Posted tagged ‘War literature’

Summer of 17: Women Fighting and Writing

August 4, 2017

A scene from Bullet Catchers, currently running in New York.

“All wars are boyish and fought by boys,” wrote Herman Melville a long time ago, but it’s hard not to notice all the women-authored and women-centric war-writing that has appeared in the summer of 2017. Much of the new work has taken the shape of memoir and journalism, but new fiction and theater also contribute to the feel that something different and exciting is happening. Some of the new work is by “First Wave” women war writers such as Siobhan Fallon and Helen Benedict–familiar names in the war-writing scene–but appearing also are many new writers–a “Second Wave”–describing subjects and representing perspectives previously unheard or overlooked. The new work is appearing in print or being performed on stage, but online venues seem to be the medium of choice for publication and discussion of this up-to-the-moment phenomenon. Much credit goes to a highly motivated-and-resourced new organization called The War Horse, of which a profile of founder Thomas Brennan can be found here. The War Horse in particular has taken upon itself to promote writing by women-veterans, and even more specifically a War Horse writing workshop that took place in New York City in April, led by David Chrisinger, though not limited to women, has been enormously generative of first-person narratives detailing aspects of life in uniform for women in all its variety and implication. Some examples include:

“Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD,” by Army veteran Jenny Pacanowski.

“Drown Proofing, Khaki Shorts. Some Things About Dive School Don’t Change,” by Coast Guard veteran Tenley Lozano.

“Circumstances, Fortunes, or Misfortunes, by USMC veteran Teresa Fazio.

The titles of Pacanowski’s and Lozano’s pieces preview their intriguing storylines; Fazio’s title doesn’t give her story away so readily, but the article describes the author’s post-service trip to India to find meaning in the Sikh tradition of Prasad. Fazio’s not the only female vet with a spiritual bent, either; another War Horse seminar participant (and my former central New Jersey neighbor), Army veteran Supriya Venkatesan, describes her own search for tranquility through Transcendental Meditation in an article titled “I Lived in a Town Where Everyone Meditated Together. Every Day.” Venkatesan already has a list of non-war-related publishing credits as long as your arm on exotic subjects such as bio-hacking, eco-sex, and home-birth, fyi for all aspiring vet-writers searching to break out of rigid identification as a mil-and-war writer. 

In the articles I’ve posted, Pacanowski, Lozano, Fazio, and Venkatesan don’t directly address military sexism and toxic military masculinity, but awareness of the difficulty of being a woman in uniform underwrites the ethos and worldview of their writing. Not coincidentally, The War Horse broke the story of the Marine Corps photo-sharing scandal early in 2017—Thomas Brennan’s post-Marine career began as an investigative journalist. Fellow ex-Marine Elliot Ackerman, the author of the novels Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing, profiled Brennan this summer in a telling piece for Esquire titled “Inside the Nude Photo Scandal That Rocked the Marine Corps”—the despair of two proud Marines as they confront the easily-held misogyny of fellow male Marines is palpable. Appearing at almost the same time as Ackerman’s piece was Andria Williams’ story “The List,” a fictional dramatization of a photo-sharing scandal involving two Air Force officers, published on Afghan Post author Adrian Bonenberger’s The Wrath-Bearing Tree web journal. Williams, whose blog The Military Spouse Book Review has long tracked women’s war writing and military family issues, notes that she presciently first drafted her story in 2013, but filed it away thinking it too far-fetched. Little did she know…. the one-two punch of Ackerman’s article and Williams’ story reinforces the impression that the military’s ability to satisfactorily resolve its gender and sexual harassment/sexual abuse issues anytime soon and without outside help is slim, but if identifying the problem is the first step to a solution, then the authors have done their part.

The battle goes on on other fronts, too. On stage, a new play called Bullet Catchers, currently running in New York City, portrays life in an Army unit through the perspective of the women who occupy leadership positions, as well those who serve in the ranks. Bullet Catchers has already elicited at least two shrewd reviews from wise observers of the passing scene: Bullet Catchers: Women’s Modern Warfare” by Rachel Kambury posted on the New York City Veterans Alliance website and “A Plausible Reality by Teresa Fazio, written for Consequence magazine.

Finally (though I’m bound to be forgetting something significant), are the appearance of four books in 2017 by First Wave contemporary war-writing women authors. Already out are Elyse Fenton’s volume of verse Sweet Insurgent and Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages and soon to come are poet Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes and novelist Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season. And finally finally, just published is long-time editor of the Veterans Writing Project journal 0-Dark-Thirty editor Jerri Bell’s and Tracy Crow’s anthology It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to AfghanistanIt’s My Country Too’s historical perspective reminds us that the current perfect storm of First and Second Wave women’s war-writing didn’t appear brand new spun out of whole cloth. Not to push things back to 1776, as Bell and Crow do, but to a more-recent 2016, important precedents began appearing last year when anthologies such as Retire the Colors, edited by Dario DiBattista, and The Road Ahead, edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, offered robust mixtures of powerful stories by both men and women veterans.

So what to make of it all? The first step, it seems to me, is recognizing, respecting, and encouraging the development. The second step is assessing what women’s war-writing has to tell us, both about life-in-uniform for women and masculine traditions and conventions of war-writing. Third, preparing for the backlash, which will inevitably come in the form of sneers about “the feminization of war-writing” and efforts to reestablish its manly basis. Fourth, ever-more precisely disentangling current notions about military culture, war-winning, and fighting ability from their unproductive entwinement with accepted cultural ideas about manhood and patriarchy, so that the military becomes a better place for all Americans to serve, rather than being a big boy’s club, and applies itself more effectively to winning wars, rather than being an endless employment and get-rich opportunity for flag-wavers, war addicts, mercenaries, and profiteers.

Veterans War Writing: Anthologies R Us

November 20, 2016

“Corregidor in Wait” by Rachel McNeill, from After Action Review (2011). Used with permission.

Anthologies of writing by veterans have been a significant feature of contemporary war literature since the genre emerged as a recognizable form circa 2005. Single-author memoirs, blogs, novels, graphic novels, poetry volumes, and assorted other literary endeavors have been plenty, but the most impactful publishing format arguably has been the collection of short fiction, non-fiction, or poetry pieces assembled and published by enterprising editors. Often growing out of writers’ workshops and regional literary collectives, anthologies have served as gateway vehicles of expression and publication for hundreds of veterans while comfortably repurposing military camaraderie in the name of authorship. Below are the anthologies of which I’m aware, most of which I own and have read; I’m sure there are many others. I’ve also noted the editors and listed the authors who were reasonably prominent at the time of publication or since have become so—apologies in advance for the many names I’m sure I’ve erred by not including.

1. Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families (2006). Edited by Andrew Carroll with a preface by Dana Gioia. Operation Homecoming, as far as I know, stands at the head of the field and thus gets all the kudos that come with being first. In addition to less renown voices among its 89 contributors, Operation Homecoming features work by authors such as Benjamin Busch, Colby Buzzell, and Brian Turner, highly literate veterans who had already achieved some fame as authors and in ensuing years would become leaders of the war lit field.

