For the last year I’ve been a member of a civilian-military reading group sponsored by a local community college. The formal name of the group is “No Man’s Land: Dialogues on the Experience of War.” The veterans in the group represent all branches of service and periods of service, divided evenly between Vietnam, post-Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan. The civilians for the most part are associated with the school, either as students or faculty. There’s about a 50/50 split between men and women. Last year we met in person, while this past fall we’ve met by Zoom. During our in-person sessions, we averaged between 15 and 20 participants. Online, it’s been five to ten.
The stories we discussed this fall are below.
Thom Jones, “The Pugilist at Rest.” Jones served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, but never fought in Vietnam. After years of anonymous drift, he hit it big in 1991 when The New Yorker published “The Pugilist at Rest,” about a former Marine, now old, contemplating how violence has shaped his life. The title refers to a Greek statue of a boxer that serves as the artistic inspiration for the narrator’s reflections on boot camp, Vietnam, his own boxing exploits, and the epilepsy about which we learn he is about to undergo brain surgery to cure. Asked about what it takes to make one’s literary debut in The New Yorker, Jones is reported as saying, “Make your story so good they can’t say no.” Oh yea, The Pugilist at Rest definitely punches hard.
Siobhan Fallon, “The Last Stand” and “Gold Star.” Both stories feature Kit Murphy, an Army junior enlisted soldier back from Iraq with a leg mangled from an IED explosion that killed his squad leader Sergeant Shaeffer. In “The Last Stand,” we witness the end of Murphy’s marriage to his high-school sweetheart Helena. In “Gold Star,” Murphy pays his respects to Sergeant Shaeffer’s widow. Full of wonderful detail regarding modern military life, and as tender as tales featuring wounded vets riding barroom bucking broncos and widows shopping in the commissary on payday can be, the twinned stories point to the lonely despair that comes when war dishes out its full measure of pain, damage, loss, and heartbreak.
Philip Caputo, “Lines of Departure.” Caputo is an old pro whose long career as a respected author and journalist after service as a Marine officer in Vietnam would seem to be the model for the Matt Gallaghers, Phil Klays, and Elliot Ackermans of our day. In this late-life tale about a meet-up between Vietnam vets and Iraq/Afghanistan vets at a veterans’ retreat, we get a sense of the quiet wisdom and eloquence that might await GWOT’s literary stars. Caputo’s narrator, a former correspondent for the Marines in Vietnam, is deeply ambivalent about much, especially the prospect that the unspeakable horrors of war can be communicated, let alone be recovered from. In the story, the divide between the Vietnam and GWOT vets looms large, at least as large as the oft-mentioned divide between civilians and veterans, and yet, and yet…. things happen.
Last spring we read and discussed Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,”Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” Jacob Siegel’s “Smile, There are IEDs Everywhere,” and Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train.” We were set to host a visit by Brian Turner when the pandemic shut us down. In two separate off-shoot groups, we discussed Phil Klay’s “Prayer in the Furnace” and Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Nada.”
Overall it’s been great. Everyone speaks, no one dominates, everyone cocks their ear to listen. The veterans explain military terms and relate how they connect to various aspects of the stories. The civilians offer perspective and insight born of their own experiences. It’s always interesting to see what the folks who haven’t served are drawn to within the stories, and often, even usually, it’s they who see deepest into the emotional and ethical twists presented by the narrators, leaving the vets in the room, or this one, anyway, sometimes taken aback, even aghast, that we’ve become so accustomed, even blithe, about the implications and consequences of military culture and mindsets, to say nothing of war, that are revealed so stunningly in the tales. And I’m not just talking about damage done to other people, or abstractly, either, if you know what I’m saying. Each meeting feels like a journey, and at the end, I feel like I’ve learned something significant about the story, the author of the story, the others in the room, and myself.
I encourage everyone to seek out stories about men and women who have seen war, and to find good people to talk about them with.
The discussion group is hosted by Bergen Community College in northern New Jersey. I built a website to support our group, which you can find here. Check it out, please–there’s pages on all the stories I’ve listed above and many more, and I offer more information about the program’s goals and organizers. Thank you Bergen Community College for inviting me to participate, and thank you National Endowment of the Humanities’ Dialogues on the Experience of War program for sponsoring.
Brian Turner’s poetry volume Here, Bullet, director Kathryn Bigelow’s movie The Hurt Locker, and Siobhan Fallon’s short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone stand at the beginning of the modern war literature, art, and film tradition Time Now documents, but I’ve never written stand-alone posts dedicated to them. One reason for the oversight is chronological: all three appeared before I began Time Now in 2012. Retrospective looks have always been possible, but I’ve never slowed down enough to write them. An independent entry on each of these pioneering and accomplished works probably isn’t going to happen now, but here I’ll offer a few comments that try to capture their essence.
Here, Bullet dazzled soldier-readers, poetry lovers, and book critics alike upon its release in 2005. There was some quibbling about whether Turner’s poems were based on real events experienced by Turner himself or imaginative dramatizations, but there was little disagreement about the book’s arresting blend of nitty-gritty soldier detail, formal excellence, and gruff emotionalism. Readers were astonished that poems such as the title poem, “The Hurt Locker,” and “Eulogy” were so fully realized, rather than primitive first-stabs at establishing tones, themes, and subjects that would define post-9/11 American soldier-writing. And who was this 21st-century American man-of-war? Judging from the verse, a sensitive observer of war brutality and military dehumanization, clinging determinedly, or even desperately, to civilian values of curiosity, kindness, and empathy among the rough company of infantrymen, while doing the things that infantrymen at war must do. And yet, far more than most infantrymen, to say nothing of most Americans, Turner’s awareness of culture, history, and noncombatants caught up in the wash of war animates the solipsistic self-focus of so much veteran writing to follow.
New York Timesreviewpull-quote: “Turner has sent back a dispatch from a place arguably more incomprehensible than the moon — the war in Iraq — and deserves our thanks for delivering in these earnest and proficient poems the kinds of observations we would never find in a Pentagon press release…. Turner’s most consistent mode is one of brisk, precise — and nonpartisan — attention to both the terrors and the beauty he found among Iraq’s ruins.”
The Hurt Locker, released in America in 2009, garnered near universal praise from critics and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning six, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. About the exploits of a bomb disposal team driven near-mad by their death-defying duties on the streets of Baghdad, The Hurt Locker wasn’t as well-regarded by Iraq War veterans, who were quick to pounce on the film for its lapses from military verisimilitude, which many saw as reasons to damn the film entire. Re-watching The Hurt Locker today makes such carping seem even more short-sighted now than it was at the time, for the movie retains a stunning power to grip: not just the harrowing scenes depicting the soldiers defusing bombs, but the equally harrowing scenes of the soldiers at each other’s throats as they try to remain there for each other under the pressure of their job. Director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal deserve huge kudos for creating a movie that so skillfully ratchets up tension while allowing its mostly unknown cast to shine. Jeremy Renner is fantastic as an oddly-motivated bomb disposal artiste whose skill and swagger speak to the film’s epigraph: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pierce, and Suhail Aldabbach in supporting roles and cameos are nearly as good.
