The Soldiers Enter the House: An Interview with Brian Turner

Brian Turner’s “A Soldier’s Arabic,” adapted by Giulia Alvarez.

Brian Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon and taught English in South Korea for a year before he joined the United States Army. He served in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division and then, when he was deployed to Iraq, he became an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. His first collection of poetry, Here, Bullet, won Alice James Books’s Beatrice Hawley Award and the Pen Center USA “Best in the West Award,” and it was a New York Times Editor’s Choice Selection. In the process, Turner also won a Lannan Literary Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, and the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, among others. His second collection, Phantom Noise, received equally strong attention and was shortlisted for the coveted T. S. Eliot Prize in England. 

For many people, myself included, when Turner’s poetry was first published, it offered a glimpse into the Iraq War that just wasn’t happening in the media, and he cracked open conversations that needed to be had in our country. Just as Here, Bullet became one of the first literary expressions of the military experience in Iraq, his second collection, Phantom Noise, began to ask questions about what it means to come home from that war. His style is visceral, honest, and full of surprising emotional generosity for those who fought against him. As he is quick to point out, we need to bend an ear toward what the Iraqis are saying. His work does more than discuss the American experience in Iraq—he encourages us to consider those men and women that were killed by our mighty weapons. He asks questions of culture, political violence, and the barriers of language.

Turner now gives readings all over the world and has made appearances on National Public Radio, the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and PBS. When not writing or touring, he is the director of the MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College. His latest book, My Life as a Foreign Country, may seem like a departure from poetry but if you look closely it’s easy to see how his first calling still influences him. Part war memoir, part re-imagining of family history, and part treatise on memory itself, it is an intricate and dazzling literary achievement. To read his memoir is to understand what he experienced in Iraq—yes, that is true—but along the way we are forced to consider not only the landscape of memory itself, but also how one life interlocks with another. Turner nudges us to think about the long afterburn of war and how one generation influences the next.

Although he is soft-spoken in private, his readings at book festivals and universities are vibrant explorations of literature, global politics, and our responsibilities to each other. Even though he isn’t comfortable with the role, Turner has quickly become one of the most important voices of the soldierly experience in Iraq, and he is frequently compared to such notable Vietnam War writers as Bruce Weigl and Tim O’Brien.

We chatted via Skype on 1 September 2014, which happened to be the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. The room behind him had two bass guitars standing upright in a rack and he was wearing a cap. We talked for a few minutes about our current writing projects, about the unglamorous work of housecleaning, and then I shuffled my notes. “Ready?” I asked. After a nod from him, I pressed Play on the digital recorder. 

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Patrick Hicks (PH): The narrative structure in My Life as a Foreign Country is fragmented. You’ve got all of these micro-chapters which are sometimes interrelated and sometimes not. Your memoir could almost be described as flash nonfiction. Can you talk about this narrative choice a bit more?

Brian Turner (BT): One of the things I enjoy about the structure is that it allows space for silence. I call them “jump cuts,” like what you might do in film. It makes more work for the reader, which is something I enjoy when I’m in a book—when an author allows space to be part of the construction of the overall meaning that’s taking place. I like having to fill in gaps and make connections as a reader. Now, flipping that over to me as a writer, I don’t think I could have written it any other way. It’s like you said, it’s connected to memory. The way that memory works, with trauma especially—whether it’s combat or a car crash or a divorce or some other loss in life—as time goes by, there are these fragments that remain. There are these gaps in memory that create issues and problems, and that’s part of what I was studying when I was putting these pieces together. When I think back on something, I might be thinking about one part of my situation and then my mind will easily slip to the 1940s or World War I or the Civil War, and then it slips right back to the present. I wonder why that doesn’t happen more in fiction and nonfiction? It seems more natural to write this way than to write a straight linear narrative. 

