In recent months, much writing by veterans has reckoned with America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans Day, for example, elicited a larger number of vet-authored essays and opinion pieces than I remember from years past. The veterans’ ruminations described what might blandly be called “the human cost of war,” along with discussion of those human costs’ connections to national strategy and policy failures. Countering simplistic celebrations of veterans’ service and sacrifice, the pieces described lingering guilt, loss, pain, regret, and disappointment. A few days later, President Trump’s pardoning of war criminals Edward Gallagher, Mathew Golstyen, and Clint Lorance inspired another round of articles, the general gist of which expressed outrage at the men, their actions, and the pardons. Shortly thereafter, came the release of the Washington Post’s “The Afghanistan Papers,” which accused the nation’s civilian and military leadership of lying about how badly things have gone in Afghanistan the past two decades. The series subsequently generated more public opining by veteran-writers, me included. The responses in this case tempered outrage with proclamations of “duh” and “I told you so.”
I tracked the many Veterans Day, Presidential pardons, and Afghanistan Papers commentaries and agreed with much or most of what was written there-in. As always, though, my main interest has not been public sphere debate, but the parallel world of artistic expression. Not that the realm of art is “better” than political discourse, but I Iike it more, and, at the least, art is the province of the imagination, a quality that seems to be lacking in the thinking about how to bring America’s long wars to a close. It’s not that art offers specific solutions to specific problems (or rarely does), but that the art-realm serves as a constant imperative to think and live creatively and empathetically. Recent months have brought much to contemplate in this regard, too.
For instance, the Voices from War “Stories and Conversations on Transitions” reading at the New York Historical Society on Veterans Day weekend was fantastic. Voices from War is a long-standing New York City veterans writing workshop led by Kara Krauze, a formidable teacher and organizer. At the event, I was astonished by the diversity and uniqueness of the readers’ pieces, each of which came at the subject of war and “transition” from an interesting angle. To focus on an individual reading that combined personal reminiscence with heightened artistry, Drew Pham’s prose-poem “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” was particularly outstanding. Pham, a second-generation Vietnamese-American who served as an infantry lieutenant in Afghanistan with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, is now making a go of it as a writer and teacher in New York. Taking the concept of transition to an extreme, Pham now identifies as “they” and appeared on stage wearing make-up and a dress adorned with their Army badges and decorations.
A flamboyant stage presence, no doubt, but it’s the poem Pham read that counts most. “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” explores Pham’s personal, family, and ethnic/national history as it has played out over several generations and a number of imperialistic military projects dating back to World War I France and culminating in Pham’s service in Afghanistan. There are complicated authorial subject-positions, but it’s hard to imagine one more complicated than Pham’s: the son of immigrants whose family was deeply imbricated in Vietnam’s colonial and martial past, Pham fought in Afghanistan and there did the things American infantrymen are asked to do. In “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names,” Pham tries to make sense of it all, infused with an implicit, not explicit, wrestle with gender identity and sexual orientation. A short excerpt only begins to illustrate:
i only have this story / bits of shrapnel scattered through my family / i pieced together but never whole / the explosion that tore its way through our roots detonated so long ago / i cannot tell you whether those bits of steel i still find in my limbs belong to me / or the histories of my countrymen all so erased…
Two of the five sections of “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” are available here on the World War I Centennial Commission WWrite Blog, but the poem as a whole has not yet been published. I’ve obtained a paper copy of the poem entire, read it many times, and hope it will soon be available for all to read in full. Its five sections range stylistically from traditional lyric to highly wrought narrative prose. Central to the poem is Pham’s mother, who serves as the link connecting past and present and as the fulcrum for understanding the tangled threads of the poet’s life. In this, and in overall tone and style, “How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names” on page and read aloud made me think of “Kaddish,” Beat poet Alan Ginsberg’s great ode to his own mother. Whether the resemblance is intentional or not, I don’t know, but the poem’s striking imagery, momentous story-line, and exploratory emotional depth centered on war also reminds me of Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, while not being imitative or overly indebted to either Turner or Ginsberg.