2. Move, Shoot and Communicate (2007). The first of five anthologies published by Warrior Writers, a veterans-writing organization headquartered in Philadelphia and led by Lovella Calica, whose contribution to veterans writing began early and continues impressively to this day. I have not personally read Move, Shoot, and Communicate, but it is available through the Warrior Writers website.

3. Re-Making Sense (2008). Edited by Lovella Calica. A second Warrior Writers anthology—again, I have not personally seen Re-Making Sense.

4. After Action Review: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans of the Global War on Terror (2011). Edited by Lovella Calica, with a foreword by Brian Turner and an afterword by James A. Moad II. Yet another anthology from the very industrious Warrior Writers. This one, which I have read, contains poems and narratives by Roy Scranton, Victor Inzunza, Chantelle Bateman, Rachel McNeill, Emily Yates, Paul Wasserman, Jennifer Pacanowski, and Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, among others.

5. Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (2013). Edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, with an introduction by Colum McCann. A seminal work featuring fiction by several already well-known war writers such as Siobhan Fallon, Brian Turner, Matt Gallagher, and Colby Buzzell and a number of talented, ambitious newcomers who would find their way into print many times in the ensuing years, to include Scranton, Phil Klay, David Abrams, Gavin Ford Kovite, Mariette Kalinowski, and Brian Van Reet among them.

6. Outside the Wire: American Soldiers Voices from Afghanistan (2013). Edited by Christine Dumaine Leche with a foreword by Brian Turner. A very interesting collection of essays and vignettes composed by soldier-students of editor Christine Leche in classes she taught on US Army FOBs in Afghanistan. Leche includes a number of ingenious prompts she used in her classes that seem to have inspired her students to address war subjects and themes from a variety of fresh angles.

7. Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian (2013). Selected and edited by Donald H. Whitfield with a foreword by Benjamin Busch. A work sponsored by the high-powered, highly resourced National Endowment for the Humanities, Standing Down features already published work by David Finkel, Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, and Siobhan Fallon among other moderns, in addition to essays and reminiscences from pre-9/11 wars. The biggest of all the anthologies of which I am aware of, checking in at 494 pages.

8. Warrior Writers: A Collection of Writing & Artwork by Veterans (2014). Published by Warrior Writers and edited by Lovella Calica and Kevin Basl. One more from Warrior Writers, this eponymous collection includes writing by most of the authors who also appear in After Action Review, plus Maurice Decaul, Brian Turner, Hugh Martin, and Vietnam era vet-author stalwarts Bruce Weigl and Fred Marchant—80 authors total, the second most of the anthologies I’ve read.

9. Incoming: Veteran Writers on Coming Home. Edited by Justin Hudnall (2015). A product of Hudnall’s San Diego-based story-telling collective So Say We All, Incoming features non-fiction essays and stories by Benjamin Busch, Brandon Lingle, Brooke King, Tenley Lozano, Natalie Lovejoy, Lizbeth Prifogle, William Corley, and Adam Stone.

10. See Me For Who I Am: Student Veterans’ Stories of War and Coming Home (2016). Edited by David Chrisinger and with a foreword by Brian Castner. See Me For Who I Am features essays written by student veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where Chrisinger teaches a veterans reintegration course.

11. Retire the Colors: Veterans & Civilians on Iraq and Afghanistan (2016). Edited by Dario DiBattista with an introduction by Ron Capps. Featuring work by Brooke King, Lauren Kay Halloran, David Chrisinger, Matthew J. Hefti, Colin D. Halloran, Teresa Fazio, and Brian Castner.

12. Our Voices United: 9 Women Veteran Authors (2016). Edited by Sergeant Stephanie J. Shannon. I know that women veterans’ stories are foregrounded in books such as Kirsten Holdmstedt’s Band of Sisters (2007) and Helen Benedict’s The Lonely Soldier (2010), but this recently published small collection is the only stand-alone collection of essays by contemporary war veterans I could find. That can’t possibly be, so please correct me and I will make adjustments to the post.

13. Holding It Down Philadelphia: A Collection of Writing by Veterans (2016). Edited by Warrior Writers’ Lovella Calica and Kevin Basl, Holding It Down Philadelphia features poetry by several Philly-based veterans.

14. The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever Wars (forthcoming in 2017). Edited by Adrian Bonenburger and Brian Castner with a foreword by Roxana Robinson. An unofficial sequel to Fire and Forget featuring fiction by (mostly) established war writers, including Elliot Ackerman, Benjamin Busch, Brandon Caro, Maurice Decaul, Teresa Fazio, Thomas Gibbons Neff, Aaron Gwyn, Alex Horton, Chris Wolfe, Kristen L. Rouse, Kayla M. Williams, and Brandon Willitts.

Mention should also be made of the Veterans Writing Project journal 0-Dark-Thirty (online and print), the United States Air Force Academy journal War, Literature, and the Arts (online and print), and Military Experience and the Arts (online). All three journals partake of the spirit of the anthology by showcasing a wide range of veteran stories and perspectives.

I could write at length on each of these collections and may well do so in the future. A necessary first step is making more precise distinctions among them, because each anthology, to say nothing of the pieces within them, features a unique approach, ethos, and publishing history. The Warrior Writers anthologies, for example, reflect the raw anger of veterans troubled by service and deployment, while Fire and Forget channels a more polished literary vibe. Incoming and 0-Dark-Thirty, among others, juxtapose contemporary veteran voices with those from past wars. While early anthologies took pride in showcasing as many veteran writers as possible and blending unknown and established writers, more recent anthologies such as Retire the Colors and The Road Ahead feature established authors who have already made their mark on the war writing scene. Each of the anthologies might also be characterized by how earnestly they offer page space to women, minority, and non-combat arms veterans, as well as family members of veterans. At a more refined level of analysis, each anthology speaks to its particular political and cultural moment–roughly defined by the President in office when it is published–with varying degrees of relation, passion, nuance, and focus. One wonders for instance, how the forthcoming The Road Ahead will constitute a response to the new era ushered in by the election of President Trump—at what roads ahead will they both be looking?

In regard to sins of omission, no one yet, to my knowledge, has organized an anthology on the basis of rank (junior enlisted, NCO, junior officer, field grade officer), which I think would be a helpful way of understanding the viewpoints of service members based on that crucial determining factor. Same for anthologies based on branch of service. I’m also somewhat surprised to discover that anthologies showcasing writing by women or wounded and disabled vets seem to be mostly missing-in-action (and all the more reason to look forward to 2017’s It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan, edited by Tracy Crow and Jerri Bell, with a foreword by Kayla Williams). Many many anthologies focus on redeployment, which is OK, but which also seems to short-change consideration of aspects of deployed military life that might interest. There’s very little, for instance, that offers factual, fictional, or poetic recounting of unit chain-of-command conflicts and personalities and just as little on the romantic and erotic lives of soldiers. Interest in Iraqis and Afghans is notably lacking, and, at the level of style, most anthology entries sacrifice literary flair for directness of expression.

