Posted tagged ‘Phil Klay’

The War Writing Rhetorical Triangle

July 28, 2016

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.

Slide1

Slide2

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:

Slide3

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:

Slide4What 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):

Slide5

Features of the contemporary model include:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Slide6

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.”

War Writing Longform: Thinking Outside the Wire

June 15, 2016
USAFA Photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez (in 2009, TSGt Chavez and I served together on FOB Lightning, Afghanistan)

USAF photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez

Elizabeth Samet’s Washington Post review of J. Kael Weston’s The Mirror Test intrigued me. Samet, in my reading, simultaneously approves of Weston’s fiery indictment of the United States’ poor execution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is irritated by it. Weston, a veteran of many tours in both countries as a US State Department political advisor, castigates US policy makers in Washington and generals in the big command headquarters while celebrating the bravery and grunt’s-eye view of reality of the Marines and soldiers with whom he often confronted Iraqis and Afghans “outside the wire” and “on the ground.” Those are fair positions, Samet posits, based on Weston’s extensive experience and the reports of many others. The problem, Samet seems to be saying, is that Weston’s arguments aren’t exactly novel, especially coming this late in the game from someone with all the advantages of education and position Weston possesses and now expresses so righteously as if no one had ever said them before. Declaring one’s hatred for Beltway insiders and rear-echelon fobbits, while pronouncing one’s affiliation with common soldiers, are ideas that the nation might still benefit from by heeding, but in June 2016, they’re hardly the basis of an original critique of government and military policy and operations. Anyone who cares has heard the song many times, and no one who has not already memorized the words will begin singing it now.

What’s needed, if I read Samet correctly, or maybe it’s just me, are new ideas about what the wars entailed and what they mean. Fresher thinking about the experience of soldiers. Deeper exploration of American militarism in national and global affairs. Intriguing new terms and more complex arguments and counter-arguments, more ingenious processing of the data about what happened, and surprising discoveries of heretofore unobserved connections. It’s all well-and-good that someone’s been outside the wire to face danger and complexity, but how can one’s writing and thinking also venture outside the wire?

In other domains—medicine, technology, education, science, for examples,—”longform” journalism is typically a place, maybe the place, where new ideas by authors of skill and gravitas are seriously proposed and tried out. I was recently asked to compile a list of articles, web postings, and book excerpts, publicly available on the Internet, that did some of that work in regard to America’s twenty-first century wars, and the results are below. Most of the articles I read when they appeared, while others are new finds discovered just the last couple of weeks. A few are buried behind pay-and-registration walls, for which I apologize, but all are well worth seeking out. Many corroborate my own impressions and war experiences and serve as the intellectual basis for my understanding of how the wars unfolded and what have been their consequences. Others, however, contradict my own thoughts, or report on facets of the war of which I have little other knowledge. The best don’t just report events, but make bold judgments about assumptions and values underwriting the things they describe.

  1. “Force and Futility: Is It Time to Leave Afghanistan?” Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker (2010).
  2. “American Imperium: Uncovering Truth and Fiction in an Age of Perpetual War.” Andrew J. Bacevich, Harpers (2016).
  3. “The Killing Machines: How to Think About Drones.” Mark Bowden, The Atlantic (2013).
  4. “Today is Better Than Yesterday: A Marine Returns to a Divided Iraq.” Ben Busch, Harpers (2014).
  5. “The Real Muslims of Irving, Texas.” Colby Buzzell, Esquire (2016).
  6. “One Degree of Separation in the Forever Wars.” Brian Castner, Vice-Motherboard (2015).
  7. “The Problem With Biometrics at War.” Brian Castner, Vice-Motherboard (2016). Excerpt from All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016).
  8. “Words in a Time of War: On Rhetoric, Truth, and Power.” Mark Danner, excerpt from What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics (2007).
  9. “The Tragedy of the American Military.” James Fallows, The Atlantic (2015).
  10. “Excerpt from The Good Soldiers.” David Finkel, The Washington Post (2009).
  11. “Prologue to Thank You For Your Service.” David Finkel, MSNBC (2013).
  12. “Crimes in Iraqi’s Triangle of Death.” Jim Frederick, Time. Excerpt from Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraqi’s Triangle of Death (2010).
  13. “Soldiers on the Fault Line: War, Rhetoric, and Reality.” Ben Fountain, War, Literature, and the Arts (2013).
  14. “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.” Sebastian Junger, Vanity Fair (2015).
  15. “The Citizen Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”  Phil Klay, Brookings Institute (2016).
  16. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, But Alan Rogers Was a Hero to Everyone Who Knew Him.” Ben McGrath, The New Yorker (2008).
  17. “Introduction: Moral Injury Then and Now.” Robert Emmet Meagher. Excerpt from Killing From the Inside Out (2014).
  18. “Playing Defense Against Drones.” Amanda Ripley, Atlantic (2015).
  19. “Between Scylla and Charybdis.” Elizabeth Samet. Excerpt from No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014).
  20. “Inside America’s Dirty Wars: How Three US Citizens Were Killed by Their Own Government in the Space of One Month in 2011.” Jeremy Scahill, The Nation (2013). Excerpt from Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (2016).
  21. “Reborn But Not Dead.” Nancy Sherman. Excerpt from Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Soldiers (2015).
  22. “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.” Roy Scranton, The New York Times (2013).
  23. “Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom.” Roy Scranton, Rolling Stone (2014).
  24. “The Trauma Hero from Wilfred Owen to American Sniper and Redeployment.” Roy Scranton, The Los Angeles Review of Books. (2015).
  25. “I Said Infantry.” Brian Turner, Guernica. Adapted from My Life as a Foreign Country (2015).

