Posted tagged ‘War fiction’

Toni Morrison’s Home: A Different War Story

October 2, 2018

WLA Poster

At the War, Literature & the Arts conference in Colorado last month I read a paper titled “The Black Aesthetics of War Trauma:  Toni Morrison, Larry Heinemann, and Contemporary War Fiction.”  In it, I compared Toni Morrison’s 2012 novel Home, about a black Korean War veteran’s post-war ordeal, with Larry Heinemann’s 1987 Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, about a white veteran adrift after coming home. Here’s part of it:

Home unites Morrison’s interest in black veterans and her interest in personal healing and national coping strategies for dealing with trauma, almost as if she had deliberately taken characters, plot points, and narrative styles from Heinemann’s Paco’s Story and merged them with the ideas and ethos of her own 1987 novel Beloved.  Points on which Home and Paco’s Story resemble each other include:

-the plight of the war-torn-and-haunted veteran dramatized by means of a long journey, with many scenes set on public transportation or in diners and rooming houses.

-a heavy emphasis on survivor’s guilt, brought about by having outlived friends and comrades in combat.

-an even-more intense trigger involving sexual desire for a young Asian woman followed by actively taking the woman’s life or being complicit in murder.

-the interest in the ability of small-town America to accept and nourish returning veterans.

-the inadequacy of the medical, legal, and policing apparatuses, which effectively criminalize erratic behavior by veterans.

-the wise counsel of fellow veterans, especially elders, who are portrayed as the only ones who can connect with other veterans.

-a similarity in tone, particularly in the italicized interludes in Home, in which Frank Money cajoles and taunts the reader/writer in a bristling street/folk-idiom very much like that of used by Heinemann in Paco’s Story, which is narrated by the collective ghosts of Paco’s now-dead fellow soldiers.

Does it matter the stories resemble each other, and that Morrison composed her story after Heinemann and may have consciously drawn plot-and-style points from it?  I don’t think so, and more importantly, I don’t care; in fact, I’m glad it has happened….

I went on to suggest that Morrison is not just interested in Heinemann but the corpus of war-fiction published about the same time as Home and featuring psychologically distressed white veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan:

What Morrison has done is excavate the pre-history of the troubled, war-torn veteran and relocated it from the domain of white veterans of the contemporary era to that of black veterans in the 1950s, whose alienated wandering was more fraught than modern white veterans might imagine. Mindful that the Korean War is often called “The Forgotten War,” as well as being the first American war in which blacks fought in integrated front-line units, and also mindful that African-Americans fought and suffered casualties out of proportion to their population, Morrison uses Home to make a strong statement about the centrality of black Americans in the American history of war, as well as the American history of trauma.  In so doing, Home serves as a prism that refracts present-day understandings of war trauma through an historical race consciousness that challenges assumptions, adds detail, and expands context….

I continued by suggesting that in retelling the story of the psychologically distressed veteran from an African-American perspective, Morrison has not only related an overlooked chapter in American history, her book itself constitutes an historical event that might well be looked back on in the future as game-changing. I used the conference keynote speaker, African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, to explain:

As such, they reflect Suzan-Lori Parks’ formulation of a black theatrical aesthetics, in which she states, “Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theater, for me, is the perfect place to “make” history—that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as playwright is to … locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.”

The same sentiment of “made history” is afoot in Home, I feel.  Home asserts that a whites-only story of return-from-war is at best a partial truth, true only so far as it goes.  Not only does it exclude black veterans, but its entire premise is built on and borrowed from one of the nation’s ur-trauma narratives:  500-years of racial oppression the result of which has forged an African-American population scarred physically, mentally, and emotionally, individually and collectively.

Finally, I considered what I call the “intriguingly upbeat ending” of Home:

But rather than imagining a downward trajectory for her war-torn veteran protagonist and an irredeemably debilitating social-political milieu Morrison in Home (as she does in Beloved) transcends the trap of victimhood by offering a more resilient version of the traumatized survivor.  Morrison suggests that for poor African-Americans in the Deep South in the 1950s, embracing family and community, not running from them, is a means for surviving poverty, racism, and the persistent squelching of individual dreams and opportunities.  Within that embrace, failings and sins can be forgiven and made secondary to the collective endeavor to maintain dignity and fellow-feeling.

Home thus stands as a counterpoint to the generic convention of the veteran psychologically-damaged by war on behalf of a nation that doesn’t know what to do with the victims it has created.  It’s not to blame white veteran-authors for writing works that don’t acknowledge the Africanist presence in the American history of war-trauma I speak of.  Instead, it is for alert readers and the authors of the future to understand the full range of possibilities and stakes.  One such reader and author, Jesse Goolsby, one of our hosts here at the conference and the author of an excellent post-war novel himself, reminds us:

            “There are blank pages in front of all of us.  If one wants a different war story then go write it, and I wish you well.”

Home is a great example of the “different war story” Goolsby speaks of, not one that merely confirms or rebukes familiar tropes and themes, but offers a variation on them from the point-of-view of an author as perceptive and as uniquely marked by her life and times as is Morrison.

Thank you to my fellow panelists Liam Corley, Hilary Lithgow, and Lydia Wilkes, as well as to our moderator Gregory Laski.  Special thanks to the United States Air Force Academy and the Department of English and Fine Arts there for sponsoring the conference.  Reading  lots of Toni Morrison, Larry Heinemann, Jesse Goolsby, and Suzan-Lori Parks (as well as the other conference keynote speaker, Robert Olen Butler) over the summer has been a pleasure.  I previously wrote about Home here.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ quote can be found in an essay titled “Possession,” published in The America Play and Other Works (1995).

Jesse Goolsby’s quote can be found in an AWP Roundtable conversation published on the Sundress Publications website as “Duty and Dilemma: 100 Years of Writing About War (2018).

 

Hilary Plum, Caleb Cage, Ahmed Saadawi

August 15, 2018

Three recent works of fiction suggest that war in Iraq was not so much an event or set of events, but a disease that infected its participants and ruined their lives. Hilary Plum’s Strawberry Fields is her follow-up to her 2013 novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (which I review here) and her 2016 book of essays Watchfires (mentioned here). Like Plum’s previous two works, Strawberry Fields’ interest is the rancid state of American society and global geo-eco-politics, in which violence, fear, militarism, crime, natural and man-made disaster, and constant surveillance overwhelm optimism, good-nature, civility, and civic feeling. War in Iraq figures in each of the works, but mainly as a breeding ground for and a corollary manifestation of rot at home. In Strawberry Fields, five Iraq veterans are found murdered; the rest of the novel details a strange alliance between a journalist named Alice and a detective named Modigliani as they search for clues to the murder in war crimes committed by contractors to whom the soldiers were connected overseas. The story is related through the perspective of multiple characters in a non-linear manner, with contextual clues scant and little sense of plot or closure. Intermixed with the main storyline are other chapters depicting harrowing scenes of human, animal, and environmental vulnerability, set in places as diverse as New Orleans after Katrina, a refugee camp in an unnamed country, a neglected zoo, a field ruined by pesticides. The textual atmosphere is sometimes lyrical but mostly clotted and bristling, so Strawberry Fields is not an easy breeze for casual readers. If, however, you, as do I, might like a novel that doesn’t just describe our malevolent times but replicates their dizzying and dismaying profusion of bad news and hostile intentions, sans happy-face band-aids, then Strawberry Fields is for you.

