My short story “Sisyphus”

In October, my first published short story came out in FIYAH literary magazine, Issue #4: Roots. It’s about a person in the not-so-basic training in a future US Civil War. Charles Payseur at Quick Sip Reviews kindly called it “an incredibly intense story about intimacy and conditioning and the breaking of a person to make them into a weapon.” I’ll take it.

I wrote this before War Lit. In my first workshop (taught by Elizabeth Eslami, who would eventually teach the War Lit class), we read Phil Klay’s Redeployment (just before it won the National Book Award), and the voices of the characters hit me hard and fast. The idea fully coalesced when a Writing Excuses prompt told me to “kill the bad guy in every scene.”

As I revised and built the story world, I focused on a couple things: how the media creates a warrior narrative, and what trauma is created when you’re forced to become a better killer, when that skill means survival.

There’s a scattered and fuzzy quality to the narrator’s memories reminds me of what Morris talks about in Evil Hours about memory distortion and blame. The protagonist is rapidly losing her memory of how exactly she came to be in this situation. She comes back to moments again from different angles, keeps trying to analyze how she got in this situation in the first place. She’s looking for someone to blame for the pain she’s in. While there aren’t any gods for her to avoid blaming, she does aim at the god that rules so much of the world right now–the media.

The war of images is a misleading term. It makes it sound as if there’s one war, with discrete fronts. In reality, images wage war on many different levels. As in this story, and so much of history, they’re persuasive. Ads and slogans that pull people to be stronger, braver, to be warriors. Things media–like movies, especially superhero movies–remind us are good things. Things we should emulate. Paragons of selflessness.

On the other hand, media can also be a weapon to terrify or paralyze your opponents by making them feel helpless or desensitized to the true battle at hand. Videos of mass shootings and executions are potent acts of war. In Sisyphus, the protagonist places a substantial amount of blame on persuasive media and her mother is paralyzed by media meant to reassure.

I wonder how SFF will reflect the continued evolution of warfare, especially as war becomes less and less tangible. It’s strange how civilians have so much access to war simulations, like video games and video footage, yet we’re so disconnected from the consequences of actual warfare. There hasn’t been a war on US soil in over 150 years (not counting the attack on Pearl Harbor), and without a military draft, most of us can live without some of the major consequences of the forever wars we wage. (Fiscal consequences may be explored in the future.)

I can’t help but come to the same question I always do, and I think it shows in this story:

Who would fight?

In this story I offer one answer of, I think, several: the idealistic and the delusional.

The Seven Surrenders – How a War Begins

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been thinking about how wars start lately, and not just out of academic curiosity. One book on my to-read list is In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, about pre-Holocaust Germany, the undercurrents, the whispers, the blind eyes turned.

Another book you could read is Ada Palmer’s second Terra Ignota book, The Seven Surrenders. 

One (the?) question of this novel is why we start wars and what are we willing to pay for peace? A life here, a life there? Which is the greater evil, global war enhanced by supremely advanced technology and high speed world travel, or a few accidental car accidents? (The central problem is the ever fascinating utilitarian conundrum, personalized.)

Continue reading

Too Like the Lightning and The Holy War Hole

At first read, Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning isn’t a war novel. It would fall under utopian novel easily, even though it seems so ideal that it doesn’t leave you with the sour taste of older utopias like Brave New World. My overwhelming sense while I read it was wow, how could she get so much of this right? And I had no doubt in my mind that everything in the novel was coming, that Ada Palmer had a genius prescience. Call it airtight worldbuilding, maybe.

It’s not until you get to the second book in the Terra Ignota series, The Seven Surrenders, that the war narrative takes over in an obvious way. I was forced to reconsider my reading of the first novel.

To set up this airtight world in TLtL, Palmer has to explain why the world is the way it is, from the “archaic” language to the philosophies that abound and the naming conventions.

First, I should say that I loved TLtL. I loved the characters and the utopia–with its hairline cracks–and I loved that Palmer went dark–so dark!–without turning the novel into a grimdark medieval war story. (I love those, but it also belies the fact that we humans are plenty dirty without war, too.)

And there it is…without war. TLtL is a novel shaped around a distinctly war-shaped hole. It becomes even more evident as you read TSS and learn get more character background. The Terra Ignota world as Mycroft and the gang know it, though, is all because of the church wars (I can’t remember what they’re called right now and don’t have my copy; also also, I audiobooked both books, and then bought the hardback TLtL). No religious gatherings, sensayers and personal, secret faith, and on and on–all because of this war that the reader knows almost nothing about.

