Brian Turner’s poetry volume Here, Bullet, director Kathryn Bigelow’s movie The Hurt Locker, and Siobhan Fallon’s short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone stand at the beginning of the modern war literature, art, and film tradition Time Now documents, but I’ve never written stand-alone posts dedicated to them. One reason for the oversight is chronological: all three appeared before I began Time Now in 2012. Retrospective looks have always been possible, but I’ve never slowed down enough to write them. An independent entry on each of these pioneering and accomplished works probably isn’t going to happen now, but here I’ll offer a few comments that try to capture their essence.
Here, Bullet dazzled soldier-readers, poetry lovers, and book critics alike upon its release in 2005. There was some quibbling about whether Turner’s poems were based on real events experienced by Turner himself or imaginative dramatizations, but there was little disagreement about the book’s arresting blend of nitty-gritty soldier detail, formal excellence, and gruff emotionalism. Readers were astonished that poems such as the title poem, “The Hurt Locker,” and “Eulogy” were so fully realized, rather than primitive first-stabs at establishing tones, themes, and subjects that would define post-9/11 American soldier-writing. And who was this 21st-century American man-of-war? Judging from the verse, a sensitive observer of war brutality and military dehumanization, clinging determinedly, or even desperately, to civilian values of curiosity, kindness, and empathy among the rough company of infantrymen, while doing the things that infantrymen at war must do. And yet, far more than most infantrymen, to say nothing of most Americans, Turner’s awareness of culture, history, and noncombatants caught up in the wash of war animates the solipsistic self-focus of so much veteran writing to follow.
New York Timesreviewpull-quote: “Turner has sent back a dispatch from a place arguably more incomprehensible than the moon — the war in Iraq — and deserves our thanks for delivering in these earnest and proficient poems the kinds of observations we would never find in a Pentagon press release…. Turner’s most consistent mode is one of brisk, precise — and nonpartisan — attention to both the terrors and the beauty he found among Iraq’s ruins.”
The Hurt Locker, released in America in 2009, garnered near universal praise from critics and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning six, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. About the exploits of a bomb disposal team driven near-mad by their death-defying duties on the streets of Baghdad, The Hurt Locker wasn’t as well-regarded by Iraq War veterans, who were quick to pounce on the film for its lapses from military verisimilitude, which many saw as reasons to damn the film entire. Re-watching The Hurt Locker today makes such carping seem even more short-sighted now than it was at the time, for the movie retains a stunning power to grip: not just the harrowing scenes depicting the soldiers defusing bombs, but the equally harrowing scenes of the soldiers at each other’s throats as they try to remain there for each other under the pressure of their job. Director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal deserve huge kudos for creating a movie that so skillfully ratchets up tension while allowing its mostly unknown cast to shine. Jeremy Renner is fantastic as an oddly-motivated bomb disposal artiste whose skill and swagger speak to the film’s epigraph: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pierce, and Suhail Aldabbach in supporting roles and cameos are nearly as good.
New York Timesreview pull-quote: “If The Hurt Locker is not the best action movie of the summer, I’ll blow up my car. The movie is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise…. Ms. Bigelow, practicing a kind of hyperbolic realism, distills the psychological essence and moral complications of modern warfare into a series of brilliant, agonizing set pieces.”
You Know When the Men Are Gone also arrived to critical acclaim and, as book sales go, commercial popularity. In 2011, “thanking soldiers for their service” mania was at its peak, and Fallon’s stories reminded readers that the families of fighting men deserved thanking, too, while clarifying that all concerned deserved gratitude not for their accomplishments, but for enduring so much. Fallon’s evocation of Fort Hood base life touched a nerve among readers curious about the lived-lives of the small numbers of Americans—the fighting force and their families—actually making sacrifices in the Global War on Terror. Marvelously breaking down binary distinctions between combat zone and home-front, You Know When the Men Are Gone dramatized war’s long reach and wide embrace, and it’s not bullets (though Fallon’s rendering of combat death and injury are superb), but infidelity, absence, loss, and betrayal that wreak the most havoc on the lives of soldiers and those close to them. Stories such as “Leave” might read more sensational in another author’s hands, and “Gold Star” more melodramatic, but Fallon’s touch is remarkably tender and non-histrionic. Her “worried imagination” (to use an apt phrase penned by Benjamin Busch about Fallon) rests mostly on spouses and partners fending for themselves while the husbands and boyfriends deploy, but her portraits of male soldiers are as striking and as affecting—as memorable—as those of the women in their lives.
New York Timesreview pull-quote: “Siobhan Fallon tells gripping, straight-up, no-nonsense stories about American soldiers and their families…. there’s not a loser in the bunch…. Ms. Fallon’s emphasis is not on the negative. It’s just that life is tough at Fort Hood. Fears tend to be justified.”
A knock on the works is that they could have been more explicit, even strident, in connecting the human travails they document to a political critique of the war. That just wasn’t to be, however; in Turner’s and Fallon’s cases I’m thinking because an essential loyalty to the people who populate their poems and stories, respectively, underwrites their art, as well as a certain unwillingness to be too hard on themselves for the life choices that brought them into war’s maw (related to the notion that they were part of an extended-family of military volunteers). For Bigelow, who was neither a vet like Turner nor a military spouse like Fallon, the loyalty is more toward an artistic vision that resists overt politicizing on the terms art often, or usually, does, by letting unstated political interpretations emerge implicitly from the story being told. This sentiment, too, would prove prescient. Neither apologism nor glorification, but a knowing quietism–sometimes maddeningly so–about the war’s larger dimensions would come to define war-writing in the wake of Turner and Fallon, and, somewhat less so, movies about Iraq and Afghanistan after The Hurt Locker.
The works’ focus on white male combat-arms soldiers and their families would eventually be viewed by some as problematic, but that two of the creative artists responsible were women heralded the expansion of male-centric war-writing parameters in the decade following. Taken together, the three works zeroed in on the difficulty of balancing dual identity as soldier and civilian in a military culture far removed from the ken of the majority of Americans–a central concern in an era of a small volunteer military charged with fighting impossible-to-win wars. One way this theme continues to resonate in works afterwards is the near-constant preoccupation with redeployment and reintegration of the soldier into civilian life following deployment and service. Another theme staked out by Turner, Bigelow, and, to a lesser extent, Fallon, is balancing one’s duties as a soldier with one’s concern for Iraqi civilians. Finally, the full extent of the physical, psychological, and emotional damage suffered by many veterans is a theme hinted at but not foregrounded in Here, Bullet, The Hurt Locker, and You Know When the Men Are Gone, in part because the works arrived so early it was impossible to yet measure war’s impact over time and changing life circumstances. In the years to come, the subject would become an all-consuming one of war-writing and art, and loom large in greater cultural conversations, as well.
Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. -Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, while writing Moby-Dick.
