War Memoir: Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust

Benjamin Busch, Vassar fine arts major and two-time USMC Iraq vet, reminds me of an amalgam of my best friend and myself when we were eight years old.  Frank Hobbs lived two doors down in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Every day we would play army in the neighborhood and woods behind our houses.  When we weren’t outside we were drawing pictures of battleships, fighter plane dogfights, and football games.

Almost 50 years later, I’m in the Army and Frank is an artist and art teacher at Ohio Wesleyan University.  Not only does he paint like a dream, he writes like one, too.  I highly recommend checking out his blog and website, which feature plenty of his works and smart, interesting talk about art.  His paintings are landscapes, but they are as much about painting as they are of the objects and terrain they portray.  As naturalistic and realistic as the pictures appear, you never ever lose awareness of the artist’s mind at work and the evocative array of color, line, and texture created by the painted brushstrokes on canvas.

In Dust to Dust, Busch brings that same artist’s sensibility to his portrait of his service in Iraq. If Colby Buzzell’s My War is arranged episodically and chronologically, and features a haphazard pastiche of war-related documents, Dust to Dust is highly artificed, everywhere and all the time organized in unconventional ways by Busch’s controlling eye and hand.  In truth, only about a quarter of the book describes Busch’s life in uniform, as he places his desire to join the Marines and deployment experience in the context of his life and ruminations about the natural order of things.  The book is not organized chronologically; chapters are named after elemental entities—water, metal, soil, etc.—and within each chapter unfold biographical episodes that directly or tangentially exemplify how natural elements have structured Busch’s life. Think back, for example, in your own life, about ten episodes in which, say, water figured, and now write about them in sequence while probing their connected meaning.  As lived, the connections might have gone unnoticed, but in Dust to Dust they become manifest for Busch, thanks to his biographical-archaeological excavation work.   In James Joyce’s phrase, it’s a “retrospective rearrangement” of events that, to an artist and like-minded reader, makes more sense than a boring chronological recounting or focus on obvious “highlights.”

This is difficult to explain and perhaps confusing (or, if you are like me, delightful) to read. Fortunately, Busch is a fine writer and many of the events he describes are interesting in and of themselves.  In another post, I’ve mentioned the two most moving scenes in the book:  one where he describes telling his parents he has joined the Marine Corps and another in which he writes of his mother’s decline and death.  But Busch can be funny as well.  A great episode describes Busch trying to salvage an abandoned car that has been occupied by a hive of wasps:

“I went into my trailer and put on three layers of sweatshirts, jeans, two layers of sweatpants, two pairs of socks, boots, a scarf, an extreme sports bike helmet that I had found in a Salvation Army store, ski goggles, and winter gloves.  It was July and I boiled in the density of inappropriate clothing.  It was difficult to bend my arms and legs.  There were no brakes anyway, and I figured there to be an unlikely requirement for dramatic steering so my immobility was of little concern.  We looped the chain to the front, and I opened the door to an explosion of wasps.

“I sat on the seat and I could feel the hive crush and stir through my clothes.  The wasps hovered and dove at me, and the compartment filled with them.  It was like seeing molecules of gas heated.  I almost felt that I had changed scale, become smaller, the wasps larger at this distance than they should be.  I recall nothing of the short trip to the top of the hill except that I went there with every wasp on earth.”

Not to read too much into it, especially because the scene gets funnier, but it plays like an eerie comic foreshadowing of Iraq, where Busch would pile on body armor prior to driving down IED-strewn roads in military vehicles.

An IED strike indeed is the climax of Dust to Dust, where Busch describes the death of a fellow Marine officer and friend with whom he had patrolled side-by-side throughout a long day brightened only by their exchange of jokes.  “We had a similar sense of humor and were also like-minded about how to approach the embattled city,” Busch writes.  Unable to evacuate his now dead friend before the sun goes down, Busch must pull security around his friend’s burning truck through the night—life imitating the art of Walt Whitman’s great Civil War poem “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night.” Then, within a few years, first Busch’s father and next his mother died.  This nexus of death focalizes Dust to Dust; as the book nears its close we see that the point of Busch’s long meditations and idiosyncratic selection of anecdotes has been to plum his own preoccupation with mortality and sense that mortality was even more preoccupied with him.  Busch hints that his life-long desire to serve in the Marines and see combat, if not tantamount to a death wish, was a compulsive ride on a very unsafe roller coaster, sure to end badly for someone, if not him.  It can’t quite be nature’s plan, because war is a social act and the decision to join the military a personal one.  But the intricate organizational texture of Dust to Dust replicates the densely intertwined yarn of life’s discreet threads.

