ChatGPT, a sophisticated artificial-intelligence text-producing application, launched in November 2022. Immediately, a flurry of reviews and articles appeared, many of them wondering what might be the import of ChatGPT for academic-writing. The possibilities for cut-and-paste plagiarism seemed bountiful, as ChatGPT not just coughed-up instantaneous chunks-of-information, a la Wikipedia and Google, but was capable of rendering judgment and organizing responses into arguments, “written” in bland-but-serviceable Standard Academic English.
I teach a college research-writing class, so I tried out ChatGPT on some of the subjects my students were writing on this semester. Xenotransplantation—the use of animal organs to replace human ones—was the subject of a couple of papers, so I plugged in the following question:
Question: How can xenotransplantation become more popular?
ChatGPT Response: Xenotransplantation can become more popular by increasing public awareness of the potential benefits and safety of the procedure. Education campaigns can raise awareness of the potential clinical uses of xenotransplantation, as well as the safety of the procedure. Additionally, research and development of xenotransplantation should be supported to ensure that the procedure is conducted in a safe and ethical manner. Furthermore, international regulations and protocols should be established and implemented to ensure that xenotransplantation is used in a responsible and ethical manner. Finally, governments should provide incentives for medical professionals and organizations to use the procedure.
My teacherly opinion is that such writing (and thinking) is not as fluid or nuanced as my best students produce, but far superior to that of less-accomplished ones. In the context of a research-paper, the passage could certainly be usable, especially if supplemented with evidence and quotations, or its ideas developed and complicated in ensuing paragraphs.
Oh well, the implications for the classroom will work themselves out as they will. Thinking about my interest in war-writing, I began musing about how ChatGPT could aggregate what might be said to be the hive-mind on a subject and give it the force of authoritative expression. In other words, what is the potential of ChatGPT wisdom to become the constituted collective wisdom on any given subject?
Pushing on, I tapped-in the following question:
Q1. What are the three best novels on war in Iraq and Afghanistan?
ChatGPT Response: 1. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers 2. The Good Soldiers by David Finkel 3. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
That response can immediately be seen as problematic. Only The Yellow Birds is a novel, while The Good Soldiers and The Forever War are journalistic non-fiction. I next asked ChatGPT the following:
Q2. What is the best novel on war in Iraq and Afghanistan?
ChatGPT Response: The best novel on war in Iraq and Afghanistan is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. This award-winning novel is a powerful telling of two young soldiers’ wartime experiences and the difficult moral choices they must make. It captures the psychological toll of war for soldiers, their families, and those left in the wake of the conflict.
This is more promising, and also intriguing. How was ChatGPT able to spit that out in less than 10 seconds? I’m certain there’s no preexisting databank of responses, so somehow the program was able to canvass a fair amount of reviews, articles, and book-jacket blurbs to offer a sensible, though still fairly generic, response. Next I asked the following:
Q3: What is the reputation of Phil Klay’s Redeployment?
ChatGPT Response: Phil Klay’s Redeployment is a highly regarded work of fiction that has received widespread critical acclaim for its portrayal of the experiences of soldiers during and after the Iraq War. The book, which is a collection of short stories, was published in 2014 and won the National Book Award for Fiction the same year.
Redeployment has been praised for its immersive and realistic depiction of the psychological and emotional toll of war on soldiers, as well as for its nuanced exploration of the complex moral and ethical toll of war surrounding the Iraq War. Klay, who served in the US Marine Corps in Iraq, brings a unique perspective to his writing and his portrayal of the lives of soldiers has been praised as both sensitive and insightful.
In addition to the National Book Award, Redeployment has received numerous other awards and accolades, including the John Leonard Prize, the Chautauqua Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. It has also been included on numerous “best books” lists and has received widespread coverage in the media. Overall, Redeployment has a strong reputation as a powerful and poignant work of fiction that offers a unique and valuable perspective on the Iraq War and its aftermath.
What to make of this? Though largely fact-based, the response organizes and articulates its response coherently, fluidly, and reasonably thoroughly, as if the product of an intelligent, no-nonsense author. Some of the language is obviously boiler-plate, but it’s not copied from any Internet source I could find. Determined to push ChatGPT even harder, I submitted the following:
Q4: What are the best qualities of Roy Scranton’s novel War Porn?
