Posted tagged ‘Brian Castner’

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

2016

December 16, 2016
Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

Photo by Bill Putnam, used with permission.

By my count, 2016 saw ten contemporary war fiction titles published, one more than in 2015. 2017 promises new novels by David Abrams, Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Brian Van Reet, as well as a short-fiction anthology edited by Brian Castner and Adrian Bonenberger called The Road Ahead, so that’s a lot to anticipate. The only new poetry collection published in 2016 was a British anthology titled Home Front that reprints two great books authored by American military spouses—Elyse Fenton’s Clamor and Jehanne Dubow’s Stateside—alongside work by two British authors, Bryony Doran and Isabel Palmer. Happy to say, both Dubrow and Fenton will have new work appearing in 2017, titled Dots & Dashes and Sweet Insurgent, respectively. Hollywood released three Iraq or Afghanistan movies in 2016; 2017 will bring the movie adaptation of The Yellow Birds, but I’m not sure what else.

Below is my annual compendium of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction, poetry, and movies. Works appearing in 2016 are in bold. If you think I’ve missed anything let me know. A separate list of romance, male adventure, and young adult fiction is in the works.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only).

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)

I’ve not listed the important theatrical and literary memoir titles that I’ve included in past years, because I haven’t tracked them as closely in the past twelve months as I have previously. To make up for that omission, I’ve compiled a list of interesting and substantial contemporary war non-fiction books published in 2016, which in my mind was a banner year for such works.

2016 Iraq and Afghanistan Non-fiction

Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Middle East (2016)
Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (2016)
Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer (2016)
Eric Fair, Consequence: A Memoir (2016)
Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016)
David J. Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (2016)
Mary Roach, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016)
J. Kael Weston, The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (2016)

…and not to overlook two books that offer glimpses of the strategic thinking and worldviews of the leaders of newly-elected President Trump’s national security team:

Kori Schake and Jim Mattis, editors, Warriors and Citizens: American Views of the Military (2016)
Michael Flynn, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies (2016)

I haven’t yet read all the non-fiction named above, but one that impressed me greatly is Brian Castner’s All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner, for my money, gets the nitty-gritty of Iraq and Afghanistan combat—complete with accounts of mIRC communication systems, combined ground-air ops, and insurgent IED tactics—better than any work I’ve seen previously. He combines attention to detail with eloquent expression of what it means to belong to close-knit organizations of fighting men and women. Castner, who served three tours in the Middle East as an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, knows of what he writes, and he uses his narrative to interrogate his decade-long obsession with war’s allure and consequences.

I read All the Ways We Kill and Die alongside a second work that does much the same, but from a very different angle: Hilary Plum’s memoir Watchfires (2016). The follow-up to Plum’s intriguing novel about domestic anti-war radicalism They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013), Watchfires explores connections between Plum’s personal and familial experience of illness and dysfunction with national and global currents of war, terrorism, and aggression. “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life,” wrote Thoreau, and though Plum’s account is not simple, she seems to have accomplished in Watchfires what Castner has also done, and what every thinking person might try, according to Thoreau: define honestly and precisely how one’s private life and thoughts relate to the violent spirit of the times.

Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer. Arcade, 2016.

Hilary Plum, Watchfires. Rescue Press, 2016.

Those Lazy, Hazy Days of War Writing Summer…

July 12, 2015

The Long Walk…aren’t so lazy and hazy if you live in the New York City area, where the artistic and intellectual processing of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan affords almost too many events to absorb. The highlight of the summer is the staging in Saratoga Springs (180 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan) of an opera based on Brian Castner’s memoir The Long Walk. Castner probably didn’t see it coming, but in retrospect it’s not hard to recognize his memoir’s operatic potential. Castner’s record of his tours in Iraq as the head of an Air Force Explosives Ordnance Disposal detachment and his troubles readjusting to civilian life afterwards is fine in its particulars—in a perfect world it would be more popular than American Sniper. It’s got more harrowing combat scenes, for instance, as well as better descriptions of specialized military training and more honest, reflective, and generous portraits of how difficult redeployment can be. But what really elevates The Long Walk is Castner’s imagining of his life in terms of darker, larger, may I say mythic forces that imbue existence with cosmic significance. In particular, Castner describes what it means to be overcome by “The Crazy”—those oh-fuck moments after war when you realize just how screwed over combat and danger have made you, no matter how normal you appear or try to be. Castner’s richly-situated exploration of the larger-than-life forces that envelop him are I’m sure what inspired the opera producers Jeremy Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann.

