Climb to Glory! 10th Mountain Division, War-Writing, and Afghanistan

10th Mountain Division Logo

With the publication of Ray McPadden’s war memoir We March at Midnight, hard upon his novel And the Whole Mountain Burned, the already-robust body of war writing published by former soldiers (all officers, as it happens) of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division grows stronger. Joining McPadden, the count includes Adrian Bonenberger, Drew Pham, Kristin L. Rouse, Sean Parnell, and Brett Allen—each with one or more book-length works and/or many occasional pieces published in vet-writing journals and elsewhere, most about or inspired by deployments to Afghanistan with 10th Mountain. I include myself, too, by affiliation. Though I did not deploy with 10th Mountain to Iraq or Afghanistan, as the post-9/11 era dawned I was stationed at Fort Drum, NY, with the division, where I served first as the Secretary of the General Staff and then as the Executive Officer of 2-14 Infantry “Golden Dragons” in the division’s Second Brigade. Late in 2001, 2-14 did deploy to Kosovo on a peacekeeping mission, where we seethed with jealousy as sister battalions from 10th Mountain were among the first to fight in Afghanistan.

10th Mountain, as I remember it, was a no-frills, no-nonsense light infantry division. We had no sense of ourselves as an elite unit such as the 82nd Airborne or 75th Rangers, but we still took pride in our competency and toughness, which was honed by the brutal winter weather of New York state’s “North Country” hard-by Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. It’s fair to say that few requested assignment to 10th Mountain and Fort Drum, but once there we made the best of it. The “Mountain” part of the division name was an ode to the unit’s World War II roots in mountain-warfare and had little relation to flat Fort Drum save for the cold, snowy winters we endured. Still, the name and the heritage infused us with knowledge that to be a member of 10th Mountain stood for values and a tradition we better not let down. We trained hard and deployed often, even before 9/11. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfolded, 10th Mountain units were on near-constant rotation to one of the two countries, leading to the claim that 10th Mountain has been the most deployed division in the Army since 2001. I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but if not, it’s got to be pretty close.

So, just based on sheer numbers, it’s probably not surprising that so many 10th Mountain soldiers sought expression for their stories and views-of-things in print. But is there anything more that might account for their impulse to write following service? And is there a particular tenor to the body of work by 10th Mountain vets? If so, what is it, and why?

Short answer: I don’t know. It might just be coincidence. It might be though that I’m afeard to face the truth, for at first blush 10th Mountain doesn’t come off very well in the memoirs and fiction written by its veterans. None of them in particular take aim at 10th Mountain as a flawed entity distinct from other, better units, but almost all give full vent to unsatisfactory deployment experiences. The dissatisfaction takes many shapes. For some, it was crystallization of the awareness of the futility and stupidity of the overall mission. For others, it was horrendous combat experiences that deprived them of their ability to take pride in their fighting prowess. Others describe toxic command climates and poor leadership. These last sting me in particular, for I know personally or by reputation many of the leaders mentioned by name or described fictionally in the works. Some I consider friends, and most I had a reasonably high regard for. Hell, I was a field-grade officer myself, and though a lowly one, probably more part of the problem than an antidote to it in the eyes of disgruntled and disappointed junior officers and soldiers.

Oh well, I’ll just have to deal with that. For students of America’s war in Afghanistan, there is much to be gleaned from the words of 10th Mountain veterans. If you want to know what fighting was like at battalion-level in work-a-day units in eastern Afghanistan, or what the range of attitudes toward the military, the mission, and Afghans were held by those who belonged to such units might be, Bonenberger, Parnell, Rouse, Pham, McPadden, and Allen have left quite a record. Much is admirable, some is not, most is understandable, and none is beyond critique. I don’t love it all equally, and it’s not all the same, but now’s not the time to make distinctions. It’s easy to tell the writers tried hard to do well while in Afghanistan as members of 10th Mountain, and now while trying to convey what was special about their experience in their books–even if by “special” we really mean “troubling.” Thank you all for writing, and I hope you find many more readers.

****

A selected list of fiction and memoir by 10th Mountain Division veterans. I’ve also included links to articles the authors have written about the end of the American war in Afghanistan.

Bret Allen, Kilroy Was Here (novel)

Adrian Bonenberger, Afghan Post (memoir) and The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War (short-stories)

Also: “America’s War in Afghanistan is Over but Our Big Lies About It Live On.”