New York Timesreview pull-quote: “If The Hurt Locker is not the best action movie of the summer, I’ll blow up my car. The movie is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise…. Ms. Bigelow, practicing a kind of hyperbolic realism, distills the psychological essence and moral complications of modern warfare into a series of brilliant, agonizing set pieces.”
You Know When the Men Are Gone also arrived to critical acclaim and, as book sales go, commercial popularity. In 2011, “thanking soldiers for their service” mania was at its peak, and Fallon’s stories reminded readers that the families of fighting men deserved thanking, too, while clarifying that all concerned deserved gratitude not for their accomplishments, but for enduring so much. Fallon’s evocation of Fort Hood base life touched a nerve among readers curious about the lived-lives of the small numbers of Americans—the fighting force and their families—actually making sacrifices in the Global War on Terror. Marvelously breaking down binary distinctions between combat zone and home-front, You Know When the Men Are Gone dramatized war’s long reach and wide embrace, and it’s not bullets (though Fallon’s rendering of combat death and injury are superb), but infidelity, absence, loss, and betrayal that wreak the most havoc on the lives of soldiers and those close to them. Stories such as “Leave” might read more sensational in another author’s hands, and “Gold Star” more melodramatic, but Fallon’s touch is remarkably tender and non-histrionic. Her “worried imagination” (to use an apt phrase penned by Benjamin Busch about Fallon) rests mostly on spouses and partners fending for themselves while the husbands and boyfriends deploy, but her portraits of male soldiers are as striking and as affecting—as memorable—as those of the women in their lives.
New York Timesreview pull-quote: “Siobhan Fallon tells gripping, straight-up, no-nonsense stories about American soldiers and their families…. there’s not a loser in the bunch…. Ms. Fallon’s emphasis is not on the negative. It’s just that life is tough at Fort Hood. Fears tend to be justified.”
A knock on the works is that they could have been more explicit, even strident, in connecting the human travails they document to a political critique of the war. That just wasn’t to be, however; in Turner’s and Fallon’s cases I’m thinking because an essential loyalty to the people who populate their poems and stories, respectively, underwrites their art, as well as a certain unwillingness to be too hard on themselves for the life choices that brought them into war’s maw (related to the notion that they were part of an extended-family of military volunteers). For Bigelow, who was neither a vet like Turner nor a military spouse like Fallon, the loyalty is more toward an artistic vision that resists overt politicizing on the terms art often, or usually, does, by letting unstated political interpretations emerge implicitly from the story being told. This sentiment, too, would prove prescient. Neither apologism nor glorification, but a knowing quietism–sometimes maddeningly so–about the war’s larger dimensions would come to define war-writing in the wake of Turner and Fallon, and, somewhat less so, movies about Iraq and Afghanistan after The Hurt Locker.
The works’ focus on white male combat-arms soldiers and their families would eventually be viewed by some as problematic, but that two of the creative artists responsible were women heralded the expansion of male-centric war-writing parameters in the decade following. Taken together, the three works zeroed in on the difficulty of balancing dual identity as soldier and civilian in a military culture far removed from the ken of the majority of Americans–a central concern in an era of a small volunteer military charged with fighting impossible-to-win wars. One way this theme continues to resonate in works afterwards is the near-constant preoccupation with redeployment and reintegration of the soldier into civilian life following deployment and service. Another theme staked out by Turner, Bigelow, and, to a lesser extent, Fallon, is balancing one’s duties as a soldier with one’s concern for Iraqi civilians. Finally, the full extent of the physical, psychological, and emotional damage suffered by many veterans is a theme hinted at but not foregrounded in Here, Bullet, The Hurt Locker, and You Know When the Men Are Gone, in part because the works arrived so early it was impossible to yet measure war’s impact over time and changing life circumstances. In the years to come, the subject would become an all-consuming one of war-writing and art, and loom large in greater cultural conversations, as well.
The contemporary war literature genre, a decade or so old, now sees the welcome appearance of second titles by authors whose first books helped create the genre. This year, for example, brings the release of You Know When the Men Are Gone author Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages, Elliot Ackerman’s novel Dark at the Crossing, his follow-up to Green on Blue, and Elyse Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, her second volume of poetry following Clamor. Though none of the works directly concern war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are of interest to this blog for what they tell of the growth of their authors as writers, as well as the direction of their thoughts, formed by war and now exploring new themes and subjects, or, more accurately, variations on old ones: the human cost of America’s endless warfaring.
Fallon’s The Confusion of Languages takes place in Jordan in 2011 against the backdrop of the Arab Spring rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Its primary narrator is Cassandra “Cass” Hugo, the wife of a mid-ranks US Army foreign service officer named Dan. Cass and Dan are not as happy as they might be, unwanted childlessness having withered their love and Dan, consumed by his job, working long hours. Cass finds herself bored and uneasy, nominally a dutiful military spouse interested in keeping up appearances, but a little more susceptible to intrigue and drama than she realizes. Into the lives of Dan and Cass come Creighton “Crick” Brickshaw, another Army officer, and his wife Margaret, along with their baby son Mather. Dan and Cass are Crick and Margaret’s sponsors, and while Dan and Crick bond easily enough, as officers on deployment generally do, Margaret and Cass circle each other tentatively, separated by disposition and outlook. Cass is conscientious and meticulous and Margaret thoughtless and sloppy, but both are sensitive to the point of skittishness, and their dependence on their mostly-absent husbands for love, lifestyle, and security makes them extremely vulnerable. Acting out their impulses against the backdrop of a culture and people they little understand, each makes major mistakes. The catalyst for the novel’s plot is a car accident, not a big mishap as things go, but one here with awful consequences. When Margaret departs for the police station to file a report, Cass volunteers to watch Mather. Alone with Mather for hours, Cass finds Margaret’s journal, which she begins reading, though she knows she shouldn’t. In a second narration revealed by the diary, Cass learns of a hidden life full of disturbing events that now helps account for Margaret’s failure to return.
Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing portrays an Iraqi-American protagonist named Haris who travels to Syria to fight against the repressive government of President Bashar al-Assad. Haris has fought alongside Americans in Iraq, but troubled by the experience and finding life in America unsatisfying, he yearns for redemption and purpose. Most of the novel takes place not in Syria, though, but in and around the southern Turkey town of Antep, as Haris finds crossing the closed border between the two countries no easy task. Adventures and mysteries quickly accumulate; as an Arab and Muslim, Haris possesses advantages the all-American characters in The Confusion of Languages lack, but he too has been softened by American life, and subsequently finds himself constantly outmatched by the complex and damaged Turks and Syrians he encounters. The advisor team chief I replaced in Afghanistan in 2008 told me that Afghans were rational decision-makers, as long as you understood that their families had already suffered much violence and early death, they were aware that they themselves might be killed any moment, and they were perpetually worried about their families’ financial prosperity in the event of their sudden death. That proved good advice during my year in Afghanistan, and some of that same insecurity underlies the portraits of Syrians, Turks, and Iraqis in Dark at the Crossing. American characters, a Special Forces officer with whom Haris fought in Iraq and thinks about often and an NGO Haris meets in Antep, seem slow in comparison: much like Fallon’s Dan and Crick, if not exactly blustering oafs, they are over-confident and about as self-aware as bricks, whatever claims to professional competence they might project.
