27 July 2016

Book Review: 'Deserts of Fire" War Fiction Anthology

Book Review: "Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War', anthology edited by Douglas Lain

The collection "Deserts of Fire" is a cluster munition of ideas, 21 short stories designed to cover the greatest area possible, each one potentially explosive in the reader's headspace. Regardless of whether you prefer your futurist tales to be labelled as "science-fiction" or merely "speculative," there is little doubt that these explorations will ignite conversation and thoughtful analysis.

Also ideal: Anthologies are perfect for busy readers, including soldiers and sailors and stay-at-home dads. If something doesn't grab you, move on and find something that does. After all, it's not like you're committing to "War and Peace." The stories are organized into seven topic areas, each introduced by a short essay from the editor:
  • Vietnam Syndrome

  • Terrorism

  • Weapons of Mass Destruction

  • Shock, Awe, and Combat

  • Mission Accomplished

  • Life After Wartime?

  • War is Over?
Anthology editor Douglas Lain's selections include a few original short stories, and others culled from a wide range of literature—including the 2014 anthology "War Stories: New Military Science Fiction," edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates. There are also excerpts from novels at least one novella. In short, Lain has done the heavy-lifting of curation, and delivered a rucksack-ready primer in the state of the world, the near-past and -future, and where writing about war may take us next.

It is obviously not Lain's first anthological rodeo. Lain, himself an author of science-fiction books, is also editor of "In the Shadow of the Towers," a 2015 anthology of speculative fiction organized on a theme related to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"What you'll find in [Deserts of Fire] are stories written both after and during some of the wars in question," Lain writes in the book's introduction. "These stories represent efforts to answer the question of why this keeps happening. Some of the stories are small, and focused on the personal, while others take a larger, more systemic view."

In the mid-1980s, I was an enthusiastic consumer of mass-market paperbacks, anthologies of military science fiction titled "There Will Be War." The 9-edition series, created and edited by established writers Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr, was reissued as an e-book series in 2015.

Until reading Lain's introduction "Deserts of Fire," however, I had yet to plug my youthful reading into the larger literary context, one that involves veterans returning from war, and how they come to write about it. Speculative fiction is another potential tool in the writer-veteran toolkit, not only for exploring effects of near-future technologies and potential political developments, but for illuminating military and civil culture.

Wikipedia credits a 1975 anthology, "Combat SF," edited by Gordon R. Dickson, as potentially being the first example of military-themed science fiction collected as an anthology. In press materials for "Deserts of Fire," Lain notes a 1987 New York Times book review of a Vietnam War-themed anthology titled "In the Field of Fire," in which reviewer David Bradley says, "[…] Vietnam was science fiction." Bradley's fleshing out of that idea is worthy of note, particularly in that it serves as the intellectual area of operations for Lain's collection:
The elements of the situation were staple science-fiction premises. The landscape was alien—not for nothing that in Vietnam War parlance anyplace else was called "the world." The people were alien-seeming—and certainly we, with our cold beer and napalm and helicopters, must have seemed to the Vietnamese to be an invading horde of bug-eyed monsters.

The society had a history and a set of cultural assumptions that seemed as incomprehensible as those of an inhuman race. The place seemed like an alternate universe, where all the sanity, rationality, logic just seemed to not work. It is a standard science-fiction theme—the doomed struggle to overcome the territory while refusing to understand the laws that govern it. The defeat through culture-shock of the all-powerful invaders is a standard science-fiction conclusion.
Find/replace the word "Vietnam" with "Iraq" or "Afghanistan" or "The Foreign Country du Jour," and you get a sense of what might be at stake in collections such as these.

Individual preferences will, no doubt, vary by reader. I was personally taken, however, with Linda Negata's "Light and Shadow," a story that involves neural networking technology that connects a Tactical Operations Center ("TOC") with a patrol in the field. In typical headquarters-unit fashion, it also involves life insurance.

