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Release of AS YOU WERE: THE MILITARY REVIEW, Vol. 8

MEA is proud to announce the release of As You Were: The Military Review, Vol. 8. This publication contains the work of 52 veterans and family members, most of whom collaborated with volunteer editors to revise their work.

These stories and poems illustrate the experiences of veterans and family members throughout more than seventy years of military history, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their perspectives range from granddaughters and friends to combat veterans and the parents thereof.

Please take a moment to read through As You Were, Vol. 8, where you can be entertained, educated, and perhaps even moved.

Steve Beales  /  In Duty Comes Honour & Excellence / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2

Post Traumatic Narrative Disorder

by Kyle Larkin

War writing is paradoxical by nature. Historically, veteran authors have claimed that war cannot be understood unless it is experienced firsthand, but this claim is always made within the very writings that attempt to help readers understand wars they did not experience. Some writers seem oblivious to this contradiction, while others explicitly acknowledge that they don’t expect readers to understand them. Philip Caputo ends his Prologue to A Rumor of War by conceding that his writing “might, perhaps, prevent the next generation from being crucified in the next war. But I don’t think so.” Deep ambivalence is a central aspect of war writing, but we write anyway, knowing that it will change nothing, because the purpose, above all, is to share our experiences—to simply tell. These shared experiences, written by veterans, have formed unique and definitive narratives of each war.

The unprecedented scale and horror of World War I coincided with Modernism to produce the first great outpouring of work by disillusioned veterans. It is the narrative of trench warfare and Shell Shock—some of the earliest attempts to understand traumatic stress. World War II, the deadliest and most widespread conflict in history, led to a wide range of writings from authors all over the world. It is remembered as a justified war, the triumph of Good over Evil, the overthrow of Fascism by Heroism. The lack of iconic literature about the Korean War tells its own story—the absence is itself the narrative. It is the Forgotten War, in which more than thirty thousand American deaths were overshadowed by a world still recovering from the immensity of WWII. Vietnam brought Americans to the jungle in the midst of a countercultural revolution, forming a narrative of protest and anti-war sentiment in the face of political corruption. Veterans became victims of both the draft and the demoralizing treatment they received upon returning home, which initiated the controversial stereotype of the Broken Veteran.

What, then, will be the narrative of the Wars on Terror? For the first time in history, we have troops who, before they even deploy, are already familiar with terms such as “PTSD,” “re-experiencing,” “trauma studies,” “triggers,” “Veteran Suicide Rates,” and “hyper-vigilance.” After their tours, veterans come home to a ready-made post-traumatic lexicon waiting for them to use for interpreting their experiences. The lens of pre-reflective awareness that is now brought to war, and the very real dangers these traumatic terms represent, have both had profound influences on the way war is experienced and written about. A great passage in Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato explains how the protagonist, through television and magazines and newspapers, anticipated the ugliness and poverty of war, that “he had seen it all before seeing it,” which caused his experience to seem muted and familiar, a simulacrum. We now have soldiers who expect to be broken by war, are acutely aware of the breaking as it happens, and then return, broken by the war but comfortable using terms such as “my trauma” because they have come home to the tools and vocabulary with which to explain their experiences—they “had seen it all before seeing it.”

This is an important shift in the history of war writing, and, as a result, it has lead to an abundance of stories told retrospectively by self-proclaimed Broken Veteran narrators. The problem with this is that it tends to produce narratives that interpret experiences before explaining them. When veterans expect to be broken by war, and then their expectations are met, it can translate into writings that simply trace this arc backwards—the veteran begins their novel or memoir or short story by explaining they have been broken by the war, and then they explain how this happened. This narrative can portray a one-dimensional archetype of the veteran-as-victim, which seems borrowed from the draft and the Vietnam experience. War writing can be therapeutic, and there’s merit to that aspect alone, but the Broken Veteran should play a role in the modern narrative and not be the narrative itself.

