Posted tagged ‘War fiction’

Long Wars, Short Stories

September 7, 2019

Helicopter Landing Zone, Camp Clark/Camp Parsa, Afghanistan

I own eleven short-story collections about war in Afghanistan and Iraq published by major publishing houses in the last decade. Eleven such books seems like a lot–not to own so many, though there’s that, but to have been published. What accounts for the form’s popularity? Most of the collection are written by veterans who are first-time authors, so maybe short fiction provides a more accessible start point in the writing game for young authors than, say, a novel. But perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the plain difficulty of writing a novel about soldiers at war. Crafting a 200 or 400 page story focused through the eyes of a teenager or young adult can’t be easy. Creating a fictional military microcosm rich and textured enough to sustain a novel must also be tough for authors whose vista of military life and culture was that of a Joe in a rifle squad. Conjuring a suspenseful plot out of a deployment year characterized by Groundhog Day routine has got to be hard, too. Not impossible, but I’d say something about going to war presents itself as a collection of experiences to be related in the form of an event or a poignant moment, rather than as a long narrative journey with a destination firmly in mind.

In any case, here’s a list of the eleven short-story collections I own. I like them and think about them in much the same way I do favorite records and songs. I’ve read each of the collections at least twice, and some more times than that. It’s a rare week that I don’t pull one of them off the shelf and reacquaint myself with a favorite story.

Siobhan Fallon, You Know When the Men Are Gone. Amy Einhorn, 2011. Favorite story: “The Last Stand.” Second favorite: “Leave.” I write about You Know When the Men Are Gone here.

Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq. Penguin, 2013. My favorite story is “The Green Zone Rabbit.” Second favorite: “An Army Newspaper.” I write about The Corpse Exhibition here.

Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, eds., Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. Da Capo, 2013. I highly recommend all the stories in Fire and Forget; my two favorites are Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips for a Smooth Transition.” I write about Fire and Forget here and here and here.

Katey Schultz, Flashes of War. Apprentice House-Loyola, 2013. Favorite story: “The Ghost of Sanchez.” Second favorite: “Home on Leave.” I write about Flashes of War here.

Phil Klay, Redeployment. Penguin, 2014. My favorite story is “Prayer in the Furnace.” Second favorite: “Money as a Weapons System.” I write about Redeployment here.

Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead. Tim Duggan Books, 2016. Favorite story: “To the Lake.” Second favorite: “New Guidance.” I write about These Heroic, Happy Dead here.

Odie Lindsey, We Come to Our Senses. Norton, 2016. My favorite story is “So Bored in Nashville.” Second favorite: “Chicks.” I write about We Come to Our Senses here.

Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, eds. The Road Ahead. Pegasus, 2017. I highly recommend all the stories in The Road Ahead, but if I had to name two I like most they’d be Benjamin Busch’s “Into the Land of Dogs” and Kristen L. Rouse’s “Pawns.” I write about The Road Ahead here.

Caleb S. Cage, Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada. University of Nevada, 2017. My favorite story is “This Is Not Burning Man.” Second favorite: “Operation Battle Mountain.” I write about Desert Mementos here.

Jon Chopan, Veterans Crisis Hotline. University of Massachusetts, 2018. Favorite story: “Crisis Hotline.” Second favorite: “Rules of Engagement.” I write about Veterans Crisis Hotline  here.

Will Mackin, Bring Out the Dog. Random House, 2018. My favorite story is “Crossing the River No Name.” Second favorite: “Welcome Man Will Never Fly.” I write about Bring Out the Dog here.

Finally, I’ll plug my four short-stories about post-9//11 war that I’ve posted on Time Now:

“Cy and Ali”

“Junior and Io: A Guard-Tower Reverie”

Sergeant Arrack and Captain Athens”

“Ari and Theodopulous”

 

War Adventure/Military Thriller

August 7, 2019

In a 2014 Los Angeles Review of Books article titled “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” author Brian Castner wonders why so few novels have been written about America’s long war in Afghanistan. One idea Castner considers is that Operation Enduring Freedom was fought mainly by special operators—serious warfighters who lacked the artistic, empathetic, and reflective bents required to write fiction. To the point, Castner quotes Brandon Willitts, a vet-writer who served in Afghanistan as intelligence analyst in support US Army Special Forces:

“These guys are such high achievers, Olympic athletes who have been trained to kill,” [Willitts] says. “They’ve spent a decade doing night raids. And now you want them to sit in a chair and write a novel? You might as well ask why more NFL players aren’t writing novels.”

Castner’s query and Willitts’ comment, rather than foreclosing future possibilities, seems to have initiated a flood of novels about war in Afghanistan, and, in truth, there were already a few out there that Castner overlooked in 2014. Some of the new arrivals are “literary” novels Castner and most LARB readers would consider most worth talking about, such as Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue. More, however, are genre fiction: war-adventure thrillers, many written by authors with impressive military pedigrees.

Thomas Greer, for example, is a former Delta Force squadron commander who capitalized on his initial foray into print, Kill Bin Laden, a memoir of his leadership of the ground force that searched for Osama Bin Laden in the eastern Afghanistan mountains in 2001, to write a series of war-action novels under the name “Dalton Fury.” Between 2012 and 2016, Dalton Fury published (by my count) six war-adventure novels before unfortunately dying of pancreatic cancer. A second Delta Force squadron commander, Brad Taylor, has also drawn on his real-life exploits and insider knowledge to pen a series of military thrillers. Taylor, whose first book also predates Castner’s article, appearing in 2011, has written (again, by my count; it’s hard to keep up) eighteen novels, each pushing 500 pages. A third former Army officer, Sean Parnell, doesn’t have the stellar military credentials of Greer and Taylor—he has but a single tour in Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader to brag about (and boy does he, here). But Parnell, like Greer, parlayed the success of his initial book, a lieutenant’s memoir titled Outlaw Platoon, into a second, the war-thriller Man of War. As the newcomer of the bunch, he has written only one novel so far, with another on the way. He is, however, a protégé of Scott Miller, a literary agent who helped Dalton Fury’s rise in the world of letters, and Parnell and Taylor cutely name characters after each other in their books, so it seems reasonable to group him with the prolific Fury and Taylor to obtain a sense of what contemporary war adventure and military thrillers are all about.

Below are capsule summaries and a few thoughts about Fury’s Black Site, Taylor’s The Forgotten Soldier, and Parnell’s Man of War. Only Black Site is directly about war in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but all are connected in their way to the Global War on Terror, so within the purview of the blog.

Dalton Fury (Thomas Greer)’s Black Site (2012). The hero of Black Site is Kolt Raynor, an ex-Delta Force operator who has been exiled from the elite unit’s ranks for a tactical mistake that led to the deaths and capture of fellow operators on a covert mission across the Afghanistan border into Pakistan. Three years later, Raynor atones for his screw-up by sneaking into Pakistan to confirm intelligence that several of his former teammates are held prisoner in a remote compound guarded by Pashtun tribesmen, Taliban zealots, and Middle-Eastern Al Qaeda operatives, and a platoon of Chechens led by an American-born Al Qaeda convert who are hatching a plan to infiltrate a CIA-run “black site” prison by posing as US Army Rangers. While not escaping the generic conventions of war adventure, Black Site executes them well. Of the three novels I read, it was the most focused on military operations–as opposed to spy-and-espionage sleuthing–which I liked, and I also enjoyed the descriptions of the Pashtun regions of western Pakistan.

