Posted tagged ‘War fiction’

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.

 

Time Then: Iraq War Short Fiction, 2005-2010

September 4, 2017

It’s not where you’re at, it’s where you’re going, right? But how do you know where to go unless you know where you’re from?

My last post made the provisional claim that The Sandbox, David Zimmerman’s 2010 novel about war in Iraq, was the first contemporary war novel. I’ve since rediscovered on my own bookshelf, unread, Bob Kornhiser’s Crossing the Wire, self-published in 2005, about an American lieutenant in Iraq who falls in love with an Iraqi professor of English. Its reappearance means we’ll have to put an asterisk in the record book next to The Sandbox’s name: first novel about war in Iraq or Afghanistan published by an established publishing house.

In any case, I’m also interested in knowing when short fiction about America’s twenty-first century wars began to appear. Below is my initial report on examples of the genre published before 2011. Many writers who published early in the game remain recognized war writers today, while others have disappeared and their pioneering works largely forgotten.

In 2005, Frederick Busch, a distinguished novelist and the father of vet artist-and-writer Benjamin Busch, placed a story titled “Good to Go,” about a troubled Marine Iraq veteran, in the literary journal The Threepenny Review. In 2006, he placed another story, titled “Patrols,” about a journalist returned from embedding with a Marine unit in Iraq, in Five Points. Both stories also appear in Busch’s 2006 short-story collection Rescue Missions. In 2008, novelist and short-fiction author Annie Proulx’s story “Tits-Up In a Ditch” appeared in the New Yorker and also in her collection Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3.

Neither Busch senior nor Proulx served in the military, but most of the other writers who wrote fiction about war in Iraq in the rest of the “oughts” spent time in uniform. In 2008, Army vet Brian Van Reet placed a story titled “The Rooster” in Shenandoah. In 2009, Van Reet’s “Blood Groove” appeared in the Brooklyn Review, “Tower Six” appeared in Evergreen Review, and “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” appeared in the Southern Review. “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” later appeared in the 2013 Fire and Forget anthology, edited by Army veterans Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton. FWIW, the only other two Fire and Forget stories previously published were Marine vet Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” which first appeared in Granta in 2011, and military spouse Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips for a Smooth Transition” which appeared in Salamander in 2012.

Many of the stories that would later appear in Fallon’s 2011 short story collection You Know When The Men Are Gone were first published in literary magazines in 2010 or before. In 2008, “The Last Stand” (published as “Burning”) appeared in Briar Cliff Review, “Camp Liberty” (published as “Getting Out”) in the Roanoke Review, and “Gold Star” (published as “Sacrifice”) in Salamander. “You Know When the Men Are Gone” appeared in Salamander in 2009 and “Inside the Break” in New Letters in 2010.

Roy Scranton published short fiction in a number of small journals prior to 2011: “Gray is Green” in the Denver Quarterly in 2008; “Point, Lines, Space” in LIT in 2009; “In Camera” in 12th Street in 2009; and “Never Closer” in Quiddity in 2010. I haven’t yet been able to read these stories, however, so I’m not sure if their subjects are American soldiers in Iraq or not.

War, Literature, and the Arts, published by the Department of English and Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy, published three Army veteran Brian Turner poems—about Bosnia, not Iraq, interestingly enough,–in 2006 and former Marine Benjamin Busch’s superb photo-essay “The Art in War” in 2007, but was slower to feature short fiction depicting war in Iraq. USAF member David Buchannan’s story “Third Country Nationals” appears in the same issue as Busch’s “The Art in War,” for example, and it has a modern deployment feel to it, but is set in Saudi Arabia and not about the experience of combat. A WLA story written by another member of the Air Force, Jesse Goolsby’s 2009 “What My Dead Wife Should Know,” is curious: it is related from the point-of-view of an older man, remarried after the death of his first wife, whose son has now been electrocuted while taking a shower in Iraq. In 2010, Goolsby returns with a similar story, titled “Stepfather,” which is told from the standpoint of a man whose Marine stepson has also died in Iraq.

