Did That Really Happen? An Interview with Veteran Writers

Jesse Goolsby

I was at a literature conference a few years ago when someone asked a well-respected panelist what, in his opinion, made Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried so powerful.

“He was there,” the scholar said. “That pain and honesty, the way it’s translated from memory to page, you can’t fake that. Only a soldier who was present could have written it.”

Even then, sitting in that conference room, I thought the answer was the biggest load of shit I’d ever heard. Of course you can fake that—isn’t brilliant appropriation one of the goals of fiction?

How glorious was it when, a few years later, I had the opportunity to spend some time with O’Brien. We were eating lunch—talking about sports, magic, Rubik’s Cubes, writing, our commonality of having served in the military. Finally, although ashamed before I asked the question, I let myself succumb to my juvenile curiosity.

“I’m sorry for asking this, and I know it shouldn’t matter, but how much of The Things They Carried really happened?”

O’Brien looked at me as he should have: unimpressed, disappointed. Hell, the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” is a blueprint on how not to ask such puerile questions. Still, he smiled.

“Maybe five percent,” he said. And that was all. 

Still to this day I wonder why I was relieved at his answer. Was it just to reaffirm my hatred of the scholar’s answer years before? Was it simple self-preservation because I have written about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but have not deployed there myself? Was it that I was looking for more ammunition against the maddening word authenticity?

Yes, all of it.

Have you heard this advice: “You better tell your own story or someone else will?”

There exists a gorgeous get-to-work intensity and timeliness behind that charge, but there’s also the matter of discovering just what, exactly, your own story is—its form and content, its tone and yearnings and aims.

Of course, these choices are true for any artist in any discipline; however, they feel especially pressing when considering my relationship—and all active-duty service members and veterans’ relationships—to war literature and art. Often that introspection unearths more questions than answers: as our nation continues its forever wars, what do we ask and expect of our veteran artists? How do they navigate their incredibly varied stories, many of which defy traditional, even expected, battle-scene focus? How are their narratives similar to and/or different from the long and venerable lineage of war literature, including work like The Things They Carried? How, or should, their personal backgrounds be used as promotional pathways into their art?

What follows is a conversation about some of these questions with a group of fantastic writers representing varied military and creative backgrounds, working in and across multiple genres.

Elliot Ackerman is the author of the novel Green on Blue (Scribner) and the forthcoming Dark at the Crossing (Knopf). He served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and is the recipient of the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart. A former White House Fellow, his essays and fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and Ecotone, among others. He currently lives in Istanbul and writes on the Syrian Civil War.

Maurice Decaul, a former Marine, is a poet, essayist, and playwright, whose writing has been featured in the New York Times, The Daily Beast, Sierra Magazine, Epiphany, and others. His poems have been translated into French and Arabic and his theatrical works, Holding it Down and Sleep Song, collaborations with composer Vijay Iyer and poet Mike Ladd, have been produced and performed in New York City, Washington, D.C., Paris, and Antwerp. He is a graduate of Columbia University and New York University.

Brandon Lingle’s work has appeared in the New York Times’ At War blog, Guernica, North American Review, Zone 3, Narrative Magazine, TIME Battleland, and elsewhere. He is the art director and nonfiction editor at War, Literature and the Arts. An active-duty Air Force officer, he has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He earned an MFA in nonfiction from Sierra Nevada College. The views expressed here are his alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.

Katherine Schifani is the recipient of the Iowa Review’s Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans. She is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and spent seven years on active duty in the Air Force. She earned an MFA from Seattle Pacific University and lives in Colorado.


Please tell us about your entry into writing. How and when did the initial impulse arrive to explore war through your work?

ACKERMAN: My mother is a novelist, so I grew up around books and studied history and literature at university. I knew I wanted to write and then went into the Marines in 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion, so the war provided an extended detour from any plans I might have had to write in a serious way. Then, once I decided after eight years to hang up my spurs as a Marine so to speak, I started making my first attempts at a novel. Writing about the war just felt natural. That experience just couldn’t be denied in my work, at least initially.

