Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
The Thread That Makes the Cloth
An Interview with Brandon Lingle
Amy Wright: Does your subject matter make it hard for you to write?
Brandon Lingle: As my life becomes more intertwined with conflict, I find it more complicated to write about war. On some levels it’s easier to identify and write material that resonates, but staying focused on these subjects can be strange and difficult. I’ve become more aware of how war encroaches at home. It’s insidious. And, writing about war offers another avenue for such intrusions. It’s jarring to write about tourniquets and amputations one minute and then help my children with their homework the next. Much of my work, so far, deals with trauma and human suffering, and sometimes it’s hard to find hope. And, that’s a sad truth, despite claims otherwise: there isn’t much hope in violence. I know that war and pain will always illuminate my writing, and I’m hopeful that these aspects will become more subtle, or at least offer different perspective on other topics, as our country moves away from the last 13 years of war.
AW: In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes that for a long time people thought the outrageousness of war would be clear if the horror could be made vivid enough to those far from it. But seeing and even acknowledging madness does not put an end to it. I realize I’m asking a difficult and perhaps unanswerable question, but what is one to do with the absurdity—and banality and horror—you make evident in your essay, “I Thought You Were In Afghanistan”?
BL: Many of us will have to deal with trying to make sense of Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of our lives. The effects will echo through our children and maybe even their children. Col. Thomas McGuire, a professor and colleague at the Air Force Academy, once said that it takes a nation two generations of people to heal from war. In many ways our country is still dealing with Vietnam, Korea, World War II, and perhaps even World War I. There’s not much one can do with the absurdity of war except as Tim O’Brien wrote, “If there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.’” This essay offers an experience of just one fragment of a vast ordeal and acknowledges the difficulty in understanding one’s experiences.
AW: I appreciate that analogy of O’Brien’s, but I might add a few h’s to that “Oh,” since your true story gets me right in the heart. Do you think the capacity to empathize with, or at least imagine, the extent of human pain and fear at all emboldens one to access its depths of love, joy?
BL: Capt. Sean Ruane, an Air Force helicopter pilot I worked with in Afghanistan last year, said in an interview during the deployment, “As a kid war is something, you know, you run around your yard playing with your friends when you’re six or seven with your toy guns. I guess being over here you realize how real it is. You appreciate life a lot more. Being able to sit on the couch with your wife and watch a movie becomes an amazing thing when you get home because you realize how quickly that can disappear over here.” Just a few months after returning home from Afghanistan, Sean died in a helicopter crash with three other Airmen.
Sean’s words stay with me. They are personal and poignant, and I’m able to remember and empathize with him through them. Those words combined with the knowledge that he’s gone reinforce the point that personal narratives are the most important way to comprehend the effects of war and suffering. Sean’s death amplifies his simple sentiment of appreciation of being able to sit on the couch with his wife to watch a movie.
So, yes, I think the capacity to empathize with pain and death does open doors to the beauty and range of joy. O’Brien speaks to this too, “At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life.”
I think the old clichés that one must endure darkness to appreciate light, or see only black and white to recognize color, really resonate. During deployments I’m aware of how valuable life is and how vulnerable we are in this world. When I get home from these trips life becomes more vibrant and I appreciate the little things much more, but as time goes on this understanding and urgency can fade with the doldrums of day-to-day life. When I return home from this deployment, I’ll do everything I can to maintain such an appreciation. Hopefully, experiencing material like my essay can offer a similar reminder for the reader.
AW: It seems appropriate that your essay invites readers to supply some of the connective tissue, given that you are presenting shots of a country riven by lob bombs and Saddam rumors, where alarms compete with helicopters and radios blasting Snoop Dogg. Such a fragmented landscape cannot be processed according to standard conventions, but can you speak to what you leave out of the essay? How do you determine what not to say?
