Interviews with prominent authors in the war-mil-vet-conflict scene are always a treat, even when the subjects go to dark places. Below are links to and excerpts from five such interviews I’ve been fortunate to conduct, in one case for the Veterans Writing Project‘s literary journal 0-Dark-Thirty and in the others for The Wrath-Bearing Tree.
Mary Doyle interview for 0-Dark-Thiry, Fall 2016 (begins on page 67). Doyle, a former Army NCO, is the author of The Bonding Spell, a speculative fiction novel, and The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, a military-detective novel featuring Master Sergeant Lauren Harper. Excerpt:
Molin: Master Sergeant Harper’s sense of what’s important about her identity is intriguing—it blends and balances her awareness of her status as a woman, a senior Army NCO, an African American, and the unique circumstances of her family history and her personal outlook on life. Is that how you see her too, and what more would you like us to understand about her?
Doyle: Harper is like so many black women soldiers I know. She joined the military with the hope of improving her lot in life. She comes from a loving family but one that had its challenges. Her upbringing is in a single parent household with a matriarchal example that she strives to emulate. She is an older sister to a sibling that she ends up having primary responsibility for. And as her career develops, she is surprised to discover that the job she took as a means to an end, ends up being a life she loves.
What she struggles with, and what so many dedicated female service members struggle with, is her love life. How does a woman soldier balance her dedication to a job that has 24/7 demands, with a courtship? When you are in a career that can call on you to drop everything, pack a bag and be gone for long lengths of time, how to you maintain a love life through demands like that? And what about children?
Will Mackin interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, April 2018. Mackin, a career Navy officer, served alongside Navy SEALs in Iraq and Afghanistan coordinating air-and-artillery support. He is the author of the short-story collection Bring Out the Dog. Excerpt:
Molin: From “Kattekoppen”: “The variety of ideas among soldiers developed into a variety of ideas among units, which necessitated an operational priority scheme. As SEAL Team Six, we were at the top of that scheme. Our ideas about the war were the war.” How are SEALs different from soldiers in line-units? What motivates them and what’s important to them? What were you surprised to learnabout the SEALs, as individuals and as a collective fighting force?
Mackin: The main thing that differentiated our unit from “straightleg” units was our budget. We had a lot of money to throw around. There was also a genuine desire on the part of the operators to fight, kill, and vanquish, and absolutely zero tolerance for administrative bullshit. This would sometimes bite us in the ass because no one ever wanted to plan. What we lost in lack of planning, however, was often made up for in execution. As individuals I was surprised to find those who I wouldn’t have expected to be SEALs. In other words, guys who didn’t fit the mold of the tattooed, bearded, Harley-riding Alpha male. They were just normal dudes with this ridiculous and well-disguised drive…. Most SEALs were personable one-on-one, but I found them to be very insular as a group. I never felt like I truly belonged.
Roy Scranton interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, August 2019. Scranton deployed to Iraq with the US Army in the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His published books include the novel War Porn and the scholarly study Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. Excerpt:
Molin: In practical terms, how can understanding the trauma hero as a literary trope and cultural myth help us think better, more clearly, about actual veterans psychologically damaged and emotionally troubled by war? What might the nation, or its military-medical apparatus, do to help them?
Scranton: Well, I’ve written a work of literary and cultural history, not a practical guide to coping with trauma. I would say, though, that the entire way that we understand “actual veterans psychologically damaged and emotionally troubled by war” must be understood as process of collective meaning-making. The psychologically damaged veteran is certainly suffering, but that suffering takes shape in performing a specific social role, which is the “traumatized veteran.” As long as we stay within the bounds of the discourse, there’s no way to “help” such a person by pointing out that their genuine suffering is culturally produced. I suppose we might tell them “trauma isn’t real,” but then what? They have to make sense of their experience somehow, and the best that could come from delegitimating a culturally dominant way of making sense of experience would be the emergence of a new way of making sense of experience. Are there better and worse ways of making meaning? I think so. But that’s another discussion. The only practical help my project might offer is, I would hope, some understanding of the ways that the “actual veteran” exists in relation to the “nation.”
I’m a Spinozist at heart, which means I’m a materialist, but it also means that I believe freedom comes first of all from understanding. Until you understand what compels you to understand your experience through certain roles, frameworks, and practices, you’ll be stuck performing those roles, seeing through those frameworks, and acting out those practices. Understanding may never provide physical or social liberation, but it can at least open a space for some freedom of thought and movement, and the possibility of equanimity toward the world as it exists, which is to say a sense of peace.
Matt Gallagher interview/podcast for The Wrath-Bearing Tree, April 2021 (via SoundCloud). Gallagher, a US Army Iraq vet is the author of the memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Dirty Little War and the novels Youngblood and Empire City. Excerpt:
Molin: You’ve been on the veterans writing scene for a long time. When did you get a sense that a common standpoint or viewpoint among veterans was starting to diverge so drastically, so politically, and so heatedly? What were the significant events or touchstones for you?
Gallagher: A lot of the seeds for Empire City happened during the years I worked as a speechwriter for the veterans non-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in 2011-2013…. At the time I was writing Youngblood, so my professional headspace was in the veterans’ world while my writing head was still in Iraq….. At IAVA I saw how just how personally our members took the policy issues we were fighting for, both on the legislative side and also on the street-level, with the everyday members who weren’t necessarily going down to DC to meet with congressmen and senators to advocate for position-x or position-y, and how quickly issues that should be apolitical, like the GI Bill, become a left-or-right issue, and how thing worked for the organization when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended or the Bowe Bergdahl situation broke. All these things became instantly political and polarized, in a way that was disheartening for a young veteran, but were fantastic fodder for future writing.
Hassan Blasim interview for The Wrath-Bearing Tree (July 2021). Blasim, an Iraqi expatriate now living in Finland, is the author of the short-story collection The Corpse Exhibition and the novel God 99. Excerpt:
Molin: What about fiction attracts you?
