Hilary Plum, Caleb Cage, Ahmed Saadawi

Three recent works of fiction suggest that war in Iraq was not so much an event or set of events, but a disease that infected its participants and ruined their lives. Hilary Plum’s Strawberry Fields is her follow-up to her 2013 novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (which I review here) and her 2016 book of essays Watchfires (mentioned here). Like Plum’s previous two works, Strawberry Fields’ interest is the rancid state of American society and global geo-eco-politics, in which violence, fear, militarism, crime, natural and man-made disaster, and constant surveillance overwhelm optimism, good-nature, civility, and civic feeling. War in Iraq figures in each of the works, but mainly as a breeding ground for and a corollary manifestation of rot at home. In Strawberry Fields, five Iraq veterans are found murdered; the rest of the novel details a strange alliance between a journalist named Alice and a detective named Modigliani as they search for clues to the murder in war crimes committed by contractors to whom the soldiers were connected overseas. The story is related through the perspective of multiple characters in a non-linear manner, with contextual clues scant and little sense of plot or closure. Intermixed with the main storyline are other chapters depicting harrowing scenes of human, animal, and environmental vulnerability, set in places as diverse as New Orleans after Katrina, a refugee camp in an unnamed country, a neglected zoo, a field ruined by pesticides. The textual atmosphere is sometimes lyrical but mostly clotted and bristling, so Strawberry Fields is not an easy breeze for casual readers. If, however, you, as do I, might like a novel that doesn’t just describe our malevolent times but replicates their dizzying and dismaying profusion of bad news and hostile intentions, sans happy-face band-aids, then Strawberry Fields is for you.

Caleb Cage’s dedication to Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada, his book of nine linked short services about war in Iraq and before and afterwards in Nevada, is telling. Written “For Brooke” (I presume Cage’s wife), it goes: “you are the happy story you couldn’t find on these pages.” Brooke wasn’t wrong, for I don’t think I’ve read a work of fiction about Iraq or Afghanistan that is so relentlessly dour. The protagonists of the stories in Desert Memories—soldiers of different ranks in a Nevada National Guard infantry unit—just seem miserable. The war is hopeless, the chain-of-command are fools, Iraq and Iraqis are disgusting, the soldiers screw each other’s girls, the women in theater and back home are treacherous, and the relief from it all—alcohol—is a one-way fast-track to ruin at an early age. Something like the true voice of the disaffected junior enlisted soldier and junior officer emerges in full throttle over the course of Desert Mementos. Convinced of their own superior judgment and self-righteousness, the soldiers seethe as the increasing apprehension that they now hold in contempt the military they voluntarily joined gnaws at their self-respect. What they hoped would be a transformative experience has turned out to be joyless and purposeless and they suspect that they have been made worse, not better, by Army service. Silently blaming themselves for their predicament is intolerable, however, so begins endless bitching and acts of petty insubordination directed at a military they now loathe. For all that, Desert Mementos has many virtues, or maybe all that is its virtue, or at least its point. I’ll trust there are still a lot of highly-motivated, good-natured soldiers eager to do well out there, but there are those like the soldiers described in Desert Mementos, too, and the military has only itself to blame for it. As someone who has led a lot of vehicle “CONOPS,” I liked Cage’s depiction of them in “Ghost Patrol.” As someone who has pulled many guard-tower shifts, I appreciated Cage’s portrait of the same in “Desert Island.” As someone who knows all too well the inside of a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and built many a PowerPoint presentation (and written about them here), I loved “This Is Not Burning Man.” As someone who had a vexing professional relationship with a female embedded journalist, I could relate to “Proxy War.” As someone who has had some memorable experiences driving through Nevada, I thought “Tonopah Low” was right on-point. And as someone who was witness to the killing of a fellow truck crew-member, I’ll testify that a similar event described in “Soldier’s Cross” spoke to me hard and true.