Ackerman’s tone is dark and ominous, in the manner of Graham Greene, and so it seems only a matter of time before things go bad for Haris, which they do, by turns worse-and-worse in ever-more surprising plot twists. Things don’t end well for Fallon’s characters, either, though their chin-up and chirpy tones, as conveyed by the novel’s dual narrations, masks the catastrophe, put into play by their naivety, that awaits them–while Haris seems to know things are bound to end badly, the two young American women in Fallon’s novel have trouble imagining anything really terrible can befall them. Both stories interest through their portrayal of adults, rather than the post-adolescents who populate most contemporary war literature, and both authors tap an ages-old theme, now truer than ever, regarding Americans abroad: their delusions and essential immaturity poorly equips them to understand the complexities of a region ravaged by recent conflict on top of the thousands of years of near-continuous strife that preceded it.
The end-of-American-innocence is also on display in Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent, though the poems are situated domestically within the author’s household and hometown. An epigraph reveals that Fenton’s daughter is the “sweetest insurgent,” but the poems themselves don’t document the redemptive power of motherhood or the promise of youth, but the blighted cultural landscape with which marriage, motherhood, and youth must now contend. The forever wars (Fenton’s husband is a veteran) linger in the backdrop of Fenton’s meditations, figuring most prominently by providing harrowing new vocabulary that speaks to the angst of the time: “insurgent,” “human shield,” “innocent victim,” “double tap,” and “interrogation report.” The final lines of the title poem provide a vivid example:
….not every bomb can be dismantled so it must stay buried, one good ear bent & ticking in the dirt.
Images of fires, helicopters, and other variations on human crisis, along with those depicting death in the natural world, filter through the poems, too, as actual occurrences, things to worry about, and metaphors for emotional and psychological stress. Professions of vulnerability compete with avowals to fortify; the report of the senses, linked to the urges of desire, is ambiguously pitched between rush to disaster and instinct for survival. In “Wild Deer,” for example, Fenton forebodingly dwells on the death of animals with which she identifies:
They come down from the hill wilds overnight, three wild deer drawn to the morning glory’d wire of our lies, our rows
of plenty drawn between the spanse of scrub and road.
In the deer pen of my mind the wildest thoughts nose through the scurf to nibble juniper, forget what green desire brought them
here. More timid than their summer kin October deer step
soft-shod through the frosted noose of breath that ropes each hornless head. How easily they start and scare. How easily
I turn from them before the sun-gilt leaves they hungered for
leave them starved of any thought but home. No gentling I know will lead them out. They’ll lunge themselves to death by a neighbor’s
buckshot or a broken neck. But first they’ll eat their fill.
The tone is terse, fragmented, and haunted; Fenton, I believe, distrusts sensational images (as well as clichéd ones) and thus fights to bring into being a new survivalist rhetoric adequate to life during perpetual wartime. When words such as courage and community are exhausted, she implies, concepts such as love and family are imperiled, too.
The last poem in Sweet Insurgent is titled “Independence Day,” and it’s not a celebration; Ackerman’s, Fallon’s, and Fenton’s excellent books each dramatize deeply-seated concern connected to the downward spiral of America’s frazzled empire. Reverberating through the three works in varying pitches, dawning on the reader with the force of epiphany, is the realization that Americans are having a lot of trouble dealing with problems that being an American has brought on.
Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing. Knopf, 2017.
Siobhan Fallon, The Confusion of Languages. GP Putnam’s Sons, forthcoming in June, 2017.
In a 2011 Atlantic magazine article titled “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?” Matt Gallagher, the author of the Iraq War memoir Kaboom, explores reasons why, as of the time he writes, so little fiction had appeared that addressed America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Almost a decade after the first bombs were dropped in Afghanistan,” Gallagher writes, “even the most avid bookworm would be hard-pressed to identify a war novel that could be considered definitive of this new generation’s battles.” The title of Gallagher’s article bears an eery similarity to a question posed by German critic Walter Benjamin in a 1936 piece called “The Storyteller.” Looking back at World War I, Benjamin wrote, “Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent–not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?”
Benjamin continues by suggesting that “the flood of war books”–particularly novels–that began appearing in Germany ten years after World War I’s end shortchanged “experience,” or wisdom, for what he derisively called “information.” Be that as it may, let’s keep our eye on Gallagher here, for he wasn’t wrong surveying America’s recent publishing past. In my search for war fiction published prior to 2011 I can find only a few short stories scattered here-and-there. Frederick Busch (Benjamin Busch’s father) published two short tales, “Good to Go”and “Patrols,” for examples, in small literary magazines before including them in his 2006 collection titled Rescue Missions. Annie Proulx’s “Tits-Up in a Ditch” about a woman who loses an arm to an IED in Iraq, appeared in the New Yorker in 2008, as well as in Proulx’s collection of short stories titled Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3. Busch and Proulx were both established authors—each over 60 years old at the time they wrote their stories–with many published titles and critical laurels to their credit. I’m glad they turned their attention to the nation’s millennial wars, but not sure why a younger cohort of writers, to include veteran-authors, didn’t make Iraq and Afghanistan their subjects sooner than they did.
Gallagher notes the publication of Siobhan Fallon’s collection of tales about life at Fort Hood, Texas, You Know When The Men Are Gone, which appeared in January 2011. But he’s skeptical that more fiction might be forthcoming in the years to come. Iraq and Afghanistan, he suggests, just might go undocumented by authors of fiction, much like, say, the Filipino-American War (his example, not mine). Gallagher, bless him, wasn’t right in this case. 2011 would see the publication not only of You Know When The Men Are Gone, but Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, and the years after 2011 would see much more fiction about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, authored by veterans and civilians alike. Let’s give credit to Fallon and Benedict for initiating the contemporary war lit surge, and by no means should we succumb to Benjamin-like skepticism about their achievement. Benedict, an academic and activist writing as a critic-from-outside unimpressed by the military effort, and Fallon, an Army spouse writing as a military insider full of knowing sympathy, established twin poles of literary possibility that virtually every writer since has followed one-way-or-the-other. That You Know When the Men Are Gone and Sand Queen were authored by women and featured women protagonists is also important. The great wave of war novels that arrived in 2012–The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Watch, and Fobbit–was “all dudes,” as the saying goes, but 2013 and onwards featured many war fiction titles by and about women.