Blasim: It’s important for English and American readers to know that I don’t only write fiction, I write poetry, criticism, plays, and essays, too, that haven’t yet been translated into English. I also write a lot in support of refugees, gay rights, and Iraq and the Middle East. But as for fiction, it’s what I have loved most all my life, from the time I was a boy. I always liked the way stories could contain extremes and opposites, such as how a story could be both a love story and a horror story, a funny story and a sad story, both tender and violent. Fiction is serious for me, but it’s also play and pleasure. In my writing, I enjoy trying to make all these parts come together. A lot of my sense of how to write fiction comes from my love of movies, from which early on I was impressed by how easily they switched between different types of scenes and moods. In my stories I want that same effect, something unexpected happening, something changing all the time. That’s how I try to write, too, I don’t plan anything ahead of time, I just enjoy the rhythm of writing and the chance to play. I open my laptop and I type….
Thank you Mary Doyle, Will Mackin, Roy Scranton, Matt Gallagher, and Hassan Blasim for being so generous with your time and your thoughts.
In “Chapter Five: The Craft of Counterinsurgent Whiteness” of Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Permanent War Joseph Darda places the literary-fiction titans of contemporary veterans-writing—Matt Gallagher, Phil Klay, Kevin Powers—under the microscope of scholarly analysis.
In the larger argument of Empire of Defense, Darda offers a theory for how race and racism factor in the endless warfaring and escalating militarism of everyday life in America. He pinpoints the National Security Act of 1947 and the creation of the Secretary of Defense in 1949 as pivotal historical moments, arguing that the renaming and reorganization of our national security apparatus were attempts to mitigate the excesses of old-style colonialism and racism while allowing the prerogatives of national authority to remain in the hands of the powers-that-be, who, it goes almost without saying, were white males. Post WWII, legal racial oppression and global empire building were no longer tenable, but a new liberal humanism organized around “defense” allowed for a modicum of progressive social change, while insidiously normalizing a new regime of white values and outlooks, both at home and abroad. The name-change from “Secretary of War” to “Secretary of Defense,” for example, diminished awareness of imperialistic projections of power and uses of violence that usually involved killing or subordinating people-of-color. Instead, in a semantic sleight-of-hand, our military would now “defend” America against various “isms” and causes that obscure racialized motives. So, instead of fighting yellow-skinned people in Korea and Vietnam, we fight “communism.” Instead of fighting Mexicans, we fight a “war on drugs.” And instead of fighting Arabs and Muslims, we fight “terrorism.” The linguistic trickery pays lip service to notions of respect, diversity, equity, inclusion, and equality when convenient, and it has been very convenient to do so in order to recruit African-Americans into the military. It has also been convenient to preserve reputation in the eyes of liberal voters, intellectuals, and journalists—at least those who were not, per Darda, in on the treachery.
In Darda’s account, war fiction participates in anti-racist/racist duplicity by consistently creating heroes out of a few “good white men” who embody liberal values without giving up the actual perks of whiteness, and in fact instantiate the notion that ideas held by white men constitute foundational moral values. He writes, “The sensitive white soldier, from Hemingway’s Frederic Henry to Joseph Heller’s John Yossarian and O’Brien’s Paul Berlin, though celebrated for shaking off ideological constraints, defends, above all else, himself and his own liberal consciousness.” So, too, per Darda, for the white heroes of post-9/11 war fiction, and so too for their authors:
Although veteran-writers [Matt] Gallagher, Kevin Powers, and Phil Klay have been critical of the wars in which they fought, their fiction aligns with the state’s militarization of cultural knowledge.
“Chapter Five: The Craft of Counterinsurgent Whiteness” begins with two passages that set-up analysis of Powers’ novelThe Yellow Birds, Klay’s story “Psychological Operations,” and Gallagher’s novelYoungblood. The first passage, unfortunately for fans of contemporary war-fiction, excoriates Gallagher’s 2011Atlanticmagazine article “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?”, Gallagher himself, and the contemporary veteran fiction-writing scene. We’ll hurry past that section to summarize more fully the chapter’s second preamble, which explores the writing and rhetoric ofUS Army Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, published in 2006 at the behest of General David Petraeus. Darda focuses his attention on the third chapter, “Intelligence in Counterinsurgency,” which (theFM 3-24chapter) was mostly authored by “Yale University-trained cultural anthropologist” Montgomery McFate. Darda explains how in the chapter McFate promulgates the idea that modern war requires “cultural awareness” to craft compelling “narratives” to shape understanding and achieve objectives. Darda offers a good line re McFate: “Her chapter reads like critical theory that has been reverse engineered to reinforce rather than challenge hegemony.”
TheFM 3-24discussion leads to a damning argument about contemporary war fiction: “The thesis of the McFate-authored chapter ofField Manual 3-24—a thesis that resurfaces in American veteran fiction—is that successful counterinsurgency necessitates the militarization of cultural narrative.” A little later: “Some of the most acclaimed new veteran-writers—Gallagher, Klay, Powers—served in counterinsurgent forces, and their writing reflects the doctrine’s utilitarian understanding of cultural narrative.” This seems on-to-something, asThe Yellow Birds, “Psychological Operations,” andYoungblood are indeed written by soldiers who fought in Iraq according to counterinsurgency principles while more-or-less believing that they were trying to fight more humanely and also more smartly. They dramatize that struggle in their works, and their first-person narrators speak directly about the difficulty of constructing coherent narratives of their deployments.
Darda could have done even more with this line-of-analysis, but he’s after bigger fish than narrative meta-anxiety. About the authors’ investments in whiteness and the cultural work done by their stories, he writes:
…and the first, foremost, and only thing that happens when a white male author picks up a pen to write a story is validation of himself and his white characters.
That these writers are all white men is not a coincidence, because whiteness has continued to be a condition for conducting defense (counterinsurgency), as a means of dictating the uneven distribution of life chances (racialization) in the counterterror era.
Those are serious charges about the authors’ thoughts, motives, and actions, and unfortunately for Darda the analysis of the aspects of The Yellow Birds, “Psychological Operations,” and Youngblood that he argues perpetuate racist ideology and practice aren’t as persuasive as the passages that explore narrative angst and instability. I won’t say much here except that he doesn’t make much allowance for the idea that art and writing can critique politics, ideology, official discourse, and popular opinion rather than reflect and instantiate them. I also note two factual errors in Darda’s recounting of character-and-plot details of Youngblood–not confidence-inspiring given how the novel and its author figure so prominently in Darda’s argument. Fans of contemporary war-writing probably won’t like or agree with what Darda has to say, but students of the intersection of 20th and 21st-century race, culture, politics, war, and war-literature might consider checking out Empire of Defense for themselves.
