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….
Interviews with prominent authors in the war-mil-vet-conflict scene are always a treat, even when the subjects go to dark places. Below are links to and excerpts from five such interviews I’ve been fortunate to conduct, in one case for the Veterans Writing Project‘s literary journal 0-Dark-Thirty and in the others for The Wrath-Bearing Tree.
Mary Doyle interview for 0-Dark-Thiry, Fall 2016 (begins on page 67). Doyle, a former Army NCO, is the author of The Bonding Spell, a speculative fiction novel, and The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, a military-detective novel featuring Master Sergeant Lauren Harper. Excerpt:
Molin: Master Sergeant Harper’s sense of what’s important about her identity is intriguing—it blends and balances her awareness of her status as a woman, a senior Army NCO, an African American, and the unique circumstances of her family history and her personal outlook on life. Is that how you see her too, and what more would you like us to understand about her?
Doyle: Harper is like so many black women soldiers I know. She joined the military with the hope of improving her lot in life. She comes from a loving family but one that had its challenges. Her upbringing is in a single parent household with a matriarchal example that she strives to emulate. She is an older sister to a sibling that she ends up having primary responsibility for. And as her career develops, she is surprised to discover that the job she took as a means to an end, ends up being a life she loves.
What she struggles with, and what so many dedicated female service members struggle with, is her love life. How does a woman soldier balance her dedication to a job that has 24/7 demands, with a courtship? When you are in a career that can call on you to drop everything, pack a bag and be gone for long lengths of time, how to you maintain a love life through demands like that? And what about children?
Will Mackin interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, April 2018. Mackin, a career Navy officer, served alongside Navy SEALs in Iraq and Afghanistan coordinating air-and-artillery support. He is the author of the short-story collection Bring Out the Dog. Excerpt:
Molin: From “Kattekoppen”: “The variety of ideas among soldiers developed into a variety of ideas among units, which necessitated an operational priority scheme. As SEAL Team Six, we were at the top of that scheme. Our ideas about the war were the war.” How are SEALs different from soldiers in line-units? What motivates them and what’s important to them? What were you surprised to learnabout the SEALs, as individuals and as a collective fighting force?
Mackin: The main thing that differentiated our unit from “straightleg” units was our budget. We had a lot of money to throw around. There was also a genuine desire on the part of the operators to fight, kill, and vanquish, and absolutely zero tolerance for administrative bullshit. This would sometimes bite us in the ass because no one ever wanted to plan. What we lost in lack of planning, however, was often made up for in execution. As individuals I was surprised to find those who I wouldn’t have expected to be SEALs. In other words, guys who didn’t fit the mold of the tattooed, bearded, Harley-riding Alpha male. They were just normal dudes with this ridiculous and well-disguised drive…. Most SEALs were personable one-on-one, but I found them to be very insular as a group. I never felt like I truly belonged.
Roy Scranton interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, August 2019. Scranton deployed to Iraq with the US Army in the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His published books include the novel War Porn and the scholarly study Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. Excerpt:
Molin: In practical terms, how can understanding the trauma hero as a literary trope and cultural myth help us think better, more clearly, about actual veterans psychologically damaged and emotionally troubled by war? What might the nation, or its military-medical apparatus, do to help them?
Scranton: Well, I’ve written a work of literary and cultural history, not a practical guide to coping with trauma. I would say, though, that the entire way that we understand “actual veterans psychologically damaged and emotionally troubled by war” must be understood as process of collective meaning-making. The psychologically damaged veteran is certainly suffering, but that suffering takes shape in performing a specific social role, which is the “traumatized veteran.” As long as we stay within the bounds of the discourse, there’s no way to “help” such a person by pointing out that their genuine suffering is culturally produced. I suppose we might tell them “trauma isn’t real,” but then what? They have to make sense of their experience somehow, and the best that could come from delegitimating a culturally dominant way of making sense of experience would be the emergence of a new way of making sense of experience. Are there better and worse ways of making meaning? I think so. But that’s another discussion. The only practical help my project might offer is, I would hope, some understanding of the ways that the “actual veteran” exists in relation to the “nation.”
