Last Spring, writing in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Michael David Lukas asked:
After nearly a decade of U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems reasonable to ask: where is the literature of our current conflicts? Brian Turner’s poetry collection Here, Bullet, garnered praise when it came out in 2005, and a number of veterans have published memoirs (Melia Meichelbock’s In the Company of Soldiers, Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away, and John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, to name a few). But aside from these and a smattering of shorter works, the literature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has yet to emerge.
For evidence of combat caterpillars emerging as literary butterflies, I would suggest that Mr. Lukas grab a copy of Connecticut Review which dedicated its Fall 2010 issue to a "Special Section on Veterans of War." Here, in addition to Brian Turner, he'll find more than 25 veterans of combat ranging from World War Two to Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Full disclosure: I'm one of those veterans who has a story, "The Things He Saw,"* published in this issue of Connecticut Review.)
Literature on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars continues to be on the rise, starting at the fringe borders of the smaller literary magazines like this one, but slowly seeping inward--like a reverse bloodstain--to larger mainstream publications. As Lukas points out, sometimes the best writing about a war doesn't begin until long after the shooting stops. It can take time for the combatant to get some necessary distance from combat and emerge with a readable, compelling account on the other side.** "A Farewell to Arms came out in 1929, more than a decade after the armistice treaty, and Catch-22 wasn’t published until sixteen years after Japan surrendered on the decks of the USS Missouri," Lukas writes. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines--all trying to filter and process what they saw and did overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan--are now turning to the written word to work out the dark knot of those experiences. Speaking personally, I've been trying to channel my own creative energies in this way--first with my novel, then with a series of Iraq War stories that have been coming off my fingers, rat-a-tat-tat. To borrow a phrase from The Rumpus, I've been writing like a motherfucker.
Judging by the contents of Connecticut Review, I suspect I'm not the only one doing so. In the opening essay to the special section, "Soldier-Artists: Preserving the World," Donald Anderson writes:
Of course war needs to be written about, and, from time out of mind, it has been. From the earliest rendition of the Iliad to the latest showing of Blackhawk Down or Jarhead or Generation Kill, war and art have reflected one another. War frames our lives. Look behind or ahead and war will find you. Though war has been convincingly written about by outsiders, I believe we turn to insiders--combatants--for our weightiest insights. A soldier's response to war lays claim to a special visceral authority.This issue of Connecticut Review is full of that kind of authority, coming in the form of short stories, poems and personal essays. Ever wonder what it's like to be standing in a rainstorm of mortar shells? Brian Turner is the one best suited to describe it to you, as he does in "Firebase Eagle":
We're being shelled on close to a daily basis. In military parlance, the "enemy" is "bracketing" our "position." Studying the concept of bracketing and experiencing it first-hand in a combat situation is a vastly different thing. Basically, an Iraqi mortar crew is, day by day and round by round, discovering the proper distance, elevation, deflection, and explosive charge necessary to start firing rounds directly into our camp. Yesterday, it was a round exploding one hundred meters south of the camp perimeter. Today three or four rounds fall roughly one hundred meters north of the camp's front gate. If they adjust correctly, there's a good chance mortar rounds might just explode inside the wire tomorrow. It's a matter of mathematics. And patience.
And, in fact, that's what begins to happen. After bracketing our firebase for several days, the mortar crew has locked onto our position and is now beginning to "fire for effect." It's something that defies description, being shelled. The sound of the detonations, the crack and airy breath of it. Sometimes a distinct explosion. Other times the rounds land nearly simultaneously with an overwhelming god-like finality. The soft architecture of the brain registering each concussion as a type of conversation. The extension of an idea expressed in the very physical language of shrapnel, fear. "Someone is hunting for your soul."
Want to know how it feels to be on foot patrol in a crowded marketplace in Al Qa'im near the Syrian border of Iraq? Let Dario DiBattista lead you in his essay "On Patrol":
Bad vibes creep about me like fire ants on skin.
In an effort to create a psychological deterrent against possible enemies in this crowd, which I sense are many, I raise the goggles onto my helmet and look very assuredly at anyone who meets my gaze with angry eyes that say I want to kill them. I point to particularly conspicuous Iraqis, as if to say "I see you motherfuckers--bring it."
