Posted tagged ‘War poetry’


December 16, 2016
Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

Photo by Bill Putnam, used with permission.

By my count, 2016 saw ten contemporary war fiction titles published, one more than in 2015. 2017 promises new novels by David Abrams, Siobhan Fallon, Elliot Ackerman, and Brian Van Reet, as well as a short-fiction anthology edited by Brian Castner and Adrian Bonenberger called The Road Ahead, so that’s a lot to anticipate. The only new poetry collection published in 2016 was a British anthology titled Home Front that reprints two great books authored by American military spouses—Elyse Fenton’s Clamor and Jehanne Dubow’s Stateside—alongside work by two British authors, Bryony Doran and Isabel Palmer. Happy to say, both Dubrow and Fenton will have new work appearing in 2017, titled Dots & Dashes and Sweet Insurgent, respectively. Hollywood released three Iraq or Afghanistan movies in 2016; 2017 will bring the movie adaptation of The Yellow Birds, but I’m not sure what else.

Below is my annual compendium of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction, poetry, and movies. Works appearing in 2016 are in bold. If you think I’ve missed anything let me know. A separate list of romance, male adventure, and young adult fiction is in the works.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict, Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army), Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army), The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton, What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum, They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson, Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz, Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone, Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter, The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn, Wynne’s War (2014)
Cara Hoffman, Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC), Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC), Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC), Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC), Green on Blue (2015)
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy), Old Silk Road (2015)
Mary “M.L.” Doyle, The Bonding Spell (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF), I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army), The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army), The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army), War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Odie Lindsey (Army), We Come to Our Senses (2016)
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties (2016)
Luke Mogelson, These Heroic, Happy Dead (2016)
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier (2016)
Scott Pomfret, You Are the One (2016)
Roy Scranton (Army), War Porn (2016)
Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant (2016)
Maximilian Uriarte (USMC), The White Donkey (2016)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry

Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army), Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army), Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army), Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army), Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army), Icarian Flux (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only).

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)
Man Down, Dito Monteil, director (2015)
A War, Tobias Lindholm, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)

I’ve not listed the important theatrical and literary memoir titles that I’ve included in past years, because I haven’t tracked them as closely in the past twelve months as I have previously. To make up for that omission, I’ve compiled a list of interesting and substantial contemporary war non-fiction books published in 2016, which in my mind was a banner year for such works.

2016 Iraq and Afghanistan Non-fiction

Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Middle East (2016)
Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (2016)
Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer (2016)
Eric Fair, Consequence: A Memoir (2016)
Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016)
David J. Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (2016)
Mary Roach, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016)
J. Kael Weston, The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (2016)

…and not to overlook two books that offer glimpses of the strategic thinking and worldviews of the leaders of newly-elected President Trump’s national security team:

Kori Schake and Jim Mattis, editors, Warriors and Citizens: American Views of the Military (2016)
Michael Flynn, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies (2016)

I haven’t yet read all the non-fiction named above, but one that impressed me greatly is Brian Castner’s All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner, for my money, gets the nitty-gritty of Iraq and Afghanistan combat—complete with accounts of mIRC communication systems, combined ground-air ops, and insurgent IED tactics—better than any work I’ve seen previously. He combines attention to detail with eloquent expression of what it means to belong to close-knit organizations of fighting men and women. Castner, who served three tours in the Middle East as an Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, knows of what he writes, and he uses his narrative to interrogate his decade-long obsession with war’s allure and consequences.

I read All the Ways We Kill and Die alongside a second work that does much the same, but from a very different angle: Hilary Plum’s memoir Watchfires (2016). The follow-up to Plum’s intriguing novel about domestic anti-war radicalism They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013), Watchfires explores connections between Plum’s personal and familial experience of illness and dysfunction with national and global currents of war, terrorism, and aggression. “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life,” wrote Thoreau, and though Plum’s account is not simple, she seems to have accomplished in Watchfires what Castner has also done, and what every thinking person might try, according to Thoreau: define honestly and precisely how one’s private life and thoughts relate to the violent spirit of the times.

Brian Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer. Arcade, 2016.

