Although it is written by someone who has never served in the military or been to the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, Katey Schultz’s collection Flashes of War (Apprentice House, 2013) provides an important civilian perspective on these wars and the people they have affected. In thirty-one stories, some only a little longer than a page, Schultz introduces us to soldiers and Marines, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the locals who are forced to deal with the military’s presence. Often we see these characters outside of the context of combat, back home in the stateside communities they left, forced to deal with the way war has shaped their identities.
Schultz shows a kind of fearlessness in Flashes of War. She writes as an outsider, but her work is augmented by a remarkable amount of research into the literature of warfare and the news coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of her stories appear to be inspired or influenced by classic wartime literature, like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Schultz seems to genuinely understand the people she is writing about.
The collection feels truly authentic—an impressive feat, considering the perspectives included in her stories are so easily an so often stereotyped. Schultz captures the crass combat humor of soldiers, deployed or otherwise. She captures the anger and vengeance of those suffering through wars on the streets of their villages. And she captures the mundane ways that people cope with the sadness and destruction all around them, and the sadness and destruction within their own minds. Her stories validate each perspective in its own right.
Every story in the collection is pregnant with a feeling that Schultz is able to capture with a single line of prose. In “The Ghost of Sanchez,” a soldier who has experienced hard combat in Afghanistan explains that, “lately, my mind feels like it’s rigged with tripwire, a messy combo of the dumbest and most profound emotions I’ve ever experienced.” In “My Son Wanted a Notebook,” Shultz says of an Afghan woman’s husband, injured during an American bombing, that “he survived, but the only part that’s still alive is his anger.” In “Into Pure Bronze,” Schultz explores the sad world of two school-aged children learning to survive by playing soccer in a devastated Afghanistan village: “The fighting moved north, so everyone calls this the good time.” In “Amputee,” she shows the complexity of acceptance and sacrifice through a young army amputee who on some days recognizes she only lost half her arm, and on other days thinks, “I left one elbow joint, 28 bones, twice as many muscles and tendons, one wrist, and my entire left hand in the middle of a filleted Humvee on the outskirts of Karbala, Iraq.”
In arguably the most profound piece in Flashes of War, a story called “Getting Perspective,” Schultz captures the emotions of an Army widow in a small North Carolina town who is trying to survive the contradictions of loss, intimacy, and abandonment she feels after the death of her husband. The character won’t acknowledge that her husband, “Buns,” went to Iraq for a few reasons: “One, because it sounds like he left me for bullets, two, because he made me promise never to tell anyone I called him that, and three, because it sounds like something with a bad ending.” It is a bad ending, but she manages to find meaning and resolution in her loss.
Daring works like Flashes of War can have an impact if they get their subjects right. Schultz enables readers to see past their own perspectives and empathize with both the Afghan child and the American war widow. She allows us to understand the veteran home on leave without patronizing or victimizing him. Flashes of War advances an ongoing dialogue in a way that is vital and impressive.