AWP LA AAR (Association of Writers and Writing Program Los Angeles After Action Review)

Brian Castner and Phil Klay talk it out on AWP-TV.
Brian Castner and Phil Klay on live AWP-TV

With at least twelve events featuring authors who have written about deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent Association of Writers and Writing Program conference offered plenty of opportunity to assess the public face of war writing while also catching up with fellow members of the war writing community. Within an hour of arrival, for example, I was trading stories with Colby Buzzell, whom I had never met before, at a taco food truck near the Los Angeles Convention Center, the site of the conference this year. AWP, as the conference is called, was full of such moments for me, and, I suspect, many others. The panel presentations and readings were excellent, and just as rewarding were the off-stage conversations with old and new friends.

Notions of inclusion and expansion characterized the war-writing panels, as many were specifically designed to showcase authors who were not white male combat veterans writing lugubrious sagas of self. All to the good, and I’m eager now to read authors such as Qais Akbar Omar, a former Afghan interpreter who has written a memoir titled A Fort of Nine Towers; Vicki Hudson, a former MP officer whose creative and non-fiction writing begins to redress the glaring omission of LBGT voices in the war-writing field; and Mary Doyle, a former Army NCO who’s now a prolific author of military-and-deployment accented detective fiction. A panel on memoir featured Kayla Williams, maybe the first female Iraq veteran to write a memoir (she’s now written two), and Angie Ricketts, who has written about the cloistered world of infantry officer wives suffering through their husbands’ multiple deployments. Elsewhere, I was delighted to hear Mariette Kalinowski read fiction that originated in her service as a gunner on Marine convoys in Iraq; Philip Metres read poetry about Abu Ghraib from his volume Sand Opera; and ex-Marine playwright Maurice Decaul speak of his efforts to produce plays written, performed, and staged by veterans.

Phil Metres reads from Sand Opera.
Phil Metres reads from Sand Opera

The war writing interest in diversity coincided somewhat uneasily with a larger AWP concern this year with matters of race. Touchstones included the furor over the removal of Vanessa Place from the AWP selection committee because of her alleged insensitivity (in the name of fighting racism) about issues important to black Americans, Claudia Rankine’s keynote speech, which targeted the literary world for its implicit racism, and a Ruth Ellen Kocher blog post documenting two demeaning incidents at AWP that reinforced her impression that even among progressive-minded white writers, her black skin signifies second-class citizenship. Everyone who serves in the heavily-integrated military is race-conscious, though most of us like to think that the armed forces are free of, or at least freer of, the racial polarization that currently characterizes much of America. Evidence exists that corroborates this somewhat smug perception, but it is hardly appropriate for white veterans to pronounce definitively that all is well. The same issues surface in the war writing scene, too, with interesting permutations. Neither Mary Doyle nor Maurice Decaul, both black, make race a central concern in their writing about service and war. At her panel, Doyle actively resisted such categorization and explained that if anyone wants to know what really drives her literary bent, they should ask about her lifelong love for Dick Francis, the English author of detective novels set in the upper-crust world of horse-racing. A sweet AWP moment for me was eavesdropping while Doyle and Brian Turner reminisced about a shared deployment to Bosnia, proof that at least sometimes the peculiarly intense experience of service in the Army green machine overwhelms preoccupation with skin color. But it’s not as easy as that, nowhere near the last words on the matter, and I would love to hear Doyle’s and Decaul’s (or anyone’s) most developed thoughts about race and the military, and race and writing about war, should they be inclined to offer them. For what it’s worth, I have written a little more about the subject on this blog in a post titled Toni Morrison’s Home: The Africanist Presence in War Literature.

