War Narratives #7: Turning a Corner


I spent Memorial Day weekend with some friends who I served in Iraq with in 2004. It wasn’t the first time we had gotten together, but it was the first time I noticed that we had started to turn a few corners. As we sat around telling the funniest stories we could remember from our time in Iraq, I noticed that the easy cynicism of our twenties was gone, and so was the rigid hierarchy of the military. We were peers, we were friends, everything that we had experienced together was now more than a decade behind us, and all of that was reflected in how we spent our time together.

The literature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be turning a similar corner. The initial push of largely excellent fiction about these wars from civilian and military writers alike is morphing into its second act, where much that was initially explored is now accepted as fact and provides the foundation for deeper exploration by other authors. The nonfiction of these wars, which has many more titles and many more years to contend with, is also moving away from the simple memoirs reporting on their places, battles, and people.

Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead and Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home, edited by Justin Hudnall, Julia Dixon Evans, and Rolf Yngve, show that these transitions are underway in both fiction and nonfiction. These works are very different from each other—Mogelson’s book is a collection of loosely linked short stories based on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Incoming is a collection of essays about what it was like to come home from the same. But even in their differences, they both say something new and interesting about their subjects.

Heroic HappyEven though Mogelson’s collection comes about five years after the important literary fiction of these wars began to arrive, he still manages to do something beautiful and new in his work. At first, These Heroic, Happy Dead appears to be a fairly conventional work: another book of excellent short stories about the recent wars. In addition to the excellent writing, Mogelson’s stories impress even more because his skill is matched with significant personal knowledge or impressive research on subjects, like the intricacies of deep sea fishing culture, rural jails and prisons, hunting, and so on.

But at a deeper level, the stories in These Heroic, Happy Dead seem to suggest that Mogelson wanted to contribute something new to the ongoing discussion in literature about the costs of war. Where others have portrayed the acute and often immediate damage that wars have caused to people, minds, relationships, and communities, Mogelson writes instead about the long-term decay that follows combat experiences. This decay is seen in all of Mogelson’s stories, and especially in decaying minds, communities, and relationships.

You can see the decay in divorces and failed relationships, through the impact of the guilt that some carry, and even through references to rotting animal flesh placed in his stories. But Mogelson’s point about what this decay might mean is best explained through his references to decayed or decaying teeth. In his opening story, a young veteran is instructed to brush his teeth with his finger; another story describes a character who joins the military for its dental plan after ruining his teeth with methamphetamine; and several stories have characters with dentures. Mogelson’s many allusions to dental hygiene throughout These Heroic, Happy Dead make clear, his book is as much about decay as it is about the artificiality of the measures and more often half-measures often taken in order to slow or endure decay’s inevitability.

Beyond individual half measures taken to prevent or slow decay, Mogelson also delves into the decay of society. The easiest targets for such criticism might be the troubled VA system or the disengaged civilian society, but instead, Mogelson focuses on the nation’s justice system by quietly referencing jails and prisons in a number of his stories. In these places the nation’s veterans receive their treatment, through forced sobriety, through familiar discipline, and through a freedom from the burden of whatever guilt they carried with them from their military service.

Through these interactions, it seems that the civilian society is decaying just as thoroughly and as quickly as the soldiers it sent to war. Although Mogelson does not provide much overt insight into why this may be the case, it could be due simply to the long and distant nature of the wars. It could be due to the political tribalism that seems to ensure that such wars continue. Perhaps more likely is that Mogelson is merely noting that decay is a part of the human condition—that it happens to everyone and everything, veteran and civilian alike, no matter the individual experience or perspective.

IncomingThe value that Incoming provides is not necessarily due to its literary quality as with These Heroic, Happy Dead, but rather because of the platform it provides for those who experienced the wars firsthand. The voices in Incoming are real, they are fairly unvarnished, and they are expressing perspectives, beliefs, and views that have not been treated as broadly as others. They are perfect in their own way, and provide important input into the broader conversations about the wars.

The short essays in Incoming, thirty-six in all, are written by those who served in the current wars, and they are focused on what it was like to come home. It is a rare nonfiction collection about these wars, but there is another reason it is unique as well: its mission is not only to bridge the deep divide between the military and civilian public, but also to bridges the divides between the unique experiences of all who have served, “active duty and veterans alike, men and women, gay and straight, across the multitude of ethnicity.” In other words, it is not just a collection of war stories, but rather a book intended to show the diversity of experiences and perspectives for those involved in the wars.

These accounts of coming home are often told about what the authors brought back with them. At times these are tangible experiences or souvenirs that mean something to the individual author. For Benjamin Busch, it is a photo of a doll’s head taken in a home he raided several times in Ramadi. For Kelly Hewlett it was nursing certification and experience that she could use in her civilian life.

For others, the things they bring home with them are less tangible, but perhaps just as meaningful. Alyssa Kropp brings home an appreciation for the distinctly different reception that greeted her than the greeting her father received when he came home from Vietnam. Others brought their struggles home with them: addiction, memories, emotional distress, and guilt. There is hope, too, and humor. In fact, just as in These Heroic, Happy Dead, Incoming describes a breadth of human experience, just as the editors say they set out to provide in their work.

Incoming is important. As an outgrowth of several writing programs and initiatives, it offers what appears to be unfiltered and unmediated voices from the wars. Because it is the result of several writing programs and initiatives, there is hope that the editors will produce more works like it in the future. At least we can hope that they do.

In fact, both of these books are important. They show a changing dynamic in the ongoing discussions about the wars by those who experienced it. As I realized during my time with my friends over Memorial Day weekend, this is a natural and welcome transition that should help us better understand what these wars mean to us all.

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 →