Posted tagged ‘Roxana Robinson’

The Road Ahead: Obama to Trump

January 26, 2017

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Congratulations to everyone involved in the writing and release of The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, a new anthology of short war fiction that features twenty-four intriguing and well-crafted stories about war in Iraq and Afghanistan and its aftermath. The authors are all veterans who have risen to prominence in war-writing circles since the 2012 success of contemporary war novels The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and The Watch, and the early 2013 publication of the war fiction anthology Fire and Forget.

In the wake of these pioneering works, upwards of thirty novels and short-story volumes portraying military men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan and upon their return to the States have been published. This wave of war story-telling suggests the burden of finding new tales to tell and fresh ways to tell them must have been heavy for The Road Ahead authors, whose published work heretofore has largely been essays, memoirs, poetry, and journalism, not fiction. Fortunately, the authors bring to narrative life many interesting nooks in the war-and-veteran experience, and they do so with verve and imagination. Editors Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, assisted by Teresa Fazio and Aaron Gywn, have selected well and inspired excellence in their contributors, who represent a wide range of military experiences and demographic diversity. The editors have applied their touch to ensure each story is both taut and capable of surprise, even when the tales-told fall well within war-writing conventions. Benjamin Busch provides a title-appropriate cover photo, a story of his own, and best of all, marvelous drawings to illustrate each contributor’s story. Both Sparta author Roxana Robinson and the editors offer introductions that alertly explore the phenomenon of veterans writing in the years after the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taken together, The Road Ahead stories imaginatively and perceptively dramatize prevalent concerns of a talented and ambitious cohort of veteran-authors who paid attention while in uniform and then while observing the post-war literary surge.

I enjoyed all the stories, but the most prudent consideration of them individually will take a few more reads, so here I’ll concentrate on collective impressions. In keeping with the anthology’s title, for example, several tales depict protagonists taking long road trips, either as drivers or passengers, to include an excellent one by Kristen L. Rouse, titled “Pawns,” that features Afghan truck drivers. Military vehicle movement in-theater and car-travel back in America figure throughout The Road Ahead as catalysts for action and thought, a literal equivalent of the characters’ sense of their lives as journeys that began prior to service, extend through deployment, and continue to unfold post-war. Most stories take place either during deployment or within a few days, weeks, or months after redeployment–only one, Christopher Paul Wolfe’s moving “Another Brother’s Conviction,” looks back on war from the vantage point of a few years. War thus still burns hot in the lives of the veterans portrayed in The Road Ahead; at least two characters express outright desire to “go back,” as if the warzone were preferable to civilian life. The nostalgic sentiment seems to prevail in many other tales as well, if only as a lament to either be given a second chance to do better or to return to a state of innocent naivety prior to war’s horror. Across the board, almost every story concerns the tightly focused experience of an individual; few feature multiple principle characters, and only one by my count–Christopher Paul Wolfe’s, again–places individual service in the U.S. military in larger political or national contexts.

Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades,” Nate Bethea’s “Funeral Conversation,” and several other stories depict war in Afghanistan and Iraq from the point-of-view of “boots-on-the-ground” male combat-arms soldiers. In the literary microcosm of the squad, platoon, and company, higher-ups rarely figure, and when they do they are held in contempt. The interesting tension these tales portray pits official codes-of-conduct and notions of honor against more cynical–or pure, depending on how you look at it–ones that value toughness, fighting ability, and loyalty to fellow soldiers above all else. This is pretty well-trodden war lit ground, but the interest here lies in how quickly combat in Iraq and Afghanistan drove highly-trained, presumably highly-motivated volunteers to abandon their professionalism and discredit themselves by their actions. Another set of stories portrays the signature subject of contemporary war fiction: post-deployment emotional anguish, especially as it is caused by memories and guilt associated with the death of fellow soldiers. Again, the interest lies in the particulars and specifics of this by-now common subject. Eric Nelson’s “Blake’s Girl” and David F. Eisler’s “Different Kinds of Infinity” especially delight by working variations on two classic Poe tales, “The Purloined Letter” and “The Black Cat,” respectively, while Brandon Willitts’s “Winter on the Rim” impresses by never mentioning war, soldiers, or veterans at all. Brandon Caro’s “The Morgan House,” about severely-wounded veterans stuck in the military’s hapless rehabilitation apparatus, works much the same ground as Brian Van Reet’s great contribution to Fire and Forget, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” with equally wicked, in a good way, results. Quite a few authors in addition to Kristen L. Rouse portray Afghans or Iraqis either possessed by the spirit of jihad or, more interestingly, conflicted by jihad’s disruptive demands. A half-dozen or so stories by male veterans depict masculine sexual behavior–masturbation, prostitution, getting laid, getting dumped, etc.–as it played out in Iraq, Afghanistan, and afterwards, but even more striking are Kayla M. Williams’ “There’s Always One,” Lauren Kay Halloran’s “Operation Slut,” and Teresa Fazio’s “Little,” all of which chart female sexuality on-and-post-deployment. While the essential integrity and values of most story protagonists are rarely threatened, at least two stories–Adrian Bonenberger’s “American Fapper” and Brian Castner’s “The Wild Hunt” (stories written by the editors, go figure) treat their main characters roughly, as if to suggest that there were something deficient with how they view and conduct themselves. Both these stories, interestingly, also comment reflexively on war-story-telling conventions by satirizing popular motifs. Humor is only evident here-and-there, but Benjamin Busch’s “Into the Land of Dogs” and Maurice Emerson Decaul’s “Death of Time” among a few others, complicate earnest, straightforward narration by incorporating dream, fantasy, surrealism, allegory, and other extravagant literary effects.

One quibble is that the title ominously invites readers to wonder what the future will bring, but the introductions and stories stop short of considering the relationship of war-writing and the lives of veterans and veteran-authors to the most up-to-the-minute political, cultural, and literary moment: the end of the age of Obama and the beginning of the age of Trump. Understandably so, because the stories were written and assembled before the Trump juggernaut loomed large in the literary windshield, but The Road Ahead points more clearly to where we were on November 7, 2016, than to where we are going after January 20, 2017. In other words, it documents the state of war fiction at a moment just before the social context from which its authors drew inspiration began to rapidly shift and the stakes escalate, processes that will inevitably morph the shape and texture of war-writing. The range and variety of the subjects, styles, and themes on display in The Road Ahead are as impressive as the craft that governs their presentation, but the road ahead of The Road Ahead promises to be even more interesting, as the collection’s shrewd contributors measure the import of the new President’s ideas and actions on their own thoughts about war, the military, soldiers, and veterans.

The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, foreword by Roxana Robinson, cover photo and interior illustrations by Benjamin Busch. Pegasus, 2017.

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The new administration has already targeted the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for elimination. I’m against both moves; I think the government should increase spending on art, scholarship, and historical inquiry, not reduce or eliminate it. In particular, I’ll be sad to see the NEH program Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of War and the NEA program Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network go, since they are dedicated to remembering and honoring the service and sacrifice of veterans and promoting their well-being.

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This week, through a quirk of my social media feed, I learned that yet another of my former students at West Point died in combat. Captain Brian S. Freeman was killed in Iraq in 2007 while serving with a Civil Affairs team. I recollect Cadet Freeman as perhaps the most handsome cadet I ever taught, and that’s saying something, as well as possessing an intelligent and lively approach to life. Reading his obituary, for example, it didn’t surprise me at all to learn that he was a world-class bobsledder in addition to being a fine officer and beloved husband and father. RIP Captain Brian Freeman, thank you, you are remembered.

Iraq War Memorial, Raritan Bay Waterfront Park, NJ

Iraq War Memorial, Raritan Bay Waterfront Park, NJ, Jan 2017

Something Wicked This Way Comes: The Future of War Literature

July 27, 2014
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Graffiti at the ruined and abandoned Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2008. “Darul Aman” means “Abode of Peace.”