Another story in the 2010 issue, J. Scott Smith’s “March 25,” is the first WLA fiction I can find that’s set in Iraq, describes combat action there, and is written by a veteran. It’s a barn-burner, too, about a Marine unit caught in an ambush. Smith is identified as a former Marine currently studying in the famed MFA program at Iowa and working on a novel, but as far as I can tell he has not published fiction since “March 25.” If anyone knows different, please let me know.

That’s all I’ve found so far, and without doubt, the list is not comprehensive. My search of the WLA archives has been anything but exhaustive, and three issues of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) dedicated to war (one published in 2007 and two in 2008) await closer examination. My sense is that more war fiction during the period 2005-2010 may be found in grassroots veterans organization publications than in journals published by small literary presses. For example, Warrior Writers, the veterans-writing collective led by Lovella Calica, began publishing anthologies of veteran poetry and prose in 2008, but I only have in my possession their anthologies published in 2012 and after, so I’m not sure what’s in the earlier editions. For the record, 2012 is also the year that Ron Capps, the director of the Veterans Writing Project, began publishing VWP’s literary journal 0-Dark-ThirtyIn 2011 appeared the first edition of the Journal of Military Experience, edited by Travis Martin in conjunction with Eastern Kentucky University. I haven’t yet determined how many of the prose contributions to the first issue of JME are fiction, but the important point is that JME would evolve into Military Experience and the Arts, the online publishing home for hundreds of stories, poems, and essays by veterans.

Let these suggestions be breadcrumbs for interested readers to follow, may more breadcrumbs be discovered soon, and may the breadcrumbs lead to hearty feasts. Please let me know of any errors of omission and commission, and I will correct the record promptly. Bonus points for reports of fictional stories set in Afghanistan, of which I have found no early examples.

The First Fast Draw: David Zimmerman’s The Sandbox

August 27, 2017

The Sandbox, David Zimmerman’s 2010 novel about American soldiers at war in Iraq, didn’t go unnoticed upon publication. It was reviewed in both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, for example, and both papers found good things to say about it. The Sandbox has had a quiet afterlife, however: never to my knowledge has it been name-checked approvingly by other war-writers, mentioned alongside other works by fans, critics, and scholars of the war-writing genre, nor considered for Hollywood movie-making. Even after Zimmerman, who teaches in the MFA program at Iowa State, released a second novel featuring an Army soldier, 2012’s Caring is Creepy, his name seems to have barely registered in the contemporary war writing collective awareness, part of which includes Time Now. Ignorant of Zimmerman and his work, I have several times erroneously proclaimed Helen Benedict’s 2011 Sand Queen as “the first Iraq War novel.” But hearing-tell of The Sandbox a year-or-so ago, I kept an eye out for it and recently spotted a copy in my local library. After checking out and reading The Sandbox, I’m happy to make amends for past slights and place Zimmerman’s novel at the forefront of the contemporary war novel tradition, while also rendering praise where praise is due.

The Sandbox is narrated by a junior enlisted soldier named Toby Durrant, an infantryman assigned to a platoon manning a middle-of-nowhere outpost in Iraq named FOB Cornucopia, or Corn Cob, as the soldiers call it for short. Corn Cob is built upon the ruins of an ancient Iraq fortress and located near an abandoned toy factory, both of which figure heavily in the plot. Though Durrant’s platoon suffers indirect fire attacks within Corn Cob and IED attacks while on patrol, they seem to have no real mission other than maintaining US “presence” in the area. Durrant is popular among his fellow soldiers, save one, Lopez, a by-the-book goody-goody E4-promotable. Lopez suspects that Durrant, who has befriended an Iraqi orphan living alone in the abandoned toy factory, is offering information about US capabilities to local insurgents, and he relays his suspicion to the unit’s lieutenant and platoon sergeant. The platoon leadership, already enormously uptight and remote from the men they lead, are glad to make Durrant a scapegoat for the unit’s tactical setbacks, because, as Durrant begins to sniff out, the lieutenant and sergeant are party to a criminal endeavor, along with a high-ranking general, to abscond with millions of dollars of US reconstruction money they have hidden near the outpost—the real reason for Corn Cob’s continued existence. Also smelling the money is a Military Intelligence captain, assigned by someone somewhere to investigate suspected wrong-doing on Corn Cob, who seems more interested in enriching himself through blackmail or other shady means than recovering stolen money or building a case against corrupt members of the chain-of-command. Somehow also involved is a shifty Iraqi named Ahmed, who works on the base as a mechanic and as Durrant’s companion on frequent shit-burning details, which also figure significantly in the plot. Ahmed seems to know a lot about things above his pay-grade and to have ingratiated himself with the FOB leadership, and he accesses Corn Cob through a secret door in the perimeter wall that only he knows about, but exactly who he is and what his motivation is goes unexplained.