The Long Walk Opera

More prosaic, but still exciting, war-lit readings are taking place within the city itself. Words After War impresarios Brandon Willitts and Matt Gallagher are sponsoring not one, but two series of readings. Monthly events at The Folly, a Greenwich Village bar partly owned by Gallagher, have featured local veteran and military-themed writers, such as Mariette Kalinowski, Kristin Rouse, and Jake Siegel, as well as civilian authors, reading unpublished and recently published work in an intimate setting. Words After War also co-sponsors a second set of readings, called Danger Close, in conjunction with New York University English professor Patrick Deer. Deer is part an academic consortium named the Cultures of War and Postwar Research Group and the author of Culture in Camouflage, a study of literature written in Britain during World War II, so it’s great that he has now turned his attention to contemporary American war writing while helping showcase its authors in intriguing pairings with compelling moderators. One Danger Close event featured Phil Zabriskie and Jesse Goolsby in conversation with Lea Carpenter, and a second had Myra Jacob hosting authorial collaborators Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson along with August Cole and P.W. Singer. And as if that weren’t enough, the energetic and innovative Willitts and Gallagher have announced a third event, a one-off called Writing War, to take place July 30 at the Brooklyn Historical Society and featuring Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, Sara Novic, and Maurice Decaul.

Words After War is by far not the only game in New York town, either. War author and Restrepo filmmaker Sebastian Junger, for example, has been hosting readings featuring veteran authors and war journalists at HIS bar-restaurant the Half-King and elsewhere in the city. Earlier in the summer, Arts in the Armed Forces, a vet-friendly organization founded by actor and ex-Marine Adam Driver, helped promote an off-Broadway play by Daniel Talbott titled Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait. Alex Mallory, who has staged at least two plays about war in Iraq with her troupe Poetic Theater, is back July 27 with a staged reading of her work There Are No Camels in Beirut, about conflict in that strife-torn city in 2006. Invitations to events and announcement of new programs by writing collectives such as Voices From War and the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop arrive weekly if not daily. And in the most out-of-the-blue way possible, I’ve been consulted by the event-designers of Gigantic Mechanic, a Brooklyn arts initiative currently developing an interactive theater experience called Hearts and Minds, which will allow audience members to role-play members of an infantry squad on patrol in Iraq. That’s not quite as cool as having an opera made of your life, but I’m flattered to have been asked for input.

So that’s New York for you, creatively and endlessly engaged and productive. I hope things are as busy and interesting as you want them to be wherever you are this summer.

War Lit 2014: Where It’s Been, Where It’s Going

December 27, 2014

On Christmas, the New York Times published two articles on contemporary war literature by Michiko Kakutani, the paper’s premier book critic. One article, titled “A Reading List of Modern War Stories,” lists 38 books about Iraq and Afghanistan that Kakutani claims are most worth attention. In the second article, titled “Human Costs of the Forever War, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf,” Kakutani surveys a number of 21st-century war texts, measures their concerns, and generally celebrates their achievement. Though Kakutani’s focus encompasses war memoir and reportage in addition to fiction and poetry, much of the article and most of the accompanying pictures are devoted to authors of literature. The way these things go, Kakutani’s articles will constitute near-definitive pronouncements about post-9/11 war literature, so let’s chitter-chat about them now.

Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, as seen from a US Army compound.

Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, as seen from a US Army compound.

Everything on the booklist is worthy, but even so it is possible to quibble and argue—that’s the nature of such lists, right? For starters, why 38 books and not 37 or 39, let alone a round number like 35 or 40? The number seems both arbitrary and precisely exact at the same time, as if Kakutani either grew tired of reading at 38 or determined that no way her 39th favorite book about the wars was going to make the final cut. In any case, the list tilts to the recently published or soon-to-be-published, with only occasional citations of books published before 2010. Curiously, her list includes no poetry, specifically no Here, Bullet or Phantom Noise by Brian Turner, the first of which in my opinion is the most important contemporary war lit text of them all and Phantom Noise remaining the second best book of post-9/11 war poetry going (Here, Bullet being first). Kakutani does include Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, no argument there, but overall her list includes seven first-hand accounts of service in Iraq and only one of Afghanistan, and the novels on Kakutani’s list about Afghanistan include three that have not even been released yet—Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, John Renehan’s The Valley, Ross Ritchell’s The Knife. Omitted, though, is Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s 2012 The Watch, which presciently portrayed life on a remote Afghanistan combat outpost, as does a novel that makes Kakutani’s list, Paulo Giordano’s The Human Body, an Italian work only recently published in America. Another Kakutani choice, Lea Carpenter’s novel Eleven Days, portrays Special Operations forces, as do Ackerman’s and Ritchell’s novels, thus contributing to the glamorizing of dark-side operators at the expense of line soldiers who constituted 95% of the deployed military. Finally, Kakutani’s list includes Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, which is great, but as several Times and Twitter commenters have noted, the list is otherwise deficient of Iraq, Afghanistan, or dark-skinned American perspectives.