Ray Daley's "Seeing Double," newly published here, is a humorous, nearly Vonnegut-esque take on lookalike decoys groomed and trained to help protect Saddam Hussein. And Rob McCleary's "Winnebago Brave," cannily positioned immediately prior to the story of Daley's Husseins (McCleary's story mentions a similar scheme of mustachioed decoys), provides a first-person narrative voice that has become a personal favorite of mine. Of the fate of a fictional Army buddy character named "Boston," the narrator says:
Re-enlisting in the army, beginning his two-chevron hokey-pokey all over again. Finally (in true Boston form) quitting for the last time on the day after 9/11. Because any chump can volunteer the day after 9/11 for imaginary combat fighting for imaginary freedoms. In the "fools rush in where Angels fear to tread" post-9/11 enlistment surge of middle-class precious snowflakes whose sense of entitlement was so all-consuming it gave the the right to win the War on Terror singlehandedly, Boston's quickly forgotten gesture proved one truth: that the first-year arts students who dropped out of college to become Navy Seals in a weekend did not understand the reality that best part of having an all-volunteer army is that you don't have to volunteer.
I have read and re-read that paragraph, and pondered mightily where it fits on Lain's previously mentioned spectrum. Does Boston's truth illuminate the personal, or the systemic?

Easy answers do not volunteer themselves.

20 July 2016

Video Presents 'Night Vision' Poem in New Light

video
Inspired by the March 2011 air-assault "Operation Bull Whip," conducted in Eastern Afghanistan by the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT), the poem "Night Vision" first appeared in Waterwood Press' 2015 war-themed anthology "No, Achilles." The editors even offered a brief analysis of the work in that book's introduction.

The poem is reprinted in my 2015 print and e-book anthology "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire," from Middle West Press. And it appears on-line at Poets and War, where Stephen Sossaman writes, in part:
I know of no other poem from the war in Afghanistan as likely to be canonized in future high school curricula: the poem is accessible, apolitical, spoken from the point of view of an American soldier—and it illuminates what might be the central fact of the long American military operation in Afghanistan.

This poem quietly shows the unreconcilable clash of cultures, languages, and levels of technology that have frustrated American military efforts in Afghanistan for 15 years.

Sophisticated technology (night vision goggles) gives Americans enough illumination to see the land immediately beneath the helicopter ramp, something the Afghans without that gear cannot see. But any American confidence that they can see the future of the war, or see and understand Afghan circumstances on the ground, is illusory. [...]
In a recent artistic exercise, I combined an audio narration of "Night Vision" with U.S. Army-released photographs of Operation Bull Whip. I hope the resulting 75-second video will provide another way for others to discover and access the work. I've been further experimenting with how the video translates to various social media and on-line channels (such as this blog).

Perhaps I could also challenge other war-poetry practitioners to attempt multi-media projects this summer?

In the meantime, check "Night Vision" out, embedded above in this blog post! See what you think! And, like the Red Bull says, "Attack! Attack! Attack!"

12 July 2016

Book Review: "On Afghanistan's Plains"

Book Review: "On Afghanistan's Plains" by Barry Alexander

A common criticism of contemporary war literature—at least the stuff that gets mass-market, big media attention—is that so much of it seems to focus on kinetic "kill" narratives, such as those of snipers and SEAL teams. Beyond communicating the tactics, heroics, and sacrifices of a few individuals on the battlefield, some would argue, stories such as "American Sniper" and "Lone Survivor" do little to expand our understanding of the wars we have sent our soldiers to wage on our behalf.

War is bigger, of course, than body counts and battlefield actions. For the past 15 years, in Iraq and Afghanistan, armed forces have been engaged in various attempts to stabilize and legitimize whole countries. Our national narratives have been targeted toward nation-building, not just killing bad guys.

To tell such a complicated collective story, we need diversity in form: memoirs and movies, poems and plays, operas and dance. We need diversity in perspective: not just stories of generals and grunts, but of medics and military police, of aviators and truck drivers. Finally, we need diversity in voice: the notes of allies, civilians, and even our enemies should be added to our wartime chorus.

Memoirs such as Barry Alexander's "On Afghanistan's Plains" and movies such as the Danish-language "Krigen" ("A War"), deliver on all three counts. They expand our potential understanding of our own wars, beyond the expected kill-kill-bang-bang, beyond our soldierly stereotypes, beyond our U.S.-centric tunnel-vision.