I’m a Spinozist at heart, which means I’m a materialist, but it also means that I believe freedom comes first of all from understanding. Until you understand what compels you to understand your experience through certain roles, frameworks, and practices, you’ll be stuck performing those roles, seeing through those frameworks, and acting out those practices. Understanding may never provide physical or social liberation, but it can at least open a space for some freedom of thought and movement, and the possibility of equanimity toward the world as it exists, which is to say a sense of peace.
Matt Gallagher interview/podcast for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, April 2021 (via SoundCloud). Gallagher, a US Army Iraq vet is the author of the memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Dirty Little War and the novels Youngblood and Empire City. Excerpt:
Molin: You’ve been on the veterans writing scene for a long time. When did you get a sense that a common standpoint or viewpoint among veterans was starting to diverge so drastically, so politically, and so heatedly? What were the significant events or touchstones for you?
Gallagher: A lot of the seeds for Empire City happened during the years I worked as a speechwriter for the veterans non-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in 2011-2013…. At the time I was writing Youngblood, so my professional headspace was in the veterans’ world while my writing head was still in Iraq….. At IAVA I saw how just how personally our members took the policy issues we were fighting for, both on the legislative side and also on the street-level, with the everyday members who weren’t necessarily going down to DC to meet with congressmen and senators to advocate for position-x or position-y, and how quickly issues that should be apolitical, like the GI Bill, become a left-or-right issue, and how thing worked for the organization when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended or the Bowe Bergdahl situation broke. All these things became instantly political and polarized, in a way that was disheartening for a young veteran, but were fantastic fodder for future writing.
Hassan Blasim interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree (July 2021). Blasim, an Iraqi expatriate now living in Finland, is the author of the short-story collection The Corpse Exhibition and the novel God 99. Excerpt:
Molin: What about fiction attracts you?
Blasim: It’s important for English and American readers to know that I don’t only write fiction, I write poetry, criticism, plays, and essays, too, that haven’t yet been translated into English. I also write a lot in support of refugees, gay rights, and Iraq and the Middle East. But as for fiction, it’s what I have loved most all my life, from the time I was a boy. I always liked the way stories could contain extremes and opposites, such as how a story could be both a love story and a horror story, a funny story and a sad story, both tender and violent. Fiction is serious for me, but it’s also play and pleasure. In my writing, I enjoy trying to make all these parts come together. A lot of my sense of how to write fiction comes from my love of movies, from which early on I was impressed by how easily they switched between different types of scenes and moods. In my stories I want that same effect, something unexpected happening, something changing all the time. That’s how I try to write, too, I don’t plan anything ahead of time, I just enjoy the rhythm of writing and the chance to play. I open my laptop and I type….
Thank you Mary Doyle, Will Mackin, Roy Scranton, Matt Gallagher, and Hassan Blasim for being so generous with your time and your thoughts.
Three authors from the first wave of contemporary war-fiction circa 2013 have now published second book-length fictional works. Though only one directly portrays war in Iraq or Afghanistan, individually the three works, all novels, illustrate the expansion of their authors’ interests. Collectively, they demonstrate the continuing development of a talented author cohort first formed by writing about twenty-first century war.
Kevin Powers, A Shout in the Ruins. John Bartle, the woebegone protagonist of Kevin Powers’ first novel The Yellow Birds makes a cameo appearance in A Shout in the Ruins, but it’s a subtext of The Yellow Birds—Powers’ deep love for his home state of Virginia–that comes to the fore in Powers’ new novel about history and race relations in the Old Dominion. As a Virginian myself, I’m receptive to Powers’ story and think he’s on to something, for to be a Virginian of any sensitivity is to be deeply aware of the state’s proud, vexed, violent history. A Shout in the Ruins tells two connected stories stretched out over multiple generations spanning from the Civil War to the 1980s. One story is that of an elderly African-American gentleman named George Seldom, who is forced out of his Richmond home in the 1950s by the building of an Interstate. Set adrift, Seldom embarks on a physical journey to the North Carolina home in which he was raised and a genealogical exploration that invokes the novel’s second story, a lurid family saga that reaches back to Reconstruction and forward to episodes set on Virginia’s Eastern Shore (where John Bartle makes his cameo). It’s a lot to pack into a short novel, and Powers sometimes shorts context and explanation for sensibility and mood, which might be described as high Southern gothic a la Faulkner, pollinated with elements of Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison. Think violence, think desire, think secrets, think vengeance, think blood, think lust for power, think “the past is never dead, it’s not even past”—all those subterranean impulses that refuse to remain buried beneath the veneer of Southern gentility, and when conjured forth, expose Southern gentility for a mask and a lie. Key to it all is Powers’ prose style, which foregoes just-the-facts simplicity for florid lyricism. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it proposition: A Shout in the Ruins was widely reviewed upon release, and critics evenly divide on whether the novel’s prose is poetically brilliant or overheated reaching for (pseudo) profundity. Me, I like it, but then I’m still a Virginian, and want language about my home-state to reflect the dark mythopoetic spirit of what that identity means to me.