Joseph Darda, Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Permanent War. University of Chicago Press, 2019.
In late 2013 I received an email from Roy Scranton, whom I didn’t know at the time, inviting me to join him on a vet-writing panel at the 2014 Association of Writers and Writing Program conference in Seattle. I had never heard of “AWP,” as it’s called, but I soon learned it was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, conferences in America for authors of creative literature—memoir, fiction, and poetry. I did not think of myself as a writer in that way, but I also didn’t say no to Scranton.
That began a streak of five years where I attended AWP, each after the first in the capacity as organizer of panels dedicated to giving voice to war-and-mil writers. Each conference brought a slew of memories and new friendships, acquaintances, and contacts, as well a handful of titles purchased from the tables at AWP’s mammoth book-fair. Also, beginning with Minneapolis, and continuing with LA, DC, and Tampa, I organized a war-writers’ social so we could all meet and have a few, which was fun for me and seemed to be appreciated by others.
A reflection-essay about the highlights and the connective strands awaits, while here I only list the writers with whom I presented and repost my Time Now write-ups of each event.
Seattle 2014: Phil Klay, Hillary Plum, Roy Scranton
I wasn’t able to attend AWP 2019 in Portland or AWP 2020 in San Antonio, and now I won’t be attending the online AWP 2021. I understand AWP 2022 will be in Philadelphia, which is an easy drive for me and hopefully will be in-person. Maybe time for a return?
Time Now’s pace-of-production has slowed down recently, no doubt. Part of it’s that I’m busy, part of it’s that I’m moving on personally, part of it’s because it doesn’t seem as urgent now to document and catalog works about war in Iraq and Afghanistan as it did in, say, 2014. Frankly, there’s not as much to report on, though recent movies such as The Outpost suggest that the wars have not completely lost the interest of audiences and artists. Still, for the most part I’ve written on the novels, short-story collections, poetry volumes, movies, and art about the wars that I know of and which engage me, so I’m not even sure what more there’s to say until a second wave of titles comes along.
Time Now dates back to 2011, but only last night did I figure out how to search for a list of the most popular posts. The top post, “39 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets,” didn’t surprise me, since it’s perennially affixed at the top of my publicly-visible recently-viewed feature. The next nine for the most part did surprise me, and so too did the absence of some posts that I thought had made more of an impression, but which didn’t crack the Top 10. Below’s the list of the Top 10 with capsule reflections on each:
1. “39 American Iraq and Afghanistan War Poets.” This post has been viewed nearly three times more than the runner-up in popularity. All good; all power to the poets and the online sites that publish them. I don’t know why someone doesn’t publish a print anthology along these lines—I’m sure it would sell as much as any poetry volume sells, and even better it would stand a chance of being a lasting historical document.
2. “Tim O’Brien’s ‘Story Truth’ and ‘Happening Truth’ in the Contemporary War Novel.”Go figure one of the top posts on a blog about Iraq and Afghanistan war lit features the dean of Vietnam War novelists, Tim O’Brien, but whatever—O’Brien’s influence indeed looms large over the contemporary scene. I’m happy as well to shine light on Michael Pitre’s very interesting Fives and Twenty-Fives (and when will we see more from Pitre?).
3. “Iraqi Iraq War Short Fiction: Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Green Zone Rabbit.'”I’ve tried to pay attention to literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan written by Iraqis and Afghans, and no one represents that cohort of writers better than Blasim. Funny though, I’ve never written a dedicated post on Blasim’s superb short-story collection The Corpse Exhibition, even as arranging a reading by Blasim at West Point in 2014 remains a literary-life highlight.
4. “War Poetry: Brian Turner’s ‘A Soldier’s Arabic.'” A short post about one of Turner’s most beautiful poems, featuring a wonderful pictorial representation by Giulia Alvarez, a student at Horace Mann Prep school in NYC I met while visiting a class there.
6. “Fire and Forget III: Mariette Kalinowski’s ‘The Train.'”Works by women veterans have been a salient feature of post-9/11 war-writing, but they’ve been concentrated in the forms of memoir and verse. Kalinowski’s great story makes me wish we had more fiction titles by her and other women vets.
7. “Paul Wasserman, Say Again All.” USAF vet Paul Wasserman read at a war-writing-and-art event I organized at West Point, self-published this hard-to-find chapbook, and since seems to have not published anything else and dropped out of the writing game altogether. Say Again All is excellent, though, and I’m happy that readers continue to make their way to this tribute to it.
8. “Fire and Forget: Short Stories.” Should probably be first on this list, judging by achievement and importance. What a talented and ambitious group of young vet-writers (plus Siobhan Fallon, no slouch herself) brought together between the two covers! The story of how the Fire and Forget authors joined forces and their divergent career paths afterwards is THE story waiting to be written about the Iraq and Afghanistan war-writing scene.
10. “A Contemporary War Short Fiction Listicle.” Honestly, this post was pretty-much a throwaway, done quickly to fill a gap between more trenchant ones. Also honestly: it holds-up, or at least the stories to which I point to do, and I’m not so sure how I would write it differently today.
What does military service and veteran status mean to black American veterans? Few full-length novels, short-story collections, plays, poetry volumes, memoirs, or non-fiction studies by or about black American soldiers in the 21st-century have been published to help us answer the question. Off the top of my head, the only biographies I can think of are two co-authored by M.L. Doyle, herself a black veteran. One is I’m Still Standing, by Shoshana Johnson, the Army soldier who was wounded and captured in the same convoy ambush as Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003. I’m Still Standing is one of my favorite memoirs of the GWOT-era: The opposite of “kill-memoirs” such as American Sniper in every way, it portrays life in uniform and going to war from the perspective of a lower-enlisted “low-density MOS” soldier (Johnson’s “Military Occupational Specialty” was 92G, Military Culinary Specialist—i.e., a cook) and person-of-color. The other, which I have not yet read, is titled A Promise Fulfilled. It’s a biography of Brigadier General Julia Jeter Cleckley, who before retiring in 2002 was the first African-American woman to attain the rank of general in the Army.
