staff and then as the Executive Officer of 2-14 Infantry “Golden Dragons” in the division’s Second Brigade. Late in 2001, 2-14 did deploy to Kosovo on a peacekeeping mission, where we seethed with jealousy as sister battalions from 10th Mountain were among the first to fight in Afghanistan.
10th Mountain, as I remember it, was a no-frills, no-nonsense light infantry division. We had no sense of ourselves as an elite unit such as the 82nd Airborne or 75th Rangers, but we still took pride in our competency and toughness, which was honed by the brutal winter weather of New York state’s “North Country” hard-by Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. It’s fair to say that few requested assignment to 10th Mountain and Fort Drum, but once there we made the best of it. The “Mountain” part of the division name was an ode to the unit’s World War II roots in mountain-warfare and had little relation to flat Fort Drum save for the cold, snowy winters we endured. Still, the name and the heritage infused us with knowledge that to be a member of 10th Mountain stood for values and a tradition we better not let down. We trained hard and deployed often, even before 9/11. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfolded, 10th Mountain units were on near-constant rotation to one of the two countries, leading to the claim that 10th Mountain has been the most deployed division in the Army since 2001. I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but if not, it’s got to be pretty close.
So, just based on sheer numbers, it’s probably not surprising that so many 10th Mountain soldiers sought expression for their stories and views-of-things in print. But is there anything more that might account for their impulse to write following service? And is there a particular tenor to the body of work by 10th Mountain vets? If so, what is it, and why?
Short answer: I don’t know. It might just be coincidence. It might be though that I’m afeard to face the truth, for at first blush 10th Mountain doesn’t come off very well in the memoirs and fiction written by its veterans. None of them in particular take aim at 10th Mountain as a flawed entity distinct from other, better units, but almost all give full vent to unsatisfactory deployment experiences. The dissatisfaction takes many shapes. For some, it was crystallization of the awareness of the futility and stupidity of the overall mission. For others, it was horrendous combat experiences that deprived them of their ability to take pride in their fighting prowess. Others describe toxic command climates and poor leadership. These last sting me in particular, for I know personally or by reputation many of the leaders mentioned by name or described fictionally in the works. Some I consider friends, and most I had a reasonably high regard for. Hell, I was a field-grade officer myself, and though a lowly one, probably more part of the problem than an antidote to it in the eyes of disgruntled and disappointed junior officers and soldiers.
Oh well, I’ll just have to deal with that. For students of America’s war in Afghanistan, there is much to be gleaned from the words of 10th Mountain veterans. If you want to know what fighting was like at battalion-level in work-a-day units in eastern Afghanistan, or what the range of attitudes toward the military, the mission, and Afghans were held by those who belonged to such units might be, Bonenberger, Parnell, Rouse, Pham, McPadden, and Allen have left quite a record. Much is admirable, some is not, most is understandable, and none is beyond critique. I don’t love it all equally, and it’s not all the same, but now’s not the time to make distinctions. It’s easy to tell the writers tried hard to do well while in Afghanistan as members of 10th Mountain, and now while trying to convey what was special about their experience in their books–even if by “special” we really mean “troubling.” Thank you all for writing, and I hope you find many more readers.
A selected list of fiction and memoir by 10th Mountain Division veterans. I’ve also included links to articles the authors have written about the end of the American war in Afghanistan.
Bret Allen, Kilroy Was Here (novel)
Adrian Bonenberger, Afghan Post (memoir) and The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War (short-stories)
Finally, a memoir about life at Fort Drum as the wife of a many-times deployed officer is Angie Ricketts’ No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife.
UPDATE: I’m reminded that poet Brian Turner soldiered as an enlisted infantryman in 10th Mountain Division and deployed with them to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000. An impressive addition to the roster of 10th Mountain writers!
