Elliot L. Ackerman, author of Green on Blue: A Novel, Matthew Gallagher, author of Youngblood, and Michael Pitre, author of Fives and Twenty-Fives, join PEN American Center's Peter Godwin, to discuss the authors’ military experiences during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and what led each of them to write war-related novels. The panel discusses fiction versus nonfiction in conveying war realities, war literature from past conflicts, and the central roles that Iraqis and Afghans play in their books.
Matthew Gallagher on fiction:
“I think fiction can get into this deeper texture, both societal, emotional and a wider breadth of stuff that even the best journalism, even the best creative nonfiction just can't do.”
Michael Pitre on the Iraqi protagonist in his book:
“…everyone wants the story of the brave Americans and I never knew anyone braver than my interpreter. And that continued for him long after we left. So I wanted to tell a story that was about the work of war. The principal activity of the characters in the novel is filling potholes…what's emerged, that was the story of the Iraqi people during the war.”
Elliot L. Ackerman on whether only soldiers can write authentic war stories:
“…if that is true, that the only person who can ever understand what the smallest soldier has been through is someone who's been to combat…if that means that we collectively can never be understood, then that means we never get to come home…and so I like to think that that's not true. And I think it's very disempowering to both sides of the equation to believe that that's true.”
GODWIN: Good evening. Welcome to Council on Foreign Relations.
My name is Peter Godwin, and I'm going to be moderating the talk tonight. The title of the—the title of the talk, which I have here somewhere I think, is—oh, here it is, which I'm sure you have as well, is "Conveying War through Fiction: The Insight of Veterans."
So, let me introduce everybody. I'm Peter Godwin. I'm a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. And I'm also currently the president of American PEN Center, and an author myself.
And on my immediate left is Elliot Ackerman. I think you've all got the notes on everybody so I'm not going to waste too much time going through all of their accolades.
All three—Elliot is the author of his first novel—I think it's your first novel, right, Green on Blue, which has been very well reviewed. Also has spent eight years in the military I think, in the Marines and in Special Ops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Next to Elliot is—where are we? Sorry. Excuse me. Matt Gallagher who's, I'm about to find, Matt Gallagher is...
(UNKNOWN): Very good looking.
GODWIN: Very good looking, as we've been talking about various...
GALLAGHER: Blushing already.
GODWIN:...saying how good looking they all are. Matt Gallagher, who's the author of an Iraq war memoir called Kaboom, a former U.S. Cavalry officer. And his new novel, Youngblood, is coming out in...
GALLAGHER: A year from now. Next February.
GODWIN: A year from now. Right.
And on my left is Michael Pitre, who is a former Marine deployed twice in Iraq, attained the rank of captain before leaving in 2010. His first novel is Fives and Twenty-Fives.
So welcome to you all. I'm going to ask—I'm going to ask some questions for about twenty-five minutes. And then I'm going to open up to the floor. And I promise you I will be on time to do that because I know that you will all have questions. So if I go over for whatever reason you can start slow hand clapping or something.
The first question I want to ask I mean really all three of you. And it sounds a little bit like a kind of cliche. But I mean this in a sort of heartfelt way as a fellow writer. Is really what your motives were for doing this?
It's not an obvious thing to do as a soldier. I mean in many ways I know that one is often kind of teased or that it's actually quite a hard thing to do to turn your experiences into literature, especially into fiction.
So I'm just interested in what made you do it and what your overall motives were in your journey to literature. Why don't we just take it from here and go down?
ACKERMAN: Sure. Well, my mother's a novelist. So I grew up around writing and books. And I studied history and literature at school. So in many respects it actually felt very natural to me. And I was in the military—I've sort of always felt that I would write about it.
The novel I wrote is—it's written from the perspective of a young Afghan solider. So it's not my experience. But I spent in Afghanistan all of my time exclusively as an advisor to Afghan troops.
And when I came home these soldiers weren't people that I could keep up with on Facebook, get beers with at the VFW or call long distance. But you know they were my friends and we had all—we fought together. We bled together.
And I very much wanted to render their world and the war as they saw it. And so when I came home I think I really started writing the book in many respects as a last act of friendship to those guys.
GODWIN: So did you imagine writing the book while you were there? Or was this something that was sort of ex post facto?
ACKERMAN: While I was there, and in this eight-year period I—in the back of my mind felt I'm going to probably write about this at some point. And even as I would occasionally flirt with the idea of starting while I was still in the service, the experience, I was too close to the experience. And it didn't work.
And I mean it almost sounds trite to say this, but I actually started—I wrote my first scene while I was still in Afghanistan on my last deployment and I was able to write that scene shortly after I made a decision that that would in fact be my last deployment. Knowing that it was over it gave me what was the beginning of the space to start to examine it.
GODWIN: Matt, what about you?
GALLAGHER: Yeah. You know, to paraphrase Joan Didion, storytelling gives life meaning.
I think that's always been very resonant with me. I grew up in a reading household. It was something that my mom encouraged my brother and I to do to try to make sense of the world.
One of the coolest things I remember—that time in early adolescence when you realize your parents are people. She was reading a Tom Wolfe novel. And she was a big Tom Wolfe fan. But she's originally from Virginia and didn't like the way he portrayed a woman from Richmond, thought that she was too much of a character. So she wrote a letter to him.
And you know this is Reno, Nevada, out in the desert outpost of the west. And wouldn't you know it, the old man in the white suit from New York City wrote her back. And I thought that was so cool.
So that's always stayed with me in terms of dealing with the broader world. So it made sense just to write about it when I joined the military and went to Iraq. I originally kept a blog over there. It got shut down. But...
GODWIN: A very controversial blog.
GALLAGHER: ...that's neither here nor there.
But you know for the same reasons you know. It wasn't—I didn't even know what a writer or how somebody became a writer back then. It just, it was a way for me to try to deal with the day-to-day, night-to-night missions of being in a scout platoon during the surge.
