Iraq and Afghan Women in War and War Fiction

Sand QueenMy post last week about poetry written by Afghan women prompted one reader to ask me about fictional portraits of Afghan and Iraqi women and another to ask me about my own experiences with Afghan women during my deployment to Khost and Paktya provinces in 2008-2009. The first query can be answered quickly, for there aren’t many. In Sand Queen (2011) Helen Benedict features a young Iraqi woman named Naema. In The Watch (2012) Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya portrays a young Afghan woman named Nizam. In both novels, the women narrate their stories in first person in chapters that alternate with others that relate events from American point-of-views. In both novels, the young women have come to American bases or outposts to plead the case of relatives killed or captured by Americans. In Sand Queen, Naema wants to know what’s become of her father and brother, who have been imprisoned in Camp Bucca. In The Watch, Nizam wants the Americans to return the body of her The Watchbrother, a vaunted Pashtun jihadist, who has been killed in an attack on their compound. The Americans intend to evacuate Nizam’s brother’s corpse to Kabul to verify his identity and publicize his death.

Naema and Nizam are more intelligent, more mature, and more articulate than the Americans with whom they interact. Their integrity and sense of ethics are also superior. Through them, Benedict and Roy-Bhattacharya suggest how ill-equipped most American soldiers were for dealing with Iraq and Afghan nationals, especially women, with anything approaching subtlety and sensitivity. Stupidity and brutality more accurately describe things.

Short story authors Katey Schultz and Siobhan Fallon also occasionally portray “local national” women in their fiction. Benedict, Roy-Bhattacharya, Schultz, and Fallon are all civilians who never served in the military. In the fiction about Iraq and Afghanistan written by veterans, Iraq and Afghan women barely appear. Survey The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, Redeployment, and the Fire and Forget anthology and tell me what you find. Of recently published fiction by veterans, Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue includes a young Afghan woman as a secondary character, but not so much Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends I Could Find Them and Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives. Benedict, Schultz, and Fallon are all women, but not all women authors are given to portraying “host nation” women. None appear in Sparta, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, Be Safe I Love You, or Eleven Days, all written by women. Male civilian authors are more of the same: no Iraq or Afghan women in the male-authored Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Wynne’s War, or The Apartment.

So that’s an interesting but not very impressive record. I salute the civilian authors who have made the imaginative stretch to portray war from the viewpoints of Iraqi and Afghan women. The veterans, I’m thinking, just don’t have much real-world experience to draw on, for most of us spent our year or years overseas without any meaningful contact with local women. Here’s the sum total of my experiences, and I went “outside the wire” four or five days a week, at least in the first eight months of my deployment, to interact with Afghan civilians in one capacity or another.

Every woman we saw on the roads of Khost province wore blue burqas that covered them from head-to-toe. When we passed them in our trucks, they would turn away from us and hunch down in a ball until we passed. This behavior outraged our interpreters. “Do you know why they are doing that?” they would ask, “It is because the Taliban is making them.” But the times we saw women on the street were few. On most missions, we only saw men. Stopping to speak with the women we did see was unimaginable.

We hosted a shura on our camp and one of the speakers was a woman politician of some fame in Afghanistan. I wish I remembered her name, because I wonder how she came to prominence and what’s become of her.  After the public shura, I was privy to an hour-long private meeting in which the woman-politician was the only female in a group of twelve (and I the only American). Her veil came off and she bantered back-and-forth, seemingly at ease, with the men, who also seemed to enjoy the occasion immensely.

A package bounced out of one of our trailers on a bumpy patch of road and was immediately picked up by a young Afghan male who carried it into a kalat. We stopped and sent our interpreter to retrieve the package. I watched as he was met at the door by a woman who vehemently denied that anything had happened. She and our interpreter jabbered back and forth for a few minutes and then the interpreter pushed past her into an interior room, retrieved the package and returned to our trucks.

Adolescent girls before maturity played on the streets without restraint, and it was heart-breaking to think about those obviously within a few months of disappearing behind the veil and kalat walls for the rest of their lives. We hosted weekly medical clinics on our camp and saw a steady stream of young girls there, but all were escorted to us by their fathers and older brothers, never their mothers and older sisters. My Afghan counterpart sometimes was visited by his seven-year-old daughter, who scampered about the office as a young girl would anywhere, alternately snuggling up to her father and then dancing across the room in peels of laughter. For a while, a young Afghan-American woman worked as an interpreter on our camp. We all liked her fine, but she had trouble relating to the Afghan officers. I think the problem was more that her command of Dari and Pashto were not great and also that she was demure by nature—a huge handicap in a nation made up of emotional and outspoken verbal combatants.

An ANA brigade commander, the governor of Khost, and the Khost police chief with a young girl in a downtown Khost ice cream shop.
An ANA brigade commander, the governor of Khost, and the Khost police chief with a young girl in a downtown Khost ice cream shop.

So that was it—pretty slim pickings, all-in-all, and though I’m sure we could have done better, the pickings were certainly even slimmer for rank-and-file soldiers. The men and women who served on Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which were charged with nation-building and humanitarian missions, had more significant interactions, but their numbers were few. NGOs had developed a network of women’s schools, clinics, and centers in they years after 9/11, but by the time I arrived most had closed, if not been blown up. Maybe more was happening in Kabul and inside the Green Zone in Iraq, but I wouldn’t know. Much has been made lately of the Cultural Support Teams made up of women who passed rigorous qualification tests to work with Special Operations units to facilitate their interactions with women. I don’t want to gainsay anything the women on these teams accomplished, and I look forward to finding out more about them, but accompanying Green Berets, SEALs, and Rangers on midnight missions to seize High Value Targets in my mind unfortunately doesn’t qualify as a significant and sustained engagement with the women of Afghanistan, and in any case the whole effort came at least five years too late. If there were feminine hearts-and-minds to be won, or important intelligence to be gained from the distaff side of Afghan and Iraq society, we didn’t do much to glean them. That’s good news for military wives worried about their husbands misbehaving downrange or falling in love with an Afghan or Iraqi beauty, but bad news for war writers interested in portraying the full range of citizenry in the lands in which we fought.

