• Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty

    LAUGHTER AND MEMORY

    When I Met Robin Williams in Afghanistan

    Robin Williams had his demons but it never stopped him from making troops laugh on the numerous standup tours he did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    At the prefab dorms on the American base in Kandahar, I ran into my neighbor from the bunk next door. The military makes few concessions to visiting VIPs. Robin Williams was on his way to the showers down the hall, wearing a white t-shirt and a towel over his shoulder. It was the week before Christmas, in 2010.

    He was happy to talk. He said he did regular gigs on the USO holiday circuit. This wasn't his first time in Afghanistan, and he'd also played Iraq. On this trip, he brought along his friend, Lance Armstrong. The cyclist had turned the heads of the women in the dorm on his way back from the showers, wearing just a towel. He struck many people there, at the time, not in retrospect, as arrogant and cold. Robin Williams was something else.

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  • via Youtube

    Frozen

    Why These Marines Are Hot for ‘Frozen’

    When a video of Marines singing along to a Disney song went viral, most viewers thought it was cute. It was really a lesson in how the military treats sex and violence.

    At first glance, it seems sweet: Young Marines in a barracks watching Disney’s blockbuster film, Frozen. Snuggled together on a couch, rippled shoulders touching, they bounce along, loudly singing the film’s hit song “Let It Go.” But then, as the song reaches its climax, the Marines explode. Arms go up in triumph, the bouncing turns to bucking, and the song’s final notes are overpowered by the aggressive sounds of the Marine Corps’ trademark war cry: “Ooh-rah!”

    Once the video was posted online, it immediately went viral. Viewers cheered on the “Adorable!” Marines in their moment of “true emotional liberation.” But they had missed the point entirely. Emotional liberation is not what’s going on in the video. It’s the sexy cartoon princess that has the Marines so worked up.

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  • Steve Bronstein/Getty

    War Stories

    The Surreal Terror of Iraq

    A surreal and haunting collection of stories about the spectacle of violence and how war worms its way into daily life by Iraqi author, Hassan Blasim.

    The title story in The Corpse Exhibition, Hassan Blasim’s new book, masquerades as a lecture delivered to an initiate who has just joined a cult of assassins. In this secretive group, agents go by code names like “the Nail” and “Satan’s Knife,” and “display” their victims’ bodies in grotesque ways calculated to terrify the citizens of an unnamed country in what seems like the modern Middle East.

    The catch, and the story’s most brilliant conceit, is that unlike real terrorists, Blasim’s fictional killers operate on principles artistic, not political or religious. As the initiate (who stands in for the reader) is told: “You can shine like a precious jewel amid the wreckage of this country. To display a corpse for others to see is the ultimate in the creativity we are seeking and that we are trying to study and benefit from. Personally I can’t stand the agents who are unimaginative.”

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  • Ashley Gilbertson/VII

    Aim True

    The Profanity of War

    With his new collection of short stories Redeployment, Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay has written brilliant, true, and winning fiction on the Iraq War, writes Brian Castner.

    This book is profane, and in just about every possible way.

    The following words appear on nearly every one of the first fifty pages: blood, fuck, hajji, dead, love, scream, rifle, kill, balls. In those first pages, I feared I was going to run out of synonyms for “visceral” while trying to write this review.

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  • Damon Winter/The New York Times

    Homefront

    Between Boredom and Terror

    From the frontlines of America’s war in Afghanistan a Yale graduate turned Army warrior reflected on his experience in letters home. Now he’s put those letters together and they reveal a man comforted by the trivial and questioning why he is there.

    If war is the true oldest profession, then perhaps the soldier’s letter is the origin of the form. The particular constructs and constraints of a military campaign—necessary separation from loved ones, daily news and hardships, hours of tedium that must be filled, not to mention the prospect of death—combine to create perfect letter-writing conditions, and average soldiers have been communicating existential insights large and small since the moment they became literate.

