Posted tagged ‘War theater’

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 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.

 

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.

Theater of War, Battle of Words

October 24, 2015

Theater of WarSo this is interesting. A classics scholar named Sarah Ruden published on a website called Books and Culture: A Christian Review a scathing review of a book called The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. On another website, Vice, Iraq veteran Colby Buzzell published a glowing review of the same book and included a flattering interview with its author Bryan Doerries. Vice is decidedly not a “Christian Review,” but, war, not religion, is the issue here.

The Theater of War is an off-shoot of a theatrical project of nearly the same name. Formed by Doerries to address battle-related trauma, Theater of War the dramatic project stages readings of classic Greek plays such as Ajax and Philoctetes whose plots feature military heroes in exile and anguish in the years after war. Theater of War productions feature veterans and, sometimes, famous actors, in the lead parts. After the readings are over, Doerries moderates a question-and-answer session that allows cast and audience members to discuss the plays’ relevance to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their difficulty reintegrating into civilian society. The idea is that the plays concern themselves with the psychological damage of war in ways that can be helpful to veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as bringing military and civilian audience members together in dialogue. Theater of War has proven popular, and performances have been staged on several military bases, as well as on many college campuses. Upcoming performances on October 27 and 28 are set for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Ruden, however, is not impressed by The Theater of War. In her review, titled “Art for All of Us: Greek Tragedy and War Veterans,” she offers a few token compliments that praise Doerries’ translating and directing ability, and then switches her critical selector switch from “safe” to “full automatic” and begins engaging targets left-and-right. Ancient Greek tragedy, properly understood, according to Ruden, has little to do with war-related trauma. The Greeks themselves didn’t understand the concept, nor did they ever single out veterans as objects of special social concern who needed public coddling. Jonathan Shay, the psychiatrist who popularized the idea that Greek classics could teach us how to heal veterans with psychological and moral injury, had it all wrong. So does Doerries. The whole belief that “storytelling” can be therapeutic is preposterous. The misuse of art for utilitarian, didactic purposes is a disgrace. Doerries would be better off staging Greek plays for general audiences, to include veterans, and drop the canard that the plays speak meaningfully specifically on behalf of veterans or help bridge the civil-military divide:

“But not only does [Doerries’] set-up keep really glorious adaptations away from the mainstream; it seems apt to deprive the tragedies of the most plausible benefit they could have for the traumatized, which is the benefit of universally shared beauty and meaning. We already ghettoize veterans, not to mention the dehumanizing of and profiteering from prisoners and the terminally ill. ‘Here’s a piece of art designed just for you in your pitiable state’ seems at best a pretty condescending prescription….”

In his review titled “How Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Help Veterans Deal With PTSD,” Buzzell describes approaching the assignment to examine The Theater of War with a skepticism much like Ruden’s, which he expresses equally forcefully, though in the infantryman’s idiom for which he is known:

“To be honest, when I first received this book, I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? As someone who’s witnessed the theater of war up close and personal as an infantryman in the United States Army (Iraq 2003–4) and has lived to tell about it, I found the whole concept to be a bit absurd. I know there’s all sorts of crazy shit out there beyond the conventional VA-prescribed prescription medication and/or therapy sessions to help those returning home after war “adjust”: yoga, nature hiking, scuba diving, filmmaking, horseback riding, tai chi, herbal and dietary supplements, group drum circles, art projects, meditation, ballet dancing, getaway vacations, bright-light therapy, music therapy, companion dogs, medical marijuana, acupuncture, and other such things. But now there’s this bright idea of exposing soldiers to Greek tragedies that were written 2,500 years ago as a way to help those struggling with readjustment issues and PTSD? Get the fuck outta here.”

But Buzzell is also open-minded and curious, in addition to being penetrating and eloquent, and he tells us that after completing The Theater of War he saw a lot in it to like. Buzzell relates especially to Doerries’ descriptions of Ajax, who as Buzzell puts it, “returns home from war and feels as if he’s been betrayed, gets depressed, snaps, goes on a blind killing spree, then kills himself with his own sword.” Yikes! Presumably Buzzell appreciates something Doerries explains about how Ajax might have been saved from himself and restored to health and happiness, but beyond recommending that Theater of War be read by a “larger audience,” Buzzell doesn’t go into much detail about exactly what excites him. The interview with Doerries, however, generously allows the author-director to explain for himself his goals, and more importantly, what he has observed after staging dozens or hundreds of performances of Theater of War. Buzzell’s questions are more interesting, in fact, than Doerries’ answers, but Doerries acquits himself well—modest about making great claims for Theater of War’s scholarly or medical legitimacy, he defends his project on the empirical grounds that audiences have been moved by it and many veterans in addition to Buzzell claim to have been helped by it.

