• 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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  • A United States Marine Corps carry team moves the flag-draped transfer case holding the remains of Master Sgt. Aaron Torian of Paducha, KY, during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base February 18, 2014 in Dover, Delaware. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

    Final Salute

    A Man to Believe In

    On February 15, Marine MSgt. Aaron Torian was killed in action in Afghanistan—likely one of the last Americans to die there. His friend and comrade Elliot Ackerman shares his eulogy.

    Master Sergeant Aaron Torian was killed in action in Helmand Province on February 15th, 2014. This eulogy was given at Arlington National Cemetery two weeks later. With the current withdrawal of troops, he is likely one of the last Marines to die in the Afghan War.

    My friend Aaron Torian was a believer.

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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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  • Love and War

    Failed Soldiers, Better Lovers

    Hemingway and Fitzgerald desperately wanted to be great soldiers but neither one could pull it off. Both of them found love in the service, though, that too turned out tragically.

    Quick literary trivia question. Which hard-drinking modernist writer of legendary fame served in the U.S. Army during World War I?

    Hint: it’s not Ernest Hemingway. As a young man, Hemingway tried to enlist but was barred from service because of a defective eye. However much he would later look down on his frenemy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, for being someone who “for his actions in civil life as a criterion… would probably have been re-classified or shot for cowardice,” Fitzgerald is the only one of the two who could boast—not that he did, at least on this account—of wearing his country’s uniform in wartime.

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  • Chris Hondros/Getty

    PTSD

    Fight on the Home Front

    What happens when Americans return from war? David Finkel’s book answers that question with disturbing and painful detail. Veteran Matt Gallagher reflects.

    According to a report (PDF) released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this year, an estimated 22 veterans committed suicide in America each day in 2010. U.S. Army soldier suicides outnumbered combat-related deaths in 2012. And 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America survey respondents have considered taking their own life.

    Those are the numbers, and numbers have a way of numbing us to the complexities that make up everyday life. What drives these battle-hardened men and women to the breaking point? Why do some people return home from combat ready and able to transition back to civilian life, while others cannot, despite their best efforts? How does suicide in the ranks continue to mystify the much-vaunted and ever-powerful U.S. military?

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  • This September, 1993, file photo shows a US UH-60 "Black Hawk" helicopter in Somalia. (Alexander Joe, ALEXANDER JOE)

    Reliving History

    “It’s Too Soon”

    Twenty years after Black Hawk Down and after more than a decade of fighting around the world, novelist Lea Carpenter considers the stories we tell about war—and how we struggle to shape meaning and narrative.

    October 3rd, 2013 is the twentieth anniversary of Operation Gothic Serpent, more popularly known as Black Hawk Down, the mission to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Mark Bowden wrote an extraordinary book about that day. Later, Ridley Scott made the movie. “BHD” is as celebrated in some circles as the landings at Normandy, or Tet; it illustrated the willingness of the few to risk their lives at a time when the many might have described their lives as peaceful. Foreign conflict wasn’t central to Americans’ psyches then, despite a dangerous world; 1992 had been the year of “It’s the economy, stupid.” And Somalia wasn’t technically war, was it. It didn’t look like prior wars. The special operators that day were warriors, though. They went into a brutal place where the enemy didn’t use rules of engagement. There are no trenches in the Bakara Market.

    Having spent a few years thinking about the history of American special operations (I gave my novel’s central character October 3rd as her birthday), I still know very little. One thing is true: it’s hard to process stories of conflict, even long after they’ve occurred. It’s not only because of the “fog of war.” In my case, it’s not only the fact that I’m a civilian. It’s time. It takes time to understand events because it takes time to understand the choices of the people who participated in them, as well as the aftershocks of those choices. That sounds simple but it was something I had to learn.

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  • An American paratrooper sergeant shouts orders to his squad of the 2nd Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade as they charge the enemy about 20 miles northeast of Bien Hoa, Vietnam on June 1, 1965. (Horst Faas/AP)

    Vietnam State of Mind

    You’ve probably never heard of Stephen Wright’s 'Meditations in Green,' but Nathaniel Rich says you should read this strange and evocative book about Vietnam.

