ChatGPT, a sophisticated artificial-intelligence text-producing application, launched in November 2022. Immediately, a flurry of reviews and articles appeared, many of them wondering what might be the import of ChatGPT for academic-writing. The possibilities for cut-and-paste plagiarism seemed bountiful, as ChatGPT not just coughed-up instantaneous chunks-of-information, a la Wikipedia and Google, but was capable of rendering judgment and organizing responses into arguments, “written” in bland-but-serviceable Standard Academic English.
I teach a college research-writing class, so I tried out ChatGPT on some of the subjects my students were writing on this semester. Xenotransplantation—the use of animal organs to replace human ones—was the subject of a couple of papers, so I plugged in the following question:
Question: How can xenotransplantation become more popular?
ChatGPT Response: Xenotransplantation can become more popular by increasing public awareness of the potential benefits and safety of the procedure. Education campaigns can raise awareness of the potential clinical uses of xenotransplantation, as well as the safety of the procedure. Additionally, research and development of xenotransplantation should be supported to ensure that the procedure is conducted in a safe and ethical manner. Furthermore, international regulations and protocols should be established and implemented to ensure that xenotransplantation is used in a responsible and ethical manner. Finally, governments should provide incentives for medical professionals and organizations to use the procedure.
My teacherly opinion is that such writing (and thinking) is not as fluid or nuanced as my best students produce, but far superior to that of less-accomplished ones. In the context of a research-paper, the passage could certainly be usable, especially if supplemented with evidence and quotations, or its ideas developed and complicated in ensuing paragraphs.
Oh well, the implications for the classroom will work themselves out as they will. Thinking about my interest in war-writing, I began musing about how ChatGPT could aggregate what might be said to be the hive-mind on a subject and give it the force of authoritative expression. In other words, what is the potential of ChatGPT wisdom to become the constituted collective wisdom on any given subject?
Pushing on, I tapped-in the following question:
Q1. What are the three best novels on war in Iraq and Afghanistan?
ChatGPT Response: 1. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers 2. The Good Soldiers by David Finkel 3. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
That response can immediately be seen as problematic. Only The Yellow Birds is a novel, while The Good Soldiers and The Forever War are journalistic non-fiction. I next asked ChatGPT the following:
Q2. What is the best novel on war in Iraq and Afghanistan?
ChatGPT Response: The best novel on war in Iraq and Afghanistan is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. This award-winning novel is a powerful telling of two young soldiers’ wartime experiences and the difficult moral choices they must make. It captures the psychological toll of war for soldiers, their families, and those left in the wake of the conflict.
This is more promising, and also intriguing. How was ChatGPT able to spit that out in less than 10 seconds? I’m certain there’s no preexisting databank of responses, so somehow the program was able to canvass a fair amount of reviews, articles, and book-jacket blurbs to offer a sensible, though still fairly generic, response. Next I asked the following:
Q3: What is the reputation of Phil Klay’s Redeployment?
ChatGPT Response: Phil Klay’s Redeployment is a highly regarded work of fiction that has received widespread critical acclaim for its portrayal of the experiences of soldiers during and after the Iraq War. The book, which is a collection of short stories, was published in 2014 and won the National Book Award for Fiction the same year.
Redeployment has been praised for its immersive and realistic depiction of the psychological and emotional toll of war on soldiers, as well as for its nuanced exploration of the complex moral and ethical toll of war surrounding the Iraq War. Klay, who served in the US Marine Corps in Iraq, brings a unique perspective to his writing and his portrayal of the lives of soldiers has been praised as both sensitive and insightful.
In addition to the National Book Award, Redeployment has received numerous other awards and accolades, including the John Leonard Prize, the Chautauqua Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. It has also been included on numerous “best books” lists and has received widespread coverage in the media. Overall, Redeployment has a strong reputation as a powerful and poignant work of fiction that offers a unique and valuable perspective on the Iraq War and its aftermath.
What to make of this? Though largely fact-based, the response organizes and articulates its response coherently, fluidly, and reasonably thoroughly, as if the product of an intelligent, no-nonsense author. Some of the language is obviously boiler-plate, but it’s not copied from any Internet source I could find. Determined to push ChatGPT even harder, I submitted the following:
Q4: What are the best qualities of Roy Scranton’s novel War Porn?
ChatGPT Response: 1. Thoughtful exploration of trauma: Roy Scranton’s War Porn touches on many difficult subject matters, ranging from addiction, PTSD, and the psychological effects of war. He explores these issues in a sensitive and nuanced manner that helps to provide a greater understanding of how war and its aftermath can shape a person’s life.
2. Emotional depth: Despite its light-hearted title, War Porn dives deep into the emotional tolls of war and how they linger in our lives even after the fighting is over. Scranton captures the complexities of war, humanizing those affected by it in order to emphasize the intense psychological and emotional trauma caused by conflict.
3. Innovative storytelling: With its unique blend of short stories, poems, and vignettes, War Porn is an innovative collection. It combines a variety of forms to create an engaging, immersive experience that often leaves the reader stunned and deeply moved.
4. Unflinching insight: War Porn also has an unflinching look at the devastation of war, particularly in the lives of those who are forced to bear witness to it firsthand. Roy Scranton provides an honest and often heartbreaking commentary on the effects of warfare on both individuals and a wider population.
I’ve organized the response into the 1-2-3-4 categories listed, but otherwise this response is verbatim. Much of it could be generic description of many war novels—and readers who know Scranton’s “The Trauma Hero” essay will chuckle at the description of War Porn as “thoughtful exploration of trauma”—but it also seems written from a place of some familiarity with the novel. In particular, #3 “Innovative storytelling,” though not exactly accurate in terms of “short stories, poems, and vignettes,” is alert to the blended stylistic quality of War Porn, which combines two distinct narratives with poetry passages. On display is a great weakness of ChatGPT as it currently exists: its inability to incorporate quotes from the text under discussion or from secondary-sources. But one could easily imagine taking the four categories of “thoughtful exploration of trauma,” “emotional depth,” “innovative storytelling,” and “unflinching insight” as start-points for one’s own examination of War Porn, even if to argue that it doesn’t do those things especially well; the categories get the conversation going as well as anything.
With my question about War Porn, my ChatGPT free trial ran out. Further experiments and thoughts to follow as they occur….