Despite the abundance of attention it receives, the current hyper-focus on trauma only constitutes half of the contemporary war narrative. Frustration makes up the other half—veterans are frustrated with multiple deployments, frustrated with fighting an insurgency of indistinguishable enemies who seemingly vanish into thin air, frustrated with the disconnect between society’s proud, emphatic Support The Troops platitude and the large number of veterans who nevertheless are struggling, frustrated with the struggle of re-integration into society or with families (the ubiquitous and unchallenged use of the term “re-integration” is telling), and, maybe most of all, frustration with the possibility that personal sacrifices (and the sacrifices of the dead and wounded) were for nothing.

Veterans are granted privileges now that they did not have after previous wars. The Every-Service-Member-Is-A-Hero mentality that took hold after 9/11 has created an environment where it is blasphemous to question veterans. Critical analysis is strictly forbidden if you haven’t experienced war firsthand. Only other veterans are allowed to ask important, uncomfortable questions, but they usually don’t. These conditions have helped create the cocoon in which the prevalence of Broken Veteran narratives and over-traumatized writings have formed.

The risk inherent in this type of writing is that the modern war narrative could end up being defined solely in terms of post-trauma, rendering it generic and repetitive. When experiences are interpreted before they are explained, it replaces the ambivalence that is central to war writing with a bland certainty. The Post-Traumatic Wars deserve a narrative that is as complex and definitive and enduring as they have been. Great war writing seems to tell the reader, “War can’t be understood unless you’ve experienced it,” a statement intended more so to draw attention to the gravity of the subject matter than to be taken literally, but it also crucially implies, “but let me tell you about it anyway.” This is where some modern narratives fall flat—instead of telling, they seem to say that war truly cannot be understood without personal experience, and therefore they tell readers what should be understood (and in what terms it should be understood) before any experiences are described. The modern narrative could use a shift back toward ambivalence, which allows readers to interpret experiences for themselves. The purpose of war writing, after all, is to share experiences without expectations for change—to tell without interpretation, as Erich Maria Remarque brilliantly states in his preface to All Quiet on the Western Front, “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”

 

 

(Featured Image: Steve Beales / In Duty Comes Honour & Excellence / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2)

Tif Holmes / War / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2

Adjusting Fire: Redirecting Veterans’ Verbal Energy

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

Vietnam had O’Brien, Caputo, and about ten dozen others. World War Two had James Jones and Korea had Hornberger, to name two of a hundred with ties to those wars. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have no unified, enduring voice outside war porn authors or the newest Medal of Honor recipient’s ghost written book. So far our voice consists of social media posts and rantings related to political candidates using us as bait and pawns to meet an agenda. We need our own voice, and we can develop it into something lasting.

It would be unfair to say that there aren’t any voices for us out there. Plenty of outstanding writing has been done by OIF and OEF Veterans. David Ervin’s non-fiction, Leaving The Wire: An Infantryman’s Iraq, and Jerad Alexander’s novella, The Life of Ling Ling are two fine books born from the true voice of experience.  Short stories like Kyle Larkin’s “Minarets” and Christopher Lyke’s “These Are Just the Normal Noises,” or articles like Sean Tyler’s “The Other Side of the Gunfire: Life in a Battalion Aid Station,” or Brian Mockenhaupt’s “I Miss Iraq. I Miss My Gun. I Miss My War” do render the voice of our war. Organizations like Veteran’s Writing Project and Military Experience & the Arts don’t use “war porn” or publish Special Operations’ narratives, but instead showcase art, poetry, non-fiction and fiction works by ordinary people who lived through extraordinary circumstances. There are literally thousands of works by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans – art, poetry, fiction, non-fiction all done by those who fought in America’s longest military campaign. Why are good works being drowned by rantings on Facebook?

Social media has been detrimental to the veteran experience. We are so flooded with articles, posts, memes, rants and groups that there is little time to actually read what is presented. We’re inundated with war porn and hero worship to the point that we have grown numb to our own experiences and the experiences of our fellow veterans. We live in little, fragmented, online groups that separate us from each other and from the rest of the American population. We label ourselves as disgruntled or dysfunctional and participate in causes that amount to little more than online “slack-tivism.” We “like” or “share” pages and articles without reading them, and we have little interest in actually educating others about our time in the service. The shame is that no one is going to scroll back through years of memes and online articles to try and understand what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. If they did, the information they would find wouldn’t be representative, rather it would be based on the bravado of a select few whose experiences are not in line with the majority of American veterans.