In the book’s closing pages, Busch describes finding a copy of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost on the desk of his father—the novelist Frederick Busch—some years after his father had passed.  He reprints Milton’s famous final lines, which describe Adam and Eve making their way out of Eden “hand in hand, with wand’ring steps, and slow.”  Paradise Lost represents a heroic effort, perhaps man’s best, to impose artistic order on the revolt of Satan and man’s fall and eventual salvation through religious faith.  Milton aimed to “justify the ways of God to man.” But that formulation doesn’t work for Busch; in the philosophy of Dust to Dust art is the only stay against eternal oblivion:  “It is the living task of every artist to suffer the constant premonition of death while drawing plans for immortality.”  In my signed copy of Dust to Dust, Busch wrote, “We are stars and oceans and earth.  It will be language that survives.  Live forever.”

I’ll buy that.  I wonder if Frank Hobbs does?

Frank Hobbs, "Winter--Athens, Ohio."  Athens, Ohio is my birthplace.
Frank Hobbs, “Winter–Athens, Ohio.” Athens, Ohio is my birthplace.

Benjamin Busch, Dust to Dust:  A Memoir.  Ecco, 2012.

War Memoir: The Good, The Better, The Best

I read just about any war memoir that comes along, both for what it says and how it says it.  Books such as General Stanley McChrystal’s My Share of the Task (2013) and Colonel Peter R. Mansoor’s Baghdad at Sunrise (2008) provide high-level factual detail about command culture and decision-making that so far has eluded journalists and historians.  McChrystal’s memoir, for example, offers more insight into dark-side special operations and Ranger task force missions than anything I’ve read elsewhere.

Other memoirs—many of them, actually—document young officers’ journeys from battle-curious to battle-hardened.  I’m interested in this saga, too, and can relate to it, though the bullets didn’t start whizzing around my head until I was past 50.  Nathaniel Fink’s One Bullet Away (2006), Donovan Campbell’s Joker One (2010), and Craig Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute (2010) are of this type.  Reading them together, one is struck by how super-serious and self-absorbed their authors are, how burdened they have become by their West Point- and Marine Corps-honed codes of honor and responsibility.  Nothing wrong with that in the performance of duty, but it takes reading a more irreverent, wider-angled memoir such as Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom to realize how  Fink, Campbell, and Mullaney have internalized a military value system that seems as limiting as it does ennobling, at least when it comes to writing about war.  Where Gallagher brings analytical perspective and a sense of humor to his depiction of the soldiers he leads, the people in whose midst he fights, and the bigger national and cultural machinery he serves, the Fink, Campbell, and Mullaney memoirs offer a single-minded strategy for processing their experience:  how does what I saw live up to how I thought it would be?  The heroes of their own stories, the authors are eager to report they held up pretty well, if only now they are just a little sadder and wiser.  Though all contain episodes describing war’s awfulness and military absurdity, they say little that the big official Army and Marine Corps or a generous, uncritical reading public could not understand and forgive them for.

The memoirs that interest me most are those that move beyond experience and self to a keener rendering of a war made malleable through language and art.  Not surprisingly, such memoirs are decidedly unofficial, and the authors skeptical of anything that smells like cant or hypocrisy.  For me, so far, the two that do these things best are Army infantryman’s Colby Buzzell’s My War (2006) and Marine Corps officer Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust (2012).  I gather that in uniform both Buzzell and Busch served honorably and to the best of their abilities; they fought and fought hard when they had to and weren’t interested in making too much trouble for any leader who earned their respect.  But their anti-authoritarian and artistic streaks emerge in their literary endeavors.  The words and ideas given to them through military training and command channels to understand their service just don’t seem to have gone far enough for them.  Nor did the extant tradition of war literature, and so they were compelled to craft new, original, more creative and arguably more honest ways of writing about the war.  My War and Dust to Dust thus reflect an intensely aesthetic rendering of battle, in allegiance to a code of artistic values put first to the performance of military duty in combat and then to the writing about it.

In future posts, I’ll try to explain better and further.

My War   Dust to Dust

Little Magazines 2: Ep;phany

Epiphany

The winter/spring 2013 edition of Ep;phany: A Literary Journal is guest edited by poet Brian Turner. Not fooling around, Turner has solicited and selected quality work from a who’s who of contemporary war literature.  A roll call of contributors begins with Benjamin Busch, Roy Scranton, Bruce Weigl, Donald Anderson, Matt Gallagher, Jehanne Dubrow, and Paul Wasserman.  Turner’s also reached out internationally to include Israeli poet Etgar Karet, Myanmar poet Tin Moe, Irish author Fred Johnston, and others.

Everything I’ve read so far is wonderful, but here I’ll just offer a few initial impressions.  A poem by Army veteran Martin Ott called “Blanket Party” caught my eye with its reference to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where Ott, as I did, underwent basic training:

      In Fort Leonard Wood, our rooms were windowless
      the days began in the dark for pushups on fields of rock.
      We were calorie-starved with only minutes to shovel
      chow, and set against other squads by barking sergeants..

