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Mon November 11, 2013
In 'Fire And Forget,' Vets Turned Writers Tell Their War Stories
Originally published on Mon November 11, 2013 7:43 pm
This Veterans Day, considers these lines from the preface to Fire And Forget, a collection of short stories by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:
On the one hand, we want to remind you ... of what happened ... and insist you recollect those men and women who fought, bled, and died in dangerous and far-away places. On the other hand, there's nothing most of us would rather do than leave these wars behind. No matter what we do next, the soft tension of the trigger pull is something we'll carry with us forever.
Veterans Roy Scranton and Jacob Siegel edited the collection, and each has a story in it.
Scranton served in the Army from 2002 to 2006 and was deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004. He's currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Princeton University English Department. Siegel is a captain in the New York National Guard, which he joined not long after Sept. 11. He served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007 and in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. He edits The Daily Beast's Hero Project blog, which showcases the writing of veterans and covers issues pertaining to vets. Siegel and Scranton first met through the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop. They join Fresh Air's Terry Gross to talk about the experience of war and the challenges of telling their stories.
On the conflict soldiers sometimes face when telling war stories
Siegel: I think there's this continuous media appetite for war as narratives of derring-do and of heroism, which is part of it. And then there's an appetite for war where soldiers are just pawns in various political polemics. It's all for people who often, to the soldier, seem like they have no genuine interest in what it's really like, they just want to be entertained or have their opinions validated. ...
I think there's always a feeling among soldiers that what you bring home with you and what happened overseas may be something only you or your group will understand, and that any attempt to bring it to a larger audience or to tell the story of it is, in effect, a cheapening of it and a way of selling it rather than sharing it.
On coping with the fear of death on and off the battlefield
Scranton: I found that I had to shut down my imagination because it really turned into an enemy. The kind of daydreaming and extrapolation of ideas that I love to indulge in as a reader and as a writer was suddenly and completely maladaptive to the situation in Baghdad. The more I could imagine what could happen, the more different ways I thought I could die or fail or mess things up and it just would turn paralyzing. That's where I started to tell myself that it doesn't matter: "None of it matters; you're already dead. Just get through your job."
Siegel: For me, I didn't think about death, the meaning of death, my own death; I thought about death in objects. It produced for me a fear of objects, of things; an adaptive fear. ... You want to see a rock for a rock and an IED for an IED, and so the fear, in those situations, of death is the fear of the thing that brings death. It's the fear of the instrument of death. And that was a powerful thing and something that created a kind of discipline in the mind in a certain way that was utterly exhausting.
On what, as a writer, Scranton hoped to gain from the war experience
Scranton: [I wanted] to be able to write with authority about war, about history, about love and life and so on. I think there's a common sense, especially when it comes to the way we think about the culture we live in, that we sort of live in a mass media spectacle. The real stuff happens in Iraq or somewhere else. Real life is not here where we're on the Internet and where we're on our phones and where we're watching TV.
That's a myth about war and about the way we live today that is immensely powerful, and I totally believed it and I wanted to go "over there," wherever "over there" was, and encounter that reality with my body, with my existence [and] face danger, death and all the supposedly real, authentic things about war.
On the place of guns in the daily life of a soldier
Siegel: Wanting to carry a gun has almost nothing to do with — or nothing to do with — why I enlisted. ... Guns are obviously the single most important instrument of warfare, they're certainly the most symbolically potent instruments of warfare, but they don't feel so much different than these other tools that you're using.
In the Army, you talk about your "kit," and it's basically the stuff that you carry and it consists of your radio, your frag[mentation] grenades and your first aid pouch and your gun. ... [Guns] didn't feel to me so much different than those other parts of it, up until the point where it was engaged and then it did feel different.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Veterans Day, I want to read you a couple of lines from the preface to the book "Fire and Forget," a collection of short stories by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quote, "on the one hand, we want to remind you, dear reader, of what happened and insist you recollect those men and women who fought, bled and died in dangerous and faraway places. On the other hand, there's nothing most of us would rather do than leave these wars behind."
"No matter what we do next, the soft tension of the trigger pull is something we'll carry with us forever. We've assembled this book to tell you because we had to remember," unquote. My guests, Roy Scranton and Jake Siegel, are two of the veterans who edited "Fire and Forget," and each of them has a story in it. Scranton also wrote the passage I read from the introduction.