Caleb Cage’s dedication to Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada, his book of nine linked short services about war in Iraq and before and afterwards in Nevada, is telling. Written “For Brooke” (I presume Cage’s wife), it goes: “you are the happy story you couldn’t find on these pages.” Brooke wasn’t wrong, for I don’t think I’ve read a work of fiction about Iraq or Afghanistan that is so relentlessly dour. The protagonists of the stories in Desert Memories—soldiers of different ranks in a Nevada National Guard infantry unit—just seem miserable. The war is hopeless, the chain-of-command are fools, Iraq and Iraqis are disgusting, the soldiers screw each other’s girls, the women in theater and back home are treacherous, and the relief from it all—alcohol—is a one-way fast-track to ruin at an early age. Something like the true voice of the disaffected junior enlisted soldier and junior officer emerges in full throttle over the course of Desert Mementos. Convinced of their own superior judgment and self-righteousness, the soldiers seethe as the increasing apprehension that they now hold in contempt the military they voluntarily joined gnaws at their self-respect. What they hoped would be a transformative experience has turned out to be joyless and purposeless and they suspect that they have been made worse, not better, by Army service. Silently blaming themselves for their predicament is intolerable, however, so begins endless bitching and acts of petty insubordination directed at a military they now loathe. For all that, Desert Mementos has many virtues, or maybe all that is its virtue, or at least its point. I’ll trust there are still a lot of highly-motivated, good-natured soldiers eager to do well out there, but there are those like the soldiers described in Desert Mementos, too, and the military has only itself to blame for it. As someone who has led a lot of vehicle “CONOPS,” I liked Cage’s depiction of them in “Ghost Patrol.” As someone who has pulled many guard-tower shifts, I appreciated Cage’s portrait of the same in “Desert Island.” As someone who knows all too well the inside of a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and built many a PowerPoint presentation (and written about them here), I loved “This Is Not Burning Man.” As someone who had a vexing professional relationship with a female embedded journalist, I could relate to “Proxy War.” As someone who has had some memorable experiences driving through Nevada, I thought “Tonopah Low” was right on-point. And as someone who was witness to the killing of a fellow truck crew-member, I’ll testify that a similar event described in “Soldier’s Cross” spoke to me hard and true.

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad tells the story of a monster created out of human body parts that wreaks vengeance on Iraqis who are complicit in criminal activity—usually killing—directed against fellow Iraqis. The novel’s least interesting parts are those that give voice to the monster’s consciousness or attempt to explain it through authorial third-person description. Apparently, the modern-day Frankenstein represents a cosmic manifestation of the violence begat by violence, a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever-expanding retribution for past sins and crimes, amplified by the collapse of humane civil society in Iraq as a result of first Saddam Hussein and then the American invasion. These portions of Frankenstein in Baghdad ring kind of strident and over-determined while emitting confusing signals whether they are serious or comically fanciful. Much more winning is the rest of the novel, which consists of accounts of everyday Iraqis—the 90% who wouldn’t think of killing anyone under any circumstances–whose lives consist of trying to survive the violence instigated by the ruthless, selfish, and bloody-minded among them. The leader of the advisor team I replaced in Afghanistan told me upon arrival that “Afghans are reasonable decision-makers, but they are worried everyday about two things that we are not: that they might be killed at any time, and that they have to ensure their family’s future welfare.” That insight seems to also be the animating force for the characters in Frankenstein in Baghdad, who must deal with the chaos that tyranny, war, and most-of-all poverty have beset upon them. Living by their wits and extremely aware of the precariousness of their lives, Saadawi’s Baghdadians demonstrate a resiliency, ingeniousness, and humanity that makes us far-softer, far-safer Americans look like rigid, selfish dullards. Their stories both heart-breaking and inspiring, Saadawi relates them in a way that, against all odds, seems light-hearted, jocular, even madcap. How Iraqi fiction about the war can be so zestful, while American fiction strikes such bummer notes, is one of the wonders of literature and mysteries of life.

Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields. Fence Books, 2018.

Caleb S. Cage, Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada. University of Nevada Press, 2017.

Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad. Translated by Jonathan Wright. Penguin, 2018.

Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog

August 5, 2018

In a 2014 Los Angeles Book Review article titled “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” author Brian Castner wondered why so little fiction and poetry had been written about war in Afghanistan compared to Iraq. In the article, Brandon Willitts answers Castner’s question by noting that the special operators who were doing much of the fighting in Afghanistan were not bookish people drawn to reflection:

“These guys are such high achievers, Olympic athletes who have been trained to kill,” he 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.”

Will Mackin, the author of the short-story collection Bring Out the Dog, about Navy SEALs in action in Afghanistan and in Iraq and in training in America, may not fit the exact prescription Willitts offers as an impossibility, but he comes pretty close. Mackin was not technically a SEAL, for he never went through the rigorous selection process for the legendary fighting force. But through the vagrancies of a long career as a Navy officer, he found himself attached to the SEALs on several deployments as the team member responsible for coordinating “close air support”—rockets and bombs launched from Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine aircraft. Mackin, to the best of my knowledge, has also not played linebacker in the NFL. A high school football game described in one Bring Out the Dog story by the first-person narrator seems based on actual experience, however, so perhaps we can surmise that he possesses something of a jock’s good-nature, confidence, instinct for action, and sanguinity about violence. But Mackin early on was also bit hard by the writing bug, which values other qualities and a different sensibility—an affinity for underdogs and outsiders and an interest in language and the telling detail, for starters. Mackin openly acknowledges his debt to George Saunders and his epigraph comes from Barry Hannah, both authors esteemed by writing-world insiders and “fit-but-few” readers. Given all that, it’s no wonder Bring Out the Dog emits such a unique cluster of intriguing signals, as if a linebacker didn’t just write a novel about the NFL, but wrote a damn good one.

Most of the initial round of reviews for Bring Out the Dog, including mine here, fixate on Mackin’s style, which combines plain-spoken physical description and almost obsessively-rendered descriptions of distorted sensory perceptions. Mackin alludes to this practice in a New York Times interview:

The idea for this particular book came out of the sensory details of the wars. When I was deploying with a SEAL team in Iraq and Afghanistan, our mission was night raids, and we wore night vision. There was a disconnect between the actual image and the image I was seeing in the goggles, and in some of the transmission — I could hear the guy next to me speaking on the radio, and a few seconds later I’d hear his voice in my head on delay. The voice would sound different but all the words were the same.

Nothing directly appears as what it is. Especially at night, when you’re seeing things basically in three different forms: the heat-and-light image in night vision; the silhouette in darkness I’d see in my peripheral or if I looked under the goggles; and the image I knew — like, if I was looking at a teammate, the guy I was familiar with, my memory of what he looked like in daylight. That sort of sensory confusion really stuck with me.

Examples of this perspectival fluidity can be found on almost every page of Bring Out the Dog. Mackin, or his narrator, constantly calls attention to the contingency and unreliability of the senses. From the first story in the collection, “The Lost Troop”:

The windows of the MH-47 were made of Plexiglass. They were shaped like mixing bowls. Looking through them, I saw things on the outside as either close and blurry, or far away and flurry. There was a sweet spot in the lens, however, where something would emerge perfectly magnified. Thus, when we banked over the highway that ran between Kandahar and Kabul, I saw a bleary-eyed trucker behind the wheel. When we floated over the mountains into Wardak, I saw a waterfall cascading into a crystalline lake. And when we turned above the ruins of Joe’s old school, I imagined the school as it once had been—stone walls, slate roof, and leaded glass windows.