Katey Schultz, Still Come Home. The promise displayed in Katey Schultz’s first book, Flashes of War, a collection of bite-sized fictional vignettes set in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the homefront, is fully realized in Still Come Home. Set in Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan, Still Come Home tells twinned narratives, one of Aaseya, a young Afghan woman whose already precarious life is troubled further by the arrival of the Taliban to her small town, and Lieutenant Nathan Miller, a National Guard infantry platoon leader charged with one last patrol before redeployment. Aaseya’s and Lieutenant Miller’s stories are told in alternating chapters until events bring them together in the novel’s climax. Schultz excels at physical description, is alert to psychological and social nuance, and plausibly devises a plot that masks its intentions and turns until the final scenes. Schultz is neither an Afghan nor a vet, and charges of cultural appropriation, a hot-button literary issue these days, might be put into play re Still Come Home, but they won’t be by me. Portraits of Afghan women are hard to come by, and Schultz’s rendering of Aaseya’s behavior, attitudes, and ideas ring true and will serve nicely until more representations authored by Afghan authors themselves arrive. And, full disclosure, I contributed ideas about Army culture and tactics to an early draft of Still Come Home, and now am glad to see how Schultz has put them to use in the final version. I especially like the portrait of Lieutenant Miller, who is old for a Regular Army lieutenant but very typical of many National Guard junior officers I’ve met, as he tries to balance the twin imperatives of accomplishing missions while taking care of his men. Still Come Home joins a library of well-turned novels by Americans about war in Afghanistan that combine interest in US military personnel and the Afghans with whom they interact: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, and Ray McPadden’s And the Whole Mountain Burned, for starters, and we might include British-Pakistani author Nadeem Aslam’s novels The Wasted Vigil and The Blind Man’s Garden, too.
Roy Scranton, I [Heart] Oklahoma! Roy Scranton’s I [Heart] Oklahoma! is that rarest of rare birds these days: a full-on experimental novel with little interest in telling an easy-to-digest story in a conventional way. Wearing its debt to William Burroughs, William Faulkner, and James Joyce on its sleeve, the novel may not be everyone’s cup-of-tea, but I for one [heart] it very much. The first half of I [Heart] Oklahoma! tells in reasonably apprehensible and often funny terms a story of three NYC-based hipster “creatives”—two men (Jim and Remy) and one woman (Susan)–charged with making a road-trip documentary of America as it frazzles under the stress of the Trump presidency. As in his first novel War Porn, Scranton excels at portraying the speech and thought of overeducated millennials who have may have imbibed newfangled Deleuzean concepts about deterritorialization, rhizomes, and the un-psychologized subject, but remain vulnerable to the ages-old forces of sexual desire, rivalry, and jealousy. Halfway across the country and halfway through the novel, the road-trip falls apart and things get weird. What happens next is hard to describe, but remarkable to behold as a reading experience. Reformulating novel conventions on deterritorialized, rhizomatic, and un-psychologized-subject grounds, Scranton describes the birthing of Susan’s literary consciousness through the medium of an alter-ego named Jane and a nightmare carnivalesque American topical dreamscape. Emerging out of the psycho-cultural stew is a long first-person narrative written by Susan in the voice of Caril Ann Fugate, the 14-year-old girlfriend and accomplice of the 1950s serial killer Charles Starkweather. Caril’s reminiscence about the Starkweather killing spree is a striking tour-de-force, a Molly Bloom monologue for our gun-addled time–I read its full 40 pages twice in succession and plan to read it again soon. The exact impulse that drives Susan to identify with Caril and exactly why Scranton directs our attention to Starkweather are not spelled out, though ripe for speculation. But the representation of an imaginative-artistic creation—Caril’s dramatic monologue–as it comes into being, and the dramatic monologue itself, are spectacular.
