Tuesday, February 12, 2013

We are Scripted by War: Fire and Forget

Some of the best fiction is written from the inside out.  That is to say, its authors have "been there, done that."  Nothing against great writers like C. S. Lewis who, to the best of my knowledge, never set foot in a land called Narnia; or Charles Frazier who, I'm certain, never walked across the cold mountains of a Civil War landscape; or even Mary Shelley who, I hope, never assembled a new man from spare body parts--their imaginations have transported us in remarkable ways.  But there is something about the authors who have lived their words that lends authenticity to novels, short stories and poetry.

Such is the case with all the contributors to Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, the anthology written by veterans and edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, which is officially being published today.  Each of the writers has gone to war and gotten the T-shirt (or, in the case of Siobhan Fallon, has seen her husband deploy to the combat zone).  You know when Brian Turner writes in 'The Wave That Takes Them Under" of soldiers how "speak the grammar of sand now" he knows what the fuck he's talking about.  Been there, done that.

As a matter of full disclosure, I should mention that one of my short stories, "Roll Call," is included in Fire and Forget, and I'm trying not to let that taint my opinion of this excellent, necessary book.  And it is an important book which I hope all of you will take the time to read in order to better understand what happens when you send men and women halfway around the globe with orders to kill.

In his introduction to Fire and Forget, Colum McCann writes:
      All stories are war stories somehow. Every one of us has stepped from one war or another. Our grandfathers were there when the stench of Dresden hung over the world, and our fathers were there when Vietnam sent its children running napalmed down the dirt road. Our grandmothers were there when Belfast fell into rubble, and our mothers were there when Cambodia became a crucible of bones. Our sisters in South Africa, our brothers in Gaza. And, God forbid, our sons and daughters will have stories to tell too. We are scripted by war.
      It is the job of literature to confront the terrible truths of what war has done and continues to do to us. It is also the job of literature to make sense of whatever small beauty we can rescue from the maelstrom.
In this collection of short fiction, there are terrible truths and moments of small beauty a-plenty.  Each story is a snapshot--grainy with sand, sticky with blood--of scenes which we must face, uncomfortable as they may be, if we are to start sorting out the two major wars of the past decade. While I enjoyed everything I read and think each story has merit, there were a few which really stood out in their intensity of emotion and skill of wordcraft.

"Redeployment" by Phil Klay, first published in Granta, has a stark, unforgettable opening:
      We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose and we called it "Operation Scooby." I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.
      First time was instinct. I hear O’Leary go, "Jesus," and there’s a skinny brown dog lapping up blood the same way he’d lap up water from a bowl. It wasn’t American blood, but still, there’s that dog, lapping it up. And that’s the last straw, I guess, and then it’s open season on dogs.
I know I've probably just lost all the animal-lovers, but believe me when I tell you that Klay's story about the rocky transition of one soldier from the war zone to the living room is as heart-breaking as it is unsettling.  The soldiers' behavior is shocking, but who are we to judge what a person will do when faced with the horrors of an Iraqi torture house ("You see the body parts in the locker and the retarded guy in the cage") and the realities of the everyday ("The broken television and the haji corpse.  Eicholtz covered in blood.  The lieutenant on the radio.")?  Don't judge PTSD until you've walked a mile in its gore-caked boots.  The dogs are just more sad casualties of war.

On the day I read Mariette Kalinowski's "The Train," Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the Pentagon's proposal to officially allow women to served in combat-arms positions. Unofficially, of course, females have been at the forefront of firefights for years, serving as Apache helicopter pilots, medics, and other support roles which put them face-to-face with bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Bullets don't recognize gender; they don't stop in mid-air to check chromosomes or genitals.  Kalinowski knows this all too well.  A veteran Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq, she often went out on convoys as a heavy machine gunner. In "The Train," she writes about a female soldier working at an Entry Control Point to a U.S. military base in Iraq whose job is to pat down the Iraqi women standing in line. "She couldn't help but feel edgy," Kalinowski writes. "That worry hovered all around her and in her mind until it became the standard sensation, until a day without fear was a bad day." It's a masterfully-told story which moves seamlessly across three timelines--the present (when the female veteran is riding a subway train in New York City), and two episodes from her past (a horrifying suicide bomber attack at the ECP, and the memory of her mother finding a dead bird in a field near their home in Vermont).  Here's a video of Kalinowski reading portions of the story:

Like Klay's "Redeployment," Andrew Slater's "New Me" is a gripping portrait of a soldier returning to "the world" after being discharged from the brain injury clinic at Walter Reed Army Hospital.  Slater had me glued to the page right from the story's first two paragraphs:
      I joined the Army after my girlfriend Renee drowned because I felt that some people in my hometown would be unable to not blame me. Something would have seemed wrong with the world if they didn’t. The Army was a way for me to leave Elberton for good without seeming like I was making a big spectacle out of it. Renee’s dad called me up about a week after the funeral to ask me why I didn’t go in after her. His voice was calm on the phone when he said it. It sounded like he was reading the question off a piece of paper he was holding with both hands. I think he’d been trying to not say it for a while.
      By the time I realized she must be down river I couldn’t see her at all. I had just got back to the riverbank from my car with a pair of foam water noodles and a CD player. I had been scrounging around in the back seat of my Corolla trying to find a CD, something I wanted her to hear. I stood there staring at the flat top of the river, unblemished blue-brown between the cat tails, a foot or two higher than normal with the past week’s rain, but the water was quiet that morning. There was a clear, quiet sky. I never made sense of it.

Here are some snippets from the other stories in Fire and Forget:

"Smile, There are IEDs Everywhere" by Jacob Siegel:
For us, there had been no fields of battle to frame the enemy. There was no chance to throw yourself against another man and fight for life. Our shocks of battle came on the road, brief, dark, and anonymous. We were always on the road and it could always explode. There was no enemy: we had only each other to hate.
Siegel also has what could be considered the thematic core of the book as a whole when he writes a paragraph later:
War stories are almost never about war unless they’re told by someone who was never there. Every now and then maybe you talk about something or listen to someone who needs to get it off their chest, but those aren’t the stories you come back to, not for telling.

"Tips for a Smooth Transition" by Siobhan Fallon:
      Colin and Evie have spent the week awkwardly trying to get used to each other after a year apart. Awkward because Colin has been working long hours at the base dealing with the accountability of the men, weapons, and vehicles that returned with him.
      Evie tried to adapt to his uneven schedule, mostly by taking time off from Florence’s Home Cooking Catering, sitting around the house waiting for Colin to get back while thinking about the money she should be making, and then smiling too much when he finally came through the door.

"The Wave That Takes Them Under" by Brian Turner:
The platoon moves forward in fits and starts as the wind drives hard against them, soldiers falling back or tumbling down dunes to roll into pits where the sand seems determined to bury them. Henderson can see Sgt. Gould yelling, but his voice barely registers above the wind’s cry and the crack of sand against his goggles. He thinks maybe Gould is cursing the sky itself, as close as any of them might come in their argument with God, or maybe he’s calling out to the men disappearing around him, yelling to be heard over the din of the world in its gritty erasure.

"Raid" by Ted Janis:
I needed to get the hell out of the community.  Bin Laden was fish food, but we were still chasing targets, hunting down lowlevel pipe swingers in the name of GWOT, an acronym and a concept that belonged to last decade. Two deployments ago, I drank the Kool-Aid—drank it like it was the blood of Christ.

"Play the Game" by Colby Buzzell (my heart absolutely stopped when I came to the last sentence of these paragraphs):
      Six months later, I got out of bed and stumbled over to the window. Out on the street corner stood a little blonde-haired girl, dressed like she was on her way to Sunday school. Was today Sunday? I thought about that a minute.
      Wearing nothing but a pair of boxers, a black metal bracelet around my right wrist with some names and dates engraved onto it, and my dog tags, I watched the little girl as she started to cross the street.
      Out of nowhere, a beat-up Ford pickup whipped around the corner and slammed on its breaks, smashing right into the girl and sending her flying onto the pavement.
      The truck idled for a couple seconds, then started to move again. Slowly it turned onto a side street and drove off. I tried to catch the license, one of those old black-and-yellow plates, but it was too late. It was gone before I could make the numbers.
      I looked back at the girl again, and stared at her lying there in the middle of the road. Then I felt kind of tired, so I got back in bed and went to sleep.