Such sensory alertness, the ability to weave permutations of impression effortlessly into the storytelling fabric, and the underlying premise that the subtle alterations of perspective infuse the plot, character, and reader response with meaning, are literary gifts. A classic example is Hawthorne in “The Custom House,” his long introduction to The Scarlet Letter. There, Hawthorne describes how the intermingling of fireplace flame, lamplight, and moonbeam illuminate a storytelling space “somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet….” out of which grow the novel that follows. Hawthorne’s interest was Romance, which he distinguished from the Novel; the debate is forgotten now, but the talent remains tangible: whatever virtues a book without it may have, the sentences are bound to feel overly literal and plodding. An author who doesn’t have the gift is like a basketball player without spring in his step, a baseball pitcher whose fastball doesn’t jump and swerve, or a linebacker who doesn’t like to hit.

All the above has been the gist of the initial reviews of Bring Out the Dog. Less detailed have been explorations of its stories as stories—what is Mackin asking us to understand about modern SEALs and SEAL warfare?

****

Like many other contemporary short-story collections, Bring Out the Dog’s eleven stories are linked by recurring characters, subjects, and themes. The first-person narrator seems to be the same in all stories, an unnamed Navy Joint Terminal Attack Controller (or, “JTAC”) assigned to a SEAL unit, though in some stories the narrator also has other duties, such as being responsible for signal and electronic intelligence, host-nation liaison, and “pulling security” while the SEALs execute operations on targets. Six stories are set in Afghanistan, where the narrator belongs to a unit led by a terse, fierce, charismatic SEAL named Hal who leads the team on a series of raids and patrols. Intermixed with the Afghanistan stories are three set on training ranges in the United States, one in North Carolina and two in Utah. In these, the other main character is a senior JTAC named Reed with whom the narrator conducts training missions guiding in aircraft on bombing runs. The final two stories are set in Iraq, where the narrator is a member of a SEAL team led by Spot, who seems like a lesser version of Hal, though still formidable. While the Afghanistan missions take place in that country’s rural villages and back regions, the Iraq stories portray nighttime raids in the aptly-named city of Hit, in the Anbar region near Ramadi. Many stories feature Iraq or Afghanistan characters in minor roles who serve as agents of the narrator’s awakening, but US military personnel in line units appear only as foils for the more warrior-like SEALs. Also for better or worse, serving US women appear only once and stories set back in the States are unconcerned with the domestic sphere. A SEAL girlfriend figures in one story; predictably enough, I guess, she’s a dancer in a strip-club.

The subject of most of the stories are SEAL team operations broadly considered. The most common missions portrayed are nighttime raids on Iraq and Afghanistan households to kill-or-capture high-value targets: the SEALs helicopter in, approach their objective, blow in its doors, ransack the place while looking for targets, and then exfiltrate to the helicopter pick-up point. These missions are usually routine, except that sometimes they go haywire or something out of the ordinary happens, occurrences which serve as seeds for several of the stories the narrator wants to tell. Other stories focus on SEALs patrolling across forbidding landscapes in which the terrain as much as the Taliban or Al Qaeda are the enemy. A couple of stories are set mostly on the FOB and offer portraits of SEALs interacting among themselves or with line soldiers in non-combat scenarios. All are full of enough gnarly detail to satisfy the demands of hardcore military buffs while also establishing, without braggadocio, Mackin’s authorial credibility as a war-writer who has served with the toughest and seen a lot. Even better are the insights, usually offered as asides, that give purchase on the SEAL ethos. In one place, the narrator explains:

The variety of ideas among soldiers developed into a variety of ideas among units, which necessitated an operational priority scheme. As SEAL Team Six, we were at the top of that scheme. Our ideas about the war were the war. Therefore, we could knock any unit’s door in the middle of the night, assemble the soldiers in a room, and tell them what was what.

In another story, a SEAL is described as “a SEAL, and SEALs had their own problems, but being uptight wasn’t one of them. If anything, they’d gone too far in the opposite direction.” Elsewhere, the narrator writes, “Knowing that we were in for a gunfight, the boys were all smiles.” When team leader Spot thinks his team has grown sloppy, he chews them out. “And although he shouldn’t have to reiterate our philosophy,” the narrator writes, “he felt the need. ‘Speed and violence,’ he said. And we allowed him to say it again.” This in response to failure to kill a teen-age boy who dared to move when told to hold still–in contrast to the many scenes in recent war films and books in which soldiers err on the side of caution in shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenarios, for the SEALs hesitation is the cardinal sin.

The training range stories operate differently. From the most unpromising of dramatic material—one that not 1 in 100,000 potential readers can “relate to,” Mackin finds much of human interest in the spoken and unspoken tensions that bind the narrator and Reed as they stand at “observation points” and call in attack aircraft. Even better, given Mackin’s interest in perspective and measurement, the tales of range-finding and targeting (to include “Kattekoppen,” which is set in Afghanistan) read like parables of how to see and how to be sure of what you see.

The major theme of the stories is acceptance and belonging, earned by continuously proving one’s tactical competence, fitness for team culture, and loyalty. Often, it is the narrator who feels himself on the outside looking in—part of but not really belonging to the unit, with his tactical and social competence constantly under question by the rest of the team and himself. This feeling particularly drives the first story, “The Lost Troop,” in which the narrator feels, rightly, that the team holds him responsible for not calling in a punishing-enough airstrike to vanquish an enemy strongpoint, which led to one of the enemy survivors killing a SEAL named Yaz. In “Yankee Two,” the narrator bungles “actions on the objective,” when on a night raid he both fails to discover a mysterious electronic device that might be an IED “trigger” and takes his eye off one of their detainees. But it’s not just the narrator who reproaches himself for past mistakes and worries about future ones. “Rib Night” is about a SEAL who cements his reputation by exemplifying SEAL virtues—fighting prowess and team loyalty–while “Great Circle Route Westward Through Perpetual Night” is about another SEAL who must be reassigned after inadvertently killing the team search-dog (the canine referred to in the book’s title). In “Welcome Man Will Never Fly,” a SEAL demonstrates his unreliability at calling in airstrikes, thus forcing the narrator and his superiors to make a hard call about his fitness for an upcoming deployment. “Kattekoppen” is about a SEAL team that cycles through a number of artillery forward observers before finding the right one for the job. Illustrated by these stories is the relentless competitiveness of SEALs, their ferocious judgment of each other, and the lacerating humiliation that comes with not measuring up.

A second theme concerns SEAL team leadership. Hal and Spot dominate the lives of the other SEALs, setting the tone and upholding standards while instilling intense desire to obey and please among their troops. Their key to success seems to be a potent mixture of extreme calmness and extreme decisiveness, both in combat and in their judgment of men. In this regard Hal impresses the narrator a little more than Spot—Hal’s name calling to mind Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The narrative arc of Bring Out the Dog climaxes (spoiler alert) in “Crossing the River No Name” with Hal’s death, for which the narrator feels culpable and which leaves him not so much emotionally forlorn but cosmically adrift, as if the right order of the universe had been upset. The collection’s last two stories are set in Iraq under Spot’s leadership, which resembles in ways Hal’s, but doesn’t inspire the same confidence. We don’t quite feel that the last two stories register the cumulative force of the nine preceding stories on the narrator’s psyche—we don’t really even know if the stories are arranged in chronological order—but one can sense something setting in, if not quite disillusionment, then perhaps readiness to put SEAL life behind him.

