Posted tagged ‘War fiction’

Nico Walker’s Cherry: First Thoughts and Questions

December 29, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nico Walker, Cherry. Knopf, 2018.

Elliot Ackerman’s Waiting for Eden

December 11, 2018

Elliot Ackerman, as much as any contemporary veteran, has turned himself into a working professional author. With three novels in three years published by prestigious publishing houses and a collection of journalism and essays on the way, he’s making the rest of the veteran war-writing crew look a little sluggish, as if they were struggling to generate sellable story ideas. Time will tell who is the Tim O’Brien of the current cohort of war authors, but Ackerman is well on his way to being its Robert Olen Butler: the author of a steady stream of distinctive war-related fiction; books that fuse contemporary concerns with literary antecedents and private vision, that may be more loss-leaders than cash-cows for their publishers, but cumulatively adding up to a successful career and a laudable body-of-work.

Ackerman’s latest work-of-fiction, Waiting for Eden, is novella-length, so not as tight and focused as a short-story nor as expansive as a novel. Shorting commentary, context and portrayal of social milieu while still taking time to reveal its secrets and generate impact, Waiting for Eden aims for evocativeness rather than detail as it presents the story of a grievously wounded and near-comatose Iraq veteran lying in a San Antonio hospital bed years after his wounding. The veteran, Eden Malcolm by name, is kept alive by the miracles of medicine and the refusal of his wife Mary to let doctors pull the plug on him. Eden in this regard resembles the protagonist of Dalton Trumbo’s acclaimed novel Johnny Got His Gun, published in 1938, about a World War I quadruple-amputee trapped alone with his thoughts inside his mangled body. Waiting for Eden is narrated by Eden’s Marine Corps buddy, an unnamed friend killed in the same IED explosion that injures Eden and who now tells the story from beyond the grave. The parallels between Waiting for Eden and Johnny Got His Gun have been noted by reviewers, but no one, to my knowledge, has noticed the similarity of the narration to Larry Heinemann’s 1987 National Book Award-winning Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, which is related by the collective voice of the dead soldiers killed in a big battle that leaves the title character physically disabled and mentally anguished.

With this intriguing buddy-pair–neither narrator nor protagonist fully there in the real world to tell his story and interact with living people–demanding attention at first read, reviews of Waiting for Eden have tended to explain it in terms of its exploration of war disability, soldierly camaraderie, survivor guilt, and national responsibility for war-wounded. The novella also asks readers to consider the plight of the families of wounded veterans and the ethical-medical-legal quandaries of extending life by technology and pharmaceuticals. To the extent that Waiting for Eden actually does explore these weighty themes, it’s interesting to speculate how other contemporary war-writers might have handled them:

-Phil Klay might philosophize about the ethics of life preservation and the oaths soldiers and families make to each other unto eternity.
-Matt Gallagher might infuse the story with self-deprecating humor and existential bemusement.
-Roy Scranton might critique sanctimonious dwelling on wounded American soldiers and the feebleness of “thanking soldiers for their service.”
-Will Mackin might have a field day describing the porous boundaries between life and death.

This fanciful mind-game actually has a point: Ackerman, or his narrator, is not especially interested in the cosmic dynamics of the life-death continuum nor the politics of caring for wounded veterans. The reviews that focus on these matters have missed what the narrator clearly states in the opening lines of Waiting for Eden:

I want you to understand Mary and what she did. But I don’t know if you will. You’ve got to wonder if in the end you’d make the same choice, circumstances being similar, or even the same, God help you.

In other words, the focus is on Mary, a problematic care-taker of her disabled husband and object of fascination and desire for the narrator, and it’s also a referendum on the narrator’s own thoughts and actions. It’s too soon after publication to reveal key plot details and discuss the story’s finale, but events before Iraq and after her husband’s wounding reveal that Mary’s choices and motives in regard to Eden are not exactly beyond reproach, nor are the narrator’s. Without giving away too much, let’s just say marital dissatisfaction and sexual impotence are issues, and matters of infidelity and paternity also come into play. The narrator’s intent (and I am assuming Ackerman’s too) is to save Mary and himself from harsh judgment, which is cool by me. The issue is complicated, however, by the narrator’s unreliability, his failure to clarify important plot points, and most of all, his failure or inability to offer fulsome portraits of Mary’s thoughts, though he is quite omniscient about other aspects of the story he tells. The problem is compounded by the fact that the narrator is a disembodied voice, not a ghost who interjects himself in the lives of the living, and Mary isolates herself from family, hometown, friends, fellow military spouses, medical care-givers, and even her daughter, which makes it hard to evaluate them in the context of social relations. Readers who feel they don’t have enough information to properly “understand” Mary and “what she did” might be left in a perplexed state by Waiting for Eden, which I believe is by design. Whether they approve of Mary and the narrator or not, readers will certainly be eager to discuss their ideas with other readers, which any author should welcome, and which I would certainly enjoy doing over a beer or two, if anyone’s interested.

To situate Ackerman once more among his war-writer peers, Waiting for Eden explores the precincts of military marriage also patrolled by Siobhan Fallon. Fallon’s latest novel, The Confusion of Languages, features a character much like Waiting for Eden’s narrator–in Fallon’s case, a self-important male Army officer eager to preserve plausible deniability that he’s not your average, ordinary horndog with the hots for his best friend’s wife. Fallon’s best stories—“Leave,” “The Last Stand,” and “Tips for a Smooth Transition”—feature military couples in scenes set not just in any domestic space, but in the “rank sweat of an enseamed bed,” as Hamlet puts it, where the jealousy, resentment, and pay-back meters can ping off the charts. A great line from the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof spoken by the family matriarch, Big Mama, played by Judith Anderson, helps define the parameters of Waiting for Eden‘s odd ménage-à-trois and the centrality of the hospital bed where all the action happens, or doesn’t happen. While sitting on her daughter-in-law’s bed, Big Mama barks at Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie-the-Cat character, who is married to Big Mama’s dysfunctional son Brick, played by Paul Newman: “You’re childless and my son drinks, and the problem starts right here,” at the same time slapping the unhappy couple’s mattress. Brick, it turns out, pines for his childhood friend Skipper, who has committed suicide after Maggie-the-Cat attempts to seduce him in order to ruin his friendship with Brick, which she resents.

