Below are the schedules of presentations taken from the programs for the War, Literature & the Arts (WLA) conferences held at the United States Air Force Academy in 2010 and 2018.
The 2010 WLA conference marked the beginning of a very fertile period in GWOT vet-mil writing. I was lucky enough to attend in those pre-Time Now days. I already knew Brian Turner, but almost every other artist and presenter was new to me. It was all very inspiring; from chance conversations with poets Elyse Fenton and Victor Inzunza on the shuttle-bus from the conference hotel to the Air Force Academy grounds to a great panel featuring Matt Gallagher and Siobhan Fallon, where the idea for Time Now hatched while I was listening to them read, and everything in-between. I don’t think I met Gallagher, Fallon, or Benjamin Busch–one of the featured speakers–at the time, but I was later able to invite all of them to read at West Point, where I taught until 2015.
Looking at the 2010 program now, it’s remarkable how many names are obscure now. The same can’t be said about the 2018 WLA conference; stacked with writers, artists, and academics in the now-robust contemporary war-lit scene, along with selected speakers and readers and scholars from pre-9/11 wars, it was an embarrassment of riches. If you missed so much as a day, you missed a lot, and choice panels competed with each other for attention. And it, too, like the 2010 conference, was enormously generative in terms of sowing the seeds for future writing projects and collaborations.
Read the programs below if you please, and if you have thoughts or questions about any of the presentations, let me know in the comments and we’ll talk it up.
Kudos to the Department of English and Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy for sponsoring both conferences. It was very prescient and magnanimous of them to have done so. Colonel Kathleen Harrington, the head of the department in both 2010 and 2018, deserves major thanks, as does Donald Anderson, a member of the faculty, the editor of War, Literature & the Arts, and a fantastic memoirist in his own right. Helping out behind the scenes at the first conference as members of the Department of English and Fine Arts were war-lit mainstays Jesse Goolsby, Jay Moad, and Brandon Lingle, among others.
The current head of the Department of English and Fine Arts is Colonel David Buchanan, the author of Going Scapegoat: Post-9/11 War, Literature, and Culture (2016), one of the few book-length studies of contemporary war-literature out there. Hope he has it in mind to host another WLA conference under his tenure.
Some things old, some things new, some things borrowed, some things blue….
Lions for Lambs. I finally caught up with Lions for Lambs, a 2007 film directed by Robert Redford and featuring Redford, Tom Cruise, and Meryl Streep. Thinking about its celebrity cast and the year of its release, it occurred to me that Hollywood, with Generation Kill, The Hurt Locker, and Brothers all released about that time, was far in advance of the nation’s literati or the waves of vet-authors to-come in artistically portraying war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Checking out the reviews of Lions for Lambs as I tuned in, I was surprised how scathing they were. How could a movie starring Cruise as charismatic conservative Senator with a plan to win the war in Afghanistan, Streep as a cynical liberal journalist, and Redford as a well-seasoned college professor go wrong? The performances of the Big Three are good, and surprise surprise the action scenes set in Afghanistan are not bad either, particularly the ones set in a battalion command post and on-board a Chinook flying into battle. But it’s not hard to see what didn’t impress the reviewers. The movie consists of three storylines, each told in spurts, that connect thematically in terms of staging a debate about Army strategy in Afghanistan and the life possibilities of young men with and without privilege, but there’s little intertwining of the three storylines, nor much of a plot at all. Instead, in the scenes featuring Redford and those featuring Cruise and Streep there’s lots of snappy fast-talking dialogue in the manner of The West Wing that resolves nothing on the home-front, and a jimmied-up action sequence in Afghanistan is far-fetched, to put it mildly, and which (spoiler alert) does not end triumphantly for two former students of the Redford character. One review says it best for me by calling it “the movie equivalent of an off-Broadway play” that hopes to be saved by the luminance of its cast. I like The West Wing and off-Broadway plays as much as anyone, but movie-goers, to include this one, might also not unreasonably expect more narrative effort and imagination stitching together disparate storylines than Lions for Lambs delivers.
The military episode in Lions for Lambs involves two soldiers who survive a fall out of a Chinook and the effort to rescue them—much like Brothers, which was released two years later. NYU professor Patrick Deer has written a scholarly article that argues that recovery of “missing bodies” is a dominant motif of Post-9/11 narrative; Deer doesn’t discuss Lions for Lambs, but he might have.
