13 September 2019

Book Review: 'Still Come Home: A Novel'

Fiction Book Review: "Still Come Home" by Katey Schultz

Katey Schultz is an educator and author based in North Carolina. In 2013, Schultz delivered "Flashes of War," an award-winning collection of 31 short stories, generated around U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each story is each told from the perspective of a single character, and many resolved in only two or three pages. Writing in the mode of "flash-fiction" forces an author to pare down one's prose, but also to infuse meaning and metaphor to optimize each word.

As a writer, Schultz is a master of one of the principles of war: "economy of force."

In a new, 260-page novel, "Still Come Home," Schultz deploys her Spartan words to deliver what others have not: She distills the seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan to a relatable scale, articulating through her characters the questions that can be asked about war, and duty, and family. In doing so, she illuminates the complex emotional calculations of regular people caught up in war, be they "friend," "enemy," or seemingly indifferent. Her work serves the highest calling in a heartless world: to create opportunities for empathy, and for reflection.

The action of "Still Come Home" takes place over three days, in a handful of settings near Tarin Kot, a real place in Southern Afghanistan's Uruzgan Province, as woven together through the voices and threads of three main characters.

(More geography: The novel settles into spaces between a semi-fictional Forward Operating Base ("FOB") Copperhead, and the fictional town of Imar, pop. 300. Potentially noteworthy to the readers of the Red Bull Rising blog, the base is likely modeled after FOB Davis (aka FOB Ripley). FOB Davis was a coalition installation originally established in 2004 with help from the Iowa National Guard's Task Force 168.)

There is Nathan Miller, a former farm-boy valedictorian who joined the active-duty Army right out of Indiana high school. Now a member of the North Carolina National Guard, Afghanistan is his fourth deployment. Miller is soon to return stateside to his semi-estranged wife, with whom he has one child and has lost another. There is the teenaged and possibly infertile Pashtun woman Aaseya, who seeks to establish the stability and legitimacy she enjoyed before her family was killed in an explosion. She suspects the assassination took place after the family had been wrongly reported to the Taliban as U.S. collaborators. And there is her brick-maker husband Rahim, 37, her late father's cousin, who is a victim of the institutional sexual abuse of male children known as bacha bazi.

Based on such relations, readers might incorrectly anticipate melodrama or comic-book soap opera. While engines of hope and shame drive much of the plot, however, the narrative never feels one- or two-dimensional. Complexity happens. Objectives change. Characters move out smartly, based on their intelligence. Most importantly, in all of this, the author treats her Afghan characters with care and content equal to their American counterparts.

War is hell, after all. On everybody. Especially family. And everyone's got family.

In a typical selection, Schultz describes a three-vehicle convoy's arrival in Imar with semi-automatic rhythm:
The convoy nears the main part of the village. A vendor selling kebabs works frantically to hold his makeshift cart intact as the Spartans vibrate past. Miller can see actual residences now—mud-cooked family homes, the occasional two-story dwelling. Coils of smoke lift from several courtyards. Some homes have no windows or openings at all, just a hand-built wall surrounding each compound of small, interconnected dwellings. Others have cut tiny spaces to welcome the light and air, faded red or yellow curtains flapping thinly in the breeze. Three little girls hurry from a hiding spot behind an outbuilding. The oldest shuffles the other two away from the convoy and looks over her shoulder at the men, moving with the practiced hustle of war. Even here, at the far reaches of nowhere, they seem suspicious.
Schultz has just as carefully curated the time of her story, as much as she has chosen the place. The year is just before the "Afghan Surge" of 2010-2011; just before Humvees are banned from deploying outside the wire; and just after a controversial new set of Rules of Engagement ("R.O.E.") has been issued to coalition troops by U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

In the posh think-tank phrasing of the day, the counter-insurgency tactics were intended to "win hearts and minds" by exercising restraint in the application of violence. Nobody wants to kill civilians, of course, but many rank-and-file soldiers chaffed at the ROE, feeling as if they'd been told not to defend themselves.

As both metaphor and at a meta-level, this mix of time and place is an ideal observation point from which to consider American involvement in Afghanistan. At no other time did the country's declaring victory and coming home seem more likely than 2010. (At risk of self-promotion, this trailer video for "Reporting for Duty" captures something of the hopeful "clear, hold, build" spirit of the time.) Through her storytelling, what Schultz exposes is not necessarily that these "strategies" (tactics and techniques, really) were wrong, but that we were asking the wrong questions.

War is hell, after all. And hell is a koan.

Schultz writes: "Miller calls to mind the [ROE] directive, its ominous sentiment: The Taliban cannot militarily defeat us, but we can defeat ourselves. Like grabbing fistfuls of sand—that's what this war is. Like trying to hold onto the impossible."