A curiosity of this critical duel, such as it is, is that it seems neither Ruden nor Buzzell have seen an actual performance of Theater of War. I have, and came away from the experience in ways that make me sympathetic to both reviewers (I have not yet read Doerries’ book). On this blog, I have been skeptical of contemporary war lit’s propensity to identify too readily with classic Greek literature, but I certainly welcome chances to view modern adaptations of ancient myths and plays as they come along. Aloof and analytical as I am, though, I was determined to resist notions that the town-hall-cum-Dr.-Phil atmosphere of the performance Q&A meaningfully connected Greek warriors and modern soldiers, or being seduced by the idea that I was participating in an event that channeled the spirit of Athenian dramatic festivals. But the large audience with whom I sat had few such qualms. They responded to the reading with vigorous applause and energetic participation in the post-reading discussion. Even more telling, the specific group with whom I watched Theater of War—a group of military academy cadets who included several deployment veterans—were also enthralled. On the drive home from the theater, we stopped at a McDonalds in the middle-of-nowhere and after eating our meals (a bus-driver’s discount for me for bringing in the group!), we talked late into the night about the performance and how it related to modern war, soldiering, and military leadership. It was as spontaneous and free-flowing a conversation with officers-to-be as I’ve ever been part of, and much of the credit goes to Doerries, Theater of War, and the power of Greek tragedy.

Anybody else think it would be a great idea to invite both Ruden and Buzzell to the upcoming productions of Theater of War at the Guggenheim?

This week I made my first visit to a VA hospital, this one located in East Orange, NJ. All initial impressions are positive, I'm glad to say.

I made my first visit to a VA hospital this week. All initial impressions are positive, I’m happy to report.

Bryan Doerries, The Theater of War:  What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.  Knopf, 2015.

Those Lazy, Hazy Days of War Writing Summer…

July 12, 2015

The Long Walk…aren’t so lazy and hazy if you live in the New York City area, where the artistic and intellectual processing of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan affords almost too many events to absorb. The highlight of the summer is the staging in Saratoga Springs (180 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan) of an opera based on Brian Castner’s memoir The Long Walk. Castner probably didn’t see it coming, but in retrospect it’s not hard to recognize his memoir’s operatic potential. Castner’s record of his tours in Iraq as the head of an Air Force Explosives Ordnance Disposal detachment and his troubles readjusting to civilian life afterwards is fine in its particulars—in a perfect world it would be more popular than American Sniper. It’s got more harrowing combat scenes, for instance, as well as better descriptions of specialized military training and more honest, reflective, and generous portraits of how difficult redeployment can be. But what really elevates The Long Walk is Castner’s imagining of his life in terms of darker, larger, may I say mythic forces that imbue existence with cosmic significance. In particular, Castner describes what it means to be overcome by “The Crazy”—those oh-fuck moments after war when you realize just how screwed over combat and danger have made you, no matter how normal you appear or try to be. Castner’s richly-situated exploration of the larger-than-life forces that envelop him are I’m sure what inspired the opera producers Jeremy Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann.

The Long Walk Opera

More prosaic, but still exciting, war-lit readings are taking place within the city itself. Words After War impresarios Brandon Willitts and Matt Gallagher are sponsoring not one, but two series of readings. Monthly events at The Folly, a Greenwich Village bar partly owned by Gallagher, have featured local veteran and military-themed writers, such as Mariette Kalinowski, Kristin Rouse, and Jake Siegel, as well as civilian authors, reading unpublished and recently published work in an intimate setting. Words After War also co-sponsors a second set of readings, called Danger Close, in conjunction with New York University English professor Patrick Deer. Deer is part an academic consortium named the Cultures of War and Postwar Research Group and the author of Culture in Camouflage, a study of literature written in Britain during World War II, so it’s great that he has now turned his attention to contemporary American war writing while helping showcase its authors in intriguing pairings with compelling moderators. One Danger Close event featured Phil Zabriskie and Jesse Goolsby in conversation with Lea Carpenter, and a second had Myra Jacob hosting authorial collaborators Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson along with August Cole and P.W. Singer. And as if that weren’t enough, the energetic and innovative Willitts and Gallagher have announced a third event, a one-off called Writing War, to take place July 30 at the Brooklyn Historical Society and featuring Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, Sara Novic, and Maurice Decaul.

Words After War is by far not the only game in New York town, either. War author and Restrepo filmmaker Sebastian Junger, for example, has been hosting readings featuring veteran authors and war journalists at HIS bar-restaurant the Half-King and elsewhere in the city. Earlier in the summer, Arts in the Armed Forces, a vet-friendly organization founded by actor and ex-Marine Adam Driver, helped promote an off-Broadway play by Daniel Talbott titled Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait. Alex Mallory, who has staged at least two plays about war in Iraq with her troupe Poetic Theater, is back July 27 with a staged reading of her work There Are No Camels in Beirut, about conflict in that strife-torn city in 2006. Invitations to events and announcement of new programs by writing collectives such as Voices From War and the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop arrive weekly if not daily. And in the most out-of-the-blue way possible, I’ve been consulted by the event-designers of Gigantic Mechanic, a Brooklyn arts initiative currently developing an interactive theater experience called Hearts and Minds, which will allow audience members to role-play members of an infantry squad on patrol in Iraq. That’s not quite as cool as having an opera made of your life, but I’m flattered to have been asked for input.

So that’s New York for you, creatively and endlessly engaged and productive. I hope things are as busy and interesting as you want them to be wherever you are this summer.


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