We should also note that Doyle also writes genre fiction, published independently. One of her novels, called The Bonding Spell, is a work of speculative fiction set in the States, but its plot is set in motion by events that occur in Iraq. The Bonding Spell is good, and even better is Doyle’s detective novel about US Army soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina titled The Peacekeeper’s Photograph. The protagonists of both stories are savvy black military women who have navigated patriarchal and white-dominated military culture without being broken by it. Thus does genre fiction—speculative and detective, respectively, in the case of Doyle–fulfill its potential to create delightfully-inspired imagined worlds rooted in real possibilities.
The only other full-length work by a black vet on my bookshelf is Nicole S. Goodwin’s poetry volume Warcries. Goodwin served in the Army in Iraq and writes searingly about the deployment and the return home; her themes and tones are more bitter than Doyle’s. In “Unsaid (Confession)”, for example, Goodwin describes watching white fellow soldiers berate and humiliate Iraqi prisoners. It puts into play a number of troubling ideas about what it means to be a black soldier or veteran, especially as that experience is shaped in relation to white fellow soldiers.
The other soldiers—female guarded duty. Boy, how could those white girls powertrip….
Hearing those noises, compulsed inward cringes….
I and the other black girls. Never did that. Never lost cool. Not on my watch. Not once.
Maybe ‘cause we knew….
But as the poem proceeds, Goodwin recounts her shame at watching a black NCO forcefully restrain a screaming prisoner:
And when the Sergeant First Class’ hands reached over and put the ziptie on to Muzzle the howler I was pinched by the irony.
Of one black man enslaving another. Of this sin I have barely spoken. Confession—I became accomplice to this action.
This deed inhumane.
The sequence of events triggers remorse and guilt:
Replays. Over. My head…
The tape records. Rewinds. Focus. I am volcanic with fear.
Didn’t rock the boat. Stayed in my hole.
The publishing industry record regarding African-American veteran-authors does not impress, but the vibrant vet-writing/spoken-word and performance/theatrical scenes in New York City and Philadelphia, in which Goodwin participates, offers access to many black voices and perspectives. I first became aware of the multi-racial East Coast vet-writing realm when I attended a reading at Pete’s Candy Shop, a bar in Brooklyn, in 2014. There I was struck by the poetry of former-Marine Johnson Wiley, and I obtained Wiley’s permission to publish two of his poems, “Shooting Stars of Kuwait” and “A Mother’s Son Returned,” on Time Now here.
Wiley seems to no longer be writing, but many other black NYC, Philly, and Jersey-based writers and artists dazzle with the range of their talents and interests. The first impression rendered by this plentitude of creativity is that artistic expression emerges out of the imagination of artists as it will, unbound by rules or expectation. Sometimes the stories told by black veterans foreground race consciousness and racial politics, and sometimes they don’t. It’s not always clear whether they do or not. The sculpture-photograph titled “Warrior” at the top of the page by black Army vet Donna Zephrine, for example, portrays a woman’s face, but the facial features and skin color are indeterminate–is she definitely black, or could it be a white face smeared with the grime of war? Zephrine’s vignette “The Gas Chamber,” about one of the most common-but-memorable experiences of all who have served, seems universal in its viewpoint and outreach, but does it pack a little more punch knowing it was written by a black woman? A poem by Zephrine, “War Sees No Color,” explicitly posits that a close-knit, functioning military unit under the duress of war goes a long way to suppressing racial divisiveness, thus echoing the commonly-heard maxim that in the Army “everyone is green.” If only it were so, all the time! And why does it take war to take us to state of unity we long to be peaceably? Be those questions as they may, Zephrine’s artwork to my mind does not convey outrage or pain associated with black skin and white racism, though I also little doubt that they do not reflect the totality and complexity of Zephrine’s thoughts about the matters.
In contrast, outrage and pain are on full display in former Marine Chantelle Bateman’s poem “PTSD”and even more so in her poems “Someday I’ll Love Chantelle” and “Thank You for Calling,” which can be found in the anthology Holding It Down Philadelphia: A Collection of Writing by Veterans. But Bateman’s verse, which is also raucously funny, does not foreground race so much as sexual assault and male misogyny as the forces that ruin honorable and rewarding military service for her and often enough for women generally. As such, it speaks to the intersectional truth that vet identity reflects overlapping strains of race, gender, class, and sexuality, blended by particular military experiences and life choices.
In the same vein, most of the multi-talented Maurice Decaul’s work seems not directly concerned with racial identity or racial tension, either in the Marines in which he served or in America at large. His great poem “Shush,”for example, is about PTSD. His play Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates explores the cultural conflict between American Marines and Iraqi insurgents in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His story “Death of Time” (published in the anthology The Road Ahead) portrays the sexual subjugation of a young woman by a Taliban-like militia in a mythologized space that reads much like Afghanistan. Several opinion pieces for the New York Times speak of his deep desire as a young man to be a Marine and how it was to serve with them in combat. In a long presentation titled “War and Poetry,”available on YouTube, Decaul describes how he became a writer, but racial identity doesn’t seem to be the issue or even an issue, even as he cites the mentorship of the great Vietnam War poet Yusef Komunyakaa. And yet, enough is enough, and poems Decaul published on The Wrath-Bearing Treeabout a 2017 trip to Virginia in the wake of the Charlottesville protests record not just fear, but despair at how unsafe he feels in his own country. In one, titled “Blue Ridges,” he asks:
When is a plantation no longer a plantation? On the lake shore, with nutria, turtles, brown recluse & copperheads, I know, I know these waters. The small voice in my head says leap it says, these waters will mask your smell. How will I live here, in the south? When my belly warns me, be home by dark.
That spirit of a long life’s journey to explicit engagement with race informs the work of another New York City African-American vet-writer, Christopher Paul Wolfe. In a personal essay titled “‘Sir, I Never Thought I’d See the Day I’d Be Working for a Colored Officer,'”published in the New York Times, Wolfe writes of the influence of his father, a career Army officer, as Wolfe first attends West Point and then serves in Iraq. Anguish and regret for having tried so hard to serve a system and a country that doesn’t have his best interests at heart emerge full-force:
As a black veteran, I find it hard to reconcile my pride in my service with a sense of complicity in upholding my country’s legacy of white supremacy while deployed. I still remember the black and brown faces of Iraqis that I helped to round up, zip-tie and detain using tactics similar to stop and frisk, the use of which some courts in America have found to be unconstitutional. These experiences created a moral chasm with which I continue to grapple.
