FIRE AND FORGET |
February 11, 2013
Name: Roy Scranton
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Salem, Oregon
Milblog: Fire and Forget
My friend Jake came back from Afghanistan a few months ago. When he first got back, we got drinks to talk about a project we were working on together, Fire and Forget, and I asked him how his tour was. “The end of war is a funny time,” he growled, then brushed the question off the bar with a deft flick. Then he turned, hunched over his Dewar’s, and went into some seriously deep thoughts about literary immortality — not in history but in the words, like, the transcendental arrangement of verbs and nouns in a sentence. From there, he led into Nabokov, and we danced around some philosophy before striking deep into “the modern condition,” modern meaning contemporary, twenty-first century America. Our buddy Phil showed up and pulled us back from the brink, and we left the problem on the bar, soaking in spilled scotch, and found ourselves a table in the back where we could really get talking.
I still haven’t heard any details about Jake’s tour. He hasn’t told me, and I haven’t asked. It’s an unwritten rule among vets that you don’t pry into another guy’s time. If you meet somebody who was in the same country as you, you can ask where they were, or who they were with, maybe their MOS*, but that’s the limit. You don’t ask what they did, or how much they saw. You don’t ask if they had any close calls. You sure as hell don’t ask if they killed anybody. Maybe you ask how the chow was. Even with Jake, who I consider a close friend, any probing would have felt like a violation. Partly because I know he’ll tell me what he needs to, whenever he feels ready. Partly because I don’t trust my own curiosity.
I spent thirteen months downrange myself, 2003 to 2004, driving a Humvee around Baghdad. I know what it’s like to come back and have people avid at your elbow, thirsty for a little blood. They want to know what it’s like, they say, what it’s really like, they want to know all kinds of things.
But really what they want is a good story. They want some excitement, a bit of thrill, a little suffering and redemption, something human and real. It’s not a new impulse, and — despite how shamefully, queasily pleasing it felt, at first, to be subject to that avidity — it’s not a bad impulse. Humans love stories. We love stories about other humans. We love real stories, made-up stories, stories about outer space, the distant past, and impossible futures, stories about rich and poor, stories about foreigners, stories about our neighbors, stories about people who turn into animals, and stories about people who fall in love. We even love stories about war. Narrative gives us a way to learn about the world, to think about the world, and even to change it. After all, if you tell a good enough story well, enough times, people will come to believe in it. Whether it’s factual or not won’t even matter.
Every vet knows what it’s like to be asked for their best stories by total strangers. But we’re less apt to admit to the fact that we know as well what it’s like to want to ask. Thankfully for me, I won’t have to ask Jake, because he’s a writer. He won’t have to ask me, either, because I am too. We actually met in a writing group for veterans, put together by New York University, which is where we both met Phil Klay, who was a Marine PAO* in Iraq, Perry O’Brien, who was an airborne medic in Afghanistan, and Matt Gallagher, who was a cavalry lieutenant in Iraq.
We don’t just tell stories, which is itself a time-honored military pastime, we write them. We’ve been writing them for a few years now. Not just memoirs, not just reportage, but the kind of story that pierces through to a human truth deeper than just events. We wanted to see more fiction, the kinds of things we wrote, not just because we loved good fiction ourselves, but because we all believed that there’s something a novel or short story can do that nothing else really can. What that is, exactly, is hard to put your finger on, but it has something to do with possibility: On the one hand, being limited to universal human possibility, to what would happen. On the other, being able to imagine wholly new human possibilities — being free to create what could happen. Somewhere in there, between would and could, between the universal and the individual, we make fiction to tell the truth.
In 2010, we decided there weren’t enough of the kinds of stories we wanted to read, and that other people told us they wanted to read, so we got together over some beers at the White Horse Tavern and decided to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Now, three years later, after a lot of heated discussion and not a few moments of despair, Fire and Forget is on shelves. It features stories from Jake Siegel, Phil Klay, Perry O’Brien, Matt Gallagher, and myself, and also Colby Buzzell, David Abrams, Brian Turner, Mariette Kalinowski, Gavin Ford Kovite, Brian Van Reet, Roman Skaskiw, Andrew Slater, and Ted Janis, all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re lucky enough to have the home front represented as well, by crack storyteller Siobhan Fallon, whose collection You Know When the Men Are Gone describes life on an Army post with a fine, discerning eye.
Fire and Forget may not solve the problem of the “modern condition,” it may not tell you everything you want to know about what happened to your buddy downrange, and I make no claims to literary immortality. But I know Jake was right when he said “the end of war is a funny time,” and I know he nailed a deep truth when he wrote “Smile, There Are IEDs Everywhere," which tells the story of one vet’s efforts to connect the strange world downrange with the strange world back in the USA. Jake wrote the story after his first tour, in Iraq, and while it doesn’t tell you everything about what happened to him there, it gets at something a hundred hours over scotch couldn’t. And I’m proud to have Jake’s story taking point in the collection.
Fire and Forget brings together fifteen voices as sharp and distinct as Jake’s, all of them telling stories about people who fought and struggled in Iraq, Afghanistan, and back home: fifteen short stories about the long war, fifteen fictions that go deep for truth.
MOS : Military Occupational Specialty
PAO : Public Affairs Officer