ChatGPT Response: 1. Thoughtful exploration of trauma: Roy Scranton’s War Porn touches on many difficult subject matters, ranging from addiction, PTSD, and the psychological effects of war. He explores these issues in a sensitive and nuanced manner that helps to provide a greater understanding of how war and its aftermath can shape a person’s life.
2. Emotional depth: Despite its light-hearted title, War Porn dives deep into the emotional tolls of war and how they linger in our lives even after the fighting is over. Scranton captures the complexities of war, humanizing those affected by it in order to emphasize the intense psychological and emotional trauma caused by conflict.
3. Innovative storytelling: With its unique blend of short stories, poems, and vignettes, War Porn is an innovative collection. It combines a variety of forms to create an engaging, immersive experience that often leaves the reader stunned and deeply moved.
4. Unflinching insight: War Porn also has an unflinching look at the devastation of war, particularly in the lives of those who are forced to bear witness to it firsthand. Roy Scranton provides an honest and often heartbreaking commentary on the effects of warfare on both individuals and a wider population.
I’ve organized the response into the 1-2-3-4 categories listed, but otherwise this response is verbatim. Much of it could be generic description of many war novels—and readers who know Scranton’s “The Trauma Hero” essay will chuckle at the description of War Porn as “thoughtful exploration of trauma”—but it also seems written from a place of some familiarity with the novel. In particular, #3 “Innovative storytelling,” though not exactly accurate in terms of “short stories, poems, and vignettes,” is alert to the blended stylistic quality of War Porn, which combines two distinct narratives with poetry passages. On display is a great weakness of ChatGPT as it currently exists: its inability to incorporate quotes from the text under discussion or from secondary-sources. But one could easily imagine taking the four categories of “thoughtful exploration of trauma,” “emotional depth,” “innovative storytelling,” and “unflinching insight” as start-points for one’s own examination of War Porn, even if to argue that it doesn’t do those things especially well; the categories get the conversation going as well as anything.
With my question about War Porn, my ChatGPT free trial ran out. Further experiments and thoughts to follow as they occur….
I didn’t realize I had written so many posts about Memorial Day or which paid tribute to fallen soldiers until I went back and counted them up. But maybe it was destined to be. I grew up in Arlington, VA, and one of my first summer jobs was cutting grass at the Fort Myer chapel outside the gates of the famous military cemetery. I would have to stop mowing when a funeral took place—sometimes two, three, or four times a day. When that happened, I would sit under a tree and watch and think about the proceedings.
Many years later, I met Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Fenty in the parking lot next to the chapel and we went for an early-morning run. Fenty and I were friends from Fort Drum, and now he was about to deploy to Afghanistan as commander of 3-71 Cavalry. While in Afghanistan Fenty was killed when the helicopter he was riding in crashed while resupplying a remote mountain outpost in Kunar province.
Punk poet-rocker Jim Carroll was famous for a song called “People Who Died.” In it he recounts the names and causes of death of a dozen or more childhood friends who did not survive the tough New York streets of Carroll’s youth. I always liked Carroll plenty, but never that song so much. It seemed to be trying too hard to be clever and sensational. It was frustratingly inconclusive about what we were supposed to make of the deaths of Carroll’s friends. How was it honoring them? Does it glorify their wild, unruly lives, or are we supposed to despair? The title of the song alone seems oddly understated, not equal to the occasion.
But maybe that’s the point. The litany of the dead being both the most and the least we can say.
On this Memorial Day, I remember friends Ted Westhusing, Joe Fenty, David Taylor, and Bill Hecker.
I remember soldiers with whom I served in Afghanistan Kevin Dupont, John Blair, Alex French, Peter Courcy, and Jason Watson.
I remember former students I taught at West Point Dennis Pintor, Todd Lambka, Taylor Force, and Brian Freeman.
The photograph featured at the top of this post shows Army Captain David Taylor, on the right, standing with another soldier on a hilltop in Kosovo in 2002. Previous to serving with me in Kosovo, then-Lieutenant Taylor was my mortar platoon leader in HHC, 4-325 Airborne Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg. In 2006, now-Major Taylor died in an IED explosion in Iraq. The photograph is by Bill Putnam, who was a public affairs specialist on that deployment to Kosovo and who remains a friend to this day, as well as a frequent contributor to Time Now.