PH: We see these “jump cuts” right from the beginning of the book. All of these micro-chapters flash before us and we have to stitch them together for ourselves. So, for example, chapter 7 is about an Iraqi mortar crew launching explosives into Firebase Eagle, where you were based. You write that the enemy is “day by day and round by round, discovering the proper distance, elevation, deflection and explosive charge necessary to fire rounds directly into our camp [. . . ] it’s a matter of great patience.” In chapter 11, which is only four pages beyond this, you talk about an anthrax bomb going off in Scotland in 1942 that was deliberately tested on a number of sheep and you state that “This was recorded by scientists, on 16mm color film. This is history. It really happened. You can see it for yourself. You can watch their jaws mouthing upward toward God.” And then, in the very next chapter, you talk about how one of the Iraqi mortars accidentally kills a number of chickens at a house near Firebase Eagle as the enemy is getting closer to targeting you. The chickens act as type of foreshadowing for the coming deaths of American soldiers. You, those dying sheep in Scotland, and the dead chickens—it all get swirled together in the reader’s imagination. Can you talk about this a little more? You’ve tapped into a very unique style here. It’s something I rarely encounter.

BT: I think I owe part of this approach to a fascination with the processes of memory, the storehouse of the mind, the great vault of our lives. Within us, the temporal and spatial world works its magic—binding and compressing the disparate elements of experience, surprising us with its striations. 

PH: Your book is called a memoir, but it’s far more than that because you dip back into the histories of your father, your grandfather, and even your great-grandfather who fought in the trenches of the Great War. Reading about your grandfather fighting the Japanese is as real for me, as a reader, as your time in Iraq. Tell me about that. What was it like to write about your grandfather’s experiences?

BT: It was difficult because I’m concerned about what is real, and what’s not real. I know the vast majority of it is my imaginative process leaning into a moment that I don’t have full access to. I have limited access to it, I should say. I struggled with that part. But I also really enjoyed it because I was finally able to put things down on the page that I’ve imagined and thought about all my life. I’ve been fascinated by my grandfather—he’s still alive—he’s in Fresno right now—so I have access to some of these things but he doesn’t talk about them in great detail. So, similar to my memoir, when I talk with him, there are all of these silences and gaps. And that’s what it’s like when I talk to him about his experiences. There are all these gaps where I have to fill in spaces. I’m eager to try and do that. My curiosity leads me toward that. This is one of the things I struggle with because memoir, and nonfiction, and fiction are in some ways all attempts to carve experience into stone, to make it appear real in both time and space. Still, no matter what verb tense is used, at some level the reader always knows that the words on the page and the creation of those words was done in the past. So, in a sense, I’m also leaving gaps for the reader to have to try to fill. I suppose this is connected to cosmology and one’s perception of time. Everything that happened in the cosmos when I uttered that last sentence is now in the past, too. 

PH: This is ironic because someone is going to read this and it’ll be the present moment for them but, for you and me, this is our history. It’s gone. Over.

BT: Yeah, yeah. Right.

PH: And by reading this interview, they’re going to feel present in our conversation but that’s a type of fiction really. It’s an act of their imagination.

BT: Right. We’ll be speaking to them from the past. That’s what I mean about imagination. And if that gets undermined, it takes down the scaffolding of pretty much everything else. I don’t have a huge problem putting fictional passages into what’s called a memoir. I fully understand that in terms of literary criticism, and where people fall on that divide, there are purists in nonfiction who might dismiss what I’m trying to do. I don’t fault them for that. It’s just not my approach.

PH: The fragmented structure of your memoir, this weaving of stories that are both yours and not yours, forces readers to make their own connections. We also see that war begets war, and that while technology changes, the basic stuff of our own humanity remains the same throughout history. Can you talk about what research you did for this book?