So you know, flash forward a couple years, it's an important thing, not just to bear witness, not just to tell a story, but to—you know I think fiction can get into this deeper texture, both societal, emotional and a wider breadth of stuff that even the best journalism, even the best creative nonfiction just can't do.
That's just one man's opinion. I don't want to offend any creative nonfiction writers out there.
PITRE: But, well I couldn't sleep. I was about a year out of—a year after I left the service I got an MBA. Was beginning a new profession totally unrelated to the writing or the military.
And I couldn't sleep. I thought I was past all of it. I thought I was done with it. You know, it was over. But my wife said if you're going to stay awake, you're not going to keep me awake. And you're going to go into the living room and do something productive, so.
And also like Elliot, I was around Iraqis quite a lot. And you keep tabs on the Marines you served with but you can't keep tabs on those guys.
And everyone wants the story of the brave Americans and I never knew anyone braver than my interpreter. And that continued for him long after we left.
So I wanted to tell a story that was about the work of war. The principal activity of the characters in the novel is filling potholes, which sounds boring. But it was not. And what's emerged, that was the story of the Iraqi people during the war.
GODWIN: Matt, you've alluded to this already, but—and you wrote—I think you're alone on the panel in having written a nonfiction sort of memoir first, right?
GALLAGHER: I believe so. Elliot's written some very powerful nonfiction essays for the New Yorker and such.
GODWIN: Right. And—but you've now written a novel as well. So what is it about fiction that you think in general? Why do you—why go for fiction and not for creative nonfiction or whatever one wants to call it, to process these experiences?
GALLAGHER: Yes. No, it's a good question.
A couple years ago I'd written a memoir. I'd never really—I wanted to be a fiction writer, right. So I'd gone back to grad school for that because I realized that even though I'd written a book I had no idea how the hell to write a novel.
So I was figuring that out. And I was about halfway through a novel about New York. And there're plenty of great novels about New York. But there're also plenty of novels about New York.
And this was when ISIS was rolling into western Iraq, and very close, they were about thirty miles away from the village and town my unit was stationed in. And you know when I was over there in 2007-2008, and there was a really cautious sense of optimism that we left there with.
And watching kind of the black flag of Al-Qaeda go over the government buildings of Ramadi and Fallujah, which I know both of you spent time in, was just really gut wrenching, frankly. And it was—it forced me to kind of go deeper and darker with some of the stuff, my relationship to my own service and my relationship to this country and to the country that sent us there.
And so I realized that there was only—I'm not very good at much, I can barely do long division. But writing was really my only way to try to sort through this.
So I set aside the New York novel and realized that I wasn't done with the Iraq war yet. And I thought it might be an opportunity to tell a bigger, wider story than a memoir could, which is by its very nature going to be very slice of life-y, especially when you write it at twenty-five because you don't really have that much to say outside of that slice of life.
GODWIN: Michael, what was your—what was behind your decision to do it this way?
PITRE: Fiction as opposed to a memoir? Well, much of my novel's constructed around the life of a kid in Baghdad before the war. He was getting an advanced degree in English from Baghdad University and writing his thesis on Huck Finn, which is something I thought about while I was there.
I don't know, like the road to Iraq kind of had personalities like rivers. You thought of certain like Route Mobile, Route Michigan, different kinds of bombs, different kinds of people, different kinds of experiences. And like Huck and Jim on the river, the minute you get off the river is when things go bad.
So wanting to tell a story like that, that was true to me couldn't have worked in the space of a memoir. And there's—like Matt said, there's truth in fiction that you can't find in a memoir.
GODWIN: The Washington Post recently wrote a piece saying that we were having a new golden age of war literature. And one assumes as part of that that we've got people like you, of your sort of age who've all been through Iraq or Afghanistan who are now coming out the other end.
But what struck me with all three of these books is in comparison to the kind of books we saw coming out after World War II, or even after Vietnam, is how much these books are about locals. That they are as much about the local people as there are about your compatriots, your comrades, your American comrades.
And I wondered I mean why you think this is. I mean because it was counterinsurgency or what? What made you concentrate—I mean not exclusively on writing about Iraqis and Afghanis as much as writing about your comrades?
GALLAGHER: Well, they're our legacy over there right, like from a wider strategic viewpoint. They're living what we wrought.
GODWIN: I mean, Elliot, in your case you've done an extraordinary thing in that you've written in the first person through the eyes of a young Afghan boy. And it's an extraordinary act of artistic empathy.
But I suppose—I mean I write about Africa quite a lot. And I would be too chicken to do it because I would be scared of being accused of cultural voyeurism or theft of narrative or all of these sorts of post-colonial studies, things that one comes up against.
So what was—I mean what made you decide to do that, to inhabit that character?
ACKERMAN: It was a process. You know in fact early drafts of the book were not told that way insomuch as when I worked in special operations I also worked heavily in intelligence.
And so I spent a lot of time sitting across a plywood desk eating peanuts and slurping warm Cokes with Afghans who would come in telling me that they knew where Mullah Mohammad Omar was. And you know if I would just sit with them for four hours and give them enough candy bars we would get to the end of it.
But there was always—so that—I think being a case officer in some ways is great training for being a novelist because you're just sitting there trying to extract stories out of people. And so that rhythm, the rhythm of those conversations was, as I started writing Green on Blue, is what really informed it.
And when the book opened it was actually Aziz who was the protagonist, who's this young Afghan boy. It was him telling his story almost in the same structure of like a Marlow talking about Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. And I built this frame where he was telling a story to a case officer.
As I sort of got into later drafts I started asking myself. I had some people read it. I was like why is he telling it to this case officer? Why did I build this person in here?
And as I started really reflecting on that I thought I was like you know, I built them in there as a crutch because for all the reasons that you laid out. I didn't want to go ahead and say I'm just going to write from the perspective of an Afghan boy.
