Posted tagged ‘Elliot Ackerman’

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 Captain 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 Captain 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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