Hilary Plum, Watchfires. Rescue Press, 2016.

War Poetry: Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers

December 8, 2016

the-stick-soldiersSomehow I missed Hugh Martin’s excellent poetry volume The Stick Soldiers when it was released in 2013, so now let me make amends. Martin’s accessible and very affecting verse attempts to make sense of the author’s deployment to Iraq and the disorienting times afterwards in ways that to me seem valuable and fresh. Neither overwrought nor undernourished, the poems in The Stick Soldiers strike notes that allow clearly-rendered physical description to give way to higher, unanticipated orders of meaning. A fine example is “The Range”:

“The Range”

We shoot green silhouettes
of men. Their blank faces

are painted beige, their plastic
chests checkered with holes,

but still, they rise in the July sunlight
like a boy too stupid to know

when to stay down, when to quit.
Drill Sergeant Grant paces

the gravel walk. He stops
to lie beside me on the beaten grass.

Between shots in the deep hush
of some, he says breathe, breathe

as we watch the targets fall
flat to the earth. I never

speak, but only fire, study
the range for the next one—

hold my breath, tap
the trigger, take them down,

one by one, like it was all
the world needed done.

A second example is “The Rocket”:

“The Rocket”

Blue as the pale sky this rocket
lay beside a dry wadi
alone where there was nothing
for miles, as if a man too tired
to take it any further
had set it here years ago, this spot
on the sun-hardened ground.
There was no wind. There was no one
but us, our trucks parked
at the edge of the valley. Sergeant Sumey,
tired of staring, walked to the rocket.
We all knew better than to touch
a thing like this, but all of us, all our hands,
had done it many times before. Sumey grabbed
the rocket like a handle to the earth,
lifted it—no longer than his M-4—
above his shoulder, and leaned back,
widened his stance, as if about to throw it
to the barren hills in the east,
so we could watch its arc, its twirl,
as if doing the rocket the favor
of making sure it left the world in pieces.

While “The Range” and “The Rocket” have a set-piece feel describing events experienced by many soldiers, other poems render more sustained looks at Martin, or his narrator, in interaction with those close to him personally. A stanza from “Four-Letter Word,” for instance, places unwitting family members in juxtaposition with a soldier who can’t help but note the triteness of their conversational gambits. It also demonstrates what for me is Martin’s great ear and eye for the exact word and right line-length:

“Four-Letter Word”


Home for Christmas leave.

This is our son, he’s going to Iraq.
He’s leaving for Iraq.
His unit is being mobilized for Iraq.

He has to go to Iraq.
I’ll get you a drink, you’re going to Iraq.
E-mail me when you get to Iraq.

Hopefully things will get better when you get to Iraq.
Are you scared about going to Iraq?
Did you know you would have to go to Iraq?

I can’t imagine going to Iraq.
Is there a chance you might not go to Iraq?
Where will you be in Iraq?

What will you be doing in Iraq?
How long will you be in Iraq?
Iraq? Really? Iraq?

The perspectival chasm dividing the narrator and his family in “Four-Letter Word” is amplified in the volume’s title poem, in which the soldier-narrator describes drawings sent to his unit by American schoolchildren:

“The Stick Soldiers”

We tape our favorites to the door.
In blue crayon, a stick-figure soldier poses
as he’s about to toss
a black ball,
fuse burning,
at three other stick figures,
red cloth wrapped over faces,
Iraki written
across stick chests […]

The narrator then places those pictures in contrast with the drawings by Iraqi schoolchildren on sides of buildings the soldiers drive by:

Further down the wall, a stick man holds
an RPG
aimed toward the Humvee,
the waving soldier’s head […]

A number of other poems describe Martin post-deployment and post-service. These too work in a quiet vein: not traumatized, the narrator just thinks a lot about what he lived through in Iraq, and he is discomfited more than he is alienated, outraged, or made dysfunctional. Though the volume’s subjects have been well-covered by other veteran-writers, Martin’s calmness about it all distinguishes his approach. Our current political and cultural moment is not one for understated emotional control and nuanced ambivalence, but if the nation ever settles down again enough to value thoughtfulness and eloquence, The Stick Soldiers’ wise view of a soldier’s experience of war awaits.

Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers, with a foreword by Cornelius Eady. BOA Editions, Ltd., 2013.

Colin D. Halloran’s Icarian Flux

January 31, 2016

CvrIcarianFlux_bookstore2015 brought two volumes of verse by authors whose previous works are central to the contemporary war poetry corpus. Interestingly, neither of the new works address Iraq or Afghanistan directly or at length. In The Arranged Marriage, Jehanne Dubrow, the author of Stateside, a collection exploring a military spouse’s anxiety about deployment, now gives us a collection of poems based on the life of her mother, who was forced into an abusive marriage in her native Central America. In Icarian Flux, Colin D. Halloran, the author of the verse-memoir Shortly Thereafter, about his Army tour in Afghanistan, imaginatively considers the myth of Icarus. Both volumes offer strong models of artists engaged with and even formed by military experience, but who refuse to let their art or their identities be defined by war and service. We might remain alert, however, for overlaps, lingering traces, and subtler forms of connection to the military even as we consider Dubrow’s and Halloran’s new interests in their own lights. Leaving The Arranged Marriage for another day’s discussion, here I’ll briefly explore Icarian Flux’s very interesting post-war and post-war-lit dimensions.

Halloran’s specific point-of-identification with Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun, is hard to determine, even in a poem—the first in the volume—titled “Self-Portrait as Icarus.” Icarus typically represents overreaching ambition and failure to follow directions. Seen somewhat more positively, he stands for incautious but inspired youth, reckless and headstrong for sure, but still one who seems to be made to pay a little too dearly for his mistakes. Halloran may have in mind his tour in Afghanistan, which ended abruptly as a result of a non-combat injury, but the Army and deployment are mentioned only in the author’s bio and not, as far as I can tell, in the poetry. Halloran’s Icarian fall could could also be years of troubled drift post-service, collapsed relationships, or even his initial literary forays, inflected with high hopes and subsequent disappointments. Icarus’s wax-and-wings, undone by the sun, may figure specifically in Halloran’s imagination then as his soldier’s weapons and gear, his pen and his books, or more generally as his confident sense-of-self—none of which equipped him to survive the challenges to which he put himself. The opening lines of “Self-Portrait as Icarus” in fact suggest that Halloran thinks he may be doomed to repeated falls, with failure ingrained by fate in his character:

If you can’t achieve greatness elsewhere,
find it in the fall

my next will be at night
not because of lessons learned
but because I want to see

the stars from the other side….

Halloran presents himself here as a connoisseur of disappointment, an expert of loss, and a student of life after failure. The poems following “Self-Portrait as Icarus” reflect that self-image as almost every poem portrays the act of falling from a variety of intriguing perspectives. “Rain Fall,” for example:

The thing about falling
in rain
is that you’re not alone.

Your solitary descent
becomes bigger than yourself:
alone among the many,
also alone.

Something about driving at night inspires Halloran; just as one of the best poems in Shortly Thereafter, “The Moon’s Still Up,” describes a night convoy in Afghanistan, several of my favorites in Icarian Flux also find Halloran at the wheel in the dark. A good example is “Interstate Icarus”:

As I follow the pavement eastward
up mountains
I’m driving on the tops of trees.

I challenge the glow on the other side
to rise
and meet me.

And as I find the hint of its intentions
captured in cirrus and nearly eye-level,

I ease off the gas
and slow

my inevitable


Not every poem in Icarian Flux so aggressively pursues the imagery and symbolism of Icarus. Three great ones (too long-lined to be reprinted here), “Lakeridge Drive,” “We Were Kings,” and “On Potholes and Exes,” ruminate on loss, memory, and disappointment while expanding the range of images and tones typical of the rest of the volume. “Troy,” a sestina composed of one-word lines, dazzles with its manipulation of form. Many poems rely on carefully controlled repetition of key words and images; knowing what I know of Halloran as a public speaker, these incantatory poems would be a joy to hear him read out loud. Finally, a series of poems remind us that though the connotations of falling are mostly negative, the word and image also apply to one of life’s most positive experiences, falling in love. But, of course, it’s complicated: “Falling: In Love,” for example, advances the notion that failure can be redeemed by love, even as it also suggests how impossible or implausible is the task:

I find it wholly foreign,
falling with someone there
to catch me

or at least

collect feathers
ripped out by wind
or thrown up on impact

gather shards of wax,
forged, melted,
fallen, reformed

and wear a feather
around her neck,
not on her wings,

reform the wax,
add wick, not quill
and light it

in my memory.