Roy Scranton served in the Army from 2002 to 2006 and was deployed to Iraq in 2003 to 2004. He's currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Princeton University English Department. Jake Siegel is a captain in the New York National Guard, which he joined not long after 9/11. He served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007 and in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012.
He edits the Daily Beast's blog "The Hero Project," which showcases the writing of veterans and covers issues pertaining to vets. Jake Siegel and Roy Scranton first met through the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop.
Jake Siegel, Roy Scranton, welcome to both of you. Tell us why you each enlisted. Roy, do you want to start?
ROY SCRANTON: Yeah, there's a lot of reasons why I signed up. I found myself in the winter of 2001, after several years, you know, working various minimum wage jobs, I found myself living at my mom's house. I was 25. And I'd had this idea for some time that, you know, that I wanted to be a writer, and that was part of why I dropped out of college and went and done all these things that I'd done, hitchhiking and so on.
But it's not a particularly recommended career path to writing these days is to, you know, drop out of college and wash dishes. And then after a bike accident and after September 11th, I was back at mom's house, 25 years old, with wrecked teeth that I couldn't afford to fix, no real prospects and watching, suddenly, history happen. You know, as people said then, everything had changed, even if we didn't know what that meant exactly.
And I wanted to see what it meant and see what was happening. And so all these things come together to point me in that direction. And you know, as well, you know, I come from a family in which military service is not something unusual. You know, my dad was in the Navy, and my grandpa was in the Navy, and I had uncles in the Navy and the National Guard.
And so there's a way it was just available there. So basically penniless with a messed-up face and no health care, wanting college money and wanting to go see the world and challenge myself and see what George Orwell called the dirty work of empire looked like up close, I went down to the recruiter's office.
GROSS: And Jake Siegel, tell us why you enlisted.
JAKE SIEGEL: I had volunteered at Ground Zero right after 9/11, my brother and I both did. And while I was volunteering down there, I had a sense that I was doing something meaningful and that the work itself carried its own purpose and that trying to help was its own justification. While I understand that it fit into larger world historical events, and I understood that September 11th was an historical pivot, just being down there and passing out supplies and trying to get people things they needed felt like it was its own sort of answer to that, whatever historical problem had been created.
And I didn't know that I would ever find that again, and it felt purposeful to me, and I also felt like if the country was going to war, which it clearly was by the time I enlisted in early 2002, I both didn't want to be exempted, I didn't want to be left out of something that, whether you agreed with it or not, something that was being done on behalf of the United States.
My grandfather was at D-Day, and he just seemed my whole like he had a kind of quiet stoicism and a reserve, and he wasn't at all boastful about his military experiences, and he seldom if ever talked about it. But it seemed like he'd understood something about life and been part of something larger than himself, which felt inaccessible through other means.
GROSS: Roy, in writing about your decision to enlist, you wrote that you wanted to see what history looked like. You say I joined the Army so I could write with authority not just about war but about history, love, life, meaning and truth. And you also mentioned that you had a deep-seeded insecurity about your masculinity, which is another reason why you enlisted. What was that about? What did you need to prove to yourself?
SCRANTON: Well, what that means, you know, to be able to write with authority about war, about history, about love and life and so on, you know, I think there's a common sense, especially when it comes to the way we think about the culture we live in, you know, we sort of live in a sort of mass media spectacle. And the real stuff happens in Iraq or somewhere else.
You know, real life is not here where we're on the Internet, and where we're on our phones and where we're watching TV. And, you know, that's a myth about war and about the way we live today that is immensely powerful, and I totally believed it. And I wanted to go there. I wanted to over there, wherever over there was, and encounter that reality with my body, with my existence, face danger and death and all the supposedly real authentic things about war, which of course are real and authentic.
That was important to me, and just in terms of the sort of the literary history of going to war, going back over, you know, Hemingway's a touchstone there, and this mythology that war is where you really - is one of the few ultimately undeniably real things in this world. And I wanted that.
And about masculinity and the insecurity I'd had, part of it came of growing up in this military family. My father's only real model of parenting was boot camp, and so there was a sense growing up, you know, I liked books, I read a lot, I was not a very physically active or strong kid, you know, had glasses early, I was really nerdy. There was this constant sort of I guess emotional beat-down from my father that, you know, I wasn't good enough, I wasn't strong enough.