A second theme emerging out of the alchemy of public and private remarks was a sense that war-writing has matured as a publishing genre, which is to say that it is a much more commercial affair now than previously. Where once war writers were just happy to make it into print, many now are savvy practitioners of the business side of writing, where book deals are made and real money is on the line in the way of advances, foreign sales, next-book contracts, movie options, and ancillary speaking-and-writing gigs. As Jesse Goolsby noted, “The ‘off-page’ stuff can be as important as what’s on the page.” In separate events, Goolsby, Brian Castner, and Kayla Williams each spoke candidly and at-length about publishing—together the three might make a great panel at next year’s AWP titled “The Business of War Writing” (hint, hint). The two themes of diversification and professionalization intersected in frequent discussions about publishers’ receptivity to nontraditional war narratives. From my vantage point, publishing houses seem reasonably open to diverse perspectives, especially when rendered with a smidgeon of literary talent and verve. Things could always be better, of course, but the evidence so far suggests that it is readers, general readers, not the literary-minded ones, who perpetuate the popularity of books by and about young men who have performed bravely in combat, with best-selling titles such as American Sniper and Outlaw Platoon being the proof.

My contribution to AWP this year was to help organize two panels for which I also served as moderator. The first, Iraq Veteran-Writers Ten Years Later: Words After Words After War, featured four writers who all served in Iraq prior to 2005 and subsequently commenced lives largely organized around writing. Two authors, the aforementioned Colby Buzzell and Kayla Williams, were among the first veterans into print after 2003, while two others, Ron Capps and Maurice Decaul, have taken longer to find their writing voices and appreciative audiences. My intent here was to allow these interesting authors to take us back to their deployment days and then help us follow them forward as their thoughts about their service in Iraq coalesced and matured and their lives as writers evolved. Each had insightful ideas and anecdotes to speak of–why aren’t all AWP panels taped and archived? It’s impossible to reduce their common concerns to a sentence, but I sensed that Decaul and Williams are now exploring writing and life possibilities still deeply informed by early experience in Iraq, while Capps and Buzzell are more ready to move on, as if their deployment memories have now (perhaps thankfully) reached a half-life state of dissolve. Whatever these four authors do next, we’ll all be watching—it’s not just that they are “leaders” per se within the war-writing community, though they are, but that they now bring so much hard-earned gravitas to bear on any subject they choose to examine. More simply put, they’ve lived through more of life and life’s writing experiences than most of the rest of us.

Speaking of which–life–participants on the memoir panels spoke often about the problems of “life-writing,” which involves carefully modulating impulses toward self-promotion, self-disclosure, self-deception, self-deprecation, and even self-laceration. It took the panels featuring fiction to illustrate the insidiousness of this dynamic by portraying scenes too touchy to confess to in memoir. The aim of my second panel, New Directions in Contemporary War Literature, was to bring forth authors of novels about the military and war written within the last two years and see what reverberations their readings generated. I couldn’t have been happier with the result, the exact shape of which I didn’t see coming and which truth to tell was somewhat scary, though all the better for that.

Jesse Goolsby, the author of I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, went first, choosing a passage from near the end of the novel in which one of the characters, Wintric Ellis, long after the war, sits in his car trying to work up the courage to kill the soldier who sexually assaulted him in Afghanistan. Early in the novel, Wintric participates in a shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenario in Afghanistan when he and his buddies are faced by a suicide bomber; now at the end of the novel it emerges that what has wrecked Wintric’s life was not enemy on the battlefield, but one nominally on his own side, and he must once more decide whether to kill someone or not. It’s a wrenching scene, similar in its way to Siobhan Fallon’s great short story “Leave,” and was beautifully read by Goolsby.

While Wintric deliberates, he fields a call from his wife, who wonders what he is up to. Wintric lies to her about his intentions, and it turns out that he has lied to her about other aspects of his deployment, too, more out of shame than meanness. Such deceit and cowardliness is hard to own up to in memoir, but the very stuff that fiction is good at portraying. Mendacity (to reference Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also figures in Andria Williams’ The Longest Night, which dramatizes a real-life nuclear catastrophe that took place on an Army base in Idaho during the Cold War, while also offering startling astute portraits of the men who worked on the base and their families. Williams read an early scene foreshadowing the reactor meltdown and another longer one describing the mediocre career and desultory marriage of Master Sergeant Richards, a pompous senior NCO in charge of the reactor. The passage, told from the NCO’s wife’s point-of-view, is simultaneously devastating and funny-as-hell, and Williams’ reading, as did Goolsby’s, captivated the audience. The bigger import, alas, also had much in common with Goolsby’s: a military whose self-image is very badly out of sorts with its reality. Where there should be heroism, there’s folly; where leadership, selfishness; competency, dysfunction; loyalty, deceit; trust, contempt; camaraderie, betrayal; and faithfulness, infidelity.