Bonus reading: “Jumpstarting a Discussion: Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars.” Stacey Peebles, Roy Scranton, Patrick Deer, AB Huber, Ikram Masmoudi, and Peter Molin, An MLA Roundtable (2016).

Many apologies for the great writers and articles I’ve left out. I could compile a second list, and probably will someday, composed of dozens of worthy articles on less prominent sites than the Harpers/Atlantic/New Yorker -type web places I’ve privileged here. Another list could also feature more diverse voices, by gender, race, religion, and country of origin. Many articles address PTSD and technology, but there’s a few subjects, such as the repeal of DADT, the rise of special operations, the expanded role of women in the military, and the revaluation of the laws of war occasioned by Islamic terrorism that are underrepresented in my list. I looked, maybe not hard enough, entirely possible, but my initial search found few on those subjects that rose above the level of reportage and advocacy to the realm of idea and concept.

Call me greedy, but I want even more. The articles above, good as they are, might now serve most usefully as a seedbed for better things to come, as if everything they propose had to be said first in order now that more creative and perceptive writers can build on them. Here’s an example of what I have in mind, taken from the literary domain I know best. Say what you will about Roy Scranton’s concept of the “trauma hero,” describing a veteran who seems to relish a little too much his or her post-war distress, it got everyone’s attention when it first appeared in a Los Angeles Review of Books essay early in 2015. The memorable phrase defines both a common way that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are being represented in fiction, poetry, and film, and suggests some of the motif’s moral implications and cultural significance, little of which Scranton approved. Many didn’t like Scranton’s essay; they said it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t subtle, and even if it were true, the tone was off, as if Scranton were guilty of not being supportive either of veterans or veteran-authors—the sum total of the responses reinforcing the notion that Scranton’s darts had struck close to the bone.

Phil Klay, for one, might not have liked the not-so-implicit sneer inherit in the phrase “trauma hero,” since his striking short-story “Redeployment” was singled out by Scranton as definitively portraying a veteran confused and reeling from his tour-of-duty. Recently, in a Brookings non-fiction think-piece, Klay refined his sense of the ethical landscape inhabited by those who volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and who continue to weigh the consequences of their decision. Klay advances the notion that the war service of “citizen-soldiers” (he thankfully refrains from using “warriors,” though he might have interrogated how that term has come to serve as a popular descriptor for men and women in uniform) has put them in a position of “moral risk”: a heightened capacity for understanding the complexity of human experience, based on their personal engagement with war folly and darkness, their own and the nation’s, naively volunteered for when young, true, but still an experience they must own and be responsible toward going forward. But knowing how military service might lead to ethical compromise, Klay’s argument goes, is not necessarily debilitating. It can also, Klay argues hopefully and with examples, generate purposeful commitment to being as good as one can be in the aftermath.

The essay is learned and eloquent; Klay fights like the devil to keep from celebrating veterans as forged-by-fire explorers of morally ambiguous wastelands who now know better than the rest of Americans, even as his essay conjures this possible understanding of them into being. But it’s not really so important whether Klay wins the war of ideas by more fully and accurately sketching the moral psychology of veterans better than Scranton. What counts first is that engaged readers consider for themselves the logic and evidence for his claims. What counts second is consideration of the tension now in play, with the self-indulgent distressed veteran constituting one pole of an interpretive force-field and the veteran as ethical avatar the other. And what counts even more is not what either Scranton or Klay has already said, but the response to come by an equally formidable commentator.