As memories of ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan fade into history, so too slows the pace of narratives that depict fighting men and women in post-9/11 combat action. From what I observe, the large American publishing houses have little interest in publishing novels about war in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor does there appear to be a mass reading audience clamoring for such fare. The big three vet-authors who have undeniably made it as professional writers—Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, and Elliot Ackerman—are moving on to other subjects and writing identities not strictly identified with their formative years deployed on Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. The same might be said of some of the vet-poets who were prominent a decade or so ago. A number of other vet-writers and affiliated civilian-authors in the war-making scene appear to have gone fallow or given up. New lights might shine for a season, but sustained achievement and acclaim await.
And yet… and yet….
On a smaller scale, fiction and poetry in which Iraq and Afghanistan figure, or serves as a backdrop, or as the genesis for the writing impulse keeps coming. Here’s to the authors, to the readers, and most of all to the publishing houses who keep war-and-mil writing alive. More than just alive, really, but expanding and developing. It’s not enough to tell an old story in an old way, and new perspectives and story-lines aplenty are on display in the titles I survey below.
Michael Anthony, with art by Chai Simone, Just Another Meat-Eating Dirtbag. Street Noise Books, 2022.
Anthony’s memoir Civilianized is one of the best traumatized-and-dysfunctional vet sagas going, and now his graphic-memoir Just Another Meat-Eating Dirtbag spins the story of his long journey back from war in unexpected and completely original directions. Finding love with a vegan animal rights activist, the title character, named Michael, grapples with his own ideas and beliefs about the subjects and discovers they are more deeply seated in his war experience than he cares to confront. Though packed with vegan and animal-rights polemics, Just Another Meat-Eating Dirtbag manages to avoid preachiness while also telling a very human story about strained relationships and the redemptive power of love.
Becoming Ribbons features several poems about Adams’ own deployment as an Army reservist, but the bulk of the poems relate the story of her long-term relationship with a Marine spouse. Looking back at high school and courtship, then exploring marriage in the midst of multiple deployments, moving on to her spouse’s wounding and rehabilitation, and then followed by divorce, her ex-husband’s suicide, and then her own new love, Becoming Ribbons covers a lot of narrative ground, even as each individual poem stands on its own as a unique, discreet verse. Adams’ poetry is deft and mature, while also being remarkably open about fraught events and vexed emotional responses.
M.C. Armstrong, American Delphi. Family of Lights Books, 2022.
Armstrong is not a vet, but he crafted a perceptive and finely-wrought memoir about a short-stint as a journalist with a Special Forces team in Iraq titled The Mysteries of Haditha. Now comes American Delphi, a Young Adult novel about a troubled adolescent girl and her troubled combat-veteran father. I haven’t read American Delphi yet, but as Time Now has regrettably not paid much attention to GWOT YA, I hope to soon. Bonus points for what American Delphi promises are futuristic tech-y elements and a trenchant engagement with social-media-based political activism.
Randy Brown, Twelve O’Clock Haiku: Leadership Lessons from Old War Movies and New Poems. Middle West Press, 2022.
The war-writing scene knows well Randy Brown under his nom-de-plume Charlie Sherpa. Whatever name he goes by, Brown combines his own writing talent with endless support of other vet-authors. Now comes Twelve O’Clock Haiku, an ingenious amalgamation of critical reflections on the WWII Air Force classic-movie Twelve O’Clock High, haikus on the same, and a sampling of previous published verse. Avoiding cant, bromides, and tired wisdom about military leadership, Twelve O’Clock Haiku delights with insights that hit first as clever, and then as poignant and profound.
Eric Chandler, Kekekabic. Finishing Line Press, 2022.
Chandler, a retired Air Force pilot, wrote at length about war in his first book of poetry Hugging This Rock. War is barely mentioned in his latest collection Kekekabic, but lurks everywhere. Nominally a set of poetic meditations on a year spent running-and-hiking, the taut poetic forms Chandler employs—haibun and haiku—bespeak the “blessed rage for order” of a combat vet still simmering down from overseas war, even as cultural wars and politicized violence burns ever hotter on the home-front. The calm, observant wisdom on display in Kekekabic is the farthest thing imaginable from the overheated discourse of today’s public sphere, and all the better for it.
Brian O’Hare, Surrender. Syracuse UP, 2022.
O’Hare’s Iraq was Operation Desert Storm, not Iraqi Freedom, but the sensibility binding the linked stories featuring a disenchanted Marine lieutenant in Surrender will be very familiar to GWOT vets. Taking aim at toxic paternal authority, whether in the form of an overbearing combat-vet father, a tyrannical high-school football coach, or an incompetent and delusional Marine battalion commander, Surrender’s stories are remarkably varied, even, and accomplished. It took O’Hare thirty years to find his voice; his debt to GWOT war-writing is prominent in Surrender, which he well admits in this astute essay for Electric Lit titled “9 Books That Take Aim at the Myth of the American Hero.”
Jennifer Orth-Veillon, editor, Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Contemporary Writers and Veterans on the Lingering Stories of World War I. MilSpeak Books, 2022.
Featuring a who’s-who of contemporary war-writing authors, Beyond Their Limits of Longing asks its contributors to ruminate on an aspect of World War I that is personally meaningful and not generally well-known. Combining scholarship, personal essays, fiction, and poetry, there’s not a mundane piece among the 70+ chapters. Editor Jennifer Orth-Veillon astutely discerned that GWOT vet-writers’ connection to World War I—both the battlefields and the literature that resulted—might be profound, and Beyond Their Limits of Longing rewards that intuition in spades.
Ben Weakley, Heat + Pressure: Poems from War. Middle West Press, 2022.
I’ve yet to read Heat + Pressure, but if it’s published by Randy Brown’s Middle West Press and blurbed by Brian Turner, it’s got to be good. Its Amazon page relates that Weakley, an Army combat vet, found his inclination to write in post-service vet-writing workshops. That’s a story right there—one of the great through-lines of the vet-writing scene, now in its fifteenth year or so, is how writing workshops have encouraged writing initiative and created opportunity for talent to flourish.
A few years ago, I wrote a Time Now post that poked fun at stock scenes often found in contemporary war-fiction. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, although I was, a little, for what do we expect from war-writing but vivid portraits of common experiences shared by soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan? Since that post, I’ve continued to keep an eye on the representation of characteristic deployment moments, and have become something of a connoisseur of how and how well they are carried off by the writers who offer them.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how war writers have portrayed the vehicle movements that were so integral to deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Life on the Forward Operating Base and Combat Outpost offer much grist for fiction, as do scenes of urban combat in Iraq and rural combat in Afghanistan, as well as night-time raids in both places. For all that, the quintessential combat experience for many deployed soldiers and Marines, as well as deployed airmen and sailors, were the vehicle movements that took them from FOB to FOB, or out of the FOB into sector on patrols and missions.