Since I began Time Now eight years ago, easily a hundredbooks, films, plays, musical compositions, and other artworks about America’s post-9/11 wars written-and-composed by veterans and interested civilians have appeared, and much has been published online, too. Here I catalog and comment on six author-artists whose individual output has been robust, often across a variety of genres and artistic mediums, and I mention several more who have been almost but not quite as active. I’ve limited myself to US military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and used books published by major publishing houses as the primary (but not only) criteria for inclusion.
Elliot Ackerman (USMC) arrived late to the war-writing party, but has quickly made up lost time by publishing three novels since 2015: Green on Blue (2015), Dark at the Crossing (2017), and Waiting for Eden (2018). A memoir titled Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning (2019) will appear later this year. Ackerman also contributed a story titled “Two Grenades” to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology of veteran-authored fiction. Links to Ackerman’s journalism and other occasional writing can be found at http://elliotackerman.com.
The characteristic subject of Ackerman’s novels is a fringe-actor on the margins of America’s 21st-century wars: a Pashtun militiaman on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, an Iraqi who formerly interpreted for American forces now trying to join the Syrian civil war, the wife of a severely wounded Marine who keeps a lonely vigil over her disabled husband, both largely abandoned or neglected by the greater America. In his published work so far, then, Ackerman has avoided the solipsistic trap of writing about his own (substantial) war experience as if it were the only thing that matters. In his upcoming memoir Places and Names, however, Ackerman begins to stitch together autobiographical elements and his interest in the people who fight the wars that, to paraphrase a John Milton quote on the cover of Places and Names,“hath determined them.”
Benjamin Busch (USMC) was arguably the first contemporary veteran to turn war experience into aesthetic expression, as the photos-and-commentary that would eventually comprise The Art in War first began appearing in 2003. Befitting his college background as a fine arts major, Busch also displays, again arguably, the most artistic diversity: he has acted in The Wire (2004) and Generation Kill (2008), directed films such as Bright (2011), authored a memoir titled Dust to Dust (2012), written a striking set of nature poems for the journal Epiphany (2016), and contributed both a short story (“Into the Land of Dogs”) and hand-drawn illustrations to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology. Busch has also written incisive reviews of the movie Lone Survivorand contemporary war fiction, long-form journalism for Harper’s about a return visit to Iraq, a poignant contribution to the vet-writing anthology Incoming titled “Home Invasion,” and an eloquent introduction to another anthology titled Standing Down. Oh, and let’s not forget a pre-Marine life as the singer in a hair-metal band.
A superb stylist, Busch is the master of the apt image and the well-turned line, sentence, passage, or short poem, with his memoir Dust to Dust being the book-length exception that proves the rule. Busch’s thematic impulse is to find order and meaning in randomness, disorder, and chaos. The urge is on full display in The Art in War and manifests itself even more intensely in Dust to Dust and “Home Invasion”; in these works, loss, ruination, and mortality emerge as the most salient organizing imperatives to be found, save for the author’s own imagination. War, irrational and death-soaked, was Busch’s subject starting out, but more recent poems such as “Madness in the Wild”suggest that Mother Nature is now the most fertile source of material for Busch’s “blessed rage for order,” to borrow from Wallace Stevens.
Brian Castner’s (USAF) first published book was the war memoir The Long Walk (2012), followed by a second book titled All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016) that combines more war memoir with journalistic investigation. A third work, not (directly) related to war, Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage (2018), joins travel-memoir and historical research. An opera has been made of The Long Walk, and Castner, with Adrian Boneberger, edited The Road Ahead (2017), an anthology of veteran-authored fiction to which he also contributed a story called “The Wild Hunt.” Journalism, essays, and reviews by Castner can be found at https://briancastner.com/.
While Castner’s memoir The Long Walk contains elements of artistic heightening that appealed to the opera composers who adapted it, the next two books are the ones that best illustrate Castner’s forte: extensive historical and journalistic research that supplements the lived experiences of his own life—first serving as an EOD-technician in the case of All the Ways We Kill and Die and then making a thousand-mile canoe journey in the case of Disappointment River. The influence of war on Disappointment River may bubble below the surface (pun intended), but the surface impression is that Castner more so than most other war-writers can find subjects beyond war-and-mil ones that still command the full measure of his interest and talent.
Matt Gallagher (US Army), with Colby Buzzell, pioneered the use of the Internet as a means of literary arrival when his war-blog appeared in book form as Kaboom (2010). Gallagher next edited the seminal vet-fiction anthology Fire and Forget (2013) with Roy Scranton and contributed to it a story titled “Bugs Don’t Bleed.” Then arrived the novel Youngblood (2016) and two short stories, “Babylon” (2016), published in Playboy, and “Know Your Enemy” (2016), published in Wired. Gallagher also has served at the forefront of the veterans writing scene, as a prime mover in first the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop that gave birth to Fire and Forget and then the New York-based collective Words After War. A number of Gallagher’s occasional pieces can be found at http://www.mattgallagherauthor.com/disc.htm and a second novel will arrive soon.
A consistent tone connecting Gallagher’s own voice and that of his fictional characters is sardonic detachment from the full negative import of the events they experience; in other words, Gallagher tests the limits of irony and perspective as means of dealing with the confusion of war and the resultant damage to self and society. Bemusement would seem to be an underpowered coping strategy in these troubled times, but Gallagher’s amiable prose surfaces welcome readers to consider his point-of-view long enough that the darker cynicism and deeper commitment lurking within eventually reveal themselves and grab hold.
Roy Scranton (US Army) published short stories and poems in small journals before co-editing Fire and Forget (2013) with Matt Gallagher and contributing a story to it titled “Red Steel India.” Next came the philosophical treatise Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), the novel War Porn (2016), an anthology titled What Future: The Year’s Best Ideas to Reclaim, Reanimate, and Reinvent Our Future (2017) for which he served as editor, and a collected edition of essays and journalism titled We’re Doomed, Now What? (2018). Later this year will arrive a literary history titled Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature (2019) and a novel called I ♥ Oklahoma (2019). More journalism, essays, short stories, and reviews can be found at http://royscranton.com.
There’s busy, and then there’s Roy Scranton busy, but the extraordinary rate of production and the prickly integrity of the viewpoint are endearing counterpoints to the starkness of the message: Scranton is ruthless in his indictment of the Iraq War in which he served, and he’s not letting anyone from enlisted “Joe’s” to generals to civilian war architects to a passive citizenry off the hook for their complicity in the debacle. Though he’s never quite said so bluntly, the implication is that vet-authors, whose ink might well be the blood of war dead, should seriously consider their own culpability, too. Scranton unsparingly connects America’s spastic post-9/11 response to Islamic fundamentalist violence with a host of other social, political, and environmental ills brought about by what academics like to call “the cultural logic of late capitalism.”