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad tells the story of a monster created out of human body parts that wreaks vengeance on Iraqis who are complicit in criminal activity—usually killing—directed against fellow Iraqis. The novel’s least interesting parts are those that give voice to the monster’s consciousness or attempt to explain it through authorial third-person description. Apparently, the modern-day Frankenstein represents a cosmic manifestation of the violence begat by violence, a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever-expanding retribution for past sins and crimes, amplified by the collapse of humane civil society in Iraq as a result of first Saddam Hussein and then the American invasion. These portions of Frankenstein in Baghdad ring kind of strident and over-determined while emitting confusing signals whether they are serious or comically fanciful. Much more winning is the rest of the novel, which consists of accounts of everyday Iraqis—the 90% who wouldn’t think of killing anyone under any circumstances–whose lives consist of trying to survive the violence instigated by the ruthless, selfish, and bloody-minded among them. The leader of the advisor team I replaced in Afghanistan told me upon arrival that “Afghans are reasonable decision-makers, but they are worried everyday about two things that we are not: that they might be killed at any time, and that they have to ensure their family’s future welfare.” That insight seems to also be the animating force for the characters in Frankenstein in Baghdad, who must deal with the chaos that tyranny, war, and most-of-all poverty have beset upon them. Living by their wits and extremely aware of the precariousness of their lives, Saadawi’s Baghdadians demonstrate a resiliency, ingeniousness, and humanity that makes us far-softer, far-safer Americans look like rigid, selfish dullards. Their stories both heart-breaking and inspiring, Saadawi relates them in a way that, against all odds, seems light-hearted, jocular, even madcap. How Iraqi fiction about the war can be so zestful, while American fiction strikes such bummer notes, is one of the wonders of literature and mysteries of life.

Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields. Fence Books, 2018.

Caleb S. Cage, Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada. University of Nevada Press, 2017.

Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad. Translated by Jonathan Wright. Penguin, 2018.


Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.
Photo by Bill Putnam, used with permission.

By my count, 2016 saw ten contemporary war fiction titles published, one more than in 2015. 2017 promises new novels by David Abrams, Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Brian Van Reet, as well as a short-fiction anthology edited by Brian Castner and Adrian Bonenberger called The Road Ahead, so that’s a lot to anticipate. The only new poetry collection published in 2016 was a British anthology titled Home Front that reprints two great books authored by American military spouses—Elyse Fenton’s Clamor and Jehanne Dubow’s Stateside—alongside work by two British authors, Bryony Doran and Isabel Palmer. Happy to say, both Dubrow and Fenton will have new work appearing in 2017, titled Dots & Dashes and Sweet Insurgent, respectively. Hollywood released three Iraq or Afghanistan movies in 2016; 2017 will bring the movie adaptation of The Yellow Birds, but I’m not sure what else.

Below is my annual compendium of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction, poetry, and movies. Works appearing in 2016 are in bold. If you think I’ve missed anything let me know. A separate list of romance, male adventure, and young adult fiction is in the works.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only).

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)

I’ve not listed the important theatrical and literary memoir titles that I’ve included in past years, because I haven’t tracked them as closely in the past twelve months as I have previously. To make up for that omission, I’ve compiled a list of interesting and substantial contemporary war non-fiction books published in 2016, which in my mind was a banner year for such works.

2016 Iraq and Afghanistan Non-fiction

Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Middle East (2016)
Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (2016)
Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer (2016)
Eric Fair, Consequence: A Memoir (2016)
Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016)
David J. Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (2016)
Mary Roach, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016)
J. Kael Weston, The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (2016)

…and not to overlook two books that offer glimpses of the strategic thinking and worldviews of the leaders of newly-elected President Trump’s national security team:

Kori Schake and Jim Mattis, editors, Warriors and Citizens: American Views of the Military (2016)
Michael Flynn, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies (2016)

I haven’t yet read all the non-fiction named above, but one that impressed me greatly is Brian Castner’s All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner, for my money, gets the nitty-gritty of Iraq and Afghanistan combat—complete with accounts of mIRC communication systems, combined ground-air ops, and insurgent IED tactics—better than any work I’ve seen previously. He combines attention to detail with eloquent expression of what it means to belong to close-knit organizations of fighting men and women. Castner, who served three tours in the Middle East as an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, knows of what he writes, and he uses his narrative to interrogate his decade-long obsession with war’s allure and consequences.