Finally, the anthologies’ introductions, forewords, and afterwords alone are worth examining for how they frame each project. Common themes include giving voice to diverse military experiences; seeking clarity about troubling events; rendering the particular reality of deployment, combat, and redeployment; and, always, bridging the communication and understanding divide between the small percentage of Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the large percentage who haven’t. To let the editor who seems to have started it all have the last word, Andrew Carroll writes in the introduction to Operation Homecoming, “…now that the idea of seeking out the undiscovered literature of our nation’s troops and their loved ones has taken hold, it is exhilarating to think of all that is yet to be found and of everything, ultimately that is still to be written.” Hear hear, and salute to the editors, publishers, authors, and readers of the nation’s twenty-first century veterans’ anthologies.

War Writing: The Raw and the Cooked

August 14, 2016
Khost Province, Afghanistan. USAF Photograph

Khost Province, Afghanistan (USAF photograph).

A flutter of recent data points raise the questions whether veterans are natural storytellers and whether they are prone to adorn their stories to impress listeners. An article by “Angry Staff Officer” on the Task and Purpose website titled “Three Things That Make Service Members Great Storytellers” asserts that the combination of “mission, story, and time” allows men and women in uniform to “relate our cultural and personal experiences to a group, bring them into the story in an intimate setting, and reveal a shared identity.” Angry Staff Officer cites soldiers from the South as military tale-tellers par excellence, a notion corroborated in “Colleen,” from Odie Lindsey’s fine collection of stories about Southern veterans of the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom titled We Come to Our Senses. The narrator sets a scene in a VFW hall:

A couple of men asked Van Dorn how he was, and he held court as he blustered and bragged. They tolerated this, because storytelling—his or anyone’s—cued up the opportunity to indulge their own tales, to again revisit their trauma.

So the men did just that, they ran a story cycle, memory to memory, barstool to barstool, and on down to Colleen.

But it’s not just service members from below the Mason-Dixon Line. Last week, at a family reunion in upstate New York, my cousin’s kid Teddy, who served as an infantryman in Iraq, at a late night campfire related tales that were quite a bit more engaging than anyone else’s. Teddy didn’t speak of war, and he didn’t bluster or brag, but he smoothly turned routine events of his life into stories and the people who populated them into personalities. Like Angry Staff Officer describes in his post, as I listened to Teddy it was as if I was once more in an MRAP on a long conop in Afghanistan, eavesdropping through earphones to the crew members spin tales about past missions, past assignments, and past lives.

While Angry Staff Officer writes of how service members and veterans communicate among themselves, David Chrisinger explores how and why veterans frequently embellish the stories they tell or write for civilians. In a piece titled “The Redemptive Power of Lying” posted on Warhorse, Chrisinger writes, “I’m OK with lies—the ones my students need to tell themselves, and in turn, tell me—but I’m not OK with bullshit.” Matt Gallagher, who always has something good to say in these cases, picks up on Chrisinger’s theme. In a recent story published in Playboy titled “Babylon,” Gallagher has his protagonist, a female USMC vet living in Brooklyn, state:

Some of the biggest posers I’d known were vets. The pogue who never left Kuwait but needed to pretend he’d crossed the brink. The staff officer whose lone patrol off base became more dangerous with each of her retellings. Even the grunts, it was rare for them to stick to the truth, because the truth was never enough. War stories meant bullshit, that’s just how it was. Deep down, I knew I’d exaggerated what happened that day in Al Hillah to people, be they surly uncles I wanted to impress or lipstick dykes I wanted to screw. I wasn’t proud of it. But still. It’d happened, and it’d probably happen again.

Maybe we’d earned the right to bullshit….

Recently, the popular Humans of New York website and its even more popular Facebook page have been featuring Iraq and Afghanistan vets relating vignettes of intense wartime experiences. The vignettes, or anecdotes, exemplify the tendencies noted by Angry Staff Officer, Chrisinger, and Gallagher: short, well-turned, gripping accounts of extraordinary events experienced by the veterans, accompanied by poignant statements about the events’ lingering significance in their lives. The posts have been shared on Facebook upwards of 10,000 times, and the comments sections have generated hundreds of compliments, denunciations, and other expressions of belief, disbelief, support, and even accusations that the veterans’ stories were fictive.

If the Humans of New York posts offer a glimpse of the contemporary war-story-telling zeitgeist, the lessons are simple: 1) Go sensational. 2) Go emotional. 3) Keep your own experience at the center, and 4) Convey conviction that your perspective of the event you describe is the true one. Don’t mince around; what people want to hear about is either the worst thing that ever happened to you or the most triumphant. The worst thing is always the shock of learning that war is much worse than you could have imagined or can handle. The best thing is always that you acquitted yourself well in combat.

If you can’t hit those notes, well OK, but be ready for a less-than-enthusiastic response from the reading masses. Tell a subtle, nuanced tale reflecting perplexed anxiety about things that you observed while you were in the military, and five, 500, or 5,000 people might be interested. Tell a graphic story of harrowing adventure and personal tumult, and your audience will be 50,000, 500,000, five million, or more. Edgar Allan Poe wrote long ago, “But the simple truth is, that the writer who aims at impressing the people, is always wrong when he fails in forcing that people to receive the impression.” The lineaments of war story popular connection are right there for the taking. Hint—they look a lot like American Sniper. Reading suggestion—another story in Lindsey’s collection, titled “Chicks,” a funny one about a screenwriter trying to pitch his war-movie script to a producer, brilliantly dramatizes and complicates Poe’s notion. Just in case it’s not obvious–“Chicks” will never be as popular as American Sniper.

Many years ago the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed the phrase “the raw and the cooked” to distinguish between primitive and advanced indigenous populations. Lévi-Strauss’s specific subject was food preparation—the move from eating food raw to cooking it clearly demarcated a cultural advance—but lots of critics have since used the phrase to analyze all kinds of human activities, and I’m going to do the same now. War stories, says I, come in two kinds—the raw, visceral kind that use blunt language to describe combat, killing, war brutality, and the rough aspects of military life, and the more mannered and brooding efforts I am calling “the cooked,” which might be described as an attempt to represent a thinking-person’s take on war. Both terms have connotations: when it comes to war writing, “raw” is inevitably linked with “honesty,” which makes “cooked” seem overly-analytical or even evasive. If you’ve eaten twenty straight raw meat-and-potato dinners, however, you might appreciate a little imaginative culinary preparation the next meal around. No doubt, I prefer a literary “cooked” approach, but I’m also in awe of the power of the “raw” to capture the imagination of soldiers, writers, and audiences, so, really, as you work through what I say next, try to avoid thinking of either term as inherently pejorative or complimentary. Instead, consider them as poles on a spectrum of war storytelling possibility.

The great example of contemporary “raw” war-writing is American Sniper. Never mind that Chris Kyle had extensive ghost-writing help, parts of his memoir may have been fabrication, and Kyle himself disavowed aspects of his own story. American Sniper resonated deeply because readers responded to and respected Kyle’s unapologetic and visceral account of his actions in a voice that they identified as authentically his own. Whether it was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or not, it just seemed honest:

I had a job to do as a SEAL: I killed the enemy—an enemy I saw day in and day out plotting to kill my fellow Americans.

