To those who have lived in the era that began with 9/11, it could be described as a constant state of war against an enemy, nebulous at best, called “Terror.” The longest sustained conflict the United States has been involved in, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been wars largely invisible to the American people. There are televised reports, written articles, blogs and photo essays, but unless you’re a soldier or an immediate acquaintance of one, it exists solely in bits of information from 6,000 miles away. Documentaries and Hollywood dramatizations, too, have sought to capture the grit and soul of the wars, but can’t offer us the most important glimpse—confessional storytelling, rather than a cluster of absurd images from the front lines. Nothing brings the reality of war home like hearing it from the hearts and minds of those who experienced it.
“Fire and Forget” arrives at just the right time, when the last vestiges of conflict fall away. It’s a time when we confront, as a nation, what has been accomplished and at what cost. What this selection of stories shows isn’t contained to combat itself but to home life and life before deployment. There are soldiers, Marines, an army spouse, a Baghdad school teacher—editors Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher have not only compiled an excellent diversity of experiences and vantage points into the war, but also a list of accomplished and gifted writers.
The book, named for a type of missile-guidance technology requiring no human input after launch, is an apt metaphor for what soldiers and civilians alike face in the wake of conflict: the struggle and tragedy of forgetting. As Colum McCann says in the preface, “These are the wars America is so determined not to see that we banned images of soldiers’ coffins from our nightly broadcasts.” Missing too is the incalculable civilian death toll, read as a banal piece of journalistic prose, at times reduced to a number, always an estimate.
There are flashes—the capture of Saddam Hussein, the naming of President Karzai, the beheading of journalist Nick Berg, Abu Ghraib, the removal of the last combat operations troops—where we relate to the status of our campaigns in the Middle East, but for the most part they pass as uneventfully as any other soundbite. It’s hard to comprehend, to empathize what an IED claiming twelve lives feels like. Most of what the American people see of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is a flash; a before and an after, a convenient snippet, fit for a scroller; a shootout in Fallujah, a helicopter crash in Kandahar, with hardly any faculty to associate the territories with a place on the map, the names with faces.
A video of an airman coming home and his dog rushing out to greet him inspires millions of YouTube views. In Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” a Marine returns home to find his dog, tumor-ridden, almost too decrepit to greet him at the door. Absent of this collection are the glorified “Jessica Lynch” narratives. Most of the pieces involve the slow terror of waging war against an invisible enemy: “For us, there had been no fields of battle to frame the enemy,” contributor Jacob Siegel says. “Our shocks of battle came on the road, brief, dark, and anonymous. We were always on the road and it could always explode.” Pervading too, is the “fog of war,” epitomized in Roman Skaskiw’s “Television,” where a lieutenant copes personally and officially with the shooting of an innocent Iraqi boy by his troops during a raid.
As if the war and readjustment weren’t daunting enough to most psyches, each homecoming veteran in the collection seems to grapple with another invisible force; the expectation that something is wrong with them, and in search of those neuroses in question, new traumas emerge. In Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips for a Smooth Transition” a military spouse tries to follow the advice of a guidebook on her husband’s readjustment to civilian life. Her fear, compassion and reverence for him are all vividly painted. Despite a seemingly unanimous desire to “Support Our Troops” very little has been done in reality to support those who have returned. According to a recent government study, there are an average of twenty-two veteran suicides a day.
There’s a sense weaned from the collection that the struggle to win hearts and minds in places like the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan is Sisyphean, all progress bound to restart itself with each new unit’s deployment. The Ranger medic at the center of Ted Janis’ “Raid” finds the same problem: “I re-upped back when I believed. These days we create more insurgents than we kill. I’m done. As soon as my contract is up. I’m out. Goodbye and good riddance.” The perception of the struggle in the minds of the soldiers is microcosmic of the American perception at large. Not knowing enough to care, realizing that efforts so far have been a failure but not caring enough to determine why or correct the action. And anyways, lacking the knowledge to know how.
The stories are by turns gritty and hilarious, poignant and rhapsodic, but there’s one thing they all share: they are all imbued with the deep love of their authors. Faced with something as unspeakably harrowing as war, the voices here have salvaged what small beauty they could from the turmoil. “There’s nothing most of us would rather do than leave these wars behind,” Scranton, a veteran himself, says in the introduction. “But for a soldier, to fire—and forget—is the one thing you can’t ever do.”
At no point is this an easy collection, but it is a necessary one. The least we owe, as citizens of the nation that launched these conflicts, who asked so much of these men and women, is to hear their voices—to confront the truth, to remember, to forget and to go on. (Taylor Cowan)
“Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War”
Edited by Matt Gallagher, Roy Scranton
Da Capo Press, 256 pages, $15.99