March 19 marked the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War, a date that passed with little fanfare in the small communities of Mono and Inyo counties. Yet the war in Iraq has undoubtedly touched the lives of many Eastside residents, indirectly if not directly. Some of us may merely recall watching the first few weeks of media coverage in 2003; bombs bursting to a victorious soundtrack supplied by Fox News. Others may have interacted with Wounded Warriors during Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra clinics, and heard their stories, told with a mixture of wariness, pride, and detachment. Still others may have faced the hardship of saying goodbye to loved ones before deployment, the joy of welcoming them home, or the heartbreak of never having another chance to.
Some Eastsiders are undoubtedly veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the latter of which celebrated the dubious honor of 12 years this year, and may have experienced first hand the challenges of leaving and returning changed in ways that they or their loved ones may not yet fully understand. While many of us might not have noticed when March 19 came and went, that date represents a long and troubled chapter in American history.
Until now, the experiences of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been channeled largely through nonfiction; we read their stories in newspapers, or hear their stories during the nightly news. But a recently released collection of fiction short stories, Fire and Forget, written by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeks to change that.
Addressing the challenge of telling stories about another generation’s fraught war, Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien wrote, “True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis … A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” The 15 stories collected in the recently released Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo Press) do just that. Like O’Brien, these contributors are warriors, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and like O’Brien, each seeks in this superb collection to make sense out of senselessness, truth out of ambiguous truths.
Edited by veterans Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, with a forward by National Book Award winner Colum McCann, Fire and Forget offers 15 windows into the complex, contradictory experience of war. The writers are military spouses, members of the National Guard, Marine Corps, Army, and Special Forces, and their collected stories are by turns heartbreaking and sidesplitting, ferocious and tender, anguished and hopeful.
Some stories, like Brian Turner’s “The Wave That Takes Them Under,” in which a platoon slowly loses its way in the shifting sands of the desert, delve into the beauty and terror of war. Other stories center on the difficult transition home, like Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” wherein a Marine contemplates his experience shooting dogs during the Battle of Fallujah, then must return to his own, ailing dog in North Carolina. Still others, like Jacob Siegel’s “Smile, There Are IEDs Everywhere,” reflect on the act of storytelling itself, and the challenges of speaking about experiences so unreal they elude language.
As Siegel writes, “War stories are almost never about war unless they’re told by someone who was never there. Every now and then maybe you talk about something or listen to someone who needs to get it off their chest, but those aren’t the stories you come back to, not for telling.”
The stories collected in Fire and Forget are not, or not entirely, about war. They are about universal human experiences: terror and adventure, fear and courage, sorrow and hope.
The Sheet spoke recently with contributor Phil Klay and editors and contributors Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher about the genesis of Fire and Forget, the particular strengths of fiction versus nonfiction, and whether writing war stories will always be an inherently political act.
Sheet: When did you conceive of Fire and Forget, and how did it finally make it to print?
MG: Initially it was kind of a bar napkin idea. We [editors and contributors Jacob Siegel, Phil Klay, Perry O’Brien, Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher] met at the New York University Veteran’s Writing Workshop a couple years ago. We all came from different backgrounds and different wars, and the workshop was a very healthy thing for all of us, because we were pushing each other; we didn’t believe one another’s B.S. And we just started thinking, ‘Why not put together an anthology collection?’”
Sheet: Did you have a specific audience in mind when assembling the collection?
RS: Our audience is people who love great stories. Our audience is also people who are curious about these wars, and what happened there, and curious about it not just in a historical way, but in the closer, more descriptive and even emotional sorts of ways that fiction can get at. Our audience, broadly, is just people who read books and like stories, and are interested in what’s been happening in America in the last decade.
MG: We wanted to be appealing to people who consider themselves a literary audience. We wanted to avoid being seen as trauma writers, or anything like that. That certainly has its place, but we were trying to do something different. Really we were focused more on gathering a diverse collection of voices, a diverse collection of writing styles, a diverse collection of experiences, knowing that in 15 stories, a story might not resonate with somebody, but this other one really will.
Sheet: What has been the reception to the collection thus far?
RS: The reception’s been great. We’re really excited to see how excited readers are. There are people who say this is a book they’ve been waiting for, and there are people who have called it necessary, and I’m humbled and honored that they would say that. But the two most important things, it seems to me, and actually most gratifying things about people’s response to the book, is people are really excited about the variety of perspectives. That was a key part of the idea, to get as many different approaches, different kinds of writing, different kinds of wars, into one collection as possible. And people really dig that.
The other thing that people are saying is that it’s intense. It’s a tough collection, and it’s emotionally intense to get through. Which is also so great to hear.