If anything, the discrepancy between reality and appearance was heightened in the passage that Gallagher read from his novel Youngblood, one line of which went, “We were what we pretended to be.” The scene portrayed Youngblood hero Lieutenant Jack Porter as he makes a “blood money” reparations payment to the family of an Iraqi noncombatant they have killed. Porter finds himself adrift in a moral wasteland that puts him at odds not just with Iraqi values and customs, but also with the expectations of his men and his chain-of-command. Not trusting himself or anyone else, but performing, so to speak, on stage with all eyes on him, Lieutenant Porter must depend upon his wits to decode the swirl of ambiguous clues to determine what he should do and how he should feel. Many literary roads lead back to Melville, and as Gallagher read of Porter’s confusion I was reminded of Benito Cereno’s Amasa Delano, the Yankee ship captain who boards a slave ship on which the slaves have rebelled and taken control. As the slaves force the slave ship captain to pretend he is still in charge, Delano struggles to understand that the appearance of normality that the slaves have constructed for him is a fraud, as his powers of discernment, undermined by arrogance and false assumptions, prove far too weak to help him figure out the complicated situation he finds himself in. Critics have noted many references to the pretend world of theater in Benito Cereno, and much the same occurs in Youngblood, where really-real reality is continuously destabilized by Gallagher’s references to the stories, lies, myths, delusions, pretense, and other means of distortion and manipulation that purport to describe it.

The three readings, taken together, portrayed the complicated and often perverse flux of identity and play of truth inherent to life in uniform, with the authors in superb control of their material. If the message and tone were ominous, perhaps I’m making too much of it. Novels are imagined projections about how things might be, after all, not official pronouncements about the way things are. In any case, though, the story-writing talent on display set a high bar for the next round of novels about military and war. Two audience members, neither veterans, but the authors of many novels between them, told me the reading was the best event they attended at AWP. I was glad to hear that, but not too surprised, because I was pretty sure beforehand that it, like AWP itself, was going to be good.

Many thanks to all who made AWP so enjoyable this year. In addition to everyone named above I’ll mention Lauren and Colin Halloran, Jerri Bell, Benjamin Busch, Adrian Bonenberger, Jay Moad, Brandon Lingle, Carole Florman, Susan Derwin and Steven Venz, Tom Helscher, Justin Hudnall, Sylvia Ankenman Bowersox, Olivia Kate Cerrone, Julian Zabalbeascoa and his wife Kate, Lisa Sanchez, David Chrisinger, Christopher Robinson, Danuta Hinc, Christopher Meeks, all friends, family members, and fellow travelers, everyone I’ve forgotten, and last but not least Roxana Robinson for hanging out with us for a while and then saying such nice things on social media.

Theater of War, Battle of Words

Theater of WarSo this is interesting. A classics scholar named Sarah Ruden published on a website called Books and Culture: A Christian Review a scathing review of a book called The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. On another website, Vice, Iraq veteran Colby Buzzell published a glowing review of the same book and included a flattering interview with its author Bryan Doerries. Vice is decidedly not a “Christian Review,” but, war, not religion, is the issue here.