A girl at the Camp Clark clinic, 2009.  Picture by an International Security Force and Assistance Force photographer.
A girl at the Camp Clark clinic, 2009. Picture by an International Security Force and Assistance Force photographer.

War Stories: Reading and Writing the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

War-StoriesI was invited to speak at Wesleyan University with Roy Scranton and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.  My comments mostly blended Time Now posts with others about Afghanistan from my old blog 15-Month Adventure. Scranton and Roy-Bhattacharya, on the other hand, offered up exciting new work. Scranton read “The Fall,” recently published in Prairie Schooner’s war issue and part of a novel he’s hoping to find a publisher for soon. Roy-Bhattacharya read from a novel in progress.  Both selections portray life in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom from the viewpoint of Iraqis, in Scranton’s case that of two women and in Roy-Bhattacharya’s that of the Baghdad Zoo caretakers.  We’ll have to wait for Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel, but here’s an excerpt from Scranton’s story:

Maha sat in her room listening to Britney Spears, wishing she was anywhere else.  The war was going to ruin her life, she knew it, it was going to ruin her chances for marriage, it was going to ruin everything.  Her skin was breaking out, her hair frizzing, ends splitting.  She stood at her window and looked through the split between two pieces of plywood nailed over the glass and watched smoke drift over her city, and the smoke was her future fading into haze.

And another, from near the end:

They quit going out.  They locked the gate.  They spoke to their neighbors through a crack in the second-story window. They didn’t go out onto the roof.  More explosions, more shooting.  One night they listened to a tank roll down their street.  They heard it stop.  They heard the grind of its turret and heard its gun fire, the sound of hell cracking open, then again, feeling it in their bellies, thumbs, and knees.  They looked at each other and prayed. Allahu akbar, la illaha ila Allah.  They heard a machine gun go tock-tock-tock and the tank rolled away.  An empty house down the block had been its target.  Two gaping holes like blank eye sockets watched the street.

That scene’s sensational, and Roy-Bhattacharya’s story, about the destruction of the Baghdad Zoo, even more so, but I like how they also explore with care the lived lives and and consciousness of Iraqis in that far-away, hard-to-remember time.  Each author was determined to bring the era back, to make it memorable again, reconfigured in ways that allow us to see it from other perspectives, and made vivid through the power of artistic description.

In the audience at the reading was Richard Slotkin, a Wesleyan professor famous for his works Regeneration Through Violence, Gunfighter Nation, and others.  The thesis of Regeneration Through Violence is easy to state: religious, peace-minded Americans learned to love, not hate, violence fighting Native Americans during the Puritan era. Think back to whatever you remember of the King Philip Wars, which were brutal and merciless.  Each subsequent generation of Americans then sought their own bloody encounter with a savage dark-skinned foe. For the next three centuries, Americans pushed westward, driven not by manifest destiny, but bloodlust.  In the 20th century, out of native land, the theory goes, generation by generation Americans created and battled enemies abroad.   Our wars thus have not been Clausewitzian, but Freudian.  Not politics by other means, but psychology at its most primeval.  In Gunfighter Nation, Slotkin examines the ideology of Westerns and war movies.  In the 19th century, print fed what Slotkin calls “the national imaginary” of what it means to fight, but in the 20th and 21st Slotkin argues that it is movies and TV that mold consciousness.  For Slotkin, they do political work preparing an always almost already populace to embrace war. Either they unwittingly rechannel conventions, or their makers do so cravenly and crassly.

Two days after Scranton, Roy-Bhattacharya, and I read, I returned to Wesleyan to hear Slotkin lecture on the 2001 movie adaptation of Mark Bowden’s Blackhawk Down.  Slotkin deplored its degradation of Bowden’s superior book.   He claimed the movie-makers made many artistic choices that reinforced the message that America was justified in heinous overseas adventurism and inculcated the idea that a “kill ‘em all” mentality was not only effective, but morally defensible.  In his lecture, Slotkin mentioned the War Stories reading three times, all favorably.  He asserted that contemporary war writers such as Scranton and Roy-Bhattacharya were working hard and generally succeeding in breaking the pernicious clichés and traps of popular American story-telling. Movies couldn’t do it, he implied; they were too bound by genre conventions and money-making imperatives.  Novelists aren’t free of such things, nor is the publishing industry, but they have a better chance of avoiding them. Staunchly individualist in outlook and solitary in method, writers thoughtfully pursue their visions of the truth free of cant and stereotypes. They tell the stories they want to tell or that they think the nation needs, not wants, to hear.

I was glad to hear that, because it’s what I think, too.  I just hope it’s true.  We’ll see when Hollywood turns Scranton’s and Roy-Bhattacharya’s novels into blockbusters, right?  But first they have to get published, which I hope is soon.

At Wesleyan, with, left to right, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Roy Scranton, me, Richard Slotkin, our host William Pinch of Wesleyan's History Department
Left to right, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Roy Scranton, me, Richard Slotkin, and our host William Pinch of Wesleyan’s History Department

Roy Scranton’s “The Fall” appears in the winter 2013 issue of Prairie Schooner, a special war edition guest edited by Brian Turner.  It is full of interesting stories and poems and fresh voices.

Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence:   The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1975/2000.

Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation:  Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

War of Words, Words of War

Last week I was fortunate to hear masterful short-story war authors Phil Klay and Hassan Blasim read in separate events to West Point cadets, faculty, and interested community members.  Both Klay and Blasim were eager to share their enthusiasm for literature and what they have learned about war for the benefit of future officers.  Both, I think, were pleased to find receptive audiences—Blasim, no fan of Saddam Hussein but equally appalled at the destruction of Iraqi civilized, artistic, and intellectual life in the wake of his displacement by American forces, and Klay, a Semper Fi Do or Die Marine in the heart of the belly of the Army beast.  Both read powerfully, both were charming raconteurs in informal discussion, and both were inspirational about the necessity of imagination and art to help people—future Army officers—understand the complexity of war and the human experience of it.  Hats off to my bosses and colleagues at West Point who have worked hard to make contemporary war artists and writers relevant to the education of cadets.

This week, Klay and Blasim read together in New York City, where I took this picture of them together:

Klay Blasim

Also this week, I participated in two Vassar College classes that explored the Iraq War through fiction and photography.  The class had read David Abrams’ Fobbit, and now we were privileged to have Abrams join us by Skype—shades of deployment!—to discuss his black humor vision of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Abrams has written about the experience in his blog The Quivering Pen and even included two wonderful student response papers to his novel.  The following class, the professor, Dr. Maria Hoehn of Vassar’s History Department, brought in Michael Kamber, a photographer who has covered both Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times.  Kamber has recently published an important and fascinating book called Photojournalists on War:  The Untold Stories from Iraq.  In it, Kamber compiles hundreds of photographs too graphic for military censors and media editors and published them along with their photographers’ accounts of their taking.  Kamber is adamant that photographs can shape consciousness and politics and he is vehement in his indictment of a military-media complex that has restricted, censored, and otherwise blocked distribution of the photographs that would truly inform the American public about the Iraq War.


This swirl of words and impressions came as a series of publications and events brought veterans and veteran fiction into high relief.  George Packer’s glowing assessment of the contemporary war lit scene in the New Yorker was great, but its fulsome praise was undercut by Cara Hoffman’s  indictment in the New York Times that that same scene has been inhospitable to women’s first-person accounts of war.  Next came the news of yet another shooting rampage by a veteran.  One could sense public patience with vets draining away with each new article; we who were once heroes are in danger of morphing into monsters.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the New York Times ran an opinion piece that confidently asserted a causal relationship between military service and membership in white supremacist groups and then an article that made the current generation of West Point cadets sound like bloodthirsty ingrates for their admission of regret that they would not probably not see combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In the midst of these gloomy accounts came a personal triumph, but one whose relevance to contemporary war literature I’m still trying to figure out. The current Maryland Historical Magazine features an article I wrote about early American novelist John Neal.  Neal is unknown to most, but he authored seven novels between 1817 and 1823–a time when very few other American writers took novels seriously.  Neal obviously did.  He called novels “the fireside biography of nations” and said, “People read novels who never go to plays or to church.  People read novels who never read plays, sermons, history, philosophy, nor indeed any thing else.”  Novels, for Neal, were places “where imaginary creatures, invested with all the attributes of humanity, agitated by the passions of our nature, are put to the task of entertaining or terrifying us.”  Ominously, he wrote that readers were excited by immoral and criminal characters more than virtuous ones.  Speaking of two popular authors of the time, Neal claimed that “all their great men are scoundrels….  their good men are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.”  Be that as it may, Neal urged that all writers “write fiction–let them put out all their power upon a literature that all may read, century after century–I do not mean quote, and keep in their libraries, but read.”

Is any of this true, then or now?  Is any of it important?  Tomorrow I travel to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to participate in a “Writers on War” panel with Roy Scranton and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.  I’m interested to hear what they and our audience have to say.  And what about David Abrams?  Michael Kamber?  Phil Klay?  Hassan Blasim?

“Terps”: Afghan and Iraqi Interpreters in War Memoir and Fiction

One aspect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not generally understood is how dependent were American and other Western forces on the services of native interpreters to mediate virtually every interaction with host-nation military personnel and civilians.  Given the lack of Arabic, Dari, and Pashto speakers actually in the military and the paucity of bilingual speakers in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can assume that anything you might have read about in the papers that involved on-the-ground operations, and the millions of missions and engagements you didn’t, took place with a native speaker translator at the side of the officer or NCO charged with carrying them out.  Though some interpreters in Iraq outlaw-platoonand Afghanistan were American citizens or residents recruited in America and then deployed back to their homelands, most were natives. The fullest portrait of a host-nation interpreter and a US military member I know of appears in Sean Parnell’s Outlaw Platoon (2012), a memoir about Parnell’s service as an infantry platoon leader in Paktika province, Afghanistan.  Parnell uses anecdotes about his interpreters, one, named Abdul, faithful and competent, the other, Yusef, untrustworthy and treacherous, to frame his account.  “A good ‘terp,’” writes Parnell, “could make a huge difference in daily operations.”

“Terp” was the commonly used shorthand to describe military linguists.  I never really liked the term, but it was ubiquitous and even I would use it to describe “Terp Village,” the humble compounds affixed to US bases in which a unit’s interpreters lived.  The term appears again in a passage found in journalist-historian Bing West’s The Wrong War (2011).  West, describing operations in southern Afghanistan, writes, “The interpreters were the funnel for all coalition interactions with Afghans at all levels.”  Then, describing an interpreter named Siad, West continues: “Siad was typical of the local The Wrong Warinterpreters.  They all tried hard, and most worshipped the grunts they served locally.  Their thirst for absorbing American culture never ceased…  Their skills were marginal, no matter how hard they tried.  Their hearts were huge.  Anyone who doubted the magical image of America in the minds of millions of Afghans had only to spend a day under fire with a U.S. squad and the local terp.”

