27 January 2016

'No, Achilles' Introduction Explores 'Night Vision' Poem

Published last fall by WaterWood Press, Austin, Texas, "No, Achilles" is a 75-page poetry anthology, collecting 64 poems witnessing the experiences of war. As defined in the original 2014 call for submissions, the book focuses on war poems of witness—all places and times, but excluding poems about the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The book includes my poem "night vision," which was inspired by "Operation Bull Whip" and other air-assault missions, conducted during the 2010-2011 deployment of the Iowa Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division to Eastern Afghanistan. The poem also appears in my 2015 collection of snarky military-themed poetry, "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire."

In his introduction to the anthology, Peter Anderson of Austin College, Sherman, Texas, explores possible implications of "night vision," as well as other poems:
To [James Hillman, author of "A Terrible Love of War"], actual war may be the most lyric experiment in any life, too intense to be captured except by the literary imagination. Here, poetry is, as it were, more logical a choice than logic. Take "night vision" by Randy Brown. Fraught with a sense of peril, of waiting with bated breath, and therefore a certain taut excitement, the poem places us right at the edge of the action:

Our Afghan brothers cannot see past the ramp
into the black wide open that is
only feet away beneath the turn of our rotors.

Our goggle eyes paint the dark
green with spinny lights and ghosts [...]

Vivid at this point is the painted darkness, the bobbing, smeared and luminous green that makes specters of the figures below. It is this seeing, and the image, or the after-image, of this which will remain part of our inner experience of war. It seems, then, that the strength of "No, Achilles" consists not only in its set theme of pathos, but also in its ability to run counter to its own theme. For a moment, in a poem like "night vision," we are able to touch into the ecstatic dimension of war, the vortex of its thanatoctic allure.
"No, Achilles" is available by mail for $15, plus $1 per book for shipping and handling. Orders by check or money order can be sent to:
WaterWood Press
47 Waterwood
Huntsville, Texas 77320.

20 January 2016

10 Things One Gulf War Memoirist Says Not to Forget

Editor's note: Earlier this week, Minnesotan Joel Turnipseed wrote these 10 aphorisms while musing about the recent 25th anniversary of the start of the Persian Gulf War. As a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve's 6th Motor Transport Battalion in 1990-1991, Turnipseed deployed to Saudi Arabia as a tractor-trailer driver—part of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

After writing a 1997 article for GQ magazine about the experience, the former philosophy major later expanded the work into the 2003 book "Baghdad Express: A Gulf War Memoir." It is funny and unique—a "modern bohemian war memoir." You can still find it in both hardcover and trade paperback editions.

While he originally shared these thoughts with family and friends via social media, Turnipseed has graciously granted permission to the Red Bull Rising blog to publish it here.


Turnipseed writes:

Today is the 25th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm. I've already written plenty about the subject—and I'm not really looking to editorialize (not comprehensively, anyway) ... but there are few things we somehow always seem to forget that seem worth remembering today:
1. War does not turn boys into men—it turns them into endangered boys. 
2. War does not solve problems—it just creates different problems to solve. 
3. There is no such thing as "protecting our troops" (from injury, from PTSD, from ...) during a war. Go ask the alcoholic and suicidal drone operators, who conduct war from a video game machine, how "well-protected" they feel from war. 
4. Never ask anyone to tell you a war story unless you want to risk feeling like a terribly shitty human being when they're finished. 
5. Never tell a war story unless you, too, want to risk feeling like a terribly shitty human being when you're finished. 
6. Never trust anyone who denies numbers 1 through 5: They are either hurting way more than they're letting on or they're incapable for other reasons (personal or professional) of telling the truth. 
7. Turns out people live effective, interesting lives in surprising and wonderful ways after they've been injured … which in no way erases the fact that they've been hurt. I recently saw a man with both arms blown off at the elbows work the TSA line like a champ. I wanted to cheer him, until I recognized what that meant ... 
8. Any time someone uses war to inspire you, run like hell. 
9. Veterans make terrible sacrifices for their country, in the act of killing the citizens of others'. Nurses, doctors, police officers, EMTs, firefighters, construction workers, fisherman, truck drivers, miners, and any number of other workers make terrible sacrifices for their country, to make life longer and safer. Go thank a truck driver for his sacrifice; buy a nurse a drink. 
10. We've now been (including "No-Fly Zones" & Operation Desert Fox & ...) at war in Iraq for 25 years. Stop and think about that. There are college graduates who have never known a period when we were not at war in the Middle East. Something scarier? Many of them have no reason to believe they are in any danger ...