Good fiction offers exemplary opportunity to consider what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling”—the mindset and emotional disposition and cognitive frames and processes that are experienced individually as part of a larger collective of similarly-minded people. Two recent works of fiction by veterans excel in their portrait of the structure of feeling of distinct cohorts: Army infantrymen in Afghanistan and young black Americans shaped by war and political conflict.
Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War
Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier is a collection of short-stories that draw on Bonenberger’s two tours in Afghanistan as an Army infantry officer and subsequent malaise in his first few years after service. Far from being rote auto-fiction describing familiar scenes frequently found in contemporary veterans’ writing, the stories draw artistic inspiration from the fanciful, often absurd and satirical, and mostly dark literary fiction Bonenberger enjoyed growing up. As Bonenberger writes in his Introduction, it was in his childhood and adolescent reading that he “first encountered the insane logic of Catch-22, there that I read The Good Soldier and Gulliver’s Travels.” Later, Bonenberger writes, “This collection was written in good faith, for a small but discerning audience in the spirit of a non-literal search for truth.”
The “non-literal” aspect of the stories reveals itself in flights of allegorical fancy that re-arrange realistic details and plausible soldier experience to heighten incongruities and dislocations of American warfaring in Afghanistan and its aftermath. In one story, for example, “The Uniform,” a soldier’s uniform comes to life, serving as the alter-ego or doppelganger to its owner’s civilian identity. Another example is the story “Captain America,” in which an Army officer named John Appleseed America returns to the same geographic locale on multiple tours in Afghanistan. The conceit allows the story to comment on military tactical and strategic success, or lack of, over years of repetitive endeavors to “win” in Afghanistan. Like “The Uniform,” it’s fairly obvious in description but graphic and resonant in execution through Bonenberger’s rendering of physical and emotional detail. In these regards the stories are very literal. It’s said that one of Bonenberger’s heroes, Joseph Heller, didn’t have to make anything up to write Catch-22, he just “had to take good notes.” Bonenberger eschews “nothing-but-the-facts” literary aesthetics as both dull and incapable of rendering the highest and most interesting truths, but Bonenberger has observed much of infantry battalion culture and its byways, as well as the tactics of contemporary warfighting, and he gets more of these specifics into his stories than most.
Connecting everything in The Disappointed Soldier is a sense of what short-story master O. Henry describes as the classic short-story plot: a man (or person) who bets on himself and comes up short. A deep-seated sense of how personal failure is linked to the impossibility of the Afghanistan mission is reflected in the collection’s title story, and many other stories also channel the spirit of the sadder-but-wiser protagonists of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wonderful tales “Young Goodman Brown,” “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” and “My Kinsman Major Molineux.” Much veteran fiction and memoir reflects its authors’ sense they have been cheated out of honorable, productive, self-affirming deployments by incompetent military leadership and stupid, incoherent missions. Bonenberger’s aware of these things but refuses to give his protagonists a pass: he susses that the more interesting story to tell is of a soldier’s recognition of how their own shortcomings lead to disillusionment, with little room left to blame anyone but themselves. Understanding that military social capital and self-esteem are built out of a house-of-cards in which the four suits are vanity, ambition, self-delusion, and concern for status and appearance, the stories in The Disappointed Soldier dissect this impossible-to-sustain admixture and depict the despair when the cards come tumbling down.
Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors
The story proper in Dewaine Farria’s novel Revolutions of All Colors recounts the lives of three young black men who come of age in the period from 1995-2005. Putting the men’s exploits and thoughts in perspective is a long first chapter set in New Orleans in 1970 that describes a police crackdown on a local Black Panther chapter, with one of the characters involved a black woman whose job as a city official brings her ideas about black uplift in tension with the much more militant ideas about the same held by the Panthers. The first chapter is terrific: the period-and-place detail thick and rich and the worldviews and personalities of the actors—animated by rage but distinct in their manifestation—vividly described. Not to pour it on too much, but the first chapter reminded me of the fiery fiction and commentary I associate with Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, and I leaned forward in anticipation of how Farria would bring his critical and literary acumen to bear on his more contemporary protagonists’ lives and what might be said of race relations in America in the 21st century.
