War Fiction, Summer 2021

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.

https://www.wrath-bearingtree.com/2021/07/new-interview-of-author-hassan-blasim-by-peter-molin/

Hassan Blasim

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.

Mosul

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….

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.

Veterans and Forever War: Talking Empire City with Matt Gallagher

The new United States of Zoom: Patrick Deer, me, Matt Gallagher

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:

Veterans and Forever War: Talking Empire City with Matt Gallagher

2:45:  Gallagher discusses Words After War, the writing workshop he teaches in New York City (and which is sponsored by NYU’s Cultures of War)

8:00:  We discuss Elliot Ackerman’s short-story “Two Grenades.”

27:25:  Discussion of Empire City begins.

51:00:  Gallagher offers thoughts about the veteran presence in the January 6 storming of the Capital, and what it was like knowing that his brother was one of those besieged inside.

My review of Empire City is here.

Matthew Komatsu reviews Empire City for The Wrath-Bearing Tree here.

Peter Lucier’s review of 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. 

Matt Gallagher in Camden, NJ, 2016. I wanted to pose him in front of Walt Whitman’s house, but somehow we ended up a couple of doors down.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction, Poetry, and Film 2020

US Army Abu Company, 1-187 Infantry Regiment “Rakkasans” on patrol in Paktika province, Afghanistan. Photo by Bill Putnam.

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.

Equally notable, from my point-of-view, has been the continued or even re-energized vibrancy of the online vet-writing scene. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention for a few years, but for whatever reason, pandemic or otherwise, this year I’ve been frequently entertained and often impressed by the vet stories and verse I’ve read online in venues such as The Wrath-Bearing TreeMilitary Experience & the Arts; War, Literature & the Arts; and 0-Dark-Thirty. In the same vein, the anthology of Line of Advance award-winning poetry and prose Our Best War Stories is full of striking stories and fresh voices that I mostly missed upon their release, going back to 2016. The divide between professional and amateur vet-writing is a thing, but cross-boundary pleasure and pollination are everywhere possible.

Small and indie presses help bridge the divide between professional publishing realm and amateur online authorial ranks (does an analogy to distinctions separating Special Operations, Regular Army, and National Guard troops work here?). I’ve just got my hands on two small-press novels, Brett Allen’s Kilroy Was Here, about war in Afghanistan, and Travis Klempan’s Have Snakes, Need Birds, set in Iraq, and am looking forward to reading them. 

New poetry was scarcer in 2020. Volume-length works include Colin Halloran’s American Etiquette and Phil Metres’ Shrapnel Maps, neither of which directly portray fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, though they seem extensions of previous work by their authors that did.

The only 2020 movie I’m aware of about Iraq and Afghanistan is The Outpost, directed by Rod Lurie, about “the battle of Kamdesh” (COP Keating) in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, in 2009. The Outpost joins two excellent episodes of the Netflix series Medal of Honor in recounting the heroics of the soldiers who fought that day.

A reason for worry in 2020 was the low-profile or absence of many veteran-authors whose early works delighted and promised much. Yes, the gestation period for new writing can be long, but I’m not even hearing peeps and blips signaling activity from authors whose voices I admire and miss….

I’m also curious how the next round of new fiction, poetry, and film portrays the continuing cultural reverberations of the post-9/11 Forever Wars. Taking war to Iraq and Afghanistan seems now an even worse idea than it was at the time, and the execution of the wars has been, if anything, worse than their intent and design. Even worse than worse, many veterans are full of atrocious ideas fervently held about what their veteran status entitles them to and what their deployments have taught them. I’m not sure that fiction and art can do much in the face of such “passionate intensity,” as Yeats called it, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try.  

Anyway, here’s the list. I haven’t included new works such as Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black and White that don’t directly portray scenes set in Iraq or Afghanistan, while I include those such as Phil Klay’s Missionaries, where deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan serve as a significant back-story to the main action. If I’m missing anything let me know; additions and corrections are easy. New entries are bolded.

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)
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 (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)
The Outpost, Rod Lurie, director (2020)

Civ-Mil Reading Group: Thom Jones, Siobhan Fallon, Philip Caputo

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.

Lindsey, Ackerman, Klay

2020’s brought four anticipated novels by acclaimed veteran-authors of contemporary war fiction, courtesy of major publishing houses. I’ve written on Matt Gallagher’s Empire City previously, and here will survey Odie Lindsey’s Some Go Home, Elliot Ackerman’s Red Dress in Black & White, and Phil Klay’s Missionaries, with a little more attention paid to Missionaries, befitting Klay’s status within the vet-writing and national literary scenes. None of the novels make events in Iraq and Afghanistan central to their plots, but the 21st-century Global War on Terror wars percolate more-or-less in the background of the events and characters described. Each novel illustrates in its way GWOT vet-authors transitioning from sagas of junior-enlisted and junior-officer deployment exploits and rocky homecomings with more general reckoning of how forever war has wrenched the lives of adult men-and-women (often now with spouses and children), the national commonweal, and the international polity.

