Posted tagged ‘Elliot Ackerman’

Body of Work

April 18, 2019

Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. -Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, while writing Moby-Dick.

Since I began Time Now eight years ago, easily a hundred books, films, plays, musical compositions, and other artworks about America’s post-9/11 wars written-and-composed by veterans and interested civilians have appeared, and much has been published online, too.   Here I catalog and comment on six author-artists whose individual output has been robust, often across a variety of genres and artistic mediums, and I mention several more who have been almost but not quite as active. I’ve limited myself to US military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and used books published by major publishing houses as the primary (but not only) criteria for inclusion.

Elliot Ackerman (USMC) arrived late to the war-writing party, but has quickly made up lost time by publishing three novels since 2015: Green on Blue (2015), Dark at the Crossing (2017), and Waiting for Eden (2018). A memoir titled Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning (2019) will appear later this year.  Ackerman also contributed a story titled “Two Grenades” to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology of veteran-authored fiction. Links to Ackerman’s journalism and other occasional writing can be found at http://elliotackerman.com.

The characteristic subject of Ackerman’s novels is a fringe-actor on the margins of America’s 21st-century wars: a Pashtun militiaman on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, an Iraqi who formerly interpreted for American forces now trying to join the Syrian civil war, the wife of a severely wounded Marine who keeps a lonely vigil over her disabled husband, both largely abandoned or neglected by the greater America.  In his published work so far, then, Ackerman has avoided the solipsistic trap of writing about his own (substantial) war experience as if it were the only thing that matters.  In his upcoming memoir Places and Names, however, Ackerman begins to stitch together autobiographical elements and his interest in the people who fight the wars that, to paraphrase a John Milton quote on the cover of Places and Names,“hath determined them.”

Benjamin Busch (USMC) was arguably the first contemporary veteran to turn war experience into aesthetic expression, as the photos-and-commentary that would eventually comprise The Art in War first began appearing in 2003.  Befitting his college background as a fine arts major, Busch also displays, again arguably, the most artistic diversity: he has acted in The Wire (2004) and Generation Kill (2008), directed films such as Bright (2011), authored a memoir titled Dust to Dust (2012), written a striking set of nature poems for the journal Epiphany (2016), and contributed both a short story (“Into the Land of Dogs”) and hand-drawn illustrations to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology. Busch has also written incisive reviews of the movie Lone Survivor and contemporary war fiction, long-form journalism for Harper’s about a return visit to Iraq, a poignant contribution to the vet-writing anthology Incoming titled “Home Invasion,” and an eloquent introduction to another anthology titled Standing Down.  Oh, and let’s not forget a pre-Marine life as the singer in a hair-metal band.

A superb stylist, Busch is the master of the apt image and the well-turned line, sentence, passage, or short poem, with his memoir Dust to Dust being the book-length exception that proves the rule.  Busch’s thematic impulse is to find order and meaning in randomness, disorder, and chaos.  The urge is on full display in The Art in War and manifests itself even more intensely in Dust to Dust and “Home Invasion”; in these works, loss, ruination, and mortality emerge as the most salient organizing imperatives to be found, save for the author’s own imagination.  War, irrational and death-soaked, was Busch’s subject starting out, but more recent poems such as “Madness in the Wild” suggest that Mother Nature is now the most fertile source of material for Busch’s “blessed rage for order,” to borrow from Wallace Stevens.

Brian Castner’s (USAF) first published book was the war memoir The Long Walk (2012), followed by a second book titled All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016) that combines more war memoir with journalistic investigation.  A third work, not (directly) related to war, Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage (2018), joins travel-memoir and historical research.  An opera has been made of The Long Walk, and Castner, with Adrian Boneberger, edited The Road Ahead (2017), an anthology of veteran-authored fiction to which he also contributed a story called “The Wild Hunt.”  Journalism, essays, and reviews by Castner can be found at https://briancastner.com/.

While Castner’s memoir The Long Walk contains elements of artistic heightening that appealed to the opera composers who adapted it, the next two books are the ones that best illustrate Castner’s forte: extensive historical and journalistic research that supplements the lived experiences of his own life—first serving as an EOD-technician in the case of All the Ways We Kill and Die and then making a thousand-mile canoe journey in the case of Disappointment River.  The influence of war on Disappointment River may bubble below the surface (pun intended), but the surface impression is that Castner more so than most other war-writers can find subjects beyond war-and-mil ones that still command the full measure of his interest and talent.

Matt Gallagher (US Army), with Colby Buzzell, pioneered the use of the Internet as a means of literary arrival when his war-blog appeared in book form as Kaboom (2010).  Gallagher next edited the seminal vet-fiction anthology Fire and Forget (2013) with Roy Scranton and contributed to it a story titled “Bugs Don’t Bleed.”  Then arrived the novel Youngblood (2016) and two short stories, “Babylon” (2016), published in Playboy, and “Know Your Enemy” (2016), published in Wired.  Gallagher also has served at the forefront of the veterans writing scene, as a prime mover in first the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop that gave birth to Fire and Forget and then the New York-based collective Words After War.  A number of Gallagher’s occasional pieces can be found at http://www.mattgallagherauthor.com/disc.htm and a second novel will arrive soon.

A consistent tone connecting Gallagher’s own voice and that of his fictional characters is sardonic detachment from the full negative import of the events they experience; in other words, Gallagher tests the limits of irony and perspective as means of dealing with the confusion of war and the resultant damage to self and society.  Bemusement would seem to be an underpowered coping strategy in these troubled times, but Gallagher’s amiable prose surfaces welcome readers to consider his point-of-view long enough that the darker cynicism and deeper commitment lurking within eventually reveal themselves and grab hold.

