Posted tagged ‘War fiction’

Summer Pandemic Reading: Matt Gallagher and Jesse Goolsby

June 21, 2020

2020 has not been a good year for America, but it’s been a great one for literary fiction authored by veterans. The year has already seen new work published by established vet-authors Matt Gallagher, Jesse Goolsby, and Elliot Ackerman, and coming soon will be novels by Odie Lindsey and Phil Klay. If we add to this group second novels by David Abrams (2017), Kevin Powers (2018), and Roy Scranton (2019), we have an impressive cohort of follow-on novels and story collections by writers at the fore of the vet-writing boom that began circa 2012. Not much of the authors’ latest work concerns war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a significant chunk takes as subjects veterans of American’s forever wars in a nation addled by infatuation with war, militarism, and violence. Such is the case for two titles I will briefly describe here: Matt Gallagher’s Empire City and Jesse Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours, both excellent.

Empire City is Gallagher’s second novel, following 2016’s Youngblood, and third book-length work, counting his 2010 lieutenant’s memoir Kaboom. Gallagher also writes stories and articles for big-ticket magazines such as Esquire, Wired, and Penthouse, and opinion pieces for mainstream journalism giants such as the New York Times. Through it all, a distinctive style emerges, equal parts witty and feisty, relaxed and righteous, literary at core but infused with Twitter-honed hot-take badinage. The array of talents and characteristics is on full display in Empire City, a summary of which can be found here. Gallagher tells this speculative and dystopian tale in a fun prose voice that sparkles with wry observations and delightfully-crafted sentences. Beneath the easy-going surface and fanciful plot elements, however, lie terrors-of-the-deep, for Empire City is at heart a novel-of-ideas—ideas about the political and social fraying of America and the love/hate relationship of the country and its military. Gallagher is a shrewd observer of the passing scene, and Empire City documents a point in the not-too-distant American future when human folly cannot be played for laughs anymore. The fractured and dysfunctional America described in Empire City is so in large part as the result of many decades of continuous war-faring and the correspondent growth of home-front militarism. Chief among the problems is that forever wars create an endless stream of veterans who, while agitating for attention in the public sphere, intimidate and confuse the hell out of the non-veteran citizenry who in-turn toggle between venerating soldiers-home-from-war and locking them up. And those soldiers-home-from-war? Possessed by special talents as a result of military experience, they’re full of themselves, jaw-gapingly so to my lights. Each one or each cohort is convinced that their ideas about things are the right ones and that it is incumbent on them to save America from itself. The America of Empire City desperately looks for saviors, but it’s not exactly clear that veterans are the heroes the country needs, no matter how much they or anybody else thinks they are.

Jesse Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours: Stories compiles writing previously published in literary magazines and Goolsby’s 2015 novel I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. Acceleration Hours’ subtitle speaks to the curious merging of genres within the collection. Stories obviously fiction sit side-by-side with others equally obviously autobiographical, while others lie indeterminately between the two poles. Bits-and-pieces that appeared in I’d Walk With My Friends, for example, are excerpted, expanded upon, and recast as personal essays. No explanation or guidance is offered in the pages of Acceleration Hours for how to take this mélange of genres, but in an insightful and helpful interview here, Goolsby explains some of the method behind the apparent madness. It’s all good, even great, and to a point: The fictional stories portray veterans muddling through life after service, while the personal essays portray Goolsby himself, a career Air Force officer still in, muddling through his own life. The characters in the stories occupy the frazzled margins of society; for examples, one features a woman who has deserted from the military rather than deploy to Iraq, while the protagonist of another is a gay musician who plays a dismal weekly gig at an old-folks home, where he meets an eccentric World War II veteran. On the other hand, the persona reflected in the first-person essays lives a much more settled and privileged existence centered around work, family, and confirmed sense of place and community. And yet, the Goolsby figure, for all his education and professional respectability, comes across as more adrift than you might expect a middle-aged career officer to be. Like the lost souls of the stories, he’s unsure of his ideas about things and more carried by the currents of life than navigating them confidently, with the pith of the events he has lived through dangling just out of reach of precise apprehension. Compared to the fervor of the veterans in Empire City, the protagonists of the stories in Acceleration Hours lack the wherewithal to know themselves or what they really want, and the last thing any of them would think is that they might be agents and actors in national political-and-media scrums, telling people what to do and how things should be. Because of Goolsby’s solicitude for his characters and his candor writing of himself, it’s an endearing portrait, one close to my own sensibility, sad as that might be to say. In Acceleration Hours, the sense of despair reflected in the title of Goolsby’s novel I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them is intensified (i.e., “accelerated”) by the increasing futility of trying to find purpose and meaning in an America that doesn’t seem to have much to offer in those ways anymore.

The trenchant exploration of the possibilities of fiction and narrative reflected in recent titles by the Generation of 2012 vet-writers is tremendously exciting. The military asks members to think in prescribed and rigid ways, so the unlicensed freedom of fiction afterwards I’m sure has been intoxicating for would-be writers. Now, with first steps taken and a certain measure of success obtained, one can sense vet-authors licking their chops and flexing their muscles as the limitless boundaries of creative story-telling become apparent, available for their trying if they only dare. More power to them going forward, and equal amounts of  power to new voices, especially those of women and authors-of-color, as they emerge on the scene.  

Matt Gallagher, Empire City. Atria, 2020

Jesse Goolsby. Acceleration Hours: Stories. University of Nevada Press, 2020

Women at War

May 3, 2020

The subject of Mary Douglas Vavrus’s Postfeminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex are media representations of American military women in the twenty-first century. Vavrus is not so concerned with actual accounts by women who have served—as in memoirs and first-person articles and essays—nor is she much interested in artistic-entertainment portraits in art, film, and literature. The evidence she analyzes are network news and major print-and-online accounts of high-profile subjects associated with women-in-uniform, such as their struggle to serve equitably, free of sexual harassment and assault. News media is a separate realm from the actual lived-lives of real people and different too from the art-world of imaginative and dramatic portraiture, but it is not unrelated. The trick, then, is parsing Vavrus’s argument for its connection to events as they unfolded in the military institutionally and historically, personal accounts by women who experienced those events first-hand, and the artistic-dramatic rendition of the same.

Vavrus’ argument is that the media, sometimes unwittingly but often as if in consort with the military itself, has played up stories highlighting women’s achievements and downplayed those that depict difficulties, to include the problems of harassment and assault. “Media” is a big term, of course, and by it Vavrus primarily means what right-wingers would sneer at as “the mainstream media.” Vavrus’ vantage point is from the left, but her evidence is largely drawn from and her argument is aimed at traditional outlets such as The New York Times, Time, and the evening news giants. The consequences (and possibly the motivation, too, at least insofar as the military is concerned) of journalistic complicity with military-governmental desire are two-fold: 1) positive reports help recruit women to the all-volunteer service in a time of need while generating support among the American populace for unpopular wars, and 2) positive coverage normalizes the escalating saturation of American life with what Vavrus terms “banal militarism” by extending the historically masculine martial realm to the domestic and feminine spheres.

In the 19th-century, Herman Melville wrote, “All wars are boyish and fought by boys.” Not so fast, argues Vavrus: 

I titled this book Postfeminist War because my research shows that since 2001, war- and military-themed media exhibit a mixture of resistance and capitulation to racialized patriarchy as they work to naturalize women’s support for martial values and actions. In this context, narratives about women use feminism selectively to focus on gender equality as they preclude examination of structural problems that differentially disadvantage women both inside and outside the military: chiefly racism, economic inequality, and misogyny. In so doing, such discourses advance what I call martial postfeminism, an ideology that both pushes military solutions for an array of problems that women and girls face and endorses war by either glorifying or obscuring the forms of violence it entails. Postfeminist War thus argues that martial postfeminism discourages critical investigation of the military as an institution, the wars U.S. troops fight, and the military-industrial complex that both drives and profits from war.

Chapter One of Postfeminst War uses the Lifetime television series Army Wives to illustrate how even the ultra-feminine realm of soap-opera has been militarized by the “media-military-industrial complex.” Vavrus writes, “Because Army Wives was successful by so many measures—including serving as a vehicle for Army propaganda—I start with its constructions of military marriage and family… then examine strategic alliances between the Lifetime Network, its commercial partners, and the DOD to consider how they mutually constitute meaning around military life and war for an audience of women.” Chapter Two examines several “super-Mom” public figures who use their identity as mothers of soldiers to shape national debates about war, military, and soldier issues. The first two chapters are interesting, but Postfeminist War for me really starts percolating with Chapters Three and Four.