Brad Taylor’s The Forgotten Soldier (2017). Taylor’s novels feature protagonist Pike Logan, a member of a top-secret spy-and-fighting force known as the “Taskforce.” In The Forgotten Warrior, a Taskforce member goes rogue after learning that his brother, a US Army Special Forces soldier, has been killed in Afghanistan by four Yemini Al Qaeda members. Seeking vengeance, the aggrieved Taskforce operator hunts-and-kills the Yemini responsible one-by-one, while also uncovering treacherous connections linking the Yemini ruling clan and the highest echelons of the US State Department. Pike Logan is dispatched by the Taskforce to retrieve his off-the-reservation teammate while minimizing damage to international relations, duties that take him from Washington, DC, to the Cayman Islands to Greece to Norway. The Forgotten War does well depicting the complicated diplomatic-strategic-economic dimensions of global conflict: how they present opportunities to be exploited by adversaries and trouble-makers and how things become personal in the hands of the upper-echelon players who wield enormous amounts of power.

Sean Parnell’s Man of War (2018). Man of War splits the difference between Black Site‘s military emphasis and The Forgotten Soldier‘s spy-vs-spy storyline. Its action hero is Eric Steele, who like Pike Logan works for an off-the-books government agency that answers directly to the President. When a former member of the unit—called the Project in Man of War—hatches a plot to steal a manpack nuclear weapon from Iran, while also kidnapping Iran’s and Pakistan’s leading nuclear engineers, Steele is dispatched to kill him before he detonates the nuke in America. Steele chases his nemesis—the man who trained him in the ways of the Project—across northern Africa and Spain, both men leaving trails littered with bodies, before they finally confront in mano-y-mano battle in southern Maryland. Man of War has a more crazed, one-thing-after-another, can-you-believe-what-happens now? feel to it than Black Site and The Forgotten Warrior, which is saying something, and which is either a virtue or a flaw depending on your taste for over-the-top characters and plot turns.

The covers of all three novels announce that their authors are “New York Times Best-Selling Authors,” which no doubt is true. It’s amusing, though, somewhat, that they draw on the prestige of the mainstream “fake news” newspaper giant to burnish their reputations and attract readers, since the works themselves are thoroughly “Red State” war fiction (as defined here by Brian Castner and Brian Van Reet) that glorify military prowess and American greatness. Or, maybe, the bold-faced references to New York Times popularity are their way of sticking it to elite taste-makers and their condescending attitudes toward what “real people” really like. Who knows? That none of the authors are great stylists or lifelong, serious students of novel form and craft is another point hardly worth dwelling on, save for an interesting comment offered by Dalton Fury. In the Acknowledgements to Black Site, Fury reports that his hatred of high school English and “the lack of grounding in proper sentence structure and point of view made life miserable as I wrote Kill Bin Laden. I needed a ton of help. In fact, I learned quickly that there is absolutely no intrinsic crossover between leading commandos and writing about commandos” (cf Willetts!). Fury then describes how his agent, the afore-mentioned Scott Miller, provided him with an “incredibly talented” ghostwriter named Mark Greaney. Greaney, the author of his own thriller series and a former collaborator with Tom Clancy, is a pro’s pro, and as a result Black Site is a much more tautly written book than Kill Bin Laden.

I can imagine authors who have devoted their life to writing burning at the effrontery of men such as Fury, Taylor, and Parnell turning to novel-writing in middle-age as if anyone could write (a good) one, and then seething even more as they watch the books by these warrior-writer Johnny-come-latelies fly up the New York Times best-seller lists. For me, however, Fury’s confession is as endearing as it is telling, but, really, who cares if war adventure novels are well-written or not? I do, but that’s not what is important here. War adventure’s all about action heroes, heinous villains, hair-raising escapades, and gee-whiz technology and weapons, for which there is a ginormous reading market, as evidenced by the New York Times rankings.

Let the record show that I read Black Site, The Forgotten Soldier, and Man of War pretty much straight through; in other words, I never stopped turning the pages. I enjoyed the glimpses of operator-and-spy craft they offered, and I appreciated how they fully incorporated technology into the lives of the men and women they describe (as opposed to so much literary war fiction that proceeds as if the Internet had never been invented). Though the enemies of America the protagonists kill by the dozens are generally Arab and South Asian Muslims (a few white Americans, Europeans, and South Africans swell the ranks of villains), there seems to be an effort across the board to avoid the worst race-and-religion baiting imaginable. Parnell can’t resist describing how highly Steele regards President Reagan, and Parnell’s Twitter feed makes it clear that he thinks President Trump is great and the problem with America is liberals and Democrats. On the other hand, the presidents and portraits of American politics in Black Site and The Forgotten Soldier are generic enough that it’s hard to tell who in the upper tiers of government is red and who is blue. That’s strange, because it seems unlikely many Democrats read war adventure, and so it would be logical that the authors play to the Red State masses by demonizing softy liberal politicians at every opportunity. In Fury and Taylor, however, I detect a determined non-partisanship and desire for unity and consensus typical of the officer lifers I’ve known who aren’t raging conservatives. Taylor’s blog, for evidence, leans right, predictably enough, but clearly avoids knee-jerk side-taking as it explores (sensibly in my mind) international security issues. Back to the novels, the protagonists’ support teams are pointedly diverse, and each novel incorporates at least one woman-of-action into the mix. The operator equivalent of “manic pixie dream girls,” war-thriller women tend to be chiseled hotties as capable of snapping a man’s neck as seducing him. The female protagonists in Black Site, The Forgotten Soldier, and Man of War prove themselves worthy sidekicks to their action-hero leading men, and each is given at least one “you go, girl” moment in which she socks it to hapless members of the patriarchy by cutting through their bullshit or kicking their ass.

All that’s good, or at least not terrible. But let’s also get serious: the comic-book hero names of the protagonists, as well as Thomas Greer’s pen-name, signal tongue-in-cheek fantasies of heroic military manliness. The authors maybe are self-consciously spoofing the conventions of war adventure, and perhaps being in-on-the-joke is one of the prerequisites for enjoying the genre; I’m reminded of an old National Lampoon parody of Sergeant Rock comics in which the hero was named Sergeant Nick Penis. And yet, despite their cartoonish qualities, the novels, with their breathless depictions of good-guy grown adults fighting bad-guy grown adults with the fate of the world at stake, project the notion that they take themselves very seriously, and I have little doubt a fair number of their readers do, too. Just spit-balling here, but it seems obvious that war adventure novels serve not merely as escape and entertainment, but as morality plays that shape, reflect, and confirm ideas and attitudes about the world. All three novels, for example, dramatize fears that America not only faces danger from threats abroad, but from within as well, by traitors, imposters, infiltrators, criminals, and power-hungry self-servers and ideological zealots. Whatever the political vision, though, the ideological message that really drives the popularity of war adventure, I’d say, is the dream of unlimited power and maximum freedom concentrated in individuals who feel they are born to wage war and are well-trained to do so. High-level operators are uniformly characterized as rough-hewn, wildly independent, and contrarian men-of-action whose capacity for bad behavior is part of their appeal and their effectiveness. The stories undoubtedly glorify the way-of-the-gun: an oft-repeated set piece is the highly-trained operator taking out three or four bad guys in seconds with an equal number of well-aimed shots, the implication being that he who has the most guns and uses them best has the most power and freedom. Another way this sensibility plays out is through constant reference to civilian politicians and bureaucrats who constrain the free exercise of the operators’ right to break rules, disobey orders, take extravagant risks, and shoot-to-kill. You can’t read four pages in a war adventure novel without coming across a passage that expresses some version of this sentiment.