In a 20-year career, British soldier Barry Alexander served as both enlisted and officer, and on deployments to Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In 2007, he deployed to Southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province. There, he enjoyed a privileged position from which to observe the modern battlefield, not by class or rank, but by function. Alexander's duties as a nursing officer variously located him at cutting edge of the fight; with the A.T.V. used to shuttle wounded back to the company medical tent; and with the battalion-level trauma center. The unit's leadership also circulated medical personnel to different locations within its area of operations, so Alexander takes the reader to more than just a single combat outpost.

Alexander delivers his war story with straight-faced humor, straight-forward insights, and more than a few poetic turns and bits of color. Consider, for example, this application of coalition gunfire and wit:
The bombs hit their target, the orange flicker of the explosion engulfing the hilltop, followed a split-second later by the sound of a thousand roof slates crashing onto a marble floor as a column of thick black smoke and dust climbs into the sky. There is a silence for about thirty seconds before the sound of a lone AK is heard firing in impotent anger in our general direction. We figure that if the guy can survive that amount of ordnance being dropped on his head, he probably deserves to live.
Veterans of other armies will enjoy learning British military lingo. What today's U.S. soldier calls a "Dee-FAC" (short for "dining facility"—and what older soldiers would call a "chow hall") is to Alexander and his mates a "cookhouse." When casualty notifications are being made back home, rather than finding themselves in a "communications blackout," the British troops go into a posture of "minimisation." Rather than "redeploying" to their hometowns, returning U.K. soldiers go through period of social decompression called "normalisation." It is fun to compare and contrast the jargon.

It is in the translation into plain language the tactics and techniques of countiner-insurgency ("COIN") that Alexander most serves the reader, placing his personal experience of Afghanistan and war into expanded operational context. In one passage, for example, he puts a patrol into Kajaki Olya into the dictates of "Clear, Find, Defeat, Reassure":
Our job is to […] clear the village, find any enemy and defeat them, thereby reassuring any local civilians that the Afghan government is providing them with security and that NATO forces have the ability and willingness to take on the Taliban. This tactic is known as 'cutting the grass.' The idea is that each of the District Centres forms the centre point of an 'ink spot' […]
Additionally, Alexander's prose offers occasional pearls of pithy wisdom, some of which seem ideal candidates for posting on garrison office walls. Two favorites of mine:
  • "The enduring folklore of foreign armies operating in Afghanistan tells us that we can borrow an Afghan, but we will never be able to buy him."
  • "There is nothing worse for morale and professional reputation than seeing medical personnel fall ill."
Having spent nearly 246 pages and a vicarious 6 months in Afghanistan with the author, however, my greatest delight was to discover that his post-war reflections transcended into poetry. And not just the poetry of the ages, but his own.

I should have been tipped off, of course, by book's title, which is rooted in Anglo-Afghan history and the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The memoir title alludes to Kipling's 1895 poem, "Young British Soldier." During one battle, Alexander writes: "I am surprised to hear a lance corporal quoting Shakespeare: 'Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing' […] I reply that Kipling would be more appropriate, reciting 'When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains' […]"

(Personal note: British reservists, apparently, quote Shakepeare and Kipling. In my own experience, deployed U.S. citizen-soldiers are more apt to quote movies, such as 1993's "Tombstone.")

Later, I realized that I'd first encountered Alexander's words in "Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets," a 2011 anthology I frequently recommend to writers and readers of modern war poetry. In the last chapters of his memoir, Alexander tells of how and why he started to write poetry, and places a few of his published works into further context. "Writing the poem ['Care Under Fire'] proves cathartic," Alexander writes in his memoir, "and I feel that it has helped exorcise some of the demons that stayed behind to fight a rear-guard action following my time with the psych."

On social media and elsewhere, he calls the "Care Under Fire" poem the seed that grew first into an essay, called "Raid on Mazdurak," and subsequently into his book-length memoir. The poem ends with this stanza:
In camp, a debrief, rifle cleaned, med kit replenished and scoff
Minimise in force—can’t phone home; even if I could, what would I say?
Sleep comes hard, tears are shed, images of the wounded on my mind
A prayer for the boys on patrol tomorrow and the ones that are left behind
In summary: "On Afghanistan's Plains" delivers much-needed new perspective, context, and salve for the modern soldier's soul. I highly recommend.

*****


"On Afghanistan's Plains" is available in print and e-reader formats, including paperback and Amazon Kindle.