Durrant must make sense of all this—really, try to survive it–from his disadvantageous position in the lower ranks, while trying to save the Iraqi child he has befriended, and at the same time dealing with being dumped by his fiancé, who also informs him that she is aborting the child of Durrant’s she is carrying. Durrant is likeable in a snarly, snarky way that seems true to the way many junior soldiers are in life and almost all of them are in war fiction—his combination of smarts and attitude is very much the voice of “Joe,” the “E4 Mafia,” and the “Terminal Lance” found in Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road, and Maximillian Uriarte’s The White Donkey, as well as Lieutenant Black’s in John Renehan’s The Valley: young white male soldiers turned contemptuously anti-authoritarian by the incompetence and hypocrisy of their chains-of-command. Durrant’s thoughts about things are not complex—I would have liked to have seen more psychological exposition of how it feels to be a soldier who learns that his own unit leadership not only thinks he is a traitor but wants him dead—but Zimmerman excels at depicting Durrant in conversation with other characters, in terms of crafting naturalistic dialogue that both drives forward the plot and allows the minor characters’ personalities to emerge. In particular, Durrant’s friendship with his best friend, a black guy named Rankin, his cagey discussions with the MI captain, and, most of all the Dear John letter he receives from his fiancé, along with a subsequent phone conversation, are all very well done. Zimmerman also does well with physical depictions of soldier life and combat and, MFA instructor that he is, prolifically generates intriguing metaphors and similes:

“The sky is the color of a nicotine-stained finger.”

“…he’s already about as popular as a wet fart.”

“The wind smells like unwashed hair.”

“His shadow looms on the wall behind him like a dark, unhappy doppelganger.”

Pretty good, that last one, but to return to the plot–a secret door in the perimeter wall, really? Also not helping things are screwed-up military details, such as references to soldiers shining boots—I don’t think that ever happened in Iraq, where from the beginning soldiers were issued suede desert boots that didn’t require polish—and to “Kiowa” helicopters that are said to transport passengers and which feature door gunners—uh, no. Even more exasperating is the novel’s end, which resolves nothing: the last few pages describe an enormous battle, but ends in medias res, as if Zimmerman ran out of time or ideas to bring it to a more satisfactory close. We don’t learn, for example, how or if Durrant survives to write the novel, for example, or if the MI captain, the lieutenant, the platoon sergeant, Ahmed, or the Iraqi orphan live or die, let alone if one of them gets away with the loot. Many critics of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction have hypothesized that never-ending nature of the wars have made narrative closure in books and films about them difficult; the coitus interruptus conclusion of The Sandbox might serve as Example 1 of the problem. If The Sandbox had an artier, edgier feel, such an ambiguous, indeterminate finale might have worked, or if it were a little more integrated with the storytelling ethos—in the manner of the famous last shot of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the Paul Newman and Robert Redford characters are frozen in place as they charge into a hail of lawmen’s bullets—it also might have succeeded, but that’s not the case here.

Assessing the strengths and weakness of The Sandbox, the sub-headline for the LA Times review states, “The dialogue and description of the troops’ plight are realistic. But the conspiracy they get caught up in is absurd.” That’s spot-on, but to end on a positive note, Zimmerman gets a lot of things right while being the first to confront the major obstacle with which war writers afterwards would continually struggle, namely, devising a realistic and compelling plot commensurate with their belief that the lives of soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are worthy of novel-length portraiture. Recasting the story of a soldier at war as a search for riches recalls movies such as Three Kings and Kelly’s Heroes, while previewing Aaron Gwynn’s later novel Wynne’s War, while the idea that a war story might also be a police procedural foreshadows novels-to-come such as The Valley and Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood. Centering the action on a remote FOB brings to mind Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, and Zimmerman’s many excellent depictions of vehicle operations anticipate Michael Pitre’s Fives-and-Twenty-Fives. In addition, many scenes described in The Sandbox—IED explosions, shit-burning details, sandstorms, memorial services, and scorpion fights, for just a few examples—would pepper the pages of future war fiction.