“I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb,” wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne after completing Moby-Dick. I don’t know if Moby-Dick is exactly wicked, or about the “spotless as a lamb” business, but I am ready for a wicked book about American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, stories and novels about the wars have been remarkably dainty about depicting American soldiers’ capacity for killing, torture, carnage, malevolence, and other forms of evil. At some level, it seems, they try to hold a kernel of life-affirming goodness at the center of the war experience, whether it be located in the characters, the narrators, or within themselves.

That’s a great strategy for real life. “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle inside,” are words to live by. But it’s limited when it comes to fiction, a virtue of which is its ability to take readers to forbidden places. Another nineteenth-century author, John Neal, wrote that novels 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.” The greatest characters, Neal continued, are “scoundrels,” while virtuous characters “are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.” Edgar Allan Poe knew Neal’s work, it would seem, or at least felt the same. No one’s asking for a war story as related by the berserk narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado,” but would you agree that Poe’s narrator is more memorable than all the protagonists of contemporary war fiction put together? And his narrative voice even more so?

Poe and Melville are tough standards by which to judge, but great examples from which to learn. Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, in the tales that make up The Corpse Exhibition (2014), has crafted spell-binding tales that portray, not Americans, but his own countrymen as capable of any evil, first by nature and then made even more so by the pressure of war. Contemporary war literature written by Americans, on the other hand, has by-and-large shied away from depicting truly reprehensible–which is to say truly remarkable–characters in ways that are not mediated by other, more sympathetic voices. The only story I know by an American author that entertainingly plumbs depravity is Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” from the Fire and Forget anthology (2013). Compared to the solemnity of most modern war stories, the vitality of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is exceptional, and the story’s depiction of its charismatically ruined protagonists Sleed and Rooster startling. It’s a wicked tale indeed, and though I don’t know if Van Reet feels as spotless as a lamb, if it’s any solace I think more of him, not less, for writing it.

A spate of articles have appeared recently by civilian authors asserting their right to write about war and the military. A representative example is Sparta (2013) author Roxana Robinson’s essay “The Right to Write” that appeared in the New York Times. But Robinson, right as she is, and accomplished as she is, need not worry so much. I for one count on civilian authors to lead the way by demonstrating exactly how wide and deep are the boundaries of imaginative possibility, because, tales such as “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” excepted, vet authors are not yet so skilled at getting beyond the basic first steps of realistic description and gussied-up reportage of their own experiences. Or, maybe the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are still too fresh and hot, and the most visionary writing about contemporary war can only be found displaced in stories about past wars. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (2010), an opus about Marines in Vietnam, begs to be read as a commentary not just on Iraq and Afghanistan, but on Iraq and Afghanistan war literature. Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison’s novel Home (2012), for another example, depicts an African-American Korean War soldier’s sexual attraction to and subsequent murder of a young girl. An up-and-coming author, Julian Zabalbeascoa, published in Ploughshares a fantastic story called “498” (not currently available online, but hopefully will be again soon) that portrays a soldier in the Spanish Civil War who uses the pretext of war to become a mass murderer. Guess what the number in the title refers to?

Brian Van Reet’s article “A Problematic Genre: the ‘Kill Memoir'” exposes the limitations of first-person reminiscences by ex-snipers that jumble reflection and braggadocio about the military business of killing. In my mind, and I think Van Reet would agree, fiction such as Zabalbeascoa’s most compellingly explores the complicated emotions and social context that kill memoir authors struggle to explain. But so far, our authors of war fiction have written much about soldiers preoccupied by the way the big, bad wars have impinged on the sensibilities of those who fight, and little about soldiers who find themselves on other terms—if not delight, then an ambivalent complicity—with violence, force, hate, sadism, greed, ambition, selfishness, self-preservation, and killing. Let’s see what the future brings.

UPDATE, 3 August 2014.  In this post, I speculate that the darkest war fiction written about Iraq and Afghanistan might have to take as its setting another war.  In the Letters, I suggest that Hollywood might make a dark, bleak war film before our authors and publishers bring us such a book.  Now, two weeks later, comes notice of a new film called Fury, starring Brad Pitt and directed by David Ayers.  Read the New York Times review of Fury for what appears to be confirmations of my assertions.