Wolfe’s contribution to the vet-fiction anthology The Road Ahead stunningly portrays that torment. Called “Another Brother’s Conviction,” it is set years after the first-person narrator completes service in the Army, to include a tour in Iraq. The narrator enters a Brooklyn bodega and in short-order undergoes charged interactions with the Iranian-born owner, a white woman customer, and finally a Dominican customer accompanied by a black man just released from prison. The narrator is desperate to avoid being sucked into conversation with the other customers, in part because he knows what will well up within him if he does: “Son of a bitch… the ripple. I just want an egg-and-cheese… on wheat toast… with one slice of cheese; not whatever-the-fuck this is going to be.” The word “conviction” carries weight in the story, as the narrator reflects on his participation in acts he’d rather not remember in Iraq: “I’d […] played my part in something I’d come to regret, I had no conviction. There was no conviction. There still is no conviction…” The story concludes enigmatically but presciently, in a way that speaks to the impasse America has found itself in in 2020:
There’s just Akh and the Dominican, the ex-con and his five years, and me and my egg and cheese. And somewhere, out there, in the streets of Bedstuy, there’s a missing white girl.
There are several ways to interpret the story, but to me the last line suggests that the “missing white girl” should have stayed in the bodega rather than exiting as quickly as she could. She, like the narrator, wanted to avoid being drawn into the maelstrom of emotions connecting the other characters, male and dark-skinned as they are. Her departure, however, speaks to a lost opportunity to learn, connect, and grow. And the loss is not just hers, but theirs, and theirs together, as they try to figure out, as the anthology title pronounces, “the road ahead.”
The vibrant northeast vet writing-and-arts scene seems to repopulate yearly, bringing forth new voices and talents. In the months just before the pandemic shutdown, for example, I became acquainted with the work of Air Force Iraq-vet Omar Columbus, who is active in writing, theatrical, and performance circles in New York. A man after my own heart, Columbus not only contributes his own excellent writing to these circles, he seems to have a natural bent for organizing events and bringing people together. If it’s not unseemly to close on a ray-of-light, however thin, successful negotiation of the road ahead may depend on vet artists and impresarios such as Columbus. Cooling the hot-house tension of the bodega, to use Wolfe’s term, will be tough business. If anything can bring us closer to a peaceful and equitable resolution, it is the generative spirit of men and women such as Columbus.
In closing, hats off to the many admirable vet-writing and vet-theater collectives of New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia: Words After War; Voices from War; Combat Paper; the vet war-writing seminars at NYU, Columbia, and elsewhere; Poetic Theater; Aquila Theater; Theater of War; and Warrior Writers chapters in all three states, with apologies to any I have forgotten to mention. These organizations and programs carry far more than their fair share of the load fostering veteran artistic expression equal to the diversity of the uniformed services themselves. On the other hand, the mainstream publishing industry based in New York City could do much more to promote minority writers, and we look for more white authors to address race-related subjects and themes, too (works already out there that do some of that are Phil Klay’s short-story “Psychological Operations” and Eric Bennett’s novel A Big Enough Lie ((with the caveat that Bennett is not a veteran))). Critics and scholars can also continue interrogating war-writing, mine included, for witting or unwitting signs of bias.
Without claiming too much on behalf of white vet-writers, I’ll praise those who have succeeded in the literary publishing biz and have also made it a point to promote upcoming vet-writers of color. Roy Scranton, for instance, introduced me to Johnson Wiley. Matt Gallagher did the same for me with Christopher Paul Wolfe, and together Gallagher and I once shared a fun reading stage with Chantelle Bateman (and Mariette Kalinowski, too). The editors of The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Caster, opened their anthology to black voices such as Decaul’s and Wolfe’s, as well as those of an impressive cohort of underrepresented women vet-writers. Individual isolated good works, we understand, do little by themselves to resolve centuries of systemic wrong-doing. But steps in the right direction still count for something and I hope are appreciated.
To bring this post to an end, let’s salute once more the work already published by M.L. Doyle, Nicole Goodwin, Johnson Wiley, Donna Zephrine, Chantelle Bateman, Maurice Decaul, and Christopher Paul Wolfe, and here’s to much more writing by them in the future, along with more writing by other black veterans.
For Mother’s Day 2020, a post from my old blog 15-Month Adventure:
To the Moms, the Whole Love
Happy mother’s day, also my birthday this year. Moms come up quite a bit in writings about the war, I’ve discovered. Not surprisingly, authors are sensitive to how military service touches those whose children do the fighting. For example, here’s how Benjamin Busch, author of Dust to Dust, describes his mother’s reaction to the announcement that he has joined the Marine Corps:
My mother took a deep breath, her hands clamped to the edge of the table as if she were watching an accident happen in the street. Her father had been a Marine, had gone to war and almost not come back.
“I will be stalwart,” I had said to myself on the drive home from the airport the morning I said goodbye to him. “I will be steadfast. I will read and listen to the reputable war reporters, and I will write my senators and congressmen, but I will not lose faith in my country. I will concentrate on sustaining my son rather than myself, and I will not confuse self-pity with legitimate worry and concern over him and his men. I will be proud, justifiably proud, but I will not be vainglorious! And I will never, never, never let him know how frightened I am for him.”
But, within moments of returning home, I had broken all but one of these promises to myself. I was doing laundry and, as I measured detergent into the washer, the Christmas carol CD I was playing turned to Kate Smith’s magnificent contralto, singing, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
“And in despair, I bowed my head,” she sang. “There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”
And, at that moment, for only the third time in my adult life, I began to sob — not cry, not weep — but sob uncontrollably, sitting on the floor of my laundry room, surrounded by sorted piles of bed linens and dirty clothes.
And if the child comes back wounded? Siobhan Fallon, author of the short-story collection You Know When The Men Are Gone, describes here a trip to Walter Reed to meet injured soldiers and their families:
And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: “Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?”
And how does a veteran describe his mother, a lover of language and books and authors and ideas, as he watches her fade late in life? Benjamin Busch again:
She had been a librarian. All of the books and conversations about the importance of written words swelling inside her head like a star undergoing gravitational collapse into a black mass, its light still traveling out into space but its fires already burned out. Nothing left but ash.
Then he recounts her last words: “‘Oh my baby boy.'”
