Thursday, May 1, 2014

Re: Writing the War at The Strand

The Rare Book Room at New York City's Strand Book Store was buzzing with mil-speak Tuesday night.  Military terms like COIN, AO, First Sergeant and, yes, Fobbit were tossed around like flash-bang grenades.  The audience was stunned into happiness--or, at the very least, thoughtfulness.

The room, lined floor to ceiling with amber-colored book spines, was the scene of a panel convened, in part, to celebrate the release of Adrian Bonenberger's new memoir Afghan Post.  The occasion also led to some stimulating conversation about war literature in general, with a little bit of foreign policy thrown in for good measure.  I was honored to be part of the discussion, joining Bonenberger, Roxana Robinson (Sparta), Matt Gallagher (Kaboom) and moderator Peter Molin (a lieutenant colonel who teaches English at West Point and runs the must-read blog Time Now).  While--as usual--I failed to take any good, blog-worthy notes during the panel discussion, I can report that if you weren't there, you missed out on a quality hour of mil-lit-convo.

Adrian Bonenberger, Peter Molin, Roxana Robinson, Matt Gallagher, Moi

Adrian kicked off the evening by reading a passage from his memoir--an eye-opening account of one Army officer's evolution (and devolution) during his training and two tours in Afghanistan.  The book is a series of letters, e-mails and journal entries he wrote over the course of a decade.  Here's part of what he read to us on Tuesday night--correspondence from Afghanistan on September 5, 2010:
Dear Jim,
For the first time in a long while, I really miss having a shoulder to cry on. I'm not sure anyone other than you would understand what I mean by that, the emotions at work here. I put together a great mission, had helicopters, [Special Forces] support, engineer assets, two platoons and my [Afghan] partners all refused to show up. The [New York Times] guys were there to catch it all, my ineffectiveness as a commander, the complete letdown. I've never been filled with such anger or impotence in my life. It was galling, mortifying, infuriating, hateful. My lowest point yet as a leader.
See what I mean?  Brilliant little hand grenades.  Here's another one which is a particular favorite of mine (both of these come from the end of the book when Bonenberger is near the end of his rope with the wearying, frustrating Operation Enduring Freedom missions):
The trouble is, my hands shake before patrols. I dry heave. I doubt every decision I make, and have to physically restrain myself from asking advice from privates, sergeants, lieutenants, anyone who will lift a piece of this responsibility off my back. I've lost my self-confidence. I got people hurt and killed with my choices. Getting up in front of the soldiers and talking to them requires almost superhuman effort. Death is constantly on my mind. What if something significant broke out--war with Russia, or China, or Brazil? What would I do then--freeze? Order my soldiers to attack without me? Request a job on staff?....If you're not willing to carry a rifle and rucksack toward the enemy, you shouldn't wear the uniform. It's a good time for me to hang mine up, before I dishonor it with terror-vomit before a patrol.
That's the level of honesty and deep thinking circulating the room all evening at the Strand--both during the panel discussion and the one-on-one conversations afterward.  It wasn't all sober talk about death and foreign policy; there were a few laughs as well.  How much fun did we have?  Here's a group selfie which has been making the rounds of Twitter:

I was pleased to see so many people (about sixty) show up despite the rainstorm soaking the streets outside.  I recognized several friends from my social media networks, and was ecstatic to see writers Cara Hoffman, Deborah Henry and Phil Klay.  Capping my evening of delight, two dear friends from high school ("Go Broncs!") were in attendance; thanks, Jayme and Inga, for the Wyoming cheers from the front row.  The room was also heavily populated with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans from various writing groups throughout the city.  They all shook out their umbrellas, warmed themselves with plastic cups of wine, and seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say.

One audience member even brought along a sketchpad and pen and captured the evening graphically:

Counterclockwise from upper right: Me, Matt, Peter, Roxana, Adrian

This is Jess Ruliffson, an up-and-coming "Cartoonist and Creator" who is putting together a book based on interviews she's conducted with war veterans.  Perhaps you saw her work at The Daily Beast recently, or perhaps you already follow her blog.  If not, you should.  Pay attention to what Jess is doing; I think her work is the next important and interesting voice in contemporary war literature.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry I missed it -- I know a few who were in attendance -- yup you need to be able to look the enemy in the eyes and kill him and move on