Not entirely unrelated to Memorial Day pondering, I wrote a review of Phil Klay’s collected essays, titled Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War for Task & Purpose:
One of Klay’s themes is that war in Iraq and Afghanistan soon expanded outside the borders of those countries and the associated violence and killing has permeated US domestic life. Sort of a modern variation on the “regeneration through violence” explanation of American history articulated by Richard Slotkin–each successive generation of Americans propagates a renewed cycle of death. In the wake of recent national and international events, the idea seems all too true, unfortunately. Another of Klay’s themes, though, is that commitment to serve is commendable and the sacrifice that service entails is noble. Memorial Day reminds us of the force of the second theme.
UPDATE: Below are two pictures from Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery I took this Memorial Day weekend. Section 60 is where most of the Iraq and Afghanistan vets who are buried in Arlington are buried. Though the pictures here don’t show it, there were many family members and friends paying respect and keeping vigil.
2020’s brought four anticipated novels by acclaimed veteran-authors of contemporary war fiction, courtesy of major publishing houses. I’ve written on Matt Gallagher’s Empire City previously, and here will survey Odie Lindsey’s Some Go Home, Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black & White, and Phil Klay’s Missionaries, with a little more attention paid to Missionaries, befitting Klay’s status within the vet-writing and national literary scenes. None of the novels make events in Iraq and Afghanistan central to their plots, but the 21st-century Global War on Terror wars percolate more-or-less in the background of the events and characters described. Each novel illustrates in its way GWOT vet-authors transitioning from sagas of junior-enlisted and junior-officer deployment exploits and rocky homecomings with more general reckoning of how forever war has wrenched the lives of adult men-and-women (often now with spouses and children), the national commonweal, and the international polity.
Spoiler alert: My write-ups address events in each novel that occur at or near their ends, so be advised.
Odie Lindsey, Some Go Home.Some Go Home covers much the same ground as Lindsey’s excellent collection of short stories We Come to Our Senses: the interplay of modern war and the modern American south, as viewed through the eyes of veterans trying to connect their military experience with the vibrant New South cultural landscape shaped by intense social change and incessant regard for history. The south is widely held to be more supportive of soldiers and patriotic war-faring than other parts of the country, but Some Go Home portrays Iraq and Afghanistan war as being as distant and unknown in Dixie as elsewhere in the country. The protagonist of Some Go Home, an Iraq War Army veteran named Colleen, is viewed as something of an oddity by the other residents of the fictional town of Pitchlynn, Mississippi. The locals are too preoccupied by time-consuming and sometimes crazy events of their own lives to be anything but politely bemused by her tour and whatever battle-tested wisdom she might have obtained. Colleen herself struggles to put the pieces together; she is a bit of a cypher, not especially thoughtful or expressive and prone to odd fits of inscrutable behavior, even as she wins beauty pageants, suffers through opioid addiction, and marries into a prominent local family embroiled in multi-generational race-related drama. Though Colleen presides over Some Go Home’s opening and closing chapters, she is only an intermittent presence in the novel’s long middle, which alternately trace laughable and deadly serious aspects of contemporary Pitchlynn—the point being that the south’s piquant flavor is the result of the intensity of its polar extremes. As the novel concludes, Colleen departs Pitchlynn on what is depicted as a search for coherent and independent self-hood that can be obtained only by leaving, much as Stephen Daedalus must flee Dublin at the end of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. Stephen is determined “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of his race,” which to a certain extent is what Joyce offers us in subsequent works Dubliners and Ulysses. Perhaps Some Go Home is the prequel for Lindsay’s next novel, in which Colleen makes sense of the swirling personal, regional, national, and international imperatives traced so interestingly in this one.