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was published in 1990, a full 25 years after the Vietnam War ended. Today, high schools teach the novel for its historical and literary value. O’Brien has (probably unwittingly) become the voice for his generation of veterans. O’Brien’s generation had two sects of veterans, the “Lifers” those who joined the military of their own accord and planned on making service a career and the “draftees” those unfortunate souls who were forced to partake in combat as a result of conscription. The Things They Carried was written by a draftee infantryman and transcends the “Lifer” and “draftee” mistrust by the illustrating how both groups bore the moral weight of sustained missions of attrition in Vietnam. Today’s high schoolers pick up an actual book, bound with paper pages, and read about the experiences of those who fought in Southeast Asia fifty years ago. Perhaps twenty-five years from now works by Ervin, Mockenhaupt, Alexander, or Larkin or a host of others will be the voices of our contemporaries speaking to future generations of American veterans. However, the formation of that type of bond will face significant hurtles given the desensitization brought on by social media. Social media has given us a technologically induced lobotomy.  The “vet voice” on social media doesn’t talk about having beers with Vietnam veteran uncles or grandfathers and laughing as veterans always do together.

Social media is not leaving American culture. It will only evolve further and continue to dilute our experiences.  It seeks to categorize us all as PTSD riddled psychopaths. It doesn’t have to be this way. If we as a community begin promoting our veteran artists, poets and authors, if we focus on our actual experiences as opposed to caricatures of them, if we foster the idea that social media is a forum to promote our true experiences as opposed to a medium to further alienate us from the rest of the world, we may emerge with a voice that speaks to who we are as a generation of combat veterans and humans.

 

(Feature image: “War” by Tif Holmes, originally appearing in the Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2)

 

VetDaugthers Img

Veterans’ Daughters

by Daniel Buckman

It was a veteran’s daughter who read my first attempts at fiction, written in spiral binders at Fort Bragg, and mailed in letters to her Dekalb, Illinois’ dorm room. She talked to me about my writing through one of fifty payphones outside the First Brigade snack bar from her university in the Northern Illinois cornfields. Another veteran’s daughter made me take a classics’ class at University of Illinois because the professor spent the quarter on The Iliad and The Odyssey, telling me how the books helped her dad change when her mom almost divorced him. One veteran’s granddaughter, 2nd Marines WW II, read the typed attempts at my first novels and told me I wasn’t worth my jump wings and other things if I stopped trying to write books. Marine veteran’s daughters keep their fathers’ “devil-dog” attitude about the Marine Corps. As a young veteran, I discovered by the second date that their fathers had been Army or Marine infantryman somewhere in the world. These young women knew me before I knew them and were analyzing deeper parts of me before I knew their middle name. I was also very tired and finding myself more nostalgic for the army I couldn’t wait to leave. They ignored my confusion, treated me like a 22 year-old guy, made me dance, and spend many library study dates with them where I heard the college degree completion rap twelve different and wonderful ways.

If luck let me date these beautiful young women long enough to meet their fathers, the infantry veteran wanted to meet me yesterday after hearing that I was a 82nd Airborne Division grunt going to University of Illinois on the GI Bill. Every father received me like a platoon sergeant, flashed me a true “thousand-mile stare,” told me where they served in Vietnam, and repeated three times where their daughter is never to be taken, what time she is to be home, and if we wanted to stay up all night talking and watching movies, we were free to do that in his basement; they patrolled the house every hour all night. I said “yes sir,” and they joke-asked if the army had started “sirring” buck sergeants twenty years discharged. Then we drank cold cans of Budweiser in a garage of a Southwest or Northwest Side bungalow. I was asked by every father how a fool could jump from a perfectly good airplane. The Tet Offensive usually came up by beer three and stayed until there was no more cans left in the garage fridge.