In a 2010 interview, Zimmerman offered an intriguing glimpse of the war-writing business as he tried to find a publisher for The Sandbox. After finishing his novel in 2007, he faced a series of rejections and requests to radically revise it before Soho finally accepted it for publication. “…at that point,’’ he states, “Iraq movies were doing terribly and almost all of the [rejection] letters mentioned that. They said, ‘Nobody’s going to buy any books about Iraq right now from the fiction standpoint.'” Zimmerman did what he had to do to break the impasse, and if the results were not perfect, he established patterns and first depicted scenes that the writers after him cannot claim to have devised, but only tried to better.

David Zimmerman, The Sandbox.  Soho, 2010.

Time Now Fiction: Captains Dietz and Avis

August 8, 2017

Apollo and Daphne, by Francesco Albini, circa 1615-1620.

This story, titled “Captains Dietz and Avis,” is based on Ovid’s retelling of the Daphne and Apollo myth.  It is the third or maybe fourth and last myth I’ve written and posted that adapt Ovid’s The Metamorphosis in ways relevant to America’s 21st-century wars.  It can also be read as a companion piece to my last blog post, about 2017’s flurry of women-authored and women-centric war-writing.

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Captain Avis, male, married, had been at the FOB for three months when Captain Dietz, female, also married, but not to Captain Avis, arrived. One of the other new arrivals reported that Captain Dietz had been in tears on the helicopter ride in. She never expected to end up so far downrange, and now she faced a year apart from her husband, who was stationed on another FOB elsewhere in Afghanistan. Captain Avis had helped calm Captain Dietz down, speaking to her kindly, helping get her stuff to her quarters, and taking her to the dining facility for her first meal there. All seemed good, but not really, because everyone could tell Captain Dietz was already being a little too solicitous. “Be wary of the guy who just wants to be your friend,” was the by-word for the women on the camp, because it always turned out such men wanted more than friendship. Truth-be-told, within the admonishment was the hint that the women themselves might not trust their own desires and defenses as their year downrange unfolded. Better to hang with the other women, the wisdom was, or the cohort of men and women with whom you arrived, or the men and women who worked in your immediate vicinity.

In this case, though, it didn’t help that Captain Avis and Captain Dietz were both signal officers assigned to the commo shop, which meant they were together roughly 18 hours a day. At first it didn’t look so bad, as Captain Avis showed her the ropes and Captain Dietz loosened up. Soon, she was volunteering for missions outside the wire and had made many friends among the other soldiers across the camp. But then things got worse. It began when insurgents targeted the camp with accurate mortar and rocket fire, which put everyone on edge and made restful sleep difficult. Then one of the most popular soldiers on camp was killed by an IED. As the war’s dangers overtook the camp, everyone’s mood tightened and Captain Dietz especially began to go downhill. First her good cheer vanished and then she began dropping weight. She didn’t say anything to anyone about Captain Avis, but she asked the commander about reassignment to her husband’s FOB, or to be allowed to go visit him. That couldn’t happen, though, and Captain Avis continued to hover about her, only now it clearly didn’t seem healthy, or even appropriate. He was always with her and in a way, such as when they ate alone together in the dining facility, that made it seem that others weren’t welcome to join them. Everyone could see that he was always talking to her and that she wasn’t enjoying it.