BT: Some of it was a series of e-mails that were important to me personally beyond the scope of the book because they were a link to my family—e-mails to my dad, and my uncles, and some of their buddies who served—and I asked them all to try and remember some of their own experiences. My dad wrote a passage about swimming off the Eniwetok Atoll in the 1960s because he was there at one point, as a Russian linguist, and they would fly these missions against the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. And my grandfather had been on the same island during World War II. They realized this sometime in the early 1970s when they were drinking beer on the porch. . . . How do I put this? They were both, for brief points of their life, on the same atoll down in the South Pacific. My dad, when he did some snorkeling, he could see the old tanks from World War II, which was basically a cemetery because there are dead men down in those tanks. They were scuttled into the water. In this passage he wrote, he was describing them in great detail—it was amazing the detail he had—and then he sent me this phenomenal e-mail that I wanted to put verbatim into the memoir. But then, two days later, he had gone through it almost point by point challenging himself. Were there really parrot fish? Was this there? Was that there? He did some research and found that on nearly every account his memory had faltered and it was not as he remembered it. Or at least, it was challenged by the facts that he looked up. [Laughs.] So that’s part of my research: one memory working against another memory. And then there are things like this—[Turner moves off screen and rummages for something; a moment later he holds up a thick book]—this is the 3rd Marine Division Handbook. Let me look at the year on this real quick. . . . The copyright is 1948. So right after the war they must have started writing this, I would imagine. It’s a very extensive book with lots of photographs and it’s talking about his unit.

PH: Your grandfather’s unit.

BT: Yeah. His. And if I read this, I can be there within three years of the war ending. There are people in the larger unit describing those battles. And again, they have to go into memory to describe the plants, the foliage, and the ground conditions. What was the soil like? Was it muddy or dry? Did it foul up the weapons? Those kinds of things were really invaluable to me, but I still had the same problem because, although it’s only three years removed—it’s actually very close to the moment—but thinking about my dad’s e-mails and the interrogation of his own work, how close is it to . . . true? And then I wanted to know what kind of plants are on the island. My imagination sort of went wild. I felt a bit like a painter researching an island in the Pacific. How do I paint it?

PH: I’m reminded of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” here, especially the idea of how to latch onto what’s true. The more you look at memory, the more unstable it becomes.

BT: Yeah, yeah. I’m hoping that I can allow my imagination to create a space. And learn from it. And share it. And then part of the reader’s work is to ask some of the questions that my father asked about his own e-mails. The critical eye that looks at this book will surely view some of that, and that’s part of the necessary process but, for me, I want to be swept up in the moments and learn from the world rather than me, as a writer, imposing meaning onto it. I don’t want to walk through the ruins the whole time. I want to walk through the living spaces as well.

PH: That’s where the blending of imagination and history might come in. I’m thinking about an example of this, in chapter 49, which begins with the simple line, “The soldiers enter the house.” You repeat that phrase over and over again. It becomes a mantra. It’s very powerful and hypnotic. It’s so powerful, in fact, that it might be useful to offer an extended quote: 

The soldiers enter the house with ghillie suits and Remington sniper rifles, phoenix beacons and night-vision goggles, lasers invisible to the naked eye, rotorblades, Hellfire missiles, bandoliers strapped across their chests. The soldiers enter the house one fire team after another, and they fight brutal, dirty, nasty, the only way to fight. The soldiers enter the house with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of their uniforms. They enter the house with TOLEDO and BATON ROUGE imprinted on the rubber soles of their combat boots. They enter the house and shout, “Honey, I’m home!” and “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” The soldiers enter the house with conversations of Monday Night Football and the bouncing tits of the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleaders. The soldiers enter the house with cunt and cooch, cock wallet and butcher’s bin on their tongues. [. . .] They enter the house with their left foot, they enter the house the way one enters cemeteries and unclean places. The soldiers enter the house with their insurance policies filled out, signed, beneficiaries named, last will and testaments sealed in manila envelopes half a world away.

Can you talk about this section where the soldiers kick in a door and enter an Iraqi house?