Far to the southwest, the Austin Veterans Art Festival brought forth more bold expansions of war art boundaries. I wasn’t in Texas for the Festival, but the sound of distant thunder was very exciting. Not completely unconnected with the New York City scene, either; the AVAF featured new dramatic works by several artist-veterans with Big Apple credentials. New York City-based performance-poet Jenny Pacanowski, an Army vet whose poetry can be as raucous as it can be tender, authored a play titled Dionysus in America that reimagined the ancient Bacchae plays as parables for contemporary social disintegration. As its blurb states:
Dionysus in America imagines a dystopia in which women suffer endless harassment, and right-wing politics wrenches away women’s control over their own bodies; in response, American women heed the call of Dionysus, and flee to new, strange, euphoric rites in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. General Pentheus, leader of the American war machine, swears to go to the Mesopotamia, liberate the women, and drag them back to the United States. Unfortunately, he operates unaware that his uncle, a transformed and unrecognizable Dionysus, God of ritual madness, has decided to punish America’s hubris for rejecting his mother, his divinity, and his seemingly inexplicable rites of devotion.
The super-serious and somewhat staid Iraq and Afghanistan war writing and art scene has shied away from radical political critique in terms of message and from the carnivalesque and satirical in terms of aesthetics. Pacanowski, however, and to her great credit, is anything but staid, and Dionysus in America defiantly crashes and crushes barriers. One can only hope it foretells further expansions of war-story themes and styles; not all art needs to be politically outraged and theatrically over-the-top, but some of it must be.
A second play, authored and directed by Texas natives/New Jersey transplants John Myer (an Army vet) and Karen Alvarado, also did not tell a conventional story in a conventional way. Myer and Alvarado’s play Aftershock/La Réplica combined story-telling, dance, movement, drama, and music to explore the lives of Latino soldiers serving in the US military. Again, the complexity of the subject position suggests great possibility for artistic presentation: how do Hispanic-American men and women balance dual heritages and conflicting identities with military service in a contemporary national climate that makes it increasingly difficult to do so? Aftershock/La Réplica, according to its blurb, “explores new dimensions of Latinx military service, featuring soldiers and citizens who expect military service to reinforce their identity and ideas about family, patriotism, and even sexuality – but the military is often a place that mixes up the moral compass and sense of self and invents a new identity.” A video trailer here illustrates the Myer/Alvarado approach, which is never visually boring nor intellectually dull.
An aspect of Aftershock/La Réplica I like very much is that it included passages authored by former Marine Victor Inzunza. Inzunza, a poet, was the first contemporary war-writer I ever met—on the shuttle bus from the hotel to the 2011 War, Literature, and Arts conference in Colorado—and it’s been a pleasure following his work ever since and see it now incorporated within a bold theatrical endeavor by Myer and Alvarado, who are also friends.
Also performing in Austin was another New York City-based act, the wonderful Exit 12 Dance Company, about whom I’ve written about here, and Exit 12 conducted a dance workshop, as well. Finally, Veterans Writing Project founder and director Ron Capps was the featured speaker at the Veterans Health and Welfare Conference, an event affiliated with the Austin Veterans Art Festival. I also note that Capps participated in a veterans songwriting seminar near Austin that may or may not have been associated with the AVAF. It’s confusing, but I’m glad to be confused by so much creative flourishing and eager to learn more. In any case, I sympathize with Capps, a talented guitarist and singer, as he plumbs music’s power to articulate emotional nuances that can’t be expressed by cold black words on barren white pages or screens. To me, he seems much like poet Brian Turner in this turn to music, as well as a man after my own heart. But still, I like words most and Capps, like Voices from War’s Kara Krauze, is one of the long-time (mostly) unsung heroes of contemporary veteran writing. I’m especially glad to see Capps and Krauze still active as 2020 dawns and encouraging new voices, new stories, and new directions to make sense of the by now very old wars.
This post only touches a few of the interesting contemporary war-related artistic endeavors that have caught my attention the past few months. I hope to describe some others in posts to come.