In Chapter Three, “‘No Longer Women, but Soldiers’: The Warrior Women of Television News,” Vavrus describes positive portrayals of military women in major media in the years after 9/11, especially as women achieve a series of “firsts”:  first helicopter pilot, first Ranger, first West Point first captain, etc. The author’s argument is complex:  though she is a feminist, she doesn’t think these positive portrayals and associated claims that the military has demonstrated its commitment to women are very satisfying. Rather, Vavrus takes aim at shibboleths that the military is a healthy venue for women’s growth, empowerment, and accomplishment, and that women can compete and be accepted for who they are and their own worth within it. She finds these conceits contrived and overly hopeful, whether they in fact may be true for any individual woman (which she admits they can be). In Vavrus’s way of thinking, journalists who run feel-good stories about women in uniform should be ashamed of their complicity in helping construct media-military-industrial-complex ideology. And yet, the author is far from a conservative Phyllis Schlafly-style anti-feminist who believes a woman’s place is at home. The author’s critique comes from the far-left, and her overarching questions are to what ends are women being asked to serve and how does incorporation of women in the military instantiate militarism within the greater society.   

Journalism’s complicity in promoting the military by emphasizing its transformative potential for women is especially nefarious, according to Vavrus, in light of the armed service’s shameful lack of attention paid to military sexual discrimination, harassment, abuse, and assault. In Chapter Four, “‘This Wasn’t the Intended Sacrifice’: Warrior Women and Sexual Violence,” the author claims that the media failed to hold the military accountable for gender discrimination and sexual assault and abuse for years until the release of Helen Benedict’s groundbreaking documentary film about military rape The Invisible War in 2012. After Benedict, media coverage sharpened, but has still not achieved what it might. The biggest problem identified by Vavrus is that the press focuses on high-profile cases rather than widespread events and enduring patterns, and they care more about punishment of transgressions than analyzing toxic cultural elements that permit rape (to include man-on-man rape) to occur. A truly feminist media in Vavrus’s eyes would extract itself from its embedded sycophantic relationship with the military and expose its systematic patriarchal and misogynist shortcomings, rather than treating sexual crime with the same rote, feeble patterns of breathless finger-wagging it devotes to women’s issues as they manifest on college campuses and in the civilian workplace—a tendency that helps instantiate the military and militarism as fundamental components of American life.

I’ve taken the time to lay out Vavrus’ argument in some detail not because I want to shoot it down. Most of it seems intuitively obvious: the mainstream media over the last twenty years has clearly pinged between moments of “you go girl” celebration of milestone achievements by military women and strident denunciations of high-profile examples of military misogyny, with long periods of not-so-benign neglect in-between. Vavrus believes that a hard-hitting, left-leaning media sphere with an emphasis on long-term investigative journalism is needed, and that in regard to women in the military it is foolish to think that we are “post” the need for a thoroughly feminist approach. No doubt that’s true, but to say we’re not there right now as a country is putting it mildly, which raises the question of the possibility for real change. The obstacles being so formidable, frankly I’m just glad that the media (broadly construed) is no worse than it is, as long as I sense it’s aligned with the interests of women who are actually serving or contemplating serving, and mostly determined by women themselves. As for the military itself? It can always do better, a lot better.

One strong virtue of Vavrus’ claims, however, is they set the stage for productive follow-on lines of inquiry I’m going to unfortunately only give short-shrift to here. As I stated above, Vavrus’ subject is more media coverage than it is the military itself, if that makes sense. Though Vavrus obviously is not impressed by military efforts to, say, end sexual assault and abuse, she doesn’t go into great detail about actual military efforts to do so. Nor, as I’ve also stated, does she examine or even introduce as evidence accounts by women who have served and have negotiated in real-time the tricky swirl of ideas and imperatives she outlines. By now there is a robust collection of memoirs by women veterans—Kayla Williams, Shoshana Johnson (with help from Mary Doyle), Amber Smith, Laura Westley, Brooke King, Anuradha Baghwati, and a forthcoming one by Teresa Fazio, to name a few—as well as books about military women, such as Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s Ashley’s War, along with first-person articles and online accounts such as those featured on The War Horse website. From what I know of these women and their writings, none are dupes who have naively absorbed and regurgitated ideological constructs, though by their own admission they may not have not been totally immune to them, either. Read carefully, individually and collectively, analysis of their authors’ wrangle with “martial postfeminism” would be most welcome as they corroborate, contradict, and complicate Vavrus’s claims.

I’ve chosen not to review memoirs on Time Now, but another body-of-work we might turn to in order to test Vavrus’s claims is right in Time Now’s wheelhouse: the aesthetic realm of fiction and film. Below are links to posts about stories and movies in which women warriors serve as central characters in narratives about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within each post, I feel, is plenty of grist for contemplating how women have fared in the military since 9/11, and the books and films themselves of course contain even more. There’s still more work to do examining them in granular detail, teasing out patterns and implications, and synthesizing competing ideas and claims. It won’t get done here now, but the work awaits.     

Fiction:

Fire and Forget III: Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train”

No Thank You For Your Service: Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen

Who’s Catching Who Coming Through the Rye? Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You

Iraq by the Numbers: On the Road with Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty Fives

Tim O’Brien’s “Story Truth” and “Happening Truth” in the Contemporary War Novel (more about Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty Fives)

It’s Complicated: Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant

War Stories: Helen Benedict, Brian Van Reet, David Abrams

Inside the Puzzle Palace: Kathleen J. McInnis’s The Heart of War

Movies:

Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War

“So Many Expectations”: Fort Bliss

Let Us Now Praise Mine and Megan Leavey

 

Mary Douglas Vavrus, Postfeminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex. Rutgers UP, 2019.

Special Operations in Film and Fiction

April 26, 2020

SEAL Team 6 in action, from Zero Dark Thirty.

Below is a compendium of Time Now posts on contemporary war fiction and film featuring special operators–SEALs, Green Berets, Ranger Task Forces, CIA operatives, and the like–in action in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Fiction:

Life During Wartime, On the Other Side: Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden

Special Operations Old and New: Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days

Grillin’ Chillin’ and Killin’ with the Military 1%: Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War

Special Ops Bro-Hymn: Ross Ritchell’s The Knife

The Wild, Wild East: Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue

Will Mackin’s “Kattekoppen”: Surreal War Fiction

Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog

Making the SEAL Team SEAL-y: Literary Theory and Recent War Writing

Eleven Bang-Bang: Adam Kovac and Ray McPadden

War Adventure/Military Thriller

Film:

Zero Dark Thirty I: The CIA Goes to War

Zero Dark Thirty II: Special Operations

War Film: Lone Survivor

The American Sniper Situation: The Not-So-Secret Inclinations of Popular Taste

Does Anyone Remember American Sniper?

Hyena Road: Bullets-and-Bodies or Hearts-and-Minds?

 

Second Acts: Kevin Powers, Katey Schultz, Roy Scranton

February 23, 2020

Three authors from the first wave of contemporary war-fiction circa 2013 have now published second book-length fictional works. Though only one directly portrays war in Iraq or Afghanistan, individually the three works, all novels, illustrate the expansion of their authors’ interests. Collectively, they demonstrate the continuing development of a talented author cohort first formed by writing about twenty-first century war.

Kevin Powers, A Shout in the Ruins. John Bartle, the woebegone protagonist of Kevin Powers’ first novel The Yellow Birds makes a cameo appearance in A Shout in the Ruins, but it’s a subtext of The Yellow Birds—Powers’ deep love for his home state of Virginia–that comes to the fore in Powers’ new novel about history and race relations in the Old Dominion. As a Virginian myself, I’m receptive to Powers’ story and think he’s on to something, for to be a Virginian of any sensitivity is to be deeply aware of the state’s proud, vexed, violent history. A Shout in the Ruins tells two connected stories stretched out over multiple generations spanning from the Civil War to the 1980s. One story is that of an elderly African-American gentleman named George Seldom, who is forced out of his Richmond home in the 1950s by the building of an Interstate. Set adrift, Seldom embarks on a physical journey to the North Carolina home in which he was raised and a genealogical exploration that invokes the novel’s second story, a lurid family saga that reaches back to Reconstruction and forward to episodes set on Virginia’s Eastern Shore (where John Bartle makes his cameo). It’s a lot to pack into a short novel, and Powers sometimes shorts context and explanation for sensibility and mood, which might be described as high Southern gothic a la Faulkner, pollinated with elements of Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison. Think violence, think desire, think secrets, think vengeance, think blood, think lust for power, think “the past is never dead, it’s not even past”—all those subterranean impulses that refuse to remain buried beneath the veneer of Southern gentility, and when conjured forth, expose Southern gentility for a mask and a lie. Key to it all is Powers’ prose style, which foregoes just-the-facts simplicity for florid lyricism. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it proposition: A Shout in the Ruins was widely reviewed upon release, and critics evenly divide on whether the novel’s prose is poetically brilliant or overheated reaching for (pseudo) profundity. Me, I like it, but then I’m still a Virginian, and want language about my home-state to reflect the dark mythopoetic spirit of what that identity means to me.