Two Nights on the Town in NYC: War Lit Readings at The Center for Fiction and Pete’s Candy Store

January 25, 2014

Two readings in New York City last week—one by novelist Roxana Robinson and reporter David Finkel at the The Center for Fiction, a bookstore and library in midtown Manhattan, and another of new works by three young military veterans at Pete’s Candy Store, a Brooklyn bar—put the subjects, themes, and styles of the contemporary war lit scene on full and somewhat contrasting display.

Sparta CoverThe Center for Fiction event, titled Fact and Fiction, featured Robinson and Finkel reading from their respective recent works Sparta and Thank You for Your Service.  Both Robinson and Finkel are established writers with a number of published works, prizes, and accolades to their names.  Neither are veterans, but their most recent works alike concern themselves with the aftermath of war.  Sparta tracks the downward spiral of a young Marine Corps officer, while Thank You for Your Service documents the tumultuous post-deployment lives of the Army infantry soldiers featured in Finkel’s acclaimed The Good Soldiers. Though Sparta is fiction and Thank You for Your Service non-fiction, they share a similar prose texture.  Robinson eschews flights of lyrical fancy for a plain style that mirrors reportage, and Finkel takes an almost anthropological interest in the daily details of the lives he describes.  The passages each read might well have been extracted from the other’s book, with characters and events of each portraying the war’s ability to inflect or even ruin the most mundane of day-to-day peacetime activities.

Thank You for Your ServiceBoth Robinson and Finkel have measured the psychological and social carnage wrought by the wars on those who fought them.  Not every combat veteran is a tortured soul, but a whole hell of a lot of them are, and Robinson and Finkel are appalled by the extremely uneven efforts of the nation to adequately help them.  The pairing of the two authors by The Center for Fiction makes sense, and would also work well in a college course or for anyone trying to understand post-traumatic stress.  “Stories matter,” said Finkel, and together Robinson’s and Finkel’s narratives carry their fair share of the load and then some (my favorite line from the Ranger Creed) in reminding, alerting, and inspiring an often oblivious nation to help struggling veterans.  Much is made of the “civil-military divide,” as if it’s the civilians who are out-of-touch with things.  But Robinson and Finkel have performed yeoman work trying to understand military culture and then reporting back sympathetically to the American reading public, while also helping the military understand itself.  Those in uniform should thank THEM for their service.

The Brooklyn event was part of Pete’s Candy Store’s Reading Series, which is dedicated to showcasing up-and-coming authors.  Titled Veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan War, the reading was organized by Fire and Forget editor Roy Scranton, the ex-Army artilleryman and current Princeton graduate student who is fast becoming the Ezra Pound of the war lit world—a talented writer in his own right who also nourishes other writers’ geniuses (just go easy on any late-life hateful politics, please, Roy!).  I don’t think the three authors Scranton presented at Pete’s were full of the rage and confusion described by Robinson and Finkel, but stories definitely mattered to them, as they did to those of us in attendance.  In the tiny, dark performance space, on a night where temperatures outside hovered in the single digits, with most of the audience a pint or two down the hatch, the authors spun webs of words that enveloped their listeners in a dreamy snare of story-telling enchantment.  The picture below, bad as it is, renders something of the ambiance:

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Kristen L. Rouse reads at Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn, NY, 23 January 2014

Kristen L. Rouse, a three-time Afghanistan veteran, read a short story about military operations in Paktya province, the same area of operations in which I served.  Her story brought much of it back—the vehicle movements on IED-filled roads, the god-forsaken outposts, and the chai-drenched meetings with Afghans.  Clap your hands and say yea if you’ve ever been to COP Zormat, it ain’t easy to get to….   Johnson Wiley, a Marine Corps vet now studying at Rutgers, followed with poetry that I found compelling and evocative.  I have asked Wiley to send me a poem or two, and if he does I will post at least one.  Last up was Ravi Venkataramani, a West Point graduate who is now studying for his MFA at Columbia.  Venkataramani read a stunning story about a classmate’s death that portrayed the full measure of guilt and obligation inflicted on West Point grads by the relentless pressure of the military academy’s “duty, honor, country” ethos.