The first time you shoot someone, you get a little nervous. You think, can I really shoot this guy? Is it really okay? But after you kill your enemy, you see it’s okay. You say, Great….

I loved what I did. I still do. I don’t regret any of it. I’d do it again.

I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.

There are many signature elements of a “raw” war story that help register such honesty. One of them is a blunt, hard-boiled prose style, full of profanity and tough talk, as if the author, his narrator, and his characters were really angry about something. Another is unbridled contempt for the chain-of-command; raw war stories bristle with certainty that higher-ups are stupid, vain, and selfish. A third is a thorough self-identification as a soldier or veteran and the assertion of undying brotherhood with fellow soldiers. A fourth is preoccupation with killing and battlefield carnage. A fifth is the treatment of the enemy as savages without humanity or distinction. These signature elements, in my opinion, are diluted in contemporary war writing, American Sniper excepted. If you don’t believe me compare Larry Heinemann’s Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, which won the National Book Award in 1987, with Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which won the same award for 2014. In terms of the rawness criteria I have established, Paco’s Story rates about a 9 on a scale of 10, while Redeployment gets maybe a 3 or 4. American Sniper is up there with Paco’s Story in terms of rawness, but where Heinemann’s rawness is a stylized literary effect that impressed critics and several thousand readers in its time, Kyle’s memoir has been scorned by critics, while causing the masses to build memorials in his honor.

Kyle’s last quote above—about not giving a “flying fuck” about Iraqis—is interesting, because it brings into play something I’d like to propose is true of contemporary war writing. The signature elements of raw war stories may not appear as often in war writing across the board these days, but the fifth still persists as a demarcation point separating war writing into raw and cooked segments. The main ingredient of a “raw” war story about Iraq and Afghanistan, I would say, is lack of interest in or outright contempt for Iraqis and Afghans, while a “cooked” war story manifests curiosity about them, attempts to portray them “as people,” and worries about the cost of war on them. I could without hesitation divide the 20 or more works of fiction I’ve reviewed on Time Now and the countless works I’ve read but have not (yet) reviewed, and rate them based on their empathy for the inhabitants of the land in which the Americans portrayed were fighting. Stacey Peebles also (first, really) hit on this means of evaluation in a chapter in Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq in which she compares Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and John Crawford’s Iraq War memoir The Last True War Story I’ll Ever Tell. Crawford left Iraq venomously disdainful of Iraqis, while Turner’s surfeit of empathy for Iraqi people, history, and culture threatened to overwhelm his effectiveness as an infantry sergeant. Peebles writes, “If Crawford takes in nothing of Iraq and empties himself out until he is a hollow shell, Turner takes in so much that he is full to bursting.” It follows then that Crawford’s memoir is “raw” and Turner’s poetry is “cooked.”

Which brings us back to the Humans of New York. The names of the veteran story-tellers are not given, but the second and third are both authors about whom I’ve written about on this blog, Jenny Pacanowski and Elliot Ackerman, respectively. Both are savvy writers and in Pacanowski’s case a seasoned performer of spoken-word poetry. In her scathing, ribald, and often extremely funny monologues, Pacanowski presents her tour-of-duty in the Army and Iraq as terrible to the point of traumatizing. Ackerman’s Afghanistan war novel Green on Blue, on the other hand, is practically void of American characters and instead places a Pashtun militia member at its narrative center. According to the schema I have set up, Pacanowski’s poetry is an example of “raw” war writing, while Ackerman’s novel represents the “cooked.” But in their Humans of New York vignettes, we can see them each moving toward a middle ground: Pacanowski fighting to demilitarize her all-consuming self-identification as an angry veteran, Ackerman letting down his guard to let the world take a better measure of who he is as a person. Be sure to read them, and salute to both.

War Writing Longform: Thinking Outside the Wire

June 15, 2016
USAFA Photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez (in 2009, TSGt Chavez and I served together on FOB Lightning, Afghanistan)

USAF photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez

Elizabeth Samet’s Washington Post review of J. Kael Weston’s The Mirror Test intrigued me. Samet, in my reading, simultaneously approves of Weston’s fiery indictment of the United States’ poor execution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is irritated by it. Weston, a veteran of many tours in both countries as a US State Department political advisor, castigates US policy makers in Washington and generals in the big command headquarters while celebrating the bravery and grunt’s-eye view of reality of the Marines and soldiers with whom he often confronted Iraqis and Afghans “outside the wire” and “on the ground.” Those are fair positions, Samet posits, based on Weston’s extensive experience and the reports of many others. The problem, Samet seems to be saying, is that Weston’s arguments aren’t exactly novel, especially coming this late in the game from someone with all the advantages of education and position Weston possesses and now expresses so righteously as if no one had ever said them before. Declaring one’s hatred for Beltway insiders and rear-echelon fobbits, while pronouncing one’s affiliation with common soldiers, are ideas that the nation might still benefit from by heeding, but in June 2016, they’re hardly the basis of an original critique of government and military policy and operations. Anyone who cares has heard the song many times, and no one who has not already memorized the words will begin singing it now.

What’s needed, if I read Samet correctly, or maybe it’s just me, are new ideas about what the wars entailed and what they mean. Fresher thinking about the experience of soldiers. Deeper exploration of American militarism in national and global affairs. Intriguing new terms and more complex arguments and counter-arguments, more ingenious processing of the data about what happened, and surprising discoveries of heretofore unobserved connections. It’s all well-and-good that someone’s been outside the wire to face danger and complexity, but how can one’s writing and thinking also venture outside the wire?

In other domains—medicine, technology, education, science, for examples,—”longform” journalism is typically a place, maybe the place, where new ideas by authors of skill and gravitas are seriously proposed and tried out. I was recently asked to compile a list of articles, web postings, and book excerpts, publicly available on the Internet, that did some of that work in regard to America’s twenty-first century wars, and the results are below. Most of the articles I read when they appeared, while others are new finds discovered just the last couple of weeks. A few are buried behind pay-and-registration walls, for which I apologize, but all are well worth seeking out. Many corroborate my own impressions and war experiences and serve as the intellectual basis for my understanding of how the wars unfolded and what have been their consequences. Others, however, contradict my own thoughts, or report on facets of the war of which I have little other knowledge. The best don’t just report events, but make bold judgments about assumptions and values underwriting the things they describe.