Before examining fictional representations of interpreters, I’ll post a passage from a private document written by a former interpreter of mine who is now applying for admission to the US.  It offers insight into the lived life of the men described abstractly so far:

I am engaged now and my fiancé is from Ghazni province.  All her relatives know that I am working with Coalition Forces as a linguist.  For that reason, I cannot go to Ghazni province now to see her or relatives or take part in a condolence or happiness party.  Since I know that everybody knows that I am working with Coalition Forces I do not feel free and I am sure my life is at risk.  Even in Kabul City where I live, I cannot go out at night and visit other people because I am very afraid my life is at risk.

War fiction writers have begun to make something of the possibilities offered by these complex figures and intense soldier-local national relationships.  Their portraits do what fiction does:  combine artistic creativity with realistic verisimilitude to provide social, psychological, and emotional nuance.  They might be said, however, to focus on dramatic aspects where the day to day record is more placid or positive.  The first depiction of which I am aware is in a Siobhan Fallon short story “Camp Liberty,” from her collection You Know When the Men are Gone (2011).  In this story, Fallon tells of a soldier deployed to Iraq, named  David, whose romantic relationship with SF-PictureMarissa, his stateside fiancé, fades as the working one with Raneen, a female interpreter, intensifies.  David grows enamored of Raneen, but she disappears and is probably killed before he is able to speak to her in anything but an on-the-job context.  Her disappearance leaves him more adrift than he imagined possible, and perhaps now too estranged from Marissa for that to ever be right again.  Fallon puts a romantic spin on what was usually a close working relationship between two men, while characterizing David and Raneen’s relationship as at least reasonably compatible and effective, but other stories depict much more fraught relationships.

In Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (2012), an Iraqi named Malik appears as a minor character early in The Yellow Birds Coverthe book.  Powers’ narrator John Bartle tells us that Malik’s “English was exceptional… He’d been a student at the university before the war, studying literature.”  He wears a hood and a mask because, he says, “’They’ll kill me for helping you.  They’ll kill my whole family.’”  A few pages Malik is killed by a sniper, and Bartle and his friend debate whether to include him in their morbid count toward 1000 Coalition Force casualties:

“Doesn’t count, does it?” Murph asked.

“No.  I don’t think so.”

Bartle reports, “I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then.  Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed.”

Redeployment“Money is a Weapons System,” by Phil Klay, in his recently released collection Redeployment (2014) portrays “a short and pudgy Sunni Muslim” interpreter known as “the Professor.”  Sullen and contemptuous, the Professor is “rumored to have blood on his hands from the Saddam days,” but Klay’s narrator, says, “Whether that was true or not, he was our best interpreter.”  A short exchange reflects their tense relationship:

“Istalquaal,” I finally said, trying to draw him out.  “Does it mean freedom, or liberation?”

[The Professor] opened his eyes a crack and looked at me sidelong.  “Istalquaal?  Istiqlal means independence.  Istalquaal means nothing.  It means Americans can’t speak Arabic.”

The most extensive portrait of an interpreter and the only one I know of published first in English that attempts to portray the interpreter’s thoughts and point of view is Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch (2012).  In this novel, The Watchwhich is set in the southern, Pashtun-region of Afghanistan, a young ethnic Tajik interpreter named Masood, loyal to the Americans and eager to do well, is dropped off at a remote combat outpost in the middle of the night after the big battle.  He doesn’t know about the battle, but expecting better he confronts hostility and mysterious behavior at every turn from his new American hosts and allies.  Roy-Bhattacharya gets right the incredibly uneven regard of young American soldiers for those outside the fraternal ranks of their unit.  Masood is mystified and hurt by the Americans’ baffling rudeness, and yet it is more complex than that—just when he is ready to write off the Americans as barbarians, he meets a medic who knows more about Afghan literature and history than he does, then the warm and wise COP first sergeant, and finally the outpost commander, whose fanatical adherence to mission and security coincides with a more than passing fluency in Pashto and Dari.

The dramatic focus on interpreters and the soldier-interpreter relationship, to my mind, suggests several points:

  1. The interpreter, not the host nation populace, was the “other” most often encountered by American soldiers, and the only one with whom he or she might bond.  With emotional investment, however, comes gratitude, guilt, and feelings of loss after the relationship ends.
  2. In life, the relationship between soldier and interpreter was often characterized by respect and mutual affection.  In fiction, however, the relationship is mined for tension and drama.  The interpreter, from the fiction author’s viewpoint, is part of the problem, and dysfunctional interpreter relationships symbolize the divide between Western military forces and the populaces they intend to help.
  3. The interpreter himself, or herself, is a complex, in-between figure who must manage a thicket of complicated personal histories and commitments.  In some ways they become “people without a country,” or a contemporary “tragic mulatto,” neither white nor dark and doomed to unhappiness and premature death.
  4. Contemplation of the interpreter’s role help us understand the basic unreality and unknowability of the wars:  mediated, filtered, coming to us second-hand via seriously invested witness-participants.  The general situation short of combat was always linguistically, rhetorically, and even artistically arranged for us by translators about whom we knew little and did little to comprehend.

