Dec 03

As Michael C and I aren’t the authorities on all things memoir, we like to check out other opinions of the books we review. The reviews of The Farther Shore, for the most part, deal with the central issue I’ve pondered on our blog: memoir or novel? (The answer is novel.). So we thought we’d share them with you.

I originally found The Farther Shore at the now defunct lit blog co-op. The idea was that prominent litbloggers would read unacknowledged new books and give them press. It was a great idea, and you can read the obituary for the site here.

Anyways, here’s a collection of mostly positive reviews of The Farther Shore from major media outlets, including the New York Times Book Review and Salon. Here is the original review of The Farther Shore from the lit blog co-op.

Here is a dissenting view, about The Farther Shore. “It tells us nothing new about war--although of course there may be nothing new to say--but ultimately tells us even less about what fiction might be made to do.” I actually agree with both points, but not every novel or piece of art needs to break new ground stylistically, especially when the book breaks new ground topically.

Another reviewer, “I wondered about why it needed to be a novel -- why, in these memoir-sodden days of ours, would a writer choose fiction when he could probably have gotten more money and notice by writing about his own experiences?”

Here’s a guess: maybe nothing significant happened to him. I fear soldier/authors--to sell books--will inevitably have to Frey their own experiences to make them more exciting. It’s what leads journalists to the most dangerous units, distorting the reality of the war. More on this soon.

Here is one final thought that captures the essence of The Farther Shore: “There is this lack of moralizing throughout Eck's writing. Stantz and his men really aren't portrayed as heroes, and, in fact, at times one might even lean in the other direction.”

Dec 02

(Spoiler warning: This post contains major spoilers for Matthew Eck’s “The Farther Shore”.)

I liked a lot of things in Matthew Eck’s The Farther Shore--the at-times great writing, the fleshed out characters and haunting images--but the thing I liked best is that it is a novel, a novel about American Soldiers at war, written after 9/11. Finally.

But The Farther Shore does takes some missteps along the way. Eck makes technical choices and narrative decisions I disagree with. Because The Farther Shore is a novel, though, we can analyze and debate these missteps. What do they mean? Why did Eck choose to go this way instead of that way? Unlike the war memoirs I’ve been reviewing for the last year or so, The Farther Shore is liberated from the burden of reality and “what-actually-happened”. So is the reader.

I serendipitously discovered The Farther Shore after reading about it over at the now defunct the litblog co-op, a blog dedicated to “drawing attention to the best of contemporary fiction...struggling to be noticed in a crowded marketplace”. The mission statement worked: I discovered the first mainstream post-9/11 war novel, and I’m stoked. (It pre-dated David Zimmerman’s The Sandbox, Thomas W. Young’s The Mullah’s Storm and Luke S. Larson’s Senator’s Son as the only major Iraq/Afghanistan novels. By the way, I can’t find Senator’s Son anywhere, so review pending until I find a copy.)

The plot: six American Soldiers--on a recon mission in a foreign, warlord controlled city in an unnamed foreign country--guide bombs and missile strikes from the roof of the city’s tallest building. In the novel’s inciting incident, they shoot and kill two kids. From that point on, they are on the run in a foreign city, alone and abandoned by the military.

There are two really good things in The Farther Shore. The first is the writing, which at times just sings. “We smoked the fuck out of those little kids,” Cooper said, staring at the field./”Yeah, I said. He said smoke as if meaning to invoke the spirit world, as if it were an offering...It made it sound like a light show, a matter of smoke and mirrors. Almost as if it could be undone.” Beautiful. Another example, about a dying soldier, “He had a satisfied look on his face, as if someone he loved was whispering to him.” A piece of dialogue from a CIA spook, “Ruin travels fast” should have been the title. The darkest most memorable scene is the beating of a young adulterous couple; it’s one of those dark ugly scenes that stick in your head long after you put the book away, the perfect emblem of a city controlled by warlords and violent tradition.

The second thing I liked were the biting character descriptions, which had more realism than most memoirs. Take Zeller, a star football player. “Serving in the military was an obligation to [Zeller’s] family. In fact, he needed an honorable discharge...to stay in his grandfather’s will.” Haven’t read that anywhere else. Also, so hopelessly addicted to cigarettes, Zeller smokes them in his sleep. By describing the good and the bad of each soldier, they become more human than the unfailingly positive character descriptions in most memoirs.

There are some odd literary touches that I’m not sure how I feel about. The city the soldiers occupy is never named, but it is clearly Mogadishu. I have no idea why Eck choose to do it this way, and why the novel isn’t set in Baghdad. The author is white, but the Soldiers are black. Again, odd.