Matthew Komatsu, an Air Force pararescue jumper, has twice now published articles reflecting his love for Joseph Heller’s satirical World War II novel Catch-22. Both pieces argue that Catch-22, great in-and-of-itself, especially resonates for Iraq and Afghanistan vets by accurately reflecting the inanity of military bureaucracy and the self-serving incompetence of senior military officers they themselves observed on deployments. In other words, Komatsu believes that as much as looking back at World War II, Catch-22, published in 1961, anticipates the devolution of America’s military from a world-beating titan to a force expert at perpetuating wars ad infinitum, but never winning them. The proverbial self-licking ice-cream cone….
It’s an argument hard-to-argue with, at least the part that pertains to actual US Army military endeavor in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I encourage you to read both of Komatsu’s articles; if you have served, you will certainly find many parts to which you can relate.
Not as easily available is an essay on Catch-22 I contributed to a student study-guide anthology published in 2021 by Salem Press. The guide, titled Critical Insights: Catch-22, is part of a series aimed at undergraduates and advanced high-school students. My piece, co-authored with Iraq and Afghanistan vet J. M. Meyer, is titled “Yossarian bleated faintly: Catch-22 and Military Experience in the New Millennium.” In the volume Introduction, editors Laura and James F. Nicosia write, “This essay is an eye-opening contribution by scholars who have first-hand experience in and knowledge of the military.”
My contribution to “Yossarian bleated faintly” is a run-down of reasons Iraq and Afghanistan veterans continue to reference Catch-22 to describe their own wars. I reference Komatsu’s “Somewhere in the Great Beyond” Catch-22 article, and I also explore some of the war-lit authored by vets that clearly pays homage to Catch-22. From there, Meyer mounts a more ambitious, trenchant argument about how Catch-22 relates to larger matters of contemporary culture and political discourse.
There’s no digital version of the chapter available (yet), and it’s still too soon post-publication to just reproduce it for free here, so I’ll summarize my contribution and offer a couple of passages.
On rereading Catch-22 last year, I was struck by how dark and grim much of it is. In my memory were all the funny bits lampooning military absurdity and dysfunction. Also in mind was a notion of the protagonist/anti-hero Yossarian riding above the fray, his anti-authoritarian cleverness keeping him one-step ahead of the madness. That’s there, but there’s a lot I didn’t remember as well, such as how genuinely shaken is Yossarian by what befalls him, to the point, by the end of the novel, of mental instability (an instability that is reflected in increasingly hallucinogenic scenes and episodes, as well as in the prose style). In the essay, I invoke two au courant words, trauma and PTSD, and consider their relevance to Catch-22:
The unpleasant consequence of Yossarian’s psychological turmoil, grounded in moments of real terror in the sky, is trauma, which adds emotional resonance experienced personally to the larger critique of military dysfunction in ‘Catch-22.’
Toward the end of my section, I try to reconcile Yossarian the traumatized war-victim with Yossarian the insubordinate provocateur, and then link those traits to the jaded-and-wounded outlook of many Iraq and Afghanistan junior enlisted and junior officer vets:
His colorful contempt for military bureaucracy and the chain of command, as well as his acuity in knowing how to push the buttons of stuffed shirts and uptight frauds, are generally humorous to behold and arguable safe to indulge in even by soldiers who volunteered for service.
Reconciling the insubordinate mischief-maker with the death-shaken traumatized victim of war is central to understanding Yossarian’s enduring influence, especially among twenty-first century soldiers and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. In response to nonsensical wars, a modern soldier sensibility has emerged that blends elements of Yossarian’s dominant characteristics and and given them contemporary expression, primarily by using humor to convey a righteous moral and intellectual superiority that has brought soldiers to war on ludicrous premises and then ineptly organized itself to fight. The sentiment accounts for the emergence of two distinct cohorts of disgruntled soldiers and junior officers prominent within the modern soldier-and-veteran community. Known respectively as the “E4-Mafia” and the “jaded junior officer,” these unofficial cohorts constitute most evidently the spirit of ‘Catch-22’ in the modern military. The E4-Mafia (or, as they are know in the Marines, “Terminal Lances”; thus the title of Maximilian Uriarte’s satirical comic strip) consists of soldiers in the rank just below that of sergeant who, in the manner of ‘Catch-22”s ex-PFC Wintergreen, claim to be the true agents of military daily duty, adept at pulling strings and making things happen in the name of making the bureaucracy run, while all-the-while possessing jaundiced contempt for the military that makes them defer [obsequiously] to superior officers. The jaded junior officer motif refers to lieutenants and captains exasperated by military rigamarole and incompetent senior officers. Feeling marginalized and unappreciated, veterans of this stripe have turned to memoir, fiction, and the Internet to exact their vengeance….