By contrast, however, the interlinked lives of his three modern black Americans—Simon (the son of the woman featured in Chapter One) and brothers Michael and Gabriel are much more placid and unfocused. The young men, from relatively prosperous and stable families, come-of-age in a small Oklahoma town, and while race is never not an issue, the young men seem to feel far less keenly the effects of racism than do their parents, whose constant admonishments that black Americans must never let their guards down seem to lack practical everyday relevance. As the young men explore life possibilities, they appear, frankly, more bemused by white people than at war with them, and just as adrift as many of their young white contemporaries, and they cycle through young-adult career options such as the military, grad school, overseas employment, mixed-martial arts fighting, metropolitan artiste-life, and the like in ways that don’t seem especially tinged by racial hostility and foreclosure of opportunities. All this, I believe, is by design and Farria’s point: he’s describing an interregnum in modern black American life set midway between the Civil Rights/black-militant era and the post-Obama resurgence of much more overt racial tension, when a false calm in the historical storm of American race-relations seemed to prevail and young blacks (perhaps much as Farria himself) struggled to define their relation to the peculiar social-historical circumstances in which they found themselves. Events in Revolutions of All Colors bring the three protagonists to begin a more sustained and mature appraisal of their elders’ lives and ideas, and I can’t help but think that if Farria were to write a sequel that follows his protagonists into the present, their thoughts would grow even more piquant and their actions more consequential.
Farria has served as a Marine and United Nations security advisor in numerous global hotspots, to include Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military and war enter into Revolutions of All Colors not so much in regard to Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom but Vietnam and political-social strife in Ukraine and Somalia. One of his protagonists—Simon–serves in Afghanistan as an Air Force pararescueman and later does a stint in Somalia as a security contractor during a period of factional fighting, while other episodes featuring Gabriel are set in Ukraine, where the “Orange Revolution” launched against Russia serves as a backdrop. Simon’s and Gabriel’s thoughts about political violence, however, are cursory in comparison to the weight given in the novel to Vietnam as a crucible of life-forming worldview for many of the Black Panthers described in Chapter One and the father of Michael and Gabriel described in following chapters. For black men who served in Vietnam, a racist military intensified their political awakening while combat inculcated ideas and values about the discipline and training required to fight for one’s rights and stand one’s ground. They also learned to love, or at least appreciate, the thrill of the fight and the sometime necessity of violence, for better or worse in roughly equal measures, though probably mostly better given the precarity and watchfulness required of black life in white-dominated America. This proposition is very interesting to consider, both as it is fuzzily refracted in Simon’s martial inclinations and Gabriel’s and Michael’s lack of the same, and in contemplation of the ways war in Iraq and Afghanistan might shape the outlook of contemporary veterans, both black and white, as they move forward into adulthood.
Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War. Kolo, 2021.
Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors. Syracuse University Press, 2020.
Time Now’s pace-of-production has dramatically slowed this year for a variety of reasons, even as Time Now itself celebrated its 10th birthday on June 23. From 40 or so posts a year circa 2015, this is only my fifth so far in 2021. Part of the reason for the decline is technical: for reasons inexplicable WordPress has forced me to change the lay-out of the blog, and I have to say the new look has unsettled me. Whatever gain in readability may have accrued, the loss of the familiar format has deflated inspiration. Even worse, behind the public face of Time Now I’ve lost the ability to easily edit posts on the WordPress platform—a serious liability that must be fixable, but which has thus far proven beyond me to do so. Very demoralizing, not because I often go back and substantially revise old posts, but it changes the nature of how I compose and publish, and even small corrections of typos and formatting glitches are hard.
That said, here I’m going to quickly consider a series of war-writing events and works that in past years might have merited much more attention. This will have to suffice for now, but perhaps I can circle back to any or all of the subjects I offer brief descriptions of below.