In the world of the novels, the dream of unrestrained freedom sits uneasily with the tight command-and-control structure of elite military units and the presence of strong authority figures who call the shots. The books are entranced by the idea that small cells of elite warrior-spies exist that answer directly to the President, and that Presidents spend the better part of their days personally supervising clandestine operations that must be undertaken to save the country and the free world. Still, the potential for elite warriors to “go rogue” drives the plot in each of the novels; going rouge comes up so often as a plot catalyst that it acquires the tangible quality of a consummation devoutly to be wished–in other words, more freedom, more opportunity to exercise individual power. The specific spur that affords operators the chance to go rogue is revenge: in each novel, the protagonists are compelled to operate even further off the books than normal to avenge the deaths of fellow operator or family members. And yet, the revenge is typically revealed to be just, not just in personal terms, but in regard to the ongoing international battles the operators’ units exist to fight—the individual vendetta is connected to an effort to stop America’s enemies from killing our Secretary of State, stealing a portable nuclear weapon, infiltrating the United States military, or other such rigamarole. The operators’ instincts in these matters are true: the books aggressively assert that elite soldiers are not just fighting machines, but ethically astute judges of right, wrong, and what really needs to happen right now to save the country.

Brad Taylor and Dalton Fury attempt to problematize these issues in earnestly-crafted acknowledgments and introductions. Taylor, for example, writes:

The crux of repeated covert action in a democracy is that a nation can go only so far before its actions begin to erode the very ideals the unit was designed to protect, which is precisely why we have such robust oversight in US Code. The Taskforce has no such constraints, and I’ve threaded the potential for its abuse throughout my books. This time, I decided to explore it as a main theme.

Well, OK, but excuse me if I find the statement a little disingenuous, judging by the reading experience of The Forgotten Soldier—it’s a little as if an author of pornography tells us he has written the work to warn readers of the dangers of pornography. Riiight… Dalton Fury, for his part, reports that the genesis of Black Site was a remark made by a fellow operator that he was “impetuous” and thus Fury wrote Black Site to work out the role that impetuousness plays in the character and mentality of elite soldiers. Let’s just say, based on the evidence, a lot…. for better in the world of the books, but maybe for worse, understood more broadly. Impetuousness is a characteristic associated with immaturity, which is not an especially flattering trait to define men who wield the power that the operators feel entitled to. Cue Herman Melville’s great observation: “All wars are boyish and fought by boys.”

For all my carping, I’m not particularly worried that war adventure novels glamorize men-with-guns; of course they do, but that American cultural cake has been baked at least since readers went nuts over John Filson’s The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone in 1785, and whatever influence books might still have on the tide of things is a tiny rivulet feeding the mighty Mississippi of overall American fascination with guns, violence, fighting, crime, militarism, and war. An issue that comes up in reviews of Black Site and The Forgotten Soldier is the ethics and consequences of former senior Delta Force commanders such as Taylor and Fury revealing so much inside knowledge about their secret-squirrel units. For me, that’s not as interesting a question as one that asks why men who rose to the top of elite units after retiring desire to write novels that fantasize about men who are even more awesome fighting machines than they were themselves? Does that strike anyone else as curious? It’s as if, say, a very good writer were to write an un-ironical, non-satirical novel about a Nobel Prize winning author who is a dashing bon-vivant who never makes a regrettable mistake.

It’s probably just me, but as a fellow former Army officer, it’s interesting to observe other former officers write books that that settle for so little in terms of vision, craft, or smarts compared to those of ex-enlisted soldiers such as Brian Turner, Roy Scranton, and Brian Van Reet, to name three. Why are these the kind of books my peers want to write? I salute anyone who tries their hand as an author of fiction, but couldn’t Taylor and Fury have written interesting novels about Delta Force commandos and Parnell about infantry platoons that don’t reveal them—the authors–to be intoxicated by hyperbolic visions of what they actually were in real life? I’ll also salute Fury, Taylor, and Parnell for writing books that many readers and lots of soldiers (judging by the authors’ presence on military Post Exchange shelves) relate to, and God bless them if they donate huge hunks of their profits to charities that aid veterans. Still, it’s not exactly reassuring to think that the authors were possessed by such dreamy fantasies while on active duty, leading soldiers and accomplishing missions. That military thrillers exist as a genre isn’t such a big problem, but they seem like the stuff for geeky boy-men and aging armchair warriors who couldn’t cut the mustard for two seconds in the high-speed units described in the books. To return to Brian Castner’s and Brandon Willitts’ comments with which we began, it’s not so much that former special operators and hardcore infantrymen can’t write novels, it’s a question of what their novels look like when they do.

****

Final note: I greatly enjoyed the sections of Black Site set in Darra Adam Khal, a legendary arms bazaar just over the Afghanistan border near Peshawar, Pakistan. As I was reading Black Site I came across this article in (where else?) the New York Times, describing the efforts of a young man named Raj Muhammad to start a library in Darra Adam Khal. Very cool, and the library even has a Facebook page, so please like it. Books not guns, can we all agree?

Dalton Fury (Thomas Greer). Black Site: A Delta Force Novel. St. Martin’s, 2012.

Brad Taylor. The Forgotten Soldier: A Pike Logan Thriller. Dutton, 2017.

Sean Parnell. Man of War: An Eric Steele Novel. Harper’s, 2018.

No Answer: Jon Chopan’s Veterans Crisis Hotline

July 18, 2019

Jon Chopan’s short-story collection Veterans Crisis Hotline joins a number of fictional works written by non-veterans about Americans at war in Iraq or Afghanistan and veterans of those wars when they return home: novels such as Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, Greg Baxter’s The Apartment, Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, Whitney Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant, and Eric Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie, and short-story collections such as Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone and Katie Schultz’s Flashes of War.

That’s a lot of fiction about war and its aftermath written by civilians. Whether it’s more than what we saw after previous American wars, I don’t know. What it means that so many authors who did not serve want to write about war and veterans, I don’t know either. When non-veteran authors write stories about war, soldiers, and veterans, there’s a risk that readers, especially veterans, won’t be interested or impressed, no matter how good the writing is. In the title story to Veterans Crisis Hotline, Jon Chopan dramatizes this concern, while the other eleven stories provide context.

