Veterans' Stories Cut through the Fog of War

In his memoir "Civilianized," Michael Anthony, a young veteran of the war in Iraq, shares cigarettes and slugs of peppermint vodka with a homeless Vietnam War vet outside a liquor store. Referring to their respective homecomings, the Vietnam vet mumbled that it was bad back then, "but not as bad as it is now."

The surprised Anthony nearly spit out his sip of vodka.

"After all the stories I'd heard about veterans returning home from the Vietnam War, being called baby killers, being spit on, rallies against them and the war. There was none of that for us."

But, the older veteran said, he would rather have someone passionate about the war spit on him than "to shake hands with someone" who didn't care.

Mulling that over, Anthony reflected: "Everyone wanted to shake my hand, give congratulations, and thank me for my service. But people didn't care. Not really. ... People didn't know we were still at war."

United States and allied forces invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the Taliban regime refused to turn over Osama bin Laden. A U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003, primarily on the rationale, now generally discredited, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. According to the Watson Institute of International & Public Affairs at Brown University, "2.7 million service members have been to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and over half of them have deployed more than once." American troops remain in both countries today.

New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins titled his chronicle of these campaigns "The Forever War" (2008), a phrase aptly cited in the subtitle of a new collection of fiction by American veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars: "The Road Ahead: Fiction From the Forever War." Both titles bring to mind Vietnam vet Joe Haldeman's classic science-fiction novel, "The Forever War" (1975), about a veteran of interstellar conflict who, thanks to relativistic time effects, returns to a changed society where he can't fit in.

"America has never before, by any measure, fought a war with such a well-educated force," editors Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner write in their introduction to "The Road Ahead." "Not only do soldiers have unprecedented technical skills, they are also steeped in war literature, readers already well-versed in the canon from Hemingway to Herr." But, as their anthology and Anthony's memoir indicate, many of these veterans find returning to civilian life problematic and painful.

After a year of service in Iraq as an operating room technician, Anthony returns to the U.S. with a Vicodin addiction and an alcohol problem, poor substitutes for "the rush from constant near-death experiences" he felt in Iraq. During the three months he gives himself before he plans to commit suicide, he joins a group class taught by a pick-up artist, where he begins to feel, with the other men, a touch of the camaraderie he felt overseas: "It was like in war, how the relationships that are forced upon you ... can take on a type of unexpected intimacy."

He also tends to pick fights with large, angry people, even when he knows he can't win them. His being alive today is proof that Anthony has one of the best guardian angels ever.

Anthony's pursuit of women, and his struggle to maintain a potential relationship of quality when he connects with a sane woman, develops parallel to his thinking about suicide. Bibliotherapy is one of the things that keeps him alive: "I couldn't see killing myself if I had a book that was only half-read," he writes. The text that finally helps him to choose life is a classic war story: Shakespeare's "Henry V." That, and the friend and fellow veteran who urged him to write "the (bleeping) truth."

"Civilianized" is a remarkable account of what it's like to live inside post-traumatic stress disorder. It's also smart and mordantly funny. Its spareness and unflinching description of drug use and consequences reminds me occasionally of another short book, William S. Burroughs' "Junky," though Anthony, even in his fighting mode, come across as a kinder and more compassionate character than Burroughs' Bill Lee. Anthony is also the author of "Mass Casualties: A Young Medic's True Story of Death, Deception, and Dishonor in Iraq" (2009).

"Nothing in this anthology is definitive," the editors of "The Road Ahead" declare, emphasizing the constantly changing nature of these wars and the unique responses of each combatant. But "The Road Ahead" does capture what appears to me two of the distinctive elements of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts: the constant threat of improvised explosive devices and the widespread presence of women in combat roles. Marquette University graduate Castner, who served as this anthology's managing editor, is a former Air Force explosive ordnance disposal officer and author of the compelling memoir "The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows."

Like the men, the female soldiers and Marines in these stories have been shaped, sometimes irrevocably altered, by their wartime service. In Lauren Kay Halloran's "Operation Slut," a female vet approaches dressing up for a singles bar as though she were going on a dangerous mission, doing recon by watching YouTube videos of teenage fashion bloggers. Serving in Afghanistan had turned her from a scrawny blond girl to a woman that men admired, but poisoned her former boyfriend with corrosive jealousy.

In Teresa Fazio's "Little," probably my favorite story in this anthology, a tough Marine captain, socially isolated on base by her job as mortuary affairs officer, wrestles with her crush on a younger male lieutenant -- literally, as both are martial artists. Fazio's story is filled with telling details both about the captain's sobering work and about the tight path a woman must walk in the military.

Bonenberger's "American Fapper" presents a bitterly comic alternative to the romantic fantasies that have sprung up around Navy SEALS and military snipers. This particular sniper develops an unfortunate connection between getting off a difficult shot and sexual satisfaction. This becomes even more problematic when the insurgent target turns out to be an attractive woman.

Most stories in "The Road Ahead" are told in a realistic mode, but suitable attention is paid to the surreal and disorienting elements of war and homecoming. In the collection's most far-out tale, "We Put a Man in a Tree," Madison novelist Matthew J. Hefti personifies the guilt that haunts JJ, a veteran of four tours of duty, as three bitter ghosts who jabber at him in every weak moment, especially when he's alone. ___

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This article is written by Jim Higgins from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.

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