Whether that writer splits the difference between Scranton and Klay or takes the argument in a new direction remains to be seen, but the result will certainly be exciting and helpful. It’s not just an intellectual exercise, either; consequential decisions affecting the lives of real people are on the line. The debate’s importance isn’t best measured looking backward at events that have already occurred, but in how its implications will influence difficult choices to come and how they are absorbed internally by those whom they affect most. And to bring things back to fiction, which I love most, we’ll all be able to see how Scranton himself riffs on the trauma hero theme in his soon-to-be-published novel War Porn. I don’t know if Klay’s next fictional work will portray war and veterans, but I’m betting it features characters dealing with intensely problematic experiences they lived through when young.

Photo by USAFA Staff Sergeant Evelyn Chavez, with whom I served on FOB Lightning, Afghanistan, 2009.

USAF photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez. In 2009, TSgt Chavez and I served together on FOB Lightning, Paktya Province, Afghanistan.

Roy Scranton, Phil Klay, and the American Trauma Hero

February 1, 2015

Roy Scranton set the war writer community abuzz this week when the Los Angeles Review of Books published his essay  “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to “Redeployment” to American Sniper, a takedown of the ethos and practice of contemporary war narrative. As Scranton’s co-editor of the seminal Fire and Forget anthology, Matt Gallagher, put it on Twitter: “Well @RoyScranton goes full provocative here….” Those who know Scranton understand cantankerous is often the way he rolls. Fiercely proud of his iconoclast status, he is more than capable of biting hands that feed him and precipitating his dismissal from clubs that might let him join. The club, in this case, though, is one he helped form: the third cohort of contemporary war writers, with those who published prior to 2011 being the first, the bumper crop of circa-2012 fiction authors the second, and the third being the NYC-and-MFA crowd–Phil Klay, Andrew Slater, Mariette Kalinowski, and Brian Van Reet among them–selected by Scranton and Gallagher and offered to the public in Fire and Forget. Scranton, with Gallagher, conjured that third wave into being, but now he seems to want to be the agent of its dismantling. “First I’m going to make it, then I’m going to shake it ’til it falls apart,” as the lyrics to a great song go.

Some of us like Scranton all the more for who he is, but, skipping past inside-war-writer-circle dramatics, what about the charges Scranton levies against war narrative? Is the general import of war literature from the World War I onward to glamorize “trauma heroes”—young (almost always male) veterans who seem a little bit too satisfied with their status as brutalized survivors of war? Do such representations really distract us from profound consideration of the political and moral costs of war, not to forget the injuries and deaths we have inflicted on our enemies and noncombatants? Is that what American Sniper does? And is that what Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” does, too? Really? Phil Klay either no more aware or just as craven as the makers of American Sniper?

Is war lit all about the angst of young white males?  Photo of a helicopter crewman by Bill Putnam.

Is war lit all about the angst of young white males? Photo by Bill Putnam.

I haven’t seen American Sniper yet, so I’ll forego commenting on it and focus my comments on Redeployment, the National Book Award winner for 2014. Klay’s collection of short stories are not above criticism, a bit of which was brought forth in the Twitter book chat I participated in this past week. No stories in Redeployment are told through the eyes of Iraqis, and only “Money as a Weapons System” features Iraqi characters. But “Money”–my favorite story in the collection–is a funny satire of US war aims and execution, as well as the obliviousness of the American people and government, so Klay can’t be accused of totally ignoring “the bigger picture.” A certain male-veteran-voice perspective is privileged in Redeployment, and many of the tales revolve around vets who participated in killing whose brooding thoughts about the matter are now being aesthetically rendered for our perusal. We gape at the inner devastation wrought on Rodriguez, a hardened killer who hates Iraqis, in “Prayer in the Furnace” and we ache or are even amused by the narrator of “Ten Kliks South,” a naive artillerymen obsessed with measuring his culpability for the deaths inflicted by rounds he helps fire.

