Before we get into this, there is a quote from Michael Herr in his book, Dispatches, that I’d like to share. It’s a long quote, so bear with me. Herr says:
“I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good. You don’t know what a media freak is until you’ve seen the way a few of those grunts would run around during a fight when they knew that there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks. They were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them. Most combat troops stopped thinking of the war as an adventure after their first few firefights, but there were always the ones who couldn’t let that go, these few who were up there doing numbers for the cameras… We’d all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City, years of media glut had made certain connections difficult” (Dispatches, 1977).
My reasoning for sharing this quote from Herr is because, in more ways than one, his voice sums up my own feelings regarding my experiences in the Iraq War, OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom for those in the know), and writing/living with those memories today. Allow me to explain.
There seems to be a surge of “war stories” finding their way into the media nowadays. I’m in no way saying this is a bad thing; I wish there were more veteran writers. However, I have to be somewhat suspicious when I see books marketed as “another action-packed heroic tale of contemporary military service.” Such as from a Navy Seal’s perspective or some high ranked officer sharing their “retelling” of command with low fidelity storytelling. I’m not trying to be quip here, nor am I trying to call out any one individual. What I am trying to call out is similar to what Herr stated in the quote shared above. There seems to be this carnivorous appetite for war stories, but not war as it really is, rather war from a heroic narrative, or worse, war stories where soldiers are nothing more than pawns in a Mad Hatter’s political chess game. I feel these kinds of stories are for people who do not have a genuine interest in the reality of war from the perspective of, say, Joe-Shmoe from Littlerock, Arkansas. These kinds of stories are for people who want to be entertained, not enlighten to the cruel banality of combat.
For a long time, I didn’t write much about anything. A few poems, here and there, but nothing I was willing to share with anyone, under any circumstance. Well…except for maybe in death, if I was dead then I guess I couldn’t really do much about someone reading my work, could I?
I signed up for the U.S. Army in Sept 2001 and was honorably discharged in February 2008. Roughly seven years of service, including three tours in Iraq, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, and finally 2006-2007. The last tour was probably the hardest, not only was my deployment extended for the great 2007 Iraq War troop surge (Operation Arrowhead, I think), but I took more hits than in any of my previous two tours, and on top of that, I had someone other than my parents waiting for me at home. My wife and I had just met a few months before I deployed. She stayed with me the entire deployment. We wrote dozens of letters to each other, we chatted on the phone and on the internet, and that’s if circumstances made it possible. She supported me, with more than just care packages, but by giving me focus, reminding me that I was more than just a soldier. Being away from her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Let me say, I don’t mean to sound callous towards my parents, I love my parents very much, but with my wife it was different. For the first time, I couldn’t imagine myself dying and not being afraid. Not just for the circumstance (bodily suffering) but for the recompense of leaving her behind (emotional suffering). I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to be robbed of this imagined life we could’ve had together. I didn’t want to lose that. And I didn’t want her to suffer for my loss.
In 2008, after being pushed by family to get into college, I finally agreed. I’m glad I did. College helped with more than just furthering my career. Slowly, through the course from 2008-2014, I began to open up. I didn’t really want to at first, again, back to the “glamorization of war,” I feared any attempt to recount my experience would be a cheapening of it, a cheapening of other veteran’s experiences by attempting to sell my own. I didn’t want to do that, but I felt drawn to write something.
My first attempt was during a creative writing class into my second semester at San Jacinto Community College. The assignment was to write a short narrative story. I wrote, “There will be Ghosts,” which was my ode to both my experiences and the Tom Cruise Vietnam movie, “Born on the Fourth of July.” From there I dove head first into fiction-writing. I began a little science-fiction piece which never came to fruition, and probably never will. I consider these first works to be a learning curve, not something I’d want to see published. A dabbling, if you will, in the creative cosmos, finding my voice and all that fun stuff. When I left community college to enter the university (University of Houston-Clear Lake), I had to put my fictional writing on the back burner and focus almost exclusively on my history studies. While this may seem like a setback, I do not see it that way. In fact, I believe these two years of hardnosed historical study gave me an element lacking in my previous fictional-writing attempts. Dedicating myself to my studies gave me a depth I wouldn’t have been able to include in my work otherwise. My studies focused on 20th century Germany, namely the Weimar Republic and Nazi eras. I also took Vietnam War history classes, Texas history, and the Civil Rights Movement, each class taught from the ground-up. This is a somewhat relative new way of teaching history. Traditionally, history is taught from the top, that is, from famous generals and presidents or other such impressive folk. From the bottom-up, history is taught from the Joe-Shmoe perspective, the everyday lives of everyday people. It was fantastic. A new way of looking at our world and the people that fill it by giving them relevance. In 2014 I graduated from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelor of Arts in History…now what?