My main problem is with The Farther Shore’s plot: it just doesn’t feel true. The US Army abandons a scout team in the middle of a foreign country. This may seem like an odd complaint based on my critique of memoirs and their fealty to reality, but I couldn’t help thinking the entire time, “This would never happen.” Soldiers died in Mogadishu--my guess for this novel’s location--and we did everything we could to get them back. When soldier’s bodies go missing, entire battalions are enlisted to get them back--Sgt. Giunta won his Medal of Honor for doing just this. If a lost Soldier approached a team out in the field, they would basically stop whatever they are doing to rescue him, even if it meant letting Osama Bin Laden escape. At the very least they would give him one of the good MREs, water and medical attention, unlike the soldiers in The Farther Shore.

This theme of abandonment feels out of place in the new century. The abandonment of soldiers by a nation and military is emotional baggage from a previous era. Soldiers, in the modern era, are isolated from the people they are protecting, not from each other or the homeland. I think Eck really missed something here.

All of this does beg the question, what is Eck trying to say? This is why I enjoy novels so much more than memoirs. I get to ask--and answer--this question. Do I recommend The Farther Shore? Yes, with the qualification that the plot never could have happened. But then again, it’s a novel. You knew that anyway.

Dec 01

At the fear of generalizing, I’ll say this: men in war zones obsess, get fixated on some really happy thought. I did. My men did. For example, one of my Soldiers--every time we sat down at the computers in the computer room--would show me a picture of the motorcycle he was going to buy when he returned.

About half way through my Afghanistan deployment--after reading a National Geographic travel magazine on places in the sun--I got my obsession: the Banyan Tree Madivaru, a thousand dollar plus a night resort with your own beach and “tent” in the Maldives. I saved the pictures to my desktop and would think, “Man, that place is like a billion times better than Afghanistan.” I obsessed about taking my then girlfriend, soon to be fiance, currently wife, there on our honeymoon (though I knew the whole time it was financially impossible).

Last deployment, I didn’t have the same obsession. I guess too many of Maslow’s needs were satisfied for me to obsess about anything. There was less boredom too. In Afghanistan we spent countless hours bored on radio guard or sitting in trucks waiting for something to happen, a perfect setting for obsession. In Iraq there was boredom, but also the trappings of Western society like the Internet, video games and basketball.

These pictures were the images of my obsession.

Nov 29

The lesson of the last ten years is clear: failed states breed terrorists. This is a reality I have written about twice before--here and here--that failed states are the biggest threat facing America.

But military intervention alone doesn’t really solve the problem. Thankfully, the Obama administration understands this, repeatedly stressing that its foreign policy will be based on the three D’s: diplomacy, development and defense. The problem with our three pronged approach is that America vastly under funds the most important peg, development. When America finally embraces a true development strategy, I think we should use the Risk strategy to guide our actions.

Just as failed states tend to clump together, successful states clump together too. Take Europe, for example, or South America. As the Economist reported in October, the nations of Latin America are pulling themselves up together. The same factors that drag down bad states will pull up good ones. A successful nation can trade with its neighbors, welcome back refugees, and enforce environmental policies beneficial to its neighbors and itself.

The biggest cluster of failed nations in the world is in Africa. Failed states are all over the world, but future instability and atrocities will most likely occur on this continent. If we want to ensure future US security, we must start in Africa.

To get a foothold on Africa, I think America needs to start with South Africa, the closest thing sub-Saharan Africa has to a success story. We need to put our relationship with South Africa front and center. We should push to get it on an expanded UN Security Council. We need to work with NGOs, USAID, the UN and others to raise the standard of living without causing corruption or undermining the government. A successful South Africa will help with problematic neighbors like Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique.

With luck, prosperous south African nations will help gain stable footholds into the Congo, Kenya and other  West African nations. We expand from our strongest point, the way a general attacks an enemy’s weakest points. The biggest mistake would be to intervene in a failed state directly, like we did in Afghanistan.

Why is this relevant now? Easy, Somalia.

With the recent detention of another aspiring Somali terrorist, I can safely say terrorism has moved out of the Middle East. I worry that a Somali terrorist--most likely affiliated with Al Shabab and possibly with a deployment to Iraq under his belt--will conduct a high profile terrorist attack against America. Despite the clear displeasure Americans have with going to war, if that happened, America would, in all likelihood, re-deploy troops to Africa. (Probably with a small force similar to what we had in Afghanistan for eight years, but still a force.) We would re-quagmire our already over-worked forces.

Securing Somalia’s neighbors, on the other hand, could provide a feasible way to permanently solve the instability of Africa. And we need to start where the nations are strongest.