Ray McPadden, And the Whole Mountain Burned (novel) and We March at Midnight (memoir)

Sean Parnell, Outlaw Platoon (memoir). Parnell has also written a military-thriller titled Man of War.

Drew Pham,  “On Their Lips, The Name of God”

“Brother Forgive Me. I Cannot Bear the Consequences of This War Alone.”

“From Vietnam to Afghanistan and Back: An Offering”

Kristen L. Rouse, “Pawns” (short story included in the anthology The Road Ahead) and many non-fiction articles, to include this recent one:

“A US Veteran Says the Afghans She Served With Believe They Are Going to Die.”

Finally, a memoir about life at Fort Drum as the wife of a many-times deployed officer is Angie Ricketts’ No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife.

UPDATE: I’m reminded that poet Brian Turner soldiered as an enlisted infantryman in 10th Mountain Division and deployed with them to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000. An impressive addition to the roster of 10th Mountain writers!

2020 Vision: Old Wars, New Directions

In recent months, much writing by veterans has reckoned with America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans Day, for example, elicited a larger number of vet-authored essays and opinion pieces than I remember from years past. The veterans’ ruminations described what might blandly be called “the human cost of war,” along with discussion of those human costs’ connections to national strategy and policy failures. Countering simplistic celebrations of veterans’ service and sacrifice, the pieces described lingering guilt, loss, pain, regret, and disappointment. A few days later, President Trump’s pardoning of war criminals Edward Gallagher, Mathew Golstyen, and Clint Lorance inspired another round of articles, the general gist of which expressed outrage at the men, their actions, and the pardons. Shortly thereafter, came the release of the Washington Post’s “The Afghanistan Papers,” which accused the nation’s civilian and military leadership of lying about how badly things have gone in Afghanistan the past two decades. The series subsequently generated more public opining by veteran-writers, me included. The responses in this case tempered outrage with proclamations of “duh” and “I told you so.”

I tracked the many Veterans Day, Presidential pardons, and Afghanistan Papers commentaries and agreed with much or most of what was written there-in. As always, though, my main interest has not been public sphere debate, but the parallel world of artistic expression. Not that the realm of art is “better” than political discourse, but I Iike it more, and, at the least, art is the province of the imagination, a quality that seems to be lacking in the thinking about how to bring America’s long wars to a close. It’s not that art offers specific solutions to specific problems (or rarely does), but that the art-realm serves as a constant imperative to think and live creatively and empathetically. Recent months have brought much to contemplate in this regard, too.

 

For instance, the Voices from War “Stories and Conversations on Transitions” reading at the New York Historical Society on Veterans Day weekend was fantastic. Voices from War is a long-standing New York City veterans writing workshop led by Kara Krauze, a formidable teacher and organizer. At the event, I was astonished by the diversity and uniqueness of the readers’ pieces, each of which came at the subject of war and “transition” from an interesting angle. To focus on an individual reading that combined personal reminiscence with heightened artistry, Drew Pham’s prose-poem “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” was particularly outstanding. Pham, a second-generation Vietnamese-American who served as an infantry lieutenant in Afghanistan with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, is now making a go of it as a writer and teacher in New York. Taking the concept of transition to an extreme, Pham now identifies as “they” and appeared on stage wearing make-up and a dress adorned with their Army badges and decorations.

A flamboyant stage presence, no doubt, but it’s the poem Pham read that counts most. “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” explores Pham’s personal, family, and ethnic/national history as it has played out over several generations and a number of imperialistic military projects dating back to World War I France and culminating in Pham’s service in Afghanistan. There are complicated authorial subject-positions, but it’s hard to imagine one more complicated than Pham’s: the son of immigrants whose family was deeply imbricated in Vietnam’s colonial and martial past, Pham fought in Afghanistan and there did the things American infantrymen are asked to do. In “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names,” Pham tries to make sense of it all, infused with an implicit, not explicit, wrestle with gender identity and sexual orientation. A short excerpt only begins to illustrate:

i only have this story / bits of shrapnel scattered through my family / i pieced together but never whole / the explosion that tore its way through our roots detonated so long ago / i cannot tell you whether those bits of steel i still find in my limbs belong to me / or the histories of my countrymen all so erased…