These vehicle movements were almost always made in convoys of at least three, and usually four, vehicles, either “up-armored” Humvees, or tank-like “MRAPs” (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles). Within each vehicle the important crew positions were that of the driver, the “TC” (or truck/track/tank commander), who rode in the shotgun seat and was usually the senior member on-board, and the gunner, who stood in a roof-turret manning a machine gun and keeping look-out. Other occupants were generically designated “guys- in-back” or “GIBs.” The driver, TC, and gunner were linked by an intercom system and had visibility of the road ahead, with the gunner able to view to the sides and rear as well. The TC could also speak to the other vehicles via radio and to the headquarters back at the FOB. The guys-in-back had little or no visibility and were typically not linked into the intercom, and, jammed in tight with one another, had little to do but stare at each other until the movement was over.
In the sector of Afghanistan where I deployed, we called vehicle movements “CONOPs,” an abbreviation for “convoy operations” (or maybe a misapplication of “concept of operations”–a phrase from the military mission order format). CONOPs were always high-tension, as ambushes and IED attacks were a constant threat, and once they occurred there was little crews could do but hope they lived through them. Also possible were vehicle breakdowns and getting lost. But as ratcheted up as the tension was, there was also boredom, as most drives were uneventful and often excruciatingly long and slow. But there was also exhilaration, too; exiting the confines of the FOB and heading out into “bad guy country” is the stuff that many or most soldiers and Marines joined their respective services to do. To while away the time and defuse pitched emotions while on CONOPs, those on the vehicle intercom talked about everything under the sun and listened to music jerry-rigged through the vehicle intercom. The admixture of boredom, danger, and heightened expectation, as well as the camaraderie enforced by joint endeavor in close quarters, is ripe for depiction by skilled authors.
Non-fiction portraits of CONOPs are scattered throughout books on Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’ll focus on fictional and artistic depictions here. Before we get rolling (pun), I’ll recommend the mini-series Generation Killand Colin Halloran’s volume of poetry Shortly Thereafter for their representations of vehicle movements in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.
In fiction, several novels make vehicle movements central to the stories they tell. In other words, what happens during the journey is the story, not the mission that awaits at the end of the journey. Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives (set in Iraq) is exemplary in this regard, as is Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road (set in Afghanistan). Works that portray well, in my opinion, the fine-grain detail of the CONOP, while also using the scene to describe the social interaction and psychological outlook of the vehicle crewmen, include John Renehan’s The Valley and Brian Van Reet’s Spoils.
The Valley, for example, begins with a passage describing from the point-of-view of protagonist Lieutenant Black as he rides as a passenger in a night convoy of Humvees from a large Afghanistan FOB to a tiny COP high up in the mountains:
The convoy wove its way through the buildings and trailers of the base, radios chirping as vehicle commanders made their perfunctory commo checks with one another. Black looked out the little armored glass windows as the buildings fell behind, replaced by sandbags and blast barriers on either side.
The convoy rolled to a stop at the FOB’s east gate, in the exit channel. Electronic jamming equipment was switched on, and the vehicles filled with the clatter of weapons being charged. The manifest was passed to the guards, and the gate was opened.
The convoy rolled forward beneath the guard towers and machine-gun nests and wove left-right-left-right through a serpentine channel designed to slow down car bombs. They cleared the walls and the golden plain opened up before them, mountains rising from the horizon ahead.
Another passage from The Valley renders the flavor of convoy radio traffic:
“Vega X-Ray, this is Cyclone Mobile, over.”
The sound of the sergeant speaking the name of their destination into the radio roused Black from a near trance.
He pushed the light on his digital watch. It had been another ninety minutes ofslogging wet travel. The ride had gotten bumpier and slower the farther they went.
The sergeant keyed the hand mic again. Tried his call again.
Moments passed as the signal made its way up into the dark, dancing among the windswept peaks and stone faces above them. Black wondered how far they were from the outpost, how many mountain passes or switchbacks still lay ahead of them. The vehicles ground on through the muck.
A burst of static from the radio.
“Cyclone Mobile, Vega X-Ray,” came a scratchy call back.
“X-Ray” denoted a command post or operation center. The voice on the other end was probably a soldier pulling late-night duty in Vega’s radio room.
The sergeant keyed the mic.
“Cyclone Mobile inbound, six vehicles, twenty-five personnel. Checkpoint Grapevine, time now.”
“Roger,” came the voice through the static and interference….
The sergeant turned to the driver.
“Hit it,” he said.
The kid pulled off a glove and reached up to the ceiling, touching something with a bare finger. A square of sky blue illuminated on a tiny MP3 music player. He tapped it.
The vehicle erupted in sound. Black jumped.
The crew had wired speakers into the four corners of the Humvee. Not regulation, but not uncommon. Black hadn’t noticed the black boxes until now.
An obviously old rock recording echoed in the crew compartment….
In Old Silk Road, Brandon Caro’s first-person narrator, a medic named “Doc” Rodgers, describes duty as a gunner on CONOP in Afghanistan:
Grunting and straining, I managed to pull open the two-hundred-pound door of the Humvee and throw my bag in the back. I then climbed up over the hood of the truck, onto the roof, dropping down through the opened hatch, and settled into the turret. The hole in the roof was about three feet across. My feet were able to touch down on the steel of the interior even if I was seated on the thick leather strap that hung from either side of the hatch. I rotated the .50-cal forty-five degrees to the right…. The gunners of the convoy were supposed to stagger their weapons to protect the trucks from all angles….
My mind wandered carelessly as our convoy moved unobstructed and unthreatened through enemy territory…. It served me well whenever I was in the turret, I always felt, to try and put myself somewhere else in my mind while remaining in the moment somewhat in case we were ever attacked and I had to respond either with the .50-cal or with my medbag or with both.
In Spoils, Van Reet opens with a scene describing drowsy enlisted soldiers waiting out dreary checkpoint duty on a cold, rainy Iraq night. The gunner, Cassandra Wigheard, has been called back inside the troop compartment to warm up and get dry. Nothing’s happening, or seems likely to happen:
Her eyes have grown inflamed from lack of sleep and the recycled hot airsteadily blowing, and she blinks to wet them, losing focus sleepily… She’s lulled by the darkness and the roaring heater and the rain that pools on the gunner’s hatch and drips through a leaky rubber seal. Like Chinese water torture. Like they are trapped in an unsound submarine. With the hatch closed it has grown muggy inside, hot and slimy as a locker room with all the showerheads blasting steam. Beads of condensation join in branched rivulets that dart down the windows, themselves no more than flexible sheets of vinyl. Their crew wasn’t lucky enough to draw an up-armored truck. Lieutenant Choi and his bunch have received the only one allotted for the platoon. Their own is nothing but a rolling coffin. No, not even that sturdy. Oak would at least stop some shrapnel, but these vinyl doors wouldn’t stop a pellet gun.