Sheet: Why did you choose to collect fiction rather than nonfiction stories?
RS: There’s two important things, I think, that fiction can do better than nonfiction. One thing is that nonfiction gives you what happened; it gives you the particular events. And fiction deals in what’s possible, and it can pull out from the particularity of this event—this day, this life, this one moment—something bigger, something a little more universal. It can talk about the kinds of things that happen. It can talk about the kinds of things a certain kind of person would do. And in that way, it can get at a deeper human truth.
The other thing that I think is really important that fiction can do, and nonfiction can’t, is play with storytelling itself. Nonfiction can play with storytelling, but what fiction can do is inhabit that space between the stories we make up about what happened, and what might have actually happened, which we might not even remember right in the first place. There’s a funny thing, particularly with war, and really intense events; people misremember them all the time. And fiction allows you to get into that space, where what you remember may not even be true, and then how do you say something true about that?
MG: There’s also been a lot of nonfiction out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and it certainly has its place, but fiction is just now starting to emerge with this collection and a couple novels. Historically that’s normal for war fiction. It takes more time than nonfiction. For me personally, and for most of us in the collection, writing short stories and writing fiction allowed us access to deeper emotional truths that were much more difficult to find in nonfiction, I think because we’re all limited by our own experience, by our own eyes, our own background. Fiction frees you up of all those things and allows you to write about something wider and something deeper that nonfiction just really can’t tap into.
Sheet: Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” was one of those stories that I thought got at something deep, and one that I felt deeply. What was the inspiration for that story?
PK: It came from talking to 2 Marines who were at the Battle of Fallujah, who told me about shooting dogs. And that struck me as interesting. I’d heard a lot of first person accounts about the Battle of Fallujah, and I’d also done a lot of research into that conflict, and from the very beginning I think one of the things I was always interested in was not just the experience over in Iraq, but the homecoming. I probably couldn’t have put it into words at the time, but I felt like there was something about that notion of shooting dogs, especially because I’m a dog lover, that felt like it needed to be explored.
When you first write something, you don’t know what you’re actually going to be writing about. You know that there’s a problem; something that troubles you, or something that seems like it may be a key into exploring other things. And that’s basically all that it was.
Sheet: Your story gives a glimpse into the actual process of coming home from Iraq to the States. Without that in the collection, I think there might be a disjunct between the stories that are set abroad and the stories that are set at home.
PK: Yeah, I mean it’s the first war story I ever wrote. Especially being in the Marine Corps, being home, that was on my mind. As I said it took me a couple more years to actually finish the damn thing, and I think part of that was just having the distance, and the time and reflection, but also just the practice writing, to be able to get a better handle on that experience.
Sheet: It seems like a real challenge to process such an intense and complicated experience, and to channel it into fiction.
PK: Well my experience of war is quite different from the Marine’s in my story. And I feel like that distance is actually important, for me anyway, for being able to write. It allows you a certain space to deal with things that you’ve been thinking about, because it’s an experience removed from yours but still a human experience, and you can try and get at the communicable aspects of it, and in that way it serves to clarify your own thinking in a way that maybe you couldn’t if you were just trying to write about yourself.
Sheet: Colum McCann states in his forward to the collection that “writing fiction is necessarily a political act.” How much did you feel Fire and Forget was a political act?
RS: That’s a great question, and it’s one that we’re still arguing about amongst myself and Matt, Phil and the other guys. Because these wars were violent, they were ethically messy, and they were politically charged. And I think Colum’s right in that especially with something about war, there’s no way it can’t be political somehow.
But it’s really important, coming back to the question of having a variety of perspectives and voices, to not skew one way or the other. Some of our contributors are still in the military. Some of our contributors, like Perry O’Brien, who wrote “Poughkeepsie,” he’s a conscientious objector who served in Afghanistan. So there’s a range of views on that issue. I don’t want to say that the collection is not political. It’s important to acknowledge how political these wars were, and continue to be. But we’re not signing up for a party, I’ll put it that way.
MG: Yeah, because it’s so easy, if this is an ‘anti-war book’ or this is a ‘pro-war book,’ to get caught up in those labels, and immediately half of readers aren’t listening anymore. And that’s not doing anyone any good.
PK: And that’s one of the things that I really like about the collection; when people read it, they’ll all like different stories, which I think speaks to the strength of the collection, and also it’s getting at very different aspects of the experience, and ways of thinking about war, and breaking out of a simplistic mindset about these experiences and taking a fuller approach, which is part of the whole point. I’m really pleased to be a part of it. In order to get a fuller sense of what the past 12 years have meant, you need a broad range of voices.
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War is available at The Booky Joint.