Poetry’s generalized and abstract symbolic register, reliant not on accessible biography and obvious narration, but figurative setting and privately-observed detail, is not for everyone, or even anyone all the time. But those of us who love it, especially as we consider specific poems in the context of what we do know about their authors and their total body of work, will greatly appreciate Icarian Flux. We all fall, Halloran reminds us, and the getting-back-up-again is never as simple and easy as conventional homilies and platitudes would have it. From one angle, stripping his poetry of the freighted terminology of deployment and trauma might be seen as Halloran’s effort to broaden his appeal to readers resistant to the rhetoric of veteran woe. A better read is that Halloran has drawn on the wider range of cultural resources to speak of loss and low periods in ways that encompass the entirety of human life and are not dependent merely on one aspect of it.

Colin D. Halloran, Icarian Flux. Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2015. The quoted passages have been slightly modified due to the limitations of WordPress.

Randy Brown’s Welcome to FOB Haiku

December 20, 2015

FOB HaikuRandy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa,” is the keeper of Red Bull Rising, a popular web compendium of information and commentary about the seemingly incongruous subjects of war literature and the Army National Guard. The title of Brown’s website refers to the 34th Infantry  Division “Red Bulls,” a storied Iowa Guard unit with whom Brown served for many years. Having known a fair number of Red Bulls on my deployment to Afghanistan, I recognize qualities I associate with them in Red Bull Rising‘s voice and ethos, such as job pride and team focus. The Iowans I knew were congenial, but also quiet and serious, guarded I felt about their emotions and true thoughts, their humor manifesting itself in acerbic wit aimed at absurdity of circumstance. No Iowa soldiers I knew were poets, but now Brown’s new volume of verse, Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire, puts the Midwestern blend of earnestness and cleverness I saw in Afghanistan to work on behalf of poetry about service, deployment, and war.

Brown’s title foregrounds his attraction to haiku—the 17-syllable, three-line Japanese predecessor of the Tweet—as a compressed, minimalist way to comment on military language and experience. Great examples abound in FOB Haiku; veterans will recognize in the example below how Brown imaginatively engages with an acronym—SPORTS—taught to all basic trainees about how to calmly resolve a weapon malfunction in the heat of combat:

Your weapon is jammed?!
Slap. Pull. Observe. Release. Tap.
Then squeeze the trigger.

Many poems in FOB Haiku, not just the haikus, similarly riff on military lingo to strike short, sharp, and reasonably hard at sources of anxiety inherent to life in the Army. Besides haikus, Brown often employs the sonnet form, or references literary touchstones such as Hamlet and “Dulce et Decorum.” These poems might be said to appeal to readers who are already poetry lovers and point to Brown’s fusing of martial and literary registers to make each apprehensible to readers of all stripes. The poems’ military tones portray the contortions the Army inflicts not just on its members’ language and lived lives, but their identities and emotions, while the literary playfulness makes the contortions palatable by inflecting them with humor and historical connection. Brown says as much in an afterword:

In all of this my objective is to clearly communicate across military branches, experiences, generations, and the civil-military divide.  I hope that the techniques described and used here will bridge potential gaps in understanding and make these stories accessible to new audiences.