DECAUL: I didn’t have a desire to become a writer until I left the Marine Corps. Six years to be exact. On a whim, I decided to visit the New York University Veterans Writing Workshop in early 2009. I went with the intention of learning how to tell a nonfiction story. At the time, I was an undergraduate, and I had planned on studying history so my goal was to learn skills that would help me as a prose writer, a nonfiction writer. I grew up reading nonfiction. I seldom read fiction and never poetry, so when I found out the NYU class was poetry-based, I almost didn’t come back. Except, we were reading Yusef Komunyakaa’s work—I found a fellow traveler and was hooked. I became obsessed with poems like “You and I are Disappearing,” Komunyakaa’s lyricism and imagery, the sonic quality of the text. My own impulse to write about the war was in large part due to that workshop. I had never talked to anyone about the war, but NYU’s room made that possible. Komunyakaa’s writing showed me how.

LINGLE: I’ve been interested in art since I was a kid. While growing up, images and words always made more sense to me than equations and formulas. My favorite high school classes were graphics and photography. The challenge of working within a frame, or on a page, intrigued me. I loved the idea of capturing a moment visually, of being able to tell a story without words, and even holding a tangible product of my labor. Working in a darkroom taught me a lot about practice, patience, and expectations. The darkroom offered a chance to make another pass at what was on the film. In the safelight’s amber, with the chemical smell, and the timer-hand glow, I learned about composition and revision. There’s something magic about finding your way in the darkness, and I think those lessons about process stayed with me.
     And, just as I grew up with art, war too found its way into my youth. An Air Force Base that launched intercontinental ballistic missiles bordered my hometown. Strangely my top undergrad choices were Brooke’s Institute of Photography and the Air Force Academy. I chose the Academy and became interested in words thanks to a one-of-a-kind professor in a core English class. In his class, I realized I could create images with words. Growing up next to a base and attending a service academy formed a natural curiosity about war within me. Serving in a wartime military forced me to explore conflict from multiple perspectives. I sought out opportunities to experience it, and I still am.

SCHIFANI: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. I believe my first published work was a hardbound, illustrated book about my dog Rocky getting a new convertible for her birthday. I was probably eight when my parents sent it off to be bound and it came back with a teal cover. They still have it on their bookshelf. Aside from that, most of what I write is nonfiction. I joke that I worked for the government for a decade, so I don’t need to make anything up because so many outrageous and ridiculous things actually happened, I wouldn’t be able to invent them anyway. I also like to write what I know, which, at this point, is the world around me as I run into it.
     My writing about the war actually started when I was deployed to Iraq. Every week or so I would write my family and friends e-mails about some of the things I saw and did, more to let them know I was still alive than anything else. At one point, I wrote about following a forklift that could only turn right through a Baghdad suburb while trying to relocate a water tank. It was as absurd as it sounds, and some of my friends started requesting other people on the e-mail train because they enjoyed the stories so much. It wasn’t until the last few months of my deployment that I realized I was writing more than just e-mails.

I realize artistic intentions can be a tricky subject, but what do you hope readers will experience through your art, and are there specific issues or themes you set out to highlight?

DECAUL: My work, my plays specifically, are about people forced into positions where they must make impossible decisions, the ramifications of which affect more than the protagonists. What I mean is, take a look at Yehuda Amichai’s “The Diameter of the Bomb,” in which the consequence of a bombing affects more than the people killed and wounded. The consequence of the homicide is so great that it is inestimable, larger than the concept of god, so immeasurable that the universe itself is not a large enough container. I want to write characters that are forced to make decisions with inestimable consequences. The sorts of decisions that will haunt the decision maker forever, regardless of what they do or don’t do.

SCHIFANI: I want people to know what happens in a war, both the horrible and incredible. We live in a culture that is almost entirely detached from the war, and aside from beer commercials and national sports leagues that make money off soldiers coming home, we as the American consciousness don’t think about what the war really is. We don’t consider the millions of people affected on all sides, and we don’t really understand what it has cost us. I want people who read my work to understand what I saw and did. As an American, I want them to know what we gained and lost in Iraq. As an airman who deployed to fill a manning void for the Army, I want them to know what it is like to navigate a war we were not trained or equipped to fight. As a woman, I want them to understand what it means to be in combat, and why my presence as a woman was both a tactical advantage and problematic, which is something my essay “Pistol Whip” (The Iowa Review) explores in depth. The more people know, the more likely they are to be involved in the policy decisions that allow such wars to happen and continue.

LINGLE: Among many things, I hope people see the unknowable-ness of war. In my essay, “I Thought You Were in Afghanistan,” (Zone 3), I tried to capture the barrage of disparate information people in warzones experience. They’re left to pick through the shards and piece together their own beliefs. The vast narratives that we’re fed by mainstream media and governments hardly capture the realities of millions of individuals. I’m fascinated with ideas of proximity. Clearly defined enemy lines don’t exist in modern wars. A drone pilot can kill from thousands of miles away just as an office clerk can die from a rocket attack on a massive forward operating base. Perceptions of safety are only that. I’m interested in how the war comes home through technology and vice versa, and how these intrusions echo through years and generations. I’m intrigued with the absurdity, egotism, corruption, and arrogance exhibited in our long wars.

ACKERMAN: I think all art deals with emotional transference. I want the reader to feel something, and hopefully some of what I am feeling as I work on a novel. Each project I work on has its characters and themes, which are often wide ranging. Not all of those themes are strictly emotional, some are certainly political, but if you make a reader feel something they will remember the experience they had as they read. How many times have you finished a book and it’s just like a punch to the stomach? I guess I’m always aspiring to deliver those types of punches.

In almost every book of literature produced by veterans, regardless of genre, there seems to be a strong push to highlight the credibility or authority her or his service brings to the work. Do you think a writer’s military service history should be used as a tool of credibility in the arts?

SCHIFANI: I do not. What we need is to be in the hands of a capable author who is careful with how she tells a story and how unwavering she is to telling the truth.

ACKERMAN: No, I don’t thing it should be used as a tool of credibility. What matters is the writers’ authority on the topic—that word is derivative of the word “author.” When dealing with any topic, the author must have a mastery of it as well as their craft as a writer. If that authority comes through experience, then great. If it comes through research, that works, too. I believe that any topic should be fair game for any writer. But you better write well.

DECAUL: I don’t know if it should be, but I think that it could. I’m not of the mind that veterans have the right to a monopoly on the war story. Tim O’Brien makes a great point about the veracity of war stories in “How to Tell a True War Story” in The Things They Carried. I think one’s own military service could be an interesting place to start a piece from, but the craft of storytelling is equally important.

LINGLE: No, I don’t think an artist’s military experience should be used as a tool of credibility when discussing fictional work. There are plenty of examples of people with no military service who’ve written about the military more successfully than people who’ve served for decades. The prime examples for me right now are Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War. I’m thankful people with little or no military experience are writing about these issues. I think the art would go stale if only veterans wrote war. I think this principle applies across all genres. When you look at nonfiction, guys like Dexter Filkins, who wrote The Forever War, or Sebastian Junger, who wrote War, and created the films Restrepo and Korengal, haven’t served in the military, but they know more about combat than the majority of people serving today.

What do you find encouraging about the state of contemporary American war literature? Of concern?

LINGLE: I’m encouraged by the amount of networking and support going on among people writing war today. Over the last few years, we’ve seen some amazing groups come together to help people tell their stories. I’ve been especially impressed with the efforts of the Sierra Nevada College MFA program led by Brian Turner, Consequence Magazine, the Time Now blog, So Say We All Incoming, Red Bull Rising blog, The Military Writers Guild, Danger Close Alaska, Veterans Writing Project, Words After War, War Writers Campaign, and many others. I’m continually impressed by the generosity of the writing world and its openness to these new voices. I do worry about potential cliquishness within the military writing communities. I’m also curious to see how war books fare over the next few years after the success of books like Redeployment. I think we’re entering a new and exciting phase of writing about Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re way beyond the kill memoirs and pure combat narratives now. We’re getting into the subtler explorations of the long wars.

ACKERMAN: I believe there has been a healthy appetite for contemporary American war literature, which is encouraging. That being said, I think we, as writers, always need to be striving to do something new. It’s difficult to write on a topic where so much has already been written. I think there can be a tendency for writers who are working on this topic to ape what has been written before without saying anything new. So, in effect, you wind up writing a book that doesn’t reflect the war as much as it does the war literature that’s come before it. 

SCHIFANI: Contemporary American war literature has done a nice job of examining what happens to people when they come home from the war, and even a fairly good job of describing what people did before and why they joined. What feels missing in many cases is the actual war. There are such varied experiences from people who never received bullets or left their base, to people who slept in the back of their Humvees. But what we have, by in large, are the exceptional stories of bravery, tragedy, or heroism. What we need are those experiences in between, well told, to tell the whole story.

DECAUL: My writing world is not so interested in creating literature as much as it is interested in the making of live performance, but what I have observed is a diversity of story and storytelling techniques. There are documentary pieces that cull the veteran’s experience, and there are pieces of fiction, of magic realism—Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, for example—which innovate on the archetypes and present them in new and interesting ways. I’m encouraged that the American theater is willing to present these voices on stage and that veteran and non-veteran civilians are engaged in the storytelling.

Often there is an assumption in human (and therefore artistic) terms that war is war, and the differences from age to age are mostly technological, strategic, tactical. Do you agree? Are the works emerging from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars fundamentally the same as the war literature preceding them? How might they be uniquely different?

DECAUL: Interesting question. I suppose on one level, war is probably war. At its base, what we are describing as war when controlling for the idea of the nation-state, involves human beings in violent conflict which might end in death being experienced by some or all of the participants. We certainly find this in the works of the ancients. One need not look further than the Greeks for examples, and these stories also speak to universal problems faced by soldiers. For example, in the case of Neoptolemus, the young soldier must decide whether to obey his superior officer, Odysseus, and use cunning to defeat his opponent Philoctetes, or instead follow his own convictions and complete his mission in an honorable way. He tries to do both, and it requires the demi-god Hercules’s intervention at the end to resolve the conflict. In contemporary drama, the play Grounded comes to mind. A pilot who has transitioned from flying F-16s to flying UAVs experiences a moment of recognition: her target, holding a child in his hands, reminds the pilot of her own child, and she is unwilling and unable to engage. Of course Grounded is not a perfect analogue to Philoctetes, but at both of their cores are stories of soldiers who are unwilling or unable to reconcile paradigm shifts in the way war is conducted.

SCHIFANI: I agree to this extent: war is war, but our relationship to the war is what changes. With so few people compared to the national population serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the general public does not have the same connection to the wars as they have in nearly every other major war in American history. There was certainly not a civilian-military divide in either World War, nor was there with the Vietnam War. What I mean is that an American could not escape the immediacy of Vietnam, and this proximity produced a national outrage that mobilized the general public against the war. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the distance between the war and the average American grew to a point where it became possible to forget there was a war happening at all. Because of this, the literature coming out of these wars has the challenge of making the war relevant, immediate, and urgent in ways it didn’t have to do before. Literature coming out of our recent wars also confronts the stereotyping and exploitation of our soldiers. What we see are the stories of masculine heroism. What we need are all the other stories, the ones about people who never left the base and were never given bullets, the ones about the people who were sent to do a job for which they had not been trained, the stories of people tasked with transferring the bodies of deceased service members back to the U.S. The more we isolate the war experience to the common trope we are comfortable with (i.e. the overly masculine hero willing to risk everything for his fellow soldiers), the farther from the truth of war we get. This is not to say these stories don’t happen, this is just to suggest that they do not comprise the majority of war experiences, and therefore should not comprise the majority of the literature either.  

ACKERMAN: Is that really an assumption? I don’t feel like it is. I doubt a bomber pilot in Europe in 1943 would say that his experience was basically the same as a Macedonian infantryman in Alexander’s army. There are themes that are common in literature about war, just as there are themes that are common in literature about love, parenting, divorce, you name it. Then you take those themes, set them in contemporary times, and tell them through contemporary methods, you wind up with a form of literature that is new but also has consistency with all the literature that has gone before it. So, is the war literature coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan fundamentally different than everything before it? Yes. Is it fundamentally the same? Yes.

LINGLE: I think Donald Anderson, the longtime editor of War, Literature and the Arts, and director of creative writing at the Air Force Academy puts it best: “In the long haul of history, a stone ax crushing a skull is no different from a Tomahawk missile except in its efficiency. We have as much to learn from The Iliad as we do from The Hurt Locker.”

There has been a lot of discussion about the prevalence of “damaged veteran” narratives in contemporary American war literature. Voices in and out of the veteran community are pushing for more representation of veterans that focus less on debilitating scars of war and more about the many personal and professional successes of those that have served. What is your reaction?  

SCHIFANI: I am inclined to agree with this reaction. The trope of the “damaged veteran” is certainly one of the most prevalent ones coming out of the recent wars, and I think in large part because people have capitalized on it the most. Not necessarily veterans, but the rest of society seems to have taken a particular affinity to damaged veterans as a tool to sell products, promote their business, or get their name out there. This, as best I can tell, is exploitation, and is why veteran’s voices are so important. If we don’t tell our stories, whether stories of the damage the war has done—which are as crucial as any other—or the successes we have achieved afterwards, someone else will tell the stories for us, and will do so in the way that makes the most money. So yes, we need more representation of both the positive outcomes veterans have, and also the tangible experiences of the war that affect those outcomes. What we have is an abundance of the aftermath, in this case mostly negative, and a lack of the actual experience.

LINGLE: The “damaged veteran” narrative is too easy. It’s a cop-out and the product of a society that feels guilty for not engaging in or sustaining a national dialogue about the wars in the first place. I think stories of perfect comebacks can be clichéd too. Everyone is scarred in some way or another. Veterans carry scars from their experiences in and out of war. They also have moments of redemption, resilience, failure, forgiveness, and everything in between. To stereotype all veterans as damaged is too simplistic. We need to work against the one-dimensional “damaged veteran” narrative as much as we can.

DECAUL: Of course. We should write pieces, books, and plays that more fully represent the entirety of the veterans’ community. Within the canon, one might find stories of people who come back and struggle and those stories should be there, but stories, which are invested in the successes, also have their place. I think the intention behind the story is important. Veterans are, after all, just human beings and like other human beings experience a range of life stages. One thing we should focus on is telling nuanced stories about people, some of whom might be veterans.

ACKERMAN: The damaged veteran narrative is so prevalent that I think a lot of work just falls into that construct. Less attention can, at times, get paid to some of the unique aspects of the 9/11 wars. For instance, the fact that we were all volunteers, and that adds a level of complexity to horrible experiences in which we were all complicit. And then, for many of us, our decisions to return to war after witnessing its horrors. There’s incredible complexity in those themes. It’s also something that’s unique to these wars, and I hope to see more writers exploring that complexity in their work.   

As a veteran artist, do you experience a pressure or expectation to create art exclusively about military conflict?

DECAUL: I don’t, and I won’t allow myself to be. I write about topics that are important to me. Sometimes those topics are about conflict, sometimes not. Being a veteran is a part of my personal narrative, but it is not the end all. My life has taken many turns over the last two decades, and I feel free to write broadly about that. I also feel free to write about historical events and people. I am attracted to stories about people facing hard choices, sometimes in war, sometime not.

SCHIFANI: Not in the sense that I need to write only about the war. But most of the interesting things in life involve conflict in some way, whether it’s between countries, between families, or between people and their environment. The best art takes some kind of conflict and makes it essential, and relatable.

ACKERMAN: No, I don’t. 

LINGLE: No, in fact I’m looking for something other than war to write about right now. I’m not ready to say I won’t write anymore about war eventually, but I’d like to take a break. I just read Michael J. Mooney’s “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever” in D Magazine. It’s this amazing piece about perfection. I’d like to write a story like that right now.

Of the many literary works or art that have influenced you, please select one and tell us a little bit about why that particular work is so important to you.

LINGLE: Brian Turner’s collection Here, Bullet helped illuminate the war in Iraq for me long before I ever set foot on Iraqi soil. Brian’s poems tell us an urgent and terrifying story in sublime and accessible ways. While teaching at the Air Force Academy in the midst of the surge, I’d compare Brian’s words about Americans dying in an IED attack to Department of Defense press releases, and we’d discuss the vast space in between. Brian’s art sheds light on the simultaneous horror and beauty of war.

ACKERMAN: I don’t even know where to start. I guess I can only talk about the work that is having an effect on me now. I am often drawn to authors who write sparingly, who harness great emotional force from lean prose and streamlined plot. One of the best books I read last year, if not the best book, was Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. The premise is very simple: an elderly widow and widower who live on the same block in a small town in Colorado decide to ward off the loneliness they feel each night by sleeping in the same bed. There’s nothing sexual in their decision. They just choose to lie next to each other and talk through the night. The novel shows how that decision reverberates through their lives. The novel’s prose is very spare, beautiful, and its premise is so simple and elegant. But I could easily list many other books that have affected me and that I feel are models of excellence.

SCHIFANI: There have been so many. The Things They Carried has been important because I’ve learned a lot about storytelling from how O’Brien tells his stories. Catch 22 is important for learning how to balance absolute tragedy with hilarious irony. And A River Runs Through It for showing what American literature can be at its very finest.

DECAUL: Komunyakaa’s Neon Vernacular showed me a way to tell my own story. Reading poems like “Starlight Scope Myopia,” I could see glimpses of Iraq. Komunyakaa’s poetry allowed me to delve into my memories and interrogate them. If I am being honest, before reading his poetry I was scared to do the work of remembering because I think I was hesitant to revisit myself at that time, but after reading his work, I realized I was one of many in the continuum of conflict, one lucky enough to have life enough to be reflective.

What are you working on now? 

ACKERMAN: My next novel Dark at the Crossing, a love story set along the Turkish-Syrian border will be published in January 2017, so I’m finishing up the edits on that. I am also in the midst of trying to get another book off the ground, which I won’t talk about here lest it turn to dust in my hands.

DECAUL: Plays mostly. I’m in the process of revising two plays and about to start another one. Two other theatre pieces are getting ready to be produced, so most of my time is now spent working on new plays: reading, researching and writing.

LINGLE: I’m revising a collection of essays. The book is an exploration of balancing fatherhood, family struggles, and health crises amidst warzone deployments. The essays illuminate the confluence of spaces between life and death, health and illness, parents and children, home and combat, land and people, bombs and bodies, and other areas in the life of a service member.

SCHIFANI: Does one disclose this? I have a lot of projects that I can envision, but mostly I’m still just trying to write my way through my life.


About the Author:

Jesse Goolsby is the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), winner of the Florida Book Award in Fiction and longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. His fiction and essays have appeared widely, including the Kenyon Review, EPOCH, the Literary Review, and Narrative Magazine. He serves as Fiction Editor at War, Literature & the Arts and Nonfiction Editor at the Southeast Review. An active-duty Air Force officer, he earned his PhD in English from Florida State University.