These veteran’s daughters were tough and alert young women. They loved their fathers and watched them struggle with the residue of military experience as girls. They helped their dads to bed when they became too numb to walk and their mother was exhausted, trying to convince herself that she was finished while chain smoking Virginia Slims in the backyard of a Northwest Side Bungalow.

They all had plans and set the curve at Illinois. They wanted to backpack in Europe with you and fought like hell if you tried to pay more than half. They read Russian novels for real, recited passages from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,  knew the history on the royal lines of Europe, Russia included, and ran a faster 10K than you did. Their optimism and energy were infectious. Their academic goals were never distorted by their tears, which fell whenever they thought of the sacrifices their fathers made as combat infantrymen and union carpenters so they could be in college and traveling a Europe they would never see. They drove me towards my dreams after coming home exhausted and half-homesick for Fort Bragg and my platoon, a feeling I never foresaw when I was ninety days away from discharge.

VetDaugthers ImgThey were the daughters of Vietnam War soldiers and Marines who read Simone De Beauvoir and George Sand, volunteered to tutor in neighborhoods that sent their fathers into rages when they found out by my tip—and then not speak to either of us for a week while they continued to tutor. They never let my exhaustion win, the fact that I missed old, close friends because I never found new ones to replace them when I hardly considered this to be a future issue when I left Fort Bragg. They kept me meeting people. They got mad for two weeks—the ‘I don’t know you’ mad—when they caught me drinking Budweiser pitchers at the Stillery on Chicago’s Taylor Street with Outfit foot soldiers who overlooked my student status because Rocco Infelise, the Cicero boss, served with the 101st Airborne Division in WW II and came around Tuesday nights and liked making fun of the 82d Airborne Division and that was me.  They had no fear of walking into the bar and reminding me I had a chemistry test in the morning before ignoring me for two weeks.  They got everything about me and never let my excuses work, and taught me to understand the most delicate memories and emotions they carried, which taught me about love.  The Outfit guys sat quiet while these young women lectured me about not giving up and becoming frustrated like every veteran in their family.  Then the Outfit guys told me not to be a moron and go find her while Rocco Inflise, visiting from Cicero, waved me out the door and said, “They 82nd has a problem getting scattered whenever they jump. The CO wants you to go home and assemble and stay away from the 101st.”  I begged them for fourteen days to speak a word before they appeared with an expectation that I confess to being a jackass for drinking beer with Outfit guys.

Without veterans’ daughters, I doubt I would have learned that women are the lone reason men amount to anything and why many men want to hold them down because this fact slaughters the cowboy ‘”Murican” mythology that still runs our collective narrative.

The veteran’s daughter that shamed me from the Stillery back to library became my wife. Rebecca was a girl from the Western Illinois cornfields who looked like Audrey Hepburn and pulled a 36 on her ACT the same year her relay team placed second in state. She was accepted with 50% scholarships to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Rebecca’s father, “Pappy,” was the guy who strung the platoons of infantry companies together with land-line wire when they still had to crank field phones with the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea. He raised five kids in a VA Loan house by climbing country telephone poles in Illinois winters to fix frozen transformers for 38 years at GTE. In Korea, Pappy broke out of the Pusan Perimeter with the Ninth Infantry Regiment and chased the North Koreans to the Yalu River where divisions of Chinese were forming to deal with the Americans in human waves. In Bureau County, Illinois, after Korea, Pappy climbed his telephone poles, ran Little League Baseball, and got two sons college football scholarships. He could only send Rebecca, his quiet, brown-eyed daughter who studied French since sixth grade and he drove to Joliet every Saturday after sixty hours of climbing poles with Davey Miller, a USMC veteran of Korea and the Chosin Resevoir, so she could take advanced math classes at a Catholic school. She got into University of Illinois on a full academic scholarship. Harvard and Yale weren’t accessible to veteran’s daughters, and I believe Rebecca not going to Harvard hurt Pappy deeper than it did her. Veteran’s daughters learn to accept inequity and keep probing until the gatekeepers are asleep. Without them, a veteran would never learn that the cliché of making lemonade out of lemons is true. She understood the radical maturity her father gained in Korea and understood how that came into conflict with civilization. She took a BS in Psychology and a BA in Art History so she could learn more about her father.