And, you know, I don't want to go on too much with this because it seems a little tiresome even to me, but there was a way in which I felt like I had to prove that I was tough enough. I had to prove that I was strong enough not for him or for my grandfather, who was on a patrol boat in Vietnam or for, you know, any of these other relatives who were in the military, not for them but for myself in that context or in their eyes.
GROSS: Jake Siegel, had you carried a gun before you enlisted?
SIEGEL: I'd never carried on, no, but my uncle was a bounty hunter, a private investigator, and he used to let us, you know, hold his Glock, like, at Passover, but...
GROSS: Oh, that's what everybody does at Passover.
SIEGEL: Yeah, well actually, I mean, I have very strong memories of it. He's passed away now, but I remember at my grandmother's house in Jersey at the Seder, my uncle showing me his Glock under the table. But it wasn't something that I had any intense fascination with. I mean, wanting to carry a gun has almost nothing to do with, or nothing to do with why I enlisted.
GROSS: But I was wondering how it felt to now not only have guns, but you had to be proficient in using them.
SIEGEL: You know, guns are obviously the kind of single most important instrument of warfare. They're certainly the most symbolically potent instruments of warfare. But they don't feel so much different than these other tools that you're using. In the Army you talk about your kit, and it's basically the stuff that you carry, and it consists of your radio and frag grenades and your first aid pouch.
And your gun is obviously, although you wouldn't call it a gun in the military, you'd call it its actual type, you'd call it an M-4 or a rifle. You'd only call a pistol a gun, if that. But it doesn't feel - or didn't feel to me - so much different than those other parts of it, up until the point where I was engaged, and then it did feel different.
GROSS: Did you take books with you when you enlisted?
SIEGEL: I don't think that I took books with me to basic training. I certainly took books with me overseas, and...
GROSS: What'd you take?
SIEGEL: To Iraq I took "The Possessed," Dostoevsky, which I'd read before but oddly I found comforting. I took a lot of detective novels because they're kind of - it's like my comfort food, Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler and Chester Himes is the stuff I like to read. I don't know, it feels like home or something.
And then I remember I read Houellebecq, the French novelist. I read "The Elementary Particles" while I was overseas, which is this kind of deliriously misanthropic, very interesting novel about the dead end of modern existence.
GROSS: Roy, what books did you take with you to Iraq?
SCRANTON: I also took Dostoevsky. I took "The Brothers Karamazov." And Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" and Herodotus, "The Histories," because of its - you know, the big war going on there, Persia and the Greeks. Those were the main ones I took with me at the beginning, and then after a while I got more books sent to me.
GROSS: And was it considered weird to have, not only books with you, but some of them were pretty heavyweight books, like Herodotus? I mean, this is, you're talking about, like, ancient literature here, ancient history.
SCRANTON: Yeah, it was totally weird. I was PFC at that point, that's private first class. And, you know, there's that sort of cliché of there's the one guy in the glasses in the military unit...
GROSS: That was you?
SCRANTON: Everybody calls him professor. That was me, only it wasn't, like, funny. Like, it just made me weird. There were only a few people I could talk about books with. One was an old sergeant who read a lot of science fiction, and the others were officers. And so I would talk to officers about books, which would make me even - it made me even more of a pariah among my fellow enlisted soldiers.
GROSS: My guests are veterans and writers Roy Scranton and Jake Siegel. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guests are veterans and writers Captain Jake Siegel and Roy Scranton. Siegel served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Scranton served in Iraq. They're editors of and contributors to a collection of short stories by veterans called "Fire and Forget."
Earlier Roy Scranton was explaining that because he read so much while he was in Iraq and looked kind of nerdy, his fellow soldiers called him professor. Jake, were you considered the professor?
SIEGEL: No, well, I was an officer, so, you know, I think what Roy's getting at, and it's definitely true, is there can be more of an allowance for an officer to have these, you know, seemingly intellectual pursuits. But in my experience, there's one supreme, transcendent value in the Army, and that's whether you're squared away or not. And squared away is this kind of - it's a phrase referring to somebody who's just got it together and good at what they do.
And my experience was always that as long as you were squared away, good at your job, a good leader, good at whatever you were tasked with doing, there were a lot of allowances for eccentricities or pursuits other than what you would identify as a kind of stereotypical military pursuit. So I wouldn't want to say I never felt like a pariah, and that was just because I was so squared away. It definitely had something to do with the fact that I was an officer, and it was just easier for me.
