Interviews with prominent authors in the war-mil-vet-conflict scene are always a treat, even when the subjects go to dark places. Below are links to and excerpts from five such interviews I’ve been fortunate to conduct, in one case for the Veterans Writing Project‘s literary journal 0-Dark-Thirty and in the others for The Wrath-Bearing Tree.
Mary Doyle interview for 0-Dark-Thiry, Fall 2016 (begins on page 67). Doyle, a former Army NCO, is the author of The Bonding Spell, a speculative fiction novel, and The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, a military-detective novel featuring Master Sergeant Lauren Harper. Excerpt:
Molin: Master Sergeant Harper’s sense of what’s important about her identity is intriguing—it blends and balances her awareness of her status as a woman, a senior Army NCO, an African American, and the unique circumstances of her family history and her personal outlook on life. Is that how you see her too, and what more would you like us to understand about her?
Doyle: Harper is like so many black women soldiers I know. She joined the military with the hope of improving her lot in life. She comes from a loving family but one that had its challenges. Her upbringing is in a single parent household with a matriarchal example that she strives to emulate. She is an older sister to a sibling that she ends up having primary responsibility for. And as her career develops, she is surprised to discover that the job she took as a means to an end, ends up being a life she loves.
What she struggles with, and what so many dedicated female service members struggle with, is her love life. How does a woman soldier balance her dedication to a job that has 24/7 demands, with a courtship? When you are in a career that can call on you to drop everything, pack a bag and be gone for long lengths of time, how to you maintain a love life through demands like that? And what about children?
Will Mackin interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, April 2018. Mackin, a career Navy officer, served alongside Navy SEALs in Iraq and Afghanistan coordinating air-and-artillery support. He is the author of the short-story collection Bring Out the Dog. Excerpt:
Molin: From “Kattekoppen”: “The variety of ideas among soldiers developed into a variety of ideas among units, which necessitated an operational priority scheme. As SEAL Team Six, we were at the top of that scheme. Our ideas about the war were the war.” How are SEALs different from soldiers in line-units? What motivates them and what’s important to them? What were you surprised to learnabout the SEALs, as individuals and as a collective fighting force?
Mackin: The main thing that differentiated our unit from “straightleg” units was our budget. We had a lot of money to throw around. There was also a genuine desire on the part of the operators to fight, kill, and vanquish, and absolutely zero tolerance for administrative bullshit. This would sometimes bite us in the ass because no one ever wanted to plan. What we lost in lack of planning, however, was often made up for in execution. As individuals I was surprised to find those who I wouldn’t have expected to be SEALs. In other words, guys who didn’t fit the mold of the tattooed, bearded, Harley-riding Alpha male. They were just normal dudes with this ridiculous and well-disguised drive…. Most SEALs were personable one-on-one, but I found them to be very insular as a group. I never felt like I truly belonged.
Roy Scranton interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, August 2019. Scranton deployed to Iraq with the US Army in the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His published books include the novel War Porn and the scholarly study Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. Excerpt:
Molin: In practical terms, how can understanding the trauma hero as a literary trope and cultural myth help us think better, more clearly, about actual veterans psychologically damaged and emotionally troubled by war? What might the nation, or its military-medical apparatus, do to help them?
Scranton: Well, I’ve written a work of literary and cultural history, not a practical guide to coping with trauma. I would say, though, that the entire way that we understand “actual veterans psychologically damaged and emotionally troubled by war” must be understood as process of collective meaning-making. The psychologically damaged veteran is certainly suffering, but that suffering takes shape in performing a specific social role, which is the “traumatized veteran.” As long as we stay within the bounds of the discourse, there’s no way to “help” such a person by pointing out that their genuine suffering is culturally produced. I suppose we might tell them “trauma isn’t real,” but then what? They have to make sense of their experience somehow, and the best that could come from delegitimating a culturally dominant way of making sense of experience would be the emergence of a new way of making sense of experience. Are there better and worse ways of making meaning? I think so. But that’s another discussion. The only practical help my project might offer is, I would hope, some understanding of the ways that the “actual veteran” exists in relation to the “nation.”
I’m a Spinozist at heart, which means I’m a materialist, but it also means that I believe freedom comes first of all from understanding. Until you understand what compels you to understand your experience through certain roles, frameworks, and practices, you’ll be stuck performing those roles, seeing through those frameworks, and acting out those practices. Understanding may never provide physical or social liberation, but it can at least open a space for some freedom of thought and movement, and the possibility of equanimity toward the world as it exists, which is to say a sense of peace.
Matt Gallagher interview/podcast for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, April 2021 (via SoundCloud). Gallagher, a US Army Iraq vet is the author of the memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Dirty Little War and the novels Youngblood and Empire City. Excerpt:
Molin: You’ve been on the veterans writing scene for a long time. When did you get a sense that a common standpoint or viewpoint among veterans was starting to diverge so drastically, so politically, and so heatedly? What were the significant events or touchstones for you?
Gallagher: A lot of the seeds for Empire City happened during the years I worked as a speechwriter for the veterans non-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in 2011-2013…. At the time I was writing Youngblood, so my professional headspace was in the veterans’ world while my writing head was still in Iraq….. At IAVA I saw how just how personally our members took the policy issues we were fighting for, both on the legislative side and also on the street-level, with the everyday members who weren’t necessarily going down to DC to meet with congressmen and senators to advocate for position-x or position-y, and how quickly issues that should be apolitical, like the GI Bill, become a left-or-right issue, and how thing worked for the organization when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended or the Bowe Bergdahl situation broke. All these things became instantly political and polarized, in a way that was disheartening for a young veteran, but were fantastic fodder for future writing.
Hassan Blasim interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree (July 2021). Blasim, an Iraqi expatriate now living in Finland, is the author of the short-story collection The Corpse Exhibition and the novel God 99. Excerpt:
Molin: What about fiction attracts you?
Blasim: It’s important for English and American readers to know that I don’t only write fiction, I write poetry, criticism, plays, and essays, too, that haven’t yet been translated into English. I also write a lot in support of refugees, gay rights, and Iraq and the Middle East. But as for fiction, it’s what I have loved most all my life, from the time I was a boy. I always liked the way stories could contain extremes and opposites, such as how a story could be both a love story and a horror story, a funny story and a sad story, both tender and violent. Fiction is serious for me, but it’s also play and pleasure. In my writing, I enjoy trying to make all these parts come together. A lot of my sense of how to write fiction comes from my love of movies, from which early on I was impressed by how easily they switched between different types of scenes and moods. In my stories I want that same effect, something unexpected happening, something changing all the time. That’s how I try to write, too, I don’t plan anything ahead of time, I just enjoy the rhythm of writing and the chance to play. I open my laptop and I type….
Thank you Mary Doyle, Will Mackin, Roy Scranton, Matt Gallagher, and Hassan Blasim for being so generous with your time and your thoughts.
The Wrath-Bearing Tree website offered me a chance to host their podcast this month and I wasn’t about to say no. I asked my friend Patrick Deer, the head of New York University’s Cultures of War symposium, if he would join me in talking to Matt Gallagher about Gallagher’s Empire City, a dystopian novel that presciently portrays a dysfunctional America wracked by endless war-faring, rampant militarism, and dueling tribes of veterans. Deer said “yes,” Gallagher said “yes,” and so off we went. Give us a listen please, and no problem if you fast forward to passages that interest you most:
Matthew Komatsu reviews Empire City for The Wrath-Bearing Tree here.
Peter Lucier’s reviewof Empire City for The Strategy Bridge is also recommended.
Matt Gallagher is the author of Kaboom (2010), Youngblood (2016), and Empire City (2020). With Roy Scranton, he is the editor of the veterans-fiction anthology Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (2013).