A structural feature of the stories is that most of them end enigmatically. Narrative closure is always tricky business in short stories, and Mackin’s bent is to leave what might be the resolution unstated and hanging. In “Welcome Man Will Never Fly,” for example, the narrator, Reed, and the third man—a SEAL named Moby, the one who has just fucked up his pre-deployment test—make their way home after the training concludes. The narrator and Reed must report to their higher that Moby is unfit for deployment, even though by nature the wise-cracking and insouciant Moby is a perfect SEAL-bro who sees his mistakes as no big deal, who cares, whatever. Before arriving back at the base, however, the men are waylaid by a storm that forces them to take refuge in a motel where, by chance, a reunion of special ops pilots is in full-swing. The story’s end suggests that, confronted by the bonhomie of the retired pilots, the type of men who have all broken hundreds of military rules and buried dozens of mistakes in their long careers, the narrator and Reed will recalculate their decision. But the outcome is never portrayed directly; instead the story sets the condition for the dramatic moment to follow. Similarly, in “Yankee Two,” the narrator discovers a mysterious black box that may or may not be an IED trigger. Even after subjecting the box to a half-dozen tests, however, the narrator cannot determine whether the black box is even an electronic device. The story ends with an interrogation of the box owner—an adolescent boy—about to begin—but we never learn the result of the inquiry nor the fate of the box. Suggested, though, is the narrator’s growing sense of the futility of the mission, a feeling exacerbated by his increasing lack of confidence in Spot.

The focus throughout is clearly on fighting men whose social codes are shot through with fairly traditional ideas about manly bravery and toughness. Still, Bring Out the Dog likely is not going to please members of the special operations community and their fans, who, if they pay attention to it at all, will be suspicious of it and feel they are somehow being exposed, critiqued, or mocked. What’s there not to like about SEALs, they could ask? Mackin might even agree, for neither does Bring Out the Dog stand as a rebuke of the mountain of memoirs and films–the cultural glop–that celebrate and glorify SEALs. For critics of SEALs and their mythos, Bring Out the Dog probably doesn’t go far enough in problematizing either SEAL tactics or SEAL idolatry. Toxic masculinity and rampant militarism would seem to be on the table, but are not Mackin’s interest, nor is self-flagellation. “But ours was not a normal organization,” the narrator explains. “Sometimes what went on gave normal men pause. And if they paused, we’d send them back and demand a replacement.” In response to the books and movies about the world in which he served, Bring Out the Dog suggests Mackin wouldn’t think they are wrong in contour, merely nowhere near satisfying enough in detail and artistry.

As I’ve been intimating, it is very unusual to discover a writer of Mackin’s ability who has also been soldier-enough to accompany the SEALs not on just one mission as an observer or journalist, but dozens and probably hundreds as a participant. Not that Bring Out the Dog is Moby-Dick, but Mackin’s appearance on the literary scene resembles Melville’s in the 1840s, when fresh from a whaling voyage and living with cannibals a talented young writer seemed to emerge out of whole-cloth. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael testifies that it is best to be on good terms with the inhabitants of any realm in which one finds oneself and also that mad “Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.” Some of the same sentiments seem to apply to Mackin’s relationship to the SEALs. We might wonder that he doesn’t make more of the cumulative ethical toll from so much participation in shooting, bombing, home invasion, interrogation, and just plain brutal human interaction, even among the SEALs themselves. The narrator references psychological distress occasionally—what the narrator calls his “beleaguered conscience”—but it honestly doesn’t seem to be his thing to be tormented by war’s wanton destructiveness. That’s an aspect of combat he thinks about, but it doesn’t yet consume him, though he admits that in future years “I’d probably see good stuff as bad, and bad stuff as worse.” Perhaps it is all a matter of suppression, denial, compartmentalization, and suspended judgment—something officers are expert in, speaking from experience–but whatever, the attitude is curious and hard to understand—if the war didn’t actually traumatize you, OK, but how could literary war fiction possibly be about anything else?

One means of understanding the ethical tone of Bring Out the Dog is offered by Air Force pilot and novelist James Salter in his memoir, where he claims that he disliked writing about himself, because the “self was not the principal thing.” In other words, he, and I’m suggesting Mackin, too, is more interested in describing people and events he observed than in exploring his own mind or soul. The risk here is a certain lack of psychological or moral depth that might be judged heinous, or at least reprehensible, especially when we’re talking about breaking into Afghan and Iraq households and terrorizing the residents. I don’t think that’s the case with Mackin’s narrator, Mackin himself, or Bring Out the Dog generally. More ambivalent about special operators than other literary fiction yet written about them—I’m thinking of Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War, and Ross Ritchell’s The Knife–Bring Out the Dog emenates from a deeper place of knowingness. Still it would be ludicrous to think Mackin would throw under the bus men with whom he fought and on whom he depended for his life. “I felt proud that I’d fought, or something like proud, but also glad it was over,” states the narrator of “The Lost Troop.” Mackin’s stories set the conditions for the profounder resolution of their ambiguities, not by his characters, nor by Mackin, but by his readers.

An interview I conducted with Mackin for The Wrath-Bearing Tree can be found here.

Will Mackin, Bring Out the Dog.  Random House, 2018.

DIY and Indie War Fiction

May 26, 2018

Below is a short survey of some of the self-published, indie-published, or small press novels I’ve read the last few years that are either directly or indirectly about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s hard to distinguish between publication categories sometimes, but taken as a group, such offerings occupy a mid-range position in the spectrum of war-writing, somewhere between the manicured literary works offered by major publishing houses and the vast sea of veterans writing published online and in small journals.

Crossing the Wire, Bob Kornhiser
The Brooklyn Bridge Press, 2004

Crossing the Wire features two intriguing plot-lines: one about an American unit at war in Iraq after 2003, in which the first-person narrator, a lieutenant, finds love with a mysterious Iraqi woman, and a second that recounts the rise to power of Saddam Hussein and his fall in the wake of the American invasion. Author Bob Kornhiser, a Brooklyn-born New York City schoolteacher and author, never served in the military, but claims front-of-the-line status for publishing fiction about American soldiers at war in Iraq.

First line: We moved down the narrow street, wrapped in G.I.-issue night-vision goggles, armed spooks in the night, making a sweep.

To Kill the Other, Danuta Hinc
Tate Publishing, 2010

Not about American soldiers at war in Iraq or Afghanistan, To Kill the Other artfully portrays the radicalization of one of the 9/11 bombers and his participation in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Hinc, a native of Poland who teaches writing at the University of Maryland and has published widely, gets credit for such a sustained effort to dramatize the biographical details and interior thoughts of one of our War on Terror enemies.

First line: Tahir examined his reflection in the lavatory mirror—long shadows cast down in sharp strokes—and suddenly felt exhausted.

The Peacekeeper’s Photograph: A Master Sergeant Harper Mystery, M.L. Doyle
Vine Hill Road (VHR) Press, 2013

Set in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the American intervention of the 1990s, so, like Hinc’s work, not technically about Iraq or Afghanistan, still The Peacekeeper’s Photograph pleasantly introduces readers to Doyle, an Army veteran who has written a number of well-worth-reading military-themed fiction, romance, and, as a ghost-writer, memoir titles more directly linked to post-9/11 war. Among other virtues, The Peacekeeper’s Photograph features a senior female NCO as its protagonist, a point-of-view rarely—like never, to my knowledge—represented at length in other fiction.

First line: Mud covered my boots, splattered my uniform, and served as an unavoidable annoyance every single day of our Bosnian deployment.

