My husband joined the military about a year after I finished grad school. I was not a big fan of this idea.
He’d talked about joining for years, with varying degrees of seriousness. I tolerated his patriotism as a sort of quirk, a charming weakness. I was an aspiring writer raised by pacifists; my family were not military people. So I recycled his recruitment pamphlets when they’d land in our mailbox. I waited, really, for him to grow out of it.
And then the economy tanked, and Dave ended up working in a battery-recycling plant in an industrial sector of the Twin Cities. This job was serious Bruce Springsteen-lyric territory. Dave had to have his blood lead levels tested monthly. He stirred huge vats of molten lead so hot that in summer, he and the crew were given salt pills so they wouldn’t pass out. In the subzero cold of winter, driving a forklift between buildings, he was issued a headsuit that looked like chain mail and fit tightly along his hairline and down his neck: Sir Lancelot of the lead-lands.
Even I—typing the day away, talking shop with my writer friends, maybe enjoying some seeded artisanal muffin at my choice of cafe—had to admit that the disparity in our daily lives was not fair. Dave’s U.C. Berkeley history degree wasn’t seeing the light of day at the lead plant.
He told me he wanted to do something meaningful. He wanted to know what was going on in the world, he wanted to contribute. This was post-9/11 and his motivations were admirable. I just didn’t quite share them.
I was tired of feeling selfish, following my own improbable (and—this was key at the time—completely non-paying) dream. I guess I can write anywhere, I said. All I need is a word processor, right? So into the U.S. Navy we went.
Back then, I couldn’t have dreamed up any worlds more different than the literary sphere and the military one. I didn’t know of any service members who were writing, let alone their spouses. But for me it didn’t matter much, because immersion in military life and then motherhood came hot on the heels of one another. Within months of entering the military we had our first baby. When she was three months old, Dave was deployed on six days’ notice to the Persian Gulf on the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan.
Certainly, the deployment could have been far worse, and we were quite lucky. However, in my own tiny world, writing was a distant memory. I had an infant on my own, and motherhood, plus the cross-country move, the total isolation from my comfy school-and-writing world, had done something to me. I wandered around, indoors with my infant all day, like a dumbstruck vessel of love and caretaking. Motherhood gave me some newfound skills, sure—the ability to sustain another human being with nothing more than my own self; the ability to, when faced with a blown-out diaper and wrecked onesie, actually cut the thing off the baby in such a way that you could peel the child out cleanly and salvage her freshly-bathed hair and face. But my old proficiencies, the things I felt had made me me—well, they were stirring around in there somewhere, making me a little dissatisfied and urgent in the sort of neurotic way a zoo animal might be (I know there is something else I am supposed to be doing, but what is it?). I couldn’t figure out how to get to them.
In any case, these were minor concerns. We were a military family now. The war was occupying our own and our friends’ thoughts and fears. It was dragging on and people were being sent out on deployment again, and again, and again. A year would turn into eighteen months. Some of my friends had babies their husbands didn’t meet til they were a year old. My civilian friends could not fathom why we had yoked ourselves to the military at such a time in history, and we were starting to think maybe we had been crazy too.
We were starting to love these people. There was something about them (and in that way, we hoped, there was also something about us). The gallows humor. The endurance. My husband was in charge of folks eighteen, nineteen years old. Former foster kids. Escapees of abuse or poverty or maniacal religion. Ivy League grads. Nice kids from stable, patriotic homes. People who cared. People who had signed up the same way we had, from wherever they’d started – and now here we all were, and they were our friends, and it really hadn’t been so bad for us comparatively, so—how could we leave?
And then, finally—I learned about all the people in the military who were writing, and my worlds, for the first time, came together.
It started, probably, with Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds. “The war tried to kill us in the spring,” the novel famously begins. A traditional, arguably Tim O’Brien-influenced book from a veteran of Fallujah—everyone was reading it in 2012. I read it and felt the full disgust of war descend upon me, which without knowing it was probably what I wanted to feel, probably what any civilian reading it wanted too. The Yellow Birds stirred a strange hunger in me for narratives of the war, for every perspective I could find on this bizarre conflict that had shaped and pressured much of the past decade of our lives. I wanted to hear from writers who’d had “a dog in the fight,” so to speak—the veteran-writers (and, as I’d later discover, some military-spouse writers) who’d also had to engage, in varying degrees, in an international event that the vast majority of the American public had been lucky enough to sit out on.
That same year, I read what felt like The Yellow Birds’ brilliant and hilarious opposite: Fobbit, a satire of the war in Iraq by Army veteran David Abrams. Instead of going “house to house,” these soldiers go from computer to computer inside fictional FOB Triumph, near Baghdad. “Who the fuck fucked with my Power Point?” is a common battle cry. One of my favorite lines: as Staff Sgt. Gooding, “the Fobbitiest of the Fobbits” (he uses lavender-vanilla body wash!) types a report, his fingers “flew across the keyboard like he was playing Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 11 and had only two minutes to finish the damned thing.” This kind of comedic relief (with the implicit doubts and criticisms of the war that it raises) felt absolutely necessary as we emerged from the endless slog of the second Iraq war. Reading it was a breath of fresh air. It also felt somehow liberating: All this shit had happened. We were each, in our variety of ways, a part of it. Was it okay to laugh at ourselves, to realize that at times we’d been in the midst of a truly absurd situation? I felt like Abrams was saying yes: that to process something that’s happened, to give you a way to contrast all that was horrible, you have to allow humor. Humor can, after all, be smarter than solemnity, and Fobbit is so damn smart I felt proud to the core that a soldier had written it.
