The Voices of Conflict

In honor of the first official Veterans’ Voices Month, I’ve updated and expanded the list of War Literature Books here at WLA (see link).

The more I’ve worked to piece together this list from a variety of readers, writers, and educators, the more I’ve come to see the importance of adding as many different voices and insights into the mix as possible. The Voices of Veterans are vital in bridging the civilian-veteran divide, but there are other amazing voices out there as well—voices on the periphery of war who’ve been touched by conflict in one way or another. These voices help shape our understanding of the realities that reverberate across society, providing key insights and reflections necessary for this all-too-important dialogue.

One of the works I’ve added to the list is the haunting and captivating work of the poet, Lauren McClung, whose collection, Between Here and Monkey Mountain, illuminates the realities of growing up as a child in the shadow of a Vietnam Vet father. It’s a reality so many of my generation can relate to, kids like Lauren and me who felt the presence of war all around us.

And then there’s Michael Garriga’s evocative, The Book of Duels, which captures the essence of conflict with a voice that resonates with all the weight of the past and present with an almost biblical tone. The voices he brings to life remind us that at it’s core, war and conflict are born out of single decision wrought with the gravest of consequences.

In her compelling book of short stories, Flashes of War, the civilian writer, Katey Schultz, makes it quite clear that strong, insightful writing on war is not restricted to those who’ve served. Her stories brilliantly capture the personal and societal landscape that is always altered by war both at home and abroad

And there are so many more:  the poetry of Iraqi civilians in Flowers of Flame;  or the disturbing insights about the nature of evil by Jack El-Hai in The Nazi and the Psychiatrist; and the rare find recommended by WLA’s senior editor, Donald Anderson, Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier, a stark reflection on the horrors of war and the failed leadership in WW I in France. It is a book so honest in its assessment and depiction of the war that it was banned throughout France during WW II for fear it would hurt moral.

I’ve added another dozen or more books, as well, many by Veterans, including Outisde the Wire: America Soldiers’ Voices from Afghanistan, edited by Christine Leche, and Brian Turner’s amazing new memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, who is currently out on a book tour. Brian has supported this project from the start, and I hoped to get him up to Minnesota to help launch the Veterans’ Voice initiative.  So, with the help of the amazing people at Carleton College and the MN Humanities Center, I just received confirmation that he’ll be able to take part. He’ll be reading his work and speaking in concert with the exhibit, Always Lost: A Meditation on War on October 21st. It will take place at the Weitz Center for Creativity in Northfield, MN.

And lastly, I’ll be publishing an interview with, Seth Brady Tucker next month as the first Veteran Writer showcased here. I’ve added his book, Mormon Boy, to the list.

Thanks for reading, sharing your thoughts and helping to keep give this project the momentum it deserves.

Until Next Time,

J.A. Moad II





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Veterans’ Voices Month

Last Memorial Day, Sebastian Junger called on Veterans across the nation to go out and tell their stories. He proposed this as a step toward sharing “the moral burden of war”—a means of reaching out to the ninety-nine percent who’ve never put on a uniform.  The sentiment was well founded, and after more than a decade of war, the time seemed right, but something was missing.  I published a response, acknowledging the importance of this call to arms, but also recognizing the inherent complication of getting Vets to break their silence, open up and engage with civilian audiences.  This is something new and unfounded in the history of America, after all, an effort to bridge the disconnect between citizens and those we ask to serve and die on our behalf.  He was right, of course, the nation needs to hear what Vets have to say, but the question was how? What would it take for them to share their stories and insights?

Painting by Jason Gunn

Midway into the thirteenth year of this War on Terror, we’re awash in stories about the difficulties faced by Veterans.  We’ve become a society inured and exhausted by the longest conflict in our history. It’s understandable, of course. For years we listened to news reports of IEDs, suicide bombers, helicopter crashes or mortar attacks killing soldiers—the faces and names of our dead flashing across a TV screen, in local papers, or on our computers and smartphones—everything morphing together to become the background noise of a lost decade of continual conflict.  And now we’re constantly hearing about Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post Traumatic Stress (not a disorder), suicides, homelessness, and a Veteran’s Administration plagued by failures of past and present policies. But what we haven’t heard enough of are their stories—the honest expressions of those stark realities and the repercussions of this vast and unwieldy thing we call War. It’s time we did.

As a Veteran, an educator, and the son of a Vietnam Vet, I’ve worked to ensure that the stories of our servicemen and women find expression. I was compelled to heed Sebastian’s call, but I understood that this endeavor would require much more than simply providing a space for Veterans to speak. It would necessitate a concerted effort from all of us—writers and educators, along with community and government leaders to lay the groundwork for this to happen. It would require us to be proactive, to reach out and create an environment where Veterans feel free to engage in this all-to-necessary dialogue. For me, the solution was grounded in teaching the stories of Veterans in classrooms, high schools and colleges, and sharing them in community reading groups and libraries throughout the country—their stories, essays, poetry and reflections on their experiences.

I called for dedicating an entire month every year to this effort, and I’ve spent the past year working to make this into reality—writing, reading, performing and speaking on the subject as often as possible.  We kicked off the project in Northfield, Minnesota at a charter school last fall, and the results were astounding. Next, I went on to collaborate with an amazing group of Vets at the Minnesota Humanities Center who got behind this effort, and together, we drafted a bill to make this official. All the hard work paid off.  Last week, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill designating October as Veterans’ Voices Month. Here’s the result:

“The month of October is designated as Veterans’ Voices Month in recognition of the state’s desire to honor, recognize, and celebrate the contributions of veterans. Schools, organizations, and communities in the state are encouraged to hold events and programs that honor veterans and educate students and citizens about the unique culture of the military by sharing and studying veterans’ experiences through stories, essays, poetry, and art from the men and women who have served in the armed forces.”

For me, it seems all too appropriate that this initiative begins in Minnesota, a leader in the Humanities, and the home state of one of the greatest war writers of our generation, Tim O’Brien. As a young boy growing up in the shadow of the Vietnam, I felt all too-keenly the reverberations of O’Brien’s war on my father’s generation. Through young eyes, I came to see many of those Veterans as distant shadows, men who wanted to be left alone, disappearing into woodsheds or off fishing and hunting away from people—strong, stone-hard men withdrawing from a society that sent them off to fight. They carried the weight of their war and struggles all alone, and like so many other Vets in our history, they bore the burden in silence. I was fascinated by these strong men, and like many kids of my generation, we were enamored with war and by the secrets concealed behind their distant eyes. Silence has a kind of allure, after all, and in the absence of their words, I imagined glorious adventures and exciting, heroic tales being withheld from me. I wanted to be a hero, too, to go off and fight, to break myself upon some distant shore and discover what these men had experienced. I had no idea that most of them wanted only to forget, often struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, working to suppress the images and memories of a distant jungle. I wish I’d been fortunate enough to hear what only they could tell me.

I’ve only been in Minnesota for three years, but Tim O’Brien’s wonderful novel, In the Lake of the Woods, has imprinted another image of the distant Veteran in my subconscious—that of a man slipping quietly into a canoe and heading out into a vast lake all alone.  I see that person, like so many other Vets, adrift without any clear sense of direction, lost and engulfed in their own silence, misunderstood and uncertain where to turn.  My hope is that this project will serve as a beacon to some, calling them home and providing a safe harbor for expression—that their words will light the way for future generations.

So now we begin. Over the next year, I’m going to reach out to emerging Veteran Writers and introduce them to you, men and women who are working hard to express the inexpressible, digging deep within to impart their stories in a variety of ways—words that must be heard.  I’ll find them for you, and along the way, I’ll work to engage with other states to join with Minnesota and declare October as Veterans’ Voices Month.

The more I’ve written and spoken about this project, the more I’ve come to realize how little that we, as a nation, understand about the repercussions of war on both the individual and society. It’s as if these hard truths have been boxed up and buried along with dead, locked deep inside the hearts of Veterans, or woven into the fabric of some infinite war memorial and contained there to be viewed from a safe distance and then forgotten. For me, this project transcends the notion of ending silence and has become about our responsibility to the future, to those boys and girls who we will call on to fight in future wars—many yet, unborn. This project is about bearing the weight of history into the present, like some vast meteor composed of every Veteran’s story, past and present, crashing into a great lake and breaking open. I imagine their words reverberating outward—rippling across the nation into schools and libraries, churches, town halls and on stages where we listen, together as one, and do not judge, but bear witness to what these men and women have to tell us. We need their stories to find us, to wash over us, and to cleanse a nation of its ignorance and indifference.  Sebastian was right. It’s the only way to share the moral responsibility of war.

Until Next Time,

J.A. Moad II

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Reading, Writing and Talking War – Are We Ready?

 I’d like to say thank you to everyone who’s encouraged me and lent their time, energy and wisdom to help get this project off the ground. I decided to entitle the initiative, Reading, Writing and Talking War. I wasn’t sure what to call the project until I found myself on a layover in Manhattan at the end of September. I had an impromptu meeting about doing a reading and highlighting the initiative at the Veteran Artist Project. Afterwards, I was walking back to my hotel, tired, but energized from the conversation, thinking about Veteran’s Day and what matters most to me about this initiative. It was a perfect night, alive with the noise of the city, the taxis and cars, people talking across tables at outside cafes, and others on cell phones as they walked up and down the streets. I thought about the most important thing that could come from all this, and realized it’s the most simple thing of all: talking about war—discussing it in all its varied manifestations.  Sharing ideas, stories, experiences and thoughts in search of a greater understanding is what it’s all about, after all.  If we don’t all come together into some greater dialogue to embrace this whole process, then it’s just another project out there—another thing meandering into obscurity or dying on the vine no matter how much we believe it should bloom.

