Writing Life: I Want to Smack Sam Sacks

This post is mostly not about the writing of women veterans; please forgive the digression.

In 2005, a couple of weeks into my first semester of the Writing Program at the Johns Hopkins University, my mother-in-law asked to read some of my work. I was in the mandatory basic craft class that semester; at that point we’d only written short exercises from writing prompts. No complete stories. I hadn’t yet learned never to let family members read my work-in-progress; I gave her my favorite piece, a short narrative involving a man in a barn that demonstrated the connection between setting and mood. When she finished reading it, she delivered a twenty-minute critique: this word choice was wrong; that image lacked clarity; a reader would be bored by the end of the first paragraph because there was too much description. Of course, she was just trying to help.

“Well, Judy,” I said when she finished, “it sounds like you can probably write a better barn than I can. So why don’t you write your own damn barn?”

When I read Sam Sacks’ essay “First-Person Shooters: What’s Missing in Contemporary War Fiction,” in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, I thought Sacks, why don’t you just write your own damn war novel?

Sacks’s essay is a discussion of six contemporary novels and short story collections about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve read four of the six (Powers, Gallagher & Scranton, Klay, and Pitre), but my take on them differed radically from Sacks’s. I went back and re-read the stories in Fire and Forget so I could share some specifics.

His first criticism of contemporary war fiction by veterans is that it’s all alike – the stories “view the war from the narrow perspectives of individual combatants who lack any understanding of the political and ideological context of their stories.” Most contemporary stories are told from the perspectives of individuals; that’s not unique to war fiction. It’s the best way for any writer to create an empathic bond with readers, to help the reader identify with the story’s characters. Contemporary writers in all genres of modern literary and commercial fiction draw readers in through what Allison K. Williams calls “drama in the moment” – the impact of “drama of situation” on specific individuals. In “Don’t Be Brave” she explains the difference between “drama of situation” and “drama in the moment”: “The Holocaust is drama of situation. It was terrible, sane people agree. The Diary of Anne Frank is about a group of people who don’t like each other very much trying to live in a small space, plus something horrible outside makes them keep doing it.” Some people want to read histories of the Holocaust; other readers prefer the narrative of Anne Frank. We don’t read The Iliad for insight into the politics and ideology of Athens and Troy; we want to spend time with with Paris, Helen, Achilles, and Hector. Tolstoy’s philosophical ramblings in War and Peace are made relevant through the stories of Pierre Bezukhov, Elena Kuragina, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, and sweet Natalya Rostova. The authors of contemporary war fiction give readers a palatable dose of politics and ideology through realistic and engaging depictions of individual soldiers, lieutenants, Iraqis, and Afghans. I’ll get to a few examples below.

Sacks’s second assertion is that veterans who write “are telling the same kind of war story” over and over because their stories and novels are the product of the M.F.A. workshop culture. He seems to have come to this conclusion after reading Eric Bennett’s novel A Big Enough Lie, “the first satirical treatment of contemporary war fiction and the classroom politics that produce it.” He adds, “As with most polemics against M.F.A. culture, they carry a whiff of personal grievance that helps animate the critique.” He then goes on to devote four and a half columns – almost two pages – of his essay to his own anti-M.F.A. polemic. This section troubled me deeply.

I wondered why Sacks seems to think that “classroom politics” produced the work of any of the veteran writers I know or whose work I have read. It is inaccurate and ungenerous to portray them as the black-hearted Halliburton contractors of the literary world. Many – perhaps most – of the authors who submit work to O-Dark-Thirty are years or even decades from their last classroom experience. Many have never taken a class in creative writing. I’ve also met some of the authors of the books Sacks mentions. None were cynically trying to use their military experiences to stand out in the overcrowded ranks of M.F.A. grad students or emerging writers. They’re sweet, slightly nerdy guys who turned to writing from the impulse to make art from life-changing experiences of military service and war. Tinkerers in words, pitting the forces of creation against the forces of destruction on a blank page just to see what new thing might emerge. They’re writing what seems to them to be true.