I have my own theories, because I wrote a short story in undergrad about church wars myself, and coincidentally, the enlightenment texts had a role to play as well (not really a coincidence; the story was for a western civilization course so it was required).

What does the prevalence (I say prevalence because if two writers who have never heard of each other could come up with this idea, I’m sure tons have thought it) of imagined holy war stories say about the nature of war today? For one thing, that people see it as one of the most major conflicts of a global scale.

And if we return to the idea of redactions that I wrote about in a previous post…we have my biggest question in the whole Terra Ignota series–where is the Arab world? What has happened to Africa? Were the Middle Eastern and African landmasses destroyed in the Church Wars? By desertification? Did the people scatter and integrate into other nation strats? Does anyone choose to be Muslim? The only character with a remotely Arab name is Saladin, who is Grecian according to Mycroft.

I don’t know if Palmer is saving this information drop in The Will to Battle or if she’s talked about it in an interview (I’ve looked but not found). But I know she’s whipsmart to come up with a series like this. I trust her enough to assume it’s not an oversight…but I want to know, and soon.

Questions, comments, arguments–hit me with them. I know these posts probably won’t be the most organized. It’s more important to me to get the thoughts out, and it’s probably more like having an actual conversation about the topics. When I want to, I’ll write a paper and come with receipts, but until then–this is about curiosity and my desire to think.

Redacted Narratives

The poetry, Nick Flynn’s “Seven Testimonies” embodies the issues that I have with the Iraq and Afghanistan narratives. The redacted poems cut out whole chunks, often the chunks that would most incriminate American soldiers. When I was reading the poems alone, I didn’t know what to make of them and tried to find some bit of the essence of what these testimonies actually contained. I thought that the poems should be trying to condense the emotional resonance of the testimonies or somehow delving deeper into them. Perhaps my expectations were wrong. But are my instincts? I had an angry visceral reaction when finally reading the testimonies in full. The poems seem like a misrepresentation of the actual testimonies.

Perhaps in creating nuance in certain poems, there was too much ambiguous joy. In the first poem and the last two, for example. The first poem has a sense of bewilderment that could be characteristic of a prisoner, but the sense of violence is redacted completely. The closest we get to it is the word “pipe,” and in the context it is uncertain what that actually refers to. “my hands always/ laughing” is horribly misleading. The use of line breaks could be different than I’m interpreting, though, indicating a shift away from the narrative “I” but that’s not how the poem appears. We lose the devastation of the initial beatings of the family–are we supposed to assume that with only the words, “I woke up, I asked why–/my children, my// wife, my leg”? “Cold/water at night” is the closest I felt to staying to the emotional reality of the testimony.

What is redacted from Corpse Washer? How does Corpse Washer fill in those redacted moments? The redacted moments of the Iraqi war “question”?

One moment I think of immediately is learning (for me as an American reader who isn’t especially well versed in this war or any war before 1965) that “Bush called on Iraqis to ‘take matters into their own hands’” (118). Antoon writes, directly after that sentence, “You know the rest of the story. They changed the tune a few days later and no one in the world helped those who rose up.” That fills in a blank in the narrative that “What’s happening in Iraq is a civil war against Saddam, and the U.S. will now go in to help clean up the mess civilians have made.” It also, in a particular twist, takes something that could be redacted since “we” already know the story. Instead of letting it fall into the void, though, Sayyid al-Fartusi says it all, and it puts a new slant on the story the world already knows, because this version of the story isn’t what everyone already knows. It’s only what the Iraqis know.

That’s why I had such an issue with the poems, I think. It takes experiences that these prisoners had and discards them by filtering them through a lens that I think is a) inappropriate and b) poorly done.

If I try to look at these poems from another direction, what can I see? What if Nick Flynn’s poems are an attempt to get into completely different characters? (I don’t think that’s the case and if it is, I would find that cruel.) Are they here to trick the reader into thinking something more idyllic or positive and then to reveal the true testimony? Are they here to simulate the fragmentation of the mind during war and/or torture? I can see how these poems might take a tortured dreamscape quality, not unlike some of Antoon’s short dream chapters, which are vivid and sometimes confusing. Nonetheless, there is a logic of pain that Antoon’s dream scenes maintain that Flynn’s poems obscure or excise completely. Misdirected, that’s sometimes how I felt.