So much hurt. So much damage. So many memories. So much love.
Mothers, sons, daughters, fathers, everyone, make much of time.
Purnima Bose’s scholarly study Intervention Narratives: Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror nicely complements Caleb Cage’s War Narratives: Shaping Beliefs, Blurring Truths in the Middle East, which I reviewe here. Much as Cage’s book does for Iraq, Intervention Narratives locates dominant themes in Afghan war-writing and film that reflect and shape American attitudes about the Afghanistan War held by war-participants, the populace, the media, and government officials. Even more so than Cage does in War Narratives, Intervention Narratives provides theoretical underpinning to explicate the narratives Bose analyzes, and Bose also offers a comprehensive thesis about what makes them persuasive, compulsively repeated, and ultimately harmful.
By “intervention narratives,” Bose directs attention to the stories told by Americans about individual endeavors within the larger historical sweep of American engagement with Afghanistan dating back to the Cold War (a few Indian and Pakistani books and films are also analyzed for contrast). The focus, then, is primarily on memoirs and movies that tell stories of highly-individualized personal efforts by Americans in Afghanistan to influence the war. Bose suggests that however grander narratives about the war might have it, the personal sagas she examines better or best reveal the cultural dreams that prohibit honest reckoning with the catastrophic failure of the Afghanistan mission over forty years. The particular target of Intervention Narratives are “feel good” books and movies that attempt to justify their subjects’ Afghanistan endeavors and try to foster sentiment that American mission in Afghanistan has been anything other than a debacle. From the Introduction:
I have argued that the ideological work of these four intervention narratives is reparative and aimed at generating positive feelings about the Afghan war. Telling ourselves that we supported ‘the good guys’ against evil communists, we inspired Afghan women to become entrepreneurs, we rescued adorable dogs, and we eliminated the ‘bad guys’ contributes to the fantasy that we are on the right side of history.
In Chapter One, Bose examines what she calls “The Premature Withdrawal Narrative,” which locates blame for the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s on the abandonment of the Afghan mujahedeen to the Taliban after the expulsion of the Soviet Union. Key to the idea of “premature withdrawal” are movies such as Charlie Wilson’s War, to use one of Bose’s examples, that glorify heroic individuals who aid the mujahedeen only to have their accomplishments undercut by the government they serve. The problem, Bose asserts, is that these stories come at the expense of truth, such as that Charlie Wilson wasn’t nearly as effective as the movie about him would have it, and to the extent that he was successful, he exacerbated patterns of violence within Afghanistan that tore the country apart in the 1980s and from which it still suffers. But belief that America, or at least one American, accomplished something significant long afterwards fueled foolish optimism that later efforts to intervene in Afghan political, cultural, and tribal dynamics might prove effective, while obscuring long-lasting, endlessly repeated mischief (read, “carnage”) generated by America’s initial support for the mujahedeen.
The next two chapters describe quirky but seemingly well-meaning non-military Afghanistan interventions by Americans in the years after 9/11. Chapter Two, titled “The Capitalist-Rescue Narrative—Afghan Women and Micro-Entrepreneurship,” examines two memoirs by American women that describe the author’s effort to help Afghan women start small businesses centered around beauty and fashion. Chapter Three, “The Canine-Rescue Narrative and Post-Humanist Humanitarianism,” identifies a corpus of stories and movies about elaborate and expensive efforts to bring military working dogs and soldier FOB pets to America from Afghanistan. Bose, however, is not impressed by these type of endeavors, finding them ineffective, misguided, and/or oblivious to the real conditions of war and culture in Afghanistan, and the books and movies written about them unfortunately more self-promotional than caring or wise.
As evidence that American ideas about helping Afghanistan could be quite loopy, beauty-and-fashion and dog-rescue sagas are damning, but not exactly consequential. In Chapter Four “The Retributive-Justice Narrative—Osama bin Laden as Simulacra” Intervention Narratives takes a much more trenchant bite into the cultural and psychological fantasies that fueled American military endeavor in Afghanistan. Bose calls SEAL memoir No Easy Day: The First-hand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden by Mark Owen (a pseudonym for ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette) an example of self-justifying “life-writing” by an elite-warrior who claims he can’t be held accountable for “minor” transgressions of just-war law, policy, and ethics because his commitment to “retributive justice”—killing bin Laden—supersedes all other considerations. The eight-to-ten pages in which Bose interrogates No Easy Day, and by extension the mythos and self-conception of all SEAL memoirs and special operations generally, is the most exciting part of Intervention Narratives, for my money:
Structured as a teleology that culminates in bin Laden’s execution, Owen’s narrative is centrally about the production of techno-military masculinity that finds its legitimization and actualization in retributive justice. No Easy Day reveals how this particular gendered and racialized subjectivity is dependent on surveillance technology and sophisticated weapons that render Owen into a quasi-cyborg. Read against the grain, the memoir discloses the fragile nature of life under the US rule of law, more often represented by Owen as burdensome bureaucracy, which can be jettisoned at will by agents of the state.
Bose continues by defining four attributes of “techno-military masculinity”: “extreme physical fitness, dependency on technological prosthetics, Euro-American male superiority, and disdain for civilian authorities.” In Bose’s view, the cultivation of techno-military masculinity has become an end in itself, an intoxicating preoccupation and identity for white males made available by contemporary war, quite independent of and even antagonistic to older conceptions of soldiering and soldierly obligation to higher authority and ethical precepts.
Hey, if the desert combat boots fit, American military war-farers will just have to wear them, and I’ve got blood on my size-12s, too. Still, one might point out that Matt Bissonnette’s ideas about the war aren’t every soldier’s ideas, and one wonders how a film such as Zero Dark Thirty, in which the female agent played by Jessica Chastain out-machos her male CIA colleagues and SEAL partners in pursuit of bin Laden, fits the “techno-military masculinity” formula. But lest I’ve given the impression that Intervention Narratives is unfair to true-blue American heroes who have done the best they can under difficult circumstances, Bose ends by asserting that responsibility for the graves we have spent forty years digging in Afghanistan starts on-high and transcends partisan politics. Finding more similarity than discontinuity in presidential policies toward Afghanistan from Bush to Obama to Trump, in spite of their differences in style (great line: “Bush’s blandness, Obama’s urbanity, and Trump’s vulgarity”), in the conclusion Bose proposes that stories centered on somewhat quixotic minor figures in the long war also help define and explain the larger perspectives and actions of its major players, complete with characteristic mistakes, blind-spots, lapses in logic and judgment, and self-serving machinations.