  1. “Force and Futility: Is It Time to Leave Afghanistan?” Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker (2010).
  2. “American Imperium: Uncovering Truth and Fiction in an Age of Perpetual War.” Andrew J. Bacevich, Harpers (2016).
  3. “The Killing Machines: How to Think About Drones.” Mark Bowden, The Atlantic (2013).
  4. “Today is Better Than Yesterday: A Marine Returns to a Divided Iraq.” Ben Busch, Harpers (2014).
  5. “The Real Muslims of Irving, Texas.” Colby Buzzell, Esquire (2016).
  6. “One Degree of Separation in the Forever Wars.” Brian Castner, Vice-Motherboard (2015).
  7. “The Problem With Biometrics at War.” Brian Castner, Vice-Motherboard (2016). Excerpt from All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016).
  8. “Words in a Time of War: On Rhetoric, Truth, and Power.” Mark Danner, excerpt from What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics (2007).
  9. “The Tragedy of the American Military.” James Fallows, The Atlantic (2015).
  10. “Excerpt from The Good Soldiers.” David Finkel, The Washington Post (2009).
  11. “Prologue to Thank You For Your Service.” David Finkel, MSNBC (2013).
  12. “Crimes in Iraqi’s Triangle of Death.” Jim Frederick, Time. Excerpt from Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraqi’s Triangle of Death (2010).
  13. “Soldiers on the Fault Line: War, Rhetoric, and Reality.” Ben Fountain, War, Literature, and the Arts (2013).
  14. “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.” Sebastian Junger, Vanity Fair (2015).
  15. “The Citizen Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”  Phil Klay, Brookings Institute (2016).
  16. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, But Alan Rogers Was a Hero to Everyone Who Knew Him.” Ben McGrath, The New Yorker (2008).
  17. “Introduction: Moral Injury Then and Now.” Robert Emmet Meagher. Excerpt from Killing From the Inside Out (2014).
  18. “Playing Defense Against Drones.” Amanda Ripley, Atlantic (2015).
  19. “Between Scylla and Charybdis.” Elizabeth Samet. Excerpt from No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014).
  20. “Inside America’s Dirty Wars: How Three US Citizens Were Killed by Their Own Government in the Space of One Month in 2011.” Jeremy Scahill, The Nation (2013). Excerpt from Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (2016).
  21. “Reborn But Not Dead.” Nancy Sherman. Excerpt from Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Soldiers (2015).
  22. “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.” Roy Scranton, The New York Times (2013).
  23. “Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom.” Roy Scranton, Rolling Stone (2014).
  24. “The Trauma Hero from Wilfred Owen to American Sniper and Redeployment.” Roy Scranton, The Los Angeles Review of Books. (2015).
  25. “I Said Infantry.” Brian Turner, Guernica. Adapted from My Life as a Foreign Country (2015).

Bonus reading: “Jumpstarting a Discussion: Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars.” Stacey Peebles, Roy Scranton, Patrick Deer, AB Huber, Ikram Masmoudi, and Peter Molin, An MLA Roundtable (2016).

Many apologies for the great writers and articles I’ve left out. I could compile a second list, and probably will someday, composed of dozens of worthy articles on less prominent sites than the Harpers/Atlantic/New Yorker -type web places I’ve privileged here. Another list could also feature more diverse voices, by gender, race, religion, and country of origin. Many articles address PTSD and technology, but there’s a few subjects, such as the repeal of DADT, the rise of special operations, the expanded role of women in the military, and the revaluation of the laws of war occasioned by Islamic terrorism that are underrepresented in my list. I looked, maybe not hard enough, entirely possible, but my initial search found few on those subjects that rose above the level of reportage and advocacy to the realm of idea and concept.

Call me greedy, but I want even more. The articles above, good as they are, might now serve most usefully as a seedbed for better things to come, as if everything they propose had to be said first in order now that more creative and perceptive writers can build on them. Here’s an example of what I have in mind, taken from the literary domain I know best. Say what you will about Roy Scranton’s concept of the “trauma hero,” describing a veteran who seems to relish a little too much his or her post-war distress, it got everyone’s attention when it first appeared in a Los Angeles Review of Books essay early in 2015. The memorable phrase defines both a common way that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are being represented in fiction, poetry, and film, and suggests some of the motif’s moral implications and cultural significance, little of which Scranton approved. Many didn’t like Scranton’s essay; they said it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t subtle, and even if it were true, the tone was off, as if Scranton were guilty of not being supportive either of veterans or veteran-authors—the sum total of the responses reinforcing the notion that Scranton’s darts had struck close to the bone.

Phil Klay, for one, might not have liked the not-so-implicit sneer inherit in the phrase “trauma hero,” since his striking short-story “Redeployment” was singled out by Scranton as definitively portraying a veteran confused and reeling from his tour-of-duty. Recently, in a Brookings non-fiction think-piece, Klay refined his sense of the ethical landscape inhabited by those who volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and who continue to weigh the consequences of their decision. Klay advances the notion that the war service of “citizen-soldiers” (he thankfully refrains from using “warriors,” though he might have interrogated how that term has come to serve as a popular descriptor for men and women in uniform) has put them in a position of “moral risk”: a heightened capacity for understanding the complexity of human experience, based on their personal engagement with war folly and darkness, their own and the nation’s, naively volunteered for when young, true, but still an experience they must own and be responsible toward going forward. But knowing how military service might lead to ethical compromise, Klay’s argument goes, is not necessarily debilitating. It can also, Klay argues hopefully and with examples, generate purposeful commitment to being as good as one can be in the aftermath.

The essay is learned and eloquent; Klay fights like the devil to keep from celebrating veterans as forged-by-fire explorers of morally ambiguous wastelands who now know better than the rest of Americans, even as his essay conjures this possible understanding of them into being. But it’s not really so important whether Klay wins the war of ideas by more fully and accurately sketching the moral psychology of veterans better than Scranton. What counts first is that engaged readers consider for themselves the logic and evidence for his claims. What counts second is consideration of the tension now in play, with the self-indulgent distressed veteran constituting one pole of an interpretive force-field and the veteran as ethical avatar the other. And what counts even more is not what either Scranton or Klay has already said, but the response to come by an equally formidable commentator.

Whether that writer splits the difference between Scranton and Klay or takes the argument in a new direction remains to be seen, but the result will certainly be exciting and helpful. It’s not just an intellectual exercise, either; consequential decisions affecting the lives of real people are on the line. The debate’s importance isn’t best measured looking backward at events that have already occurred, but in how its implications will influence difficult choices to come and how they are absorbed internally by those whom they affect most. And to bring things back to fiction, which I love most, we’ll all be able to see how Scranton himself riffs on the trauma hero theme in his soon-to-be-published novel War Porn. I don’t know if Klay’s next fictional work will portray war and veterans, but I’m betting it features characters dealing with intensely problematic experiences they lived through when young.

Photo by USAFA Staff Sergeant Evelyn Chavez, with whom I served on FOB Lightning, Afghanistan, 2009.

USAF photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez. In 2009, TSgt Chavez and I served together on FOB Lightning, Paktya Province, Afghanistan.