Patrick Deer is Associate Professor of English at New York University and the author of Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (2009). His current book projects are titled Deep England: Forging British Culture After Empire and Surge and Silence: Understanding America’s Cultures of War.
Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades” can be found in anthology The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War (2016), edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner.
Thanks to Adrian Bonenberger and The Wrath-Bearing Tree for everything they do.
2020 has not been a good year for America, but it’s been a great one for literary fiction authored by veterans. The year has already seen new work published by established vet-authors Matt Gallagher, Jesse Goolsby, and Elliot Ackerman, and coming soon will be novels by Odie Lindsey and Phil Klay. If we add to this group second novels by David Abrams (2017), Kevin Powers (2018), and Roy Scranton (2019), we have an impressive cohort of follow-on novels and story collections by writers at the fore of the vet-writing boom that began circa 2012. Not much of the authors’ latest work concerns war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a significant chunk takes as subjects veterans of American’s forever wars in a nation addled by infatuation with war, militarism, and violence. Such is the case for two titles I will briefly describe here: Matt Gallagher’s Empire City and Jesse Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours, both excellent.
Empire City is Gallagher’s second novel, following 2016’s Youngblood, and third book-length work, counting his 2010 lieutenant’s memoir Kaboom. Gallagher also writes stories and articles for big-ticket magazines such as Esquire, Wired, and Penthouse, and opinion pieces for mainstream journalism giants such as the New York Times. Through it all, a distinctive style emerges, equal parts witty and feisty, relaxed and righteous, literary at core but infused with Twitter-honed hot-take badinage. The array of talents and characteristics is on full display in Empire City, a summary of which can be found here. Gallagher tells this speculative and dystopian tale in a fun prose voice that sparkles with wry observations and delightfully-crafted sentences. Beneath the easy-going surface and fanciful plot elements, however, lie terrors-of-the-deep, for Empire City is at heart a novel-of-ideas—ideas about the political and social fraying of America and the love/hate relationship of the country and its military. Gallagher is a shrewd observer of the passing scene, and Empire City documents a point in the not-too-distant American future when human folly cannot be played for laughs anymore. The fractured and dysfunctional America described in Empire City is so in large part as the result of many decades of continuous war-faring and the correspondent growth of home-front militarism. Chief among the problems is that forever wars create an endless stream of veterans who, while agitating for attention in the public sphere, intimidate and confuse the hell out of the non-veteran citizenry who in-turn toggle between venerating soldiers-home-from-war and locking them up. And those soldiers-home-from-war? Possessed by special talents as a result of military experience, they’re full of themselves, jaw-gapingly so to my lights. Each one or each cohort is convinced that their ideas about things are the right ones and that it is incumbent on them to save America from itself. The America of Empire City desperately looks for saviors, but it’s not exactly clear that veterans are the heroes the country needs, no matter how much they or anybody else thinks they are.
Jesse Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours: Stories compiles writing previously published in literary magazines and Goolsby’s 2015 novel I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. Acceleration Hours’ subtitle speaks to the curious merging of genres within the collection. Stories obviously fiction sit side-by-side with others equally obviously autobiographical, while others lie indeterminately between the two poles. Bits-and-pieces that appeared in I’d Walk With My Friends, for example, are excerpted, expanded upon, and recast as personal essays. No explanation or guidance is offered in the pages of Acceleration Hours for how to take this mélange of genres, but in an insightful and helpful interview here, Goolsby explains some of the method behind the apparent madness. It’s all good, even great, and to a point: The fictional stories portray veterans muddling through life after service, while the personal essays portray Goolsby himself, a career Air Force officer still in, muddling through his own life. The characters in the stories occupy the frazzled margins of society; for examples, one features a woman who has deserted from the military rather than deploy to Iraq, while the protagonist of another is a gay musician who plays a dismal weekly gig at an old-folks home, where he meets an eccentric World War II veteran. On the other hand, the persona reflected in the first-person essays lives a much more settled and privileged existence centered around work, family, and confirmed sense of place and community. And yet, the Goolsby figure, for all his education and professional respectability, comes across as more adrift than you might expect a middle-aged career officer to be. Like the lost souls of the stories, he’s unsure of his ideas about things and more carried by the currents of life than navigating them confidently, with the pith of the events he has lived through dangling just out of reach of precise apprehension. Compared to the fervor of the veterans in Empire City, the protagonists of the stories in Acceleration Hours lack the wherewithal to know themselves or what they really want, and the last thing any of them would think is that they might be agents and actors in national political-and-media scrums, telling people what to do and how things should be. Because of Goolsby’s solicitude for his characters and his candor writing of himself, it’s an endearing portrait, one close to my own sensibility, sad as that might be to say. In Acceleration Hours, the sense of despair reflected in the title of Goolsby’s novel I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them is intensified (i.e., “accelerated”) by the increasing futility of trying to find purpose and meaning in an America that doesn’t seem to have much to offer in those ways anymore.
The trenchant exploration of the possibilities of fiction and narrative reflected in recent titles by the Generation of 2012 vet-writers is tremendously exciting. The military asks members to think in prescribed and rigid ways, so the unlicensed freedom of fiction afterwards I’m sure has been intoxicating for would-be writers. Now, with first steps taken and a certain measure of success obtained, one can sense vet-authors licking their chops and flexing their muscles as the limitless boundaries of creative story-telling become apparent, available for their trying if they only dare. More power to them going forward, and equal amounts of power to new voices, especially those of women and authors-of-color, as they emerge on the scene.
Matt Gallagher, Empire City. Atria, 2020
Jesse Goolsby. Acceleration Hours: Stories. University of Nevada Press, 2020
Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. -Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, while writing Moby-Dick.
Since I began Time Now eight years ago, easily a hundredbooks, films, plays, musical compositions, and other artworks about America’s post-9/11 wars written-and-composed by veterans and interested civilians have appeared, and much has been published online, too. Here I catalog and comment on six author-artists whose individual output has been robust, often across a variety of genres and artistic mediums, and I mention several more who have been almost but not quite as active. I’ve limited myself to US military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and used books published by major publishing houses as the primary (but not only) criteria for inclusion.
Elliot Ackerman (USMC) arrived late to the war-writing party, but has quickly made up lost time by publishing three novels since 2015: Green on Blue (2015), Dark at the Crossing (2017), and Waiting for Eden (2018). A memoir titled Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning (2019) will appear later this year. Ackerman also contributed a story titled “Two Grenades” to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology of veteran-authored fiction. Links to Ackerman’s journalism and other occasional writing can be found at http://elliotackerman.com.
The characteristic subject of Ackerman’s novels is a fringe-actor on the margins of America’s 21st-century wars: a Pashtun militiaman on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, an Iraqi who formerly interpreted for American forces now trying to join the Syrian civil war, the wife of a severely wounded Marine who keeps a lonely vigil over her disabled husband, both largely abandoned or neglected by the greater America. In his published work so far, then, Ackerman has avoided the solipsistic trap of writing about his own (substantial) war experience as if it were the only thing that matters. In his upcoming memoir Places and Names, however, Ackerman begins to stitch together autobiographical elements and his interest in the people who fight the wars that, to paraphrase a John Milton quote on the cover of Places and Names,“hath determined them.”
Benjamin Busch (USMC) was arguably the first contemporary veteran to turn war experience into aesthetic expression, as the photos-and-commentary that would eventually comprise The Art in War first began appearing in 2003. Befitting his college background as a fine arts major, Busch also displays, again arguably, the most artistic diversity: he has acted in The Wire (2004) and Generation Kill (2008), directed films such as Bright (2011), authored a memoir titled Dust to Dust (2012), written a striking set of nature poems for the journal Epiphany (2016), and contributed both a short story (“Into the Land of Dogs”) and hand-drawn illustrations to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology. Busch has also written incisive reviews of the movie Lone Survivorand contemporary war fiction, long-form journalism for Harper’s about a return visit to Iraq, a poignant contribution to the vet-writing anthology Incoming titled “Home Invasion,” and an eloquent introduction to another anthology titled Standing Down. Oh, and let’s not forget a pre-Marine life as the singer in a hair-metal band.