    Collections of such letters can be revealing. Pulitzer Prize-winner James McPherson’s slim volume What They Fought For is filled with nuance, as Union and Confederate soldiers provide eloquent arguments about the need to preserve the republic, the dangerous precedent of succession, and the horror of having one’s land invaded. War Letters, a collection of American military correspondence from the Civil War through the conflict in Bosnia, was compiled by Andrew Carroll and became a New York Times-bestseller when it was published just prior to 9/11. Carroll’s soldiers and war-caught civilians display a remarkable consistency, writing about love and faith and minutia in equal measure.

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  • U.S. and Afghan soldiers walk near a U.S. Army Chinook during an operation near the town of Walli Was in Paktika province November 1, 2012. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

    PTSD

    Veteran Exorcisms

    A new book about a veteran undergoing exorcisms to purge himself of demons struggles with important questions about the costs of war and the nature of PTSD.

    Tribal cultures differed in their approaches to reintegrating warriors. One common practice was to purify combatants after the fact, cleansing them of any evil spirits that might have trailed them home from battle. Sometimes, this purification centered on storytelling. A tribe would gather to hear a warrior recount his exploits, going into graphic detail, the bloodier the better. But in other societies, to tell war stories risked conjuring the dead and was considered dangerously taboo. Better to let the past be past.

    America muddles through, somewhere in the middle. Our culture is too large and varied to have a single way of “purifying” veterans, and so our method reverts, perhaps unacceptably, to the mean. We ask for neither the whole story nor for the past to be wholly ignored. Basically, we hear what we want to.

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  • Artis Henderson

    Unremarried Widow

    In War, What Remains

    Before he died, he wrote me a letter that I would find among the boot blousers and carabiners and thumbed-through magazines that the military shipped home.

    My husband was killed in Iraq in the fall of 2006 at a time when the war made less and less sense. He died quickly but brutally in a helicopter crash outside Balad.

    In the week after his death, a casualty assistance officer sat at my kitchen table and asked if I would like to be notified if the military found partial remains, the pieces of my husband's body that might be recovered from the crash site after his funeral. Outside a late-autumn storm was building and the air in the room was damp. The officer passed a form across the table and handed me a ballpoint pen, and I realized that this was war. Not the talk of strategy or politics, munitions or taxation; not the discussions on fiscal costs or boots on the ground jingoism. But a life disassembled, pieces trickling in over time.

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  • Blackwater CEO and founder Erik Prince listens during a panel discussion on protecting people and physical security hosted by North Carolina Technology Association in Cary, N.C., Thursday, June 7, 2007. (AP)

    Contracted

    Who Should Kill?

    The founder and CEO of controversial military contractor Blackwater is out to defend his record and celebrate his success in his new memoir, but veteran and military contractor Brian Castner says that the book misses the big questions here.

    Who should do the killing? Civilians or soldiers, government employees or private contractors? Does it even matter? Should it even matter? Does a decorated soldier become a villain when he performs the same actions in the same war as a contractor? Are some jobs, to use the standard idiom, “inherently governmental?”

    This is the fundamental question posed in the new memoir, Civilian Warriors, by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater. It may be buried under layers of legal defense and rationalizing and being “done keeping quiet” and setting the record straight, but it is a worthy one, and a debate worth having, if Prince could get out of his own way.

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  • The Daily Beast/Elena Scotti, traffic_analyzer

    Creating Art After War

    Art isn’t only a form of therapy for veterans; some just want to express themselves. Expanding opportunities for veterans in creative fields would benefit them and the art world.

    There are many stigmas associated with veterans returning from combat. We are all presumed to suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress, and many believe we simply don’t have the capacity to properly assimilate back into society. This assumption can be especially difficult for those of us who enlisted in the military to be part of something larger than ourselves—and who consider art-making and creative expression a continuation of, rather than a release from, service.

    Because most people see the military and the arts as two very different worlds, they assume I am pursuing the arts because it serves as a kind of therapy, preparing me for reintegration or allowing me to express years of traumatic experiences. While those realities surely exist for many veterans, that very assumption creates a bias that is incredibly difficult to overcome. The truth is that many military service members are creative individuals who continue to innovate, serve in their communities and use the arts to communicate a unique veteran perspective.

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