Katey Schultz, Still Come Home. The promise displayed in Katey Schultz’s first book, Flashes of War, a collection of bite-sized fictional vignettes set in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the homefront, is fully realized in Still Come Home. Set in Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan, Still Come Home tells twinned narratives, one of Aaseya, a young Afghan woman whose already precarious life is troubled further by the arrival of the Taliban to her small town, and Lieutenant Nathan Miller, a National Guard infantry platoon leader charged with one last patrol before redeployment. Aaseya’s and Lieutenant Miller’s stories are told in alternating chapters until events bring them together in the novel’s climax. Schultz excels at physical description, is alert to psychological and social nuance, and plausibly devises a plot that masks its intentions and turns until the final scenes. Schultz is neither an Afghan nor a vet, and charges of cultural appropriation, a hot-button literary issue these days, might be put into play re Still Come Home, but they won’t be by me. Portraits of Afghan women are hard to come by, and Schultz’s rendering of Aaseya’s behavior, attitudes, and ideas ring true and will serve nicely until more representations authored by Afghan authors themselves arrive. And, full disclosure, I contributed ideas about Army culture and tactics to an early draft of Still Come Home, and now am glad to see how Schultz has put them to use in the final version. I especially like the portrait of Lieutenant Miller, who is old for a Regular Army lieutenant but very typical of many National Guard junior officers I’ve met, as he tries to balance the twin imperatives of accomplishing missions while taking care of his men. Still Come Home joins a library of well-turned novels by Americans about war in Afghanistan that combine interest in US military personnel and the Afghans with whom they interact: Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, and Ray McPadden’s And the Whole Mountain Burned, for starters, and we might include British-Pakistani author Nadeem Aslam’s novels The Wasted Vigil and The Blind Man’s Garden, too.

Roy Scranton, I [Heart] Oklahoma! Roy Scranton’s I [Heart] Oklahoma! is that rarest of rare birds these days: a full-on experimental novel with little interest in telling an easy-to-digest story in a conventional way. Wearing its debt to William Burroughs, William Faulkner, and James Joyce on its sleeve, the novel may not be everyone’s cup-of-tea, but I for one [heart] it very much. The first half of I [Heart] Oklahoma! tells in reasonably apprehensible and often funny terms a story of three NYC-based hipster “creatives”—two men (Jim and Remy) and one woman (Susan)–charged with making a road-trip documentary of America as it frazzles under the stress of the Trump presidency. As in his first novel War Porn, Scranton excels at portraying the speech and thought of overeducated millennials who have may have imbibed newfangled Deleuzean concepts about deterritorialization, rhizomes, and the un-psychologized subject, but remain vulnerable to the ages-old forces of sexual desire, rivalry, and jealousy. Halfway across the country and halfway through the novel, the road-trip falls apart and things get weird. What happens next is hard to describe, but remarkable to behold as a reading experience. Reformulating novel conventions on deterritorialized, rhizomatic, and un-psychologized-subject grounds, Scranton describes the birthing of Susan’s literary consciousness through the medium of an alter-ego named Jane and a nightmare carnivalesque American topical dreamscape. Emerging out of the psycho-cultural stew is a long first-person narrative written by Susan in the voice of Caril Ann Fugate, the 14-year-old girlfriend and accomplice of the 1950s serial killer Charles Starkweather. Caril’s reminiscence about the Starkweather killing spree is a striking tour-de-force, a Molly Bloom monologue for our gun-addled time–I read its full 40 pages twice in succession and plan to read it again soon. The exact impulse that drives Susan to identify with Caril and exactly why Scranton directs our attention to Starkweather are not spelled out, though ripe for speculation. But the representation of an imaginative-artistic creation—Caril’s dramatic monologue–as it comes into being, and the dramatic monologue itself, are spectacular.

Kevin Powers, A Shout in the Ruins. Little, Brown and Company, 2018.

Katey Schultz, Still Come Home. Apprentice House, 2019.

Roy Scranton, I [Heart] Oklahoma! Soho, 2019.

Contemporary War Fiction by Category

February 1, 2020

Brian Castner and Phil Klay at AWP16 in Los Angeles

I’ve compiled lists of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction by category as a reference for those interested. The focus is on novels and short-story collections published by major and medium-sized publishers. Comprehensive lists of self-published and smaller-press titles await compiling, as do catalogs of romance, war-adventure/mil-thriller, young-adult, and graphic novels. I know they’re out there in numbers, and don’t gainsay their importance, but it’s beyond me to account for them right now.

I’ve identified authors by branch-of-service or civilian status, since that’s a breakdown oft-inquired about. Most of my categories are obvious and self-explanatory (ie, Iraq vs. Afghanistan), but a few reflect more specialized queries I’ve received over the years. If there’s a categorization you think important that I haven’t provided, please let me know.

Mistakes and omissions are inevitable and corrections are easy, so if you spot a problem let me know.

2020 is shaping up to be fruitful year for new fiction by established vet-writers, with work due to arrive from heavy-hitters Elliot Ackerman, Matt Gallagher, Jesse Goolsby, and Phil Klay. Hoo-wah!

Novels Set Mostly in Iraq

Last One In (2007) Nicholas Kulish (Civilian)
The Sandbox (2010), David Zimmerman (Civilian)
Sand Queen (2011) Helen Benedict (Civilian)
One Hundred and One Nights (2011), Benjamin Buchholz (Army)
Fobbit (2012), David Abrams (Army)
The Yellow Birds (2012), Kevin Powers (Army)
War of the Encyclopaedists (2014), Gavin Kovite (Army) and Christopher Robinson (Civilian)
Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014), Michael Pitre (Army)
Youngblood (2016), Matt Gallagher (Army)
The Good Lieutenant (2016), Whitney Terrell (Civilian)
The Baghdad Eucharist (2017), Sinan Antoon (Civilian)
Brave Deeds (2017), David Abrams (Army)
Spoils (2017), Brian Van Reet (Army)
The Book of Collateral Damage (2019), Sinan Antoon (Civilian)
The Surge (2019), Adam Kovacs (Army)

Novels Set Mostly in Afghanistan

The Wasted Vigil (2008), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
The Watch (2012), Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya (Civilian)
The Blind Man’s Garden (2013), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
What Changes Everything (2013), Masha Hamilton (Civilian)
Wynne’s War (2014), Aaron Gwyn (Civilian)
Green on Blue (2015), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
Old Silk Road (2015), Brandon Caro (Army)
The Valley (2015), John Renehan (Army)
Anatomy of a Soldier (2016), Harry Parker (British Army)
And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018), Ray McPadden (Army)
Still Come Home (2019), Katey Schultz (Civilian)

Fictional Global War on Terror Setting:

The Knife (2015), Ross Ritchell (Army)

Novels Set Stateside and/or Post-Deployment

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012), Ben Fountain (Civilian)
Sparta (2013), Roxana Robinson (Civilian)
The Apartment (2014), Greg Baxter (Civilian)
Be Safe, I Love You (2014), Cara Hoffman (Civilian)
Preparation for the Next Life (2014), Atticus Lish (Marines)
I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015), Jesse Goolsby (Air Force)
Casualties (2016), Elizabeth Marro (Civilian)
A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016), Matthew Hefti (Air Force)
War Porn (2016), Roy Scranton (Army)
Wolf Season (2017), Helen Benedict (Civilian)
Waiting for Eden (2018), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
The Heart of War (2018), Kathleen McInnis (Civilian)
Cherry (2018), Nico Walker (Army)