Spoiler alert: My write-ups address events in each novel that occur at or near their ends, so be advised.

Odie Lindsey, Some Go Home. Some Go Home covers much the same ground as Lindsey’s excellent collection of short stories We Come to Our Senses: the interplay of modern war and the modern American south, as viewed through the eyes of veterans trying to connect their military experience with the vibrant New South cultural landscape shaped by intense social change and incessant regard for history. The south is widely held to be more supportive of soldiers and patriotic war-faring than other parts of the country, but Some Go Home portrays Iraq and Afghanistan war as being as distant and unknown in Dixie as elsewhere in the country. The protagonist of Some Go Home, an Iraq War Army veteran named Colleen, is viewed as something of an oddity by the other residents of the fictional town of Pitchlynn, Mississippi. The locals are too preoccupied by time-consuming and sometimes crazy events of their own lives to be anything but politely bemused by her tour and whatever battle-tested wisdom she might have obtained. Colleen herself struggles to put the pieces together; she is a bit of a cypher, not especially thoughtful or expressive and prone to odd fits of inscrutable behavior, even as she wins beauty pageants, suffers through opioid addiction, and marries into a prominent local family embroiled in multi-generational race-related drama. Though Colleen presides over Some Go Home’s opening and closing chapters, she is only an intermittent presence in the novel’s long middle, which alternately trace laughable and deadly serious aspects of contemporary Pitchlynn—the point being that the south’s piquant flavor is the result of the intensity of its polar extremes. As the novel concludes, Colleen departs Pitchlynn on what is depicted as a search for coherent and independent self-hood that can be obtained only by leaving, much as Stephen Daedalus must flee Dublin at the end of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. Stephen is determined “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of his race,” which to a certain extent is what Joyce offers us in subsequent works Dubliners and Ulysses. Perhaps Some Go Home is the prequel for Lindsay’s next novel, in which Colleen makes sense of the swirling personal, regional, national, and international imperatives traced so interestingly in this one.

Elliot Ackerman, Red Dress in Black & White. As in two of Ackerman’s previous novels, the locale of Red Dress in Black & White is a frayed corner of the American-dominated global order. In this case, the setting is modern Istanbul, where a glitzy new-fangled Western-sheen threaten to erase Islamic traditions and older life-rhythms. One protagonist is Catherine, a bored, unfulfilled American wife of a Turkish business tycoon. Another is Peter, an American war-photojournalist now embarked on an artistic project photographing everyday Turks. Catherine has affairs, and Peter doesn’t scruple about sleeping with married women, so it’s not surprising what ensues when they meet to plan a showing of Peter’s work in a Turkish museum of which Catherine is a director. Their romance plays out against a backdrop of Turkish civil strife and political intrigue that eventually ensnares Catherine and Peter, both in the corridors of power and out in the streets, and Peter is given to philosophizing about photography aesthetics, so there’s a lot going on in Red Dress in Black & White (the title refers to a photograph that figures prominently in the novel). Ackerman’s wont, however, is to touch things quickly rather than dwell on them, and thus the novel, depending greatly on atmosphere and suggestion, reads briskly. Catherine and Peter are cosmopolitan sophisticates, and the novel suggests their affair is not to be condemned, but understood as an inevitable by-product of expatriate rootlessness, or perhaps commensurate with the tangled complexity of Turkish society and politics, especially as it is informed, or infected, by US interventionism. That comes in the form of Kristen, a CIA operative who pulls strings from behind the façade of a bland embassy job—she’s a modern-day Madame Defarge whose array of constantly buzzing cell-phones replaces the click-clacking needles in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Ackerman is fond of big reveals and unexpected denouements, and I won’t spoil the main one that arrives in Red Dress & Black and White, but the gradual emergence of Kristin as a key player in Turkish politics and finance and as the novel’s major character in its last third is another development not apparent from the novel’s opening chapters. That the CIA might still wield such power, and have it flexed so proficiently by a junior analyst, is not what I would have guessed is true of the world these days, but Red Dress in Black & White nicely suggests how it might be so.