A few Veterans Crisis Hotline stories are set in Iraq; each documents an incident that undermines the first-person narrator’s confidence in himself and the surety of his knowledge. In “Rules of Engagement,” for example, the narrator describes his realization that the most aggressive, combat-hungry soldier in his unit is actually a blow-hard coward who is afraid to shoot his weapon, while he finds that he himself is easily capable of killing–the realization does not bring arrogance, but troubles him. “Slaughter” describes its narrator’s apprehension early in the invasion of Iraq that his fellow soldiers possess vastly different expectations about what going to war will entail. On a grizzly mission that requires them to dispose of Iraqi bodies killed by American forces, one soldier’s words and acts bespeak a quirky sympathy for the Iraqi dead, another displays a gruff “kill ‘em all” sensibility, while the author comes to terms with the idea that his ambivalent, take-things-as-they-come perspective will not suffice in the face of the stronger emotions, complex scenarios, and tough moral choices war will bring.

True to the title, however, it’s the post-war stories in Veterans Crisis Hotline that exude the most gravitas. Their first-person narrators are male combat vets who are adrift, confused, morose, and angry. Most are white, though one story features a disabled black veteran. They have marginal jobs, they drink a lot, and they get in fights. None have life goals, none are back in school, none are close to their families. The locales are northern urban—upstate Pennsylvania and New York cities such as Erie and Rochester—and the season is generally winter. There’s an old-fashioned feel to the world of the characters: cell phones and social media are barely present, one vet takes a job in a meat-packing plant, and many of the stories are set in dive bars and VFW halls.

The most oft-struck note in the collection is that the vets hate being asked to speak about their service:

I’d been back from the war for about a week, was staying at my sister’s place, sleeping all day and drinking all night, trying to avoid her. She wanted to talk and I wasn’t ready for that.

I knew he was trying to work his voodoo now, to get me talking about drinking, which would only lead me to talking about the war and about coming home and about how home wasn’t the same anymore, how it really wasn’t like being home at all.

She’d let me in because she knew I was damaged, in my own way, and she’d finally accepted me when she saw that I was just a driveling thing who needed someone to love me, someone who would not make me talk about it anymore.

Their isolation and difficulty communicating reflects a seemingly irreparable civil-military divide. Every story set in the States documents a moment of micro-vexation in which veterans and civilians communicate at cross-purposes, or just plain give up trying to communicate:

Josh had already told me what to expect. People back home were no longer interested in the war. We weren’t going to have the parades the World War II guys had, but we weren’t going to see the protests, be called baby killers, like the Vietnam guys either. Generally, people didn’t care.

The veterans aren’t very expressive themselves, and their listless lives seem to evidence lack of passion and purpose. But inside, they seethe to the point of boiling over. Far from not caring, their problem is that they care too much about things that are incomprehensible to non-veterans:

In many ways, I was a civilian. But I had not forgotten things about the war—a desire for swift justice, for example. How sometimes, when a guy from our division was hurt or killed, be it by sniper fire or an IED, we’d walk the streets and harass civilians. Or, if we were in a remote location, how we’d stand, circling an empty mosque, and fire round after round until the building was nothing but pockmarked cement. In this way, what we sought was often the quick and necessary relief men feel when they fell loss.

The idea is that veterans, if they want to talk at all, they want to talk with other veterans. But Chopan suggests that this desire is problematic. The sentiment is evident from the opening paragraph of the title story, which is the first story in the collection, about, well, answering phones at a Veterans Center:

Sometimes, when they call the hotline, they want to talk to another vet. They ask for us specifically. They have this perception that only those who’ve seen war can understand the suffering born of it. As far as I can tell, this is a myth. It is, to my mind, like asking the criminally insane to cure one another.

The story’s narrator, a vet named “Byrne,” reports that he “took the job because my friends and doctors thought it would do me good, helping other guys who were struggling with the things I’d struggled with.” The passage reminded me of something a vet-service organization leader once told me: the surest sign that a veteran needs help is his or her offer to help other vets who need help.

All in all, Veterans Crisis Hotline offers a grim, dour portrait of lost young men cut loose in a country that doesn’t seem that interested in finding them. Snow falls in enough stories to convey the idea that Chopan was greatly impressed by James Joyce’s conclusion to his short-story “The Dead,” where snowfall serves as a striking symbol of emotional coldness and smothering conformity. Another story, “The Cumulative Effect,” seems to be a reworking of Sherman Alexie’s “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.” In Chopan’s and Alexie’s stories, Hendrix’s twisted rendition of the National Anthem speaks more powerfully to damaged citizens of a divided nation than the traditional version. Within the logic of the stories they write, and in real life, too, for some, or many, it’s no wonder.

Be sure to check out Matthew Komatsu’s review of Veterans Crisis Hotline, published on The Wrath-Bearing Tree here.

Jon Chopan, Veterans Crisis Hotline. University of Massachusetts Press, 2018.

Eleven Bang-Bang

May 21, 2019

“I’ve been outside the wire,” I said. “My vehicle was IED’d, once. But I’m not infantry.”

Rodriguez shrugged. “If you were, you’d know.”

                        -Phil Klay, “Prayer in the Furnace”

While the world waits for war novels authored by women veterans and pays lip-service to the idea that the stories of rear-echelon soldiers “need to be heard,” former infantrymen—“11Bs” or “Eleven-Bravos” in Army parlance—go right on writing, publishers go right on publishing, and readers, or at least this one, go right on reading war sagas loosely-but-obviously based on the authors’ deployments as ground-pounding foot soldiers. I’m all for diversity and definitely skeptical of the infantry’s claims to its own specialness, but I’m hardly neutral or objective:  while in, I was an infantry officer and I’m still eager to see aspects of my own service reflected and dramatized.

Ray McPadden’s 2018 novel And the Whole Mountain Burned describes the exploits of a US Army Ranger company facing constant danger, struggle, and excitement in the wild mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The subject of Adam Kovac’s 2019 novel The Surge, on the other hand, is a lackluster Illinois National Guard unit whose tour in Iraq consists of an endless succession of boring watch-tower guard shifts. Both feature as protagonists junior enlisted soldiers, which I wasn’t, but I’ve pulled enough guard duty and climbed enough mountains in eastern Afghanistan to pick up And the Whole Mountain Burned and The Surge with interest. I also wanted the inside glimpses they promised of the Ranger task forces that rotated in-and-out of the big FOB down the road from me and the National Guard units—one of them from Illinois—that guarded the walls of my tiny camp during my tour.

To begin with The Surge, Kovac’s novel is focalized through the eyes of an Army corporal named Larry Chandler. Chandler, a veteran of a tour in Afghanistan with an active-duty unit, has been recalled to duty as a “filler” in a Guard unit assigned security detail at Camp Tucson in southern Iraq. Chandler’s tour in Afghanistan ended very badly—think “death of friends for whom he feels responsible”—and he had wanted nothing more than to put war behind him. But the 2007 troop “surge” reminded him of the truth of Tolstoy’s quip that “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” With his new Guard unit, Chandler is put in a difficult spot:  because of his seniority he is given a leadership position in charge of three other infantrymen. The Guardsmen know each other from civilian life, so they are more loyal to each other than to Chandler. Moreover, they detest what they perceive as the arrogance and stupidity of active-duty soldiers, even as they internalize notions of their own inferiority to “real” infantrymen. Worse, though two of Chandler’s soldiers are relatively docile and compliant, the third is a hard-charger who was in line for the leadership position Chandler occupies, and Chandler must continually assert his shaky Alpha-male bona fides to establish authority over this rival. Further, the company first sergeant, also an active-duty soldier, one with whom Chandler served in Afghanistan, is more foe than friend, even as he extends an unwelcome offer of mentorship. And, finally, worst of all, Chandler doesn’t feel worthy of the respect his previous combat tour accords him in the eyes of the Guardsmen, some of whom pine for the chance to prove themselves in battle. Chandler once had that dream, too, but knows how easily it became a nightmarish reality that ruins a man’s happiness and sense of self-worth at an early age. The last thing he wants is to face combat again, especially with the increased responsibility for the safety—both physical and mental—of his new charges. And yet, inevitably, you knew this was coming—war and duty pull Chandler and his men outside the wire and into combat.