Let’s note also that Gallagher’s novel about Iraq, Youngblood, and Roy Scranton’s War Porn, which Gallagher mentions as an example of a war novel having trouble finding a publisher, will be out in 2016. Finally, Time Now, which I began in 2012, owes much to a comment by Gallagher I heard while in the audience for his presentation at the War, Literature, and the Arts conference at the United States Air Force Academy in 2010. Gallagher remarked that any war writer seeking to establish him or herself in our modern era had better have an online presence. I already kept a blog going about my Afghanistan deployment, so I wasn’t thunderstruck by Gallagher’s claim, but it occurred to me then that the art, film, and literature of the current wars might benefit from dedicated digital coverage and critique. Hence this blog, and hence, Matt Gallagher, thanks.
While we’re rendering thanks, let’s also commend the organizers of that 2010 War, Literature, and the Arts conference, which was so seminal in its recognition of contemporary war writing as a genre and so inspiring not just to me but to many others. At the time, I was already aware of Brian Turner’s work, but the WLA conference was my initial exposure to writing by Fallon, Gallagher, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, Elyse Fenton, and quite a few others (though note Fallon as the only author of fiction). So here’s to WLA editor Donald Anderson and conference organizers Jesse Goolsby and Brandon Lingle. Excellent writers themselves, they nourish excellence in others, storytellers interested not in purveying information but communicating experience.
Among many other sharp insights and well-turned phrases in his Harper’s essay “First-Person Shooters: What’s Missing in Contemporary War Fiction,” Sam Sacks writes, “Proclaiming that veteran authors have transformed war into Homeric masterpieces filled with timeless truths is a way of excusing our own indifference.” There’s a lot to unpack in that sentence, but I’m most interested in Sacks’ very true observation that modern war writers have frequently used classical Greece mythology and history to give form and meaning to their own stories. I’ve long observed this trend, too, and wondered where it comes from and what it gets us. By “timeless,” Sacks means that values, events, and themes first formulated by the ancient Greeks persist and operate in modern war experience much as they did for Homer, Sophocles, and the other classical authors of Greek myth and history. Sacks is suspicious of this tendency, and, as the title of my post suggests, so am I.
Even given the extremely convention-bound strictures of war writing, I’m far more interested in the particularity of modern war, as reflected for example in Maxwell Neely-Cohen‘s exploration of the role of video games in the lives of service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, than I am in finding points of connection with, say, Herodotus. The Greek canon is above my carping pot-shots, I fully realize, and so too are excellent contemporary war works that draw deeply on Greek antecedents, such as Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch and Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, among many others. A fine essay by veteran David James on the Wrath Bearing Tree website titled “Dispatch from Greece: Myth, Tragedy, Resistance, and Hope” reminds of how profound can still be the allure of classical Greece. As James reminds us, “The myths we choose to believe or not believe have real world consequences – they are of critical importance in shaping popular opinions and current events.” But even so, I’ll push on.
Two works by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2002), seem to me most responsible for this contemporary literary and cultural compulsion to namecheck classic Greece. Shay uses the stories of Achilles and Odysseus to explain the experience of combat and redeployment in regard to Vietnam, but his works have been as prescriptive going forward as much they have been helpful looking back. The public discourse about traumatized veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is so saturated—wittingly or unwittingly—by terms and concepts articulated first by Shay that contemporary writers, particularly those who reference the legends of ancient Greece, from here forward should subtitle their work “after Jonathan Shay.”
Shay’s work has been unquestioningly helpful in America’s effort to understand the plight of psychologically-troubled veterans and his use of the Achilles and Odysseus stories substantial and compelling. But there are other ways to think about the matter, too. My thoughts have been spurred this summer by reading Ovid’s TheMetamorphoses. Ovid was a Roman who knew well how Rome saw itself as the inheritor of Greek greatness and The Metamorphoses is the only known source we have today for dozens of well-known Greek myths. But if you read The Metamorphoses entire, and make your way through the haze of translation, it’s hard not to conclude that Ovid didn’t think much of the Greek pantheon. His whole project, in my reading, was to undermine and ridicule the values and accomplishments of its heroes by gleefully reveling in their excesses.
That’s a lot to prove, and I’m not going to be able to do it all here, but I’ll quickly make a few claims about Ovid’s interpretation of classic Greek mythology. In The Metamorphoses, authority and power corrupt absolutely and are never to be trusted, especially when placed in the hands of men, and particularly fathers. Freedom from authority is the most enviable state to find oneself in, especially when it is coupled to the freedom of the imagination as demonstrated by artists, but artists too are subject to the same destructive personal characteristics that affect gods, warriors, and everyone else in the Greek mythos. Individual altruism in the world is almost non-existent, and so too is benevolent collective effort; greed, spite, revenge, and perverse desire drive human conduct. Relations between men and women are abysmal and generational conflict is endemic and both dynamics virtually guarantee endless social turbulence. There’s no heroic resistance or wiley subterfuge, either; both stoicism and activism in the face of injustice and hardship will accomplish nothing except getting one killed, or at best, turned into a tree or animal. Military valor is a farce and the resort to violence and deceit to solve problems and get what one wants is as lamentable as it is inevitable.
And all that’s not even the biggest problem, which is that the Greek mythos is so full of pompous grandiosity that it leaves no room for the qualities Ovid prizes most: alertness, agility, imagination, irreverence, and quickness. After reading Ovid, it’s hard to take the ancient Greeks as seriously as they took themselves. To invest in a heroic conception of Greek mythology, Ovid suggests, is to risk internalizing patterns of deference to and imitation of false gods that will cause us to act as badly as they do.
To test this conclusion, I’ve been rewriting some of the myths in The Metamorphoses and placing them in contemporary war contexts to better see their import. I’ve already published one, based on the myth “Cyex and Alceone,” which can be found here. Other myths I’ve adapted include “Daphne and Apollo,” “Jupiter and Io,” “Arachne and Athena,” and “Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur.” Time will tell if I ever publish any of these, but the titles alone point to something vital: Ovid allows modern war authors interested in the classical mythos many opportunities to portray women in the military and in the lives of male soldiers beyond the reincarnations of Antigone, Tecmessa, and Penelope we have so far seen.
Anyone interested in pursuing this line of inquiry further would do well to read Yale English professor Wai Chee Dimock’s 2002 essay, “Non-Newtonian Time: Robert Lowell, Roman History, Vietnam War,” published in American Literature. Dimock is famous for her concept of “deep time,” in which she confounds simplistic understanding of American history as bound by things that happened only from the time of the Pilgrims and Virginia colonists onwards. In “Non-Newtonian Time,” Dimock explores American poet Robert Lowell’s poetic adaptations of Roman historical episodes, published in 1965 at a time when Lowell was organizing artists and authors to protest the Vietnam War. Rome of course was the original imperial empire, and Lowell, along with Dimock writing 35 years lately, was highly alert to the very complicated use of time and myth and history when brought forward centuries and put to the service of artistically describing war.