Soooo, here we go. While I don’t know where it will lead, I do know that the seed has taken root here in Minnesota. First, at Arcadia High School in Northfield, MN, where an imaginative teacher, Joe Pahr, and sixteen students signed up to read and engage War Literature for the entire month of October.  I was honored to be a part of it. What emerged was a little bit of poetry, music, art, and a touch of the theatrical to bring life to all the pain and sadness engendered by war. These kids were beyond amazing, giving themselves over to the power of the words on the page. The writer, Ben Percy (of Red Moon fame), and I each showed up to discuss our own short stories assigned to the students. We talked about the repercussions of war on the personal and societal level, our creative process and the importance of reading. But the truth is, we didn’t need to be there. The literature spoke for itself—the stories, poetry and essays of war have a power all their own.   

The class started off by reading How To Tell a True War Story by Tim O’Brien’s, a Minnesota native. It set the stage for the semester, and each work was viewed through his lens:  does the truth of war come through in the various writings? They took Brian Turner’s poem, 2000 lbs about a suicide bombing in a busy market of Iraq and acted out the parts of each person involved. The students embraced the work, and as Joe Pahr wrote, “They have come to see that war is not a black or white issue. They have developed empathy for the range of emotions experienced by the soldiers, the victims, the friends, and the families.”

While the students were reading and discussing the works in a classroom, I was taking part in The Telling Project in Minneapolis. Five other Veterans from Minnesota and I performed on stage at the Guthrie Theater in The Dowling Studio. Our stories were woven together by Jonathan Wei to create a powerful narrative that we shared with both civilian and military members of the community. It was fitting that we performed on the stage of An Iliad, a rich and forceful, one-man show that recounts the story of Achilles and Hector in the siege of Troy. 

            We had an amazing group of Veterans, both male and female, ranging from the Vietnam Era to the present. I was honored to work alongside such a talented and gutsy group of people and help to create something powerful and engaging for the audience. Early on as we worked together to find a proper way to start the production and reach out to members of the audience, I realized the best way was to ask them a simple question:  Are you ready? It was the lingering question in the back of my mind ever since I first came up with this idea in May—how do we make Americans ready to hear the stories of their Veterans and help bridge the military-civilian divide?  It’s a question that’s been with me for several years.

Like many initiatives out there, The Telling Project is a key part of bridging this divide. There are many other groups working to help make this happen, groups including The Veteran Writing Project, the Warrior Writers, The Veteran Center for Performing Arts, Society of Artistic Veterans, and of course, The Veteran Artist Program which is hosting a week long event this week in New York.  I’ll be there on Friday night, Nov 8th, reading and discussion this project along with several other writers and veterans.  

 In the end, I realize that it will take many voices coming together to help keep an initiative like this alive, to give it momentum and staying power. But the truth is, I already feel like it’s a success. When I was given insight into the thoughtful and creative responses of those sixteen kids in Northfield—kids who created art, music and poetry in response to what they’d read… well, that seemed like success to me–real success. 

When the other Veterans and I asked the audience at the Guthrie if they were ready, several people responded with a clear, ‘yes,’ and one or two asked us, (the performers), if we were ready. We were, of course, but it wasn’t easy for everyone to share their stories or open old wounds that may never heal. After the performance, many in the audience stayed to ask questions, several of them moved to tears by what they’d seen, and I realize right then that they are ready, too. 

After more than a decade of war, Americans are beginning to understand the importance of sharing these stories, a need for creating a greater dialogue, and of the consequences of too much silence. When it comes down to it, though, the question itself is irrelevant. We may not all be ready to share our stories or to listen just yet, but we must find a way to get there, step by step. If we, as a society, send our young off to war, we must make ourselves ready to listen and hear what they have to tell us. We owe it to each other and to everyone who’s ever put on a uniform, past, present or future, to serve and fight on our behalf, to make ourselves ready. We need to be ready. We have to be ready.

 Until Next Time,

J.A. Moad II

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War Literature Books – A List of Ninety-Nine and Then Some…

***  Updated List – October 1 2014 ***

Greetings All,

So, here it is, a list of War Literature books I’ve come up with over the last few months… or rather, a list I’ve been developing for years.  I had this vague notion of calling this the best (insert a number) War Literature books, but that seemed a bit presumptuous. Better to avoid the term, best, I realized.  I only know that these are the books that have spoken to my readers, colleagues, students, teachers, veterans and other writers I’ve been fortunate enough to know over the years. Thank you all for your inputs, enthusiasm and suggestions. There are, assuredly, many many more out there.

As with any list, it is incomplete and flawed, but a place to start, I think. If nothing else, these texts convey the emotional truths of war in its varied manifestations. The works here do not glorify any aspect of war, but instead, they help us to understand the repercussions of conflicts as they reverberate across society, generations and the world. Once I reached ninety-nine, I stopped counting. Coming up with a specific number of texts seemed a bit arbitrary to me, especially considering there are many others works I haven’t been introduced to or that will emerge in the years ahead.  I plan to add them to this list over time, so feel free to share more with me in the future.

The underlined titles represent books that WLA has published a commentary on, a book review, or an interview with the author. I’ve embedded links to those pieces, which can serve as an introduction or launching point for discussions (for book reviews, you may have to scroll through several pages to find the exact one).

Lastly, for those of you who read my essay, An End to Silence – A Call to Act, I decided to start the initiative in Minnesota this fall—to make October, War Literature Month across the country. After speaking with friends and colleagues, there appears to be an overwhelming consensus that this is an important endeavor.  Regardless of the focus, there’s always room in a curriculum for one War Literature text in an English course, even if it’s a short story or two. In the end, the discussion engendered by the reading will pay dividends in the future. I may be naïve, but I imagine if every student, citizen and politician read just a smattering of these works below—the poetry, fiction, memoirs, essays and histories—we could start some wonderful discussion, the most important ones—the ones so many Americans are discussing at this very moment in regards to other conflict looming on the horizon.

So once again, I’m calling on everyone out there–teacher, writer, student, parent, veteran and citizen alike to spread the word. It’s all about ending the silence, and the literature of war can get us all thinking, talking, opening up, and learning along the way.

Happy Reading,

J.A. Moad II


Achilles in Vietnam by Johathan Shay (Vietnam – Nonfiction)

After Action Review & Remaking Sense by Veterans of the Global War on Terror    ed. by Lovella Calica and The Warrior Writers (GWOT – Various)

Aftermath ed. by Donald Anderson (Vietnam – Short Stories)

Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness                                                  ed. by Carolyn Forche (20th Century – Poetry)

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (WW I – Novel)

American Ground by William Langewiesche (GWOT – Nonfiction)

Articles of War by Nick Arvin (WW II – Fiction)

The Assault by Harry Mulisch (WW II – Fiction)

The Backwash of War by Ellen N. La Motte (WW I – Memoir)

The Balkan Express by Slavenka Drakulic (Bosnian War – Essays)

Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters           ed. by Andrew Carroll (20th Century – Nonfiction)

Between Here and Monkey Mountain by Lauren McClung (Vietnam/Homefront – Poetry)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (GWOT – Novel)

Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden (Somalia – Nonfiction)

The Book of Duels by Michael Garriga (All Conflicts – Short Prose)

Bosnia Elegies by Adrian Oktenberg (Bosnia-Herzegovina – Poetry)

Carrying The Darkness ed. by W.D. Ehrhart (Vietnam – Poetry)

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (WW II – Novel)

Century of the Wind by Eduardo Galeano (Latin America – Fiction)

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (Korea – Novel)

Chickenhawk by Robert Mason (Vietnam – Memoir)

Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce (Civil War – Short Stories)

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (Chechnya – Novel)

Cross of Iron by Willi Heinrich (WW II – Novel)

The Destructive War: Sherman, Jackson & the Americans                                                  by Charles Royster (Civil War – Nonfiction)

Dear Mr. President by Gabe Hudson (Desert Storm – Nonfiction)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (WW II – Memoir)

Dien Cai Dau by Usef Komunyakaa (Vietnam – Poetry)

Dispatches by Michael Herr (Vietnam – Memoir)

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone (Vietnam – Novel)

Dust to Dust by Benjamin Busch (GWOT – Memoir)

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (WWII – Novel)

Far From the Temple of Heaven by Dale Ritterbusch (Vietnam – Poetry)

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (WW I – Novel)

Fatal Light by Richard Currey (Vietnam – Novel)

Fateless by Imre Kertesz (WW II – Novel)

Fear by Gabriel Chevallier (WW I – Novel)

Fire and Forget ed. by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher (GWOT – Short Stories)

Flashes of War by Katey Schultz (GWOT – Short Stories)

Flight to Arras by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (WW II – Nonfiction)

Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq Sadek Mohammed, Soheil Najm, Haider Al-Kabi & Dan Veach  (Wartime in Iraq – Poetry_

Fobbit by David Abrams (GWOT – Novel)

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins (GWOT – Nonfiction)

The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer (WW II – Novel)

The Forsaken Army by Heinrich Gerlach (WW II – Novel)

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (Spanish Civil War – Novel)

The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied GWOT                                         by Christian Parenti (GWOT – Nonfiction)

Generation Kill by Evan Wright (GWOT – Nonfiction)

Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien (Vietnam – Novel)

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (WW I – Memoir)

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain                                                                                by Robert Olen Butler (Vietnam – Short Stories)

The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War                                       by Jaroslav Hasek (WW I – Novel)

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel (GWOT – Nonfiction)

The Great War and Modern Memory by Fussell (WW I – Nonfiction)

Here, Bullet by Brian Turner (GWOT – Poetry)

Home by Toni Morrison (Korea – Novel)

Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam                                       by Linda Van Devanter (Vietnam – Memoir)

Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton (Afghanistan – Nonfiction)