Roy Scranton (US Army) published short stories and poems in small journals before co-editing Fire and Forget (2013) with Matt Gallagher and contributing a story to it titled “Red Steel India.”  Next came the philosophical treatise Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), the novel War Porn (2016), an anthology titled What Future: The Year’s Best Ideas to Reclaim, Reanimate, and Reinvent Our Future (2017) for which he served as editor, and a collected edition of essays and journalism titled We’re Doomed, Now What? (2018). Later this year will arrive a literary history titled Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature (2019) and a novel called I ♥ Oklahoma (2019).  More journalism, essays, short stories, and reviews can be found at http://royscranton.com.

There’s busy, and then there’s Roy Scranton busy, but the extraordinary rate of production and the prickly integrity of the viewpoint are endearing counterpoints to the starkness of the message: Scranton is ruthless in his indictment of the Iraq War in which he served, and he’s not letting anyone from enlisted “Joe’s” to generals to civilian war architects to a passive citizenry off the hook for their complicity in the debacle. Though he’s never quite said so bluntly, the implication is that vet-authors, whose ink might well be the blood of war dead, should seriously consider their own culpability, too. Scranton unsparingly connects America’s spastic post-9/11 response to Islamic fundamentalist violence with a host of other social, political, and environmental ills brought about by what academics like to call “the cultural logic of late capitalism.”

Brian Turner (US Army) arrived on the literary-artistic scene seemingly fully-formed, as his first poetry volume Here, Bullet (2005) won enormous acclaim from critics, readers, and poetry insiders alike.  Next came a second volume of poems titled Phantom Noise (2010), an anthology of writing about poetry he co-edited titled The Strangest of Theaters (2013), a contribution to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology titled “The Wave That Takes Us Under,” the memoir My Life as a Foreign Country (2014), and another co-edited anthology titled The Kiss (2018).  Turner has also had a number of his poems set to music, perhaps most significant of which is a collaboration with composer Rob Deemer on Turner’s poem “Eulogy.”  Turner makes music himself, first as a member of The Dead Quimbys and more recently as the leader of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team.  Occasional writing can be found at http://www.brianturner.org.

A wise, inspirational senior-statesman within the war-writing community, Turner combines encouragement of fledgling writers with an uncanny ability to stay one or more steps ahead of the pack in terms of vision, craft, and surprising shifts of direction. The artistic tension manifest in Turner’s work is the product of two imperatives:  the martial heritage bequeathed to him by family, culture, and history, and his natural impulse to be empathetic, curious, kind, and helpful. His latest works each in their way represent solutions or, better, absolutions, for the tension; the music of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team invokes a collective cosmic spirit and consciousness, while The Kiss sanctifies physical intimacy as a hallowed form of human connection.

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Several veteran writers are one or two published works short of joining the author-artists I name above.  For these writers, their NEXT work will be most interesting for how it confirms previous inclinations and preoccupations, modifies them, or points in new directions:

David Abrams (US Army) has published two novels, Fobbit (2012) and Brave Deeds (2017), and he contributed “Roll Call” to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology.  Shorter pieces can be found at http://www.davidabramsbooks.com. Abrams’ gift for creating characters, sketching scenes, and writing pleasing and often very funny sentences is substantial.  So far, his interest seems to be the cultural divide separating rear-echelon soldiers from their hardened warrior-brethren in the combat arms; given his comic and warm-hearted sensibility, his modus inclines to exposing foibles associated with military masculinity rather than harshly judging and accusing their owners.

Colby Buzzell (US Army) pioneered the blog-to-book trend with My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005) and he later published two books of essays and journalism: Lost in America: A Dead End Journey (2011) and Thank You for Being Expendable, and Other Experiences (2015).  The only work of fiction of which I’m aware of is his story “Play the Game” in the Fire and Forget anthology (2013), but Buzzell’s hostility toward authority and power, his affinity for oddballs and misfits, and the verve of his sentences create the impression of a distinctly “punk” literary sensibility–one that has proven very popular and influential. Buzzell’s webpage contains links to his writing that can be found online: http://www.colbybuzzell.com/stories.

Phil Klay (USMC) contributed the short story “Redeployment” to Fire and Forget (2013), which later became the title story of his National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment (2014).  A large number of essays and long-form journalism pieces are at http://www.philklay.com.  Klay’s characteristic concern is the moral culpability of young soldiers who joined the military and did their bit in Iraq or Afghanistan without too much post-war mental anguish or blood on their hands—to what extent should they (be made to) feel worse (in another word, guiltier) than they do about their decisions and actions? For me, that’s the subject of a representative story in Redeployment, “Ten Klicks South,” and of the long, trenchant essay Klay published for the Brookings Institute titled “The Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”  Finally, although I’m not sure when Klay’s next book will appear or what it will be about, while we wait for it, I recommend listening to the intellectually-knotty podcast Manifesto! Klay hosts with fellow vet-writer and Fire and Forget contributor Jacob Siegel.

Kevin Powers (US Army)’s first novel was The Yellow Birds (2012).  Next came the poetry volume Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, followed by a second novel A Shout in the Ruins (2018).  Journalism, essays, and reviews can be found at http://kevincpowers.com. It’s easy to forget the hullabaloo that greeted The Yellow Birds upon arrival. Following upon Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Army spouse Siobhan Fallon’s short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), The Yellow Birds reinforced the notion that 21st-century American writing about the war was going to cook at a very high literary level.  But the backlash against The Yellow Birds arrived just as quickly, as for many it promoted and even celebrated the idea that modern American soldiers were easily-traumatized snowflakes too tender to win wars. In the wake of The Yellow Birds, a counter-formation of memoirs and short-stories appeared, stories of war by ex-combat-arms bubbas seemingly delighted to assert that they were hard men capable of doing hard things.  I’m not inclined to be harsh in my assessment of The Yellow Birds, but Powers seems to have distanced himself from his poetry volume, and I haven’t yet read A Shout in the Ruins, so categorical statements about the arc of his career will have to wait.

Kayla Williams (US Army) has written two memoirs, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2005) and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014).  Williams has also contributed a short-story, “There’s Always One,” to the veteran-writer short-story anthology The Road Ahead (2017).  Given her job as a Washington DC think-tank analyst and the impression she renders that she’s bound for big things in the public sector, it’s not hard to imagine a third memoir might be needed someday to document further chapters in Williams’ life.  Detailing the long story of any vet’s life (especially a woman vet’s) after war will be immensely interesting and valuable, but I hope in the future Williams finds time to write more fiction, too.

