07 October 2015

Book Review: 'Combat and Other Shenanigans'

Review: "Combat and Other Shenanigans" by Piers Platt

Much of military-themed contemporary non-fiction targets the horrors and chaos and policies of war, or dwells in the psychological mine fields of coming home, or blows up real heroes into caricatures of themselves. In his Iraq War memoir "Combat and Other Shenanigans," however, former U.S. Army Armor officer Piers Platt delivers a light-hearted but heartfelt depiction of what it means to go to war with your friends.

To pile onto Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's well-known quote: War may be hell, but it can also be fun.

Seriously. I say this as a comedy geek, an enthusiast of modern military memoirs, and a fellow veteran: This book made me laugh out loud. Repeatedly.

(And, of course, it also validates Sherpatude No. 26).

Platt's writing style is conversational, affable, and fresh. Civilians with little familiarity with the military will easily understand his breezy explanations of, say, arcane military procedures and unit configurations. Veterans, however, will appreciate the skill with which he describes old traditions and pranks, such as dispatching privates to search for soft spots in tank armor, or for cans of radio squelch. Even if you think you've heard it all before (and you haven't), you'll still be entertained.

Platt starts his story as a tank platoon leader preparing for a 2004 deployment in Schweinfurt, Germany, along with his fellow soldiers of 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment (1-4 Cav.), a.k.a. "Quarterhorse." Cavalry soldiers are notorious for pushing boundaries and breaking rules, often with hilarious results. Platt quickly demonstrates his tactical and technical storytelling proficiencies by recounting their adventures, even during routine training:
Because live bullets are being fired, Range Control enforces extremely strict safety procedures, violation of any of which will result in the range being shut down temporarily and the NonCommissioned Officers (NCOs = sergeants) or officers in charge being "de-certified" (unable to supervise training and continue to run the range). The rules get a bit ridiculous at times, especially in Germany, where following the rules is the national pastime […]

At one point, Nicholls and I were running a range together, he as Range Safety Officer, and me as Range Officer in Charge. Out of the squadron’s nearly 30 tanks, just one final tank was left on the range, preparing for its gunnery qualification run. But we were about two minutes away from "dry time" in the afternoon, when the range had to be shut down, and there was no way this tank was going to finish in time. In addition, our medics (who by regulation need to be present every time a tank main gun is fired), had orders to move elsewhere as soon as dry time rolled around. Nicholls was pissed.

"Switch out with me, sir."

"What? Switch out as Range Officer? Why?"

"Because I’m about to get decertified."

It was too deliciously bad to refuse. We switched out (calling it in to Range Control, who maintains a log of who is in what position on which range), meaning that technically, he was now both the Range Officer in Charge and the Range Safety Officer, which was illegal. It wouldn’t take Range Control long to realize that administrative violation, and more importantly, they would hear our last tank merrily blasting away during dry time from all the way across the training area. It all came down to whether or not that tank could get enough rounds off before someone from Range Control physically showed up—Nicholls had already turned down the volume on the Range Control radio so we wouldn’t hear their inevitable attempts to contact us. The race was on.
Later, in Iraq, readers are treated to a similar scene of decisive action in the face of friendly bureaucracy, again featuring the exploits of Sgt. 1st Class Nicholls:
Nicholls had made contact with a tank, alright—an ancient rusted Russian hulk which obviously had been used for target practice many times by the Iraqi tank unit that had been stationed at the base before we invaded. His exact report to the command center was: "Ramrod X-Ray, Bulldawg White 4. I have identified the tank. It is a T-54/55 with more holes in it than my underwear." 
Apparently failing to pick up on the sarcasm about the holes, the command post became fixated on the "T-54/55" part of Nicholls’ transmission. Nicholls was implying that he wasn’t sure the specific type, whether it was a Soviet T-54 or T- 55, which are nearly indistinguishable, especially after being shot at for years. Somehow, the command post missed that nuance, and came to believe that there were two tanks: a T-54 and a T-55. Apparently delirious at the prospect of reporting on the most significant combat action of the post-invasion period, they ordered him to engage the enemy tanks.
After a book filled with convoy hijinks and a few lucky breaks on the battlefield, Platt wrestles with the potential lessons of his experiences. Like any good leader and humorist, he keeps his boots on the ground, acknowledging the sacrifices and experiences of others. (While Platt's platoons lost no soldiers, the larger troop had three soldiers killed during the deployment: Pvt. 1st Class Owen Witt, Pvt. 1st Class Anthony Dixon, and Sgt. Armando Hernandez.)
"Trying to summarize my experiences is difficult, partly because there was nothing conclusive or absolute about Iraq. I’m almost ashamed of my time in Iraq, compared to the experience of other veterans in history—it wasn’t like the accounts I have read of Vietnam, or World War II, it wasn’t epic or particularly life changing or at all typical of the wars I had studied. I was attacked a number of times, had a handful of close brushes with death, and killed one unknown enemy from several hundred yards’ distance, but otherwise spent most of the tour bored and frustrated, and returned unscathed. 
That's not to generalize for all those who have served in Iraq—I know there are soldiers who wish their experience had been a lot less traumatic, many in my own unit. I am grateful for having avoided that, but I feel unfulfilled, like a minor-leaguer who never gets his at-bat in the big leagues. I've been there, and I've done that, but … not in the way I expected."
Available in print and electronic formats through various retailers, Platt is currently offering "Combat Shenanigans" as a FREE ebook! (Details at link.)

