War Stories: Reading and Writing the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

War-StoriesI was invited to speak at Wesleyan University with Roy Scranton and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.  My comments mostly blended Time Now posts with others about Afghanistan from my old blog 15-Month Adventure. Scranton and Roy-Bhattacharya, on the other hand, offered up exciting new work. Scranton read “The Fall,” recently published in Prairie Schooner’s war issue and part of a novel he’s hoping to find a publisher for soon. Roy-Bhattacharya read from a novel in progress.  Both selections portray life in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom from the viewpoint of Iraqis, in Scranton’s case that of two women and in Roy-Bhattacharya’s that of the Baghdad Zoo caretakers.  We’ll have to wait for Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel, but here’s an excerpt from Scranton’s story:

Maha sat in her room listening to Britney Spears, wishing she was anywhere else.  The war was going to ruin her life, she knew it, it was going to ruin her chances for marriage, it was going to ruin everything.  Her skin was breaking out, her hair frizzing, ends splitting.  She stood at her window and looked through the split between two pieces of plywood nailed over the glass and watched smoke drift over her city, and the smoke was her future fading into haze.

And another, from near the end:

They quit going out.  They locked the gate.  They spoke to their neighbors through a crack in the second-story window. They didn’t go out onto the roof.  More explosions, more shooting.  One night they listened to a tank roll down their street.  They heard it stop.  They heard the grind of its turret and heard its gun fire, the sound of hell cracking open, then again, feeling it in their bellies, thumbs, and knees.  They looked at each other and prayed. Allahu akbar, la illaha ila Allah.  They heard a machine gun go tock-tock-tock and the tank rolled away.  An empty house down the block had been its target.  Two gaping holes like blank eye sockets watched the street.

That scene’s sensational, and Roy-Bhattacharya’s story, about the destruction of the Baghdad Zoo, even more so, but I like how they also explore with care the lived lives and and consciousness of Iraqis in that far-away, hard-to-remember time.  Each author was determined to bring the era back, to make it memorable again, reconfigured in ways that allow us to see it from other perspectives, and made vivid through the power of artistic description.

In the audience at the reading was Richard Slotkin, a Wesleyan professor famous for his works Regeneration Through Violence, Gunfighter Nation, and others.  The thesis of Regeneration Through Violence is easy to state: religious, peace-minded Americans learned to love, not hate, violence fighting Native Americans during the Puritan era. Think back to whatever you remember of the King Philip Wars, which were brutal and merciless.  Each subsequent generation of Americans then sought their own bloody encounter with a savage dark-skinned foe. For the next three centuries, Americans pushed westward, driven not by manifest destiny, but bloodlust.  In the 20th century, out of native land, the theory goes, generation by generation Americans created and battled enemies abroad.   Our wars thus have not been Clausewitzian, but Freudian.  Not politics by other means, but psychology at its most primeval.  In Gunfighter Nation, Slotkin examines the ideology of Westerns and war movies.  In the 19th century, print fed what Slotkin calls “the national imaginary” of what it means to fight, but in the 20th and 21st Slotkin argues that it is movies and TV that mold consciousness.  For Slotkin, they do political work preparing an always almost already populace to embrace war. Either they unwittingly rechannel conventions, or their makers do so cravenly and crassly.

Two days after Scranton, Roy-Bhattacharya, and I read, I returned to Wesleyan to hear Slotkin lecture on the 2001 movie adaptation of Mark Bowden’s Blackhawk Down.  Slotkin deplored its degradation of Bowden’s superior book.   He claimed the movie-makers made many artistic choices that reinforced the message that America was justified in heinous overseas adventurism and inculcated the idea that a “kill ‘em all” mentality was not only effective, but morally defensible.  In his lecture, Slotkin mentioned the War Stories reading three times, all favorably.  He asserted that contemporary war writers such as Scranton and Roy-Bhattacharya were working hard and generally succeeding in breaking the pernicious clichés and traps of popular American story-telling. Movies couldn’t do it, he implied; they were too bound by genre conventions and money-making imperatives.  Novelists aren’t free of such things, nor is the publishing industry, but they have a better chance of avoiding them. Staunchly individualist in outlook and solitary in method, writers thoughtfully pursue their visions of the truth free of cant and stereotypes. They tell the stories they want to tell or that they think the nation needs, not wants, to hear.

I was glad to hear that, because it’s what I think, too.  I just hope it’s true.  We’ll see when Hollywood turns Scranton’s and Roy-Bhattacharya’s novels into blockbusters, right?  But first they have to get published, which I hope is soon.

At Wesleyan, with, left to right, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Roy Scranton, me, Richard Slotkin, our host William Pinch of Wesleyan's History Department
Left to right, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Roy Scranton, me, Richard Slotkin, and our host William Pinch of Wesleyan’s History Department

Roy Scranton’s “The Fall” appears in the winter 2013 issue of Prairie Schooner, a special war edition guest edited by Brian Turner.  It is full of interesting stories and poems and fresh voices.

Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence:   The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1975/2000.

Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation:  Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Little Magazines 3: Prairie Schooner and Michigan Quarterly Review

Prairie SchoonerTwo respected academic journals feature big time talents as guest editors of recent issues given over to war literature.  Prairie Schooner invited Brian Turner to assemble an all-star collection of writers on contemporary war for its winter 2013 issue, and Turner has delivered the goods.  Elyse Fenton, Siobhan Fallon, Roy Scranton, Benjamin Busch, and Colby Buzzell are familiar names who have contributed stories, poems, and essays to the issue.  Turner, always alert to non-American perspectives, also includes entries by foreign authors and writers on wars other than the Iraq and Afghanistan ones.  A complete version is not available on-line, and I don’t have a paper copy yet, but a roster of authors and titles can be found here.

I am honored to participate in a Prairie Schooner roundtable electronic discussion titled On War Writing.”  Other participants include Donald Anderson, Doug Anderson, Matt Gallagher, and Marilyn Nelson, whose work I have read, and Sam Hamill and Stacey Peebles, who are unknown to me but whose work I am looking forward to getting to know. 

Michigan Quarterly ReviewBenjamin Busch has selected and introduced a collection of Iraq and Afghanistan war poems for the winter 2013 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review.  In “From the Desert Wars: Introduction,” Busch writes, “…these are words chipped out of the dirt by survivors exploring themselves and their war, all of them leading you to the monster.  It as though each poet carefully laid out his field notes, searched them for connections  to the immensity of human conflict, and found the least amount of language possible to send us messages.  This is what is left, just these words, each poet sifting the battlefield for evidence to compose a truth.”

I am not familiar with the poets, all veterans, Busch has chosen to publish but will honor their names—Bruce Lack, Hugh Martin, Clint Garner, Patrick Whalen—and look for ways to talk about their poems in more detail in later posts.  Busch contributes two poems of his own.  One, titled “Girls,” wonders what female Iraqi or Afghan children must make of the American soldiers in their midst.  Two lines:

We pass because we must, slow and reptilian,
unable to pretend we mean no harm.

I’ll quote another, titled “Subtext,” in its entirety:

“This is not about that”
It is too obvious
to write about, an occurrence
long with disappointment.
But it is over.
Uneven mud brick walls,
burnt plastic wind, diesel exhaust,
dust in the sky, children running,
the curiosity of goats
and men with sticks.
Body heavy with bullets, soil thick with bone and bleeding,
face rough with salt.
The war occurs
in everything now,
and this
is about that.

Busch is also in electronic print in The Daily Beast with this review of Lone Survivor.   I haven’t seen Lone Survivor yet, but will soon and look forward to writing about it, too.

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