Welcome to FOB Haiku: A Review

by David P. Ervin

Randy Brown, aka “Charlie Sherpa,” released Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire on November 13, 2015. Sherpa, a veteran, prolifically published freelance writer, blogger at “Red Bull Rising,” and poetry editor for As You Were: A Military Review, published a poetry collection branded as a witty, humorous portrayal of military life through poetry. I picked up Welcome to FOB Haiku with one major expectation; a good laugh borne of the sometimes dark humor that uniquely military situations can create.

I did not expect the chills down my spine.

While there is certainly a humorous edge to much of the work in the fifty-one poem collection, many of the pieces delve into the deeper emotional landscape of military service. “Static” examines the challenges a military parent faces and how they communicate with their children. “We are the stories” is a look at what our war stories mean for the identities of military veterans. Several poems, like “here and theirs” and the title poem, offer a commentary on the broader implications of the war in Afghanistan and American foreign policy in general.

It’s war poetry. It’s military-themed poetry. Most importantly, however, it’s a lyrical relation of the human condition as seen through a military eye. Welcome to FOB Haiku is an important addition to the canon of military literature and art that will give posterity an impression of “what it was like to be there.” It will also help veterans in understanding their own experiences by viewing our pasts through a more abstract and artistic lens.


American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam

Review: Peter S. Kindsvatter, American Soldiers (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003).

by Jason Ridler, PhD

All returning combat veterans face the challenge of explaining an experience that has no parallel, that is riddled with fear, blood and violence, and that has no “polite discussion” filter. Paul Fussell noted in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War that the real war rarely gets into the clinical and objective history books, the real war of terror, courage, guts, blood, and shit, not detached and cold retelling events and outcomes..

American Soldiers Cover Image

Peter S, Kindsvatter, Command Historian at the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and Schools, Aberdeen Proving Ground, and a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, took Fussell’s challenge with  American Soldiers (University of Kansas Press), a tour of the human experience of warfare from the level of the ground soldier through four wars of America’s draft era (Great War, World War II, Korea and Vietnam). Using a legion of memoirs, diaries, oral histories, novels and more, Kindsvatter breaks down the experience of ground combat into thematic chapters that run the gauntlet of topics from sharp end, from fear and courage to unit cohesion and cowardice, the impact of race in a segregated service, as well as the limits of human endurance and sacrifice. Using a range of scholarly sources on psychology, Kindsvatter helps explain (but not judge) the vast panoply of reactions and traumas endured by those who survived combat in the hell of industrialized warfare. Perhaps the finest source utilized is the woefully under-read J. Glen Gray, whose short work The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, was written from the perspective of a combat veteran in the Counter Intelligence Corps and a budding philosopher trying to unpack the nature of war as an environment and soldiers as its primary inhabitant. Gray’s framework for understanding the “enduring appeal” of battle and the different archetypes of soldiers is employed to great effect as Kindsvatter ploughs through a range of experience from America’s ground soldiers. Kindsvatter also doesn’t shy away from the use of fiction by veterans, including James Jones and Ernest Hemingway, as experiential documents that allowed both writers to use the imaginary tools of literature to make sense of a war in a deeply human fashion. The author can’t underscore enough that too often such works are dismissed for being “not historical”, but when they come to the emotional honesty of experience moments of awe, horror, and grace, there can be few better guides than America’s finest writers of fiction. Kindsvatter also delves into the impact on the homefront on the frontline soldier, how the attitudes and perceptions of each war impacted the grunt’s job overseas, especially the increasing sense of isolation birthed from the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era.

For a history buff, American Soldiers is a grand piece of scholarship on a complex subject, well written and well organized. Far more important, for soldiers who have endured war environments and survived, American Soldiers offers itself as a great companion to that unparalleled experience, speaking across the years about what is unique and distinct in combat experience. As one colleague said when reading it, it made him feel like he wasn’t alone.

The Kill Switch

Somehow it’s a dirty little secret that the entire purpose of war is to kill human beings. That vastly important fact is becoming more well-known thanks to the work of authors and journalists like Phil Zabriskie, a former foreign correspondent for Time who has also written for National Geographic, The Washington Post Magazine, and other notable outlets. He’s more than a war correspondent, though. He’s made a study of the subject of combat. He fine tuned that study with an in-depth exploration on killing in war in his latest book, a Kindle Single called The Kill Switch.


