War Fiction, Summer 2021

Time Now’s pace-of-production has dramatically slowed this year for a variety of reasons, even as Time Now itself celebrated its 10th birthday on June 23. From 40 or so posts a year circa 2015, this is only my fifth so far in 2021. Part of the reason for the decline is technical: for reasons inexplicable WordPress has forced me to change the lay-out of the blog, and I have to say the new look has unsettled me. Whatever gain in readability may have accrued, the loss of the familiar format has deflated inspiration. Even worse, behind the public face of Time Now I’ve lost the ability to easily edit posts on the WordPress platform—a serious liability that must be fixable, but which has thus far proven beyond me to do so. Very demoralizing, not because I often go back and substantially revise old posts, but it changes the nature of how I compose and publish, and even small corrections of typos and formatting glitches are hard.

That said, here I’m going to quickly consider a series of war-writing events and works that in past years might have merited much more attention. This will have to suffice for now, but perhaps I can circle back to any or all of the subjects I offer brief descriptions of below.

1. Be sure to check-out my interview with Iraqi expatriate author Hassan Blasim recently published by The Wrath-Bearing Tree. Blasim may more definitively be described as “conflict-and-violence” than a “war” writer, but his work has always struck me and others in the war-writing scene as an important counterpoint to the American-centric focus of contemporary war-and-mil writing by American authors. In the interview Blasim describes the artistic genesis of his new novel God 99, which he firmly locates in the experience of growing up in Iraq under the influence of Saddam Hussein and Iraq war.

https://www.wrath-bearingtree.com/2021/07/new-interview-of-author-hassan-blasim-by-peter-molin/

Hassan Blasim

2.  I just participated in a war-writing panel at the American Literature Association conference—a welcome return to public academic consideration of war-writing following fifteen months of social isolation. The title of our panel and the individual presentations speak to the focus and range of our concerns:

Writing War in the 21st-Century: Unbound Perspectives on the Global War on Terror

Hilary Lithgow: “A 21st Century Chapter for [Samuel Hynes’] The Soldier’s Tale.”

Peter Molin: “Wayward Warfaring: Black Voices in Contemporary War-Writing”

Stacey Peebles: “‘A precious jewel among the wreckage of this country’: Contemporary Iraqi War Fiction.”

Brian Williams: “What kind of crazy fits this war?: Considering the ‘Global’ in the Global War on Terror” [focused on Phil Klay’s Missionaries].

Thanks to Brian Williams for organizing and Melissa Parrish for moderating, as well as to my fellow panelists.

3. Keeping up with new war-writing titles has continued apace. Below are capsule descriptions of recent releases, with a focus on summary rather than assessment and analysis. Buy and read any that sound appealing!

a.  Maximilian Uriarte’s Battle-Born: Lapis Lazuli. Uriarte’s follow-up graphic novel to his impressive and important The White Donkey is set in Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, and expands The White Donkey’s focus on soldier trauma to a much wider range of concerns: racism, misogyny, economic exploitation of natural resources, and the lives and perspectives of civilians caught in the turmoil of war and conflict, while also introducing new characters serving in Uriarte’s beloved Marines. Befitting the expanded range of concerns, Battle Born’s artwork is much more lavish than The White Donkey’s, featuring a more striking color palette and more panoramic and detailed drawings.

b.  Perry O’Brien’s Fire in the Blood is a welcome full-length novel by the latest (but hopefully not the last) vet-author who first came to prominence as a contributor to the seminal Fire and Forget anthology in 2013. Fire in the Blood begins as a detective whodunit, as its protagonist, a soldier AWOL from duty in Afghanistan, tries to solve the mystery of his wife’s death in New York City. Morphing as it goes, Fire in the Blood evolves into something of an action-thriller as the vet-protagonist battles richy-rich and super-sketchy antagonists who stymie the vet’s pursuit of justice. The descriptions of exotically-sordid characters and places in The Bronx excel. 

c.  Brett Allen’s Kilroy Was Here’s first-person narrator is a junior officer stuck on battalion staff during his Army unit’s dismal rotation in Afghanistan in 2008-2009. Underappreciated and marginalized by his chain-of-command, the narrator paints a striking picture of toxic military leadership that sometimes comically but ultimately sadly seems to reflect reports by many junior officers who feel they were cheated out of more rewarding tours by their own leaders. Satire and ridicule are the narrator’s primary weapons for exacting revenge, and a plot that allows the narrator’s superior understanding of events and fighting prowess to eventually shine furthers the comeuppance. The portrait of a battalion deployment and internal dynamics, as well as the complexities of missions in Afghanistan, will resonate with readers who have experienced such things, such as me.

d.  Travis Klempan’s Have Snakes, Need Birds’ subject is an Army battalion’s tour in Iraq, with the focus on a sergeant of mysterious provenance and talents (he communicates telepathically with birds, for starters) with no specific assignment except to accompany the designated platoon sergeant of an infantry platoon to add experience and be ready to take over “just-in-case.” The reason for this odd setup is not fully explained, and as the novel proceeds, Klempan adds further mysterious and fantastical elements that bespeak an interest in magical realism and speculative-horror fiction. Determined not to be just another war-novel, Have Snakes, Need Bird’s strength lies in its protagonist’s wrangle with his own doubts as he only half-understands how supernatural forces, a vexing mission, and an enigmatic romantic interest collude to bring him to a rendezvous with combat-zone destiny.