BT: There were large periods of time where this was a very common part of our mission cycle. It would be interrupted for three weeks of doing, say, some other kind of mission or moving to a different base maybe. But in Balad and Mosul we did a lot of raids, almost night after night. It became part of the routine of life. There was a rhythm to it night after night after night—the soldiers enter the house—the soldiers enter the house—the soldiers enter the house. There was a repetition to it. Part of the problem is that if I ’d only done one raid, then I ’d be able to focus in a hyper-observant way and just look at that raid, but what happened is that there’s a very musical aspect to the passage and it parallels the experience. Enter another house. Enter another house. Enter another house. It became a mantra way of living. . . . You know, I invited Rick Moody to come out to Sierra Nevada College to the MFA Program there, for a residency, and he read “Boys” from Demonology. That was a linchpin or a key to unlocking how I could approach this passage. And it is directly speaking to his piece. In his work, “the boys enter the house, the boys enter the house.” There is a potential evolution from that piece to this piece. There isn’t necessarily a narrative arc in my piece, but I realized his piece is a great vehicle and it has tremendous velocity in the way the phrases build on each other and then crescendo. I feel a great debt to Rick Moody. In fact, I ended up writing him an e-mail and asking, “I hope this is okay with you.” [Laughs.] He was incredibly gracious and he said—I’m paraphrasing here—the piece was a gift for him, and now he’s glad that it’s a gift for someone else. It was very kind of him. I hesitated to send the e-mail for many months because I didn’t know what he ’d think. The experience itself in Iraq was very fragmented and it needed something like “the soldiers enter the house.” When I look back on those raids, they come in flashes to me. Even as I remember them, there is an intensity that builds as I reflect on that part of my experience. It mirrors the adrenaline of the experience.

PH: And yet, there are things that happen in this section which probably never happened.

BT: I’ve been asked if I read passages from poetry books to people inside their homes while we’re doing these raids. It makes me wonder about the process of reading. I guess because it says memoir on the cover of the book, people assume that . . . it’s tricky, but I don’t understand why people would think that I would actually physically do that.

PH: You wouldn’t have the time. Plus it would be dangerous.

BT: That passage is a literary imaginative processing of what was actually happening.

PH: In some ways, it reminds me of “Perimeter Watch,” which appears in Phantom Noise. In this poem, you’ve returned from Iraq and you’re trying to keep the war outside your house, but the memories want to be let in. Here, the soldiers want to enter the house, but you try to keep them out. At the end of the poem you write, “Where is my M-4? My smoke grenades? / My flak vest and plates of body armor? / [. . .] When I dial 911, / the operator tells me to use proper radio procedure, / reminding me that my call sign is Ghost 1-3 Alpha, / and that it’s time, long past time, to unlock the door / and let these people in.” I’m struck by how the theme of “the soldiers enter the house” operates on such different levels in these two pieces of writing.

BT: In both, I’m studying the dismantling of the self. There’s an intimacy in each that’s undercut by violence, or the repercussions of violence, but the dynamics of power are vastly different. When I consider these two pieces side by side, I can see a writer who is circling and circling back upon something essential. I won’t expand on that any further because otherwise I ’d be doing the reader’s work for them. 

PH: You quietly remind us throughout the book that time isn’t linear. At one point, when you’re with your dad, you say, “It’s early January, I think, 1981.” I like that I think because it suggests that we dip in and out of memory when we recall something. What was harder to recall and trust: Your war memories or your childhood memories?

BT: [Long pause.] I have more confidence in my childhood memories in a lot of ways. But even there, they are undermined because, when I finished an early draft of the book, my dad would say something didn’t happen the way I presented it. “A” didn’t happen as it’s presented—it happened more like “B.” So I ended up going back and not changing things, but I added little notes, little phrases like “in my memory” or “I think,” because I don’t want to undermine how I actually remember it. That is my childhood even if it’s been corrected in some way, or fixed, or amended. For decades that was the formation of my life, but I’m trying to figure out what that means. I want to understand who was the guy that signed the papers and went into combat? How did he get to that point?

PH: One thing I’ve always admired about your work is your unwillingness—your flat-out refusal, really—to dehumanize the enemy. You want to understand the person behind the weapon. Even the man who almost kills you with an RPG is treated with a touching degree of generosity in your narrative.