The heater, the rain, sleeplessness, bring on a rheumy-eyed stupor, fuzzy and electronic. Her pruned hands twitch involuntarily, a hypnic jerk acute enough to bring her back. She wills her eyes open. McGinnis and Crump are both nodded off in the front seats. Radio and GPS cables lie kinkded around them like black umbilical cords; there’s the humming sound of the truck, and half dreaming, caught in the tripping sensation of present eternity dwarfing the past, for a moment she forgets herself and might be convinced that all her days have been lived like this, in here, the truck, the only solid place in the universe.
Vehicle breakdowns and vehicle recovery operations were facts of life, especially when convoys were forced off the hard-ball main roads and onto goat trails in the Afghanistan mountains or canal-berm paths in Iraq. In Greenon Blue, Elliot Ackerman vividly describes a vehicle recovery op in Afghanistan, but one with a twist: the vehicle is one of the “HiLux” pickups favored by the Afghan army and various Afghan militias, friendly and otherwise:
Our truck was now set to back out. This would be the most dangerous part, reversing down the steep and narrow switchback. All of the Special Lashkar’s trucks had a winch in front—two hundred or so feet of steel cable wrapped tightly around a motor that could pull a tree from its roots. The soldier wearing the balaclava hooked his winch under the front axle of Atal’s HiLux. On the far side of the crater, the driver took in all the slack. In theory the winch would lower us along the tight switchbacks and ensure that we didn’t topple down the mountainside, but the driver took no chances. He left his door open and both his legs dangled from the side of his seat. If he had to jump he’d be ready, even as his truck, as well as ours, toppled into the ravine below. Whoever drove our truck would have to sit behind the steering wheel. This made jumping a more difficult prospect….
Atal shifted into reverse and the winch ground as the steel cables pulled taut. I shouted out directions: Come right, come right. Straight! STRAIGHT! Atal leaned his head out the driver’s window. Then he shot across the cab, planting his face in the passenger’s side mirror. He continued to weave back and forth in this way as we inched out our descent. The winch strained and the steel cable slide against our front axle. The air filled with a hot metal burn. We soon dipped out of sight from the soldiers above us, be we were still tethered to their winch. I continued to shout my directions and Atal, unable to see the space around our truck, followed each one blindly. Come left. Straight. Now, right, right! RIGHT!
IED strikes and vehicle ambushes do not figure prominently in contemporary war-writing, but one very memorable such scene occurs in Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing. The protagonist, Levi, is riding in a Humvee in Iraq in a convoy in which another soldier named Tom Hooper is riding in the vehicle in front of him:
They had spent many hours crawling down the dusty canal roads. The monotony of it all, the slow pace, the lack of conversation, and the crash from the day’s earlier adrenaline rushnearly caused Levi to fall asleep. He stretched as well as he could in such a small space, and he complained about being bored.
His driver, Specialist Pete White, looked over at him and nodded in commiseration, but had nothing to say.
After Levi saw his best friend’s Humvee disappear into a cloud of fire, dust, and gravel, both time and sound stopped, which left Tom Hooper flying through the air, suspended against a backdrop of smoke and flames, weightless and serene. His unbloused DCU-patterned pants were rumpled by the wind; his limbs were spread against the sky, one foot bootless but still covered by a green sock. Levi stared in wonder at his friend, who was not flying, but was simply the subject of a photograph, oblivious to his surroundings, or to gravity.
When Levi lurched forward because White had slammed on the brakes, time started again and Tom hit the gravel on the side of the road. Despite the height from which he fell, his form did not bounce, roll down the shallow embankment into the tall grass, or move in any way at all. He simply stopped when his body met resistance. Tom lay supine, staring up into the sky, one arm stretched out, the other seemingly twisted under his back. Levi looked left at White, but he only saw wide eyes and a moving mouth….
As Levi neared the truck he heard a tumultuous crash. A great crack stung his ears and he felt the peal rumble through his stomach. He wondered why it would be thundering when there were no clouds in the sky. It was only after the second crack of thunder shook his head and nearly knocked him over that he realized it was not thunder at all; but rather, it was the warheads of rocket-propelled grenades exploding near the left side of the truck. With this realization came other realizations. The smaller cracks he had been ignoring were bullets snapping past him. The more sporadic and lower-pitched pops were rounds burning and exploding like popcorn in the rear of the Humvee….
These are just some of the characteristic elements of vehicle movements and their representation. This post has already gone on long enough, but we might also mention the “mission brief” that precedes every convoy operation (both Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood and Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives have great passages describing this important and interesting event); the decision by vehicle gunners to identify friend-or-foe/shoot-or-don’t-shoot decision-making in regard to oncoming traffic; and the exuberant, almost euphoric feeling that overtakes soldiers when they “RTB” (return-to-base) or arrive at their destination safely. Maybe a part II for this post?
My thought is that, with time, vehicle movements will be seen as a characteristic military scene associated with Iraq and Afghanistan soldier fiction, one at right up there with portraits of night-time Special Operations raids, gun-battles on Combat Outposts, in-theater memorial services, and welcome-home ceremonies. If that’s true, interested readers will turn back to the scenes above in the way Civil War buffs like to read about cavalry charges, World War I students read about trench warfare, and Vietnam narratives relish depictions of helicopter air assaults.
With the publication of Ray McPadden’s war memoir We March at Midnight, hard upon his novel And the Whole Mountain Burned, the already-robust body of war writing published by former soldiers (all officers, as it happens) of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division grows stronger. Joining McPadden, the count includes Adrian Bonenberger, Drew Pham, Kristin L. Rouse, Sean Parnell, and Brett Allen—each with one or more book-length works and/or many occasional pieces published in vet-writing journals and elsewhere, most about or inspired by deployments to Afghanistan with 10th Mountain. I include myself, too, by affiliation. Though I did not deploy with 10th Mountain to Iraq or Afghanistan, as the post-9/11 era dawned I was stationed at Fort Drum, NY, with the division, where I served first as the Secretary of the General Staff and then as the Executive Officer of 2-14 Infantry “Golden Dragons” in the division’s Second Brigade. Late in 2001, 2-14 did deploy to Kosovo on a peacekeeping mission, where we seethed with jealousy as sister battalions from 10th Mountain were among the first to fight in Afghanistan.
