Posted tagged ‘War literature’

Body of Work

April 18, 2019

Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. -Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, while writing Moby-Dick.

Since I began Time Now eight years ago, easily a hundred books, films, plays, musical compositions, and other artworks about America’s post-9/11 wars written-and-composed by veterans and interested civilians have appeared, and much has been published online, too.   Here I catalog and comment on six author-artists whose individual output has been robust, often across a variety of genres and artistic mediums, and I mention several more who have been almost but not quite as active. I’ve limited myself to US military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and used books published by major publishing houses as the primary (but not only) criteria for inclusion.

Elliot Ackerman (USMC) arrived late to the war-writing party, but has quickly made up lost time by publishing three novels since 2015: Green on Blue (2015), Dark at the Crossing (2017), and Waiting for Eden (2018). A memoir titled Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning (2019) will appear later this year.  Ackerman also contributed a story titled “Two Grenades” to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology of veteran-authored fiction. Links to Ackerman’s journalism and other occasional writing can be found at http://elliotackerman.com.

The characteristic subject of Ackerman’s novels is a fringe-actor on the margins of America’s 21st-century wars: a Pashtun militiaman on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, an Iraqi who formerly interpreted for American forces now trying to join the Syrian civil war, the wife of a severely wounded Marine who keeps a lonely vigil over her disabled husband, both largely abandoned or neglected by the greater America.  In his published work so far, then, Ackerman has avoided the solipsistic trap of writing about his own (substantial) war experience as if it were the only thing that matters.  In his upcoming memoir Places and Names, however, Ackerman begins to stitch together autobiographical elements and his interest in the people who fight the wars that, to paraphrase a John Milton quote on the cover of Places and Names,“hath determined them.”

Benjamin Busch (USMC) was arguably the first contemporary veteran to turn war experience into aesthetic expression, as the photos-and-commentary that would eventually comprise The Art in War first began appearing in 2003.  Befitting his college background as a fine arts major, Busch also displays, again arguably, the most artistic diversity: he has acted in The Wire (2004) and Generation Kill (2008), directed films such as Bright (2011), authored a memoir titled Dust to Dust (2012), written a striking set of nature poems for the journal Epiphany (2016), and contributed both a short story (“Into the Land of Dogs”) and hand-drawn illustrations to The Road Ahead (2017) anthology. Busch has also written incisive reviews of the movie Lone Survivor and contemporary war fiction, long-form journalism for Harper’s about a return visit to Iraq, a poignant contribution to the vet-writing anthology Incoming titled “Home Invasion,” and an eloquent introduction to another anthology titled Standing Down.  Oh, and let’s not forget a pre-Marine life as the singer in a hair-metal band.

A superb stylist, Busch is the master of the apt image and the well-turned line, sentence, passage, or short poem, with his memoir Dust to Dust being the book-length exception that proves the rule.  Busch’s thematic impulse is to find order and meaning in randomness, disorder, and chaos.  The urge is on full display in The Art in War and manifests itself even more intensely in Dust to Dust and “Home Invasion”; in these works, loss, ruination, and mortality emerge as the most salient organizing imperatives to be found, save for the author’s own imagination.  War, irrational and death-soaked, was Busch’s subject starting out, but more recent poems such as “Madness in the Wild” suggest that Mother Nature is now the most fertile source of material for Busch’s “blessed rage for order,” to borrow from Wallace Stevens.

Brian Castner’s (USAF) first published book was the war memoir The Long Walk (2012), followed by a second book titled All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016) that combines more war memoir with journalistic investigation.  A third work, not (directly) related to war, Disappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage (2018), joins travel-memoir and historical research.  An opera has been made of The Long Walk, and Castner, with Adrian Boneberger, edited The Road Ahead (2017), an anthology of veteran-authored fiction to which he also contributed a story called “The Wild Hunt.”  Journalism, essays, and reviews by Castner can be found at https://briancastner.com/.

While Castner’s memoir The Long Walk contains elements of artistic heightening that appealed to the opera composers who adapted it, the next two books are the ones that best illustrate Castner’s forte: extensive historical and journalistic research that supplements the lived experiences of his own life—first serving as an EOD-technician in the case of All the Ways We Kill and Die and then making a thousand-mile canoe journey in the case of Disappointment River.  The influence of war on Disappointment River may bubble below the surface (pun intended), but the surface impression is that Castner more so than most other war-writers can find subjects beyond war-and-mil ones that still command the full measure of his interest and talent.

Matt Gallagher (US Army), with Colby Buzzell, pioneered the use of the Internet as a means of literary arrival when his war-blog appeared in book form as Kaboom (2010).  Gallagher next edited the seminal vet-fiction anthology Fire and Forget (2013) with Roy Scranton and contributed to it a story titled “Bugs Don’t Bleed.”  Then arrived the novel Youngblood (2016) and two short stories, “Babylon” (2016), published in Playboy, and “Know Your Enemy” (2016), published in Wired.  Gallagher also has served at the forefront of the veterans writing scene, as a prime mover in first the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop that gave birth to Fire and Forget and then the New York-based collective Words After War.  A number of Gallagher’s occasional pieces can be found at http://www.mattgallagherauthor.com/disc.htm and a second novel will arrive soon.

A consistent tone connecting Gallagher’s own voice and that of his fictional characters is sardonic detachment from the full negative import of the events they experience; in other words, Gallagher tests the limits of irony and perspective as means of dealing with the confusion of war and the resultant damage to self and society.  Bemusement would seem to be an underpowered coping strategy in these troubled times, but Gallagher’s amiable prose surfaces welcome readers to consider his point-of-view long enough that the darker cynicism and deeper commitment lurking within eventually reveal themselves and grab hold.