Here, There, and Everywhere: War Writing Notes From All Over

June 4, 2016

1. For the past year, I’ve been the Mentor Program coordinator for Ron Capps’ Washington, DC-based Veterans Writing Project. As such as I’ve connected many aspiring veteran-writers with experienced authors, teachers, and editors. The duty has brought me in pleasant and productive contact with many literary-minded folks, while also providing numerous looks at the range of interests, subjects, and attitudes characteristic of veterans using words to explore their military and war experiences. The veterans generally fall in two camps:  Vietnam vets working on memoirs and unit histories and Iraq and Afghanistan vets writing memoir, fiction, and poetry. The mentors are all published authors and experienced teachers, some with military experience, but many who have never served. If you are either interested in serving as a mentor or working with a mentor, see the VWP Mentor Program webpage and write me at pete@veteranswriting.org. Right now, we have several vet-writers waiting for mentors, so I’m hoping some of the authors and teachers who read Time Now will volunteer to help out.

vwpbannerlc1

2.  I had the pleasure recently of reading a short story on stage at New York City’s The Wild Project theater as part of an event titled Kicking Down Doors: Veterans in America and Their Families in America. The event, sponsored by a group called Poetic License, was organized by veterans Everett Cox and Jenny Pacanowski, two mainstays in the New York and New Jersey veteran writing and arts communities. Many thanks to Cox and Pacanowski for including me on the bill and coaching me through my pre-performance jitters, and many thanks also to my fellow readers and performers Katelyn Sheehan, Nancy Elkin Nybard, Camilo Mac Bica, John D. Manley, and John M. Meyer, as well as Cox and Pacanowski, and even more thanks to everyone who came. I’m very interested in the movement of war writing from the page to the stage, which is happening in many interesting ways across the nation, and was happy to participate in a small way in the phenomenon.

Poetic License

My name and me in lights.

Jenny Pacanowski and Everett Case

Jenny Pacanowski and Everett Case.

3. One place that has already staged a number of veterans-oriented dramatic productions is Wisconsin, the state whose vibrant veterans writing community I profiled a couple of weeks ago in a post on Matthew J. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing. Since the appearance of that post, I’ve heard from Martin McClendon, the Theater Department Chair at Carthage College in Wisconsin, who offers the following report detailing a number of veterans-oriented dramatic productions in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest:

My colleague Alvaro Rios at UW-Milwaukee is working on a new play, he is himself a vet and it will deal with vet issues. Several years ago at UW-Stevens Point there was a play called Soldier’s Circle based on blogs of soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. At Augustana [College] in Illinois, they commissioned a play called A Green River, dealing with veteran suicide. I saw it 2 years ago at the American College Theater Festival festival in Milwaukee. Lastly, I am starting a conversation with Edwin Olvera, Milwuakee-based choreographer and dancer, who has created numerous works based on his experiences and impressions of service. I’m hoping we can somehow work with him here at Carthage in the near future, as part of our dance program.

4. Another place already actively staging exciting, well-attended dramatic readings of veterans’ stories is San Diego (the locale, as it happens, for another novel I also recently reviewed, Elizabeth Marro’s Casualties). The driving force in San Diego is Justin Hudnall, the executive director of a literary and performing arts non-profit organization called So Say We All. Hudnall, a school-trained actor who has worked around the world as an emergency relief coordinator, is an artistic-entrepreneur of the first order. Besides organizing readings that attract audiences upwards of 300, So Say We All produces podcasts and radio shows featuring the stories of veterans. Hudnall has also published an anthology titled Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home, which features essays on life post-deployment and post-service by Benjamin Busch, Brandon Lingle, Brooke King, Nathan Webster, and Natalie Lovejoy, among others.

5.  No war fiction made the final cut of stories reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2015, but at least four war writers made the list of “Other Distinguished Stories of 2014.” Congratulations to Elliot Ackerman for “A Hunting Trip” (originally published in Salamander), Phil Klay for “War Stories” (Consequence), Luke Mogelson for “To the Lake” (Paris Review), and Brian Van Reet for “Eat the Spoil” (Missouri Review). This year’s Best American Short Stories was edited by T.C. Boyle, an author I’ve long read and admired, and, for what it’s worth, a review of The Best American Short Stories 1984, edited by John Updike, that I wrote for the Daily Californian, the UC-Berkeley student newspaper, was one of the first articles I ever published. Speaking of Phil Klay, I was asked to compile the “Additional Reading” list for the entry on Klay for his entry in in Gale-Cenage Learning’s scholarly compilation Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 389. It’s a measure of Klay’s achievement that he was included in CLC, a serious academic resource, and it was enjoyable to read or re-read the many reviews Redeployment inspired on its release in 2014.

Klay

6. A final note about AWP 16, a good one. The real MVP, if I can be forgiven a lapse into idiotic modern parlance, of the war writers contingent in Los Angeles was Kayla Williams, the author of the memoirs Love My Rifle More Than You and Plenty of Time When We Get Home. Whether speaking from the platform at two panels, in attendance at other war writing panels, or in informal discussions between events, Williams was everywhere impressive. Now comes news that she has been named the director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans, a senior executive position with real authority and clout. One of the tenets of  Time Now is that contemporary war writers and artists are not just doing remarkable things now, but are on the cusp of long productive careers as authors, artists, and public figures, so it is very cool to see Williams move into a position of such great significance in national affairs. And since, as I understand it, she will have a story appearing in the upcoming second volume of the Fire and Forget anthology of short contemporary war fiction, we have more of Williams’ writing to look forward to, as well.

MWG7. Finally, I’ve been a member now for a couple of years of a group called the Military Writers Guild, a consortium of writers, mostly veterans, but not all so, interested in military subjects and dedicated to mutually supporting members’ writing efforts. MWG authors primarily address strategy and policy, but open their arms to creative writers as well—Jesse Goolsby and Charlie Sherpa, for example, are also members of MWG. I recently attended an MWG BBQ in Arlington, VA, and was happy to meet in person many fellow members whom I previously knew only through email or by reading their articles, to include Ty Mayfield, David A. Mattingly, and Adin Dobkin, and enjoyed hearing their stories and learning about their current writing projects. Enthusiasm for joining the analytical and artistic sides of the MWG house is strong, and I look forward to helping the cause in the coming year. The presence of AWP in Washington, DC, for example, in 2017 might serve as a focal point for boosting awareness of MWG within the literary writing community, and vice-versa.

As a famous rabbit used to say, “That’s all folks.” I hope everyone’s summer is off to a good start.

Pictures from the War Lit Front

April 24, 2016
War Writers AWP16 2

Front row: Mary Doyle, Lauren Halloran, Mariette Kalinowski, Kayla Williams. Second row: Roxana Robinson, Andria Williams, Jay Moad, Adam Stone, Vicki Hudson, Olivia Kate Cerrone. Back row: Julian Zabalbeascoa, Jesse Goolsby, Angie Ricketts, David Chrisinger, Adrian Bonenberger, Brian Castner, John Ismay, me. If we had taken the picture just a few minutes earlier, Colin Halloran, Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Ron Capps, Matt Gallagher, Justin Hudnall, Sylvia Ankenman Bowersox, and a few other war-writing stalwarts would have been in it, too.

Above and below’s a collection of photographs from this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Apologies for my mug being in so many of them; all credit goes to the writers of fiction, poetry, and memoir whose work is the reason AWP exists.