After three steadily deteriorating weeks, Captain Dietz collapsed from exhaustion and strain. It wasn’t just the combat. Captain Avis had told her that he was divorcing his wife and that he now considered Captain Dietz his confidante, or even his soulmate, possibly his destiny. He wanted her to leave her spouse, too, so they could be together. He explained how he felt they had bonded under the stress of combat and that their shared experience in Afghanistan would serve as the basis for their future together. Captain Dietz tried unsuccessfully to hold Captain Avis at arm’s length, but it didn’t work and no one interceded to help. She never let Captain Avis touch her, but instead of getting the message that she wasn’t interested, Captain Avis took her rejection as a sign that Captain Dietz was really meant for him. Captain Dietz missed her husband terribly and blamed Captain Avis, not the war, for ruining her deployment. After passing out on the way from her hootch to the laundry facility, Captain Dietz spent three days in the Troop Medical Clinic. Then she was transferred to another FOB, where she served out her tour without any real work to do. She killed time listlessly in her hootch, marking off days on the calendar nailed to the plywood partition in the women’s bay and emailing and chatting with her husband. When her husband sent Captain Avis’s commander photocopies of the love-struck laments Captain Avis had posted on his Facebook page that were clearly directed at Captain Dietz, the commander used them as the basis for a letter of reprimand to be placed in Captain Avis’s file. Captain Avis protested that it was all a misunderstanding and that he and Captain Dietz were just friends, but the commander ordered Captain Avis to never contact Captain Dietz again and to cut out the crazy Facebook postings.

War Stories: Helen Benedict, Brian Van Reet, David Abrams

July 2, 2017

2017 brings novels by three contemporary war lit “plank-holders”–Navy SEAL-speak for members who were in on the game at its founding. Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season takes contemporary war-and-mil-writing preoccupation with dogs to its fantastical-yet-logical extension; Brian Van Reet’s Spoils reimagines the female-soldier captivity narrative first presented by Jessica Lynch’s and Shoshana Johnson’s memoirs, and David Abrams’ Brave Deeds riffs on the rogue soldier motif familiar from Bowe Bergdahl’s and Robert Bale’s real-life sagas.

Helen Benedict, Wolf Season. Bellevue Literary Press, 2017.

Helen Benedict’s 2011 Sand Queen was by my count the first Iraq War novel; if I’m wrong, someone please correct me. A story about the intersecting lives of two women, an American soldier named Kate and an Iraqi medical student named Naema Jassim, Sand Queen eviscerated the American conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom by portraying the ruin of its two protagonists’ lives as a result, primarily, of the American military’s toxic masculine culture. The sequel to Sand Queen, Wolf Season takes place in America, where Naema has unexpectedly taken up residence in a small upstate New York town where she serves as a doctor in a VA clinic. One of her patients is, not Kate, who doesn’t figure in Wolf Season, but another female veteran named Rin Drummond. Rin’s time in service has ended badly, leaving her widowed, badly wracked by PTSD, the mother of a blind daughter, and the caretaker of three semi-domesticated wolves. Rin wants nothing more than to be left alone, protected by and protective of her wolfpack, but life in a small-town home to Iraqi refugees and overly-macho military men still on frequent deployment cycle to America’s forever wars ensure that’s not going to happen. Rin and Naema are compellingly drawn, as are Rin’s daughter Juney and Naema’s son Tariq and the three wolves, Gray, Silver, and Ebony. Most striking, however, are two male characters, Louis Martin and Todd Wycombe, both veterans struggling to be men worthy of respect. Benedict’s not completely hostile to the idea that military service might be improving or even ennobling, but two novels’ worth of portraits of America boy-men whose propensity for self-delusion, misogyny, and violence are exacerbated by time in uniform make it clear she’s skeptical that those things are happening very often these days. One could almost feel sorry for Benedict’s male veterans, if they didn’t bring on so much trouble for themselves through their stupidity and vanity, and if they didn’t fuck things up so badly for everyone around them.

Brian Van Reet, Spoils. Little, Brown and Company, 2017.

