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.
TheNames of Rivers by Daniel Buckman, his second in a cycle of four novels, begins and ends a dark, heartbreaking tale of the multi-generational dysfunction between fathers and sons who have both survived the major wars of the American Century. The patriarch of the Polish-American family, Bruno Konick, once soldiered with the First Infantry Division from Omaha Beach to the liberations of Dachau and Buchenwald, an experience that aged his body and forever disconnected his mind. The post-traumatic stress caused by his involvement in WW II affected his life, the lives of his two sons before they ever went to Vietnam, and the life of his grandson, Luke, who wanders Watega County, Illinois realizing that something bad has happened, but unable to understand the big whys.
“Bruno Konick is a compilation of my uncles and grandfathers who fought in the European Theatre of Operations during WW II,” Buckman said in interview. He describes two generations of war veterans in his grandfather’s basement playing cards on Christmas Day. The Vietnam veterans felt isolated and alone at their table, while the World War II veterans, living with their own silent trauma, felt embarrassed for sending their sons off to a war they never intended to win. “I think they had far less closure than 1950s and 1960s Hollywood would suggest. This experience is also framed by tough Depression childhoods as first-generation Americans. I found that these men were sent home to roll final credits on WW II that refused a conventional ending after Auschwitz and Nagasaki changed how people must think about war to win.”
The story of Bruno Konick and his sons intertwines with that of his grandson, Luke. The boy can see the toll that trauma has taken on his working class, Polish-Catholic family even if powerless as a seventeen year-old boy to change anything. “He has a great-grandfather who was gassed in the Meuse-Argonne, a grandfather that was left with malignant PTSD after WW II, and an uncle and a father who are Vietnam veterans that are existing with untreated PTSD and the mania that comes from being a 1980s Vietnam combat veteran,” said Buckman. He wanted to articulate the irony of the boy joining the Marines in order to break the cycle of trauma by potentially exposing himself to the very same trauma. “I wanted the novel to end with the reader wondering what will become of Luke as they already wonder what became of Huck Finn. Will Luke really get out and use the GI Bill? Will Luke get sent to war and lose his nimble wits and wander with untreated PTSD from both his experience and the experiences of three generations ahead of him? I wanted to write a novel about what continuing a military tradition in the family, which is often portrayed as fluffy on network morning shows, does to a family after some hard generations in American Century Wars and untreated PTSD running like an open sore between generations.”
When asked how he thought The Names of Rivers is relevant to America’s recent combat veterans, Buckman said, “I believe that today’s OEF/OIF veterans are much like Luke. He could have been in 1983 Beirut, which was the first major attack by an Islamic terror group on a hard American target, the Marine Barracks 1983. I know from teaching OEF/OIF veterans freshman composition at Chicago junior colleges as a Cold War paratrooper that many young vets from the recent crusade come from the same social conditions as teenagers from the divorce frenzy of the late 70s and 80s laced with untreated PTSD as when I served in the 1980s ‘mellow yellow’ period. I am much older, born in 1967, but my experience teaching OEF/OIF vets and hearing them talk about Korean War veteran grandfathers and Vietnam veteran fathers impresses me one way: This generation of combat veterans are full of grandpa’s and dad’s PTSD themselves. OEF/OIF didn’t escape the culture, hardship, and weird mythology that sprang up to define the wars of the American Century.”
Buckman is the Vice President and Managing Fiction Editor for Military Experience & the Arts. He has been committed since 2006, when OIF grunts started coming back in real numbers, to teaching veteran students to write college essays and mentoring veteran authors with the belief that writing can help individuals cope with their trauma. “Writing has historical credibility in helping veterans not only define their individual PTS into a manageable narrative that will need periodic adjustment over time, but it has made many veteran writers, who never dreamed they would be writers, become respected authors. Homer must have been a soldier.” Buckman challenges veteran writers and students to read books like The Iliad and The Odyssey, asking them if they identify with the characters, Achilles’ rage or Priam’s profound mourning. Most grunt veterans answered with a resounding “every single verse.” He later encourages them all to read authors like Crane, Hemmingway, Herr, Heinemann, O’Brien and Vonnegut to show them that veterans have been writing from pre-history until present day. “I have seen that the simple act of disciplined running, reading, and writing about the war has brought many vets back from real severe diagnoses. If they have these books close, they are never alone. If they discipline themselves to write well every day and do PT, they will begin to understand their experience not as an overwhelming mixture of experience and emotional reactions, but as parts of a larger story that they can begin to write and assemble. I hope that more veterans will use our services at MEA.”
The Names of Rivers is an important novel for all generations of veterans to read and embrace. It is of the same caliber of any of the novels that Buckman recommends to his students and veteran writers and is an outstanding example of the real contribution that veterans have given the literary arts. Buckman’s raw honesty and genuine, heartfelt sincerity come through in his writing, invoking the entire gamut of human emotions in the reader, setting a standard for all writers – veterans and otherwise – to follow.
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..
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.
April 24, 2006, the anniversary of Troy Jenkins’s death, three years earlier. Since he was blown up, that day had been bad for me. I didn’t want to be around people, I drank too much. I didn’t really know how to deal with it. I couldn’t talk to anybody about it because none of my buddies had been there. And the guys who were there were wounded and had moved on.