Ron Capps, me, Kayla Williams, Maurice Decaul, Colby Buzzell

Ron Capps, me, Kayla Williams, Maurice Decaul, Colby Buzzell

Jesse Goolsby, Andria Williams, me, Matt Gallagher

Jesse Goolsby, Andria Williams, me, Matt Gallagher

Lauren Halloran, Mary Doyle, Jerri Bell, Vicki Hudson, Mariette Kalinowski

Lauren Halloran, Mary Doyle, Jerri Bell, Vicki Hudson, Mariette Kalinowski

Adrian Bonenberger, Angie Ricketts, Kayla Williams, Brian Castner

Adrian Bonenberger, Angie Ricketts, Kayla Williams, Brian Castner

Brian Castner and Phil Klay

Brian Castner and Phil Klay

Phil Metres

Phil Metres

We’re all mostly smiley-face here, which is great; nothing wrong with enjoying a little company. Just the meals alone were special: lunch at a taco truck with Colby Buzzell; dinner at a chic French place with Veterans Writing Project honcho Ron Capps, his wife Carole, and VWP fellow-travellers Kayla Williams and Jerri Bell; a quickie cafeteria meal with Matt Gallagher, Benjamin Busch, and Adrian Bonenberger in which Gallagher, Busch, and Bonenberger said at least twelve funny things each; an after-panel snack-and-beer with a group of writers where we were joined by Lauren Halloran’s mom and dad–her mom a veteran of the Gulf War with great stories to tell; and a dinner at the Sherman Oaks home of Susan Derwin, a friend from the academic world, where I met Tom Helscher, who went to the same junior high at the same time as me in Virginia and who now runs a veterans writing program at UC-Santa Barbara.

One of the most salient comments about contemporary war-writing I heard at AWP struck a soberer note, however. I asked Roxana Robinson, an AWP featured speaker, the president of The Authors Guild and author of the excellent war novel Sparta, to what she attributed her interest in contemporary war writing and what she thought its merits. Her response was that war writers who are veterans have a more extensive and authentic relationship with violence–violence in which they may have participated, witnessed, been touched by, or dwelt on. Writers who haven’t fought, deployed, or lived within a profession devoted to war, she continued, have at best a second-hand relationship with wartime violence, and this distance means that they struggle in their attempts to portray it, imagine its possibilities, not just for how it might happen, but for how it reverberates afterwards. I don’t think Robinson was trying to stir the pot about whether civilians can write about war; after all she’s the author of an essay titled “The Right to Write,” in which she persuasively argues that non-veterans can do so. It’s the subjects, war and the military, I heard her saying, that infuse war writing with an urgency centered on contemplation of what it means to harm others while facing injury and death oneself.

I shared the paragraph above with Robinson to make sure I paraphrased her correctly and had permission to do so. In her reply, she graciously wrote:

I very much like your last sentence, which is beautifully phrased, and which reminds me all over again of how much this subject interests me. These are some of the great questions, aren’t they – contemplating your living self as an agent of death. Contemplating the imminence of death to your living self. Not just contemplating but understanding these things in your body.

Thanks for raising them again.

AWP LA AAR (Association of Writers and Writing Program Los Angeles After Action Review)

April 12, 2016
Brian Castner and Phil Klay talk it out on AWP-TV.

Brian Castner and Phil Klay on live AWP-TV

With at least twelve events featuring authors who have written about deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent Association of Writers and Writing Program conference offered plenty of opportunity to assess the public face of war writing while also catching up with fellow members of the war writing community. Within an hour of arrival, for example, I was trading stories with Colby Buzzell, whom I had never met before, at a taco food truck near the Los Angeles Convention Center, the site of the conference this year. AWP, as the conference is called, was full of such moments for me, and, I suspect, many others. The panel presentations and readings were excellent, and just as rewarding were the off-stage conversations with old and new friends.

Notions of inclusion and expansion characterized the war-writing panels, as many were specifically designed to showcase authors who were not white male combat veterans writing lugubrious sagas of self. All to the good, and I’m eager now to read authors such as Qais Akbar Omar, a former Afghan interpreter who has written a memoir titled A Fort of Nine Towers; Vicki Hudson, a former MP officer whose creative and non-fiction writing begins to redress the glaring omission of LBGT voices in the war-writing field; and Mary Doyle, a former Army NCO who’s now a prolific author of military-and-deployment accented detective fiction. A panel on memoir featured Kayla Williams, maybe the first female Iraq veteran to write a memoir (she’s now written two), and Angie Ricketts, who has written about the cloistered world of infantry officer wives suffering through their husbands’ multiple deployments. Elsewhere, I was delighted to hear Mariette Kalinowski read fiction that originated in her service as a gunner on Marine convoys in Iraq; Philip Metres read poetry about Abu Ghraib from his volume Sand Opera; and ex-Marine playwright Maurice Decaul speak of his efforts to produce plays written, performed, and staged by veterans.

Phil Metres reads from Sand Opera.

Phil Metres reads from Sand Opera

The war writing interest in diversity coincided somewhat uneasily with a larger AWP concern this year with matters of race. Touchstones included the furor over the removal of Vanessa Place from the AWP selection committee because of her alleged insensitivity (in the name of fighting racism) about issues important to black Americans, Claudia Rankine’s keynote speech, which targeted the literary world for its implicit racism, and a Ruth Ellen Kocher blog post documenting two demeaning incidents at AWP that reinforced her impression that even among progressive-minded white writers, her black skin signifies second-class citizenship. Everyone who serves in the heavily-integrated military is race-conscious, though most of us like to think that the armed forces are free of, or at least freer of, the racial polarization that currently characterizes much of America. Evidence exists that corroborates this somewhat smug perception, but it is hardly appropriate for white veterans to pronounce definitively that all is well. The same issues surface in the war writing scene, too, with interesting permutations. Neither Mary Doyle nor Maurice Decaul, both black, make race a central concern in their writing about service and war. At her panel, Doyle actively resisted such categorization and explained that if anyone wants to know what really drives her literary bent, they should ask about her lifelong love for Dick Francis, the English author of detective novels set in the upper-crust world of horse-racing. A sweet AWP moment for me was eavesdropping while Doyle and Brian Turner reminisced about a shared deployment to Bosnia, proof that at least sometimes the peculiarly intense experience of service in the Army green machine overwhelms preoccupation with skin color. But it’s not as easy as that, nowhere near the last words on the matter, and I would love to hear Doyle’s and Decaul’s (or anyone’s) most developed thoughts about race and the military, and race and writing about war, should they be inclined to offer them. For what it’s worth, I have written a little more about the subject on this blog in a post titled Toni Morrison’s Home: The Africanist Presence in War Literature.