The Theater of War is an off-shoot of a theatrical project of nearly the same name. Formed by Doerries to address battle-related trauma, Theater of War the dramatic project stages readings of classic Greek plays such as Ajax and Philoctetes whose plots feature military heroes in exile and anguish in the years after war. Theater of War productions feature veterans and, sometimes, famous actors, in the lead parts. After the readings are over, Doerries moderates a question-and-answer session that allows cast and audience members to discuss the plays’ relevance to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their difficulty reintegrating into civilian society. The idea is that the plays concern themselves with the psychological damage of war in ways that can be helpful to veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as bringing military and civilian audience members together in dialogue. Theater of War has proven popular, and performances have been staged on several military bases, as well as on many college campuses. Upcoming performances on October 27 and 28 are set for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Ruden, however, is not impressed by The Theater of War. In her review, titled “Art for All of Us: Greek Tragedy and War Veterans,” she offers a few token compliments that praise Doerries’ translating and directing ability, and then switches her critical selector switch from “safe” to “full automatic” and begins engaging targets left-and-right. Ancient Greek tragedy, properly understood, according to Ruden, has little to do with war-related trauma. The Greeks themselves didn’t understand the concept, nor did they ever single out veterans as objects of special social concern who needed public coddling. Jonathan Shay, the psychiatrist who popularized the idea that Greek classics could teach us how to heal veterans with psychological and moral injury, had it all wrong. So does Doerries. The whole belief that “storytelling” can be therapeutic is preposterous. The misuse of art for utilitarian, didactic purposes is a disgrace. Doerries would be better off staging Greek plays for general audiences, to include veterans, and drop the canard that the plays speak meaningfully specifically on behalf of veterans or help bridge the civil-military divide:

“But not only does [Doerries’] set-up keep really glorious adaptations away from the mainstream; it seems apt to deprive the tragedies of the most plausible benefit they could have for the traumatized, which is the benefit of universally shared beauty and meaning. We already ghettoize veterans, not to mention the dehumanizing of and profiteering from prisoners and the terminally ill. ‘Here’s a piece of art designed just for you in your pitiable state’ seems at best a pretty condescending prescription….”

In his review titled “How Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Help Veterans Deal With PTSD,” Buzzell describes approaching the assignment to examine The Theater of War with a skepticism much like Ruden’s, which he expresses equally forcefully, though in the infantryman’s idiom for which he is known:

“To be honest, when I first received this book, I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? As someone who’s witnessed the theater of war up close and personal as an infantryman in the United States Army (Iraq 2003–4) and has lived to tell about it, I found the whole concept to be a bit absurd. I know there’s all sorts of crazy shit out there beyond the conventional VA-prescribed prescription medication and/or therapy sessions to help those returning home after war “adjust”: yoga, nature hiking, scuba diving, filmmaking, horseback riding, tai chi, herbal and dietary supplements, group drum circles, art projects, meditation, ballet dancing, getaway vacations, bright-light therapy, music therapy, companion dogs, medical marijuana, acupuncture, and other such things. But now there’s this bright idea of exposing soldiers to Greek tragedies that were written 2,500 years ago as a way to help those struggling with readjustment issues and PTSD? Get the fuck outta here.”

But Buzzell is also open-minded and curious, in addition to being penetrating and eloquent, and he tells us that after completing The Theater of War he saw a lot in it to like. Buzzell relates especially to Doerries’ descriptions of Ajax, who as Buzzell puts it, “returns home from war and feels as if he’s been betrayed, gets depressed, snaps, goes on a blind killing spree, then kills himself with his own sword.” Yikes! Presumably Buzzell appreciates something Doerries explains about how Ajax might have been saved from himself and restored to health and happiness, but beyond recommending that Theater of War be read by a “larger audience,” Buzzell doesn’t go into much detail about exactly what excites him. The interview with Doerries, however, generously allows the author-director to explain for himself his goals, and more importantly, what he has observed after staging dozens or hundreds of performances of Theater of War. Buzzell’s questions are more interesting, in fact, than Doerries’ answers, but Doerries acquits himself well—modest about making great claims for Theater of War’s scholarly or medical legitimacy, he defends his project on the empirical grounds that audiences have been moved by it and many veterans in addition to Buzzell claim to have been helped by it.