Brian Wright O’Connor’s “Appointment at Bu Dop” explores his father’s service in Vietnam as the commander of an infantry battalion.  The essay concerns itself with treatment of enemy dead and body counts, but Lieutenant Colonel Mortimer O’Connor is in the news this week for other reasons:  he has just received a posthumous PhD in English Literature from Penn.  He was weeks away from completing his dissertation in 1968 when he deployed to Vietnam, where he was killed in action.

The cover photo by Benjamin Busch is a stunner.  Called “Casualties,” it was taken in Iraq in 2005.  It portrays the aftermath of an IED attack that killed a close friend; Busch describes the event at length in his memoir  Dust to Dust.   In Ep;phany, Busch writes, “…the vehicle burned long into the night.  We guarded it in the dark, waiting to recover the body of a gunner still trapped under the wreckage.”

Happy Mother’s Day War Literature

Below I’ve reposted a slightly-edited post from my old blog, 15-Month Adventure, that I also published on Time Now last year on Mother’s Day.

To the Moms, the Whole Love

Moms come up quite a bit in writings about the war, I’ve discovered.  Not surprisingly, authors are sensitive to how military service touches those whose children do the fighting.  For example, here’s how Benjamin Busch in Dust to Dust describes his mother’s reaction to the announcement that he has joined the Marine Corps:

“My mother took a deep breath, her hands clamped to the edge of the table as if she were watching an accident happen in the street.  Her father had been a Marine, had gone to war and almost not come back.”

How to describe a mother’s anxiety about her child’s deployment?  Kaboom author Matt Gallagher’s mom, Deborah Scott Gallagher, writes:

“’I will be stalwart,’ I had said to myself on the drive home from the airport the morning I said goodbye to him. “I will be steadfast. I will read and listen to the reputable war reporters, and I will write my senators and congressmen, but I will not lose faith in my country. I will concentrate on sustaining my son rather than myself, and I will not confuse self-pity with legitimate worry and concern over him and his men. I will be proud, justifiably proud, but I will not be vainglorious! And I will never, never, never let him know how frightened I am for him.’

“But, within moments of returning home, I had broken all but one of these promises to myself. I was doing laundry and, as I measured detergent into the washer, the Christmas carol CD I was playing turned to Kate Smith’s magnificent contralto, singing, ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.’

“‘And in despair, I bowed my head,’ she sang. ‘There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’

“And, at that moment, for only the third time in my adult life, I began to sob — not cry, not weep — but sob uncontrollably, sitting on the floor of my laundry room, surrounded by sorted piles of bed linens and dirty clothes.”

And if the child comes back wounded?  Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone, describes a trip to Walter Reed to meet injured soldiers and their families:

“And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: ‘Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?’”

And how does a veteran describe his mother, a lover of language and books and authors and ideas, as he watches her fade late in life?  Benjamin Busch again:

“She had been a librarian.  All of the books and conversations about the importance of written words swelling inside her head like a star undergoing gravitational collapse into a black mass, its light still traveling out into space but its fires already burned out.  Nothing left but ash.”  Then he recounts her last words: “‘Oh my baby boy.'”

So much hurt.  So much damage.  So many memories.  So much love.

My mother, Ann Castle Boswell, Athens, Ohio, 1958, Athens, Ohio, the year I was born.
My mother, Ann Castle Boswell, Athens, Ohio, 1958, the year I was born

References:

Benjamin Busch, Dust to Dust:  A Memoir (2012).

Matt Gallagher, Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Dirty Little War (2010)

Deborah Scott Gallagher, In a Hymn, Words of CourageNew York Times, December 23, 2011.

Siobhan Fallon, You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011).

Siobhan Fallon, A Visit to Walter Reed, March 29, 2012.

Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Siobhan Fallon, and Exit12 @ West Point

IMG_0818

This event brought together three great authors–Brian Turner,  Siobhan Fallon, and Benjamin Busch–to speak about their efforts to portray the turmoil of war.  As each of them had been profoundly affected by the war in Iraq, it seemed fitting a decade and a month after the invasion to ask about their whereabouts in March 2003 and then have them describe when the war became manifest in their art. The remarks subsequently ranged over many subjects, but focused most specifically on the damage enacted on individuals and relationships by deployment and exposure to death and killing.

Asked to read selections from their works that generated strong audience reactions, Turner read “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center” from Phantom Noise, Fallon read from her story “Leave” from You Know When the Men Are Gone, and Busch read passages from Dust to Dust that described his decision to join the Marines and his first few days of training at Quantico.