10th Mountain, as I remember it, was a no-frills, no-nonsense light infantry division. We had no sense of ourselves as an elite unit such as the 82nd Airborne or 75th Rangers, but we still took pride in our competency and toughness, which was honed by the brutal winter weather of New York state’s “North Country” hard-by Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. It’s fair to say that few requested assignment to 10th Mountain and Fort Drum, but once there we made the best of it. The “Mountain” part of the division name was an ode to the unit’s World War II roots in mountain-warfare and had little relation to flat Fort Drum save for the cold, snowy winters we endured. Still, the name and the heritage infused us with knowledge that to be a member of 10th Mountain stood for values and a tradition we better not let down. We trained hard and deployed often, even before 9/11. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unfolded, 10th Mountain units were on near-constant rotation to one of the two countries, leading to the claim that 10th Mountain has been the most deployed division in the Army since 2001. I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but if not, it’s got to be pretty close.
So, just based on sheer numbers, it’s probably not surprising that so many 10th Mountain soldiers sought expression for their stories and views-of-things in print. But is there anything more that might account for their impulse to write following service? And is there a particular tenor to the body of work by 10th Mountain vets? If so, what is it, and why?
Short answer: I don’t know. It might just be coincidence. It might be though that I’m afeard to face the truth, for at first blush 10th Mountain doesn’t come off very well in the memoirs and fiction written by its veterans. None of them in particular take aim at 10th Mountain as a flawed entity distinct from other, better units, but almost all give full vent to unsatisfactory deployment experiences. The dissatisfaction takes many shapes. For some, it was crystallization of the awareness of the futility and stupidity of the overall mission. For others, it was horrendous combat experiences that deprived them of their ability to take pride in their fighting prowess. Others describe toxic command climates and poor leadership. These last sting me in particular, for I know personally or by reputation many of the leaders mentioned by name or described fictionally in the works. Some I consider friends, and most I had a reasonably high regard for. Hell, I was a field-grade officer myself, and though a lowly one, probably more part of the problem than an antidote to it in the eyes of disgruntled and disappointed junior officers and soldiers.
Oh well, I’ll just have to deal with that. For students of America’s war in Afghanistan, there is much to be gleaned from the words of 10th Mountain veterans. If you want to know what fighting was like at battalion-level in work-a-day units in eastern Afghanistan, or what the range of attitudes toward the military, the mission, and Afghans were held by those who belonged to such units might be, Bonenberger, Parnell, Rouse, Pham, McPadden, and Allen have left quite a record. Much is admirable, some is not, most is understandable, and none is beyond critique. I don’t love it all equally, and it’s not all the same, but now’s not the time to make distinctions. It’s easy to tell the writers tried hard to do well while in Afghanistan as members of 10th Mountain, and now while trying to convey what was special about their experience in their books–even if by “special” we really mean “troubling.” Thank you all for writing, and I hope you find many more readers.
A selected list of fiction and memoir by 10th Mountain Division veterans. I’ve also included links to articles the authors have written about the end of the American war in Afghanistan.
Bret Allen, Kilroy Was Here (novel)
Adrian Bonenberger, Afghan Post (memoir) and The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War (short-stories)
Finally, a memoir about life at Fort Drum as the wife of a many-times deployed officer is Angie Ricketts’ No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife.
UPDATE: I’m reminded that poet Brian Turner soldiered as an enlisted infantryman in 10th Mountain Division and deployed with them to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000. An impressive addition to the roster of 10th Mountain writers!
Good fiction offers exemplary opportunity to consider what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling”—the mindset and emotional disposition and cognitive frames and processes that are experienced individually as part of a larger collective of similarly-minded people. Two recent works of fiction by veterans excel in their portrait of the structure of feeling of distinct cohorts: Army infantrymen in Afghanistan and young black Americans shaped by war and political conflict.
Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War
Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier is a collection of short-stories that draw on Bonenberger’s two tours in Afghanistan as an Army infantry officer and subsequent malaise in his first few years after service. Far from being rote auto-fiction describing familiar scenes frequently found in contemporary veterans’ writing, the stories draw artistic inspiration from the fanciful, often absurd and satirical, and mostly dark literary fiction Bonenberger enjoyed growing up. As Bonenberger writes in his Introduction, it was in his childhood and adolescent reading that he “first encountered the insane logic of Catch-22, there that I read The Good Soldier and Gulliver’s Travels.” Later, Bonenberger writes, “This collection was written in good faith, for a small but discerning audience in the spirit of a non-literal search for truth.”
The “non-literal” aspect of the stories reveals itself in flights of allegorical fancy that re-arrange realistic details and plausible soldier experience to heighten incongruities and dislocations of American warfaring in Afghanistan and its aftermath. In one story, for example, “The Uniform,” a soldier’s uniform comes to life, serving as the alter-ego or doppelganger to its owner’s civilian identity. Another example is the story “Captain America,” in which an Army officer named John Appleseed America returns to the same geographic locale on multiple tours in Afghanistan. The conceit allows the story to comment on military tactical and strategic success, or lack of, over years of repetitive endeavors to “win” in Afghanistan. Like “The Uniform,” it’s fairly obvious in description but graphic and resonant in execution through Bonenberger’s rendering of physical and emotional detail. In these regards the stories are very literal. It’s said that one of Bonenberger’s heroes, Joseph Heller, didn’t have to make anything up to write Catch-22, he just “had to take good notes.” Bonenberger eschews “nothing-but-the-facts” literary aesthetics as both dull and incapable of rendering the highest and most interesting truths, but Bonenberger has observed much of infantry battalion culture and its byways, as well as the tactics of contemporary warfighting, and he gets more of these specifics into his stories than most.
Connecting everything in The Disappointed Soldier is a sense of what short-story master O. Henry describes as the classic short-story plot: a man (or person) who bets on himself and comes up short. A deep-seated sense of how personal failure is linked to the impossibility of the Afghanistan mission is reflected in the collection’s title story, and many other stories also channel the spirit of the sadder-but-wiser protagonists of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wonderful tales “Young Goodman Brown,” “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” and “My Kinsman Major Molineux.” Much veteran fiction and memoir reflects its authors’ sense they have been cheated out of honorable, productive, self-affirming deployments by incompetent military leadership and stupid, incoherent missions. Bonenberger’s aware of these things but refuses to give his protagonists a pass: he susses that the more interesting story to tell is of a soldier’s recognition of how their own shortcomings lead to disillusionment, with little room left to blame anyone but themselves. Understanding that military social capital and self-esteem are built out of a house-of-cards in which the four suits are vanity, ambition, self-delusion, and concern for status and appearance, the stories in The Disappointed Soldier dissect this impossible-to-sustain admixture and depict the despair when the cards come tumbling down.
Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors
The story proper in Dewaine Farria’s novel Revolutions of All Colors recounts the lives of three young black men who come of age in the period from 1995-2005. Putting the men’s exploits and thoughts in perspective is a long first chapter set in New Orleans in 1970 that describes a police crackdown on a local Black Panther chapter, with one of the characters involved a black woman whose job as a city official brings her ideas about black uplift in tension with the much more militant ideas about the same held by the Panthers. The first chapter is terrific: the period-and-place detail thick and rich and the worldviews and personalities of the actors—animated by rage but distinct in their manifestation—vividly described. Not to pour it on too much, but the first chapter reminded me of the fiery fiction and commentary I associate with Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, and I leaned forward in anticipation of how Farria would bring his critical and literary acumen to bear on his more contemporary protagonists’ lives and what might be said of race relations in America in the 21st century.
By contrast, however, the interlinked lives of his three modern black Americans—Simon (the son of the woman featured in Chapter One) and brothers Michael and Gabriel are much more placid and unfocused. The young men, from relatively prosperous and stable families, come-of-age in a small Oklahoma town, and while race is never not an issue, the young men seem to feel far less keenly the effects of racism than do their parents, whose constant admonishments that black Americans must never let their guards down seem to lack practical everyday relevance. As the young men explore life possibilities, they appear, frankly, more bemused by white people than at war with them, and just as adrift as many of their young white contemporaries, and they cycle through young-adult career options such as the military, grad school, overseas employment, mixed-martial arts fighting, metropolitan artiste-life, and the like in ways that don’t seem especially tinged by racial hostility and foreclosure of opportunities. All this, I believe, is by design and Farria’s point: he’s describing an interregnum in modern black American life set midway between the Civil Rights/black-militant era and the post-Obama resurgence of much more overt racial tension, when a false calm in the historical storm of American race-relations seemed to prevail and young blacks (perhaps much as Farria himself) struggled to define their relation to the peculiar social-historical circumstances in which they found themselves. Events in Revolutions of All Colors bring the three protagonists to begin a more sustained and mature appraisal of their elders’ lives and ideas, and I can’t help but think that if Farria were to write a sequel that follows his protagonists into the present, their thoughts would grow even more piquant and their actions more consequential.
Farria has served as a Marine and United Nations security advisor in numerous global hotspots, to include Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military and war enter into Revolutions of All Colors not so much in regard to Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom but Vietnam and political-social strife in Ukraine and Somalia. One of his protagonists—Simon–serves in Afghanistan as an Air Force pararescueman and later does a stint in Somalia as a security contractor during a period of factional fighting, while other episodes featuring Gabriel are set in Ukraine, where the “Orange Revolution” launched against Russia serves as a backdrop. Simon’s and Gabriel’s thoughts about political violence, however, are cursory in comparison to the weight given in the novel to Vietnam as a crucible of life-forming worldview for many of the Black Panthers described in Chapter One and the father of Michael and Gabriel described in following chapters. For black men who served in Vietnam, a racist military intensified their political awakening while combat inculcated ideas and values about the discipline and training required to fight for one’s rights and stand one’s ground. They also learned to love, or at least appreciate, the thrill of the fight and the sometime necessity of violence, for better or worse in roughly equal measures, though probably mostly better given the precarity and watchfulness required of black life in white-dominated America. This proposition is very interesting to consider, both as it is fuzzily refracted in Simon’s martial inclinations and Gabriel’s and Michael’s lack of the same, and in contemplation of the ways war in Iraq and Afghanistan might shape the outlook of contemporary veterans, both black and white, as they move forward into adulthood.
Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War. Kolo, 2021.
Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors. Syracuse University Press, 2020.
Time Now’s pace-of-production has dramatically slowed this year for a variety of reasons, even as Time Now itself celebrated its 10th birthday on June 23. From 40 or so posts a year circa 2015, this is only my fifth so far in 2021. Part of the reason for the decline is technical: for reasons inexplicable WordPress has forced me to change the lay-out of the blog, and I have to say the new look has unsettled me. Whatever gain in readability may have accrued, the loss of the familiar format has deflated inspiration. Even worse, behind the public face of Time Now I’ve lost the ability to easily edit posts on the WordPress platform—a serious liability that must be fixable, but which has thus far proven beyond me to do so. Very demoralizing, not because I often go back and substantially revise old posts, but it changes the nature of how I compose and publish, and even small corrections of typos and formatting glitches are hard.
That said, here I’m going to quickly consider a series of war-writing events and works that in past years might have merited much more attention. This will have to suffice for now, but perhaps I can circle back to any or all of the subjects I offer brief descriptions of below.
1. Be sure to check-out my interview with Iraqi expatriate author Hassan Blasim recently published by The Wrath-Bearing Tree. Blasim may more definitively be described as “conflict-and-violence” than a “war” writer, but his work has always struck me and others in the war-writing scene as an important counterpoint to the American-centric focus of contemporary war-and-mil writing by American authors. In the interview Blasim describes the artistic genesis of his new novel God 99, which he firmly locates in the experience of growing up in Iraq under the influence of Saddam Hussein and Iraq war.
2. I just participated in a war-writing panel at the American Literature Association conference—a welcome return to public academic consideration of war-writing following fifteen months of social isolation. The title of our panel and the individual presentations speak to the focus and range of our concerns:
Writing War in the 21st-Century: Unbound Perspectives on the Global War on Terror
Hilary Lithgow: “A 21st Century Chapter for [Samuel Hynes’] The Soldier’s Tale.”
Peter Molin: “Wayward Warfaring: Black Voices in Contemporary War-Writing”
Stacey Peebles: “‘A precious jewel among the wreckage of this country’: Contemporary Iraqi War Fiction.”
Brian Williams: “What kind of crazy fits this war?: Considering the ‘Global’ in the Global War on Terror” [focused on Phil Klay’s Missionaries].
Thanks to Brian Williams for organizing and Melissa Parrish for moderating, as well as to my fellow panelists.
