War Narratives #3: The Rumpus Interview with Matt Gallagher

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Matt Gallagher has quickly established himself as one of the most distinct and distinguished literary figures coming out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A veteran of a fifteen-month tour in Iraq during the Surge, Gallagher wrote a well-received memoir on his experiences in counterinsurgency warfare (Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War), edited a collection of short stories written by his fellow veteran writers (Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War), and continues to publish widely. His Iraq novel, Youngblood, is due out in February of 2016.

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The Rumpus: I remember when I first learned of you, it was on the front page of our local newspaper in Reno, where you and I are both from. I was surprised: here was this writer from Reno serving in Iraq and criticizing the institution from the inside. How did you get on that front page?

Matt Gallagher: I was a Scout platoon leader with a Cavalry unit out of the 25th Infantry in Hawaii. We deployed as a part of the Surge to a small town north of Baghdad in late 2007. I started a blog because it just felt natural. I’d grown up reading and writing as a way to process the world, and right before we deployed I’d done a lot of research of my own, including reading military blogs as a way to try to understand the human side of everything that was going on with the switch to counterinsurgency. You get a lot of Powerpoint briefings before you deploy, but it is usually in this inhuman, distant lingo that just wasn’t connecting with me. So, I was doing this research to try to find a human element that maybe I could understand and hopefully maybe explain to my soldiers, because even the grizzled NCOs who had deployed before almost certainly hadn’t done so doing counterinsurgency.

It was also a way of keeping in touch with family and friends. The war was very political then, still is, and I had friends all over the spectrum, from die-hard liberals who were very anti-war, to conservatives who thought that this was the best thing that has ever happened to the Middle East. So I thought that this was a place for family and friends, if they are interested they can check it out, and if they don’t want to they don’t have to.

So I started blogging, and initially it was a very small readership, mostly family and friends. I wanted to be very honest and forthright that so much of counterinsurgency is not just combat, but the beat policing that is inherently trial and error. But then it got shut down.

Rumpus: Why did your blog get shut down?

Gallagher: Six months in, May of 2008, I was told by my Battalion commander that they wanted to promote me to executive officer, which is a good thing, and it would have been an honor and a privilege, etcetera. But like any platoon leader worth a damn, I fought it. I wasn’t expecting to win, but I fought. The right thing to do was to point out that I wasn’t planning to make the Army a career, which was true, but it might have also allowed me to stay with my guys. You get very close when you are deployed together. We had a very serious incident with one of my guys getting seriously wounded in a non-combat incident, so I felt like stability within the platoon was important. I wasn’t expecting to win at all, but I didn’t want to be the guy that just rolled over, either. In a weird way, I thought my superiors would respect my fighting a little bit more.

That didn’t happen. My battalion commander was pretty upset that I pushed back. Looking back on it now, I realize that he was under immense pressure after I told him that I was getting out because part of the way they were being evaluated was officer retention. But all qualifiers aside, he was a complete asshole. So, he chewed me out in a way that can only occur in the military, with all kinds of colorful four-letter words, and he basically said, fine, if you don’t want this position we’re going to give it to someone that does, but you are X, Y, and Z for even expressing that you might have an opinion about this.

I probably should have just swallowed it and saluted and said, “yes sir,” but I did what I had been doing the previous six months when confronted with a complex situation I didn’t totally understand, I wrote about it and I posted it. Very naively at the time, I didn’t think it would even get back to him. I mean, a junior officer being upset that he was chewed out by a superior, that’s like every day in the military. But you can’t write about being upset with your boss in any vocation, whether you are in the military or not. So it got back to him in a few hours and the blog got shut down. The Washington Post and the Reno Gazette-Journal both did a story on it. There was a Congressional inquiry into whether the blog was illegally shut down, too.