4. Two more titles await reading: Former Marine Dewaine Farria’s Revolutions of All Colors, about, among other things, a black Special Forces veteran trying to make his way in the complicated contemporary social and political landscape, and Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War, a collection of darkly absurdist tales and ruminations about war and military by the author of the excellent memoir Afghan Post and the founder of the estimable The Wrath-Bearing Tree website.     

That’s all folks–and now back to your regularly scheduled summers. 

****

Brett Allen, Kilroy Was Here. A15 Publishing, 2020.

Hassan Blasim, God 99. Comma Press, 2020. Translated by Jonathan Wright.

Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War. KOLO, 2021.

Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors. Syracuse University Press, 2020.

Travis Klempan, Have Snakes, Need Birds. Koehlerbooks, 2020.

Perry O’Brien, Fire in the Blood. Random House, 2020.

Maximilian Uriarte, Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli. Little, Brown and Company, 2020.

Terminal Lance in the Art Museum


I wandered into Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum recently and was pleased to see the work of Marine Iraq veteran-turned-cartoonist-and-graphic-novelist Maximilian Uriarte unexpectedly featured. Part of an exhibit titled Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel, Uriarte is grouped with two other artists in support of the main attraction, Bechdel, a graphic-novel pioneer whose work explores the difficulty of growing up gay in small-town America. Alongside Bechdel and Uriarte are Thi Bui, who writes about her experience as a second-generation American, and Elle Forney, whose subjects grow out of her own life-wrestle with disability and a medical profession that struggles to help her.

That’s an odd grouping on the face of it—Uriarte might be an alienated, disgruntled, and traumatized vet, but I don’t think of the politics of his Terminal Lance comic strips and his graphic novel The White Donkey as radically left-progressive as Bechdel’s, Bui’s, and Forney’s clearly are. Still, there’s no denying his skill or his influence, more so based on the achievement of Terminal Lance than The White Donkey. While The White Donkey portrays in-service disillusionment and post-deployment despair in relatively conventional melodramatic and moralistic tones, Terminal Lance practically invented the snarky “view-from-below” humor that dominates soldier and veteran online rhetoric today. Where the Terminal Lance character of The White Donkey is a hapless victim of the Marines’ dehumanizing processes, the Terminal Lance in the cartoon strips is a wily counterpuncher against the Corps’ assaults on his intelligence and his dignity, with slacking, shamming, and acts of petty insubordination his primary tactics. Taking aim at a bloated, outdated military culture and an officer corps stuck on auto-pilot, the raunchy-and-blasphemous Terminal Lance first-and-most-cleverly expressed the contempt of junior enlisted soldiers for a military machinery badly in need of not just a tune-up, but a complete overhaul. And yet, it’s not entirely clear that Uriarte, or Terminal Lance, hates the Marines. It’s as if he loves the Corps most when it shows its warts, when it deviates from its stated ideals and goals, and he feels fortunate, not unfortunate, that he is there to witness or endure it, because at some level it strikes him as funny.

One of the least blasphemous and raunchy Terminal Lance strips I could find.

Uriarte was the pioneering original, and those in his wake continue to score many direct hits, but zinging military absurdities can be a little like shooting fish in a barrel:  taking pot-shots at guppies in a tank is not quite the same thing as landing a marlin in the open sea. In other words, the modern brand of “GI humor” launched by Terminal Lance and now finding its fullest expression on Twitter often settles for knocking down easy targets, not in good fun but as if its aggrieved outrage and witty hot-takes were beyond reproach and really accomplishing something. Whether a similar sense of inflated achievement might also be true of graphic novels is open for discussion, but there’s little denying their popularity and synchronicity with the times. Whatever the message, it’s probably more about the artwork and the medium, and Self-Confessed! offers great opportunity to view full-scale versions and blow-ups of Uriarte’s work, rough drafts, and storyboards and outlines for longer works. The Self-Confessed! exhibit prospectus had some neat things to say about graphic novels as a genre:

In recent decades, comics and graphic novels have embraced history, medical and self-help literature, stories of war and history…. Each revisits the past to re-imagine not only what occurred, but also how it looked as it was happening. The process of remembering and reconstructing the past is well-served by the graphic narrative in that the structure of comics—the framing of moments, the breaks between panels, the rhythm and pacing that creates the flow of the book—are all part of remembering and telling. And for the reader, the combination of words and pictures slows down the process of reading, complicates the structure of time, and provides an opportunity to linger.

