Archive | March, 2014

Weekly Round-Up: A Female Philoctetes

female philoctetes

Welcome to the Words After War Weekly Round-Up: “A Female Philoctetes” Edition. In this space we share links relevant to our mission of improving the military-civilian dialogue through high-quality literary programming.

This weekend I had the unique pleasure of participating in a read-through and discussion with a few veterans and the cast of A Female Philoctetes (a production from Aquila Theatre, set to run at BAM on 4/16 – 4/19). Originally written by Sophocles, Philoctetes is named for its protagonist, who was a warrior that found himself wounded and later marooned on an island for over a decade. Like many of Sophocles’ works, Philoctetes is layered with meaning, yet this play especially resonates with war veterans, as there is an unavoidable theme of how the physical and psychological wounds of war manifest themselves, long after soldiers have left the battlefield.

In the Aquila Theatre production, the title character will be played by Julia Crockett, adding further nuance and complexity to how our own society understands the trauma of war, especially when placed in the context of women service members in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

When I was a young writer still trying to find my voice, I often overlooked the influence of classical texts on my writing. But eventually, after having read Sophocles, I’d come to better understand the wartime experience. Then I got a better sense of the pitfalls of idealism after reading Cervantes. Because of Shakespeare, I understood the universal pain of an absent father. Later, I’d come to know the dangers of absolute power through the works of Melville. When I graduated from college, a friend asked me so summarize, in a single sentence, what I’d learned from all those books: People haven’t changed all that much over time.

Here we go.

  1. Filmmaker Errol Morris penned a rather fascinating four-part series, “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld,” in the New York Times, which is an in-depth analysis of the rhetorical devices and policy decisions of the former Secretary of Defense.
  2. For the New York Times, Charles Isherwood reviews Paula Vogel’s, “Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq,” a new play where the protagonist, a US Marine, is under such “destabilizing pressure of his wartime experience, not to mention the cruel workings of his own personal demons [he] disintegrates before our eyes.” The play is running through 4/20/14 at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, PA.
  3. Novelist Ted Thompson talks with Town & Country about his masterful debut, The Land of Steady Habits, which is a worthy addition to the great commuter novels of Cheever, Updike, and Yates.
  4. Men’s Journal sheds light on one of the great tragedies of these wars: “The Interpreters We Left Behind.”
  5. In The Washington Post, Bing West, former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine grunt, reviews American Spartan, a book about the bizarre case of Maj. Jim Gant, a special forces soldier in Afghanistan, as written by Gant’s own wife, Ann Scott Tyson.
  6. Over on The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, editor Barry Harbaugh weighs in on the absence of the New York book editor voice in the new essay collection, MFA vs NYC.
  7. The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation recently completed the most comprehensive poll on the experience of post-9/11 vets to date. Of the many interesting statistics, here’s one that stuck out: One in two veterans say they know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide, and more than 1 million suffer from relationship problems and experience outbursts of anger — two key indicators of post-traumatic stress. One way to treat PTSD is through the use of service dogs, and Texas Monthly ran a moving story on the journey of service dogs from their initial training at women’s prisons in Texas to a nonprofit that assigns them to wounded veterans throughout the US.

Have a great week.


Weekly Round-Up: Tweet Story Contest

"Fence Bed Springs" / Bunny Paffenroth

“Fence Bed Springs” / Bunny Paffenroth

Welcome to the Words After War Weekly Round-Up: “Tweet Story Contest” Edition. In this space we share links relevant to our mission of improving the military-civilian dialogue through high-quality literary programming.

Writers secretly love limitations. Too much freedom is paralyzing. We’d rather bump against the rails and get all bothered than wander endlessly. Everyone knows the six-word story. It’s a useful exercise, especially if you find your sentences are lacking a certain sting. Here’s two off the top of my head:

We met on Tinder. So what.
For sale: gym clothes, never worn.

