24 February 2016

Children's Picture Book Review: 'Goodnight Marines'

"Goodnight Marines" by David R. Dixon, Illustrated by Phil Jones

Seeking to communicate the pride, history, and purpose of the U.S. Marine Corps to a younger audience is no small task, but U.S. Marine Maj. David Dixon and Army veteran Phil Jones have done so with punch, grace, and humor.

Riffing on the form and tone of childhood classic "Goodnight Moon," by Margaret Wise Brown, "Goodnight Marines" is full of saturated colors and peaceful images, delivered at a steady cadence.

A sample:
Goodnight blues and scarlet thread,
Goodnight Tuffy Hound on the end of my bed.

Goodnight Tripoli, Belleau Wood and Saipan.
Goodnight to my Dad in Afghanistan.
Iraq War veteran Dixon, an AH-1W "SuperCobra" pilot, was the 2014 recipient of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation's Robert A. Gannon Award for "Call in the Air," an accessible and often humorous book of military-themed poetry, aimed at adults.

Jones, a former artist for The Walt Disney Co., served in Operation Desert Storm with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

In words and visuals, Dixon and Jones leave no corner of Marine life unexplored. (I particularly enjoyed the "two yellow feet" area rug in the storybook room, which evoke the painted pavement just off the bus at Parris Island.) The book's design also demonstrates laudable attention-to-detail. Take, for example, the near-midnight-blue of the book's cover, which is punctuated by a red spine reminiscent of "blood stripe" on an enlisted Marine's dress trousers.

Many ranks and military jobs are mentioned, in order to depict the wide range of experiences for Marine moms and dads. The 34-page book features three pages of glossary terms, potentially helpful to non-Marine parents and babysitters. While plain-spoken, the expository language is rich with historical tidbits.

For example, the author's language regarding the recurring character of "Tuffy Hound," the storybook child's stuffed animal. Tuffy wears dog tags and a Drill Instructor's round, brown campaign cover. Dixon explains that Tuffy's actual name is Teufel Hunden ("Devil Dog"), a mascot of the U.S. Marine Corps:
Unfortunately, this young boy cannot yet pronounce such a difficult German word, so he has named his friend "Tuffy Hound." Tuffy was given to the child by his dad before deploying to Afghanistan. Just like the father guards his combat outpost, Tuffy provides the child with warmth and security, watching over the room as the child sleeps. Tuffy is a Staff Sergeant and wears the Smokey Bear cover of a Marine Drill Instructor, symbolizing the mentorship, guidance, and (albeit sometimes tough) love that DI's show as they become parental figures to recruits during Boot Camp.
Available in hardcover and on Kindle.

17 February 2016

Book Review: 'See Me for Who I Am'

"See Me for Who I Am: Student Veterans' Stories of War and Coming Home," edited by David Chrisinger

David Chrisinger is a mil-blogger, veterans-issues activist, and creator of a military-to-civilian reintegration course, "Back from the Front," at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Related to the latter effort, Chrisinger helped produce and publish an anthology of student essays. The 150-page trade paperback, "See Me for Who I Am: Student Veterans' Stories of War and Coming Home" was released earlier this week. It is also available as an Amazon Kindle e-book.

The book collects approximately 20 veterans' stories, written in various voices and styles. While a few aspire to literary gymnastics or even melodrama, most achieve a conversational and approachable tone—perfect for exposing civilian readers to veterans' insights, without risk of scaring them off.

The content is bookended by some big guns. There is a foreword written by Brian Castner, author of 2012's "The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows" and the upcoming "All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer." And there is an afterword by Matthew J. Hefti, author of the 2016 Afghan War novel "A Hard And Heavy Thing". It is Hefti who writes:
The uncultivated nature of this book is exactly what makes it required reading; that rawness is what sets this book apart from others on the same topic. These college freshmen—often older and worldlier than their peers—are walking straight off the battlefield with the dust still trailing off their boots, the blood still speckling their uniforms, and the gun smoke still stinging their nostrils. There is no irony here; See Me for Who I Am is real talk.
The real talk here, admittedly, is from a relatively homogenous cohort of student veterans. An informal sampling of writers' biographies reveals that these are Midwesterners—most grew up in Wisconsin or graduated from high school there. Declared majors cluster around the strengths of the institution in which they are enrolled: business and information technology, medicine and health, forestry management. Most are male narrators, but there are a few female voices present. While this may accurately reflect the composition of Chrisinger's reintegration classes, it does point to possibilities for future explorations.

The book illuminates, after all, the types of conversations possible on any campus of learning, if professors and fellow students were to approach incoming student-veterans with open minds and open ears. It would be exciting to see other student bodies, faculties, and administrations adopt "See Me for Who I Am" as the catalyst for initial engagement, then move toward generating and collecting other narratives on their own campuses.

Read "See Me for Who I Am." Then, look more locally. Seek out more stories. And start talking.

