by Travis Switalski, Sr.
“The desert is not what we thought it would be—it’s colder, grayer, indifferent as a corpse. Everything is ravaged. There’s a thin film of dust that covers this entire city, but it’s more like ash than sand. Even the palm trees are muted and dull. Buildings that have been blown into piles of rubble look like scorched crumbs in the bottom of an old oven. The devastation is permanent.”
“Minarets,” a short story written by Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Kyle Larkin, is a raw, hard, highly descriptive narrative that gives a glimpse into an infantryman’s experience on a cold, eerie morning of the Iraq War. For readers who have experienced combat, the story is like a nostalgic trip back to the war. For civilian readers, it helps lend an understanding of the daily life and observations of soldiers in combat. Larkin’s open, honest, and descriptive writing style leaves little to the imagination, painting a vivid picture of the Iraq experience.
Larkin is an Army infantry veteran who fought in Samarra, Iraq in 2004-2005 with Charlie Company, 1-128 Infantry. After his service, Larkin attended the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, double majoring in Literature and Philosophy and graduating with honors. He also received a Recognition of Excellence award from the College of Liberal Studies. He began writing after developing an interest in war literature while working on a genealogy of post-traumatic stress disorder for his philosophy capstone project.
“The first time someone suggested that I read a war novel, I remember thinking, ‘Why the hell would I want to read a book about war? I’ve been there. It was terrible. That’s the last thing I want to read about,’” Larkin says.
But after reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, he was inspired to draw upon his time in the military to express himself. He was encouraged further by his English professor, who helped him to explore literature and challenge ideas through writing. A particular occasion in class served as a springboard.
It turns out, he says, that the war is “all I’ve ever written about. I did not take writing classes in college, or study creative writing where you are taught to write about all kinds of experiences in different ways. I had a literature course where one of our assignments was to write about a personal experience that left an impact on your life. I had only done academic writing before, essays mostly, but decided to write about an experience in Iraq when my squad leader was killed. Our professor shared this with the class, and I received a lot of positive feedback from the other students…Many of them told me that I should pursue this type of work.”
Larkin believes that works of fiction by veterans are important tools in providing insight and understanding regarding war experiences to those who haven’t served and society as a whole.
“I think great fiction has the potential to create an enormous influence on the public perception of the military. It seems that today society has sort of collectively, although inadvertently, created a paradox for returning veterans. It has become a catchphrase for people to tell veterans, ‘I could never imagine what you’ve been through.’ Of course, veterans say this to people also: ‘You could never imagine what I went through.’ This is a problem. First, it erases even the possibility of anyone sharing such an important and shaping experience because it is believed that this can ‘never’ be understood…The entire possibility for a dialogue is severed immediately. So on one hand, people are telling veterans that they can never be understood, while veterans are telling people that they can never understand – a modern catch-22. The result is that there is now a homogenous view of the military, where every person who served is a ‘hero,’ and everyone deserves equal respect…It sort of sanitizes the entire experience for a lot of veterans, where they are basically told, ‘Thank you for your service, but don’t tell me about it.’ This is where I see the potential for literature, because it brings people directly into the experience, makes them uncomfortable, which is a good thing, so that they can understand it, because they should understand it.”
Larkin’s goal is to write a novel about his experiences in Iraq, using “Minarets” as the first chapter, and to submit more short pieces that can be used in his novel. He is currently working on a literary essay on trauma and post-trauma, veteran suicide rates and their causes and how the current dialogue, understanding, and culture surrounding PTSD can and should change.