In other words, ridicule, satire, and laughter serve as dominant modes of expression for soldiers who don’t like what they see, and in fact may be really hurting, but also understand they damn well volunteered for it. I have much more to say on the issue, to include a breakdown of contemporary war lit works that most directly reflect the spirit of Catch-22, but this is all I’m going to give away here. If you really want to read more, and I know you and like you, write me an email, and I’ll share a PDF of the entire piece. Otherwise, Critical Insights: Catch-22 is available for sale online and might be available in your local school or college library.
Driving to Philadelphia for this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I wondered what I would find. I was on two panels, one as a speaker and one as moderator, but they were the only two panels in the program that specifically targeted vet writers and war-mil-conflict subjects. Several vet-writing mainstays I know had begged out of attending, and others I hadn’t heard from. There was little buzz on social media—especially ominous since the panel I was moderating—Veterans Online—was fueled by the proposition that much of the action these days in the vet-writing world takes place in the virtual realm. Also distressing, there was no signs-of-participation from Warrior Writers, a Philadelphia-based writing collective I think of as synonymous with Philadelphia vet writing and usually prominent players at AWP. What was up? Even the conference keynote speakers were unknown to me—another sign of that AWP was shaping up to be a curiously-diminished, minor-key affair.
Fortunately, such brooding and misgivings proved very misleading. The site of the conference, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, bustled with writers and writer wannabees of all stripes, including lots of vet-writers and fellow-travelers, old and new. Attendance at my two panels was solid, as these things go, and my fellow panelists were in fine form. Even more heartening, at the book-fair tables dedicated to war-and-vet writing the foot-traffic was steady, as far as I could tell. Every time I stopped by the table of, say, the Wrath-Bearing Tree, Collateral, or the Veterans Writing Project, I ran into a familiar face or met an “emerging” writer, as the new term for literary tyros and aspirants has it. Capitalizing on the high spirits and good cheer, we quickly organized a vet-writers social where everyone had a blast (or at least I did) and various lunches, dinners, readings, and special events channeled the same vibe.
A quick roll call of old-hand war-lit writers in attendance and/or presenting at this year’s AWP includes Adrian Bonenberger, Jerri Bell, Ron Capps, Dario Dibattista, Rebecca Evans, Teresa Fazio, Mariette Kalinowski, Kara Krauze, Abby E. Murray, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, Drew Pham, Suzanne Rancourt, Connie Ruzich, Seth Brady Tucker, Brian Turner, and Jeremy Warneke. Hugh Martin, Olivia Kate Cerrone, and Pamela Hart were also around, according to the program, but unfortunately I didn’t run into them (and apologies for anyone whose name I’ve left out).
As good as it was to hang with old friends, it was also great to meet for the first time at least six writers who were either veterans or were working on fiction featuring veterans, and I know the journal editors working the tables met many more. Good luck to them all, and I’ll mention two who are already in print and whom I highly recommend keeping an eye on:
Brian O’Hare is a former Marine whose short-story collection Surrender will come out this fall. O’Hare is the winner of the Syracuse Veterans Writing Award in 2021, read about him here:
Bettina Hindes is an Army veteran currently living in Germany. Her excellent reminiscence “Adjustment Disorder” can be found in Wrath-Bearing Tree:
The panel I moderated was titled “Veterans Writing Online: A Field Guide for Negotiating the Digital Writing Sphere.” Soldier blogs, online vet-writing journals, online vet-writing workshops, digital publishing possibilities, and social-media striving for popularity and reputation were our subjects, and to help me explore them were Ron Capps, Kara Krauze, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Teresa Fazio. It was a big subject and we barely got going, but Ron’s, Kara’s, Jennifer’s, and Teresa’s comments were on-point and trenchant and provocative, as I knew they would be. The online print sphere is a new structural element for writers to manage, negotiate, and exploit, and cannot be ignored even if you wanted. No doubt writing for online publication seeps into the bones of the writing itself, but exactly how? Is the medium the message? It seems to me there is a heightened level of performativity and audience awareness at play, but exactly how so remains to be worked out.