Kevin Powers, A Shout in the Ruins. Little, Brown and Company, 2018.
Katey Schultz, Still Come Home. Apprentice House, 2019.
This week the website Wrath-Bearing Tree published my interview with veteran-author Roy Scranton in advance of publication of his scholarly study Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. In Total Mobilization, Scranton expands upon the concept of “the trauma hero,” which he first articulated in a provocative 2015 Los Angeles Review of Books article titled “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to “Redeployment” and “American Sniper.”The LARB article rankled many with its less-than-hallowed regard for classic and contemporary war writing and in particular its willingness to name names among Scranton’s peers in the modern war-writing scene who Scranton claims are unwittingly or too heavily invested in privileging American veterans emotionally bruised by war. I commented on some of that on Time Now at the time, but an unspoken thought was that the article was too short and that there had to be more to understand about how the trauma hero motif originated and operated. Now, Total Mobilization, the book from which the LARB essay was extracted, provides that background and more expansive explanation. In my interview, I’ve tried to give Scranton room to explain the major points of his larger argument while also probing him about personal connections to the trauma hero concept and the issues it raises.
Many thanks to Scranton for sitting for the interview and also thanks to Wrath-Bearing Tree for publishing it. While striving to make WBT the preeminent place on the web for fresh critical commentary and imaginative writing about contemporary war and conflict, the talented crew of editors and staff-authors–Adrian Bonenberger, Michael Carson, David James, Matthew Hefti, Andria Williams, Mary Doyle, Drew Pham, Amalie Flynn, and Rachel Kambury, by name—have also opened publication doors for exciting new voices too many to name.
As partial evidence of Wrath-Bearing Tree’s intellectual energy, be sure to check out Michael Carson and Matthew Hefti’s interview with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk author Ben Fountain in the current issue, as well as Carson’s review of Fountain’s latest work, the non-fiction journalistic account of the 2016 election Beautiful Country Burn Again. To attract authors of the magnitude of Fountain and Scranton to generously offer their thoughts about writing and war is proof-positive that Wrath-Bearing Tree is on to something good, and I’m honored to have played a role in the proceedings.
Finally, my interview with Scranton will not resolve arguments about “the trauma hero”; if anything it will instigate ever more trenchant discussions about veterans and war-writing. Scranton’s assertions and evidence hit hard, but are not, as is nothing, beyond criticism or complication, and nothing is ever the last word on its subject. Scranton’s claims raise real challenges to abiding premises and assumptions that govern war-writing and thinking about war-writing, and, like the Twitterati often proclaim, my RTing of them does not necessarily imply (full) endorsement. A generative follow-on discussion about the trauma hero appeared relatively unnoticed in 2018 on a Sundress Blog post associated with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), available here. In a joint interview moderated by Jane Rosenberg LaForge, Seth Brady Tucker, Jesse Goolsby, Helen Benedict, and Samuel Snoek-Brown offer perspectives on the trauma hero from a number of interesting angles. Please read their roundtable discussion, along with my interview with Scranton, and then read Total Mobilization, and let the conversation continue.
Roy Scranton, Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. University of Chicago, 2019.
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.
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2021: The links to the following poems and poets are unfortunately broken: Nicole Goodwin, Colin Halloran, Lynn Houston, Victor Inzunza, and Brian Turner.
I am leaving the entries in place for now, in hopes the links will be restored and to alert readers that the poets and their poems are well worth seeking out by other means.
To honor National Poetry Month, below are poems by forty American writers that reflect and engage America’s 21st-century wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, directly, indirectly, or possibly only in my mind.* They run the gamut from the nation’s poet-laureate to MFA-honed to raw, and are written by veterans, spouses, and interested civilian observers, but they’re all great individually and collectively they articulate the nation’s crazy play of emotions as it sought redress for the sting of the 9/11 attacks. Many thanks to the authors for writing them and much love also for online media sites that feature poets and poetry–please read them, support them, share them, and spread the word.
The links should take you directly to each of the poems, except for Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren’s and Maurice Decaul’s, which are featured on the Warrior Writers page. An additional click on “Writing” will get you in the ballpark, and you can figure it out from there. If you discover a dead link or that access to a poem is blocked by a pay-wall, please let me know.