Short Story Collections and Anthologies

You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), Siobhan Fallon (Civilian)
Fire and Forget (2013), Matt Gallagher (Army) and Roy Scranton (Army), eds.
Flashes of War (2013), Katie Schultz (Civilian)
The Corpse Exhibition (2014), Hassan Blasim (Iraqi-Finnish civilian)
Redeployment (2014), Phil Klay (Marines)
The Road Ahead (2016), Brian Castner (Air Force) and Adrian Bonenberger (Army), eds.
We Come to Our Senses (2016), Odie Lyndsey (Army)
These Heroic Happy Dead (2016), Luke Mogelson (Civilian)
Desert Mementos (2017), Caleb S. Cage (Army)
Veterans Crisis Hotline (2018), Jonathan Chopan (Civilian)
Bring Out the Dog (2018), Will Mackin (Navy)

Novels and Short-Story Collections by Women

Sand Queen (2011) Helen Benedict (Civilian)
You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), Siobhan Fallon (Civilian)
Eleven Days, (2013), Lea Carpenter (Civilian)
What Changes Everything (2013), Masha Hamilton (Civilian)
Sparta (2013), Roxana Robinson (Civilian)
Flashes of War (2013), Katie Schultz (Civilian)
Be Safe, I Love You (2014), Cara Hoffman (Civilian)
Casualties (2016), Elizabeth Marro (Civilian)
Wolf Season (2017), Helen Benedict (Civilian)
The Heart of War (2018), Kathleen McInnis (Civilian)
Still Come Home (2019), Katey Schultz (Civilian)

Novels and Short-Story Collections Portraying Special Operations Forces

Eleven Days (2013), Lea Carpenter (Civilian)
Wynne’s War (2014), Aaron Gwyn (Civilian)
The Knife (2015) Ross Ritchell (Army)
Bring Out the Dog (2018) Will Mackin (Navy)
And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018), Ray McPadden (Army)

Translations and Novels by Foreign Authors

The Wasted Vigil (2008), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
The Corpse Washer (2013), Sinan Antoon (Iraqi-American)
The Blind Man’s Garden (2013), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani-British)
The Corpse Exhibition (2014), Hassan Blasim (Iraqi-Finnish civilian)
Anatomy of a Soldier (2016), Harry Parker (British)
Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018), Amed Saadawi (Iraqi)
The Baghdad Eucharist (2017), Sinan Antoon (Iraqi-American)
The Book of Collateral Damage (2019), Sinan Antoon (Iraqi-American)

Novels in Which War in Iraq or Afghanistan Serves as an Important Backdrop

The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), Robert Gailbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) (Civilian)
They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013), Hilary Plum (Civilian)
A Big Enough Lie (2015), Eric Bennett (Civilian)
Dark at the Crossing (2017), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
The Confusion of Languages (2017), Siobhan Fallon (Civilian)
Ohio (2018), Stephen Markley (Civilian)
Strawberry Fields (2018), Hilary Plum (Civilian)

Novels Featuring Unconventional Narration and/or Fantastical Elements

A Big Enough Lie (2015), Eric Bennett (Civilian). Contains a “novel-within-a-novel” portraying combat in Iraq authored by a character who pretends to be a disabled vet.

The Old Silk Road (2015), Brandon Caro (Navy). Features extended passages describing drug-induced time-travel.

The War of the Encyclopaedists (2015), Gavin Kovite (Army) and Christopher Robinson (Civilian). Co-written by a civ-mil author team, with alternating sections focused on characters resembling the authors.

Anatomy of a Soldier (2016), Harry Parker (British Army). Narrated by material objects associated with soldiering and war in Afghanistan.

The Good Lieutenant (2016), Whitney Terrell (Civilian). Narrated in reverse chronological order, chapter-by-chapter.

Waiting for Eden (2018), Elliot Ackerman (Marines). Narrated by the now-dead soldier-friend of a badly-wounded, near-comatose Marine who can neither move nor speak.

Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018), Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq). A monster built out of the human remains of war-dead stalks the streets of Baghdad.

Second and Third Acts: Subsequent novels by veteran-authors (and one military spouse) listed above, but not directly depicting war in Iraq or Afghanistan

The Confusion of Languages (2017), Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse)
A Shout in the Ruins (2018), Kevin Powers (Army)
I [Heart] Oklahoma (2019), Roy Scranton (Army)
Red Dress in Black and White (2020), Elliot Ackerman (Marines)
Empire City (2020), Matt Gallagher (Army)
Acceleration Hours (2020), Jesse Goolsby (Air Force)
Missionaries (2020), Phil Klay (Marines)

Five unconventionally narrated contemporary war novels–check them out everybody!

 

The Stories Behind the Stories

January 12, 2020

Pablo Picasso, “Palette, Candlestick, and Head of Minotaur”

My story “The Brigade Storyboard Artist” was republished this week on the Wrath-Bearing Tree website. Originally appearing as “Captain Athens and Sergeant Arrack” on Time Now in 2016, the story portrays internal drama within a brigade Tactical Operations Center in Afghanistan. The Wrath-Bearing Tree reissue has gotten a fair amount of attention and praise, by my standards, so check it out please if you haven’t already. It took every day of my 25+ years in the Army to accumulate enough observed detail about soldiers, operations, military processes, and Army culture to write “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” and most of what I include in the story has some resemblance to things I’ve witnessed or participated in. Most particularly, the story allows me to explore my interest in military “storyboards.” I had never seen nor heard of storyboards before arriving in Afghanistan as the leader of an advisor team in 2008. But I soon learned that storyboards, which can be roughly described as a Power Point presentation reduced to one-slide and injected with steroids, were the coin-of-the-realm in terms of information-sharing and narrative-shaping up-and-down and across the chain-of-command.

The specific genesis of “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” as a story, however, was an assignment I gave to cadets when I was teaching a literature course at West Point. The course director, Elizabeth Samet, made Ovid’s The Metamorphoses mandatory reading, along with an assignment to write stories that adapted myths related by Ovid into modern settings. Intrigued by the assignment, I wrote five adaptations myself, including what eventually became “The Brigade Storyboard Artist.” It’s based on Ovid’s telling of a mighty competition between Athena, the goddess of arts, and Arachne, a talented upstart, to sew the most magnificent tapestry. Central to The Metamorphoses myth is a transformation at each tale’s end. Typically, the transformation involves a human who is changed into an animal or material object; in Ovid’s telling of the Athena and Arachne competition, Arachne is turned into a spider when she loses the contest. I don’t go quite that far, but I’ve tried to find a realistic analogy.

I’ve also written four other stories based on myths related by Ovid in The Metamorphoses:

“Cy and Ali” is based on Ceyx and Alcyone, one of Ovid’s saddest stories. In my version, Cy is a gunner in a convoy caught in an ambush and Ali is his wife waiting at home for his return from war.

“Ari and Theodopulous” is based on the Minotaur myth. In Ovid, Theseus slays the Minotaur but is only able to escape the labyrinth with the help of King Minos’s daughter Ariadne. Theseus and Ariadne flee Crete, but Thesesus inexplicably abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Soon, however, Ariadne is taken up by Bacchus, the god of revelry. In my story, I find parallels for all that by telling a tale about a veteran who becomes a mixed-martial-arts champion.

“Junior and Io” is based on Ovid’s Jupiter, Juno, and Io myth. In Ovid, Jupiter, who is married to Juno, pursues Io, who he turns into a cow to hide her from Juno. In my story, Jupiter is a deployed soldier who is dumped, probably for good reason, by his girl Io.

“Captains Dietz and Avis” is based on Ovid’s Daphne and Apollo myth. In the myth, Apollo pursues Daphne, who finally escapes him when she is turned into a tree. In my story, a male Army captain with the hots for a female fellow officer comes on too strong and ruins her tour.

So what do you get when you use Ovid as the basis for telling stories about modern war? One issue is that of tone—almost all of Ovid’s stories end badly for the characters he wants us to care most deeply about—and yet somehow the stories are not tragic, but more comic or whimsical or detached. A few, very few, such as Ceyx and Alcyone, are tender and heartbreakingly sad.

Second, many or most of Ovid’s stores involve romance, desire, infatuation, and unrequited love. Since not so many modern war stories do love and relationships well, Ovid’s myths provide a framework by which a modern writer might begin to think about telling a story about the romantic and erotic lives of soldiers.

