War literature’s place in American culture circa 2020 is not unlike that of the bison. What was once a symbol of star-spangled ideals and chest-haired might—Crane! Hemingway! Spacious skies and amber waves of grain!—has faded with time and change. Calls of extinction proved premature, but still, who reads war lit in 2020? Who considers the state of the bison? The country’s on fire right now, who has time for the past?
Like our hairy counterparts across the Great Plains, modern war writers beat on, intent on proving our enduring, ugly relevance. We’re 20 years into a forever war, after all—the least our fellow citizens could do is maybe read a book or two about it.
With exceptions, modern war lit skews male, straight and white. There are a few reasons for this, some understandable (the jump from combat to the pen is not a common one, so it’s just a numbers game, in its way), some not (I’d be the first admit that my own war novels sold, in part, because I look the part of a traditional American veteran scribe.) Into this strange land steps Marine and Iraq war veteran Teresa Fazio, author of the fierce and compelling new memoir Fidelis—the Latin word for “faithful,” and taken from the Marine Corps’ motto semper fidelis. It’s a different kind of war story fit for the new America that’s emerging.
Chronicling her journey from an undersized tomboy in suburban New York to a scholarship to prestigious MIT to a young, idealistic Marine lieutenant, Fidelis is the rare coming-of-age tale penned by a former officer that doesn’t read like a case for political office. It’s layered, literary, much more interested in the messy grays of life and memory than pronouncements. It’s about conflict and a military occupation abroad, sure, but it’s also about the human beings who make up that conflict and occupation. There’s romance, there’s betrayal. More than anything, though, after setting down the pages of Fidelis, I realized that it’s a book about power and agency.
Who gets to access power? Who gets to keep it? And why and how are certain methods for achieving power acceptable and others not, whether within the institution of the military or on the macro, where America’s role in the world and use of armed force is well due some public scrutiny? Fidelis explores all that and more, with an unauthorized affair in Iraq and after serving as the book’s emotional core. There’s no easy redemption here, but there is truth and hard-earned reckoning. If anything belongs to these days of rage, it’s that.
Fazio served as a communications officer on a dusty airbase in central Iraq early in the war, when Donald Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” campaign shattered into something more ominous and extended. While there, she struck up a friendship and more with an older, married warrant officer named Jack (not his real name) who was in charge of their unit’s mortuary affairs—a grueling, dark and morally corrosive position that oversaw the handling of fallen Marines’ remains being prepared and sent home.
“I figured of course things were bound to get intense here, on deployment,” Fazio writes early in Fidelis. “With all the bullshit our jobs entailed. His especially, wading through guts. But to do anything about it would be dishonorable. And for us—for Marines in a war—honor had value. At least I wanted it to.”
In anticipation of her book’s publication, Teresa and I chatted like friends do in the summer of 2020—over beers on Zoom. Here is an excerpt of our conversation, in which we neglected to touch upon the fate of the American bison but covered many other subjects.
The Daily Beast: Who is Teresa Fazio and what brought her to the Marines and the Iraq war?
Teresa Fazio: I grew up in suburban New York, in pre-9/11 America, and needed money for college, mostly! MIT is an expensive school. I had an uncle who’d been a Marine officer for over 20 years and he helped me with the application… looking back on it, I think I was looking for a sense of power and authority, a place where yeah, you’d get yelled at, but the rules made sense because there was a governing structure. That mattered to me, as someone who thinks like an engineer. So I did ROTC through college and then was commissioned into active duty.
TDB: And how did Fidelis come to be?
TF: It’s been a very long journey. I started writing about my experiences [in Iraq] late 2011, early 2012… I think I’d finally gotten to an emotional space where I was ready to explore my deployment in a way that I hadn’t processed yet. When I started writing, though, I avoided all the stuff about Jack. There were oblique references, but all my writing was circling around it. Realizing I needed to confront it directly was a big breakthrough… then I began my first real draft of the book in 2014, and later went to Bennington to earn my MFA and revise the entire thing.
TDB: This is a book that doesn’t shy away from honest and real moments of how young people in the military can sometimes be when far from home, in a combat zone, wrestling with matters of life and death on a daily basis. What was the journey to such transparency like? Was there a section in particular you had trouble with getting just right?
TF: Well, it helped that at first I was just letting it rip, for myself more than anyone… but I was very nervous when I first began bringing the sections with Jack to writing workshops for critique. But then something almost magical happened—people were generous with them, understanding. It turns out that when you are more personal and transparent in your work, that resonates.
It took me a while, and a number of revisions, to find some compassion for my younger self. After corroborating with old journals, I saw how sad I’d been, how much I’d buried that sense of desperation I’d once had, in part because of Jack, but also because I was a young woman uncertain of her place in the Marines and the world.
This was a necessary thing to work through, both as a person and as a writer. To write the sections about my family, in particular, I drove to a campsite at Taconic State Park. I had to get away, get someplace new where I wasn’t comfortable, and work my through it. I stayed up late, being honest with the page, against the blue laptop glow, and slept in my car. Then I went on a run the next morning to a waterfall. It was freeing.
TDB: What role does war literature play in contemporary American culture, from your vantage?
TF: There’s an archetype of the American warrior embedded in our culture, and it’s a bit of a dog whistle for parts of society… one of my hopes with Fidelis is that it introduces to people unfamiliar with the military to a less stereotypical type of Marine and soldier. Like our country, it takes all types. Being seen as an “atypical” military officer and now veteran? That’s a reaction I’ve been getting more than half my life now.
On one hand, I get it! I’m 5 feet 1 inch tall! On the other—hey, I worked hard to get where I did, to accomplish what I did. Claiming my own power in that way was something that took me time to get to, and is something I’d encourage younger people joining the service, particularly young women, to come to terms with. The Marines is a hierarchy, and institution, and you have to be authentic with yourself and others within it, as a leader, as an individual. It isn’t used to people like me having power or agency, but it benefits every time someone “atypical” does so. The whole organization does.
TDB: You’ve become a powerful voice on issues of women in uniform and gender gaps in the military—your Rolling Stone essay on the Marines United scandal and your piece in The Nation on #MeToo, as two examples. Where has the military made progress on these issues, in your estimation? Where does it continue to lag? Is tangible, meaningful change possible in such an institution?
TB: Something I try to stress anytime I speak or write is that I’m doing so for myself—there are many, many different ways of being a woman Marine and woman servicemember, full stop.
That said, one of the most fulfilling parts of this is writing pieces like those, and then getting messages from women I know or served with who say, “Hey—you’re not the only one. Thanks for speaking out.” That means a lot.
As for if progress is possible? It’s a fight. There’s a constant back-and-forth nature to all this… women graduate Ranger School, but then Specialist Vanessa Guillén gets killed while just doing her job. Women finally get the opportunity to serve in the combat arms units, then there’s the Marines United scandal.
All these inequalities that we’ve lived in and seen propagated are now being brought to light. That’s not nothing. It’s not enough, either. So often, issues of power are highlighted by issues of trauma brought on by trying to gain purchase into a world that seems out of control. In 2020, I think and hope that maybe that feels pertinent to everyone in a way it didn’t before, whether they’ve served in uniform or not.