American soldiers maintain a fine tradition that is far removed from the work they do abroad: they create great literature that helps the rest of us understand the true nature of the battles fought on our behalf. Kurt Vonnegut helps us understand World War II in the European theater, and Tim O’Brien offers the rest of us a visceral account of how it felt to be an American soldier in My Lai only months after the massacre. This issue of The Iowa Review spotlights the work of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler judged the entries submitted to the 2012 Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans. Hugh Martin, a veteran of the war in Iraq, took the prize—and quite deservedly so. His poems are exceptional; their power radiates off the page. Martin’s work varies in tone and structure and demonstrates a gift for strong imagery. A citizen caught digging alongside the main road is assaulted by an Iraqi sergeant who swings his Kalashnikov “with both hands / like a tennis racket.” As a result, “the blue bruise under his eye / is like the skin of a cold plum.” It’s difficult not to cringe when you read about a serviceman who
above the porcelain sink and reaches his right arm
over his left shoulder, popping pimples near his spine
like he’s searching for a button . . .
Cole Becher, a Marine who served in Iraq, offers the excellent short story “Charybdis.” The first person story follows several men who have returned from a tour of duty in the Middle East. After eight months of slinging around a mine detector, the narrator misses swinging the AN//PSS-12 “around people’s yards, hitting the likely spots with a cool efficiency, as if searching for bombs were an Easter egg hunt.” The men have some trouble adjusting to home, particularly Conrad, who buys a cheap metal detector and patrols suburban neighborhoods. When residents ask him what he’s doing, Conrad responds in his pidgin Arabic. We already understand that our soldiers receive the training they need to wage war and to protect hearts and minds. The powerful story reminds us that we may need to offer our better training to facilitate the transition from soldier back to citizen.
In his essay “On Drones,” John Teschner contends that the “United States has severed the connection between the warrior and the field of battle.” Technology, he believes, has ushered in an impersonal kind of warfare that can cause new and devastating trauma for soldiers and their families. Teschner prudently concludes the piece with a reminder of the true consequences of war: deceased soldiers and broken families.
The contest finalists represent only half of the work in this issue. A highlight of the other half is Raymond Fleischmann’s “You Need to Stop This, You Need to Disappear.” Carolyn, a divorcee who lives with her teenage son, finds herself enthralled by a woman across the apartment complex who stands naked in the window every morning at seven o’clock sharp. When she would watch, “she felt like a ghost watching the haunted—there and not there all at once.” Carolyn isn’t attracted to the woman, but the same can’t be said for Cameron, that teenage son. Seeing the woman happens to jumpstart some important mother-son discussions. The two definitely have problems, but Fleischmann very gracefully paints a portrait of a parent and child who love each other dearly and will someday bridge the gap that separates them. Perhaps my favorite facet of the story is the way that Fleischmann leaves the significance of the mystery woman open to interpretation, both for the reader and for Carolyn.
As editor Russell Scott Valentino points out in his editor’s note, the works in this issue—whether penned by a veteran or not—are thematically united. Although the hardest work of war is done by soldiers, that work is inextricably linked to the societies they represent.