The third issue is dealing with the characters’ transformations. What to make of the them? Scholars suggest that the constant change reflects the capriciousness of the gods (or fate), who can punish or reward unexpectedly. They also suggest that Ovid’s message is that because change is constant, the ability to deal with change is not just a desired quality, but a necessity and a great good.

I can see those things, but also disagree. For me, the important aspect of Ovid’s stories is the permanent nature of the characters’ transformations and the corresponding ruin of their social relationships. When a character is transformed into a bird or animal or material object, he or she is gone forever from the human realm. Like death, yes, but more like disappearance and loss while still alive. It always happens for a reason, and maybe is for the best, but still. Think of people you once knew well and who were important to you, but who are now estranged or lost from contact, probably never to be seen or spoken to again. For me, it’s the destroyed human connections at the end of Ovid’s stories that account for their emotional force.

Many thanks to everyone at Wrath-Bearing Tree, a great journal featuring always interesting fiction, poetry, reviews, and commentary about war and the military.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction, Poetry, and Movies 2019

December 26, 2019

Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

2019 was not a bounteous year for new Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction, with only three new titles appearing by my count. Adam Kovac’s The Surge and Katey Schultz’s Still Come Home each describe Army National Guard units struggling to make the best of things in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, while Amy Waldman’s A Door in the Earth features an American NGO trying to make sense of war’s effects in rural Afghanistan. I’m also counting three full-length poetry collections appearing in 2019: Army vet Graham Barnhart’s The War Makes Everyone Lonely, cultural anthropologist and DOD-contractor Nomi Stone’s Kill Class, and Army spouse’s Abby E. Murray’s Hail and Farewell. Movies included The Kill Team, starring Alexander Skarsgard, about US Army soldiers in Afghanistan; Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightly, about perfidy in the British government in the build-up to war in Iraq, and The Report, starring former Marine Adam Driver, about perfidy in the American government regarding its “enhanced interrogation” program.

I’m sure I’m missing titles, so let me hear about them and I’ll consider, but not promise, to add them. The list is a “living document,” but it’s more idiosyncratic than authoritative. For example, the decision to list independently published titles can be subjective, based on my estimation of the work’s importance, value, and interest. Also subjective is the definition of what is and what isn’t an Iraq or Afghanistan work; i.e., why is Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages (set in Jordan) included, but not the movies Captain Phillips (set off the coast of Somalia) and 13 Hours (Libya), despite their obvious relevance to the Global War on Terror? I’ve also resisted including genre works, such as sci-fi, romance, thriller/adventure, young adult, and graphic narratives, and the number of titles originally published in languages other than English is thin. There are also books and movies out there not set in Iraq or Afghanistan or even featuring American soldiers at war, but which have fans and critics who claim that they are “really” about Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, many writers who depicted war in Iraq or Afghanistan in early works have “moved on” and are now publishing works that do not directly address Iraq or Afghanistan. In my mind I can often see linkages between previous and recent work, but they may not be strong enough to merit inclusion here.

So, please consider the lists conversation starters—not definitive, but great to discuss over a beer or in the comments section.

Titles new to the list are in bold. Many thanks to David Eisler for directing me to two early-on novels, Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In (2007) and Benjamin Buchholz’s One Hundred and One Nights (2011) that are set in Iraq near the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Much love also to Bill Putnam for the great pictures that accompany my year-end lists. Be sure to check out Bill’s body-of-work at his website here, and also on Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Bob Kornheiser, Crossing the Wire (2004)
Nicholas Kulish, Last One In (2007)
Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
Benjamin Buchholz (Army), One Hundred and One Nights (2011)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Schultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
Jonathan Raab (Army), Flight of the Blue Falcon (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Susan Aspley, Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town (2016)
The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger (Army) and Brian Castner (Air Force), eds. (2016)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Tom King and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol 1: Bang. Bang. Bang.(2016).
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)
David Abrams (Army), Brave Deeds (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Dark at the Crossing (2017)
Helen Benedict, Wolf Season (2017)
Caleb Cage (Army), Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2017)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), The Confusion of Languages (2017)
Tom King (CIA) and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (2017)
Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. (Army), The Chords of War (2017)
Brian Van Reet (Army), Spoils (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Waiting for Eden (2018)
Jon Chopan, Veterans Crisis Hotline (2018)
Raymond Hutson, Finding Sergeant Kent (2018)
Kathleen J. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018)
Will Mackin (Navy), Bring Out the Dog (2018)
Stephen Markley, Ohio (2018)
Ray McPadden (Army), And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018)
Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields (2018)
Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018)
Nico Walker (Army), Cherry (2018)
Adam Kovac (Army), The Surge (2019)
Katey Schultz, Still Come Home (2019)
Amy Waldman, A Door in the Earth (2019)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Frances Richey (Army mother), The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Frances Richey (Army mother), Voices of the Guard (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Allan Gray (Army), Overwatch (2011)
Tom Sleigh, Army Cats (2011)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Abby E. Murray, Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier’s Wife (2012)
Jason Poudrier (Army), Red Fields (2012)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), Mormon Boy (2012)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Charles Bondhus, All the Heat We Could Carry (2013)
Stanton S. Coerr (USMC), Rubicon (2013)
Kerry James Evans (Army), Bangalore (2013)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Chuck Rybak, War (2013)
David R. Dixon (USMC), Call in the Air (2014)
Frederick Foote (Navy), Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry of War (2014)
Gerardo Mena (Navy), The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters (2014)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), We Deserve the Gods We Ask For (2014)
Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015)
Victoria Kelly (spouse), When the Men Go Off to War (2015)
Philip Metres, Sand Opera (2015)
Tom Sleigh, Station Zed (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Paul David Adkins (Army), Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath (2016)
Jonathan Baxter (Army), The Ghosts of Babylon (2016)
Lance B. Brender (Army) and C. Rodney Pattan (Army), In Cadence (2016)
Brock Jones (Army), Cenotaph (2016)
Kim Garcia, Drone (2016)
Nicole Goodwin (Army), Warcries (2016)
Karen Skolfield (Army), Frost in the Low Areas (2016)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Uniform (2016)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only)
Paul David Adkins (Army), FM 101-5-1 MCRP 5-2A: Operational Terms and Graphics (2017)
Eric Chandler (USAF), Hugging This Rock (2017)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Dots & Dashes (2017)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Sweet Insurgent (2017)
Pamela Hart (Army mother), Mothers Over Nangarhar (2018)
Benjamin Hertwig (Canadian Army), Slow War (2017)
Lynn Marie Houston, Unguarded (2017)
Hugh Martin (Army), In Country (2018)
Shara Lessley (DOD civilian spouse), The Explosive Expert’s Wife (2018)
Abby Murray (Army spouse), How To Be Married After Iraq (2018)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Permanent Change of Station (2018)
Graham Barnhart (Army), The War Makes Everyone Lonely (2019)
Abby E. Murray (Army spouse), Hail and Farewell (2019)
Nomi Stone (DOD contractor), Kill Class (2019)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield, director (2007)
Body of War, Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, directors (2008)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (HBO) (2008)
The Objective, Daniel Myrick, director (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Hyena Road, Paul Gross, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
Blood Stripe, Remy Auberjonois, director (2016)
Mine, Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro, directors (2016)
Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Clement Cogitore, director (2016)
Nobel, Per-Olav Sorensen, director (Netflix) (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)
Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, director (2017)
Megan Leavey, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director (2017)
Sand Castle, Fernando Coimbra, director (Netflix) (2017)
Thank You For Your Service, Jason Hall, director (2017)
The Wall, Doug Liman, director (2017)
War Machine, David Michod, director (Netflix) (2017)
The Yellow Birds, Alexandre Moors, director (2017)
12 Strong, Nicolai Fuglsig, director (2018)
The Kill Team, Dan Krauss, director (2019)
Official Secrets, Gavin Hood, director (2019)
The Report, Scott C. Burns, director (2019)

On Larry Heinemann

December 22, 2019

The name Larry Heinemann meant little to me when I was asked to write his entry for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, a prestigious scholarly reference series available in university libraries. Heinemann, who died last week at age 75, was a Vietnam veteran best known for the controversial selection of his novel Paco’s Story as the National Book Award winner in 1987, where it won out, most notably, over Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and also Philip Roth’s The Counterlife. At the time the DLB contacted me, I hadn’t read Paco’s Story or Heinemann’s other Vietnam War novel Close Quarters (1977). To the extent I knew anything about Heinemann, I vaguely held what seems to have been a general sentiment: the selection of Paco’s Story as National Book Award winner constituted a great wrong to Morrison, and that Heinemann’s novel had been selected for reasons related not just to literary achievement, but race, and for which Heinemann was somehow implicated.