Roy Scranton (US Army) published short stories and poems in small journals before co-editing Fire and Forget (2013) with Matt Gallagher and contributing a story to it titled “Red Steel India.”  Next came the philosophical treatise Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), the novel War Porn (2016), an anthology titled What Future: The Year’s Best Ideas to Reclaim, Reanimate, and Reinvent Our Future (2017) for which he served as editor, and a collected edition of essays and journalism titled We’re Doomed, Now What? (2018). Later this year will arrive a literary history titled Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature (2019) and a novel called I ♥ Oklahoma (2019).  More journalism, essays, short stories, and reviews can be found at http://royscranton.com.

There’s busy, and then there’s Roy Scranton busy, but the extraordinary rate of production and the prickly integrity of the viewpoint are endearing counterpoints to the starkness of the message: Scranton is ruthless in his indictment of the Iraq War in which he served, and he’s not letting anyone from enlisted “Joe’s” to generals to civilian war architects to a passive citizenry off the hook for their complicity in the debacle. Though he’s never quite said so bluntly, the implication is that vet-authors, whose ink might well be the blood of war dead, should seriously consider their own culpability, too. Scranton unsparingly connects America’s spastic post-9/11 response to Islamic fundamentalist violence with a host of other social, political, and environmental ills brought about by what academics like to call “the cultural logic of late capitalism.”

Brian Turner (US Army) arrived on the literary-artistic scene seemingly fully-formed, as his first poetry volume Here, Bullet (2005) won enormous acclaim from critics, readers, and poetry insiders alike.  Next came a second volume of poems titled Phantom Noise (2010), an anthology of writing about poetry he co-edited titled The Strangest of Theaters (2013), a contribution to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology titled “The Wave That Takes Us Under,” the memoir My Life as a Foreign Country (2014), and another co-edited anthology titled The Kiss (2018).  Turner has also had a number of his poems set to music, perhaps most significant of which is a collaboration with composer Rob Deemer on Turner’s poem “Eulogy.”  Turner makes music himself, first as a member of The Dead Quimbys and more recently as the leader of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team.  Occasional writing can be found at http://www.brianturner.org.

A wise, inspirational senior-statesman within the war-writing community, Turner combines encouragement of fledgling writers with an uncanny ability to stay one or more steps ahead of the pack in terms of vision, craft, and surprising shifts of direction. The artistic tension manifest in Turner’s work is the product of two imperatives:  the martial heritage bequeathed to him by family, culture, and history, and his natural impulse to be empathetic, curious, kind, and helpful. His latest works each in their way represent solutions or, better, absolutions, for the tension; the music of The Interplanetary Acoustic Team invokes a collective cosmic spirit and consciousness, while The Kiss sanctifies physical intimacy as a hallowed form of human connection.

****

Several veteran writers are one or two published works short of joining the author-artists I name above.  For these writers, their NEXT work will be most interesting for how it confirms previous inclinations and preoccupations, modifies them, or points in new directions:

David Abrams (US Army) has published two novels, Fobbit (2012) and Brave Deeds (2017), and he contributed “Roll Call” to the Fire and Forget (2013) anthology.  Shorter pieces can be found at http://www.davidabramsbooks.com. Abrams’ gift for creating characters, sketching scenes, and writing pleasing and often very funny sentences is substantial.  So far, his interest seems to be the cultural divide separating rear-echelon soldiers from their hardened warrior-brethren in the combat arms; given his comic and warm-hearted sensibility, his modus inclines to exposing foibles associated with military masculinity rather than harshly judging and accusing their owners.

Colby Buzzell (US Army) pioneered the blog-to-book trend with My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005) and he later published two books of essays and journalism: Lost in America: A Dead End Journey (2011) and Thank You for Being Expendable, and Other Experiences (2015).  The only work of fiction of which I’m aware of is his story “Play the Game” in the Fire and Forget anthology (2013), but Buzzell’s hostility toward authority and power, his affinity for oddballs and misfits, and the verve of his sentences create the impression of a distinctly “punk” literary sensibility–one that has proven very popular and influential. Buzzell’s webpage contains links to his writing that can be found online: http://www.colbybuzzell.com/stories.

Phil Klay (USMC) contributed the short story “Redeployment” to Fire and Forget (2013), which later became the title story of his National Book Award-winning short-story collection Redeployment (2014).  A large number of essays and long-form journalism pieces are at http://www.philklay.com.  Klay’s characteristic concern is the moral culpability of soldiers who joined the military and did their bit in Iraq or Afghanistan without too much post-war mental anguish or blood on their hands—to what extent should they (be made to) feel worse (in another word, guiltier) than they do about their decisions and actions? For me, that’s the subject of two representative stories in Redeployment, “Ten Klicks South” and “Prayer in the Furnace,” as well as that of the long, trenchant essay Klay published for the Brookings Institute titled “The Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”  Finally, although I’m not sure when Klay’s next book will appear or what it will be about, while we wait for it, I recommend listening to the intellectually-knotty podcast Manifesto! Klay hosts with fellow vet-writer and Fire and Forget contributor Jacob Siegel.

Kevin Powers (US Army)’s first novel was The Yellow Birds (2012).  Next came the poetry volume Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, followed by a second novel A Shout in the Ruins (2018).  Journalism, essays, and reviews can be found at http://kevincpowers.com. It’s easy to forget the hullabaloo that greeted The Yellow Birds upon arrival. Following upon Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Army spouse Siobhan Fallon’s short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), The Yellow Birds reinforced the notion that 21st-century American writing about the war was going to cook at a very high literary level.  But the backlash against The Yellow Birds arrived just as quickly, as for many it promoted and even celebrated the idea that modern American soldiers were easily-traumatized snowflakes too tender to win wars. In the wake of The Yellow Birds, a counter-formation of memoirs and short-stories appeared, stories of war by ex-combat-arms bubbas seemingly delighted to assert that they were hard men capable of doing hard things.  I’m not inclined to be harsh in my assessment of The Yellow Birds, but Powers seems to have distanced himself from his poetry volume, and I haven’t yet read A Shout in the Ruins, so categorical statements about the arc of his career will have to wait.