The members of the “Newts”–the Ranger platoon at the center of And the Whole Mountain Burned–pull a lot of guard duty, too—“pulling security” is a fact of life in every infantry unit—but in contrast to the “lone and level sands” of Iraq the soldiers in The Surge stare at, McPadden’s Rangers are treated to views of the soaring peaks and plunging valleys of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush. Even better, guard duty is only an intermittent respite between combat missions to fight local tribesmen led by one leader known as “the Egyptian” and another known as “Sadboy.” The fired-up Rangers are only too eager to take on the wily tribal clans, and a subtext of And the Whole Mountain Burned is the affinity between the warrior cultures of the Rangers and the Pashtun mountain tribesmen. While the men in The Surge could care less about the Iraqis they must deal with, the Newts are fascinated by the folklore, by-ways, and fighting prowess of their deadly enemy. More like The Surge, And the Whole Mountain Burned is related from the perspective of Danny Shane, a junior enlisted newbie, and also much like in The Surge, the story is largely about Shane’s vexed relationship with a senior NCO, Nick Burch, who is a seasoned veteran and mighty man-of-combat-action. Burch’s story bookends the novel proper, in fact, so though the middle parts are mostly Shane’s, we might say that, again like The Surge, the overall theme of And the Whole Mountain Burned is infantry leadership, with all its attendant worrisome aspects of responsibility and hope, failure and guilt.

So, two sides of Global War on Terror infantry-life, interestingly rendered and dramatically heightened. Ranger task forces and National Guard call-ups exist at opposite ends of the infantry warfighter spectrum, but both were significant players on the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields, and their stories are underrepresented in the glut of contemporary war fiction that privileges SEALs, Special Forces, Marines, and Regular Army units. Each novel in its way is becoming in its modesty; while telling interesting stories, the authors avoid being deluded by the sense of their own importance–a common accusation levied against infantrymen, often with justification. McPadden and Kovac are alert to the social milieus and the mental makeup of the men who comprise the units they describe. And the Whole Mountain Burned and The Surge channel the mindsets of the twenty-year-old men who make up the bulk of any infantry unit, so you’re not going to get higher orders of reflection from their protagonists, but neither novel blows smoke up your ass, either. The misogyny of infantry culture is on full display in both novels: weakness and failure to live up to group norms are routinely characterized as womanly and the soldiers’ thoughts about the actual women they knew in the States are about what you’d expect. More engaging are the novels’ takes on soldier solidarity, which is conspicuously lacking in both books. Rather than extolling the bonds of fighting bands of brothers, the infantrymen distrust and don’t respect each other, compete and connive against one another, play favorites, hold grudges, form cliques, and just plain don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company very much–and these tensions are not smoothed over by the pressure of combat but increase. That’s not exactly true to my memory of how infantrymen were and related to each other, but perhaps my view from on high as an officer was rose-tinted. In any case, McPadden and Kovac have done well to situate their portraits of young men on the warrior path in the context of the distinctive units they join and trust to nourish, not stunt, their journey. As the authors continue their own journeys from warriors to writers, let’s salute their first steps and be on the lookout for next moves and new directions.

Ray McPadden, And the Whole Mountain Burned. Hatchett Book Group, 2018.

Adam Kovac, The Surge. Engine Books, 2019.

 

Stephen Markley’s Ohio: What the MacDougal is Wrong With the Buckeye State?

February 23, 2019

Dan schooled him: “Uh, Lebron James? The Black Keys, Chrissie Hynde, Steven Spielberg? John Brown spent his formative years in Ohio.”

“Christ, don’t get you started on Ohio. You’re a fucking walking Wikipedia entry.”

“Johnny Appleseed. Ever heard of him? Ohian.”

So goes a conversation between two soldiers deployed to FOB Langman in Afghanistan portrayed in Stephen Markley’s 2018 novel Ohio. As a native Ohian myself (born in Athens), the snatch of dialogue piqued my interest, among many things in Markley’s excellent novel that intrigued me, for its description of the role the Buckeye State plays in what academics call “the cultural imaginary.” Ohio seems to be an appealing place for examination of such things these days, as Ohio-the-novel joins Nico Walker’s novel Cherry (set in Cleveland) and Hugh Martin’s poetry volume In Country as recent imaginative works dissecting the ties between Midwestern political and economic malaise and the twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s not forget either a recent spate of books about Ohio’s most famous warrior-son Ulysses S. Grant, the drift of which seeks to recoup respect for Grant’s military, political, and literary achievements as an antidote not just to Robert E. Lee idolatry but in marked counterpoint to our current Commander-in-Chief. To gather it all together, these works seem to address two common concerns: What’s the matter with Ohio, and what, if anything, can Ohio, at its best, offer the nation?

Markley’s Ohio makes an especially apt companion piece to Walker’s Cherry, as reviewers such as Christian Lorentzen and Nathan S. Webster have noted. Both novels feature young Ohio men of no particular means or ambition who join the military, fight overseas, and return (or, at least some of them return) to Ohio locales defined by few economic prospects and rampant drug use-and-abuse. Stylistically, the novels couldn’t be more different; where Cherry exudes a terse, minimalist ethos uninterested in literary flourishes, narrative trickery, or grandiloquent pontification, Ohio revels in novelistic excess, as if Cherry had been given a makeover by Ben Fountain (the two works exemplify “the raw” and “the cooked” war-and-mil writing poles I stake out in this blog post). The two novels differ in their basic regard for the military, too. In Cherry, the narrator, based on Walker himself, is contemptuous of the Army he joins, finding little value in its ideals, missions, and methods, or in the people with whom he serves. Markley, not a veteran, portrays two characters, one, Rick Brinklan, who joins the Marines and one, Dan Eaton, who joins the Army, differently. Each, within the range of possibilities offered to them and their peers in the fictional small town of New Canaan, embodies honor and good sense, and the military, whatever its shortcomings, is more generative of human commonweal than anything available back home. Not perfect, mind you—Rick is killed in Iraq and Dan loses an eye in the process of committing a war-crime in Afghanistan—but better by far than the failed state and blighted social microcosm from which the two men use the military to escape. In the exploration of this irony lies Ohio’s contribution to interminable debates about “the civil-military divide” and “thanking soldiers for their service.”