House to House by David Bellavia (GWOT – Memoire)

The Huntersby James Salter (Korea – Novel)

If I Die in a Combat Zone Box Me Up and Ship Me Home                                         by Time O’Brien (Vietnam – Nonfiction)

Imagining Argentina by Lawrence Thornton (Argentina – Novel)

The Immaculate Invasion by Bob Shacochis (Haiti – Nonfiction)

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandraskaran (GWOT – Nonfiction)

In The Forest of Laughing Elephants by Phil Caputo (Vietnam – Novella)

In Pharaoh’s Army by Tobias Wolf (Vietnam – Novel)

Jakob the Liar by Jurek Becker (WW II – Novel)

Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam                                          by Nick Turse (Nonfiction – Vietnam)

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (Civil War – Novel)

Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War                                                                         by Anthony Swofford (Gulf War –Memoir)

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (WWI – Memoir)

The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell by John Crawford  (GWOT Memoir)

The Long Walk by Brian Castner (GWOT – Memoir)

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl (WW II – Memoir)

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (Vietnam – Novel)

A Memory of War by Frederick Busch (WW II – Novel)

Mormon Boy by Seth Brady Tucker (GWOT – Poetry)

My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Tuner (GWOT – Memoir)

My War: Killing Time in GWOT by Colby Buzzell (GWOT – Memoir)

My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd (Bosnia – Nonfiction)

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist by Jack El-Hai (WW II – Nonfiction)

Night by Elie Wiesel (WW II – Memoir)

No-No Boy by John Okada (WW II – Novel)

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Office by Nathaniel Fick (GWOT – memoir)

On Killing by Dave Grossman (Vietnam – Nonfiction)

Operation Homecoming ed. by Andrew Carroll (GWOT – Various)

The Outpost by Jake Tapper (GWOT – Nonfiction)

Outlaw Platoon by Sean Parnell (GWOT – Nonfiction)

Outside the Wire: American Soldiers Voices from Afghanistan Ed. by Christine Leche

Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann (Vietnam – Novel)

The Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte (Bosnia-Herzegovina – Novel)

Peace Meals: Candy Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories                                  by Anna Badkhen (All Wars – Nonfiction)

Phantom Noise by Brian Turner (GWOT – Poetry)

Poets of World War II ed. Harvery Shapiron (WW II – Poetry)

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory                                                       by David W. Blight (Civil War – Nonfiction)

A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered by Michael Archer (Memoir – Vietnam)

The Quiet American by Graham Greene (Vietnam in the 1950s – Novel)

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (Civil War – Novel)

Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy (GWOT – home front – Short Stories)

Refuge by Adrie Kuserow (Africa – Poetry)

Remembering Heaven’s Face by John Balaban (Memoir – Vietnam)

A Rumor of War by Phil Caputo (Vietnam – Memoir)

S by Slavenka Drakulic (Bosnia-Herzegovina War – Novel)

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (WW II – Novel)

Soldaten: On Fighting Killing & Dying, The Secret WW II Transcripts of German POWs by Sonke Neitzel  and Harald Welzer (WW II – Nonfiction)

Song of Napalm by Bruce Weigl (Vietnam – Poetry)

Sparta by Roxana Robinson (GWOT – Novel)

The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bao Ninh (Vietnam – Novel)

The Stars, The Earth, The River by Le Minh Khue (Vietnam – Short Stories)

A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton (Civil War – Nonfiction)

The Stick Soldiers by Hugh Martin (GWOT – Poetry)

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi (WW II – Novel)

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (WW I – Memoir)

Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel (GWOT – Nonfiction)

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Vietnam – Short Stories)

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf (WWI – Essays)

Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos (Wordl War I – Novel)

They Marched Into Sunlight by David Maraniss (Vietnam – Nonfiction)

Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War                                                                                 by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss (Vietnam – Nonfiction)

To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild (WW I – Nonfiction)

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (Vietnam – Novel)

Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Vietnam                             by Wayne Karlin (Vietnam – Nonfiction)

War by Sebastian Junger (GWOT – Nonfiction)

War Horses by Yusef Komunyakaa (All wars – Poetry)

War is a Force That Gives US Meaning by Chris Hedges (All War – Nonfiction)

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes (Vietnam – Essays)

What We Sign Up For by Lisa L. Siedlarz (GWOT – Poetry)

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip (Vietnam – Novel)

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (WW II – Novel)

When War Becomes Personal ed. by Donald Anderson (All Wars – Nonfiction)

Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnam Family                                                    by Qui Duc Nguyen (Vietnam – Novel)

Winning Hearts and Minds ed. by Jan Barry (Poetry Vietnam)

Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War by Agate Nesaule (WW II – Memoir)

World War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, and Others (WW I – Poetry)

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (GWOT – Novel)

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Si0bhan Fallon (GWOT/Homefront – Short Stories)

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman (WW II – Nonfiction)

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An End to Silence – A Call to Act

In March, as the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War rolled around, I felt a sense of obligation to write about the event. Considering that the repercussions of the war continue to resonate across our nation and the globe (and will for decades to come), acknowledging the day seemed important.  But neither the impulse nor the spark was there.  I sat in front of a blank screen, uninspired, and I was blank inside, too. I found myself pushing back against this sense of obligation, deciding to let the opportunity pass by. Others would say what they needed to say, but for me, silence seemed a more fitting response.

Instead, I simply reflected on my own experience ten years before. I was on airplane returning to the U.S. from Germany on the day the war began.  I’d been flying support missions during the previous year and helping to plan part of the invasion of Iraq through Turkey—a plan that died on the desks of the Turkish general staff.  Downtown Baghdad had already been hit hard by the time I stepped onto a flight bound for the U.S. and for a new job at Tanker Airlift Control Center.  I would spend the next three years in a dark, twenty-four hour command center in the Midwest, planning and coordinating airlift operations in support of the wars.

Back on American soil, Shock and Awe had given us all a sense that victory would be swift and decisive. It was an illusion we would cling to as the months and years of brutal combat, suicide bombings, house-to-house fighting, IEDs and the spark of secular violence took their toll on the people of Iraq, their infrastructure, and the Americans soldiers embroiled in a conflict they couldn’t win.  The months and years passed by, reflecting a rare certainty of all wars—that they are seldom short, simple, efficient, or cheap. Despite this well-known reality, it’s quite clear that each new generation suffers a kind of amnesia when it comes to contemplating the next war.  As former Vice President Dick Cheney knew all too well in 1994, a war in Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein would lead to a protracted and costly quagmire and one costly in American lives, too.  He clearly articulated his reasons for not ousting the dictator in the First Gulf War in a News Interview—thoughts grounded in an honest assessment from knowledge gleaned as Secretary of Defense. I wonder if he suffered a kind of amnesia as well.

In the days leading up to the ten-year anniversary, I listened to what was being said and written by others, watched commentators speak about a military pushed to the limits, the layered costs of the war, an overwhelmed VA system, the unprecedented rise in military suicides, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), domestic abuse, sexual assaults, violence, incarceration, and of course, Post Traumatic Stress (PTS – I’ve decided to no longer use the term, ‘disorder’ by the way, because it’s not a disorder. It’s a normal response to trauma of that nature).  No, I didn’t need to add anything to the discussion.

Looking back, I think it felt wrong to give more attention to the beginning of a war that should never have been waged.  After all, the impetus for our invasion of Iraq was not tied to A Day That Would Live in Infamy.  There was no 9-11 or Boston Massacre from which to ground our methodical march toward war long after the Two Towers fell.  No, the decision to invade Iraq seemed to mirror the start of other unnecessary wars in our past—the 21st Century version of the Sinking of the Maine or The Gulf of Tonkin Incident. It was linked to insecurity, to fear and an abiding need for retribution in the aftermath of an attack we were still coping with. Afghanistan wasn’t enough. We needed to believe there was more at work out there, and despite little or no proof, we accepted the plausible scenarios, let our fears drive us, indifferent or unaware that intelligence had been manipulated or obtained by torture.

I fell in line too, clinging to flimsy evidence, compelled by the desire to stop another attack.  In part, I think we were entranced by our own good intentions as well: to be a force for good, to end a brutal tyrant’s reign, stop his use of weapons of mass destruction, and to spread democracy throughout the Middle East (a naïve endeavor if ever there was one).  This is, after all, a vein that runs deep within the American narrative—a sense that all our wars are done for the right reason (a myth we need to confront, as well). I remember all too well, my own sense of certainty that Iraq was hiding weapons that could fall into terrorists’ hands. I silenced the questions within me, letting my own fear and need for a degree of certainty—action in the face of danger—drive my thinking. But like so many of us, I was wrong.

The voices questioning the need for war were stifled or silenced by the resounding drumbeats of a war machine in motion. Derided as unpatriotic or weak, those few voices were pushed aside, and a pervasive silence ensued as the military prepared and government contracts were signed. Yes, the beasts of war were uncaged—acts that we, as a society, are complicit in.

But for me, the question is, why?  Why was it so easy for us to silence the voices of the past and present, the voice of doubt within us, the lessons from history and the literature of war, and even the counsel of Generals who chose to question the war effort? I’ve come to a conclusion that we’ve marginalized the important voices of past wars—relegated the literature of war to a narrow genre of study to be looked at through a distant lens. The lack of a war on our shores has made this failure easy to understand.

Over the last decade I’ve become all too aware of the lack of knowledge—the limited education that our students have been afforded on the subject.  Whenever I speak with an English professor or high school teacher, they always tend to mention the one or two books they’ve chosen to teach in the genre: The Killer Angels, The Things They Carried or Catch 22, but they seem uncomfortable delving too deep or taking the discussion into the dark places we need to explore. Instead, we tend glorify war in movies, video games, and even in our history–a great disservice to our future by failing to study the effect of war on our nation. It is my hope that these wars of the Twenty First Century and the current generation of Vets will continue to open the door to a greater dialogue… an end to silence.

