Posted tagged ‘Brian Van Reet’

Something Wicked This Way Comes: The Future of War Literature

July 27, 2014
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Graffiti at the ruined and abandoned Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2008. “Darul Aman” means “Abode of Peace.”

“I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb,” wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne after completing Moby-Dick. I don’t know if Moby-Dick is exactly wicked, or about the “spotless as a lamb” business, but I am ready for a wicked book about American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, stories and novels about the wars have been remarkably dainty about depicting American soldiers’ capacity for killing, torture, carnage, malevolence, and other forms of evil. At some level, it seems, they try to hold a kernel of life-affirming goodness at the center of the war experience, whether it be located in the characters, the narrators, or within themselves.

That’s a great strategy for real life. “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle inside,” are words to live by. But it’s limited when it comes to fiction, a virtue of which is its ability to take readers to forbidden places. Another nineteenth-century author, John Neal, wrote that novels were places “where imaginary creatures, invested with all the attributes of humanity, agitated by the passions of our nature, are put to the task of entertaining or terrifying us.” The greatest characters, Neal continued, are “scoundrels,” while virtuous characters “are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.” Edgar Allan Poe knew Neal’s work, it would seem, or at least felt the same. No one’s asking for a war story as related by the berserk narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado,” but would you agree that Poe’s narrator is more memorable than all the protagonists of contemporary war fiction put together? And his narrative voice even more so?

Poe and Melville are tough standards by which to judge, but great examples from which to learn. Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, in the tales that make up The Corpse Exhibition (2014), has crafted spell-binding tales that portray, not Americans, but his own countrymen as capable of any evil, first by nature and then made even more so by the pressure of war. Contemporary war literature written by Americans, on the other hand, has by-and-large shied away from depicting truly reprehensible–which is to say truly remarkable–characters in ways that are not mediated by other, more sympathetic voices. The only story I know by an American author that entertainingly plumbs depravity is Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” from the Fire and Forget anthology (2013). Compared to the solemnity of most modern war stories, the vitality of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is exceptional, and the story’s depiction of its charismatically ruined protagonists Sleed and Rooster startling. It’s a wicked tale indeed, and though I don’t know if Van Reet feels as spotless as a lamb, if it’s any solace I think more of him, not less, for writing it.

A spate of articles have appeared recently by civilian authors asserting their right to write about war and the military. A representative example is Sparta (2013) author Roxana Robinson’s essay “The Right to Write” that appeared in the New York Times. But Robinson, right as she is, and accomplished as she is, need not worry so much. I for one count on civilian authors to lead the way by demonstrating exactly how wide and deep are the boundaries of imaginative possibility, because, tales such as “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” excepted, vet authors are not yet so skilled at getting beyond the basic first steps of realistic description and gussied-up reportage of their own experiences. Or, maybe the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are still too fresh and hot, and the most visionary writing about contemporary war can only be found displaced in stories about past wars. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (2010), an opus about Marines in Vietnam, begs to be read as a commentary not just on Iraq and Afghanistan, but on Iraq and Afghanistan war literature. Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison’s novel Home (2012), for another example, depicts an African-American Korean War soldier’s sexual attraction to and subsequent murder of a young girl. An up-and-coming author, Julian Zabalbeascoa, published in Ploughshares a fantastic story called “498” (not currently available online, but hopefully will be again soon) that portrays a soldier in the Spanish Civil War who uses the pretext of war to become a mass murderer. Guess what the number in the title refers to?

Brian Van Reet’s article “A Problematic Genre: the ‘Kill Memoir'” exposes the limitations of first-person reminiscences by ex-snipers that jumble reflection and braggadocio about the military business of killing. In my mind, and I think Van Reet would agree, fiction such as Zabalbeascoa’s most compellingly explores the complicated emotions and social context that kill memoir authors struggle to explain. But so far, our authors of war fiction have written much about soldiers preoccupied by the way the big, bad wars have impinged on the sensibilities of those who fight, and little about soldiers who find themselves on other terms—if not delight, then an ambivalent complicity—with violence, force, hate, sadism, greed, ambition, selfishness, self-preservation, and killing. Let’s see what the future brings.