The Corpse ExhibitionThe only fiction I know of written by an Iraqi or Afghan that portrays interpreters is Iraqi expatriate author Hassan Blasim’s story “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes,” from his recently published collection of translated short stories The Corpse Exhibition (2014).  It is also the only tale that imagines a future existence for interpreters post-war and measures the long-term consequences of their involvement with Americans.  Carlos Fuentes is the pseudonym of an Iraqi named Salim Abdul Husain who has emigrated to Holland; he has taken the name because he reports that his own name makes him a marked man in the eyes of those who won’t forgive him for working as a translator for American forces.  Carlos Fuentes has seen nothing but violence and injustice in Iraq, and in Holland he becomes a model citizen, fully embracing European values and habits while scorning immigrants who don’t.   Blasim’s narrator states:

“Why are the trees so green and beautiful, as though they are washed by water every day?  Why can’t we be peaceful like them?  We live in houses like pigsties while their houses are warm, safe, and colorful.  Why do they respect dogs as humans?  ….  How can we get a decent government like theirs?”  Everything Carlos Fuentes saw amazed him and humiliated him at the same time, from the softness of the toilet paper in Holland to the parliament building protected only by security cameras.

All goes well for Carlos Fuentes until he begins having nightmares about his past life.  He takes extremely fantastic measures to avoid the nightmares—“One night he painted his face like an American Indian, slept wearing diaphanous orange pajamas, and put under his pillow three feathers taken from various birds”–and yet nothing works.  At tale’s end he is confronted in a dream by Salim Abdul Husain, his old self:

Salim was standing naked next to the window holding a broom stained with blood…. Salim began to smile and repeated in derision, “Salim the Dutchman, Salim the Mexican, Salim the Iraqi, Salim the Frenchman, Salim the Indian, Salim the Pakistani, Salim the Nigerian….”

The Carlos Fuentes character takes aim at Salim with a rifle, Salim jumps out the window, and the narrator tells us that Carlos Fuentes’s wife finds him dead on the pavement below in the morning.  In a final indignity, Carlos Fuentes’ death is reported in the papers as that of an “Iraqi man” rather than a “Dutch national,” and his brothers have his body taken back to Iraq for burial.  No one it seems has been much convinced by his effort to renounce his past.

Interpreting the interpreter, we can surmise that Carlos Fuentes’ divided self and attempted cultural makeover does not hold.  The war has traumatized him beyond his knowing and his idealization of the West a dream not meant for him to possess.  But it’s not just about what happens to him while working alongside American and European forces in country, or that his attempt to adopt and internalize Western values and beliefs have instead generated pathological self-hatred and destructiveness.  It’s about the lived life of immigrants after the personal relationship ends, the Americans go home, and the rest of the interpreter’s life begins.  Blasim’s story, and all stories about interpreters, remind us that real linguists exist by the 1000s in both Iraq and Afghanistan or elsewhere, and letting them fend for themselves now that we are gone is one more of the ways we fought the wars very callously and in ways that kept us from being as successful as possible.


Most of this post was first presented at the recent American Comparative Literature Conference in New York City.  Thanks to panel organizer Susan Derwin for inviting me to speak.  Thanks to fellow panelist Brian Williams, who reminded me of the presence of the interpreter Malik in The Yellow Birds.  The paper as delivered at ACLA did not reference The Yellow Birds.  I am invested in this subject because of my own positive experience with two interpreters in Afghanistan who are now in the United States, enlisted in the US Army, and who hope to become US citizens.  I am actively engaged in trying to help a third trusted interpreter emigrate to the US.  Paul Solotaroff describes the difficulty interpreters have in obtaining visas in “The Interpreters We Left Behind,” published this week in Men’s Journal.

Time Now Live in Seattle: Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference

AWPThis week I’ll be presenting at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle.  Thanks to Roy Scranton for the invite; it’s an honor to be part of a panel with Roy, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and Phil Klay. If you’ll be at AWP, too, check us out at 10:30 on Friday morning.

Sterling review of Phil Klay’s short-story collection Redeployment here, just out today 26 February in the New York Times.  Congratulations, Phil!

Another 26 February update: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya will not be able to make it, but we will be joined by novelist and essayist Hilary Plum.  Check out this interview with Hilary on the Full Stop website.  It appeared shortly after the release of her 2013 novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets, which I haven’t read but am now eager to check out.

The AWP blurb for our panel:

F160. War Stories: Truth, Fiction, and Conflict. Roy Scranton, Phil Klay, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Peter Molin. Room 301, Western New England MFA Annex, Level 3. The truth of war is always multiple. Homer’s Iliad gives us both Achilles and Hector, just as Tolstoy’s War and Peace opens up a panorama of perspectives. Fiction offers an unparalleled medium to explore the conflicting truths of war, yet also offers dangers. How do we negotiate politics, witnessing, and voyeurism? How can we highlight war’s ugliness and still write a compelling story? How do we portray war’s beauty and still write an ethical one? Our panel explores these age-old problems.

The Corpse ExhibitionTo give you an idea of what’s on my mind, here’s an excerpt from Iraqi short-story writer Hassan Blasim’s “An Army Newspaper.”  Blasim’s narrator is the cultural editor of a military newspaper during the Iraq-Iran War. He writes of the submissions that he would receive from soldier-authors:

But I do admit that I would often interfere in the structure and composition of the stories and poems, and try as far as possible to add imaginative touches to the written images that would come to us from the front.  For God’s sake, what’s the point, as we are about to embark on war in poetry, of someone saying, “I felt that the artillery bombardment was as hard as rain, but we were not afraid”?  I would cross that out and rewrite it:  “I felt that the artillery fire was like a carnival of stars, as we staggered like lovers across the soil of the homeland.”  This is just a small example of my modest interventions.

Now why would Blasim write that?  What was his narrator thinking?

Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq. Penguin, 2013.  Translated by Jonathan Wright.