I was most disgruntled by the romantic readings that are possible in the last two poems. They feature a female and a kiss or desire of some sort. It’s easy to misread the last stanzas in the “farmer” poem as hopeful, and the last poem as erotic or romantic. Reading the testimonies, though, is completely different and we see the sexual violence and violation that these previously intimate, hopeful moments actually are. I can’t help but feel that Flynn had to have a point to that combination, that juxtaposition. I wondered where the testimonies appeared in the book. It seemed to be an appendix or something because of the other references on either side, like they were explanatory details of other poems. Are they things intended to be read only by careful readers, and to languish unread like indices? Or are readers directed to that on the pages of the poems, informed ahead of time that the testimonies redacted are enclosed?

Just some of the thoughts I had. I really liked The Corpse Washer, though.

Scranton’s Trauma Hero Myth

The Trauma Hero, Roy Scranton

This was an interesting read, because it did voice some concerns I had about the pro-war nature of some of the memoirs and fiction pieces we read. It also put a finger on things I hadn’t realized that these stories had in common, like the absence of politics. However, there were some things Scranton said that I didn’t quite agree with.

His myth of the trauma hero, okay. I buy that completely. There is a sort of “returning warrior” noblesse that comes from some of these narratives. I was taken aback when he chose Wilfred Owen, however, to pick at first. It seems a stretch. He complains about Owen saying that there are things you have to be a soldier to understand, you have to have witnessed these things to know their brutality. Scranton seems to take fault with this, and I don’t think that’s fair at all. Owen is saying that civilians can’t understand, but he’s using that to show them their ignorance, the folly of being pro-war. I don’t think it’s making a prophet out of the soldier at all. It’s certainly not near as condescending as the Hemingway excerpt Scranton chose. Owen makes a plea, to be done with the ridiculousness of war and blind patriotism. He doesn’t set up a decorated emo club.

I also disagreed with his reading of O’Brien’s story. Scranton writes, “The knowledge Tim O’Brien claims to have experienced in Vietnam can’t be understood or even discussed, but only felt.” Okay, yes. And what’s wrong with that? I don’t think that means a person needs to be a soldier so that they can go and experience this, so that they can then become a real man/person/American/prophet/truth-seer. Even if O’Brien chooses to describe the truth of war as something “mystic” and only able to be felt and not described, isn’t that a fair claim? He’s still trying to communicate some truth to readers, and “mystic” is just one description of it. He also tries to describe it by using other pieces of craft, like repetition and listing and dialogue. He’s a writer and he’s writing—so what is Scranton’s deal?

At the same time, I’m not going to argue that there isn’t a war-as-revelation trope. I’m also not going to argue on Powers’s behalf, because I agree with everything Scranton says about Powers’s prose in Yellow Bird.

For a long time, with this piece—actually until near the end—I just sat frustrated with this reading. I couldn’t figure out how Scranton was so blind to the fact that these writers have less to do with how a public loses any “truth” the authors tried to share, or brings its own meaning to a tortured narrative. It’s not until the end of his essay that Scranton finally acknowledges this, and I think this is a flaw in his piece. He’s concealed what is to me the biggest piece of the puzzle in the myth of the Trauma Hero, and that is the civilian consumer. I don’t have an answer for how to fix this problem, either.

He also doesn’t focus on the real bone he has to pick with these authors until the end: the enemy is always just a vague gesture in the sand, a caricature. That’s something I can see, definitely, in these author’s pieces, depending on the story. But, for example, in my initial readings of “Redeployment,” I didn’t read the story saying “killing Iraqis is like killing dogs, so don’t worry reader.” To me, it was something more nuanced, a cloaking of guilt and disassociation—or perhaps painful association—or displacement for the character. Is that so bad? Is it because I’m a “differently” educated reader, because I’m not already pro-war or have a greater awareness of what the likely truth is of American warfare? (i.e. We are probably not the good guys to a whole lot of people, dead and alive.)