Kayla Williams (US Army) has written two memoirs, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2005) and Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014).  Williams has also contributed a short-story, “There’s Always One,” to the veteran-writer short-story anthology The Road Ahead (2017).  Given her job as a Washington DC think-tank analyst and the impression she renders that she’s bound for big things in the public sector, it’s not hard to imagine a third memoir might be needed someday to document further chapters in Williams’ life.  Detailing the long story of any vet’s life (especially a woman vet’s) after war will be immensely interesting and valuable, but I hope in the future Williams finds time to write more fiction, too.

Quite a few other writers merit consideration for inclusion on this list. Among them are Adrian Bonenberger (US Army, Afghan Post, memoir; The Road Ahead, fiction anthology editor (with Brian Castner); “American Fapper,” story in The Road Ahead); Maurice Decaul (USMC, Dijla Was Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates, play; multiple poems published in small journals and online; a musical collaboration with contemporary jazz great Vijay Iyer); Colin Halloran (US Army, Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux, poetry); Hugh Martin (Stick Soldiers and In Country, poetry); Brian Van Reet (US Army, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” short-story contribution to Fire and Forget and much short-fiction published in literary journals; Spoils, novel). Three women Iraq-Afghanistan veterans, Teresa Fazio (USMC), Kristen Rouse (US Army), and Supriya Venkatesan (US Army), write with distinctive voice and great eye for the telling subject and detail, and each has published widely, though more in the vein of journalism, memoir, and essay than fiction or poetry (the exceptions being Fazio’s and Rouse’s stories “Little” and “Pawns,” respectively, both included in The Road Ahead anthology), and none has yet found book-length publication.

My judgments about each author’s body-of-work are far from beyond dispute, and I welcome discussion, as well as any factual corrections to the record.  An extended contemplation about the collective import of these writers is in order, but I’ll end with just two brief points:  1) The accomplishment of these vet writers is substantial and the potential for further achievement is strong; barring misfortune, everyone I’ve mentioned still has decades of productive creative life to come.  2) Women veteran-authors and male or female African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American vet-writers are noticeably missing.  If I’ve overlooked a worthy candidate to add to the list, let me know, and if conversation about publishing trends and marketplace dynamics interests you, let’s talk about that, too.  Though my focus here is the unfolding of a writer-artist’s characteristic concerns over multiple works, the story is also one of professional ambition, literary politics, and publishing biz calculation. What I’m describing as the birthing of an estimable generation of veteran-writers, another may see as the solidifying of a literary establishment limited by its own blinders and mostly interested in preserving its own prerogatives.  That’s not how I feel about it, but I hope that should I compile this list again in another eight years, the demographic make-up will reflect the military in which I served and the overall achievement so much the better.

Khost Province, Afghanistan, 2009.

Back to School at NYU and Wesleyan

April 8, 2019

Back to School I:  Time Now at NYU

The invitation from New York University’s Patrick Deer to speak at his Cultures of War  interdisciplinary seminar was simple:  What is the story of Time Now? Deer asked.  Why did you begin it?  Where did you get ideas for what it could be?  What has the experience of “live-blogging” the contemporary war lit scene been like? I’m not especially given to writing about myself, but if you ask me I’ll be glad to talk about such things.  I was flattered by the invitation and welcomed the chance to think meta-reflectively about a project that’s been a big part of my life for the last six years.  Here’s a snippet from my notes for my opening remarks:

Why I started Time Now.  Because my old blog 15-Month Adventure about my deployment to Afghanistan had run its course.  Because I heard Matt Gallagher at a conference state that he couldn’t imagine being a contemporary vet-and-mil writer without having an online presence. Because I thought I had a unique personal angle:  a PhD in American Lit who served a pretty intense year’s deployment in Afghanistan. Because my boss in the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point, where I taught at the time, put me in charge of a program designed to bring veteran artists and writers to West Point and the blog seemed congruent with that. Mostly because I had a sense that something good was happening—Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Matt Gallagher, and Siobhan Fallon were writers already on my radar and I’d heard-tell that novels about Iraq and Afghanistan by David Abrams, Ben Fountain, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and Kevin Powers were enroute… and I wanted to be part of it all….

Once I stopped blabbing, the conversation and Q&A opened up in interesting, wide-ranging ways. I was honored to have in the audience Teresa Fazio, who held forth with more insight and credibility than I could ever muster about the status of women war-mil-vet authors in the publishing biz, and I was delighted when Matt Gallagher arrived to walk back a little his statement that an online presence was essential for an aspiring writer—his own very solid Twitter-game notwithstanding. Many thanks to Patrick Deer and all who attended, especially those who chimed in with questions and comments, all of which continue to bubble in my mind and will certainly find expression in Time Now posts to come.  Keep an eye out for Patrick Deer’s own books—Culture in Camouflage:  War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (2009) and the forthcoming Surge and Silence:  Understanding America’s Cultures of War, and if you’re ever so lucky to get an invitation to speak at or attend a Cultures of War event, grab it.

