Posted tagged ‘War fiction’

War Fiction: Nicholas Kulish’s Last One In

November 24, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, who fucking cares?” Martinez said.

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

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

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

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

“I’ve seen a couple,” Harper said.

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

“One hump or two?” Jimmy asked.

“One, I think,” Martinez said.

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

“Cool,” Jimmy answered.

“Motherfucker,” Ramos said.

“What now?” Harper responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You saying we fucked up?” Ramos asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Fiction: Benjamin Buchholz’s One Hundred and One Nights

November 3, 2019

US Army veteran Benjamin Buchholz’s 2011 novel One Hundred and One Nights’ first-person narrator is an unlikely Iraqi participant in the war against America in the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Abu Saheeh (his name a pseudonym meaning “Father Truth” in Arabic) is a middle-aged doctor from a prominent Baghdad family who, after studying and practicing medicine in Chicago for thirteen years, returns to Iraq to assist the transition to post-Ba’athist rule. An unwelcome reunion with a hated older brother, however, leads to the death of Abu Saheeh’s daughter and sends him on a downward spiral fueled by remorse, anger, and alcohol that eventually result in psychosis and extreme narrator unreliability. The narrative proper of One Hundred and One Nights takes place in a small town on the Iraq-Kuwait border named Sufwan, where at the novel’s opening we find Abu Saheeh running a small shop selling mobile phones by the side of the main road from Kuwait to Baghdad. The business, however, is only a cover: Abu Saheeh’s real purpose in Sufwan is to monitor American military convoys in preparation for emplacing a roadside bomb that, as events transpire, will not only kill American soldiers but allow him to enact revenge on his brother. Abu Saheeh’s sense-of-mission in Sufwan, however, is troubled mightily by the intrusion into his life of an apparently homeless and orphaned preadolescent girl named Layla, a “market urchin” who uncannily complicates Abu Saheeh’s plans and thoughts.

That’s an intriguing set-up, and as One Hundred and One Nights is fairly unknown, I’ve already given away too much, for Buchholz skillfully hides much of Abu Saheeh’s backstory until the novel’s closing pages, even as his reliability as a narrator becomes increasingly shaky. The author’s handling of chronologically complicated narrative threads is not the only accomplished aspect of One Hundred and One Nights, for the novel excels in many other ways, too. Buchholz has done very well to create complex, memorable characters—not only Abu Saheeh, but a host of other central and minor figures–devise a plot that captivates and surprises, and situate his story in a densely-rendered culture milieu that seems not just accurate but knowing. The prose is neither gutbucket simplistic nor highly stylized, but serves nicely for explorations of mental landscapes and invocations of a ghost-land spaces where reality, image, and fantasy blur:

In my home I sit completely naked at my kitchen table for a long while. In front of me I have placed my whiskey bottle. It is empty. Behind the whiskey bottle, I have placed the bomb, the next bomb, the second and, I hope, last of those bombs bought with Sheikh Seyed Abdullah’s money, smuggled across the border in pieces behind the disguise of the whiskey bottles. The thick and rounded bottle distorts the shape of the bomb. The facets of the bottle reflect the image of my haggard face, superimposed on the curving shape of the detonation charge, so that the bomb seems to have my rough whiskers, my black tumble of hair, my untrimmed mustache, my depthless, reddened eyes.

Before writing One Hundred and One Nights, Buchholz published a memoir titled Private Soldiers (2007) about his National Guard unit deployment to southern Iraq. In Iraq, Buchholz served as a civil affairs officer in and around Sufwan. Apparently the genesis of One Hundred and One Nights were the death of a local girl and the bombing of one of his unit’s vehicles, but rather than focusing on the victims of war, especially the American victims, or on the experience of American fighting men, Buchholz has used his first novel to dramatize the events through the eyes of their killer. Buchholz’s tour in Iraq, he explains in an addendum to One Hundred and One Nights, instilled in him a desire “to understand and empathize with the types of personalized hatred and personalized loss and personalized dementia that I believe to be at the core of the mind-set required to perpetrate a bombing or kill another human being.” When asked why he chose to write from an Iraqi perspective, Buchholz writes, “I think it is an issue of empathy, of trying to understand other people,” but also, “Writing from my own point of view of someone culturally similar to me would have been boring.” Fiction rather than non-fiction, according to Buchholz, offers an “outlet for hypothesizing, a place that allows me to give structure to ideas and concepts that seem in the real world important but also ephemeral, shifty, unquantifiable, nonlinear.”

Those explanations are insightful, if more turgidly expressed than the more fluid and supple prose of One Hundred and One Nights would suggest. One Hundred and One Nights probes the limits of empathy through sympathetic character creation, at a time when issues of cultural appropriation and Orientalism are real concerns. Buchholz appears to have damned the critical torpedoes by creating a story around one of the mysterious, anonymous residents of Iraq he must have observed by the thousands during his tour. Given its subject, One Hundred and One Nights was probably not destined to ever be popular among American readers more interested in the experience of American soldiers than those whom they fought. The book’s title, which plays a little too obviously on the ur-text of Arabian literature, One Thousand and One Nights, and the book’s jacket, which features a fetching young Arab woman peaking out from under a hijab, also bespeak an uneasiness which someone, either Buchholz himself or his publishers, must have felt about bringing a book told by a radicalized middle-aged male Iraqi insurgent before American reading audiences. That the novel succeeds as well as it does is a testament not so much to Buchholz’s cultural acuity but his literary skill. Its interrogation of the limits of empathy is excellent, but its exploration of the possibilities of artful tale-telling even better.

As far as I can tell, One Hundred and One Nights is the first novel about war in Iraq written by a US military veteran and one of the first novels about the war written by any American. As such, it’s a fantastic first effort right out of the chute at the head of the tradition it helps inaugurate. As of 2019, One Hundred and One Nights and Private Soldiers remain Buchholz’s only published books, but just this year he snagged a spot as a featured columnist for the online journal The Writer, and there he announces that he has contracts for two more books forthcoming in 2020. I’m glad to hear it and I look forward to learning what they are all about.

Thanks to David Eisler for the tip on One Hundred and One Nights and another early-on novel set at least partially in Iraq, Nicholas Kulish’s 2007 Last One In, which I’m reading now and will be writing about soon.

Benjamin Buchholz, One Hundred and One Nights. Back Bay-Little Brown, 2011

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.


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