Roy Scranton, Phil Klay, and the American Trauma Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Klay’s Redeployment Redux

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

War Stories: Reading and Writing the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

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

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

And another, from near the end:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War of Words, Words of War

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

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

Klay Blasim

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


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

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

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

The War Writing Scene at AWP14: Wolves Keep in Touch by Howling…

… and writers do so by drinking coffee and beer and eating meals and trading stories into the night.  Thanks to all who attended or presented at the war lit and veteran writers panels at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle this past weekend.  On the war lit side, I enjoyed meeting and chatting with Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Elyse Fenton, Brian Castner, Mariette Kalinowski, Katey Schultz, and Colin and Lauren Halloran.  On the academic side, kudos to Ron Capps and Alexis Hart’s presentation “Lead from the Front: Best Practices for Working with Veterans in the Writing Classroom” and everyone on Kathryn Trueblood’s panel “The Soldier’s Perspective:  How Creative Writing Serves Vets and They Serve Each Other”:  Shawn Wong, Christine Leche, Will Borego, and Clayton Swanson.


I presented with Phil Klay and Hilary Plum on a panel organized by Roy Scranton.  Judging by the size of the crowd and the number and quality of questions we received, we did a pretty good job, but if you need more proof, read about Klay’s presentation in this blog posting about “AWP14.”

Or, consult Boston-area author Julian Zabalbeascoa, who flagged me down the day after we presented to tell me how much he enjoyed our panel.  AWP being what it is–a writers’ convention–Zabalbeascoa let slip that he was near completion of a novel about the Spanish Civil War, a portion of which appears in the latest Ploughshares.  I read his story “498” on the flight home and was so blown away I immediately read it a second time.  It’s available online here, so please check it out.  In my mind “498” is an excellent example of war fiction that comments on our contemporary wars and war literature obliquely by nominally addressing other wars.  Other examples of the form include Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, about Vietnam, and Toni Morrison’s Home, about the Korean War, and I’ll have more to say about them in posts to come.

Finally, the talk of the conference was a recent N+1 essay titled MFA vs NYC by Chad Harbach.  The jist of Harbach’s argument is that the creative writing scene is divided.  One camp, so to speak, is spread across the country and aligns itself with the burgeoning and welcoming MFA program and literary magazine market.  The other is centered in New York City, Brooklyn specifically, and fights for upward mobility in the ferociously competitive publishing industry there.  Ye war writers out there, does this formulation make sense to you???

“Wolves Keep in Touch by Howling” is a poem by Martha Silano that appears in the winter 2013-2014 Ploughshares.  Not a war poem, but I like it and the title’s too good to pass up.

A transcript of my presentation, titled “War, Stories:  Fact or Fiction”: Molin Seattle AWP.  Overlook all typos, please, but comments welcome.  Yea, that should be Donovan Campbell, not Donovan Fink, who wrote Joker One, as opposed to Nathaniel Fink, who wrote One Bullet Away.

Business cards were mission essential equipment at AWP14
Business cards were mission essential equipment at AWP14

UPDATE:  This essay on AWP14 by Aaron Gilbreath, titled “My Fictional Fantasy: Finally a World Where Writers Matter,” appeared recently on Salon.  I think it nicely captures the spirit of the conference from the perspective of one who was skeptical going in, as was I, but found a lot to like about it, as did I.

Time Now Live in Seattle: Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference

AWPThis week I’ll be presenting at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle.  Thanks to Roy Scranton for the invite; it’s an honor to be part of a panel with Roy, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and Phil Klay. If you’ll be at AWP, too, check us out at 10:30 on Friday morning.

Sterling review of Phil Klay’s short-story collection Redeployment here, just out today 26 February in the New York Times.  Congratulations, Phil!

Another 26 February update: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya will not be able to make it, but we will be joined by novelist and essayist Hilary Plum.  Check out this interview with Hilary on the Full Stop website.  It appeared shortly after the release of her 2013 novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets, which I haven’t read but am now eager to check out.

The AWP blurb for our panel:

F160. War Stories: Truth, Fiction, and Conflict. Roy Scranton, Phil Klay, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Peter Molin. Room 301, Western New England MFA Annex, Level 3. The truth of war is always multiple. Homer’s Iliad gives us both Achilles and Hector, just as Tolstoy’s War and Peace opens up a panorama of perspectives. Fiction offers an unparalleled medium to explore the conflicting truths of war, yet also offers dangers. How do we negotiate politics, witnessing, and voyeurism? How can we highlight war’s ugliness and still write a compelling story? How do we portray war’s beauty and still write an ethical one? Our panel explores these age-old problems.

The Corpse ExhibitionTo give you an idea of what’s on my mind, here’s an excerpt from Iraqi short-story writer Hassan Blasim’s “An Army Newspaper.”  Blasim’s narrator is the cultural editor of a military newspaper during the Iraq-Iran War. He writes of the submissions that he would receive from soldier-authors:

But I do admit that I would often interfere in the structure and composition of the stories and poems, and try as far as possible to add imaginative touches to the written images that would come to us from the front.  For God’s sake, what’s the point, as we are about to embark on war in poetry, of someone saying, “I felt that the artillery bombardment was as hard as rain, but we were not afraid”?  I would cross that out and rewrite it:  “I felt that the artillery fire was like a carnival of stars, as we staggered like lovers across the soil of the homeland.”  This is just a small example of my modest interventions.

Now why would Blasim write that?  What was his narrator thinking?

Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq. Penguin, 2013.  Translated by Jonathan Wright.

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

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:

2014-01-23 19.53.39
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.

War Literati: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, and Roy Scranton

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, Roy Scranton
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, Roy Scranton

I spent the better part of Saturday with three talented authors of contemporary war fiction.  In the afternoon, I viewed the War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath at the Brooklyn Museum in the company of Roy Scranton and Phil Klay. Scranton, a US Army Iraq vet, is the editor of Fire and Forget, the landmark anthology of Iraq and Afghanistan war short fiction that I’ve written about several times in this blog.  Scranton contributes a story to his own collection, and he’s working on a novel, but the drift of his thought goes well beyond war literature.  Below are links to two wildly creative and intellectually provocative essays he’s recently published in the New York Times and on an online site called The Appendix:

New York Times, Roy Scranton’s “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene”

The Appendix, Roy Scranton’s “The Curse of Coherence”

Klay, a USMC Iraq vet, contributed a story to Fire and Forget and served as a guide (and perhaps an inspiration) to Roxana Robinson as she wrote Sparta.  Klay’s collection of short stories Redeployment will be released next year by Penguin.  I’ve read an advanced copy and greatly enjoyed it–if you are wondering what new subjects and perspectives are possible in war lit, you will, too.

Joining us later was Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, the author of The Watch, a novel about an Army unit on a small combat outpost in Afghanistan.  I somehow overlooked The Watch upon its release last year, and subsequently experienced an “OMG-what-have-I-missed” moment when I finally read it a couple of weeks ago. I’ll have plenty to say about The Watch in future posts, but here will only report that it combines military realism with literary skill and imagination to a high degree.

Together, we talked into the night and made plans for a panel presentation Scranton has organized for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle next February.  Next spring, I’ll also be speaking on war literature at the American Comparative Literature Association conference in New York City in March and the Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Harrisburg, PA, in April. Join me at any of them if you can, and let all conversations continue.

Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, me, and Roy Scranton
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Phil Klay, me, Roy Scranton

New York Times Slideshow of the Brooklyn Museum War/Photography Exhibit

New York Times Review of the Brooklyn Museum War/Photography Exhibit

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