UPDATE, 3 August 2014.  In this post, I speculate that the darkest war fiction written about Iraq and Afghanistan might have to take as its setting another war.  In the Letters, I suggest that Hollywood might make a dark, bleak war film before our authors and publishers bring us such a book.  Now, two weeks later, comes notice of a new film called Fury, starring Brad Pitt and directed by David Ayers.  Read the New York Times review of Fury for what appears to be confirmations of my assertions.

More Notes Toward a Supreme War Fiction: Ryan Bubalo, Fire and Forget, Phil Klay, Frederick Busch, 0-Dark-Thirty, Nikolina Kuludžan

January 12, 2014

“Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is the title of a long Wallace Stevens poem that includes the lines:

Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night.

Later, Stevens writes:

How gladly with proper words the soldier dies,
If he must, or lives on the bread of faithful speech

With that, let’s catch up on developments in the contemporary war fiction scene.

A review essay in the LA Review of Books titled “Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction” by Ryan Bubalo surveys major works by familiar war lit authors such as David Abrams, Kevin Powers, Siobhan Fallon, and Ben Fountain.   Writing of Billy Lynn, the protagonist of Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Bubalo asks:  “To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war?”  Kudos to the LA Review of Books, whose continuing coverage of war literature surpasses that of all the major literary reviews.

Brian Van Reet, one of the authors featured in the excellent Fire and Forget anthology (which is also mentioned in Bubalo’s piece), brings word on this blog post that Army Times has named Fire and Forget the #1 military book published in 2013.  Very cool of Army Times to place a work of fiction above the many memoirs, histories, and other non-fiction works about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars pouring out of the nation’s publishing houses.  And why not?  Fire and Forget features a who’s-who list of contemporary war authors, to include Abrams, Fallon, Matt Gallagher, and Brian Turner.

Speaking of which, a collection of short stories called Redeployment, by Phil Klay, yet another Fire and Forget author, will be published in March 2014 by Penguin, a big-time publisher.  Advance reviews are already lauding Redeployment, and having had the chance also to read it, I’ll praise it, too.  Klay, a former Marine, obviously kept his eyes open and a pen and pad handy on his Iraq deployment and afterwards, and now has crafted stories that open up interesting and important new vistas on the war experience.  An advance review from Kirkus is here.

Dust to Dust author and Generation Kill actor Benjamin Busch’s father Frederick Busch was a very accomplished author himself, having published many novels and short stories in the years before his death in 2006.   A new collection of short fiction, called The Stories of Frederick Busch, brings to the fore two tales from Busch senior’s 2006 collection Rescue Missions in which the Iraq War figures prominently.  In “Good to Go,” a couple whose marriage has cracked up reunites to help their war-tormented son.  In “Patrols,” a middle-aged writer back from a gig as an embedded reporter struggles with a case of writer’s block that is clearly related to the haplessly ineffectual role he played among the fighting men he covered.  Frederick Busch was known as a writer’s writer, a pro’s pro, and it is easy to see why.  Both stories move with a stately imperative not to be rushed, to not reveal all their secrets too quickly, that younger war writers might well emulate.

Ron Capps’ Veterans Writing Project has served invaluably as a place in which aspiring veteran and non-veteran writers interested in war subjects might find their voice and even publication in the VWP’s journal O-Dark-Thirty.  The latest issue contains perhaps the most sensational story I have yet read about the contemporary wars.  Called “The Final Cut,” it’s by a woman named Nikolina Kuludžan who is not a vet but has taught at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California.  In “The Final Cut,” a young single female soldier begins an affair post-deployment with the man—married–who was her platoon sergeant in-theater.  The story starts in an almost breathless bodice-ripper fashion—the platoon sergeant’s name is “Rip,” and the narrator writes that “his body looks exactly how I always imagined it:  a flawless testament to fifteen years of pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups and running.  It’s a body that has fulfilled nature’s intent.” But it gets much darker and psychologically astute as the illicit sex the two share grows kinkier and the narrator’s understanding of the war-related dimensions of their relationship develops and deepens.  Clearly, the platoon sergeant requires more than a cold beer and a brand new flat-screen to simmer down after the intensity of combat; his darling wifey doesn’t come close to sating his need for intimacy, excitement, risk, and escape.  The narrator doesn’t say no for a second to the sergeant’s demands for sex, as if she knows his hunger is deeper seated than mere horniness and her ever-ready availability.  But she’s also aware that his wife lurks on the fringes of their passion, the odd one out in a post-deployment melodrama of jangled erotic circuitry.  The narrator states, “I just want all of us to admit that we’re in pain.   That we are not as normal as we make ourselves out to be.  That we need help.”  She suggests, and perhaps Kuludžan wants us to think, that she’s doing both the platoon sergeant and his wife a favor, that all this out-of-bounds coupling just has to happen before anything will ever be all right again.