Is Scranton saying that not just vets should have the authority to write “war literature” or war trauma? Okay. I think that’s fair, especially as a civilian who has officially written one real world war story and a slew of fantasy ones. I do feel like I understand many truths of war, though certainly not all(maybe more than some veterans who forget that for every “victor” there is a “victim”). But this is partly because I have read the accounts of veterans, and not just for looking for a pithy way to say they agree with my beliefs.

Is Scranton saying that veterans need to start writing in the “victim” of their stories? Is it not enough to make allusions to them, to cloak them in metaphor? Is it time to look our corpses in their faces? To acknowledge that war is nothing but politics? I can’t argue with him there.

[This is a topic I think I could keep talking about, actually, and I’m very intrigued by the idea of the non-veteran war writer now that I think of all the fantasy wars in books. Few of the writers are veterans. I’m also intrigued and disgusted—or maybe just baffled?—by George Packer, whom Scranton talks about in this piece.]

Liminality: Paul Yoon, Snow Hunters

Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon is a very short novel. It has similarly short, simple sentences that looked deceptively simple and easy going. It ended up actually being harder to get through than I expected. The leisurely pace of the events, the more reflective tone, all of it. Compared to the other war fiction and creative non-fiction, it’s docile. The other narratives were often categorized by the overt emotion of a moment, by action or the lack of action. This is, on the surface, more simple. Yellow Birds is the closest, but its meditative feel comes from long, winding sentences.

To me, this novel is anti-war. Most depictions we see are negative: being a prisoner; being blown up and covered in snow and becoming blind; caring for wounded. The one positive moment was when Yohan heard the music the soldiers danced to before he was enlisted. In the narratives that felt more war-positive, the emphasis was also on the action and the preparation and the community building. Esprit de corps. The focus was also on the lead-up and preparation to the war and the “during.” Snow Hunters, by contrast, focuses primarily on what happens after the war. Though it does touch on the “pre” war, it’s in a nostalgic way, questioning what would have happened if he hadn’t gone.

Not only is the focus on the post-war, but there’s also a fantastic, beautiful look at the lonely that comes after the war. The lonely is what, to me, makes the anti-war stories. We see Yohan lose his closest friend—who he gained again during the war, part of the camaraderie narrative, though Peng was a shell of who he was. Yohan lives in Brazil as a very single person, even with Kiyoshi. Part of this is the language isolation, which could also be a metaphor for the post-war experience of many veterans. They return from the war with a certain language and way of being inside of them, yet when they return, no one around them can understand that language.

I questioned the cover copy, though, because it implied more struggle and drama with Yohan’s connection to people. It reads, “Yohan longs to connect with these people, but to do so, he must let go of his traumatic past.” There is so little that seems traumatic here, in comparison to the other narratives we’ve read. On that note, I assume this comes from the lack of page space spent depicting the wounded, but we never see any direct trauma happening to Yohan, which other authors seem to glory, by comparison. Peng is the only wounded person we really get to know from his past. We do spend a decent amount of time reflecting on Peng and his loss, but the only hardship Yoon describes in his new life is the nightmares he had when he first arrived. These aren’t even described when the nightmares are actually occurring; they’re mentioned when several years in Brazil have already passed and it’s mentioned as if they’ve ceased occurring. His memories/past didn’t seem in conflict with the friendships he forms. By contrast, he actually seems to form relationships well, given language barriers. He befriends the sailor despite the time and distance; he befriends Kiyoshi, however quietly; Peixe and even the children. He’s welcomed into the community via Kiyoshi. It never actually seems like he is actively having a difficult time connecting with people because of his “traumatic past.”

Paul Yoon also does something interesting with time. At first, I was actually very confused. In part three, he writes starts chapter fourteen with Yohan riding the bike to deliver the papers, and then we’re actually catapulted back in time to watch the years fall into place until we’re told again that he’s got a job delivering papers. It’s as if his mind is on a loop. I wondered if that was part of memory functioning in this piece the way we’ve mentioned in other narratives and PTSD. It can dissolve at any time, or certain things would get rebranded into the memory.

As a war novel, this book is definitely different. I tried to put my finger on why it wouldn’t have any of the action-packed “war for the ages” sort of blurb, but Ann Patchett’s blurb said it really well: “…Snow Hunters is a beautiful and moving meditation on a solitary life.” Not a meditation on war or a solitary life after war or the forceful and willful migration war forces on people. But the emphasis on the solitary life. A close reader can recognize the things I mentioned, yet, the book is overwhelmingly about a man living somewhat alone and apart from people. It doesn’t have the trappings we’ve come to see as “war” narrative.

