this is joe from gainesville

peacewarhaldOn a Joe Haldeman kick, for reasons perhaps obvious to some of you.

After all, there’s that subtitle on my book, the next stop on my introduction exploration:

From the French and Indian War to the Forever War.

That section of the title has been a shape-shifter. When I first proposed it in 2007 it was “From George Washington to John Murtha,” the latter a tribute to the Pennsylvania congressman and Vietnam veteran who’d just made news by declaring the Iraq war “unsustainable.” Then, it became “From the Boston Massacre to Bradley Manning,” before the latter came out as Chelsea. And there was even a brief period when I replaced Manning with Bowe Bergdahl, who’d spent years as a prisoner of the Taliban after deserting his post in Afghanistan for a range of muddled reasons. But all of those names would date the book before it even came out.

Thus this almost-haiku line, starting with the war we all learned about in school and ending with a phrase coined by another Vietnam veteran and science-fiction writer, Joe Haldeman, and since applied to the current (?) Middle East adventure.

After writing the above, I went looking to see whether the author of the 1974 Forever War was even still alive, and what he’d said about how his weirdly prescient novel had mapped out some of the future. I ended up intherquite the rabbit hole.

He lives in Gainesville, somewhere near our friends and heroes Scott Camil and Camilo Mejia. No one seems to have assembled them, though.Nor have they brought them together with Dexter Filkins, author of that other Forever War. (Ideas for my book launch in FL?)

In this NPR interview ,  Haldeman talks to veterans of many wars about PTSD and how war changes you; in the wonderfully named VICE blog All Fronts,   he contemplates what technologies like 3-D printing may exacerbate our current forever war.

Forever_War_1_Cover-A-MARVANO-600x910Meanwhile, I learn I need to ask my local bestie comic-book shop whether they have this series, now reissued in English.

 

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yet another mash note to Dexter Filkins

I’ve been impressed with the work of Dexter Filkins since long before I started on my own zig-zag path to this book. When I made the Iraq war the theme of a writing class I was teaching at La Guardia Community College in 2004, I found Filkins’ reporting from Iraq essential reading, and even assigned one of his Fallujah stories as basis for discussion. (Thanks to your reporting from Fallujah, sir, I still dream about steel rain.) I actually did write such a mash note when Filkins won his fellowship from the Nieman Center for Narrative Journalism, where he wrote the hard-to-forget The Forever War.

So it was as much for Filkins’ prose as his subject’s that I went to his piece this week in the New York Times Book Review. And Filkins’ lede reminded me why:

War is too weird a thing to make sense of when it’s actually happening. It’s not just the combat, which by its nature is unintelligible. Armed conflict so fundamentally alters the environment it takes hold of that no aspect of life escapes undistorted: not love, not friendship, not sleep, not trust, not conversation. In war, even boredom is strange.

And memory is surreal, as many vets have told us for years. Filkins is a poet at heart, as are many of the warrior writers he mentions in this review — including Phil Klay, whose short-story collection Redeployment is already winning awards.

Unknown-1“In Klay’s hands,” Filkins writes, “Iraq comes across not merely as a theater of war but as a laboratory for the human condition in extremis. ‘Redeployment’ is hilarious, biting, whipsawing and sad. It’s the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.”

George Packer, another inspiring journalist, also checked in with his thoughts on  Klay and many vet-scribes. His lede draws from the ones who sang World War I and got us all to do the same: “‘Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected,’ Paul Fussell wrote in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” his classic study of the English literature of the First World War. ‘But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since.’ The ancient verities of honor and glory were still standing in 1914 when England’s soldier-poets marched off to fight in France. Those young men became modern through the experience of trench warfare, if not in the forms they used to describe it. […]Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen—who all fought in the trenches and, in the last two cases, died there—remained tied to the conventions of the nineteenth century while trying to convey the unprecedented horror of industrial warfare, a condition of existence so murderous and absurd that a romantic or heroic attitude became impossible.” He calls Klay’s book “the best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America’s recent wars,” a high bar considering how many voices are being heard.