What Changes Everything, Masha Hamilton
Unbridled Books, 2013

A very satisfying novel that weaves together domestic drama and foreign intervention in Afghanistan by a woman whose NGO husband has been captured and held for ransom by insurgents, while also incorporating imagined letters written by Mohammad Najibullah, the last president of Afghanistan. An accomplished writing pro, Hamilton has published widely as a journalist and once served as Director of Communications in the US Embassy in Kabul.

Prophetic epigraph from poet Adrienne Rich: Beirut. Baghdad. Sarajevo. Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of course here.

Tattoo Zoo, Paul Avallone
St. Martian’s Press, 2014

Both intense and sprawling (554 pages of small print), this novel about hard-bitten infantrymen in Afghanistan grows out of Avallone’s experience as a Special Forces officer and embedded journalist. The testosterone level is off the charts, for better or worse, but Tattoo Zoo is packed with gritty detail and burns with conviction that the grunt’s-eye view of war is the sharpest and most righteous.

From the front material: The novel was born out of the author’s own original screenplay Tattoo Zoo, which was inspired by Captain Roger Hill and First Sergeant Tommy Scott and their Dog Company soldiers who were dishonored by a command that was morally corrupt or just fearful of hurting their careers, from silver oak leaves to stars.

Old Silk Road, Brandon Caro
Post Hill Press, 2015

An oddly charming or charmingly odd picaresque road novel about a long “CONOP” mission in Afghanistan, narrated by a surly drug-addicted junior-enlisted medic attached to an advisor unit, and authored by a former Navy corpsman who himself was attached to an advisor unit in Afghanistan (and who post-deployment battled addiction, as movingly recounted here). In addition to being an engaging story, Old Silk Road features one of the best titles and, for my money, the best cover of the many Iraq and Afghanistan novels I’ve read.

First line: The sun shone hard and the wind billowed in from the west the day I first killed a man.

Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town, Susanne Aspley
WTF Press, 2016

As the title of her novel suggests, Aspley, a Peace Corps veteran and an oft-deployed Army Reservist, aims for a madcap take on small-town life in the Midwest in which quote-unquote normal folkways are interrupted when an African-American Afghanistan veteran arrives on the scene. Succeeding nicely, Granola, MN dives deep below its light-hearted surface to explore several big issues—patriotism/militarism, race, PTSD, and Heartland drinking culture, for starters.

First line: What begins as an ordinary day, the way most days do in Granola, veers a little off course when the first customer, a young black man, walks into the hardware store.

The Chords of War: Inspired by a True Story of Love, War, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr.
White Whisker Books, 2016

Based on the life of co-author Gonzalez, The Chords of War admirably tells the tale of an indie-rock musician who joins the military when his career falters, only to have his music take new shape in theater when he becomes a FOB rock-star. I blurbed The Chords of War (“….millennial-era men and women stalled between adolescence and adulthood.…”), so hey it’s got to be good, and if you don’t trust me, check out the cool trailer here.

First two lines: Music filled his mind. Specifically, seventeen-year-old Max Rivera dreamed of his last great gig with the Mad Suburbans.

****

Four of the novels on my list portray young male fighting men: Crossing the Wire and Tattoo Zoo emit an old-school vibe—think, “I’ve been in the shit” Nam-style–while the Old Silk Road and The Chords of War protagonists (and their authors, too) exude a more twenty-first century sensibility, along the lines of the many “Terminal Lance” and “E4 Mafia” vets who dish out snark on Twitter. The other four novels usefully and entertainingly lift the lid on less-explored aspects of the war, from the domestic homefront to peacekeeping to humanitarian endeavors in-theater to fulsome portraits of the enemy “Other.” None of these novels shy away from extensive and graphic presentation of their characters’ romantic and sex lives and thoughts in-theater and out. Which is cool, because this department is one the Nortons and Random Houses of the world are shy about letting their war-and-military authors explore with much gusto. Or, maybe, it’s their authors themselves who are demure. In any case, love and sex are admittedly difficult to get right in war fiction—both too much and too little are problems—but the big houses tend to err on the side of caution while, based on the evidence of the titles presented here, the indies are much less inhibited.

In regard to music, I’ve always had a soft spot for small-label bands—punk, indie, underground, alternative, etc.—that constitute a rebuke to the aesthetically flaccid conventions of major-label pop and rock. The dynamic doesn’t quite work the same in the book-publishing business. I can’t quite work up the contempt for big-time houses and their favored authors that I generally possess for the makers and purveyors of corporate musical schlock. Nor can I unequivocally tout indie fiction as the home of real talent and true heart-and-soul overlooked by the suits and the masses. But something of that rock-n-roll spirit still burns within me, so kudos here to the authors I’ve named and all the authors who write at book-length for little recognition and small gain. If my short descriptions make the titles seem interesting to you, please search out and read them.

****

A subcategory of the DIY and indie genre (at least in my mind) is war fiction published by university presses. Examples include Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War (2013), published by Apprentice-Loyola University, Maryland, and Hilary Plum’s they dragged them through the streets (2013), published by the University of Alabama Press. I like both very much, which makes me eager to read later this summer Caleb Cage’s Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2018), published by the University of Nevada Press. At some point I’d like to write more about this subgenre, but just in case I don’t, let this too-short paragraph be their tribute.

 

War-Writing in the Fun-House Mirror: Eric Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie

January 8, 2018

Are stories and novels by vets about war in Iraq and Afghanistan allegories of their authors’ struggles to make it as writers? A vet-writer once told me that the real drama, the real conflict, and real anxiety being described was not generated by the battlefield, but the MFA workshop and publishing marketplace.

This provocative idea somewhat underwrites Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s The War of the Encylopaedists. The parts drawn from Robinson’s life as a non-veteran civilian describe a neurotic English graduate student while the parts based on Kovite’s military service describe an army lieutenant’s effort to lead his platoon in Iraq. Together, the two protagonists engage in a quixotic effort to craft a fantastical Wikipedia article about themselves. The novel’s halves are not as tightly stitched together in a synchronized assault on the shared delusions of warrior heroics and authorial grandeur as they might be, but the possibilities are there. Among other things, the reader is invited to consider that whatever the challenges of duty in Iraq, on the whole graduate school is more stressful, less purposeful, and more ripe for satire.

As interesting as is The War of Encylopaedists, the work that most ruthlessly explores the warrior/writer divide is Eric Bennett’s 2015 satirical novel A Big Enough Lie. In no particular order, Bennett takes the piss out of soldiering, mil-and-war writing, MFA programs, military idolatry, literary celebrity, war folly, and publishing foibles. Nothing if not ambitious, Bennett also takes aim at contemporary gender, race, and class contortions, as well as the American rural-urban gulf, and for good measure lobs a few shots at perennial mil-writing aesthetic issues such as authorial authenticity and the literary transformation of fact-based reality into artistic presentation.

A novel of ideas if there ever was one, A Big Enough Lie defies easy explanation, but by describing the characters and plot as simply as possible one can begin to appreciate its scope and ambition.

The novel features two distinct-but-related narrative lines. One, related in third-person, tells the story of John Townley, a timid young man who grows up outside Tallahassee, Florida. Neither popular nor talented, Townley envies his neighbor and high-school classmate Marshall Stang, a brash, charismatic troublemaker. When Townley’s distant cousin, a cosmopolitan New Yorker named Emily White, visits the Townley family, Townley develops a huge unrequited crush on her. Inspired by Emily to become a writer, Townley strives to match her precocious literary sensibility by writing her 1000s of letters, to which she only fitfully responds. Meanwhile, Stang enlists in the army and deploys to Iraq, where he loses a foot.