3. Keeping up with new war-writing titles has continued apace. Below are capsule descriptions of recent releases, with a focus on summary rather than assessment and analysis. Buy and read any that sound appealing!
a. Maximilian Uriarte’s Battle-Born: Lapis Lazuli. Uriarte’s follow-up graphic novel to his impressive and important The White Donkey is set in Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, and expands The White Donkey’s focus on soldier trauma to a much wider range of concerns: racism, misogyny, economic exploitation of natural resources, and the lives and perspectives of civilians caught in the turmoil of war and conflict, while also introducing new characters serving in Uriarte’s beloved Marines. Befitting the expanded range of concerns, Battle Born’s artwork is much more lavish than The White Donkey’s, featuring a more striking color palette and more panoramic and detailed drawings.
b. Perry O’Brien’s Fire in the Blood is a welcome full-length novel by the latest (but hopefully not the last) vet-author who first came to prominence as a contributor to the seminal Fire and Forget anthology in 2013. Fire in the Blood begins as a detective whodunit, as its protagonist, a soldier AWOL from duty in Afghanistan, tries to solve the mystery of his wife’s death in New York City. Morphing as it goes, Fire in the Blood evolves into something of an action-thriller as the vet-protagonist battles richy-rich and super-sketchy antagonists who stymie the vet’s pursuit of justice. The descriptions of exotically-sordid characters and places in The Bronx excel.
c. Brett Allen’s Kilroy Was Here’s first-person narrator is a junior officer stuck on battalion staff during his Army unit’s dismal rotation in Afghanistan in 2008-2009. Underappreciated and marginalized by his chain-of-command, the narrator paints a striking picture of toxic military leadership that sometimes comically but ultimately sadly seems to reflect reports by many junior officers who feel they were cheated out of more rewarding tours by their own leaders. Satire and ridicule are the narrator’s primary weapons for exacting revenge, and a plot that allows the narrator’s superior understanding of events and fighting prowess to eventually shine furthers the comeuppance. The portrait of a battalion deployment and internal dynamics, as well as the complexities of missions in Afghanistan, will resonate with readers who have experienced such things, such as me.
d. Travis Klempan’s Have Snakes, Need Birds’ subject is an Army battalion’s tour in Iraq, with the focus on a sergeant of mysterious provenance and talents (he communicates telepathically with birds, for starters) with no specific assignment except to accompany the designated platoon sergeant of an infantry platoon to add experience and be ready to take over “just-in-case.” The reason for this odd setup is not fully explained, and as the novel proceeds, Klempan adds further mysterious and fantastical elements that bespeak an interest in magical realism and speculative-horror fiction. Determined not to be just another war-novel, Have Snakes, Need Bird’s strength lies in its protagonist’s wrangle with his own doubts as he only half-understands how supernatural forces, a vexing mission, and an enigmatic romantic interest collude to bring him to a rendezvous with combat-zone destiny.
4. Two more titles await reading: Former Marine Dewaine Farria’s Revolutions of All Colors, about, among other things, a black Special Forces veteran trying to make his way in the complicated contemporary social and political landscape, and Adrian Bonenberger’s The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War, a collection of darkly absurdist tales and ruminations about war and military by the author of the excellent memoir Afghan Post and the founder of the estimable The Wrath-Bearing Tree website.
That’s all folks–and now back to your regularly scheduled summers.
Brett Allen, Kilroy Was Here. A15 Publishing, 2020.
Hassan Blasim, God 99. Comma Press, 2020. Translated by Jonathan Wright.
Adrian Bonenberger, The Disappointed Soldier and Other Stories from War. KOLO, 2021.
Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors. Syracuse University Press, 2020.
Travis Klempan, Have Snakes, Need Birds. Koehlerbooks, 2020.
Perry O’Brien, Fire in the Blood. Random House, 2020.
Maximilian Uriarte, Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli. Little, Brown and Company, 2020.
The United States withdrew the bulk of its armed forces from Iraq in 2011, an endgame move that brings to mind the expression “just declare victory and then leave.” Fighting, or war, of course didn’t stop in Iraq in 2011, but the nature of it changed. With the Americans gone and Baghdad somewhat quiet, the action moved north and west of the capital. In Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, the Sinjar Mountains region, and on into Syria, Sunni-fundamentalist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters terrorized those they labeled non-believers while waging war against the Iraqi Armed Forces and various local militias. The Kurdistan city of Mosul became the locus of much of the fighting, especially since the Kurdish Peshmerga militia proved resolutely stout in the face of ISIS, by all accounts much more so than the Iraq army.
The Kurd fight against ISIS features in Mike Freedman’s 2019 novel King of the Mississippi, and the movie Mosul, directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan, also appearing in 2019.
King of the Mississippi
In truth, fighting on the ground in Mosul occurs only in the mostly-comic King of the Mississippi’s concluding chapters, when the novel’s central characters, two Houston-based business consultants, are sucked into battle with a combined U.S.-British special operations outfit operating in support of the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Armed Forces. Author Mike Freedman seems to have based these scenes on his own experience, as his bio relates that he served in the U.S. Army Special Forces (“Green Berets”) before obtaining an MBA and becoming a business consultant himself. The portrait of the special operators is extremely flattering, which is not to say it is necessarily wrong or without interest. The two consultants, in Iraq on some puffed-up, cock-eyed business scheme, are suitably unimpressed by anything the U.S. conventional Army has to show them in their camps around Baghdad, which they must pass through enroute to Kuridistan, but they, and the third-person narrator, too, are all agog at what they behold in the highly-trained A-team:
Each person on the twelve-man team had a specialty, and they all trained each other in the specialties. If this team was indicative of the talent of other Special Forces teams, Special Forces could smoke any consulting dream team in concentration of talent. Of the two communications sergeants on the team, the senior radio operator had been an investment banker in New York at Goldman Sachs until volunteering for service after the 9/11 attacks, and his no-neck junior, a half-Hispanic weightlifting beast of a man with fluency in three languages, had attended Harvard as an undergraduate on scholarship, graduating in just three years with honors.
Nothing that happens after this glowing portrait deflates the high regard with which King of the Mississippi portrays the team. The leader, “Luke,” offers a fine, no-BS pep-talk before the men roll-out on their mission:
For our two SF babies out of the Q course who joined us in country last month and are hungry to get some, be ready to get your gun on. We all accepted there would be risks when we signed up. Our mission is to influence our battlespace through combat advising. Sometimes we have to get creative to make that happen. Be cognizant of civilians on the battlefield if we get attacked. We know what ISIS’s MO is when it pertains to civilians. As always, don’t do anything that would disgrace the regiment.
The novel as a whole validates the special operater warrior-way, as one of the protagonists himself is a former Green Beret who brings his wily outside-the-box approach to high-end consulting:
For a decade I trained not only on how to operationally liberate the oppressed, but also how to free your mind from the oppression of conventional thinking…. The relevance of my graduate work in the Special Forces Qualification Course is that I have unique professional training and a record of success in solving and analyzing complex problems.
