My Chat with Veteran and Author Brian Van Reet About Literary Creation and Military Service

Spoils

As I work on my research about, and prepare for my class on, contemporary war writing, a number of authors and translators have graciously agreed to talk to me.  A couple of weeks ago I posted my chat with British veteran and author Andy Owen; this time it’s American Brian Van Reet, author of Spoils, who has kindly agreed to talk to me.  Below are excerpts from our conversation.

EPC: I’d be interested in hearing about what prompted you to write your book.

BVR: I enjoyed reading and writing ever since I was a little kid, and way before I ever thought I would be a soldier I thought I might be a writer.  I never thought about enlisting in the military during peacetime.  I was a middle-class kid, I grew up in Houston, TX and Maryland, I did well in high school and I got into the UVA.  I was one of those kids who, given that much freedom at eighteen years old, I just got distracted and kind of lost interest in academics.  But I did still enjoy writing at that time.  Back then I was into Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson and macho writers like that.

And then 9/11 happened, I was 20 years old, I was basically failing out of school, and while I had never considered joining the military in peacetime I was one of those people who, when the war started, I started thinking about enlisting.

I’d say it was more of a reckless and impulsive decision for me than it was any kind of thought-out political and ideological decision.  I’m sure it was motivated in part by those writers I mentioned and the idea that you should go out and experience momentous things, danger, war.  But the idea of writing about the war as a primary reason why I enlisted—I don’t really think it was, because, for one, I didn’t do much writing when I was in the military at all.  I wrote letter and emails but I didn’t write any fiction at all, I didn’t take notes, so I wasn’t being a very good writer if I was one.

It was more the recklessness of it and the—I’ll use the word macho again—this macho desire to prove yourself, to experience danger.

I was 20 years old and 20-year-old people don’t necessarily have a lot of wisdom when they make decisions.  You make a lot of impulsive decisions and the military is one that, once you get in, it’s hard to get out.

I didn’t like the military too much.  I made some friends there, there were some good things about it that kind of helped me in a way, but overall, I did not enjoy it and I wanted to get out of it as soon as I could.  I was held in because my unit was going to deploy to Iraq in 2004 and I was held in for another 18 months on top of the two years.

And then writing the book…

While I was in college I thought real life was happening out in the world.  And when I got in the military, I wanted to be back in college.

So once I got out I enrolled at the University of Missouri because I had a friend who was living in Columbia, MO, and I started studying English again, creative writing classes, I finished my undergrad degree there, and I ended up doing a Master’s in English there U of MO. And during this time I was writing short stories about the war and I published a few of them.  And then I ended up getting into the Michener Center for Writers down at the University of TX, and I studied there from 2009 to 2012.  I spent 4 years in the military on active duty and then I ended up spending about six years in academia.  So I guess you can tell which one I liked better, which institution I liked better.

I got more and more serious about it, I got more disciplined, more mature.  It took me about five years to write this novel.  There were some attempts along the way during the early part of that five years where I wrote an entire book that I thought at the time was finished and tried to get published.  Almost got there, but not quite.  It takes a long time to write a book, so I was writing Spoils from about 2010 to 2015, and then another several months of editing after it sold.

EPC: How conscious a process was it versus how much did it seem to arise organically or subconsciously?

BVR: I think even if you’re consciously doing something, the subconscious elements of the process are still working.  The first draft I wrote of the novel was very different from what was published.  It was much more from my own perspective or a character like me.  The characters of Cassandra Wigheard and Abu al-Hool weren’t in the book at all.  So it was totally different.  At some point, when that book just wasn’t quite working, I went back to the drawing board and started asking myself questions like:

“How can I make this different from some of the other war novels that have come out written by soldiers who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan?  How can I make this a bigger story?”

Not page-count wise, but thematically.   At that time I happened to be writing a short story that had this Cassandra Wigheard character in it, and I just decided, “Why not put her in the book?”  So I did, and she sort of became the protagonist.

EPC: I think it’s really interesting that you had these not obviously autobiographical characters.  What do you think that added that made it work better?

BVR: I found that when I moved farther away from my literal experience, it freed up my imagination to do things with structure or conflict—and by “conflict” I don’t mean shooting conflict, but literary conflict—to get more tension out of the story.