I read All the Ways We Kill and Die alongside a second work that does much the same, but from a very different angle: Hilary Plum’s memoir Watchfires (2016). The follow-up to Plum’s intriguing novel about domestic anti-war radicalism They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013), Watchfires explores connections between Plum’s personal and familial experience of illness and dysfunction with national and global currents of war, terrorism, and aggression. “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life,” wrote Thoreau, and though Plum’s account is not simple, she seems to have accomplished in Watchfires what Castner has also done, and what every thinking person might try, according to Thoreau: define honestly and precisely how one’s private life and thoughts relate to the violent spirit of the times.

Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer. Arcade, 2016.

Hilary Plum, Watchfires. Rescue Press, 2016.

Life During Wartime: Hilary Plum’s They Dragged Them Through the Streets

They Dragged Them Through the StreetsOne reason I like books about war written by civilian authors is that I’m interested in what aspects of military experience and combat intrigue them most. Soldiers who write like to explore their reasons for joining, their initiation into the business of killing, their contemplation of mortality, their fraternal feelings with fellow soldiers, their contempt for the chain-of-command and its explanations for why they are fighting, and their alienation from the civilian world unto which they return. Pretty typical, when you think about it, right?

But different things catch the eye of civilian novelists. Hilary Plum, for example, in her 2013 novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets, describes the coping methods of a group of anti-war activists after their leader Zechariah Berkman blows himself up while making a bomb meant for a military recruiting station. The group’s radicalism has been catalyzed by the suicide of the brother of one of its members. Jay, an Iraq vet, has hung himself while struggling with PTSD and alcoholism, and his death inspires his brother Ford and friends Zechariah, Vivienne, Sara, and Ford’s girlfriend “A” to seek violent retribution against the war machinery and the duped public that supports it. The novel, told in alternating short chapters related from the point-of-view of each of the major characters, describes their efforts to understand the allure of revolutionary violence, Zechariah’s charismatic influence and tragic death, their fascination with a war most Americans think little about, and their own tangled feelings about Jay and each other.

Vivienne, the novelist, seems to express perspectives that most closely resemble Plum’s. Or, at least, she is the most articulate about what it means to try to write about war, as when she describes Zechariah:

Dangerous how Z lived, then, for he never slowed. Typing furiously, reading everything, his voice rising as he spoke on the phone. The war the war the war. He commissioned pieces for his magazine and was never satisfied with them. Just chatter, he’d say, waving a hand at the screen, slamming books closed. Waste of time.

Vivienne takes a more meditative approach, though she is also aware that the war saturates her thoughts and writing:

Now I have become a book myself, by which I mean, something whose choices have already been made. What I mean is—the past is lost to us. Its dreamed-up cities, its false trees of words. There’s no way to live among them; touch them and they crumple, or the hand just goes through. The sentences a web stretched over the paths I walked with A, the dew on its strands destroyed by our passing. I am not even that, not even a twist of silk stretching from twig to tree bark. I am a relic, the simple fact of the past…. This is why my novels are not novels of history: they loop and loop. In the end either the feet dangle or the whole slips away free.

While Zechariah’s and Vivienne’s relationship with war is cerebral and textual, the other characters’ ties are more visceral. Sara works as a nurse in a shelter for veterans and the homeless. A, Ford’s girlfriend, begins an affair with a journalist who has worked in Iraq. Ford, of course, bears the biggest burden, not so much A’s treachery, which doesn’t seem to bother him much, but the death of his beloved older brother. Plum’s greatest interest seems to be the collusion of forces that might drive a war opponent to political violence. In retrospect, such an investigation is mostly mute, because political opposition to the war, even in the early days when the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were presided over by the big-bad triumvirate of President Busch, Vice-President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, was feeble, and in the wars’ later stages, opposition was totally dissipated by feel-goodism for “the troops” and President Obama, as well as the blissed-out national mania for social media. In America, the revolution not only was not televised, it wasn’t even documented by status updates, because it didn’t come close to happening.

Arab Spring graffiti from Tunisia, 2011.
Arab Spring graffiti from Tunisia, 2011. There, but not here?