Like Stevens writes, “Soldier, there is a war between the mind / And sky, between thought and day and night.”

Laundry laid out to dry in Khowst, Afghanistan

Laundry laid out to dry in Khowst, Afghanistan

Another blog post reference to Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” here.

Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton, published by De Capo, 2013.

Phil Klay’s Redeployment, to be published in March 2014 by Penguin.

The Stories of Frederick Busch, edited and with an introduction by Elizabeth Strout, published by Norton in 2014.

War Fact or Fiction: Brian Van Reet on the “Kill Memoir”

July 22, 2013
Aftermath of a suicide bombing, Khowst Province, Afghanistan, 12 May 2009.

Aftermath of a suicide bombing, Khowst Province, Afghanistan.

Iraq vet and author Brian Van Reet’s recent essay in the New York Times, called A Problematic Genre, the ‘Kill Memoir,'” lambastes memoirs written by veterans who take pride in the number of enemy they killed in combat. He mentions as an extreme example Carnivore, written by an Army vet whose publicist claimed the author had killed in combat 2,746 Iraqis. Van Reet likens the Carnivore author to a sergeant in his own unit who embarrassed everyone by bragging about the number of Iraqi casualties he tallied. That this sergeant intended to get a tattoo commemorating each of them amplified and clarified his foolishness. That his credibility was suspect made matters worse. Clearly, the guy was fighting the war according to a script of his own devising, one that had him not playing a dutiful soldier or conventional hero or leader, but a hardened bad-ass killer.

Truth to tell, though, such dreams lurked close to the surface in many of the infantrymen and special forces types I saw in Afghanistan, me included. A rational approach to war is expressed by an 82nd Airborne Division platoon leader speaking of his feelings prior to going into action in the Persian Gulf War: “You’re feeling really excited about going to play in the big game, and horrified and scared out of your mind that you have to play the big game at the same time.” Horrified of what? “That you could get killed. And you get asked to do things tha you really don’t want to do. I don’t know many serial killers in the Army. Most people just really perfer not to have to kill anyone if they don’t have to” (Quoted in Nancy Sherman’s Stoic Warriors).

But lots of new personnel and units arrive in theater infected by desire to see combat.  An infantry captain is quoted in the current issue of Army magazine: “Every blue-blooded infantryman who deploys wants to get into a fight.  We want to plan and execute offensive operations.  We want to close with and destroy the enemy.  We want to take charge and be in charge.” It was barely use talking to such soldiers of counterinsurgency and nation-building and key leader meetings and training and advising when they were out of their minds to see what it was like to shoot at someone and be shot at in return. Once they had seen combat (and survived) they might settle down and be good for more commonplace things. But often their initial survival, if not success, whetted their appetites, and now that they had “got some,” they desired even more. Like the author of Carnivore, they turned war into a competitive game of testosterone-fueled one-upsmanship, clothing their blood-lust and thrill-seeking in the justifications of duty and necessity. Such attitudes were unseemly and most did their best to keep them dampened down.  But not all felt this way. Some guys just seemed so determined to, as the saying goes, “get their war on.” And not all were ridiculed or scorned. In the hierarchy of soldiering, hardened killers could accrue enormous social capital. Where fear and confusion reigned, they offered toughness and purpose, of a kind. Operating insidiously within and sometimes overtly against the chain-of-command, they used their rank and stature to make the war all about kill-or-be-killed.