Back to School II: Time Now at Wesleyan

A week later I was the guest of college friend William “Vijay” Pinch on the campus of  Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  Pinch grew up in India and Pakistan and now is a professor of South Asian history at Wesleyan. This semester he is teaching a course on “The Great Game”:  the centuries-long battle by imperial powers (first England and Russia, now largely supplanted by the US and China) for control of Afghanistan.  Last fall, Pinch asked me for a recommendation for a novel about 21st-century war in Afghanistan that might appeal to his students, and I quickly nominated Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, about a young Pashtun militia member’s toughening by endless war on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pinch thought that was a great idea, and to further liven up things, he invited Ackerman to Wesleyan to meet his class and participate in a series of related events. Lucky me, Pinch was kind enough to ask his old college basketball-buddy to tag along.

The day was full of excellent things, with Ackerman in fine form at every event.  In Pinch’s class he proclaimed that his rationale for writing Green on Blue was to answer the question “What type of war was Afghanistan?”, with the answer being, “It was being fought for every reason except one… to win it.”  And THIS was Ackerman’s expression of the view of things held by the Afghans, who he explained are just as caught up in “forever war” cycles-of-violence as is America.  At a writing workshop, Ackerman had wise, funny advice for students (many of them vets) seeking careers in journalism, and at a reading that night he spoke of creating the characters who populate his latest novel Waiting for Eden and the implications of the John Milton quote—“War hath determined us”–on the dust-jacket of his forthcoming memoir Places and Names:  On War, Revolution, and Returning.  Ackerman apparently is incapable of saying dull things, and he has the added virtue of answering questions in individualized and personalized ways so that their askers feel the full force of his empathy and intellectual curiosity for why they might have posed the question they did.

I’ll close with an anecdote that occurred while we were walking about Wesleyan.  Inspired by his own return to a collegiate setting, Ackerman began riffing on scenes from the classic Rodney Dangerfield film comedy Back to School.  I don’t know if Pinch knows the movie, but I do, kind of.  Unfortunately, though I can remember every song I’ve heard since 1964, I have a horrible memory for remembering film dialogue, which puts me at odds with most military folks I’ve known, for whom reeling off lines from shared favorites serves as great fun and folk wisdom.  So, I wasn’t able to exchange funnies with Ackerman, but the mere mention of Back to School brought back memories of my first sergeant when I commanded a company in the 82ndAirborne Division and how much pleasure he got from reciting lines and recalling scenes from the film. Upon returning home, I spent an evening on YouTube chuckling over Back to School videos, including this great one featuring Sam Kinison that reminds us that Back to School was in fact a post-war film:

And so the work of defining the contours of vet-writing about Iraq and Afghanistan and what it means to live as a veteran afterwards proceeds on many levels and in many places, but with special trenchancy at places like NYU and Wesleyan.  If the link below works, it will take you to a slide show of pictures I took in Afghanistan that offer some sense of the world described by Ackerman in Green on Blue.

The Look of War, Afghanistan 2009

Yale, the Great War and Modern War-Writing

December 26, 2018

Many thanks to the Yale University Veterans Association for the invitation to moderate a World War I Armistice Day Commemoration panel on WWI literature and film. The event was coordinated and hosted by Adrian Bonenberger, a Yale graduate, 173rd Airborne paratrooper, author of the memoir Afghan Post, co-editor (with Brian Castner) of the collection of contemporary war short-fiction The Road Ahead, and currently an editor of a Yale medical-science journal. Bonenberger invited an eclectic group of war artists and scholars to participate in a very cool endeavor: linking contemporary war-writing to precedents established by veterans and talented artists during and after “The Great War.” Joining me on the panel, which served as the capstone for a week of commemorative events, were Benjamin Busch, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Brianne Bilsky. Busch, well-known to readers of Time Now, is a film-maker, poet, photographer, actor, and memoirist of very high order. Orth-Veillon is the editor of the fantastic WWriteBlog, where she has published reflections on World War I by many modern war-writers. Bilsky, now a dean of one of Yale’s residential colleges, is a former colleague on the faculty of the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point, where we frequently taught World War I writing to cadets.

The set-up for the occasion was intriguing, as it demonstrated the appetite of the Yale community for honoring veterans and for thinking about war-related issues in serious, complex ways. After an informative and enjoyable lecture by Yale historian Paul Kennedy on World War I memorials, we, along with our audience, watched Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 movie Paths of Glory, about French soldiers court-martialed for cowardice in World War I, and then discussed it in relation to the post-World War I artistic tradition. Next, we segued into discussion of World War I writing to which we felt personally connected. Finally, we tried to suggest the wider impact of World War I writing on contemporary veteran-authors and culture-wide thinking about war.

A broad charge, to be sure, one perhaps too broad for the time allotted, save for the acuity of the panelists, each of whom is apparently incapable of saying a dull thing. Watching Paths of Glory was galvanizing, as it offered chance to admire Kubrick’s superb direction and Kirk Douglas’s riveting acting, but the film in my opinion is a bit of a counterpoint to the general trend of World War I art. Not so much concerned with the impact of war on individual soldiers as with the moral bankruptcy of the chain-of-command that keeps the war machine going, Paths of Glory is a late-stage addition to the Great War artistic legacy. Arguably, it is as much about post-World War II Cold War conformity as it is about the historical work performed by World War I in erasing 19th-century modes-of-thought and bringing our modern era into being. Still, discussion of Paths of Glory set the stage for return to the canonical literary works of World War I, as well as the publicizing of voices neglected by the decades but resonant now. Here are the works each panelist read from and commented on:

Jennifer Orth-Veillon: Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms
Benjamin Busch: Wilfred Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” followed by Hemingway’s short-story “Soldier Home”
Brianne Bilsky: Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Counter-Attack”
Me: Aline Kilmer’s poem “To a Young Aviator”

What can be said about World War I writing that hasn’t been said before? To some extent, perhaps not much, because that’s some very well-trod critical ground. The better question is what rings particularly true today? Below are some of my thoughts on the matter, inspired by our panel.