BT: I’ve been trying to learn for a long time how to become a citizen of the world and not focus upon the specific tribe that I’m from. In order to understand that, I have to realize we’re all human beings and we share the oxygen of this century, and not just the specific ground that we stand on. The ground we come from gives us a viewpoint and a vantage point for looking at the world and responding to it—I live here and not in, say, Brazil—but getting closer to your question, I can understand there are plenty of reasons why someone would pick up a weapon and shoot at me. I feel like I had to respect that. Their reasons aren’t foolhardy or lacking validity, so I feel like I have to respect their humanity and recognize them in a fuller sense. If I dehumanize them, then I’m part of the process that makes it easier to kill people. I don’t want to be part of that process, as much as possible. [Very long pause.] It’s hard for me to understand how people don’t see their enemies as human beings. They see them instead as monsters in combat. It simplifies the world to a degree that just isn’t realistic. What’s really disheartening and painful is that most of the people who pick up weapons and go to war are not sociopaths. But they are still able to do these horrific things.

PH: You showed me an early draft of this book a few years ago, and I was intrigued by your discussion of the movie you filmed with some of your childhood friends on a Super 8. It’s called The War That Time Forgot. You’ve written all of chapter 37 as a movie script and it’s very effective. You and I are both from Generation X, and film was so much a part of our childhood and early adulthood. Tell me how film influenced your understanding of warfare.

BT: Wow. Well, it’s really connected in a lot of ways because the director of that movie was my best friend, Brian Voight, and our whole lives were spent talking and arguing about art. He was interested in film, and I was interested in writing, and we both played music together in a band. Across these genres we had decades of long conversations, arguments, and debates about how art functions and how it works. For that film he sent out a call—there was some kind of film magazine around at the time—and he sent out a description of the film. Someone critiqued it in the following issue and talked about the gratuitous violence and what is the aim of the violence. Even as little kids we were being challenged to think about how art represents violence. How could it be useful? Or does it just perpetuate paradigms? I guess film, for me—and this gets to the memoir too—is about the edit. What I’m interested in is the overall construction and the underpinnings so that we could see the idea of making the film and we could see the characters, myself included, taking part in the production and creation of war as an art piece. Violence doesn’t happen until the very end of the film we made. It is there, but not until the end. The majority is really about preparing for combat. That film did exist at one point, but I haven’t been able to find it. When my friend passed away, his family couldn’t seem to find it, either. My original hope for the book was that we could use it, and there would be a QR code in the book that people could use their smartphones on and then watch the film as they’re reading.

PH: That would’ve been amazing. We could have seen into your past visually, and not just through words.

BT: If they do ever find it, I’ll put it up on my website.

PH: For those of us familiar with your work, you remind us once again of Private Miller. In Here, Bullet, you have a poem about him called “Eulogy.” There’s that line, “Private Miller pulls the trigger to take brass and fire into his mouth.” You write about his suicide and how it was ignored by your superiors. Now, in My Life as a Foreign Country, Private Miller returns to us. What was it like to revisit this moment in words again?

BT: I felt that I couldn’t talk about the landscape of Iraq and not talk about Private Miller. I hope it’s not redundant for readers—

PH: No—it certainly isn’t for me.

BT: Good. It raises some questions about what drove him to suicide, and that’s basically connected to an earlier passage in the memoir where I say, “There are some things I’ll tell you, and some things I won’t.” So I bring him back again but I don’t go into his backstory. I felt there are portions for me to tell, but there are portions for me not to tell. 

PH: One of the things I find so effective about this chapter is what comes after it. The death of Private Miller is immediately followed by chapter 59, which is about a kamikaze pilot. We have two different suicides here. One is seen as ignoble by the state—and the other, noble. How did these two sections get paired together?