White Donkey 1

Randy Brown, better known as the gifted military humorist and poet “Charlie Sherpa,” offers his own musings about graphic novels in a recent review published in Army magazine titled “Graphic Novels Present War Panel by Panel.” Examining two graphic novels about war in Afghanistan, Brown notes that the genre’s name is often a misnomer: “Despite the … inclusion of the term ‘novel,’ these are works of nonfiction–memoirs–and are based on factual events and reporting, or at least personal recollections”–i.e., “Self-Confessed!” That basic-but-necessary point made, Brown reminds us that “American military history is full of cartoons and comic books–from Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe to Sgt. Rock to PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly” and that “Comics are more than pictures and words: Intangibles can be communicated via color palette choices, in character facial expressions, in dialogue, and even in the number and shapes of panels on the page.” Combined with the ease with which graphic novels can present scenes “flashing between memories and present-day conversations,” Brown notes the form “delivers immediate rapport and opportunities for empathy.”

Theorizing aside, Brown makes the two graphic novels he reviews (their covers pictured below) sound well-worth checking out. Here’s to the progeny of Uriarte, Terminal Lance, and The White Donkey.

Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel is on display at the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey through Saturday, December 30.

Graphic Novel: Maximilian Uriarte’s The White Donkey

White Donkey 1I’ve haven’t read a bad word yet about Maximilian Uriarte’s graphic novel The White Donkey, and you won’t find one here, either. It would be hard to top Charlie Sherpa’s review of The White Donkey on Red Bull Rising, so I’ll keep things short. The story of a young Marine, morose and purposeless to begin with, disillusioned by the military in general and traumatized specifically by combat in Iraq, The White Donkey plot recoups many scenes and characters now commonplace in contemporary war writing. The protagonist, Lance Corporal Abe Belatzeko, is a listless and adrift young man who had hoped that the Marines might provide the purpose and motivation he couldn’t muster as a civilian. That doesn’t happen, however, as Abe finds life in the Marines mostly dull and senseless, frequently miserable, and rarely inspiring or rewarding. His lack of gung-ho spirit is quickly perceived by his peers and sergeants, who either are “all in” or better able to “fake it until they make it.” As The Valley author John Renehen (an Army veteran) described the Semper Fi Do or Die ethos to me in an email, “I remember realizing in Ramadi that the typical Marine is not some jarhead muscle man but a clean-scrubbed eager-beaver kid who looks like he’s 15 and just wants you to tell him to do something, anything, so he can do it 110% and have you tell him he did a good job.”

Abe can’t muster that level of commitment, and foolishly he thinks that his constant complaining and emotional distance constitutes a worthy critique of USMC dysfunction. When his best friend Garcia rips him a new one for his slacker attitude, however, Abe realizes how off-putting his belly-aching and ass-dragging have become. He resolves to get his act together, but unfortunately, things completely unravel when his truck hits an IED while on mission and Garcia is killed. The IED strike occurs as the men are singing along to The Killers’ “All These Things That I Have Done”—“I got soul, but I’m not a soldier”—the chant, known by all who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, getting very near to the heart of contemporary civ-mil split identity: willing to wear the uniform, willing to go to war, but refusing to accept total indoctrination into the warrior way asked for by service, and in fact commenting ironically on the incongruity of hapless boy-men, raised on Call of Duty and South Park, now armed to the teeth and on behalf of their nation heading into battle with ruthless Islamic radicals. The disaster that befalls Abe precipitates further decline and provides proof positive of Stacey Peebles’ articulation of the defining story line of Iraq and Afghan War memoirs and narratives: a young man who trusts that his upbringing and his branch-of-service will protect him from the worst of war, only to learn the hard way how badly he has miscalculated.

Uriarte’s majestically simple narrative and drawings distill stock war story elements and artistically re-invigorate them. Above all, he makes Abe worthy of sympathy, in contrast to some other portraits of alienated veterans who come off as unlikeable louts. Frankly, many similar narratives, of which there are by now dozens, seem crude and tedious in comparison, though they try much harder, while The White Donkey storyline effortlessly pulls readers forward, even as they may be tempted to linger on each page to marvel at Uriarte’s ability to portray story, scene, and character through image. Perhaps the graphic novel–unable to render complex adult interiority and extended authorial commentary–is a form ideally suited to portray a young man’s experience of war and redeployment. But that notion shortchanges Uriarte’s achievement, to say nothing of the interior life of young men. A veteran of tours in Iraq as both an infantryman and a combat artist, Uriarte also possesses a degree from the California College of Arts, a potent blend of experience and education. For years Uriarte has authored the cartoon strip Terminal Lance, which features sardonic looks at military life from the viewpoint of fictional junior enlisted Marines, including Abe and Garcia. Terminal Lance is excellent, but only hints at the imaginative enhancements Uriarte has wrought on the cartoon’s characters, subjects, themes, and sensibility in The White Donkey, as if its larger canvas sought to expose the limits of junior enlisted sarcastic wise-assery. What The White Donkey forgoes in terms of the Terminal Lance cartoon’s humor, it more than makes up for on the strength of its strong storyline, poignant perspective, and evocative artwork.

 

White Donkey Heads

The White Donkey 3

 

White Donkey Form

Maximilian Uriarte, The White Donkey/Terminal Lance. Little, Brown, and Company, 2016.