A curiosity of this critical duel, such as it is, is that it seems neither Ruden nor Buzzell have seen an actual performance of Theater of War. I have, and came away from the experience in ways that make me sympathetic to both reviewers (I have not yet read Doerries’ book). On this blog, I have been skeptical of contemporary war lit’s propensity to identify too readily with classic Greek literature, but I certainly welcome chances to view modern adaptations of ancient myths and plays as they come along. Aloof and analytical as I am, though, I was determined to resist notions that the town-hall-cum-Dr.-Phil atmosphere of the performance Q&A meaningfully connected Greek warriors and modern soldiers, or being seduced by the idea that I was participating in an event that channeled the spirit of Athenian dramatic festivals. But the large audience with whom I sat had few such qualms. They responded to the reading with vigorous applause and energetic participation in the post-reading discussion. Even more telling, the specific group with whom I watched Theater of War—a group of military academy cadets who included several deployment veterans—were also enthralled. On the drive home from the theater, we stopped at a McDonalds in the middle-of-nowhere and after eating our meals (a bus-driver’s discount for me for bringing in the group!), we talked late into the night about the performance and how it related to modern war, soldiering, and military leadership. It was as spontaneous and free-flowing a conversation with officers-to-be as I’ve ever been part of, and much of the credit goes to Doerries, Theater of War, and the power of Greek tragedy.

Anybody else think it would be a great idea to invite both Ruden and Buzzell to the upcoming productions of Theater of War at the Guggenheim?

This week I made my first visit to a VA hospital, this one located in East Orange, NJ. All initial impressions are positive, I'm glad to say.
I made my first visit to a VA hospital this week. All initial impressions are positive, I’m happy to report.

Bryan Doerries, The Theater of War:  What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.  Knopf, 2015.

Colby Buzzell’s Thank You For Being Expendable

TYFBEMy review of Colby Buzzell’s latest essay and magazine article collection Thank You for Being Expendable is up at The Bridge, a website dedicated to “Policy, Strategy, National Security, and Military Affairs,” as their Medium site explains. The Bridge has actually run three reviews of Buzzell’s latest, so let me salute my co-reviewers, a US Army officer who goes by the nom-de-plume Angry Staff Officer and a US Air Force officer named Blair Shaefer, both of whom turn many nice phrases. The ASO, for example, writing of the senior junior enlisted faction of the military known as “E4s,” who tend to be the most reliable indicator of unit morale, writes, “if there actually was an E-4 Mafia, Colby Buzzell would be the godfather.” Shaefer describes Thank You For Being Expendable the “punk rock alternative to Service Academy and/or Ivy League-educated military officer GWOT memoirs.” Like!

I connected with The Bridge managing editor Nathan K. Finney through my involvement with the Military Writer’s Guild. MWG has been around for a while as an organization comprised (mostly) of serving and veteran writers of the serious policy and strategy analysis persuasion, but it has lately reinvigorated its recruiting efforts and extended its reach to a few of us on the artistic side of things. I’m glad to be part of MWG and eager to see where it goes. Publishing on Medium and using Slack to handle internal business has already made me feel a good twenty years younger, so things are off to an excellent start, as I see them.

Colby Buzzell, Thank You for Being Expendable, and Other Experiences. Byliner, 2015.

Where’s the War in Contemporary War Novels?

The past few weeks brought two significant additions to the contemporary war literature conversation. The first was a long review essay by Michael Lokesson in the Los Angeles Review of Books called “Passive Aggression: Recent War Novels.” Lokesson’s review covers much the same ground as this blog, with extended commentaries on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Fobbit, The Yellow Birds, and Sparta, among others. Lokesson also offers some historical musing about war and literature, going back to Homer, and finally a bit of meta-analysis on the possibilities for contemporary war lit to achieve greatness. “Reading this latest crop of accomplished soldier’s novels,” he writes, “I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe modern war and its aftermath, as told through a soldier’s eyes, simply isn’t the stuff of great novels anymore.” Contemplating the fact that much “combat” in Iraq and Afghanistan consisted of waiting for IEDs to go off or a rocket to hit the FOB, Lokesson continues:

“In warfare [today], the soldier is passive to a startling degree, and even the war effort itself is built on passively securing the population rather than actively defeating the enemy. Molding passivity into great literature is never easy, as the current harvest of soldier’s novels attests, and the novelist who sets him or herself to the task is forced to climb a very steep mountain indeed. Can a truly classic novel arise under such conditions? I’d like to say yes, but I have my doubts.”