I had a stronger negative reaction to Sacks’s claim that the contemporary war narrative is one of individual trauma and bewilderment that reduces soldiers to pitiable, infantilized caricatures. His comments about traumatized veterans and veterans’ writing programs pissed me off so badly that I drafted a letter to the editors of Harper’s Magazine:

“Sam Sacks correctly observes that writing workshops for veterans have proliferated across the country. However, his assessment of the aims of the workshops and the relationship between therapeutic writing and literary writing is incorrect.

“While many veterans have found that telling their stories can be therapeutic, most veterans’ writing organizations are focused on helping veterans create literary work. Words After War, based in New York City, aims to build a literary community and to create a more open and informed veteran-civilian dialogue. Military Experience and the Arts helps veterans ready their work for publication and offers workshops on arts and healing. Instructors with the Veterans Writing Project give veterans the tools to tell their stories effectively. They also helped create an expressive writing program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that is implemented by trained, professional therapists.

“The stories told in contemporary war fiction in no way resemble the products of expressive writing. Furthermore, Sacks’ inference that veterans’ therapeutic writing is ‘pitiable’ or would generate ‘a condescending kind of sympathy but rarely any respect’ demeans the participants in veterans’ writing workshops. They are not ‘bewildered, ineffectual, cynical, destructive, incapable of distinguishing between civilians and the enemy, and intensely preoccupied with their own sense of victimhood.’ 

“While Sacks clearly intended to make a point about his perception of the tone of contemporary war fiction, tying that point to veterans’ writing organizations and to veterans’ therapeutic or expressive writing was condescending and disrespectful.” 

Ron Capps, David Ervin of Military Experience and the Arts, and Brandon Willitts of Words After War all kindly read early drafts of the letter and made helpful suggestions for revision. (Friends don’t let friends write pissed off. Love those guys.) Ron also asked me what I thought the letter would accomplish. Since I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer, I didn’t send the letter.

Sacks’s final assertion is that veterans who write should be addressing “big questions” about politics and ideology: “Why did we fight these wars, and what were we trying to achieve? Did we succeed or did we fail? What consequences have we wrought on the countries we attacked? What, if anything, have we learned? Questions like these rarely come up in recent war fiction, because they lie outside the scope of personal redemption, beyond the veteran’s expected journey from trauma to recovery,” he says.

I read plenty of political and ideological context and thoughts about the Big Questions in the stories in Fire and Forget. As Colum McCann pointed out in the foreword to the anthology, “Writing fiction is necessarily a political act. And writing war fiction, during a time of war, by veterans of the conflicts we are still fighting, is a fervent, and occasionally anguished, political act.”            Here are a few of my favorite examples of politics and ideology from the stories in Fire and Forget.

The narrator of Ted Janis’s story “Raid” alludes to his perspective on the ideology that led America into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

“Bin Laden was fish food, but we were still chasing targets, hunting down low-level pipe swingers in the name of GWOT, an acronym and a concept that belonged to last decade. Two deployments ago, I drank the Kool-Aid—drank it like it was the blood of Christ.”

The narrator, and by implication the majority of the American public, swallowed the Bush administration’s explanation of the War on Terror with the same unquestioning belief and uncritical compliance as the members of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple who obediently drank cyanide-laced bug juice. Later, the narrator tells the unit’s interpreter, Omar: “I re-upped back when I believed. These days we create more insurgents than we kill.”

In his story “Television,” Roman Skawskiw embeds ideology and politics in an image – a brief description of an item a character wears. If you aren’t familiar with the connotations of the item to soldiers, it’s easy to overlook the meaning. Sergeant Alphabet, one of Lieutenant Sugar’s squad leaders, has shot a boy whom he believed to be threatening a squad on patrol. The lieutenant is ordered to visit the boy’s family to explain and apologize for the sergeant’s actions. He thinks:

“It’s a tragedy, this thing, sure, but my duty is to make the Iraqis understand that we’ve come to help them with freedom, and honor, and duty. Courage, Sugar thought. A little plastic dog tag printed with the Army values dangled from Sugar’s neck, beside the stainless steel ones bearing his name, social, blood type, and religion.”