13 January 2016

Photo Book Review: 'War is Beautiful'

Book Review: "War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict*" by David Shields

*In which the author explains why he no longer reads The New York Times

David Shields' "War is Beautiful" is an evocative, coffee-table-worthy critique of an art form that seems increasingly irrelevant to how popular impressions and opinions are generated today. In an Age of "We Can Haz" Cat Memes and Pick-Your-Spin TV news, does the front page, above-the-fold photographic paper-space of The New York Times still represent anything like the key terrain for the hearts and minds of John and Joan Q. Public?

Probably not. But to over-focus on the deflating state of old media, in this case, would be to miss a larger tableau. In journalism schools and practice, at least in the reviewer's admittedly 20 century experience, the oft-stated goal is to teach people "not what to think, but how to think." Framing his explorations in an extremely tight shot—here, the example of one still-influential newspaper's hardcopy coverage—Shields is out to teach people how to think about journalism, and how images of war are developed and fixed, even in our digital age.

The 112-page, landscape-format book is largely composed of photographs treated as fine art—crisp-white pages heavy with saturated inks, interrupted by occasional set of quotations to cleanse the palette. The hardcover's book jacket is cleverly constructed as a newspaper page, with blurb-quotes and actual analytical content. (No fake filler text here!)

In the book's introduction, Shields says he started from a suspicion that "the governing ethos [of The New York Times aesthetic] was unmistakably one that glamorized war and the sacrifices made in the service to war." In the resulting intellectual exercise, Shields considered the front pages of New York Times published since 2001, curating the war-themed photography (the Gray Lady went color in 1997) into a taxonomy of 10 extremely useful visual tropes, or themes:
  • Nature
  • Playground
  • Father
  • God
  • Pietá (war scenes of death that echo themes of Christ's death on the cross)
  • Painting (war scenes rendered so abstractly and beautifully as to become unreal)
  • Movie (technology- and action-centric scenes depicted with cinematic sensibilities, and video game verve)
  • Beauty (portraits of women and children amidst scenes of war and male sacrifice)
  • Love
  • Death
Armed with knowledge of these themes, any reader of "War is Beautiful" will walk away with a new tool in their media-analysis kits. Shields' system of classification is, after all, potentially applicable to other mediated sources of war images. That includes those generated by governmental and military public affairs, as well as civilian media embedded with governmental agencies. In the latter, independent journalists are still dependent on their U.S. agency hosts for access, security, transportation, and food, potentially skewing views and access to events, places, and sources.

Shields locates responsibility for the Times' distortions of reality to the newspaper's historically chummy relationship to governmental power. "Throughout its history, the Times has produced exemplary war journalism, but it has done so by retaining a reciprocal relationship with the administration in power […]," he writes. "[I]t knows precisely what truth the power wants told and then prints this truth as the first draft of history."

In a short, back-cover essay to "War is Beautiful" (there's a newspaper-like "jump" to interior pages), art critic David Hickey blames the collaborative tribal practices of a traditional newsroom, a process that still involves many editors' eyes and hands:
Newspaper photographs have always had a job to do, but combat photographs today are so profoundly touched in the process of bringing them out, that they amount to corporate folk art. […] The exoticism of war and the Middle East has been suppressed almost completely on the American premise that anywhere an American hangs his hat is home. This whole book, in fact, could have been photographed in California and Nevada.