One is the general truth that World War I veteran-writers and contemporary war-writers are both well-read participants in the literary traditions they hope to join. Each cohort has gone to war and then written about it with a swirl of precursor works in mind, the Western tradition of classics for World War I writers and the 20th-century body of war writing-and-film for modern veteran authors. Another link is a characteristic subject: the disillusionment of the individual soldier, caused not just by the slaughter and stupidity he (or she) witnesses, but in the collapse of the dream of heroism, inflected with huge amounts of survivor guilt. This morphing of heroic possibility into lacerating self-reproach is related to the way that soldiers were randomly and unglamorously killed in the two wars: by gas, artillery barrage, and mowed down by machine-gun in World War I, and blasted instantly off the face-of-the-earth by IED explosions in Iraq or Afghanistan. A third is a similarity in tone, different from the hard-boiled feel of the great World War II novels and the moral outrage of Vietnam War fiction—a tone more elegiac or hesitant or softer or somehow regretful. While World War II and Vietnam writing often seems testosterone-soaked, few World War I or Iraq/Afghanistan authors come off as tough guys, and most give the impression that he or she would view extreme masculine competitive aggressiveness as a pathetic pose in the face of circumstance. Connected to this last notion is a shared sense of futility about the respective war efforts, and a distancing from responsibility or even care for strategic goals and national aspirations, which are typically categorized as vain, foolish, or irrelevant to the individual soldier experience.

These are just some ideas, surely there are others. Not every aspect of contemporary war-writing need have an antecedent in World War I, and the World War I canon is not beyond criticism—in fact, the canon cries out for “problematizing,” to use academic-speak, on several grounds. Still, it would be a foolish contemporary war-writer who set pen to paper without first reading the works authored by World War I combatants and interested non-combatants touched by the war, and it would be a very good one who surpasses or transforms the marks they established.

****

The event had a special family significance for me: My grandmother’s brother left Yale during World War I to fight in France, where he suffered wounds in a gas attack from which he never fully recovered.

Jennifer Orth-Vellion, Brianne Bilsky, Benjamin Busch, Adrian Bonenberger, me.

A Veterans Day Photo Anthology

November 10, 2018

Phil Klay, USMC.

Benjamin Busch, USMC.

Matt Gallagher, US Army.

John Renehan, US Army.

Elyse Fenton, US Army spouse.

Siobhan Fallon, US Army spouse.

Brian Van Reet, US Army.

Bill Putnam, US Army.

Jan Barry, US Army.

Brian Turner, US Army.

John Myer, US Army.

Brandon Willitts, US Navy,

Chris Wolfe, US Army.

Roy Scranton, US Army, and Jacob Siegel, US Army.

Maurice Decaul, USMC, with Alex Mallory.

Emily Yates, US Army, and Jenny Pacanowski, US Army.

Elyse Fenton, US Army spouse, and Andria Williams, US Navy spouse.

Jay Moad II (USAF) and Jesse Goolsby (USAF)

Matt Gallagher, US Army, Andrew Slater, US Army, Fred Marchant, USMC.

Benjamin Busch, USMC, Siobhan Fallon, US Army spouse, and Brian Turner, US Army.

Hugh Martin, US Army, Matt Gallagher, US Army, Chantelle Bateman, USMC, and Mariette Kalinowski, USMC.

Ron Capps, US Army, Peter Molin, US Army, Kayla Williams, US Army, Maurice Decaul, USMC, and Colby Buzzell, US Army.

Brandon Willitts, US Navy, Matt Gallagher, US Army, Peter Molin, US Army, Teresa Fazio, USMC, and Chris Wolfe.

Adrian Bonenberger, US Army, Roxana Robinson, David Abrams, US Army, and Matt Gallagher, US Army.

Roman Baca, USMC, Siobhan Fallon, US Army spouse, Brian Turner, US Army, and Benjamin Busch, USMC.

Nate Bethea, US Army, Eric Nelson, US Army, Adrian Bonenberger, US Army, Brandon Willitts, US Navy, Mariette Kalinowski, USMC, Vic Zlatonovic, US Army, Lisbeth Prifogle, USMC, Peter Molin, US Army, and Jacob Sotak, US Army.

I took all the pictures except for the group photos in which I am included. The pictures of me with Matt Gallagher, Chris Wolfe, Brandon Willitts, and Teresa Fazio and with Nate Bethea, Eric Nelson, and others were taken by Sang Hui Molin. I can’t remember exactly who took the picture of me with Ron Capps, Maurice Decaul, Kayla Williams, and Colby Buzzell, but it was probably Andria Williams. The picture of Andria Williams and Elyse Fenton was taken by me with Andria Williams’ camera and first displayed on her blogpost here.

Terminal Lance in the Art Museum

November 8, 2018


I wandered into Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum recently and was pleased to see the work of Marine Iraq veteran-turned-cartoonist-and-graphic-novelist Maximilian Uriarte unexpectedly featured. Part of an exhibit titled Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel, Uriarte is grouped with two other artists in support of the main attraction, Bechdel, a graphic-novel pioneer whose work explores the difficulty of growing up gay in small-town America. Alongside Bechdel and Uriarte are Thi Bui, who writes about her experience as a second-generation American, and Elle Forney, whose subjects grow out of her own life-wrestle with disability and a medical profession that struggles to help her.

