Posted tagged ‘Matt Gallagher’

Veterans Writing

September 29, 2013

Matt Gallagher’s latest post on the New York Times At War webpage explains the structural fault lines that divide the veterans writing community. Gallagher notes that veterans writing workshops are a growth industry, key components of the veterans programs now established in many colleges and cities. He notes that within the veteran writing community motivations differ. Some see writing as a matter of self-expression or healing. Others see it as a means by which they might turn themselves into big-time, well-regarded artists. Some think their stories need ultra-precise realistic rendering of their personal experiences and are unable to see the need for artistic re-imagining at all. Some veteran writers overvalue the degree to which their war experience makes them uniquely qualified to write about war. They scoff at the pretensions of someone who hasn’t “been there and done that” to write meaningfully and movingly about war.

These are all subjects that interest me. I’m familiar with veterans programs sponsored by colleges as diverse as Farmingdale State and Vassar, to say nothing of my occasional interaction with the veteran population at West Point. It occurs to me that the New GI Bill, which basically funds four years of college for anyone who has recently served overseas, is as worthy a program as the storied GI Bill of the post-World War II days, and that if we as a nation (or at least our government) are serious about our commitment to veterans, generous allotments for education are second only to effective medical care as a material, no-BS way of saying thanks. College is just the right place for many vets—they can simmer down after their service while preparing for their future–and it makes sense that classes that allow them to explore their war experience are part of the curriculum.

The question of whether a writer who hasn’t been to war can write well about war also intrigues me. Gallagher cites Ben Fountain as the example par excellence of an author who never served in the military, let alone saw combat, but who can still convey what it is like to be a soldier. I love Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, too, but have noted that Fountain evades extended description of battle. Is that a place he just didn’t feel comfortable going? Brian Van Reet, a decorated vet, portrays two horribly mangled veterans in comic-grotesque terms in “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek.” Would a civilian feel as comfortable doing so? Is there something wrong with someone who isn’t disabled portraying characters who are? Both these cases reflect the issues of credibility and authority that permeate discussions of war writing.

We actually already have lots of fiction and non-fiction that describes what it is like to fight, and what it is like to live after fighting. Most of them are rendered largely through the perspective of one protagonist. I’m eager for a story that expresses the totality of an Iraq or Afghanistan deployment. A cast of characters, not just one main one. A vivid depiction of social milieu, from the squad up to the brigade, as they progress from home station to theater, spend a year on a FOB doing missions while interacting with local nationals, and then redeploy and get on with their post-war lives. A plot that takes a novel to properly set up and unfold. Where is that book? Fobbit, by David Abrams, comes close, but I want more.  I’m now starting Sparta, by Roxana Robinson. Robinson’s not a vet, but maybe her book will take me there.

In the meantime, we might consider how a scene might be portrayed through poetry, through fiction, through personal experience. Here is how Brian Turner conveys his thoughts on the plane ride back from Iraq:

“Night in Blue”

At seven thousand feet and looking back, running lights
blacked out under the wings and America waiting,
a year of my life disappears at midnight,
the sky a deep viridian, the houselights below
small as match heads burned down to embers.

Has this year made me a better lover?
Will I understand something of hardship,
of loss, will a lover sense this
in my kiss or touch? What do I know
of redemption or sacrifice, what will I have
to say of the dead — that it was worth it,
that any of it made sense?
I have no words to speak of war.
I never dug the graves of Talafar.
I never held the mother crying in Ramadi.
I never lifted my friend’s body
when they carried him home.

I have only the shadows under the leaves
to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
the low fog of Balad,
orange groves with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.
I have a woman crying in my ear
late at night when the stars go dim,
moonlight and sand as a resonance
of the dust of bones, and nothing more.

And from early in Sparta, here is how Robinson depicts a similar scene:

The plane was full of sprawling, loose-lipped Marines, lost, gone, dead to the world.

Conrad liked seeing them like this: sleep was like salary, his men were owed. They were infantry grunts, and they’d been seven months on duty without a single day off. They deserved to sleep for months, years, decades. They deserved this long, roaring limbo, this deep absence from the world, from themselves. This plane ride was the floating bridge between where they’d been and where they were going—deployment and the rest of their lives. They deserved these hours of unconsciousness, this gorgeous black free fall.