I also participated on a panel titled “Family Heritage, Violent History: WWI’s Lost Transversality in War Poetry Today,” organized by Jennifer Orth-Veillon. All of us on the panel presented versions of articles previously published on Jennifer’s fantastic WWrite Blog, selections from which will be published in book form later this year. Listening to poets Seth Brady Tucker and Drew Pham and scholar Connie Ruzich spin word-webs about their connections to World War I and its literary tradition transported me into an extremely pleasant haze of contemplation about the relation of war, words, and history as they percolate in individuals with their own unique experiences and outlooks. For my part, I spoke about poet Aline Kilmer; the highlight was being approached afterward by an audience member (an aspiring vet-writer) who told me that he thought Kilmer’s verse was very “metal.” I laughed, and he wasn’t wrong!
I have fought with stars in their courses
and dreamed I have won,
I have charged full tilt with my levelled lance
straight into the flaming sun
And because of the darkness that swallowed me I
have dreamed that the fight was done.
What to make of this rekindled energy and interest? Not sure, exactly. There was definitely an eagerness to reconnect and get back into circulation on the part of the old hands. There was definitely an eagerness on the part of younger writers to be part of something bigger than themselves. All to the good, and now the question becomes how to keep the party going in Seattle for 2023. I won’t be there, as AWPs so far from my New Jersey home are just “too much,” but there are plenty of possibilities. Two non-mil panels I attended this year seem naturals for adaptation by the vet-writing community.
“Emotional Pacing in the Trauma Narrative” explored literary techniques for framing trauma-based stories so they avoid overwhelming readers with melodramatic excess. The panelists kept it mostly at the level of craft, which was great, but just as interestingly they spoke of the difficulty of life after publication after revealing and recounting harrowing, enormously disturbing private events and thoughts. All aspects of the subject, to my mind, would be a great for exploration by a panel composed of veteran memoirists, if they dare.
“Craft Lessons from the Submission Queue: Writing and Editing Short Fiction” featured the editors of four online journals that publish literary fiction. The editors passed on guidance for successfully placing stories in their journals, while also recounting lessons learned from reading thousands of submissions they have applied to their own writing. The panelists were full of interesting tips, observations, and anecdotes and the huge audience hung on their words as if they were gospel. How cool would it be if Veterans Writing Project, Military Experience and the Arts, Wrath-Bearing Tree, Consequence, The War Horse and/or Collateral teamed up for a similar panel for the war-writing crowd (hint/hint, foot-stomp/foot-stomp)?
Special AWP shout-outs to Ron Capps and Jennifer Orth-Veillon. It was great to see Capps and the Veterans Writing Project back in action and specifically thanks to Ron for forking out the smackers to reserve a two-lane bowling alley at the war-writers social bar where we held an impromptu first-ever War-Writers Bowling Tournament. For her part, Jennifer was my stalwart ally organizing two panels that helped put vet-and-war-writing back on the map at AWP. It was a close-run thing, and victory was never assured, but we did pretty well with it, I’d say, and I don’t think either of us could have done it alone.
Now, onward to Seattle!
Coming in October 2022: Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Contemporary Writers on the Lingering Stories of World War I. Edited by Jennifer Orth-Veillon, forward by Monique Brouillet Seefried. MilSpeak Books.
I’ll be on two panels at the upcoming Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference this week in Philadelphia.
I’m moderating one panel titled “Veterans Writing Online: A Field Guide for Negotiating the Digital Writing Sphere.” Here’s the program blurb:
Iraq and Afghanistan military-and-veteran writers have enthusiastically embraced the internet to amplify their voices and build audiences through blogging, online publishing, remote workshopping, and social media promotion, and as a bridge to traditional print publication. The members of the panel, all accomplished authors, online journal editors, and teachers in the veteran-writing field, offer a range of perspectives regarding best online publishing practices, lessons learned, and future possibilities.
And a little more:
The vibrant veterans online writing realm emphasizes its commitment to new voices, diverse and radical perspectives, post-trauma growth, building communities, and bridging the civil-military divide. The panel explores how online writing supplements and serves as an alternative to traditional print publication by encouraging literary expression by new authors, women, non-binary, minority, and dissident veterans, as well as concerned-citizen writers, family members, and non-combatants.
After a little jockeying, the panel line-up has solidified in exciting ways: Ron Capps, Teresa Fazio, Kara Krauze, and Jennifer Orth-Veillon.