There is no enemy.

Jen Percy vs. The War Nerd

I have some feelings about today’s readings, particularly the two web articles. Jen Percy writes about her encounter with Commander Pigeon, Afghanistan’s only female warlord, and then “Gary Brecher” writes about Jen Percy writing about Commander Pigeon.

There are many critiques one could make about Percy’s article. I hesitate to call these essays, based on my new experience with CNF, but calling it an article also seems strange, as if there’s a specific angle or purpose for this writing–but perhaps that’s another aspect to discuss.

What is Percy’s purpose for writing this essay? I can’t tell off of one reading, I definitely didn’t know when I first started reading it. Initially, I thought it lacked a point at all. I kept waiting to get to the thrust of what the writer/speaker/reporter was learning, what she was experiencing. By the end, I understood the intent to be just an exploration of a night things didn’t go as planned and the reporter found herself completely out of her own control. The prose itself was very detached–it seemed to want to give us some sense of detached, no frills, tell-it-like-it-is journalism that we readers could come to our own conclusions about. There’s rarely a moment where she actually gets involved intellectually with what she’s witnessing. The most emotion or acknowledgement we have of her outside voice is her fear of being alone with Commander Pigeon and her disgust (look at the details she chooses to pull out: the candy wrappers and food under her bare feet, the soiled pillow, the saliva and dirt on Commander Pigeon’s hands and then the turkey). It seems like Percy wanted it to be an expose on The Female Warlord, and the woman didn’t bite and give her the story she wanted, so it became a personal essay about experience. Yet, it lacks the reflectiveness one expects from a personal essay, what makes personal essays truly worth something as reading material (perhaps my bias is showing). Is it a pro-war? Pro-female-equality? Investigation in a situation she think subverts everything we know about gender norms in Afghanistan?


“Gary Brecher,” a writer for Pando and the pseudonym for John Dolan, however, takes her to task.

I did some research in the middle of reading Brecher’s essay because I was so dumbfounded by his cruelty and, for once, the internet failed me by not having comments on this article. John Dolan, who I don’t really know outside of this moment, seems to be known as a rabble rouser, someone who just likes to make people mad, who lives to critique those he thinks are less competent than himself yet receive more praise. (That’s something I read he said himself.) That discredits him a lot, in my opinion. Senseless critique just because you’re jealous or don’t like someone? Juvenile.

That said, I had some issues of my own with Jen Percy’s article, so I read through to see what his points were.

Some points I found valid:

-Percy does seem attached to seeing Commander Pigeon as a sensation, something strange to be oogled, especially through a physical lens. The fact that the woman is only called Commander Pigeon, not Bibi Ayisha, throughout the essay seems to show Percy’s attachment to the strange and outlandish, something that’s catchy.

-Percy spends a lot of time on Bibi Ayisha’s appearance, certainly lingering on what might be found unattractive in Western culture. At the very least, she certainly describes her features in an unflattering manner. (Frankly, yes, even offensive sometimes.)

-Percy doesn’t seem that interested in molding herself into anyone else’s culture or experiencing anything from her hosts’ point of view. It could be interpreted as rudeness, novice traveling, all manner of things, but we don’t have enough evidence in the text to really make a judgement call.

Some points I found invalid:

-Brecher tells us to go look at a picture of Jen Percy to invalidate her descriptions of Bibi Ayisha. As if picking on the way Percy looks will ameliorate any perceived picking on the other woman.

-What the FUCK is his lesbian vampire schtick?? He’s the one looking for lesbian vampires. And, to be honest, I like to find them wherever I can, too–but I don’t know where he found them here. It’s insulting and infuriating, frankly.

-His implication that an attention to visual and sensual detail is not important. I can acknowledge that this piece isn’t well written as far as an attempt to understand why something happened the way it did. It wasn’t an attempt to understand the woman Percy claims to have met. It’s certainly riddled with strange attempts to create fear (the title, for example). Yet, there are ways that the observations he dismisses can be important, even educational if used correctly.