The beauty of the stories is their nuance in playing with the details of the “myth of the trauma-hero,” not their crushing conformity to a mold. And overall, I’ll suggest Klay interrogates the myth as much as he might unwittingly instantiate it. Or, more specifically, stories such as “After Action Report” and “War Stories” dramatize and problematize what it means to live in the midst of the myth’s creation during war and afterwards. In “After Action Report,” for example, the narrator claims credit for a unit’s first kill in Iraq as a favor to the actual killer who doesn’t want to live with the stigma. In recounting how the narrator is newly perceived by those who don’t know better, the story portrays ironically the processes and implications of being identified as a combat killer, a pressure so real that even the narrator begins to internalize it. In “War Stories,” it’s not that war-damaged veterans especially want to be seen as traumatized heroes, it’s that civilians push them into playing the role, a role that proves irresistible, especially when there’s a chance that doing so might persuade pretty young women to join them in bed–a dynamic that leaves Jessie, a war-wounded woman veteran in the tale, in an awkward limbo as she watches swirls of erotic energy shape the actions and attitudes of her male vet friends. In the title story, the one at which Scranton aims most of his ire, I see a complexity that Scranton does not. The narrator doesn’t facilely privilege the killing of his own dog, or an Iraqi dog, over the deaths of actual Iraqis. Instead, for me, the story recounts the first-person narrator’s growing apprehension that his moral balance is out-of-skew, with Klay the author asking readers to use their distance from the narrator to understand their own ethical imbalances and blind spots.

But Scranton’s a smart guy, and he wouldn’t say what he did without being on to something. His concern certainly has more to do with how Klay’s stories are conveniently understood by undiscriminating readers than with the tales themselves. And other writers have told me that they do struggle with writing stories that don’t feature stereotypical war-damaged vets. I’ve read a draft of Scranton’s novel War Porn and know how hard he has tried to avoid enveloping his war vet protagonist in sentimental shrouds of pity and dark romance. But the trauma hero myth is insidious, by its own internal logic—how dark would you have to paint a vet to make him or her beyond sympathy? Brian Van Reet couldn’t have made the protagonists of his Fire and Forget story “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” any more despicable, and I love them to death, go figure. Same with Hassan Blasim’s most memorable characters. The only solution, I’m thinking, is to portray vets as stupid unlikeable jerks who were jack-asses while deployed and tedious pains to be around afterwards. Lauren, the traumatized protagonist of Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You is the fictional character I’ve seen who comes the closest to this “ideal,” though as I discuss in my Time Now review, I’m not sure if that is by Hoffman’s design or not. I’m also thinking that someone will soon write a book about Iraq and Afghanistan vets that portrays them as complete buffoons–perhaps the only way the excesses of self-seriousness might be exposed, ridiculed, and deflated to sensible, manageable proportions. I’m having  lunch with Scranton later this week and look forward to talking these things out. And I plan to watch American Sniper soon, too.

Phil Klay’s Redeployment Redux

January 25, 2015

RedeploymentOn Tuesday 27 January at 4pm EST, I’ll participate in a Twitter bookchat sponsored by US Studies Online, an offshoot of the British American Studies Association. Our subject will be Phil Klay’s Redeployment and joining me will be Aaron DeRosa, a professor at Cal Poly-Ponoma, and Patrick Deer, a professor at New York University. DeRosa is guest-editing (with Stacey Peebles) an upcoming issue of Modern Fiction Studies titled “Enduring Operations: The Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Deer is the author of Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature, a study of World War II British literature, and he has recently turned his attention to American and British contemporary war literature. I know both DeRosa and Deer and their work and am excited to enter the brave new world of Twitter scholarship with them. Our bios and other background material can be found here. Follow me on Twitter, if you aren’t already, @TimeNowBlog, while the US Studies Online tag is @BAASUSSO. Spicing things up, right on time, is Roy Scranton’s “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to “Redeployment” to American Sniper,” published today in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Scranton’s an ex-Army Iraq vet, one of the editors (with Matt Gallagher) of the seminal Fire and Forget war literature anthology, and a Princeton graduate student. A passionate advocate for environmental awareness, he published in 2013 in the New York Times an essay called “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” only partly about Iraq, that lit up the eco-criticism world. Now, in the LARB piece, Scranton delineates a twentieth-century way of writing about war that resolutely depicts male veterans of combat as psychologically shaken, but not so much that they don’t attract our sympathy and respect. Scranton hates this tradition, which he calls a myth, which is to suggest it is a fantasy. He doesn’t think it necessarily accords with either how war has to play out or has to be depicted in fiction and film. He considers it instead an obscene ploy that redirects attention from the real victims of war—the dead, to include dead enemy and civilians—to their killers, while nefariously allowing traumatized killer heroes to avoid culpability for the wars in which they fought. Klay’s “Redeployment,” provides fuel for Scranton’s ire, though Scranton is also quick to praise Klay’s “literary sophistication and suspended judgment” and Redeployment in its entirety. For those who haven’t read “Redeployment” lately, it begins with the striking line, “We shot dogs”—the narrator being a home-from-war Marine who parses the ethical relativity of having had to shoot both dogs and people in Iraq and the requirement now to put down his pet Lab, named Vicar. Reread “Redeployment,” read the rest of Scranton’s argument for yourself, decide whether you like it or not, and let’s talk it out 140 characters at a time next Tuesday.