Intervention Narratives is one of number of scholarly studies in a welcome new series titled War Culture, published by Rutgers University Press. Many books in the War Culture series focus on 21st-century war, which is even more welcome, and I look forward to reading and thinking about them.
Purnima Bose, Intervention Narratives: Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror. Rutgers UP, 2020.
“Our ideas about the war were the war.” -Will Mackin, “Kattekoppen”
“Lieutenants write the histories of their wars.” -Gore Vidal, Burr
Caleb S. Cage’s War Narratives: Shaping Beliefs, Blurring Truths in the Middle East, published in 2019, is a most curious, almost surprising, arrival on the war-writing scene. Organized around an easy-to-grasp conceit, War Narratives argues that true understanding of America’s twenty-first century wars, particularly Iraq, has been clouded by competing story-like interpretations of what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, why what happened happened, and why any of it matters. Analytical and historical in approach and arriving at a time when war-mil-and-vet writing seems stuck on a limited number of predictable tracks, War Narratives offers striking relief from the parade of first-person memoirs, biographical accounts, and journalistic commentary on topical events. Though not perfect in its argument or its argument’s development, War Narratives succeeds by being provocative and inspirational, and, best of all, by being mostly right.
War Narratives’ thesis that understanding of the war has taken the form of understanding stories about the war is in some respects obvious—everyone has heard canards about “controlling the narrative” from the mouths of generals, politicians, and journalists—but Cage takes the nostrum seriously and unpacks it in a number of interesting and illuminating ways. Each chapter is organized around a simple-but-sturdy rubric: examination of two competing narratives (some of which seem more like ideas or beliefs than stories, but no matter) about Iraq and Afghanistan. Chapter One begins things by analyzing competing explanations for extremist Islamic jihad offered by Al Qaeda and ISIS. The virtue in starting this way is that two of America’s arch enemies publicly proclaim differing “official” narratives. This fortuitous event allows Cage to dissect clearly-enunciated, highly-visible examples of narrative construction and dissemination before turning to Western narratives that coalesce in more nebulous ways at the level of public opinion, political positions, media debate, book battles, and ideology.
Chapters Two through Five examine key aspects of twenty-first century American warfaring politics and strategy in a similar pattern. In each chapter, Cage identifies first a dominant, conventional, or accepted interpretation of events and then undermines it by considering an alternative version not generally given enough credence in Cage’s estimation. Chapter Two, for example, takes issue with the idea that the decision to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan was a matter of “choice” by President Bush, rather than a more complicated, wide-ranging accretion of events and processes that involved many players. Chapter Three argues against the idea that President Bush was just a “cowboy” enamored of tough-guy talk and action. Instead, Cage demonstrates, President Bush was also consumed by the idea of making war as pain-free and risk-adverse for soldiers and the nation as he could. Chapter Four counters conventional belief that the chaotic Reconstruction “Phase IV” of Operation Iraqi Freedom was neglected by war-planners and leaders such as General Tommy Franks. Cage proposes that the real problem was not neglect, but too much uncoordinated effort, and the real failure was inability to synchronize competing plans and planning agencies to maximum effect. Chapter Five explores debates about the value of COIN strategy, the Iraq War “Surge,” and the cult-like preeminence given (for a while) to General David Petraeus as the savior of a war gone-very-badly-wrong. Here, Cage goes beyond description of competing sides to make a larger, more trenchant argument: debates about COIN, the Surge, and General Petraeus had more to do with domestic political posturing than people and actions on the ground in Iraq. Not that things on the ground didn’t actually happen, but they were interpreted through competing rhetorical frameworks that advanced pre-confirmed political beliefs and agendas.
All good, so far, and a nice trip down memory lane to revisit events that already seem like they occurred a million years ago. The last three chapters of War Narratives, however, are more germane to Time Now’s interest in the artistic representation of war, the human experience of war, and literary analysis. Chapters Six through Eight identify dominant motifs in the stories that soldiers actually tell about themselves in oral histories, memoirs, and fiction. Chapter Seven, on oral history, describes a body of soldier stories that escape characterization of military men and women as either “heroes” or “victims.” Chapter Seven, titled “On Chickenshit,” asserts that contempt for military bureaucratic rigamarole, both in the way it affected efforts to fight the enemy and in the way it defined the military’s own internal processes, as the animating energy in war blogs and memoirs such as those by Colby Buzzell, Matt Gallagher, Christopher Hartley, and Benjamin Tupper. Cage is not wrong, at all, and his most salient point in War Narratives, for my money, is made in this chapter. Describing the way that contempt for military chickenshit, horseshit, and bullshit reflected particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan soldier narratives, he writes:
In these wars, instances of chickenshit evoke a sense of dishonesty often used in political rhetoric to persuade, and political cowardice that allowed for a poorly planned invasion and the belief in a painless war, all resulting in a risk-averse approach to combat. And because those who served in the military during these wars did so voluntarily, it helps explain why those who endure chickenshit in the military can complain about, but how they do not see themselves as heroes or victims for doing so.
There’s much to unpack in the above quote, but to comment on just two aspects: characteristic here is Cage’s attention to the importance of the all-volunteer military in shaping the peculiar nature of war narratives in the twenty-first century. In almost every chapter, the fact that a large unknowing populace and a small cohort of military volunteers exist on opposite sides of a chasm is the driving force for the creation of stories told on each side of the chasm about those on the other side. In specific regard to soldier narratives, Cage puts his finger on the contempt and rage so prominent in war narratives, which is directed at every member of the chain-of-command above the rank of lieutenant for constructing such an unsatisfying war and military experience for the junior enlisted and junior officers who write the bulk of soldier-narratives. And yet, as Cage explains, the authors know they volunteered, and so while in suffered more-or-less silently what they feel more liberty to vehemently vent when out.
As Johnny Rotten famously proclaimed from the stage at the last Sex Pistols’ gig: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” For me, that’s pretty much the author’s attitude in many memoirs written by contemporary veterans.