For starters, Ohio suggests that the 9/11 attacks accelerated the polarization of America into two political-ideological camps whose formation blasted any sense of shared American ideals and endeavor, here suggested in a divide that separates Rick Brinklan and his childhood friend Bill Ashcraft:

Then two planes hit the World Trade Center towers, one hit the Pentagon, and a final one dug a crater in a Pennsylvania field, and almost that same day, he felt a divergence occur between them. Bill observed the flag-waving, the brainless nationalism, the invocation of military might as a panacea for sorrow, and it felt to him like a bad movie, a gloss of convenient worship for shared bloodletting. Rick got into it. Really into it….

To be fair, the ideas in this passage are expressed through the wonders of free indirect discourse as those of Bill’s, so they may not precisely be Markley’s, but they don’t seem too far off, either. That 9/11 served to divide the nation, not unite it, is linked to a longer-term economic deterioration precipitated primarily by greedy charlatans who grew rich while skillfully escaping blame for the catastrophic damage they inflicted on the Midwest:

Ohio hadn’t gone throught the same real estate boom as the Sun Belt, but the vultures had circled the carcasses of dying industrial towns—Dayton, Toledo, Mansfield, Youngstown, Akron—peddling home equity loans and refinancing… The foreclosures began to crop up and then turn into fields of fast-moving weeds, reducing whole neighborhoods to abandoned husks or drug pens. Ameriquest, Countrywide, CitiFinancial—all those devious motherfuckers watching the state’s job losses, plant closings, its struggles, its heartache, and figuring out a way to make a buck on people’s desperation. Every city or town in the state had big gangrenous swaths that looked like New Canaan, the same cancer-patient-looking strip mall geography with brightly lit outposts hawking variations on usurious consumer credit.

Helpless in the face of such exploitation, or clueless about its true nature, the dazed denizens of Midwest wastelands lack the wherewithal to save themselves. One of the characters in Ohio notes that a factory abandoned some thirty years past still dominates downtown New Canaan like a wrecked cathedral, which the residents don’t seem to mind, or notice, and perhaps even like, oblivious that they might be expected to muster some sort of collective agency to revitalize or remove it.

In the years following 9/11, the nation’s actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan figure almost irrelevantly in the lives of New Canaan’s residents, even as quite a few of the town’s sons and daughters go off to fight in them. The real after-effect of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror is the home-front growth of frenzied xenophobia about the danger posed by brown-skinned Muslim immigrants to the warp-and-woof of American and Ohioan life. Almost to a man, and even more so among the young than among the silver-haired Fox News-watchers, the male residents of New Canaan are driven to rhetorical apoplexy and actual violence by their sense that someone—namely Democrats and liberals—has allowed the very people the nation is fighting to infiltrate the nation’s ranks and threaten its character. In the mostly-white New Canaan, old-school black-white tension exists, but in almost diluted, benign form compared to the venomous hatred now directed toward non-Christian immigrants by young white men without education, their sputtering rage and impotence in the face of demographic change and diversity exacerbated by excessive drinking and drug use.

Whether all of this is true or not, or rings true or not, probably depends on where you lie on the Red-Blue spectrum. Ohio’s Amazon reviews suggest as much. There’s lots of 5-star ratings, but many 1-star reviews too, the tenor of which suggest that Ohio is a liberal hit-job launched from the elitist coasts. The issue is complicated by Markley’s portrait of characters with liberal, progressive, and radical politics and world-views. By-and-large they are described as possessed by their own form of self-hatred, one generated by internalizing the idea that to be out of step with the New Canaan mainstream is an act of self-marginalization born not of superior intelligence but of character perversity equal to or greater than the irrationalism of the xenophobes. They hate themselves, and thus are neither liked nor trusted by their more conservative peers, who find them deeply inauthentic and not credible:

What an important lesson for every young person to learn: If you defy the collective psychosis of nationalism, of imperial war, you will pay for it. And the people in your community, your home, who you thought knew and loved you, will be the ones to collect the debt.

In that space between deplorable provincial conservatives and enfeebled liberal exiles Markley situates Rick and Dan. If we ascribe a liberal politics to Markley, as do many of his Amazon reviewers, then one of the conundrums he tries to reconcile in Ohio is the irony that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as stupid and wasteful as they are, serve as venues for redemption of a modern America that is equally as stupid and has squandered its riches and its virtues. Rick’s no goody-goody, but as a former high school football star he possesses a Pat Tillman-like stalwartness that commands respect. Dan’s more ordinary, but his essential decency and kindness is recognized by everyone. Military service doesn’t inculcate in them a love of force, guns, and hyper-aggressive masculinity—the men who don’t serve are far more infected by these traits—but rather reinforces an inherent understanding of how an individual contributes responsibly to a social collective. Unfortunately, Rick’s and Dan’s potential is blighted by the military and war that also nourishes them—Rick by death and Dan by disability, guilt, and shame for the war-crime he is horrified to have committed—so not only do they ultimately not thrive in the military but they are unable to return to New Canaan and live out long lives as grown men contributing to the civic polity.

The implications of that last point are too dismal to contemplate, so let’s end with brief consideration of a capsule portrait of a soldier named Greg Coyle with whom Dan serves in Iraq. In my last post on Cherry, I praised Nico Walker’s description of a soldier named Jimenez, who is fated to be killed in combat. An emerging truism of war-writing is that any minor character described with any love and attention-to-detail will soon be vanquished and vanished from the story, but be that as it may, such capsule portraits are often among the most memorable passages in the works that contain them. Here’s an example of such an unwitting obituary from Ohio:

When they stood for inspections, Dan, like everyone, would get ripped, maybe because he’d stored his compression bandages in the wrong place or always tried to get away with not wearing the side plates of his body armor (those heavy, awkward five-by-five bastards). Greg Coyle, no matter how goofy he was, never got ripped, was always on point. Coyle, who referred to everything as a “MacDougal.” A bore snake, pliers, a target at the range, military-age males, MREs, ops, battalion—they were all just MacDougals to him. To the dismay of the whole company, within weeks of their deployment everyone was saying it.

“We’re getting those up-armored MacDougals next month.”

“Those powdered MacDougals—goddamn! Better than Mom’s homemade MacDougal.”

“That other MacDougal was getting rocked by IEMacDougals.”

They landed in Iraq in 2006, when the country was no joke, but that joke worked right through rocket attacks and EFPs.

The second thing Dan did after he got out and visited Rudy in the hospital was attend Bren Della Terza’s wedding in Austin, Texas. A lot of his friends from Iraq were there, guys he hadn’t seen in a while because they’d gotten out after two tours. Badamier, Lieutenant Holt, Cleary, Wong, Doc Laymon, Drake in his wheelchair, “Other James” Streiss, now with two robot hands. They of course got drunk and began referring to everything as a “MacDougal,” annoying the hell out of those piqued Texas bridesmaids. Decent, churchgoing women who had never seen soldiers cut loose. How hilariously stupid they could be. In his buzz, Dan found himself wishing to return to 2006, to be back on patrol with his friends.

Stephen Markley, Ohio. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Red and Blue: The Death of Jimenez

February 2, 2019

A red war novel and a blue one side-by-side on the shelves.