Well, better words than bombs, truly, though Zechariah’s belief in print-and-paper journalism seems a little quaint. Why doesn’t he get his thumbs flying on his smartphone?! But I salute Plum for exploring the conditions that might radicalize a dissatisfied citizenry to the point of violence. They Dragged Them Through the Streets resembles greatly Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, a 1985 novel that portrays a similar assortment of privileged white bomb-makers struggling to reconcile murder in the name of politics with middle-class upbringings. As it happens, I read The Good Terrorist in my plywood bunk on FOB Lightning, Paktya province, Afghanistan, in what passed for my downtime during deployment. Grabbed at random from the book exchange in the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Center, The Good Terrorist induced reveries that had me comparing the political docility—that is to say the civility—of the white West with the rage of our Afghan enemies, who rained rockets and mortars upon our camp and sprinkled the roads we traveled with IEDs. The comparison made me think that Lessing might have rendered her bourgeois revolutionaries in shades more comic or accusatory than respectful. The same charge could be levied against Plum, but that would be wrong. As her character Vivienne’s words remind us, imaginatively portraying a world that didn’t happen helps us understand better the one that did.

RIP Doris Lessing, 2007 Nobel Prize laureate, d. 2013.

Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets. The University of Alabama Press, 2013. 

The War Writing Scene at AWP14: Wolves Keep in Touch by Howling…

… and writers do so by drinking coffee and beer and eating meals and trading stories into the night.  Thanks to all who attended or presented at the war lit and veteran writers panels at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle this past weekend.  On the war lit side, I enjoyed meeting and chatting with Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Elyse Fenton, Brian Castner, Mariette Kalinowski, Katey Schultz, and Colin and Lauren Halloran.  On the academic side, kudos to Ron Capps and Alexis Hart’s presentation “Lead from the Front: Best Practices for Working with Veterans in the Writing Classroom” and everyone on Kathryn Trueblood’s panel “The Soldier’s Perspective:  How Creative Writing Serves Vets and They Serve Each Other”:  Shawn Wong, Christine Leche, Will Borego, and Clayton Swanson.


I presented with Phil Klay and Hilary Plum on a panel organized by Roy Scranton.  Judging by the size of the crowd and the number and quality of questions we received, we did a pretty good job, but if you need more proof, read about Klay’s presentation in this NewYorker.com/online blog posting about “AWP14.”

Or, consult Boston-area author Julian Zabalbeascoa, who flagged me down the day after we presented to tell me how much he enjoyed our panel.  AWP being what it is–a writers’ convention–Zabalbeascoa let slip that he was near completion of a novel about the Spanish Civil War, a portion of which appears in the latest Ploughshares.  I read his story “498” on the flight home and was so blown away I immediately read it a second time.  It’s available online here, so please check it out.  In my mind “498” is an excellent example of war fiction that comments on our contemporary wars and war literature obliquely by nominally addressing other wars.  Other examples of the form include Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, about Vietnam, and Toni Morrison’s Home, about the Korean War, and I’ll have more to say about them in posts to come.

Finally, the talk of the conference was a recent N+1 essay titled MFA vs NYC by Chad Harbach.  The jist of Harbach’s argument is that the creative writing scene is divided.  One camp, so to speak, is spread across the country and aligns itself with the burgeoning and welcoming MFA program and literary magazine market.  The other is centered in New York City, Brooklyn specifically, and fights for upward mobility in the ferociously competitive publishing industry there.  Ye war writers out there, does this formulation make sense to you???

“Wolves Keep in Touch by Howling” is a poem by Martha Silano that appears in the winter 2013-2014 Ploughshares.  Not a war poem, but I like it and the title’s too good to pass up.

A transcript of my presentation, titled “War, Stories:  Fact or Fiction”: Molin Seattle AWP.  Overlook all typos, please, but comments welcome.  Yea, that should be Donovan Campbell, not Donovan Fink, who wrote Joker One, as opposed to Nathaniel Fink, who wrote One Bullet Away.

Business cards were mission essential equipment at AWP14
Business cards were mission essential equipment at AWP14

UPDATE:  This essay on AWP14 by Aaron Gilbreath, titled “My Fictional Fantasy: Finally a World Where Writers Matter,” appeared recently on Salon.  I think it nicely captures the spirit of the conference from the perspective of one who was skeptical going in, as was I, but found a lot to like about it, as did I.

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