It’s no wonder such soldiers’ memoirs sell, as Van Reet realizes, but still he castigates a publishing industry that cravenly vends sensational war memoirs to a fawning reading public. Such fare glorifies the killing it describes, and thus perpetuates war rather than doing anything to end it. But even if kill memoir authors position themselves as self-effacing and introspective, their books are still shaky vehicles for the delivery of truth. The problem lies in the form as much as the sentiments. Memoir, Van Reet reminds us, is such a self-aggrandizing, unreliable, and stereotyped genre that it might be the last place, not the first, we would go to for factual detail or insight about what it means to kill in combat.

Van Reet instead touts the supremacy of fiction over “fact” and in particular literary novels such as David Abrams’ Fobbit and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds. “Though they are fictional,” he writes, “they read in my mind, like more accurate depictions of the totality of what happened in Iraq than any of the supposedly factual accounts I have mentioned.” I’ll second that, and throw in, as does Van Reet later in the essay, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as a third novel that, taken with the other two, make 2012 the annus mirabilis of Iraq war fiction. Indeed, each of the novels, in its way, examine the relationship of a softer, more sensitive soldier who comes under the sway of a much more decisive, hardened, experienced soldier at home with the business and psychology of killing. Among the novels’ other achievements, they use the tools of fiction—perspective, irony, empathy, style, tone—to interrogate the attitudes toward combat and killing described above and presented naively and self-servingly in memoirs and histories. Usually, they find such pronouncements swaddled in layers of self-deception and self-justification, and they convey sympathy for characters who at least struggle toward awareness and growth.

But as impressive as Abrams’, Powers’, and Fountain’s novels may be, they are, as we speak, still a feeble countervailing force in a publishing environment characterized by what Van Reet calls “the triumph of the kill memoir.” Van Reet closes by issuing a challenge to veteran writers, other authors interested in war, the publishing industry, and by implication, reading audiences:  we can all do better. I’ll second that, too.

The Imagined Wars of the Heart

March 24, 2013

In an earlier post, I wrote of the similarity of Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand.”  In each story a badly wounded Iraq war vet confronts the fact that his wife has chosen to leave him.  In Fallon’s story, the vet and his wife are so tenderly portrayed that the reader is left gasping with sympathy for both of them.  We want them each to somehow be happy again, if not together then in their now separate lives.  In Van Reet’s story, the soldier and his wife are monsters, albeit colorful ones.  They have not been just buffeted and damaged by the war, but ruined by it.

Both stories are great, just in case that needs saying.

As up-to-the-minute as they are, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and “The Last Stand” also belong to a tradition of stories about wounded male vets being jilted by wives and girlfriends.  Alice Fahs remind us of that in The Imagined Civil Wars when she describes a Civil War tale called “A Leaf From a Summer” published in Harper’s Weekly in November 1862.  Fahs writes:

“In that story a soldier faced an amputation hopefully because he had a letter from his beloved ‘next to his heart’; afterward, contrary to the surgeon’s expectations, he indeed ‘began to rally.’ But after receiving a letter telling him that his shallow lover had changed her mind and would not ‘marry a cripple,’ the hour quickly came ‘when they lowered him into the earth, and fired their volleys over him.’  As the narrator commented, ‘his enemy had struck him unarmed and unaware.’  As such the popular fiction revealed, the war only intensified a long-standing literary connection between love and war:  numerous stories claimed not only that women’s love was vital to a successful war but that love itself equaled war in its power to kill men.”

Below is a link to a web reprint of the story as it appeared in the 8 November 1862 Harper’s Weekly, for those who can’t get enough of that breathless, clichéd, one-sided 19th-century narration.

A Leaf From A Summer

“A Leaf From A Summer” is laughable, while the strength of Fallon’s and Van Reet’s stories is their ability to convey marital breakup with a sense of perspective, balance, nuance, and realism.  Examined in isolation, however, the pain of a soldier’s heartbreak is real and consequential.  A chapter called “Dear John” from Matt Gallagher’s excellent war memoir Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War describes the carnage wrought on the soldiers in his cavalry scout platoon when they were jilted while deployed.

