Two Nights on the Town in NYC: War Lit Readings at The Center for Fiction and Pete’s Candy Store

Two readings in New York City last week—one by novelist Roxana Robinson and reporter David Finkel at the The Center for Fiction, a bookstore and library in midtown Manhattan, and another of new works by three young military veterans at Pete’s Candy Store, a Brooklyn bar—put the subjects, themes, and styles of the contemporary war lit scene on full and somewhat contrasting display.

Sparta CoverThe Center for Fiction event, titled Fact and Fiction, featured Robinson and Finkel reading from their respective recent works Sparta and Thank You for Your Service.  Both Robinson and Finkel are established writers with a number of published works, prizes, and accolades to their names.  Neither are veterans, but their most recent works alike concern themselves with the aftermath of war.  Sparta tracks the downward spiral of a young Marine Corps officer, while Thank You for Your Service documents the tumultuous post-deployment lives of the Army infantry soldiers featured in Finkel’s acclaimed The Good Soldiers. Though Sparta is fiction and Thank You for Your Service non-fiction, they share a similar prose texture.  Robinson eschews flights of lyrical fancy for a plain style that mirrors reportage, and Finkel takes an almost anthropological interest in the daily details of the lives he describes.  The passages each read might well have been extracted from the other’s book, with characters and events of each portraying the war’s ability to inflect or even ruin the most mundane of day-to-day peacetime activities.

Thank You for Your ServiceBoth Robinson and Finkel have measured the psychological and social carnage wrought by the wars on those who fought them.  Not every combat veteran is a tortured soul, but a whole hell of a lot of them are, and Robinson and Finkel are appalled by the extremely uneven efforts of the nation to adequately help them.  The pairing of the two authors by The Center for Fiction makes sense, and would also work well in a college course or for anyone trying to understand post-traumatic stress.  “Stories matter,” said Finkel, and together Robinson’s and Finkel’s narratives carry their fair share of the load and then some (my favorite line from the Ranger Creed) in reminding, alerting, and inspiring an often oblivious nation to help struggling veterans.  Much is made of the “civil-military divide,” as if it’s the civilians who are out-of-touch with things.  But Robinson and Finkel have performed yeoman work trying to understand military culture and then reporting back sympathetically to the American reading public, while also helping the military understand itself.  Those in uniform should thank THEM for their service.

The Brooklyn event was part of Pete’s Candy Store’s Reading Series, which is dedicated to showcasing up-and-coming authors.  Titled Veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan War, the reading was organized by Fire and Forget editor Roy Scranton, the ex-Army artilleryman and current Princeton graduate student who is fast becoming the Ezra Pound of the war lit world—a talented writer in his own right who also nourishes other writers’ geniuses (just go easy on any late-life hateful politics, please, Roy!).  I don’t think the three authors Scranton presented at Pete’s were full of the rage and confusion described by Robinson and Finkel, but stories definitely mattered to them, as they did to those of us in attendance.  In the tiny, dark performance space, on a night where temperatures outside hovered in the single digits, with most of the audience a pint or two down the hatch, the authors spun webs of words that enveloped their listeners in a dreamy snare of story-telling enchantment.  The picture below, bad as it is, renders something of the ambiance:

2014-01-23 19.53.39
Kristen L. Rouse reads at Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn, NY, 23 January 2014

Kristen L. Rouse, a three-time Afghanistan veteran, read a short story about military operations in Paktya province, the same area of operations in which I served.  Her story brought much of it back—the vehicle movements on IED-filled roads, the god-forsaken outposts, and the chai-drenched meetings with Afghans.  Clap your hands and say yea if you’ve ever been to COP Zormat, it ain’t easy to get to….   Johnson Wiley, a Marine Corps vet now studying at Rutgers, followed with poetry that I found compelling and evocative.  I have asked Wiley to send me a poem or two, and if he does I will post at least one.  Last up was Ravi Venkataramani, a West Point graduate who is now studying for his MFA at Columbia.  Venkataramani read a stunning story about a classmate’s death that portrayed the full measure of guilt and obligation inflicted on West Point grads by the relentless pressure of the military academy’s “duty, honor, country” ethos.