Platt calls his 181-page book an "absurdist memoir," and, in e-mail newsletters to readers, worries that "I'm not sure a memoir about the stunts my soldiers and I pulled in Iraq is really a good way to get a feel for the kind of books you can expect from me in the future." His website offers a number of other non-fiction and fiction titles he's written, some of them also free for the sampling. A science fiction novel is coming soon.

A Facebook page for his books is here.

30 September 2015

Website Aims to Inspire War Poets, Conversations

Poets and War, a website dedicated to the preservation and propagation of war poetry, has been launched by editors Stephen Sossaman and Leonore Wilson. The website features new and reprinted war poems from all perspectives and eras, as well as articles and reviews. Poets and writers are invited to submit via Submittable for a $3 fee, most of which goes toward site upkeep.

"I started Poets and War to discover good war poems, encourage poets to write war poems, and perhaps connect war poets to each other without regard to their politics, nationality, or experiences," writes Sossaman, in a recent e-mail interview with the Red Bull Rising blog. He envisions site's role as a conversation starter, about both the subject matter and the craft of the poet, rather than simply a place to publish poems.

Sossaman is a poet and professor emeritus of English at Westfield State University, Westfield, Mass, and now resides in Napa, Calif. Wilson is a poet and teacher of creative writing based in San Francisco. Additional editorial roles on the website are anticipated to be filled later this year.

The website's mission statement more formally echoes Sossaman's intentions:
Poets and War intends to publish the best available poetry about war and about human experiences central to war—without regard to the poets' politics, nationality, gender, or professional status—and to facilitate discussions about the historical and contemporary relationships between poetry and war.
Says Sossaman: "My assumption is that a great number of interesting, well written, and potentially memorable war poems await publication, but might never be published. We must look for the good poems, but also publish poems that might not be to our personal taste. […] [Also,] many literary journals have a print run of 500 or a thousand copies, so being published in print is no guarantee of being widely read. Poets and War is willing to republish poems so that they do not die a lonely death on a handful of book shelves."

Placing war poetry into historical and literary frameworks, Sossaman says, will be just as important as creating a platform for presenting poetry about war. By creating opportunities for poets to share work and notes on craft, he hopes to help shape how future generations come to regard contemporary conflicts.

"Some time in the future, young Americans may very well decide that they know what the war in Afghanistan or Iraq was about, and what being there was like, in part because one film, one poem, one short story, or one novel came to dominate high school curricula," he says. "We do not know that if that poem has been written yet, which should be good motivation for poets with something to say and the skill to say it."

23 September 2015

Comics Seeks to Capture Tale of 'Tiger on the Storm'

Perhaps facing similar funding odds as the beloved A-10 itself, a group of comics creators is developing a graphic novel about the U.S. Air Force's 23rd Fighter Group during Operation Desert Storm. The unit continues the lineage of the famed "Flying Tigers" of World War II.

Based on her work on previous war-themed projects, including "Untold Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan" and "Korean War, Vol. 2", comics writer Valerie Finnigan was approached by the daughter of U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. David Sawyer at the 2014 Salt Lake Comic Con regarding the project. The general was a former commander of the 23rd Fighter Group, which flies the A-10 aircraft.

The A-10–formally named the "Thunderbolt II," but more commonly called some variant of "Warthog"–is specifically designed to provide troops on the ground with Close Air Support ("CAS"). The aircraft, which went into production in 1977, the low- and slow-flying aircraft notably features a titanium bathtub for pilot survivability, and a gatling cannon that delivers up to 3,900 rounds of 30mm ordnance per minute.

In defense-policy circles and on the Internet, there are on-going debates whether the U.S. Air Force can continue to support ground troops using expensive, high-flying, multipurpose aircraft such as the F-35 "Lightning II." Critics argue the Air Force is actively squashing stories of the A-10's continued successes in Afghanistan and other theaters, for political reasons.

Finnigan quickly got to work on the project, now titled "Tiger on the Storm," researching the unit and the aircraft:

"The aircraft themselves also proved a bit of a challenge," she writes on her blog. "Appearance counts for a lot in a visual medium like comics, which is probably why A-10 Warthogs such as those flown by the 23rd [Tactical Fighter Wing] don't appear often in comics. The civilian public wouldn't line up by the hundreds or thousands to see them in an air show like they would for much prettier F-18 Hornets. While Warthogs are maneuverable enough to do their jobs, they look ugly and sound downright obnoxious."

"Get to know them though, and you just may fall in love as much as anyone can with aircraft," she continues. "In talking with veterans who served on the ground as well as in the air, I learned why the Warthogs are so feared by enemy forces and strongly beloved by our troops. This is why I’m glad to have 'Korean War' penciller Dan Monroe on board doing pencils and inks. His ten years in the Army helped him learn a healthy appreciation of good close air support such as the Warthogs provide."

In addition to Finnigan and Monroe, "Korean War" team members Eric White (colors) and Tom Orzechowski (letters) are also potentially participating in the "Tiger on the Storm" project. Via Indiegogo, the crowd-funding effort seeks up to $50,000 to cover production, printing, and distribution costs. For more information, click here.