Several years later, Townley moves to New York City to pursue his writing dream, but the better part of his time and energy is spent trying to pick up women in dive bars by using a variety of pseudonyms and made-up identities, to include Stang’s. Still pining for Emily, Townley helps her reconnect with Stang, whom she met on her first visit to Florida, to help him ghost-write a war memoir, which subsequently becomes a best-seller. Townley’s own effort to become a writer going nowhere, he somehow is accepted into an elite graduate school writing program by adopting the pseudonym Pat Crane and a fake identity as a wheelchair-bound Iraq War veteran. In grad school, Townley/Crane meets Heather Kloppenberg, a dissolute poet wannabe who, despite her liberal politics and writerly sensibility, loves (to sleep with) soldiers. Townley/Crane and Heather are a couple for half-a-semester, but when he reveals he is neither “Patrick” nor a wounded vet, she dumps him and he drops out of grad school.

Townley subsequently returns to Florida, where he writes a book titled Petting the Burning Dog that purports to be the memoir of Henry Fleming, an army officer presumed missing after his tank platoon is ambushed by insurgents in Iraq. Townley/Fleming’s contrived story is that the real Fleming escaped captivity and made his way through Turkey to Germany and back to America. An unsuspecting public doesn’t question the paper-thin rubric, and Townley/Fleming becomes the literary celebrity of the moment. Invited to appear on a talk show hosted by an Oprah-like figure named Winnie Wilson, Townley/Fleming is joined on-stage by one of the members of the real Fleming’s platoon, a brash, charismatic troublemaking African-American soldier named Antoine Greep. Rather than expose Townley, Greep affirms his identity as Fleming, for he has reasons of his own to perpetuate Townley’s charade. It transpires that Greep and Heather Kloppenberg have hooked-up, but the romance doesn’t last and as the novel nears its end Heather is taking steps to expose Townley’s fraud.

That’s half of it.

Interspersed among the chapters relating Townley’s story are others reported in first-person by the Henry Fleming character. It is not clear whether the story-within-a-story passages are from Townley’s faux-memoir Petting the Burning Dog, for they don’t read like a popular soldier saga of capture and escape. Instead, they present Fleming as a militarized version of Townley, insecure and overly analytical, hapless in the face of more aggressive peers, and more interested in castigating himself and making fun of the US military than in presenting himself as an aw-shucks genuine American hero. Many other overlaps between the two narratives suggest Townley has based Fleming largely on himself. Both men are missing fingers, for example, and Fleming is dumped by a woman named Hilary who conjoins aspects of Emily White and Heather Kloppenberg. Odd authorial intrusions also connect the two narratives, such as the fact that Henry Fleming is the name of the protagonist of The Red Badge of Courage and Townley uses Stephen Crane’s last name to get into grad school, coincidental factoids presented without explanation and thus seeming to emanate Paul-Auster-City-of-Glass style from some self-referential, extraneous narrative place. Other literary antecedents swirling in Bennett’s stew of interconnected narratives, doubled protagonists, and unreliable narrators include Poe’s “William Wilson,” Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Melville’s Pierre and The Confidence Man.

Bennett’s a smart guy, and a lot of A Big Enough Lie works well, but it could also easily be accused of being too clever by half. A graduate of the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Bennett’s an academic who has written a book critiquing MFA programs, so he knows of what he speaks. Still, it is hard to accept his verdict that everyone involved in the writing biz is a craven worm, as they are portrayed in A Big Enough Lie. And by “everyone,” Bennett means readers, too:

And what did they want all of them? They wanted nobodies who became somebodies and somebodies who fell tragically. Done and done. Every other story that made the soft headlines, if you panned out far enough, was stagecraft and exaggeration, hype and deception, entertainment and half-way hoax. John could play that game….

The war compelled the interest of Heather and Emily. It gave Stang the true proportions of heroism. It rocked with mysteries and horrors of conduct and decision, fear and bravery, technology and banality, the themes that could make a piercingly audible thing of the printed page. All the other books in vanishing bookstores bored him and more: symbolized what he himself suffered from, the nothingness of feeling and the nothingness of action.

The armed forces, like MFA programs, are fat targets for lampooning (“50-meter targets,” to use army-speak, as opposed to rifle-range targets 400 meters away), and satire’s satire, but A Big Enough Lie‘s sometime problem is that it lacks the comedic élan that, say, David Abrams or Ben Fountain bring to humorous depiction of the military, or, if we want to invoke Hall-of-Fame comic war-writing, Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut. It’s not just that A Big Enough Lie makes it hard to like its main characters, as Abrams and Fountain and the Robinson/Kovite team achieve easily, to say nothing of Heller and Vonnegut, it’s that the novel conveys the impression that readers are not welcomed in on the joke, but more likely are also targets of it. Readers of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, for instance, can smugly laugh along with Ben Fountain at the rich fat-cats and meathead football fans who fête war-hero Billy at a Cowboys game, but the laughs don’t come as readily when the literary world of writers and readers serve as foils for the author’s vision of contemporary American idiocy. Hey, I resemble that!

That’s a pun, people.

If readers—veteran or otherwise—can get over the feeling that they are being insulted by A Big Enough Lie, many passages in Fleming’s narrative are striking. Bennett must have had very good sources to craft passages such as the following:

We had seconds to mobilize. Breitbart was already out the door. In the scramble, an awareness of the futility of our training dogged me perversely. At Hohnefels and Grafenwoehr we spent days and days planning and rehearsing a single training exercise. Here in a combat zone with threats from all sides we had twenty seconds to prepare for a mission we never in our wildest dreams dreamed of. I tried to breathe deeply, to focus and operate, simply operate….

Practically every significant command in the army comes twice, takes two forms, first as a rumor, a beast as winged and strange as its apotheosis in Virgil, flapping through the ranks, stirring confusion, burring its own form….

For Greep, the American operations were a dark circus, free from the rule of law….

Moving lots of troops (somebody in the army believes) requires the pre-staging area, the post-pre-staging area, the staging area, the post-staging area, and the post-post-staging area. Imagine sitting on a scorching interstate as the wreckers clear a fatal pileup. Imagine that for an hour. Imagine that feeling: the heat, the impatience, the ignorance, the total absence of motion, the underlying premise of motion. Then imagine driving a hundred yards and doing it again for an hour. And again. And again. And one last time.

So six hours later, we hit the road.

Part of Bennett’s point here, I think, is to trivialize the achievement of veteran-authors. Writing about war isn’t that damn hard, such passages suggest, and the important thing is not that an author has personally experienced any of it, but that the writer can use words to render a simulacrum of reality with accuracy and verve. Or, perhaps, my too earnest and easily-confused brain ponders, the point is that such insightful, funny passages actually aren’t working, because their fraudulent origin and pretense disqualifies them from serious consideration. More clearly damning of vet-authors, though, is Fleming’s self-portrait, which seems to suggest that he has joined the army to both compensate for masculine inadequacies and find material to write about. Fleming describes his rationale for joining as a classic “nerd-made-good” move, to use John Renehan’s formulation, though the “made good” part remains problematic.