And now the 140-character story is having a moment. The recent Twitter Fiction Festival (to which I was a contributor) generated much debate as to the platform’s literary merits. Words After War is getting into the very short fiction game. We encourage brevity, find artificial constraints inspiring and believe that sharing work builds community. It is in that spirit that we introduce The Words After War Tweet Story Contest.

Here’s the deal: one tweet, one winner, one grand prize.

We will compile and RT deserving entries tweeted @ us all next week (3/24-3/28), but you can also email your entry (MIKE at WORDSAFTERWAR dot ORG). Anybody–veteran, civilian, fledging scribbler or world renowned wordsmith–can participate. We will not take into account how many followers you have or any other content outside of your single tweet entry.

What’s the grand prize? Excellent question. The winner will receive a care package of Words After War-curated reading material delivered directly to their doorstep. Great reads, big value.

There is no prompt, no hashtag. If tweeting your entry at Words After War (@wordsafterwar), please place it in quotations, so we know it’s fiction as opposed to just well-written spam. We look forward to reading your work!

With the fine print out of the way, here are your 7 links.

1. Teju Cole is probably the best known practitioner of literary Twitter.

2. Isaac Fitzgerald interviewed Cole and others in Buzzfeed Books.

3. The #Twitter Fiction Festival brought together writers of every stripe and provided an opportunity to explore the format with big-name institutional support.

4. And here is a shameless, Storify-powered compilation of my own #Twitter Fiction Festival contribution.

Moving away from Twitter…

5. Here’s Keith Gessen on Ukraine.

6. And here is Zack Baddorf and Mitch Swenson’s video post from Crimea.

7. John Banville (as “Benjamin Black”) has written a new Philip Marlowe novel. Confused? Read an interview with Banville/Black in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Have a great weekend.

– Mike

The Dangers of Silence

Hod on Tank II


David Chrisinger

For the past year or so I’ve been trying to find out what happened to my grandfather in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II.

I’ve read everything I can about that battle and my grandfather’s tank battalion’s role in it. He was a driver in the 193rd Tank Battalion, which was attached to the 27th Infantry Division. It was long before I found that my grandfather had fought in a devastating battle on April 19th, 1945, that resulted in “the greatest one-day loss of U.S. armor in the Okinawa Campaign.”

A few weeks ago, I discovered that the battalion’s “Operational Report” had survived the destruction caused by a typhoon that hit Okinawa in the summer of 1945 and was being stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Here’s what the commander of the 193rd wrote in his report about that fateful day:

“As the first tanks neared TA 8176B, they were taken under fire by a 47mm AT gun from the left flank. Two (2) flamethrowers and three (3) tanks were hit by this gun before it was spotted and destroyed by the Assault Gun platoon. From approximately 0830, when the movement of all tanks across was completed, to 1200, the remaining tanks, assault guns and flamethrowers remained around the town of Kakazu, moving to various firing positions and firing on enemy installations and personnel on the South side of Kakazu ridge, to the flanks and along the base of the prominent ridge from TA 7976H to 8075B. During this time five (5) tanks, one (1) flamethrower and two (2) assault guns were disabled by mines of various types which were buried indiscriminately over the entire area. One (1) assault gun stuck in a bog and the crew was later forced to abandon it. They were also subjected to intense artillery fire and mortar fire, but with little damaging effect.”

Shortly after the war ended, a small group of Army historians set out to write the official battle history of Okinawa based on (1) manuscript histories of the units that fought there; (2) interviews with the combatants; and (3) official records, including Japanese records and prisoner of war interrogations.

Here’s what they had to say about the battle for Kakazu Ridge. Notice the differences, not only in terms of the particulars, but also in the depth of what was reported: “As the tanks moved down the road in column, a 47-mm antitank gun, firing from a covered position to the left on the edge of Nishibaru Ridge, destroyed four tanks with sixteen shots, without receiving a single shot in return.”

They continue:

“[The 193rd Tank Battalion arrived] in Kakazu shortly after 1000. They moved around and through the village, spreading fire and destruction; Kakazu was completely shot up and burned during the next three hours. Fourteen American tanks were destroyed in and around the village, many by mines and 47-mm antitank guns, others by suicide close-attack units, and more by artillery and mortar fire…. A majority of the tank crew members were still living after the tanks had been disabled, but many were killed by enemy squads that forced the turret lids open and threw in grenades.”

What did my grandfather have to say about this battle?


He never told anybody about what happened that day, or any other day while he was on Okinawa.

I wish he had.

I wish he had told his story. I wish he had let someone help him work through what he had experienced.

I wish that all veterans could find the courage to tell their stories. After all, if your life does not become a story, silence will become the story of your life.

David Chrisinger works to close the divide between veterans and civilians by helping post-9/11 veterans tell their stories of war. This past October, he ran a 50-mile ultramarathon to raise money for The Mission Continues.

Weekly Round-Up: Matt Power

Matt Power

Image Credit: GQ

Welcome to the Words After War Weekly Round-Up: “Matt Power” Edition. In this space we share links relevant to our mission of improving the military-civilian dialogue through high-quality literary programming.

A few days ago, Matt Power passed away in Uganda while on assignment for Men’s Journal. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, Matt Power was a talented storyteller, curious adventurer, and compassionate witness for those who live on the far edges of society. From the first time I read his work, my mind ran wild with questions of how one man could somehow manage to live the life of my own imagination: vagabond train hopper, advocate, sailor on a make-shift raft along the Mississippi, and writer for some of the best publications of our time. Any one of these things alone would be an incredible bullet on a resume; Matt Power did them all together, and that made him a hero in my view of the world. It’s tragic when any person’s life and talent is cut short, but it’s especially sad when there is clearly so much more life left to live. We dedicate this week’s round-up to the memory of Matt Power, whose words will live on and continue to enrich the lives of those who read them.

Here we go.

  1. Abe Streep, an Outside senior editor, wrote a moving tribute to his friend, which includes some of Matt’s amazing advice on life, “Lay it out.”
  2. GQ collected the stories Matt wrote for the publication here.
  3. Longform Podcast interviewed Matt back in February 2013, listen to it here.
  4. Men’s Journal collected the stories Matt wrote for the publication here.
  5. Atavist removed the pay wall for Matt’s story, “Island of Secret,” where Matt follows geologist John Lane, who is set on proving the existence of the elusive tree kangaroo on the remote Pacific island of New Britain.
  6. Harper’s collected the stories Matt wrote for the publication here.
  7.  Everything else Matt wrote can be found on his website here.

Spend the week reading.


Weekly Round-Up: Reading Lists


Photo Credit: Jon McNaught and New York Times

Welcome to the Words After War Weekly Round-Up: “Reading Lists” Edition. In this space we share links relevant to our mission of improving the military-civilian dialogue through high-quality literary programming.

In college, I often chose a course based on the professor’s reading lists. Even today, whenever I attend a literary event or talk, I’m most curious about the reading lists or influences of the writers and thinkers on stage. But reading lists are tricky things, in the same way mix tapes can be tricky. Reading lists aren’t always made better by sheer volume or by being as comprehensive as possible. More than that, though, both reading lists and mix tapes tend to have greater impact when there’s a theme or some organization to them. And like the best mix tapes I have ever received, reading lists are a labor of love, and usually say much more about the curator than they ever say about music or books. That’s why we created the recommended reading section on the website. Also, Matt Gallagher has provided the writing workshop’s reading list. So, if you want to know what the writing workshop is reading, but you aren’t able to attend, here’s your chance.

Words After War Reading List

Fall 2013

Eclipse of the Sunnis, by Deborah Amos

“Men in Black,” by Colby Buzzell

A Rumor of War, by Phil Caputo

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Black Hearts, by Jim Frederick

“Spoken from the Hedgerows,” by Jorie Graham

“A Raisin in the Sun,” by Lorraine Hansberry

“Hiroshima,” by John Hersey

“OIF,” by Phil Klay

“Helmet for my Pillow,” by Bob Leckie

“Memories of West Street and Lepke,” by Robert Lowell

Armies of the Night, by Norman Mailer

“The Scariest Little Corner of the World,” by Luke Mogelson

“Noon Wine,” by Katherine Anne Porter

“Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” by Katherine Anne Porter

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” by J.D. Salinger

“For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” by J.D. Salinger

V-Letter and Other Poems, by Karl Shapiro

With the Old Breed, by E.B. Sledge

“A Trip to Hanoi,” by Susan Sontag

Meditations in Green, by Stephen Wright

Spring 2014

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel

I Saw Ramallah, by Mourid Barghouti

The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

Eleven Days, by Lea Carpenter

“You Know When the Men Are Gone,” by Siobhan Fallon

“Inside the Break,” by Siobhan Fallon

“Shooting an Elephant,” by George Orwell

Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

“The New Veterans,” by Karen Russell

Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih

“Home,” by George Saunders

The Village of Ben Suc, by Jonathan Schell

The Gangster We Are Looking For, by Le Thi Diem Thuy

And now for the round-up. Here we go.

  1. Phil Klay’s Redeployment was released to overwhelmingly rave reviews, including an amazing review by Dexter Filkins on the cover of this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. If you are not able to attend one of Phil’s many readings, you can listen to him discuss his work on the New York Times Book Review podcast, and you can also read Matt Gallagher’s interview with Phil in the Paris Review.
  2. Our friend, Megan McCloskey, recently published an exceptional piece of journalism in ProPublica that left me sad and angry. She profiles the agency responsible for finding the missing remains of American service members, and having once nearly taken orders to the agency and been close to those involved with the program, I am frustrated that I never had the opportunity to make it better.
  3. On the At War blog from the New York Times, David Eisler examines the military-civilian divide on university campuses with the return of the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to Columbia University after an absence of more than 40 years. And on Foreign Policy, Adrian Bonenberger takes on the future of warfare that these new cadets and midshipmen like those at Columbia can expect to face in the coming decades.
  4. Brian Van Reet gives an excellent review for The Daily Beast of Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, which is one of the first books to explore the Iraq War from an Iraqi’s perspective. Also from The Daily Beast, Lea Carpenter interviews Susan Minot on Africa, Joseph Kony, and child soldiers
  5. General Stanley McChrystal’s memoir, My Share of the Task, was recently released in paperback, and he was interviewed on WNYC‘s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” where he gave a surprising assessment on Afghanistan and Iraq. You can also read about what he’s been up to since his retirement, as Newsweek profiled his new consulting firm, The McChrystal Group.
  6. The Daily Beast reprinted Elliot Ackerman’s moving eulogy for his friend, Marine Master Sergeant Aaron Torian, who was killed in action in February in Afghanistan. Elliot’s eulogy is a stark reminder that we are a nation still at war.
  7. Amtrak’s writing residency, or #AmtrakResidency, application is now officially live. After you apply, let’s us know if you would like to go as a Words After War writer. And if you need a few more books to add to a reading list while riding the rails, here are a couple of the books General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended during in interview with PBS Newshour.

Have a great week.


Weekly Round-Up: MOOCs Edition


Unpublished DFW essay: The influence of cat memes, MOOCs, and the Internet on modern literary fiction writers.

Welcome to the Words After War Weekly Round-Up: “MOOCs” Edition. In this space we share links relevant to our mission of improving the military-civilian dialogue through high-quality literary programming.

After a short winter break, we’re back and ready to get back to work. As it tends to happen, two weeks of events and news have piled up: the weather turned nice and then terrible again; the defense budget is shrinking; thanks to the influence of capitalism, Arizona is now only a little less crazy and discriminatory than I once suspected; Ukraine ousted its president and then Russia behaved like a scorned lover; #AWP14 annoyingly monopolized my Twitter feed; and I’ll be spending part of my Sundays for a few weeks with a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) from Yale on financial markets.

There’s some lively debate about the social utility of MOOCs, both within academia and tech entrepreneur circles. Some of the criticism leveled against MOOCs is rather valid, while some of it is simply unfounded alarmist paranoia. Truthfully, I fall somewhere in the middle of the debate, that tricky balance between a business model that’s too heavily influenced by corporate profits and a social venture with a global mission of building a quality, accessible, and sustainable education model for the modern era. Like many, I have had a few false starts with MOOCs, and I’ve yet to complete one from beginning to end. So this is a test of my commitment to the MOOC model, I suppose. I read somewhere that if I publicly declare my goal then I’m far more likely to complete the goal. So, I am testing that theory, along with usefulness of MOOCs. I’ll keep you posted.

And for those of you living in and around NYC, Phil will be reading all over the city this week from Redeployment. After you listen to him read, buy his book, which is due out on March 4th. We can’t recommend his work enough, if only for the simple power of sentences like these: “So that’s your story, the story you wanted to tell me. Now what?”

Here we go.

  1. Speaking of social utility, a recent collection of essays, MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, is stirring public debates around the usefulness of MFA programs generally, but perhaps more specifically this collection is offering, if for the first time, a truly complete lens into the life ­– and economics ­– of the modern working writer. Two of the essays I’ve read thus far – Alexander Chee and Emily Gould – have each, in their own ways, totally and completely blown me away. Both essays uniquely employ the author’s personal and financial struggles in order to highlight the many different reasons why writers choose to attend writing programs, poorly spend their book advances, or refuse to find regular jobs after it all falls apart.
  2. A local newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado, The Gazette, is running a powerful series on a rather complex issue facing some of America’s combat veterans who were discharged with an OTH, or other than honorable discharge. To be honest, as a veteran myself, I am not sure how I feel about this issue. But, if history has taught us anything, it’s that morally complicated social issues such as this require both nuanced thinking and a collective sense of responsibility to fix.
  3. The Boston Globe decided to run another poor example of reporters pushing an agenda on the sexiness of special operations and its (lack of) connection to elite athletes. According to the paper, Boston College’s Alex Amidon ‘may’ leave football for a Navy SEAL dream (the original story had him leaving, but was later amended to include this, ‘Clarification: BC associate athletics director said Amidon had not yet made a decision’). This is all rather silly to me, because there have been plenty of elite college athletes who have served in the military since 9/11, and some of them even served in first-tier units. For instance, my boat crew leader in BUD/S was the starting middle linebacker for San Diego State’s football team in the early 2000s, who never made a big deal of his football past or his direct from OCS to BUD/S path. He was a solid officer who treated me well, and was always willing to get wet and sandy with the rest of us mortals.
  4. From the Daily Beast, you can read Brian Castner’s exceptional review of Redeployment. After that, check out the ‘Books of the Times’ review in the New York Times, as well as the reviews in Men’s Journal and New York Magazine.
  5. The great Denis Johnson has new fiction in this week’s New Yorker. And for those of you unfamiliar with his work, his collection, Jesus’ Son, is one of the best story collections. Ever. Period. Full Stop.
  6. Thanks to the power of Twitter, Amtrak will be offering residencies to writers. After you figure out how to apply, you can read an essay in the Paris Review from Jessica Gross on writing on trains. And then re-read why some of us just want the world to be a little less loud, especially in the quiet car.
  7. Not sure how they did it, but interviewed Chairman Dempsey on the profession of arms. I could listen to General Dempsey talk all day, which might have something to do with his graduate degree in literature from Duke. If you want more Dempsey, you can watch him on Charlie Rose. If you want more debate on the profession of arms, check out Adrian Bonenberger’s op-ed in the Washington Post and Maj. Matthew Cavanaugh’s post on

Have a great weekend.