Spoils, US Army veteran Brian Van Reet’s long-anticipated novel of war in Iraq, comes many years after the author established his reputation as a war short-story author par excellence. Even before the fine “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” appeared in the 2013 Fire and Forget anthology, Van Reet was placing striking short fiction in literary journals, and “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is, if anything, surpassed by a story titled “Eat the Spoil” published in the Spring 2014 Missouri Review. Van Reet attended, as did I, the University of Virginia, where he was an Echols Scholar, which I most definitely wasn’t, so I have a high regard for the intellect he brings to bear on the consideration of war. Van Reet was a tank crewman in the early days of Iraq, where he earned a Bronze Star with a V device for valor, which is also saying something. A tanker named Specialist Sleed figures in both the aforementioned stories and now appears again in Spoils, but he’s not much of a scholar and as a soldier one more likely to get an Article 15 for misconduct than a medal. A follower rather than a leader of soldiers even more indifferently motivated than he is, Sleed, in true “E4-Mafia” fashion, is good in spurts but more typically wavers between commitment to mission and impulses to “get over.” Scenes describing tank battle in Iraq especially intrigue, but Sleed’s just one of a trio of protagonists in Spoils; another is a young woman named Cassandra Wigheard who serves in Sleed’s unit. Wigheard’s not exactly a super-soldier, either, but she tries, and she can’t be blamed when she is captured by a group of insurgents led by the third principal, a very conflicted and not especially fanatical Egyptian jihadist named Abu Al-Hool. Van Reet seems to be making a point about how war unfolds in the contemporary trenches—whatever the clarity, fervor, and righteousness of the political and ideological rhetoric, for the participants on both sides it’s a haphazard, highly contingent, badly conceptualized and realized mess that’s likely to get them killed through sheer sloppiness. We can see Sleed as Van Reet’s alter ego, while Al-Hool joins the Pashtun protagonist of Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue as a rounded literary portrait of one of our War on Terror opponents, but it’s the depiction of Cassandra that really stands out as the author’s effort to represent “the Other,” with all the attendant risks that endeavor brings. Sleed and Al-Hool narrate their stories in first-person, but Van Reet, UVa-educated gentleman that he is, circumspectly renders Cassandra’s voice and thoughts in third-person, perhaps thinking graciously that full, extended novelistic inhabitation of a woman warrior’s subjectivity and depiction of perspective should be left to, well, a woman veteran. That will come, in time, but what Van Reet offers here rings true; for example, on Cassandra contemplating a career in the Army: “Yet more and more, the thought of going for a twenty-year pension has begun to feel like prolonged suffocation in a cavernous, airtight room.”

David Abrams, Brave Deeds. Black Cat, 2017.

Few things could possibly be more welcome than a second novel from David Abrams, the author of 2012’s highly entertaining and shrewdly perceptive black comedy Fobbit. No one would blame Abrams if he moved on from Iraq—surely he has it in him and will do so one day—but I for one am glad that he has kept his eye on the Tigris and Euphrates battlefield for at least one more novel, this summer’s Brave Deeds. If anything, Brave Deeds is more of a war novel than Fobbit, a work that has its boom-boom moments, but which is largely more interested in military culture than combat action. Where Fobbit explored a wide range of Army types and ranks as they frittered away their deployments doing busy work on the FOB, Brave Deeds relentlessly focuses on the actions of fighting men outside the wire, observing the unities of time and place to follow the journey of six junior enlisted infantry soldiers as they cross Baghdad, AWOL, to attend the memorial service of a beloved, at least by some, squad leader. Along the way, adventures ensue, distinctiveness of character emerges, and back-stories get told in the manner of picaresque war tales ranging from the Odyssey to Going After Cacciato, but Brave Deeds feels far from derivative. Rather, it is fired up, that is to say inspired, by an animus that Fobbit hinted at but softened with its comic punch-pulling: Abrams’ interest in, which is to say love for, young enlisted soldiers bereft of the quote-unquote leadership of NCOs and officers, two military demographics whose authority and credibility are discredited in the eyes of the Brave Deeds soldiers, probably Abrams’ as well, and, frankly, my own, looking back at the negligible achievements of long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The David Abrams I know—a career NCO, for what it’s worth–is a kind, gentle, and sweet soul, but Brave Deeds reflects an intense class-war and age-based generation gap sensibility that exposes military lifers as the vapid and ultimately incompetent self-servers that many junior enlisted suspect them to be within weeks of joining. Abrams’ achievement here, people, is immense: many contemporary war fiction titles strive to portray the worldview of junior enlisted service members—“Joe” in Army-speak, or the “Terminal Lance” as they are known in the Marines—and much of it falters for want of craft, over-reliance on clichés, and limitation of vision. Those are not Abrams’ problems in the least; Brave Deeds‘ focus on the infantry squad and young male soldier may be traditional, but the view rendered through Abrams’ eyes is up-to-the-minute.


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