It was silly. It was wild. It was all very surreal. I was promoted to captain about a month later by the same battalion commander. He did punch in my bars, but he still put them on, to his credit. The military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, wound up re-running the Washington Post story, so I remember signing copies of the article in Iraq. It was kind of a joke. I am sure there were people who were taking all of this more seriously than I do, but it was just ridiculous compared to our day-to-day life on patrols, or our counter-IED missions at night. Compared to that, this was sort of surreal bullshit. The blog itself, when it was up, was surreal bullshit. It was a distraction and one that was helpful to me personally, but after it got shut down, I just kept journaling privately.

Rumpus: Why do you think they responded so aggressively?

Gallagher: A lot of it was a generational disconnect within the Army. My generation of officers and soldiers had been trained to be adaptable, ready for a counterinsurgency environment like Iraq, while most of our superiors had spent most of their formative years preparing for World War III with the Soviets. In a broader context, most of my generation, myself included, grew up in divorced households. I have a good relationship with my father, but I am not going to instinctively trust an older male just because he tells me to. That just wasn’t how a lot of Millennials were raised. There were definitely elements of that creeping into it.

Rumpus: After the blog and the journal, you decide to write your memoir, Kaboom.

Gallagher: Yeah, once the blog was shut down there was the Washington Post story and various literary agents and publishers reached out to me. I said, thanks for writing, I’ve always dreamed of being a writer, but I have nine more months in Iraq and another year left in the Army, maybe we can be in touch down the line. Most agents never got back to me, but it did end up working out with Da Capo. When we returned to Hawaii in February 2009, I decided I was definitely getting out of the Army in June of that year, so why not? It was an interesting time and place and people, so why not try to turn my blog and journal entries into a book? So that’s what I did. When you get back from a deployment, especially one that is fifteen months long, you have a lot of free time on your hands. I’d go to formation and workout every morning, and I was usually done by noon. My friends would go surfing, and I would go with them and sit on the beach, drink a piña colada, sit under an umbrella, and just try to write it all out.

Rumpus: What were you trying to convey with writing your memoir?

Gallagher: I just wanted to communicate what counterinsurgency looked like on the ground, based on the experiences of one Scout platoon. We were on the sectarian fault line, right on the border between Baghdad Province and Anbar Province, so a lot of interesting things were going on. It wasn’t necessarily the bombs and the gunfights that I was drawn to as a writer, although you get a little bit of that in any war memoir. I wanted to humanize not just my soldiers because they were so important to me and I knew how stereotyped and caricatured they could be from places that I had been through in my life, Reno or Wake Forest. I also wanted to humanize the Iraqis. I had read a lot of different Iraq and Afghanistan nonfiction books at that point, and many were good, many were not, and I think I just wanted to bring full life and characters to that side as well. Even the sheikh I didn’t necessarily trust, I hope that I was able to eventually convey his three-dimensionality.

Rumpus: What’s an example of those complexities?

Gallagher: One thing that has always stayed with me from that deployment was one of the sheikhs who I admired greatly, we were in his sitting room, and he pointed to the wall. It was a picture of his great-grandfather, and he said that he worked with the Turks. And then he pointed to another photo and it was his grandfather, and he said that he worked with the British. Then he pointed to the photo of his father, and he said that he had helped the Ba’athists overthrow the first Iraqi King. The point he was making was, this isn’t temporary for us. You say all of these nice things, we are sharing a meal together, and we get along personally, but this is our home. Maybe that isn’t super sexy or have a big explosion in it, but for me at least, that was more indicative of what our time in Iraq meant more than anything.

Rumpus: One of the characters that I remember you spending a lot of time on was your interpreter, who was somehow caught between the Iraqi society you discuss and the temporary American society that was there.