*Seth Brady Tucker’s “The Road to Baghdad” probably draws on Tucker’s experience in the 1990 Gulf War, but was first published in 2011 and can certainly be read as a contemporary war poem.
Roy Scranton’s Iraq war novel War Porn, out this week, by all accounts was substantially complete by 2011. Indeed, Scranton reports that he began writing War Porn while he was still in the Army in 2005, about the time of the events he portrays in the novel. That War Porn now appears in 2016 raises interesting questions. According to a 2011 The Atlanticarticle by Matt Gallagher, Scranton could not at the time find a publisher. As Gallagher points out, no major house had yet put out a novel about Iraq or Afghanistan, and Scranton at the time was a fledgling, far-from-established author. Six years later, however, much has changed. War writing as a publishing genre has grown exponentially, and Scranton has compiled an impressive body of work. No doubt these factors help explain why War Porn now sees the light-of-day, but almost certainly there’s more.
In conversation a couple of years back, Scranton stated that he had maintained a “consistent line-of-thinking” throughout his writing ventures, which include editorial oversight and a contribution to the war story anthology Fire and Forget, a striking essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the war literature “trauma hero,” the end-of-the-world treatise Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, a PhD dissertation on post-WWII poetry, and numerous essays and articles in both the popular press and scholarly journals. Be that as it may, if we read War Porn as a 2011 novel it’s one thing: not just a topical novel about matters of extremely recent national interest and not just a work that anticipated major themes Scranton would revisit often, but a missed opportunity, historically, that might have significantly influenced the wave of war novels to follow, which by Scranton’s lights consistently fell into a trap of over-extending sympathy toward US soldiers with bruised feelings. If we read War Porn as a 2016 novel, it’s a look backwards at an era and events rapidly vanishing from public memory, and it also comments retroactively on the slew of Iraq and Afghanistan war novels written since 2011. But it also announces new approaches and inflections, better late-than-never, that might significantly impact war writing to come. How to reconcile the two possibilities?
War Porn consists of three interrelated storylines. One is narrated by an American soldier, Specialist Wilson, and describes Wilson’s service as a Humvee driver in Iraq in the war’s early years. Wilson is arguably no-better-and-no-worse than he should be as a person or soldier, but his banal complicity in the Army’s military occupation of Iraq illustrates how the military dehumanizes even those “just doing their duty.” The consequential damage on Iraqi civil society of an occupation force made up of 100,000+ men-and-women much like Wilson are illustrated in a second storyline depicting an Iraqi US Army interpreter named Qasim al-Zabadi. Things end badly for Qasim, and though he is more victim than victimizer, with far less options than Wilson, and no escape at the end of a year’s deployment, he too has made at least one disastrous choice and must now must endure the consequences of foolishly trusting Americans. The third storyline involves a group of liberal, late-20-something residents of Utah, whose comfy life and beliefs are upset by the arrival to their Columbus Day barbecue of an Iraq War vet named Aaron. Aaron has been a guard at a US military detention facility, and he has a thumb drive full of photos to prove it—the “war porn” of the novel’s title. Aaron even more than Wilson is unrepentant about his involvement in war atrocity and not above using his stash of prison photos to titillate the other party-goers. Far from being “traumatized” and equally far from being a dedicated citizen-soldier ennobled by his time in service, Aaron’s roguish familiarity with evil intimidates the hell out of his male host while dizzying up his host’s wife’s libido. Linking the three storylines are prose-poem interludes in which Scranton channels a collective unconscious voice declaiming the amalgamated collection of fables, lies, half-truths, myths, delusions, and anxieties that underwrote the Iraq War in the American and Iraqi cultural climate.