Elliot Ackerman, Red Dress in Black & White. As in two of Ackerman’s previous novels, the locale of Red Dress in Black & White is a frayed corner of the American-dominated global order. In this case, the setting is modern Istanbul, where a glitzy new-fangled Western-sheen threaten to erase Islamic traditions and older life-rhythms. One protagonist is Catherine, a bored, unfulfilled American wife of a Turkish business tycoon. Another is Peter, an American war-photojournalist now embarked on an artistic project photographing everyday Turks. Catherine has affairs, and Peter doesn’t scruple about sleeping with married women, so it’s not surprising what ensues when they meet to plan a showing of Peter’s work in a Turkish museum of which Catherine is a director. Their romance plays out against a backdrop of Turkish civil strife and political intrigue that eventually ensnares Catherine and Peter, both in the corridors of power and out in the streets, and Peter is given to philosophizing about photography aesthetics, so there’s a lot going on in Red Dress in Black & White (the title refers to a photograph that figures prominently in the novel). Ackerman’s wont, however, is to touch things quickly rather than dwell on them, and thus the novel, depending greatly on atmosphere and suggestion, reads briskly. Catherine and Peter are cosmopolitan sophisticates, and the novel suggests their affair is not to be condemned, but understood as an inevitable by-product of expatriate rootlessness, or perhaps commensurate with the tangled complexity of Turkish society and politics, especially as it is informed, or infected, by US interventionism. That comes in the form of Kristen, a CIA operative who pulls strings from behind the façade of a bland embassy job—she’s a modern-day Madame Defarge whose array of constantly buzzing cell-phones replaces the click-clacking needles in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Ackerman is fond of big reveals and unexpected denouements, and I won’t spoil the main one that arrives in Red Dress & Blackand White, but the gradual emergence of Kristin as a key player in Turkish politics and finance and as the novel’s major character in its last third is another development not apparent from the novel’s opening chapters. That the CIA might still wield such power, and have it flexed so proficiently by a junior analyst, is not what I would have guessed is true of the world these days, but Red Dress in Black & White nicely suggests how it might be so.
Phil Klay, Missionaries.Missionaries is Klay’s first novel and first book since his 2014 National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment. Redeployment’s stories featured thoughtful, even cerebral, veterans ruminating about their experience, often in dialogue with interlocutors or in first-person confessional mode with the reader. Much of that reflective working-out of events is on display in Missionaries, too, only the characters are older, with more life experience and lessons-learned under their belts than the typical Redeployment protagonist—as does Klay himself, funny as that is to say about an author with a National Book Award under his belt. In any case, Missionaries manifests facets of literary craft not evident in Redeployment: thick physical descriptions of landscapes and social milieus, vivid action scenes, deep dives into characters’ thoughts and back-stories, and deft flavoring of the characters’ perspectives with the author’s own. The sentences, both those narrated and those spoken by characters, sparkle with unexpected turns and insights.
The plot recounts a fictional minor episode late in the very-real decades-long conflict among regional paramilitaries, drug-running “narcos,” and the legitimate government of Columbia. That conflict that resolved itself circa 2015–the year the novel is set–in favor of the government, which by accounts is reasonably democratic, committed to fairness and legality, and respected in the eyes of the Columbian people and the world. To the extent that American military aid has helped achieve this state, Columbia is an example, as one character puts it, of a war that “America is not losing.” But the actual Americans portrayed in Missionaries, two former Special Operators named Mason and Diego, and a war-journalist named Lisette, are hapless, almost pathetic, fully considered. Mason and Diego were team buddies in Iraq and Afghanistan—a scene describing a big battle they fought in Afghanistan is terrific. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Mason and Diego were on top of their game, while Columbia, by contrast, for them is an extreme diminution, encountered full-stop just as they are entering peak-adult maturity and vitality. Mason as a military advisor and Diego as a security contractor have little to offer the Columbians that might either help the Columbians or reinforce their self-images as warfighters whose authority should be respected. As Mason rues, all the competent and battle-tested Columbian army really wants from him are helicopters for troop transport; they’ll take care of everything else just fine themselves (I heard much the same from Afghan army officers on my tour as an advisor). Lisette, like Mason and Diego, is now past 30 with little to show for it. Burned-out in Afghanistan, she arrives in Columbia looking for a career-revitalizing story, and instead becomes the big story herself when she is kidnapped by one of the factions in the Columbian civil war.