Finally, I recently reread Siobhan Fallon’s story “Leave,” from You Know When The Men Are Gone. You Know When The Men Are Gone practically inaugurated the current war-fiction boom when it was published in 2011, and its epigram is none other than a quotation from The Odyssey. All good, very good, but what intrigued me about “Leave” was the deft way Fallon interlaces the macabre story about a soldier stalking his unfaithful wife with references to Hans Christian Andersen children’s fables. And not the cutesy-wutesy Americanized smiley-face versions of Andersen’s bedtime stories, either, but the original, perverse nightmarish versions, which are undiluted by niceness. To me, that seemed a great repurposing of tales from our cultural archive, now blended organically into a modern story about war that defies upliftingness in every way except for the respect it generates for the quality of the author’s insight, imagination, and craft.
One aspect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not generally understood is how dependent were American and other Western forces on the services of native interpreters to mediate virtually every interaction with host-nation military personnel and civilians. Given the lack of Arabic, Dari, and Pashto speakers actually in the military and the paucity of bilingual speakers in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can assume that anything you might have read about in the papers that involved on-the-ground operations, and the millions of missions and engagements you didn’t, took place with a native speaker translator at the side of the officer or NCO charged with carrying them out. Though some interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan were American citizens or residents recruited in America and then deployed back to their homelands, most were natives. The fullest portrait of a host-nation interpreter and a US military member I know of appears in Sean Parnell’s Outlaw Platoon (2012), a memoir about Parnell’s service as an infantry platoon leader in Paktika province, Afghanistan. Parnell uses anecdotes about his interpreters, one, named Abdul, faithful and competent, the other, Yusef, untrustworthy and treacherous, to frame his account. “A good ‘terp,’” writes Parnell, “could make a huge difference in daily operations.”
“Terp” was the commonly used shorthand to describe military linguists. I never really liked the term, but it was ubiquitous and even I would use it to describe “Terp Village,” the humble compounds affixed to US bases in which a unit’s interpreters lived. The term appears again in a passage found in journalist-historian Bing West’s The Wrong War (2011). West, describing operations in southern Afghanistan, writes, “The interpreters were the funnel for all coalition interactions with Afghans at all levels.” Then, describing an interpreter named Siad, West continues: “Siad was typical of the local interpreters. They all tried hard, and most worshipped the grunts they served locally. Their thirst for absorbing American culture never ceased… Their skills were marginal, no matter how hard they tried. Their hearts were huge. Anyone who doubted the magical image of America in the minds of millions of Afghans had only to spend a day under fire with a U.S. squad and the local terp.”
Before examining fictional representations of interpreters, I’ll post a passage from a private document written by a former interpreter of mine who is now applying for admission to the US. It offers insight into the lived life of the men described abstractly so far:
I am engaged now and my fiancé is from Ghazni province. All her relatives know that I am working with Coalition Forces as a linguist. For that reason, I cannot go to Ghazni province now to see her or relatives or take part in a condolence or happiness party. Since I know that everybody knows that I am working with Coalition Forces I do not feel free and I am sure my life is at risk. Even in Kabul City where I live, I cannot go out at night and visit other people because I am very afraid my life is at risk.
War fiction writers have begun to make something of the possibilities offered by these complex figures and intense soldier-local national relationships. Their portraits do what fiction does: combine artistic creativity with realistic verisimilitude to provide social, psychological, and emotional nuance. They might be said, however, to focus on dramatic aspects where the day to day record is more placid or positive. The first depiction of which I am aware is in a Siobhan Fallon short story “Camp Liberty,” from her collection You Know When the Men are Gone (2011). In this story, Fallon tells of a soldier deployed to Iraq, named David, whose romantic relationship with Marissa, his stateside fiancé, fades as the working one with Raneen, a female interpreter, intensifies. David grows enamored of Raneen, but she disappears and is probably killed before he is able to speak to her in anything but an on-the-job context. Her disappearance leaves him more adrift than he imagined possible, and perhaps now too estranged from Marissa for that to ever be right again. Fallon puts a romantic spin on what was usually a close working relationship between two men, while characterizing David and Raneen’s relationship as at least reasonably compatible and effective, but other stories depict much more fraught relationships.
In Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (2012), an Iraqi named Malik appears as a minor character early in the book. Powers’ narrator John Bartle tells us that Malik’s “English was exceptional… He’d been a student at the university before the war, studying literature.” He wears a hood and a mask because, he says, “’They’ll kill me for helping you. They’ll kill my whole family.’” A few pages Malik is killed by a sniper, and Bartle and his friend debate whether to include him in their morbid count toward 1000 Coalition Force casualties:
“Doesn’t count, does it?” Murph asked.
“No. I don’t think so.”
Bartle reports, “I was not surprised by the cruelty of my ambivalence then. Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed.”
“Money is a Weapons System,” by Phil Klay, in his recently released collection Redeployment (2014) portrays “a short and pudgy Sunni Muslim” interpreter known as “the Professor.” Sullen and contemptuous, the Professor is “rumored to have blood on his hands from the Saddam days,” but Klay’s narrator, says, “Whether that was true or not, he was our best interpreter.” A short exchange reflects their tense relationship:
“Istalquaal,” I finally said, trying to draw him out. “Does it mean freedom, or liberation?”
[The Professor] opened his eyes a crack and looked at me sidelong. “Istalquaal? Istiqlal means independence. Istalquaal means nothing. It means Americans can’t speak Arabic.”
The most extensive portrait of an interpreter and the only one I know of published first in English that attempts to portray the interpreter’s thoughts and point of view is Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch (2012). In this novel, which is set in the southern, Pashtun-region of Afghanistan, a young ethnic Tajik interpreter named Masood, loyal to the Americans and eager to do well, is dropped off at a remote combat outpost in the middle of the night after the big battle. He doesn’t know about the battle, but expecting better he confronts hostility and mysterious behavior at every turn from his new American hosts and allies. Roy-Bhattacharya gets right the incredibly uneven regard of young American soldiers for those outside the fraternal ranks of their unit. Masood is mystified and hurt by the Americans’ baffling rudeness, and yet it is more complex than that—just when he is ready to write off the Americans as barbarians, he meets a medic who knows more about Afghan literature and history than he does, then the warm and wise COP first sergeant, and finally the outpost commander, whose fanatical adherence to mission and security coincides with a more than passing fluency in Pashto and Dari.
The dramatic focus on interpreters and the soldier-interpreter relationship, to my mind, suggests several points:
The interpreter, not the host nation populace, was the “other” most often encountered by American soldiers, and the only one with whom he or she might bond. With emotional investment, however, comes gratitude, guilt, and feelings of loss after the relationship ends.
In life, the relationship between soldier and interpreter was often characterized by respect and mutual affection. In fiction, however, the relationship is mined for tension and drama. The interpreter, from the fiction author’s viewpoint, is part of the problem, and dysfunctional interpreter relationships symbolize the divide between Western military forces and the populaces they intend to help.
The interpreter himself, or herself, is a complex, in-between figure who must manage a thicket of complicated personal histories and commitments. In some ways they become “people without a country,” or a contemporary “tragic mulatto,” neither white nor dark and doomed to unhappiness and premature death.
Contemplation of the interpreter’s role help us understand the basic unreality and unknowability of the wars: mediated, filtered, coming to us second-hand via seriously invested witness-participants. The general situation short of combat was always linguistically, rhetorically, and even artistically arranged for us by translators about whom we knew little and did little to comprehend.