This day was shaping up to be just as bad. Our assignment was to guard FBI and CIA agents while they tried to identify mass graves as evidence against Saddam Hussein. Saddam didn’t like the Shiites, and Sadr City was Shiite central. He had murdered many and piled them in mass graves, so we were in a dump digging through trash trying to find bodies as little kids ran up and threw bricks at us. This was not a typical infantry mission, and I had a bad feeling about it, but you don’t ask questions.
Later that evening, back at the base, we were told we needed to go back into the city and recover a truck that had broken down. “Hey, sir, this is not us,” I told the lieutenant. “Please send somebody else.”
“Sergeant,” he said, “this is something we’ve got to do.”
“Lieutenant, would you just sit down for a second?” I finally told it to him straight, explained to him the meaning of the day, how Troy had died three years earlier. I told him how it affected me, and he listened, then said, “We’ve got to go anyway.” That was it. I resigned myself. Okay, we’re going.
It was close to midnight by the time we recovered the truck, but after working twenty-three hours straight without sleep. Our convoy was on the way out of the city on a road called Route Predator. That’s when I saw the flash.
After the blast and my realization that I’d lost at least one leg, I saw my driver, Shane Irwin, trying to put the vehicle in park because the brakes weren’t working. The round that went through me had lodged in the transmission. Military Humvees are really wide, not like the civilian ones. There’s probably six feet from the driver to passenger side, plus there’s all kinds of gear in between. So even though I was screaming, “Crash the truck! Crash the truck!” Irwin couldn’t hear me. A fire blazed behind our seats, and we couldn’t breathe. I saw him open the door; he wanted to jump. I realized, If this guy jumps, we are done. Then Irwin looked around in the vehicle and shut the door; he chose to stay in the fire. I remember thinking, Thank you, Irwin. Thank you. I can’t imagine what courage it took to stay in a fire and burn up rather than leave his men. When Irwin did finally crash into the wall, the force of the wreck almost knocked me out. I tried opening the door, but the blast had buckled it, and it was also blocked by the wall. I tried shouldering it and managed to knock it off the hinges. It’s hard to shove against a door when you don’t have legs to push with. When it fell open, I rolled out on my face and crawled what felt like a mile, though it was probably only nine feet. I had lost a lot of blood, my right leg was gone, and my left leg was blown in half, hanging by skin. Irwin was the first one to get to me, and he said he was getting help. I heard the medic, Ian Gallegos, moving from guy to guy, giving directions. When he got to me, he knelt and took off his huge backpack, filled with medical equipment. That told me triage had started; I was pretty sure I was the worst hit.
“How you doing, Murph?” Gallegos asked.
“I’m fine,” I responded.
“Do you need morphine?”
“Good, he said, “because I wasn’t going to give it to you anyway.” He kind of laughed.
Gallegos was cool and didn’t show any sign of stress. You can’t teach that. Maybe they try in medic training, but putting it into practice is entirely different. One minute Staff Sergeant Murphy is walking and talking and fine. The next minute, he’s lying there smudged in black with just his femur hanging out from one leg, and mangled with bones from the other. The air smelled of blood and burned meat, and gunpowder and sulfur from the bomb. We were not sure the threat had subsided. Some of the young soldiers were freaking out, but the leaders were doing great, their responses flawless. And here was the medic cracking jokes.
There was no time for IVs, just a tourniquet to stop the blood, a quick check to make sure I’m breathing, and get me back to the trauma docs. As we drove onto the base, I saw the medevac coming down, but our vehicle turned the opposite direction. I thought, Guys, there’s my bird. Why are we going that way? My mind wasn’t one hundred percent sharp. I knew my life was on the line, that golden hour, and I knew I wanted to get on that flight.
They took us to an area I’d never been. I never expected to see every doc in the whole battalion in that tent. Doc Tenario, who had worked on Troy Jenkins, was working on me. They were checking tourniquets, getting IVs started, getting our paperwork together. We ended up being the worst our company would see the whole deployment.
A lot could still go wrong, and it almost did. They got us to the bird, and since I was the worst injured, they put me on last. The medevac Black Hawk choppers are painted green with a red cross on the side, and they’re not set up for carrying troops, only stretchers. Besides the pilot, there’s a crew chief who also serves as the in-flight medic and the gunner. With the long cable attached to the headset, he could barely get around and check on the patients being transported. It took him a minute or two to get all of us strapped down. In case the pilot had to do some evasive maneuvers, to dodge an RPG gunfire, they didn’t want us slamming into a wall.
The gunner put the oxygen mask on me but didn’t turn on the air. I lay there doing the fish face, sucking plastic. With my arms were strapped down, I couldn’t do anything, and the choppers are so loud, he’d never hear me anyway. As I tried to breath, all I could think was, You bastard, turn on the air! The chopper lifted off, and I knew I was going to pass out soon. He finally looked back at me, and his eyes lit up when he realized his error. He started the oxygen, and I was too weak to admonish him. I had nearly died, for the second time that night.