I spent our first date listening to her talk for hours about Pappy instead of her two years in England, her Scottish boyfriend that she almost married, or her trips to Europe and Mexico with her college girlfriends. She didn’t ramble about a future girl’s trip planned to Spain, her advancing career in health care consulting, her addiction to “MASH,” or her cats her cats, which she loved. This young woman had even dated doctors, but she hated it. Instead she loved talking about her veteran father with me over Heineken and Thai food. I fell in love.  I remember sitting across the table from Audrey Hepburn, her eyes like wet, brown silk, realizing right then that I was having dinner with my wife—my buddies wanted to know the 411, and I told them that I had met my wife. They thought I was joking about some unexpected hot sex, but after hearing that I was lucky to get a soft kiss after five dates they thought I was crazy.

We made love after two months and read and talked about what we read and shuttled our cats about the city like children depending who was hosting for the weekend. One morning after and running, I came back and found her reading early, shitty drafts of The Names of Rivers on my couch. She walked across my apartment when I opened the door, sweaty to my Nikes from a humid Chicago run. Her long hair, Scots Irish and Cherokee black, was wet on my shirt she had picked from my closet. She kissed me and said that we have to move into together, sublet our future two bedroom to visiting medical students, and move to Paris for six months on savings. I could write and she could get better with her French before graduate school. Pappy never said a word, which scared me, and seemed happy that Becky was going to speak all the French she studied since sixth grade and come back to be a teacher. The man knew upon our first meeting that I loved his daughter and I would never return fire in a Chicago street fight with her beside me because her safety was my first priority.

Within a month, I was slack-jawed, writing in a one bedroom apartment on Rue Monsieur le Prince with this beautiful woman who was giving up doctors for me, having dinner nightly at The Polidor across the street, where Flaubert wrote and Rebecca tutored the owner’s children in English, and spending it all with a girl from the cornfields with brown eyes that trapped Frenchman by the second, became fluent in two weeks, spent hours alone at Musee D’Orsay, and never would tell me about her favorite painting of the day unless I guessed in five tries. In the shopwindow lights of Boulevard Saint Michel, we walked to the Seine nights and mocked ourselves for going through the outdoor bookstall. We refused to let our university professor’s post-modern cool ruin this time in Paris even if we were playing dress up. We looked across the rooftops and jagged chimneys of the Latin Quartier at night and scanned the windows for Rebecca’s beloved cats posing over Rue Monsieur le Prince.  I let Hemingways’s A Movebale Feast become our guidebook, as clichéd as that sounded then and sounds today, and lived with a woman who showed me how to smile with her love.

I had two novels published inside the next two years with the wonderful Akashic Books like Rebecca had promised me when I let my stupidity about writing frustrate me to anger in Paris herself, and published two more with Saint Martin’s/Picador. My wife went to graduate school in accounting at Illinois, but dropped all the business nonsense to become a second grade CPS teacher until the mayor changed that for many fine women. She got mad when I tried romantic muse poetry on her, which she was for me, and said she just told me what a common reader who doesn’t write would say.

She was a grunt’s daughter, and like all grunt’s daughters, she carries a “bullshit detector” in her eyes that are reading your mind “Lima Charlie” before you even open your mouth and have their name clear.  Without Rebecca and millions of other veteran’s daughters who are unafraid to return the world’s fire with their veteran boyfriends or husbands, millions of male veterans would have experienced the absolute, real-life destruction of the soldier’s dream of love, home, and family.  Veteran’s daughters convinced me to educate myself, get a job that pay, and love them while taking in Europe. They convinced me to live. They are the most pragmatic feminists that I have met.  They have a deeper understanding of history’s unspeakable fascination with war and the masculine ritual of military service than us guys who served in the infantry divisions.  Daughters love their fathers and their fathers were combat veterans so they learned how to love surly grunts without knowing they were learning anything because they knew that their sheep dog father climbed from his rabbit hole whenever PTS would let him imagine his brown-eyed daughter smiling and saying “Bonjour, Papa” in a track suit she saved her allowance to buy.