BL: In this essay, I collected a series of seemingly unrelated bits of information from my time in Iraq. I tried to include the fragments that weren’t reported by the media or those that offer context to the stories that did make into the mainstream. As I reviewed my notebooks from Iraq, I found many scraps that struck me, and I knew that I wanted to share them, but individually they likely couldn’t sustain a narrative, so I tried to construct them in a way that does. Michael Herr’s Dispatches, especially the chapter “Illumination Rounds,” heavily influenced this essay. In that chapter, Herr collects a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes from his time in Vietnam. He leaves it up to the reader to interpret for themselves how these terrifying fragments form a larger narrative. In the end, my essay is a snapshot of one individual’s experience, in just a few places, during one period of time in the Iraq war.
AW: The Frist Center for the Visual Arts currently has on exhibition Steve Mumford’s War Journals (2003-2013). These watercolor drawings from his travels to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base depict wounded girls and amputated soldiers, but as alarming are the patches of white marked “classified” where his field of vision at Gitmo has been censored by U.S. Government officials. Is your work at all censored or regulated in terms of what you can and cannot release?
BL: Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes. The military hierarchy is very concerned with controlling information, as one would expect. In war especially, nearly everything about operations is automatically classified, so it becomes very challenging to get into specifics. And, once information is classified, it’s extremely difficult to get it declassified. More insidious than that is the concept of Operational Security or OPSEC. This catchall phrase is applied widely and people have different interpretations of it. Someone could make an argument that pretty much anything constitutes an operational security risk. If that argument is made officials could classify the information or cite OPSEC as a reason not to release it. The reality is that these barriers to dialogue make it tough to write from the inside. It’s a fine balance, and I constantly find myself navigating these murky waters. I suppose this is why many war writers today wait until after their military service is complete before they write about their experiences.
AW: As someone who serves both the military and the reading public, you likely have a different relationship than most to the idea of a “whole story.” How do you see your role of presenting scenes from the inside to those on the outside?
BL: While the idea of the “whole story” is compelling, it’s unattainable when one considers the fact that roughly 2.5 million Americans, plus thousands of coalition forces from 49 other countries, have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, those are just the numbers for those who participated on one side of the war. There’s also the millions of family members, and other loved ones, who are forever changed. Importantly, we can’t forget the millions of Iraqis and Afghans who have been affected. The world will never hear the vast majority of these voices, all of whom deserve to be heard.
I’m not sure it’s possible for any writer to capture the “whole story,” and the problem is compounded for me as someone still serving in the military. Often, the things that matter to me as an insider differ from what’s being reported in the wider discussion. As we move away from war there’s less and less interest in a public dialogue about the costs and consequences. My position is further complicated as a military public affairs officer. My job is to tell military stories, and often the stories the military desires differ from the stories I strive to tell as a writer. Most of the time, the military is solely focused on facts, and they’re usually very select facts, offered for specific reasons. The military typically isn’t concerned with emotion or impacts on individuals. For the most part, the military reports information to feed the media to get stories out, whereas I’m trying to take the material a step further, to interrogate and offer perspectives on the larger implications.
For example, a military story about a trauma surgeon at war would most likely tout how qualifications, training, best practices, technology, and logistics came together to get the wounded the best care within the golden hour for a 98% survival rate. The piece would offer solid messages, concrete facts, and a largely sterile look at the subject. When I’m writing about that same trauma surgeon, all of those facets are in the background, and I’m concerned with what that surgeon feels as he’s massaging the triple-amputee’s heart in a last-ditch effort to save his life, what he sees, the blood drops on the floor, the colors of the nurse’s scrubs, the sounds of the machines, the scraps of conversation, what the fallen’s loved ones are doing on the other side of the world at that exact moment.
As an insider, I have access, and a respect for those who want their stories told and those who don’t. There’s also the need to respect the material that I’ll never be able to share. So, I do my best to keep the divergent paths of my writing and military career separate. Sometimes it’s hard to take a step back from the military narrative to get at the larger emotional truths.