Showtime is Saturday, March 26, 10:35-11:50am in Room 124 in the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
I’m also participating on a panel sponsored by Jennifer Orth-Veillon titled “Family Heritage, Violent History: WWI’s Lost Transversality in War Poetry Today.” I’m honored for the chance to talk about World War I poet Aline Kilmer’s relevance to the current war-writing scene alongside panelists Seth Tucker, Connie Ruzich, and Drew Pham. Here’s the blurb:
WWI’s Centennial offered chances for today’s war writers to reflect upon literary debts owed to 1914-1918 poets in blogs, articles, and new work. This panel fuses history, literary analysis, and creative writing to explore this phenomenon. Members include veteran poets addressing issues of religion, family, sexuality, gender, and PTSD through WWI’s lens. WWI poetry and contemporary war literature experts propose insight into the intersections of personal experience, history, and literary craft.
WWI represents one of the first times in history poetry was responsible for exposing the new complexity of war wounds to the public. WWI elicited responses from diverse voices on the home front and battlefield that opened artistic spaces expressing war’s horrors in innovative ways. This panel reaches far beyond the traditional WWI canon and explores how these poets not only shaped civilian responses or crafted legacy but how they also set precedents for writers confronting today’s conflicts.
We’re meeting on Thursday, March 24 from 1:45 to 3:00pm in Room 121A in the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Looking forward to it all, and join us please if you will be at AWP. I’m not seeing any other panels on the program that directly address contemporary war-writing, which has me thinking. The conference used to be an important locus for the GWOT war-writing community, with many panels each year on war-and-vet writing and much socializing. That luster was beginning to fade even before Covid, and nothing I know of has replaced it (everything’s online!), but I’m hoping we can rekindle the spirt a little.
This week brought a CNN news report, hosted by Anderson Cooper, about two US Army veterans and one USMC veteran who traveled to Ukraine on their own dime to train Ukrainian home defense forces in basic infantry tactics. This training, of course, was meant to provide Ukrainians without military experience a modicum of self-defense and offensive prowess in anticipation of fighting off Russian invasion of their hometown, which, also of course, seems inevitable at this point.
The veterans featured in the report are well-known in vet-writing circles: Adrian Bonenberger, Benjamin Busch, and Matt Gallagher. Each is featured prominently in the Cooper report and the reasons they offer to explain themselves are heartfelt, eloquent, and inspirational. Even more than their words, their actions speak loud and strong. In support of a cause that is just, they are contributing their talents as best they can.
I have written often about Bonenberger, Gallagher, and Busch on Time Now over the years. Below are links to many of the posts. Within the posts, I think my regard for the men’s writing and art shines clear, as well as my regard for the men themselves. My posts may provide insight or at least some of the backstory as to how Bonenberger, Busch, and Gallagher connect their own war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan with their sense of what the current moment demands. In a nutshell, I would say their infantryman’s instinct to “move to the sound of the guns” is married to their ethical and political sensibilities and principles to a very high degree.
Below are links to Time Now posts that engage with literary theory and academic scholarship. It’s primarily for those working on academic studies of contemporary war literature, but it aims also to be accessible for any reader who might be interested. Over the years, Time Now has been cited approvingly in many scholarly articles, books, and dissertations, for which I’m flattered and grateful. But that’s also part of the design: I wrote my own dissertation on the emergence of a literary scene in antebellum-era Baltimore, and many of the ideas and precepts undergirding that project have informed my approach to contemporary war-writing, which I sensed around 2012 beginning to coalesce not just as a genre, but as a “scene,” whatever that word means to you. Also, as I wrote my own dissertation, I depended heavily on obscure chronicles that noted and described the salient publications, authors, and literary and cultural events as they occurred in Baltimore 200 years ago. I doubt Time Now is destined to survive so long, but I still hope to do some of the same work for those interested in art, film, and literature about war in Iraq and Afghanistan that the chroniclers of yore did for me as I wrote my dissertation.
The list is roughly in the order that the posts were written.
The Imagined Wars. Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865 reveals many parallels with the contemporary war-writing scene.
The Civil-Military Divide Within: Going After Bergdahl. Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq packs a potent 1-2 punch: the central themes of vet fiction-and-memoir are 1) the effort of soldiers to hold onto civilian identities as they serve and as afterwards, and 2) the realization by soldiers that they are not prepared for the horror of war by their education, training, and upbringing.
Women at War. Mary Douglas Favrus’ Post-Feminist War: Women in the Media-Military-Industrial Complex analyzes the vexed conceptual underpinnings and practical difficulties regarding women’s service in the military.