And—I don't know. At times maybe it was the same thing that made me a Marine. I've been known to just say "screw it, I'm going to do it and we'll see if it works".
And so we pulled it out, got rid of the frame and decided to go all-in with that voice, and let the novel succeed or fail based off of the merits of that. But that—you know, for the book to be true it was this character's story and I needed to distill it into its purest form and remove that crutch that I'd built in for myself.
GODWIN: Have you had any reaction to the book from Afghanistan yet? Or is it still too soon, still too early?
ACKERMAN: Well, it's a little bit—from Afghans?
ACKERMAN: Well, the thing that's a little bit difficult is you know the—there aren't that I know of—there isn't that I know too large a community of Afghans who are reading American literary fiction. Although if they're out there, you know, I would love to sell foreign rights in Afghanistan.
But I mean all joking aside, no, not in that respect. I mean not to get too into the weeds, but through a friend—a friend put me in touch with Khaled Hosseini who was in fact the first Afghan to read the book...
GODWIN: And gave it a very good...
ACKERMAN: Right. You can imagine...that was a terrifying experience. So, you know but it's going out on a limb. But I feel your motivations are what are important. And my motivation was to try to tell the story of some people who are not going to have the opportunity to tell their own story.
GODWIN: Michael, you, more than the rest I think I mean you spend more time in your book describing scenes of dislocation of people who've come back. I mean you flash back and forward, very effective scenes of what it's like for vets who are back here trying to kind of figure out their lives.
Have you—has that been something that you've experienced yourself? I mean I notice, as one anthropologist calls it, the pressure from civilians to feel guilt, that there's a pressure on returning vets that—from civilians. And also really coming back into a sort of sea of apathy, coming back from something that's been fairly intensive and then coming back to a country which kind of isn't really...
PITRE: Acts as if they had no stake in it.
PITRE: That you were there and we weren't. I thought the, "did you kill anyone" question was extinct. I thought we'd left that one.
PITRE: But I got it. And so after a while I started responding. I wouldn't answer that question, but I would say, "well if I did kill anyone you paid me to".
UNKNOWN: Got a lot of beers that way, right?
PITRE: Well, I do live in New Orleans, so, never short of that.
And yes. Most of my graduate school classmates there was a leadership dynamics course I had to take, which is there's a couple scenes in the novel set in a leadership dynamics course. And people are asking me how to apply my military leadership experience to business. I don't know.
I don't know if that's the right forum to talk about the decisions I had to make as a young lieutenant and a young captain in Iraq. I don't think they fit here and I don't want to tell you why. So can we move onto the balance sheet, please? That sort of experience.
And that also kind of spurred me to start writing it. Because I wasn't going to have these conversations with people who obviously didn't want to hear the answer.
And sure, feel guilt. Feel a pressure to make things right in the world with the decisions that we execute on an international stage. But approach the results with pragmatism. I don't like emotional let me buy you a beer, slap you on the shoulder stuff in a bar. Let's talk about now and what we do now. I don't need a shoulder to cry on. And offering vets a shoulder to cry on is kind of—it's rather insulting.
GODWIN: There's an almost inevitable trajectory when sometimes things have—war authors—where they join up. I mean I'm talking about volunteer armies now.
They join up in a fit of patriotism or you know enthusiasm or positivity of one way or another. And then there's a sort of inevitable curdling of that into disillusion as they turn against the endeavor. I mean, has that been your experiences? And what do you, insofar as you look now, at the various conflicts around which we're being encouraged or pressured to get more involved in—Syria or ISIS or northern Nigeria or Ukraine—or Libya for that matter? Is it something now that you look at in a way differently to the way that you might've looked at it when you—before you joined up in the first place?
ACKERMAN: Matt, I think you touched a little before on war literature from—that's come out of the past. And I think when you do look at the total canon that emerges, there's always—each sort of has its own sound.
Like the Vietnam War literature, it's very, very ironic, also very elegiac. The war literature from the First World War, which is really the first war that created such a large body of work—extremely elegiac.
I think one of the things that's informing the sound of this war's literature is the fact that everybody was a volunteer. And in many respects the guys who are fighting in many of the combat units, they volunteered twice to be in the military, to be in some of those units.
And I think there's—the writing is also—is still elegiac, but it's different insomuch as there's a sadness that comes with the fact that you keep—you chose this. And for many people you keep choosing it. And what does that mean? And what is that impulse? And I don't think that impulse is rooted in patriotism. I think it's rooted in where people are finding their purpose and how those forces start to play out in their life.
And I think that's something that's—it's difficult to say that anything is unique to one war. But I think it's definitely prevalent in these wars.
GODWIN: Go ahead.
ACKERMAN:...this idea—I loved being in the Marine Corps. I loved it. It was—I have no regrets about having been in the Marine Corps.
Some of these conversations start with people wanting you to somehow admit that you made a mistake. I did not make a mistake. I was there very happily.
Sorry, Matt. Go ahead.
GALLAGHER: No, I mean I was just going to say like kind of the typical war narrative of many classic novels is, you know, boy is idealistic, boy goes to war, boy is disillusioned, boy writes about it.
I think it's—I mean we grew up post-Vietnam. My parents were protesters. Like it's kind of hard to follow—like to not even be informed ahead of time of the complexities, the moral ambiguities we were going to be placed in. And that was part of the appeal, right.
I mean there is kind of a recklessness that goes along with youth in thinking that no, I want to be that person. But you know kind of echoing both what Elliot and Michael said, thank God we live in a country where we still produce young people that think that way.
Now we, now us as a citizenry have to be very careful with how we utilize that passion. But I think the post-Vietnam element is also going to be a huge factor in how our literary canon takes shape.
ACKERMAN: I mean, and just to what they said, I mean it's—I've spent a lot of time when I look back at the best days of my life thus far. If I had to pick them on two hands I'd say at least a hand plus would be days that I was in combat, intense days that I was in combat.