Yesterday, I was all ready to post this piece. I was planning to simply add a final paragraph to reference the Living List I published two and a half years ago. At the time, I listed the top thirty recommended war literature books from people in the War Lit community.  I was planning to end this piece by writing how I’d been asking people over the last few years the following question: What books would you add to the list? The response has been amazing, and I’ve discovered something new or different that I’d never read before. I was planning to make one final call to everyone out there, and then to post an updated list of a hundred books on the subject (which I’m still planning to do, by the way).  But an opinion piece I saw in the Washington Post yesterday, made me pause and rethink what I wanted to say.

The piece, Veterans Need To Share the Moral Burden of War was by Sebastian Junger. While I agree with almost everything he had to say, his final plea to Veterans prompted me to rewrite the ending to this essay and take things a bit further.  At the end of his OpEd, he wrote,

“On Memorial Day or Veterans Day, in addition to traditional parades, communities could make their city or town hall available for vets to tell their stories. Each could get, say, 10 minutes to tell his or her experience at war. Attendance could not be mandatory, but on that day “I support the troops” would mean spending hours listening to our vets. We would hear a lot of anger and pain. We would also hear a lot of pride. Some of what would be said would make you uncomfortable, whether you are liberal or conservative, military or nonmilitary, young or old. But there is no point in having a conversation about war that is not completely honest.”

My first thought was, I hope something like this can happen, but I realized as I began crafting the ending to my own essay, Hope isn’t enough.  While Sebastian’s sentiment is a respectable one that I subscribe to, the reality is that the Veteran-Civilian divide is still too wide.  For the non-writer Veteran out there, sharing a personal story with civilians is an incredibly challenging endeavor.  I’ve worked with Veteran writing groups, and even in rooms surrounded by other Vets, it’s difficult to get them to write or talk about what they’ve experienced.  The pain, anger and hurt from the trauma is too powerful to share with just anyone. But Sebastian is right, this idea of sharing their stories is incredibly important–something that needs to happen. But it needs to start at a much earlier level.

The history of Memorial Day is grounded in Decoration Day—a day on which the graves of Civil War Soldiers were decorated. It has evolved and is meant to honor the fallen from all our wars—to be a reminder of the sacrifice they made for our nation. It’s a powerful and sincere endeavor with parades, flag waving, and a moment of silence to honor the dead. But these gestures are empty without recalling the stories of the suffering endured by those who gave their lives on our behalf.

In addition to serving as a means of respect, silence can represent many things: denial, ignorance, fear, repression, and death. As a friend once told me, her father who’d fought in World War II was bothered by all the Vietnam Vets who came back home with horrible stories and spoke out against the war. That new generation of Vets had broken an unwritten code of silence among Veterans of World War II—a code they’d suffered under as their war faded into the background of the Cold War. Their war had been such a horrific experience, one that Americans at home had been distanced from and wanted to let go once the fighting had stopped. It’s understandable, of course. We were a nation exhausted from the war effort and didn’t seem interested in confronting the harsh realities of that era.  Those men of the Greatest Generation were never afforded the opportunity to share their stories.  The result, as we’ve come to understand over time, is that behind the silence lies repression, anxiety, violence, alcohol and drug abuse—issues which have rippled across generations, touching each of us in one way or another.

Yes, we need to end the silence, and rather than simply express the importance of reading the literature of war, I’m going a step further.  I’m calling on all the educators across our nation to share the voices of the past wars—the stories of the dead and the living—to resurrect the ghosts of war and end the silence. After all, hope requires a form of action to achieve that which we hope for, doesn’t it?

And with that, I propose October – the month before Veteran’s Day be a month devoted to teaching the literature of war.  I’m calling on the known voices out there to help and promote this:  Sebastian Junger, Thomas Ricks, Brian Turner, Dexter Filkins, Donald Anderson, Tobias WolffSiobhan Fallon, Andrew Carroll, Matt Gallagher, Brian McDonald…  and so many more. Let’s make this happen.

Maybe after we’ve laid the foundation for understanding, once we’ve shared in an open dialogue on one level, we can set the stage for a greater discussion—the most important one of all: A dialogue between our Veterans and citizens on the true costs and the repurcussions of war.  Maybe then we can end the silence.

Please send any thoughts on a way to help get this effort get off the ground to me at — As well as any War Lit Books to update The Living List.

Until Next Time,

J. A. Moad II

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Inside Combat Rescue

Greetings All,

I’ve been busy working on other projects over the last few months, and have asked a few former colleagues to help out with the blog.  Here’s a great piece by Brandon Lingle.

“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”                                                                             – Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Cast and crew from National Geographic’s documentary series, Inside Combat Rescue, led a screening and panel discussion at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. on Feb. 1 for more than 700 cadets and faculty.

The panel included Jared McGilliard, Inside Combat Rescue series producer and three Airmen who appear in the series: Staff Sgt. Brett Taylor, Pararescueman; Capt. Seth Davis, Combat Rescue Officer; and Maj. Devin Ryan, HH-60G helicopter pilot.
The sneak peak and dialogue offered a unique way to share the stark realities of Afghanistan to Air Force Academy cadets—future officers—who want and need to hear about war. The engagement came the day after rescuers found Maj. Lucas Gruenther’s body in the Adriatic Sea following a several day search. Gruenther, an ’03 Academy graduate, perished when his F-16 went down on a training sortie. The panelists were largely unaware, but some cadets spoke quietly about the lost pilot, and mulled his story’s warnings, as they filed into the auditorium.

While the Academy is much like any college around the country, reminders of war echo throughout the grounds. The campus teems with statues, quotes, and images that honor bravery and sacrifice. But tidy memorials and historical vignettes do little to put a human face on war, and these abstractions can drown out the grim realities. Inside Combat Rescue strips away the politics, rhetoric, and posturing to provide a personal view of the conflict. The show’s unflinching look at war imparted an important first-person perspective for these young Airmen… some of whom will deploy to Afghanistan before the year’s end.

In an auditorium two-hundred yards from the Academy’s dark granite War Memorial listing graduates killed in combat, the standing-room only crowd asked varied questions ranging from embed logistics and filming techniques to details of pararescue training and deployed life. But, the panelists especially grappled with one cadet’s question: “Does this series romanticize war?”

On a certain level, any depiction of war romanticizes this sad phenomenon of our species. McGilliard acknowledged that he battled this reality throughout filming and post-production. He came to the conclusion that one way to guard against war’s glorification is to honestly portray the real costs.

“This series brings to light not only the true, unblinking, and brutal consequences of war, but the humanity of it as well. It’s a perspective that should be shown, discussed, and honored,” he said. “We stayed very true to the story of the rescuer’s mission and the realities of this war. If anyone should be honored, the Airmen in this show should be. No group of people, and no other mission, is more deserving of the spotlight.”

Major Ryan said, “I have no problem that combat rescue and personnel recovery gets romanticized. We’re not killing, we’re saving lives.”

“Our biggest goal was to make something that the people involved could look back on and be proud of,” said McGilliard. “I hope it creates conversations about this war. The media has shied away from telling the story of this war. The outcome of this is that the sacrifices many of our servicemen and women have made there, whether in death or in brutal injuries like amputations, have been too easily forgotten. I hope this show not only sheds light and introduces the public to the rescuers, but also the stories of the heroes who have paid a larger price in this war. History is told in stories. I fear that without these stories, this war and the people who have been affected the most may be forgotten. Hopefully this series can play a role in never forgetting.”

While the Academy audience has some understanding of the costs of war, an overwhelming majority of Americans likely do not. Inside Combat Rescue may help narrow the gap in understanding between the 99 percent of Americans who have no connections with the military during these wars and the 1 percent who do, and the even smaller percentage who have been involved in combat.

Author Donald Anderson writes in When War Becomes Personal, “If it seems to fall to the historian to make distinctions among wars, each war’s larger means and ends, the trajectory for the artist, regardless of culture or time, seems to fall towards an individual’s disillusionment, the means and ends of war played out in the personal. For the individual soldier, the sweeping facts of history are accurately written not in the omniscient, third-person plural, but in the singular first.”

With Inside Combat Rescue, we’re lucky to see some first-person perspectives of America’s longest war.

Brandon Lingle served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a public affairs officer. His nonfiction was noted in “The Best American Essays 2010,” and he is an editor of War, Literature & the Arts, published by the United States Air Force Academy. He is an active-duty Air Force major stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense or United States government.

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Last month I was reading Tim O’Brien’s novel, In The Lake of the Woods, when I was asked to be on a panel as part of IMPACT 2012—a summer festival of performance art in New York City.  Dedicated to the critical issues of our time, a full week was devoted to shedding light on the challenges facing Veterans and women in America’s political climate.  I was hoping to attend, but my flight schedule conflicted with the dates.  The event was enticing, though, especially considering that O’Brien’s book is about a soldier-turned politician, whose career crashes once his involvement in the Mai Lai Massacre is uncovered.  Halfway into the novel, I began to feel a sense of responsibility to be in NY for the panel, so I shuffled my schedule and was able to make it.  Along with other Veteran writers and poets, I was asked to read some of my work before a revival of Goliath, a play written by Takeo Rivera and inspired by an atrocity committed by American troops in Iraq.  Following the performance, the other Vets and I took the stage for a question and answer session.  I didn’t know what to expect from a New York audience.