Phil Klay, Missionaries. Missionaries is Klay’s first novel and first book since his 2014 National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment. Redeployment’s stories featured thoughtful, even cerebral, veterans ruminating about their experience, often in dialogue with interlocutors or in first-person confessional mode with the reader. Much of that reflective working-out of events is on display in Missionaries, too, only the characters are older, with more life experience and lessons-learned under their belts than the typical Redeployment protagonist—as does Klay himself, funny as that is to say about an author with a National Book Award under his belt. In any case, Missionaries manifests facets of literary craft not evident in Redeployment: thick physical descriptions of landscapes and social milieus, vivid action scenes, deep dives into characters’ thoughts and back-stories, and deft flavoring of the characters’ perspectives with the author’s own. The sentences, both those narrated and those spoken by characters, sparkle with unexpected turns and insights.

The plot recounts a fictional minor episode late in the very-real decades-long conflict among regional paramilitaries, drug-running “narcos,” and the legitimate government of Columbia. That conflict that resolved itself circa 2015–the year the novel is set–in favor of the government, which by accounts is reasonably democratic, committed to fairness and legality, and respected in the eyes of the Columbian people and the world. To the extent that American military aid has helped achieve this state, Columbia is an example, as one character puts it, of a war that “America is not losing.” But the actual Americans portrayed in Missionaries, two former Special Operators named Mason and Diego, and a war-journalist named Lisette, are hapless, almost pathetic, fully considered. Mason and Diego were team buddies in Iraq and Afghanistan—a scene describing a big battle they fought in Afghanistan is terrific. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Mason and Diego were on top of their game, while Columbia, by contrast, for them is an extreme diminution, encountered full-stop just as they are entering peak-adult maturity and vitality. Mason as a military advisor and Diego as a security contractor have little to offer the Columbians that might either help the Columbians or reinforce their self-images as warfighters whose authority should be respected. As Mason rues, all the competent and battle-tested Columbian army really wants from him are helicopters for troop transport; they’ll take care of everything else just fine themselves (I heard much the same from Afghan army officers on my tour as an advisor). Lisette, like Mason and Diego, is now past 30 with little to show for it. Burned-out in Afghanistan, she arrives in Columbia looking for a career-revitalizing story, and instead becomes the big story herself when she is kidnapped by one of the factions in the Columbian civil war.

For all that, the principal characters in Missionaries are Columbians: Abel, whose penchant for business makes him a valuable pawn in the internecine civil war, and Juan Pablo, an army lieutenant colonel whose savvy cynicism gives him a curiously sanguine view of things, even when war threatens not so much his life, but his job and his family. Late in Missionaries, we find Juan Pablo in retirement from the Columbian army and now working as an intelligence analyst contractor in the Middle East, where his American counterparts strike him as naïve and foolish. Juan Pablo’s take seems to be that when you are fighting pure evil, or a greater evil, one mustn’t be fussy about breaking a few eggs to make the war-“not losing” omelet. As we read about him lecturing Americans about—get this—not just the necessity but the success of the War on Terror in curbing Islamic terrorism, we wonder what Missionaries is trying to tell us. Something about man’s capacity for brutality, something about what happens when politics is warped by violence, something about wars’ all-encompassing reach, certainly, but also something too about the relationship of means and ends, and how winning might be measured by different yardsticks than conventionally supposed. It’s an idea about the forever wars bold of Klay to express out-loud, if only in the mouth of a fictional character. Juan Pablo is not just another character, though, but one with most-favored-nation status within Missionaries, so does the novel endorse his view, or are we meant to see him now as a degraded apologist for endless war and a deluded cog in the war machine? Hard to tell, and who’s to say?

All three novels give prominent page space to women characters, as if a woman’s negotiation with endless war and its consequences were as interesting or important to consider as a man’s—gasp–or a story that has not yet been often or well-told. Indeed, the men in the novels are more predictable and obviously motivated, as if their ideas and actions responded to well-worn social imperatives and considerations. The women characters, on the other hand, are inscrutable and mysterious, and given to impulsive and unpredictable, even reckless, behavior, predilections that also bespeak courage and imagination. That’s part of their allure, no doubt, but also proof-positive of their need to improvise in the face of circumstances, as well as ability to do so. The exception that proves the rule is Red Dress in Black & White’s Kristin, whose methodical exploitation of opportunities and relentless eye-on-the-main-prize are so formidable they make many of the other characters spread across the three novels appear aimless and feeble in comparison.

Odie Lindsey, Some Go Home. Norton, 2020.

Elliot Ackerman, Red Dress in Black & White. Knopf Doubleday, 2020.

Phil Klay, Missionaries. Canongate Books, 2020.

Summer Pandemic Reading: Matt Gallagher and Jesse Goolsby

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

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

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

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.