Nov 24

(On Violence wil be off for the holidays until Monday. Happy Thanksgiving!

To read the entire "War is War” series, please click here.)

As I continue down the path debunking anti-ROE critics and what I like to call "war-is-war"-iors, I need to make four points very clear:

1. Americans, and the West, must fight wars according to our moral, ethical and legal principles.
2. Terrorists--be they Christian, Muslim or other--twist ethics to justify their immoral behavior.
3. As a result, Americans and the West tend to fight wars more ethically, morally and justly than non-state groups acting out of zealotry.
4. And most importantly, this isn’t a bad thing.

It seems like most people agree with my first two points, and then grudgingly accept point number three (though I have heard anti-war activists argue against this, they are wrong). The issue is with point number four. The main complaint being that our morals put us at a tactical disadvantage in messy, unconventional wars (what I call political wars), like the two counter-insurgencies America waged in the last decade.

When your enemy hides without wearing a uniform, threatens the population with violence, and launches attacks against weak civilian targets, it can seem very hard to fight them ethically, whether it is asymmetrically against trans-national terrorists or irregularly against insurgents.

Who wants us to fight immorally? Well, our old punching bags Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson. They wrote in Lone Survivor, “There is no other way to beat a terrorist. You must fight like him.” Eric C wrote an entire guest post about this role reversal on Permissible Arms. Others just bemoan that our values could cost American lives. Politicians after 9/11 repeated this idea saying that the Constitution is not a “suicide pact”, meaning if it comes down to survival or the Constitution, goodbye Constitution. (This is a quote behaving badly, and the second edition is coming soon.) Like this, Dick Cheney advocated for the US Intelligence Community to work on the “sort of on the dark side” to defeat terrorism, the “dark side” clearly meaning illegal and unethical side.

Today’s post is a short one because the point is simple: in war, we should never sacrifice our morals; our morality is everything. That is why the Christian tradition and the American tradition are histories of martyrs, people dying for their causes, faith and freedom respectively. We should embrace the fact that America—on the whole—fights morally just wars in a morally sound way.

And largely, the US has conducted itself in a moral, ethical manner. If we had never conducted “enhanced interrogation” in Abu Ghraib, if we had never abducted people in the rendition program, and if we had actually tried the people held in Guantanamo, critics of the US would have almost nothing to complain about. Yes, civilian casualties are too high in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yes, the Iraq war was a tremendous mistake on a number of levels, including morally. But the point remains: America is a moral nation based on strong principles.

We should strive to keep it that way.

Nov 22

(Today, we’re continuing our series of reviews of the documentaries from Operation In Their Boots. Click here to read Friday’s post here.)

Enduring Erebus

(Watch "Enduring Erebus" here.)

Four of the Operation in Their Boots documentaries address the issue of PTSD. Of the four, Tristan Dyer’s Enduring Erebus most perfectly distills PTSD to its dark essence. Unconventional, experimental, Enduring Erebus takes you on a visual trip you didn’t expect you’d take, almost more experimental art than documentary. (That’s a big compliment.)

The concept and execution is simple: four veterans, each suffering from PTSD, narrate their ugly battle with addiction and post-war life. You never see the speakers, only learning their first names. Visually, Dyer interprets these narratives into stop-motion animation; two symbolic figures travel through a hellscape of machinery and forests. If you can’t picture what I’m writing about, that’s because I’m not sure words could describe it. The best films celebrate the visual in ways words can’t do justice.

For me, as I told Tristan after the screening, Enduring Erebus takes a few minutes to get into the film, to learn the syntax of it, but once you’re in, you’re hooked.

Why does this film work? First, Dyer, by making his narrators anonymous, makes them universal. The same goes with the symbolism of the animation. What does it all mean? There are no easy answers, either for the film or PTSD.

I’m a huge fan of experimentation in art, and also a huge fan of surrealism. By going in an altogether different direction than almost anything I’ve ever seen, Tristan accomplishes something you don’t expect: he boils PTSD down to its essence. Please watch Enduring Erebus.
- Eric C

The Academic Front

(Watch "The Academic Front" here.)

The story of two Iraq war veterans struggling to adjust to academic and college life, The Academic Front shows a different side of coming home. Each veteran has different goals. Daniel Wong goes to college to rejoin the fight against Islamic extremism as a counter-terrorism expert. Aaron Huffman goes to college to become a pastor and help other returning veterans.

Chris Mandia was unable to attend the premiere, but I can say this: The Academic Front got the biggest crowd reaction of the films at the premiere, eliciting big laughs and numerous applause moments from the crowd.
- Eric C

Rudy Reyes, The Way of the Warrior

(Watch "Rudy Reyes: The Way of the Warrior" here.)