He’s extremely harsh, beyond necessity for a simple disagreement, the way certain white men often are when they know they’re right and a woman is wrong, pointing out all the feminine things that make her writing/opinion/art invalid. He calls her materialistic and shallow and even homophobic. He insults her past work without even indicating a knowledge of it–calling it a “novel” (did he read it or any publicity at all, or does he just think it’s so “silly” that it doesn’t merit being called “nonfiction”?) and dismissing it without going into any analysis of his issues with the book. Especially since his column is called War Nerd, it seems like he’s styled himself an expert and he’s just another white male trying to crowd women out of the male dominated sphere because a woman’s observations are too “womanish” according to their limited male opinions.


PTSD, Counterfactuals, and the Dose-Responsive Cur[s]e

Trauma as a Social Wound

Reading: The Evil Hours, David Morris

In my limited understanding of trauma studies, I feel like Morris makes so many good points in this chapter that it’s difficult for me to fully absorb them, but I know when I finished reading it, I felt as if something had clicked for me in my understanding. It helps because I’ve been thinking about writing a story that involves a female veteran suffering from PTSD. A couple things that really stuck out to me are Morris’s discussion of trauma as a social wound, indicative of a betrayal, and the creation of a narrative out of a traumatic experience. I appreciated Morris’s acknowledgement of rape as a very real and oft ignored traumatic event and that his PTSD studies include survivors.

It seems like part of living through the trauma, of navigating it and learning what narrative to tell about it involves finding someone to blame for, if not the actual misfortune, the surrounding bits of pain or displeasure. I thought of this when Morris writes about Sonali Deraniyagala and her memoir. And even for believers in powerful nature-manipulating, person-cursing deities, the blame could never be aimed in a holy direction. It has to be cast outward, either to someone who influenced the “protagonist” or onto the protagonist themselves for failing the deity. Morris goes on a bit about the culpability of nature (the lack thereof), but I wonder if there could be something else than just the nature of the trauma. If we take the Linda example he uses, the woman pinned under a bookshelf during an earthquake: what if she had told her husband to move it to another side of the room and he never did? Or what if the bookshelf was an heirloom from a relative she never wanted and was waiting for a sibling to come get it all this time? If the earthquake, the blunt force of trauma, didn’t cause PTSD, could her interpretation of the event change her level of PTSD? In any case, I’m fascinated by Morris’s observation that people are most traumatized by things perpetuated by other people, because it makes sense, all the way down to his instinct and shopping model metaphors. Our bodies are programmed to survive, to recognize and catalogue possible threats. And humans are not so drastically different that we can differentiate one traumatic one from another, the same way some people fear all dogs and their barks and many dogs fear adult males. A dog’s individual memory may not be as intricate as a human’s, I don’t know, but it’s probably the same sense of instinct that makes manmade trauma worse for creating PTSD.

As far as narrative creation goes, we can see this evidenced in every war story and essay and even this trauma book. This is David Morris’s ultimate attempt to make sense of the things he’s seen and/or done, as well as anyone else’s struggle, as much as possible. The fact that so many veterans write so many books or stories or poems or essays—each episode is another chance to tell, to put together or take apart things that they hold as memory or something like it. (I was also interested in Morris’s thoughts on memory distortion and how it shows up in our stories.) In his stories, Tim O’Brian takes multiple stories to tell about a soldier dying and in one story, he’ll relive or mention the man’s death in multiple different ways. Obviously there are separations between an artist’s lived life and produced art, but we can all leave our school’s of theory to acknowledge that experience influences art and what one attempts to express. Some of his stories reflect the “disparate images of [an] actual experience” (44) to create a protagonist’s “narrative.” Somehow, this passage gave me an understanding of how to write a character dealing with trauma, even without PTSD, even a non-veteran. The questions asked were so similar to the character-creation templates in how they provoke the building of a particular person around it. (Which, to my understanding, is the issue, because a unique individual’s trauma and reactions and background, etc. keep scientists from being completely quantitative in their “dosing.”)

I also found myself wondering what compounded trauma would be, how Morris would chart or rank or measure or whatever.

Waiting (or, How Do We Get There and How Do We Come Back)

Since last week’s readings, including the Turner/Antoon piece, I’ve been contemplating the drive the pushes people, especially young men, into the U.S. Armed Forces. There is the trope that poor people with nothing else going for them or angry boys with nothing else going for them will go—either to make money somehow, or to do the only thing they know to do. There are also the legacy children, who come from legacies both positive and negative—Adam and his affection for his old soldier grandfather in Thank You for Your Service, and Gordon and Josh in “Refresh, Refresh.”