Quite a few other writers merit consideration for inclusion on this list. Among them are Adrian Bonenberger (US Army, Afghan Post, memoir; The Road Ahead, fiction anthology editor (with Brian Castner); “American Fapper,” story in The Road Ahead); Maurice Decaul (USMC, Dijla Was Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates, play; multiple poems published in small journals and online; a musical collaboration with contemporary jazz great Vijay Iyer); Colin Halloran (US Army, Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux, poetry); Hugh Martin (Stick Soldiers and In Country, poetry); Brian Van Reet (US Army, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” short-story contribution to Fire and Forget and much short-fiction published in literary journals; Spoils, novel). Three women Iraq-Afghanistan veterans, Teresa Fazio (USMC), Kristen Rouse (US Army), and Supriya Venkatesan (US Army), write with distinctive voice and great eye for the telling subject and detail, and each has published widely, though more in the vein of journalism, memoir, and essay than fiction or poetry (the exceptions being Fazio’s and Rouse’s stories “Little” and “Pawns,” respectively, both included in The Road Ahead anthology), and none has yet found book-length publication.

My judgments about each author’s body-of-work are far from beyond dispute, and I welcome discussion, as well as any factual corrections to the record.  An extended contemplation about the collective import of these writers is in order, but I’ll end with just two brief points:  1) The accomplishment of these vet writers is substantial and the potential for further achievement is strong; barring misfortune, everyone I’ve mentioned still has decades of productive creative life to come.  2) Women veteran-authors and male or female African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American vet-writers are noticeably missing.  If I’ve overlooked a worthy candidate to add to the list, let me know, and if conversation about publishing trends and marketplace dynamics interests you, let’s talk about that, too.  Though my focus here is the unfolding of a writer-artist’s characteristic concerns over multiple works, the story is also one of professional ambition, literary politics, and publishing biz calculation. What I’m describing as the birthing of an estimable generation of veteran-writers, another may see as the solidifying of a literary establishment limited by its own blinders and mostly interested in preserving its own prerogatives.  That’s not how I feel about it, but I hope that should I compile this list again in another eight years, the demographic make-up will reflect the military in which I served and the overall achievement so much the better.

Khost Province, Afghanistan, 2009.

Back to School at NYU and Wesleyan

April 8, 2019

Back to School I:  Time Now at NYU

The invitation from New York University’s Patrick Deer to speak at his Cultures of War  interdisciplinary seminar was simple:  What is the story of Time Now? Deer asked.  Why did you begin it?  Where did you get ideas for what it could be?  What has the experience of “live-blogging” the contemporary war lit scene been like? I’m not especially given to writing about myself, but if you ask me I’ll be glad to talk about such things.  I was flattered by the invitation and welcomed the chance to think meta-reflectively about a project that’s been a big part of my life for the last six years.  Here’s a snippet from my notes for my opening remarks:

Why I started Time Now.  Because my old blog 15-Month Adventure about my deployment to Afghanistan had run its course.  Because I heard Matt Gallagher at a conference state that he couldn’t imagine being a contemporary vet-and-mil writer without having an online presence. Because I thought I had a unique personal angle:  a PhD in American Lit who served a pretty intense year’s deployment in Afghanistan. Because my boss in the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point, where I taught at the time, put me in charge of a program designed to bring veteran artists and writers to West Point and the blog seemed congruent with that. Mostly because I had a sense that something good was happening—Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Matt Gallagher, and Siobhan Fallon were writers already on my radar and I’d heard-tell that novels about Iraq and Afghanistan by David Abrams, Ben Fountain, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and Kevin Powers were enroute… and I wanted to be part of it all….

Once I stopped blabbing, the conversation and Q&A opened up in interesting, wide-ranging ways. I was honored to have in the audience Teresa Fazio, who held forth with more insight and credibility than I could ever muster about the status of women war-mil-vet authors in the publishing biz, and I was delighted when Matt Gallagher arrived to walk back a little his statement that an online presence was essential for an aspiring writer—his own very solid Twitter-game notwithstanding. Many thanks to Patrick Deer and all who attended, especially those who chimed in with questions and comments, all of which continue to bubble in my mind and will certainly find expression in Time Now posts to come.  Keep an eye out for Patrick Deer’s own books—Culture in Camouflage:  War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (2009) and the forthcoming Surge and Silence:  Understanding America’s Cultures of War, and if you’re ever so lucky to get an invitation to speak at or attend a Cultures of War event, grab it.

Back to School II: Time Now at Wesleyan

A week later I was the guest of college friend William “Vijay” Pinch on the campus of  Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  Pinch grew up in India and Pakistan and now is a professor of South Asian history at Wesleyan. This semester he is teaching a course on “The Great Game”:  the centuries-long battle by imperial powers (first England and Russia, now largely supplanted by the US and China) for control of Afghanistan.  Last fall, Pinch asked me for a recommendation for a novel about 21st-century war in Afghanistan that might appeal to his students, and I quickly nominated Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, about a young Pashtun militia member’s toughening by endless war on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pinch thought that was a great idea, and to further liven up things, he invited Ackerman to Wesleyan to meet his class and participate in a series of related events. Lucky me, Pinch was kind enough to ask his old college basketball-buddy to tag along.

The day was full of excellent things, with Ackerman in fine form at every event.  In Pinch’s class he proclaimed that his rationale for writing Green on Blue was to answer the question “What type of war was Afghanistan?”, with the answer being, “It was being fought for every reason except one… to win it.”  And THIS was Ackerman’s expression of the view of things held by the Afghans, who he explained are just as caught up in “forever war” cycles-of-violence as is America.  At a writing workshop, Ackerman had wise, funny advice for students (many of them vets) seeking careers in journalism, and at a reading that night he spoke of creating the characters who populate his latest novel Waiting for Eden and the implications of the John Milton quote—“War hath determined us”–on the dust-jacket of his forthcoming memoir Places and Names:  On War, Revolution, and Returning.  Ackerman apparently is incapable of saying dull things, and he has the added virtue of answering questions in individualized and personalized ways so that their askers feel the full force of his empathy and intellectual curiosity for why they might have posed the question they did.