Later, each of the authors read passages or poems that had been written pre-2001 that had influenced them then or seemed important now.  Siobhan Fallon read from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”  Benjamin Busch read Joe Haldeman’s Vietnam War poem “DX,” which he had copied into a green military-issue notebook and carried with him in Iraq.  Finally, Brian Turner recited from memory Israeli poet’s Yehuda Amachai’s “The Diameter of the Bomb”—an especially appropriate poem in light of last week’s Boston Marathon bombing:

      The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
      and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
      with four dead and eleven wounded.
      And around these, in a larger circle
      of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
      and one graveyard. But the young woman
      who was buried in the city she came from,
      at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
      enlarges the circle considerably,
      and the solitary man mourning her death
      at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
      includes the entire world in the circle.
      And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
      that reaches up to the throne of God and
      beyond, making a circle with no end and no God..

Amazing.

Exit12 performed two dances:  “Aggressed/This is War” consisted of two solo pieces that together depicted the story of a returned vet struggling to reintegrate into peacetime life.  “Yarjuun,” which means “We hope” in Arabic, was a piece written by Exit12 director Roman Baca in Iraq in collaboration with an Iraqi dance troupe.  Both dances were in turn playful, sad, sexy, and politically-charged, with inspired music, props, and choreography that dramatized the effects of war without being either too obvious or too elusive.

I had a hand in organizing this affair so I definitely want to thank the artists, all those in the audience, and all those helped make it happen.  Wish everyone reading could have been there, too!

Below left to right:  Siobhan Fallon, Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch:

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Exit12 below–Adrienne de la Fuente, Joanna Priwieziencew, Roman Baca, Chloe Slade, and Paige Grimard:

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Benjamin Busch

Busch-Crossing, 2005

Benjamin Busch is a Vassar graduate and two-time veteran of USMC tours in Iraq.  Now out of the service, he has proven a dynamo of artistic production, most if it directly and I suspect all of it implicitly related to his war experience.   He’s acted in TV series such as Generation Kill and The Wire, directed several short films, and written a memoir titled Dust to Dust.  He’s the son of novelist Frederick Busch, whose influence weighs heavy on his mind in Dust to Dust.  Father-son relationships get played out in lots of war literature, which I plan to document in upcoming posts.  For now, I’ll just say that perhaps Busch gets his amazing productivity from his father, who published at least 16 novels.  Or maybe it’s a Marine thing.

I haven’t read any of Frederick Busch’s novels, but Benjamin Busch might get his whimsical yet cerebral style from his father, too.  That quality certainly characterizes the photographs in The Art in War, a book of snaps taken during his Iraq tours.  In the book, Busch writes short explanations for each photograph.   In public performance, as he projects his pictures Busch reads the written commentary in a way that I find mesmerizing.  An example of Busch’s one-two image-word punch:

“Disneyland”

I went into a building near the entrance of an abandoned amusement park to take a picture of Mickey Mouse that was painted on a window from the inside. As I focused the lens on the series of American cartoon characters, a Marine appeared in the missing window that I had come through. There is an innocent wonder in his expression and despite his weapons and combat equipment he seems to be what he is, young and misplaced. An American child grown into armed maturity who still looks into the room, empty aside from me, for something that he expects to recognize. To see an Iraqi interpretation of an American icon next to the reality of American occupation made this photograph important to me. In the window beside Mickey is a cartoon image of an Indian, our Native American. This makes the triptych even more powerful as our own nation, America, began as an occupation of theirs.

Another, not so whimsical, but also reflective of Busch’s sensitivity to the material artifacts that structure and define our lives:

“Hand and Feet”

I caught this image in an evidence examination room in the Al Anbar Criminal Investigations Building. It had been abandoned for over a year and these plaster casts of feet from crime scenes had been moved onto a couch as former Iraqi police had sifted the room for valuable items. It is one of the most important photographs that I have ever taken in that, in the absence of a single person, it is completely human. I seek imagery that proves human presence without relying on the presence of people. The recent hand print in the dust on the back of the couch made this image speak to past, present and evidence of what is uniquely human.

The notion of imagery that “proves human presence without relying on the presence of people” returns me to an idea I introduced earlier:  that Busch’s art, even when it doesn’t explicitly reflect martial images and themes, is about war.  I like toying with this idea in relation to lots of artistic production of the 2000s.  For here, I’ll suggest that Busch’s wonderful short film Bright (2011) is one such work that can be interpreted in the context of our nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though it doesn’t mention them.  In Bright, actor Eric Nenninger plays a young white man so traumatized by an unspecified event that he is not just afraid of the dark but darn near paralyzed in life, too.  He lives in a brightly lit house with an older black blind man—played by Robert Wisdom—who seems to do better coping with his disability than his housemate.  Their post-trauma issues play out in a plot that evokes a national storyline set in motion by 9/11, and perhaps Busch’s personal journey, too.

Short Bright clip:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N97HA1hCczs

The Bright IMDb page:  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1798611/

All quoted text from War, Literature, and the Artshttp://www.wlajournal.com/19_1-2/busch.pdf