A superb stylist, Busch is the master of the apt image and the well-turned line, sentence, passage, or short poem, with his memoir Dust to Dust being the book-length exception that proves the rule. Busch’s thematic impulse is to find order and meaning in randomness, disorder, and chaos. The urge is on full display in The Art in War and manifests itself even more intensely in Dust to Dust and “Home Invasion”; in these works, loss, ruination, and mortality emerge as the most salient organizing imperatives to be found, save for the author’s own imagination. War, irrational and death-soaked, was Busch’s subject starting out, but more recent poems such as “Madness in the Wild”suggest that Mother Nature is now the most fertile source of material for Busch’s “blessed rage for order,” to borrow from Wallace Stevens.
Brian Castner’s (USAF) first published book was the war memoir The Long Walk (2012), followed by a second book titled All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016) that combines more war memoir with journalistic investigation. A third work, not (directly) related to war, Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage (2018), joins travel-memoir and historical research. An opera has been made of The Long Walk, and Castner, with Adrian Boneberger, edited The Road Ahead (2017), an anthology of veteran-authored fiction to which he also contributed a story called “The Wild Hunt.” Journalism, essays, and reviews by Castner can be found at https://briancastner.com/.
While Castner’s memoir The Long Walk contains elements of artistic heightening that appealed to the opera composers who adapted it, the next two books are the ones that best illustrate Castner’s forte: extensive historical and journalistic research that supplements the lived experiences of his own life—first serving as an EOD-technician in the case of All the Ways We Kill and Die and then making a thousand-mile canoe journey in the case of Disappointment River. The influence of war on Disappointment River may bubble below the surface (pun intended), but the surface impression is that Castner more so than most other war-writers can find subjects beyond war-and-mil ones that still command the full measure of his interest and talent.
Matt Gallagher (US Army), with Colby Buzzell, pioneered the use of the Internet as a means of literary arrival when his war-blog appeared in book form as Kaboom (2010). Gallagher next edited the seminal vet-fiction anthology Fire and Forget (2013) with Roy Scranton and contributed to it a story titled “Bugs Don’t Bleed.” Then arrived the novel Youngblood (2016) and two short stories, “Babylon” (2016), published in Playboy, and “Know Your Enemy” (2016), published in Wired. Gallagher also has served at the forefront of the veterans writing scene, as a prime mover in first the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop that gave birth to Fire and Forget and then the New York-based collective Words After War. A number of Gallagher’s occasional pieces can be found at http://www.mattgallagherauthor.com/disc.htm and a second novel will arrive soon.
A consistent tone connecting Gallagher’s own voice and that of his fictional characters is sardonic detachment from the full negative import of the events they experience; in other words, Gallagher tests the limits of irony and perspective as means of dealing with the confusion of war and the resultant damage to self and society. Bemusement would seem to be an underpowered coping strategy in these troubled times, but Gallagher’s amiable prose surfaces welcome readers to consider his point-of-view long enough that the darker cynicism and deeper commitment lurking within eventually reveal themselves and grab hold.
Roy Scranton (US Army) published short stories and poems in small journals before co-editing Fire and Forget (2013) with Matt Gallagher and contributing a story to it titled “Red Steel India.” Next came the philosophical treatise Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), the novel War Porn (2016), an anthology titled What Future: The Year’s Best Ideas to Reclaim, Reanimate, and Reinvent Our Future (2017) for which he served as editor, and a collected edition of essays and journalism titled We’re Doomed, Now What? (2018). Later this year will arrive a literary history titled Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature (2019) and a novel called I ♥ Oklahoma (2019). More journalism, essays, short stories, and reviews can be found at http://royscranton.com.
There’s busy, and then there’s Roy Scranton busy, but the extraordinary rate of production and the prickly integrity of the viewpoint are endearing counterpoints to the starkness of the message: Scranton is ruthless in his indictment of the Iraq War in which he served, and he’s not letting anyone from enlisted “Joe’s” to generals to civilian war architects to a passive citizenry off the hook for their complicity in the debacle. Though he’s never quite said so bluntly, the implication is that vet-authors, whose ink might well be the blood of war dead, should seriously consider their own culpability, too. Scranton unsparingly connects America’s spastic post-9/11 response to Islamic fundamentalist violence with a host of other social, political, and environmental ills brought about by what academics like to call “the cultural logic of late capitalism.”
Brian Turner (US Army) arrived on the literary-artistic scene seemingly fully-formed, as his first poetry volume Here, Bullet (2005) won enormous acclaim from critics, readers, and poetry insiders alike. Next came a second volume of poems titled Phantom Noise (2010), an anthology of writing about poetry he co-edited titled The Strangest of Theaters (2013), a contribution to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology titled “The Wave That Takes Us Under,” the memoir My Life as a Foreign Country (2014), and another co-edited anthology titled The Kiss (2018). Turner has also had a number of his poems set to music, perhaps most significant of which is a collaboration with composer Rob Deemer on Turner’s poem “Eulogy.” Turner makes music himself, first as a member of The Dead Quimbys and more recently as the leader of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team. Occasional writing can be found at http://www.brianturner.org.
A wise, inspirational senior-statesman within the war-writing community, Turner combines encouragement of fledgling writers with an uncanny ability to stay one or more steps ahead of the pack in terms of vision, craft, and surprising shifts of direction. The artistic tension manifest in Turner’s work is the product of two imperatives: the martial heritage bequeathed to him by family, culture, and history, and his natural impulse to be empathetic, curious, kind, and helpful. His latest works each in their way represent solutions or, better, absolutions, for the tension; the music of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team invokes a collective cosmic spirit and consciousness, while The Kiss sanctifies physical intimacy as a hallowed form of human connection.
Several veteran writers are one or two published works short of joining the author-artists I name above. For these writers, their NEXT work will be most interesting for how it confirms previous inclinations and preoccupations, modifies them, or points in new directions:
David Abrams (US Army) has published two novels, Fobbit (2012) and Brave Deeds (2017), and he contributed “Roll Call” to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology. Shorter pieces can be found at http://www.davidabramsbooks.com. Abrams’ gift for creating characters, sketching scenes, and writing pleasing and often very funny sentences is substantial. So far, his interest seems to be the cultural divide separating rear-echelon soldiers from their hardened warrior-brethren in the combat arms; given his comic and warm-hearted sensibility, his modus inclines to exposing foibles associated with military masculinity rather than harshly judging and accusing their owners.
Colby Buzzell (US Army) pioneered the blog-to-book trend with My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005) and he later published two books of essays and journalism: Lost in America: A Dead End Journey (2011) and Thank You for Being Expendable, and Other Experiences (2015). The only work of fiction of which I’m aware of is his story “Play the Game” in the Fire and Forget anthology (2013), but Buzzell’s hostility toward authority and power, his affinity for oddballs and misfits, and the verve of his sentences create the impression of a distinctly “punk” literary sensibility–one that has proven very popular and influential. Buzzell’s webpage contains links to his writing that can be found online: http://www.colbybuzzell.com/stories.
