Remembering War During a Pandemic
August 27, 2020
In this pandemic moment, Navy veteran and Church of England minister Robert Densmore remembers “Witnessing War,” a 2016 talk featuring writer and Army veteran Matt Gallagher, as part of our Gratitude Journal.
By Robert Densmore
I live in the UK now and the impact of COVID-19 on public life has been palpable. I worry about the levels of latent trauma among hospitalists and care workers here — and in the U.S.
By the way, as someone feeling relatively torn between two cultures, I still identify myself to people as "American." Nowadays, in an era of morally questionable executive leadership, being an American abroad requires caveats, explanations, and sometimes apologies. But surprisingly, I find that the one thing that unites so many people is suffering — and trauma.
I think back in particular to the event I attended at the Forum back in April 2016: Witnessing War. I had previously been a panelist in a discussion with author Phil Klay — but this April discussion gave me an opportunity to really hear the audience as they engaged with Matt Gallagher.
Klay. Gallagher. These war writers, or "memoirists," as they are called, bring me back to my own war experiences — something I never really talk about.
One day I woke up and could no longer wear my uniform. And then I could no longer go to the movies. And then I could no longer live in America. But of course trauma is everywhere. And so is suffering.
I suppose I attempted to talk about myself in a roundabout way when I was a combat journalist. It was an experience that left me wholly dissatisfied. One of the questions posed to Matt by a listener I will never forget: "What will you do when your children ask you what it was like?" Not yet a father, but imagining the future, Matt handled it well and described the reality of his home life — where random war memorabilia is not front and center, but is part of the milieu: old photographs, ribbons, flags. Not glorification, but reality.
Having young boys myself, I have always wrestled with this. What do I tell my children about all of this? I have learned now that they pick up on everything — even the unsaid. The absence of my talking about Afghanistan says something, I realize. And they come to understand — and glorify — war in their own way. They know things about me I wish they didn’t: like how I can’t watch war movies; or how I feel about guns, whether they are toys or not. And they go on and make their own stories.
This is something I began thinking about when I first heard Matt’s answer to that question years ago. I feel fortunate that maybe I am ahead of the game — that my PTSD was diagnosed early and caused a tangible rupture in my military life. One day I woke up and could no longer wear my uniform. And then I could no longer go to the movies. And then I could no longer live in America. But of course trauma is everywhere. And so is suffering. War doesn’t have exclusive rights to these.
Maybe, if we tell stories, really earnest and well-crafted ones, we can promote the kind of open honesty in that question. Do my children ever ask what it was like? Not directly — but in so many ways, yes. Because they love me and I am their father. It is a very human story, very universal — and one I realize we should try to tell more often. If for no better reason than to connect with others in the short space of time we have on this planet.
Revisit the Conversation
Transcript of the Event
The excerpt of "Witnessing War" included below has been edited for length and clarity.
Giovanna Meek: I'm going to dive into something that's difficult to talk about. You wrote about the willingness of Americans to support going to war while simultaneously distancing themselves from what happens in war. Many people in America will vote for war, but don't pay attention to the details of what that entails. Essentially, they're willing to send others to war, to do the killing, instead of doing it themselves. This is a pretty harsh reality that you speak to and it seems that your writing can help bridge this divide. You're talking about a divide between Americans and what we are doing in the military. Is this one of the reasons you write?
Matt Gallagher: Yeah, that divide that we hear so much about between military and civilian America. I think the percentage is something like one half of 1% of Americans serve in our times. What does that look like? Within the military, certainly when I was in and even now — I think we’re in year 15 of Afghanistan — there's a real sense that you're fighting for a country, not with it. On the other side, having been out now for longer than I was in uniform, you really have to work to stay not just connected, but even informed about the wars being carried out in our collective name.
It's important because, if you're a taxpayer, you're part of the war machine. When you're over there as a soldier, a Marine, you're not just wearing the unit patch of your unit, you're wearing the American flag right there. They're representing us, all of those 19- and 20-year-old kids sent overseas now. They're connected to all of us, whether they know it or not, or whether we know it or not. You go back to President Nixon, ending the draft and establishing an all-volunteer force, and see that, as a result, a separate warrior caste came into being. My personal view — more as a citizen than as a veteran — is that this is a dangerous thing. This is a very unrepublican thing. The history of our country has had checks and balances in place to ensure that going to war is the last of all options, when all other options have been exhausted. Only then do you draw from the young people in the population to carry that out.