Brian Turner (US Army) arrived on the literary-artistic scene seemingly fully-formed, as his first poetry volume Here, Bullet (2005) won enormous acclaim from critics, readers, and poetry insiders alike. Next came a second volume of poems titled Phantom Noise (2010), an anthology of writing about poetry he co-edited titled The Strangest of Theaters (2013), a contribution to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology titled “The Wave That Takes Us Under,” the memoir My Life as a Foreign Country (2014), and another co-edited anthology titled The Kiss (2018). Turner has also had a number of his poems set to music, perhaps most significant of which is a collaboration with composer Rob Deemer on Turner’s poem “Eulogy.” Turner makes music himself, first as a member of The Dead Quimbys and more recently as the leader of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team. Occasional writing can be found at http://www.brianturner.org.
A wise, inspirational senior-statesman within the war-writing community, Turner combines encouragement of fledgling writers with an uncanny ability to stay one or more steps ahead of the pack in terms of vision, craft, and surprising shifts of direction. The artistic tension manifest in Turner’s work is the product of two imperatives: the martial heritage bequeathed to him by family, culture, and history, and his natural impulse to be empathetic, curious, kind, and helpful. His latest works each in their way represent solutions or, better, absolutions, for the tension; the music of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team invokes a collective cosmic spirit and consciousness, while The Kiss sanctifies physical intimacy as a hallowed form of human connection.
Several veteran writers are one or two published works short of joining the author-artists I name above. For these writers, their NEXT work will be most interesting for how it confirms previous inclinations and preoccupations, modifies them, or points in new directions:
David Abrams (US Army) has published two novels, Fobbit (2012) and Brave Deeds (2017), and he contributed “Roll Call” to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology. Shorter pieces can be found at http://www.davidabramsbooks.com. Abrams’ gift for creating characters, sketching scenes, and writing pleasing and often very funny sentences is substantial. So far, his interest seems to be the cultural divide separating rear-echelon soldiers from their hardened warrior-brethren in the combat arms; given his comic and warm-hearted sensibility, his modus inclines to exposing foibles associated with military masculinity rather than harshly judging and accusing their owners.
Colby Buzzell (US Army) pioneered the blog-to-book trend with My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005) and he later published two books of essays and journalism: Lost in America: A Dead End Journey (2011) and Thank You for Being Expendable, and Other Experiences (2015). The only work of fiction of which I’m aware of is his story “Play the Game” in the Fire and Forget anthology (2013), but Buzzell’s hostility toward authority and power, his affinity for oddballs and misfits, and the verve of his sentences create the impression of a distinctly “punk” literary sensibility–one that has proven very popular and influential. Buzzell’s webpage contains links to his writing that can be found online: http://www.colbybuzzell.com/stories.
Phil Klay (USMC) contributed the short story “Redeployment” to Fire and Forget (2013), which later became the title story of his National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment (2014). A large number of essays and long-form journalism pieces are at http://www.philklay.com. Klay’s characteristic concern is the moral culpability of soldiers who joined the military and did their bit in Iraq or Afghanistan without too much post-war mental anguish or blood on their hands—to what extent should they (be made to) feel worse (in another word, guiltier) than they do about their decisions and actions? For me, that’s the subject of two representative stories in Redeployment, “Ten Klicks South” and “Prayer in the Furnace,” as well as that of the long, trenchant essay Klay published for the Brookings Institute titled “The Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”Finally, although I’m not sure when Klay’s next book will appear or what it will be about, while we wait for it, I recommend listening to the intellectually-knotty podcast Manifesto! Klay hosts with fellow vet-writer and Fire and Forget contributor Jacob Siegel.
Kevin Powers (US Army)’s first novel was The Yellow Birds (2012). Next came the poetry volume Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, followed by a second novel A Shout in the Ruins (2018). Journalism, essays, and reviews can be found at http://kevincpowers.com. It’s easy to forget the hullabaloo that greeted The Yellow Birds upon arrival. Following upon Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Army spouse Siobhan Fallon’s short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), The Yellow Birds reinforced the notion that 21st-century American writing about the war was going to cook at a very high literary level. But the backlash against The Yellow Birds arrived just as quickly, as for many it promoted and even celebrated the idea that modern American soldiers were easily-traumatized snowflakes too tender to win wars. In the wake of The Yellow Birds, a counter-formation of memoirs and short-stories appeared, stories of war by ex-combat-arms bubbas seemingly delighted to assert that they were hard men capable of doing hard things. I’m not inclined to be harsh in my assessment of The Yellow Birds, but Powers seems to have distanced himself from his poetry volume, and I haven’t yet read A Shout in the Ruins, so categorical statements about the arc of his career will have to wait.
Kayla Williams (US Army) has written two memoirs, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2005) and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014). Williams has also contributed a short-story, “There’s Always One,” to the veteran-writer short-story anthology The Road Ahead (2017). Given her job as a Washington DC think-tank analyst and the impression she renders that she’s bound for big things in the public sector, it’s not hard to imagine a third memoir might be needed someday to document further chapters in Williams’ life. Detailing the long story of any vet’s life (especially a woman vet’s) after war will be immensely interesting and valuable, but I hope in the future Williams finds time to write more fiction, too.
Quite a few other writers merit consideration for inclusion on this list. Among them are Adrian Bonenberger (US Army, Afghan Post, memoir; The Road Ahead, fiction anthology editor (with Brian Castner); “American Fapper,” story in The Road Ahead); Maurice Decaul (USMC, Dijla Was Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates, play; multiple poems published in small journals and online; a musical collaboration with contemporary jazz great Vijay Iyer); Colin Halloran (US Army, Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux, poetry); Hugh Martin (Stick Soldiers and In Country, poetry); Brian Van Reet (US Army, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” short-story contribution to Fire and Forget and much short-fiction published in literary journals; Spoils, novel). Three women Iraq-Afghanistan veterans, Teresa Fazio (USMC), Kristen Rouse (US Army), and Supriya Venkatesan (US Army), write with distinctive voice and great eye for the telling subject and detail, and each has published widely, though more in the vein of journalism, memoir, and essay than fiction or poetry (the exceptions being Fazio’s and Rouse’s stories “Little” and “Pawns,” respectively, both included in The Road Ahead anthology), and none has yet found book-length publication.
My judgments about each author’s body-of-work are far from beyond dispute, and I welcome discussion, as well as any factual corrections to the record. An extended contemplation about the collective import of these writers is in order, but I’ll end with just two brief points: 1) The accomplishment of these vet writers is substantial and the potential for further achievement is strong; barring misfortune, everyone I’ve mentioned still has decades of productive creative life to come. 2) Women veteran-authors and male or female African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American vet-writers are noticeably missing. If I’ve overlooked a worthy candidate to add to the list, let me know, and if conversation about publishing trends and marketplace dynamics interests you, let’s talk about that, too. Though my focus here is the unfolding of a writer-artist’s characteristic concerns over multiple works, the story is also one of professional ambition, literary politics, and publishing biz calculation. What I’m describing as the birthing of an estimable generation of veteran-writers, another may see as the solidifying of a literary establishment limited by its own blinders and mostly interested in preserving its own prerogatives. That’s not how I feel about it, but I hope that should I compile this list again in another eight years, the demographic make-up will reflect the military in which I served and the overall achievement so much the better.