Phil Klay (USMC) contributed the short story “Redeployment” to Fire and Forget (2013), which later became the title story of his National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment (2014). A large number of essays and long-form journalism pieces are at http://www.philklay.com. Klay’s characteristic concern is the moral culpability of soldiers who joined the military and did their bit in Iraq or Afghanistan without too much post-war mental anguish or blood on their hands—to what extent should they (be made to) feel worse (in another word, guiltier) than they do about their decisions and actions? For me, that’s the subject of two representative stories in Redeployment, “Ten Klicks South” and “Prayer in the Furnace,” as well as that of the long, trenchant essay Klay published for the Brookings Institute titled “The Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”Finally, although I’m not sure when Klay’s next book will appear or what it will be about, while we wait for it, I recommend listening to the intellectually-knotty podcast Manifesto! Klay hosts with fellow vet-writer and Fire and Forget contributor Jacob Siegel.
Kevin Powers (US Army)’s first novel was The Yellow Birds (2012). Next came the poetry volume Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, followed by a second novel A Shout in the Ruins (2018). Journalism, essays, and reviews can be found at http://kevincpowers.com. It’s easy to forget the hullabaloo that greeted The Yellow Birds upon arrival. Following upon Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Army spouse Siobhan Fallon’s short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), The Yellow Birds reinforced the notion that 21st-century American writing about the war was going to cook at a very high literary level. But the backlash against The Yellow Birds arrived just as quickly, as for many it promoted and even celebrated the idea that modern American soldiers were easily-traumatized snowflakes too tender to win wars. In the wake of The Yellow Birds, a counter-formation of memoirs and short-stories appeared, stories of war by ex-combat-arms bubbas seemingly delighted to assert that they were hard men capable of doing hard things. I’m not inclined to be harsh in my assessment of The Yellow Birds, but Powers seems to have distanced himself from his poetry volume, and I haven’t yet read A Shout in the Ruins, so categorical statements about the arc of his career will have to wait.
Kayla Williams (US Army) has written two memoirs, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2005) and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014). Williams has also contributed a short-story, “There’s Always One,” to the veteran-writer short-story anthology The Road Ahead (2017). Given her job as a Washington DC think-tank analyst and the impression she renders that she’s bound for big things in the public sector, it’s not hard to imagine a third memoir might be needed someday to document further chapters in Williams’ life. Detailing the long story of any vet’s life (especially a woman vet’s) after war will be immensely interesting and valuable, but I hope in the future Williams finds time to write more fiction, too.
Quite a few other writers merit consideration for inclusion on this list. Among them are Adrian Bonenberger (US Army, Afghan Post, memoir; The Road Ahead, fiction anthology editor (with Brian Castner); “American Fapper,” story in The Road Ahead); Maurice Decaul (USMC, Dijla Was Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates, play; multiple poems published in small journals and online; a musical collaboration with contemporary jazz great Vijay Iyer); Colin Halloran (US Army, Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux, poetry); Hugh Martin (Stick Soldiers and In Country, poetry); Brian Van Reet (US Army, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” short-story contribution to Fire and Forget and much short-fiction published in literary journals; Spoils, novel). Three women Iraq-Afghanistan veterans, Teresa Fazio (USMC), Kristen Rouse (US Army), and Supriya Venkatesan (US Army), write with distinctive voice and great eye for the telling subject and detail, and each has published widely, though more in the vein of journalism, memoir, and essay than fiction or poetry (the exceptions being Fazio’s and Rouse’s stories “Little” and “Pawns,” respectively, both included in The Road Ahead anthology), and none has yet found book-length publication.
My judgments about each author’s body-of-work are far from beyond dispute, and I welcome discussion, as well as any factual corrections to the record. An extended contemplation about the collective import of these writers is in order, but I’ll end with just two brief points: 1) The accomplishment of these vet writers is substantial and the potential for further achievement is strong; barring misfortune, everyone I’ve mentioned still has decades of productive creative life to come. 2) Women veteran-authors and male or female African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American vet-writers are noticeably missing. If I’ve overlooked a worthy candidate to add to the list, let me know, and if conversation about publishing trends and marketplace dynamics interests you, let’s talk about that, too. Though my focus here is the unfolding of a writer-artist’s characteristic concerns over multiple works, the story is also one of professional ambition, literary politics, and publishing biz calculation. What I’m describing as the birthing of an estimable generation of veteran-writers, another may see as the solidifying of a literary establishment limited by its own blinders and mostly interested in preserving its own prerogatives. That’s not how I feel about it, but I hope that should I compile this list again in another eight years, the demographic make-up will reflect the military in which I served and the overall achievement so much the better.
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.
The concept of a “rhetorical triangle” is well-known to graduate students of composition, rhetoric, and communications. A way of imagining any particular act of communication, but especially that of public speakers and authors in the act of argument and persuasion, the rhetorical triangle attempts to depict the relationship between speakers and authors, their subjects, and their audiences. Graduate students ground their academic interest in the rhetorical triangle in Aristotelian definitions of ethos, pathos, and logos, each linked to a specific corner of the triangle, and put their understanding to practical use in undergraduate composition classes. There, the rhetorical triangle helps students understand the importance of author and speaker subject positions and the notion of intended audiences. Often, the rhetorical triangle is embellished in textbooks and slide presentations with the addition of circle that envelops the triangle, meant to represent “context”—why a particular subject is under discussion at all, what outside pressures bear on it, what underlying assumptions impact the effort being made at communication, etc. Figures A and B below depict the rhetorical triangle and the rhetorical triangle + contextual circle as they typically are represented.
All good, but I’ve long thought that the typical rhetorical triangle, as it exists as a visual metaphor, was a little too rigid, unsubtle, and unimaginative to portray the complexity of any “communicative situation,” to borrow another phrase from the rhetoric-and-composition world. My misgivings crystallized as I began thinking about how the rhetorical triangle might apply to war writing, by which I mostly mean fiction and poetry about war authored by veterans of war, though not without application to memoir, non-fiction, and veterans-in-the-classroom scenarios, as well as works written by journalists, historians, and civilian authors of imaginative literature who have studied war closely. Still, if we retain the basic equilateral triangle and round circle shapes of the standard rhetorical triangle + contextual circle, we might enhance it as follows in Figure C to portray what traditionally might be said to be the relationship of veteran-writers, war, and civilian readers who have not been to war:
As my thinking about this pictorial representation of war writing dynamics proliferated, or perhaps festered, I began to question whether the circle representing context adequately conveyed what is most salient about the attempt to render the experience of war to readers who had not seen combat. Rather than a benign circle hovering on the outskirts of the acts of writing and reading, I thought that a grid imposed over the top of the triangle might better depict how war writing as a genre is forcibly shaped by an array of recurring events, attitudes, themes, tropes, scenes, and expectations, as well as reliance on a short list of time-honored antecedents as literary models, that together harmfully solidified the relationships of writer, subject, and reader into hardened positions, perilously close to cliché, stereotype, “confirmation biased” patterns of cause-and-effect, and self-prophecizing conclusions. Figure D shows my effort to portray context as an imposed grid:
What might be a work of literature, or a movie, that could be given as an example of war writing that conforms to the Figure D model? There’s no perfect example—the diagram is a cartoon, after all—but let’s for the sake of argument posit works such as Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front as the ur-novels of modern warfare: stories that concern themselves not just with describing the “horrors of combat” and the possibility of transcending them, but the psychological effect of witnessing and enduring the horrors. Yes, I know Crane was not a veteran, but he ventriloquized one admirably, and like I said, the examples are not perfect. What’s important is that many many works of fiction, as well as memoirs and movies, have repeated, with various amounts of skill, motifs and manners-of-treatment originating or advanced in exemplary fashion by Crane and Remarque.