My mentor, Donald Anderson, writes in When War Becomes Personal, “If it seems to fall to the historian to make distinctions among wars, each war’s larger means and ends, the trajectory for the artist, regardless of culture or time, seems to fall towards an individual’s disillusionment, the means and ends of war played out in the personal.” I have to find ways to approach my subjects from the sides. Symbols, metaphor, time, distance, and unnamed characters prove helpful. There’s not too many service people writing and publishing literary essays in near real-time while still serving. I suspect that some of my military stories may have to wait until after I leave the service.
AW: You mention your son’s enlistment in the Army in the essay. Is he serving now?
BL: Yes, Christopher is a Specialist in the Army currently serving as a combat engineer in Germany. He’s deployed several times to Eastern European countries, including Romania where he helped build up a base now used in transitioning people and gear out of Afghanistan. So far he has not had to serve in Afghanistan. I’m thankful for that. He enlisted to become a combat medic, but had the opportunity to change career paths. After seeing the battle injuries military medical people deal with, I’m thankful for that too.
AW: I suspect a few readers may not make it all the way through your piece, which seems to require an ability to draw upon a heart that “will go on,” allowing them to feel relentlessly that sorrow of being in the third string of war while your daughter turns nine, and you are far away from her in a country where “You can smell the ghosts.” But you do craft moments of levity and reprieve into the essay. Are these counterbalances necessary to sustain mental and emotional fortitude at such times?
BL: At a certain point it’s necessary to balance the death, destruction, futility, separation, and other human costs of war in a more accessible and perhaps sustainable way. There’s a long tradition of satire in war writing. Even Hemingway took breathers. I greatly admire works that more fully capture the absurdity of war through satire… two powerful examples for me are Catch-22 and the film, Dr. Strangelove. And, today, novels like Dave Abrams’ Fobbit and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk offer a welcome break from kill memoirs and brooding narratives that have dominated the writing from our current wars.
AW: Do you have particular activities or artists you call upon to renew your strength after a long day’s work?
BL: I’m currently serving in Afghanistan, so staying connected with my family is my primary source of renewal. Writing and working out are also crucial. I’m striving to more fully capture my war experience in writing during this deployment. Much of my reading and writing also focuses on continuing work toward my Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction with Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency program led by Brian Turner. Recently, I’ve enjoyed David Foster Wallace’s work. Over the last few months, I’ve appreciated reading and commenting on drafts of my great friend Jesse Goolsby’s novel, I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring of 2015.
AW: How has the reason you served changed over time?
BL: Like many, my family carries a strong tradition of military service: my father, grandfather, and several uncles. Growing up, I loved to look at the brittle photos of ancestors who fought in the Civil War. I remember feeling the weight of a lead bullet embedded in a piece of bark one relative carved from a sycamore at the Battle of Shiloh. My family, especially my father, valued military service, and I grew up in a small flag-flying town near Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The base’s missile launches and air shows intrigued me. In ’91, we attended a family friend’s Air Force Academy graduation ceremonies. The three-day spectacle of uniforms, jets, marching, music, parachutists, patriotic scripts, and cheering families set against the Rocky Mountains and the prospect of a world-class education hooked me.
When I left home to become a cadet at the Air Force Academy in ’96, we were largely a nation at peace. The Cold War long over, America was still riding the high of what many thought was a swift and decisive victory in the Gulf War which veiled the grim lessons of Somalia. We were nearly oblivious to the hints of the wars to come. One of the main reasons I attended the Academy was to become a pilot. I was newly married and in pilot school on September 11, 2001 when our world changed. The prospect of warless military service quickly faded. Pilot school ended up not working out, and I changed Air Force jobs.
Over the years, my reasons for serving have grown from idealism and achieving the goals of my youth. I’ve lost several friends to war and training accidents along the way. I’ve stood on flight lines honoring others I didn’t know as they were transferred onto aircraft for their final flight home. I’ve learned about the lives of a few whose last moments were filmed in documentary projects I worked on. I’ve seen several of the horrifically wounded as they came into hospitals fresh off the battlefield. These days, I serve for many reasons, and I hope that my service honors all of them.
Most importantly, I serve for my family and friends. I serve to protect and provide for them. I serve with the hope that they won’t have to.