I wanted to write specifically about Benjamin Percy’s “Refresh, Refresh” because of the writing, but also because of how the ending, surprisingly, surprised me. The narrator of the story is a high school aged boy with a startling amount of self-awareness. Does the self-awareness come from a retrospective first person narrator? I don’t think so. So much of the language still sounds a little young—cavalier, jaunty. If anything, it sounds like a fairly recent version of this narrator’s “current” state. On page five, the “No longer,” in reference to the presence of the men in town is just one example of why I don’t want too much of this narrator’s insight to be credited to distance and hindsight.

This story doesn’t seem supportive of war. This is never spoken out loud, no overt condemnation. However, there are moments of beautiful yet devastating description that stuck with me, like on page ten: “Recruiting there would be too much like poaching the burned section of forest where deer, rib-slatted and wobbly legged, nosed through the ash, seeking something green.” I stopped and read this line over and over again because it did so much work. Not only does it paint a very, very clear picture of the state Tumelo has been left in, but it also tells you how the sons (and wives and mothers, etc.) have been fairing without the men. It calls the town wounded, and if we hadn’t been able to feel that already, we can definitely see it now, graphically. They hate the recruiter actively, because he’s cocky—the class difference and educational level is a spiky divide—but also because he “scavenged whatever our fathers had left behind.” It’s implied that scavengers are the worst kind of predator, never making their own kill or conquest, always coming in late, after the battle is sorely fought—they are never the glorious mystical beings football teams are made of. He steals other men’s women, breaking the trust of the men even while he self-righteously demands that others respect them for “risking their lives, defending our freedom”—the usual lines of patriotism that men like him use to continue the U.S. Warrior Myth. In confronting Dave, they acknowledge that the war jargon is ridiculous and avoids mentioning some hard truths, like the real possibility of death. Dave also makes this possibility real by showing up, unwelcome, with his black armband.

And yet, the boys’ snark is a self-fulfilling prophecy: “I plan on killing some crazy-ass Muslims,” Gordon says, and Josh says he plans to “Kill some people, then get myself killed…. That sounds like a good plan” (10). They’re being sarcastic and say these things with hateful disdain. And so, I am trying to build a case for the ending in my head. Why do the boys join up in the end, when it seems like they’ve been fighting it so adamantly for the entire story? While they fight themselves, while they fight Seth Johnson, they’re fighting the lure of Dave Lightener. They even condemn him to his face when he tries to pick them up at the mall. What makes them turn back?

I think some of it comes at the very beginning of the second page: “This was what we all wanted, to please our fathers, to make them proud, even though they had left us”(4) The sentiment is echoed again on the last page while they enlist: “where we would at least answer the fierce alarm of war and put our pens to paper and make our fathers proud” (20). Where does this overwhelming need to please a father come from? Do they choose this method because they saw how much “fun” their father’s had after drill weekends, doing their push-ups and Semper Fis? Does the method come from a need for vengeance upon those who may have killed their own fathers?

Something that I haven’t seen brought up yet in the stories of how a kid gets sucked in is probably the truest—not actually knowing the why of a war. Certainly, sometimes, there are spark moments that people use to get behind, people to hate—from Pearl Harbor to the Twin Towers to Hitler—but Percy’s narrator admits what few people do: “We didn’t fully understand the reason our fathers were fighting. We only understood that they had to fight. The necessity of it made the reason irrelevant” (10). Without knowing what’s going on, the true intricacies the could come only from extensive schooling and maybe a history and/or poli sci degree, who could completely understand why the U.S. goes to war? I’ll admit that I don’t. And yet, I have had the privilege of a good education that helps me understand more of the nuance in these situations, enough, at least, to stay my hand before such a major commitment. And class and educational opportunities definitely seem to play a role in this story. I don’t think there was a single mention of non-military possibilities those boys mentioned.

There’s the unbearable aloneness, too. Without anyone there to care for them, to push them in the right direction, the boys roam around town, they beat each other senseless without outside commentary. I suppose that, too, is a stepping-stone.

And of course, that ever burning desire to “be tougher.”

Week 2: A War of Images and Words, Familiar Strategies, and a new Glossary of Terms

A War of Images and Words, Familiar Strategies, and a new Glossary of Terms

Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

I finished reading the entirety of All Quiet on the Western Front, and for that reason I wanted to write about it. The greatest war novel of all time. In fact, until I read the Billy Lynn excerpt, I fully intended to. Something about it grabbed me and didn’t let go.