In conversation, Venkataramani reminisced fondly about a West Point English teacher named Major William Hecker.  I knew Hecker only from a few emails, but Venkataramani’s respect resonated with me.  While at West Point, Hecker wrote a well-received critical work in which he traced the origins of a famous essay by Edgar Allan Poe (who briefly attended West Point) called “The Philosophy of Composition” to Poe’s service in the Army as an artilleryman.  According to Hecker, Poe’s theory that all aspects of a work of fiction must contribute to a focused and climactic “literary effect” was garnered from artillery manuals that specified how to make bombs explode exactly on target.  The irony of all this is that a year after publishing this work, which marked him as an Army scholar of enormous potential, Hecker, also an artilleryman, was killed in Iraq by an IED—perhaps a mine and not a buried shell, but still a death freighted with an extra measure of cruelness, in a war already full of it.

RIP Major Bill Hecker, thank you for your service in Iraq and in the classroom.  As the West Point Alma Mater states, “Well done, be thou at peace.”  We’ll also dedicate this post to all the proud artillerymen out there: “Redlegs,” as they call themselves; their motto, “the King of Battle.”

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Gioux in 2013.

David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, published by Macmillan in 2009.

David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service, published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Gioux, in 2013

Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, published by Da Capo Press in 2013.

Edgar Allan Poe.  Private Perry and Mr. Poe:  The West Point Poems, 1831, edited by William Hecker with an introduction by Daniel Hoffman and an afterword by Gerard McGowan, published by Louisiana State University Press in 2005.

Thank you everybody concerned at The Center for Fiction and Pete’s Candy Store for staging such great events.  Thanks also to Charlie Markley and Sean Case, who accompanied me to Pete’s Candy Store and helped make the night so enjoyable.

Little Magazines 3: Prairie Schooner and Michigan Quarterly Review

Prairie SchoonerTwo respected academic journals feature big time talents as guest editors of recent issues given over to war literature.  Prairie Schooner invited Brian Turner to assemble an all-star collection of writers on contemporary war for its winter 2013 issue, and Turner has delivered the goods.  Elyse Fenton, Siobhan Fallon, Roy Scranton, Benjamin Busch, and Colby Buzzell are familiar names who have contributed stories, poems, and essays to the issue.  Turner, always alert to non-American perspectives, also includes entries by foreign authors and writers on wars other than the Iraq and Afghanistan ones.  A complete version is not available on-line, and I don’t have a paper copy yet, but a roster of authors and titles can be found here.

I am honored to participate in a Prairie Schooner roundtable electronic discussion titled On War Writing.”  Other participants include Donald Anderson, Doug Anderson, Matt Gallagher, and Marilyn Nelson, whose work I have read, and Sam Hamill and Stacey Peebles, who are unknown to me but whose work I am looking forward to getting to know. 

Michigan Quarterly ReviewBenjamin Busch has selected and introduced a collection of Iraq and Afghanistan war poems for the winter 2013 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review.  In “From the Desert Wars: Introduction,” Busch writes, “…these are words chipped out of the dirt by survivors exploring themselves and their war, all of them leading you to the monster.  It as though each poet carefully laid out his field notes, searched them for connections  to the immensity of human conflict, and found the least amount of language possible to send us messages.  This is what is left, just these words, each poet sifting the battlefield for evidence to compose a truth.”

I am not familiar with the poets, all veterans, Busch has chosen to publish but will honor their names—Bruce Lack, Hugh Martin, Clint Garner, Patrick Whalen—and look for ways to talk about their poems in more detail in later posts.  Busch contributes two poems of his own.  One, titled “Girls,” wonders what female Iraqi or Afghan children must make of the American soldiers in their midst.  Two lines:

We pass because we must, slow and reptilian,
unable to pretend we mean no harm.

I’ll quote another, titled “Subtext,” in its entirety:

“This is not about that”
It is too obvious
to write about, an occurrence
long with disappointment.
But it is over.
Uneven mud brick walls,
burnt plastic wind, diesel exhaust,
dust in the sky, children running,
the curiosity of goats
and men with sticks.
Body heavy with bullets, soil thick with bone and bleeding,
face rough with salt.
The war occurs
in everything now,
and this
is about that.

Busch is also in electronic print in The Daily Beast with this review of Lone Survivor.   I haven’t seen Lone Survivor yet, but will soon and look forward to writing about it, too.