I’ll close with an anecdote that occurred while we were walking about Wesleyan.  Inspired by his own return to a collegiate setting, Ackerman began riffing on scenes from the classic Rodney Dangerfield film comedy Back to School.  I don’t know if Pinch knows the movie, but I do, kind of.  Unfortunately, though I can remember every song I’ve heard since 1964, I have a horrible memory for remembering film dialogue, which puts me at odds with most military folks I’ve known, for whom reeling off lines from shared favorites serves as great fun and folk wisdom.  So, I wasn’t able to exchange funnies with Ackerman, but the mere mention of Back to School brought back memories of my first sergeant when I commanded a company in the 82ndAirborne Division and how much pleasure he got from reciting lines and recalling scenes from the film. Upon returning home, I spent an evening on YouTube chuckling over Back to School videos, including this great one featuring Sam Kinison that reminds us that Back to School was in fact a post-war film:

And so the work of defining the contours of vet-writing about Iraq and Afghanistan and what it means to live as a veteran afterwards proceeds on many levels and in many places, but with special trenchancy at places like NYU and Wesleyan.  If the link below works, it will take you to a slide show of pictures I took in Afghanistan that offer some sense of the world described by Ackerman in Green on Blue.

The Look of War, Afghanistan 2009

Elliot Ackerman’s Waiting for Eden

December 11, 2018

Elliot Ackerman, as much as any contemporary veteran, has turned himself into a working professional author. With three novels in three years published by prestigious publishing houses and a collection of journalism and essays on the way, he’s making the rest of the veteran war-writing crew look a little sluggish, as if they were struggling to generate sellable story ideas. Time will tell who is the Tim O’Brien of the current cohort of war authors, but Ackerman is well on his way to being its Robert Olen Butler: the author of a steady stream of distinctive war-related fiction; books that fuse contemporary concerns with literary antecedents and private vision, that may be more loss-leaders than cash-cows for their publishers, but cumulatively adding up to a successful career and a laudable body-of-work.

Ackerman’s latest work-of-fiction, Waiting for Eden, is novella-length, so not as tight and focused as a short-story nor as expansive as a novel. Shorting commentary, context and portrayal of social milieu while still taking time to reveal its secrets and generate impact, Waiting for Eden aims for evocativeness rather than detail as it presents the story of a grievously wounded and near-comatose Iraq veteran lying in a San Antonio hospital bed years after his wounding. The veteran, Eden Malcolm by name, is kept alive by the miracles of medicine and the refusal of his wife Mary to let doctors pull the plug on him. Eden in this regard resembles the protagonist of Dalton Trumbo’s acclaimed novel Johnny Got His Gun, published in 1938, about a World War I quadruple-amputee trapped alone with his thoughts inside his mangled body. Waiting for Eden is narrated by Eden’s Marine Corps buddy, an unnamed friend killed in the same IED explosion that injures Eden and who now tells the story from beyond the grave. The parallels between Waiting for Eden and Johnny Got His Gun have been noted by reviewers, but no one, to my knowledge, has noticed the similarity of the narration to Larry Heinemann’s 1987 National Book Award-winning Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, which is related by the collective voice of the dead soldiers killed in a big battle that leaves the title character physically disabled and mentally anguished.

With this intriguing buddy-pair–neither narrator nor protagonist fully there in the real world to tell his story and interact with living people–demanding attention at first read, reviews of Waiting for Eden have tended to explain it in terms of its exploration of war disability, soldierly camaraderie, survivor guilt, and national responsibility for war-wounded. The novella also asks readers to consider the plight of the families of wounded veterans and the ethical-medical-legal quandaries of extending life by technology and pharmaceuticals. To the extent that Waiting for Eden actually does explore these weighty themes, it’s interesting to speculate how other contemporary war-writers might have handled them:

-Phil Klay might philosophize about the ethics of life preservation and the oaths soldiers and families make to each other unto eternity.
-Matt Gallagher might infuse the story with self-deprecating humor and existential bemusement.
-Roy Scranton might critique sanctimonious dwelling on wounded American soldiers and the feebleness of “thanking soldiers for their service.”
-Will Mackin might have a field day describing the porous boundaries between life and death.

This fanciful mind-game actually has a point: Ackerman, or his narrator, is not especially interested in the cosmic dynamics of the life-death continuum nor the politics of caring for wounded veterans. The reviews that focus on these matters have missed what the narrator clearly states in the opening lines of Waiting for Eden:

I want you to understand Mary and what she did. But I don’t know if you will. You’ve got to wonder if in the end you’d make the same choice, circumstances being similar, or even the same, God help you.

In other words, the focus is on Mary, a problematic care-taker of her disabled husband and object of fascination and desire for the narrator, and it’s also a referendum on the narrator’s own thoughts and actions. It’s too soon after publication to reveal key plot details and discuss the story’s finale, but events before Iraq and after her husband’s wounding reveal that Mary’s choices and motives in regard to Eden are not exactly beyond reproach, nor are the narrator’s. Without giving away too much, let’s just say marital dissatisfaction and sexual impotence are issues, and matters of infidelity and paternity also come into play. The narrator’s intent (and I am assuming Ackerman’s too) is to save Mary and himself from harsh judgment, which is cool by me. The issue is complicated, however, by the narrator’s unreliability, his failure to clarify important plot points, and most of all, his failure or inability to offer fulsome portraits of Mary’s thoughts, though he is quite omniscient about other aspects of the story he tells. The problem is compounded by the fact that the narrator is a disembodied voice, not a ghost who interjects himself in the lives of the living, and Mary isolates herself from family, hometown, friends, fellow military spouses, medical care-givers, and even her daughter, which makes it hard to evaluate them in the context of social relations. Readers who feel they don’t have enough information to properly “understand” Mary and “what she did” might be left in a perplexed state by Waiting for Eden, which I believe is by design. Whether they approve of Mary and the narrator or not, readers will certainly be eager to discuss their ideas with other readers, which any author should welcome, and which I would certainly enjoy doing over a beer or two, if anyone’s interested.

