War Writing: The Raw and the Cooked

Khost Province, Afghanistan. USAF Photograph
Khost Province, Afghanistan (USAF photograph).

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.

On Wisconsin: Matthew J. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing

A Hard and Heavy ThingIt’s been hard not to notice the recent flury of writing and art by Wisconsin veterans. Matthew J. Hefti’s novel A Hard and Heavy Thing, about two childhood friends from Wisconsin tested by battle in Iraq, arrived in January of this year. Kyle Larkin’s short stories “Minarets,” originally published on the Military Experience and the Arts website, and “The Night Before Christmas,” which I have read in manuscript, are two of the best war stories set in-country and focused on the experience of infantrymen I’ve read lately. Just last week, Larkin published a provocative essay on Military Experience and the Arts titled “Post Traumatic Narrative Disorder,” in which he argues that frustration, confusion, and ambivalence, not trauma, might better serve as the defining characteristic of veteran-redeployment stories. David Chrisinger, a veterans program administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, has published an eloquent collection of veteran-student narratives titled See Me For Who I Am: Stories of War and Coming Home and Chrisinger also keeps an affiliated website, also remarkable, called Stronger at the Broken Places: Student Veterans and the Long Walk Home from WarSinger-songwriter Jason Moon has been around longer—I first posted his excellent return-from-war lament “Trying to Find My Way Home” a couple of years ago—but I’ve only recently become acquainted with his organization Warrior Songs, which promotes music by and about veterans, and a recent radio interview sparkled with insights about his own struggle with PTSD and his efforts to help others so afflicted.

Chrisinger is not a veteran, but the works of the other Wisconsin residents I’ve named are born of extensive military experience. Hefti deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan as an Explosives Ordnance Disposal technician, while Larkin and Moon deployed to Iraq as an infantryman and combat engineer, respectively, in the Wisconsin National Guard. Taken together, the Wisconsin warrior artists are mostly interested in the earthy world of fighting men and the crucible of combat, though the narratives collected by Chrisinger represent a broader range of service and viewpoints. Further judging from their work and comments, it appears, sadly, that war and deployment mostly stunned them and then sent them stumbling for years afterwards. A feeling of pride persists, though, an attitude that may be roughly summarized as, “Whatever else you might say, we answered the call, and now it’s our right or obligation to bear witness.” The perceptive Brian Castner, in his forward to See Me For Who I Am, writes that the veteran students anthologized there-in sometimes seem to wear “a sense of superiority on their sleeve,” and then immediately recalibrates the impression to note the authors’ honesty: “’Here are my warts, they say, where are yours?’” All the writing that I’ve seen, both fiction and memoir, also emits a strong sense of Wisconsin place: a tight-knit homogenous culture organized around loyalty to family and community and other sturdy, sensible values, but one in which residents cope with oppressive expectations by drinking heavily and lashing out at ones they love most. “Trying to find my way home,” indeed….

All these sentiments are on display in Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing. The novel’s two protagonists, Levi and Nick, come-of-age in a small town near LaCrosse, where they are the singer and guitar player, respectively, in a popular punk band. Levi is coarse and Nick is sensitive, but both are well on their way to alienation, misanthropy, and alcoholism even before joining the Army in the wake of 9/11. Service in the active Army and then the Guard brings them a few years later to Iraq, where Nick’s truck is blasted by an IED that kills the other occupants and leaves Nick badly injured and pinned inside the wreckage. Levi rescues his friend and then fights off an insurgent counterattack, for which he is awarded a Silver Star. Levi holds himself responsible for the events leading to the IED strike, however, and thus the award he receives feels more like an albatross around his neck than a decoration. Several years later, Levi returns to Wisconsin, and now out of the Army, moves in with Nick and his wife Eris, a cool hometown beauty with trauma issues of her own. Nick, dealing with his wounds, and Eris, trying to stay sober, have crafted lives of rigid conformity and routine to keep themselves straight, at the cost of any youthful promise and happiness. The arrival of Levi, hell-bent on self-destruction and pining for Eris, who has repressed feelings for him, too, quickly undoes the fragile stability.

Much is of interest in A Hard and Heavy Thing. I found the battle scene, for example, exciting, especially since it reflected aspects of my own experience of being trapped in a truck rocked by explosion with casualties onboard. There’s not much of LaCrosse as a social milieu or the Army as a culture, but what Hefti portrays of LaCrosse’s townie bars and family folkways and Regular Army and National Guard distinctiveness intrigues. The novel is narrated in third-person, primarily through Levi’s point-of-view, and a series of bracketed asides reveal that the narrative’s author is Levi himself and the third-person story is an amalgamated love song to Nick/suicide note-mea culpa (adding to the literary razzle-dazzle is a minor character named Matthew Hefti). In neither the main narrative nor the bracketed asides, however, is Levi particularly subtle about what ails him nor observant about the world around him, in part because, by his own telling, he drinks heavily and continuously in the years after his discharge.

In two key aspects of his story, Levi doesn’t just recount his life’s struggle through the fog of alcohol, but is evasive and even disingenuous. Specifically, he is coy about revealing whether he really tried to commit suicide while in the Army (the perception that he did being the cause of his discharge) and whether, at novel’s end, he attempts to seduce or actually does seduce Eris. The ambiguous bedroom scene comes at the end of a long day in which Levi gets drunk with his father and berates him for being a stupid jerk (he’s already grievously insulted his mom and sister), gets even more drunk with Nick and brawls with him in a park, and then arrives at Nick’s house and gets Eris drunk, too. Though everyone he meets tells him he needs help, Levi doesn’t hold himself very accountable for his malaise or the turmoil he causes, even as his narrative constitutes a plea for understanding and forgiveness. Why should he? Lead singer of a popular band, the recipient of a Silver Star, the object of desire of the prettiest woman in town, he’s got what every guy wishes he had.

We’re meant to understand that these accomplishments don’t mean much to Levi, but an equally dominant impression is that they fuel his self-image as an iconoclastic rogue whose boorish behavior serves as a catalyst for making less honest people own up to truths they’d rather not face. Not especially curious or sympathetic about others, or even very forthright himself, Levi wields his disdain for people, places, and events like a badge of honor. In other words, his “sense of superiority” is in full-on collision with openness about his “warts,” and it’s not just for his family and friends that he’s a handful. Somewhere beyond a hot mess and trouble-with-a-capital-T, Levi’s tough to deal with for readers, too, who are going to have to decide whether they love him or hate him. The same is true of the very aptly titled A Hard and Heavy Thing as a whole. Does it reinstantiate the rapidly coalescing “trauma hero” motif in contemporary war literature, or is it a compelling, realistic, and self-aware narrative about young men who go to war and the damage that ensues? That’s a go-to question important, ethically and aesthetically, not just in Wisconsin, but everywhere, though more sharply defined by Badger State veteran writers and artists than elsewhere.

Matthew J. Hefti, A Hard and Heavy Thing. Tyrus Books, 2016.

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