My rendition of the same experience stems from a flight back from Afghanistan on mid-tour leave. I was the senior officer on a charter plane from Kuwait to Ireland. As such I sat up front and conversed with the senior flight attendant. She was maybe 30, with that half-pasty, half-refined look that comes from trying to maintain professional polish while living on hotel room service. She was very nice, and we traded stories while the rest of the plane dozed. Our flight was peaceful, and yet she told me of horrible flights out of Iraq in the bad days of 2006 and 2007, when soldiers would wake screaming out of nightmares born of bad memories and ravaged psyches. Seven hour flights would be filled with noise and bustle as fellow soldiers subdued distraught friends wacked out–or not wacked out enough–on Ambien. As we talked on she told me that she had gone to college at Indiana, as did I. That was cool, so I asked her where she hung out in Bloomington. To my surprise she mentioned the local punk rock club. Judging from her looks and job, I never would have guessed it, but she really knew her stuff. She had run a ‘zine, and still went to shows and knew all the bands. Since I had come-of-age near DC listening to classic hardcore groups such as Minor Threat and the Bad Brains, we had a lot to discuss. So, on through the flight we traded stories about our favorite records and shows. While 90% of the other passengers slept 90% of the time, my interlocutor lured me out of my deployment anxieties and uncertainty about the future with magical tales of a musical history that if we didn’t quite share, we both could appreciate.

My story isn’t as good as Turner’s or Robinson’s, or related as well, but it’s mine, which counts for something. All stories need telling, whether they find many listeners or not. It’s a social catharsis, enacted individually but resonating collectively.

Courtesy of Bill Putnam.  Used by permission.

Courtesy of Bill Putnam. Used by permission.

New York Times review of Roxana Robinson’s Sparta

Veteran David Carrell writes about his return to college at Vassar

My War author Colby Buzzell writes about his own love of punk rock

Happy Mother’s Day War Literature

May 11, 2013

Below I’ve reposted a slightly-edited post from my old blog, 15-Month Adventure, that I also published on Time Now last year on Mother’s Day.

To the Moms, the Whole Love

Moms come up quite a bit in writings about the war, I’ve discovered.  Not surprisingly, authors are sensitive to how military service touches those whose children do the fighting.  For example, here’s how Benjamin Busch in Dust to Dust describes his mother’s reaction to the announcement that he has joined the Marine Corps:

“My mother took a deep breath, her hands clamped to the edge of the table as if she were watching an accident happen in the street.  Her father had been a Marine, had gone to war and almost not come back.”

How to describe a mother’s anxiety about her child’s deployment?  Kaboom author Matt Gallagher’s mom, Deborah Scott Gallagher, writes:

“’I will be stalwart,’ I had said to myself on the drive home from the airport the morning I said goodbye to him. “I will be steadfast. I will read and listen to the reputable war reporters, and I will write my senators and congressmen, but I will not lose faith in my country. I will concentrate on sustaining my son rather than myself, and I will not confuse self-pity with legitimate worry and concern over him and his men. I will be proud, justifiably proud, but I will not be vainglorious! And I will never, never, never let him know how frightened I am for him.’

“But, within moments of returning home, I had broken all but one of these promises to myself. I was doing laundry and, as I measured detergent into the washer, the Christmas carol CD I was playing turned to Kate Smith’s magnificent contralto, singing, ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.’

“‘And in despair, I bowed my head,’ she sang. ‘There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’

“And, at that moment, for only the third time in my adult life, I began to sob — not cry, not weep — but sob uncontrollably, sitting on the floor of my laundry room, surrounded by sorted piles of bed linens and dirty clothes.”

And if the child comes back wounded?  Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone, describes a trip to Walter Reed to meet injured soldiers and their families:

“And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: ‘Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?’”

And how does a veteran describe his mother, a lover of language and books and authors and ideas, as he watches her fade late in life?  Benjamin Busch again:

“She had been a librarian.  All of the books and conversations about the importance of written words swelling inside her head like a star undergoing gravitational collapse into a black mass, its light still traveling out into space but its fires already burned out.  Nothing left but ash.”  Then he recounts her last words: “‘Oh my baby boy.'”

So much hurt.  So much damage.  So many memories.  So much love.

My mother, Ann Castle Boswell, Athens, Ohio, 1958, Athens, Ohio, the year I was born.