It’s a lot to take in, but the storylines, scenes, and episodes are carefully integrated, while also serving the purpose of providing a kaleidoscopic view of war experience without privileging the perspective of any one participant, particularly that of a twenty-year-old American male combatant. The prose-poems can be a little polemical, though the one I like best, an hallucinogenic deconstruction of the allure of movie war heroes, worked beautifully when read by Scranton at War Porn’s book launch last week in New York. In contrast to the fired-up prose-poems, Scranton’s narrative prose voice is understated, somehow millennial slacker-ish, focused on acts and words rather than thoughts and emotions, a textural effect that schmoozes the reader into underestimating the grimness of Scranton’s vision until the book’s concluding pages. The chapters featuring Qasim portray Iraqi discourse as laden with Islamic parables and platitudes, which I guess has some relation to the way Muslims really speak in their native languages, though it may also be as much a Western literary mode of representing exotic speech as anything. A passage such as the following, on the other hand, which describes Qasim’s short stay in Scotland as a student, shows Scranton’s talent as a lyrical prose stylist:
Qasim had been north only a few gloomy months–cold, humiliating months full of unnerving lessons in the limits of his talent; dismal months of constipation, headaches, and a constantly running nose; lonesome months where the English he so struggled to master always seemed to bend back on his tongue into gibberish; nightmare months where he wandered the streets in a muddle, baffled and awed by the strange stone city around him and the cruel, doughy faces of the Scots who lived there; despairing months where each night, curled under his duvet with the door shut against his roommates, he struggled desperately to keep from weeping, to keep them from hearing him weep, despondent for home and exhausted from working so hard and falling behind and the unending gray skies pissing rain–when at last the phone rang and his mother told him in a stern, quiet voice that his father was ill and the doctors did not expect him to survive the winter.
The chapters featuring Wilson and Aaron are heavily conversational, and Scranton’s ear for distinguishing between characters by the shape and flavor of their speech rings true to me. The characters banter and parry with each other in that way that signifies cleverness and relaxed conviviality from the inside, but from the outside seems like just a lot of aggressive posturing, as if so-called pals were really “frenemies” who secretly hated and were in competition with each other–which they do and which they are.
All the characters are interesting, even charismatic to a degree, but War Porn’s final scenes makes clear that Scranton’s not interested in giving any of them, save Qasim, a break. The word “choice” appears often in the mouths of the novel’s characters, and the accumulated effect makes the point that if you are an American, your attitude and ideas about Iraq, as well as your actions, whether you served there or not, are the result of decisions, and not just things you drifted into unwittingly when you were young and thus easily excusable. Once stained by the war in Iraq, the American veterans in War Porn in the name of honesty pretty much stop trying to be good people, as they learn just how capable they are of sadistically manipulating and dominating those over whom they hold authority. Much as the civilians at the Utah barbecue must recalibrate their ideas about Iraq when troubled by Aaron and his photos, so the novel’s readers will also have to perform mental gyrations to reestablish their moral equilibrium in regard to a war most experienced only second-hand–pornographically?–through the words and images of those who have fought.
So why wasn’t War Porn published in 2011? At his book launch, Scranton offered a couple of reasons that went beyond the facts that he was a young unknown and war novels were not yet a thing. 2011, he reminded the audience, was a time when “supporting the troops” and “thanking soldiers for their service” was all the rage. War Porn, alas, offers precious little grounds for thanking any of its soldier-characters for anything. Further, Scranton continued, a tenuous truce characterized Iraq circa 2011, which made it not the time for unremittingly bleak novels about a failed invasion, populated with unredeemable characters. Instead, the national literary appetite pined for stories about sensitive soldiers buffeted by service and combat, the sentiment against which Scranton’s “trauma hero” essay seethed. In War Porn, Scranton spends little time tracing the psychology and mental processes of his characters, as if to make a statement that it’s by one’s acts and words that one’s character and morality must be judged, not by some impossible-to-prove literary sketch of a person’s interior landscape.
In the last three years, the rise of ISIS and the disintegration of peace in Iraq have created space for more skeptical looks at the Iraq War, especially the early years, when the ethical rottenness and intellectual ineptitude, in addition to the practical difficulty, of the occupation was on display for anyone who cared to look closely. Also, the simplistic sanctimony of uncritically thanking guys like Wilson and Aaron for their service has begun to wane, making unflattering literary portraits of veterans possible in the name of somehow working toward a more even-handed consensus on what it actually means to be a veteran. Scranton’s notion that war “dehumanizes” its participants might be said to be as much a trope as the idea that it “traumatizes” them, and critics will object that Scranton himself lacks a basic humane attitude toward his characters and that he willfully neglects the sacrifice, patriotism, courage, and real suffering of young Americans sent to war. Let it happen–the conversation needs to take place, and Scranton’s literary skill and fierceness of vision make him a stout antagonist for anyone who wants to take him on. War Porn, written in the 00s, finds its moment in 2016, five-to-ten years late, but also right on time. Here’s to Scranton for reminding us not to repeat the military mistakes of 2003-2005 nor replicate the publishing trends of 2011-2015, though we probably will, as these things go, in both cases, despite his fine warning.