Hi everyone, I have a chance to revise and expand this post for print publication, so I’ve taken the original down while I work on it. Let’s see what happens, and when circumstances permit I’ll repost the original or the expanded version.
By all means though, check out the graphic-memoir first-person stories recounted in the excellent True War Stories: Tales of Deployment from Vietnam to Today, edited by Alex de Campi and Khai Krumbhaar.
True War Stories: Tales of Deployment from Vietnam to Today. Edited by Alex de Campi and Khai Krumbhaar. Z2 Comics, 2020.
Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” 1967. PDF
Interviews with prominent authors in the war-mil-vet-conflict scene are always a treat, even when the subjects go to dark places. Below are links to and excerpts from five such interviews I’ve been fortunate to conduct, in one case for the Veterans Writing Project‘s literary journal 0-Dark-Thirty and in the others for The Wrath-Bearing Tree.
Mary Doyle interview for 0-Dark-Thiry, Fall 2016 (begins on page 67). Doyle, a former Army NCO, is the author of The Bonding Spell, a speculative fiction novel, and The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, a military-detective novel featuring Master Sergeant Lauren Harper. Excerpt:
Molin: Master Sergeant Harper’s sense of what’s important about her identity is intriguing—it blends and balances her awareness of her status as a woman, a senior Army NCO, an African American, and the unique circumstances of her family history and her personal outlook on life. Is that how you see her too, and what more would you like us to understand about her?
Doyle: Harper is like so many black women soldiers I know. She joined the military with the hope of improving her lot in life. She comes from a loving family but one that had its challenges. Her upbringing is in a single parent household with a matriarchal example that she strives to emulate. She is an older sister to a sibling that she ends up having primary responsibility for. And as her career develops, she is surprised to discover that the job she took as a means to an end, ends up being a life she loves.
What she struggles with, and what so many dedicated female service members struggle with, is her love life. How does a woman soldier balance her dedication to a job that has 24/7 demands, with a courtship? When you are in a career that can call on you to drop everything, pack a bag and be gone for long lengths of time, how to you maintain a love life through demands like that? And what about children?
Will Mackin interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, April 2018. Mackin, a career Navy officer, served alongside Navy SEALs in Iraq and Afghanistan coordinating air-and-artillery support. He is the author of the short-story collection Bring Out the Dog. Excerpt:
Molin: From “Kattekoppen”: “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.” How are SEALs different from soldiers in line-units? What motivates them and what’s important to them? What were you surprised to learnabout the SEALs, as individuals and as a collective fighting force?
Mackin: The main thing that differentiated our unit from “straightleg” units was our budget. We had a lot of money to throw around. There was also a genuine desire on the part of the operators to fight, kill, and vanquish, and absolutely zero tolerance for administrative bullshit. This would sometimes bite us in the ass because no one ever wanted to plan. What we lost in lack of planning, however, was often made up for in execution. As individuals I was surprised to find those who I wouldn’t have expected to be SEALs. In other words, guys who didn’t fit the mold of the tattooed, bearded, Harley-riding Alpha male. They were just normal dudes with this ridiculous and well-disguised drive…. Most SEALs were personable one-on-one, but I found them to be very insular as a group. I never felt like I truly belonged.
Roy Scranton interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, August 2019. Scranton deployed to Iraq with the US Army in the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His published books include the novel War Porn and the scholarly study Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. Excerpt:
Molin: In practical terms, how can understanding the trauma hero as a literary trope and cultural myth help us think better, more clearly, about actual veterans psychologically damaged and emotionally troubled by war? What might the nation, or its military-medical apparatus, do to help them?
Scranton: Well, I’ve written a work of literary and cultural history, not a practical guide to coping with trauma. I would say, though, that the entire way that we understand “actual veterans psychologically damaged and emotionally troubled by war” must be understood as process of collective meaning-making. The psychologically damaged veteran is certainly suffering, but that suffering takes shape in performing a specific social role, which is the “traumatized veteran.” As long as we stay within the bounds of the discourse, there’s no way to “help” such a person by pointing out that their genuine suffering is culturally produced. I suppose we might tell them “trauma isn’t real,” but then what? They have to make sense of their experience somehow, and the best that could come from delegitimating a culturally dominant way of making sense of experience would be the emergence of a new way of making sense of experience. Are there better and worse ways of making meaning? I think so. But that’s another discussion. The only practical help my project might offer is, I would hope, some understanding of the ways that the “actual veteran” exists in relation to the “nation.”