If Kakutani’s list is idiosyncratic–probably more a compendium of suggestions from friends than the product of a ruthless critical regimen–her essay is excellent—generous, insightful, and eloquent. Kakutani succinctly itemizes the “particularities of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq” as “changes in technology, the increased presence of female soldiers and, most importantly, the all-volunteer military, which has opened a chasm between soldiers (‘the other 1 percent’) and civilians.” By “changes in technology,” we might think of new weaponry such as IEDs, drones, and armored vehicles. Or means of surveillance, such as the pervasive use of signal intercepts by the intelligence community. Or, the communication platforms such as Skype and social media that have allowed deployed service members to remain much more in touch with the homefront than ever before. In regard to the depiction of these things in war fiction, none have been portrayed all that well or extensively and the journalistic coverage hasn’t been so good either, which means there’s a lot of opportunity for future war authors to help us understand them better. The “increased presence of female soldiers” on the battlefield has certainly been a salient component of contemporary war, though, oddly enough, not so much in the fiction Kakutani directs us toward. She also might have said a bit more about the “increased presence” of women in the formerly male-dominated preserve of war-writing itself. Siobhan Fallon, Kayla Williams, Elizabeth Samet, and Lea Carpenter are on Kakutani’s list, and they, along with Katey Schultz, Roxana Robinson, Helen Benedict, Hilary Plum, Cara Hoffman, Mariette Kalinowski, and others, constitute a significant new cultural phenomenon that complements the shifting nature of military demographics. But Kakutani is right on the money by asserting that the all-volunteer military and the civil-military chasm have been huge abiding concerns in the American war effort and the literature written about it. The issue goes way beyond simple fretting over how to thank soldiers for their service or worrying about PTSD, though those are important subjects oft written on. As Stacey Peebles argues in Welcome to the Suck, the story of every contemporary soldier saga is that of internal battle between competing senses of soldierly and civilian identity: How does being a soldier—killer, cog-in-the-machine, hero, patriot—jibe with the softer and more fluid civilian values and characteristics one brings into the military, never fully abandons while in, and then attempts to reclaim when out? The ailment Peebles diagnosed in a small number of works in 2011 is the essential tribulation defining almost every title in Kakutani’s literary corpus.

A section titled “Capturing a War’s Rhythm” is full of claims central to war literature. For instance, Kakutani explores the attraction of the short story for contemporary war writers. She writes, “Short stories, authors have realized, are an ideal form for capturing the discontinuities of these wars, their episodic quality, and so are longer, fragmented narratives that jump-cut from scene to scene.” She then traces a geneology of war lit that starts with the death-soaked collapse of idealism of World War I poets, the black humor of World War II authors Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, the charred stoicism of Michael Herr and the magical realism of Tim O’Brien, Vietnam-era authors read by everyone writing war lit today, and finds its modern voice in Iraq blog-writing by Colby Buzzell and Matt Gallagher. Kakutani also grounds the modern war lit boom in the MFA program and veterans support workshop scenes—both being fruitful incubators for storytelling talent. Finally, she ponders whether war fiction has adequately responded to larger political and ethical questions. How have authors represented Afghan and Iraqi “others” in a new global era marked by respect for diversity and concern for “nation-building,” impulses that have been met with implacable contempt by our opponents and soiled by our own nation’s new found regard for torture? These are all subjects and ideas I’ve toyed with in Time Now, but Kakutani has brought an outsider’s eye to the body of evidence and incisively and concisely articulated its importance.

Kakutani’s list and essay join two other great surveys of contemporary war literature published in 2014: George Packers’ New Yorker article “Home Fires: How Soldiers Write Their Wars” and Brian Castner’s Los Angeles Review of Books essay “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play.” Read them all, again, bookmark them on your computer, and let’s use them as guides as we consider the war fiction, poetry, memoir, and reportage 2015 will bring us.

A US Army advisor team, Afghanistan, 2008.

A US Army advisor team, Afghanistan, 2008.