The word “stories” is key here, for while few FOB Haiku poems are narratives, all point to the fact that what we feel to be true about military service is in fact imaginatively constructed. It’s not the stories we tell so much, but the stories in our minds that define who we are and what we hope to be. The idea that the words we use to process experiences and observations are themselves imaginative creations with histories and implications becomes clear in a poem titled “we are the stories”:

we are the stories
we tell ourselves
the ones we’ve worn out
and broken in
like boots,
for now we can march on for days
where once we would get blisters
on our souls

The best FOB Haiku poems forego playfulness and academic learnedness to make more serious calculations in a more plain-spoken voice of the cost of service and war. In these the adherence to form is looser, but image, word, and line are more precise, more personal, and more independently conceived, and as a result more arresting. “love note from a drone,” for example, addresses the postmodern way of war. It starts:

I had been watching you for days,
fingers hovering above the button,
waiting for release.
I am sorry I crashed your wedding….

“fighting seasons” explores the dissonance felt by soldiers, Iowa men and women of the land and sky, transported halfway around the world to battle an enemy equally tied to the turning of the Earth. It begins:

Even a city boy from Eastern Iowa
follows the markets, like sports, on the A.M. radio
and have a vague sense of the harvests to come….

Among other positions in the Iowa Guard, Brown served often in his unit’s Tactical Operations Center, the command post headquarters responsible for tracking actions of subordinate units and relaying radio reports higher and lower. The duty clearly played to Brown’s strengths as an alert observer of people and events, as well as a wielder of words, and in fact probably honed them. In “static” Brown uses military radio-speak to tersely drive home the broken-and-distorted (a military radio-speak pun of my own) effect of military duty and its associated language on the life of home and family.

Turns out, the psychiatrist
is a former Navy Corpsman.
He says your 5-year-old problem is
That some signals can’t get through.

I learned brevity on Army radios,
pushing-to-talk in 5-second bursts,
waiting a beat to hear the response,
always thinking one phrase ahead.

Instead of speaking louder, I’m told
I should dial into your distance,
Quietly fine-tuning our conversations
As if I am cracking a safe.

How was your day, “over.”

Did you make any new friends, “over.”

Daddy loves you, “out.”

The Iowans I knew were committed to job performance and organizational goals, and were reluctant to say mean things about other people. Their dry wisecracking, I’m thinking, helped reduce pressure to perform and conform. Wise counsel and communication might be said to be another means to understand pressure-laden situations. Judging from his online persona and Welcome to FOB Haiku‘s cover blurbs, Brown seems to have served a valuable dual role as an Iowan citizen-soldier: part court-jester and part seasoned voice-of-experience. His excellent poetry does much the same for military, veteran, and civilian readers of war literature.

Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa,” Welcome to FOB Haiku:  War Poems from Inside the Wire.  Middle West Press, LLC, 2015.  The limitations of WordPress have caused me to slightly modify the quoted passages.

2015: An Updated War Literature and Art Compendium

December 7, 2015
Soldier with mine detector, Iraq, 2005, by Bill Putnam.

Soldier with mine detector, Iraq, 2005, by Bill Putnam. Used with permission.

I’ve updated the list of fiction, poetry, memoir, criticism, photography, and film I compiled last year about this time–new entries are bolded. 2015 was a busy year for contemporary war literature, with at least six novels published and four volumes of poetry. Also notable were new books by Colby Buzzell and Roy Scranton, two veterans who made their names as war writers but who are now expanding their reach to subjects far beyond their experiences as junior enlisted soldiers in Iraq.

Not many Iraq and Afghanistan titles are making year-end “best of” lists in major media venues so far in 2015, I’m sorry to observe. Critics–the “beadles of literature,” as they were called by early American novelist John Neal–apparently are not as impressed by this year’s offerings as they have been in past years by war-writers such as Phil Klay, Ben Fountain, and Kevin Powers. Or, perhaps they’ve decided “Mission Accomplished” in terms of what needs to be said artistically about fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Let’s hope that novels by Roy Scranton, Matt Gallagher, and others to be published next year reverse the trend. Movies about Iraq and Afghanistan also seemed scant in 2015—what am I forgetting?—but in 2016 film versions of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds will be released.

I’ve added a list of major theatrical, dance, and operatic performances that address war in Iraq or Afghanistan.

If you think I’ve missed an important or interesting work, please let me know.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction:

Nadeem Aslam: The Wasted Vigil (2008)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse): You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict: Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army): Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army): The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: The Watch (2012)
Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (2013)
Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter: Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton: What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum: They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson: Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith): The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz: Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Paul Avallone: Tattoo Zoo (2014)
Greg Baxter: The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn: Wynne’s War (2014)
Kara Hoffman: Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC): Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC): Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC): Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)
Eliot Ackerman (USMC): Green on Blue (2015) 
Eric Bennett, A Big Enough Lie (2015)
Brandon Caro (Navy): Old Silk Road (2015)
Jesse Goolsby (USAF): I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them (2015)
Carrie Morgan, The Road Back from Broken (2015)
John Renehan (Army): The Valley (2015)
Ross Ritchell (Army): The Knife (2015)
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (Army): War of the Encylopaedists (2015)
Matt Gallagher, Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti, A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Poetry:

Juliana Spahr: This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army): Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Sinan Antoon, The Baghdad Blues (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse): Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse): Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army): Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF): Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army): Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse): Wife and War (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army): Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)
Sylvia Bowersox (Army):  Triggers (2015)
Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa” (Army): Welcome to FOB Haiku (2015)
Colin Halloran (Army): Icarian Flux (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan Memoir and Reportage (selected). I’ve greatly reduced this list from last year—I’m only including works that seem supremely artistic, imaginative, conceptual, or literary in their approach. Or, those that seem uniquely alert to new possibilities for publication, such as Colby Buzzell’s and Matt Gallagher’s memoirs, which originated in blogs begun in Iraq.

Colby Buzzell (Army): My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005)
Sebastian Junger: War (2010)
Matt Gallagher (Army): Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): Dust to Dust (2012)
Brian Castner (Air Force): The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows (2012)
Adrian Bonenburger (Army): Afghan Post: One Soldier’s Correspondence from America’s Forgotten War (2014)
Jennifer Percy: Demon Camp (2014)
Brian Turner (Army): My Life as a Foreign Country (2014)
Colby Buzzell (Army): Thank You For Being Expendable (2015)
Roy Scranton (Army): Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Photography:

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington: Infidel (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): The Art in War (2010)
Michael Kamber: Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq (2013)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film:

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2008)
Standard Operating Procedures, Errol Morris, director (2008)
Stop-Loss, Kimberly Pierce, director (2008)
Generation Kill, David Simon and Ed Burns, executive producers (2008)
Brothers, Jim Sheridan, director (2009)
Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, director (2009)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, director (2009)
Green Zone, Paul Greengrass, director (2010)
Return, Liza Johnson, director (2011)
Zero-Dark-Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, director (2012)
Lone Survivor, Peter Berg, director (2013)
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, director (2014)
Korengal, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
The Last Patrol, Sebastian Junger, director (2014)
Fort Bliss, Claudia Myers, director (2014)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Theater, Opera, and Dance 

Exit 12 Dance Company, directed by Roman Baca (USMC), New York City (2007)
Duty, Honor, Profit:  One Man’s Struggle with the War in Iraq, written and directed by D. Richard Tucker/ACT Theater, Seattle (2008)
The Telling Project (participatory staged readings), founded by Jonathan Wei (2008)
Theater of War (staged reading of Greek drama and interactive cast-and-audience discussion), directed by Brian Doerries (2008)
The Great Game: Afghanistan (drama), directed by Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham, New York City (2009)
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (drama), written by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Moises Kaufman, starring Robin Williams, New York City (2011)
Home of the Soldier (musical drama), written by Ben Cunis, directed by Paata Tsikurishvili/Synthetic Theater, Arlington, VA (2012)
You Know When the Men Are Gone (drama), based on stories by Siobhan Fallon, directed by Joel Mullennix and Amy Kossow/Word for Word Performing Arts Company, San Francisco (2013)
Goliath (drama), written by Takeo Rivera, directed by Alex Mallory/Poetic Theater, New York City (2014)
Dijla Wal Forat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates (drama), written by Maurice Decaul (USMC), directed by Alex Mallory/Poetic Theater, New York City (2015)
The Lonely Soldier Monologues, based on Helen Benedict’s The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, Concept Theater, London (2015)
The Long Walk (opera), based on Brian Castner’s memoir of the same name, music by Jeremy Howard Beck, libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann/American Lyric Theater, Saratoga, NY (2015)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Criticism:

Elizabeth Samet: Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (2007)
Stacey Peebles: Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (2011)
Elizabeth Samet: No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014)
Brian Doerries: The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (2015)
Ikram Masmoudi: War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction (2015)

The lists are subjective and idiosyncratic, neither complete nor authoritative. Still, they might help those interested more clearly and broadly view the fields of contemporary war literature and film. My lists do not reflect hundreds of stories, poems, and photographs published individually in anthologies, magazines, and on the web. Some of my favorite stories, by authors such as Mariette Kalinowski, Maurice Decaul, Will Mackin, and Brian Van Reet, and photographs, such as the one by Bill Putnam published here, thus do not appear. Another deficiency is the lack of works by international authors and filmmakers, particularly Iraqi and Afghan artists. That project awaits completion.

War Poetry: Philip Metres’ Sand Opera

June 26, 2015

Sand OperaCompared to the generous amount of contemporary war fiction published in the last few years, volumes of war poetry have been sparse. The fact’s lamentable, because war poetry at this point, it seems to me, possesses superior potential to surprise and intrigue. Philip Metres’ Sand Opera is a case in point. A rumination on our millennial wars, particularly Iraq and especially the brutality of Abu Ghraib, told from a a variety of American and Iraqi perspectives, Sand Opera doesn’t disappoint at any level—line, stanza, individual poem, or as a comprehensive whole. The poetry world agrees, for Metres has just been honored as the inaugural winner of the Hunt Prize, a new poetry award sponsored by Yale University that comes with a $25,000 prize. The striking cover of Sand Opera prepares the reader well for what’s inside: Metres has created a “terrible beauty,” to use Yeats’ phrase, out of the grimmest of grim subject matter.

Abu Ghraib, what a horrible and embarrassing memory. Like the worst mistake we ever made, could we please pretend it never happened, never speak its name again, and pray like hell it never ever reoccurs? That’s not going to happen, nor should it, much as we might desire it, but writing about Abu Ghraib artistically in ways that aren’t crudely didactic and sputtering with obvious outrage would seem equally impossible.

The poetic imagination goes where it goes, though, and thankfully finds ways to solve problems encountered along the way. As the title of Sand Opera implies, Metres draws on the idiom of music to recoup one of the nation’s most cringe-inducing moments ever aesthetically while retaining the sting of indictment. Sub-sections within the work are named “arias,” “lyres,” and “recitatives,” and individual poems “blues,” as in “The Blues of Charles Graner” and “The Blues of Lynddie England.” Collectively the assembled voices and musical motifs function as a libretto of horror and anguish—when read cover-to-cover in one sitting Sand Opera easily renders the impression that it would work impressively as a script for a staged performance blending multiple voices, sound, light, movement, and props.

Metres has more than musical motifs at his disposal, too. About half of Sand Opera’s poems are lyrics—expressions of thought emanating from the perspective of discrete poetic personas and employing traditional line and stanza forms. But others are full of postmodern linguistic and typographic trickery. One poem, for example, of a series with the same title—“(echo / ex/)”—consists of nothing but punctuation marks. Other poems draw on “Standard Operating Procedures” (get it?), official chunks of text and diagrams drawn from government documents pertaining to Abu Ghraib (and Guantanamo) that Metres rearranges spatially on the page and then edits, if that is the right word, by redacting words and phrases with the use of black bars—a reenactment of militaristic truth-suppression put to the use of art. Poetry lives and dies on its ability to keep the reader snared in the ongoing language word-and-image web it spins word-by-word and line-by-line, and I for one enjoyed Sand Opera’s showy effects. Postmodern textual experiments generally work as highly self-conscious permutations of what might be called “standard language operating procedures”; poets also employ them to complicate conventional notions of distinctive personas and chronological narrative. But that’s too theoretical and not really even true to my sense of what Metres is doing with language in Sand Opera. For me, the flamboyant page-faces function theatrically or, dare I say it, operatically, to infuse the ideas and words floating therein with the magic of performance.