A “golden age of war lit,” people started saying.
When Phil Klay’s Redeployment won the National Book Award for fiction this year, it started to seem that this was indeed so. And the books have just kept coming. There’s Jesse Goolsby’s June ’15 release I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them—a novel-in-stories by a writer with the heart of Walt Whitman. Poetry by talents like Brian Turner and Colin Halloran. Memoirs from women who served, such as Kayla Williams and Jess Goodell, with more coming down the pipeline from women veterans as I write (Teresa Fazio, Lauren Halloran, Jerri Bell, and on and on). Novels and story collections from non-American writers, such as Iraqi-born Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition. “Man is not the only creature who kills for bread, or love, or power,” Blasim writes, “because animals in the jungle do that in various ways, but he is the only creature who kills because of faith.”
It’s far from a homogeneous group. Some veteran writers are overtly critical of the wars and even of their fellow soldiers’ war writing, such as Roy Scranton, whose beef with much of the relatively-apolitical modern war writing is that “by focusing so insistently on the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure, we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for.”
It’s not what you love to hear, maybe, as a military spouse; but how meaningful it is, how much it says about the damage done by these recent wars, that a veteran is writing this way. Perhaps even more importantly: how much it says about this extraordinary crop of veteran-writers—smart, tolerant, big enough to handle criticism—and maybe even about the whole point of living in a country that lets you fight for it and still, in writing, eviscerate it.
A particularly exciting realization for me was that military spouses were writing nearly as much as the veterans themselves. Siobhan Fallon won a 2012 PEN award for her story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone, a book that made me alternately chuckle and nearly weep. Chuckle, because her details of military life are so dead-on: the surreal FRG (Family Readiness Group) meetings, the chipper ombudsman in her perfectly-fitting khakis, the bizarre and archaic instructions for a service member’s homecoming. Weep, for characters like Kit who come home wounded to find a new wife who’s just not sure Army life is for her; for the woman who loses her husband and asks Kit, in a brief and heartbreaking moment, to serve as a stand-in.
There are military spouse poets, I learned, such as Jehanne Dubrow, who inhabits the persona of a modern-day Penelope in her collection “Stateside.” There’s novelist Tiffany Hawk, whose funny, sad debut Love Me Anyway taps into the life she led as a stewardess before marrying her pilot husband. There’s Lily Burana, an Army wife who makes great material out of the fact that she’s a former stripper; she even (when she’s not writing novels or memoir) has led burlesque dancing classes for women whose husbands are on deployment, just so we can have a little surprise in our back pockets (or not!) when they come home. Kathleen Rodgers, Jodie Cain Smith, R.H. Ramsey, Terri Barnes – the list of mil-spouse writers goes on and on.
There are so many writers within the military community that I could never possibly list them all here; these are merely some of the best-known, to serve as an intro for civilian readers. The best resource I can think of for learning more about recent war writing is Peter Molin’s fantastic blog, Time Now. For a more concise intro, Air Force officer Jesse Goolsby recently listed what he considers to be fifteen of the best books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (by service members and civilians alike) for The Daily Beast. (The official caveat at the end of his relatively innocent book list – “The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States government” – underscores the delicate line walked by the small handful of authors who are writing while still in the armed forces, as opposed to the much greater number who publish after their military separation.)
My own blog, The Military Spouse Book Review, lists every fellow military-spouse-writer I can uncover, and I’m always on the lookout for more.
If a nice and literary-minded civilian out there asked me, Should I start reading some stuff by you military people?, I would shout Yes, a thousand times yes!
What’s the importance of it, they might wonder. I know about the wars. I hate them/supported them/love the troops/think Dick Cheney was a genius/despise the military- industrial complex down to the cellular level/ eat nothing but Freedom Fries.
But most of all, I love the troops. Isn’t that good enough?
Yes and no. First of all, I’d say thank you for loving the troops—and I mean that sincerely. But there’s so much more to it. There’s “loving” someone—or what they seem to stand for—in a distanced way. Then there’s trying to understand them.
What I think is earnest and honorable and true about veterans’ writing—novels in particular, perhaps, because I can speak to these most comfortably—is that these authors are trying to close the military-civilian divide, not widen it through some kind of self- aggrandizement. None of what you will read is that “You’d better call me a hero, because I put it all on the line for you” bullshit. Veteran writing is absolutely not about giving civilians some massive guilt trip, nor is it about straining to maintain a cheerful spin on whatever has gone down these past 13+ years.
The gist of the writing to come out of these wars, for me, is that it’s only “about war” so much as it’s about being human. Novels and poems by veterans and military spouses are doing what the best novels and poems have always done: giving you a take on the human experiment that changes you, makes you stop and lose yourself in another life for a matter of minutes or hours. From one writer to another, I don’t think there’s anything more important.
For nearly a decade after my husband joined the military, I’d thought I was worlds away from the intellectual life I’d once led. I jealously guarded this perceived disadvantage—because some small aspect of it was real, I suppose, but also because it let me off the hook.
How dumb of me to think you had to be one thing or the other. How endless the excuses I could make. I can’t be a writer and have small children…I can’t be a writer and a military spouse. The people I’ve met, or whose works I’ve read, over the past year and a half have showed me time and again all the ways this isn’t true.
Andria Williams’ first novel, The Longest Night, is forthcoming from Random House in January 2016. She runs the Military Spouse Book Review, a blog that showcases military spouses and female veterans who write novels, memoir, and poetry.