Suddenly I found this huge pocket of empty space. My mandatory studies were over with nothing to keep my mind focused on. I decided to get back to fictional writing no longer for term papers, but something that would keep my mind busy, keep me sane, and present a challenge. I wrote two short stories soon after graduating. “Hobo: a horror short story,” and “Are you hungry, dear?” Both are of the horror genre. And before you ask, “why horror,” let me be brief and just say that I’ve always been a fan of horror and dark fiction, ever since my big sister let me watch “Night of the Living Dead” one Friday night. And even before then, I read Goosebumps and then grew into Stephen King. It made sense for me to gravitate to the genre that I felt more comfortable in. And besides, horror gives us the most honest and straightforward media for social commentary…sometimes we need that ugly non-decorum. And Hobo was as direct a social commentary piece I’ve ever written. Through storytelling, I discussed this growing issue with perspectives and homelessness and then threw that into a gory tale of cannibalism. Perhaps over-the-top…but it was fun to write! “Are you hungry, dear?” I was thinking about this problem with identity, are we who we are because of what we have done in the past, or can we be better. This, of course, was told in thru a story basically about a witch who performs a dark ritual on a pizza!
While these shorts were fun, they also gave me some traction toward my first full-length book, Reinheit.
Reinheit was published originally under Booktrope’s horror imprint Forsaken, and now currently resides with Shadow Work Publishing, was, to be frank, the most serious thing I’ve ever written, other than my wedding vows. But let me be clear, this was not my “Iraq War” piece, though, as a writer you have to draw emotion from somewhere, and it would seem a lot of my emotion still streams from my experiences in Iraq. I think some of that bled into Reinheit. As for the story, I tapped into my history studies and focused on Nazi Germany. I didn’t want this to be just a historical fiction piece, I wanted to say something about some of the issues going on in 2014, in the media, and on social websites, such as Facebook. The total disregard for looking at people as simply that, people. Reinheit drew from real history, but the story was really about the here and now. A school teacher dealing with an abusive husband, an SS officer pushing himself to carry out his ghastly orders, a thug of a husband who views the world from a very narrow hall, an old man looking for redemption, and of course, a curious armchair with a very dark purpose.
While penning Reinheit, I was able to develop my, what authors call, “writers voice.” When you read a lot, which is a must if you want to write, you kind of take on the voice of the authors you are reading. You need to write to chisel away all those voices, and hopefully find your own in the process. I think this is intended to be an ongoing thing. The more you chisel, the more defined your voice becomes, until maybe reaching some point when your aged and withered and giving lectures to a new generation of writers. Obviously, I haven’t reached this milestone yet. I’m still having fun with it. So, yes, writing Reinheit helped define my own voice and gave me the necessary encouragement to take the next step, writing my “war story.”
Again, I couldn’t write something heroic, though I know a lot of whom I consider to be heroic. I didn’t want to pass the war off as some grand adventure. I wanted to rip the decorum off war, the shininess of it. I wanted to bring audiences into the preverbal trenches of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I wanted to bring an air of hardnosed poetry as Philip Larkin had done for his own generation with his masterpiece, “MCMXIV.” And above all this, I wanted to be direct and honest, no matter how difficult or depressing that may be. Even for myself, rehashing brutal memories. With my pile of one-subject notebooks (yes, I write everything longhand before MS Word), a set out on this endeavor. What I had titled Subdue was inked in about nine months, from paper to MS Word, and has recently been picked up by my new publisher. I cannot go into too many details about the book just yet, but I can say that within those pages are real, raw, and utterly difficult subjects. While hopefully still entertaining, because of the relationships between the characters, it was not written to entertain, it was written to discuss the reality of war and living with the memory of war, I wanted to talk about PTSD, anger, war-guilt, and suicide because these are discussions that need to happen by getting away from the myth of superman and disconnect of high-adventure combat by focusing on the naked ugliness of it and how we can live with those memories through expression…and the sad gut punching fact that many cannot live with the memories of war…
While there will always be “those” books that do not give much substance to the echoes of war, I’ve been seeing more and more veteran writers coming forward from the trenches, unabashed by unrepentant honesty. BRAVO! There was a recent Vanity Fair article called, “The Words of War” that included a few of these up and coming writers of poetry, novels, and screenplays. I felt encouraged reading it. Seeing fellow veterans picking up the pen and expressing themselves. I’m proud to be part of this “Lost Generation,” for as Elliot Ackerman, one of the veteran writers mentioned above, puts it, “it might have been better to be part of the ‘Lost Generation’ than the lost part of a generation.”