The Classical Roots of Contemporary War Literature: Been There, Done That, 2500 Years Ago

Beyond the walls of this Afghanistan FOB, a hilltop fortress reportedly built by Alexander the Great
Beyond the walls of this Afghanistan FOB, a hilltop fortress reportedly built by Alexander the Great

Many contemporary war authors, artists, and thinkers have turned to classical Greece for subjects, themes, and inspiration.  A quick catalog might begin with Sparta, the recent novel by Roxana Robinson.  The protagonist of Robinson’s novel is a Marine, and I’ve heard Robinson speak about how pervasively awareness of Spartan culture and ethos runs in the Marines.  “The History of the Peloponnesian Wars is practically required reading at Quantico,” she reports.  Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Watch recasts Sophocles’ Antigone by placing it in war-torn Kandahar.  It begins with an Afghan woman’s entreaty to American soldiers on a combat outpost to release the body of her brother–an interesting storyline very much like Antigone‘s own.  A fine collection of poems, Stateside by Jehanne Dubrow, draws on Homer’s Odyssey to explore the plight of the poetic speaker, a modern-day Penelope awaiting the return of her Odysseus.  It’s hard not to imagine almost any of Siobhan Fallon’s tales of fraught return-from-deployment marriages in much the same light.  But Sophocles’ Ajax might be the best Greek work in regard to the homecoming.  Where The Odyssey portrays Penelope’s long nine-year wait for her man to return from war, Ajax portrays the even more tortured period AFTER the heroic Ajax returns from war to his war-trophy wife Tecmessa.  Where Penelope barely gets to say a word in The Odyssey, Tecmessa’s anguished voice resounds throughout Ajax, as she wonders what the hell has happened to her husband.  After Ajax slaughters a herd of sheep in a delusional rampage, Tecmessa screams:

During the night our wonderful Ajax
Was hit with madness and went beserk
You will see the proof of it in the tent:
Holocausts dripping with gore by his hand

Ajax serves as the dramatic centerpiece for Theater of War, an acclaimed troupe who stage readings of the play to elicit discussion and activism on behalf of struggling veterans.  If you have a chance to see a Theater of War performance, by all means do so.  They also perform readings of another Sophocles play, Philoctetes, which like Ajax portrays the aftermath of war on a soldier wounded physically and emotionally by his experiences.  Philosopher Nancy Sherman uses Philoctetes as the literary lens through which she explores issues of moral injury and repair in her recent work The Untold War.

I’m fine with all this Greek love, but it does make me appreciate all the more Brian Turner’s persistent effort to seed his poetry with references to Iraqi, Arabic, and Mesopotamian classic literature, folklore, and history. For my part, I turned first to ancient Rome when crafting the following short tale called “Cy and Ali.” It’s based on Ceyx and Alceone,” a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection that itself draws on Greek antecedents for subjects, themes, and inspiration.  Read on if you care to.

     Cy busied himself with the by–now routine activities of a combat patrol: gathering his personal gear and stowing it in the truck, drawing the big .50 caliber machine gun and mounting it in the gun turret, setting the frequencies and security codes on the radio, helping out the other crew members and being helped by them in turn. As he waited for the mission commander to give the patrol brief, he thought about his wife for a few moments. Ali had not wanted him to go on this deployment; he had had options that would have kept him in the States, at least for a while longer, and she could not understand why he had been so eager to return to Afghanistan.

     “I think you are crazy,” she had told him. Left unstated was the suspicion that he liked the idea of going to war more than he liked the idea of being with her. She loved him dearly, and though he professed his love for her, too, she couldn’t help but feel that he didn’t value their relationship as much as she did. Cy also wasn’t sure what to think, either then or now while he waited for the patrol brief to begin. Returning to Afghanistan had been very important to him, but beyond his claims about needing to be with his unit and doing his duty, he sensed that there was a cold hard nugget of selfishness about his willingness to jeopardize his marriage—not to mention his life—for the sake of the deployment.

     Rather than give Ali an excuse or an explanation, he had offered a compensation. “When I get back, I promise I’ll make it up to you,” he had said, “I’ll go back to school, or find some job where I won’t have to deploy again anytime soon.”