I wasn’t hanging Sheetrock because I was bookish, a milquetoast in his [Fleming’s father] eyes, not that he ever used that word—“pussy” would have been more in his register—and, in this upside-down world, I joined the army and became a second lieutenant and went to war because I was deficient in this way. War seemed like a cool solution, or at least the obvious one. Henry Fleming, yours truly, was just too cautious and normal otherwise to mess his life up in a newsworthy way. Any writer worth his salt has got to draw close to the flame of chaos, and if he can’t do it through his personality, he can do it through the Department of Defense. You’ll notice Ernest Hemingway didn’t spend his late adolescence hanging out in Kansas….

I had enlisted to gather textures for fiction—to place myself in situations where my life took on interest….

A Big Enough Lie works best as a lively meta-commentary for readers predisposed to think 1) the war in Iraq was foolishness, as is the desire to join the military 2) MFA programs and the publishing business are also foolishness, as is the desire to be a writer. If you are a veteran or a writer, or both, and those two ideas do not describe your natural drift of thought, A Big Enough Lie will force consideration of whether such an ugly pair of shoes fits you, given Bennett’s presentation of evidence that suggests they might do so very well.

In a Harper’s magazine review here, Sam Sacks elevates A Big Enough Lie slightly above what he finds otherwise to be a mediocre Iraq and Afghanistan war-fiction pack.

Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie. Northwestern University Press, 2015.

War Fiction: Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier

December 28, 2017

Despite noting the reviews of Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier upon its release last year, I somehow had missed a key piece of Parker’s biography when I began reading the novel itself this month. Over 200 pages in, while marveling at the acuity of Parker’s portrait of soldier disability following battlefield wounding, I rediscovered a review that reminded me that Anatomy of a Soldier is based on personal experience. Parker, it turns out, like his novel’s protagonist, Captain Tom Barnes, unfortunately lost both legs to an IED in Afghanistan while serving in the British army as an infantry officer. The realization immediately recast my reception of Anatomy of a Soldier. Rather than suggesting the exciting possibilities of a highly curious and empathic imagination, the novel now traversed somewhat less interesting terrain: the aesthetic borderland dividing reported experience and fictional dramatization.

Somewhat less interesting, though by no means entirely so. It’s mostly that I’ve read dozens of soldier memoirs and war novels, and am so used to peregrinations back-and-forth across the divide between fact and fiction, whether literary, naïve, or disingenuous, that you’d be hard-pressed to write a war memoir that impressed me as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or a war novel that I didn’t think drew on events you witnessed or participated in. Vietnam War veteran-author Larry Heinemann’s description of his first novel Close Quarters as “straight-up fictionalized memoir” seems to me a phrase that gets at the heart of the genre-anxiety of much war-writing, but my head begins to hurt and I grow tired when pondering the matter.

The point of all this me-centric musing is that Parker has also confronted these issues and has made a number of interesting authorial decisions to resolve them. The decision not to write a memoir is first and foremost, and almost every review of Anatomy of a Soldier considers Parker’s motivation for the choice and what he might have gained or lost. It’s not impossible to fathom why he did not write a memoir: fear of mawkish self-regard or promotion, hesitancy about naming names, suppression of uncomfortable truths, and so on. Given the stiff upper lip and occasional glimpses of black humor on display in Anatomy of a Soldier, I’m sure the last thing Parker would claim is that he wrote it as a therapeutic means of dealing with trauma, even if he did. In any case, a more interesting point to consider is the extremely exotic narrative technique Parker employs, I take it, to further sever the tale from the teller. Each chapter in Anatomy of a Soldier is related from the point-of-view, if that is the right word, of a material object that plays a role in Barnes’ wounding, recovery, and rehabilitation. For example, one chapter is narrated by the bomb that blows him up, another by his helmet, another by the catheter inserted in his penis, etc. Other chapters are related by material objects associated with the Afghans who Barnes tries to help and those he fights, such as a bicycle, a bag of fertilizer, and a wheelbarrow. Here’s an example, related by one of the bullets Barnes loads into a magazine before a mission:

I was spilt with twenty identical others from the cardboard box we were packaged in. I clinked against them as we rolled out across the green mattress.”

BA5799 lined us up into rows of ten and then thirty and pushed us one by one into a magazine.

BA5799—Barnes’ soldier identification number–is how the novel’s object-narrators refer to their owner, a rather obvious way of suggesting that Barnes himself is also just a cog in the big war machine and that the novel is not so much about psychology and emotion but techno-determinism. Giving voice to military equipment might be the logical culmination of the fetishizing of military gear begun by Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” but on the whole the business is a little gimmicky—the stuff of a creative writing class or an experimental modernist novel. That it succeeds as well as it does is a huge testament to Barnes’ powers of observation and creativity. None of the objects brought to life channels an individualized speaking style or consciousness that inflects our understanding of Barnes or Afghans in some way appropriate to the physical functionality of the thing doing the describing—the bullet doesn’t express itself in bullet points, for example, or short, piercing prose stabs of death-dealing wisdom (which frankly would be dumb and tedious). Instead, they have a generic, objective, understated feel that only fitfully and shallowly probes the inner workings of the characters’ minds or suggests bigger implications of the story being told. That’s partly Parker’s intent, I assume, but it’s also a tactic that forfeits two of the novel genre’s great virtues. That said, Anatomy of a Soldier provides very interesting oblique glimpses of soldier and Afghan life and medical and rehabilitative process that suggest that Parker took very good notes while living through his truncated deployment, horrific wounding, and grueling recovery. The chapters describing Afghan family-and-community mores and farm-field and water-management systems are first-in-class among the war lit depictions I’ve read and those portraying disability and rehabilitation haven’t even been attempted to the degree that Anatomy of a Soldier does very well.

To further confound reader expectation and destabilize narrative conventions, Anatomy of a Soldier unfolds Barnes’ story in a decidedly non-linear fashion, so the chronological understanding of it all doesn’t come clear until very near the end. Once revealed, the plot shows itself to have much in common with many other junior officer sagas: the tale of an idealistic young man who wants nothing more than to prove himself battle-worthy in the eyes of his superiors, peers, and subordinates. That’s some extremely old wine that Parker pours into an extravagantly fashioned new bottle, and, like many other reviewers, I wonder if the effort was worth it, for Parker has the life experience and writing chops to have written a more conventional junior officer memoir that still stands out from the pack. Platoon leader memoirs typically culminate in either triumph—things go well, with just enough failure and blackness to say you’ve tasted them—or disaster—the author doesn’t get to be the hero he dreamed of being, leaving him feeling frustrated, cheated, and somehow deficient; if wounded, his wounds proof that he wasn’t cut out for successful officership in the first place. Anatomy of a Soldier is of the second type, and the parts that pack the most emotional wallop trace the contours of Barnes’ triumph and disappointment. His helmet describes the high-water mark, when his sense of pride swells at having successfully led his men into and out of battle:

He had wondered why people thought soldiering was romantic, and knew if they swapped places with any of his men most would crumple under the pressure and fear, the smell and the heat. But he could feel the romance now as he watched the single file of men, with their day-sacks and helmets and antennas, bobbing up and down across this foreign land.

He went through the platoon from the back and smiled at every man as he passed. They crouched by walls or sat on rocks to take the weight off their backs. Their faces were exhausted and grimy with dirt. He knew and trusted each of them. They were his: he could order them into danger and they would go, but he also belonged to them and would lead them there. Each grin and nod, every gesture was trust and the bond that had tightened again that morning.

Moments later, Barnes is wounded, and the colossal import of the event on Barnes’ sense of himself as a worthy leader of fighting men is rendered by his deployment achievement medal as Barnes watches his unit march in parade upon return to England:

BA5799 watched them come. He knew them all. He’d been part of them, one of their best; he didn’t mind the arrogance of thinking that—it didn’t matter now. He’d made a mistake that confined him to the small group that looked on. Even if he’d wanted to march with them he couldn’t.