The only fiction I know of written by an Iraqi or Afghan that portrays interpreters is Iraqi expatriate author Hassan Blasim’s story “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes,” from his recently published collection of translated short stories The Corpse Exhibition (2014). It is also the only tale that imagines a future existence for interpreters post-war and measures the long-term consequences of their involvement with Americans. Carlos Fuentes is the pseudonym of an Iraqi named Salim Abdul Husain who has emigrated to Holland; he has taken the name because he reports that his own name makes him a marked man in the eyes of those who won’t forgive him for working as a translator for American forces. Carlos Fuentes has seen nothing but violence and injustice in Iraq, and in Holland he becomes a model citizen, fully embracing European values and habits while scorning immigrants who don’t. Blasim’s narrator states:
“Why are the trees so green and beautiful, as though they are washed by water every day? Why can’t we be peaceful like them? We live in houses like pigsties while their houses are warm, safe, and colorful. Why do they respect dogs as humans? …. How can we get a decent government like theirs?” Everything Carlos Fuentes saw amazed him and humiliated him at the same time, from the softness of the toilet paper in Holland to the parliament building protected only by security cameras.
All goes well for Carlos Fuentes until he begins having nightmares about his past life. He takes extremely fantastic measures to avoid the nightmares—“One night he painted his face like an American Indian, slept wearing diaphanous orange pajamas, and put under his pillow three feathers taken from various birds”–and yet nothing works. At tale’s end he is confronted in a dream by Salim Abdul Husain, his old self:
Salim was standing naked next to the window holding a broom stained with blood…. Salim began to smile and repeated in derision, “Salim the Dutchman, Salim the Mexican, Salim the Iraqi, Salim the Frenchman, Salim the Indian, Salim the Pakistani, Salim the Nigerian….”
The Carlos Fuentes character takes aim at Salim with a rifle, Salim jumps out the window, and the narrator tells us that Carlos Fuentes’s wife finds him dead on the pavement below in the morning. In a final indignity, Carlos Fuentes’ death is reported in the papers as that of an “Iraqi man” rather than a “Dutch national,” and his brothers have his body taken back to Iraq for burial. No one it seems has been much convinced by his effort to renounce his past.
Interpreting the interpreter, we can surmise that Carlos Fuentes’ divided self and attempted cultural makeover does not hold. The war has traumatized him beyond his knowing and his idealization of the West a dream not meant for him to possess. But it’s not just about what happens to him while working alongside American and European forces in country, or that his attempt to adopt and internalize Western values and beliefs have instead generated pathological self-hatred and destructiveness. It’s about the lived life of immigrants after the personal relationship ends, the Americans go home, and the rest of the interpreter’s life begins. Blasim’s story, and all stories about interpreters, remind us that real linguists exist by the 1000s in both Iraq and Afghanistan or elsewhere, and letting them fend for themselves now that we are gone is one more of the ways we fought the wars very callously and in ways that kept us from being as successful as possible.
Most of this post was first presented at the recent American Comparative Literature Conference in New York City. Thanks to panel organizer Susan Derwin for inviting me to speak. Thanks to fellow panelist Brian Williams, who reminded me of the presence of the interpreter Malik in The Yellow Birds. The paper as delivered at ACLA did not reference The Yellow Birds. I am invested in this subject because of my own positive experience with two interpreters in Afghanistan who are now in the United States, enlisted in the US Army, and who hope to become US citizens. I am actively engaged in trying to help a third trusted interpreter emigrate to the US. Paul Solotaroff describes the difficulty interpreters have in obtaining visas in “The Interpreters We Left Behind,” published this week in Men’s Journal.
Many contemporary war authors, artists, and thinkers have turned to classical Greece for subjects, themes, and inspiration. A quick catalog might begin with Sparta, the recent novel by Roxana Robinson. The protagonist of Robinson’s novel is a Marine, and I’ve heard Robinson speak about how pervasively awareness of Spartan culture and ethos runs in the Marines. “The History of the Peloponnesian Wars is practically required reading at Quantico,” she reports. Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Watch recasts Sophocles’ Antigone by placing it in war-torn Kandahar. It begins with an Afghan woman’s entreaty to American soldiers on a combat outpost to release the body of her brother–an interesting storyline very much like Antigone‘s own. A fine collection of poems, Stateside by Jehanne Dubrow, draws on Homer’s Odyssey to explore the plight of the poetic speaker, a modern-day Penelope awaiting the return of her Odysseus. It’s hard not to imagine almost any of Siobhan Fallon’s tales of fraught return-from-deployment marriages in much the same light. But Sophocles’ Ajax might be the best Greek work in regard to the homecoming. Where The Odyssey portrays Penelope’s long nine-year wait for her man to return from war, Ajax portrays the even more tortured period AFTER the heroic Ajax returns from war to his war-trophy wife Tecmessa. Where Penelope barely gets to say a word in The Odyssey, Tecmessa’s anguished voice resounds throughout Ajax, as she wonders what the hell has happened to her husband. After Ajax slaughters a herd of sheep in a delusional rampage, Tecmessa screams:
During the night our wonderful Ajax Was hit with madness and went beserk You will see the proof of it in the tent: Holocausts dripping with gore by his hand
Ajax serves as the dramatic centerpiece for Theater of War, an acclaimed troupe who stage readings of the play to elicit discussion and activism on behalf of struggling veterans. If you have a chance to see a Theater of War performance, by all means do so. They also perform readings of another Sophocles play, Philoctetes, which like Ajax portrays the aftermath of war on a soldier wounded physically and emotionally by his experiences. Philosopher Nancy Sherman uses Philoctetes as the literary lens through which she explores issues of moral injury and repair in her recent work The Untold War.
I’m fine with all this Greek love, but it does make me appreciate all the more Brian Turner’s persistent effort to seed his poetry with references to Iraqi, Arabic, and Mesopotamian classic literature, folklore, and history. For my part, I turned first to ancient Rome when crafting the following short tale called “Cy and Ali.” It’s based on “Ceyx and Alceone,”a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection that itself draws on Greek antecedents for subjects, themes, and inspiration. Read on if you care to.
Cy busied himself with the by–now routine activities of a combat patrol: gathering his personal gear and stowing it in the truck, drawing the big .50 caliber machine gun and mounting it in the gun turret, setting the frequencies and security codes on the radio, helping out the other crew members and being helped by them in turn. As he waited for the mission commander to give the patrol brief, he thought about his wife for a few moments. Ali had not wanted him to go on this deployment; he had had options that would have kept him in the States, at least for a while longer, and she could not understand why he had been so eager to return to Afghanistan.
“I think you are crazy,” she had told him. Left unstated was the suspicion that he liked the idea of going to war more than he liked the idea of being with her. She loved him dearly, and though he professed his love for her, too, she couldn’t help but feel that he didn’t value their relationship as much as she did. Cy also wasn’t sure what to think, either then or now while he waited for the patrol brief to begin. Returning to Afghanistan had been very important to him, but beyond his claims about needing to be with his unit and doing his duty, he sensed that there was a cold hard nugget of selfishness about his willingness to jeopardize his marriage—not to mention his life—for the sake of the deployment.