I read these fifty pages right after reading the Yellow Bird excerpts. It was remarkably different how these two authors chose to write about their protagonists’ returns home. A significant amount of this could be authorial style. Fountain’s narrative drew me on in a way that Powers’s did not. Powers’s sentences were winding and scenic with an especial focus on nature and setting (someone notes this in the blurbs). And certainly it’s beautiful and despite that beauty the tone is definitely one of despair and tension. His prose is slow, though. Meandering. (I don’t see that as a bad thing, either.) It feels reflective, meditative and—sorrowful isn’t the right word, neither is regretful, but there is something in that vicinity. Despairing?

What drew me to Billy Lynn is the pace and humor. Both (in fact, almost everything we read this week) mention the erroneous opinions of the masses at home, the awkward receptions and complete disillusionment of those who support the war (whichever war). I’m realizing I like stories that tackle the grit and pain with humor, however dark. What does that say about how we’re able to consume war stories? (Even All Quiet had humor; I liked it a lot, though, and it was definitely not a funny book.)

It’s obvious that the football game is supposed to be a celebratory moment for Bravo. Fountain undercuts this, though, by showing us how little the Bravo men actually seem to be enjoying this moment. We come back often to the fact that they’ve laid one of their men in the ground the day before and that they know this reprieve is only temporary. How is a soldier supposed to relax and celebrate on leave they know is temporary? How do you let go happily with that sort of beast looming in your future?

The main thrust of this excerpt is the nuttiness of the public reception and the facades that Americans have put up to avoid dealing with the very real questions of the world. Beyond basic terms, why are we in the war? They answer the question with buzzwords that Fountain sets off in a sort of “blackout” poem, with comically adjusted phonetic spellings. (Comically, at least, for me, as I am not a Texan.) The narrator lingers often on the outsized stadium and how it seems like a monument to American-ness. What does it say about American-ness that the stadium is outdated and sagging? “Give bigness all its due, sure, but the place looks like a half-assed backyard job…. There’s a slumpiness, a middle-aged sag to the thing that suggests soft paunches and mushy prostates, gravity-slugged masses of beached whaleness” (10-11). These things are hardly the image of something functional, powerful, or relevant. (This moment also gets us near the expectations of physical eliteness, the contrast of an active soldier and a civilian, which is something I’m noticing appears in almost every contemporary excerpt we’ve read. This is very likely where I’ll focus my attention for the presentation.)

On the note of these Texans, though, we have the next point. Billy is also dealing with understanding just who it is that supports the war, and how he differs from them. Early on, he wonders how anyone can be surprised “when a particular situation goes to hell” (11). In the “The Human Response,” we get an in depth study of people’s reactions to the Bravos. They treat them as heroes that can imbue fame and recognition if only they take their pictures or get their autographs, and he doesn’t understand why. Albert, the producer, is steadily trying to make a movie out of them.

I’m having a difficult time articulating the correlation of obliviousness, self-righteousness, and money. It goes unstated but certainly implied in this excerpt, that the people who adore him and the rest of Bravo have so much privilege that they haven’t given any real thought to the purpose or consequences of this war. They assume the men are heroes and treat them the only way they’ve been taught to—as celebrities.

What are we, as citizens, supposed to make of this celebratization of soldiers? It certainly seems to be only a temporary affair, because no one is aware of the veterans who suffer upon their permanent return. Is it only because these men were part of some publicized action? Is this reaction primarily because they are in Texas, typed as Bush’s heartland and the land of unquestioned Christianity and American values?

It is obviously part of the machine that propagandizes the heroism of battle. It keeps new young men looking for glory and citizens supporting the expenditure of resources and lives. (On close reading, one can also see the propagation of the Us vs. Them narrative, whenever people mention “eye-Ran” and “eaaaarr-Rock” in contrast with God.) When reading All Quiet, I was stricken by how simple things would be if the people fighting would just refuse to fight. The leaders of the world are certainly not going to go back to the “kings charging through the battlefield” era again. So a system goes in place to keep stirring nationalistic fervor and above all, fear. There’s also a strain of “eliteness” that gets puffed up and passed along, too. And yet…and yet.