And this is not to say that I was such a super soldier that I was allowed to read, and nobody ever said anything to me because, you know, I'd get comments sometimes, too, but I found readers actually all over in my military experience and people reading sci-fi. I remember a kid reading Chomsky in basic training, a guy reading Hayek in Afghanistan, you know, somebody reading Ursula K. Le Guin at some dusty MRW in Anbar Province. I found it all over, actually.
GROSS: And Roy, so did you consider yourself, and did the men consider you good at what you did, and what did you do?
SCRANTON: My military occupational specialty was a 13 PAPA(ph), which is fire direction control of the multiple launch rocket systems. I was trained to sit behind a computer in an armored tracked vehicle and tell these rocket launchers where to shoot. We didn't really do any of that in Iraq. We did a whole bunch of different things, including convoy security, we did some neighborhood coordinate search operations, patrols.
And in 2003 our biggest mission was called Operation Iron Bullet, where we drove around Baghdad, and we would find artillery rounds and rockets and stuff that the Iraqi army had just left lying around, and we would collect it up and drive it across town, where it would either be stored and then moved again or demolished in place.
And so what I wound up doing in Iraq mostly was just driving a Humvee. You know, I drove our battery commander, and then I drove as just part of a platoon doing patrols and convoy security. And I thought myself a pretty good driver after a time. You know, it took me a while to figure out how things worked in the Army.
I'd been at my unit about five months before we deployed, and I was still - I was not squared away. I was still figuring out, like, how things worked, and, you know, how to get things done. I eventually, I'm proud to say, eventually I was a squared away soldier, but I don't know if I was at the beginning there, you know, in Iraq, while I'm, you know, busy reading Herodotus, you know, and stuff's going on, and maybe I didn't have my head entirely on.
GROSS: So during that period when you weren't yet squared away, and since one of the reasons why you joined the military was to kind of prove to yourself that you were a man, and so did it make you question yourself even more during that period were thinking like, oh, you're the professor because you read, you're different from other people, and you're not that good yet at what you do?
SCRANTON: I don't know if it made me question myself. It made me want to prove them all wrong. It made me want to like try harder and get myself squared away. You know, one of the things being in the military, accessed for me, in a way, or made possible for me to access was my gumption you might call it, or like my fight. Like, you know, no, I'm not going to accept that as the answer. Like, I'm going to do better. I'm going to make it happen.
GROSS: Jake, when you were in Iraq and then later in Afghanistan, did you prepare yourself for the possibility that you might die? And if so, how do you do that without just, like, scaring yourself or depressing yourself?
SIEGEL: Oddly enough, for somebody who's thought about death pretty frequently throughout their whole life, it wasn't something - my own death wasn't something that preoccupied my day-to-day thinking. And I didn't feel close to the idea of my own death except in some kind of vague, omnipresent way.
GROSS: Roy, you've written that in Baghdad in the summer of 2003, you say I thought every morning I was going to die. And those days were some of the sweetest and purest of my life. Each moment gleamed with transcendent splendor. As the year went on, I grew attached again to existence. Can you talk about the difference between, you know, the splendor of those days where you thought every day you were going to do and then deciding no, you actually wanted to make sure you lived?
SCRANTON: It's difficult to connect back with that sense and the transition. We were going out every day on this Iron Bullet mission I told you about, picking up munitions, different things that, you know, you never know if they're booby-trapped or if they might explode on you. The white phosphorous was particularly fun in that way.
There's ambushes, and IEDs were really becoming an issue that summer. And you don't know, is the thing. You know, we were out there on the road. At that point we were out there six days a week, and we'd be on the road, you know, five hours a day driving these trucks full of munitions, full of explosives, and we just felt like a target.
And we would often drive similar areas, and I was driving the lead truck on these convoys, and I knew if there was an IED, and if I didn't catch it, if someone in my truck didn't catch it, then that's on us if it blows up four trucks back. It was frightening and difficult, and it did seem that there was this ever-present danger that really, really made things pop and sparkle and added to that sort of adrenaline of, you know, we're driving in the danger, quickly through traffic, and as the lead truck it's sort of my job to make a hole for the rest of the convoy.
And if that involves, you know, pushing cars off the road or, you know, whatever it takes. You know, how do you deal with that? And how do you deal with this sense and this fear of death all the time? And this is part of, I think, part of the transition of me getting myself squared away.