I’m a Spinozist at heart, which means I’m a materialist, but it also means that I believe freedom comes first of all from understanding. Until you understand what compels you to understand your experience through certain roles, frameworks, and practices, you’ll be stuck performing those roles, seeing through those frameworks, and acting out those practices. Understanding may never provide physical or social liberation, but it can at least open a space for some freedom of thought and movement, and the possibility of equanimity toward the world as it exists, which is to say a sense of peace.
Matt Gallagher interview/podcast for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, April 2021 (via SoundCloud). Gallagher, a US Army Iraq vet is the author of the memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Dirty Little War and the novels Youngblood and Empire City. Excerpt:
Molin: You’ve been on the veterans writing scene for a long time. When did you get a sense that a common standpoint or viewpoint among veterans was starting to diverge so drastically, so politically, and so heatedly? What were the significant events or touchstones for you?
Gallagher: A lot of the seeds for Empire City happened during the years I worked as a speechwriter for the veterans non-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in 2011-2013…. At the time I was writing Youngblood, so my professional headspace was in the veterans’ world while my writing head was still in Iraq….. At IAVA I saw how just how personally our members took the policy issues we were fighting for, both on the legislative side and also on the street-level, with the everyday members who weren’t necessarily going down to DC to meet with congressmen and senators to advocate for position-x or position-y, and how quickly issues that should be apolitical, like the GI Bill, become a left-or-right issue, and how thing worked for the organization when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended or the Bowe Bergdahl situation broke. All these things became instantly political and polarized, in a way that was disheartening for a young veteran, but were fantastic fodder for future writing.
Hassan Blasim interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree (July 2021). Blasim, an Iraqi expatriate now living in Finland, is the author of the short-story collection The Corpse Exhibition and the novel God 99. Excerpt:
Molin: What about fiction attracts you?
Blasim: It’s important for English and American readers to know that I don’t only write fiction, I write poetry, criticism, plays, and essays, too, that haven’t yet been translated into English. I also write a lot in support of refugees, gay rights, and Iraq and the Middle East. But as for fiction, it’s what I have loved most all my life, from the time I was a boy. I always liked the way stories could contain extremes and opposites, such as how a story could be both a love story and a horror story, a funny story and a sad story, both tender and violent. Fiction is serious for me, but it’s also play and pleasure. In my writing, I enjoy trying to make all these parts come together. A lot of my sense of how to write fiction comes from my love of movies, from which early on I was impressed by how easily they switched between different types of scenes and moods. In my stories I want that same effect, something unexpected happening, something changing all the time. That’s how I try to write, too, I don’t plan anything ahead of time, I just enjoy the rhythm of writing and the chance to play. I open my laptop and I type….
Thank you Mary Doyle, Will Mackin, Roy Scranton, Matt Gallagher, and Hassan Blasim for being so generous with your time and your thoughts.
In “Chapter Five: The Craft of Counterinsurgent Whiteness” of Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Permanent War Joseph Darda places the literary-fiction titans of contemporary veterans-writing—Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, Kevin Powers—under the microscope of scholarly analysis.
In the larger argument of Empire of Defense, Darda offers a theory for how race and racism factor in the endless warfaring and escalating militarism of everyday life in America. He pinpoints the National Security Act of 1947 and the creation of the Secretary of Defense in 1949 as pivotal historical moments, arguing that the renaming and reorganization of our national security apparatus were attempts to mitigate the excesses of old-style colonialism and racism while allowing the prerogatives of national authority to remain in the hands of the powers-that-be, who, it goes almost without saying, were white males. Post WWII, legal racial oppression and global empire building were no longer tenable, but a new liberal humanism organized around “defense” allowed for a modicum of progressive social change, while insidiously normalizing a new regime of white values and outlooks, both at home and abroad. The name-change from “Secretary of War” to “Secretary of Defense,” for example, diminished awareness of imperialistic projections of power and uses of violence that usually involved killing or subordinating people-of-color. Instead, in a semantic sleight-of-hand, our military would now “defend” America against various “isms” and causes that obscure racialized motives. So, instead of fighting yellow-skinned people in Korea and Vietnam, we fight “communism.” Instead of fighting Mexicans, we fight a “war on drugs.” And instead of fighting Arabs and Muslims, we fight “terrorism.” The linguistic trickery pays lip service to notions of respect, diversity, equity, inclusion, and equality when convenient, and it has been very convenient to do so in order to recruit African-Americans into the military. It has also been convenient to preserve reputation in the eyes of liberal voters, intellectuals, and journalists—at least those who were not, per Darda, in on the treachery.