BT: I’m glad you read it that way. That was one of those things where I had to trust that the reader was going to do the work without me connecting the dots. That’s how I read it, and I don’t have an answer for what you’ve just raised. I just try to provide a question. Part of the writer’s work is to provide questions or at least ask them more clearly. I know I’ve said that before, but it’s an ongoing mantra of mine.

PH: These two sections are then followed by a third suicide, this time a suicide bomber in Iraq. After she cracks open the world around her with explosives, you talk about the “sixteen Iraqi policemen” she has just murdered, which reminds us of your poem, also in Here, Bullet, of the same name. I’m thinking of the lines, “The explosion left a hole in the roadbed / large enough to fit a mid-sized car. / It shattered concrete, twisted metal, / busted storefront windows in sheets / and lifted a BMW chassis up onto a rooftop. / The shocking blood of the men / forms on obscene art: a moustache, alone / on a sidewalk.” It’s as if we’re orbiting around memory with you. These are images from Iraq that you can’t escape, I think.

BT: Part of the problem is that it’s easier for people in this tribe—the American tribe—to demonize or to “other” the suicide bomber. We just can’t understand the motivations that drive the suicide bomber and make them capable of such a thing. We make them into monsters. It’s the old dialectic: Those who want to cause “us” harm are monsters. It isn’t that I don’t sometimes also fall into this same line of thinking, but in this passage I was trying to invite the reader in to recognize the humanity of someone like that. Maybe readers would put down their guard a little bit and then meet an Iraqi suicide bomber. I’ve drifted from your actual question here, but poetry was a perfect vehicle for me in Here, Bullet because there was something either shocking or astonishing or something that needed to be given attention. I could use a poem to do that work. If I ’d written a narrative it would have been a vast year of boredom punctuated by these intense moments, but poems can look at those moments without creating an overarching story. In writing the memoir, especially after two books of poems, I felt like the landscape of the page was much more wide open. I could pursue ideas in more tertiary ways and I could better explore how things were interconnected. I realize the Iraq War is superimposed over World War II and World War I and the Civil War, and there are all these layers like plastic sheets in a biology class where you can see the human body. Do you know what I mean? When you close all the sheets you see the body, and that might be like a veteran or the memory of war in a family. The space of a memoir allowed me to revisit portions of my life that are already in poems, and it also felt more generationally and spatially expansive.

PH: Speaking of anatomy. You’ve got a section about the American Civil War where we follow these two men who steal teeth out of the mouths of the freshly dead at Antietam. It’s a short section, but it has a long afterglow in the imagination. What is it, do you think, that haunts us when we think of these two men moving through the moonlight with a chisel?

BT: There’s something so imperative about our eyes and our teeth. They’re sense organs so closely situated to the brain and consciousness. Teeth are primitive, they’re so much a part of our personality, and they’re where speech and language enter the world. To me it’s such an incredible violation and there is such a deep uneasiness, but at the same time they’re able to do this, to steal these interior bits of life—without the dead being able to do anything about it. It’s a kind of rape, almost, this reaping from the dead. I feel like if I were to follow that passage, I could really write a novel. I ’d start with that as the first chapter. I’m intrigued by these two characters and I’m very tempted to do it, but I haven’t yet leaned in and decided to do it. I’m really pulled to do that with them. No pun intended. [Laughs.]

PH: There’s something disturbing about these two moving around with their chisels and their bags of teeth.

BT: There’s also the idea of how it’s connected to the dental catalogs of the day, and how it’s connected to previous wars. Of course, war is a profitable thing. It might even be a critique of myself because I’m mining the dead in my own life and then finding a way to live off of them somehow. That’s troubling water to me.

PH: For me too. Especially with my novel on the Holocaust.

BT: I can see that. Yeah. Yeah. And with these two characters . . . just imagine British and French citizens wearing American teeth in their mouths as they smile at each other and walk down Champs-Élysées and laugh or something. There is this horrible obscene war taking place and they’re going about their lives, which have been made better by it. It’s not unlike America, where we’re usually waging wars and not even paying attention to them. You see people clicking on the latest video of a cat and laughing while these things are happening across the ocean.