Sugar’s little plastic dog tag imprinted with the Army core values is a clear sign to his soldiers that he’s a doofus: incompetent, a poor leader, not worthy of respect. He can’t even remember the basics without a cheat sheet. The Army core values printed on Lieutenant Sugar’s dog tag are a metaphor for the American values we expected Iraqi citizens and leaders to embrace regardless of their own values and goals for their country. In the hands of incompetent leaders, Skawskiw suggests, both the Army’s values and America’s are useless – abstract concepts printed on cheap plastic.

Sugar’s visit to the bereaved Iraqi family begins to disillusion him, however. He thinks, “Sometimes you’re handed a piece of shit and the best you can do is put a ribbon on it and pretend it smells like roses.” This can also be interpreted as a comment on the War on Terror. The American armed forces were handed a piece of shit in Iraq and Afghanistan; they did their best to wrap it with a pretty bow, and pretended not to notice the stink.

My favorite expression of politics and ideology in Fire and Forget comes from Perry O’Brien’s satirical story “Poughkeepsie.” The narrator, who is AWOL, sits on the sidewalk in front of the Port Authority considering a visit to a girl he met through “Any Soldier” mail and corresponded with. Charlotte is a college student in Poughkeepsie – perhaps at

The Thompson Library at Vassar College. Author's photo.

The Thompson Library at Vassar College. Author’s photo.

Vassar, where the Thompson Library looks very much like the castle the narrator imagines. Charlotte had written that rabbits were destroying the college landscaping; he begins to fantasize about a “shock and awe” campaign against them. Then, he thinks, after nearly destroying them he’ll make the remaining rabbits a peace offer. Tell them they could do more with their lives. Train them in tactics, help them dig tunnels under the foundations of the college buildings. On graduation day, he finally decides, they’ll take the college, leave the campus a smoking heap of rubble, and send Charlotte running. When she asks him why, he will say that he needed something to do. He will become King of the Rabbits for a short time, and then the rabbits will turn on him and chase him back to his homeland. The fantasy is a satirical extended metaphor for the American actions in Iraq. The entire story could even be read as an allegory, with Charlotte in the role of Saddam Hussein, the rabbits as the Iraqi people, and the narrator as the U.S. Army.

If allusion, image, extended metaphor, and allegory seem like convoluted and overdone ways to make points about the political and ideological context of the wars, readers of Fire and Forget can find it simple and straightforward in this passage of pidgin-English dialogue between the narrator of Roy Scranton’s story “Red Steel India” and two members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps:

“You like America?” I asked them.
“Ameriki?” the younger one said.
“Yeah. America good?”
“Yes, Ameriki good,” he beamed.
“Michael Jackson good?”
“Yes yes, Michael Jackson.
Ee-hee. Very good.”
“You like Bush? Bush good?”
“Boosh good, yes.”
“How ’bout Saddam? You like Saddam?”
“Saddam no good. Saddam Ali Baba
[a thief],” the older one said, stamping his foot and spitting.
“You shi’a?”
“Ayatollah Sistani good?”
He shrugged.
“Moqtada al-Sadr good?”
“Al-Sadr very good,” the young one said. The older one shrugged.
“Shi’a?” I pointed at the young one.
“Nam. Shi’a,” he pointed at himself.
“Bush good, no Saddam?”
“Saddam no good.”
“Bush no good,” I said. “Bush Ali Baba.”
“No!” the older one said, aghast.
“Saddam, Bush, same-same,” I said. “Ali Baba, Ali Baba.”
“No, Boosh good,” the young one said.
I shrugged. “Ali Baba.”