Gallagher: Yeah, Suge Knight. He was nicknamed after the rapper because he was a big black guy originally from the Sudan who had learned English from British missionaries as a child. He was such a vital part of our deployment. He was just so brave, loyal, and fierce. It was sad. He was one of us, then we said, oh sorry, you’re going to have to stay here while we go home. Granted that is his home, he lived in the Little Sudan neighborhood of Baghdad. And we left when it seemed like things were pretty good in Baghdad, given the context, and even then it felt a bit like abandonment because he wore a uniform, he wore a unit patch, he was there for every patrol. So writing about him in a full, vibrant way seemed the best thing I could do to honor his service.

Rumpus: What other Iraq and Afghanistan memoirs and books do you think capture that empathy and that personal story?

Gallagher: Nate Fick’s One Bullet Away is a really interesting story. Generation Kill is a really interesting piece of journalism. I’m a big fan of Kayla Williams’s two books, Love My Rifle More Than You and Plenty of Time When We Get Home.

Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts is one of the darkest, most disturbing accounts of Iraq, but it is also a fascinating example of humanity gone wrong. It’s about three soldiers murdering an Iraqi family and raping a teenaged daughter, and how we digest these things in a vacuum rather than see that it was the last domino to fall in a unit where literally everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. What brought these three soldiers who had no business supervising one another to be isolated at a traffic control point, and 300 other things that allowed this story to come together. It’s just such an incredible piece of journalism, as well as narrative. Saying that I love that book feels wrong, but it is definitely one of the best books about these conflicts. Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War is another one.

One of the things that I find so interesting about all of these accounts is how many of the same mistakes are occurring despite the strategy, despite the friction between what is occurring on the ground and what the bureaucracy demands is occurring on the ground. You’d think in a post-Catch-22 world we’d all be beyond that, but it’s even more grotesque. John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell is another memoir from the early years of the war. I think I read that when I was still in college, and I was thinking, man, I guess I am going to miss the war, which seems like such a crazy thing to think now, but at the time was a very real thing. Colby Buzzell’s memoir, My War has this raw, unfiltered voice. He’s both a poet and a Joe’s Joe, if that makes sense. Brian Turner’s memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, has this amazing immersive technique. I mean, there was a piece of that memoir where he actually becomes a bomb-maker, which was brilliant. For all my talk of empathy and trying to get out of a traditional worldview, I wouldn’t even try that. And he does it beautifully. One more is Brian Caster’s The Long Walk. PTSD, trauma, all that jazz can have this weird, corrosive effect on literary readers. They sometimes say it’s just trauma writing, or whatever. But Brian’s memoir is what The Hurt Locker should have been. It’s smart and savvy but it’s also sad and potent.

Rumpus: So there is great nonfiction from these wars, but in 2011, you wrote an article for the Atlantic asking where all of the war novels from Iraq and Afghanistan. Where were you as a writer when you wrote that?

Gallagher: I wanted to read fiction, but I think it was a question for me, too. I think I wanted to write fiction, but I wasn’t sure I wanted it to be about the war. But I was pretty sure that people should be writing about it, whether they are veterans or not. I think The Yellow Birds came out about a year after that, and it was the first breakthrough novel, though not the first novel about the wars. Historically, protracted wars like Iraq and Afghanistan produce interesting works of literature. It’s often described as ironic that something as brutal as warfare produces great works of literature, but I think war is part of the human condition. I’m not happy about it, but peace is just so rare. Ignoring our impulse to destroy each other isn’t going to make it going away, so it makes sense that people, whether they directly experienced war or not, seek to write about it and seek to understand it. I think that is where I was. I was seeking to understand my own experience.

Rumpus: Were you surprised by 2011 when you started to see books like The Yellow Birds and Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men are Gone coming out?