     The offer seemed lame, even to Cy, like he had thought about it for two seconds, but Ali acceded to it anyway. She loved Cy in part because he was a soldier, but some things about being a military wife were really bad. Now she busied herself with her own classes, her part-time job, and her friends and family. But she worried a lot, and had a premonition that things might not end well.

     The day’s mission was nothing special: accompany an Afghan army unit while they resupplied three of their outlying outposts. The mission commander explained that the Americans’ role was to inspect the readiness of the Afghan outposts, and to provide artillery and medical support in case anything happened along the way. Cy’s job was gunner on the mission commander’s truck, which was to be third in the order of march behind two Afghan trucks. From the truck’s exposed turret he was to man the .50 cal while keeping an eye out for suicide bombers, IEDs, and ambushes. But nothing was expected to happen; “There has been no enemy activity on the planned route in the last 48 hours,” the mission commander informed them. They had traveled the day’s route many times before with nothing more serious occurring than a vehicle breakdown. Sure they planned well and rehearsed diligently, but that was all the more reason the actual mission was probably going to be not much.

     Which is why what happened, at least at first, had an unreal feel. Three miles out, on Route Missouri, Cy saw the two lead Afghan trucks come to abrupt halts and their occupants pile out. The Afghan soldiers took up firing positions on the right side of the road and pointed their weapons back to the left side. Because he had headphones on and was chattering with the other truck occupants, Cy was unable to immediately distinguish the sound of gunshots, and it took him a moment to comprehend that the Afghans had stumbled into an ambush. Other Americans also soon gleaned what was going on and suddenly the intercom crackled with questions, reports, and commands.

     “Action front…. Scan your sectors….. Anyone have positive ID?…. There they are…. 11:00 200 meters. Engage, engage!”

     Cy identified three turbaned gunmen firing at the Afghan army trucks from behind a low wall. He charged his machine gun and began to shoot. He had fired the .50 cal dozens of times in training and thus was surprised by how far off target were his first two bursts. But very quickly he found the range, and was rewarded by seeing the big .50 caliber rounds chew up the wall behind which the insurgents were hiding. Dust and debris filled the air; Cy couldn’t tell if he had hit anyone, but surely the fire was effectively suppressing the enemy. By now, the other American trucks had identified the gunmen and were firing, too. Still, it was so hard to figure out exactly what was happening. That the three insurgents behind the wall were capable of resisting the torrent of fire unleashed on them by the American and Afghan soldiers seemed impossible, but no one could tell if there were other enemy shooting at them from somewhere else.

     Soon, however, the sound of explosions began to fill the air. Again, it was not immediately clear that the Afghan army soldiers and the insurgents were now firing Rocket Propelled Grenades at each other. “What’s going on up there?” Cy heard the mission commander ask him through the intercom. Loud booms resounded everywhere from the impact of the rocket-fired grenades.  Cy next heard “RPG! RPG!” echo through the intercom as the Americans understood that they too were now under attack. A round exploded against the truck to his left and Cy felt the blast wave wash over him. How could the enemy engage them so accurately?

    As the battle unfolded, Cy realized the situation was serious, no joke. The rest of the crew was protected inside the armored truck, but he was partially exposed in the machine gun turret. He continued to fire the .50 cal, doing his best to punish the insurgents who were trying to kill them. The noise was deafening, but in the midst of the roar of his own weapon and the other American guns, as well as the cacophony of human voices on the intercom, he discerned that enemy fire was pinging around him and sizzling overhead. Though he was not scared, he thought about his wife.

     Ali had felt uneasy throughout the day. She had not been able to communicate with Cy, which in itself was not so unusual. She understood that sometimes missions made it impossible for him to call or write. Still, she sent him emails and texts and the lack of a response for some reason felt ominous. That night, she had had a terrible dream. Cy appeared, looming over her, silent and reproachful, and Ali had awoken with a start. Nothing like this had ever happened before, not even close. She didn’t know what to do, so she watched TV for a while and then began surfing the Internet. She thought about calling her husband’s unit rear-detachment commander, but decided not to. There was no one she could talk to who wouldn’t think she was overreacting, so she didn’t do anything except continue to worry. 

     The next morning two officers appeared at Ali’s door. “The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you that your husband has died as a result of enemy fire in eastern Afghanistan,” one of them intoned. It was all too true, but for Ali the reality of the situation dissolved in a swirl of chaotic thoughts and physical sickness. 

     Ali waited on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base with Cy’s parents. An honor guard was also present, as well as a contingent from her husband’s unit, and a general whom she had never seen before and whose name she didn’t catch. Everyone was very nice to her, but Ali was confused. She didn’t know if she was supposed to be strong and dignified or to collapse in a pool of tears. She also didn’t know if she was angry with her husband, angry toward the Army, or just some strange combination of sad and proud. As her husband’s casket emerged from the plane, Ali felt herself drawn toward it. First she was taking small tentative steps, as if she were nervous about breaking some kind of rule or protocol. Then she was running, moving quickly toward the casket while the others in attendance waited behind. She was barely aware of what she was doing, but her feet seemed to no longer be touching the ground. It was as if she were floating or flying, and her arms were beating like wings of a giant bird. “O, Cy, is this the homecoming you promised me?” she thought, or maybe said aloud. Then she remembered throwing her arms around the casket, but at the same time she also felt herself rising into the air, in unison with her husband, who now was alive again and also seemed a magnificent, noble bird. Together, Cy and Ali soared upward, and the plane and the honor guard and the onlookers whirled beneath them as they circled in the sky.

“Every Day is Veterans Day”: Time Now in the News

Kevin E. Foley of Philipstown.info has written a thoughtful piece about Veterans Day that features Time Now and some of my own reflections on how the nation remembers its veterans.  Thanks, Kevin, and let me know what you think, everybody.

“Every Day is Veterans Day” 

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America formation in the 2011 New York City Veterans Day Parade
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America formation in the 2011 New York City Veterans Day Parade

Notes Toward a Supreme War Fiction

The title of this post cribs from a 1942 Wallace Stevens poem, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” Stevens writes:

 
     So poisonous are the ravishments of truth, so fatal to
     The truth itself.…

He also writes:

 
     The poem refreshes life so that we share
     For a moment, the first idea….

Elsewhere, in Stevens’ “On Modern Poetry,” also from 1942, we read:

 
     It has to think about war
     And it has to find what will suffice.

Such thoughts give entrée to a meta-critique of war literature. What does it think it is doing? What are the possibilities? Timothy O’Brien’s magnificent “How to Tell a True War Story” offers superb contemporary expression of the issues involved. O’Brien dramatizes and suggests their impossibly tangled complexity. What is more important, realistic truth or emotional truth? How is the truth related to the credibility of the speaker? How does truth relate to the individual perspective of the witness/participant and the reader? These issues are inherent in all discussion of literary aesthetics, but they are magnified in war literature by the sensational nature of the subject matter, the intensity of the emotional involvement, and the important moral and political consequences at stake.

Sometimes it seems like the best answer might be that of the chorus of Of Monsters and Men’s hit “Little Talks”:

 
      Hey!
      Don't listen to a word I say
      Hey!
      The screams all sound the same
      Hey! 

Probing deeper, critic Laura Brandon, writing about war art, looks to redefine the subject “internationally through time” as more than “battle pieces, an aspect of national history, or military illustration.” She establishes a typology of war art: “propaganda, memorial, protest, and/or record.” That’s helpful. Riffing off Brandon’s suggestions, I came up with ten questions pertinent to the aesthetics of war literature and art. Read through them and let me know if they work for you:

1. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” -Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940). In what ways is Benjamin’s quote particularly true of war literature? Is there a way that war literature evades or transcends being a “document of barbarism”?

2. Is war literature inherently “anti-war” literature?

3. Does war literature celebrate war or perpetuate ways of thinking about war that increase, rather than decrease, the prospects for future war?

4. Is war literature written by veterans inherently more valuable, credible, or interesting than that written by those who haven’t served or even deployed (as a journalist, aid worker, contractor, etc)?

5. Heroism, fear/courage, guilt, shame, camaraderie, adventure, horror, shock—are these common tropes of war literature beyond critique? Why or why not? If not, then what about them invites investigation?