But as war writing evolved and permutated over the course of the 20th century, differences in style, perspective, and approaches also emerged. A very common refrain found in Vietnam War writing is the idea that “the truth of war cannot be conveyed,” sometimes expressed as “you had to be there to understand it,” notions that would seem to undermine the whole effort of writing about war. They didn’t, however, and in practice the sentiment seems to operate more as a marker of authenticity than a confession of ineptitude. The arch-expression of the idea is Tim O’Brien’s well-known “How to Tell a True War Story,” which compellingly dramatizes a veteran-author’s difficulty in conveying to civilians the essence of what fighting in Vietnam was all about. O’Brien’s famous last line, “It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen,” drives home the point that in the narrator’s mind at least one corner of the rhetorical triangle, that of the audience, is drastically estranged from both the veteran-author and whatever might be said to be the truth and reality of war.
A post-9/11 war reiteration of the fractured war-writing rhetorical triangle appears in Matt Gallagher’s novel Youngblood. In the Prologue, the narrator-veteran describes several instances of difficulty connecting with civilians who ask him what Iraq was like. He ends by stating,
What was it like? Hell if I know. But next time someone asks, I won’t answer straight and clean. I’ll answer crooked, and I’ll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I’ll smile. Finally, I’ll think. Someone who understands.
Here, Gallagher’s narrator’s hoped-for “communicative situation” is marked by frustration and distortion, which, if only those miserable qualities could be attained, would stand as a great improvement on the incomprehension and indifference that have so far governed his attempt to describe war.
The contemporary emphasis on “failure to communicate” might be reflected in the following variation on the war-writing rhetorical triangle (Figure E):
Features of the contemporary model include:
The veteran-author’s personal relationship to his or her subject of war is intense and intimate, as represented by a thickened, shortened line, but the connection is obfuscated by that very closeness, as well as the more general difficulty of apprehending the truth or reality of combat described as “the fog of war.”
The civilian reader’s relationship to the veteran-writer, and vice-versa, is distant and beset by communication difficulties, as portrayed by the long, broken line.
The civilian reader’s understanding of war is also remote, indistinct, and untrustworthy, as depicted by the thin, wavering line.
In Figure F below, I have added in a contextual circle that names what I think are the most important contemporary social, political, cultural, and technological influences on war, the men and women who go to war and then write about it, and the nation-at-large. I’ve also noted some changes in the composition of the corners of the triangle to reflect modern trends.
I won’t take time here to explain these factors or how they put pressure on the legs and corners of my war writing rhetorical triangle. Many are obvious or self-explanatory, and none are beyond the ken of readers who have made it this far and who now choose to roll them around in their minds to consider their relevance. I might well have portrayed them as a grid, as in Figure D above, but for the sake of clarity, mostly, I haven’t. Taken together, the diagram suggests a contemporary war writing field characterized by multiple variables, full of complexity, ambiguity, perspectival variations, and tenuous, arguable intersections joining war, writing about war, and readers.
Might the broken-and-distorted contemporary war writing rhetorical triangle be as much a trope, or even a cliché, as anything that’s come before? Some very good veteran-authors have taken up the question. Benjamin Busch, in “To the Veteran,” his introduction to the veteran writing anthology Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, states, “We often feel there is a certain authenticity lost somewhere, that language cannot completely express our experience to those who do not share it,” but ultimately he concludes that the stories in Standing Down “prove that transference of experience is possible with language.” Similarly, Phil Klay in a New York Times essay titled “After War, A Failure of Imagination,” writes, “Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain.” Busch and Klay are formidable writers, but I’m not sure everyone, including many veterans, agrees that veterans can express the reality of war in a way that is perceived as meaningful and reasonably fulsome by civilians. The fact that Busch and Klay have to assert their case proves the sentiment they hope to rectify is both real and a problem. Whether their perception is an enduring and truly true structural feature of war writing or merely a passing truism-of-the-day remains to be seen.
Many thanks to the organizers and participants of the 2016 Veterans in Society seminar at Virginia Tech, where I first presented on the “War Writing Rhetorical Triangle.”
With at least twelve events featuring authors who have written about deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent Association of Writers and Writing Program conference offered plenty of opportunity to assess the public face of war writing while also catching up with fellow members of the war writing community. Within an hour of arrival, for example, I was trading stories with Colby Buzzell, whom I had never met before, at a taco food truck near the Los Angeles Convention Center, the site of the conference this year. AWP, as the conference is called, was full of such moments for me, and, I suspect, many others. The panel presentations and readings were excellent, and just as rewarding were the off-stage conversations with old and new friends.
Notions of inclusion and expansion characterized the war-writing panels, as many were specifically designed to showcase authors who were not white male combat veterans writing lugubrious sagas of self. All to the good, and I’m eager now to read authors such as Qais Akbar Omar, a former Afghan interpreter who has written a memoir titled A Fort of Nine Towers; Vicki Hudson, a former MP officer whose creative and non-fiction writing begins to redress the glaring omission of LBGT voices in the war-writing field; and Mary Doyle, a former Army NCO who’s now a prolific author of military-and-deployment accented detective fiction. A panel on memoir featured Kayla Williams, maybe the first female Iraq veteran to write a memoir (she’s now written two), and Angie Ricketts, who has written about the cloistered world of infantry officer wives suffering through their husbands’ multiple deployments. Elsewhere, I was delighted to hear Mariette Kalinowski read fiction that originated in her service as a gunner on Marine convoys in Iraq; Philip Metres read poetry about Abu Ghraib from his volume Sand Opera; and ex-Marine playwright Maurice Decaul speak of his efforts to produce plays written, performed, and staged by veterans.
The war writing interest in diversity coincided somewhat uneasily with a larger AWP concern this year with matters of race. Touchstones included the furor over the removal of Vanessa Place from the AWP selection committee because of her alleged insensitivity (in the name of fighting racism) about issues important to black Americans, Claudia Rankine’skeynote speech, which targeted the literary world for its implicit racism, and a Ruth Ellen Kocher blog post documenting two demeaning incidents at AWP that reinforced her impression that even among progressive-minded white writers, her black skin signifies second-class citizenship. Everyone who serves in the heavily-integrated military is race-conscious, though most of us like to think that the armed forces are free of, or at least freer of, the racial polarization that currently characterizes much of America. Evidence exists that corroborates this somewhat smug perception, but it is hardly appropriate for white veterans to pronounce definitively that all is well. The same issues surface in the war writing scene, too, with interesting permutations. Neither Mary Doyle nor Maurice Decaul, both black, make race a central concern in their writing about service and war. At her panel, Doyle actively resisted such categorization and explained that if anyone wants to know what really drives her literary bent, they should ask about her lifelong love for Dick Francis, the English author of detective novels set in the upper-crust world of horse-racing. A sweet AWP moment for me was eavesdropping while Doyle and Brian Turner reminisced about a shared deployment to Bosnia, proof that at least sometimes the peculiarly intense experience of service in the Army green machine overwhelms preoccupation with skin color. But it’s not as easy as that, nowhere near the last words on the matter, and I would love to hear Doyle’s and Decaul’s (or anyone’s) most developed thoughts about race and the military, and race and writing about war, should they be inclined to offer them. For what it’s worth, I have written a little more about the subject on this blog in a post titled Toni Morrison’s Home: The Africanist Presence in War Literature.
A second theme emerging out of the alchemy of public and private remarks was a sense that war-writing has matured as a publishing genre, which is to say that it is a much more commercial affair now than previously. Where once war writers were just happy to make it into print, many now are savvy practitioners of the business side of writing, where book deals are made and real money is on the line in the way of advances, foreign sales, next-book contracts, movie options, and ancillary speaking-and-writing gigs. As Jesse Goolsby noted, “The ‘off-page’ stuff can be as important as what’s on the page.” In separate events, Goolsby, Brian Castner, and Kayla Williams each spoke candidly and at-length about publishing—together the three might make a great panel at next year’s AWP titled “The Business of War Writing” (hint, hint). The two themes of diversification and professionalization intersected in frequent discussions about publishers’ receptivity to nontraditional war narratives. From my vantage point, publishing houses seem reasonably open to diverse perspectives, especially when rendered with a smidgeon of literary talent and verve. Things could always be better, of course, but the evidence so far suggests that it is readers, general readers, not the literary-minded ones, who perpetuate the popularity of books by and about young men who have performed bravely in combat, with best-selling titles such as American Sniper and Outlaw Platoon being the proof.
