21 April 2014

Book Review: 'Seriously Not All Right'

"Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years" by Ron Capps

Military and U.S. State Department veteran Ron Capps likes to say that he served on the ragged edges of civilization, including tours in Central Africa, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Dafur. In a newly available memoir, he describes how that service nearly unraveled him personally, professionally, and, most of all, psychologically.

Pieced together, his book also illuminates the limitations of ad hoc diplomatic and military efforts in a world challenged by terrorism, poverty, and genocide. Finally, his work serves as an example of why creative non-fiction/memoir is a vital tool in bridging the societal divide between military and civilian audiences. Everybody has their own war, and we are best served to remember that not every soldier's story fits into a neatly packaged narrative arc of home-and-back-again.

Seriously—you should read this book.

Capps was both a U.S. Army intelligence officer and a civilian Foreign Service Officer. Whether in military uniform or State Department mufti, Capps describes his roles as a something akin to that of a reporter. "I've joked over the years that, at its core, my job was to talk to people and write down what they said," Capps writes. "It sounds simple, and it is to a point. But it becomes exponentially more interesting and difficult if there is shooting and burning and killing and dying going on around you." [p. 4-5]

Bespeaking his State Department training, Capps is obviously master of the pointed understatement. Despite the harrowing circumstances of some of his tales, his authorial tone is always friendly and conversational, and he delivers his stories with a club-chair confidence of clear-eyed reflection. Between emotional slugs to the gut, you can almost hear the clink of ice in the glass.

That's not to say that Capps is world-worn and -weary, and incapable of idealism. When a general officer tells him that it is too late for an observation mission in Rwanda to do any good for people, for example, Capps' response borders on insubordination. "General, we're talking about a hundred thousand people," Capps says. "They need help, and you have the power to save them." [p. 97] When the general subsequently challenges Capps' method of counting the population, Capps shames him out of the room. All he has to do, he tells the general, is "count the feet and divide by two."

Overall, the collection of essays is full of similar wry humor, keen observations, lessons-learned and truths told. This anecdote, for example, will resonate with anyone who has ever dealt with a distant headquarters: Rousted out of bed by a long-distance call from the State Department Operations Center about news reports of a bomb blast in Pristina, Kosovo, Capps tells the over-eager caller that it will take a few hours for him to confirm the incident:
"Can't you go now?"
"No, you see, a bomb just went off down there."
"Right, that's why we want you to go."
"Right, and that's why I want to wait a few hours, just in case another one is sitting there ready to go off."
"Oh." [p. 73]
The book's title is taken from Capps' daily system of rating his own mental health while downrange, a scale downhill from I'm All Right to I'm Not All Right, past Vaguely Not All Right, to Seriously Not All Right or worse. Having weathered years of dispassionately and diplomatically documenting shocking displays of humanity's inhumanity, Capps finds himself facing a personal Catch-22 dilemma: Does he ask for medical help to address his symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.), so that he can continue to do his job? Because, if he does, he'll likely lose his security clearance ... and his job.

He writes from Afghanistan:
The Taliban have launched a couple of rockets toward the base during the week, so we are all a little on edge, but that isn't what's keeping me up. I am bundled into my sleeping bag, trying to control my racing heart, and trembling because the dead have come to talk with me. [...] The night before, it was the dead from the village of Racak [Kosovo]. Forty-five of them, shot in the back of the head and left to die in that rocky ditch on a frozen January morning in 1999. They dropped by for a chat. "Why didn't you do more to save us?" they ask. Why, indeed. Night after night they appear on the big screen of my mind in oversaturated Technicolor, writhing and imploring. [p. 123-124]
Capps finally did pull the proverbial pin on his dual-hatted career—after nearly pulling the trigger in a suicide attempt downrange—and asked for the medical help he needed. After retiring, he used the G.I. Bill to complete a Masters of Fine Art (M.F.A.) in writing. He now leverages his talents as founder of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Veterans Writing Project. There, he helps other military veterans and family members share their experiences through non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and other writing. He also helps study writing as a potential therapeutic intervention at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, Bethesda, Md.

In other words, Capps is all right. And he's helping others get there, too.


Disclosures: The Red Bull Rising blog received a review copy of this book. For a 2012 Red Bull Rising interview with Ron Capps, regarding his work with the Veterans Writing Project and its O-Dark-Thirty literary journal, click here. The organization and publication have been featured regularly on the Red Bull Rising blog. Finally, Capps was a presenter at the March 2014 Great Plains Writers' Conference, Brookings, S.D., at which the writer of the Red Bull Rising blog was also a presenter. They shared a drink or two.

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