Everette Cox

I listened in awe as Everett Cox, a Vietnam Vet, read his work on stage.  He shared an open letter to the current generation of Vets from Afghanistan and Iraq.  Directed toward those who are considering taking their own lives, it was also a reminder that over the last few years the number of Veteran suicides has regularly exceeded the monthly combat fatalities.  The letter was a plea for those suffering warriors to pause and question the impulse to take their own lives.  He was asking them to reach out for help in every possible way—to avoid isolation and to take part in the life around them… to grow a garden, to spend time in the presence of children, immerse themselves in nature, help at a food pantry… anything to allow them to reconnect and let the healing process begin.  It was a beautiful moment.

As Everett knows all too well, those dark impulses are born of the internal suffering and conflicts wrought by their experiences on the battlefield.  The choices they make—those that challenge their own moral foundation—often haunt them for the rest of their lives.  As the soldiers in O’Brien’s novels and stories make quite clear, when confronted with the savage realities of war—realities often shielded and sanitized for civilian consumption—a soldier relies on discipline, training and their own moral foundation to guide them.  But discipline has a way of crumbling all around them in the face of extreme war zone pressures, leaving them to rely on what they’ve learned growing up in our culture.  As Goliath would remind all of us in attendance, the life experiences of a young man in America, coupled with training meant to dehumanize the enemy, often works to erode a soldier’s moral foundation long before they go off to combat.

As a Veteran, I tend to question the ability of any writer—especially one who hasn’t served in the military—to capture the emotional truths and essence of any war story.  But Takeo Rivera’s writing excels at showing us a tragedy in the making—a young man growing up and being molded into a soldier—the embodiment of a nation struggling with identity, masculinity and morality in the context of war. Takeo’s work, like all good art, is much more than a war story, though.  It’s an American story wrought with the conflicts inherent in our nation.  The protagonist becomes the artifice through which we gain insight into the making of a soldier in America.  As young men struggling to appear strong and superior, many mask their own doubts and insecurities through racial and ethnic slurs or by demeaning women.  In Goliath, we see an American and military culture where empathy and self-doubt are often viewed with suspicion or as a sign of weakness.

I’d seen a performance of the play a few months before, but like all theater productions, the work is always being tweaked and re-imagined after each performance.  Theater, unlike many other art forms, is a living work–one that lends itself to clearer expression the more it’s performed.  I was impressed when I learned that the cast had reached out to the Veteran community in New York to help them understand the difficulties that soldiers face on and off the battlefield.  The work paid off.  Alex Mallory, the director, made a few changes since I’d last seen the show, and the new performance was seamless.  We were all drawn in by the magic of theater, aware that we were somehow a part and privy to something real and honest taking place before us.  Afterwards, the emotional energy from the performance continued to resonate through the audience as the other Vets and I walked onstage for the Q & A.

Unlike the Vietnam Era, where members of the armed forces were often looked upon with contempt, today it seems as if most civilians don’t know what to think about us.  We are a curiosity in some ways, seen from a distance or on TV.  Boxed up in their mind, they carry an uncertain image of who we are and what we’re all about.  For the most part, their questions reflected this distance, as if the audience was uncertain of broaching uncomfortable or controversial topics.  With two women on the panel, I thought for sure they’d get asked about the difficulties of being a female in a combat zone, but they didn’t.  Overall, the questions made me more aware of that great disconnect between the civilian and military cultures in America.  Maybe they didn’t know exactly what to ask, or considering the delicate nature of the atrocities in Goliath, they were hesitant to examine the motives of those who commit war crimes.

Panelists (L to R):  Alex Mallory (moderator) James  (Jay) Moad II, Jennifer Pacanowski, Paul Wasserman, BR McDonald & Nicole Goodwin

By the end, though, a few important questions emerged.  A young woman asked about the difficulties of talking to Veterans, wanting to know how to get them to open up.  Our answers were all similar:  to provide a safe environment for the Vets to talk, and then to wait, and if they open up, to simply listen with patience… listen without questions or any expectations… to understand their need to be around other Vets, to listen in silence and without a hint of judgment… to have them write about the experience or express it with art… and then if you’re lucky, they might share bits and pieces of their experiences that touch on the hurt, the contempt, the anger and frustration–feelings that ultimately need a form of expression.  Of course, it might take years, or a lifetime, and it might never happen.

As the session came to a close, we took one final question from the daughter of a Navy Captain.  Coming from someone immersed in a military culture for her formative years, the question had a certain weight to it.  I’m paraphrasing, but this was the gist of it:  “Didn’t you know what to expect when you joined the military?”  I waited, deciding not to be the first to answer, giving those who’d been on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan the first opportunity to speak.  I could sense a kind of pent up desire by everyone to answer the question–each of us, in our own way, needing to say,  

No, of course not.  How could a young kid imagine what combat is like or how they would react to the horrible things they’d seen and done?  How could anyone understand the pure hatred and contempt they felt in the eyes of the people they were supposed to be liberating…how could they?

I spoke of my own naïve sense of moral certainty as a boy steeped in adventure novels and movies of my childhood—the belief in doing the right thing and a longing for exciting experiences that often guides our impulses to join the Armed Forces.  Like many kids, I once believed in the notion of might for right, wanting to be a modern day knight of the Round Table, a heroic pilot like Han Solo and the guys in Top Gun all wrapped up into one.  And, at a more fundamental level, like so many boys, I wanted my own father to be proud of me.  That was the moral foundation on which I’d built my own wide-eyed vision of the future—a fifteen year-old boy sending off for an application to the Air Force Academy without a clue of what that future would entail.  No… despite the fact that my father was a Vietnam Vet who saw combat on the ground, I didn’t know what to expect.  But maybe we should know.  Maybe, we all need to know.

Back home, a few weeks later, I picked up In the Lake of the Woods, and I couldn’t put it down.  The story echoed the difficult truths expressed in Goliath.  I realized how each story’s protagonist was the by-product of a previous war—boys that didn’t live up to the expectation of their Veteran fathers.  Fat and nerdy or sensitive and romantic, they bore the burden of proving themselves in their own generation’s wars.  To cleanse themselves of those weaknesses, young men like them become vulnerable in a combat zone as they wrestle with their own demons.  In a place where death and killing become an every day reality, it’s easy to understand how soldiers can be broken and swayed to take part or be complicit in atrocities—those young boys and men trying to prove themselves in a culture that demands loyalty and strength above all else.

While teaching a book on involving war crimes to cadets, there was always a solemn distance from which they were able to observe the atrocities.  Early on in the readings, they tended to frame the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, the mutilation and desecration of corpses, the torture and the rapes as the acts of crazy soldiers, a few bad apples or due to poor leadership.  But, of course, as Goliath, In The Lake of the Woods and much of the literature of war reminds us, that’s not the case.  Slowly, and often reluctantly, the cadets began to see beyond those first assumptions.  Eventually, the discussion would come around to the tipping point for soldiers, into what psychologists refer to as the berserk state—the point where a soldier goes over the edge, disengaging from their own moral foundation completely.  I would always pose a question to those cadets.  Sheltered inside their world of certainty and comfort, I would ask them, can you envision yourself in that state?  When you look in the eyes of the mirror… can you imagine going there?

Ever since that night in New York, I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions—ones that we, as a society engaging in wars more often than we may want to admit, need to ask.  Should those citizens who sign up to fight, know as much as possible about what to expect before they go off to war?  If so, then maybe we should ask those teen-aged kids and young adults who volunteer and fight on our behalf, if they know what lies ahead.  Before they’re tasked with the burden and responsibility of fighting, maybe it’s only fair we ask them a few questions like these to see if they know what to expect:

-Are you aware that if you take part in combat, it’s highly probable that you will suffer a form of mental trauma that will linger with you for the rest of your life?

- Do you know what friendly fire is?

- Do you realize that you’ll be trained to dehumanize the enemy, which may make it easier for you to kill on the battlefield?  But unless you’re a sociopath, it will not help you bridge the internal struggle that will haunt you for the rest of you life.

- If you are injured severely and survive, you may never be able to work again, possibly lose all your limbs and be in the care of someone else for the rest of your life, okay?

- Do you understand that since resources are limited, the VA will get to you when it can, maybe in a few months, and maybe when it’s too late to help you?  Hundreds of thousands are already in line ahead of you, and they’ve been waiting months and years for results.

- Do you know what Traumatic Brain Injury is?

- Have you ever seen a corpse toasted beyond recognition or been to a burn clinic?

- Can you imagine that you and those who serve alongside you will likely compromise their integrity at some point and possibly more than once?

- Do you realize you’ll be more likely to be homeless and have difficulty finding good employment than your peers?

- Are you aware, that your experiences will fundamentally change you forever, and that integrating back into society may or may not be possible?

- Do you currently sleep with a knife or gun under your pillow or on your nightstand?

- Can you accept that you’ll be held accountable for everything you do, and that the enemy and people you’re supposed to be helping may not hold themselves to any standard of decency, and, oh… you may not know who exactly the enemy is, okay?

- Do you realize, that when you come home, you’ll never feel quite safe again?

- If you’re a woman, the odds are that you’ll endure some form of sexual trauma during your time in the military. And it happens to men, too, so you’ll need to watch your back.

- Are you prepared to carry with you forever, the images of dead women and children, the pieces and parts of friends, or the disemboweled body of someone you tried to save?

- Are you aware that you’ll be expected to do things you weren’t trained for, with limited resources to accomplish the goal, and no matter how hard you work, the odds are that you’re effort will be in vain and some of your closest friends will die?

- Do you understand that the anger you’ll experience at yourself, your nation, your spouse and the people you once held dear, may become quite common?

- Can you imagine that the relationships you have after coming home will pale in comparison to the ones you make on the battlefield?

- Are you aware that the composite experiences you take part in may play like a quiet movie in the back your mind over and over again for the rest of your life?

- Do you realize that these are just a small sampling of questions to help you understand what’s ahead?

