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Book: Outside the Wire

Outside the Wire: American Soldiers' Voices from Afghanistan, edited by Christine Dumaine Leche.

Ever wonder what it's like to be a soldier in war? My father was a Korean vet, and never talked about it, which seems to be a common thing. As is drinking a lot at times. There are, of course, books out there, like Catch-22 (Heller was a vet.) This book, which I checked out on impulse from a front desk at the Cambridge library, is a collection of short essays and stories by US soldiers in Afghanistan, which they wrote in a creative writing class, itself in Afghanistan, specifically Bagram Air Force Base and Forward Operating Base Salerno, well within the hot zone (e.g. with occasional mortar attacks after class.)

The essays or stories cover combat scenes, the shock of a broken marriage, childhood memories (some as bad as wartime combat), the hurry up and wait excitement-boredom of deployment, incidents on patrols, a raid for a satellite phone to call home with, and more. Perhaps most amusing to me was the final essay, a long one by Andrew Stock, which goes from his wanting to be a tanker -- or a tank! -- to thinking of Robotech and Ultraman when he heard "mechanized infantry" at recruitment, to his Buddhist mantras and prayers on the front.

Leche finishes with an essay on the healing powers of writing, and the usefulness of veterans-only classes as a space safe against the well-meaning (sometimes) but dumb questions of civilian fellow students. Writing about trauma is said to be good for physical and emotional health, even if no one reads it. She mentions an NEA video "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" which encouraged her students; she also talks about the gulf between military writing and speaking -- short words, short SVO sentences, short paragraphs, avoid all ambiguity, brevity and clarity (if you know the acronyms and jargon) above all -- and the complexity and playfulness of creative writing; one of her prompts says "Use at least three metaphors and/or similes."

Practicalities: it's quite a short book, with only 127 pages for the soldiers' essays themselves. 32 writers, 12 female (plus one "J. J." with no clues.) I don't know if that reflects the demographics of the modern US military or of the soldiers who choose to take a creative writing class in Afghanistan.

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Damien Sullivan

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