In conversation, Venkataramani reminisced fondly about a West Point English teacher named Major William Hecker.  I knew Hecker only from a few emails, but Venkataramani’s respect resonated with me.  While at West Point, Hecker wrote a well-received critical work in which he traced the origins of a famous essay by Edgar Allan Poe (who briefly attended West Point) called “The Philosophy of Composition” to Poe’s service in the Army as an artilleryman.  According to Hecker, Poe’s theory that all aspects of a work of fiction must contribute to a focused and climactic “literary effect” was garnered from artillery manuals that specified how to make bombs explode exactly on target.  The irony of all this is that a year after publishing this work, which marked him as an Army scholar of enormous potential, Hecker, also an artilleryman, was killed in Iraq by an IED—perhaps a mine and not a buried shell, but still a death freighted with an extra measure of cruelness, in a war already full of it.

RIP Major Bill Hecker, thank you for your service in Iraq and in the classroom.  As the West Point Alma Mater states, “Well done, be thou at peace.”  We’ll also dedicate this post to all the proud artillerymen out there: “Redlegs,” as they call themselves; their motto, “the King of Battle.”

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Gioux in 2013.

David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, published by Macmillan in 2009.

David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service, published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Gioux, in 2013

Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, published by Da Capo Press in 2013.

Edgar Allan Poe.  Private Perry and Mr. Poe:  The West Point Poems, 1831, edited by William Hecker with an introduction by Daniel Hoffman and an afterword by Gerard McGowan, published by Louisiana State University Press in 2005.

Thank you everybody concerned at The Center for Fiction and Pete’s Candy Store for staging such great events.  Thanks also to Charlie Markley and Sean Case, who accompanied me to Pete’s Candy Store and helped make the night so enjoyable.

The Classical Roots of Contemporary War Literature: Been There, Done That, 2500 Years Ago

November 16, 2013
Beyond the walls of this Afghanistan FOB, a hilltop fortress reportedly built by Alexander the Great

Beyond the walls of this Afghanistan FOB, a hilltop fortress reportedly built by Alexander the Great

Many contemporary war authors, artists, and thinkers have turned to classical Greece for subjects, themes, and inspiration.  A quick catalog might begin with Sparta, the recent novel by Roxana Robinson.  The protagonist of Robinson’s novel is a Marine, and I’ve heard Robinson speak about how pervasively awareness of Spartan culture and ethos runs in the Marines.  “The History of the Peloponnesian Wars is practically required reading at Quantico,” she reports.  Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Watch recasts Sophocles’ Antigone by placing it in war-torn Kandahar.  It begins with an Afghan woman’s entreaty to American soldiers on a combat outpost to release the body of her brother–an interesting storyline very much like Antigone‘s own.  A fine collection of poems, Stateside by Jehanne Dubrow, draws on Homer’s Odyssey to explore the plight of the poetic speaker, a modern-day Penelope awaiting the return of her Odysseus.  It’s hard not to imagine almost any of Siobhan Fallon’s tales of fraught return-from-deployment marriages in much the same light.  But Sophocles’ Ajax might be the best Greek work in regard to the homecoming.  Where The Odyssey portrays Penelope’s long nine-year wait for her man to return from war, Ajax portrays the even more tortured period AFTER the heroic Ajax returns from war to his war-trophy wife Tecmessa.  Where Penelope barely gets to say a word in The Odyssey, Tecmessa’s anguished voice resounds throughout Ajax, as she wonders what the hell has happened to her husband.  After Ajax slaughters a herd of sheep in a delusional rampage, Tecmessa screams:

During the night our wonderful Ajax
Was hit with madness and went beserk
You will see the proof of it in the tent:
Holocausts dripping with gore by his hand

Ajax serves as the dramatic centerpiece for Theater of War, an acclaimed troupe who stage readings of the play to elicit discussion and activism on behalf of struggling veterans.  If you have a chance to see a Theater of War performance, by all means do so.  They also perform readings of another Sophocles play, Philoctetes, which like Ajax portrays the aftermath of war on a soldier wounded physically and emotionally by his experiences.  Philosopher Nancy Sherman uses Philoctetes as the literary lens through which she explores issues of moral injury and repair in her recent work The Untold War.