Rather than give Ali an excuse or an explanation, he had offered a compensation. “When I get back, I promise I’ll make it up to you,” he had said, “I’ll go back to school, or find some job where I won’t have to deploy again anytime soon.”
The offer seemed lame, even to Cy, like he had thought about it for two seconds, but Ali acceded to it anyway. She loved Cy in part because he was a soldier, but some things about being a military wife were really bad. Now she busied herself with her own classes, her part-time job, and her friends and family. But she worried a lot, and had a premonition that things might not end well.
The day’s mission was nothing special: accompany an Afghan army unit while they resupplied three of their outlying outposts. The mission commander explained that the Americans’ role was to inspect the readiness of the Afghan outposts, and to provide artillery and medical support in case anything happened along the way. Cy’s job was gunner on the mission commander’s truck, which was to be third in the order of march behind two Afghan trucks. From the truck’s exposed turret he was to man the .50 cal while keeping an eye out for suicide bombers, IEDs, and ambushes. But nothing was expected to happen; “There has been no enemy activity on the planned route in the last 48 hours,” the mission commander informed them. They had traveled the day’s route many times before with nothing more serious occurring than a vehicle breakdown. Sure they planned well and rehearsed diligently, but that was all the more reason the actual mission was probably going to be not much.
Which is why what happened, at least at first, had an unreal feel. Three miles out, on Route Missouri, Cy saw the two lead Afghan trucks come to abrupt halts and their occupants pile out. The Afghan soldiers took up firing positions on the right side of the road and pointed their weapons back to the left side. Because he had headphones on and was chattering with the other truck occupants, Cy was unable to immediately distinguish the sound of gunshots, and it took him a moment to comprehend that the Afghans had stumbled into an ambush. Other Americans also soon gleaned what was going on and suddenly the intercom crackled with questions, reports, and commands.
“Action front…. Scan your sectors….. Anyone have positive ID?…. There they are…. 11:00 200 meters. Engage, engage!”
Cy identified three turbaned gunmen firing at the Afghan army trucks from behind a low wall. He charged his machine gun and began to shoot. He had fired the .50 cal dozens of times in training and thus was surprised by how far off target were his first two bursts. But very quickly he found the range, and was rewarded by seeing the big .50 caliber rounds chew up the wall behind which the insurgents were hiding. Dust and debris filled the air; Cy couldn’t tell if he had hit anyone, but surely the fire was effectively suppressing the enemy. By now, the other American trucks had identified the gunmen and were firing, too. Still, it was so hard to figure out exactly what was happening. That the three insurgents behind the wall were capable of resisting the torrent of fire unleashed on them by the American and Afghan soldiers seemed impossible, but no one could tell if there were other enemy shooting at them from somewhere else.
Soon, however, the sound of explosions began to fill the air. Again, it was not immediately clear that the Afghan army soldiers and the insurgents were now firing Rocket Propelled Grenades at each other. “What’s going on up there?” Cy heard the mission commander ask him through the intercom. Loud booms resounded everywhere from the impact of the rocket-fired grenades. Cy next heard “RPG! RPG!” echo through the intercom as the Americans understood that they too were now under attack. A round exploded against the truck to his left and Cy felt the blast wave wash over him. How could the enemy engage them so accurately?
As the battle unfolded, Cy realized the situation was serious, no joke. The rest of the crew was protected inside the armored truck, but he was partially exposed in the machine gun turret. He continued to fire the .50 cal, doing his best to punish the insurgents who were trying to kill them. The noise was deafening, but in the midst of the roar of his own weapon and the other American guns, as well as the cacophony of human voices on the intercom, he discerned that enemy fire was pinging around him and sizzling overhead. Though he was not scared, he thought about his wife.
Ali had felt uneasy throughout the day. She had not been able to communicate with Cy, which in itself was not so unusual. She understood that sometimes missions made it impossible for him to call or write. Still, she sent him emails and texts and the lack of a response for some reason felt ominous. That night, she had had a terrible dream. Cy appeared, looming over her, silent and reproachful, and Ali had awoken with a start. Nothing like this had ever happened before, not even close. She didn’t know what to do, so she watched TV for a while and then began surfing the Internet. She thought about calling her husband’s unit rear-detachment commander, but decided not to. There was no one she could talk to who wouldn’t think she was overreacting, so she didn’t do anything except continue to worry.
The next morning two officers appeared at Ali’s door. “The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you that your husband has died as a result of enemy fire in eastern Afghanistan,” one of them intoned. It was all too true, but for Ali the reality of the situation dissolved in a swirl of chaotic thoughts and physical sickness.
Ali waited on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base with Cy’s parents. An honor guard was also present, as well as a contingent from her husband’s unit, and a general whom she had never seen before and whose name she didn’t catch. Everyone was very nice to her, but Ali was confused. She didn’t know if she was supposed to be strong and dignified or to collapse in a pool of tears. She also didn’t know if she was angry with her husband, angry toward the Army, or just some strange combination of sad and proud. As her husband’s casket emerged from the plane, Ali felt herself drawn toward it. First she was taking small tentative steps, as if she were nervous about breaking some kind of rule or protocol. Then she was running, moving quickly toward the casket while the others in attendance waited behind. She was barely aware of what she was doing, but her feet seemed to no longer be touching the ground. It was as if she were floating or flying, and her arms were beating like wings of a giant bird. “O, Cy, is this the homecoming you promised me?” she thought, or maybe said aloud. Then she remembered throwing her arms around the casket, but at the same time she also felt herself rising into the air, in unison with her husband, who now was alive again and also seemed a magnificent, noble bird. Together, Cy and Ali soared upward, and the plane and the honor guard and the onlookers whirled beneath them as they circled in the sky.
Below I’ve reposted a slightly-edited post from my old blog, 15-Month Adventure, that I also published on Time Now last year on Mother’s Day.
To the Moms, the Whole Love
Moms come up quite a bit in writings about the war, I’ve discovered. Not surprisingly, authors are sensitive to how military service touches those whose children do the fighting. For example, here’s how Benjamin Busch in Dust to Dust describes his mother’s reaction to the announcement that he has joined the Marine Corps:
“My mother took a deep breath, her hands clamped to the edge of the table as if she were watching an accident happen in the street. Her father had been a Marine, had gone to war and almost not come back.”
How to describe a mother’s anxiety about her child’s deployment? Kaboom author Matt Gallagher’s mom, Deborah Scott Gallagher, writes:
“’I will be stalwart,’ I had said to myself on the drive home from the airport the morning I said goodbye to him. “I will be steadfast. I will read and listen to the reputable war reporters, and I will write my senators and congressmen, but I will not lose faith in my country. I will concentrate on sustaining my son rather than myself, and I will not confuse self-pity with legitimate worry and concern over him and his men. I will be proud, justifiably proud, but I will not be vainglorious! And I will never, never, never let him know how frightened I am for him.’