For all that, the principal characters in Missionaries are Columbians: Abel, whose penchant for business makes him a valuable pawn in the internecine civil war, and Juan Pablo, an army lieutenant colonel whose savvy cynicism gives him a curiously sanguine view of things, even when war threatens not so much his life, but his job and his family. Late in Missionaries, we find Juan Pablo in retirement from the Columbian army and now working as an intelligence analyst contractor in the Middle East, where his American counterparts strike him as naïve and foolish. Juan Pablo’s take seems to be that when you are fighting pure evil, or a greater evil, one mustn’t be fussy about breaking a few eggs to make the war-“not losing” omelet. As we read about him lecturing Americans about—get this—not just the necessity but the success of the War on Terror in curbing Islamic terrorism, we wonder what Missionaries is trying to tell us. Something about man’s capacity for brutality, something about what happens when politics is warped by violence, something about wars’ all-encompassing reach, certainly, but also something too about the relationship of means and ends, and how winning might be measured by different yardsticks than conventionally supposed. It’s an idea about the forever wars bold of Klay to express out-loud, if only in the mouth of a fictional character. Juan Pablo is not just another character, though, but one with most-favored-nation status within Missionaries, so does the novel endorse his view, or are we meant to see him now as a degraded apologist for endless war and a deluded cog in the war machine? Hard to tell, and who’s to say?
All three novels give prominent page space to women characters, as if a woman’s negotiation with endless war and its consequences were as interesting or important to consider as a man’s—gasp–or a story that has not yet been often or well-told. Indeed, the men in the novels are more predictable and obviously motivated, as if their ideas and actions responded to well-worn social imperatives and considerations. The women characters, on the other hand, are inscrutable and mysterious, and given to impulsive and unpredictable, even reckless, behavior, predilections that also bespeak courage and imagination. That’s part of their allure, no doubt, but also proof-positive of their need to improvise in the face of circumstances, as well as ability to do so. The exception that proves the rule is Red Dress in Black & White’s Kristin, whose methodical exploitation of opportunities and relentless eye-on-the-main-prize are so formidable they make many of the other characters spread across the three novels appear aimless and feeble in comparison.
Odie Lindsey, Some Go Home. Norton, 2020.
Elliot Ackerman, Red Dress in Black & White. Knopf Doubleday, 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
On 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.
This 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.
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.
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:
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 experiencein his blog The Quivering Pen and even included two wonderful student response papers to his novel. The following class, the professor, Dr. Maria Hoehn of Vassar’s History Department, brought in Michael Kamber, a photographer who has covered both Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times. Kamber has recently published an important and fascinating book called Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. In it, Kamber compiles hundreds of photographs too graphic for military censors and media editors and published them along with their photographers’ accounts of their taking. Kamber is adamant that photographs can shape consciousness and politics and he is vehement in his indictment of a military-media complex that has restricted, censored, and otherwise blocked distribution of the photographs that would truly inform the American public about the Iraq War.
This swirl of words and impressions came as a series of publications and events brought veterans and veteran fiction into high relief. George Packer’s glowing assessment of the contemporary war lit scene in the New Yorker was great, but its fulsome praise was undercut by Cara Hoffman’s indictment in the New York Times that that same scene has been inhospitable to women’s first-person accounts of war. Next came the news of yet another shooting rampage by a veteran. One could sense public patience with vets draining away with each new article; we who were once heroes are in danger of morphing into monsters. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the New York Times ran an opinion piece that confidently asserted a causal relationship between military service and membership in white supremacist groups and then an article that made the current generation of West Point cadets sound like bloodthirsty ingrates for their admission of regret that they would not probably not see combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
In the midst of these gloomy accounts came a personal triumph, but one whose relevance to contemporary war literature I’m still trying to figure out. The current Maryland Historical Magazine features an article I wrote about early American novelist John Neal. Neal is unknown to most, but he authored seven novels between 1817 and 1823–a time when very few other American writers took novels seriously. Neal obviously did. He called novels “the fireside biography of nations” and said, “People read novels who never go to plays or to church. People read novels who never read plays, sermons, history, philosophy, nor indeed any thing else.” Novels, for Neal, were places “where imaginary creatures, invested with all the attributes of humanity, agitated by the passions of our nature, are put to the task of entertaining or terrifying us.” Ominously, he wrote that readers were excited by immoral and criminal characters more than virtuous ones. Speaking of two popular authors of the time, Neal claimed that “all their great men are scoundrels…. their good men are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.” Be that as it may, Neal urged that all writers “write fiction–let them put out all their power upon a literature that all may read, century after century–I do not mean quote, and keep in their libraries, but read.”
Is any of this true, then or now? Is any of it important? Tomorrow I travel to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to participate in a “Writers on War” panel with Roy Scranton and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. I’m interested to hear what they and our audience have to say. And what about David Abrams? Michael Kamber? Phil Klay? Hassan Blasim?