If I had to pick the worst days of my life, it would be many of the exact same days. And what does that mean about me, about that experience? The best days of my life are the worst days of my life. And you know it's something that I try to get at in my writing.
GODWIN: So your message I mean to young—the next, well not generation, but half generation following on from you...if those kids come up to you pre, post college or whatever and say they're thinking of joining up. Would it be something that you encourage at this point? Or would you try and talk them out of it, given your experiences, your respective experiences?
PITRE: My wife is a high school English teacher and I wrote a letter of recommendation for one of her students to go to the Naval Academy. Only after this young lady had explained to me in very detailed ways why she wanted to.
It's not about is it a good or a bad thing. Have the right reasons. Only when she convinced me that she had the right reasons did I agree. So I would never in a blanket way dissuade or persuade a young person to join the military. You just need the right reasons.
GODWIN: The experience of war itself, and I know that when you're over the—even when you're in field you have many, many days, weeks, whatever of boredom or whatever when nothing much is happening, followed by huge—by bursts of intensiveness.
But the proximity of death is a great muse, obviously. And it's given all three of you astonishing material which you've used to enormous effect. What do you think—I mean how—what happens on your return, your postwar literary period?
I mean do you think this is now something do you—are you all looking forward to novels that won't be about the war? Is this something you mine kind of once or twice and move on? Or is this something that's imprinted on you now and it's sort of part of your character as writers?
ACKERMAN: I mean I think we're—I think there's a lot of novels that are about war without being about war. You know I think there're a lot of novelists who are dancing around seminal issues in their lives and telling stories that have nothing—at face value have nothing to do with those issues. I mean, I couldn't sit up here and pretend that I didn't, you know, learn what it meant to be a person by going to war.
You know I have a good friend of mine who I go over—we run together in the mornings. And he was in the Iraq invasion. He is a paramilitary case officer with the CIA right now and he's been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan I mean more times than anybody I know.
And I just remember one day we were on a run together and we were sort of talking about some of these issues and our war experience. And he sort of leaned over to me and said you know, Ack, like the melancholy thing of it all is that we grew up there.
And you know, I thought about that. I was twenty-four when I first got shot at. And we did grow up there.
And so I don't know. I don't plan on writing war novel after war novel after war novel. But I'm sure whenever I'm sitting down to write close at hand is going to be those days of that part of my youth.
GODWIN: What about you, Matt? I mean you're doing another—your next novel, which I've read, is also a war novel.
GALLAGHER: It is. It is. You know, much like Elliot I think it's just—it's always part of the author. You know you can turn to the past and see plenty of examples both ways.
I mean Norman Mailer got his start writing The Naked and the Dead. And he wrote about all kinds of crap afterwards. But World War II was always a part of that. Some of it was really good. Some of it was crap.
That was my cavalry scout language coming out. Some of it was not so good. Some of it was very good.
Then you have somebody like Tim O'Brien, right, who—you know I recently read The Things They Carried because I'm working on a Vietnam literature essay because the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon's coming up.
And it's just fascinating watching the trajectory of him as an author. It's almost like watching a very gifted storyteller circle and recircle kind of the same topic and idea until he gets it exactly right.
Now how he didn't think he got it exactly right after writing Going After Cacciato I don't know. But then he returned and went back at it for The Things They Carried. So I mean those are just two examples out of hundreds and hundreds.
You know I think it's whatever—I found for me at least I need to write whatever I'm fighting. Whatever the part of me is afraid of, whether that's writing about New York policemen and the mayor in New York City or whether it's about ISIS taking over Iraq. If part of me's kind of afraid of it, I need to sit down and write it.
PITRE: Yeah, I'm done.
GODWIN: Just done with war, but not with books.
GALLAGHER: I don't—put me on the spot. No, I think I'm done writing about Iraq. I can't imagine writing about Iraq again.
GODWIN: But you've got more books in you?
GALLAGHER: I hope so.
GODWIN: All right.
GALLAGHER: You know they're videotaping this so...
GODWIN: We'll hold you to it.
PITRE: ...I'm aware that I might.
GODWIN: We spoke earlier about this in the green room. I'm going to ask—this is my last question. And I'm just going to get it out there because I know somebody will at some point.
And given that it's Oscar season, "American Sniper", thumbs up or thumbs down and why?
GALLGHER: In between, or is that equivocating?
ACKERMAN: That's equivocating.
GODWIN: Unless there's a good reason.
GALLAGHER: I think some good things can come out of it. And I know I'm in the—based on our discussion in the green room I'm in the minority here. But before "American Sniper" the movie there was a real question whether America gave a damn at all for anything that was coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Is it the movie that I would've written? Absolutely not. Are there some real questions of lack of ambiguity, hero myth, sanitized version of Chris Kyle going on? Absolutely.
But it made more money than "Saving Private Ryan", so it's doing something. And I think as somebody who tries to be a thinking person, why? Why is that resonating?
And if some people care about some of the soldiers that came back and some of the veterans that came back and weren't as lucky to channel some things into literature, or came back physically wounded, that's a good thing. That's a good thing.
Should it win an Academy Award? No. But.
PITRE: This is a panel about fiction, right?
PITRE: I don't know. I've not seen it nor read it.
ACKERMAN: I can't say much better than that.
GODWIN: All right.
ACKERMAN: I mean I agree with Matt.
GODWIN: Listen. Thank you. I'm going to keep absolutely to my word and I'm going to throw this open to questions. I think I've got something I have to tell you how to do the questions, sorry.
There's a thing somewhere telling me that you have to say who you are and where you're from I think. What. You've got to wait for the microphone. You've got to state your attribution or your affiliation, your affiliation, right.
Okay. Lady here in front of me. Do we have a roving mic?
QUESTION: Yes. Marlene Sanders, formerly CBS News, now at NYU.