My contribution to AWP this year was to help organize two panels for which I also served as moderator. The first, Iraq Veteran-Writers Ten Years Later: Words After Words After War, featured four writers who all served in Iraq prior to 2005 and subsequently commenced lives largely organized around writing. Two authors, the aforementioned Colby Buzzell and Kayla Williams, were among the first veterans into print after 2003, while two others, Ron Capps and Maurice Decaul, have taken longer to find their writing voices and appreciative audiences. My intent here was to allow these interesting authors to take us back to their deployment days and then help us follow them forward as their thoughts about their service in Iraq coalesced and matured and their lives as writers evolved. Each had insightful ideas and anecdotes to speak of–why aren’t all AWP panels taped and archived? It’s impossible to reduce their common concerns to a sentence, but I sensed that Decaul and Williams are now exploring writing and life possibilities still deeply informed by early experience in Iraq, while Capps and Buzzell are more ready to move on, as if their deployment memories have now (perhaps thankfully) reached a half-life state of dissolve. Whatever these four authors do next, we’ll all be watching—it’s not just that they are “leaders” per se within the war-writing community, though they are, but that they now bring so much hard-earned gravitas to bear on any subject they choose to examine. More simply put, they’ve lived through more of life and life’s writing experiences than most of the rest of us.
Speaking of which–life–participants on the memoir panels spoke often about the problems of “life-writing,” which involves carefully modulating impulses toward self-promotion, self-disclosure, self-deception, self-deprecation, and even self-laceration. It took the panels featuring fiction to illustrate the insidiousness of this dynamic by portraying scenes too touchy to confess to in memoir. The aim of my second panel, New Directions in Contemporary War Literature, was to bring forth authors of novels about the military and war written within the last two years and see what reverberations their readings generated. I couldn’t have been happier with the result, the exact shape of which I didn’t see coming and which truth to tell was somewhat scary, though all the better for that.
Jesse Goolsby, the author of I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, went first, choosing a passage from near the end of the novel in which one of the characters, Wintric Ellis, long after the war, sits in his car trying to work up the courage to kill the soldier who sexually assaulted him in Afghanistan. Early in the novel, Wintric participates in a shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenario in Afghanistan when he and his buddies are faced by a suicide bomber; now at the end of the novel it emerges that what has wrecked Wintric’s life was not enemy on the battlefield, but one nominally on his own side, and he must once more decide whether to kill someone or not. It’s a wrenching scene, similar in its way to Siobhan Fallon’s great short story “Leave,” and was beautifully read by Goolsby.
While Wintric deliberates, he fields a call from his wife, who wonders what he is up to. Wintric lies to her about his intentions, and it turns out that he has lied to her about other aspects of his deployment, too, more out of shame than meanness. Such deceit and cowardliness is hard to own up to in memoir, but the very stuff that fiction is good at portraying. Mendacity (to reference Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also figures in Andria Williams’ The Longest Night, which dramatizes a real-life nuclear catastrophe that took place on an Army base in Idaho during the Cold War, while also offering startling astute portraits of the men who worked on the base and their families. Williams read an early scene foreshadowing the reactor meltdown and another longer one describing the mediocre career and desultory marriage of Master Sergeant Richards, a pompous senior NCO in charge of the reactor. The passage, told from the NCO’s wife’s point-of-view, is simultaneously devastating and funny-as-hell, and Williams’ reading, as did Goolsby’s, captivated the audience. The bigger import, alas, also had much in common with Goolsby’s: a military whose self-image is very badly out of sorts with its reality. Where there should be heroism, there’s folly; where leadership, selfishness; competency, dysfunction; loyalty, deceit; trust, contempt; camaraderie, betrayal; and faithfulness, infidelity.
If anything, the discrepancy between reality and appearance was heightened in the passage that Gallagher read from his novel Youngblood, one line of which went, “We were what we pretended to be.” The scene portrayed Youngblood hero Lieutenant Jack Porter as he makes a “blood money” reparations payment to the family of an Iraqi noncombatant they have killed. Porter finds himself adrift in a moral wasteland that puts him at odds not just with Iraqi values and customs, but also with the expectations of his men and his chain-of-command. Not trusting himself or anyone else, but performing, so to speak, on stage with all eyes on him, Lieutenant Porter must depend upon his wits to decode the swirl of ambiguous clues to determine what he should do and how he should feel. Many literary roads lead back to Melville, and as Gallagher read of Porter’s confusion I was reminded of Benito Cereno’s Amasa Delano, the Yankee ship captain who boards a slave ship on which the slaves have rebelled and taken control. As the slaves force the slave ship captain to pretend he is still in charge, Delano struggles to understand that the appearance of normality that the slaves have constructed for him is a fraud, as his powers of discernment, undermined by arrogance and false assumptions, prove far too weak to help him figure out the complicated situation he finds himself in. Critics have noted many references to the pretend world of theater in Benito Cereno, and much the same occurs in Youngblood, where really-real reality is continuously destabilized by Gallagher’s references to the stories, lies, myths, delusions, pretense, and other means of distortion and manipulation that purport to describe it.
The three readings, taken together, portrayed the complicated and often perverse flux of identity and play of truth inherent to life in uniform, with the authors in superb control of their material. If the message and tone were ominous, perhaps I’m making too much of it. Novels are imagined projections about how things might be, after all, not official pronouncements about the way things are. In any case, though, the story-writing talent on display set a high bar for the next round of novels about military and war. Two audience members, neither veterans, but the authors of many novels between them, told me the reading was the best event they attended at AWP. I was glad to hear that, but not too surprised, because I was pretty sure beforehand that it, like AWP itself, was going to be good.
Many thanks to all who made AWP so enjoyable this year. In addition to everyone named above I’ll mention Lauren and Colin Halloran, Jerri Bell, Benjamin Busch, Adrian Bonenberger, Jay Moad, Brandon Lingle, Carole Florman, Susan Derwin and Steven Venz, Tom Helscher, Justin Hudnall, Sylvia Ankenman Bowersox, Olivia Kate Cerrone, Julian Zabalbeascoa and his wife Kate, Lisa Sanchez, David Chrisinger, Christopher Robinson, Danuta Hinc, Christopher Meeks, all friends, family members, and fellow travelers, everyone I’ve forgotten, and last but not least Roxana Robinson for hanging out with us for a while and then saying such nice things on social media.
Matt Gallagher’s novel Youngblood arrives this month to high praise. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times writes, “With Youngblood, [Gallagher] has written an urgent and deeply moving novel.” Roxana Robinson, the author of Sparta, reports in the Washington Post that “…Matt Gallagher shows again how war works in the human heart — something we’ll need to know, as long as there is war.” Kakutani avoids grand pronouncements about the state of war writing today and Youngblood’s place in it, but Robinson notes that “War lit is now part of who we are, holding up a mirror, bearing witness to our culture” and that “Gallagher raises all these issues in smart, fierce, and important writing that plays a big part in our new genre.” Robinson implies that with Youngblood Gallagher has moved the needle, so to speak, in regard to war-writing and in so doing perhaps has moved to the head of the field in terms of achievement. Youngblood, in this view, capitalizes on possibilities hinted at by other contemporary war fiction, avoids pitfalls common to the genre, and pioneers new subjects, themes, styles, and manners of treatment.