Still, I took the DLB assignment, because I sensed that contemporary war-writing, the subject of Time Now, might be better understood by a deep dive in a body of writing—Vietnam War literature—that preceded it. I was also curious about Heinemann, and how his name somehow had not achieved the stature of other Vietnam War writers such as Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien. Mostly though, I wanted to explore how a National Book Award winning vet-author had not just been overlooked by history, but dismissed by it.

Subsequently, I read all of Heinemann’s books: Close Quarters, Paco’s Story, a third novel titled Cooler by the Lake (1992), and his memoir Black Virgin Mountain (2005). I also read his introductions to a coffee-table book titled Changing Chicago: A Photodocumentary (1989) and Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1992), and a 1997 short story published in Atlantic titled “A Fragging.” Finally, I read as much scholarship on Heinemann as I could find, and then got to work. 5,000 words later, I submitted my entry, which eventually appeared in volume 382 of the DLB, alongside entries on Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy, Walter Mosley, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Richard Russo, Donna Tartt, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead.

I invite you too to read Heinemann’s work and also my DLB entry, if you have access to a university library. Be warned, though, by the standards of post-9/11 war-writing, Close Quarters and Paco’s Story are brutal in terms of depicting war violence and atrocity. Dosier, the protagonist of Close Quarters, and Paco, the titular hero of Paco’s Story, are soldiers in Vietnam who do monstrous things, and the novels suggest they become monsters as a result. The problem is compounded by the fact that Close Quarters is based closely on Heinemann’s own tour; he later called it “straight-up fictionalized memoir.” If we take that statement as true, it makes it unavoidable to contemplate that the author himself has done the monstrous things he describes and has become a monster himself, much like his character Dosier. I’m not joking. Imagine if recently-pardoned war criminals such as Clint Lorance, Mathew Golsteyn, and Edward Gallagher and the things they did were featured characters and events in novels written by themselves. Now multiply that by ten and suggest their criminal acts were an everyday feature of a year’s tour in a combat zone. Add in explicit racism and extreme misogyny. Take it even further: Close Quarters features a scene in which a Vietnamese camp-follower is coerced into fucking and giving head to an entire platoon. A similar scene reappears in Paco’s Story; in this case an underage Vietnamese girl is gang-raped by an Army platoon and then shot in the face.

These scenes are shocking, but Heinemann’s tone and point don’t seem sensational, or defensive or confessional or even accusatory. Instead, the scenes and the novels constitute a serious representation of a soldier’s capacity for evil as he is caught up by the forces of war. It’s almost certain that Lorance, Golsteyn, and Gallagher don’t have the inclination, talent, or perseverance to write novels, or at least good ones, but try to imagine your reaction if talented Iraq War veteran-authors Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, or Elliot Ackerman wrote novels about their platoons gang-raping an Iraqi girl and then shooting her. What is the worst thing they saw or did? What are they not proud of in the least? That’s where Heinemann takes it. Or, try to imagine Chris Kyle writing American Sniper after reading Melville and Tolstoy, authors Heinemann studied upon return from Vietnam. It’s like that, and somehow compelling instead of off-putting. An early review of Close Quarters captures some of the effect: “Dosier elicits the reader’s empathy throughout this extremely unpleasant, but somehow touching novel. Intense is the author’s (a Vietnam veteran’s)style/approach.” That intensity manifests itself by a hostility and anger that emanates from the pages of Close Quarters and Paco’s Story so vividly it makes them both hard to read and hard to put down.

What to make of it all? A quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen offers a possible response:

Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters was a novel I read when I was very young, 12-years old, it was a horrible experience. I wasn’t emotionally or literarily equipped to deal with it. So for a long time I really hated that book. But I think Heinemann actually did the right thing by unrelentingly focusing on atrocity without editorializing that these things are wrong.

Nguyen’s forgiving sentiment—one talented author to another—opens up complicated avenues for contemplation. In his memoir Black Virgin Mountain, Heinemann writes about Close Quarters and Paco’s Story:

“I wrote those two books in an attempt to make clear that this is what awaits you—or something like—the work of the war will transform you into something you don’t recognize; that the inevitable reverberations of the war are irresistible and virtually irremediable; that this is what you make when you make war.”

In Heinemann’s quote, what produces “this” is total war, fought for politically and morally suspect reasons, and badly-led by the officers responsible. Heinemann suggests that the unavoidable result of sending men to fight in such wars is barbarity on the battlefield and forever ruination of the men involved. In contrast, Iraq and Afghanistan were not total wars, but limited wars, which is important. If a cultural and military logic drove men to become monsters in Vietnam, restraints were in place in Afghanistan and Iraq to forestall that transformation. Lorance, Golsteyn, and Edward Gallagher knew what those restraints were, as did all soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and sent outside the wire with guns in their hands. They knew them in Vietnam, too, but a general reckoning prevailed that found breaches of them forgivable. A little. Sometimes. Depending on the circumstances. And how you felt about things.

In my DLB entry, I reconcile the conflux of ideas by writing:

Without validating [combat soldiers’] actions and ideas, Heinemann refuses to condemn them, either; while their brutality, racism, and sexism cannot be denied, he shows that their contempt for authority, pretense, and ignorance is estimable and their feral instincts for self-preservation justifiable. In Heinemann’s final accounting, far more reprehensible than the barbaric combat grunt and the disturbed and disturbing veteran are the people, circumstances, and events that make young men do monstrous deeds.

That certainly doesn’t close out the conversation on the subject or Heinemann. For now though, I’ll end with a brief exploration of Heinemann’s life after Paco’s Story. Though he seems to have preferred the company of fellow soldiers who had seen and done the kinds of things in Vietnam as he had, Heinemann never deified soldiering or glorified the supposed wisdom and camaraderie of the soldier brotherhood. He never lost his hatred of war and the military, while, interestingly, finding purpose and perhaps atonement through repeated return visits to Vietnam, where he came to appreciate the beauty of the land and the people and the sagacity of their military men. He also taught for many years at Texas A&M and elsewhere, pouring himself into encouraging fledgling writers of all stripes.

Heinemann seems not to have spoken out or written on Iraq and Afghanistan, but he was active on social media and occasionally I would see comments by him on the feeds of friends. One in particular I remember. On a thread about PTSD and how to help veterans post-war, he commented to the effect that the best thing any troubled vet could do to regain equilibrium was to “find something to do with your hands that helps people.” That seems common sensible and practical: boiled-down wisdom from a life spent thinking about the matter. For Heinemann, what he did with his hands that helped people was write and comment on his students’ writing. That application of his own advice probably entailed a little bit too much time alone with bad memories and worst fears, but still I like it very much, even as it suggests that the person Heinemann was really trying to help was himself. RIP.

****

I have written at more length about the 1987 National Book Award controversy here. In it I suggest that Toni Morrison’s last novel Home represented a late-life response to Paco’s Story (Morrison also died in 2019). The academic scholarship on Heinemann is trenchant. If so inclined, seek out Susan Jefford’s “Tattoos, Scars, Diaries, and Writing Masculinity”; Stacey Peebles’ “The Ghost That Won’t Be Exorcised: Larry Heinemann’s Paco Story”; and Joseph Darda’s “The Ethnicization of Veteran America: Larry Heinemann, Toni Morrison, and Military Whiteness after Vietnam.”

Inside the Puzzle Palace: Kathleen J. McInnis’s The Heart of War

December 8, 2019

The first and last chapters of the 2018 romance novel The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon are set in Afghanistan, but the intervening scenes depict policy, strategy, and operational planning at the highest levels of US military command, primarily at the Pentagon, but also in adjoining locales around Washington, DC, and on a diplomatic mission to London. Mostly fanciful, but containing elements of critique and satire, The Heart of War is by turns entertaining, insightful, and troubling. Drawing on author Kathleen J. McInnis’s own tour-of-duty as a Pentagon analyst, the novel is narrated in first-person by Dr. Heather Reilly, a newly-minted PhD hired by the Department of Defense for her Afghanistan expertise to work as an “action officer,” as wonky plans-and-policy staffers are known in the military bureaucracy. In the first “misadventure” that besets Reilly, she is transferred from her initial assignment to an obscure office led by a civilian woman known as “The Wicked Witch of the Pentagon.” True to her nickname, the Wicked Witch terrorizes Reilly while also relying on her to advance a quirky project to make Moldova the centerpiece of DOD efforts to counter Russian expansionism.