That’s an odd grouping on the face of it—Uriarte might be an alienated, disgruntled, and traumatized vet, but I don’t think of the politics of his Terminal Lance comic strips and his graphic novel The White Donkey as radically left-progressive as Bechdel’s, Bui’s, and Forney’s clearly are. Still, there’s no denying his skill or his influence, more so based on the achievement of Terminal Lance than The White Donkey. While The White Donkey portrays in-service disillusionment and post-deployment despair in relatively conventional melodramatic and moralistic tones, Terminal Lance practically invented the snarky “view-from-below” humor that dominates soldier and veteran online rhetoric today. Where the Terminal Lance character of The White Donkey is a hapless victim of the Marines’ dehumanizing processes, the Terminal Lance in the cartoon strips is a wily counterpuncher against the Corps’ assaults on his intelligence and his dignity, with slacking, shamming, and acts of petty insubordination his primary tactics. Taking aim at a bloated, outdated military culture and an officer corps stuck on auto-pilot, the raunchy-and-blasphemous Terminal Lance first-and-most-cleverly expressed the contempt of junior enlisted soldiers for a military machinery badly in need of not just a tune-up, but a complete overhaul. And yet, it’s not entirely clear that Uriarte, or Terminal Lance, hates the Marines. It’s as if he loves the Corps most when it shows its warts, when it deviates from its stated ideals and goals, and he feels fortunate, not unfortunate, that he is there to witness or endure it, because at some level it strikes him as funny.

One of the least blasphemous and raunchy Terminal Lance strips I could find.

Uriarte was the pioneering original, and those in his wake continue to score many direct hits, but zinging military absurdities can be a little like shooting fish in a barrel:  taking pot-shots at guppies in a tank is not quite the same thing as landing a marlin in the open sea. In other words, the modern brand of “GI humor” launched by Terminal Lance and now finding its fullest expression on Twitter often settles for knocking down easy targets, not in good fun but as if its aggrieved outrage and witty hot-takes were beyond reproach and really accomplishing something. Whether a similar sense of inflated achievement might also be true of graphic novels is open for discussion, but there’s little denying their popularity and synchronicity with the times. Whatever the message, it’s probably more about the artwork and the medium, and Self-Confessed! offers great opportunity to view full-scale versions and blow-ups of Uriarte’s work, rough drafts, and storyboards and outlines for longer works. The Self-Confessed! exhibit prospectus had some neat things to say about graphic novels as a genre:

In recent decades, comics and graphic novels have embraced history, medical and self-help literature, stories of war and history…. Each revisits the past to re-imagine not only what occurred, but also how it looked as it was happening. The process of remembering and reconstructing the past is well-served by the graphic narrative in that the structure of comics—the framing of moments, the breaks between panels, the rhythm and pacing that creates the flow of the book—are all part of remembering and telling. And for the reader, the combination of words and pictures slows down the process of reading, complicates the structure of time, and provides an opportunity to linger.

White Donkey 1

Randy Brown, better known as the gifted military humorist and poet “Charlie Sherpa,” offers his own musings about graphic novels in a recent review published in Army magazine titled “Graphic Novels Present War Panel by Panel.” Examining two graphic novels about war in Afghanistan, Brown notes that the genre’s name is often a misnomer: “Despite the … inclusion of the term ‘novel,’ these are works of nonfiction–memoirs–and are based on factual events and reporting, or at least personal recollections”–i.e., “Self-Confessed!” That basic-but-necessary point made, Brown reminds us that “American military history is full of cartoons and comic books–from Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe to Sgt. Rock to PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly” and that “Comics are more than pictures and words: Intangibles can be communicated via color palette choices, in character facial expressions, in dialogue, and even in the number and shapes of panels on the page.” Combined with the ease with which graphic novels can present scenes “flashing between memories and present-day conversations,” Brown notes the form “delivers immediate rapport and opportunities for empathy.”

Theorizing aside, Brown makes the two graphic novels he reviews (their covers pictured below) sound well-worth checking out. Here’s to the progeny of Uriarte, Terminal Lance, and The White Donkey.

Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel is on display at the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey through Saturday, December 30.

Epigraphs

July 8, 2018

“An epigraph is an effective literary tool that some writers utilize to focus the reader toward the theme, purpose, or concerns behind the work. It is included at the beginning of the piece of literature to offer insight into the motivation behind the artist’s vision. Generally a brief quotation taken from another piece of literature, the epigraph is oftentimes not a direct commentary upon the work but used to establish a mindset or offer insight into the factors that contributed to the manifestation of the work.”

-University of Michigan English 217 student website

Epigraphs are curious. First of all, I have trouble remembering the word and often confuse it with “epigram” and “epitaph.” Second, if I bother to read an epigraph before starting a book, I rarely remember it while reading the narrative proper. If an epigraph is too long, I mostly just let my eyes glaze over it. This is unusual, because epigraphs clearly have an important relation to the story that follows, and authors obviously go to some care to choose them and place them in front of us for consideration. But lots of books don’t have epigraphs. I recently pulled the Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction and poetry I own off the shelf and checked them for epigraphs. Most of the fiction employs epigraphs, but not all of it. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, and Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition are five that don’t, for instance. As if to make up for the books that don’t feature epigraphs, some authors provide two. Overall, reading a number of epigraphs in this way–very quickly, back-to-back–was enjoyable. The epigraphs definitely brought back strong memories of the book to which they were attached and together they created a thick literary web of intertextual references and signals. They made me think that epigraphs might be better read after reading the main text, not before.

Of the fiction that does include epigraphs, the most frequent source for them are the Greek classics. Many works, from Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, published in 2011, to Brian Van Reet’s Spoils, published last year, quote Homer, Socrates, Aeschylus, or another writer from antiquity. Of the non-Greeks, many are from American and English canonical authors, some known as war-writers and some not. W.H. Auden provides epigraphs for Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days and Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season. Stephen Crane is quoted by both David Abrams in Fobbit and by Matt Gallagher in Youngblood. The rest are from here-and-there, ranging in surprising exoticness from Sir Thomas Browne, used by Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, to Jean Baudrillard, quoted by Odie Lindsey in We Come to Our Senses. Not to play favorites, but the one that jumped out at me as being both unexpected and particularly apt for the story the author tells is Jesse Goolsby’s use of Whitman for I’d Walk With My Friends If I Knew Where to Find Them. Whitman’s insistence on the procreative urge of the world seems very near to the American-flavored cosmic force Goolsby suggests shapes the lives of his protagonists, not in a crude sexual way, but in terms of existential yearning only half-understood.