I’m not quite prepared to say that all of this is true, though I’m leaning that way, or to explain how it all might be true, though I’m beginning to form ideas. In a dust-jacket blurb Kakutani writes of Gallagher’s “ability to move effortlessly between the earnest and the irreverent, the thoughtful and the comic.” In other words, Gallagher has a few more gears than most war-writers, especially veteran writers, and it shows in Youngblood’s deft rendering of scene, character, and context and the quality of individual sentences. In her Washington Post piece, Robinson states, “Everyone who reads war lit knows Matt Gallagher,” which speaks to Gallagher’s early prominence as the keeper of a war blog and author of a memoir both titled Kaboom, his editorship (with Roy Scranton) of the Fire and Forget anthology of short war fiction, his service as lead writing instructor with Words After War, and his many occasional pieces in print and around the web. Youngblood itself has existed in a state of revision metamorphosis for at least five years since Gallagher first hinted at its existence in 2011, and in an interview on the Bomb website Gallagher speaks about the hard work of transitioning from memoir to fiction. The years in the wood-shed now pay off triumphantly. In terms of thematic insight and narrative-stylistic texture, Youngblood is on another level completely from Kaboom and Gallagher’s Fire and Forget entry “And Bugs Don’t Bleed.”
Youngblood begins with a prologue by its first-person narrator Lieutenant Jack Porter that riffs on the difficulty of war-tale-telling in ways familiar from Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”:
It’s strange, trying to remember it now. Not the war, that’s all tangled up, too. I mean the other parts….
A lot of people ask, “What was it like?” and once, I even tried to answer. I was home, with old friends. They meant well, and while they didn’t want a perfect story, they wanted a clean one. It’s what everyone wants, and I knew that. But it came out wrong….
What was it like? Hell if I know. But next time someone asks, I won’t answer straight and clean. I’ll answer crooked, and I’ll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I’ll smile. Finally, I’ll think. Someone who understands.
The tone here is portentous, but Porter’s voice soon relaxes into a winning blend of snark, self-deprecation, sensibleness, and perception. On Youngblood’s first page, Porter reports that upon waking up one morning after several months in Iraq, “I shook out my boots to make sure a scorpion hadn’t crept into them during the night. It hadn’t happened to anyone yet, but still, there were stories.” The prologue and opening scene reflect the vexed nature of military wisdom, with stories—anecdotes, lore, and narratives—providing the best access to knowledge but also frustrating with their inadequacy, manipulativeness, and possible fraudulence. In novels, stories become plots—interwoven narratives that seem as dependent on character and context as they do on events—and Youngblood raises the war-writing bar in regard to complex, imaginative, and suspenseful story-lines. One thread has Porter struggling to solidify his command of his platoon as his leadership authority is challenged by the arrival of a much harder, more experienced NCO named Daniel Chambers. A second has Porter trying to solve a possible series of murders that took place several years earlier in Ashuriyah, the fictionalized neighborhood near Baghdad his men patrol daily, killings in which Chambers, on an earlier tour, may have been complicit. As these story-lines unfold a third develops: Porter’s growing affection for Rana, an Iraqi woman whose marriage to an American soldier early in the war appears to be connected with the unsolved deaths.
That the first years of Operation Iraqi Freedom were freewheeling enough to permit a soldier to venture solo outside the wire to court an Iraqi woman intrigues Porter, and me as well–I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a soldier marrying an Iraqi who did not work as linguist, cultural analyst, or some other position on a FOB. Similarly, a second Iraqi woman character who supplements her duties as an outpost wash-woman by serving its soldiers sexually seems a stretch, but Gallagher’s certainly heard stories or seen things I haven’t been privy to. Youngblood uses the imaginative space of a novel to speculate that such things might have happened and how they might have happened, which probably means they did happen, in my reckoning, in some form or another, on the down-low. In the same vein, Porter’s company commander is a closeted homosexual, and Chambers is sleeping with the hot chick at battalion headquarters. A well-informed non-fiction account of the romantic and erotic lives of deployed soldiers remains to be written, but Youngblood uses fiction to plausibly frame many of the possibilities. And while no one would argue that a slew of GI marriages and an organized sex-for-pay system were just what OIF and OEF needed, the heated-up private lives of Youngblood characters reminds us that the official sexual sterility of our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is connected, at some level, with the barren unfruitfulness of our political and military partnerships.
In any case, romance and marriage with an Iraqi national could only happen under conditions of extensive civ-mil engagement, and Youngblood tells a tale of American occupation and counterinsurgency, not combat. As Porter states early on, “We’d been in country five months, and hadn’t even been shot at yet.” The setting allows Gallagher to show American soldiers engaging Iraqis on terms other than at the point-of-a-gun and over a longer duration than a raid. To the soldiers in Youngblood, Ashuriyah residents are anything but a faceless blur of military-aged-males who need killing. Porter’s platoon is first slowly, then quickly drawn into a complicated swirl of sectarian feuding and side-taking, accompanied by careful withholding and dissemination of important information. The soldiers learn that the people of Ashuriyah have names and distinctive personalities, thoughts, and goals, along with complicated personal histories, family ties, and memories; they are met daily by the Americans and each inspires varying levels of trust, respect, and regard. Much contemporary war fiction—Sand Queen, The Watch, The Valley, and The Knife, for examples—portrays Iraqi and Afghan characters, and Green on Blue is wholly devoted to the view of an Afghan tribal militia-member—but among novels written by Americans, Youngblood by far particularizes the wide-ranging and diverse social world encountered by American soldiers.
Youngblood also possesses a sense of history that many other war novels lack, a deficiency shared by most soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Not history as in “Cradle of Civilization” or “Graveyard of Empires,” blah blah blah, but recent real history as towns, neighborhoods, and communities experienced successive waves of American occupation. American military planners pay lip service to what they call “situational awareness” and “institutional memory,” but most American soldiers on deployment were as oblivious about what happened in the preceding five years of the battle spaces they occupied as they were of the people who lived there. All who deployed know the saw about Iraq and Afghanistan wars being “fought one year at a time” and references to the daily grind of non-descript, unfocused missions as “Groundhog Day” were also common—a damning indictment of the sloppy and thoughtless new American way of war. In Youngblood, however, it matters that it is circa 2010 in Ashuriyah, not 2007, 2005, or 2003: because things change, truth and knowledge become moving targets. Consciousness of their late-stage participation in their generation’s war preoccupies Porter’s men. Though eager to test themselves under fire, none want to be killed in a war no one cares about anymore. But riding out their deployment doing nothing but vapid presence patrols and checkpoint operations proves impossible. Events that occurred early in the occupation have consequences that take time to develop, as memories linger and sometimes fester and opportunities for action arise. The lives of Porter and his men are jeopardized by things thought to be long past mattering, but which reverberate anew under the pressure of fresh circumstances. The longer view doesn’t win the war for Porter’s platoon, but it certainly gives Youngblood more moral heft than war fiction that renders Iraq and Afghanistan as generic post-2003 spaces or portray time rigidly from a purely American perspective—a year away from home, a few hours’ mission, a night spent waiting out rocket attacks.