In Darda’s account, war fiction participates in anti-racist/racist duplicity by consistently creating heroes out of a few “good white men” who embody liberal values without giving up the actual perks of whiteness, and in fact instantiate the notion that ideas held by white men constitute foundational moral values. He writes, “The sensitive white soldier, from Hemingway’s Frederic Henry to Joseph Heller’s John Yossarian and O’Brien’s Paul Berlin, though celebrated for shaking off ideological constraints, defends, above all else, himself and his own liberal consciousness.” So, too, per Darda, for the white heroes of post-9/11 war fiction, and so too for their authors:
Although veteran-writers [Matt] Gallagher, Kevin Powers, and Phil Klay have been critical of the wars in which they fought, their fiction aligns with the state’s militarization of cultural knowledge.
“Chapter Five: The Craft of Counterinsurgent Whiteness” begins with two passages that set-up analysis of Powers’ novelThe Yellow Birds, Klay’s story “Psychological Operations,” and Gallagher’s novelYoungblood. The first passage, unfortunately for fans of contemporary war-fiction, excoriates Gallagher’s 2011Atlanticmagazine article “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?”, Gallagher himself, and the contemporary veteran fiction-writing scene. We’ll hurry past that section to summarize more fully the chapter’s second preamble, which explores the writing and rhetoric ofUS Army Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, published in 2006 at the behest of General David Petraeus. Darda focuses his attention on the third chapter, “Intelligence in Counterinsurgency,” which (theFM 3-24chapter) was mostly authored by “Yale University-trained cultural anthropologist” Montgomery McFate. Darda explains how in the chapter McFate promulgates the idea that modern war requires “cultural awareness” to craft compelling “narratives” to shape understanding and achieve objectives. Darda offers a good line re McFate: “Her chapter reads like critical theory that has been reverse engineered to reinforce rather than challenge hegemony.”
TheFM 3-24discussion leads to a damning argument about contemporary war fiction: “The thesis of the McFate-authored chapter ofField Manual 3-24—a thesis that resurfaces in American veteran fiction—is that successful counterinsurgency necessitates the militarization of cultural narrative.” A little later: “Some of the most acclaimed new veteran-writers—Gallagher, Klay, Powers—served in counterinsurgent forces, and their writing reflects the doctrine’s utilitarian understanding of cultural narrative.” This seems on-to-something, asThe Yellow Birds, “Psychological Operations,” andYoungblood are indeed written by soldiers who fought in Iraq according to counterinsurgency principles while more-or-less believing that they were trying to fight more humanely and also more smartly. They dramatize that struggle in their works, and their first-person narrators speak directly about the difficulty of constructing coherent narratives of their deployments.
Darda could have done even more with this line-of-analysis, but he’s after bigger fish than narrative meta-anxiety. About the authors’ investments in whiteness and the cultural work done by their stories, he writes:
…and the first, foremost, and only thing that happens when a white male author picks up a pen to write a story is validation of himself and his white characters.
That these writers are all white men is not a coincidence, because whiteness has continued to be a condition for conducting defense (counterinsurgency), as a means of dictating the uneven distribution of life chances (racialization) in the counterterror era.
The statements seem remarkably unsubtle and hostile literary analysis, especially coming from an English professor, while containing seriously ad hominem charges about war-fiction authors’ thoughts, motives, and actions. Unfortunately for Darda, the examination of the aspects of The Yellow Birds, “Psychological Operations,” and Youngblood that he argues perpetuate racist ideology and practice aren’t as persuasive as the passages that explore narrative angst and instability. I won’t say much here except that his argument doesn’t make much allowance for the idea that art and fiction can critique politics, ideology, official discourse, and popular opinion rather than merely reflect and instantiate them, especially deliberately so on the part of artists and writers. I also note two factual errors in Darda’s recounting of character-and-plot details of Youngblood–not confidence-inspiring given how the novel and its author figure so prominently in Darda’s argument. Fans of contemporary war-writing probably won’t like or agree with what Darda has to say, but students of the intersection of 20th and 21st-century race, culture, politics, war, and war-literature might consider checking out Empire of Defense for themselves.
Joseph Darda, Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Permanent War. University of Chicago Press, 2019.