“But, within moments of returning home, I had broken all but one of these promises to myself. I was doing laundry and, as I measured detergent into the washer, the Christmas carol CD I was playing turned to Kate Smith’s magnificent contralto, singing, ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.’
“‘And in despair, I bowed my head,’ she sang. ‘There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’
“And, at that moment, for only the third time in my adult life, I began to sob — not cry, not weep — but sob uncontrollably, sitting on the floor of my laundry room, surrounded by sorted piles of bed linens and dirty clothes.”
And if the child comes back wounded? Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone, describes a trip to Walter Reed to meet injured soldiers and their families:
“And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: ‘Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?’”
And how does a veteran describe his mother, a lover of language and books and authors and ideas, as he watches her fade late in life? Benjamin Busch again:
“She had been a librarian. All of the books and conversations about the importance of written words swelling inside her head like a star undergoing gravitational collapse into a black mass, its light still traveling out into space but its fires already burned out. Nothing left but ash.” Then he recounts her last words: “‘Oh my baby boy.'”
So much hurt. So much damage. So many memories. So much love.
Benjamin Busch, Dust to Dust: A Memoir (2012).
Matt Gallagher, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Dirty Little War (2010)
This event brought together three great authors–Brian Turner, Siobhan Fallon, and Benjamin Busch–to speak about their efforts to portray the turmoil of war. As each of them had been profoundly affected by the war in Iraq, it seemed fitting a decade and a month after the invasion to ask about their whereabouts in March 2003 and then have them describe when the war became manifest in their art. The remarks subsequently ranged over many subjects, but focused most specifically on the damage enacted on individuals and relationships by deployment and exposure to death and killing.
Asked to read selections from their works that generated strong audience reactions, Turner read “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center” from Phantom Noise, Fallon read from her story “Leave” from You Know When the Men Are Gone, and Busch read passages from Dust to Dust that described his decision to join the Marines and his first few days of training at Quantico.
Later, each of the authors read passages or poems that had been written pre-2001 that had influenced them then or seemed important now. Siobhan Fallon read from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Benjamin Busch read Joe Haldeman’s Vietnam War poem “DX,” which he had copied into a green military-issue notebook and carried with him in Iraq. Finally, Brian Turner recited from memory Israeli poet’s Yehuda Amachai’s “The Diameter of the Bomb”—an especially appropriate poem in light of last week’s Boston Marathon bombing:
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God..
Exit12 performed two dances: “Aggressed/This is War” consisted of two solo pieces that together depicted the story of a returned vet struggling to reintegrate into peacetime life. “Yarjuun,” which means “We hope” in Arabic, was a piece written by Exit12 director Roman Baca in Iraq in collaboration with an Iraqi dance troupe. Both dances were in turn playful, sad, sexy, and politically-charged, with inspired music, props, and choreography that dramatized the effects of war without being either too obvious or too elusive.
I had a hand in organizing this affair so I definitely want to thank the artists, all those in the audience, and all those helped make it happen. Wish everyone reading could have been there, too!
Below left to right: Siobhan Fallon, Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch:
Exit12 below–Adrienne de la Fuente, Joanna Priwieziencew, Roman Baca, Chloe Slade, and Paige Grimard:
In an earlier post, I wrote of the similarity of Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand.” In each story a badly wounded Iraq war vet confronts the fact that his wife has chosen to leave him. In Fallon’s story, the vet and his wife are so tenderly portrayed that the reader is left gasping with sympathy for both of them. We want them each to somehow be happy again, if not together then in their now separate lives. In Van Reet’s story, the soldier and his wife are monsters, albeit colorful ones. They have not been just buffeted and damaged by the war, but ruined by it.
Both stories are great, just in case that needs saying.
As up-to-the-minute as they are, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and “The Last Stand” also belong to a tradition of stories about wounded male vets being jilted by wives and girlfriends. Alice Fahs remind us of that in The Imagined Civil Wars when she describes a Civil War tale called “A Leaf From a Summer” published in Harper’s Weekly in November 1862. Fahs writes:
“In that story a soldier faced an amputation hopefully because he had a letter from his beloved ‘next to his heart’; afterward, contrary to the surgeon’s expectations, he indeed ‘began to rally.’ But after receiving a letter telling him that his shallow lover had changed her mind and would not ‘marry a cripple,’ the hour quickly came ‘when they lowered him into the earth, and fired their volleys over him.’ As the narrator commented, ‘his enemy had struck him unarmed and unaware.’ As such the popular fiction revealed, the war only intensified a long-standing literary connection between love and war: numerous stories claimed not only that women’s love was vital to a successful war but that love itself equaled war in its power to kill men.”
Below is a link to a web reprint of the story as it appeared in the 8 November 1862 Harper’s Weekly, for those who can’t get enough of that breathless, clichéd, one-sided 19th-century narration.
“A Leaf From A Summer” is laughable, while the strength of Fallon’s and Van Reet’s stories is their ability to convey marital breakup with a sense of perspective, balance, nuance, and realism. Examined in isolation, however, the pain of a soldier’s heartbreak is real and consequential. A chapter called “Dear John” from Matt Gallagher’s excellent war memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War describes the carnage wrought on the soldiers in his cavalry scout platoon when they were jilted while deployed.
“Dear Johns crushed men of otherwise unquestionable strength and total resoluteness. In the time they most needed something right and theirs, it was taken away from them. It wasn’t like getting dumped—it had a far more resounding impact on the soldier. He became rougher, harsher, crueler…. Truthfully, it usually made him a better soldier, but he lost some vital slivers of his humanity in the process.”
Gallagher also explains that Dear Johns “didn’t just impact the recipient. They affected the psyches of teams, sections, platoons, and troops, bringing home to everyone the recognition that the same thing could happen to them and forcing them to wonder if it was going to. Or if it already had and they just didn’t know about it yet. This mind fuck was the worst part for many.”
Gallagher points out that a soldier’s romantic interest represents his (or her) hope that an ideal or at least better world awaits his return and thus makes the misery of the war endurable and grounds his conduct while deployed. But he also reminds us that many soldiers are shitty boyfriends or husbands. Neglectful and needy by turns, they might be outraged and hurt by unfaithfulness even while being unfaithful themselves. Gallagher doesn’t do much more to explain Dear Johns from a woman’s point of view, but Kit, the protagonist of “The Last Stand” and Sleed, the protagonist of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” also present their spouses with many issues even without the problem of their dismemberment and disfigurement. The implication seems to be that women are attracted by the idea of loving a soldier, but find the reality very difficult to deal with. Perhaps they also suspect that male soldiers love war and the military more than they do their wives and girlfriends, and thus determine to make their men pay.
Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” can be found in Fire and Forget: Short Stories, published by De Capo Press in 2012.
Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” can be found in You Know When the Men are Gone, published by Amy Einhorn Books-Putnam in 2011.
Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War was published by De Capo Press in 2010.
Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South 1861-1865 was published in 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press.