Many more misadventures ensue, but ultimately The Heart of War tells the tale of Reilly’s triumph. On the strength of two memos she authors, one addressing Moldova and the other Afghanistan, she comes first to the attention of the Secretary of Defense and then to the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Rewarded with promotion to an executive-level position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Reilly at novel’s end is diverted from the Moldova project and deployed to Afghanistan, where she is to lead a peace-making initiative in consort with her new-found romantic interest: a hot-shot Army colonel who, as it happens had fought alongside her brother John on a previous tour in Afghanistan. Then and there, as it further happens, John had earned a posthumously-awarded Medal of Honor for saving the Army colonel’s life, so for Reilly to now be united in common cause with a man inextricably linked with her brother represents a fortuitous culmination of family destiny and personal accomplishment. But not one undeserved, the novel explains. As romance blossoms, Reilly’s new beaux tells Reilly her rise-in-the-world has occurred because she has “consistently proven [her]self the best analyst in the room” and because she “cares… in a way that most people can’t even comprehend.”

That’s a lot for the first six weeks on the job, no doubt, and I’ve just scratched the surface of Reilly’s “misadventures,” which are presented as zany mishaps on the way to final glory. Most of them are of the type that feature prominently in “rom-com” movies and “chick-lit” stories, as I understand those genres. While some of them are pretty fantastical (let’s just say that a couple of episodes put the “action” in “action officer”), analysis of Reilly’s mishaps might serve as the basis for an astute assessment of the workplace environment for women at the Pentagon. I’m not the target audience for rom-com and chick-lit, so I’ll pass on mansplaining The Heart of War’s breezy critique of military patriarchy and the contortions it forces upon the woman who work within it. Before moving on, however, let the record show that McInnis’s novel, for all its fantastical elements, is a hundred times more realistic than the contemporary-war fantasies authored by male Army vets such as Brad Thor, Sean Parnell, and Dalton Fury I review here. And I haven’t yet gotten to the parts about The Heart of War I like best. Or which trouble me most.

What really intrigues me about The Heart of War, and what I think McInnis gets mostly right, is the portrait of the extremely competitive work culture within the Pentagon and the entire government apparatus. It’s never just about doing what’s best for the country, or for the soldiers fighting downrange. Instead, it’s about ruthless jockeying for status and position within the bureaucratic hierarchy. It’s about striking hard when the time is right to advance one’s position, which may or not be best for the nation or fighting force, and may or may not be fervently believed in ideologically and politically, but certainly is designed to enhance one’s prestige and career. The Moldova project, at first laughable in Reilly’s estimation, attracts attention as it is bandied about among various Pentagon agencies, the Department of State, the Executive Branch, and foreign allies. While processing through the inside-the-Beltway sausage-making machinery, it accrues a certain amount of possibility as a legitimate way to counter Russian aggression—a real concern—and it most definitely accrues value as a (mixed metaphor alert!) high-stakes poker chip among very talented, hard-driving Pentagon players who are carefully counting cards and reading the tells of their opponents. Not so much the art of compromise, successful fruition of a program, policy, or action depends on careful coalition-building and savvy grooming of highly-placed patrons. In the Pentagon, then, no good idea wins the day on its own merits alone; instead, it must find powerful advocates to battle with powerful adversaries, as in battles between dueling wolf-packs.

Also intriguing about The Heart of War is McInnis/Reilly’s take on all this. In the opening scenes, Reilly expresses stock skepticism at Pentagon foibles. The drab physical lay-out is often described as “underwhelming.” The Pentagon’s mania for Power Point and acronyms is ridiculed. We are told that at the Pentagon “colonels pour coffee.” Reilly gets in trouble for going to the bathroom unescorted and later she screws up and sits in the wrong place at a meeting, ha-ha. Many of the men and women she meets are weirdly-behaved and seemingly selfishly-motivated, at least at first. Eventually, though, Reilly comes around—the system that aids and abets her rise in the world is revealed—mutatis mutandis—to be one that actually makes sense, or at least as much sense as possible. The brutal hazing turns out to be a necessary toughening regimen. The Byzantine bureaucracy turns out to be an ingeniously designed system of checks-and-balances that rewards survival-of-the-fittest perseverance and creative maneuvering. Most of all, the players, or at least the ones Reilly likes best, are not scheming self-promotors or brain-dead dullards, but “the best and the brightest” (hard to believe those words are actually used unironically). They’re super-smart, wickedly funny (in private), highly dedicated and patriotic public servants, and most of the men are decorated combat veterans, as well. They adopt personas as either ruthless ball-busters or cynical black-humorists not just to play the game, but win it.

That’s OK, if a little pie-eyed, offered to us for consideration from the perspective of a woman (the Reilly character, not McInnis) who has implausibly cut to very nearly the top of the Pentagon heap in half-a-year. I never served at the Pentagon during my Army career, but the mortar platoon-leader of my first infantry battalion later became an Assistant Secretary of the Army. Another lieutenant in that unit is now a three-star on the Army staff, and so is a captain with whom I also once served. A fourth officer I knew had come from a position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and liked to proclaim he had once “deployed a brigade to Africa on a buck-slip”; in other words, he had circumvented laborious staffing procedures. That’s a pretty good anecdote, but it’s countered by the one told to me by the Assistant Secretary of the Army, who related that a typical Pentagon scene is four full-bird colonels and three senior level civilians huddled around a computer parsing a word on a briefing slide. I haven’t seen any of those men in years, but they were all great officers when I served alongside them, and I trust and pray they were or are much the same in their Pentagon billets. The Heart of War skillfully portrays some of their world, but an even richer, deeper, more textured look awaits writing by someone who can describe them (and women like them, too), their careers, their decisions, and their concerns in fuller scope.

To close with a consideration of larger imports, The Heart of War sends mixed or confusing messages, sometimes clear, precise, and astute, and other times understated or implied. For example, the novel has little to say about Presidential politics. White House directives barely factor into the decision-making process the novel describes and notions of servitude are expressed in terms of obligation to fighting men-and-women and to the American public, but not as a response to Presidential fiat, welcome or unwelcome. Reilly’s transformation from skeptic to true-believer, academic-peacenik outsider to boots-on-the-ground woman-of-war insider, suggests a rebuke to liberal pieties about national defense and the military. On the other hand, her basic affirmation of Pentagon processes and the valor, integrity, and competence of the career military men and women who execute them contravenes anyone who believes that the modern military is comprised of mealy-mouthed bureaucrats who couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag. McInnis’s description of Pentagon culture and some of the modern-day Machiavellis who work there offers plenty of ammo to those concerned about government inefficiency—in this view, the Pentagon is a self-licking ice cream cone as interested in perpetuating the forever wars as ending them. Even more so, however, critics of the Washington “swamp” and “deep state,” if they were smart enough to think beyond Pizza Gate and Benghazi conspiracy theories, might use The Heart of War as evidence for their distrust of a slick DC insider culture whose actions are opaque to the larger world. That’s not at all what McInnis intends, but a sharp critic of the contemporary “administrative state” would deem all she describes as major problems, not virtues or necessary evils. For those of that persuasion, that so much energy and brainpower is devoted to constraining Russia, not buddying up to them, would be another problem.

Kathleen E. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon. Post Hill Press, 2018.