All Along the Afghan Watchtower: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch

The WatchJoydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s 2012 novel The Watch registers many firsts in the burgeoning contemporary war lit genre.  It’s the first novel I know that’s set in Afghanistan.  The first set on a combat outpost, as opposed to a FOB.  The first to feature an extended battle scene—a terrific sequence that describes a Taliban effort to overrun the Americans in their small fortress.  The first to feature prominently the voices of host-nation civilians, in this case that of a young Pashtun woman—a double amputee at that—and a young Tajik male who works as an interpreter for American forces.  Not a first, in fact much like David Abrams’ Fobbit, The Watch narrates chapters through the perspective of several different American soldiers, from junior enlisted to first sergeant to lieutenant to captain, as well as the Afghan voices described above.  But unlike Fobbit’s satirical approach, The Watch is deadly serious—a tragedy.  At story’s end, the Americans and Afghans who have not been killed have absolutely no chance of living happily into the future.

The Watch’s plot adapts that of Antigone, Sophocles’ classic Greek play about a young Theban woman who defies the state by insisting that her brother, killed on the wrong side in a civil war, be accorded proper burial honors.  In The Watch, Nizam, the Pashtun double-amputee, is the Antigone figure.  Her brother, defiant of the American occupiers if not a Taliban by ideology, lies dead outside of COP Tarsândan after a midnight attack.  In the play, Antigone is thwarted by King Creon, the Theban ruler, who represents the power of the State, and her sister Ismene, who counsels moderation and fears Creon’s wrath.  In The Watch, the Creon role is occupied by Captain Connolly, the COP commander, while Ismene is Masood, a Tajik interpreter whose loyalties are split between the Americans who fight the treacherous Taliban and the Afghan cultural codes that emphasize respect for the dead.  Sophocles’ play clearly favors Antigone, a heroic young woman who fights authority, but dramatic space is left open to consider King Creon’s and Ismene’s perspectives.  Roy-Bhattacharya builds this same ambiguity into The Watch, especially in regard to Captain Connolly, on whom the fate of Nizam and her brother’s remains depend.  Portrayed unflatteringly in the novel’s early stages, by the end we see the staggering complexity of interests and consequences he must juggle to effectively “take care of troops and accomplish the mission”—that onerous mantra of military leadership whose twin dictates are usually in stark opposition.  It’s as if Roy-Bhattacharya realized in the course of writing The Watch that Connolly was too sympathetic to be a Creon.  The heavy-handed imposition of authority in the novel is by the greater US military and foreign policy apparatus that organized the war and now issues Connolly orders.  Connolly’s deliberations under the pressure of those orders, like Creon’s under the Greek gods’, are human, all too human.

The Watch’s abiding interest in Captain Connolly intrigues me.  Not to privilege the war experience of the officers, but I’m glad to see at least one portrayed favorably in the skeptical world of war fiction.  I also liked the character of Masood.  In The Watch, Masood is dropped at COP Tarsândan in the middle of the night after the big battle and confronts hostility at every turn from his new American hosts and allies.   Roy-Bhattacharya gets right the incredibly uneven regard of young American soldiers for those outside the fraternal ranks of their unit.  Frankly, the average 20-year-old American male doesn’t have it in him under the best of circumstances to welcome graciously strangers who do not share his cultural background, and the circumstances of the soldiers on Tarsândan are anything but the best.  Masood is mystified and hurt by the Americans’ baffling rudeness, and yet it is more complex than that—just when he is ready to write off the Americans as barbarians, he meets a medic who knows more about Afghan literature and history than he does, then the warm and wise COP first sergeant, and finally Captain Connolly, whose fanatical adherence to mission and security co-exist with a more than passing fluency in Pashto and Dari.  This extremely wide diversity in manners and education certainly exists within the American military and our larger society as well.

American soldiers in Afghanistan.  Picture by Bill Putnam, used by permission.
American soldiers in Afghanistan. Picture by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

Roy-Bhattacharya was born and raised in India and did not come to America to live until he began graduate school here as a young man.  In Masood, perhaps we see him replaying the highs and lows of his own first encounters with an America that bestows its hospitality and respect to outsiders in fitful and perplexing lurches.  This perspectival complexity is reflected in Roy-Bhattacharya’s acknowledgements:  one to “the people of Afghanistan” and another to an American he refers to as, “Officer, Gentleman.”  He also writes,

“To the U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan who befriended me and technically foolproofed the book—you know who you are—I have no words to adequately express my thanks.  I remain in awe of your objectivity, in gratitude for your unwavering enthusiasm, and in your permanent debt for your gift of friendship.”

Roy-Bhattacharya himself might be something of a Masood.  He helps us understand the war, hating what it has done and made us do and be, but not hating those of us who fought it.

Afghan elders.  Picture by Bill Putnam, used by permission.
Afghan elders. Picture by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

A post on my blog 15-Month Adventure about Spera Combat Outpost:  All Hail the Defenders of Spera COP! 