Gallagher speaks openly in interviews of his love for David Simon’s television crime series The Wire, and it’s easy to see The Wire‘s Detective Jimmy McNulty in Porter’s raffish approach to duty. We might also see the rivalry between Porter and Chambers as a reworking of Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale’s legendary brains-vs-brawn contestation for control of west Baltimore’s drug-dealing ring, and Youngblood definitely features a Bubbles-type informant. But the excellence of The Wire and Youngblood lies not in their ability to create memorable characters, as great as they are at that. Gallagher views Iraq as Simon did Baltimore: a never-ending saga of colliding social forces in which the actors might possess very distinctive personalities, but little real agency. Instead, their opportunities for action are defined by the cohorts in which they group themselves—police, drug-dealers, politicians, dock-workers, etc. in the case of The Wire—and they are destined to play parts scripted by circumstances beyond any one individual’s ability to control. Soldiers more than most people understand they are cogs in bigger systems and processes, but soldiers are also tantalized by dreams of heroic individualism and tend to think of their deployments as highly-personalized war dramas starring themselves. Novelists should know better, though, as should veterans five years removed from deployment. Youngblood’s The Wire-like alertness to social, cultural, and historical context demonstrates how it might be so.
In a 2011 Atlantic magazine article titled “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?” Matt Gallagher, the author of the Iraq War memoir Kaboom, explores reasons why, as of the time he writes, so little fiction had appeared that addressed America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Almost a decade after the first bombs were dropped in Afghanistan,” Gallagher writes, “even the most avid bookworm would be hard-pressed to identify a war novel that could be considered definitive of this new generation’s battles.” The title of Gallagher’s article bears an eery similarity to a question posed by German critic Walter Benjamin in a 1936 piece called “The Storyteller.” Looking back at World War I, Benjamin wrote, “Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent–not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?”
Benjamin continues by suggesting that “the flood of war books”–particularly novels–that began appearing in Germany ten years after World War I’s end shortchanged “experience,” or wisdom, for what he derisively called “information.” Be that as it may, let’s keep our eye on Gallagher here, for he wasn’t wrong surveying America’s recent publishing past. In my search for war fiction published prior to 2011 I can find only a few short stories scattered here-and-there. Frederick Busch (Benjamin Busch’s father) published two short tales, “Good to Go”and “Patrols,” for examples, in small literary magazines before including them in his 2006 collection titled Rescue Missions. Annie Proulx’s “Tits-Up in a Ditch” about a woman who loses an arm to an IED in Iraq, appeared in the New Yorker in 2008, as well as in Proulx’s collection of short stories titled Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3. Busch and Proulx were both established authors—each over 60 years old at the time they wrote their stories–with many published titles and critical laurels to their credit. I’m glad they turned their attention to the nation’s millennial wars, but not sure why a younger cohort of writers, to include veteran-authors, didn’t make Iraq and Afghanistan their subjects sooner than they did.
Gallagher notes the publication of Siobhan Fallon’s collection of tales about life at Fort Hood, Texas, You Know When The Men Are Gone, which appeared in January 2011. But he’s skeptical that more fiction might be forthcoming in the years to come. Iraq and Afghanistan, he suggests, just might go undocumented by authors of fiction, much like, say, the Filipino-American War (his example, not mine). Gallagher, bless him, wasn’t right in this case. 2011 would see the publication not only of You Know When The Men Are Gone, but Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, and the years after 2011 would see much more fiction about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, authored by veterans and civilians alike. Let’s give credit to Fallon and Benedict for initiating the contemporary war lit surge, and by no means should we succumb to Benjamin-like skepticism about their achievement. Benedict, an academic and activist writing as a critic-from-outside unimpressed by the military effort, and Fallon, an Army spouse writing as a military insider full of knowing sympathy, established twin poles of literary possibility that virtually every writer since has followed one-way-or-the-other. That You Know When the Men Are Gone and Sand Queen were authored by women and featured women protagonists is also important. The great wave of war novels that arrived in 2012–The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Watch, and Fobbit–was “all dudes,” as the saying goes, but 2013 and onwards featured many war fiction titles by and about women.
Let’s note also that Gallagher’s novel about Iraq, Youngblood, and Roy Scranton’s War Porn, which Gallagher mentions as an example of a war novel having trouble finding a publisher, will be out in 2016. Finally, Time Now, which I began in 2012, owes much to a comment by Gallagher I heard while in the audience for his presentation at the War, Literature, and the Arts conference at the United States Air Force Academy in 2010. Gallagher remarked that any war writer seeking to establish him or herself in our modern era had better have an online presence. I already kept a blog going about my Afghanistan deployment, so I wasn’t thunderstruck by Gallagher’s claim, but it occurred to me then that the art, film, and literature of the current wars might benefit from dedicated digital coverage and critique. Hence this blog, and hence, Matt Gallagher, thanks.
While we’re rendering thanks, let’s also commend the organizers of that 2010 War, Literature, and the Arts conference, which was so seminal in its recognition of contemporary war writing as a genre and so inspiring not just to me but to many others. At the time, I was already aware of Brian Turner’s work, but the WLA conference was my initial exposure to writing by Fallon, Gallagher, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, Elyse Fenton, and quite a few others (though note Fallon as the only author of fiction). So here’s to WLA editor Donald Anderson and conference organizers Jesse Goolsby and Brandon Lingle. Excellent writers themselves, they nourish excellence in others, storytellers interested not in purveying information but communicating experience.
Two weeks ago I was invited to read fiction on stage in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, bar called Pete’s Candy Store. Pete’s often hosts readings, but only once a year dedicates a night to veteran writing. This year’s event was hosted by Kaboom author and Words After War mainstay Matt Gallagher, who had many nice things to say about me and my fellow readers Paul Wolfe, Teresa Fazio, and Brandon Willitts. Wolfe, a former Army officer now at Columbia, read fiction set in Iraq. Fazio, a former Marine officer, read from a memoir-in-progress. Willitts, a Navy enlisted veteran, read fiction set in the American west. I read an adaptation of a myth I first encountered in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses called “Cyex and Alceone.” My adaptation, called “Cy and Ali,” holds true to the outlines of Ovid’s myth, but I placed my updated story in the modern era, with action set in Afghanistan and back home. The story wasn’t new—I first published it on my old blog 15-Month Adventurethen later republished it in Time Now, but no one seemed to notice or mind. Two listeners liked the way I included a woman’s point-of-view, which was cool. Another told me that the story made her choke up a bit. That’s what you get I guess with stories based on myth: big emotions. “If you want to make your readers feel loss, make them love something and then take it away,” the writing workshop maxim goes.
I’m working on a series of stories based on Ovid. The war lit scene has done ancient Greece to death—Sparta, Odysseus, Penelope, Antigone, etc.—so my schtick is to do classical Rome. The physical transformations of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, when updated in the vernacular of fiction, give your stories a magical realist bent, with people changing into trees and birds and such things, which really wrenches your stories out of the mode of journalistic rendering of realistic detail in a hurry, if that’s what you want. I’ll let you know how it works out.
The expanding and permeable borders of the veterans writing scene continue to admit new members and permute in interesting ways. In the audience at Pete’s were two Army friends, Sean Case and Erin Hadlock. Both veterans, each has contributed significantly to veterans writing. Sean, who keeps an eye on the latest-and-greatest in Arabic literature, was the first to alert me to Hassan Blasim—until someone tells me otherwise, Case was the man who “broke” Blasim in America, no small achievement. Hadlock recently published an essay co-written with Sue Doe in Generation Vet: Composition, Student-Veterans, and the Post-9/11 University (2014) called “Not Just ‘Yes Sir,’ ‘No Sir’: How Genre and Agency Interact in Student-Veteran Writing” that was referred to left-and-right in panels at the recent Conference on College Composition and Communication. Apparently, “military literacy genres”—think awards, evaluations, mission orders, field manuals, storyboards, etc.—are red-hot subjects of study in academia. But Hadlock’s bigger claim to fame is that she was Matt Gallagher’s first squad leader in ROTC way back when at Wake Forest. Now that’s saying something….
Thanks to Jillian Capewell and Lindsay Hood, the organizers of Pete’s Candy Store Reading Series.