 

The battle roster number was EAJ-0888, and we were trying to think of who that was. We knew it was a guy from First Platoon because Staff Sergeant White had called it in. We knew it wasn’t Specialist Jackson, First Platoon’s medic, since line medics weren’t attached to Bravo from HHC and if the dead guy were Jackson the battle roster number would have started with HHC and not E. The first initial A wasn’t much help was we weren’t in the habit of calling one another by our first name. It took us the better part of ten minutes to come up with a guy from Third Platoon whose last name started with the letter J.

Private Jimenez.

Brian Van Reet, in a recent speech given at the American Library in Paris titled “The Red and the Blue: Writing War in a Divided America,” proposes that the contemporary war-writing landscape reflects the geo-political realities of the Age of Trump. Expanding on ideas suggested to him by veteran-writer Brian Castner, Van Reet argues that there are “red” war books that appeal to conservative, Red-State readers and “blue” war books popular among liberal Blue-State readers. Red war books, in this dichotomy, unproblematically extoll fighting-and-killing prowess and patriotic fervor as virtues, while blue war books ambivalently brood about these qualities. Blue books are marked by literary aspirations, while red books play for, and often receive, mass approval.

We cleared houses like we normally did when these things happened. It had been just a klick away, south of us, past the bend in the road, down a little past OP1, so we didn’t need to go anywhere. And with nothing to the west but a short field and the river, we turned east off the road and went about it.

As examples of red war books, Van Reet names American Sniper, Lone Survivor, No Easy Day, and “kill memoirs” (a phrase Van Reet coined) such as Dillard Johnson’s Carnivore. As examples of blue books, Van Reet names fiction such as Redeployment, The Yellow Birds, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and journalism such as Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War and Sebastian Junger’s War.

A blind retard was chained to a palm tree in front of the first house we came to. An old woman, presumably the retard’s mother, stood near the gate of the courtyard, and some of us filed in. There were four rooms around the courtyard so we split off to see about each one and I kicked a door in and went into an unlit room. The room was empty except for a haji lying on the floor with his eyes closed. I said, “Get the fuck up, motherfucker.”

But he didn’t move.

I moved closer to him, rifle trained down on him. “GET THE FUCK UP, MOTHERFUCKER.”

He opened one eye and looked at me, stayed unmoved, closed the eye. So I had my mind made up to kick him in the face. I didn’t go around kicking hajis in the face for no reason and I didn’t know anyone who did, but Jimenez was dead and I was going to kick the haji in the face. I brought the kick as hard as I could, aiming center mass. But I stopped halfway to connecting. It was all I could do to stay on the one foot and not fall on my ass. The haji got up and stretched and he shuffled out of the room. I can’t remember when it had occurred to me that maybe he was also retarded. I unfucked myself and went outside to see where the haji had gone. He was heading off into the fields, looking up into the sun. Nobody touched him.

Breaking down binary distinctions is always possible and tempting, but that Van Reet is basically correct, there can be no doubt. Beyond the evidence he provides, one can point to the fact that President Obama several times praised Phil Klay’s Redeployment. It’s impossible to imagine President Trump reading Redeployment, but if he did, it’s easy to think that he would hate it and Tweet that if it didn’t demonstrate why America should never have gone to war in Iraq (he wouldn’t be so wrong about that), then it was proof positive that the American military was full of losers and sissies who didn’t have the balls to crush their enemies.

Jimenez was a cherry. He was one of the replacements who had come to the company after First Platoon lost the four guys killed out on Route Polk. He hadn’t been around two months and he was dead. It was unlucky.

Sometimes the dead guy was really an asshole, or you could make the case that he was. Not so with Jimenez. For all intents and purposes, Jimenez was a saint. That’s why he stuck out like a sore thumb in an infantry company.

The thing is your average infantryman is no worse than your garden-variety sonofabitch. But he talks in dick jokes and aspires to murder and it doesn’t come off as a very saintly mode of being. Yet Jimenez was a saint. It wasn’t like he was soft or anything like that; he was a tough kid. He’d only just turned 19 but he was strong with a deep chest and the kind of unbreakable wrists one gets from working with his hands. And he’d work. The sergeants liked him for that. But he was so goddamn nice that he drove people crazy sometimes. Like he’d play poker with the poker players and he’d play bad hands. Dealt a queen-four off-suited, he was liable to call two preflop raises and hit a boat on the river. And when people got mad at him for playing garbage he’d apologize and try to give them back their chips. But it didn’t work like that.

The last time I saw Jimenez was about eight hours before Haji killed him. He’d been boxing Staff Sergeant Castro in the weight room, sparring, and Castro had popped him on the nose pretty good so his nose was bleeding—not broken or anything, just bleeding. And Castro told him to go see a medic and Jimenez did what he was told and when he came around looking for a medic I gave him a hard time. I said, “What the fuck are you coming to me about a bloody fucking nose for, cherry?”

And he didn’t say anything. He just smiled, all awkward, like he was embarrassed for me.

I said, “C’mon, cherry. I’m tired. Please don’t come to me with dumb shit, okay? I’m really fucking tired, you know?”

In the course of his speech, Van Reet includes Nico Walker’s Cherry as an example par excellence of a “blue” literary war novel. That’s interesting to me, because Cherry presents itself as a very raw, un-doctored, and un-mannered account by a junior-enlisted soldier who unapologetically describes life-in-the-ranks on deployment with brutal honesty. If I were to point to a war novel released last year that demonstrated serious literary chops and aspirations, it would be Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog, not Cherry. Still, that Walker’s author-narrator persona is a bit of a façade is revealed by the narrator’s admission that post-deployment, even while in the grips of serious heroin addiction, he was submitting poems to the New Yorker, and corroborated in the Acknowledgements where Walker reveals that he rewrote Cherry endlessly under the tutelage of literary publishing pros. So, a little like American Sniper, which was ghost-written by a seasoned novelist, Cherry manages to convey authenticity despite all the evidence that it was highly stylized and worked-over by a young man with serious literary ambitions and a team of helpmates.

He went out with a fire team in the morning. They set up a TCP on Route Martha. They’d gone out when it was still dark and they hadn’t had a good look at the spot where they were set up and they didn’t know Haji had laid a one-five-five round underneath the road there. The road was just a paved berm and it was easy to mine. And the Haj was watching them. He saw Jimenez stand on the spot he had mined.

I heard Koljo talk about it. It was later in that same day. He was telling some joes what it had been like. He said, “It looked like something out of a horror movie.”

The one-five-five round took off both Jimenez’s legs and severed one of his arms almost completely. But he was still awake and he knew what was happening. He was screaming. The fire team traded shots with two fucking murderers, but the murderers got away, north through a palm grove. The fire team couldn’t go after them because they couldn’t leave Jimenez there by himself.

Be that as it may, many passages in Cherry are strikingly vivid and moving, to include the one I’ve been excerpting, which come from Chapter 33. Though the chapter is unnamed in the book, it might be called “The Death of Jimenez.” For me, it’s up there, if not quite better than, the portrait of the death of Snowden at the end of Catch-22, which sets the bar high for depiction of the death of American soldiers in combat. Read Chapter 33, read Cherry entire, and judge for yourself.

