My Chat with Andy Owen About War, Literature, and PTSD, Part I

The New Literary War Hero in the Age of the Global War on Terror

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(Image from the film “Captive,” dir. Aleksey Uchitel)

While this blog was originally focused mainly on my side hustle job of writing and reviewing fantasy, readers may have noticed a certain focus on matters military in recent posts, as in my day job as a literaturoved (literary scholar???  What do we call ourselves in English, anyway?) I started working on a project on Russian-language literature about the Chechen wars and the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan (see my reviews of Arkady Babchenko’s One Soldier’s War, Mikail Eldin’s The Sky Wept Fire, Anna Politkovskaya’s A Dirty War, Zakhar Prilepin’s Sin, German Sadulaev’s I Am a Chechen!,  Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys, or Oleg Yermakov’s Afghan Tales for more), which has expanded to include a comparison with English-language writings about Afghanistan and Iraq as well.

Rather to my surprise, since we literaturovedy are used to being told, at least in the US, that what we do is completely pointless and of no interest to anyone at all, this has garnered a considerable positive response, including from the authors themselves, many of whom have graciously responded to my questions and granted me interviews.  Which just goes to show what many of us have known all along, which is that humans love a good story, and the study and production of literature is endlessly fascinating.

One of the authors who graciously agreed to an interview was Andy Owen, former member of the UK military and author of East of Coker, as well as the upcoming non-fiction book All Soldiers Run Away.

East of Coker

I’ve reproduced excerpts from our very interesting conversation below, and will try to release more later this week.

EPC: Could you tell me a little about yourself and your books that you’ve released or are about to release—what got you started on them?

AO: I served in the British army for seven or eight years and at the end of that I worked in the British government in the UK doing counterterrorism work for a couple of years.  I didn’t write during my time in the army and I didn’t really write before that but I read an awful lot.  I think when I started writing I did it more to help order my thoughts and to try to make sense in my mind about some of the—not necessarily the situations I’d been in but the wider context that I’d been in and the environment I’d been in.  So I kind of did it for myself really first, and I came to it having read quite a bit of literature that had nothing to do with conflict as such but just had really big similarities.

I think the start point for me—when I started writing—was reading Moby Dick and understanding some of the big themes in that and finding that the themes they were talking about were so relevant to why some of the people that I was looking at had decided to go to Afghanistan, to go to Iraq, and fight as foreign fighters.

But also, and maybe at the beginning more subconsciously, it helped me understand why some of my peers had gone and joined the British military or the American military.  So it was a way to make sense of things that I started writing, and helped me maybe to explore some ideas about similarities in the extreme environments that I’d been in to more common themes about what makes us the people we are.

EPC: Yeah, and that brings up some really interesting points.  What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages—because this is really a very personal thing, it seems to me, that a lot of people, even when they’re writing fiction, it’s this very kind of personal experience that they’re describing—so what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of fiction versus non-fiction?

AO: Ultimately, they’re all stories.

But I think when you’re dealing with something about yourself, I think it’s sometimes quite a lot easier to use fiction.  I think it is, especially in an extreme situation like war, it’s sometimes very difficult to be honest about the people who are in your immediate group without getting their permission. Perhaps someone doesn’t want people to know what they went through, how they reacted.  Because there is that expectation that people act heroically, and I think it’s an individual decision to say, “Actually, I’m going to tell the truth here and say that most people don’t act heroically and I include myself in that.”  I think that’s quite a brave decision.  So I think sometimes it’s a lot easier to put things in fiction even if you’re going to be honest yourself.  Why I think that’s why it’s so brave of Alan’s family [from All Soldiers Run Away–EPC] to say, “We’re going to tell this story.”  And they’ve been worried and had wobbles throughout the whole process, because they know that certain people—they’re just going to get the response of “The guy was a deserter, he was a disgrace, he should have had a worse punishment”—and they will get that.  We already saw in a very sort of small way when we were looking in the New Zealand papers for the kind Kiwi who looked after him briefly when he found him in Italy.

So it does take a lot of bravery, I think, to be honest about the realities of conflict.

EPC: Yeah, and that brings up something I’ve encountered a lot in the Russian stuff, which is the need to be an eyewitness.   A lot of the Russian-language authors have this intense belief that these stories need to be written by eyewitnesses, by people who were actually there experiencing it, who actually participated in the conflict.  I haven’t encountered that as much in the Western stuff—do you think it’s there and I’m just not finding it?

AO: I’m not sure, to be honest.  I think that’s one of your questions about the conflict defining the type of literature that comes out of it, and I think there’s some truth to that.  The trench warfare literature I think mimicked the warfare that it was chronicling.  It’s often very matter-of-fact, and you read some of the First World War trench literature and you get the sense that you’re being slightly zombified, because it’s just one thing and then another thing and then another thing.  Which just felt like what was happening to them.  And then they’d go to another trench and it’s the same again.  And then they start becoming immune to it.   They’ll matter-of-factly describe something very horrendous, because to them it was becoming matter-of-fact.  And I think you definitely get that that was the sense of that war.