Veteran writers also depict the consequences of the wars for both the soldiers who fought and the Iraqi and Afghan civilians who suffer. In her story “The Train,” in Fire and Forget, Mariette Kalinowski graphically shows the deaths of a fellow female soldier and a young Iraqi girl; the recurring trauma that her protagonist struggles with may be “expected,” but the journey does not end with recovery. (Despite Sacks’s brief aside about women veterans, some of us are also writing fiction. The exercise I described above became “Memorial Day,” my first published story, four years after my mother-in-law’s death. It’s not about women veterans, and it’s not in the same league as the work Sacks is reviewing; but it was about my own experience of war – the best attempt I could make at that time to wrestle with politics, ideology, and my own feelings about spending three and a half years on thirty-day standby to deploy to fight in wars I considered immoral and unjust.) In the end, the consequences of politics, ideology, and war can best be understood in fiction through depictions of the impact of war on individuals.

Sacks seems to believe that veterans who write fiction are failing to hold educated, liberal America accountable for its political and moral failures in the War on Terror through their stories. Having been a career naval officer, I see the responsibility chain differently. In the Navy, the captain of the ship takes the ultimate responsibility for everything that happens on board, and demands accountability from every sailor in the ship’s company. But that’s only half of the equation. Every sailor must also accept responsibility for his or her personal failures. There can be no redemption for a sailor who has screwed up without an acceptance of responsibility.

The writers of contemporary war literature are demanding accountability. Colum McCann says in his foreword to Fire and Forget that “It is the job of literature to confront the terrible truths of what war has done and continues to do to us,” and veterans who write are doing that. They’re not only showing the impact of the wars on individual soldiers and the citizens of the countries to which they deployed. They’re also holding up a mirror to the American public. When the narrator of “Smile, There Are IED’s Everywhere” says that the bartender had “earned the weathered ‘We support the troops!’ sticker pasted to the wall,” that’s also a statement about Americans who gave lip service but no meaningful support during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In “Play the Game,” Colby Buzzell paints portraits of all sorts of well-meaning Americans who proudly display their ignorance of the recent wars: store managers, police officers, even veterans of earlier wars.

Sacks could write his own war novel: perhaps something in the omniscient point of view, a narrative in which characters ponder the “big questions” and demand that readers be held accountable for America’s political and moral failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m skeptical that such a novel would be a commercial or critical success. And I’m certain that no matter how many stories veterans – and civilians – tell about the wars, no matter the narratives’ emotional resonance or power, America will not be accountable for our political and moral failures in Iraq and Afghanistan until there is public acknowledgement and acceptance of the responsibility and complicity. There can be no redemption for America until the second part of the responsibility equation is complete. So if America’s educated liberal reading elite is ducking and covering, that’s on them. It’s a choice. By suggesting that contemporary war fiction is deeply flawed, and by placing blame and responsibility for America’s lack of accountability on the heads of the veterans who write it, Sacks offers the audience of Harper’s Magazine one more avenue of escape, further enabling the search for unearned redemption.

About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
This entry was posted in Fiction, In the News, Literary Criticism, Writing Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Writing Life: I Want to Smack Sam Sacks

  1. tracycrow8@gmail.com says:

    Wow!!! So well stated! Really ticks me off that Harper’s gave him such a public space. Grrr…

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. andria816 says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Saw the title of this post and thought, “Hoo boy, Jerri’s taking on that Harper’s article. This isn’t gonna end well for Sam Sacks.” 😉


    • readersquest says:

      You know what a hothead I can be, Andria! I had to give myself a month and excise a lot of…um, nautical terminology…from my early drafts of this post. I could have done a separate post altogether on Sacks’s tone, word choice, and sentence structure. But as Ron asked, what would I hope to accomplish or change with it? Besides, I have a book to write. Time to move on.

      Liked by 1 person

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