Yes, just a few questions, so they’ll know what to expect, to be privy to what the art, literature, and psychology of warfare has taught us over the years.  I don’t know if the questions would even matter, but I feel compelled to ensure that the next generation of young boys and girls knows what to expect of the next war (and all the new wars ahead—wars waiting out there for us like great beasts we’ll be forced to slay).  And what about a society and nation that’s become increasingly distanced from those who fight on their behalf?  Are we all ready to accept the responsibility of knowing what’s ahead, to care for a generation of broken men and women, and provide the resources to help them cope with challenges ahead?  Are we prepared to help them with all the battles that await them?  Are we?

It seems like a question worth asking…

Until Next Time,

J. A. Moad II

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Thank You

It’s taken me too long to write about the Arts & Military Healing Conference in D.C.  I’ve been home for a week, and now it’s Memorial Day weekend, and I’m on the road—working—flying people across the country instead of sitting beside a lake or barbequing.   It’s a good excuse for being late with this piece, but the truth is, I’ve got a five-hour free block this morning here in Philadelphia—time to work.  I’m in coffee shop, uncertain about how to begin, and after nearly an hour of half-hearted and uninspired attempts, I noticed a young woman reading Catch 22—a book more relevant now, than ever.  The sight of that book in her hands is enough to inspire me to find a path of expression.  After all, there’s always a path to that unknown place—the one we can’t see or imagine until we try.

It’s seldom that words fail me, but I’ve been finding it difficult to describe what it was like to have a buried emotion find expression for the first time – the peeling back of layers into that raw place hidden somewhere inside the shell of an ego or behind the walls we’ve constructed all around us.  So, with this in mind, I will attempt to paint/to describe/to inspire in you a modest reflection on what the Art and Healing Conference in Washington D.C. was all about for me.  The event was all encompassing, an attempt to use art in a variety forms—visual, written, dance and theatrical—to convey that which defies expression for individual service members.  Since I took part in only one of the workshops, I can’t begin to describe the experience for the others.  Instead, here’s a link to a gallery of photos that tell just a part of the story.

When I signed up for the conference, I planned to work with the Warrior Writers and to spend some time at the other workshops.  In short, I wanted to write about a variety of events with a degree of distance, observing the Veterans as they moved through the week.  That seemed a lot easier than actually doing the workshops—and a lot less pressure, too.  But after a series of e-mails and discussions with the writer of the theatrical production, I was finally convinced to take on another role—the role of performer.  Six of us, I learned, would be asked to tell our stories onstage in a short theatrical interpretation…okay, easy, right?  I’m in.

Practicing in the Library of Congress

From my narrow lens, I can only look back, seeing myself on a Monday morning, guided into a vast room within the Library of Congress—cavernous in demeanor and feel.  The space seemed to burn with nervous energy from five other Vets and I, who, in that moment, were mere shadows of what we would become by week’s end.  We moved from room to room across the week—each new space seemingly grander than the next until we finally found ourselves on the stage at the Coolidge Theater and performed for the first time on Friday night.  The experience defies a simple description, but I think I speak for all six of us when I say, that in the doing, in the letting go, and in the listening to those who coached us, we heard ourselves for the first time.

We were given scripts at the end of that first day—our own words transcribed from hours of interviews into a story that we would perform four days later.  I played along, despite the fact that it didn’t seem real to me, and emotionally, I pushed back.  None of us had any real acting experience, after all, and I had this image of us all stumbling around onstage like six graders in a bad school play.  At one point, I remember thinking, nobody’s probably going to show up anyway, so how bad can it be—I mean… I won’t be that embarrassed. It got worse when we were asked to take part in a series of exercises and impromptu skits to help us bond and gain trust.  I worked through it, though, using my inner ham to keep me engaged.  When a camera crew showed up to film and document the event, though, everything began to feel real.

The art of piecing together our stories into a complete narrative was the work of Jonathan Wei, the creator of “The Telling project.”  Along with his colleague and director, Max Rayneard, the two men have produced several performances across the country.  Their goal is, in part, an attempt to capture the disparate stories and voices of Veterans across America and help bridge that all-too-widening divide between civilian and military cultures.  After over a decade of war without a military draft and a small sector of the population serving in the Armed Forces, the need to foster more understanding between the two is greater than ever.

Rehearsal – Day 4

While other “Telling” productions have taken place across the country—usually after months of preparation—we were being asked to perform our production after only five days.  Envisioned as a short 30-40 min performance, this project was an experiment–one that would end up being nearly an hour long.  As part of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, we were all committed to telling our stories, but we didn’t know how or why they mattered.  To be honest, I was beyond skeptical after the first day and doubted our ability to give a performance with any artistic integrity.  By the end of day two, I thought, well maybe we could perform at an 8th grade level.  But with the help of several gifted volunteers who guided us through the week, we began to understand why our stories needed to be shared.   They helped us as we molded and shaped our monologues, rewrote our dialogue and began to discover the power and magic in coming to terms with the emotions behind the words.  As the stories came alive in us, the performance began to take shape and evolve—and so did we.

The truth is, I didn’t expect to find much emotion in my story.  Unlike the other performers, I haven’t experienced combat on the ground.  I didn’t see the wounded and dead on the battlefield, have to cope with rape or an attack that left me debilitated and scarred.  For me, I discovered that my own frustrations and hurt were tied to the failures of our nation’s leaders to adhere to the moral code they wrap in a flag and then use to call a nation to war.  Of course, war is not moral, and maybe that’s the tragedy of it all for those who have to fight.  Many of us are lured to the military by patriotism and that desire to do something greater than what we can achieve on our own—might for right.  It’s when that commitment falters, fails or is simply abandoned in the face of a Machiavellian—ends justify the means—approach, that we feel betrayed.  And then the question lingers—what was it all for?

While teaching at the Air Force Academy, I received a phone call from a concerned parent of a senior cadet.  Their daughter was having nightmares after reading one of the books in my War Literature course.  The book was Tiger Force, about a series of war crimes committed by American soldiers in Vietnam.  I stifled my initial desire to laugh and remind them that she was attending a Military Academy, after all.  What the hell should she expect, this isn’t a game we’re playing… but I didn’t.  Those parents, like many of us, long for moral certainty in the face of war, but that desire ultimately eludes us and leads our Veterans into a place that they didn’t expect—a place that defies simple explanations and sets about a complex journey through an emotional and physical minefield.  It’s the one lesson that every leader and American citizen needs to understand and accept when they send their young men and women off to war.

At this point, I have a desire to touch on the anger of Odysseus upon his return home in The Odyssey, or to reflect on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave about how focusing on moral certainty can keep us from seeing reality, but I’ve written to much as it is.  I won’t bore you.  In the end, I’m reminded that today is Memorial Day, a time to pause and reflect on those who have perished in war—the men and women buried across the globe to help ensure our nation does not perish from the Earth.  I’d like to leave it there, to let that be the end, but I can’t.  You see, to be honest—to help bridge that disconnect between Veteran and civilian, I am compelled to say more.  The truth is, everyone who engages in combat or who maneuvers on the edges of combat, supporting and helping our troops to survive is vulnerable and often broken by their experiences.  Many of those who survive and return home still experience a kind of death—the death of the person they once were—that innocent boy or girl unencumbered by the tragedy and the lie of war—they are gone forever.

Despite what many Americans believe, most Veterans don’t want to be thanked for their service.  They want their nation to understand how they have been forever altered by their experiences and that a, We Support Our Troops, bumper sticker is often an empty gesture.  More than anything, though, in a nation where fewer and fewer serve in the military, none of us want to be put in boxes and labeled as heroes, murderers, or victims… We know that people aren’t interested in hearing many of the stories–often brutal and violent in nature–that Vets have experienced, and yet they must at least try to listen and hear.  Without it, the cycle continues—a Catch 22 in which true understanding eludes our nations citizens.  Ultimately, Vets want to be accepted and understood, have a Veterans Administration with the resources to help them heal and recover, and for politicians and citizens to realize that many have become a prisoner to the hurt, anger, uncertainty and guilt we carry with us.  For that to happen, for this understanding and acceptance to begin in earnest, most Veterans would give the utmost thanks.

Dress Rehearsal at the Coolidge Theater

Lastly, I’d like to recognize the people I worked with at the conference.  It took a lot of guts for those Vets to stand up and tell their stories in front of a few hundred people.  It’s a testament to the amazing group of volunteers who helped us all reach deep and find the inner strength to talk about PTSD, the death of friends, of rape, and the guilt that lingers still.  None of us could have imagined the impact on either the audience or the performers—a standing ovation and tears of joy.  But this is one production—one piece of a much greater narrative that needs to be shared.  We are fortunate that the Library of Congress has reached out to help capture these voices for posterity, and I hope it continues to gain momentum.  The week exceeded my wildest imagination, and I was both honored and inspired by those who gave their time and hearts to us.  To Jonathan and Max, to the other Vets and to Sara, Rochelle, Stacey and Leslie, thanks for sharing, for guiding, for listening, and for understanding.

Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Update:  Here is a link to a video of the performance which has been made available online.

Until Next Time,

J. A. Moad II

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Art & Healing Conference in D.C.

Greetings All,

Next week I’ll be in Washington D.C. for a special week-long event on the role that Art and Literature can play in the healing process for Veterans.  It’s a collaborative effort with the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress to collect stories and hear the voices and artistic expressions of our veterans as they struggle to piece together their lives and cope with the trauma of war.  In addition to a variety of workshops, several events are open to the public.

Workshops will be taking place at various sites across the city.  Some of the Veteran’s work will be presented at the closing program on Friday night, including a theatrical production  at the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium (free tickets available here).  The workshops are in conjunction with the 2012 GI Film Festival which will be showing over forty military films across the city.  As part of the Art & Healing project, a special free screening of the new film, Where Soldiers Come From, will take place at the Corcoran Art Gallery, along with a Q & A session with the filmmakers.  Tickets are free for this event at their web site.