Complicated, yes, but something of the same is at work in Waiting for Eden. Eden’s hospital bed, haunted by the narrator’s vigil, serves, if we can borrow from William Blake, as “the Marriage hearse” for Eden and Mary’s ruptured dream of conjugal bliss and fruitful procreation. The romantic triangle formed by Mary, Eden, and the narrator also nicely illustrates literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theory of “homosociality”: one deal-e-o going down is the psychodrama of the two men, locked in passive-aggressive one-upmanship manifested as desire for Mary, which is quickly transformed into dependence on her, and not just need for her body and approval, but for very existence. In a startlingly apt description, Benjamin Busch writes of Fallon’s “worried imagination,” and in many of her stories it’s not wives worrying about their husband’s fidelity that’s the issue, but wives worrying about their own potential for betrayal, along with the evident ability they have to emotionally crush their naïve, oblivious, trusting, and child-like husbands, should they choose to. This sentiment also informs Waiting for Eden. Ackerman’s achievement is tracing the narrator’s growing respect for Mary’s increasing consciousness of the power she holds over the men in her life, and their death, while moving the reader to understand and respect her growing awareness, too.

That’s an enigmatic, perhaps not entirely helpful way to close this invitation to read Waiting for Eden, which I urge you to accept nonetheless. The book ends (as does Benjamin Busch’s memoir Dust to Dust, by the by) by quoting the final lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which describe Adam and Eve, sadder but wiser after Eve eats the apple, leaving the Garden of Eden on “thir solitarie way.” It’s a stirring image, but its exact relation to the story Waiting for Eden tells is one more thing we can talk about when we have that beer together.

Elliot Ackerman, Waiting for Eden. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

War Fiction, Poetry, and Film 2018

December 1, 2018

USASOC #7, by Bill Putnam, used with permission.

2018 was a bounteous year for new fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Titles by veterans Elliot Ackerman, Will Mackin, Ray McPadden, and Nico Walker burst with interest and talent, and works by non-veterans Raymond Hutson, Kathleen McInnis, Hilary Plum, Stephen Markley, and Ahmed Saadawi offer as much or more.

2018 poetry titles include new work by Army vet Hugh Martin, Marine spouse Lisa Stice, and Army spouse Abby Murray. As far as I have noted, the only major movie about war in Iraq or Afghanistan to have appeared in 2018 is 12 Strong, about Special Forces in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, though Vice, about war architect Vice-President Dick Cheney, is set to hit theaters on Christmas.

What am I missing? Let me know and I’ll add it to the lists.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Bob Kornheiser, Crossing the Wire (2004)
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)
Susan Aspley, Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town (2016)
The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger (Army) and Brian Castner (Air Force), eds. (2016)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Tom King and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol 1: Bang. Bang. Bang.(2016).
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)
David Abrams (Army), Brave Deeds (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Dark at the Crossing (2017)
Helen Benedict, Wolf Season (2017)
Caleb Cage (Army), Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2017)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), The Confusion of Languages (2017)
Tom King (CIA) and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (2017)
Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. (Army), The Chords of War (2017)
Brian Van Reet (Army), Spoils (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Waiting for Eden (2018)
Raymond Hutson, Finding Sergeant Kent (2018)
Kathleen J. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (2018)
Will Mackin (Navy), Bring Out the Dog (2018)
Stephen Markley, Ohio (2018)
Ray McPadden (Army), And the Whole Mountain Burned (2018)
Hilary Plum, Strawberry Fields (2018)
Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018)
Nico Walker (Army), Cherry (2018)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Frances Richey (Army mother), The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Frances Richey (Army mother), Voices of the Guard (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Allan Gray (Army), Overwatch (2011)
Tom Sleigh, Army Cats (2011)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Abby E. Murray, Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier’s Wife (2012)
Jason Poudrier (Army), Red Fields (2012)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), Mormon Boy (2012)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Charles Bondhus, All the Heat We Could Carry (2013)
Stanton S. Coerr (USMC), Rubicon (2013)
Kerry James Evans (Army), Bangalore (2013)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Chuck Rybak, War (2013)
David R. Dixon (USMC), Call in the Air (2014)
Frederick Foote (Navy), Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry of War (2014)
Gerardo Mena (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)
Lynn Marie Houston, Unguarded (2017)
Hugh Martin (Army), In Country (2018)
Abby Murray (Army spouse), How To Be Married After Iraq (2018)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Permanent Change of Station (2018)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield, director (2007)
Body of War, Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, directors (2008)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (HBO) (2008)
The Objective, Daniel Myrick, director (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Hyena Road, Paul Gross, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
Blood Stripe, Remy Auberjonois, director (2016)
Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Clement Cogitore, director (2016)
Nobel, Per-Olav Sorensen, director (Netflix) (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)
Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, director (2017)
Sand Castle, Fernando Coimbra, director (Netflix) (2017)
Thank You For Your Service, Jason Hall, director (2017)
The Wall, Doug Liman, director (2017)
War Machine, David Michod, director (Netflix) (2017)
The Yellow Birds, Alexandre Moors, director (2017)
12 Strong, Nicolai Fuglsig, director (2018)

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

 


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