Whereas some of the Iraq literature is much more fragmentary because you would have long periods with not a lot happening, and you’d be relatively safe, and then an IED would go off and it’d be horrendous for 24 hours, and then you’d go back.

And it was chaotic—the asymmetric battlefield.  One minute you’re chatting to people who are local nationals who are very friendly and doing something else, the next minute you’re with a local tribal official talking about a school, and then the next—you’re crossing over into lots of different elements of society and having to use different bits of your own personality in different ways and you’re having bits of almost normalcy, and then all of a sudden it’s high intensity warfare with a bomb, a shell, or a firefight, and then it’s back to doing something else.

So I think that creates quite fragmentary literature coming out of that, because you’re never really sure, when you’re in some of these place, what your role is and what you’re doing.

Whereas if you’re at the front in the First World War, you’re at the front.  And you’re at the front, being a soldier, for six weeks, eight weeks, whatever it was, and then you have a week off and that’s a chapter that has a bit of a different feel to it, and then you’re back in again.  I don’t know about the Chechen literature; maybe it’s kind of halfway.

Which I think links back to your question about the PTSD and whether it’s more difficult now, with the difference between society back home and the society you become part of when you’re at the front.  That’s definitely something that I think—it’s that gap between the very safe society that you come from, and a very unsafe society.  And if you go back to the Second World War, when the people were at the front, the Blitz was happening in London, or back in the US, life expectancy was a lot less—there were still diseases that you would die of that just don’t exist any more.  The gap between society back home and society at the front was much less.  And I think you kind of decompress more when there were long journeys back—it was weeks and weeks on a boat, rather than just clicking your fingers and twelve hours later you’re in a supermarket as if nothing’s ever happened.

And you’re almost like, “Did I dream that I’ve just spent three months in Afghanistan or Iraq?”

So I think that dislocation, that change, is so significant, it does make it harder for people.

EPC: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of people say this, that the seeming ability to be close to home makes you feel even farther away and even more alienated and actually makes it even harder.  Which brings up some questions I had about reintegration and how—does it make it harder that we’re such a positive society, and you suddenly come back to this very safe environment and everyone’s so cheerful and they want you to be happy—does that make it harder?

AO: I think having talked to peers, and probably to myself to a certain extent, it’s learning to rezero what you care about.

Because you certainly find people back home will get upset about things that you just say, “Why are you even bothered?”  Because you’re so used to—it’s almost like, “Did anyone die?  Well, what’s the problem?”

Which is not an attitude that can get you very far with people when you come home.  So it’s trying to learn how to care a bit more about things that don’t really matter that I think is your challenge.  And then with people that you’re with, you can’t go around saying to them, “You’re upset about that—don’t you know that these people don’t have this to live in?” because you just don’t get invited back to dinner parties if you do that all the time.  So I think I found that a bit more tough, more than the positivity.  It was more the: “You don’t realize how lucky you are.  You know, last week I was with people who had lost everything”—it was more that, I think.

EPC: So did you find—so this is something that the Russian authors complain about a lot–people just didn’t want to know.  Except maybe for some prurient, sort of voyeuristic questions, but in general they just didn’t want to know.

AO: Yeah, and I think that’s probably a really big similarity the Iraq conflict and Chechnya—that fact that because they were both unpopular wars—well, Iraq was unpopular; I think it’s maybe the wrong word for Chechnya—but you had the same result, which was that people didn’t want to know.  And they would go, if they’d find out you’d been to Iraq, and you’d kind of get a sort of “Hmmm,” and then nothing.

And it’s not necessarily that you want to talk about it, but you kind of feel that at that point that judgments have been made about you.

You’ve somehow been tainted by it, by your participation in it.  There’s those two extremes: there’s either people who will ask you nothing, which makes you feel like, well…or there’s the opposite, where people are like, “Did you kill anyone?”

EPC: That’s the number one question people say they get.

AO: Yeah, and it’s…You don’t want to have either of those reactions, really.  There’s probably a sort of difficult tightrope.  You want people to say, “Oh, okay, that must of have been interesting,” or, you know, something, and then for you to say one line or two and move it on, but then you don’t want to go into massive depth about the actual details of it.

And I think with Iraq I certainly felt that you were then expected to justify it—you now need to justify that foreign policy decision.

And I foolishly did try and discuss it at the beginning–I quickly learned that it’s pointless—and sort of ask some questions about what would have defined success?  Should we intervene if someone—because there are a lot of really interesting questions about Iraq that are now not discussed.  There’s a lot that was clearly wrong with the whole project, but there’s a lot of interesting questions that never really got answered in the debate, that have kind of been killed.  Politics has moved on and we’re not in the same place anymore.  But the whole area of interventionism is now sort of gone, when actually there are some times when that might be the right thing to do.  It’s almost off the table now because the debate just got finished by the other aspects of the debate which overran it.

End of Part I–Read Part II here

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