 

That should be enough to get you to pick up the book, and maybe write its former-Marine author a mash note of your own. I might too. For now, I’d love to also thank Packer and Filkins, each ten times the journo I’ll ever and translators of hard truths. For the Virgil-lamp, and the inspiration.

today is a moving target

First installment in a not-unprecedented effort to start over and draft a NEW final chapter in plain sight

So the scene I included in my Murtha-obit post? I once thought of it as a prologue for the entire book — except that even if I,’d been right on deadline, that 2005 scene would have felt miserably old. Then, I thought perhaps it should n open my final chapter of Ain’t Marchin, even when I realized that it’s now not scheduled to come out Murtha’s demand had mostly been met, when MOST of the troops Murtha wanted to be out will be back home (inshallah), and perhaps so will most of this year’s Afghan surge (trying not to laugh). If I wrote the chapter like all my others — a straight chronological narrative, touching base with my core themes and characters who exemplify those themes — where *would* I put Murtha’s speech? At the beginning, though many of the newer vets I’ve spoken to were already at stage two-four-five of their griefs? Is there a definable beginning to all this, or an end?

And I realized something important: if I’m only barely qualified to identify beginnings, end, trends and causality in stories of long ago, these wars are just too much of a moving target. And what is also true: what I am not is a sniper, unlike a number of the guys whose stories are before me. (Or the guys above, members of a US Navy 070520-N-0933M-084 Combat Service Support Detachment (CSSD) 1 and CSSD-3 firing the M-4 rifle at various moving targets during a live-fire evolution exercise.)

Better journalists than I have been busy documenting the pieces I care about — George Packer, Kelly Kennedy and Dexter Filkins embedding with active-duty folks, while Helen Benedict, Mark Benjamin and Aaron Glantz have charted the newest efforts to address combat trauma and Dahr Jamail, Sarah Lazare and David Zeigert have been chronicling much of the dissent as it happens. You don’t need me even to hold a flashlight: for the most part, these are young (and some not-so-young) people who are, as I wrote for Guernica late last year, both media-savvy and self aware: “Between the internet and a culture that understands trauma (at least at the Dr. Phil level), they know what PTSD is and how it affects them.” They’re telling their own stories and hacking their own paths through the detritus we’ve thrown their way.

What I can offer instead is a series of scenes, each with what I see as the relevant echoes of the past — some of the latter embodied in actual people who’ve stuck around, or nearly (Zinn, Murtha on the “nearly” list — and my own tentative take on where those scenes, and the people in them, fit along that zig-zag path I talked about in the introduction. If newspapers are the first draft of history, this is a cross between a clippings file and one of those hasty pseudo-autobiographical novels young writers produce when the raw material is too fresh.

I’ve also tentatively decided not to use real names in the case of the young veterans, even those who have already published books of their own. Because another moving target is the actions of the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces and the Defense Advisory Conscientious Objector Review Boards, or the approval process of the Veterans Administration. And I don’t want something someone said to me, even if they agreed to be in my book, to form the a reason for denial of benefits or a bad discharge decision.  There are no composites, and savvy people will recognize themselves here and I’m happy to provide documentation for any specifics about injuries or sequences if asked. But their experiences are theirs, and while I’m deeply thankful they’ve agreed to be part of this story I’d rather let them self-identify as they see fit after the fact.

More later; until I deliver the manuscript to my editor and agent in a few weeks, I’ll be writing posts like this every day in addition to the news feed.

When journalists talk about something as  a “moving target,” they’re often talking conceptually — the needed skills for the job, or conceptions of women, or definitions of ‘objectivity.’ The only parallel I found for my current near-terror was from medical reporters who talked about cancer as the moving target of reporting because the scientific landscape keeps changing. I’ll refrain from the obvious stupid metaphors, and just ask your indulgence while I sort it out.