As part of the Library of Congress-Veteran’s History Project, I’ll be working with director Jonathan Wei and other Veterans for the “In the Telling” project.  If you’re in the Washington area or know someone who is, I encourage you to stop by and take part in some of the events or take in a film or two.

I’ll give you a full report after I get back.

Until next time,

J. A. Moad II

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Surviving Victory

Despite being a perfect tool for learning to fly a new aircraft, I’ve always found the training in a full motion simulator to be frustrating.  Unlike a video game, the visual and sensory cues create a realistic experience and generate a significant level of stress.  There’s so much to learn, but in a training environment you never have enough time to get comfortable in the simulator.  Just when you complete one emergency procedure and make it safely on the ground, the instructor puts you into another scenario—an engine fire, landing gear failure or pressurization problem—something new to test your knowledge and skills.  It’s a humbling experience, and no matter how well you perform, what you come to understand is that there’s always something else that can go wrong.  You have to be ready, rely on what you’ve learned from years of flying different aircraft and hope you’ve trained well enough to survive whatever comes at you.

Airbus 320 Simulator Flight Deck

There’s an old saying among pilots that any landing you walk away from is a successful one.  It’s from the early days of aviation when a crash-landing was more common—before the technology and advanced training taught us a new way to define success.  This past week I finished training on the Airbus 320, the same aircraft that “Sully” Sullenburger maneuvered on two failed engines over the George Washington Bridge and landed safely in the Hudson River.  As pilots, we’ve all been trained to anticipate that scenario, and at some level I think we all wonder if we would succeed as he did.

After being away from the cockpit for several years, the training program was more challenging than I thought it would be, giving me a new appreciation for what Sully and his first officer were able to accomplish.  The other day as we practiced an emergency evacuation procedure, I noticed on the checklist that part of the captain’s responsibility is to walk through the cabin and ensure that everyone was able to evacuate the aircraft.  I thought of Sully, imagining him walking down the aisle as his plane floated in the Hudson, checking to ensure that everyone was safe before exciting onto the wing.  It must have been a great feeling for him to know that everyone made it out unscathed.  If several of his passengers had died in the landing, I don’t think he would have considered it a successful one.

A few weeks back, I was flying the night simulators, arriving at my hotel well past midnight.  The late schedule meant mornings free instead of nights, coffee and 10 A.M. walks in downtown St. Paul to help clear the mistakes from my mind and focus on the new lesson ahead.  On one walk I came across a statue of Herb Brooks, the coach of the Miracle on Ice Hockey Team that beat the Soviets back in 1980.  Even before I read his name on the plaque, I knew who he was.  His face and outstretched arms took me back to that moment in junior high as I watched a group of college students defeat the highly favored Soviets and then win the gold medal against Finland.  I remember being glued to the T.V. as they outplayed the veteran Soviet team in a game they weren’t supposed to win.

Herb Brooks

Seeing the statue made me pause and reflect on all the emotions that are tied to a single victory so many years ago.  For me, it’s the sheer joy of winning, of course, along with a youthful patriotism and the quintessential American notion that we can all overcome our obstacles and win despite the odds against us.  But that’s my perspective—the still-lingering, American perspective—the team that actually won the game.  But what about the team that lost?  I began thinking about the psychological blow that I imagine, in retrospect, must have befallen the Soviets after losing to an inferior team—one motivated on their home soil in Lake Placid to win against all the odds.  No one could have predicted it, and as I stood there, I wondered if that game was a precursor for what lay ahead for Moscow.  Just two months prior, in December of 1979, the Russian Army had invaded Afghanistan, setting the stage for an arduous struggle against a combination of forces that Soviet strategists never envisioned.

While I’ve always considered their decade-long War in Afghanistan to be a humiliating and defining failure—one that precipitated the abrupt fall of the Soviet Union—I began to question the narrative I’d come to accept.  It’s easy to make a connection between the two; after all, the Berlin Wall came crashing down later that year (1989), and with it, the Iron Curtain began to rust and crumble all around them.  After revisiting historical accounts and essays about the Soviet occupation, though, I realized that characterizing Moscow’s decision to withdraw their soldiers as a defeat is problematic.  As Lester Grau points out in his article, Breaking Contact without Leaving Chaos,

“When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, they did so in a coordinated, deliberate, professional manner, leaving behind a functioning government, an improved military and an advisory and economic effort insuring the continued viability of the government. The withdrawal was based on a coordinated diplomatic, economic and military plan permitting Soviet forces to withdraw in good order and the Afghan government to survive.”

General Gromov & Son Walking Across Bridge

While a few soldiers perished during the final withdrawal, there were no frantic helicopter departures from the embassy roof in Kabul, no enemy soldiers advancing on the cities or masses of terrified refugees fleeing their nation alongside the Soviets.  On the contrary, in a symbolic gesture, The Russian Commander, General Boris Gromov, walked across the “Friendship” bridge with his son and a bouquet of flowers in hand—the last soldier to cross over the Amu Darya River during the exodus.

Like anything viewed through a narrow historical lens, the Cold War seems like such a simpler time—a time when we knew who the enemy was, a world where good and evil were framed in stark contrast to one another, and when a nation and military understood why their soldier’s lives might be sacrificed.  The fear of nuclear war and the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) had embedded itself deep within the American subconscious for decades, resonating across a nation, reminding us of a need to be strong, to be vigilant and ensure that war should be limited and engaged in only as a last recourse.  The most glaring exception to that philosophy, of course, was Vietnam.  Despite the politicians declaring success in Southeast Asia and proclaiming victory in a war of attrition, my father said that he never felt as if victory on the ground was possible.  He told me that it became clear that they were losing the war after his unit had retaken the same hill several times—at one point, finding his own trash next to a stump he’d sat upon during a previous operation.  But the lessons of those years have clearly faded into the background.  The specter of Vietnam, closeted for years by a brief Gulf War and a ticker-tape parade, lay in wait, though, as we all became enamored with shock and awe.

Along with most of America, I watched a sanitized version of the 2003 invasion of Iraq unfold on TV.  Fueled by a deep-seated need for retribution in the aftermath of 9/11 and spurred on by uncertainty and fear, we reveled in the destruction of a corrupt regime.  It felt good to win against a tyrant and remind the world that we would prevail in this new War on Terror.  I listened to the military spokesmen and reports from embedded journalists—the play by play of this new war felt like a game—a struggle between two teams in which the world was asked to choose a side.  I wrapped my own enthusiasm in the American flag, forgetting, despite everything I knew, what was actually happening on the ground—the death, destruction and suffering veiled behind phrases such as collateral damage, isolated insurgency, and friendly fire.  I boxed myself off from what I knew:  that all wars begin with the illusion of being short and decisive, but few of them actually are.  I forgot what the stories of past conflicts warned me to expect—that thousands of young men and women would be returning home in silver boxes draped by that same flag, and that the rest would return as well, but a part of them would be buried forever amid the rubble of Fallujah, or in the sewage trenches of Kamaliyah, on the banks of the Tigris River, or in the eyes of the dead women and children of Haditha.

“Mission Accomplished”

It was supposed to be a short war, with only the necessary military forces to strike a knockout blow, depose Saddam Hussein and set up a new regime—one that would be on our team in the struggles ahead.  A war, suggested by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, which might be paid for with Iraqi oil proceeds.  Yes, a quick and decisive victory with Iraqi soldiers laying down their arms, the citizens welcoming us as liberators and embracing the invaders on their home soil.  Thirteen months later, when President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier declaring, “Mission Accomplished” and an end to major combat operations—it was a victory, right?  Sovereignty was supposed to be handed over to the Iraqis a month later, a clear sign of success, but the reality couldn’t have been different.  The real struggle was just beginning.  Members of the disbanded Iraqi Army were choosing sides—Sunni and Shia—and our soldiers were caught in the middle of a conflict without a plan for success.   While many have said that the scenario in a post-invasion Iraq couldn’t have been envisioned, the truth couldn’t have been more different.  Not only did senior Generals understand the complications of this war, so too, did Vice President Cheney, who, in an interview regarding the first Gulf War, said that ousting Saddam Hussein would result in a “quagmire” and the death of many American soldiers.  He couldn’t have been more correct.

The solution to the quagmire, of course, was the famous Surge, coupled with General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy.   While its effectiveness will be debated for years to come, the repercussions on the soldiers who took part in the operations are not in doubt.  An overstretched military was pushed to the breaking point, extending combat tours and adding new deployments to a weary and limited number of ground troops.  In his brilliant book, The Good Soldiers, Pulitzer Prize winner, David Finkel, tells the story of the 2-16th Rangers, a unit deployed on the outskirts of Baghdad during the Surge.  Their commander, Lt Col Ralph Kauzlarich, who would later be referred to by his men as, Lost Kauz, was famous for saying, “It’s all Good.”  By the end of the unit’s tour, after fourteen of his soldiers had perished and another seventy-six had earned purple hearts—men burned beyond recognition, scarred from shrapnel or with amputations—Kauzlarich and his catch phrase had become the embodiment of self-delusion.  As the 2-16th packed up in April of 2008 for the long flight home, their base was under attack and the battalion replacing them suffered their first casualty.  Little had changed since the 2-16th arrived fifteen months before at the start of the Surge, and yet, unlike his disillusioned soldiers, Kauzlarich held onto the notion that “they had won.”