I know you're telling fictional stories, but I'd like each one of you to tell me whether you had an antiwar theme or whether that was the message underlying your work or not.
ACKERMAN: I don't feel as though I've wrote an antiwar book. Not to raise the iconic, Tim O'Brien says no true war story—or any true war story's an antiwar story. I actually disagree with that.
So I didn't feel as though my book had an antiwar theme, or a pro-war theme for that matter. I felt very much that I wanted to show a paradigm. And if I showed it truly the reader would be able to determine whether or not it was an antiwar or a pro-war book.
PITRE: I—oh, Matt.
GALLAGHER: No. No, please go first. I'm still thinking.
PITRE: You were sitting up.
I don't think I wrote an antiwar book. I think I wrote a book about wars that are fought in an unintelligent way. I don't know if this is a theme.
Did you guys—is the term big blue arrow person something you talk about in your worlds?
ACKERMAN: My wife says it to me about the kids.
PITRE: Yes. OK. So, there're people you meet in the military who are called big blue arrow people who walk up to a map and go arrow, big blue. And then they go, there's my strategy. Like the end of their planning process is when they draw this blue arrow. And you go OK, where are you going to need fuel along this route, what are you doing?
I had an experience like this with another officer who was planning a big blue arrow movement in the desert. And when I started asking him detailed questions about what happens inside this arrow he got like personally offended. It's like "oh I'm sorry, Stonewall Jackson, did I shit on your grand flanking maneuver here, buddy, by asking you tough questions?"
And if the point—if the point of the war, as it was advertised in 2003 in Iraq anyway, was to march up, overthrow a despot, install a democratic secular government and build on that. Why weren't the people responsible for that one hour behind the main echelon, you know?
I want—so I have no issue with war and warfare done well and in such a way that it accomplishes our goals.
GALLAGHER: Anti-stupid war.
PITRE: Yes. Am I still mic'd up? Yes. I think there can be big blue arrow captains and big blue arrow four stars. A big blue arrow captain is an annoyance and sort of amusing. A big blue arrow four star is a national catastrophe.
GALLAGHER: Yes. I mean just anti—I hope my novel is anti-stupid war. We talked about the generational inheritance of Vietnam. Well, my grandfathers both fought in World War II. So I think we're not so far removed from that that yes, war is bad. But sometimes it is necessary.
How we as a republic behave and remember that is something to be utilized under only the most extreme of situations, in my opinion, is probably a separate discussion to your question. So.
GODWIN: Question over there, mid-row.
QUESTION: Hi. I'm Marshall Sonenshine, chairman of RosettaBooks and professor at Columbia.
I have so many questions I want to ask you guys, but I know I have to limit it. I have a couple minutes on the phone with Elliot, but I'll ask all three of you this.
Since two of you mentioned Tim O'Brien, I—if my memory serves correctly from my Vietnam seminar at Brown University circa 1981, he also wrote a book called If I Die in a Combat Zone.
Now, we have no draft in this country and at that time in Vietnam we did. So what I want to understand from each of you was what was your sense of mission and mortality going in? And what was it coming out?
PITRE: Sense of mission and mortality? Meaning what did I think my mission was and how did I consider my own mortality within that mission?
PITRE: Then I'll let Elliot go first.
GODWIN: I think you volunteered for that.
ACKERMAN: No, I'll take that. Very well, Mike.
You know I happen to believe that wars are always going to be fought, that it's something that's inherent in human nature. And when I joined the Marines I wanted a job. Whether I was good at my job or bad at my job really mattered.
And I came in, in 1998. So there wasn't really a war on the horizon. So my sense of mission was much more localized. I wanted to be, in my early days, a good platoon commander. And if I was a good platoon commander hopefully I would be there to make a few right decisions and not be you know one of the big blue arrow guys Mike is talking about.
And you know and I—I feel that in the course of an eight-year military career I can probably count those instances on two hands. But they came up. And some of them I called right, and there are a couple that I called wrong. But being present was something that was important to me.
So my war is as simple as that. And it's also why I don't have any regrets about it. I would not go back in time and extract myself from those moments.
GALLAGHER: Sense of mission—getting there in '07, push a country back from the brink of a civil war that we helped create. Temporarily worked. Sense of mortality? Very palpable over there. I don't know.
I was surprised at how quickly I just fell back into the rhythms of civilian life though. It took me about a year, about the same time I was deployed. And sometimes I'd try to remind myself how special existence is.
But yes. It's a strange thing over there, that sense of how quickly it can all go away, not just for you but very close friends of yours. For people you hate, which sometimes is worse because the emotions are far more complicated.
PITRE: I guess the mission (inaudible) Elliot. You're a young lieutenant going to Iraq for the first time in 2006 as I was. My main mission was not to make an ass of myself. Moderately successful.
And you always tend to steer people away from that attitude, 'my mission is to make every one of my Marines comes home'. Like, all right. That's a good idea. That's not actually the mission.
When I was there in 2006 we were all very bottled up with that mentality, like very bunker mentality like no, just don't get anyone killed, just don't get anyone killed. Not go out into the community and engage with the people right on the other side of this plateau who live with far more danger than we do.
So 2007, I was there for the surge as well. It was much different mentality. It was 'engage, try to win'.
As far as my own sense of mortality, you don't get comfortable with that very quickly, but you move on.
GODWIN: Yes, again on this row?
QUESTION: Jacob Sonenshine, City College of New York, writer for the newspaper The Campus.
Having worked so closely with people of such different cultures and backgrounds, number one, how different a perspective did you come away with on resentment of American power? And number two, how conscious were you of that as you wrote your books?
GALLAGHER: Those are really good questions.
PITRE: Can I start with this one?
ACKERMAN: I think you should.
PITRE: This way.
Hanging out with Iraqi soldiers in Iraq there's two things you can never convince them of. One, that we've landed on the moon. Just are not buying it. Like "you've been here for years, the power's not on. There's no way you went to the moon."
