Iraq and a hard place

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All this Manning talk has distracted me from writing about this amazing mural, powered by the singular organization Warrior Writers. They’re poets, essayists, performers and visual artists of all stripes, mostly from what their director calls “veterans who’ve served since September 11.” Together with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program,  they produced this testimonial a half-mile away from where I live, entitled “Communion Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” It was funded in part by veterans’ health agencies who believed sort of what I do: that creating art is a key way to tapping the strength inside the trauma.

I was there for the opening on Veterans Day, when the commissioners and City Council folk celebrated the work of the artists and all the vets who helped them create this mural. You get to decide if dissent is involved, but to the extent that vets turn their own trauma into something that speaks truth, there’s no question it deserves our attention.

At the mural opening, I also had the privilege of meeting a newer member of Iraq Veterans Against War, a talented writer from Western Pennsylvania. And he gave me permission to post the poem he read that day, which you should read aloud to yourself: I think it even without the line breaks it sings.

The Transition and the Mirror

After early warning mortar alarms become

Police sirens echoing down a subway corridor
After sharp bursts from Kalashnikovs
Become sidewalk firecrackers snapping in July
After the green static of digital
Weapons systems is replaced by
Celebrity gossip read off disposable laptops
The noise remains.
Noise that sculpts a coffee maker into
A seventy pound artillery shell
Noise that transforms a university classroom
Into a claustrophobic medics station in Taji, Iraq
—The lingering scent of disinfectant
Inhibiting your ability to
Discuss the idea of a social contract—
Noise reminding you that
To enjoy yourself is to forget
That our routines are held together by
Fragile agreements
Tested and broken in war
That we the people discover unity
Only through honest reflection.

Basl, now a South Philly writing instructor with an MFA, sat down with me afterward in Clark Park and told me of the two Iraq tours lurking behind that poem. His reason for enlisting reminded me of Fred Marchant’s: he was going to be the Homer of the Iraq War, just as Marchant and Tim O’Brien hoped to be in Vietnam. What Basl got was an experience less heroic but muddled, including work with contractors at Camp Anaconda, with stories reminiscent of Lee Wang’s film “Other People’s War.”  If I were you, I’d note his name in your Goodreads searches, so you don’t miss his novels when they burst onto the scene. I’m also sorry I can’t register for the workshops he’ll be teaching at Warrior Writers, but those are meant for those with similar memories to spin into gold.

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