To situate Ackerman once more among his war-writer peers, Waiting for Eden explores the precincts of military marriage also patrolled by Siobhan Fallon. Fallon’s latest novel, The Confusion of Languages, features a character much like Waiting for Eden’s narrator–in Fallon’s case, a self-important male Army officer eager to preserve plausible deniability that he’s not your average, ordinary horndog with the hots for his best friend’s wife. Fallon’s best stories—“Leave,” “The Last Stand,” and “Tips for a Smooth Transition”—feature military couples in scenes set not just in any domestic space, but in the “rank sweat of an enseamed bed,” as Hamlet puts it, where the jealousy, resentment, and pay-back meters can ping off the charts. A great line from the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof spoken by the family matriarch, Big Mama, played by Judith Anderson, helps define the parameters of Waiting for Eden‘s odd ménage-à-trois and the centrality of the hospital bed where all the action happens, or doesn’t happen. While sitting on her daughter-in-law’s bed, Big Mama barks at Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie-the-Cat character, who is married to Big Mama’s dysfunctional son Brick, played by Paul Newman: “You’re childless and my son drinks, and the problem starts right here,” at the same time slapping the unhappy couple’s mattress. Brick, it turns out, pines for his childhood friend Skipper, who has committed suicide after Maggie-the-Cat attempts to seduce him in order to ruin his friendship with Brick, which she resents.

Complicated, yes, but something of the same is at work in Waiting for Eden. Eden’s hospital bed, haunted by the narrator’s vigil, serves, if we can borrow from William Blake, as “the Marriage hearse” for Eden and Mary’s ruptured dream of conjugal bliss and fruitful procreation. The romantic triangle formed by Mary, Eden, and the narrator also nicely illustrates literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theory of “homosociality”: one deal-e-o going down is the psychodrama of the two men, locked in passive-aggressive one-upmanship manifested as desire for Mary, which is quickly transformed into dependence on her, and not just need for her body and approval, but for very existence. In a startlingly apt description, Benjamin Busch writes of Fallon’s “worried imagination,” and in many of her stories it’s not wives worrying about their husband’s fidelity that’s the issue, but wives worrying about their own potential for betrayal, along with the evident ability they have to emotionally crush their naïve, oblivious, trusting, and child-like husbands, should they choose to. This sentiment also informs Waiting for Eden. Ackerman’s achievement is tracing the narrator’s growing respect for Mary’s increasing consciousness of the power she holds over the men in her life, and their death, while moving the reader to understand and respect her growing awareness, too.

That’s an enigmatic, perhaps not entirely helpful way to close this invitation to read Waiting for Eden, which I urge you to accept nonetheless. The book ends (as does Benjamin Busch’s memoir Dust to Dust, by the by) by quoting the final lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which describe Adam and Eve, sadder but wiser after Eve eats the apple, leaving the Garden of Eden on “thir solitarie way.” It’s a stirring image, but its exact relation to the story Waiting for Eden tells is one more thing we can talk about when we have that beer together.

Elliot Ackerman, Waiting for Eden. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Life During Forever Wartime: Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Elyse Fenton

April 2, 2017

The contemporary war literature genre, a decade or so old, now sees the welcome appearance of second titles by authors whose first books helped create the genre. This year, for example, brings the release of You Know When the Men Are Gone author Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages, Elliot Ackerman’s novel Dark at the Crossing, his follow-up to Green on Blue, and Elyse Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, her second volume of poetry following Clamor. Though none of the works directly concern war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are of interest to this blog for what they tell of the growth of their authors as writers, as well as the direction of their thoughts, formed by war and now exploring new themes and subjects, or, more accurately, variations on old ones: the human cost of America’s endless warfaring.

Fallon’s The Confusion of Languages takes place in Jordan in 2011 against the backdrop of the Arab Spring rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Its primary narrator is Cassandra “Cass” Hugo, the wife of a mid-ranks US Army foreign service officer named Dan. Cass and Dan are not as happy as they might be, unwanted childlessness having withered their love and Dan, consumed by his job, working long hours. Cass finds herself bored and uneasy, nominally a dutiful military spouse interested in keeping up appearances, but a little more susceptible to intrigue and drama than she realizes. Into the lives of Dan and Cass come Creighton “Crick” Brickshaw, another Army officer, and his wife Margaret, along with their baby son Mather. Dan and Cass are Crick and Margaret’s sponsors, and while Dan and Crick bond easily enough, as officers on deployment generally do, Margaret and Cass circle each other tentatively, separated by disposition and outlook. Cass is conscientious and meticulous and Margaret thoughtless and sloppy, but both are sensitive to the point of skittishness, and their dependence on their mostly-absent husbands for love, lifestyle, and security makes them extremely vulnerable. Acting out their impulses against the backdrop of a culture and people they little understand, each makes major mistakes. The catalyst for the novel’s plot is a car accident, not a big mishap as things go, but one here with awful consequences. When Margaret departs for the police station to file a report, Cass volunteers to watch Mather. Alone with Mather for hours, Cass finds Margaret’s journal, which she begins reading, though she knows she shouldn’t. In a second narration revealed by the diary, Cass learns of a hidden life full of disturbing events that now helps account for Margaret’s failure to return.

Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing portrays an Iraqi-American protagonist named Haris who travels to Syria to fight against the repressive government of President Bashar al-Assad. Haris has fought alongside Americans in Iraq, but troubled by the experience and finding life in America unsatisfying, he yearns for redemption and purpose. Most of the novel takes place not in Syria, though, but in and around the southern Turkey town of Antep, as Haris finds crossing the closed border between the two countries no easy task. Adventures and mysteries quickly accumulate; as an Arab and Muslim, Haris possesses advantages the all-American characters in The Confusion of Languages lack, but he too has been softened by American life, and subsequently finds himself constantly outmatched by the complex and damaged Turks and Syrians he encounters. The advisor team chief I replaced in Afghanistan in 2008 told me that Afghans were rational decision-makers, as long as you understood that their families had already suffered much violence and early death, they were aware that they themselves might be killed any moment, and they were perpetually worried about their families’ financial prosperity in the event of their sudden death. That proved good advice during my year in Afghanistan, and some of that same insecurity underlies the portraits of Syrians, Turks, and Iraqis in Dark at the Crossing. American characters, a Special Forces officer with whom Haris fought in Iraq and thinks about often and an NGO Haris meets in Antep, seem slow in comparison: much like Fallon’s Dan and Crick, if not exactly blustering oafs, they are over-confident and about as self-aware as bricks, whatever claims to professional competence they might project.

Ackerman’s tone is dark and ominous, in the manner of Graham Greene, and so it seems only a matter of time before things go bad for Haris, which they do, by turns worse-and-worse in ever-more surprising plot twists. Things don’t end well for Fallon’s characters, either, though their chin-up and chirpy tones, as conveyed by the novel’s dual narrations, masks the catastrophe, put into play by their naivety, that awaits them–while Haris seems to know things are bound to end badly, the two young American women in Fallon’s novel have trouble imagining anything really terrible can befall them. Both stories interest through their portrayal of adults, rather than the post-adolescents who populate most contemporary war literature, and both authors tap an ages-old theme, now truer than ever, regarding Americans abroad: their delusions and essential immaturity poorly equips them to understand the complexities of a region ravaged by recent conflict on top of the thousands of years of near-continuous strife that preceded it.

The end-of-American-innocence is also on display in Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, though the poems are situated domestically within the author’s household and hometown. An epigraph reveals that Fenton’s daughter is the “sweetest insurgent,” but the poems themselves don’t document the redemptive power of motherhood or the promise of youth, but the blighted cultural landscape with which marriage, motherhood, and youth must now contend. The forever wars (Fenton’s husband is a veteran) linger in the backdrop of Fenton’s meditations, figuring most prominently by providing harrowing new vocabulary that speaks to the angst of the time: “insurgent,” “human shield,” “innocent victim,” “double tap,” and “interrogation report.” The final lines of the title poem provide a vivid example:

….not every bomb can be
dismantled so it must stay buried,
one good ear bent & ticking in the dirt.                                                          

Images of fires, helicopters, and other variations on human crisis, along with those depicting death in the natural world, filter through the poems, too, as actual occurrences, things to worry about, and metaphors for emotional and psychological stress. Professions of vulnerability compete with avowals to fortify; the report of the senses, linked to the urges of desire, is ambiguously pitched between rush to disaster and instinct for survival. In “Wild Deer,” for example, Fenton forebodingly dwells on the death of animals with which she identifies:

Wild Deer

They come down from the hill wilds overnight, three wild deer
drawn to the morning glory’d wire of our lies, our rows

of plenty drawn between the spanse of scrub and road.

In the deer pen of my mind the wildest thoughts nose through
the scurf to nibble juniper, forget what green desire brought them

here. More timid than their summer kin October deer step

soft-shod through the frosted noose of breath that ropes
each hornless head. How easily they start and scare. How easily

I turn from them before the sun-gilt leaves they hungered for

leave them starved of any thought but home. No gentling I know
will lead them out. They’ll lunge themselves to death by a neighbor’s

buckshot or a broken neck. But first they’ll eat their fill.

The tone is terse, fragmented, and haunted; Fenton, I believe, distrusts sensational images (as well as clichéd ones) and thus fights to bring into being a new survivalist rhetoric adequate to life during perpetual wartime. When words such as courage and community are exhausted, she implies, concepts such as love and family are imperiled, too.

The last poem in Sweet Insurgent is titled “Independence Day,” and it’s not a celebration; Ackerman’s, Fallon’s, and Fenton’s excellent books each dramatize deeply-seated concern connected to the downward spiral of America’s frazzled empire. Reverberating through the three works in varying pitches, dawning on the reader with the force of epiphany, is the realization that Americans are having a lot of trouble dealing with problems that being an American has brought on.

Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing.  Knopf, 2017.

Siobhan Fallon, The Confusion of Languages. GP Putnam’s Sons, forthcoming in June, 2017.

Elyse Fenton, Sweet Insurgent. Saturnalia Books, 2017.

War Writing: The Raw and the Cooked

August 14, 2016
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.

Is War Academic? Contemporary War Literature Scholarship

November 26, 2015
The anatopic presence of antenna on a hundreds-year-old fortress in Afghanistan.

The anatopic presence of antenna on a century-old fortress in Afghanistan.

The raucous digital media sphere spits out opinions in near real-time, but academics—PhD-wielding faculty members at colleges and universities—take longer to make up their minds. When ready, they publish their findings in “scholarly journals” viewed, if their authors are lucky, by a few dozen other professors and graduate students. Shrouded in technical jargon and ponderously paced, academic discourse is off-putting to many. But what academics sacrifice in mass appeal, they hope to regain by influence and by playing for the long-haul. They bargain that their ideas and arguments might wow their peers and their impressionable students and then through them enter the mainstream.

Recently, academics have begun to take the measure of contemporary war literature, and I’ve got some skin in the game.

The Modern Language Association conference is the biggest and most prestigious conference of the year for scholars of English and world literature. At the upcoming “MLA,” in Austin, Texas, in January, I’ll participate in a panel titled  “Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars.” Also on the panel are Roy Scranton and Stacey Peebles, about whom I’ve written often on this blog, and Aaron DeRosa, Patrick Deer, Ikram Masmoudi, and A.B. Huber—all exciting scholars with formidable intellectual energy and talent. A website we’ve created to accompany our panel is up, and Peebles, Scranton, and I have already posted short pieces we hope will jumpstart conversations in advance of MLA. My entry discusses the significant presence of women in the ranks of war-writing authors, Scranton addresses representations of Iraqi and Afghans in contemporary war lit, while Peebles inquires about the shifting depictions of masculinity in modern war stories and memoirs.