And maybe they were just messing with me all that time. I think they were sincere.
The other one is that you can just move to America and become an American, right, the decoupling of ethnicity from nationality was something that they had a hard time ever accepting from me. Like no, you don't have to be a certain type of person ethnically to be an American, and so in that sense that was intriguing.
The resentment of American power was not at issue. It was their resentment that we didn't know what to do with it.
GALLAGHER: Some people believe we haven't landed on the moon, so maybe they're right.
PITRE: Let's not head down that blind alley.
Keep it on the rails.
GALLAGHER: Yes. I mean it's something you reckon with in a very real way outside of a classroom. It seems quaint now, but like I don't know, coming through high school and early college, American empire—some people would term "American empire" would really rattle some people right?
And you know I remember sitting in my interpreter's room. He was a fifty-year-old, very large, great guy from Sudan that we named Suge Knight after the rapper. And he kept talking about "imperial America just needs to be smarter."
And it was a weird thing because I had—imperial? No, that's the empire from Star Wars. I mean it just shows how young and stupid I was.
But yes, so you reckon that. And then you go back through history and you realize it's all been done, sometimes dumbly, sometimes smartly. What is it about humanity? What is it about empires, superpower, whatever you want to call it? The label doesn't matter.
But what is it about not learning from-- not just history, but like recent history? Like Vietnam was forty years ago. You were college students. Like the political leaders making the decisions were college students. Did that not stick to you?
Afghanistan. I mean, the Soviet Union. We can actually watch television clips—like we shouldn't do exactly what we did in this village. Well, that's a—now I'm ranting so I'll turn it over to Elliot.
ACKERMAN: No. I thought those were good responses.
GODWIN: At the back there.
QUESTION: Hi. I'm (inaudible) from McKenzie.
Question for Mike. You're an MBA. Is being a fiction writer or a war fiction writer a good business decision?
PITRE: It's not the only business I'm in, if that answers your question.
A good—to be—I didn't look at it as a business decision. Again, this is not my day job. I work in surety if that's—if you're interested.
I've had nothing but amazing experiences since Bloomsbury picked up my book sort of very unexpectedly out of the blue. I'm not a guy with an MFA who thought this was what I was going to do. This was all very—this is all still very surprising to me. I'm shocked right now.
Matt, do you have a different...?
GALLAGHER: No. I mean it's not a good business decision.
PITRE: That's actually what I was trying to say.
GALLAGHER: I don't do this for the money.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) It's a—well, it's an announcement first. Beginning Friday morning there's going to be a two-day conference on the abolition of war. One day at Cardozo and one day at Rutgers Law School. I hope the panelists will come to that.
The question I have is do you people consider war as evil as slavery? Do you think when you look at the history? You don't have to be Hegelian. But when you look at the history of getting rid of institutions that we despise: cannibalism, slavery, et cetera, imperialism. When you look at war...I was in infantry out medics in the Great War. So I know what war was like, is like. And I'm just wondering whether, listening to you people—I haven't read the book, so I will this week because I'm running a course.
But isn't war as evil as slavery?
ACKERMAN: I think it's fine that you asked that question.
I was actually with another friend of mine for lunch who's a writer. And we finished our sushi and we're walking through Washington Square Park. And he leaned to over to me and he's a war correspondent.
He said "Elliot," he's like, "did you ever think about pacifism?" And to quote the great movie "The Big Lebowski", I said "I once dabbled in pacifism. Not in 'Nam of course." But that being said, we started talking about the idea of pacifism and what it means.
And you know I actually don't feel like I ever understood war until I had a daughter. And what I mean by that was you know, on a certain level when you're a young man, particularly in the younger and you're there and you're involved in killing, you're seeing your friends killed, you yourself are killing.
This might sound cold, but in the moment I didn't feel a lot about it, to include friends. I mean I remember there were some very jarring—one of the most jarring moments for me was on my first deployment. I was with a Marine rifle platoon that fought in the second battle of Fallujah. And you know, we lost a lot of guys. With the forty-six of us, forty-one were awarded Purple Hearts. And a lot of those guys, some are wounded badly. Some are wounded not as badly. And the ones that were wounded (inaudible) were sent home. But they would always get hurt and they would leave and they would go. And then we came back.
I remember we came back to Camp LeJeune and that's when we were reunited with all the guys who'd been hurt. And you really saw that day we came home how much had been lost. But at the moment I never felt a lot about it until coming home that first time.
And the next time I felt that impulse was, again, as I said, after having a daughter. And what I just felt viscerally was—suddenly I would watch CNN or I would see something in the field that never really upset me and it would upset me deeply because I could—I had this empathetic reaction because that child became my child in my mind.
But compounding that too was feeling that empathy that I would never want that to happen to my children. But the other impulse was also, if that did happen to my child what would I do?
And I think a lot of these wars, particularly a war like Afghanistan, they don't sustain themselves as much for political reasons. Or what you see—I've spent a lot of time on the Turkish-Syrian border. And I made a number of friends who were Syrian activists and fought in the early days of the revolution there. And these wars sustained themselves because of loss.
And I think, you know, if some of my children were taken away from me I would just be gone from this world. I would sort of be a dead man walking. And I would have to have a choice whether or not I rebuilt myself or whether I decided to follow them to the grave by just fighting. And I think a lot of people make the latter choice. And that is a powerful force that sustains war.
So I don't think these are political questions. I think these are emotional questions. And I think the answer to that kind of resides within each of us.
PITRE: The question brought to mind, first thing that popped up was MCDP1. It stands for Marine Corps Doctrine on Publication 1, Warfighting. Which is this little ninety-page pamphlet that's the cornerstone of all Marine Corps thinking.
And the first line of which is, I think I can get it exactly right here, is "war is a clash of irreconcilable wills characterized by violence." I got it? All right.
As long as there's someone who wishes to impose their will upon you violently, there will be war whether you want there to be or not. So. We live in the world.