The annual AWP writers’ conference is a feel-good affair more suited for socializing and networking than serious literary pondering. So it was this year, too, in Tampa in March, even as the writing, reading, and publishing throngs arrived stunned by the preceding year’s political tumult. In sunny warm Tampa, however, they–we–took not just solace in each other’s company, but positive good cheer and mutual uplift. This split response—a public hail-fellow-well-met spirit belying the dismay expressed privately at home and at the keyboard—extended even to the war-writing crowd. Serious issues lay on the table, such as the increasingly problematic position of veterans in the overheated contemporary public sphere and the could-be-much-better gender and race demographics of modern war-writing. But those heavy-duty matters took a backseat to catching up with old friends and meeting new ones.
The pattern was evident at the panel I moderated, titled “Crisis, Conflict, and Verse” and featuring an all-star quartet of poet-authors: Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, and Dunya Mikhail. We drew the dreaded 9:00am Saturday morning time-slot, which, along with our forbidding title, conspired to drive attendance downward, as if our topic was just too depressing to contemplate with memories of Friday night festivity still swirling in the brain, along with the fumes of five or ten beers. And truthfully, we kind of frightened ourselves, as first Busch, then Dubrow, and finally Mikhail paradoxically found powerful words to express how their belief in the power of the word has been shaken by recent political and cultural turns. Turner, even as he reported reeling not just from the national state-of-affairs but the agony of his wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s death in 2016, sensed gloom settling in and took it upon himself to infuse our proceedings with levity and hope. Levity, by performing with the always-up-for-anything Busch an impromptu dramatic enactment of the Kay Ryan poem “The Elephant in the Room” and hope by speaking movingly about the importance of friendship and art in the dark days of loss and despair.
The rest of AWP was, for me, a blur of hits-and-misses. I arrived too late to catch a panel organized by veterans studies scholar Mariana Grohowski titled Women, War, and the Military: How to Tell the Story featuring Helen Benedict, Jerri Bell, Tracy Crow, and Mary Doyle, so I’ll leave it to others to report on its proceedings. It’s a great subject, though, one on many people’s minds these days, as both the military and mil-writing-and-publishing scene confront a variety of gender-related problems. MIA at this year’s AWP unfortunately were the authors of several notable 2017 war novels, such as David Abrams, Brian Van Reet, Elliot Ackerman, and Siobhan Fallon, so we weren’t able to hear their thoughts about their recent books and their reception. The online war-writing community was heavily represented, however, with principals from The War Horse; War, Literature, and the Arts; Wrath-Bearing Tree; the Veterans Writing Project/O-Dark-Thirty; and Consequence on-hand, their strength-in-numbers perhaps suggestive of a movement of the war-writing center-of-gravity from the page and the book to the wide-open, fast-moving digital realm.
Mostly though, AWP was about more personal pleasures, such as meeting for the first time authors I admire such as Seth Brady Tucker, Brooke King, Phil Metres, and Steve Kiernan. A dinner with Ron Capps and a small group of Veterans Writing Program mainstays was a joy. A panel on James Salter, whom I consider one of the patron saints of Time Now, held during the last time slot of the conference and attended by me and three others in one of the largest presentation halls at the convention, was as full of inspiring things as I hoped it would be.
Finally, though it’s become a cliché to write about interesting conversations with Uber drivers (like, “OOOO, I’m SO in touch with toilers in the gig-economy boiler room”), the four I had to-and-from my faraway motel offered fascinating glimpses into the lives of south Floridians. One driver was a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt, another worked days rehabilitating sex offenders, a third reported that he was getting married in a week, starting a business, and buying a house two years after finding himself broke and homeless, and the fourth had funny tales to tell about late-nights transporting Tampa Bay Buccaneers home from the clubs. I found the drivers’ stories intriguing and encouraging, on the whole. Somewhere in them I caught glimpses of the levity and hopefulness Brian Turner would have us remember, glimpses of people who had not been defeated.
Photo of Benjamin Busch, Dunya Mikhail, me, Jehanne Dubrow, and Brian Turner by Andria Williams. More photos by Williams here.
Now I got a reason, now I got a reason, now I got a reason, now I got a reason…. –“Holidays in the Sun,” the Sex Pistols
Thursday through Saturday this week in Tampa, Florida, is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, the largest gathering of the year for authors, readers, teachers, publishers, and other lovers of literary fiction, poetry, and memoir. Contemporary war-and-military writers are typically well-represented at AWP panels and readings. Numbers are a little down this year, though still substantial, and judging by the panel descriptions and social media chit-chat, everyone is looking forward to contemplating weighty questions: How has everyone survived the tumultuous and nerve-rattling past twelve months? What does it all portend for writing about war?? Where can the best beer selection in Tampa be found???
All answers will be revealed in the coming days, assuming those of us living in the snowy Northeast can still catch our flights to sunny Florida. My own contribution will be to moderate a panel titled Conflict, Crisis, Verse: Four Poets in Conversation featuring Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, Dunya Mikhail, and Brian Turner. This one’s an embarrassment of riches, people, like being asked to coach the 1992 Olympics basketball Dream Team, so I’ll do my best not to screw it up—you might say that all I have to do is roll out the balls, hand-out the jerseys, and then stay-the-hell-out-of-the-way.
Busch’s late-2016 The Road Ahead story “Into the Land of Dogs” really is one for our times, a surreal apocalyptic nightmare vision of war in Afghanistan and afterwards that as much as any tale I’ve read lately drains and wrecks war-and-soldiering of redeeming value, and all the better for doing so. Busch’s poetry, which I love, operates differently. Short lyrics marked by flinty stabs at experiential insight generated by close observation of nature and local event, their hardy stoicism seems forged by the long years Busch has lived in upstate North-country climes, first New York and now Michigan.
Dubrow’s 2017 poetry volume Dots & Dashes is a thing of beauty in particular and in toto. I’m not sure which I like better, the wide-angle poems that ponder the irony of being a poet in an era marked by conflict and violence, or the narrow-focused ones that plumb Dubrow’s marriage to a military officer, but they’re all good. Dubrow is a master of form and technique, as well as of observation, with the fourteen or so sonnets in Dots & Dashes especially remarkable for their exciting, pitch-perfect blends of language, image, and sentiment.