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.
At the recent Modern Language Association (MLA) conference in Austin, Texas, six of us convened a panel titled “Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars” to discuss the memoirs, fiction, and poetry of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ikram Masmoudi, whose War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction I recently reviewed, wasn’t able to join us, unfortunately, but Stacey Peebles, Patrick Deer, Roy Scranton, AB Huber, and I reiterated and expanded upon remarks we have posted on our panel website. Our moderator, Aaron DeRosa, offered brief introductory remarks that set the tone for the panel, and, it should be noted that he and Peebles are coediting an upcoming issue of Modern Fiction Studies devoted to Iraq and Afghanistan war literature—the call for papers of which can be found here.
DeRosa had us speak in order of increasingly speculative and conceptual slant, so while Peebles, Deer, and I began by taking mostly backward looks at works already written, Scranton’s and Huber’s concluding comments made provocative challenges to future war writers. Scranton reminded us that war writing, whatever its virtues, owes its existence to war’s victims, a fact depressing enough to contemplate when we’re talking about Americans and even worse when war lit’s triumphs are predicated on the dead bodies of Iraqis and Afghans who neither asked for war nor benefited from it. To make his point, Scranton suggested that Hassan Blasim’s “The Corpse Exhibition,” about an Iraqi virtuoso of artistic war-death, is arguably the most apt war story written to date for how it dramatizes the moral reprehensibility of producing art about killing. In its wake, Scranton warned, less self-conscious war fiction risks naivety and ethical undernourishment.
Huber took the discussion to even more intriguing places. Riffing on the latent implications of “unmanned” in the phrase “unmanned aerial devices,” Huber inquired what it meant for war fiction when its heroes are displaced from the battlefield to drone command centers 1000s of miles away. Speculating that new ways of war, such as drone-fighting, that don’t have men staring death in the face are rendering conventional war fiction, poetry, and memoir obsolete, Huber suggested that modern war has generated new textual forms such as “the leak”: depersonalized, de-narrativized documents stripped of authorial experience and authority and creative origin and which fuzz the borders between official and unofficial. Sporting with one of my own lines, “When the great work about war in Iraq and Afghanistan is written, it will be written by a woman,” Huber suggested that battlefield records placed into public view by Chelsea Manning’s Wikileaks already constituted the exemplary literary artifact of 21st-century war.
Huber’s comments might be considered fanciful by non-academic audiences, but they got the roomful of scholars thinking—exactly the kind of visionary re-imagining of the possibilities of war literature we all hoped the panel would inspire. The body of modern war literature so far produced, centered on the experience of author-combatants, earnestly tries to set the conditions for its understanding. Discerning readers, however, accept neither war writing’s ideas nor its premises as either self-evident or given, and have begun to work it over hard. Once more, I encourage you to read the statements posted on our MLA panel website–they are important first words in the process.
Austin was full of pleasures other than MLA, and a real highlight for me was meeting and having lunch with Brian Van Reet, the author of two of my favorite short stories about war in Iraq, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and “Eat the Spoil.” Van Reet’s novel Spoils, he is happy to report, will be out in 2017.
The raucous digital media sphere spits out opinions in near real-time, but academics—PhD-wielding faculty members at colleges and universities—take longer to make up their minds. When ready, they publish their findings in “scholarly journals” viewed, if their authors are lucky, by a few dozen other professors and graduate students. Shrouded in technical jargon and ponderously paced, academic discourse is off-putting to many. But what academics sacrifice in mass appeal, they hope to regain by influence and by playing for the long-haul. They bargain that their ideas and arguments might wow their peers and their impressionable students and then through them enter the mainstream.
Recently, academics have begun to take the measure of contemporary war literature, and I’ve got some skin in the game.
The Modern Language Association conference is the biggest and most prestigious conference of the year for scholars of English and world literature. At the upcoming “MLA,” in Austin, Texas, in January, I’ll participate in a panel titled “Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars.” Also on the panel are Roy Scranton and Stacey Peebles, about whom I’ve written often on this blog, and Aaron DeRosa, Patrick Deer, Ikram Masmoudi, and A.B. Huber—all exciting scholars with formidable intellectual energy and talent. A website we’ve created to accompany our panel is up, and Peebles, Scranton, and I have already posted short pieces we hope will jumpstart conversations in advance of MLA. My entry discusses the significant presence of women in the ranks of war-writing authors, Scranton addresses representations of Iraqi and Afghans in contemporary war lit, while Peebles inquires about the shifting depictions of masculinity in modern war stories and memoirs.