“Dear Johns crushed men of otherwise unquestionable strength and total resoluteness.   In the time they most needed something right and theirs, it was taken away from them.  It wasn’t like getting dumped—it had a far more resounding impact on the soldier.  He became rougher, harsher, crueler…. Truthfully, it usually made him a better soldier, but he lost some vital slivers of his humanity in the process.”

Gallagher also explains that Dear Johns “didn’t just impact the recipient.  They affected the psyches of teams, sections, platoons, and troops, bringing home to everyone the recognition that the same thing could happen to them and forcing them to wonder if it was going to.  Or if it already had and they just didn’t know about it yet.  This mind fuck was the worst part for many.”

Gallagher points out that a soldier’s romantic interest represents his (or her) hope that an ideal or at least better world awaits his return and thus makes the misery of the war endurable and grounds his conduct while deployed.  But he also reminds us that many soldiers are shitty boyfriends or husbands.  Neglectful and needy by turns, they might be outraged and hurt by unfaithfulness even while being unfaithful themselves.  Gallagher doesn’t do much more to explain Dear Johns from a woman’s point of view, but Kit, the protagonist of “The Last Stand” and Sleed, the protagonist of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” also present their spouses with many issues even without the problem of their dismemberment and disfigurement.  The implication seems to be that women are attracted by the idea of loving a soldier, but find the reality very difficult to deal with.  Perhaps they also suspect that male soldiers love war and the military more than they do their wives and girlfriends, and thus determine to make their men pay.

Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” can be found in Fire and Forget:  Short Stories, published by De Capo Press in 2012.

Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” can be found in You Know When the Men are Gone, published by Amy Einhorn Books-Putnam in 2011.

Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War was published by De Capo Press in 2010.

Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War:  Popular Literature of the North and South 1861-1865 was published in 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Fire and Forget II: Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek”

January 26, 2013

Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” had me with its opening lines:

A few weeks ago, Sleed and I loaded onto a sleek tour bus.  We filed behind a gaggle of other “wounded warriors” –the term the Army used to refer to us in official memoranda.  I guess it’s what we were, but the phrase was too cute to do our ugliness justice.

The second contemporary story I know of to take the plight of wounded, disabled, and disfigured veterans as its subject—Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” is the first—“Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” recounts its narrator Rooster and his best friend Sleed’s participation in an Army-sponsored fishing trip for long-term Walter Reed patients.  The tale obviously tips its hat to “Big Two-Hearted River” and other stories published in 1925 in Ernest Hemingway’s great return-from-war collection In Our Time.  In “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” Rooster’s face has been horribly scarred and a hand mangled by a bomb in Iraq.   Now, seething with anger and regret, he contemplates a life “transformed in a flash I could not remember.”  He lashes out against his parents and is prone to fits of rage-induced impulsive behavior, such as biting the head off a rainbow trout he cannot properly fillet.

And Rooster’s the healthy one compared to his friend Sleed, who lost a leg and his private parts in the same blast that injured Rooster.  A charismatic and energetic soldier when whole, Sleed is now “Jake Barnes and Ahab rolled into one,” his self-hatred and grouse against the world amplified by the fact that his wife has left him and is now, according to a detective Sleed has hired, having public sex with her new boyfriend:  “‘Restrooms, parked cars–my man said he got footage of them in the car outside my baby’s daycare.’”

Ouch.

Spoiling for vengeance, Sleed stalks two teenage girls playing hooky from….  Well, I don’t want to give away the plot details more than I have already.  It’s a brutal, ugly tale, but great for all that.  Fully imagined and instantly memorable, Rooster and Sleed owe more to Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque purveyors of evil  in stories such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” than Hemingway’s stoic Jake Barnes, the emasculated hero of The Sun Also Rises.  But lord let’s hope Van Reet really is trying to work the same black comic vein for which O’Connor is famous.  If  his rendering of the despair and self-loathing of badly-wounded soldiers is meant to be literally true and representative, then we’ve all got a lot to answer for.

According to the Contributors notes in Fire and Forget, Van Reet is a University of Virginia (Wahoo-wah!) drop-out who earned a Bronze Star with “V” Device for action in Baghdad.  More power to him in all things.

Brian Van Reet’s Webpage


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