Mikhail, already recognized for her wonderful poetry collection The Iraqi Nights and her prose-poem memoir Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, will soon be made even more famous by her about-to-be-published work of journalism titled The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq. The Beekeeper’s subject is the efforts of a roguish band of smugglers, fixers, and humanitarians to save Christian women of the Iraqi Yazidi tribe who have been kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS, as well as about the strength and bravery of the Yazidi women themselves. Beautifully and movingly told, it will almost certainly attract laurels for its heroes (and author) while galvanizing contempt for ISIS brutality.
As for Brian Turner, what can you say? I’m tempted to write Brian f-ing Turner, out of respect for the quality of his writing, his eminence in the field, his generous support of other authors and his readers, and his relentless exploration of new artistic possibilities. Everything I wrote about him in this 2014 blog post is still true now, or even truer. 2017 saw Turner release a hybrid poetry-music blend under the name Interplanetary Acoustic Teamthat features his late wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s poetry and voice. Now, early 2018 has brought The Kiss, a splendid anthology of vignettes by talented writers (including Busch) about one of life’s tenderest moments.
Now who else would think of that but Sergeant Turner? The author Chuck Klosterman has proposed that as long as we are going to elect entertainment celebrities for President, he’d vote for the wise, generous, calm, and patient Willie Nelson. I like that, but Willie’s a little long-in-the-tooth, so how about if we just vote right now Turner for President, if not of the nation, then of the United States of Poetry?
For a list of all AWP panels focused on contemporary war and conflict, see Charlie Sherpa’s Red Bull Rising post here.
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2021: The links to the following poems and poets are unfortunately broken: Nicole Goodwin, Colin Halloran, Lynn Houston, Victor Inzunza, and Brian Turner.
I am leaving the entries in place for now, in hopes the links will be restored and to alert readers that the poets and their poems are well worth seeking out by other means.
To honor National Poetry Month, below are poems by forty American writers that reflect and engage America’s 21st-century wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, directly, indirectly, or possibly only in my mind.* They run the gamut from the nation’s poet-laureate to MFA-honed to raw, and are written by veterans, spouses, and interested civilian observers, but they’re all great individually and collectively they articulate the nation’s crazy play of emotions as it sought redress for the sting of the 9/11 attacks. Many thanks to the authors for writing them and much love also for online media sites that feature poets and poetry–please read them, support them, share them, and spread the word.
The links should take you directly to each of the poems, except for Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren’s and Maurice Decaul’s, which are featured on the Warrior Writers page. An additional click on “Writing” will get you in the ballpark, and you can figure it out from there. If you discover a dead link or that access to a poem is blocked by a pay-wall, please let me know.
*Seth Brady Tucker’s “The Road to Baghdad” probably draws on Tucker’s experience in the 1990 Gulf War, but was first published in 2011 and can certainly be read as a contemporary war poem.
A flutter of recent data points raise the questions whether veterans are natural storytellers and whether they are prone to adorn their stories to impress listeners. An article by “Angry Staff Officer” on the Task and Purpose website titled “Three Things That Make Service Members Great Storytellers” asserts that the combination of “mission, story, and time” allows men and women in uniform to “relate our cultural and personal experiences to a group, bring them into the story in an intimate setting, and reveal a shared identity.” Angry Staff Officer cites soldiers from the South as military tale-tellers par excellence, a notion corroborated in “Colleen,” from Odie Lindsey’s fine collection of stories about Southern veterans of the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom titled We Come to Our Senses. The narrator sets a scene in a VFW hall:
A couple of men asked Van Dorn how he was, and he held court as he blustered and bragged. They tolerated this, because storytelling—his or anyone’s—cued up the opportunity to indulge their own tales, to again revisit their trauma.
So the men did just that, they ran a story cycle, memory to memory, barstool to barstool, and on down to Colleen.
But it’s not just service members from below the Mason-Dixon Line. Last week, at a family reunion in upstate New York, my cousin’s kid Teddy, who served as an infantryman in Iraq, at a late night campfire related tales that were quite a bit more engaging than anyone else’s. Teddy didn’t speak of war, and he didn’t bluster or brag, but he smoothly turned routine events of his life into stories and the people who populated them into personalities. Like Angry Staff Officer describes in his post, as I listened to Teddy it was as if I was once more in an MRAP on a long conop in Afghanistan, eavesdropping through earphones to the crew members spin tales about past missions, past assignments, and past lives.
While Angry Staff Officer writes of how service members and veterans communicate among themselves, David Chrisinger explores how and why veterans frequently embellish the stories they tell or write for civilians. In a piece titled “The Redemptive Power of Lying”posted on Warhorse, Chrisinger writes, “I’m OK with lies—the ones my students need to tell themselves, and in turn, tell me—but I’m not OK with bullshit.” Matt Gallagher, who always has something good to say in these cases, picks up on Chrisinger’s theme. In a recent story published in Playboy titled “Babylon,” Gallagher has his protagonist, a female USMC vet living in Brooklyn, state:
Some of the biggest posers I’d known were vets. The pogue who never left Kuwait but needed to pretend he’d crossed the brink. The staff officer whose lone patrol off base became more dangerous with each of her retellings. Even the grunts, it was rare for them to stick to the truth, because the truth was never enough. War stories meant bullshit, that’s just how it was. Deep down, I knew I’d exaggerated what happened that day in Al Hillah to people, be they surly uncles I wanted to impress or lipstick dykes I wanted to screw. I wasn’t proud of it. But still. It’d happened, and it’d probably happen again.
Maybe we’d earned the right to bullshit….
Recently, the popular Humans of New York website and its even more popular Facebook page have been featuring Iraq and Afghanistan vets relating vignettes of intense wartime experiences. The vignettes, or anecdotes, exemplify the tendencies noted by Angry Staff Officer, Chrisinger, and Gallagher: short, well-turned, gripping accounts of extraordinary events experienced by the veterans, accompanied by poignant statements about the events’ lingering significance in their lives. The posts have been shared on Facebook upwards of 10,000 times, and the comments sections have generated hundreds of compliments, denunciations, and other expressions of belief, disbelief, support, and even accusations that the veterans’ stories were fictive.
If the Humans of New York posts offer a glimpse of the contemporary war-story-telling zeitgeist, the lessons are simple: 1) Go sensational. 2) Go emotional. 3) Keep your own experience at the center, and 4) Convey conviction that your perspective of the event you describe is the true one. Don’t mince around; what people want to hear about is either the worst thing that ever happened to you or the most triumphant. The worst thing is always the shock of learning that war is much worse than you could have imagined or can handle. The best thing is always that you acquitted yourself well in combat.
If you can’t hit those notes, well OK, but be ready for a less-than-enthusiastic response from the reading masses. Tell a subtle, nuanced tale reflecting perplexed anxiety about things that you observed while you were in the military, and five, 500, or 5,000 people might be interested. Tell a graphic story of harrowing adventure and personal tumult, and your audience will be 50,000, 500,000, five million, or more. Edgar Allan Poe wrote long ago, “But the simple truth is, that the writer who aims at impressing the people, is always wrong when he fails in forcing that people to receive the impression.” The lineaments of war story popular connection are right there for the taking. Hint—they look a lot like American Sniper. Reading suggestion—another story in Lindsey’s collection, titled “Chicks,” a funny one about a screenwriter trying to pitch his war-movie script to a producer, brilliantly dramatizes and complicates Poe’s notion. Just in case it’s not obvious–“Chicks” will never be as popular as American Sniper.