[…] The total effect of these photographs is to portray an American industrial project in a desert somewhere with swimming pools, basketball, and baseball being played. Lunch is being served. The commander and chief is giving his soldiers noogies. There is some fire, of course, but we love fire. There are echoes of the elaborate German films and photographs that created a fantasy world of the Russian front where millions were dying. Summing it up, these pictures generate more distrust of American military adventures than I had before, and I had a lot.
While I might enjoy jousting with Hickey over his characterization of "war photography" as "combat photography"—personally, I would limit the latter term to describe images of actual weaponized conflict—I agree with his conclusions. I agree that most images of war that I encounter as a consumer of news, on-line and in print, present a world comfortably at war.

That's mostly because the American way of war has become banal and boring and repetitive. Long in the tooth, as well as the tail. We export American suburbs as Forward Operating Bases ("FOB"), and staff them with endless rotations of soldiers and contractors. The "Long War" seems ... endless.

Having once been a small-town newspaper editor, I can tell you that coming up with artful new ways to present the same schedule of events—fun runs, weather and fire pictures, county fairs, funerals, restaurant openings—is a challenge. In size, scope and function, a FOB is analogous to a small town. In a current side project (www.fobhaiku.com), I am myself curating "small town" photography generated by military public affairs photographers, with the intention of subverting it toward what I hope are poetic, humorous, and socially constructive purposes. Shields and Hickey go beyond such passive-aggressive snark, of course, and directly attack the images, along with their implications.

The Home-Sweet-FOB picture show is a reality, but not the only reality.

Another reality is that war is a meat-grinder. Today's news consumers are buying the tasty sausage, without having to visit the butcher shop.

What's the fix to all this? An informed and media-savvy public. A more critical attitude in both news rooms and living rooms. "War is Beautiful" is a good first step. Maybe some veterans should crack open their hard-drives of deployment photos—the ones that run counter to General Order No. 1 (no, Cpl. Schmuckatelli, not the pornographic "field manuals")—to better share what war can be. IF bridging the civil-military gap requires turning off some of the puppies and rainbows, let's break some things and hurt some feelings. If we continue to picture war as routine, our society will deserve what comes next:

More of the same.

06 January 2016

Video Depicts How and Why We Remember the Fallen

Often featuring dramatic music and sexy pictures of hard-charging soldiers, motivational and inspirational videos are something of a tradition in the military. I've been waiting for just the right moment to share this one. It's more thoughtful and less hooah than those training videos from the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., but I find it motivational as I reflect and resolve toward writing down another year. I think you'll like it.

Produced by the award-winning Todd Cerveris of The Woods Productions, in collaboration with Iowa Remembers, Inc., this 7-minute video depicts the 6th Annual Iowa Remembrance Run conducted Sept., 27, 2015, which was Gold Star Mother's and Family's Day. The run is the primary fund-raiser for the 501(c)3 non-profit organization, which, in turn, underwrites an annual retreat for survivor military families from Iowa conducted on the same weekend.

PHOTO: The Woods Productions
Readers of the Red Bull Rising blog may remember previous mentions of the Iowa Remembrance Run. For the past few years, I've also been honored to participate in the event, reading the honor roll of those Iowans who have died in service to their country since 2001.

Throughout the video, survivor families offer their thoughts and memories—about their loved ones, and about the Iowa Remembrance Run and annual retreat. Listen carefully, and you'll also hear the honor roll being read.

Started in December 2009, the Red Bull Rising blog has evolved from a mil-blog about one family's pre-deployment experiences; to one about the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division's 2010-2011 deployment to Afghanistan; to one seeking, more generally, creative ways to remember and celebrate military service members, veterans, and families. In 2016, with humor and heartfelt thanks, these missions continue:
  • To explain in plain language the roles, responsibilities, and routines of the U.S. citizen-soldier, with particular focus on the U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.
  • To illuminate ways in which citizen-soldiers past and present—as well as their families—can be remembered, supported, and celebrated.
As always, thank you for your support, and for reading the Red Bull Rising blog. (Thanks also to all of you who recently purchased or gave as gifts my book "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire"! More such hijinks continue at: www.fobhaiku.com.)

Here's to a fun and productive new year!

"Attack! Attack! Attack!"