Later, as Miller is about to move out with his men, he inventories his squad emotionally, noting each soldier's customized need for redemption. "And with that, the war is theirs. They will fight it for these reasons. Not for freedom. Not for politics. Not for God or country or trucking companies. But for the individual things. The needles of hurt across a spectrum of life."

Against this, the troops collectively face, an unseen, random, and constant threat. "They all know the risks," Schultz writes. "No front lines in this war. Enemies, ambushes, and IEDs popping up willy-nilly, a stomach-churning child’s game of anticipation. It could be now. Or now. Now."

This game of roulette is what we have asked of our soldiers, our fellow citizens. For 18 years and counting.

At readings and other events, and on her website, Schultz tells audiences that "Flashes of War" stemmed from the urge to understand, as a citizen and educator and artist, what her country was doing in her name. Somehow without ever traveling downrange herself, her stories include sounds and smells and slang that consistently ring true. In "Still Come Home," Schultz's prose is similarly well-researched, and carefully targeted. Through her fiction, Schultz has not only successfully captured the cultural landscape of Afghanistan in 2009, but the on-going equation of American involvement in Afghanistan. And she's packaged it in an easily accessible form, without judgment.

Not, however, without hope.

In present-tense, Schultz artfully but explicitly traces each main character's shifting wants and needs. Grabbing at their own fistfuls of sand, Miller, Aaseya, and Rahim continually triangulate their respective decisions with their individual desires for safety, security, and family. Miller, for example, volunteered to deploy without first soliciting his wife's opinion. She assumes he wants to play soldier again. In reality, he hopes to make up for past mistakes—some of which have occurred on the battlefield, and some that have happened back home. At one point, as Schultz succinctly states: "This tour is Miller’s final chance to find his cool again, forget he ever drafted a suicide note, and land softly back home, back into marriage, composed and capable as ever."

The obvious question would seem to be, can he still come back home?

The essential question is, can we?

13 June 2019

Solider-Poet to Speak at 'Americans for the Arts' 2019

The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog will be presenting as part of a panel at the 2019 National Convention for Americans for the Arts, Minneapolis, Minn. "Changing and Honoring the Narrative of Military Experience" will be presented from 1:45 to 3 p.m. Sat., June 15, at the Hilton Minneapolis, 1001 Marquette Ave., Minneapolis.

Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He authored the 2015 poetry collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire", and edited the 2017 journalism collection "Reporting for Duty: Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011."

Brown's essays, journalism, and poetry have appeared widely both on-line and in print. Since 2015, he has served as the poetry editor for the national non-profit Military Experience & the Arts' literary journal "As You Were." As "Charlie Sherpa," he writes about citizen-soldier culture at: www.redbullrising.com; about military writing at: www.aimingcircle.com; and about modern war poetry at: www.fobhaiku.com.

You can follow him on Twitter: @FOB_Haiku

Other panelists participating in the Saturday event include:
The event will be facilitated by Marete Wester, senior director of policy, Americans for the Arts.

According to the description for the "Changing and Honoring the Narrative of Military Experience" discussion:
As the Forever War in Afghanistan continues, communities need to explore ways to help our returning Veterans reintegrate into their communities. The Minnesota Humanities Center empowers Veterans from all conflicts and wars to speak in their own voices through plays, discussions, literature and Veterans’ Voices. Writing Workshops are facilitated by military writers who are Veterans themselves, offering peer mentorship, instruction, and encouragement to those seeking to express the military experience through essays, poetry, and performance.
Learning objectives are:
1. See how storytelling helps in the Veterans’ healing process, reentry and reintegration into their communities.

2. Discuss how writing can help bridge the “civilian-military gap” between the military and the people they serve.

3. Explore how using the humanities can foster dialogue between military and civilian populations.

01 April 2019

LIsten Up, Maggots! It's National Poetry Month!

PHOTO BY: U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Scar
This post, written by the author of "FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire," originally appeared on the Red Bull Rising blog April 6, 2016.

When packing for one of my first training experiences with the U.S. Army, back in the late 1980s, I knew that free time and footlocker space would be at a premium. I could live without luxuries like my Walkman cassette player for a few months. I also wanted to avoid avoid too much gruff from drill sergeants. So I stuffed a paperback copy of Shakespeare's "Henry V" into my left cargo pocket, wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag, as my sole entertainment.

If nothing else, I thought, I'd work on my memorization skills. ("Oh, for a muse of fire-guard duty …") Little did I realize that so much of my brain would already be filled, starting those summer months at Fort Knox, Ky., with the nursery rhymes of Uncle Sam. Training was full of poetry. Sometimes, it was profane. "This is my rifle, this is my gun!" Sometimes, it was pedagogical. "I will turn the tourniquet / to stop the flow / of the bright red blood." There were even times that it was nearly pathological. "What is the spirit of the bayonet?! / Kill! Kill! Kill!"