Many years ago the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed the phrase “the raw and the cooked” to distinguish between primitive and advanced indigenous populations. Lévi-Strauss’s specific subject was food preparation—the move from eating food raw to cooking it clearly demarcated a cultural advance—but lots of critics have since used the phrase to analyze all kinds of human activities, and I’m going to do the same now. War stories, says I, come in two kinds—the raw, visceral kind that use blunt language to describe combat, killing, war brutality, and the rough aspects of military life, and the more mannered and brooding efforts I am calling “the cooked,” which might be described as an attempt to represent a thinking-person’s take on war. Both terms have connotations: when it comes to war writing, “raw” is inevitably linked with “honesty,” which makes “cooked” seem overly-analytical or even evasive. If you’ve eaten twenty straight raw meat-and-potato dinners, however, you might appreciate a little imaginative culinary preparation the next meal around. No doubt, I prefer a literary “cooked” approach, but I’m also in awe of the power of the “raw” to capture the imagination of soldiers, writers, and audiences, so, really, as you work through what I say next, try to avoid thinking of either term as inherently pejorative or complimentary. Instead, consider them as poles on a spectrum of war storytelling possibility.
The great example of contemporary “raw” war-writing is American Sniper. Never mind that Chris Kyle had extensive ghost-writing help, parts of his memoir may have been fabrication, and Kyle himself disavowed aspects of his own story. American Sniper resonated deeply because readers responded to and respected Kyle’s unapologetic and visceral account of his actions in a voice that they identified as authentically his own. Whether it was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or not, it just seemed honest:
I had a job to do as a SEAL: I killed the enemy—an enemy I saw day in and day out plotting to kill my fellow Americans.
The first time you shoot someone, you get a little nervous. You think, can I really shoot this guy? Is it really okay? But after you kill your enemy, you see it’s okay. You say, Great….
I loved what I did. I still do. I don’t regret any of it. I’d do it again.
I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.
There are many signature elements of a “raw” war story that help register such honesty. One of them is a blunt, hard-boiled prose style, full of profanity and tough talk, as if the author, his narrator, and his characters were really angry about something. Another is unbridled contempt for the chain-of-command; raw war stories bristle with certainty that higher-ups are stupid, vain, and selfish. A third is a thorough self-identification as a soldier or veteran and the assertion of undying brotherhood with fellow soldiers. A fourth is preoccupation with killing and battlefield carnage. A fifth is the treatment of the enemy as savages without humanity or distinction. These signature elements, in my opinion, are diluted in contemporary war writing, American Sniper excepted. If you don’t believe me compare Larry Heinemann’s Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, which won the National Book Award in 1987, with Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which won the same award for 2014. In terms of the rawness criteria I have established, Paco’s Story rates about a 9 on a scale of 10, while Redeployment gets maybe a 3 or 4. American Sniper is up there with Paco’s Story in terms of rawness, but where Heinemann’s rawness is a stylized literary effect that impressed critics and several thousand readers in its time, Kyle’s memoir has been scorned by critics, while causing the masses to build memorials in his honor.
Kyle’s last quote above—about not giving a “flying fuck” about Iraqis—is interesting, because it brings into play something I’d like to propose is true of contemporary war writing. The signature elements of raw war stories may not appear as often in war writing across the board these days, but the fifth still persists as a demarcation point separating war writing into raw and cooked segments. The main ingredient of a “raw” war story about Iraq and Afghanistan, I would say, is lack of interest in or outright contempt for Iraqis and Afghans, while a “cooked” war story manifests curiosity about them, attempts to portray them “as people,” and worries about the cost of war on them. I could without hesitation divide the 20 or more works of fiction I’ve reviewed on Time Now and the countless works I’ve read but have not (yet) reviewed, and rate them based on their empathy for the inhabitants of the land in which the Americans portrayed were fighting. Stacey Peebles also (first, really) hit on this means of evaluation in a chapter in Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq in which she compares Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and John Crawford’s Iraq War memoir The Last True War Story I’ll Ever Tell. Crawford left Iraq venomously disdainful of Iraqis, while Turner’s surfeit of empathy for Iraqi people, history, and culture threatened to overwhelm his effectiveness as an infantry sergeant. Peebles writes, “If Crawford takes in nothing of Iraq and empties himself out until he is a hollow shell, Turner takes in so much that he is full to bursting.” It follows then that Crawford’s memoir is “raw” and Turner’s poetry is “cooked.”
Which brings us back to the Humans of New York. The names of the veteran story-tellers are not given, but the second and third are both authors about whom I’ve written about on this blog, Jenny Pacanowski and Elliot Ackerman, respectively. Both are savvy writers and in Pacanowski’s case a seasoned performer of spoken-word poetry. In her scathing, ribald, and often extremely funny monologues, Pacanowski presents her tour-of-duty in the Army and Iraq as terrible to the point of traumatizing. Ackerman’s Afghanistan war novel Green on Blue, on the other hand, is practically void of American characters and instead places a Pashtun militia member at its narrative center. According to the schema I have set up, Pacanowski’s poetry is an example of “raw” war writing, while Ackerman’s novel represents the “cooked.” But in their Humans of New York vignettes, we can see them each moving toward a middle ground: Pacanowski fighting to demilitarize her all-consuming self-identification as an angry veteran, Ackerman letting down his guard to let the world take a better measure of who he is as a person. Be sure to read them, and salute to both.
War subjects and themes were the focus of this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival, the nation’s largest celebration of poetry, held annually in Newark, New Jersey. The marquee event was a contemporary war poem extravaganza called Another Kind of Courage, about which more later. But sprinkled throughout the readings and panel discussions featuring big-time civilian names such as Gary Snyder and Robert Pinsky were poets familiar to readers of this blog such as Brian Turner, Elyse Fenton, and Jehanne Dubrow. The commingling of war-themed poems within the greater flow of versification rendered ample opportunity to think about how war has inflected poetry generally in the 21st century. It also allowed one to take stock of how a first-generation of contemporary war poets might be moving on to subjects and approaches more centered within the poetry mainstream.