Regarding the wars that gave us Fallujah and COP Keating, I’m not so sure Lokesson’s characterization of them is entirely correct, though he might be onto something regarding their literature. He seems to have it in mind that a great war novel must portray heroic action or striking scenes of battle, and the current war lit record is scant on both counts. To help stir the pot of discussion, also out recently is Men in Black, a stunning video rendition of a terrific combat scene from Colby Buzzell’s memoir My War. I’ve praised Buzzell’s writing before; for my money, the scenes describing combat in My War render the material detail and visceral feel–half adrenaline, half fear–better than anything I’ve read elsewhere, fact or fiction. Hat’s off too to Buzzell’s collaborator Evan Parsons for bringing My War to video-digital life with his excellent graphic-novel like illustrations. Buzzell is certainly not passive, as either a fighter and writer, which is good, but he’s also not especially reflective. From his grunt’s eye perspective, war is about kill-or-be-killed, with factors that might require thought before, during, or after action of second import. Nor does he portray himself or anyone else heroically.

A great battle scene that unabashedly depicts a war hero can be found in another memoir, Lone Survivor, written by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell with the assistance of novelist Patrick Robinson. If you haven’t read the scene lately, or at all, describing the death of Lieutenant Michael Murphy, please check it out. The description of the battle leading up to Murphy’s death is also terrific, with Luttrell and Robinson vividly portraying the terror that comes from being shot at from all sides. While Buzzell’s as irreverent as they come, Luttrell’s 180 degrees the opposite—Lone Survivor is a glowing elegy to an officer whose last moments inspired Luttrell to write, “If they build a memorial to him as high as the Empire State Building, it won’t ever be high enough for me.” The passage gives me the shivers every time I read it, but it’s such an uncomplicated encomium I couldn’t imagine it in a “serious” novel, full of doubt and irony.

So, My War and Lone Survivor demarcate a range of possibilities, but they are memoirs, not fiction. In the major novels, there’s not much combat on display, let alone brave acts. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk contains about a page’s worth of fighting detail. The Yellow Birds and Fobbit both depict scenes in which friendly and enemy soldiers and civilians kill and get killed, but the climatic “battle” scene in each is an incoming mortar or rocket round that takes the life of key character while unawares on the FOB. A true enough possibility, I well know, but not exactly a heroic way to go out. Or one that allows an author to portray combat at any length.

A Camp Clark, Afghanistan, barracks showing the results of a direct hit by a 107mm rocket.  Fortunately no one was inside at the time and no one was hurt.
A Camp Clark, Afghanistan, barracks after a direct hit by a 107mm rocket. Ouch.

But Fobbit–contra to its title–actually does quite well depicting two episodes set outside the wire. In these, author David Abrams portrays dispute and potential violence between Americans and Iraqis that place American soldiers in the crucible of real-time, on-the ground decision-making, with many eyes watching, about whether to take a life or not. In the two scenes, a hapless officer underreacts in one tense stand-off involving a suicide bomber and overreacts in the other. In the first scenario, Abrams writes, “If someone had taken immediate action forty minutes ago, none of this would be an issue, but the commander on the scene–a pinch-faced captain named Shrinkle, known for his hems and haws–had waited too long.” A bold sergeant named Lumley takes charge, which needs to happen, but Abrams hints at the after-effects: “It would be a long time, years and years of therapy, before he could wipe from his mind the sight of that head erupting in a bloody geyser. He’d pulled the trigger without thinking through the consequences. He was not sorry he hadn’t hesitated but there was always that nagging, niggling doubt: maybe haji wasn’t going for the grenade….”