I’m fine with all this Greek love, but it does make me appreciate all the more Brian Turner’s persistent effort to seed his poetry with references to Iraqi, Arabic, and Mesopotamian classic literature, folklore, and history. For my part, I turned first to ancient Rome when crafting the following short tale called “Cy and Ali.” It’s based on Ceyx and Alceone,” a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection that itself draws on Greek antecedents for subjects, themes, and inspiration.  Read on if you care to.

     Cy busied himself with the by–now routine activities of a combat patrol: gathering his personal gear and stowing it in the truck, drawing the big .50 caliber machine gun and mounting it in the gun turret, setting the frequencies and security codes on the radio, helping out the other crew members and being helped by them in turn. As he waited for the mission commander to give the patrol brief, he thought about his wife for a few moments. Ali had not wanted him to go on this deployment; he had had options that would have kept him in the States, at least for a while longer, and she could not understand why he had been so eager to return to Afghanistan.

     “I think you are crazy,” she had told him. Left unstated was the suspicion that he liked the idea of going to war more than he liked the idea of being with her. She loved him dearly, and though he professed his love for her, too, she couldn’t help but feel that he didn’t value their relationship as much as she did. Cy also wasn’t sure what to think, either then or now while he waited for the patrol brief to begin. Returning to Afghanistan had been very important to him, but beyond his claims about needing to be with his unit and doing his duty, he sensed that there was a cold hard nugget of selfishness about his willingness to jeopardize his marriage—not to mention his life—for the sake of the deployment.

     Rather than give Ali an excuse or an explanation, he had offered a compensation. “When I get back, I promise I’ll make it up to you,” he had said, “I’ll go back to school, or find some job where I won’t have to deploy again anytime soon.”

     The offer seemed lame, even to Cy, like he had thought about it for two seconds, but Ali acceded to it anyway. She loved Cy in part because he was a soldier, but some things about being a military wife were really bad. Now she busied herself with her own classes, her part-time job, and her friends and family. But she worried a lot, and had a premonition that things might not end well.

     The day’s mission was nothing special: accompany an Afghan army unit while they resupplied three of their outlying outposts. The mission commander explained that the Americans’ role was to inspect the readiness of the Afghan outposts, and to provide artillery and medical support in case anything happened along the way. Cy’s job was gunner on the mission commander’s truck, which was to be third in the order of march behind two Afghan trucks. From the truck’s exposed turret he was to man the .50 cal while keeping an eye out for suicide bombers, IEDs, and ambushes. But nothing was expected to happen; “There has been no enemy activity on the planned route in the last 48 hours,” the mission commander informed them. They had traveled the day’s route many times before with nothing more serious occurring than a vehicle breakdown. Sure they planned well and rehearsed diligently, but that was all the more reason the actual mission was probably going to be not much.

     Which is why what happened, at least at first, had an unreal feel. Three miles out, on Route Missouri, Cy saw the two lead Afghan trucks come to abrupt halts and their occupants pile out. The Afghan soldiers took up firing positions on the right side of the road and pointed their weapons back to the left side. Because he had headphones on and was chattering with the other truck occupants, Cy was unable to immediately distinguish the sound of gunshots, and it took him a moment to comprehend that the Afghans had stumbled into an ambush. Other Americans also soon gleaned what was going on and suddenly the intercom crackled with questions, reports, and commands.

     “Action front…. Scan your sectors….. Anyone have positive ID?…. There they are…. 11:00 200 meters. Engage, engage!”

     Cy identified three turbaned gunmen firing at the Afghan army trucks from behind a low wall. He charged his machine gun and began to shoot. He had fired the .50 cal dozens of times in training and thus was surprised by how far off target were his first two bursts. But very quickly he found the range, and was rewarded by seeing the big .50 caliber rounds chew up the wall behind which the insurgents were hiding. Dust and debris filled the air; Cy couldn’t tell if he had hit anyone, but surely the fire was effectively suppressing the enemy. By now, the other American trucks had identified the gunmen and were firing, too. Still, it was so hard to figure out exactly what was happening. That the three insurgents behind the wall were capable of resisting the torrent of fire unleashed on them by the American and Afghan soldiers seemed impossible, but no one could tell if there were other enemy shooting at them from somewhere else.