Another post on 15-Month Adventure about Spera Combat Outpost: Spera COP Sector Sketch

A 15-Month Adventure post about interpreters:  Combined Action

A 15-Month Adventure post about a small Afghanistan FOB and its stout company commander: The KG

War Literati: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, and Roy Scranton

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, Roy Scranton
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, Roy Scranton

I spent the better part of Saturday with three talented authors of contemporary war fiction.  In the afternoon, I viewed the War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath at the Brooklyn Museum in the company of Roy Scranton and Phil Klay. Scranton, a US Army Iraq vet, is the editor of Fire and Forget, the landmark anthology of Iraq and Afghanistan war short fiction that I’ve written about several times in this blog.  Scranton contributes a story to his own collection, and he’s working on a novel, but the drift of his thought goes well beyond war literature.  Below are links to two wildly creative and intellectually provocative essays he’s recently published in the New York Times and on an online site called The Appendix:

New York Times, Roy Scranton’s “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene”

The Appendix, Roy Scranton’s “The Curse of Coherence”

Klay, a USMC Iraq vet, contributed a story to Fire and Forget and served as a guide (and perhaps an inspiration) to Roxana Robinson as she wrote Sparta.  Klay’s collection of short stories Redeployment will be released next year by Penguin.  I’ve read an advanced copy and greatly enjoyed it–if you are wondering what new subjects and perspectives are possible in war lit, you will, too.

Joining us later was Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, the author of The Watch, a novel about an Army unit on a small combat outpost in Afghanistan.  I somehow overlooked The Watch upon its release last year, and subsequently experienced an “OMG-what-have-I-missed” moment when I finally read it a couple of weeks ago. I’ll have plenty to say about The Watch in future posts, but here will only report that it combines military realism with literary skill and imagination to a high degree.

Together, we talked into the night and made plans for a panel presentation Scranton has organized for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle next February.  Next spring, I’ll also be speaking on war literature at the American Comparative Literature Association conference in New York City in March and the Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Harrisburg, PA, in April. Join me at any of them if you can, and let all conversations continue.

Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, me, and Roy Scranton
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, me, Roy Scranton

New York Times Slideshow of the Brooklyn Museum War/Photography Exhibit

New York Times Review of the Brooklyn Museum War/Photography Exhibit

The Classical Roots of Contemporary War Literature: Been There, Done That, 2500 Years Ago

Beyond the walls of this Afghanistan FOB, a hilltop fortress reportedly built by Alexander the Great
Beyond the walls of this Afghanistan FOB, a hilltop fortress reportedly built by Alexander the Great

Many contemporary war authors, artists, and thinkers have turned to classical Greece for subjects, themes, and inspiration.  A quick catalog might begin with Sparta, the recent novel by Roxana Robinson.  The protagonist of Robinson’s novel is a Marine, and I’ve heard Robinson speak about how pervasively awareness of Spartan culture and ethos runs in the Marines.  “The History of the Peloponnesian Wars is practically required reading at Quantico,” she reports.  Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Watch recasts Sophocles’ Antigone by placing it in war-torn Kandahar.  It begins with an Afghan woman’s entreaty to American soldiers on a combat outpost to release the body of her brother–an interesting storyline very much like Antigone‘s own.  A fine collection of poems, Stateside by Jehanne Dubrow, draws on Homer’s Odyssey to explore the plight of the poetic speaker, a modern-day Penelope awaiting the return of her Odysseus.  It’s hard not to imagine almost any of Siobhan Fallon’s tales of fraught return-from-deployment marriages in much the same light.  But Sophocles’ Ajax might be the best Greek work in regard to the homecoming.  Where The Odyssey portrays Penelope’s long nine-year wait for her man to return from war, Ajax portrays the even more tortured period AFTER the heroic Ajax returns from war to his war-trophy wife Tecmessa.  Where Penelope barely gets to say a word in The Odyssey, Tecmessa’s anguished voice resounds throughout Ajax, as she wonders what the hell has happened to her husband.  After Ajax slaughters a herd of sheep in a delusional rampage, Tecmessa screams:

During the night our wonderful Ajax
Was hit with madness and went beserk
You will see the proof of it in the tent:
Holocausts dripping with gore by his hand

Ajax serves as the dramatic centerpiece for Theater of War, an acclaimed troupe who stage readings of the play to elicit discussion and activism on behalf of struggling veterans.  If you have a chance to see a Theater of War performance, by all means do so.  They also perform readings of another Sophocles play, Philoctetes, which like Ajax portrays the aftermath of war on a soldier wounded physically and emotionally by his experiences.  Philosopher Nancy Sherman uses Philoctetes as the literary lens through which she explores issues of moral injury and repair in her recent work The Untold War.

I’m fine with all this Greek love, but it does make me appreciate all the more Brian Turner’s persistent effort to seed his poetry with references to Iraqi, Arabic, and Mesopotamian classic literature, folklore, and history. For my part, I turned first to ancient Rome when crafting the following short tale called “Cy and Ali.” It’s based on Ceyx and Alceone,” a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection that itself draws on Greek antecedents for subjects, themes, and inspiration.  Read on if you care to.

     Cy busied himself with the by–now routine activities of a combat patrol: gathering his personal gear and stowing it in the truck, drawing the big .50 caliber machine gun and mounting it in the gun turret, setting the frequencies and security codes on the radio, helping out the other crew members and being helped by them in turn. As he waited for the mission commander to give the patrol brief, he thought about his wife for a few moments. Ali had not wanted him to go on this deployment; he had had options that would have kept him in the States, at least for a while longer, and she could not understand why he had been so eager to return to Afghanistan.

     “I think you are crazy,” she had told him. Left unstated was the suspicion that he liked the idea of going to war more than he liked the idea of being with her. She loved him dearly, and though he professed his love for her, too, she couldn’t help but feel that he didn’t value their relationship as much as she did. Cy also wasn’t sure what to think, either then or now while he waited for the patrol brief to begin. Returning to Afghanistan had been very important to him, but beyond his claims about needing to be with his unit and doing his duty, he sensed that there was a cold hard nugget of selfishness about his willingness to jeopardize his marriage—not to mention his life—for the sake of the deployment.

     Rather than give Ali an excuse or an explanation, he had offered a compensation. “When I get back, I promise I’ll make it up to you,” he had said, “I’ll go back to school, or find some job where I won’t have to deploy again anytime soon.”