Two of the five sections of “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” are available here on the World War I Centennial Commission WWrite Blog, but the poem as a whole has not yet been published. I’ve obtained a paper copy of the poem entire, read it many times, and hope it will soon be available for all to read in full. Its five sections range stylistically from traditional lyric to highly wrought narrative prose. Central to the poem is Pham’s mother, who serves as the link connecting past and present and as the fulcrum for understanding the tangled threads of the poet’s life. In this, and in overall tone and style, “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” on page and read aloud made me think of “Kaddish,” Beat poet Alan Ginsberg’s great ode to his own mother. Whether the resemblance is intentional or not, I don’t know, but the poem’s striking imagery, momentous story-line, and exploratory emotional depth centered on war also reminds me of Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, while not being imitative or overly indebted to either Turner or Ginsberg.

Left to right, Omar Columbus, Phil Nerges, Leo Farley, Kara Krauze, Siobhan Adcock, Ellen Emerson, and Drew Pham at the Voices from War 2019 Veterans Day reading at the New York Historical Society.

Far to the southwest, the Austin Veterans Art Festival brought forth more bold expansions of war art boundaries. I wasn’t in Texas for the Festival, but the sound of distant thunder was very exciting. Not completely unconnected with the New York City scene, either; the AVAF featured new dramatic works by several artist-veterans with Big Apple credentials. New York City-based performance-poet Jenny Pacanowski, an Army vet whose poetry can be as raucous as it can be tender, authored a play titled Dionysus in America that reimagined the ancient Bacchae plays as parables for contemporary social disintegration. As its blurb states:

Dionysus in America imagines a dystopia in which women suffer endless harassment, and right-wing politics wrenches away women’s control over their own bodies; in response, American women heed the call of Dionysus, and flee to new, strange, euphoric rites in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. General Pentheus, leader of the American war machine, swears to go to the Mesopotamia, liberate the women, and drag them back to the United States. Unfortunately, he operates unaware that his uncle, a transformed and unrecognizable Dionysus, God of ritual madness, has decided to punish America’s hubris for rejecting his mother, his divinity, and his seemingly inexplicable rites of devotion.

The super-serious and somewhat staid Iraq and Afghanistan war writing and art scene has shied away from radical political critique in terms of message and from the carnivalesque and satirical in terms of aesthetics. Pacanowski, however, and to her great credit, is anything but staid, and Dionysus in America defiantly crashes and crushes barriers. One can only hope it foretells further expansions of war-story themes and styles; not all art needs to be politically outraged and theatrically over-the-top, but some of it must be.

A second play, authored and directed by Texas natives/New Jersey transplants John Myer (an Army vet) and Karen Alvarado, also did not tell a conventional story in a conventional way. Myer and Alvarado’s play Aftershock/La Réplica combined story-telling, dance, movement, drama, and music to explore the lives of Latino soldiers serving in the US military. Again, the complexity of the subject position suggests great possibility for artistic presentation: how do Hispanic-American men and women balance dual heritages and conflicting identities with military service in a contemporary national climate that makes it increasingly difficult to do so? Aftershock/La Réplica, according to its blurb, “explores new dimensions of Latinx military service, featuring soldiers and citizens who expect military service to reinforce their identity and ideas about family, patriotism, and even sexuality – but the military is often a place that mixes up the moral compass and sense of self and invents a new identity.” A video trailer here illustrates the Myer/Alvarado approach, which is never visually boring nor intellectually dull.

An aspect of Aftershock/La Réplica I like very much is that it included passages authored by former Marine Victor Inzunza. Inzunza, a poet, was the first contemporary war-writer I ever met—on the shuttle bus from the hotel to the 2011 War, Literature, and Arts conference in Colorado—and it’s been a pleasure following his work ever since and see it now incorporated within a bold theatrical endeavor by Myer and Alvarado, who are also friends.

Also performing in Austin was another New York City-based act, the wonderful Exit 12 Dance Company, about whom I’ve written about here, and Exit 12 conducted a dance workshop, as well. Finally, Veterans Writing Project founder and director Ron Capps was the featured speaker at the Veterans Health and Welfare Conference, an event affiliated with the Austin Veterans Art Festival. I also note that Capps participated in a veterans songwriting seminar near Austin that may or may not have been associated with the AVAF. It’s confusing, but I’m glad to be confused by so much creative flourishing and eager to learn more. In any case, I sympathize with Capps, a talented guitarist and singer, as he plumbs music’s power to articulate emotional nuances that can’t be expressed by cold black words on barren white pages or screens. To me, he seems much like poet Brian Turner in this turn to music, as well as a man after my own heart. But still, I like words most and Capps, like Voices from War’s Kara Krauze, is one of the long-time (mostly) unsung heroes of contemporary veteran writing. I’m especially glad to see Capps and Krauze still active as 2020 dawns and encouraging new voices, new stories, and new directions to make sense of the by now very old wars.

