By Robert Britt, Staff Writer
As the war in Afghanistan throttles down, and Iraq fades in our national rearview, much of America is ready to close the books on these conflicts. But for many of the men and women who served on these battlefields, coming home is only the first step in putting war behind them.
Nearly a dozen years into sustained military action, the story of what happened “over there” and what our veterans and their families continue to face here at home is remains little understood. A new collective of authors, however, is using short fiction to expose the reality of these wars and their aftereffects on those who have served in them.
Co-edited by Army veterans Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, “Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War” is an anthology of 15 short stories written by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Representing a new generation of veterans-turned-authors, the contributors in “Fire and Forget” have returned home, at least physically, and are now sharing their works and sculpting the public’s perception of these wars and how they’ve impacted the warriors.
Gallagher, a former cavalry officer, spent 15 months as a scout platoon leader in Iraq before writing about his experience in his previously published war memoir. With “Fire and Forget,” he hopes that readers will walk away with added social responsibility — understanding that when wars are over, things don’t just end as a statistical data point.
The title — taken from a class of high-tech munitions that, once fired, require no additional guidance — is suggestive of a paradox that the editors introduce in the preface: On one hand, the authors want to remind readers of what happened in these wars, and what is still happening to our veterans of them. “On the other hand,” they say, “there’s nothing most of us would rather do than leave these wars behind.”
According to Scranton, “there’s both a selfish or self-centered desire to say ‘This is what I saw,’ and there’s a social responsibility component to say ‘This is what I saw.’”
These veterans are trying to move forward and find their identity of who they are after these experiences, he says.
War — especially for writers — is great material and part of who you are, Scranton says. “There’s this conflict between relying on it, exploring it, using it, and fighting it and worrying about being trapped in it,” he says.
Gallagher says it would be foolish not to draw upon wartime experience. “But it is a paradox,” he says. “And it’s one that I think we all battle with every time we sit at our laptops.”
The book opens with Jacob Siegel’s Smile, There Are IEDs Everywhere. “It has this ephemeral sense and this anxiety about trying to hold onto what happened downrange and trying to move on,” Scranton says. “I wanted to put that story in front because I think it gets at something that is key to understanding the rest of the stories.”
Each story in “Fire and Forget” highlights its own issue: Siobhan Fallon’s vantage point as an army spouse struggling to reconnect with her husband; Perry O’Brien, meanwhile, weaves a humorous yarn about a soldier on the lam from the military and preoccupied with thoughts of building an army of killer rabbits.
Phil Klay’s description of the journey home from deployment is bookended with powerful imagery that takes the story much deeper and is sure to impact readers.
In Gavin Ford Kovite’s When Engaging Targets, Remember, the reader mans the machine gun on a convoy mission in Iraq for a choose-your-own-adventure style story. Its power is that it takes readers along for the ride and through the split-second decisions that 20-somethings are making everyday in combat zones.
Scranton’s story provides readers with a snapshot of soldiers on guard duty, complete with depreciating humor, soldiers fighting boredom as if it were the declared enemy, and a looming sense of danger.
“Fire and Forget” is an effective cultural text on multiple levels. Not only does it serve as a historical milepost, reminding us that we are waging the longest war in our nation’s history, but it also serves as a point of conversation. Readers will gain insight into the emotional struggles faced by many of our veterans during their transition back home, and the veterans themselves will undoubtedly find a connection to one or more of the protagonists or their conflicts.
It can also be seen as a form of catharsis for some of the authors.
“With each story, I think the author was attempting to tell their own war story, whether it came from Iraq, Afghanistan or back here at home,” says Gallagher.
“Fire and Forget,” available Feb.15 from Da Capo Press. Co-editor Roy Scranton (a graduate of North Salem High School) and contributors Gavin Ford Kovite and David Abrams (a University of Oregon graduate) will be on hand at Powell’s Books in Portland on March 20 for a panel discussion and reading.
Robert Britt is a writer, photographer and U.S. Army veteran with two deployments to the war in Iraq. He is currently serving a six-month fellowship with Street Roots and The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that connects post-9/11 veterans with service work in their communities.