We have intelligence that the enemy wants us to get close. They want to capture one of us. They want to chop off our heads on film.
The standing order for the entire 1st Marine Division in Iraq is "make yourself hard to kill." I snap open my grenade pouch and fondle the machine gun's trigger guard. "Come on motherfuckers. It's either you or me--or both."
I am trapped in this thought.
To get a bitter taste of how the isolation of being in the military can corkscrew your soul by artificially separating you from the ones you love (I speak from personal experience here), turn to these two stanzas from "A Korean War Veteran Ponders Death" by William Childress:
Who does not ponder his demise
when life closes like an old valise?
My years were already spiraling down
in Sasebo, when I heard the sounds
of a butt-can's scrape, a bunk spring's squeak.
A sergeant lay smoking on bloody sheets,
his razored juices filling a can,
a Dear John letter in his hand.
But he was seen, and in a breath
MPs rushed in. Sarge fought for death
with all his might, a furious dance
on a blood-slick floor without his pants,
just medals on a shirt of tan.
"Hold him! I can't get the tourniquet on!"
They held him. He died anyway,
murdered by his fiancee.
And none of us would ever, ever, EVER want to be there at the liberation of the concentration camp at Buchenwald, but Richard Daughtry was, and--though horrified--we cannot turn away from the account he gives to Henry F. Tonn in "Buchenwald Diary":
Bypassing the cermatorium momentarily, they steered us first to a nearby building. We immediately found ourselves in a room something like twenty-by-forty feet, with a large number of prisoners seated on the floor, backs to the wall, shoulder to shoulder, staring vacantly into space. They were all wearing nightshirts that fell just below their knees. They were incredibly thin, seeming to be no more than four feet tall, weighing no more than sixty pounds, and their eyes were sunk deeply into the sockets of their heads. We were absolutely stunned. We asked our guides what had happened and they responded that all of these men had been starved into this condition. At the camp you either worked or were shot, so the men had worked to the point of death.
We offered to give them food but the guides shook their heads and said their bodies could no longer accept nourishment. Upon liberation of the camp the previous day, several of them had been fed and they had died instantly. The guides estimated that most of the men in the room would expire in several more days. We asked if we could give them cigarettes and they shrugged their shoulders and replied that it was unlikely they had enough strength to inhale the smoke. They were barely able to get enough oxygen in their bodies to survive. Nonetheless, we approached several of these people, whose eyes followed us in their dark sockets, and placed cigarettes in the mouths of those who appeared to be interested. As our guides had predicted, however, they were unable to puff, and the cigarettes just dangled there unsmoked.
This then is the unique power of words: they take us to places we only want to experience vicariously. This issue of Connecticut Review is soaked with the sweat and blood of what results from human against human, nation vs. nation--those terrible atrocities, those governmentally-sanctioned murders sterilized down to three little letters. Even those of us who have been to war--like me and the rest of the contributors to this special issue--even we are still troubled by the stories we hear. It's amazing how another man's nightmares can top even our worst tales we bring back from the battlefield. And yet, we are compelled to tell the stories we own. How else will we be able to deliver the news of war to those who have never heard its horrible thunder? How else can we speak of the unspeakable? We have no choice, those of us who have donned the uniform and taken up weapons. We must write like motherfuckers.
P.S. The cover image of this issue, which at first, long-range glance I dismissed as some sort of ancient hieroglyphic, gave me the dry-mouth sobers when I read the story behind the photo taken by Benjamin Busch:
This is an insurgent's footprint on a sidewalk, left in blood, as he fled from a failed attack on a U.S. Marine position in Ar Ramadi. He died 27 steps from this one. The photographer took this photograph on the morning afterward.
They said he was lucky. The eye had not lost all its internal fluid, which would have led to its permanent collapse. Another millimeter to the right—one piece of shrapnel colliding with another to alter the course of his history—and the puncture would be bigger. Probably would have gone all the way to the brain. It was all in how you looked at it. Could have gone either way. Let’s keep things in perspective, they said. He was one lucky soldier.
Lucky. Yeah, right, motherfucker.
**In my own case, I've been working on Fobbit for six years. Though, granted, most of that has been foot-dragging, rather than "processing."