Abrams is on to something here; he seems to be saying that successful performance in combat isn’t so much a matter of bravery but of incisive decision-making under pressure. Here may be the gold waiting for extraction by future war novelists: not scenes of valor, but scenes of the mind as it decides what to do next, continuously, again and again, in difficult circumstances with important consequences.

War Memoir: Colby Buzzell’s My War

One reason I like Colby Buzzell’s My War:  Killing Time in Iraq is that I can relate to it.

Buzzell was 26 years old when he entered the Army.  In My War he writes, “my heart was dead set on being a trigger puller, and so I told [the recruiter], there’s nothing else that interests me in the Army besides the infantry.”  That was me, too, at age 26 fifteen years earlier.  Buzzell’s life up until he joined was scruffier than mine; he reports that his rap sheet consisted of “a couple of assault-and-battery charges, drunk in public, shoplifting, open containers, that kinda crap.”  When I joined I had two college degrees, a wife, and a kid on the way.  Buzzell’s aspiration in the Army was to work his way up from machine gun ammo bearer to assistant gunner to gunner while assigned to a unit deployed to Iraq.  I wanted to go to Officer Candidate School, Infantry Officer Basic Course, jump school, and Ranger school en route to becoming a platoon leader in Korea.

My past and ambitions were more respectable than Buzzell’s, but we had the same musical and literary heroes:  Black Flag, Social Distortion, Hunter Thompson, and Charles Bukowski. We both got what we wanted from the Army, too, which is cool.  I’m thinking that Buzzell, like me, appreciates that the Army never lied to him in the biggest way, a fact that made other indignities and hardships easier to bear.

In November 2003 Buzzell deployed to Iraq with a Stryker fighting vehicle-equipped brigade from the 2nd Infantry Division.  By December the unit had been blooded, and over the next 10 months, they experienced the highs and lows of infantry life in Baghdad and Mosul—heavy fighting, dull patrolling/observation post/traffic control checkpoint operations, and the mindless routine of FOB life.  In June 2004, Buzzell began a blog about his deployment, which he called My War in tribute to a ripping Black Flag song from the early 1980s.  Buzzell writes:

“I’d been in Iraq for a while now, and we were doing multiple combat missions per day, countless raids, countless missions, and being in an infantry platoon, we were spending most of our time outside the wire, thus I probably had a different perspective than someone who never left the base.

“Fuck it.

“Without even thinking twice about it, I decided right there and then to start up a blog.  Why not? If these soldiers and even officers were doing them and saying all sorts of moronic shit, and military was allowing it to go on, I might as well do one, too.”

In another place, Buzzell quotes Charles Bukowski:  “’These words I write keep me from total madness.’”

Buzzell’s memoir My War, published in 2005, records both his experience in combat and back on the FOB as his blog gained first popularity, then notoriety, and finally scrutiny from his chain-of-command.  Eventually he shut it down, but My War the memoir recoups many of the posts in addition to journal entries, commentary, autobiographical sketches, and a variety of other documents such as news reports and Army public affairs releases pertinent to Buzzell’s story.

My War is excellent on many levels, but I’ll focus on a few that are most relevant to a blog on war and art.  Buzzell brings a sensitivity to art to his writing—not only are his blog and book named after a song, he nicknamed his machine gun “Rosebud” after the sled that plays so prominently in Citizen Kane, and his blog featured a picture of Picasso’s “Guernica.”  It also helps that Buzzell is a good writer, with his indebtedness to Hunter Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and (I’ll also throw in) Tom Wolfe energizing My War’s prose and elevating it above the plodding styles of other war memoirs. Buzzell’s projection of self—his voice—is also likable.  He comes off as open, honest, curious, funny, eager to explain, and fearless—the last thing anyone would accuse him of being is a stick-in-the-mud.  Despite an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide, he finds plenty to like and respect about the Army.  One of the tidbits that endeared Buzzell to me was his account of reading cover-to-cover the Field Manuals and Technical Manuals governing the Army’s M240 Bravo machine gun.  That tells me right there that he wanted to be a good troop and probably was.  Even his saga of military transgressiveness keeps getting subverted by members of his chain-of-command who are remarkably understanding about his blog.  Not only are they in Buzzell’s eyes inspirational and competent combat leaders, their words and actions are stitched together by intelligence and fairness.