Gallagher: I was pleasantly surprised. I discovered a small veteran writer cohort here in New York. It included Phil Klay and Roy Scranton and Jake Siegel and some others. And these were questions we were asking ourselves. I didn’t know Kevin at the time but I’d met Siobhan at a writers’ conference hosted by the Air Force Academy right before her book came out. There was a real question about whether there would be a fiction readership for these wars due to the political, polemical nature of these wars, because of the post-Vietnam hangover that the country never seems to have kicked. Coming out of World War II, it makes sense that Norman Mailer publishes The Naked and the Dead in 1948. We just saved the world from fascism; who doesn’t want to read that story? Iraq and Afghanistan are playing out rather differently. It defies the narrative that America wants to hear, which means it’s necessary reading, I think, but it is also a business, so there really was this question of whether there was going to be anything resembling a readership. I hope when it is all said and done that people like Kevin and Siobhan and Ben Fountain get the credit they deserve (for their books’ success) because had their books been flops it would have been bad for our entire community of writers. But it would have also been bad for American literature because these wars happened, they mattered whether they played out the way we wanted to or not. They deserve a literary treatment, and thankfully, we are starting to see that now.

Rumpus: What do you think that was different about the literary fiction we are starting to see and memoirs that preceded them?

Gallagher: I think good literary fiction, in general, but especially on subjects like war and conflict, can provide a perspective that memoirs written so close to the moment generally can’t. They just don’t have the emotional distance from the subject. They also don’t have a deeper emotional texture that fiction does. I could end Kaboom with a Mai Tai on the beach, and it was important for me to end my book that way because that was the truth. Good fiction demands more than that. It demands, if not meaning, texture and resonance, it can’t just be “there was thing and this is the story of that thing.” Fiction needs to be the story not of the thing, but of the people, of the time, of that time’s meaning and inheritance. You don’t necessarily have to provide answers, but good fiction better damn well try to provide something more than the 5 Ws. I don’t think it is surprising that it took a while for The Yellow Birds to come out. Not because it took Kevin that many years to write the book, but because it required some distance to be written.

All this very neatly matches the trajectory of Vietnam literature. You have someone like Tim O’Brien who comes out with a memoir if not during the war then shortly after. Then you have a couple of short stories, and then Going After Cacciato comes out in the late 1970s. It’s not just because Tim O’Brien needed that time, it was because the country needed that time and that distance. That’s not to say that fiction can’t be written in the moment, but for a very practical example in Iraq, if you had written a novel in 2009 that in some way resembled a happy ending, how false would that read now? It betrays not just history, but it is defying the principles of realism. That matters.

Rumpus: Your novel comes out next year, right?

Gallagher: Yes, February 2016. It’s called Youngblood, and it’s set a few years after I was there during that American withdrawal I just referenced. I wanted to write a novel that was not just about the Iraq War but had a wide breadth. I was fascinated by the inheritance of the war, not just as a whole, but how American units replace one another every year, but every year the Iraqi civilians remain the same, and how myths could evolve in that situation. You know, the previous units did it this way, this unit had a legendary soldier.

Youngblood has a bi-level narrative. It’s both the story of the American withdrawal, but it is also a ghost story of a legendary soldier who preceded the narrator and his unit in the same town. He may or may not have struck up a relationship with a daughter of a sheikh, so it sort of has a bit of a Romeo and Juliet story as well. That’s because it interested me as a person and I had hoped that it would interest readers as well that there were so many sub-parts that was the American part of the Iraq war. You could have soldiers who deployed there three or four times, but the only people that really dealt with every part of that were the Iraqi civilians who survived. Though it is told from an American perspective, there are a number of strong, full Iraqi characters because they were there for all of it, for the invasion, the pre-Surge, the Surge, the withdrawal, and for the whole war. These are all neat terms for us to separate the war cleanly, but for them it was all part of the same mess. And still is.


Caleb S. Cage is a graduate of the United States Military Academy, West Point, and a veteran of the Iraq War. He is the co-author of the book, The Gods of Diyala: Transfer of Command in Iraq (Texas A&M, 2008), about his time as a platoon leader, and his essays and fiction have appeared in War, Literature, and the Arts, Red Rock Review, High Country News, Small Wars Journal, and various other publications and anthologies. More from this author →