Exorcising war's demons, in poetry and prose


POSTED: Monday, February 08, 2010

WASHINGTON—Brian Turner was focused on staying alive, not poetry, when he served as an infantry team leader in Iraq. But he quickly saw that his experience—“;a year of complete boredom punctuated by these very intense moments”;—lent itself to the tautness of verse.

The result was a collection called “;Here, Bullet,”; with a title poem inspired by Turner's realization during combat patrols that he was bait to lure the enemy.

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh,
1/2hellip 3/4 because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

“;Poetry was the perfect vehicle,”; said Turner, who had a master's in fine arts from the University of Oregon before joining the Army. “;The page was the place where I could think about what had happened.”;

Turner is a literal foot soldier in what might be called the well-written war: a recent outpouring of memoirs, fiction, poetry, blogs and even some readable military reports by combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Soldier-writers have long produced American literature, from Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs about the Civil War to Norman Mailer's World War II novel, “;The Naked and the Dead,”; to Tim O'Brien's “;The Things They Carried,”; about Vietnam.

The current group is different. As part of a modern all-volunteer force, they explore the timeless theme of the futility of war—but wars that they for the most part support. The books, many written as rites of passage by members of a highly educated young officer corps, are filled with gore, inept commanders and anguish over men lost in combat, but not questions about the conflicts themselves. “;They look at war as an aspect of glory, of finding honor,”; said O'Brien, who was drafted for Vietnam in 1968 out of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. “;It's almost an old-fashioned, Victorian way of looking at war.”;

The writers say one goal is to explain the complexities of the wars—Afghan and Iraqi politics, technology, the counterinsurgency doctrine of protecting local populations rather than just killing bad guys—to a wider audience. Their efforts, embraced by top commanders, have even bled into military reports that stand out for their accessible prose.

“;The importance of good official writing is so critical in reaching a broader audience to get people to understand what we're trying to do,”; said Capt. Matt Pottinger, a Marine and former reporter for The Wall Street Journal who is a co-author of the report “;Fixing Intel,”; an indictment of American intelligence-gathering efforts in Afghanistan released last month. “;Even formal military doctrine is well served by a colloquial style of writing.”;

The report, overseen by the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, is an anecdote-rich argument against intelligence officers who pursue secrets about insurgents but ignore data for winning the war right in front of them—local economics, village politics and tribal power brokers. The report compares the American war in Afghanistan to a political campaign, “;albeit a violent one,”; and observes, “;To paraphrase former Speaker of the House Thomas P. 'Tip' O'Neill's famous quote, 'all counterinsurgency is local.”;'

Another report, an unreleased Army history about the battle of Wanat in July 2008—the “;Black Hawk Down”; of Afghanistan—unfolds in stiffer prose but builds a strong narrative. Written by Douglas R. Cubbison, a military historian at the Army's Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the draft report lays bare the failures of an American unit to engage the local population in a village in eastern Afghanistan—“;these people, they disgust me,”; one soldier is quoted as saying—and graphically tells the story of the firefight that killed nine Americans.

Most of the writing by combatants has been memoirs that bear witness to battles of their own. Craig M. Mullaney, a former Ranger and Army captain, writes in “;The Unforgiving Minute”; of a 2003 ambush on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that killed one of his men, Evan W. O'Neill.

“;Small-caliber rounds dented the Humvees around me, but it was strangely silent, as if someone had pressed the mute button. ... All I could remember were those eyes, glacial-blue, like my brother's. There's no way O'Neill's dead. This wasn't a game or an exercise or a movie; these were real soldiers with real blood and real families waiting back home. What had I done wrong?”;

Mullaney, who has left the Army and is now a Pentagon official handling policy for Central Asia, said he wrote his book in part as catharsis, and as a way of telling Pvt. 1st Class O'Neill's parents what had happened to their son. “;I had a lot of ghosts I was still wrestling with,”; he said. “;I thought by writing I could make some sense of this jumble of experiences and memories and doubts and fears.”;

Nathaniel C. Fick, a former Marine officer who wrote of taking heavy fire during the 2003 invasion of Iraq in “;One Bullet Away,”; had his own troubles coming home. Fick, now the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, a military research group in Washington, also appears in Evan Wright's book (and the HBO miniseries) “;Generation Kill,”; based on Wright's experience as a Rolling Stone reporter embedded with Fick's platoon.

Fick, a Dartmouth graduate who applied to graduate school after leaving the Marines, describes getting a call from an admissions officer.

“;'Mr. Fick, we read your application and liked it very much. But a member of our committee read Evan Wright's story about your platoon in Rolling Stone. You're quoted as saying, “;The bad news is, we won't get much sleep tonight; the good news is, we get to kill people.”;' She paused, as if waiting for me to disavow the quote. I was silent, and she went on .... 'Could you please explain your quote for me?' ...

'You mean, will I climb your clock tower and pick people off with a hunting rifle?'

It was her turn to be silent.

'No, I will not. Do I feel compelled to explain myself to you? I don't.”;'

Other books started as soldier blogs, at least before commanders shut them, among them “;My War”; by Colby Buzzell, a former machine gunner in Iraq. Another soldier's blog, shut by the Army in 2008 but to be published as a book in April, is “;Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War,”; by Matt Gallagher, a former Army officer in Iraq.

There are far fewer books by women, but one of them, “;Love My Rifle More than You”; by Kayla Williams, an Arabic-speaking former sergeant in a military intelligence company, is particularly critical of the military. (Williams writes of how she was instructed to verbally humiliate a naked Iraqi prisoner in Mosul.)

So far there are relatively few novels, although “;The Mullah's Storm”; by Tom Young, a flight engineer in the Air National Guard, is to be published in the fall. The story is about a soldier shot down in Afghanistan.

O'Brien, whose own memoir, “;If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home”; was published in 1973, said that the dearth of novels did not surprise him. His first war novel, “;Going After Cacciato”; was not published until 1978. “;The Things They Carried”; was published in 1990. Soldiers need more time to explore “;what happened inside,”; O'Brien said—suggesting that the flow of their war books will not stop anytime soon.