Words After War: The NYC War Lit Machine-slash-Scene

July 1, 2014

AMERICA-AFTER-9-11-flyer-806x1024This past Sunday I attended “Danger Close: America After 9/11,” an event hosted by Words After War, a New York City-based veterans writers collective I’ve had my eye on for some time. The event featured three authors of fiction who also served the government’s war apparatus in some capacity. Ex-Marine Phil Klay, the author of Redeployment, needs little introduction, but the other two authors brought not-so-obvious experiences and perspectives to bear on the discussion. Masha Hamilton is an author and journalist who also served as a civilian member of the Army command staff in Afghanistan specializing in public affairs and women’s advocacy. Her recent novel What Changes Everything features both American and Afghan characters whose lives have been ravaged by war. Maxwell Neely-Cohen is the author of Echo the Boom, a novel featuring young protagonists born “after the fall of the wall and before the fall of the towers.” Neely-Cohen could boast no military or in-theater experience, but he worked as a DOD-contracted intelligence analyst for a while after college, which is one of the more interesting perches within the military machinery I’ve come across lately. Moderating the panel was Words After War co-founder and executive director Brandon Willitts, a Navy vet of Afghanistan who has also spent a tour as an intelligence analyst working for the Joint Chief of Staffs.

Left to right, Brandon Willetts, Masha Hamilton, Phil Klay, and Maxwell Neely-Cohen

Left to right, Brandon Willetts, Masha Hamilton, Phil Klay, and Maxwell Neely-Cohen

The authors all had interesting things to say about how their lives took shape after 9/11, though each was slow to emphasize the overarching importance of the day in their individual biographies. For Klay, Hamilton, and Neely-Cohen, 9/11 co-exists with a slew of other determinants that took them towards war. Hesitant to make grandiose pronouncements, the panelists instead offered anecdotes and observations that commented obliquely on global politics and history.

Klay: “On the day we celebrated the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I learned that one of my former NCO’s war injuries would leave him permanently blinded.”

Hamilton: “I had a desire to have an impact and help make a difference. I knew I had to be cautious, but not so cautious that I didn’t follow my dreams.”

Neely-Cohen: “I grew up obsessed by the Cold War and the chance of nuclear catastrophe. It always seemed odd that we would risk or even sacrifice millions then, while after the fall of the Twin Towers we measured the cost of war in the low thousands. But even as they fell, I spent the day skateboarding with my friends.”

Often the remarks segued from cultural critique to literary process and technique:

Klay: “I always pay attention my most ‘urgent memories,’ but the stories you tell about yourself are always self-serving and simplistic…”

Hamilton: “Writing in third person (about created characters) allows you to judge them much more harshly…. fiction allows you to ‘write into the gray.’”

Neely-Cohen: “As I created my characters I depended on empathy and imagination…. I did not want to belittle them.”

And so the conversation went on a Sunday afternoon in a Brooklyn, New York performance space transformed into laboratory for ideas and argument. While Klay’s work explains how war felt to those who fought, Hamilton and Neely-Cohen register its reverberations beyond the battlefield and across cultures and generations. The subject was a little large for resolution in the time provided, but the panelists’ offerings were suggestive. Collectively and individually, we all went crazy as if plagued by hornets after 9/11, even as we had to make huge decisions with gigantic costs, and we’re not through yet. Thanks as always to our writers and artists, who observe these things best and on whom we depend to help us understand better.

Thanks also to Words After War for infusing the New York City vet writing community with a collective, sociable, and supportive vibe. Impresario Willetts is passionate about helping vets and obsessed by the idea that literature matters, and he shines at staging events that showcase veteran and war-related writing. Also on the Words After War board of directors is Matt Gallagher, the author of the memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. First published as blog postings from Iraq, where Gallagher served as an Army cavalry officer, Kaboom more than any other memoir I’ve read pays attention to the nuances of soldiers’ emotional lives, which bodes well for the fiction we are sure to see from Gallagher in the future. Gallagher’s writer and warrior cred nicely complement Willett’s vision and organizing ability, and so we look forward to what Words After War brings us next.

Phil Klay, Redeployment. Penguin, 2014.

Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything. Unbridled Books, 2013.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen, Echo the Boom. Rare Bird Books, 2014.

Matt Gallagher, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. Da Capo Press, 2011.

War of Words, Words of War

April 21, 2014

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

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

Klay Blasim

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

photojournalists-on-war-michael-kamber-cover-hr

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

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

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

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

March 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.  I don’t think so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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


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