Nico Walker, Cherry. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Nico Walker’s Cherry: First Thoughts and Questions

December 29, 2018

Is Nico Walker’s novel Cherry about war in Iraq or heroin addiction? Or is it about both? If so, what connects Iraq and heroin in the life and mind of its unnamed but clearly autobiographical first-person narrator? The first half of Cherry recounts the narrator’s life through deployment to Iraq as a medic in a combat unit in ways similar to Matthew J. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road, and Maximillian Uriarte’s The White Donkey: purposeless young white male junior-enlisted soldiers, mostly unimpressed by anything the military has to offer, confront horrifying events that overwhelm their defense-mechanisms and occasion their dissolution into drugs, drink, violence, and anti-sociality. But the formula doesn’t quite work for Cherry. The second-half of the novel, in which the narrator describes his heroin addiction and the criminal capers he undertakes to finance it, refracted through his love for his fellow addict and soulmate Emily, seems thematically and tonally disconnected from the war-and-military sections. I came away from the novel thinking that military deployment mostly bored the narrator, and not much happened overseas that he connects to the verve of his drug-addicted, crime-ridden romance with Emily except that for a while it paid the post-war bills for love and debauchery:

There was nothing better than to be young and on heroin. Emily and I were living together. The days were bright. You didn’t worry about jobs because there weren’t any. But you could go to school so you could get FAFSA, you could get student loans and Pell Grants. And if you were getting G.I. Bill, that’d cover your tuition; then you didn’t need your FAFSA for school and you could go and buy dope with it instead. Which was all you really wanted. You could kill yourself real slow and feel like a million dollars. You could grow high-class weed in your basement and pay the rent like that. Of course the future looked bad—you went into debt, you got sick all the time, you couldn’t shit, everyone you met was a fucker, your new friends would eat the eyes out of your head for a spoon or twenty dollars, your old friends stayed away—but you could do more heroin and that would usually serve to settle you down, when you were going on 25, back when you could still fake it, and there was nothing better than to be young and on heroin.

For the narrator, heroin addiction is the logical culmination of love of getting high. He was plenty attracted to drugs before he joined the Army and deployment seems a soon-forgotten side-episode in what he considers the real story of his life. The military didn’t reform or save him, but it wasn’t his ruin, either.

Heroin addiction and overdose have wrecked my extended family’s happiness far more than anything associated with my blood-soaked and death-tinged deployment to Afghanistan, too, so I may be more receptive to Cherry‘s druggie aspects than most. But Cherry’s marketing material—book-jacket blurbs and Amazon testimonials—seems to agree with me that the novel is more junkie-romance than war-story.  Lea Carpenter writes on the dust-jacket, for example, “Cherry is the debut novel America needs now, a letter from the front line of opioid addiction and, almost subliminally, a war story.” That “almost subliminally” is intriguing. Does Carpenter mean that Walker himself doesn’t quite understand how war and drugs are mixed up in his mind and life, or is she suggesting that the real war central to the American 21st-century is not the “war on terror” but the “war on drugs”? The great article or book connecting the two wars is there for the writing.

What’s without question is Cherry’s striking critical and public reception upon release. At last check, Cherry was far-outpacing other 2018 war-fiction releases on Amazon’s best-seller list. Advance readers and reviewers have been lavish in their praise; the quote from Lea Carpenter above is restrained compared to its dust-jacket companions:

“Someone once said there are two things worth writing about, love and death. Nico Walker may know more about these two subjects than 99.9 percent of fiction writers working today.”

“After reading this, you’ll say only one thing: Nico Walker is one of the best writers alive.”

“a powerful book that declares the arrival of a real writer who has made art out of anguish.”

Far more measured is a remarkable blogpost by Spoils author Brian Van Reet, a rumination on Walker and Cherry described by Fire and Forget author Jacob Siegel on Twitter as “one of the only essential pieces of cultural criticism that I read this year.” Van Reet nicely captures the dilemma of judging Cherry work-and-author fairly:

When I first heard of him [Walker] and his autobiographical novel, I confess my reaction to it was not-so-gentle bemusement. Oh great, I thought. An Iraq-veteran-junkie-bank-robber novelist. We have truly jumped the shark in this genre. Blame our sensationalistic media culture, which often functions to seek out and reward the very worst people. I feared the rest of us, in the wake of his book, would now have to deal with its confirmation of a damaging stereotype about this generation of veterans: that we are no more than mindless thugs who, by virtue of our participation in a criminal war, are criminals at heart, if not by the letter of the law.

On top of that, it seemed to me a dizzying moral abdication that so many literary journalists and book critics had taken it upon themselves to celebrate work by a convicted violent criminal from an affluent background, in a cultural moment when any number of male authors and editors have been lately accused of inappropriate behavior, which may not rise to the level of criminal offense, but which is nevertheless deemed toxic enough to warrant the ruination of their careers. Meanwhile, some of the same institutions and people most responsible for tearing down these “shitty men” in literature were now elevating Walker to literary celebrity, his career launched precisely because of his outrageously bad behavior.

So, another question: Is Cherry the apotheosis of modern war fiction, the book critics and readers have been waiting for all along? Or, is it the nadir, the repudiation of literary possibilities suggested by veteran authors such as Kevin Powers, David Abrams, Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, and Van Reet himself? To be fair to Van Reet, following his skeptical start-point, he works toward recognition of Cherry’s appeal and achievement: the startlingly visceral illusion of clarity and honesty with which Walker presents the narrator, his tour in Iraq, and his love for heroin. In describing both hair-raising (and sometimes comic) scenes of combat and junkie degeneracy, Walker’s understated language mostly avoids sensationalist and melodramatic excess. The narrator doesn’t waste time in self-reflection or analytical explanation, which is a virtue in terms of sprightly story-telling, but also a weakness for readers curious to learn what Walker knows about “love and death” better than “99.9 percent of fiction writers working today.” More decidedly a plus, there’s a thankful lack of either apologizing or humble-bragging in the narrator’s account of his walks-on-the-wild-side, and even better is that Walker avoids the trap of stale media and public health buzz-words to describe his drug-taking: there’s very little mention of “abuse,” “addiction,” “rehabilitation,” “opioid epidemic,” “monkey on my back,” “overdose,” “clean,” “OD,” “drug fiend,” “junkie,” “addict,” or “war on drugs.”

The narrator’s prose voice seems intuitive and unrehearsed, though by Walker’s own report in the Acknowledgements the finished book is the product of many rewrites and much tough-tutelage administered by his publishing team. In other words, he worked harder on Cherry than anything he ever worked on in his life, save for scoring heroin and (perhaps, hopefully) making Emily happy, and the unadorned feel of natural genius is the product of extensive editorial curation. Whatever, Walker’s self-presentation is Cherry‘s strength; in the Acknowledgments Walker relates that he knew Cherry was getting good when one of his editors tells him that after a few dozen revisions the main character was no longer just an “asshole,” but an asshole “she kind of liked.” More Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries than Colby Buzzell’s My War, more Sid and Nancy than American Sniper, Cherry awaits your reading.

Also recommended:  Jenny Pacanowki’s “Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD.”

Nico Walker, Cherry. Knopf, 2018.


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