     The offer seemed lame, even to Cy, like he had thought about it for two seconds, but Ali acceded to it anyway. She loved Cy in part because he was a soldier, but some things about being a military wife were really bad. Now she busied herself with her own classes, her part-time job, and her friends and family. But she worried a lot, and had a premonition that things might not end well.

     The day’s mission was nothing special: accompany an Afghan army unit while they resupplied three of their outlying outposts. The mission commander explained that the Americans’ role was to inspect the readiness of the Afghan outposts, and to provide artillery and medical support in case anything happened along the way. Cy’s job was gunner on the mission commander’s truck, which was to be third in the order of march behind two Afghan trucks. From the truck’s exposed turret he was to man the .50 cal while keeping an eye out for suicide bombers, IEDs, and ambushes. But nothing was expected to happen; “There has been no enemy activity on the planned route in the last 48 hours,” the mission commander informed them. They had traveled the day’s route many times before with nothing more serious occurring than a vehicle breakdown. Sure they planned well and rehearsed diligently, but that was all the more reason the actual mission was probably going to be not much.

     Which is why what happened, at least at first, had an unreal feel. Three miles out, on Route Missouri, Cy saw the two lead Afghan trucks come to abrupt halts and their occupants pile out. The Afghan soldiers took up firing positions on the right side of the road and pointed their weapons back to the left side. Because he had headphones on and was chattering with the other truck occupants, Cy was unable to immediately distinguish the sound of gunshots, and it took him a moment to comprehend that the Afghans had stumbled into an ambush. Other Americans also soon gleaned what was going on and suddenly the intercom crackled with questions, reports, and commands.

     “Action front…. Scan your sectors….. Anyone have positive ID?…. There they are…. 11:00 200 meters. Engage, engage!”

     Cy identified three turbaned gunmen firing at the Afghan army trucks from behind a low wall. He charged his machine gun and began to shoot. He had fired the .50 cal dozens of times in training and thus was surprised by how far off target were his first two bursts. But very quickly he found the range, and was rewarded by seeing the big .50 caliber rounds chew up the wall behind which the insurgents were hiding. Dust and debris filled the air; Cy couldn’t tell if he had hit anyone, but surely the fire was effectively suppressing the enemy. By now, the other American trucks had identified the gunmen and were firing, too. Still, it was so hard to figure out exactly what was happening. That the three insurgents behind the wall were capable of resisting the torrent of fire unleashed on them by the American and Afghan soldiers seemed impossible, but no one could tell if there were other enemy shooting at them from somewhere else.

     Soon, however, the sound of explosions began to fill the air. Again, it was not immediately clear that the Afghan army soldiers and the insurgents were now firing Rocket Propelled Grenades at each other. “What’s going on up there?” Cy heard the mission commander ask him through the intercom. Loud booms resounded everywhere from the impact of the rocket-fired grenades.  Cy next heard “RPG! RPG!” echo through the intercom as the Americans understood that they too were now under attack. A round exploded against the truck to his left and Cy felt the blast wave wash over him. How could the enemy engage them so accurately?

    As the battle unfolded, Cy realized the situation was serious, no joke. The rest of the crew was protected inside the armored truck, but he was partially exposed in the machine gun turret. He continued to fire the .50 cal, doing his best to punish the insurgents who were trying to kill them. The noise was deafening, but in the midst of the roar of his own weapon and the other American guns, as well as the cacophony of human voices on the intercom, he discerned that enemy fire was pinging around him and sizzling overhead. Though he was not scared, he thought about his wife.

     Ali had felt uneasy throughout the day. She had not been able to communicate with Cy, which in itself was not so unusual. She understood that sometimes missions made it impossible for him to call or write. Still, she sent him emails and texts and the lack of a response for some reason felt ominous. That night, she had had a terrible dream. Cy appeared, looming over her, silent and reproachful, and Ali had awoken with a start. Nothing like this had ever happened before, not even close. She didn’t know what to do, so she watched TV for a while and then began surfing the Internet. She thought about calling her husband’s unit rear-detachment commander, but decided not to. There was no one she could talk to who wouldn’t think she was overreacting, so she didn’t do anything except continue to worry. 

     The next morning two officers appeared at Ali’s door. “The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you that your husband has died as a result of enemy fire in eastern Afghanistan,” one of them intoned. It was all too true, but for Ali the reality of the situation dissolved in a swirl of chaotic thoughts and physical sickness. 

     Ali waited on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base with Cy’s parents. An honor guard was also present, as well as a contingent from her husband’s unit, and a general whom she had never seen before and whose name she didn’t catch. Everyone was very nice to her, but Ali was confused. She didn’t know if she was supposed to be strong and dignified or to collapse in a pool of tears. She also didn’t know if she was angry with her husband, angry toward the Army, or just some strange combination of sad and proud. As her husband’s casket emerged from the plane, Ali felt herself drawn toward it. First she was taking small tentative steps, as if she were nervous about breaking some kind of rule or protocol. Then she was running, moving quickly toward the casket while the others in attendance waited behind. She was barely aware of what she was doing, but her feet seemed to no longer be touching the ground. It was as if she were floating or flying, and her arms were beating like wings of a giant bird. “O, Cy, is this the homecoming you promised me?” she thought, or maybe said aloud. Then she remembered throwing her arms around the casket, but at the same time she also felt herself rising into the air, in unison with her husband, who now was alive again and also seemed a magnificent, noble bird. Together, Cy and Ali soared upward, and the plane and the honor guard and the onlookers whirled beneath them as they circled in the sky.

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