"Television" by Roman Skaskiw:
      When the attack was reported over the radio, a breathless private sprinted from the Tactical Operations Center to the Aid Station where the battalion surgeon, Major Roscoe, watched a DVD with the medics. Scraps of cardboard shaded the windows of their hooch, and the blue light from the television shone on their faces. Two medics watched from their cots, a third sat in a plastic lawn chair. Major Roscoe sat in his camping chair. He lifted the DVD remote from a mesh cup holder, paused the movie, and faced the private. He asked how long ago it happened, how many people were hurt, and what injuries there were. All the medics looked up.
      He couldn’t answer. He sprinted back to the Tactical Operations Center holding his slung M4 carbine against his hip with one arm, and swinging the other as he ran.
      Major Roscoe and the medics turned back to the movie, but it wasn’t there the same way it had been. When the private returned and told them a local boy was coming with a head wound, they turned off the television and walked to the bay to prepare for the boy’s arrival.

"Poughkeepsie" by Perry O'Brien:
It's 0300 and I'm sitting on the sidewalk in front of Port Authority, trying to make a plan. I can’t keep purchase on my thoughts with all this night traffic—taxis and limousines, garbage trucks, buses filled with vacant seats and harsh fluorescent light— this restless march of cars, all of them awake at crow piss and going somewhere. I was going somewhere, too.

"When Engaging Targets, Remember" by Gavin Ford Kovite:
You are a United States infantryman. An Imperial Grunt. The emblem of American militarism. Your rank is: Specialist. It is late 2004, and you are behind a machine gun in al-Anbar, Iraq, swathed in bulky armor and expensive gear and sitting—almost reclining—in a wide nylon sling slung across the roof of a Humvee that’s as cartoonishly bulky as you. Your job as a Humvee gunner is to provide rear security for a convoy of fuel tankers that’s currently wending its way from the Baghdad airport to a Forward Operating Base one hundred miles east.

"Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek" by Brian Van Reet:
There were a bunch of guys like me at Walter Reed—severe burn cases, the faceless. You would think we would have hung out together, but we avoided it as much as possible. We all looked the same; being around one another was like looking in a mirror. None of us wanted that. We wanted to forget.

"Roll Call" by David Abrams:
      We were standing around after the memorial service. Seven of us, the ones who’d made it this far.
      The afternoon wind kicked up and we bent our heads, tucking up under our Kevlars. Two of us realized the dust covers on our 16s were open and clicked them shut. To someone passing by, it might have looked like we were praying, huddled in a tight circle of faith and brotherhood.
      Bullshit. It was just the motherfucking wind.
      But yeah, God and the hereafter and all that come-unto-me crap was fresh in our minds, since we’d just wrapped up Carter’s memorial service. We could hear the dog tags clicking against the receiver on Carter’s downturned M16.

"And Bugs Don't Bleed" by Matt Gallagher:
      “You just told Grandma that you’re going to going to go to war.”
      “I did.”
      “War is the place where you kill people,” Sunny said. “I know about it.”
      “Yes. Bad people, though. I’m just going to kill the bad people.”
      “I’ve never killed anything. One time, though, I got super mad at Jamie Takemoto because he kicked my sand castle, and I told him I could kill him if I wanted to, and I made him cry. Have you?”
      “Have I ever what? Gotten my sand castle kicked? Of course.”
      “No, Jade. Have you ever gotten so mad you killed something?”
      “Do insects count? Like spiders and stuff?”
      “No,” Sunny said. “It only counts if they bleed. And bugs don’t bleed.”

"Red Steel India" by Roy Scranton:
It went like this: the first day you report for guard mount at 0750, then you’re on duty in the sun till 1400. Then you clear your weapon and walk back to the barracks and sleep until 0100. You get up in the dark, get ready, and make it to guard mount at 0150, pull duty until 0800. The sun’s come up. Then you go eat breakfast, jerk off, and sleep until 1300. Guard mount 1350, on duty till 2000, clear your weapon, walk back to the barracks in the dark, think of some other life you had once, sleep, get up at 0700, back to guard mount at 0750, and the cycle repeats. Light, dark, dark, light, night day whatever.

The term "fire and forget" refers to the type of missile system which doesn't need any more guidance after launching.  Firers can walk away and forget about the pending death on the other end of the trajectory.  Most of the writers in these pages, however, cannot shake what they saw through their rifle scopes or what happened when bullet met flesh.  I doubt readers will be able to forget, either.

You can read more about Fire and Forget at its website.

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