    A good war novel forces you to visualize, in vivid detail, the horror and dysfunction of combat. A great war novel goes further—it makes you feel the horror personally. The putrescence of a corpse rotting at the bottom of a trench wafts from the pages of All Quiet on the Western Front; readers of Farewell to Arms are susceptible to sudden sharp pains in the legs and scalp. Meditations in Green, Stephen Wright’s debut novel about the Vietnam War, does these things well, but it also does something far more peculiar: it convinces you that the war never ended. Not in the general sense that history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, or in the sense that man has an unquenchable desire for bloodshed, rendering future wars inevitable. Wright’s novel instead suggests that Vietnam at some point transcended the Indochina peninsula and became a mental condition, a state of being not unlike certain forms of insanity, that has become encrypted in our genetic code.

    “Catastrophe,” declares Wright at one point, “lacked coherence.” So does Meditations in Green, but its incoherence feels purposeful, mimetic. If war is chaotic, shouldn’t a war novel reflect that chaos? Wright evidently believes it should. His novel unfolds like a scrapbook, in a series of vignettes that range in length from a paragraph to twenty pages, which follow the adventures of intelligence officers stationed in an isolated military base in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle. The members of the 1069th Military Intelligence Group are responsible for interrogating prisoners of war, analyzing aerial photographs, and determining which villages to bomb and which patches of jungle to defoliate with Agent Orange. Occasionally they must join a mission in the field, where they experience the grotesqueries of battle firsthand, but generally they have a lot of down time, which they occupy by playing Scrabble, trying to sleep with their Vietnamese maids, and doing drugs—first weed, later heroin. A large cast of characters drift through the novel’s pages like ghosts, which seems appropriate, since that’s what most of them quickly become.

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  • American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961) works at his typewriter while sitting outdoors, Idaho. (Lloyd Arnold/Getty)

    The Deer Hunter

    Hemingway, Heroes and Men Alone

    Cousin Eddie was a Vietnam Vet who came home and went hunting alone. Kara Krauze writes about the cousin she never knew, explaining war to her 7 year old son, and our common need for Heroes.

    The other night at dinner my stepdad told us about cousin Eddie* and how he’d gone off to Vietnam, drafted, served his year and a day, and came back different. My seven-year-old, who likes to play war and hear about war and know what’s happened, returned to the table, ears open. Each time we have one of these conversations about war, my mother makes sure to tell him that war brings damage; we shouldn’t go to war, better to avoid it. “But what if we have to go to war?” my son asks. Usually we’re talking about the distant past, about Pearl Harbor, about the Battle of Britain, about decisions already made.

    What I tell him isn’t so much different from his grandmother’s admonitions, but part of me is thinking about how much simpler it can be to have an enemy, a cause, to know the difference between good and bad—the way we can look at World War II, not the murkiness that followed in Vietnam—and, no matter what, it can feel good to have comrades, to have instructions and rules, to know which things matter. These are realities, in his seven-year-old world, he may understand better than I do: in his world one way, with his toy soldiers and make-believe, and in ours another, with blood and grief and the difference so vast between life and death, yet traversable in a blink. There is the way adrenaline makes you strong and sure—and you become accustomed to adrenaline, and certainty. And the way, in the midst of all this, with certainty and chance and chaos so tightly wed, we need heroes. But sometimes, in a hero, we need different things.

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  • A U.S. Marine, from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, holds his position as Taliban fighters open fire in Afghanistan. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

    Reserves

    The 1 Percent Army

    Phil Klay reads Andrew Bacevich’s important polemic on how we lost touch with our soldiers.

    In 2011, President Obama declared that the U.S. soldiers leaving Iraq were doing so “with their heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops.” What, precisely, did that mean? Certainly, when I’d left Iraq back in 2008 I’d been proud of my service, but whether we’d been successful or not was still an open question. The war was ongoing, and the definition for “success” seemed to keep shifting. Was it regime change? That’d happened early on in 2003, before I’d even joined the military. Was it the creation of a stable Iraq? That never happened. Defeat of both Shiite extremists and al Qaeda in Iraq? Again, no. So “success” is a tricky term. Even trickier, though, was his invocation of an “American people stand[ing] united in our support for our troops.” There’s a general feeling of good will toward the troops, for sure, but what else? Is there a commitment to proper oversight of the wars they carry out on the American people’s behalf? Is there the political will to ensure their lives aren’t expended needlessly?

    Those questions lie at the heart of Andrew Bacevich’s latest polemic, Breach of Trust. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Army for 23 years and now teaches international relations and history at Boston College, argues that the creation of the all-volunteer military has hurt both America and its armed forces by taking the responsibility for war away from the people and relegating it solely to the state. Though at times carried along more by hyperbole than by evidence, Bacevich makes a powerful and deeply necessary case for a fundamental shift in the way that we fight our wars.

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