     Soon, however, the sound of explosions began to fill the air. Again, it was not immediately clear that the Afghan army soldiers and the insurgents were now firing Rocket Propelled Grenades at each other. “What’s going on up there, Crazy?” Cy heard the mission commander ask him through the intercom. Loud booms resounded everywhere, both from the discharge of the weapons and from their rounds’ impact. Cy next heard “RPG! RPG!” echo through the intercom as the Americans understood that they too were now under attack. A round exploded against the truck to his left and Cy felt the blast wave wash over him. How could the enemy engage them so accurately?

    As the battle unfolded, Cy realized the situation was serious, no joke. The rest of the crew was protected inside the armored truck, but he was partially exposed in the machine gun turret. He continued to fire the .50 cal, doing his best to punish the insurgents who were trying to kill them. The noise was deafening, but in the midst of the roar of his own weapon and the other American guns, as well as the cacophony of human voices on the intercom, he discerned that enemy fire was pinging around him and sizzling overhead. Though he was not scared, he thought about his wife.

     Ali had felt uneasy throughout the day. She had not been able to communicate with Cy, which in itself was not so unusual. She understood that sometimes missions made it impossible for him to call or write. Still, she sent him emails and texts and the lack of a response for some reason felt ominous. That night, she had had a terrible dream. Cy appeared, looming over her, silent and reproachful, and Ali had awoken with a start. Nothing like this had ever happened before, not even close. She didn’t know what to do, so she watched TV for a while and then began surfing the Internet. She thought about calling her husband’s unit rear-detachment commander, but decided not to. There was no one she could talk to who wouldn’t think she was overreacting, so she didn’t do anything except continue to worry. 

     The next morning two officers appeared at Ali’s door. “The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you that your husband has died as a result of enemy fire in eastern Afghanistan,” one of them intoned. It was all too true, but for Ali the reality of the situation dissolved in a swirl of chaotic thoughts and physical sickness. 

     Ali waited on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base with Cy’s parents. An honor guard was also present, as well as a contingent from her husband’s unit, and a general whom she had never seen before and whose name she didn’t catch. Everyone was very nice to her, but Ali was confused. She didn’t know if she was supposed to be strong and dignified or to collapse in a pool of tears. She also didn’t know if she was angry with her husband, angry toward the Army, or just some strange combination of sad and proud. As her husband’s casket emerged from the plane, Ali felt herself drawn toward it. First she was taking small tentative steps, as if she were nervous about breaking some kind of rule or protocol. Then she was running, moving quickly toward the casket while the others in attendance waited behind. She was barely aware of what she was doing, but her feet seemed to no longer be touching the ground. It was as if she were floating or flying, and her arms were beating like wings of a giant bird. “O, Cy, is this the homecoming you promised me?” she thought, or maybe said aloud. Then she remembered throwing her arms around the casket, but at the same time she also felt herself rising into the air, in unison with her husband, who now was alive again and also seemed a magnificent, noble bird. Together, Cy and Ali soared upward, and the plane and the honor guard and the onlookers whirled beneath them as they circled in the sky.

Class War: Roxana Robinson’s Sparta

October 17, 2013

Sparta CoverSeveral good books about the contemporary wars have been written by graduates of an ingenious program that opens up United States Marine Corps Officer Candidate School to rising college seniors, with no obligation to serve even after graduation from college.  Most do, though, and so the open-armed, non-binding invitation has reaped the Marines a bounty of smart, literary-minded young men from elite colleges who desired a healthy helping of “Semper Fi-Do or Die” before getting on with their lives.  Among the books they have written are the memoirs Dust to Dust by Vassar grad Benjamin Busch, Joker One by Princeton grad Donovan Campbell, and One Bullet Away by Dartmouth grad Nathaniel Fink.  Coming soon is Redeployment, a collection of short stories by Phil Klay, another Dartmouth grad.

