Attempting to chronicle a war is a massive literary undertaking, but trying to piece together a cohesive narrative about a half dozen or so combat zones from the poems and short stories of 17 different authors sounds like, well, hell. I’m a Vietnam-Era veteran, and even though I was never in combat, I was close enough to it to know that literature rarely captures the truths of war and the combat zone.
This summer, during a writing workshop I was teaching for veterans, I was reminded again and again of the uniquely horrifying characteristics of battle and the heaps of shame and self-loathing piled onto the backs of veterans. When the editors of New Pages asked if I would review “Tales from the Combat Zone,” Issue 8 of Workers Write!, published by Blue Cubicle Press in Plano, TX, I was quite certain they did so because they knew of my workshop and heard that I was a veteran. “How cute,” I thought; or rather, that is what I would have liked my inner voice to have said at the time. What I actually felt was something more like a paralyzing dread, and my inner voice spoke in words never meant for literary reviews, which is what this is supposed to be and what I am trying right now to make sure it is.
Thing is, I sat on this book for two months without opening it. I carried it around with me without ever opening it once, setting it next to my bed every night, and placing it back into my bag before leaving for my cushy university quasi-administrative part-time adjunct faculty position (I haven’t a clue as to what my job actually is there). I stared at the black-and-white photo on the cover: two soldiers frozen mid-step, each with one-knee bent, one foot in the gray water of a jungle stream, the other foot hovering just above the surface ready to step into something neither of the soldiers will ever want to remember and will never be able to forget. Maybe it’s a photo of their last step, a step they will take forever without getting any closer to whatever it is that is off camera. I spoke to the soldiers, drank wine with them. I sweated bullets over them, and then regretted ever having used such a stupid analogy, promising to never do it again, even though I knew I would. The more I thought about the book and the longer I carried it around with me, the heavier it became, and the larger it grew; until, Kafkaesque-like, it no longer fit into my bag. I couldn’t carry it with me another day. The excuses I gave myself for not writing about this book piled higher and higher, and soon the book would no longer fit in my house.
Left with no other choice, I began reading it in my basement. One of the veterans in my writing workshop said he spends two weeks in his basement each summer, pretending that the Fourth of July fireworks blasting over his neighborhood don’t sound like Iraq. Two weeks ago, I picked up this book and realized after reading Jeffrey C. Alfier’s poem “0800 Intelligence Briefing, 14 Feb 06,” on page 141, that he might be in his basement on the Fourth of July, too. I have written about this particular poem before, how it drills down into the image of a human body being blown apart, the entire ordeal captured on film for the purpose of debriefing the soldiers involved. But, it is the last stanza where Alfier tells us the truth behind the facts of the debriefing:
If men are knit by God in their mothers’ wombs,
then briefings are theaters we watch them fearfully
and wonderfully unstitched in, mirrored to the Maker
in sand we once swore we could burn to glass.
And so, perhaps my review is as much an unstitching of myself as it is an attempt to convey the monumental stitching job the editors of Workers Write! undertake whenever they attempt a project like “Tales from the Combat Zone.” But, putting a book like this together really is just hard work, and that’s all it ever is and ever will be, at least for as long as we have a constitutionally protected free press (but, that’s another review for another time). For now, though, editors don’t die when an author’s words explode on the page, and life doesn’t drain out of copyeditors as they make changes to page after page of a writer’s best efforts, late into the night tracking changes like dead bodies. However, if the editors do their job well, the writers’ tales become a part of the readers’ own personal narrative, part of the readers’ own experiences. It is safe to say that the editors at Workers Write! do their job very well.
A good example of the quality of the fiction is Fred McGavran’s short story, “A Count in the Afternoon,” which tells the story of U.S. soldiers sent on a mission to count the number of dead bodies after a B-52 bombing raid in Vietnam. One bomb hits its target and what they discover in a clearing in the jungle is shocking: bodies and limbs cradled ghost-like and silent in the mist high in the branches of ancient trees and draped haphazardly like cloth over the edges of the crater left by the bomb. There are so many, the major tells the sergeant to count the bodies and then double the number just to be sure. The smell rotting corpses in the rain and the heat, both seemingly unending, is overwhelming and no one can keep themselves from vomiting: “‘You can’t even tell what they were!’ the major cried, stabbing his toe into something white and putrid. ‘I don’t know whether to count that as one or two.’”
When they return to their camp, the major complains about the smell of two large dead rats underneath the kitchen. He wants the rats cleared out: Does the smell of the dead rats remind him of the smell of dead humans? Or, do the dead humans smell like dead rats? In either case, the major loves his job, which is to order others to kill and then report on the killing, but he is annoyed by the evidence of the resulting consequences of his job. If a person’s values and sense of right and wrong are unstitched by war, then the ending of McGavran leaves the reader wondering which has the stronger pull on a soldier’s judgment, fear or duty.
The stories and poems extend back to World War II. That the editors were able to include tales from the Korean War is a notable achievement. The Korean War remains a mystery to most of America to this day. We’ve come a long way since the days of WWII prison camp sitcoms with laugh tracks and Korean War MASH units with the zany antics of the heirs to the Keystone Cops.
In his introduction, Jim LaBounty, Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired) comments: “These stories—and the combat and wars they reflect—are not for the faint of heart. But then, neither is living through them.”
I think he cut himself off too soon. Living through the combat and wars reflected in the stories took more luck than it did strength. War isn’t hell. Hiding in your basement every time a firecracker goes off for the rest of your life: that’s hell.
Keep it coming Workers Writes! I have more stitching to do. We all do.