For some reason, not as many volumes of contemporary poetry employ epigraphs. Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers quotes Crane, so that’s three for the author of The Red Badge of Courage. Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes includes an epigraph, but her Stateside doesn’t. Nor do Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor and Sweet Insurgent, Colin Halloran’s Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux, Eric Chandler’s Hugging This Rock, and Charlie Sherpa’s Welcome to FOB Haiku, to name a few more.

I haven’t surveyed the dozens of memoirs I’ve read for epigraphs, but do note their presence in two of the more literary-minded of them, Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust (the epigraph quotes his father, the novelist Frederick Busch, who is also referenced by David Abrams in Fobbit) and Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, which draws from the Italian poet Eugenio Montale.

Retire the Colors, an excellent anthology of war-themed essays by veterans and non-veterans edited by Dario DiBattista, uses a quote from Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp for an epigraph, which is the only case I know of a contemporary war work quoting another. On the hunt, I tracked down Demon Camp to see what the always-interesting Percy might have used for an epigraph. I found two, one by Kierkegaard and the other by one of my favorite authors, James Salter, from a book I just finished reading and loved, his memoir Burning the Days. That was cool.

FICTION

Fobbit, David Abrams (2012)

Wars are nothing, in the end, but stories.

-Frederick Busch, The Night Inspector

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

 Brave Deeds, David Abrams (2017)

“Tell brave deeds of war.”

Then they recounted tales,—
“There were stern stands
And better runs for glory.”

Ah, I think there were braver
deeds.

-Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines

Green on Blue, Elliot Ackerman (2015)

 Allah’s Apostle said, “War is deceit.”

-Iman Al-Bukhari, 846 AD

The Corpse Washer, Sinan Antoon (2013)

In both gardens are fruit, palm trees, and pomegranates

-The Qur’an

Sand Queen, Helen Benedict (2011)

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

-Shakespeare, “Sonnet 94”

Wolf Season, Helen Benedict (2017)

Behind each sociable home-loving eye
The private massacres are taking place…

-W.H. Auden, “In a Time of War,” 1939

Mothers have been stolen from their own tears.

-Kareem Shugaidil, “Flour Below Zero,” 2005

A Big Enough Lie, Eric Bennet (2015)

I thought about Tolstoy and about what a great advantage an experience of war was to a writer. It was one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of, and those writers who had not seen it were always very jealous and tried to make it seem unimportant, or abnormal, or a disease as a subject, while, really it was just something quite irreplaceable that they had missed.

-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

mundus vult decripi ergo decipiatur [the world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived]

-Petronius

The Watch, Joydeep-Roy Bhattacharya (2012)

I know that I must die,
E’en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death
Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain.
For death is gain to him whose life, like mine,
Is full of misery.  Thus my lot appears
Not sad, but blissful; for had I endured
To leave my mother’s son unburied there,
I should have grieved with reason, but not now.

-Sophocles, Antigone

Eleven Days, Lea Carpenter (2013)

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead

-W.H. Auden, “The Shield of Achilles”

You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon (2011)

She turned to descend the stair, her heart
in tumult.  Had she better keep her distance
and question him, her husband?  Should she run
up to him, take his hands, kiss him now?

…And she, for a long time, sat deathly still
in wonderment—for sometimes as she gazed
she found him—yes, clearly—like her husband,
but sometimes blood and rags were all she saw.

-Penelope upon recognizing Odysseus, The Odyssey

 Youngblood, Matt Gallagher (2016)

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

-Stephen Crane

I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, Jesse Goolsby (2015)

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

 Wynne’s War, Aaron Gwyn (2014)

He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shpe to hold. His own father said that no man who has not to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.

-Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

What Changes Everything, Masha Hamilton (2013)

You don’t need a war.
You don’t need to go anywhere.
It’s a myth: if you hurl
Yourself at chaos
Chaos will catch you.

-Eliza Griswold

Beirut. Bagdad. Sarajevo.
Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of
course here.

-Adrienne Rich

Be Safe, I Love You, Cara Hoffman (2014)

 Even from ten or fifteen miles away you get a good view of a burning village.  It was a merry sight. A tiny hamlet that you wouldn’t even notice in the daytime, with ugly, uninteresting country around it, you can’t imagine how impressive it can be when it’s on fire at night! You’d think it was Notre-Dame! A village, even a small one, takes at least all night to burn, in the end it looks like an enormous flower, then there’s only a bud, after that nothing.

-Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Journey to the End of the Night

 We Come to Our Senses, Odie Lindsey (2016)

 But, ultimately, what have you got against aphrodisiacs?

-J. Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place

 Bring Out the Dog, Will Mackin (2018)

We saw victory and defeat
and they were both wonderful.

-Barry Hannah, “Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet”

These Heroic, Happy Dead, Luke Mogelson (2016)

…why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead…

-e.e. cummings, “next to of course god america i”

 The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers (2012)

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head…

-Traditional U.S. Army Marching Cadence

To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.

-Sir Thomas Browne

War of the Encyclopaedists, Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (2015)

Nor do we doubt that many things have escaped us also,
for we are but human, and beset with duties…

-Pliny the Elder, the Original Encyclopaedist

 Sparta, Roxana Robinson (2013)

The man who does not wear the armour of the lie cannot
Experience force without being touched by it to the very soul.