I found that I had to shut down my imagination because it really turned into a kind of enemy. The kind of daydreaming and, you know, extrapolation of ideas and whatever that I loved to indulge in as a reader and as a writer, was suddenly completely maladaptive to the situation in Baghdad. The more I imagined what could happen, the more different ways I thought I could die or fail or mess things up, and it just would turn paralyzing.
And so that's where I started to, you know, tell myself, you know, it doesn't matter. Like none of it matters. You're already dead. Just get through your job. Do your job well. Do what you need to do to make sure everybody else is good. It doesn't matter to you because you're already dead.
GROSS: Roy Scranton and Captain Jake Siegel will be back in the second half of the show. They're editors of and contributors to the book "Fire and Forget," a collection of short stories by veterans. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with veterans and writers Roy Scranton and Jake Siegel. Scranton served with the Army in Iraq, Siegel is a captain in the New York National Guard and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're both editors of and contributors to a collection of short stories by veterans called "Fire and Forget." Siegel also edits "The Hero Project" blog for The Daily Beast.
When we left off, Roy Scranton was describing how his imagination - which he values as a writer and a reader - was dangerous in Iraq, because it was distracting and would lead to dark places. At some point, to overcome his anxieties, he started to think of himself as already dead. Here's what Jake Siegel had to say in response.
SIEGEL: So I would say that when I was younger, before I went to Iraq, I had thought about death as a, you know, I think the way most people think about something fundamentally unknowable, which was this kind of abstract thing that needed to be reckoned with - I guess. What ended up happening, I did convoy security in Iraq also, and IEDs were blowing up all the time, and they were lethal. And death, rather than being something that you meditated on - or for me it wasn't something, I didn't think about death, the meaning of death, my own death. I thought about death in objects. It produced for me a fear of objects and of things, and an adaptive fear. Like Roy is saying, how too much imaginative leaping or too much imagination is, can actually be dangerous in that sort of environment. It's not just that it takes your mind to dark places; it's that, you know, you want to see something for what it is. So you want to see a rock for a rock, an IED for an IED. And so the fear in those situations of death is the fear of the thing that brings death, I think. It's the fear of the instrument of death. It's - and that was a powerful thing and something that created a kind of - disciplined the mind in a certain way that was utterly exhausting and that I would never want to go back to. It demanded a certain kind of, you know, myopic concentration on a very narrow - a very narrow range of things, all of which dealt with danger, violence or the response to those. And it produced a feeling unlike other feelings, having to deal with that a kind of tightness and tension and singular-ness of purpose that was powerful and was also exhausting.
GROSS: It sounds like you have to train yourself to be a catastrophist, to think that like every rock might really be an IED and that might really mean catastrophe.
SIEGEL: Sort of...
SCRANTON: Well, that's...
SIEGEL: You know, I mean the military, the Army is very focused on the correct and most efficient way to respond to a dangerous and chaotic situation. So to say that you're a catastrophist almost makes it sound dramatic.
SIEGEL: And what it actually is, I think, is that the fear is the thing that preoccupies the corner of your mind that you're not vocalizing over the radio, right. But if you listen to the exchanges between Humvees going over the radio and the way they deal with potential IED threats, you wouldn't get a sense of catastrophe, you'd get a sense of this very finally calibrated response to trying to navigate something full of the potential for catastrophe. But the catastrophic element is only really referred to by jokes, kind of, you know, glancing jokes, or after the fact in the response to the catastrophe. And that's really what you train for, is not only how to avoid it, but how to deal with the catastrophe in a way that's very procedural and stops the bleeding as quickly as possible.
SCRANTON: And I would add that in terms of the catastrophic thinking, for me it was, you know, I would start each day, you know, assuming that the most catastrophic thing I could imagine in my selfishness was my death. So that's already done. So now I just have to like deal with the situation in front of me. So, you know, and once I did that, you know, I would do that in the morning and then just get through the day and deal with things as they came up, assuming that the catastrophe had already happened.
GROSS: Have you been able - each of you - to change your mindsets since coming home? Like Roy, have you been able to wake up in the morning and not think, I'm already dead, so what do I have to do to save other people? And Jake, have you been able to wake up every morning and not think that like every object is a potential killer?