****

This post only touches a few of the interesting contemporary war-related artistic endeavors that have caught my attention the past few months. I hope to describe some others in posts to come.

 

Forty-Two American Iraq-and-Afghanistan War Poets

Soldiers Patrolling Wheatfield, Khost Province, Afghanistan (USAF-ISAF photo)

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.

1.  Graham Barnhart, “What Being in the Army Did.” Beloit Poetry Journal.

2. Chantelle Bateman, “PTSD.” Apiary Magazine.

3. Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, “Real Vet, Fake Vet.” Warrior Writers.

4. Marvin Bell, “Bagram, Afghanistan, 2002.” The New Yorker.

5. Benjamin Busch,“Madness in the Wild.” Slippery Elm.

6. Eric Chandler, “The Stars and Stripes is Free.”  Line of Advance.

7. Liam Corley, “A Veteran Observes the Republic and Remembers Ginsberg.” The Wrath-Bearing Tree.

8. Maurice Decaul, “Shush.” Warrior Writers.

9. Jehanne Dubrow, “Much Tattooed Sailor Aboard the USS New Jersey.” poets.org.

10. Elyse Fenton, “Word from the Front.” Reed Magazine.

11. Amalie Flynn, “Where” and “Know.” New York Times.

12. Frederick Foote, “Birth Rights.” The Piker Press.

13. Kate Gaskin, “The Foxes.” poets.org.

14. Nicole Goodwin, “In Medusa’s Arms.” The Moxie Bee.

15. D.A. Gray, “Makeshift: The Mortar’s Whistle/Transubstantiation.” Sewanee Review

16. Colin D. Halloran, “I Remember.” Drunken Boat.

17. Pamela Hart, “Penelope at the Shooting Range.” Heron Tree.

18. Lynn Houston, “At the Harbor Lights Motel After You Return.”  As It Ought To Be.

19. Victor Inzunza, “The Part of Ourselves We’re Afraid Of.” Pacific Review.

20. Brock Jones, “Explaining the Unexplainable.” Mobius: The Journal of Social Change.

21. Shara Lessley, “The Test.” Missouri Review.

22. Hugh Martin, “Ways of Looking at an IED.” Blackbird.

23. Phil Metres, “Hung Lyres (for Mohamedou Ould Slahi).” Poets Reading the News.

24. Dunya Mikhail, “The Iraqi Nights.” Poetry Foundation.

25. Abby E. Murray, “Asking for a Friend.” RHINO/Frontier Poetry.

26. Jenny Pacanowski, “Strength in Vulnerability.” Women Veterans’ Rhetoric.

27. Drew Pham, “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names.” The WWrite Blog.

28. Robert Pinsky, “The Forgetting.” Poetry in Multimedia.

29. Kevin Powers, “Improvised Explosive Device.” Bookanista.

30. Frances Richey, “Letters.” poets.org

31. Roy Scranton, “And nevermore shall we turn back to the 7-11.” Painted Bride Quarterly.

32. Solmaz Sharif, “Look.” PEN America.

33. Charlie Sherpa, “Toward an understanding of war and poetry told (mostly) in aphorisms.”  Wrath-Bearing Tree.

34. Juliana Spahr, “December 2, 2002.” poets.org.

35. Lisa Stice, “While Daddy’s at Training, Our Daughter Asks Questions.” the honest ulsterman.

36. Nomi Stone, “The Door.” Poets.org.

37. Seth Brady Tucker, “The Road to Baghdad.” Colorado Poets Center.

38. Brian Turner, “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.” Poetry Daily.

39. Paul Wasserman, “Fifteen Months, Twenty-Two Days.” Time Now.

40. Ben Weakley, “No Take Backs.” Line of Advance.

41. Johnson Wiley, “Shooting Stars of Kuwait” and “A Mother’s Son Returned.” Time Now.

42. Donna Zephrine, “War Sees No Color.”  Military Experience & the Arts.