11 February 2016

Review: Danish-language Film 'A War' ('Krigen')

Dar Salim ("Najib Bisma") and Pilou Asbæk ("Claus Pedersen") in the Danish-language film "A War" ("Krigen"). 
Review: "A War" (originally "Krigen") by writer-director Tobias Lindholm

Currently nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign language film category, the 2015 feature film "A War" tells the story of a Danish Army company commander deployed to southern Afghanistan. The movie opens in U.S. theaters Fri., Feb. 12, 2016.

After his unit's morale implodes following an I.E.D. attack, Danish officer Claus Pedersen chooses to leave the relative safety of the Tactical Operations Center ("TOC") to patrol alongside his troops.

From this vantage, Pedersen witnesses the life-and-death results of his decisions, both for the men and women under his command, and for the Afghan men, women, and children who are his mission to help. Meanwhile, at home, his wife Tuva navigates the challenges of raising three young children. When a command decision results in possible civilian casualties, and is questioned and investigated by the military police, Pedersen returns to Denmark for civilian trial.

The film is an accessible, realistic depiction of conflicting perspectives, and nuanced responses to war. Civilians and military superiors have the advantage of hindsight and high morality, and desire to see a situation retroactively resolved as either black or white, wrong or right. Troops on the ground know that there are no easy answers, and that many tactical choices are gray with uncertainty or lack easy ethical reference. Spouses understand the sacrifices soldiers make in their separations, but also live with the daily wear and tear those absences demand of family life.

Despite the high stakes, the film is not sensationalistic. In its content, the film evokes similar events and emotions depicted in the 2009 Danish documentary "Armadillo," without that production's highly stylized soundscape or surreal saturations of color. Instead, "A War" is a straight-forward, somewhat stoic story, in which are distilled many internal conflicts: What's right for the mission vs. what's right for the troops? What's "right" for the military vs. what's "right" for civilians? What's the right answer for legal purposes vs. what's the right answer for family? The movie quietly asks hard questions, and often provides tough, if subtle, answers.

(For a brief Red Bull Rising review of the Afghan War documentary "Armadillo," click here.)

Perhaps counterintuitively, that the film regards military and legal contexts other than that of the United States makes it potentially more accessible to U.S. audiences, and particularly U.S. military veterans. As a foreign language film, a U.S. viewer is likely to see all parties in "A War" equally as the "other."

Freed from internal questions about the verisimilitude of how U.S. troops should look or act (Danish troops are allowed to grow beards, for example), or the proper U.S. court-martial procedures, the viewer-veteran is free to consider the moral questions laying beneath the story's surface. Were "A War" to portray a U.S. military experience, it would be too easily viewed by soldiers as "Us vs. Them."

"A War" isn't about Us vs. Them, however. It's about all of us.


For a trailer of "A War," click here. Or view the embedded video below.

For an Internent Movie Database (I.M.D.B.) listing, click here.

A Facebook page for the movie is here.

09 February 2016

Book Review: 'Terminal Lance: The White Donkey'

Review: "Terminal Lance: The White Donkey" by Maximilian Uriarte

As mil-humor enthusiasts and web comic fans can attest, Maximilian Uriarte's graphic novel "Terminal Lance: The White Donkey" has been a long time coming. And it has been worth the wait.

The Iraq War veteran and former Marine successfully funded his magnum opus in August 2013. The 284-page book released on Feb. 1, 2016, and quickly sold out. The creator has hinted at making arrangements for another print run.

The White Donkey tells the story of Abe and Garcia, two fictional characters who have previously appeared Uriarte's "Terminal Lance" three-panel comic, which publishes twice weekly on-line, and weekly in the Marine Corps Times print edition.

The titular white donkey is a beast of Uriarte's own memory and experience—an animal that he once encountered in Iraq. The donkey is real. Uriarte writes:
We had five fully armored vehicles, 23 Marines loaded to the teeth with rifles, grenades, crew-served weapons, and all the might and power of the United States Armed Forces. All of it was brought to a screeching halt by the most benign of animals.

A lone White Donkey made us all look like asses.
The donkey is also metaphorical. The white donkey could be Abe's version of Ahab's white whale. It could be his white buffalo. It might symbolize Iraq, or the Middle East. It might even be God.

Nested within such rich ambiguity, Uriarte has created a smart-bomb of a literary device: A graphic novel that's graphic enough to portray the necessary bits about war being an ugly thing; sweet enough to depict the boot camp bromance of battle buddies on the road to war and back again; and downright beautiful enough to be regarded as mother-effin' literature.

It's an asymmetrical weapon designed to breach the civil-military divide. A Trojan Horse, potentially getting veterans and civilians to open up about their respective wartime experiences. Yes, there are jokes. Yes, it is entertaining. Yes, it is a "comic." It is also an important book.