October in the Railroad War Lit Earth

October 11, 2014
Fort Riley, Kansas, October 2008

Fort Riley, Kansas, October 2008

“October in the Railroad Earth” is the title of a beautiful prose-poem by Jack Kerouac, who served for about a week in the Navy during World War II and somewhat longer in the Merchant Marine. I have already used the title of Kerouac’s fantastic ode to autumn for the title of a post on my old blog. There it actually made a lot of sense as I wrote about long, glorious days of training in the warm Kansas sunshine while we prepared to deploy to Afghanistan. But I can’t resist repurposing the title, so here we go. A potpourri of miscellaneous war-lit notes is not my usual modus, but ideas, events, and publications have been accumulating so fast that I can’t possibly give each the extended consideration it deserves, so please bear with me.

Late in August, I attended a Sunday afternoon writing workshop co-sponsored by New Jersey branches of the Combat Paper Project and WarriorWriters. With veterans of Somalia and Vietnam I traded writing prompts relevant to military experience and we read each other our responses. Here’s one I wrote on “environment”:

I find very few soldiers wax poetical about Iraq.  Nothing about the flat desert, the hot sun, and the squalid chaos of the cities seems to have impressed them.  Afghanistan, on the other hand, exerted an enchanting allure on many of the soldiers who served there.  The high mountains, often snow-capped and surprisingly forested, the clean air (at least outside of Kabul), the ancient villages built into the sides of wadi and mountain walls, and the roads that snake through the treacherous mountain passes all possess intoxicating powers. Quickening everyone’s step and filling them with wonder, the landscape makes soldiers fall halfway in love with a country that might kill them.

Speaking of falling in love with soldiering in Afghanistan, check out Brian Castner’s impressive essay in the LA Review of Books called “Afghanistan, A Stage Without a Play” on why so little fiction has been written about Afghanistan compared to Iraq. It’s curious, Castner wonders, why Afghanistan seems to have inspired triumphalist memoirs by Navy SEAL team members and infantry lieutenants, while the literary output of Iraq has been fiction and poetry written by disillusioned enlisted soldiers. I’m honored to have been quoted by Castner alongside several other veteran-writers. Along the same lines, I was fortunate to view the movie Korengal and hear Sebastian Junger speak about his love for the soldiers he filmed in action on COP Restrepo in Afghanistan. The next night, in contrast, at Penumbra, a hip photography exhibition space in New York City, I heard Benjamin Busch speak more grimly about the photographs he took in Iraq first as a deployed Marine and earlier this year when he returned to write a story for Harper’s called “Today is Better than Yesterday.” The twinned events inspired many reflections about the linkage of war, words, and images about which I hope to write soon. On a more personal level, Junger and Busch are men-after-my-own-heart, for sure: older, deeply cerebral and artistic gentlemen driven to delve deep into the mysteries of the manly realm of war. Speaking of which, I spent a fun, rewarding afternoon in New York with Maurice Decaul, ex-USMC Iraq vet, ex-Columbia, and now in NYU’s graduate fiction writing program. Decaul writes like the second coming of John Keats, as illustrated by a New York Times essay titled “Memory Lapse” and the poem “Shush,” featured below. But more importantly, Decaul is a genial warm soul who instinctively gravitates towards helping people and getting them organized for effective action and life. As he regaled with me stories about the Columbia and NYU veterans’ programs, I realized exactly how curmudgeonly have been my own efforts in this regard.

Another gentleman, Brian Turner, is reading several times in the NY-NJ-Conn area in the coming months following the release of his memoir My Life as a Foreign Country. I hope to make a couple of the readings, in particular the Dodge Poetry festival “Another Kind of Courage war poetry event on Saturday October 25 in Newark, NJ. The bill also includes Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Nelson, Jehanne Dubrow, and Elyse Fenton, all poets whose work I know and admire. On Veterans Day, I’ll join several other vet-writers to read selections from our favorite World War I authors at an event organized by Words After War and Brooklyn Reading Works at The Old Stone House in Brooklyn.

I also have two conference presentations lined up for next spring. In March, in Seattle, I am moderating a panel at the American Comparative Literature Association conference on literature inspired by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan written by non-Americans. As I write, nobody has submitted a paper proposal, which honestly I kind of anticipated. But if you are an academic and know of a work about the post-9/11 wars written by someone who wasn’t born in the US of A, please consider joining me. In April, I will participate on a panel on war memoir at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Minneapolis. Also on the panel are Ron Capps, Colin Halloran, and Kayla Williams, so I’m very excited to take part. AWP is a huge party, for those who have never been, in addition to being an intellectual feast for the literary-inclined, so please join us if you can.

And so it goes, on and on. To Jack-y Kerouac-y, maybe not a patron saint of war writing, but certainly a kindred spirit and fellow traveller of all who burned to live intensely and then express themselves through their art.

Jack Kerouac's Navy enlistment photo, 1942.

Jack Kerouac’s Navy enlistment photo, 1942.


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