The speaker’s name is Mike Fink, like the legendary American huckster-frontiersman referred to in the novel’s title (with initials “M-F” like the author’s). Fink’s not a smooth operator, and the clunkiness and presumptuousness of his self-description, offered early in the novel, makes other characters and readers too (at least this one) wonder if he is being set up as a humorous foil. But as the novel proceeds, we learn that Fink is not to be underestimated and that Freedman is not joking: what ails big business and America at large can be remedied by letting our unconventional elite fighters take charge.
There is much more about King of the Mississippi and author Mike Freedman that interests me, but let’s keep the focus on Mosul….
The movie Mosul doesn’t kid around. Set in Mosul from start-to-finish over the course of a very long day, there’s no waiting for the combat action to start: it’s “guns-on” from the opening scene, a terrific shoot-out that introduces the main characters and sets the story speeding forward. Two Kurdish Mosul policemen are ambushed by a large ISIS force as they try to arrest two insurgent sympathizers, and just as they run out of bullets they are rescued by an offshoot renegade band of battle-hardened Peshmerga militiamen known as the Ninevah SWAT team. “Since when did we start arresting Daesh?” asks the team leader shortly before ordering the execution of the last two ISIS fighters alive. One of the policemen, a young recruit named Kawa, is enlisted into the Ninevah SWAT on the spot and, over the course of the movie and the day, Kawa not only develops the instinct for survival it takes to fight ISIS, he (and we) learns the humanizing backstories that drive militia-men to be as committed to each other and to their mission as they are.
Mosul is excellent–86 taught minutes of compelling story-telling and action. I watched it twice without blinking, and most war movies have me distractedly surfing the Internet ten minutes in. The plot is something of a twist on the picaresque last/lost patrol motif familiar from Saving Private Ryan and many others, but at every turn director Matt Carnahan infuses the story-line with interesting and even surprising inflections. Much of this is accomplished at the level of brisk staging of scenes and inspired camera angles, as in many interior scenes of Ninevah SWAT traveling about the Mosul battlefield in their up-armored Humvees. It’s even more so at the level of screenwriting (Mosul is based on a New Yorker story by Luke Mogelson) and acting. Carnahan focalizes the story through the perspective of his two protagonists: the wizened Ninevah SWAT leader Major Jasem, played by Suhail Dabbach, and the fresh recruit Kawa, played by Adam Bessa. Dabbach and Bessa are both outstanding, each easily capable of holding interest in sustained close-ups and even more engaging as we watch them deal with war’s circumstance and the increasingly tight bonds of their relationship. I don’t know if I’d say either Dabbach or Bessa is handsome, but both give the appearance of being intelligent and soulful, and thus compelling to watch; by contrast so many American male leads in war movies look bland and dopey. Probably just the camera lighting and make-up, right?, but still. Dabbach is an Iraqi expatriate who had small roles in The Hurt Locker and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. More please soon (and I just read more is forthcoming as Dabbach has a role in the upcoming movie version of Nico Walker’s Cherry). Bessa, a ringer for Marine vet author Elliot Ackerman, is a French-Tunisian actor with a string of acclaimed roles in European movies to his credit—I’ll be interested in anything he acts in, too.
Americans barely figure in Mosul, which makes it something of a wonder that the movie was made by an American studio and directed by an American director, with dialogue in Arabic with English subtitles. No one interested in the human side of ISIS (whatever that might look like) is going to love Mosul, as it firmly wears its allegiance to Kurds and the victims of ISIS on its sleeve, but the movie soars above partisanship on the strengths of its vision of the violence of war and the vivid characterization of those forced to fight for their lives against a hated and ruthless enemy.
Mike Freedman, King of the Mississippi. Random House-Hogarth, 2019.
Mosul, directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan. AGBO, Conde Nast Entertainment, 2019.
NOTE: My blog platform, WordPress, has changed its editing feature in such a way that makes it much harder for me to upload pictures and videos, so until I can figure that out I’ll do without. Ah well, for ten years, creating Time Now posts has been the same simple process, so not a big fan of the change, but will carry on as we can.
The Wrath-Bearing Tree website offered me a chance to host their podcast this month and I wasn’t about to say no. I asked my friend Patrick Deer, the head of New York University’s Cultures of War symposium, if he would join me in talking to Matt Gallagher about Gallagher’s Empire City, a dystopian novel that presciently portrays a dysfunctional America wracked by endless war-faring, rampant militarism, and dueling tribes of veterans. Deer said “yes,” Gallagher said “yes,” and so off we went. Give us a listen please, and no problem if you fast forward to passages that interest you most:
Matthew Komatsu reviews Empire City for The Wrath-Bearing Tree here.
Peter Lucier’s reviewof Empire City for The Strategy Bridge is also recommended.
Matt Gallagher is the author of Kaboom (2010), Youngblood (2016), and Empire City (2020). With Roy Scranton, he is the editor of the veterans-fiction anthology Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (2013).
Patrick Deer is Associate Professor of English at New York University and the author of Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (2009). His current book projects are titled Deep England: Forging British Culture After Empire and Surge and Silence: Understanding America’s Cultures of War.
Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades” can be found in anthology The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War (2016), edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner.
Thanks to Adrian Bonenberger and The Wrath-Bearing Tree for everything they do.
2020 saw the continuing emergence of a vibrant cohort of veteran fiction-writers formed by war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Phil Klay’s Missionaries, Matt Gallagher’s Empire City, and Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black and White solidified their authors’ positions on the top of the war-writing mountain, as defined by major publishing contracts, critical acclaim in high-profile venues, and substantive ancillary writing opportunities. Odie Lindsey’s Some Go Home and Jessie Goolsby’s Acceleration Hours announced that two more war-writing scene vets were also back in action with something to say. Maximillian Uriarte’s graphic novel Battle Born: Lapus Lazuli did not receive the acclaim or the popularity of his most excellent White Donkey or Terminal Lance cartoons, but riches lie waiting exploration by alert readers. Likewise with Perry O’Brien’s Fire in the Blood, significant, if for nothing else (but not just), because it’s new work by yet-one-more vet-author first launched into print by the seminal 2013 Fire and Forget anthology.
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) Brett Allen (Army), Kilroy Was Here (2020) Phil Klay (USMC), Missionaries (2020) Travis Klempan (Navy), Have Snakes, Need Birds (2020) Odie Lindsey (Army), Some Go Home (2020) Perry O’Brien (Army), Fire in the Blood (2020) Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), Battle Born: Lapus Lazuli (2020)
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, 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) The Outpost, Rod Lurie, director (2020)
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.