Speaking as a UC-Berkeley grad who went to Army OCS to become an infantry officer, I can kind of relate.

Also taking note of this phenomenon is Sparta, a novel by civilian author Roxana Robinson.  The protagonist is Conrad Farrell, a Williams College graduate from a comfy Westchester County, New York, far-suburban home, the kind whose dirt road remoteness signals privilege, not poverty.  Conrad’s decision to attend Marine OCS shocks and dismays his family and girlfriend.  Now back from two savage tours in Iraq and out of the service, he begins a slow but steady deterioration from the ravages of post-traumatic stress.

It’s not a pretty tale, and it’s not artfully told.  Sparta is sort of an anti-The Yellow Birds.  It relates a similar tale of downward decline, but with none of The Yellow Birds’ lyrical flights (no pun intended) or near as much plot.  Episodes unfold schematically:  first, impulsive and reckless anger, then apathy and lack of focus, then withdrawal and denial, next headaches and insomnia.  Flashbacks and erectile dysfunction.  A futile stab at counseling.  Alcohol abuse and self-medication.  Suicidal thoughts, then suicidal gestures.  When Conrad hears a loud bang, you know he’s going to duck.  When a car veers too close while he’s driving, you know he’s going to panic. Conrad’s behavior is so out of kilter that it is hard to believe his girlfriend stays with him for a minute, let alone a year.  It’s difficult to imagine him as an effective officer, or a cheerful, intelligent guy before he joined.  The story is told almost entirely through Conrad’s eyes, but there’s so much we don’t understand. We’re left wondering, for example, why he got out of the Marines, since he has no plan for the future and misses his men so much. Why not get a job to keep busy?  Date or chase girls?  His depression socks in before he even knows he’s depressed, which might be the nature of such things, but his aimlessness makes him seem more like a goofy man-child than a focused adult.  And because we aren’t allowed to eavesdrop on the other characters’ conversations and thoughts, we lose not just their perspectives on Conrad, but a fuller rendering of the angst those close to him must have suffered while hoping that he would once more be OK.

For all that Sparta’s darn near impossible to put down.   Robinson’s prose is blunt—I can’t imagine a novel that begins as many sentences with “He,” as in the following passage describing Conrad in the process of bolo-ing the GMAT:

He was screwing it up.  It was getting worse.  He couldn’t pound the little things into any kind of sense.  It was getting worse, and the worse he felt, the worse he did.  He was in a long panicked slide backward.  He could feel himself his going and couldn’t stop himself.

But because Robinson doesn’t waste a word describing Conrad’s quick step toward self-destruction, Sparta attains a certain lurid velocity. Conrad’s upper-crust stiffness combined with the USMC suck-it-up ethos leaves him not strong but emotionally brittle, and Robinson describes this toxic psychic predicament compellingly, if briskly.  The most extended descriptions of anything are of the habits and habitats of Conrad’s liberal East Coast native milieu.  The references to GMATs, Volvos, maids, and commuter trains remind us that Robinson is not telling a general story about all damaged veterans, but a particular one about a member of a class whose disdain for the war and the military seems based as much on taste and lifestyle as politics.  Conrad’s parents care about him, but they have not an ounce of pride for his service, understandable given his downward spiral, but they also lack the warmth, curiosity, empathy, or other means, to include vocabulary and courage, to connect with him. They are good people in their way, but they are at a loss, and their scorn for soldiering contributes to Conrad’s funk and may even be the cause of it.  It’s hard not to think that one thing that really eats at Conrad—in addition to everything else–is his inability to admit that his decision to join the Marines was an act of class betrayal, a big huge self-inflicted mistake, that his parents were right, and that he had every reason to know better.

Veterans Writing

September 29, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

“Night in Blue”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Bill Putnam.  Used by permission.

Courtesy of Bill Putnam. Used by permission.

New York Times review of Roxana Robinson’s Sparta

Veteran David Carrell writes about his return to college at Vassar

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


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