GODWIN: Question over here on the front row?
QUESTION: I'm Jason Forrester, currently with the Department of Defense.
Michael, thanks for your—well, all of your various comments. Michael, regarding your comment of offering a veteran a shoulder to cry on is insulting—moving away from citizen to citizen, what do you think the government's role should be in helping veterans who have psychological needs readjust to life at home?
PITRE: I don't know. There is so much out there for veterans from the Department of Defense, it seems to me. No end to the V.A. knocking on my door asking if I'm OK. To be completely honest, they reach out to me.
And I live in New Orleans. And there's a VFW post there that is—that has undergone a great change in the last year or two. And I never thought I'd go into a VFW ever. Like "oh, a smoky room full of dudes drinking stale beers telling lies. Not my style."
But then when I went—I got roped into going to a VFW meeting in New Orleans. And I was like "oh, this has been totally co-opted by Iraq and Afghanistan vets." They had absolutely taken it over.
And they were renovating the upstairs room of the meeting hall into below market rate rentals for returning veterans in need. They did outreach, resume writing workshops for veterans separating in and around the New Orleans area.
And they also made New Orleans the first city in America to certify—this was in I think late December, as the first city in America to have certified zero-known veterans amongst the homeless population. Every single known veteran amongst the homeless population in New Orleans has a place to sleep that's not in the cold. That was all done by the VFW.
So I think in the end it's not going to be what the DoD or the V.A. can offer veterans. It's what they're going to offer each other.
Like Elliot and Matt both mentioned, this is a group of volunteers who are very proud. They don't need sympathy. They need each other. They're going to find each other.
GODWIN: Question over there.
QUESTION: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, New York University.
So, one of the common places of war really since World War I is that it can only be understood by combatants. When I publish op-eds every time veterans write to me and I'm not a combatant, I'm not a veteran. And they say, you really don't have the right to speak about this.
And I can respect this point of view. And I wonder what you think of this, and if you see yourselves as translators of a sort because you are combatants.
GALLAGHER: We're just a piece of the puzzle. And I think in today's contemporary American society this can't be stressed enough. That civilians need to be talking, they need to be writing about war.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was written by Ben Fountain. It's one of the best novels about Iraq.
Now, like anything else, whether it's fiction, whether it's nonfiction, you know, you do your research. You treat the subject with the utmost seriousness. But like the—I've seen some veteran writer echo chambers and they're awful. And it's not going to penetrate anything because there's so few of us. It is so vital.
I teach a workshop for a literary organization here in the city called Words After War that brings together civilians and veterans to write and talk. Because not just because it's better for the society to stay engaged with how we use our military force. Because civilians sometimes write the best war literature that comes out of a conflict.
Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage thirty plus years after the Civil War. Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider is an incredible short story nominally about the influenza outbreak in Denver, but really about World War I.
I would—if you're getting that kind of pushback, politely tell them they're wrong. And write something smart. Because they are.
ACKERMAN: I think in that vein, if that is true, that the only person who can ever understand what the smallest soldier has been through is someone who's been to combat. And if that means that we collectively can never be understood then that means we never get to come home, you know.
And so I like to think that that's not true. And I think it's very disempowering to both sides of the equation to believe that that's true.
QUESTION: Ron Shelp. You all had a good reason or mission to do what you did. But if you could step back, and knowing what you know now, did the United States make the right decision by going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan?
GODWIN: Who wants this?
ACKERMAN: I'll take it. I think that Iraq was a big mistake. And I think it was a war that was launched on certain assumptions that have been soundly proved to be false.
I think that you can safely say the great strategic blunder of the Bush administration was putting the troops into Iraq. That being said, I think you can also say the great strategic blunder of the Obama administration was pulling all of the troops out of Iraq.
You know I think 9/11—I remember what it felt like to be in this country when 9/11 happened. And I think there was a cause (inaudible) there that was righteous, although that war has since morphed into something unwieldy that will not seem to end. And it's been mismanaged.
So just starting the war isn't one culpability. And it's also the managing of the war. And I think these wars have been poorly managed in many respects from their outset.
And I think we as a nation—this is the first time that we have gone to war with an all-volunteer military with wars that have been by and large financed through deficit spending so nobody feels them. And I can understand the reason those structural—those structures were put in place at the outset of those wars. But I hope that we as citizens can feel as though we have enough skin in the game to start to examine where those decisions have taken us because we've now been at war for fourteen years.
And I—so I find I spend a lot less time intellectually stewing over the reasons we got involved in these conflicts. But I definitely spend a good deal of time thinking about how we can—how going forward we could avoid a future that's like the past.
GALLAGHER: What he said.
GODWIN: This is a mic coming to you, sir.
QUESTION: Hello. My name is Joseph Amiel. I'm a novelist. So I'm here probably different bent than a lot of you here. And I'm a member of PEN American Center for a very long time.
My question is, you say that rather than doing a memoir or a slice of fiction you thought you could tell the story better as fiction. And my question is—when you are finally—and fiction is always making decisions, what to leave out, what to put in.
When you finally finished your books did you feel you had told the story you wanted to tell that you had left out, that it wasn't big enough, that it was too limited by trying to make the story good as opposed to the experience good?
GALLAGHER: I think that's why you have drafts. Because any time I finished a draft then I still felt those things unanswered I knew I had to go back. It was only when—you know, it's a malleable thing.
It's—it was only when I was like no, I told the story I set out to tell. And then you can send it to people who tell you it's not done. But yes. I think once you finish a draft and those questions still linger, back to page one.
PITRE: Yes. I sent an early draft of my novel to a buddy I was in Iraq with and the comment he gave back to me was "yeah, I was way funnier than this".