As Brian Castner, Iraq War veteran and writer of "The Long Walk" and the upcoming "All the Ways We Kill and Die" tweeted earlier this month: "Every non-writer vet I know, the guys who don't professionally talk abt books, is talking about this @TLCplMax book."

That's because Uriarte is a skilled observer of the human condition, as well as Marine life. He's an effective writer—direct, to the point, no B.S.—and a fantastic visual storyteller.

Artistically, the book is a tour de force: Freed from the black-and-white tyranny of the newspaper page, Uriate's confidently executed linework is now augmented with a full-spectrum of mono-colored, ink-washed effects.

He varies his color palettes, spread by 2-page spread: Greens for boot camp scenes. Khakis and dusky rose for 29 Palms and Iraq. Blues and grays for home in Portland, Ore. Purple for dream sequences.

Occasionally, Uriarte punches a single object into reader awareness by depicting it in fuller color: An Iraqi flag. A U.S. shoulder patch. A bottle of Gatorade.

Uriarte also experiments with splash pages—scenes that cover a whole page or spread—and occasionally fades to white during transitions. In a few climactic scenes, he boldly keeps his readers' gaze on hard-to-stomach realities, creating slow-motion sequences, splash page after splash page.

This story could not be told as effectively in any other way—screenplay or novel—without diminishing the magic.

In short, "The White Donkey" turns out to be a unicorn. A bright, shiny, mythical ride. A beast capable of inspiring, informing, and enlightening. Do not look away. Do not frighten it. Follow it, if you can.

You might find what you're looking for.

03 February 2016

'Line of Advance' Retools, Launches Writing Contest

Darron L. Wright PHOTO: Line of Advance
Creators of the Chicago-based digital military-lit journal "Line of Advance" recently announced the creation of the Col. Darron L. Wright writing award. The contest is named after a U.S. Army officer and author who served on three Iraq War deployments, who was killed in a stateside parachute training accident on Sept. 23, 2013. He was 45.

Line of Advance Editor Chris Lyke writes:
Thanks to a generous donation from the Blake and Bailey Foundation, Line of Advance is presenting the Col. Darron L. Wright Award. Like us, Darron Wright was a soldier: a larger than life infantry commander with several tours under his belt. And also like us, Col. Wright was a writer: a thoughtful, reflective artist, eager to tell the truth about his men with compassion and a commander’s eye. This award is presented in his name in an effort to honor his memory.
The contest is currently accepting both prose (category includes both fiction and non-fiction) and poetry. Deadline is April 1, 2015. Contest is open to military service members and veterans.

Three finalists will be named, with $250, $150, and $100 prizes each to be awarded. Submissions may be made via the journal's website here. Make sure to specify "contest" at the end of the title field.

According to a corresponding note on the publication's Facebook page, all contest submissions will be published on the website, and winners will be chosen by a panel of veteran and non-veteran writers and poets.

In addition to other assignments, Darron Wright served as battalion operations officer for 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo., with whom he deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004. Wright was next assigned as brigade executive officer with 4th Brigade, 4th Inf. Div., Fort Hood, Texas, with whom he deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006. He commanded the 1st Battalion, 509th Parachute Inf. Reg. at the Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, La. in 2007. From 2009 to 2013, Wright was assigned as deputy brigade commander for the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Inf. Div., with whom he deployed to Iraq from 2009 to 2010.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval War College, Wright authored "Iraq Full Circle: From Shock and Awe to the Last Combat Patrol in Baghdad and Beyond." in 2012.

Wright's full biography appears here.

"Darron L. Wright was a larger than life Soldier’s Soldier. He was a physically imposing, direct, and skilled warrior," the Line of Advance editors write.
He was also witty, hilarious, generous, kind, and wholly consumed with love for his family. He will certainly be missed but he will never be forgotten. His intellectual curiosity, boundless optimism, and untiring work ethic, allowed him to reach heights he could only dream of as a young boy growing up in Mesquite, Texas. It is in this spirit that the Darron L. Wright Award was created, to inspire fellow military writers and poets to aspire to become better and more accomplished at their craft and at telling their story.
The Line of Advance journal has previously been mentioned on the Red Bull Rising blog here and here, and individual issues reviewed here and here.

Following a tactical pause in 2015, Lyke tells the Red Bull Rising blog that the once-quarterly subscription-based e-journal is transitioning to a free website model, and will publish one or two waves of submissions annually. Content published in four previous issues of Line of Advance will be anthologized and re-published on the new website.

Finally, Lyke plans to regularly engage and feature artist-veterans with interviews on their passions and projects. One of the first "Veteran Spotlights" focuses on former Marine and Iraq War veteran Jacob Faivre, a blogger on healing and music at A Marine's Life in Lyrics. Faivre is also a video documentarian who successfully crowd-funded a 10,000-mile car and hiking trip, working toward a film titled "To See Them As They Are." Read the interview here.