SCRANTON: There's a process you go through where you de-escalate sort of your mind. And it takes a while. It takes - and there's different stages. You know, like, you know, maybe three months out of the war zone you're still checking for IEDs on the side of the road or whatever, but then nine months later you don't really anymore. Partly it's somatic; it's just in the body. But, yes. Yes.
GROSS: Jake, do you want to talk about what it was like to retrain your mind? And but not retrain it for too long. I mean you came back from Iraq and then you ended up being deployed to Afghanistan. So, you know, you had to - you had to get back into that anything can kill me kind of zone again.
SIEGEL: Yeah. Well, I think the harder thing for me would've been to keep my mind in the state that it was in overseas and to stop it from adapting when my environment changed. So part of actually, I think, what was difficult to deal with was the adaptation to the safer environment that I had grown very accustomed, and I felt a certain sense of righteousness in the sense that I had of myself and in the level of kind of sharpened purpose and precision of self that I had had overseas, and to feel that dulling or dissipating, and to feel isolated. You know, to feel myself around people who didn't even know what that was like at all, who'd never sensed that, who didn't know what a threat was, who just misunderstood the idea of a threat. That was difficult, but it started happening right away. It took a long time to conclude and I had a, you know, I had my own difficulties in my transition - not as bad as some people, but I think it started right away.
GROSS: My guests are veterans and writers Jake Siegel and Roy Scranton. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guests are veterans and writers Captain Jake Siegel and Roy Scranton. Siegel served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Scranton served in Iraq. They're editors of and contributors to a collection of short stories by veterans called "Fire and Forget."
You both met after coming home at an NYU veterans' writers group. And you've co-edited a collection of fiction, short stories, by veterans. And you each have a story of your own in the book. The book is called "Fire and Forget." It was published earlier this year. And Jake, I want to read something that one of your characters says about writing.
One of the characters says to him, you're going to tell our story? And the main character says, never. I'd rather write blasphemies and technical manuals. I'd rather write on a chalk board with a steak knife. I'd rather write lullabies for pedophiles. I will not pimp myself out. I will never buy everything that's holy, never feed a hungry mob the red meat off my brothers' bodes.
What is it about the idea of telling the stories of people who you serve with that seems like you're feeding on them or that like you're pimping yourself? Like why does your character feel that way and did you feel that way ever too?
SIEGEL: I think that, you know, I felt that among other things and the character is a distillation of that one strain that I felt along with having other feelings. And I think the basis for it is that there's obviously a ravenous appetite for the most dishonest, simplistic kind of accounts of war - and on both sides. And so I think there's this continuous media appetite for war as narratives of daring-do and of heroism - which is part of it. And then there's an appetite for war where soldiers are just pawns in various political polemics. And it's all for people who often to the soldier seem like they don't have any genuine interest in what it's really like. They just want to be entertained or have their opinions validated. And they're interested in your story in so far as you're giving them something titillating or you're giving them something that confirms their point of view. But the full accounting of it, their own complicity in what the war was like - assuming that they're Americans - their own complicity in it, rarely seems like, you know, it rarely feels like anybody wants to sit down and really take all of that in. And I think there's always a feeling among soldiers that what you bring home with you and what happened overseas maybe is something that only you or your group will understand, and that any attempt to bring it to a larger audience or to tell the story of it is in effect a cheapening of it and a way of selling it, rather than sharing it.
Now, I'm a writer, I tell the story, but I do feel that I just feel it along with other, you know, conflicting feelings. And I feel it along with the urge both to tell the story and the urge to tell other people's stories and make a broader experience understood.
GROSS: And Roy, you're working on a novel, and the working title is "War Porn." What do you mean by that expression?
SCRANTON: That title is intended to foreground the question we were just talking about. So it's, the title's a jab. I picked it up from two different sources. The French philosopher Baudrillard uses it in an essay. But it's also, the term also refers to the kinds of videos that soldiers downrange will upload of firefights and dead bodies. You know, and it is also is intended to refer to Abu Ghraib and the photos that came out from that. And the way it's intended to be used and what it's supposed to be doing there is to confront the reader with their own appetite for a war story. They want to, you know, readers want to read about war. I did. I do. We love to hear the stories. And there's always something voyeuristic about it because it's storytelling. There's no way around that. It's part of the process. It's part of the thing. And that title is a way of, in a, even a crude way, of putting that front and center.
That being said, I should add that, you know, in talking with people about how to actually get my book out there, there's been a lot of resistance to the title. It's divisive, you know, people either love it or they're like wow, really?