Looking back at the fuss raised by Buzzell’s blog, I’m actually kind of surprised the military didn’t outright ban blogging by deployed service members.  But I guess the 13,000 soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen (including me) who started blogs were too much to deal with.  It would have been like trying to ban tattoos or smoking.

Buzzell doesn’t miss much, and description of Army life turns into criticism when he confronts stupidity, hypocrisy, small-mindedness, and other forms of abject disconnect between the ideal and the actual.  The characteristic move in My War is for Buzzell to play off words spoken or written by others:  Someone said this, and it turned out to be true.  Another said this, but it was false.  The Army orders said we were going to do this, and instead we did that.  Hyper-alert to the way the war narrative is constructed by words, Buzzell’s most telling shots aim at disingenuousness propagated by military spokesmen.  His account of his participation in the assault of the Mohammed Al Noory mosque in Mosul, titled “Fuck You, Mosque,” will be studied forever by historians seeking to reconcile an infantryman’s view of battle with “official” versions disseminated in doctrine and press releases:

“…I then directed my M240 Bravo machine gun toward the tower and pulled the trigger completely back and didn’t let go until I was completely out of rounds.  Links and brass shells spitting out of the right side of my weapon, making a huge mess all over.  It was fucking beautiful. (Almost burned the barrel.) I sprayed all up and down the tower, which had four or five slim windows, until I expended my ammunition.  As I reloaded the 240 with another belt of 7.62, I was thinking to myself, “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe I’m actually shooting at a holy place of worship.’  I thought we weren’t allowed to do this kind of thing.”

He then quotes a member of his squad:  “’Man, this is collateral damage like a muthafucka’” and summarizes, “We both laughed, because one of the key mission tasks was to keep collateral damage to a bare minimum, but I guess that all goes out the window once you take fire from a mosque.”

Buzzell’s one for colorful detail, not piercing analysis.  My War paints a lively picture of life within an infantry squad, and it isn’t for the dainty.  Seemingly without a filter, Buzzell writes at length of the masturbation habits of deployed soldiers and of misogyny and homophobia run amuck—critics interested in exploring “homosociality” will find My War a happy hunting ground for evidence that masculinity is constructed upon ridicule of sexual difference.  Buzzell’s smart enough to know better than his crude squadmates, but his attitude seems to be that of Moby-Dick‘s Ishmael, who determines to be on the best of terms with whatever group of cannibals he finds himself among.  Buzzell is more in synch with his fellow soldiers in his attitude toward soldiering, where he toggles between two poles:  1. Desire to do as little as possible combined with scorn for the chain-of-command.  2.  Desire not to fuck-up mixed with eagerness to bask in the glow of higher-up approval.  In regard to violence, politics, and ethics, Buzzell feigns glee in regard to the first and indifference about the latter two, but over the course of My War piles up evidence that the war is badly fought and mostly pointless.

Vivid is a good word for My War. One of the first memoirs on the scene, it sets a high standard for memorable detail, episode, character, and language.  Mocking and euphoric rather than mopy, My War challenges readers to question whether mockery and euphoria are justifiable and sustainable responses to combat.  No book or movie interested in portraying the soldier’s perspective on the contemporary wars can safely ignore the question.

M240 Machine Gun
M240B Machine Gun

Colby Buzzell, My War:  Killing Time in Iraq.  Berkley-Penguin, 2005.

War Memoir: The Good, The Better, The Best

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

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

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

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

My War   Dust to Dust

%d bloggers like this: