Posted tagged ‘War theater’

On Stage in New York and New Jersey

April 25, 2018

The cast of Autumn Ever After, with John Meyer kneeling in front and Karen Alvarado holding baby Mateo.

John M. Meyer, an airborne-Ranger Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, has turned himself into a playwright-actor-director-producer of great talent and productivity. While a student at Texas, Meyer wrote and acted in a play titled American Volunteers and had another play he authored, Cryptomnesia, performed by Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Since moving to New Jersey with his wife Karen Alvarado, who just graduated from the Rutgers MFA acting program, Meyer has remained busy in theater while working on a PhD dissertation on British World War II legend Orde Wingate. I go to many Rutgers theatrical productions, and Meyer and Alvarado live across town from me, but I first met Meyer when he emailed me out of the blue to discuss a play he was writing. Called Westhusing in the House of Atreus, it was based on the life and mysterious death in Iraq of Colonel Ted Westhusing, an infantry officer and philosophy professor at West Point whom I knew well. The play—as yet unproduced—combines Meyer’s interest in contemporary war with Greek and Shakespearean theater, as the play riffs on themes from classic mythology and large swaths of it are written in blank verse. Later I watched Meyer act in two plays in New York City, Philoctetes and Our Trojan War, and Alvarado perform leading roles in two Rutgers plays, one an all-female production of Julius Caesar (she played Marc Antony) and the other Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Last summer, my wife and I hosted a parlor play in our apartment titled The Priceless Slave, written by Meyer and starring Alvarado.

I was recently drawn even further into the Meyer-Alvarado orbit when they asked me to join a writing group they had organized under the auspices of Aquila Theater’s Warrior Chorus. For several years now, Aquila Theater has robustly sponsored plays that combine interest in contemporary war and Greek classics (including the aforementioned Philoctetes and Our Trojan War). This cross-pollination speaks to the background of Aquila Theater executive director Peter Meineck, a Brit who served in his own nation’s army before obtaining a PhD in the Classics and a teaching position at NYU. Meyer’s bent is much the same as Meineck’s, and under his leadership nine of us gathered on Friday nights for two months to brainstorm ideas for a crazy-quilt adaption of Midsummer Night’s Dream and two Greek classics, Aristophanes’ Frogs and Euripides’ Hippolytus we called Autumn Ever After. The end-result, which we performed in two staged readings, did not feature a particularly martial theme, but all the participants were either veterans or family members of veterans. Our Warrior Chorus writing group was one of four, each led by a vet-theater veteran (Jenny Pacanowski, Neath Williams, and Dan Murphy, by name) and featuring vets in writing and performing roles, so many thanks to Aquila Theater for its generous support of the cause and for facilitating my stage debut, late in my late-late-late middle-age.

My theatrical debut, as Herakles, no less–a role I was born to play?

A second recent Meyer-Alvarado production, even more central to the subject of contemporary war theater, is Bride of the Gulf, a play about Iraqi civilian and British soldier interaction over ten years in Basra, Iraq. Written by Meyer and directed by and starring Alvarado, Bride of the Gulf recently completed short runs in New York City and New Brunswick, NJ, in preparation for a run at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland later this summer. A publicity blurb describes the plot economically: “Amid the violence that engulfed southern Iraq in 2007, a sharp-witted Iraqi woman searches for her missing husband at the behest of her mother-in-law.” The blurb doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the characterization, which includes British soldiers and news crews and sectarian militiamen, in addition to Iraqi non-combatants whose lives are ruined by war. The acting, featuring Alvarado as the bereaved bride (“Bride of the Gulf” is also a nickname for Basra) and a cast of American and American-Iraqi actors, was intelligent and vibrant. Even better was the staging:  a mesmerizing swirl of movement, speech, sound, music, light, and image. Overall, it was intriguing to watch a play about the Iraq war written and performed by (mostly) Americans that doesn’t make the physical suffering and moral anguish of American soldiers its subject and isn’t beholden to strict straightforward linear narration and representations of reality. From my short acquaintance with Meyer and Alvarado, I’ve learned that their sense of what a play can do and be is expansive. Never staid, too-talky, or one-dimensional, a Meyer-Alvarado production makes use of a wide range of stagecraft possibilities to generate immediate effect and lasting resonance.

Bride of the Gulf, before the lights go down.

Many thanks to my Autumn Ever After castmates, from left to right in the picture above:  Andrea Bellamore, Melina Schmidt, James P. Stanton, Frank Dolce, Lou Bullock, and Nelly Savinon.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Writing, Theater, Art, and Film 2017

December 15, 2017

Photo by Bill Putnam.

2017 brought new novels by Elliot Ackerman, David Abrams, Helen Benedict, and Siobhan Fallon, and new poetry volumes by Jehanne Dubrow and Elyse Fenton. Also arriving was a first novel by contemporary war short-fiction pioneer Brian Van Reet. By any measure, that’s a bumper crop of new contemporary war fiction and poetry by veteran mil-and-war authors. Besides these works, though, releases of novels, short story collections, and volumes of poetry by major publishing houses were in short supply. Fortunately, university, regional, and independent presses picked up some of the slack: Caleb Cage’s short-story collection Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada appeared courtesy of University of Nevada Press, Eric Chandler’s poetry collection Hugging This Rock was published by Charlie Sherpa’s Middle West Press, and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. and Christopher Meeks self-published their very interesting novel The Chords of War.

Fallon’s The Confusion of Languages and Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing only indirectly reference Iraq and Afghanistan, but the locale of each book—Jordan and Turkey, respectively—their interest in conflict and empire, and their authors’ formidable reputations as military insiders validates their inclusion on this year’s list. Other renown war-writers, such as Brian Castner and Roy Scranton, have begun to craft literary identities and build publishing histories well-beyond the confining limits of war literature, a trend that will certainly intensify in coming years.

Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing earned National Book Award short-list honors, and Van Reet’s Spoils made The Guardian and Wall Street Journal’s year-end “best of” lists. Despite such laurels, war writing as a genre seems to have fallen from major media favor—we’re far from the 2014 days when Vanity Fair and the New York Times ran fawning author portraits and glowing genre appraisals. Online writing by veteran writers has fortunately continued vibrantly apace on websites such as The War Horse, Military Experience and the Arts, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, 0-Dark-Thirty, and War, Literature, and the Arts–and thank you very much all concerned.

Our Trojan War, a modern-war/Homeric-war hybrid, and Jay Moad’s one-man-play Outside Paducah were the highlights of the year in terms of theatrical productions related to Iraq and Afghanistan staged in New York City, but elsewhere in-and-out of NYC the year saw no big-name, big-cast, big-money productions that garnered national attention. There was, however, plenty of action at the regional, local, DIY, collective, performance art, and spoken-word level. Toward the end of the year, former Marine and current movie star Adam Driver announced a $10,000 prize to the winner of a veterans playwriting competition, encouraging news for the energetic talent in the grassroots theater scene.

The only major motion picture released in 2017 about war in Iraq or Afghanistan that a caused much of a splash was War Machine, a Netflix TV-release starring Brad Pitt that I am including here by exception. American Sniper writer Jason Hall’s directorial debut Thank You For Your Service (based on David Finkel’s book) and Richard Linklater’ Last Flag Flying came-and-went quickly. Art and photography exhibition choices offered slim pickings, too, though I’m happy to report Bill Putnam’s photography–oft on display on Time Now–was featured at exhibits in Washington, DC, and New York this year.

In 2016, I included a list of notable non-fiction works about war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but, as with Hollywood movies and the art-and-photo scene, the genre seems to have dried up. I’ve long since stopped tracking veteran memoirs closely, but a Military Times list of year’s best military books offers a couple of titles worth checking out.

The poetry list includes many new entries cribbed from Charlie Sherpa’s Mother of All 21st Century War Poetry Lists, which observes these things far better than I do–many thanks.

Please notify me of any errors or omissions, and I’ll correct the record.

Iraq and Afghanistan War Fiction

Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil (2008)
David Zimmerman, The Sandbox (2010)
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)
The Road Ahead, Adrian Bonenberger (Army) and Brian Castner (Air Force), eds. (2016)
Matt Gallagher (Army), Youngblood (2016)
Matthew Hefti (Air Force), A Hard and Heavy Thing (2016)
Tom King and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol 1: Bang. Bang. Bang. (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)
David Abrams (Army), Brave Deeds (2017)
Elliot Ackerman (USMC), Dark at the Crossing (2017)
Helen Benedict, Wolf Season (2017)
Caleb Cage (Army), Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada (2017)
Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse), The Confusion of Languages (2017)
Tom King (CIA) and Mitch Gervais, The Sheriff of Babylon, vol. 2: Pow. Pow. Pow. (2017)
Christopher Meeks and Samuel Gonzalez, Jr. (Army), The Chords of War (2017)
Brian Van Reet (Army), Spoils (2017)

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)
Frances Richey (Army mother), The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (2008)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Clamor (2010)
Frances Richey (Army mother), Voices of the Guard (2010)
Brian Turner (Army), Phantom Noise (2010)
Allan Gray (Army), Overwatch (2011)
Tom Sleigh, Army Cats (2011)
Colin Halloran (Army), Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Jason Poudrier (Army), Red Fields (2012)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), Mormon Boy (2012)
Paul Wasserman (USAF), Say Again All (2012)
Charles Bondhus, All the Heat We Could Carry (2013)
Stanton S. Coerr (USMC), Rubicon (2013)
Kerry James Evans (Army), Bangalore (2013)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse), Wife and War (2013)
Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers (2013)
Chuck Rybak, War (2013)
David R. Dixon (USMC), Call in the Air (2014)
Frederick Foote (Navy), Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry of War (2014)
Gerardo Mena (USMC), The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters (2014)
Seth Brady Tucker (Army), We Deserve the Gods We Ask For (2014)
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)
Victoria Kelly (spouse), When the Men Go Off to War (2015)
Philip Metres: Sand Opera (2015)
Tom Sleigh, Station Zed (2015)
Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry and Prose from the Afghan Women Writing Project (2015)
Paul David Adkins (Army), Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath (2016)
Jonathan Baxter (Army), The Ghosts of Babylon (2016)
Lance B. Brender (Army) and C. Rodney Pattan (Army), In Cadence (2016)
Kim Garcia, Drone (2016)
Nicole Goodwin (Army), Warcries (2016)
Karen Skolfield (Army), Frost in the Low Areas (2016)
Lisa Stice (USMC spouse), Uniform (2016)
Home Front: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, Bryony Doran’s Bulletproof, and Isabel Palmer’s Atmospherics (2016, UK only)
Paul David Adkins (Army), FM 101-5-1 MCRP 5-2A: Operational Terms and Graphics (2017)
Eric Chandler (USAF), Hugging This Rock (2017)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse), Dots & Dashes (2017)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse), Sweet Insurgent (2017)
Benjamin Hertwig (Canadian Army), Slow War (2017)

Iraq and Afghanistan War Film

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis, director (2007)
Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford, director (2007)
Battle for Haditha, Nick Broomfield, 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 (HBO) (2008)
The Objective, Daniel Myrick, director (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)
Hyena Road, Paul Gross, director (2015)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee, director (2016)
Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Clement Cogitore, director (2016)
War Dogs, Todd Phillips, director (2016)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, directors (2016)
Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater, director (2017)
Sand Castle, Fernando Coimbra (Netflix) (2017)
Thank Your For Your Service, Jason Hall, director (2017)
The Wall, Doug Liman, director (2017)
War Machine, David Michod (Netflix) (2017)

Matthew Hefti, Benjamin Busch, and Mary Doyle at AWP17, with a glimpse of Teresa Fazio in the left foreground and Whitney Terrell on the right. Photo by Bill Putnam.

 

On Stage: J.A. Moad II’s Outside Paducah

September 23, 2017

USAF veteran J.A. Moad II’s one-man play Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home, about the multi-generational angst of southern Illinois men for whom military service is both a rite-of-passage and a curse, begins a 21-show run at New York City’s Wild Project theater this coming Tuesday. Having read the print version of Outside Paducah and having watched Moad perform a scene from it at last winter’s AWP conference makes me excited to see a complete performance. The giant emotions engendered by veterans’ issues play well on the stage, and Outside Paducah targets two big ones: the often-fatal allure of war on young men and its crippling effects on those who survive. Set in 2007 in the small towns across the Ohio River from Paducah, KY, Moad’s play stitches together ruminations on the Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq with scenes that dramatize the disintegration of Middle American families and communities concurrent with the nation’s increasingly dismal military history. Moad’s eloquence, on display since his days chronicling the war writing scene for the War, Literature, and the Arts journal blogsite, are testified to in blurbs by two war-writing greats, Robert Olen Butler and Brian Turner:

It is a tribute to J.A. Moad’s mastery of narrative voice that Outside Paducah not only plays brilliantly as a theater piece, but reads just as brilliantly as literature. This is a richly resonant work of art that profoundly illuminates the complex entwining of war and the families of warriors.  (Butler)

Outside Paducah offers profound glimpses into the lives of an overlooked and war-torn America. J.A. Moad has crafted a poignant world with these character studies, and uses a deft and mature hand in doing so.  (Turner)

Outside Paducah is sponsored by Poetic Theater Productions, an off-off-off-Broadway company that has frequently staged mil-and-vet-themed plays at Wild Project. I watched Maurice Decaul’s Dijla Wal Furat: Between the Tigris and the Euphrates there, and have myself read at a Poetic Theater veterans’ event called Kicking Down Doors: Veterans and Their Families in America. Each performance of Outside Paducah will be opened by a reading or performance by members of New York’s active veterans’ art-and-writing scene, and the official Opening Night, Friday, September 29, will feature an extended kick-off program sponsored by War, Literature, and the Arts; Warrior Writers; the Veteran Artist Program; and Consequence magazine that includes vet writers Jerri Bell, Drew Pham, Tony Schwalm, and Jenny Pacanowski. I won’t be able to make that performance, but I already have tickets for another, and I encourage you to go, too. The ever-vexed questions of how to help veterans return from war and how America should or might remember its war heroes aren’t going away any time soon. Comprehensive and practical answers are in short supply, unfortunately, so ever-more trenchant portraits of the problems, such as Outside Paducah vividly provides, are most definitely welcome.

A review of an Outside Paducah performance in Minnesota last year can be found here.

J.A. Moad II. Outside Paducah: The Wars at Home.  War-Torn Books, 2016.

Summer of 17: Women Fighting and Writing

August 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Watched Pot Begins to Bubble: War Writing at AWP17

February 18, 2017
Matthew Hefti, Ben Busch, and Mary Doyle in the background, Whitney Terrell in the foreground. Photo by Bill Putnam.

War writers Matt Hefti, Ben Busch, and Mary Doyle in the background, Whitney Terrell in the foreground. Photo by Bill Putnam.

By rough count, the number of war-writing panels at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Washington, DC, last week were fewer than in past years. Of the panels I attended, there was not much presentation of new work, consideration of contentious current events, or anticipation of future possibilities. Last year in Los Angeles, AWP16 celebrated the diversification of veteran voices: now not just white male combat vets, but women, people-of-color, and non-combat military jobs and experiences. At AWP17, that interest was muted, not foregrounded, though curiosity about Iraqi, Afghan, and other Islamic perspectives emerged on panels on adventure-and-conflict journalism and Iraqi fiction in translation. Both panels broached important matters of ethics, aesthetics, and methodology inherent in writing about the Middle East and southwest Asia after fifteen years of nonstop fighting and intense American involvement, but their focus was on journalism and translation, not war fiction, memoir, and poetry written by Americans. Two panels asked veteran authors to reflect on teaching war writing in classrooms and workshops, a subject I care a lot about, but one a step or two removed from the current political hurly-burly or consideration of the panelists’ own craft. Only panels on using poetry to bridge the civil-military divide and on war-writing in the Midwestern “flyover states”—both led by Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa”–explored the love-hate relationship between the American public and war, the military, and militarism. The two panels began to connect the dots between individual military experience and national trends since America first went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, for which I was grateful, but the small taste left me wanting more.

If the war-writing panels themselves were not particularly sharp-edged, that’s not to say that AWP17 reflected a diminution of the vitality of the contemporary war-writing field. If anything, the case was quite the opposite: collectively, the large war-writing contingent in Washington positively bubbled with conviviality, encouragement, and excitement. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know the hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie that comes with arriving safely to a FOB after a long convoy. There was much the same high-five euphoria in the air in DC, as if we found ourselves surprised by finding such welcome and comfort in the midst of troubled times.

What accounts for the upward-trending spirit? Many attendees were animated by Writers Resist Trump activism, particularly as it was organized by Andrew Slater, one of the original Fire and Forget authors, who led a contingent of war writers to the Capitol to lobby on behalf of interpreters affected by the new president’s restrictions on immigration. Another sign of health was the frequent presence of veteran-authors on panels devoted to subjects other than Iraq and Afghanistan—evidence that talented scene stalwarts were now finding fresh subjects and audiences. A cohort of interesting recently-published authors, including Eric Chandler, John Renehan, Whitney Terrell, Matthew Komatsu, Matthew Hefti, and Odie Lindsey, brought energy and new thinking to ongoing discussions as they mixed with familiar AWP faces. Equally exciting was the return to the war-writing fold of many of the field’s pioneers—David Abrams, Elyse Fenton, Kevin Powers, and Helen Benedict, among them—who had not been seen at AWP recently and who now were eagerly met by old hands and newcomers alike. A related factor was anticipation of new work arriving soon by Abrams, Fenton, Powers, Benedict, Jehanne Dubrow, Brian Van Reet, and Siobhan Fallon. With second books on the way from the writers who trailblazed the contemporary war-writing surge, the genre’s enduring worth seems assured. More importantly, war authors with two books or more out, along with occasional published pieces and social media pronouncements, have begun to stake out characteristic themes and subjects, adding maturity and depth to individual bodies of work and collective conversations.

My own contribution to AWP17 consisted of moderating a panel titled From Verse to Stage and Screen: Veterans Adapt. The conceit was to explore the artistic transformation of printed words to public multi-media performance. Bringing the subject to life, panelists Jay Moad, Jenny Pacanowski, Benjamin Busch, and Brian Turner read or performed passages of their work as examples of the process. Moad, a last-minute replacement for playwright Maurice Decaul, led off with a gripping rendition of a scene from Outside Paducah, his one-man play about three generations of war-torn veterans. Pacanowski followed with a raucous spoken-word poem titled “Combat Dick”—surely an instant classic in the annals of writing by women veterans. Busch read an intriguing scene about the peeling of an orange (really!–only Busch could have pulled this off) from his movie Bright and invited us to consider how art that speaks not the name of war can be about war nonetheless. Turner concluded by leading the audience in a group “hum” (literally!) that he recorded for use as ambient noise in a future mixed-media project. He then had us repeat our hum as the backdrop for an incantatory freestyle based on a refrain from an unpublished poem.

At the end of our allotted time, I had not yet asked the panelists to connect their interest in performance with larger worldviews and issues, so I might stand guilty of the same quietist-escapist tendencies I noted above: Was our panel a retreat into the pure realm of art or the fantasy-land of entertainment? That’s not how I felt about it then, though, nor now. Rather, the marvelous performances by Moad, Pacanowksi, Busch, and Turner modeled the imagination, courage, humor, and found moments of joy that are in short supply these days and in fact seem under threat. In the Q&A, an audience member, obviously inspired by the panelists’ ability to turn a drab conference room into a magical collective performance space, wondered if they might be able to work similar transformations in public places full of unwitting, unsolicited people. The concept was hard to understand, but the question-asker seemed to have in mind a Situationist-style performance-art infusion of the mundane world with the restorative and righteous properties of interactive theater. That seemed a lot to ask of artists even as fearless and creative as Moad, Pacanowski, Busch, and Turner, who remained noncommittal while taking in the idea. The question made me think, though: what it asked for seems already to apply to the ongoing national political spectacle, as we’ve all been turned by the new president into participating members of The Trump Show. Here’s to an equal-but-opposite-and-worthier counter-assault, mounted by writers who know what it means to fight, using all available tools and energy to strengthen the artistic and intellectual might of the nation, and hence its social, cultural, and political health, too.

 

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

June 4, 2016

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

vwpbannerlc1

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

Poetic License

My name and me in lights.

Jenny Pacanowski and Everett Case

Jenny Pacanowski and Everett Case.

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

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

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

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

Klay

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

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

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

Memorial Day 2016: Westhusing

May 30, 2016

Westhusing 1When Colonel Theodore S. “Ted” Westhusing died in Iraq in 2005, he was the highest-ranking US military officer to have lost his life in either Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. Most signs point to suicide, just a few weeks before he was due to rotate home, but some evidence suggests, and some believe fervently in this evidence, that he was killed by the American contracted security operatives he supervised. Either way, it was clear that he was distressed by the unethical behavior of his American subordinates and the elite Iraqi police his unit was in charge of training and the failure of his commanders, notably then-Lieutenant General David Petraeus, to heed his warnings about the fraud, waste, and abuse he observed. That Westhusing had written a PhD dissertation on military honor, based on his study of classical Greek philosophy, and that he was on-track to become the head of West Point’s Department of English and Philosophy and thus in charge of the ethical education of military academy cadets adds to the tragedy, the irony, or the poignancy of his story. One read of Westhusing’s life is that his rigid principles made him too brittle to deal with the vagrancies of war. Another is that his death was an important early sign of just how badly the Army was struggling to accomplish its many-sizes-too-big mission to modernize and Westernize Iraqi security forces. A third casts Westhusing’s example as a cautionary tale that the war was destined to chew up, in one form or another, any good man or woman sent to fight it. Personally, I think Westhusing was a victim of a collision between two war-fighting ideologies: an ethical approach predicated on the laws of war that Westhusing believed the 1990s United States military exemplified, and the new brutal, results-oriented way of war, based on targeted assassinations and enhanced interrogation tactics, that the American security contractors and Iraqi secret police were bringing into being.

Westhusing’s death was the story of a moment, but even in its time it did not really grip the American public, who wanted to hear about heroes, not senior officers who cracked up and couldn’t take it any more. They probably wondered if Westhusing didn’t reveal the basic incongruity of academic scholarship and tough-minded warfighting—any major fool might say the two disciplines are incompatible. Perplexed or ambivalent or maybe embarrassed about this ambitious military officer who campaigned for the position that eventually overwhelmed him, many might have also have wondered why he couldn’t have just gutted out a few more weeks, returned to his wife and three children, settled into his comfy and distinguished West Point position, and put the whole mess behind him. That’s what any sane man would do, right, and who’s to say that’s not what any good man might do, too? Westhusing himself described his life’s journey in terms of goodness—his wife Michelle reports that her husband told her she didn’t need to study philosophy because she was, according to him, “already good.” For Westhusing, then, the military built and tested character in defense of what was right and honorable, and not a dismal human endeavor organized around obedience and violence. Duty in Iraq was for Westhusing a chance to meld personal philosophy with on-the-ground experience. He didn’t dream of being a hero, in other words, he was entranced by the idea that being a soldier offered the greatest possible opportunity to be good.

That’s a lot to contemplate, notions as simultaneously naïve, arrogant, and idealistic as those that drove Chris McCandless into the Alaska backcountry (Westhusing took his PhD at Emory in Atlanta, where McCandless studied as an undergraduate, for what it’s worth). Predictably, not many have lingered over them, but a few observers over the years have viewed Westhusing’s life and death in terms of their metaphorical or even dramatic possibility. Los Angeles Times writer T. Christian Miller in Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, Corporate Greed in Iraq (2006) uses Westhusing to frame his exposé of Bush administration fraud and negligence. A West Point classmate of Westhusing named D. Richard Tucker wrote and staged a one-act play titled Duty, Honor, Profit in Seattle in 2008. I haven’t seen Duty, Honor, Profit, but parts of it can be read online. A description on Tucker’s website suggests that his play is not so much an exploration of character under duress, but a criminal procedural: “The Army’s investigation attributed his death to suicide, but a large amount of evidence pointed towards conspiracy and murder. As Ted’s friends attempt to uncover the mystery, they come to even more disturbing conclusions. This is a true story.”

Recently, I’ve learned that US Army veteran John Michael Meyer is bringing towards production a new play called Westhusing in the House of Atreus. The title refers to a cursed royal family in the Greek mythos from which sprung the warriors Agamemnon and Menelaus; Meyer here repurposes the myth to suggest that the American officer corps, or greater military family, in Iraq, led by General Petraeus, was rife with similar treachery and conflict. Meyer’s credentials are interesting: a Ranger-qualified enlisted infantryman who has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, he is completing a PhD in social sciences at the University of Texas. While an undergraduate at Texas (at roughly the same time Kevin Powers and Brian Van Reet were in the UT MFA program—wow!), Meyer’s play American Volunteers (2010)—about US soldiers at war on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border—won a distinguished prize. Meyer has staged other plays as well, and he also acts: just a couple of weeks ago I saw him play the part of Neoptolemus in a production of Sophocles’ Philoctetes that revisioned Sophocles’ play as a parable of the plight of contemporary veterans. Meyer tells me he was first alerted to Westhusing’s story by one of Westhusing’s old professors; perhaps Meyer saw something of his own effort to combine serious scholarship and hardcore soldiering writ large in Westhusing’s story.

I’ve read a draft of Westhusing in the House of Atreus and loved it. Not only is much of the dialogue in remarkable blank verse, but Westhusing’s last days are plausibly imagined by Meyer and so too is his effort to place Westhusing’s thoughts and acts in the context of the Greek traditions of philosophy, tragedy, and military service that meant so much to him. Meyer also skillfully envisions rich stage roles not just for Westhusing but for secondary characters: General Petraeus, Michelle Westhusing, two contractors who work for Westhusing, his department head at West Point, a female interpreter, and a female military lawyer. The result is not a fawning portrait or vindication of Westhusing, but something even better:  an assessment in full of his complex and often contradictory impulses, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

Here’s to hoping that Westhusing in the House of Atreus makes it to the stage and succeeds in bringing the problems presented by Westhusing into sharp public focus while also telling us much about the man and those closest to him at the end of his life. One issue is that of how we remember military suicides as we honor the nation’s war dead on Memorial Day and throughout the year. I’m magnanimous on the point, for reasons personal as much as abstract. I didn’t know Westhusing in his last days, but I served a tour with him at West Point in the 1990s, where, among other things, he and Michelle were my family’s sponsors when we arrived, helping us choose quarters and making us feel welcome. Later, we played countless hours of basketball and touch football together as members of our department teams. On the “fields of friendly strife,” Westhusing was our fearless captain, and off the field, he was the funny organizer of much merriment, so it’s hard for me to imagine why later in life he would either kill himself or inspire another American to kill him. He could sometimes be aloof, lost in the realm of philosophical thought and his exalted dream of what being an officer meant, but there were many more moments of generosity, good cheer, and wit, and his love for Michelle and their children was clear and strong. I had the chance to meet his high school basketball coach and his family, and it was obvious they adored Westhusing and viewed him as something of a crown prince, which pretty much all of us did, too. Without doubt, Westhusing felt that not just his philosophy but his identity were stained during his short unhappy overseas tour; I’m with Michelle, who, when asked why her husband died, tersely replied, “Iraq,” but feel the story’s reach is also longer and more complicated. What I can state safely, and I’m sensing Meyer agrees, is that Westhusing did not have to die and the world would be a better place if he hadn’t, which, speaking of stories writ large, is basically true of every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine whose life ended in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The greatest tribute paid by a nation to its war dead on Memorial Day is recognition that they, when called upon, fought and gave all, which inspires determination to fight for what’s right in the rest of us. The greatest hope expressed is that those who lost their lives in war did not do so in vain; unfortunately, the deplorable circumstances of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make it hard to cherish that hope in regard to the roughly 7,000 Americans who died in them. But Memorial Days also give the living a chance to remember and honor fighting men and women lost in war as individuals, almost all whom died while young and by their lights trying to be good and do good, and now their lives over long before they fulfilled their potential to become even better people and improve the lives of others. RIP Memorial Day 2016 those with whom I once served and who later died either in Iraq or Afghanistan: Ted Westhusing, Joe Fenty, David Taylor, and Bill Hecker. Also, members of Camp Clark, Afghanistan, units with whom I served in 2008-2009: John Blair, Kevin Dupont, Alex French, Peter Courcy, and Jason Watson. Finally, former students Dennis Pintor, Todd Lambka, and Taylor Force.

TW2

West Point, NY. Picture taken May 30, 2016, by John Nelson.

 


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