War Fiction: Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In

November 24, 2019

Nicholas Kulish’s 2007 novel Last One In, about an unlikely war correspondent embedded with US Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, didn’t pass unnoticed upon release. A New York Times review, for example, called it “funny, harrowing, and sympathetic,” as well as a “worthy addition to the curious but indispensable shelf of war satires.” Last One In seems not to have made much of a lasting impact, however. The contemporary war-writing fiction scene didn’t get rolling for another few years, and when it did, “war satire” never established itself as a dominant mode for depicting war in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Abrams’ great Fobbit the exception that proves the rule. Instead, a downbeat dwelling on the traumatizing costs of war as experienced by the individual soldier prevailed as the dominant subject and tone, reflected starkly in works such as Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, and the stories in the seminal anthology Fire and Forget. Last One In’s focus on Operation Iraqi Freedom’s opening act also seemed to have missed the mark of the nation’s interest, as an onslaught of later books—the ones I’ve mentioned above and many many more–about the difficulties veterans face after coming home came to define publishing and popular thinking about what it meant to write about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another factor that helped relegate Last One In to obscurity was a national literary sentiment that privileged narratives about contemporary war authored by soldier-veterans above those written by anyone else. The veteran’s voice, polished by tutelage in MFA programs and veterans’ writing workshops, exuded an authoritative credibility that has left civilian authors of war-and-mil novels, even superb ones such as Ben Fountain and Roxana Robinson, constantly having to explain themselves, perpetually fighting uphill for respect and readers. Journalists especially seem to have collectively decided not to even try to write novels about the modern wars; off the top of my head I can’t name another fictional work about war in Iraq or Afghanistan by an author who identified primarily as a reporter.

Reading Last One In recently (I had never of it before this year, and I make it my business to know about these things), Kulish’s novel struck me as of a piece with Evan Wright’s much more well-known Generation Kill (2004), and the 2008 HBO television series of the same name based on Wright’s book. Both Last One In and Generation Kill feature inside looks at Marine units as they alternatingly charge and creep from Kuwait to Baghdad in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Both works are focalized through the eyes of embedded journalists stuffed into the back of Humvees manned by Marine enlisted soldiers. In each case, the Marines swap endless insults and complaints, both to entertain each other and burn off anxiety in-between occasional moments of action. Neither Wright nor Kulish have much to say about tactics, strategy, or actual fighting, but then neither do the Marines with whom they ride. For both authors, the really interesting subject is the very masculine Marine culture they’ve been given access to, as it is for the Marines themselves, whose chatter revolves endlessly around how it is to see the world through the eyes of a Marine. The peep into Marine culture both fascinates and repulses Wright and Kulish. In the television series version of Generation Kill, for example, close-ups of the Wright character predominate as he responds silently-but-bug-eyed to the foul-mouthed, insubordinate, and politically incorrect tirades of the driver of the vehicle in which he rides. In Last One In, one suspects Kulish relied on good notes to craft lines such as:

…they talked their way through the celebrity spectrum, about who was uglier in real life, who had gained weight recently, and who was gay. Speculating on male homosexuality was the most popular subject. The only actors they didn’t seem to consider closet cases were Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford. Han Solo could not be gay, the majority ruled. Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck, on the other hand, were two candelabra shy of Liberace.

Trying to determine the reporter-character/journalist-authors’ takes on the homophobia, misogyny, and racism they witness, as well as the Marines’ blatant lack of respect for many members of their chains-of-command and general disdain for Iraqis, is one of the more interesting deliberations that come with watching Generation Kill and reading Last One In. Is the casual crudeness part of the Marines’ charm, an integral verbal and mental aspect of hardened fighting men? Or is it a cringe-worthy social corollary to the surprisingly inept military proficiency and general thoughtlessness the reporter-observers often note? The decade-plus since Generation Kill and Last One In have intensified the questions, not answered them. The dominant sentiment, which I hold, is that such “toxic military masculinity” is neither charming nor necessary, and should be censored and policed by official chains-of-command and stigmatized by the media and the populace. To a certain extent, the needle has shifted within the military itself and such attitudes no longer are tolerated or even hold sway. But they are not gone, by any means, nor is there consensus that they should be. For some, the censoring and policing and stigmatizing are worse than the problem itself, if they even see it as a problem.

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Last One In’s many scenes set among Marines in the close confines of their vehicles and squad bays reflect Kulish’s journalistic eye for detail. They also give me a chance to expound briefly on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. It’s a concept that especially interests me as I read and watch stories about contemporary war and how they depict the microcosmic world of soldiers living among other soldiers. To quote from a reputable website, habitus “refers to the physical embodiment … of deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences.” To quote from Bourdieu himself, habitus is “a subjective but not individual system of internalised structures, schemes of perception, conception, and action common to all members of the same group or class.” (The Wikipedia entry on habitus is not bad in translating those ideas into plainer English).

Habitus is related to the concept of mise-en-scène, a film and stage term, but has a more literary and critical bent. Besides, one French aesthetic idea is enough to deal with in a single blog post. For me, an author’s or artist’s representation of military habitus is always the most interesting thing. I especially like thinking about habitus in relation to scenes set inside vehicles, where soldiers act and interact in ways that are learned, stylized, and performative, but also highly naturalized (or, “internalized”). When such scenes are done well, they not only make me nostalgic for my own time spent cooped up in military vehicles on long movements, but render the impression that the author or artist is highly alert to the essence of what it is like psychologically and sociologically to be a soldier. Bourdieu was a sociologist, and so for him an accurate account of a particular habitus depended on “objective,” nominally value-neutral “thick description” (another lit-crit term) depiction of observed habits and speech patterns, which are then ascribed to the holding of specific worldviews and attitudes. That’s also close to the credo of journalists and anthropologists as they observe cultures and sub-cultures and try to describe them as fairly and accurately as possible. Novelists and artists, for their part, value thick description, too, but also everywhere they constantly inflect their depictions with irony, ambiguity, and shades of perspective. They’re also aware that the very act of observation induces an “observer effect,” whereby the actions of the observed change under the act of observation. That is certainly a factor afoot in Generation Kill and Last One In, where the embedded journalist protagonists surveil with pen-and-pad in-hand the Marines with whom they pass hours, days, and weeks.

To put a point on this esoteric discussion, here’s a long passage from Last One In set in a Humvee during the slow grind to Baghdad. The embedded journalist is Jimmy, the Marines are Privates Ramos (also known as “little Macho”) and Martinez, and their squad leader Sergeant Harper.

The gaps in conversation were torture, since there was no dearth of terrible scenarios the imagination could conjure. After several minutes of miserable silence, Jimmy announced, “You know, I’ve been here for a week, and I haven’t seen one camel.”

“Oh, who fucking cares?” Martinez said.

“Yeah, fuck your camel,” Ramos added….

[Jimmy exploded:] “Every minute since you’ve met me, I’ve had one thing on my mind. Thinking, ‘I’m going to fucking die. I’m going to fucking die.’ But do I whine about it? No. Because—because it’d get pretty boring to have me screaming about dying in the backseat all the way to Baghdad. Don’t you think?” Harper didn’t answer. “Don’t you think? So maybe I fucking want to talk about camels instead.”

“Jimmy,” Martinez said at last, very gingerly, “You haven’t seen one camel?”

“No, man,” Jimmy said with a laugh for the preposterously camel-free desert. “Not a goddamned one.”

“I’ve seen a couple,” Harper said.

“Me too,” Martinez said. They were using the indulgent tones of orderlies in an asylum.

“One hump or two?” Jimmy asked.

“One, I think,” Martinez said.

“Yeah, I think they were one,” Harper said.

“Cool,” Jimmy answered.

“Motherfucker,” Ramos said.

“What now?” Harper responded.

“How come I’m the only Marine who hasn’t seen a camel?”

“Everybody shut the fuck up,” Harper said. “That’s an order.” The talking ban was surprisingly effective, lasting a full hour, probably because each was a little pissed off at the others. Harper kept leaning back like he was trying to sleep, but Jimmy found it impossible to get any rest with the fear, the bouncing of the jeep, and the sand caked against teeth, tongue, and nostrils. He took notes instead. When no one spoke, all they could hear was the groaning of the vehicle on its shocks and the static of tiny grains of sand pelting the canvas top. The sandstorm lasted longer than they could stand to listen to those sounds. It was Ramos who cracked.

“What you writing?” he asked Jimmy. “Saying we’re lost? Don’t write that shit.”

“Not saying anything. And you can’t tell me what to write anyway.”

“C’mon, Jimmy,” Martinez said. “Step up.”

“Quit censoring the civilian, Private,” Harper said.

“You saying we fucked up?” Ramos asked.

“I’m writing a letter to my mom,” Jimmy said.

“What’s it say?” the private continued to pry.

“You know what?” Jimmy told him. “It says we’re lost. Says you fucked up. What do you think now?”

“You…” Ramos began. “You tell her a real Marine says hello.”

“Yea. And tell her little Macho said hi, too,” Martinez added. Jimmy looked down at his paper and finished writing, blessedly undisturbed.

Nicholas Kulish, Last One In. Harper-Perennial, 2007.


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