The limitations of my webpage make it hard to reproduce Sand Opera poems here, but examples can be found at the following poetry websites:

Connotation Press


Elective Affinities


To what end does Metres go to such lengths? What does he want us to think about Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo? Individual poems are related from the point-of-view of Iraqi prisoners and American guards with empathy, plausibility, and dramatic intensity. The perspectives of Iraqis are represented more cogently and compellingly than in any other contemporary war imaginative work I’ve yet read, while the poem-portraits of Graner, England, and their fellow military policemen manage the difficult feat of holding them accountable without bludgeoning them as sadistically as they tortured their prisoners or turning them into cartoons. Another set of poems report Metres’ own wrestle with the war from his perspective as an Arab-American whose father served in Vietnam. The last poem in Sand Opera, titled “Compline,” suggests that we are living in dark times, God-forsaken in ways that go past religious platitude, and the only thing worse than being God-forsaken will be to suffer God’s wrath if or when God returns. That idea, like Abu Ghraib, is so painful to contemplate that it can’t be done directly or for long, because it is like staring into a black burning sun. The only way to apprehend the horror is through artistic creations that leaven human and existential despair with as much imagination and love as can be mustered.

Los Angeles Review of Books interview with Phil Metres here.

Philip Metres, Sand Opera.  Alice James Books, 2015.  Cover art: “I am Baghdad II” by Ayad Alkadhi, Leila Heller Gallery, New York.

Thanks to Roy Scranton for recommending Sand Opera to me.

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project

May 6, 2015

Washing the DustWashing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project is, as far as I can tell, the second volume published by the organization named in its title. The first, The Sky is a Nest of Swallows, appeared in 2012, while Washing the Dust from Our Hearts is out just this year. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), formed in 2009 by journalist and novelist Masha Hamilton, is a collective comprised of interested American writers and publishing world friends who facilitate via the Internet writing by women in Afghanistan. Most of the collective’s work is online, but Washing the Dust from Our Hearts and The Sky is a Nest of Swallows represent efforts–pretty substantial ones–to place in print female voices from a land often described as the worst place in the world to be a woman. Afghanistan is also said to be a land thick with poets, with a tradition dating back to the great 13th-century mystic Rumi, but it has been a male tradition never hospitable to women writers and now even less so under the pressure of the Taliban.

The Afghan poets who participate in AWWP do so at great risk—the hardship and danger of writing publicly, especially for Western audiences, is writ large in many Washing the Dust from Our Hearts poems. Women participate, they tell us, because they feel empowered by doing so and because they want the world to know their plight. They use the artistry of poetry to give shape to the suffering of women and the nation at large at the hands of the Taliban during an extended period of war. The beauty of poetry comes in the expression of loss, mixed with pride in their defiant survivors’ strength, and their ability to imagine a better Afghanistan that was and which might be again.

My favorite poem in Washing the Dust from Our Hearts is “My Beautiful and Lovely Kandahar” by a woman named Shogofa, the link to which is at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project website. Another favorite, a stanza from which I will quote here, is “My Wild Imagination” by “M”:

I am one of those women with a wild imagination
who yearns to see equality of Afghan men and women
in action and law. I want lovers to walk
in the streets of Kabul, Herat, Mazar,
holding hands, sharing hugs,
free of harassment and harsh looks aimed at them like bullets.

An interesting aspect of AWWP is that the women write in English; the poems in Washing the Dust from Our Hearts appear in their English original version and also in versions translated into Dari, the Afghan version of Persian, and then transcribed into Arabic script by a woman named Pari. This remarkable alchemy of poetic production and reproduction is made possible by the care and let us not forget resources of the American (and other international) members of the collective. I salute AWWP for their effort and achievement and encourage you to support them.

Afghan Women’s Writing Project homepage here.

A photo of a Kabul bridge, by Roya, from the AWWP website.

A photo of a Kabul bridge, by Roya, from the AWWP website.

Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Edited by Lori J.O. Noack; translated by Pari. Grayson Books, 2015.

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