Rudy Reyes is an successful actor, an author, a veteran, and a warrior. Rudy Reyes was a part of a Marine Recon platoon. And he is also a deeply haunted man.

Victor Manzano glimpses the life of his fellow Marine from childhood to military training to the present. Fraught with hardships in the forms of neglect, abuse, and separation, Reyes fights to become strong and elite like the heroes he has admired since he was a child. Invigorated by the sensations and experiences of combat as well as revelling in the knowledge that he is one of America’s elite warrior, Reyes must somehow acclimate to life beyond service.

Way of the Warrior is a dark look at the life of a well-respected veteran that seems to have transitioned remarkably well to life on the home front. It reveals a hidden struggle with addiction to not just substances, but to the rush of violence.

It takes a minute to find the context and understand the message that Way of the Warrior. Manzano has the deepest respect for Rudy Reyes and it is more than apparent in his direction. At first, it seems like an entirely different documentary altogether. Still, Manzano is ever so delicately able to reveal the darker moments of Reyes’ life honesty allowing for a glimpse of a man who is the best of the best and still beset by past traumas. It’s brutally honest, dark, but still manages to be inspiring.
- Matty P

Nov 19

Last week, On Violence was honored to receive an invitation to the premiere of Operation In Their Boots, a series of five documentaries about the experiences of America’s veterans. Every video is available for viewing, for free, at their website, InTheirBoots.com, and we strongly encourage you to check out these films.

Today regular guest-poster Matty P and Eric C will provide a short review of each documentary.

The Guilt

(Watch "The Guilt" here.)

Clint Van Winkle, in his personal, almost confessional, documentary, The Guilt heads to Philadelphia to convince a good friend, and fellow veteran, to seek treatment for PTSD brought on by survivor’s guilt.

The Guilt, like his memoir Soft Spots, is raw and personal; intimate interviews complement intimate personal interactions--even Van Winkle said afterwards he was surprised one of the participants agreed to be in the film. Van Winkle has a knack for presenting the ugly truth of post-war life for Iraq veterans, putting all of his life out on the table.

My initial reaction to the ending of the film was, “What happens next? Tell me!” I wanted a nice, apropos title card explaining what has happened to all of the participants, as if reality could provide a pat, happy ending. Obviously, The Guilt didn’t give me one.

I had the same complaint with Soft Spots, and I realized something about his film and memoir: reality isn’t neat and tidy. For these three men, the saga continues. As one of them said, they could go on this way forever. W. D. Ehrhart--whose on my reading list now--says at some point in the film, in response to the question how long did it take you to get readjusted to home, “What makes you think I’m readjusted?”

I talked to Clint Van Winkle after the screening about his future plans. He’s working on a new book--non-fiction--and I have to say I’m looking forward to it. Instead of viewing Soft Spots as stand alone book, I should probably look at it as the first chapter in an ongoing project. And every one should needs to see this second part.
- Eric C

No Religious Preference

(Watch "No Relgious Preference here.)

It’s disturbing what the works of a few men can do to a culture’s psyche. In the post 9/11 environment, paratrooper, veteran of Afghanistan, and filmmaker Kyle Hartnett openly addresses his own, and by extension America’s, seething prejudices toward Muslims and Muslim Americans.

Hartnett describes his inner struggle between paranoia that takes the guise of preparedness and self-loathing for his own irrationality. After the events of Fort Hood, in which a Muslim soldier fired upon fellow soldiers, Hartnett’s misgivings resonate more as outright disdain for Muslims, forcing him to take action.

In a quest for knowledge to battle his own ignorance, Hartnett journeys to Dearborn, Michigan and beyond to come face to face with fellow service members of Arab decent. What he finds is not simply a glimpse of honorable men and women who have served their country, but also a tales of betrayal by the very country they fought to protect.

At times, No Religious Preference is brutal in it’s honesty, creating moments of both awkward discomfort and laughs as the audience relates their own stereotyping to Harnett’s. The stories range from comedic cultural misunderstandings to dark depictions of how fear and unfounded suspicion can justify injustice.

At the story’s end, one man, one soldier is able to face his misgivings with hope. While Hartnett is the first to admit he’s not fixed yet, his journey was an experience that served to alter the way he perceives an entire religion. And it’s my hope that No Religious Preference does the same for others.
- Matty P

(On Monday, On Violence will review Enduring Erebus, The Academic Front and Rudy Reyes: The Way of the Warrior.)

Nov 18

Quick heads up:

Michael C just had a guest post published at Doonesbury's The Sandbox, titled, "The  PL."

Check it out.