Chapter Eight turns attention to war fiction as a war-writing corpus that not only honestly proclaims its identity as “narrative” but which offers more-worthy counter-stories to the self-serving and politicized tales examined in War Narratives’ early chapters. This line-of-thinking is music to my ears, though presented a little uncritically by Cage:
Those seeking to find the real war, not the war as it is filtered through political, social, and cultural narratives, but as told in an honest, forthright, nuanced, and sincere way, can turn to fiction for a larger unmediated variety of stories. Thanks to the fiction writers of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the real war is finally in the books…. The way the wars were presented by the media, through some memoirs, and through other outlets was more sensational, it was more superficial, and it was more political, reflecting more of what the broader civilian public wanted to hear than the true and complex experiences of those who were deployed on their nation’s behalf.
Cage rightfully expands on the idea that “true and complex experiences” of war might best be written by veteran authors to include civilian authors as well. He proceeds by examining four literary fiction titles that he asserts offer the complex truth-telling richness he values: Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Laura McBride’s We Are Called to Rise, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, and Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood. I’m down with that, but the chapter leaves me wanting a little more than Cage delivers. Rather than diving deep into the narratives the authors have created to demonstrate how fiction’s “true and complex” representations improve upon sanctified general understandings, the chapter concludes with summaries of interviews Cage conducted with the authors about why they wrote the stories they did. I’m not not interested in the authors’ ideas, but especially in a book about narrative strategies, the dictum “trust the tale, not the teller” has some purchase, so would liked to have seen more in-depth exploration of the authors’ actual stories.
Carpenter’s, McBride’s, Klay’s, and Gallagher’s fictions are indeed complex and contain truths, so getting specific about the narrative discourses in which they participate, we might say: Carpenter’s Eleven Days explores the mythology of Special Operations (particularly SEALs) (boy is that ever a narrative worth interrogating), McBride’s We Are Called to Rise asks us to think about traumatized veterans, Klay’s Redeployment stories ponder veteran complicity with evil, and Gallagher’s Youngblood might be read as a parable of the difficulty of knowing who one was fighting while in Iraq and the vexed nature of tale-telling after the war. Honestly, as much as I love those books, they seem (to varying degrees) to instantiate prevailing cultural beliefs about fighting men-and-women as much as critique them or offer compelling alternatives. Be that as it may, with just a little work, the fictional works Cage examines at the end of War Narratives might be linked back to the public sphere narratives he analyzes in Chapters One through Five to resolve, synthesize, or undermine them. The possibilities are there….
A great virtue of War Narratives is that it is short and apprehensible. It can be read over a weekend, the arguments absorbed and evidence digested easily, and the personal wrangle, as I have done here, commenced quickly. Also, War Narratives is a book-wonk’s dream, with Cage offering splendid capsule summaries and analyses of dozens of war-related biographies, memoirs, and journalistic and historical accounts. That Cage himself is a vet, a graduate of West Point, no less, and also the author of a very good short-story collection titled Desert Mementos, makes War Narratives’ arrival so much the sweeter. One only wishes it weren’t so alone in its orientation, and that it joined a robust collection of works exploring contemporary war and contemporary war-writing more holistically and conceptually than what we currently have.
The chapter “On Chickenshit” can be read hereon the War, Literature, & the Arts journal website.
Caleb S. Cage. War Narratives: Shaping Beliefs, Blurring Truths in the Middle East. Texas A&M University Press, 2019.
This week the website Wrath-Bearing Tree published my interview with veteran-author Roy Scranton in advance of publication of his scholarly study Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. In Total Mobilization, Scranton expands upon the concept of “the trauma hero,” which he first articulated in a provocative 2015 Los Angeles Review of Books article titled “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to “Redeployment” and “American Sniper.”The LARB article rankled many with its less-than-hallowed regard for classic and contemporary war writing and in particular its willingness to name names among Scranton’s peers in the modern war-writing scene who Scranton claims are unwittingly or too heavily invested in privileging American veterans emotionally bruised by war. I commented on some of that on Time Now at the time, but an unspoken thought was that the article was too short and that there had to be more to understand about how the trauma hero motif originated and operated. Now, Total Mobilization, the book from which the LARB essay was extracted, provides that background and more expansive explanation. In my interview, I’ve tried to give Scranton room to explain the major points of his larger argument while also probing him about personal connections to the trauma hero concept and the issues it raises.
Many thanks to Scranton for sitting for the interview and also thanks to Wrath-Bearing Tree for publishing it. While striving to make WBT the preeminent place on the web for fresh critical commentary and imaginative writing about contemporary war and conflict, the talented crew of editors and staff-authors–Adrian Bonenberger, Michael Carson, David James, Matthew Hefti, Andria Williams, Mary Doyle, Drew Pham, Amalie Flynn, and Rachel Kambury, by name—have also opened publication doors for exciting new voices too many to name.
As partial evidence of Wrath-Bearing Tree’s intellectual energy, be sure to check out Michael Carson and Matthew Hefti’s interview with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk author Ben Fountain in the current issue, as well as Carson’s review of Fountain’s latest work, the non-fiction journalistic account of the 2016 election Beautiful Country Burn Again. To attract authors of the magnitude of Fountain and Scranton to generously offer their thoughts about writing and war is proof-positive that Wrath-Bearing Tree is on to something good, and I’m honored to have played a role in the proceedings.
Finally, my interview with Scranton will not resolve arguments about “the trauma hero”; if anything it will instigate ever more trenchant discussions about veterans and war-writing. Scranton’s assertions and evidence hit hard, but are not, as is nothing, beyond criticism or complication, and nothing is ever the last word on its subject. Scranton’s claims raise real challenges to abiding premises and assumptions that govern war-writing and thinking about war-writing, and, like the Twitterati often proclaim, my RTing of them does not necessarily imply (full) endorsement. A generative follow-on discussion about the trauma hero appeared relatively unnoticed in 2018 on a Sundress Blog post associated with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), available here. In a joint interview moderated by Jane Rosenberg LaForge, Seth Brady Tucker, Jesse Goolsby, Helen Benedict, and Samuel Snoek-Brown offer perspectives on the trauma hero from a number of interesting angles. Please read their roundtable discussion, along with my interview with Scranton, and then read Total Mobilization, and let the conversation continue.
Roy Scranton, Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature. University of Chicago, 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 hundredbooks, 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 Survivorand 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.