6. How does the war literature complicate the desire of the American public to “support the troops”?

7. What is enjoyable about war literature?

8. What does the war literature help us understand better?

9. How does war literature complicate the relationship between remembering and reporting?

10. What is beautiful about war literature?

Happy six-month anniversary of the Time Now blog. Thanks for reading and your support so far. My goal is a post a week for a year, more if I can keep it up. I’ve covered a lot of ground already, but there is much left to say. The summer writing season is here, so let’s go.

Pablo Picasso, "Guernica," 1937
Pablo Picasso, “Guernica,” 1937

Reference:

Laura Brandon, Art and War.  Taurus Press, 2007.

Little Magazines 2: Ep;phany

Epiphany

The winter/spring 2013 edition of Ep;phany: A Literary Journal is guest edited by poet Brian Turner. Not fooling around, Turner has solicited and selected quality work from a who’s who of contemporary war literature.  A roll call of contributors begins with Benjamin Busch, Roy Scranton, Bruce Weigl, Donald Anderson, Matt Gallagher, Jehanne Dubrow, and Paul Wasserman.  Turner’s also reached out internationally to include Israeli poet Etgar Karet, Myanmar poet Tin Moe, Irish author Fred Johnston, and others.

Everything I’ve read so far is wonderful, but here I’ll just offer a few initial impressions.  A poem by Army veteran Martin Ott called “Blanket Party” caught my eye with its reference to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where Ott, as I did, underwent basic training:

      In Fort Leonard Wood, our rooms were windowless
      the days began in the dark for pushups on fields of rock.
      We were calorie-starved with only minutes to shovel
      chow, and set against other squads by barking sergeants..

Brian Wright O’Connor’s “Appointment at Bu Dop” explores his father’s service in Vietnam as the commander of an infantry battalion.  The essay concerns itself with treatment of enemy dead and body counts, but Lieutenant Colonel Mortimer O’Connor is in the news this week for other reasons:  he has just received a posthumous PhD in English Literature from Penn.  He was weeks away from completing his dissertation in 1968 when he deployed to Vietnam, where he was killed in action.

The cover photo by Benjamin Busch is a stunner.  Called “Casualties,” it was taken in Iraq in 2005.  It portrays the aftermath of an IED attack that killed a close friend; Busch describes the event at length in his memoir  Dust to Dust.   In Ep;phany, Busch writes, “…the vehicle burned long into the night.  We guarded it in the dark, waiting to recover the body of a gunner still trapped under the wreckage.”

Little Magazines 1: O-Dark-Thirty

O-Dark-Thirty is a literary journal and website associated with the Veterans Writing Project.  The VWP is a non-profit based in Washington, DC that provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, active and reserve service members, and military family members.  Its founder is Ron Capps, an Afghanistan veteran who has published widely.  He’s passionate about bringing as many veteran writers into print and publication as possible.

More power to him.

Volume 1 Number 2, the winter 2013 edition, of O-Dark-Thirty is out now.  It features non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and art by and about veterans from World War II onward.  Of special interest is Capps’ profile of William Zinsser, a U.S. Army sergeant in WWII and the author of On Writing Well, a best-selling and authoritative guide to writing non-fiction.  Zinsser is 84 and still teaching at New York’s New University.  Clearly, he has been inspirational to Capps, and why not?

Forums dedicated to war writing by vets are cool. Forums that bring together veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan with those of earlier wars are cooler still.

O-Dark-Thirty

William Zinsser On Writing Well

Happy Mother’s Day War Literature

Below I’ve reposted a slightly-edited post from my old blog, 15-Month Adventure, that I also published on Time Now last year on Mother’s Day.

To the Moms, the Whole Love

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 in 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.”

How to describe a mother’s anxiety about her child’s deployment?  Kaboom author Matt Gallagher’s mom, Deborah Scott Gallagher, writes:

“’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 You Know When the Men Are Gone, describes 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.

My mother, Ann Castle Boswell, Athens, Ohio, 1958, Athens, Ohio, the year I was born.
My mother, Ann Castle Boswell, Athens, Ohio, 1958, the year I was born

References:

Benjamin Busch, Dust to Dust:  A Memoir (2012).

Matt Gallagher, Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Dirty Little War (2010)

Deborah Scott Gallagher, In a Hymn, Words of CourageNew York Times, December 23, 2011.

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

Siobhan Fallon, A Visit to Walter Reed, March 29, 2012.