Fenton, for example, appeared on a panel that featured among others Richard Blanco, a gay Hispanic-American poet who read at President Obama’s second inauguration, but America’s recent wars were barely mentioned by the participants. Fenton, the wife of a veteran, read only“After the Blast” from her acclaimed first work Clamor. Her other poems, from a current work-in-progress called “Sweet Insurgency,” had little to do with deployment, combat, or life on the homefront, though the title alone attests to the lingering persistence of things, words, and ideas military in Fenton’s apprehension of the world. Dubrow, for her part, read just three poems from her impressive work Stateside, to include one I love called “Nonessential Equipment,”on a panel that featured no other war poets. Her husband continues to serve in the Navy, but Dubrow has turned her attention to subjects other than the vexations of martial marital relations. Still, the interest in violence and trauma inherent in Stateside continues, or is even intensified, in the poems Dubrow read from a soon-to-be published work about her mother’s harrowing life growing up in El Salvador.
As for Turner, readings at Dodge and another one a week earlier in New York gave ample evidence that he has plenty of poetry to draw on that doesn’t explicitly touch on his service as an infantryman in Iraq. Many examples can be found in Phantom Noise, but others, some that predate his military service and others written after, look at family history, regional influence, and the complexities of modern life. In New York, at an event called Stage Meets Page, Turner traded turns reading with a performance poet named Rives, a winner of freestyle contests and a giver of TED talks. Rives is probably used to blowing poetic competition off the stage, but Turner more than held his own, riffing off Rives’ cues and dipping deep into a black notebook full of funny, startling, brilliant verse that had far more to do with life out of uniform than in. For an example of the same from Dodge, on a panel on masculinity and poetry that also featured the aforementioned Pinsky and Blanco, Turner read “Zippo” from Phantom Noise.
TheAnother Kind of Courage event brought Turner, Dubrow, and Fenton together with wise war-poet old hands Yusef Komunyakaa and Marilyn Nelson and a group of younger vet poets associated with a collective called Warrior Writers. Together, as organized by festival program director Martin Farawell, they recounted a narrative-in-verse about deployment through the multiple voices of a large and diverse body of poems read by their authors. The general arc of the story focused on psychological trauma and political outrage, which is understandable and dramatic, but by no means the be-all and end-all of what war poetry is and can be. Still, Another Kind of Courage inspired wonder about the possibilities of staging war poetry and showcased many fantastic individual performances. Warrior Writers’ Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren galvanized the audience with the Eminem-like “PTSD (P.lease T.ry S.omething D.ifferent)” and Jennifer Pacanowski’s “Parade,” read to the accompaniment of a simple guitar strum, did much the same in a softer key.
For all of the above, a highlight of Dodge for me was meeting Robert Pinsky for the first time since I took a class from him almost 30 years ago, when, fed up with graduate school, I asked him write a letter of recommendation for my application to Officer Candidate School. Pinsky, a former national poet laureate, published a volume of poetry called Gulf Music in 2007. Interested in knowing if it addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I purchased a copy and read it between acts at Dodge. I didn’t have to look long, for the very first poem, “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” ruminates on torture in the name of politics as perpetrated by oppressive regimes around the world, the United States unfortunately not excepted. But Pinsky, it turns out, is ambivalent or confused about conflict and violence more than he is stridently opposed; many of the poems in Gulf Music document him trying to work out the exact relationship between the propensity to inflict harm and the inclination to create art. In “Poem of Disconnected Parts,” for example, he writes:
The [torturers] created nicknames for torture devices:
The Airplane. The Frog. Burping the Baby.
Not that those who behead the helpless in the name
Of God or tradition don’t also write poetry.
In “Inman Square Incantation,” he writes:
Forgive us, we don’t exactly believe or disbelieve
What the President tells us regarding the great issues
Of peace, justice, and war—skeptical, but distracted
By the swarm of things.
That seems about right, but in a poem (perhaps aptly) titled “Stupid Meditation on Peace,” the drift of Pinsky’s thought turns more sinister and daring. He begins by describing himself as an “Insomniac monkey-mind,” an image that sets up a series of stanzas that consider the proposition that art depends on the dark energy of conflict:
We choose one of two tributaries: the River
Of Peace, or the River of Productivity.
The current of Art he says runs not between
Banks with birdsong in the fragrant shadows—
No, an artist must follow the stinks and rapids
Of the branch that drives millstones and dynamos.
Is peace merely a vacuum, the negative
Of creation, or the absence of war?
The teaching says Peace is a positive energy:
Still something in me resists that sweet milk,
My mind resembles my restless, inferior cousin
Who fires his shit in handfuls from his cage.
Pinsky’s not wrong, I feel, and he’s way too hard on himself. But these are hard things to say or prove, and must be couched in terms of irony, possibility, and humor, if not self-deprecation and laceration. For certain though, Pinsky the poet is tied up with the life course that took me to the battlefields of eastern Afghanistan: the letter of recommendation I still have is the material proof.
Robert Pinsky, Gulf Music. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007.
“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.
“I am a drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body, flying over my wife as she sleeps beside me, over the curvature of the earth, over the glens of Antrim and the Dalmation coastline, the shells of Dubrovnik and Brcko and Mosul arcing in the air beside me, projectiles filled with poems and death and love.”
So begins Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, a start that just barely illuminates the the work’s enigmatic title and strange epigram taken from Eugenio Montale: “Too many lives go into the making of just one.” Half-memoir and half-rumination on the cosmology of soldiering and combat, My Life as a Foreign Country blends crystal-clear accounts of Turner’s upbringing in California and service in the Army with historical digressions, hallucinatory alterations of the here-and-now, and imagined vignettes describing the lives and thoughts of a cast of characters ranging from Iraqi bomb-makers to Japanese kamikaze pilots. It’s a lot to absorb, and matters are not helped by the subdivision of the book into 11 unnamed chapters further broken into 136 smaller sections, titled only by numbers, ranging in length from a sentence to a few pages. There’s kinda-sorta a logical narrative progression from chapter to chapter and within each chapter, but the trail is faint and easily lost, especially on the first reading. For sure there’s work to be done trying to explain the literal progression of Turner’s narrative, for those who like their readings literal, but clearly My Life as a Foreign Country is meant more to be experienced than explained. Even so, I’ll offer a few general comments about Turner’s methodology and vision.
Readers familiar with Turner’s poetry in Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise will recognize some subjects and themes treated in those volumes, such as car bombs, nighttime raids, soldier suicides, and life within a squad and on a FOB. The turn to prose sacrifices the preciseness, conciseness, and suggestiveness of the poetry in favor of a more expansive treatment of this familiar material that allows for more dialogue, description, characterization, and reflection. Turner can be as terse as Hemingway in parts, but his natural bent is to let his sentences flow with the momentousness of what they are describing. An example from one of the most moving chapters in the book, in my opinion, describes the thoughts of a young Iraqi male as he floats along the Tigris looking for a place to fire a mortar at American forces:
And Malik leans into the rowing, fascinated by the machine of his body, how the muscles of his arms take to the task of rowing so that the separation of body and oar become a fiction, Malik closing his eyes to subtract the night sounds of the world around him, until all that exists are the blades of their oars slipping into the water, two brothers in unison, propelling the boat forward with such ease he thinks they could just keep rowing, hour after hour, down through Baghdad and beyond, through sunrise and sunfall until they reached the wide mouth of the sea, the lights of Basra glowing behind them as they rowed into the crests and hollows of the Persian Gulf, Malik standing high at stern and calling out into the salt spray, calling to the adventurers who traveled these waters before him, the adventurers to come, saying, “’I’m here, world—Malik, as alive as anyone who has ever lived. Malik.’