For example, while Congress continues to authorize the funding used to fight ISIS, such as in northern Iraq and Syria, the last AUMF (Authorized Use of Military Force) passed by Congress was in 2001 in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11. That was almost 15 years ago, and passed under very different conditions, in an entirely different country, with an entirely different foe. You can certainly make the case that Congress has abdicated their responsibility in that regard, but who does Congress report to? All of us as citizens.
I'm a writer, so what do you do? It can be a very small thing when we're talking profound influence and power and the layers of bureaucracy separating us from these institutions. The alternative is to do nothing, and I think I'm preaching to the choir here. So you write and you contribute and you think, and then you just try to encourage other citizens to do the same.
Giovanna Meek: A lot of people tend to think this divide is along political lines, that certain people support and understand the military, and certain people don't. But you highlight that millennials would say, "Yes! Let's go and do combat operations against ISIS, ISIL, Daesh." And yet these are the same people who say, "I will not go and do it." Will politics and voting give these millennials some sense of connection to what's actually going on over there?
Matt Gallagher: No, and I don't even blame the millennials. Not just because that makes me sound like an old person, but because that’s the country they inherited. This is the country we gave our young people. Talking to college students — all they remember is their country at war. They were maybe four or five when 9/11 happened. It is the most normal thing in the world for them to turn on the news and see their country bombing some other nation in the name of whatever. We failed the millennials. So, yeah, when you see polls that show that nearly 60% of them would never serve in the military, even if they were needed — yet about the same percentage support combat operations in Syria — it’s very dispiriting. But that's not an indictment of them. That's an indictment of us, I think, who shepherded us into this reality. Of course they feel disconnected.
That said, as they come into young adulthood and start taking leadership positions in private and public sectors, I hope they're reading Phil Klay's book [Redeployment] and maybe getting a human taste of what war means, not just on individual American souls, but on the lives and communities of Iraqis and Afghans. Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan are not bomb field craters. They're neighborhoods. They're places where people are trying to endure and survive in the midst of all sorts of war and ruin. And literature, I think, is uniquely qualified to bridge that empathy divide and get people, especially young people, to think about different perspectives and different worldviews. That's one thing that I hope not just Youngblood but the emerging Iraq and Afghanistan war literature can do.
It's frightening when you talk to college students and they haven't learned the art of guile yet. I was up at a northeastern school last month and a student raised his hand to ask, in a completely earnest way with no subtext, the way somebody maybe just a few years older would have, "Why should we care?" I was really taken off guard by the directness of it. But I also found it refreshing. I tried to make him care. It was a lot of pressure in the moment. That's something that all of us who are invested in this subject and in issues of American foreign policy and war and peace and armed conflict, whatever our background — veteran, civilian, professor, barista, whatever — it's up to all of us to get them to care because this is going to be their country very, very soon and they're going to be influencing the next generation. And if they don't care, their kids certainly aren't going to either.
Giovanna Meek: How much of your writing is you reckoning with the past? How much do you miss the clarity of every day, knowing what you're supposed to do? How much of Youngblood is about you trying to figure things out for yourself, having been a soldier yourself on the ground?
Matt Gallagher: Probably more than I think, but less than an average reader thinks. Reckoning with the past is probably something that a lot of literature does, whether it's related to war or not. Certainly Moby-Dick comes to mind — Ishmael trying to sort out that grand, awful adventure that he'd been a part of. That said, I'd already written a book from the perspective of Matt Gallagher: the memoir Kaboom. It was a micro story about a young person and his platoon. So when I set out to write Youngblood, I'd already been shaken out of my own skull. I'd already said what I'd seen and done and participated in.
In many ways, Kaboom was a story in which a lot of things went right. I was there as part of the surge. We came back with a cautious sense of optimism, as quaint as that seems now. We came back thinking we'd won the war, if wars like Iraq can be won, or at least turned a corner and it wasn't just fluff. The town we were in was legitimately more stable than we'd found it 15 months before. There was running water, there was sometimes consistent electricity. There was this sense, though, like, will this last, when there aren't armed American soldiers at every corner? We know the answer to that now, but we didn't then.
I started writing Youngblood in the fall of 2011, which is when the American military withdrew from Iraq as a whole. For some very obvious reasons, like many veterans and civilians invested in this, I was watching the news. There were these questions of legacy and inheritance — you’ve devoted 15 months of a formative time of your youth to this time and place. What is that going to mean? Not just for you, but for the Iraqi people, the ones who you knew very well and their families who, for nine years of war and occupation, have tried to endure. I started writing Youngblood with all this in mind. Nine years is a long time, so I knew I couldn't write about the whole war in one novel. But I wanted to get some sense of breadth, some sense of totality, so it’s set near the withdrawal, a few years after I was there.
It started off in third person. You feel this very writerly pressure that, well, people will think it's you, so you have to write in third. The early drafts, while it was helpful as an exercise, lacked in an emotional texture that I thought was important to the story, so I switched to first person. Then it's like, "Okay. How do you write in first person not from the perspective of yourself?" I'd done some speech writing at that point, so I had some practical experience in doing that. It just took a lot of drafts. It started with some very basic stuff as the narrator, Jack Porter, started to formulate. It may seem like small biographical things, but it was actually hugely important as I developed his character. I'm an older brother. Jack's a younger brother. Very different. I remember calling up my younger brother and saying, “I'd like to interview you about being a younger brother. Tell me about that." And he's like, "Well, the mere fact that you're only asking me about this for your freaking book is the first lesson." I was like, "That's very helpful." I was like, "Yeah, you're right. I’m kind of a jerk." The older brother in here might be a bit of a jerk as well, at least at points.
Jack's an infantry officer, whereas I was a cavalry officer. It may seem like a small cultural thing, but anyone who spent time in either type of unit knows there's a profound cultural difference. Cav, we're — I don't want to say loosey-goosey, though others would accuse us of that. But we're adaptable, we wear cowboy hats, we're proud of that tradition. Infantry is more tight-laced, by the book, dress right dress. Exploring that, and then having it set a few years after I was there, was vital. I couldn't write right from my tiny school kingdom, as David Foster Wallace said. I'd do a lot of research, see how the war had changed, how it had evolved, interviewing soldiers, some of my former soldiers who had gone back during this timeframe, reading a lot of great nonfiction and journalism about this time. One of the most helpful things was reading oral histories about everyday Iraqis. I'd certainly had my own experiences, some of them friendly, others not, with Iraqis, and I could have relied on my own experience that way. But at some point I realized that every conversation I'd had, I was sitting in their living room with a gun, and no matter how much we were smiling and laughing with one another, that conversation was going to be colored by the fact that I was a foreign occupier sitting in their living room, whatever we were talking about.
Reading those oral histories as an American veteran was tough. It was tough because there was a searing forthrightness there that only on rare occasions did I experience personally in those conversations. But as a writer, I found it invaluable. It was important to me to have fully dimensional Iraqi characters in the book. For the reasons we've talked about, this was about them, not really about us. And as we're seeing it play out in 2016, as the war is still going on, I guess it's just about us again, seeing as another brigade just got shipped over.
Giovanna Meek: At face value, Youngblood’s two main characters — Chambers, a sergeant, and Rana, an Iraqi woman — don’t appear to have a lot of commonality, yet they do. How did you come to write them in this way?
Matt Gallagher: Chambers effectively functions as the antagonist, although he was one of my favorite characters to write. Every villain is the hero of their own story and Chambers is on his fourth tour. He knows what it takes to survive and endure. His primary goal in life is to get his men home. That’s the compromise he's made. He's not necessarily interested in the broader mission of counterinsurgency and bringing sustainability to this Iraqi town. And on one hand, if I were a spouse or a parent of one of these young soldiers, what more could you want from a platoon sergeant? A leader to say, "I will bring your boy home. Don't worry about it. I got this." On the other hand, that comes with a lot of moral compromises, particularly when it conflicts with the higher purpose and higher mission. But he's a survivor. That's something he has in common with Rana, who is a local Iraqi woman who, some years before, was part of an ill-fated romance with an American soldier since missing in action. By the time Jack, the narrator, finds her, she's not the beautiful, innocent sheikh's daughter of legend. She's a survivor. She has two young children, and no matter what, she's going to do what it takes for the three of them to survive this war, come hell or high water.
In very different ways, Jack, I think, is attracted to both Chambers and Rana because he's a cipher. This is his first tour. He has clear eyes, but he's very inexperienced. One of the reasons I chose him as a narrator was to bring in American readers who might not necessarily have any connection to these wars but might identify with him. They’d think, “I know what the right thing to do is in theory, but this is now morally complex, and if you make this decision, because that's what the army is telling you to do, these people will suffer. But if you make the humanist choice, there's going to be all kinds of consequences as well, and not just institutionally, but on these other groups of people.”
Having Rana and Chambers be similar yet distinct in their goals and purposes, and having Jack vacillate between the two of them, I thought it would be indicative of some of the broader dilemmas faced by American soldiers and Iraqis in that war and of the nature of counterinsurgency. It's very conflicting, bringing in armed humanitarianism as a term — which is itself a dichotomy, or can be — and then also it's just a novel, a story first and a story always. I thought it would just be interesting. I wanted people to read this book and be interested and then maybe think about some of this broader stuff. But if they're not reading, if they're not interested in the story, they're not going to care about the bigger stuff either.
Giovanna Meek: I know not all veterans or military will necessarily agree with what you think are the moral and ethical dilemmas. Would you be willing to share a few more that you see from your point of view, when someone is inhabiting those boots on the ground?
Matt Gallagher: Sure. There's a scene where a group of American soldiers and Iraqi soldiers are stranded at the top of a mosque. It's near the end of the book. This mosque is 700 years old. It's the centerpiece of this town, but insurgents have occupied the top of it. What do you do in this position? How do you bring them down? Something similar happened in 2004 and the real Iraq, not the Iraq in Youngblood, with Muqtada al-Sadr, in Najaf. And by the time it got out to the media and to the generals, they knew you couldn’t destroy an ancient mosque even if the people up there had American blood on their hands. Our insurgent leaders had helped initiate their civil war. So I have my characters in one scene cite that, saying, "We can't do that. We know that's the wrong thing to do,” since Sadr had come down, was essentially given immunity, and then went back to leading the Shia insurgency. And yet — I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say — just because they know not to do something doesn't mean that they figure out a different wrong way to carry this out. To me, it felt indicative of not just the Iraq war, but perhaps a lot of the American foreign policy of the twenty-first century. It’s not so much that you're making the same mistakes from history but that you're learning the wrong things, interpreting the wrong things from history.
Mark Twain famously said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." And that was something that I kept in mind as I was writing and rewriting this book and employing different scenes and maybe making obvious or oblique references to the past: that usually people are trying to figure out the smart, right thing to do. But when that is not an option, the only option is figuring out the least wrong thing to do, and the least stupid thing to do. What does that look like? Not just in the moment, but how does that linger and resonate?
In many ways, in 2010 and 2011, when the book is set, the fallout from the violence that took place in 2006 in the sectarian wars that involved Rana and Chambers and Shaba, the mythical American soldier missing in action, is only now coming out. For me, that served as, or I was aiming for it to serve as, a microcosm for the wars as a whole.
Giovanna Meek: You’ve stated that you went in and felt you left the place better than when you and the military had first gone in. You're proud of your military service, but it sounds like you were put in difficult situations and made tough decisions that sometimes you feel were the least bad. When you come back here and somebody walks up to you on the street and says, "Matt, thank you for your service," what do you say?
Matt Gallagher: The first couple of years after I got back, I was probably like a lot of recently returned vets. Not angry to hear it, but resenting it, interpreting it as maybe a shallow drive-by instead of a real effort at connection. Or thinking that it had less to do with me or my service, or service members as a whole, and more to do with a civilian issue that the person is trying to absolve themselves of. With time, I’ve found that, more often than not, the statement comes from a very earnest and sincere place. People just don't know what else to say, given the litany of societal and cultural complications of military service in contemporary America.
I try, and some days are better than others, just having a couple minutes’ conversation, or asking, “Do you have friends in the service?” to figure out what implored them to come up to me in the first place. In that way, you're not just establishing a personal connection. We're all in this. It's an ongoing conversation within the veterans’ community, realizing that, just because you're out of the military, you function — whether you like it or not — as an ambassador for this world. You can do it as an angry caricature, or you can do it as an approachable, informed citizen willing to meet people halfway. But it’s only easy to do in theory. I'm the first to admit that it took me a couple of years to even get there, to even try to be that person. And I did it because I saw other veterans of different eras — Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan — doing it. And I was like, "I want to be like that person. I don't want to be like that person. I want to be like that,” and I tried to employ that in my day-to-day life as much as possible.