1. Be sure to check-out my interview with Iraqi expatriate author Hassan Blasim recently published by The Wrath-Bearing Tree. Blasim may more definitively be described as “conflict-and-violence” than a “war” writer, but his work has always struck me and others in the war-writing scene as an important counterpoint to the American-centric focus of contemporary war-and-mil writing by American authors. In the interview Blasim describes the artistic genesis of his new novel God 99, which he firmly locates in the experience of growing up in Iraq under the influence of Saddam Hussein and Iraq war.
2. I just participated in a war-writing panel at the American Literature Association conference—a welcome return to public academic consideration of war-writing following fifteen months of social isolation. The title of our panel and the individual presentations speak to the focus and range of our concerns:
Writing War in the 21st-Century: Unbound Perspectives on the Global War on Terror
Hilary Lithgow: “A 21st Century Chapter for [Samuel Hynes’] The Soldier’s Tale.”
Peter Molin: “Wayward Warfaring: Black Voices in Contemporary War-Writing”
Stacey Peebles: “‘A precious jewel among the wreckage of this country’: Contemporary Iraqi War Fiction.”
Brian Williams: “What kind of crazy fits this war?: Considering the ‘Global’ in the Global War on Terror” [focused on Phil Klay’s Missionaries].
Thanks to Brian Williams for organizing and Melissa Parrish for moderating, as well as to my fellow panelists.
3. Keeping up with new war-writing titles has continued apace. Below are capsule descriptions of recent releases, with a focus on summary rather than assessment and analysis. Buy and read any that sound appealing!
a. Maximilian Uriarte’s Battle-Born: Lapis Lazuli. Uriarte’s follow-up graphic novel to his impressive and important The White Donkey is set in Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, and expands The White Donkey’s focus on soldier trauma to a much wider range of concerns: racism, misogyny, economic exploitation of natural resources, and the lives and perspectives of civilians caught in the turmoil of war and conflict, while also introducing new characters serving in Uriarte’s beloved Marines. Befitting the expanded range of concerns, Battle Born’s artwork is much more lavish than The White Donkey’s, featuring a more striking color palette and more panoramic and detailed drawings.
b. Perry O’Brien’s Fire in the Blood is a welcome full-length novel by the latest (but hopefully not the last) vet-author who first came to prominence as a contributor to the seminal Fire and Forget anthology in 2013. Fire in the Blood begins as a detective whodunit, as its protagonist, a soldier AWOL from duty in Afghanistan, tries to solve the mystery of his wife’s death in New York City. Morphing as it goes, Fire in the Blood evolves into something of an action-thriller as the vet-protagonist battles richy-rich and super-sketchy antagonists who stymie the vet’s pursuit of justice. The descriptions of exotically-sordid characters and places in The Bronx excel.
c. Brett Allen’s Kilroy Was Here’s first-person narrator is a junior officer stuck on battalion staff during his Army unit’s dismal rotation in Afghanistan in 2008-2009. Underappreciated and marginalized by his chain-of-command, the narrator paints a striking picture of toxic military leadership that sometimes comically but ultimately sadly seems to reflect reports by many junior officers who feel they were cheated out of more rewarding tours by their own leaders. Satire and ridicule are the narrator’s primary weapons for exacting revenge, and a plot that allows the narrator’s superior understanding of events and fighting prowess to eventually shine furthers the comeuppance. The portrait of a battalion deployment and internal dynamics, as well as the complexities of missions in Afghanistan, will resonate with readers who have experienced such things, such as me.
d. Travis Klempan’s Have Snakes, Need Birds’ subject is an Army battalion’s tour in Iraq, with the focus on a sergeant of mysterious provenance and talents (he communicates telepathically with birds, for starters) with no specific assignment except to accompany the designated platoon sergeant of an infantry platoon to add experience and be ready to take over “just-in-case.” The reason for this odd setup is not fully explained, and as the novel proceeds, Klempan adds further mysterious and fantastical elements that bespeak an interest in magical realism and speculative-horror fiction. Determined not to be just another war-novel, Have Snakes, Need Bird’s strength lies in its protagonist’s wrangle with his own doubts as he only half-understands how supernatural forces, a vexing mission, and an enigmatic romantic interest collude to bring him to a rendezvous with combat-zone destiny.