The Good Soldiers

I’ve written before about the number of Americans killed in the war, as well as the untold number of Iraqi civilians who perished along the way, but recently I read a startling article that put so much of this nine-year war in perspective.  It’s a story about the 900,000 Iraqi widows currently in the country—nearly 100,000 new ones from this past decade of war… widows, often with several children, who’ve lost everything.  The photographs in the article are a reminder of the lingering repercussions of long, drawn-out wars, and how they shape the future.  After years of studying conflicts and their effect on the individual and societies, I can’t escape the images that slowly build in my imagination—the people and their stories that emerge like some great storm cloud rising atop a Midwestern plain.  I feel their presence, and when I imagine the years ahead, I see in their sad, defiant eyes the very foundation of tomorrow’s conflicts.

A generation of Iraqi children will always associate the death of their fathers and brothers with this war—the visible scars etched all around them in the rubble and pockmarked streets across their nation.  Yes, The American War—a conflict that has reshaped millions of lives and fundamentally altered the future of so many people.  So, who will lead these children as they grow into young men and women?  While no one can know for certain, the past can always serve as a guide.  In his book, Ghost Wars, about the CIA’s support of the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation, Steve Coll recounts the nearly tenfold rise in the number of Madrassas (fundamentalist Islamic schools) on the border of Pakistan during the war.  By the end of the Soviet withdrawal, the number of Madrassas had grown to over 8000—schools to indoctrinate a generation of children, ensuring a willing pool of recruits to battle the communist regime in Kabul.

When the Soviet Union broke apart in late 1991, military and financial support for Afghanistan came to an abrupt end.  Ironically, the puppet government in Kabul would survive into the spring of 1992, outlasting the great and powerful, Soviet Union.  By April, though, Mujahideen forces ousted the Afghan government, igniting a horrible civil war that would pave the way for the Taliban and create a fertile ground for Al Qaeda.  No one could have predicted the rise of this new force in the country—the Taliban, a word, which in Pashtu means, students.  Yes, students from those Madrassas—boys who’d grown to fill the ranks of this new and barbaric regime—boys taught to adhere to the strictest and most ruthless version of Sharia Law—boys seduced by the allure of charismatic leaders like Mullah Muhammad Omar and Osama Bin Laden—boys who became the warriors/terrorists/freedom-fighters we are fighting today.

As our soldiers packed up and prepared to leave Iraq this past December, the citizens of a bombed-out Fallujah were dancing in the streets, arms raised in celebration, certain they’d won after ousting the invaders.  But this was our victory, right?  A success story in the end for America, wasn’t it?  We can call it whatever we choose, of course:  a victory, a defeat, a stalemate, a peaceful handover-of-power… the necessary label to frame the story for our own consumption.  But labels don’t mean much to the soldiers or civilians caught in the middle—the fathers, mothers and children, or the brothers, sisters, friends and lovers ever touched by this war.  They don’t need a label to know something that others can’t—a deep and abiding truth they’ll be living with for the rest of their lives—that the scars of war endure for a lifetime.  Veterans will be haunted by the memories and images lodged within their subconscious as they cope with an altered vision of the world.  Parents, spouses and children will struggle to understand and accept the person who has returned from war.  Many of these combat veterans will lose themselves along the way, unable to escape their traumatic experiences, and some will choose a path with no future at all.   According to the Veterans Administration, the V.A. Suicide Hotline receives 10,000 calls a month, with 950 Veterans attempting suicide—eighteen, of whom, succeed in killing themselves and putting their ghosts to rest.

VA Statue

This past fall, I had my post-military, physical exam at the V.A. Hospital in Minneapolis.  Located next to the National Guard base and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, the main entrance is graced by a statue of a soldier helping a wounded colleague into the arms of a caregiver.  Overhead, the sound of airplanes landing and taking off welcomed me as I walked into the building.  Inside, surrounded by Veterans (mostly men), old and young alike, some in wheelchairs or with prosthetic arms, and many of the younger ones with a distant, hollow look in their eyes, I could feel the impetus of this essay building within me.  The physical lasted most of the day, with a variety of tests, x-rays, and blood work scheduled throughout the hospital.  Waiting there, I began to wonder about what these men were like as young boys, and how many of them, like me, had been looking for an adventure when they joined the military—a chance to be a part of something significant, serve their nation and see the world.  And how many, I wondered, had suffered as my father had, and how many were still struggling with their own demons as they tried to move forward and build a life in the aftermath of their war experiences.

VA Entrance

Outside, as I drove out of the parking lot, I noticed a sign pointing to a separate building next to the hospital.  Above the covered entryway were the words, “Spinal Cord Injury And Disorder Center.”  It was an entire wing dedicated to those injuries… a reflection of this war, I thought.   The words and the building had a chilling effect on me in a way that the main hospital didn’t.  I hadn’t been behind those doors, but I could imagine what I might see there.

Maybe it was the hospital, the sound of airplanes passing overhead, or that I was surrounded by the embodiment of war’s effect on the individual, but it made me think of writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince.  He once said, “War is not an adventure.  It is a disease.  It is like typhus.”  In that moment, Saint-Exupery’s words seemed to resonate more clearly than ever.  He understood more than most, the truth of war, having experienced it up close as the Nazis invaded France in WW II.  He devoted the last few years his life trying to stem the German onslaught by flying reconnaissance missions during the war, but he never saw the victory he longed for.  He was shot down over the Mediterranean, perishing as his plane crashed into the sea.

As I finished up my last week of simulators, and readied myself for my first flight in the aircraft, I decided to revisit the statue of Herb Brooks, this time with my camera in hand.  Since my first trip, I’d watched a few videos of the victory over the Soviets, as well as the gold medal match against Finland.  The truth is, I still get goose bumps when I watch the final moments of those games, listening to the crowd countdown to victory and then erupt in utter joy.  I felt my own boyish enthusiasm once again when Jim Craig, the U.S. goalie, draped in the American Flag, took a victory lap and then looked up into the crowd, asking “where’s my father?”  It’s a beautiful moment, this feeling of real success, coupled with a longing to share the joy with his father.

Jim Craig

For many of us who joined the military in the Eighties, that game was a reminder of how we all wanted to win in the struggle of our time—to defeat the Soviets and take pride in our nation.  Like now, those were uncertain and challenging economic times for America.  Our parent’s generation had struggled and lost a drawn out war in Vietnam, and back then, winning a hockey game seemed like much more than simply an Olympic victory.  But in the end, it was just a game and nothing more.  Winners and losers alike moved on, the crowds went home, and the players went on with their careers.  Whenever I look at the statue or a picture of Herb Brooks, I’ll always be reminded of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, reminded of a victory of ideals between two nations.  We felt good, because the victory was real, something tangible to point to as an indication of what we were capable of as a nation, but it wasn’t a call to arms.  Seeing the game again, I was reminded of how much I still love the Olympics, and love watching those young athletes push themselves to compete in a venue without weapons.  I also realized, as I stood in front of the statue that I’ve watched every Olympic Medal Game we’ve played since–over 30 years of games, hoping to recapture some of that magic, but we haven’t won since.

Over the last few months, I’ve noticed more and more how members of the military have become routine fixtures at major sporting events.  Cameras from around the globe show our soldiers watching the games from a variety of bases and war zones.  On the fields, giant flags are unfurled as expressions of unbridled patriotism, and while I understand the appreciation for our Armed Forces and their sacrifices, I’m concerned at the trend.  If anything, we need to distance ourselves from the connection between sports and war.  Combat is not a game, and while there are winners and losers in sports, we need to understand that soldiers don’t win or lose wars.  At best, they merely survive the conflicts they’re engaged in.  At the V.A., the sight of so many Veterans from across the years was a clear reminder how the statue outside the hospital represents far more than a commitment to healing those who fight for our nation.  It is also a reminder about the suffering and survival in the aftermath of every war ever fought.  The bronze figures belie the illusion of a swift and decisive victory expressed in empty phrases and lies that often spur a country to go to war, reminders of the individual and societal costs of war.

Nations and societies are the ones that ultimately win or lose along the way.  By looking back and learning to listen and accept the lessons from the art and literature of past conflicts, it’s as if we can hear the early echoes of a nation’s demise in the footfall of soldiers marching off to war.  Wrapping oneself too tightly in the flag can be a dangerous thing, clouding our vision, and distorting our ability to understand what the stories of war have taught us for years.  Ultimately, seeing the world through the lens of conflict has prompted me to question old assumptions—to see the rhetoric of war for what it truly is without getting lost in the emotional pull of excessive patriotic zeal.  I made that mistake back in 2003, but I’ve learned from my experience, and hope that the lessons will resonate across society, as well.  I don’t believe that simply saying, “Mission Accomplished” or that we’re winning a “war of attrition” means a victory is on the horizon or that repeating the words, “It’s all good” has any basis in reality.  I don’t believe that any landing you walk away from is a successful one.  And no, I don’t believe that wrapping oneself too tightly in the American Flag ensures that every war we wage is the right one.

Recently, I’ve heard discussions about whether or not we should have a national parade to celebrate the end of the Iraq War.  A few small ones have already taken place across the country, and while the discussion seems to center on giving the troops a proper welcome home, it feels disingenuous to me.  Americans have learned the lessons of Vietnam, no longer vilifying the soldiers for what their nation has asked them to do.  The war in Iraq is already fading into the background, and no parade can change the reality on the ground there or redefine what happened to the countless dead and wounded on both sides.  Of the millions that served, who should take part, I wonder, and what exactly are we to celebrate?  Was our nine-year war in Iraq a success?  If so, what did we win?  Tell me, because when I examine the costs of the war, when I see those soldiers at the V.A. hospital, speak with those suffering from PTSD or hear the news of deteriorating conditions in Iraq and the stories of orphaned children, I don’t sense a victory… It feels like a crash… like something we’re walking away from as a nation… just barely.

Until Next Time,

J. A. Moad II


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