My mother, Ann Castle Boswell, Athens, Ohio, 1958, the year I was born

References:

Benjamin Busch, Dust to Dust:  A Memoir (2012).

Matt Gallagher, Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Dirty Little War (2010)

Deborah Scott Gallagher, In a Hymn, Words of CourageNew York Times, December 23, 2011.

Siobhan Fallon, You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011).

Siobhan Fallon, A Visit to Walter Reed, March 29, 2012.

The Imagined Wars of the Heart

March 24, 2013

In an earlier post, I wrote of the similarity of Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand.”  In each story a badly wounded Iraq war vet confronts the fact that his wife has chosen to leave him.  In Fallon’s story, the vet and his wife are so tenderly portrayed that the reader is left gasping with sympathy for both of them.  We want them each to somehow be happy again, if not together then in their now separate lives.  In Van Reet’s story, the soldier and his wife are monsters, albeit colorful ones.  They have not been just buffeted and damaged by the war, but ruined by it.

Both stories are great, just in case that needs saying.

As up-to-the-minute as they are, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and “The Last Stand” also belong to a tradition of stories about wounded male vets being jilted by wives and girlfriends.  Alice Fahs remind us of that in The Imagined Civil Wars when she describes a Civil War tale called “A Leaf From a Summer” published in Harper’s Weekly in November 1862.  Fahs writes:

“In that story a soldier faced an amputation hopefully because he had a letter from his beloved ‘next to his heart’; afterward, contrary to the surgeon’s expectations, he indeed ‘began to rally.’ But after receiving a letter telling him that his shallow lover had changed her mind and would not ‘marry a cripple,’ the hour quickly came ‘when they lowered him into the earth, and fired their volleys over him.’  As the narrator commented, ‘his enemy had struck him unarmed and unaware.’  As such the popular fiction revealed, the war only intensified a long-standing literary connection between love and war:  numerous stories claimed not only that women’s love was vital to a successful war but that love itself equaled war in its power to kill men.”

Below is a link to a web reprint of the story as it appeared in the 8 November 1862 Harper’s Weekly, for those who can’t get enough of that breathless, clichéd, one-sided 19th-century narration.

A Leaf From A Summer

“A Leaf From A Summer” is laughable, while the strength of Fallon’s and Van Reet’s stories is their ability to convey marital breakup with a sense of perspective, balance, nuance, and realism.  Examined in isolation, however, the pain of a soldier’s heartbreak is real and consequential.  A chapter called “Dear John” from Matt Gallagher’s excellent war memoir Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War describes the carnage wrought on the soldiers in his cavalry scout platoon when they were jilted while deployed.

“Dear Johns crushed men of otherwise unquestionable strength and total resoluteness.   In the time they most needed something right and theirs, it was taken away from them.  It wasn’t like getting dumped—it had a far more resounding impact on the soldier.  He became rougher, harsher, crueler…. Truthfully, it usually made him a better soldier, but he lost some vital slivers of his humanity in the process.”

Gallagher also explains that Dear Johns “didn’t just impact the recipient.  They affected the psyches of teams, sections, platoons, and troops, bringing home to everyone the recognition that the same thing could happen to them and forcing them to wonder if it was going to.  Or if it already had and they just didn’t know about it yet.  This mind fuck was the worst part for many.”

Gallagher points out that a soldier’s romantic interest represents his (or her) hope that an ideal or at least better world awaits his return and thus makes the misery of the war endurable and grounds his conduct while deployed.  But he also reminds us that many soldiers are shitty boyfriends or husbands.  Neglectful and needy by turns, they might be outraged and hurt by unfaithfulness even while being unfaithful themselves.  Gallagher doesn’t do much more to explain Dear Johns from a woman’s point of view, but Kit, the protagonist of “The Last Stand” and Sleed, the protagonist of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” also present their spouses with many issues even without the problem of their dismemberment and disfigurement.  The implication seems to be that women are attracted by the idea of loving a soldier, but find the reality very difficult to deal with.  Perhaps they also suspect that male soldiers love war and the military more than they do their wives and girlfriends, and thus determine to make their men pay.

Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” can be found in Fire and Forget:  Short Stories, published by De Capo Press in 2012.

Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” can be found in You Know When the Men are Gone, published by Amy Einhorn Books-Putnam in 2011.

Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War was published by De Capo Press in 2010.

Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War:  Popular Literature of the North and South 1861-1865 was published in 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press.


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