4. Two more titles await reading: Former Marine Dewaine Farria’s Revolutions of All Colors, about, among other things, a black Special Forces veteran trying to make his way in the complicated contemporary social and political landscape, and Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War, a collection of darkly absurdist tales and ruminations about war and military by the author of the excellent memoir Afghan Post and the founder of the estimable The Wrath-Bearing Tree website.
That’s all folks–and now back to your regularly scheduled summers.
Brett Allen, Kilroy Was Here. A15 Publishing, 2020.
Hassan Blasim, God 99. Comma Press, 2020. Translated by Jonathan Wright.
Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War. KOLO, 2021.
Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors. Syracuse University Press, 2020.
Travis Klempan, Have Snakes, Need Birds. Koehlerbooks, 2020.
Perry O’Brien, Fire in the Blood. Random House, 2020.
Maximilian Uriarte, Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli. Little, Brown and Company, 2020.
This week the website Wrath-Bearing Tree published my interview with veteran-author Roy Scranton in advance of publication of his scholarly study Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. In Total Mobilization, Scranton expands upon the concept of “the trauma hero,” which he first articulated in a provocative 2015 Los Angeles Review of Books article titled “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to “Redeployment” and “American Sniper.”The LARB article rankled many with its less-than-hallowed regard for classic and contemporary war writing and in particular its willingness to name names among Scranton’s peers in the modern war-writing scene who Scranton claims are unwittingly or too heavily invested in privileging American veterans emotionally bruised by war. I commented on some of that on Time Now at the time, but an unspoken thought was that the article was too short and that there had to be more to understand about how the trauma hero motif originated and operated. Now, Total Mobilization, the book from which the LARB essay was extracted, provides that background and more expansive explanation. In my interview, I’ve tried to give Scranton room to explain the major points of his larger argument while also probing him about personal connections to the trauma hero concept and the issues it raises.
Many thanks to Scranton for sitting for the interview and also thanks to Wrath-Bearing Tree for publishing it. While striving to make WBT the preeminent place on the web for fresh critical commentary and imaginative writing about contemporary war and conflict, the talented crew of editors and staff-authors–Adrian Bonenberger, Michael Carson, David James, Matthew Hefti, Andria Williams, Mary Doyle, Drew Pham, Amalie Flynn, and Rachel Kambury, by name—have also opened publication doors for exciting new voices too many to name.
As partial evidence of Wrath-Bearing Tree’s intellectual energy, be sure to check out Michael Carson and Matthew Hefti’s interview with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk author Ben Fountain in the current issue, as well as Carson’s review of Fountain’s latest work, the non-fiction journalistic account of the 2016 election Beautiful Country Burn Again. To attract authors of the magnitude of Fountain and Scranton to generously offer their thoughts about writing and war is proof-positive that Wrath-Bearing Tree is on to something good, and I’m honored to have played a role in the proceedings.
Finally, my interview with Scranton will not resolve arguments about “the trauma hero”; if anything it will instigate ever more trenchant discussions about veterans and war-writing. Scranton’s assertions and evidence hit hard, but are not, as is nothing, beyond criticism or complication, and nothing is ever the last word on its subject. Scranton’s claims raise real challenges to abiding premises and assumptions that govern war-writing and thinking about war-writing, and, like the Twitterati often proclaim, my RTing of them does not necessarily imply (full) endorsement. A generative follow-on discussion about the trauma hero appeared relatively unnoticed in 2018 on a Sundress Blog post associated with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), available here. In a joint interview moderated by Jane Rosenberg LaForge, Seth Brady Tucker, Jesse Goolsby, Helen Benedict, and Samuel Snoek-Brown offer perspectives on the trauma hero from a number of interesting angles. Please read their roundtable discussion, along with my interview with Scranton, and then read Total Mobilization, and let the conversation continue.