PH: You begin and end your memoir with a drone of yourself flying over your bedroom, and it’s almost as if you’re spying on your current life. There is a circular nature to this observation, this intrusion, which comes at the start and the finish. It’s both you and not you orbiting your own life. In fact, the character is a dead version of you. Can you talk about this character known as Dead Sgt. Turner?

BT: He originally started off in a novel that I was working on. He was a dead American soldier and I realized I needed to steal him and bring him over into the memoir. And when he was in my head I realized, “Oh, of course, he’s dead Sgt. Turner.” He was me. Often we talk about veterans coming home and bringing the war with them. That’s a very familiar trope. Rarely, if ever, do we consider the reverse—how some veterans haunt the landscape of war itself; their bodies in America, their spirits a world away. They’re still in Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Or Vietnam. This created an interesting character vehicle for me, like doubling or separating myself so that I could examine both from different viewpoints. The vantage point of Dead Sgt. Turner reveals much about itself, and me, I guess. This doubling is part of the psychological process of being a veteran. We become doubled by the experience and we have to learn how to live with the two versions of ourselves. 

PH: I want to ask about ISIS. They want to establish a Muslim caliphate across Iraq, Syria, and beyond. What’s it like for you to watch this unfold on the news? They’re going into cities and places you know.

BT: There are many people who have wanted or desired—and I’m not sure this is the right term here—a pan-Islamic state, a larger nation. I get that. But I didn’t expect this to happen. In terms of coming down from Syria and finding a strong foothold, it’s very impressive. To be in a civil war, and then to cross the border, and then to create a larger version of itself through military operations is impressive. There is an organizational structure, and unity, and there is an energy behind it that’s impressive to see. And frightening. Very frightening. I worry about the people in Mosul, and in Baghdad where I’ve got friends—I worry about their lives. They must be frightened. I don’t know what to make of it. I just recognize that it’s part of a larger social movement. What I’m concerned about is that all the people I hear talking about it, including myself, are mostly Westerners speaking about it in English. I rarely hear people from Iraq talking about this, rarely see them on CNN or other news sources speaking as pundits and politically knowledgeable people. It’s mostly Westerners sitting around a table trying to figure out what’s going on. I’m looking forward to hearing more voices from that space, to hearing what they think should be done, or shouldn’t be done. I do hear veterans lamenting and saying things like “We worked so hard for this and that.” I don’t feel that way. I totally get the sweat and tears and lost lives—I understand that—but beyond that, it’s not my country. Whatever work I might have done, whatever possible good I tried to do, I have no ownership of that. Someone who might have lost a friend over there, or if someone died, it would be far more complicated than my own experience. As you can see, I’m struggling with your question, Patrick. It’s a difficult one. Part of the expansion of ISIS is summing up what good we did in Iraq, and whether it is being undermined. Now that we’re fighting side by side with Iraqi forces against ISIS, there’s a chance for some to forget what came before and to focus on the latest chapter while rewriting the American script—to give ourselves a white horse in the narrative, to become the cavalry charging in to the rescue. The narrative of the good guy. I was an invader and I don’t think I should have been there. I don’t know if any of what is going on now would have happened if I hadn’t been there. Maybe, instead of talking about aid now, we should have been talking about sending aid prior to now? We talk about veterans’ issues here in the States, but what about the medical and mental health issues for those in Iraq and Afghanistan? If we’re talking about going to war, we have to think about our responsibilities and how long we’re responsible for the wars that we start. It’s very comfortable to think that a war is over, but the reality is that a war creates decades and decades of generational work. Are we going to become a nation that understands that, or are we going to perpetually react to what’s in front of us without learning how to prepare for the consequences of our actions? 

 

Patrick Hicks is the author of eight books, most recently The Collector of Names: Stories (Schaffner Press, 2015), The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard (Steerforth/Random House, 2014), and Adoptable (Salmon Poetry, 2014). He serves as the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana University and is on faculty at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.