I’m also honored to have placed an essay in the latest War, Literature, and the Arts journal, published by the Department of English & Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy. The essay’s titled “’A Phrase Too Cute to Do Our Ugliness Justice’: Portraying ‘Wounded Warriors’ in Contemporary War Fiction.” The title derives from a great Brian Van Reet short story called “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek”; my subject is representations of physical disability in contemporary war literature. WLA is not only about Iraq and Afghanistan, but much of it is. The current issue, for example, features writing or interviews featuring Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Angela Ricketts, Brian Doerries, Jesse Goolsby, Richard Johnson, Brandon Lingle, Brooke King, and many other authors and artists associated with 21st-century war. There are also at least two other scholarly investigations of contemporary war literature: Jennifer Haytock’s “Women’s/War Stories: The Female Gothic and Women’s War Trauma in Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen” and Hilary Lithgow’s “’It’s All Good’”: Forms of Belief and the Limits of Irony in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers.”

Finally, Brian J. Williams, who teaches at Tennessee Tech, published this summer an article in the scholarly journal American Literature an article titled “The Desert of Anatopism: War in the Age of Globalization.” As if Roy Scranton’s big word “anthropocene” wasn’t enough to make our heads hurt, now Williams asks us to contend with “anatopism,” which means “something that is out of its proper place.” But Williams, like Scranton, is on to something: he examines the presence in war film, television, and literature—mostly the early-on HBO TV series Generation Kill–of objects that you wouldn’t expect to see in a war zone, or in Iraq or Afghanistan generally, specifically consumer or high-tech items of the West. Think, readers who have deployed, of your sense of dislocation when you realized that cell phones and DVDs were a fact of life in nations that otherwise seemed stuck in poverty and pre-modernity. Williams’ point is that such anatopic moments created cognitive dissonance for American soldiers that made it hard to distinguish between war and peace, enemy and noncombatant, and, within themselves, their soldierly and civilian identities. Here’s how Williams describes one such occurence:

This scene, like so many other moments finding their way into the US corpus emerging from the Gulf Wars, highlights the increasing presence of anatopism in contemporary war texts—the presence of items that seem spatially out of place, as foreign to their location as anachronisms are foreign to their times. Such things shouldn’t be found in the desert; these material signs of home are as out of place as the soldiers themselves, according to the cognitive map most soldiers carry into the combat zone.

In this piece, I examine the ways that traces of the home front appearing in the war zone and depictions of the war in US representations (films, texts, videogames) create an environment neither comfortably alien nor recognizably familiar. The modern soldier in Iraq provides a key position from which to chart the ways in which globalization paradoxically makes the foreign more uncanny by making it familiar, an instability reflective of the larger politics of the war on terror as a whole.

I can think of dozens of examples of anatopism from my own experiences and from the war literature that I have read. The omnipresent water bottles and plastic shopping bags, for example, littered around kalat walls and along thousand-year-old goat trails in the Afghanistan mountains. There’s a great instance of anatopism in Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, too, though the observer of the out-of-place item is a Pashtun, not an American. In a compound in a remote dirt-poor village where generators provide the only electric power, Ackerman’s narrator notes, “In the corner an enormous Hitachi television leaned against the ground. I could hear low murmurs of Urdu as programs from Pakistan flashed across its plasma screen.” Another prime example comes in Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. Three American soldiers on checkpoint duty observe a young woman walking toward them. She’s just a girl, it turns out, but she doesn’t listen to the soldiers’ commands to stop and be searched. Adding to the menace is the threatening incongruity of the soccer ball she carries, which the soldiers fixate on when she finally halts: “For a moment everything stops save the girl, standing still, turning the soccer ball in her hands, her small hands on the ball. They scope her as she turns the ball. Quiet.” Then the girl drops the ball and begins running toward the checkpoint, and the confused and panic-stricken Americans shoot her dead. The anatopic soccer ball has helped unhinge them and cost the young girl her life.

The Wild, Wild East: Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue

March 10, 2015

Green on BlueUSMC veteran Elliot Ackerman’s novel Green on Blue describes events that ring true to my own deployment experience in east Afghanistan. As an advisor who daily spent hours in the company of Afghans with loaded weapons, a “green on blue” incident—the murder of an American by an Afghan army member–was always a possibility. Ackerman’s descriptions of torturous truck journeys down narrow wadis and on the edge of cliffs brought back memories, too. As I’ve written elsewhere, for every story of combat in Afghanistan, I have five involving crazy vehicle escapades. The portraits of village shuras and life behind kalat walls in Green on Blue mirrored dozens of my own engagements with Afghans, often with me being the only American in a room full of turbaned and bearded Pashtun men.

For all that, as I began to read Green and Blue I was prepared to be disappointed, for I knew it might be hard not to quibble with Ackerman’s rendering of combat on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan. Happily, though, Ackerman gets all the above right and whole lot more, too. Through the audacity of its imaginative reach, as well as the acuity of its insight into what war in Afghanistan is about, Green on Blue significantly expands the borders of contemporary war literature.

The story’s protagonist is Aziz, a young Paktika province Pashtun who signs on as a member of a militia to revenge the death of his parents and the loss of a leg by a beloved older brother. The militia he joins is led by a ruthless, mysterious, and charismatic leader named Commander Sabir. Sabir, aided and funded by an American advisor named “Mr. Jack,” battle with a clan led by a wizened tribal warrior named Gazan for control of a middle-of-nowhere village called Gomal. Gomal has no tactical, political, or economic significance, but Aziz, Sabir, Gazan, and other Afghans in the story fight over it in an endless cycle of violence rooted in personal vendettas and dreams of war profiteering. As the novel unfolds, Ackerman drives home the point that war in Afghanistan, as it is experienced by actual Afghans, is only circumstantially concerned with the American intervention. Even the green on blue murder that gives the book its title is more a matter of circumstance than an act motivated by hatred and global politics.