Zabriskie delves into the phenomenon of killing with considerable skill. He expands our understanding of the concept into the societal and institutional context and contracts it into the personal. It’s perhaps the latter that gives the book its stark, chilling nature. The author chronicles the lives of several participants of the Iraq and Afghan Wars to illustrate the powerful psychological forces at work in the act of killing and the impact of the moral injury that killing causes. His coverage of these men over roughly a decade paints a clear picture of the entire process of learning to kill, applying those lessons, and attempting to find peace with that act. For instance, we learn about a Marine, Ben Nelson, who struggles with the times he killed and the times he didn’t. We learn of a Marine officer who bears the emotional burden of ordering men to kill as well as taking lives himself, and how the strict enforcement of the rules of engagement protected civilian lives as well as the combatants’ humanity. We see them in war. Then we see them in their living rooms. We see their pain with a clarity that speaks highly of Zabriskie’s expertise in recording the grim truth of war.

To his credit, Zabriskie lets the subject and those who lived it speak for themselves. But he’s packaged those voices in a concise and fast-flowing narrative, one that is buttressed by interviews with psychologists and research into relevant scholarship. It’s an engaging, educating read.

Although the book is short, it is long on authenticity and insight. Zabriskie has created a work that offers real-world examples of some of the ideas first explored by Dave Grossman. He has made a clear argument for the fact that killing is one of the most traumatic experiences of combat, and it is the very essence of war. How we treat that haunting truth – that we collectively flip a kill switch when we go to war – is up to us as a society, but Phil Zabriskie has done a remarkable job of defining it for his readers.



(Review contributed by David P. Ervin)

Fives and Twenty-Fives

“That sound. That groan chasing a clap. It hit me a second later. The shock wave knocked me on  my back and my helmet cracked against the pavement. Bits of dirt and gravel rained down on my face. I couldn’t hear a thing.”  – Micheal Pitre, Fives and Twenty-Fives

5s and 25s coverOne of the most recent Iraq War novels did not disappoint. Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives contains visceral illustrations of the war with passages like the one above as well as accurate renditions of being a combat veteran at home. The novel draws its readers into the worlds of the three main characters, Lieutenant Donovan, Doc Pleasant, and “Dodge,” an Iraqi interpreter, and conveys their experiences in adeptly.

The story follows the deployment of a Marine engineer platoon to the Anbar Province, where their daily work consists of filling the potholes on supply routes created by insurgents’ bombs; potholes which, more often than not, were filled with new bombs. The platoon gets hit. They suffer casualties. They interact with State Department civilians, their leadership, and other units. They see the nascent Iraqi Army at work. And, of course, the Marines navigate the emotional territory inherent in the Iraq War both during the deployment and after. The reader sees the Marine characters’ attempts at romantic relationships and fulfilling their roles as sons and comrades to their Marine buddies. By following the perspective of both officer and enlisted as they live their civilian lives, we see the contrasts, and more often, the similarities in their lives.

The reader also learns about Dodge, the platoon’s Iraqi interpreter who’s left his university studies to escape the ravages of war only to be caught up in its maelstrom anyway. Dodge’s family dynamics and his experience after his time with the Marines offers fresh insight into the other side of the war – that of the Iraqis who were caught in the middle of the sectarianism which tore the social fabric of Iraq asunder.

Michael Pitre
Michael Pitre

The narrative structure is creative. It weaves the first-person experiences of the three central characters together into an illustrative and insightful amalgam. While complex, it is not burdensome. Rather, it sets and enticing pace which is spurred on by his terse, spare writing style. Moreover, the language is readily accessible to civilian audiences. The characters are as well. Pitre, a USMC Iraq veteran, has done a remarkable job in elucidating the human condition in the context of war and its aftermath. He’s delved beneath the military and ethnic veneer of the war’s participants and shed light on the human beings they really are.

Fives and Twenty-Fives (Bloomsbury) is available through most major book retailers.