If you have ever had the opportunity to hear Brian Turner read his poetry in front of a live audience, you might have noticed a technique he uses. Between incredibly serious poems like “Here, Bullet,” he will tell hilarious stories about his time in the military and his life in general—stories that are hilarious at his own expense. As a world-renowned poet and a member of a small segment of the American population that has volunteered to serve in the military during the recent wars, Turner uses these stories to present his unique writing in a way that can be understood by everyone.
Turner uses the same technique in My Life as a Foreign Country, one of the most important memoirs to come out of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book equalizes Turner and his audience, but not through humor. Instead, he creates distance by removing his narrator—himself—from the time, place, and even the objective reality of his own story.
He begins by describing himself as an unmanned drone flying over and examining his story from a great distance. Although he discards the drone metaphor early on, he never gives up on its metaphorical perspective, which allows him to look forward, backward, inward, outward, and beyond without barriers or consequences. This technique gives his memoir the feeling of an anthropologist trying to make sense of a foreign country from another time. But in this case the foreign country is Turner himself.
My Life as a Foreign Country is the story of Sergeant Turner as told by Brian Turner the poet. As with most wartime memoirs, it is about Sergeant Turner’s upbringing, his decision to enlist in the Army, and his experiences before, during, and after the war. By the end of the book, Brian Turner proclaims Sergeant Turner to be dead: His life, now captured in this brief work, has been understood as well as it will ever be.
Turner draws on his extraordinary ability as a poet. His prose is often lyrical, and he relates his own story as a microcosm of the broader story of human warfare. He uses dreams and a metaphysical imagination to discuss the unknowns of the future, and he uses fiction, screenwriting, and even poetry to describe the unknowns of the past and present. Although he is not strict with his own chronology, he jealously controls the pace of his work: His 138 chapters are sometimes a single sentence, and sometimes his sentences are a single word.
The distance that Turner creates between Brian Turner and Sergeant Turner not only allows others to access his work; it also allows him to assess his experiences matter-of-factly. Unlike most wartime memoirs, My Life as a Foreign Country is unglamorous and unglorious, almost seeking to make the soldier’s experiences anonymous. Almost without exception, he concludes that his wartime leaders have the wrong priorities for their mission and their men—a devastating critique within military culture. He describes his peers as crass and crude, even for an all-male infantry unit deployed to a combat zone, but he does so in a way that allows them to maintain their humanity. He lets no one off easy. But he saves the harshest truths for himself. He admits to his fears in combat, denying any personal heroism and even calling himself a coward. He details his involvement in events and situations that he is not proud of—like how he and his comrades treated Iraqi prisoners—that most other wartime memoirists would certainly omit.
Turner’s style, approach, and honesty combine to make a unique wartime memoir. Like much of the literary fiction from the war in Afghanistan—The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, You Know When the Men are Gone, and others—Turner’s memoir provides a gritty response to the sanitized and sensationalized wartime narratives of mainstream journalistic accounts. But because Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country is presented as nonfiction with a deeply reflective, thoughtful, and stylistic approach, it belongs to a special class of wartime memoirs written by artists, like photographer Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone By, I Miss it So and literary fiction writer Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War.
Turner’s choice to approach his own story in a way that transcends political narratives, transcends his war, and even transcends himself, makes his memoir exceptional. Like the humorous and self-deprecating anecdotes that he uses to soften the content of his poetry, this technique in My Life as a Foreign Country makes his war everyone’s war, which is something that has been missing since the beginning of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.