A second theme emerging out of the alchemy of public and private remarks was a sense that war-writing has matured as a publishing genre, which is to say that it is a much more commercial affair now than previously. Where once war writers were just happy to make it into print, many now are savvy practitioners of the business side of writing, where book deals are made and real money is on the line in the way of advances, foreign sales, next-book contracts, movie options, and ancillary speaking-and-writing gigs. As Jesse Goolsby noted, “The ‘off-page’ stuff can be as important as what’s on the page.” In separate events, Goolsby, Brian Castner, and Kayla Williams each spoke candidly and at-length about publishing—together the three might make a great panel at next year’s AWP titled “The Business of War Writing” (hint, hint). The two themes of diversification and professionalization intersected in frequent discussions about publishers’ receptivity to nontraditional war narratives. From my vantage point, publishing houses seem reasonably open to diverse perspectives, especially when rendered with a smidgeon of literary talent and verve. Things could always be better, of course, but the evidence so far suggests that it is readers, general readers, not the literary-minded ones, who perpetuate the popularity of books by and about young men who have performed bravely in combat, with best-selling titles such as American Sniper and Outlaw Platoon being the proof.

My contribution to AWP this year was to help organize two panels for which I also served as moderator. The first, Iraq Veteran-Writers Ten Years Later: Words After Words After War, featured four writers who all served in Iraq prior to 2005 and subsequently commenced lives largely organized around writing. Two authors, the aforementioned Colby Buzzell and Kayla Williams, were among the first veterans into print after 2003, while two others, Ron Capps and Maurice Decaul, have taken longer to find their writing voices and appreciative audiences. My intent here was to allow these interesting authors to take us back to their deployment days and then help us follow them forward as their thoughts about their service in Iraq coalesced and matured and their lives as writers evolved. Each had insightful ideas and anecdotes to speak of–why aren’t all AWP panels taped and archived? It’s impossible to reduce their common concerns to a sentence, but I sensed that Decaul and Williams are now exploring writing and life possibilities still deeply informed by early experience in Iraq, while Capps and Buzzell are more ready to move on, as if their deployment memories have now (perhaps thankfully) reached a half-life state of dissolve. Whatever these four authors do next, we’ll all be watching—it’s not just that they are “leaders” per se within the war-writing community, though they are, but that they now bring so much hard-earned gravitas to bear on any subject they choose to examine. More simply put, they’ve lived through more of life and life’s writing experiences than most of the rest of us.

Speaking of which–life–participants on the memoir panels spoke often about the problems of “life-writing,” which involves carefully modulating impulses toward self-promotion, self-disclosure, self-deception, self-deprecation, and even self-laceration. It took the panels featuring fiction to illustrate the insidiousness of this dynamic by portraying scenes too touchy to confess to in memoir. The aim of my second panel, New Directions in Contemporary War Literature, was to bring forth authors of novels about the military and war written within the last two years and see what reverberations their readings generated. I couldn’t have been happier with the result, the exact shape of which I didn’t see coming and which truth to tell was somewhat scary, though all the better for that.

Jesse Goolsby, the author of I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, went first, choosing a passage from near the end of the novel in which one of the characters, Wintric Ellis, long after the war, sits in his car trying to work up the courage to kill the soldier who sexually assaulted him in Afghanistan. Early in the novel, Wintric participates in a shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenario in Afghanistan when he and his buddies are faced by a suicide bomber; now at the end of the novel it emerges that what has wrecked Wintric’s life was not enemy on the battlefield, but one nominally on his own side, and he must once more decide whether to kill someone or not. It’s a wrenching scene, similar in its way to Siobhan Fallon’s great short story “Leave,” and was beautifully read by Goolsby.

While Wintric deliberates, he fields a call from his wife, who wonders what he is up to. Wintric lies to her about his intentions, and it turns out that he has lied to her about other aspects of his deployment, too, more out of shame than meanness. Such deceit and cowardliness is hard to own up to in memoir, but the very stuff that fiction is good at portraying. Mendacity (to reference Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also figures in Andria Williams’ The Longest Night, which dramatizes a real-life nuclear catastrophe that took place on an Army base in Idaho during the Cold War, while also offering startling astute portraits of the men who worked on the base and their families. Williams read an early scene foreshadowing the reactor meltdown and another longer one describing the mediocre career and desultory marriage of Master Sergeant Richards, a pompous senior NCO in charge of the reactor. The passage, told from the NCO’s wife’s point-of-view, is simultaneously devastating and funny-as-hell, and Williams’ reading, as did Goolsby’s, captivated the audience. The bigger import, alas, also had much in common with Goolsby’s: a military whose self-image is very badly out of sorts with its reality. Where there should be heroism, there’s folly; where leadership, selfishness; competency, dysfunction; loyalty, deceit; trust, contempt; camaraderie, betrayal; and faithfulness, infidelity.

If anything, the discrepancy between reality and appearance was heightened in the passage that Gallagher read from his novel Youngblood, one line of which went, “We were what we pretended to be.” The scene portrayed Youngblood hero Lieutenant Jack Porter as he makes a “blood money” reparations payment to the family of an Iraqi noncombatant they have killed. Porter finds himself adrift in a moral wasteland that puts him at odds not just with Iraqi values and customs, but also with the expectations of his men and his chain-of-command. Not trusting himself or anyone else, but performing, so to speak, on stage with all eyes on him, Lieutenant Porter must depend upon his wits to decode the swirl of ambiguous clues to determine what he should do and how he should feel. Many literary roads lead back to Melville, and as Gallagher read of Porter’s confusion I was reminded of Benito Cereno’s Amasa Delano, the Yankee ship captain who boards a slave ship on which the slaves have rebelled and taken control. As the slaves force the slave ship captain to pretend he is still in charge, Delano struggles to understand that the appearance of normality that the slaves have constructed for him is a fraud, as his powers of discernment, undermined by arrogance and false assumptions, prove far too weak to help him figure out the complicated situation he finds himself in. Critics have noted many references to the pretend world of theater in Benito Cereno, and much the same occurs in Youngblood, where really-real reality is continuously destabilized by Gallagher’s references to the stories, lies, myths, delusions, pretense, and other means of distortion and manipulation that purport to describe it.

The three readings, taken together, portrayed the complicated and often perverse flux of identity and play of truth inherent to life in uniform, with the authors in superb control of their material. If the message and tone were ominous, perhaps I’m making too much of it. Novels are imagined projections about how things might be, after all, not official pronouncements about the way things are. In any case, though, the story-writing talent on display set a high bar for the next round of novels about military and war. Two audience members, neither veterans, but the authors of many novels between them, told me the reading was the best event they attended at AWP. I was glad to hear that, but not too surprised, because I was pretty sure beforehand that it, like AWP itself, was going to be good.

Many thanks to all who made AWP so enjoyable this year. In addition to everyone named above I’ll mention Lauren and Colin Halloran, Jerri Bell, Benjamin Busch, Adrian Bonenberger, Jay Moad, Brandon Lingle, Carole Florman, Susan Derwin and Steven Venz, Tom Helscher, Justin Hudnall, Sylvia Ankenman Bowersox, Olivia Kate Cerrone, Julian Zabalbeascoa and his wife Kate, Lisa Sanchez, David Chrisinger, Christopher Robinson, Danuta Hinc, Christopher Meeks, all friends, family members, and fellow travelers, everyone I’ve forgotten, and last but not least Roxana Robinson for hanging out with us for a while and then saying such nice things on social media.


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