ACKERMAN: I mean a friend of mine as a poet says one of the things he loves about poetry is it's the only medium where there is no delineation between fiction and nonfiction. And I find in many ways the way we look at literature in the U.S. in the English language is there are these very strict, it's nonfiction, it's fiction, it's a memoir, so the same decision. I mean you're writing a memoir you're choosing what to leave out, what to put in. I write narrative nonfiction. I'm constantly deciding what to leave—what to take out and put in.
So I think in all those forms everyone's trying to do the same thing. They're trying to get to the truth of an experience in a way that transfers whatever emotion was involved in that experience to the reader. And that's what makes it art.
GODWIN: Was it Blake who said that there's no such thing as a finished poem, only an abandoned one.
I think that's—oh yes, sorry. One more. Time—we have time for one more. Yes.
QUESTION: John Melkon. I'm a retired Army Special Forces officer, in the United States Military Academy now. And so I entered Afghanistan early in 2001 and had subsequent tours all the way through 2008, arguably with a very niche group.
I was already ten years in the service at that point; had been through, as you mentioned, several times Elliot, had been a volunteer, been a volunteer. And so years later as we get to the conversations among my peer groups, those that I served with, we're—for lack of a better term I mean we're fairly well adjusted on this.
I mean there's some exceptions, whatever else. But I mean we're fairly clear. We're fairly resolute on what we did, what we know we did and how we deal with that.
As—at the academy I'm dealing with a lot of junior rotators of your peer group, all of whom are—continue to serve in some capacity, teaching and most of them returning to service. So I don't always get necessarily a frank answer, if you will.
From your experience, do you feel that your leaders, and I'm going from say that company grade up to that sort of battalion level, whatever else, based on ten years of experience, previous experience in Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War and things like that.
Do you feel that that enabled them to be better leaders? I don't mean better in the sense of superior or whatever else, but coping with things, whatever else. As opposed to some of the things you talked about, coming of age at that time and also back to the reality of dealing with an abolition of war, whether that's possible.
ACKERMAN: I felt—something that I felt very acutely when I was in the service, I sort of hit with a very weird time. Not weird time, I just had timing. You know I graduate from the amateur officer course. Eight weeks later I was on the first thing smoking to Iraq and was in one of the biggest battles of the war within six months.
So I had this very gut-wrenching as a second lieutenant being involved in this big thing. And I had a company commander who was this great, great leader, grab me and a couple of the other lieutenants and said "you are the luckiest Marines that I've ever met because this is what you did right out of the gate. You're also the unluckiest because you're going to spend the rest of your time—the rest of the time in the Corps disappointed. Nothing's ever going to match up to this."
And I think that that held true. And it not only held true for me, it held true for a lot of junior officers who went right into the wars because they were wartime officers.
And so when it came time to transition, or not even transition, there always seemed to be a little bit of a disconnect between officers, soldiers who had come up through the peacetime Army or Marine Corps and those who only knew the wartime Marine Corps. And you know and I think that's real.
I saw Elizabeth Samet is in the audience, a friend and great writer. And she wrote a book No Man's Land that deals with this sort of generational rift. And I think it's something real.
I think all—I think particularly the Army and the Marine Corps are dealing with right now because they're seeing pretty significant attrition among the junior officers, the captains and the majors who fought these wars who are just leaving, who want—they want no business with the peacetime military. They want to go out and do other things. I mean they're similar sting, but it's a problem.
And if you look at the history of America's wars, the immediate postwar period, Second World War, Vietnam War. I mean thank God after the Second World War we had Korea.
But people left. I mean they left. And there was extremely low morale amongst the ranks.
And we're entering a similar period right now. And it's going to take some pretty significant leadership to steer the services clear from a similar depression.
PITRE: Can I say this real quick? The folks I know who stayed in despite the trepidation about peacetime military and what a pain in the ass that's going to be are the exact right people who are like—they're not staying in to goldbrick their way into retirement. No, I need to be here even though we're now de-escalating and moving back to a peacetime footing.
ACKERMAN: I mean, just to say one thing on that comment, the same captain who's still in the Marines, and if there's any justice in the world will be a general one day.
I asked him point when I was thinking if I was going to stay in or get out. And I said "well sir, you know, why did you stay?" And he looked at me and he was kind of like Matthew McConaughey in "Dazed and Confused". Have you seen that movie?
He kind of looks at me he's like you know, I just love Marines. I get older, they stay the same age. This guy just love Marines. I mean he just love—he loved Marines. And I found...
GALLAGHER: He must have seen a different "Dazed and Confused" than I did.
ACKERMAN: But he loved Marines. And if you asked him, that's why he stayed in.
And when I reflected on myself it's like you know... I loved the Marines I was with, yes. But you know I liked the intensity of that wartime experience. And that's what I actually found myself chasing a lot more.
But I think the people in the service who really lead it out, it's almost like a religion. You know you have people who go to church every Sunday, and they can be good Catholics, Jews, whatever. But then you also have the priests. And the priests to me are the true professionals. And they're the ones that stick around.
I've—because these guys will tell you. I've got the religion. I say all the Marine stuff. But I'm not a priest and I left. That captain I referred to, he was a priest and is staying.
GALLAGHER: I'd make the case that's OK. I mean America's history is the citizen soldier, right? I mean it's—we're in unprecedented territory in many ways with this professional only military. So I hope that our purists that stay in, that do become battalion commanders, brigade commanders, division commanders remember that that's just how it works.
God forbid the next conflict happens in the next twenty to thirty years, but history suggests that it will. That you know, if young people want to join up for three to five years to do their part, that's a good thing for everybody because they're bringing in fresh ideas, some innovation. But I wish them well in the interim because it does sound like it's going to be an interesting time for all the services.
GODWIN: Before I thank our authors I think that their books are for sale. So, any of you who haven't already who would like to buy their books. And I can, having read three of them this last week I can highly recommend them. And they're for sale immediately afterwards.
So it just remains for me to say thank you so much to Elliot Ackerman, to Matt Gallagher and Michael Pitre. Thank you so much for (inaudible).