GROSS: Well, it's like you're accusing readers who pick it up of...
SCRANTON: Yeah. Right?
GROSS: ...of reading war pornography, as opposed to great war literature.
SCRANTON: Right. I think you're right. It's accusing readers and that's not the best way to find readers, actually. So it's, I've switched the working title now to "Babylon," which is less accusatory.
GROSS: So Jake, I want to quote something that you wrote in the short story that's included in the veterans anthology "Fire and Forget." And in this, like the main character is talking to his girlfriend after coming back from war. And she says to him, do I pretend you can never understand me because you had a nice family and I had to watch my mom die and my brother get sent off? And he says, you can't admit it but your heart would have sung if I got killed over there. A dead soldier is so much more romantic. Just a framed photo and a good story you can tell in that broken voice that comes so easy. Wouldn't that be easier to deal with?
I read that and I thought, whoa.
GROSS: And I imagine a lot of people have had that discussion, more or less, after coming home. And I'm wondering if you can talk about that, that conflict of like you couldn't possibly understand what I went through because you aren't at war and using that as an opportunity to close yourself off. And at the same time, that accusatory thing about the girlfriend, like it probably would be better if I came home dead, then you'd have a better story to tell and, you know, a nice framed photograph. Can you just talk about that moment in your story?
SIEGEL: Yeah. I think that there is a kind of self-defeating trap that veterans find themselves in sometimes, where you feel both totally isolated by your experience, and, like, nobody else could possibly understand it, and yet you desperately want to be able to share something about it with the people closest to you, you know. If nothing else, you get back after not having seen your loved ones for a year, and you want them to know something about you and how that experience has changed you, and what you saw.
Some people are better at communicating that to the people that are close to them in a kind of almost routine way where, you know, they're able to update them and speak openly and honestly. But I think for a lot of people, there's a desire not to share what you've seen while you're overseas. So you keep that all bottled up.
And then when you get home, you have these kind of conflicting urges, where on the one hand, you're desperate to tell somebody and feel connected to somebody and tell them about what you saw. And on the other hand, it's, like, what's the point? They're never going to understand, anyway. And so that can be really difficult. It's difficult to deal with, and then, you know, you do tell somebody something, and then they don't understand it in precisely the way you want them to understand it.
They don't get something about it. You're trying to reveal something essential about your experience, and they don't quite get it, because they don't have the context to get it. And then you figure: Well, why even try, if it's going to end like this? That was the dynamic I was trying to get at with that exchange.
The line about, you know, a dead soldier being easier to deal with, I think, you know, you save all the cruelest things to say to the people you love. Right? So, that was a soldier who'd gotten home, and who felt like he couldn't connect with this woman who he loved and that she would never really understand. And as a way to punish her for not understanding, you know, he just came up with the cruelest thing he could say.
And the other thing with that is, like, you get back, and you have all this stuff you want to say, but you don't know quite how to say it, and you can feel like a burden. You understand that you're difficult to be around. Understanding that you're difficult to be around doesn't make you any easier to be around. But you understand it, and you just - sometimes, you know, you just think: This can't be what they thought it would be like when I got back, either. You know? But, you know, I guess, like I said before, you just - you find the cruelest things to say to the people you love. So...
GROSS: Did you feel like you were difficult to be around when you got home?
SIEGEL: I know I was difficult to be around when I got home. I mean, I don't think I was all that easy to be around before I left, but I was very much - I had a difficult stretch when I got back from Iraq. I don't want to make too much of it. I had better support systems than other people who had a harder time than me. But it wasn't an easy transition for me. And I felt suspicious of people, and I felt very much kind of at loose ends and, like, I just felt distant from my own life and distant from the people I loved. And it was tough for me. But it got better.
GROSS: Jake Siegel, Roy Scranton, I want to thank you so much for talking with us, and thank you for your service.
SCRANTON: Yeah. Thanks. And I want to say thank you, Terry, for having us on.
SIEGEL: Thanks a lot.
GROSS: Roy Scranton and Captain Jake Siegel are editors of and contributors to the book "Fire and Forget," a collection of short stories by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Siegel also edits "The Hero Project" blog for the Daily Beast. Scranton is a PhD candidate in the Princeton University English Department.
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of the debut solo album by tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, who was already known for his work as a sideman with Charles Mingus. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.