These basic phrases connected us new recruits to the yellow footprints of those who had stood here before, marched in our boots, squared the same corners, weathered the same abuses. Every time we moved, we were serenaded by sergeants. Counting cadence, calling cadence, bemoaning that Jody was back home, dating our women, drinking our beer. We learned our lines, our ranks, our patches, our places as much by tribal story-telling than by reading the effing field manual. Even our soldier humor was hand-me-down wisdom, tossed off like singsong hand grenades. Phrases like, "Don't call me 'sir' / I work for a living!" and "You were bet-ter off when you left! / You're right!"

Nobody's quite sure why April got the nod as National Poetry Month. I like to think that it's because of that line from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland": "April is the cruelest month." Because that sounds like the Army. Besides, in springtime, the thoughts of every warrior-poet lightly turns to baseball; showers that bring flowers ("If it ain't raining / it ain't training!"); and the start of fighting season in Afghanistan.

Poetry, I recognize, isn't every soldier's three cups of tea. Ever since I entertained my platoon mates with Prince Harry's inspiring St. Crispin's Day speech, however, I've enjoyed sneaking poetry into the conversation. Perhaps more soldiers would appreciate poetry, were they to realize the inherent poetics of military life:

Every time you go to war, you are engaged in a battle for narrative. Every deployment—individually as a soldier, or collectively as an Army or nation—is a story. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Every story is subject to vision, and revision. History isn't always written by the victors, but it is re-written by poets. Treat them well. Otherwise, they will cut you.

Every time you eat soup with a knife, you are wielding a metaphor. Every "boots on the ground," every "line in the sand," every Hollywood-style named operation ("Desert Shield"! "Desert Storm"! "Enduring Freedom"!) is a metaphor that shapes our understanding of a war and its objectives. If you don't understand the dangerous end of a metaphor, you shouldn't be issued one.

(There's also a corollary, and a warning: As missions change, so do metaphors. In other words, when a politician trots out a new metaphor for war, better check your six.)

Every poem is a fragment of intelligence, a piece in the puzzle. A poem can slow down time, describe a moment in lush and flushed detail. It can transport the reader to a different time, a different battlefield. Most importantly, a poem can describe the experience of military life and death through someone else's eyes—a spouse, a villager, a soldier, a journalist. Poetry, in short, is a training opportunity for empathy.

Soldiers like to say that the enemy gets a vote, so it's worth noting that the enemy writes poetry, too. Like reading doctrine and monitoring propaganda, reading an enemy's verse reveals motivations and values. Sun Tzu writes:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Every time you quote a master, from Sun Tzu to Schwarzkopf, you are delivering aphorism. I liken the aphorism—a quotable-quote or maxim—to be akin to concise forms of poetry, such as haiku. In fact, in my expansive view, I think aphorisms should count as poetry. In the world of word craft, it can take as much effort to hone an effective aphorism than it does to write a 1,000-word essay. Aphorisms are laser-guided missiles, rather than carpet bombs. We should all spend our words more wisely.

Reading a few lines connects us to the thin red line of soldiers past, present, and future. Poetry puts us in the boots of those who have served before, hooks our chutes to a larger history and experience of war. The likes of Shakespeare's "band of brothers" speech, John McRae's "In Flanders Fields," and Rudyard Kipling's poem "Tommy" continue to speak to the experiences and sentiments of modern soldiers.

I am happy to report that more-contemporary war poets have continued the march.

Here's a quick list to probe the front lines of modern war poetry: From World War II, seek out Henry Reed's "The Naming of Parts." For a jolt of Vietnam Era parody, read Alan Farrell's "The Blaming of Parts." From the Iraq War, Brian Turner's "Here, Bullet." In this tight shot group, modern soldiers will no doubt recognize themselves, their tools, and their times. Here is industrial-grade boredom, an assembly line of war, punctuated with humor and grit, gunpowder and lead.

Want more? Check out print and on-line literary offerings from Veterans Writing Project's "O-Dark-Thirty" quarterly literary journal; Military Experience & the Arts' twice-annual "As You Were"; the "Line of Advance" journal; and Southeast Missouri State University's "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" annual anthology series.

Finally, you can buy an pocket anthology of poetry, such as the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets edition of "War Poems" from Knopf, or Ebury's "Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets." Stuff it in your left cargo pocket. Read a page a day as a secular devotional, a meditation on war. Or, pick a favorite poem, print it out, and post it on the wall of your fighting position or office cube. Read the same poem, over and over again, during the course of a few weeks. See how it changes. See how it changes in you.

Remember: It's National Poetry Month. And every time you read a war poem, an angel gets its Airborne wings.

*****

Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He authored the poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire (Middle West Press, 2015). He is the current poetry editor of Military Experience and the Arts' "As You Were" literary journal, and a member of the Military Writers Guild. As "Charlie Sherpa," he blogs about military culture at www.redbullrising.com and military writing at www.aimingcircle.com.