The most stunning passage in the book, by far, is a reworking of a Rick Moody poem called “Boys.” Rendered in prose form by Turner and given the prosaic chapter title name of 49, we can do better by calling it by its first line: “The soldiers enter the house.” What follows is four pages of insanely intense and vivid and evocative description of the lives and thoughts of soldiers conducting a midnight raid on a compound belonging to a scared Iraqi family. A small quote won’t do it justice, but even a snippet such as, “The soldiers enter the house with only nine credits earned toward an associate’s degree in history from the University of Maryland. They kick in the door and enter the house with the memory of backyard barbecues on their minds” displays Turner’s gift with words and, even better, his ability to see poetic potential in mundane facts. The passage is incantatory even when read silently, and is even more so when read aloud, as I have heard Turner do so in performance.
My Life as a Foreign Country decidedly departs the time-space continuum in its later stages when Turner straight-facedly describes an RPG hit that kills him: “Sgt. Turner is dead,” he writes. The author-Turner is not dead, of course, but the imagined death, I’m thinking, bespeaks the author-Turner’s desire, at long last, to put his identity as a soldier behind him, a problematic venture given that it is his identity as a warrior that has inspired his poetry and gained him a paying audience. But noticeably absent in a memoir by an accomplished author are extended descriptions of Turner’s writerly development before joining the military, while in, and afterwards. To parse the book’s title, then, we can say that the “foreign country” he speaks of are the parts of his life—boyhood and a short period in adulthood—when he was consumed by soldiering, not art. The two clearly have never not been connected for Turner, but My Life as a Foreign Country foregrounds contemplation of the first, while leaving his literary life for another day.
Too bad, a little, because Turner fascinates in person when he speaks about the genesis of his poems and poetic craft. Those aren’t the fish he’s frying in My Life as a Foreign Country, but I’ve learned that Turner often bases poems on deep private allegiances to other poems he knows and loves, as the passage quoted above draws on Rick Moody’s “Boys.” I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the precursor text for My Life as a Foreign Country is Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We see the similarity in the unnumbered stanzas, we see it in the shared interest in cosmic connectivity, we see it in the brooding preoccupation with death and the swirls of mortality that buffet our lives. Whitman kills off his poetic persona, too, at the end of “Song of Myself,” only to promise the reader that he has been resurrected in different form: “I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags / I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”
Whitman concludes, “Failing to fetch me at first keep up encouraged / Missing me one place search another / I stop somewhere waiting for you.” I can’t state exactly what Sergeant Turner is up to at the end of My Life as a Foreign Country, but since I know him not just as a gruff former NCO but also as a sweet soul who cares deeply, I’m not surprised to read very near the book’s conclusion that, “because Sgt. Turner is dead, he will remain at his post.” Like Whitman at the end of his own long poem, Turner is somewhere ahead looking out for us while we scramble to catch up.
Brian Turner, My Life as a Foreign Country. Norton, 2014. I read an early draft of My Life as a Foreign Country and am honored to be mentioned in the acknowledgements.
This is a strange new kind of war where you learn just as much as you are able to believe. –Ernest Hemingway
The word for love, habib, is written from right
to left, starting where we would end it
and ending where we might begin.
Where we would end a war
another might take as a beginning,
or as an echo of history, recited again.
Speak the word for death, maut,
and you will hear the cursives of the wind
driven into the veil of the unknown.
This is a language made of blood.
It is made of sand, and time.
To be spoken, it must be earned.
The great artwork by Giulia Alvarez at the top of the page illustrates the first poem in Brian Turner’s 2005 volume Here, Bullet. Nine years after publication, not all might remember the force with which Here, Bullet shook the poetry world and inaugurated our contemporary war literature tradition. No one in either the war or the lit business saw Turner coming–a poet with such skill, imagination, and empathy married with front-line experience, so devoid of amateurish stylistic flourishes or naïve or polemical thinking. Even now, it’s hard to point to another war poet who comes close to the mark established by Turner in Here, Bullet and his subsequent 2010 volume Phantom Noise. He practically defined the range of concerns and characteristic attitudes that almost all war lit writers would later echo, and in most cases he did so with more interesting imagery and emotional nuance than those that followed him.
Turner was also onto from the beginning subjects that others have overlooked or haven’t been prepared to deal with. For example, the last line of “A Soldier’s Arabic”—“To be spoken, it must be earned”—seems to imply something about veteran-authors hoarding the right to speak with authority about war. This sentiment remains strong today, but I don’t think it’s what Turner really feels, or what the poem is really about. To me the line and the poem reach beyond the poet’s bond with fellow soldiers to embrace the Arab-Islamic world into which he and other Operation Iraqi Freedom participants were plunged. Turner, more so than most American authors, has determinedly and persistently tried to measure the war in terms of the language, culture, and history of those on whose land it was fought. Even a simple thing like learning the Arabic words for “love” and “death” is telling. Not to underestimate anyone, but I’d be willing to bet less than 1% of Americans deployed to Iraq learned these most basic of words. “Why would we?” they might ask, pragmatically enough from their perspectives, but short-sighted in its implications.
In this New York Times essay titled “After War, A Failure of the Imagination,” Marine vet Phil Klay asserts the power of fiction to make accessible foreign (in every sense of the word) experiences. He pleads for readers who have not served or fought to sympathetically embrace the imagined worlds of war authors as acts that blend courage and curiosity. Klay speaks mainly of efforts to bridge the divide between American civilian and military cultures, but pace Turner, I would extend Klay’s argument to the poetry and fiction written by Iraqis and Afghans. Turner as always leads the way. In the current issue of Prairie Schooner, Turner as guest editor includes work by Iraqi, Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, and Sudanese authors in near-equal numbers alongside American and European writers on war and conflict. I look forward to opportunities to write about these authors and in the spirit of Turner offer notice of the following works of fiction authored by Iraqi writers:
Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, recently published by Penguin. I have written about Blasim hereand will write more about him soon.
Abdel Khaliq al-Rikabi’s The Sad Night of Ali Baba. Not yet translated into English, a short description is hereand an interview with al-Rikabi is here.
Ahmed Saadwi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. Also not yet translated into English, but an intriguing review is here.
Thanks to Sean Case for alerting me to the Arabic Literature (in English)website. Big thanks to Giulia Alvarez and all the other students in Rebecca Bahr’s War and Literature class at Horace Mann School in the Bronx, New York City.