I’m also honored to have placed an essay in the latest War, Literature, and the Artsjournal, published by the Department of English & Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy. The essay’s titled “’A Phrase Too Cute to Do Our Ugliness Justice’: Portraying ‘Wounded Warriors’ in Contemporary War Fiction.” The title derives from a great Brian Van Reet short story called “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek”; my subject is representations of physical disability in contemporary war literature. WLA is not only about Iraq and Afghanistan, but much of it is. The current issue, for example, features writing or interviews featuring Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Angela Ricketts, Brian Doerries, Jesse Goolsby, Richard Johnson, Brandon Lingle, Brooke King, and many other authors and artists associated with 21st-century war. There are also at least two other scholarly investigations of contemporary war literature: Jennifer Haytock’s “Women’s/War Stories: The Female Gothic and Women’s War Trauma in Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen” and Hilary Lithgow’s “’It’s All Good’”: Forms of Belief and the Limits of Irony in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers.”
Finally, Brian J. Williams, who teaches at Tennessee Tech, published this summer an article in the scholarly journal American Literature an article titled “The Desert of Anatopism: War in the Age of Globalization.” As if Roy Scranton’s big word “anthropocene” wasn’t enough to make our heads hurt, now Williams asks us to contend with “anatopism,” which means “something that is out of its proper place.” But Williams, like Scranton, is on to something: he examines the presence in war film, television, and literature—mostly the early-on HBO TV series Generation Kill–of objects that you wouldn’t expect to see in a war zone, or in Iraq or Afghanistan generally, specifically consumer or high-tech items of the West. Think, readers who have deployed, of your sense of dislocation when you realized that cell phones and DVDs were a fact of life in nations that otherwise seemed stuck in poverty and pre-modernity. Williams’ point is that such anatopic moments created cognitive dissonance for American soldiers that made it hard to distinguish between war and peace, enemy and noncombatant, and, within themselves, their soldierly and civilian identities. Here’s how Williams describes one such occurence:
This scene, like so many other moments finding their way into the US corpus emerging from the Gulf Wars, highlights the increasing presence of anatopism in contemporary war texts—the presence of items that seem spatially out of place, as foreign to their location as anachronisms are foreign to their times. Such things shouldn’t be found in the desert; these material signs of home are as out of place as the soldiers themselves, according to the cognitive map most soldiers carry into the combat zone.
In this piece, I examine the ways that traces of the home front appearing in the war zone and depictions of the war in US representations (films, texts, videogames) create an environment neither comfortably alien nor recognizably familiar. The modern soldier in Iraq provides a key position from which to chart the ways in which globalization paradoxically makes the foreign more uncanny by making it familiar, an instability reflective of the larger politics of the war on terror as a whole.
I can think of dozens of examples of anatopism from my own experiences and from the war literature that I have read. The omnipresent water bottles and plastic shopping bags, for example, littered around kalat walls and along thousand-year-old goat trails in the Afghanistan mountains. There’s a great instance of anatopism in Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, too, though the observer of the out-of-place item is a Pashtun, not an American. In a compound in a remote dirt-poor village where generators provide the only electric power, Ackerman’s narrator notes, “In the corner an enormous Hitachi television leaned against the ground. I could hear low murmurs of Urdu as programs from Pakistan flashed across its plasma screen.” Another prime example comes in Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. Three American soldiers on checkpoint duty observe a young woman walking toward them. She’s just a girl, it turns out, but she doesn’t listen to the soldiers’ commands to stop and be searched. Adding to the menace is the threatening incongruity of the soccer ball she carries, which the soldiers fixate on when she finally halts: “For a moment everything stops save the girl, standing still, turning the soccer ball in her hands, her small hands on the ball. They scope her as she turns the ball. Quiet.” Then the girl drops the ball and begins running toward the checkpoint, and the confused and panic-stricken Americans shoot her dead. The anatopic soccer ball has helped unhinge them and cost the young girl her life.