His hand tightened around me and I pushed a red mark into the folded creases of his palm. He was embarrassed that he was the one who’d made a mistake. He was supposed to be good at his job—some of them had even looked up to him, depended on him to make decisions—and it was never going to happen to him, he was meant to be lucky. But he wasn’t, and it had, and he’d failed.

Suddenly he hated the thought of them seeing him like this, broken and maimed. He didn’t want to walk out there in front of the watching crowd. He wanted to go back to the centre and its different rules and measures of achievement that none of them would understand. Where he could be the best.

He looked down at me and swept his thumb across my surface and felt the ridges and mounds of the head moulded on me. He was a maimed relic that everyone wanted to forget. None of the men in those ranks wanted to be reminded of the truth—of what might happen. I am that truth, he thought.

He watched them go and knew he would never feel part of them again. They were heading away to their R and R, convinced they were invincible and knowing it would never happen to them, while he was going back to the centre to adapt to what had happened to him. My fight goes on, he thought and slipped me into his pocket.

That’s a very honest reckoning, in my opinion, and one that for my money should be offered to the world from something other than the perspective of a bit of brass and ribbon. I could easily place Anatomy of a Soldier in dialogue with Iraq and Afghanistan junior officer memoirs written by Americans, such as those by Nathaniel Fick, Craig Mullaney, Matt Gallagher, Adrian Bonenberger, Sean Parnell, Benjamin Tupper, and Laura Westly, or, given Parker’s protagonist’s name, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Perhaps though it’s best to find English fictional antecedents to understand Parker’s achievement. One might first turn to J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith novels featuring a one-legged Afghanistan vet named Cormorant Strike—Anatomy of a Soldier might well be the prequel that helps explain Strike’s stoic independence and contempt for pretense.

But the book that Anatomy of a Soldier most resembles is another fictionalized memoir written by Siegfried Sassoon, another Englishman from another war. In Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Sassoon, who like his protagonist George Sherston, temporarily escaped the World War I trenches by pronouncing his conscientious objection to the war, seems most excited to describe how Sherston upon return to the frontlines proves himself a brave, competent, respected leader of an infantry unit in combat before suffering his own war-ending wound. For Sassoon, as with Parker, as with, I would say, virtually any young man who tries to turn himself into an infantry or combat arms officer, the moment of validation that comes with successful battlefield leadership is worth every danger and every cost, the first thing and most important thing he wants the world to know about him forever afterwards.

An informative article on Harry Parker and his thoughts about writing Anatomy of a Soldier here. Among other things, Parker clears up a bit of confusion:  Afghanistan is never mentioned in Anatomy of a Soldier, but it is, as Parker states in the article, obviously set there.

A post from my old blog with some relevance to the subject-at-hand.

Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier. Knopf, 2016.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Writing, Theater, Art, and Film 2017

December 15, 2017

Photo by Bill Putnam.

2017 brought new novels by Elliot Ackerman, David Abrams, Helen Benedict, and Siobhan Fallon, and new poetry volumes by Jehanne Dubrow and Elyse Fenton. Also arriving was a first novel by contemporary war short-fiction pioneer Brian Van Reet. By any measure, that’s a bumper crop of new contemporary war fiction and poetry by veteran mil-and-war authors. Besides these works, though, releases of novels, short story collections, and volumes of poetry by major publishing houses were in short supply. Fortunately, university, regional, and independent presses picked up some of the slack: Caleb Cage’s short-story collection Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada appeared courtesy of University of Nevada Press, Eric Chandler’s poetry collection Hugging This Rock was published by Charlie Sherpa’s Middle West Press, and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. and Christopher Meeks self-published their very interesting novel The Chords of War.

Fallon’s The Confusion of Languages and Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing only indirectly reference Iraq and Afghanistan, but the locale of each book—Jordan and Turkey, respectively—their interest in conflict and empire, and their authors’ formidable reputations as military insiders validates their inclusion on this year’s list. Other renown war-writers, such as Brian Castner and Roy Scranton, have begun to craft literary identities and build publishing histories well-beyond the confining limits of war literature, a trend that will certainly intensify in coming years.

Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing earned National Book Award short-list honors, and Van Reet’s Spoils made The Guardian and Wall Street Journal’s year-end “best of” lists. Despite such laurels, war writing as a genre seems to have fallen from major media favor—we’re far from the 2014 days when Vanity Fair and the New York Times ran fawning author portraits and glowing genre appraisals. Online writing by veteran writers has fortunately continued vibrantly apace on websites such as The War Horse, Military Experience and the Arts, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, 0-Dark-Thirty, and War, Literature, and the Arts–and thank you very much all concerned.

Our Trojan War, a modern-war/Homeric-war hybrid, and Jay Moad’s one-man-play Outside Paducah were the highlights of the year in terms of theatrical productions related to Iraq and Afghanistan staged in New York City, but elsewhere in-and-out of NYC the year saw no big-name, big-cast, big-money productions that garnered national attention. There was, however, plenty of action at the regional, local, DIY, collective, performance art, and spoken-word level. Toward the end of the year, former Marine and current movie star Adam Driver announced a $10,000 prize to the winner of a veterans playwriting competition, encouraging news for the energetic talent in the grassroots theater scene.

The only major motion picture released in 2017 about war in Iraq or Afghanistan that a caused much of a splash was War Machine, a Netflix TV-release starring Brad Pitt that I am including here by exception. American Sniper writer Jason Hall’s directorial debut Thank You For Your Service (based on David Finkel’s book) and Richard Linklater’ Last Flag Flying came-and-went quickly. Art and photography exhibition choices offered slim pickings, too, though I’m happy to report Bill Putnam’s photography–oft on display on Time Now–was featured at exhibits in Washington, DC, and New York this year.

In 2016, I included a list of notable non-fiction works about war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but, as with Hollywood movies and the art-and-photo scene, the genre seems to have dried up. I’ve long since stopped tracking veteran memoirs closely, but a Military Times list of year’s best military books offers a couple of titles worth checking out.

The poetry list includes many new entries cribbed from Charlie Sherpa’s Mother of All 21st Century War Poetry Lists, which observes these things far better than I do–many thanks.

Please notify me of any errors or omissions, and I’ll correct the record.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger (Army) and Brian Castner (Air Force), eds. (2016)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Tom King and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol 1: Bang. Bang. Bang. (2016).
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)
David Abrams (Army), Brave Deeds (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Dark at the Crossing (2017)
Helen Benedict, Wolf Season (2017)
Caleb Cage (Army), Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2017)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), The Confusion of Languages (2017)
Tom King (CIA) and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (2017)
Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. (Army), The Chords of War (2017)
Brian Van Reet (Army), Spoils (2017)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

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

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (HBO) (2008)
The Objective, Daniel Myrick, director (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Hyena Road, Paul Gross, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Clement Cogitore, director (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)
Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, director (2017)
Sand Castle, Fernando Coimbra (Netflix) (2017)
Thank Your For Your Service, Jason Hall, director (2017)
The Wall, Doug Liman, director (2017)
War Machine, David Michod (Netflix) (2017)

Matthew Hefti, Benjamin Busch, and Mary Doyle at AWP17, with a glimpse of Teresa Fazio in the left foreground and Whitney Terrell on the right. Photo by Bill Putnam.

 


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