-Simone Weil, The Iliad, or, the Poem of Force

 War Porn, Roy Scranton (2016)

Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night.

-Wallace Stevens

Spoils, Brian Van Reet (2017)

Low lie the shattered towers whereas they fell,
And I—ah burning heart!—shall soon lie low as well.

-Aeschylus

POETRY

Dots & Dashes, Jehanne Dubrow (2017)

War feels to me an oblique place

-Emily Dickinson

the dear sound of your footstep
and light dancing in your eyes
would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry

-Sappho

The Stick Soldiers, Hugh Martin (2013)

He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth.

-Stephen Crane

OTHER

Dust to Dust, Benjamin Busch (2012)

Stories are … in a sense, about ending and about endings, and of course they are also the heartfelt prayer, the valiant promise, that what we have loved might live forever.

-Frederick Busch, “Deaths”

My Life as a Foreign Country, Brian Turner (2014)

Too many lives go into the making of just one.

-Eugenio Montale

Retire the Colors:  Veterans and Civilians on Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Dario DiBattista (2016)

“They spent millions training me but they never taught me to come home.”

-Army Sergeant Caleb Joseph from Demon Camp by Jennifer Percy

Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, Jennifer Percy (2014)

To understand original sin is to understand Adam, which is to understand that one is an individual and one is also part of the whole race.

-Kierkegaard, The Concept of the Dead

Dreams remained. For years afterwards in nightmares stark as archive footage. I was what I had been.

-James Salter, Burning the Days

AWP18-Tampa, FL

April 20, 2018

The annual AWP writers’ conference is a feel-good affair more suited for socializing and networking than serious literary pondering. So it was this year, too, in Tampa in March, even as the writing, reading, and publishing throngs arrived stunned by the preceding year’s political tumult. In sunny warm Tampa, however, they–we–took not just solace in each other’s company, but positive good cheer and mutual uplift. This split response—a public hail-fellow-well-met spirit belying the dismay expressed privately at home and at the keyboard—extended even to the war-writing crowd. Serious issues lay on the table, such as the increasingly problematic position of veterans in the overheated contemporary public sphere and the could-be-much-better gender and race demographics of modern war-writing. But those heavy-duty matters took a backseat to catching up with old friends and meeting new ones.

The pattern was evident at the panel I moderated, titled “Crisis, Conflict, and Verse” and featuring an all-star quartet of poet-authors: Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, and Dunya Mikhail. We drew the dreaded 9:00am Saturday morning time-slot, which, along with our forbidding title, conspired to drive attendance downward, as if our topic was just too depressing to contemplate with memories of Friday night festivity still swirling in the brain, along with the fumes of five or ten beers. And truthfully, we kind of frightened ourselves, as first Busch, then Dubrow, and finally Mikhail paradoxically found powerful words to express how their belief in the power of the word has been shaken by recent political and cultural turns. Turner, even as he reported reeling not just from the national state-of-affairs but the agony of his wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s death in 2016, sensed gloom settling in and took it upon himself to infuse our proceedings with levity and hope. Levity, by performing with the always-up-for-anything Busch an impromptu dramatic enactment of the Kay Ryan poem “The Elephant in the Room”  and hope by speaking movingly about the importance of friendship and art in the dark days of loss and despair.

The rest of AWP was, for me, a blur of hits-and-misses. I arrived too late to catch a panel organized by veterans studies scholar Mariana Grohowski titled Women, War, and the Military: How to Tell the Story featuring Helen Benedict, Jerri Bell, Tracy Crow, and Mary Doyle, so I’ll leave it to others to report on its proceedings. It’s a great subject, though, one on many people’s minds these days, as both the military and mil-writing-and-publishing scene confront a variety of gender-related problems. MIA at this year’s AWP unfortunately were the authors of several notable 2017 war novels, such as David Abrams, Brian Van Reet, Elliot Ackerman, and Siobhan Fallon, so we weren’t able to hear their thoughts about their recent books and their reception. The online war-writing community was heavily represented, however, with principals from The War Horse; War, Literature, and the Arts; Wrath-Bearing Tree; the Veterans Writing Project/O-Dark-Thirty; and Consequence on-hand, their strength-in-numbers perhaps suggestive of a movement of the war-writing center-of-gravity from the page and the book to the wide-open, fast-moving digital realm.

Mostly though, AWP was about more personal pleasures, such as meeting for the first time authors I admire such as Seth Brady Tucker, Brooke King, Phil Metres, and Steve Kiernan. A dinner with Ron Capps and a small group of Veterans Writing Program mainstays was a joy. A panel on James Salter, whom I consider one of the patron saints of Time Now, held during the last time slot of the conference and attended by me and three others in one of the largest presentation halls at the convention, was as full of inspiring things as I hoped it would be.

Finally, though it’s become a cliché to write about interesting conversations with Uber drivers (like, “OOOO, I’m SO in touch with toilers in the gig-economy boiler room”), the four I had to-and-from my faraway motel offered fascinating glimpses into the lives of south Floridians. One driver was a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt, another worked days rehabilitating sex offenders, a third reported that he was getting married in a week, starting a business, and buying a house two years after finding himself broke and homeless, and the fourth had funny tales to tell about late-nights transporting Tampa Bay Buccaneers home from the clubs. I found the drivers’ stories intriguing and encouraging, on the whole. Somewhere in them I caught glimpses of the levity and hopefulness Brian Turner would have us remember, glimpses of people who had not been defeated.

Photo of Benjamin Busch, Dunya Mikhail, me, Jehanne Dubrow, and Brian Turner by Andria Williams. More photos by Williams here.

Approaching Tampa across the causeway in the AM. That would be so cool if the round orb on the right were the moon, but alas it was just a spot on the car window.


%d bloggers like this: