In Siobhan Fallon’s story “Tips for a Smooth Transition," a newly returned soldier tries to explain to his bewildered wife why he felt compelled to jump into the midst of a pod of Galapagos sharks during their Hawaiian vacation. “I’ve seen kid toys loaded with explosives, snipers hiding in an elementary school. I’ve been in a Humvee with soldiers singing ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and a second later it was upside down, full of fire and screams…That back there? That wasn’t anything to be afraid of. That was nothing but a bunch of fat fish having lunch.”
The service members in Fire and Forget, a new short story collection by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (and one spouse), struggle to reconcile their conflicting expectations of war and of homecoming. This battle—to come to terms with the reality of war and the changes it exacts on the fighters—is one that has been written about for centuries, from Homer to Ernest Hemingway to Tim O’Brien.
Although many of its themes—moral injury, brotherhood, loss, and alienation—echo earlier war literature, this collection also highlights the new reality of IED blasts and suicide bombings. Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” features two friends recuperating at Walter Reed. Both were terribly injured (“our bodies transformed in a flash I could not remember”) when a suicide bomber ran into their awards ceremony in Iraq. The narrator has severe burns and refers to himself as one of “the faceless”; his friend Sleed escaped without burns but lost his genitals and one leg. During a fishing trip for wounded warriors, Sleed’s helpless rage comes to a boiling point. Another story, “New Me” by Andrew Slater, features an Army veteran recovering from a traumatic brain injury; he is haunted by hallucinatory dreams that merge his experiences in Iraq with images from the new life he is trying to establish in the US.
Another new reality in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars is the number of women serving in the armed forces; even if not yet in official combat roles, they frequently are drawn into firefights or are victims of bombings. One of the most moving stories in Fire and Forget is by female veteran Mariette Kalinowski, who tells of a young Marine who is haunted by the death of her roommate in Iraq. On bad days, she rides the subway over and over; the blur of images outside the window and the rocking of the train help to sooth her when she is overwhelmed by her memories.
Kalinowski’s evocation of the young woman’s torment will be familiar to clinicians working with patients with PTSD: “She should’ve died with Kavanaugh. She shouldn’t be walking across the platform trying to reach the escalator. She shouldn’t be in the city at all. She had tried to forget everything; had tried to sink into drunkenness, into meds, tried to stay awake in fear of the dreams, burrow into some dark place that would give her a break from the memories…The pain of self-abuse still felt better than the guilt. Guilt drove it all. Anger that things had gone so wrong.”
Service members have returned to a country in the midst of a recession, and these stories also reflect the difficulty many have in finding meaningful employment. For some, their injuries make it difficult to imagine working, as with Van Reet’s burned narrator, who angrily tells his father his plan is to “live off the government” and “get wasted.” Colby Buzzell’s narrator in “Play the Game” is only able to find work holding a sign advertising a new condo development. After thanking the young man for his service, his new boss instructs him to make sure he dances and twirls around so that drivers will notice him (spoiler alert: he lasts less than a day). At one point, the narrator overhears a young boy asking his father why he is holding the sign and imagines the response: “Why’s he holding up a sign, son? Well, he’s holding up that sign because that’s what happens to people who don’t go to college. That’s what happens to people who don’t have a plan.”
Fortunately for the reader, many stories are infused with the dark humor that often prevails under extreme conditions. The last story in the book, “Red Steel India” by Roy Scranton is a hilariously profane account of several days at a checkpoint. The soldiers are sick of the monotony of their post— hours of boredom punctuated by occasional rocket attacks—and entertain themselves with video games, X-rated banter, and messing with the Iraqi civilian guards, who are obsessed with “ficky ficky” (porn).
Edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton, Fire and Forget spotlights a number of quite talented writers, many of whom studied in the NYU Veterans Writing Project. The number of war stories—fifteen—can make the book a bit overwhelming a whole, and it is helpful to take breaks while reading so as not to feel bogged down. Overall, this book is an invaluable asset to the literature about the current conflicts and is recommended to anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of their effects on those who served.
Dr. Mary Brinkmeyer works with the Center for Deployment Psychology as a Deployment Behavioral Health Psychologist at Portsmouth NMC and is a subject matter expert in chronic pain issues.