Ackerman, who served as I did as an advisor, suggests that pashtunwali codes of nang and badal—honor and revenge, respectively—motivate Pashtuns to ceaselessly seek retribution against each other for wrongs inflicted on family members. And as if nang and badal weren’t fuel enough to keep the fighting going for another thousand years, Sabir and Gazan are well aware that their place in the bigger conflict keeps the local economy going. Not only do they stand to profit personally by siphoning off war-related lucre, their followers and their families’ livelihood depend on it, too. Commander Sabir explains:

All are caught up in this, he said. The question is whether you’ll be a victim or prosper in it. What justice is there for you if Gazan, who crippled your brother, prospers in peace with the Americans? What justice is there if we lose control of him and never build our outpost [in Gomal]? Yes, there will be peace for Gomal and Gazan, but us, what of us? The Americans will no longer need us. How do we survive then?

Every warzone has its characteristic look, feel, and pace, or at least our mental pictures of them do. I saw American Sniper this weekend and the many scenes portraying Marines and SEALs clearing houses in urban areas resonated in my mind as sui generis Iraq combat. I enjoyed Sebastian Junger’s movies Restrepo and Korengal very much, but their endless scenes of soldiers on outposts blasting away at remote hillsides with their machine guns didn’t do much for me in terms of characteristically representing war in Afghanistan (and I was responsible for a very similar outpost, Spera COP, in my own sector). For me, most vividly, Afghanistan entailed vehicle movements deep into remote districts and enclaves. Combat action was always possible and sometimes occurred, but the long drives there and back felt like something epic even when there was no battle. Ackerman’s descriptions of treacherous truck movements through Afghanistan wadis and mountains are frequent and rich:

We rushed past Shkin village, where cooking fires glowed inside the few mud-walled homes. We drove on towards the darkness of the southern mountains. At the base of the range, our convoy slowed to a crawl. Here the north road continued south, but we turned off and traversed the uneven ground to a wet ravine tha rolled out like a sloppy tongue. I watched Commander Sabir’s HiLux ease itself into the ravine’s mouth. It took the first bend and was swallowed by the mountain. Issaq’s HiLux followed and then, quickly, the rest of us. And our convoy disappeared.

The mountains closed around us. We drove through them like children playing in a window’s long curtains, chasing each other, all of us near, hidden in the fold….

But Green on Blue‘s most interesting feature is its first-person narration in Aziz’s voice. War novels such as Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch and Michael Pitre’s Fives-and-Twenty-Fives admirably feature Afghan and Iraqi characters, but Ackerman’s feat surpasses those with its plausible and engaging rendering of a life experience as foreign as an American might imagine. Such acts of ventriloquism are not without risk; an easy criticism would be that rather than a feat of empathetic representation, it bespeaks an act of literary imperialism bankrupt in principle and doomed to fail practically. Ackerman could well have told the story from Mr. Jack’s point-of-view or presented the story as memoir, for surely many of its events are close to those he experienced or heard about on deployment. But we have already have portraits of American army captains in Afghanistan in The Watch and Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War, so kudos to Ackerman for approaching his story from a different direction. Green on Blue sympathetically makes us privy to Aziz’s dawning awareness of just how complicated and bleak is the world he inhabits.

Ackerman renders Aziz’s voice simply and directly; rarely, for instance, does Aziz envelop his thoughts in Islamic platitudes or verses from the Koran. Instead, nang and badal and various Pashtun proverbs are the constants in his mental flow:

Once, in Sperkai, an older child had split my lip in a fight. When my father saw this, he took me to the boy’s home. Standing at their front gate, he demanded that the father take a lash to his son. The man refuse and father didn’t ask twice. He struct the man in the fact, splitting his lip just as his son had split mine. Before the man could get back to his feet my father left, the matter settled. On the walk home, my father spoke to me of badal, revenge. He told me that a man, a Pashtun man, had an obligation to take badal when his nang, his honor, was challenged. In Orgun, every stranger’s glance made me ache for a time when my father might return and take badal against those who’d pitied his sons.

Once in while, the register shifts into ‘murican-Injun’ picture-speech, as when Aziz says, “We turned wrenches until our shadows were made long by the late-afternoon sun.” And in a couple of places, Aziz sounds suspiciously like a young American MFA-trained author, as in a passage where he considers the feel of a pistol in his hand:

Its heft sunk into my palm, and I felt the permanence of its metal. A pistol’s purpose was the same as a rifle’s, but achieved it so casually. A rifle requires the whole body to fire it. Laying the buttstock into the shoulder, leaning against the recoil, concentrating on the sights, all of this draws from every part of the shooter. But with a pistol, just a flick of the wrist and a light twitch with an index finger delivers a hard bullet.

Overall, though, Aziz’s voice is fine. Ackerman lets the events of the story pull the narrative forward by having Aziz relate them without much stylistic overlay. His thoughts and actions seem motivated by what anyone would conceive of as plausible human nature, leavened by pashtunwali. When I arrived in Afghanistan, an American told me that working with Afghans was much like working with Americans, except that Afghans possessed two great fears that Americans didn’t worry as much about: one, they might die at any moment, and two, their families would be left destitute as a result. The statement served me well as I watched the Afghans I knew make choices and express their beliefs. Now, reading Green on Blue, the claims seems true also for Aziz, whose ability to choose is constrained everywhere by the proximity of death and poverty, and animated only by dreams of nang and badal. His war, like my war, was not just flying bullets and exploding mines, but complex local social dynamics characterized by grudge, worry, feud, and angling for advantage.

On the wadi road to Spera, Khost province, Afghanistan, January 2009.

On the wadi road to Spera, Khost province, Afghanistan, January 2009.

Elliot Ackerman, Green on Blue. Scribner, 2015.


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