Roy Scranton, Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. University of Chicago, 2019.
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.
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.
Congratulations to everyone involved in the writing and release of The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, a new anthology of short war fiction that features twenty-four intriguing and well-crafted stories about war in Iraq and Afghanistan and its aftermath. The authors are all veterans who have risen to prominence in war-writing circles since the 2012 success of contemporary war novels The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and The Watch, and the early 2013 publication of the war fiction anthology Fire and Forget.
In the wake of these pioneering works, upwards of thirty novels and short-story volumes portraying military men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan and upon their return to the States have been published. This wave of war story-telling suggests the burden of finding new tales to tell and fresh ways to tell them must have been heavy for The Road Ahead authors, whose published work heretofore has largely been essays, memoirs, poetry, and journalism, not fiction. Fortunately, the authors bring to narrative life many interesting nooks in the war-and-veteran experience, and they do so with verve and imagination. Editors Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, assisted by Teresa Fazio and Aaron Gywn, have selected well and inspired excellence in their contributors, who represent a wide range of military experiences and demographic diversity. The editors have applied their touch to ensure each story is both taut and capable of surprise, even when the tales-told fall well within war-writing conventions. Benjamin Busch provides a title-appropriate cover photo, a story of his own, and best of all, marvelous drawings to illustrate each contributor’s story. Both Sparta author Roxana Robinson and the editors offer introductions that alertly explore the phenomenon of veterans writing in the years after the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taken together, The Road Ahead stories imaginatively and perceptively dramatize prevalent concerns of a talented and ambitious cohort of veteran-authors who paid attention while in uniform and then while observing the post-war literary surge.
I enjoyed all the stories, but the most prudent consideration of them individually will take a few more reads, so here I’ll concentrate on collective impressions. In keeping with the anthology’s title, for example, several tales depict protagonists taking long road trips, either as drivers or passengers, to include an excellent one by Kristen L. Rouse, titled “Pawns,” that features Afghan truck drivers. Military vehicle movement in-theater and car-travel back in America figure throughout The Road Ahead as catalysts for action and thought, a literal equivalent of the characters’ sense of their lives as journeys that began prior to service, extend through deployment, and continue to unfold post-war. Most stories take place either during deployment or within a few days, weeks, or months after redeployment–only one, Christopher Paul Wolfe’s moving “Another Brother’s Conviction,” looks back on war from the vantage point of a few years. War thus still burns hot in the lives of the veterans portrayed in The Road Ahead; at least two characters express outright desire to “go back,” as if the warzone were preferable to civilian life. The nostalgic sentiment seems to prevail in many other tales as well, if only as a lament to either be given a second chance to do better or to return to a state of innocent naivety prior to war’s horror. Across the board, almost every story concerns the tightly focused experience of an individual; few feature multiple principle characters, and only one by my count–Christopher Paul Wolfe’s, again–places individual service in the U.S. military in larger political or national contexts.
Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades,” Nate Bethea’s “Funeral Conversation,” and several other stories depict war in Afghanistan and Iraq from the point-of-view of “boots-on-the-ground” male combat-arms soldiers. In the literary microcosm of the squad, platoon, and company, higher-ups rarely figure, and when they do they are held in contempt. The interesting tension these tales portray pits official codes-of-conduct and notions of honor against more cynical–or pure, depending on how you look at it–ones that value toughness, fighting ability, and loyalty to fellow soldiers above all else. This is pretty well-trodden war lit ground, but the interest here lies in how quickly combat in Iraq and Afghanistan drove highly-trained, presumably highly-motivated volunteers to abandon their professionalism and discredit themselves by their actions. Another set of stories portrays the signature subject of contemporary war fiction: post-deployment emotional anguish, especially as it is caused by memories and guilt associated with the death of fellow soldiers. Again, the interest lies in the particulars and specifics of this by-now common subject. Eric Nelson’s “Blake’s Girl” and David F. Eisler’s “Different Kinds of Infinity” especially delight by working variations on two classic Poe tales, “The Purloined Letter” and “The Black Cat,” respectively, while Brandon Willitts’s “Winter on the Rim” impresses by never mentioning war, soldiers, or veterans at all. Brandon Caro’s “The Morgan House,” about severely-wounded veterans stuck in the military’s hapless rehabilitation apparatus, works much the same ground as Brian Van Reet’s great contribution to Fire and Forget, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” with equally wicked, in a good way, results. Quite a few authors in addition to Kristen L. Rouse portray Afghans or Iraqis either possessed by the spirit of jihad or, more interestingly, conflicted by jihad’s disruptive demands. A half-dozen or so stories by male veterans depict masculine sexual behavior–masturbation, prostitution, getting laid, getting dumped, etc.–as it played out in Iraq, Afghanistan, and afterwards, but even more striking are Kayla M. Williams’ “There’s Always One,” Lauren Kay Halloran’s “Operation Slut,” and Teresa Fazio’s “Little,” all of which chart female sexuality on-and-post-deployment. While the essential integrity and values of most story protagonists are rarely threatened, at least two stories–Adrian Bonenberger’s “American Fapper” and Brian Castner’s “The Wild Hunt” (stories written by the editors, go figure) treat their main characters roughly, as if to suggest that there were something deficient with how they view and conduct themselves. Both these stories, interestingly, also comment reflexively on war-story-telling conventions by satirizing popular motifs. Humor is only evident here-and-there, but Benjamin Busch’s “Into the Land of Dogs” and Maurice Emerson Decaul’s “Death of Time” among a few others, complicate earnest, straightforward narration by incorporating dream, fantasy, surrealism, allegory, and other extravagant literary effects.
One quibble is that the title ominously invites readers to wonder what the future will bring, but the introductions and stories stop short of considering the relationship of war-writing and the lives of veterans and veteran-authors to the most up-to-the-minute political, cultural, and literary moment: the end of the age of Obama and the beginning of the age of Trump. Understandably so, because the stories were written and assembled before the Trump juggernaut loomed large in the literary windshield, but The Road Ahead points more clearly to where we were on November 7, 2016, than to where we are going after January 20, 2017. In other words, it documents the state of war fiction at a moment just before the social context from which its authors drew inspiration began to rapidly shift and the stakes escalate, processes that will inevitably morph the shape and texture of war-writing. The range and variety of the subjects, styles, and themes on display in The Road Ahead are as impressive as the craft that governs their presentation, but the road ahead of The Road Ahead promises to be even more interesting, as the collection’s shrewd contributors measure the import of the new President’s ideas and actions on their own thoughts about war, the military, soldiers, and veterans.
The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, foreword by Roxana Robinson, cover photo and interior illustrations by Benjamin Busch. Pegasus, 2017.
The new administration has already targeted the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for elimination. I’m against both moves; I think the government should increase spending on art, scholarship, and historical inquiry, not reduce or eliminate it. In particular, I’ll be sad to see the NEH program Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of Warand the NEA program Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network go, since they are dedicated to remembering and honoring the service and sacrifice of veterans and promoting their well-being.
This week, through a quirk of my social media feed, I learned that yet another of my former students at West Point died in combat. Captain Brian S. Freeman was killed in Iraq in 2007 while serving with a Civil Affairs team. I recollect Cadet Freeman as perhaps the most handsome cadet I ever taught, and that’s saying something, as well as possessing an intelligent and lively approach to life. Reading his obituary, for example, it didn’t surprise me at all to learn that he was a world-class bobsledder in addition to being a fine officer and beloved husband and father. RIP Captain Brian Freeman, thank you, you are remembered.
I 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 aNew 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 cartoonsof 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.
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.