If you’re writing something very autobiographical it’s confining in a way that sometimes can work for fiction, but for me it works better, even if a character has something, or there is some kind of surface-level similarity with me—like for example Sleed [character in Spoils—EPC] is the most autobiographical character in the sense that he does the same job in the army that I did, and he’s a man, and he’s about the same age I was.  But, like, I never looted Saddam’s palace or I was never involved in the rescue of a captured soldier.  So I think you can create a character that’s somewhat autobiographical and then has other elements that are wildly different from your own experience and it just frees up the possibilities for where you can take the story.  Even a character like Abu al-Hool, you know, obviously on the surface very different from me, but his motivations for joining the militant group are similar to why I enlisted in the army—just kind of ennui or an unhappiness with your present situation and the desire for glory or adventure.

From what I’ve read and heard I think that’s why a lot of young people from across cultures and times join the army or join military groups.  There are specific things to cultures or religions, but beneath those, there are the same kind of impulses.  So I think all of these characters, even if they appear on the surface not to be me, it’s a work of fiction, so in the end they’re all coming from me.  And they’re also coming from research and imagination.

EPC: Did you find you had to do a lot of research?

BVR: Yeah, I tried to.

This is a heavy topic and it has life and death consequences, so I don’t think you can just on a lark decide, “Oh, I want to write a jihadist character” or “I want to write a character who’s a young woman in the army,” and just dash it off.

I felt a responsibility to get it right.  I read books—most of my research that I do is reading.  I’m not one of those types of fiction writers who does a lot of cold calling or interviewing.  I’ve done a few interviews but I’ve found that books are a better distillation of people’s experiences.  So I could read a book by a woman who was formerly in the army.  Or I read a few ex-jihadist memoirs.  And also works of history, journalists’ accounts.  So yeah, I did a fair bit of research to try to get the details right and to get ideas for things that could happen.

EPC: That brings up some interesting things that I’ve encountered in the Russian works.  One of the things that the Russian writers say is that you can only understand what it was like if you were there.  And then they write a whole long book trying to explain to people who were not there what it was actually like.  So there’s a kind of contradiction.  And even veterans who talk to other veterans are told that they can’t understand each other because they were there in different years or fought in different battles.

BVR: I’ve heard that about the Iraq war as well.  Not directed toward me, necessarily, but the idea that if you were there in Iraq in 2003 vs. 2005, or if you were stationed in Basra as opposed to Fallujah, you have—you know, everyone has a very different experience in war, no matter what war you’re in.

I think that expression of “You don’t know what it feels like” or “You can’t possibly understand,” that’s more of a symptom of isolation and pain than it is a truth.

Because of course we can understand, through literature, and that’s the impulse to share through literature.  That doesn’t mean you have the lived experience, but that’s different than understanding something.

I think you can understand these experiences through literature.

If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t care to read it or write it.

EPC: What do you think that literature in particular gives you that maybe other media or other forms don’t?

BVR:

It gives you more access to human consciousness.

Films are good at portraying action and setting the mood, but it’s much harder to get into someone’s head in a film.  It’s pretty easy to do it in fiction: you just say “He thought” or “She thought” and go from there.

EPC: So that leads me to another question.  One of the things I noticed about this is the very fragmentary nature of the works.   Is it something about the nature of the contemporary battlefield that inspires this kind of writing?

BVR: I think part of it is…I’m not how much it’s related to the battlefield, but…

The introduction of explosives in warfare, maybe 150 years ago, renders human strength and endurance irrelevant.

And it certainly makes you realize that you are pretty much powerless, that there are these other forces on the battlefield that absolutely dwarf your body, which is a very fragile thing.  I’m not sure what the connection might be between that development in warfare and its effect on war literature.

EPC: Some of the Russian stuff is also very narrative-driven, but the narrative is not based on details of place and time.  They’re driven by a narrative of internal truth, and the external details are free-floating.  The Russian authors are saying “You have to have been there in order to understand it,” but at the same time “I’m going to convey this emotional truth instead of giving a list of things that happened in chronological order, I’m going to convey some kind of emotional truth or emotional story.”

BVR: That’s interesting.  I’m not sure what I think about that.  It could be an interesting hypothesis that contemporary war literature is more apologetic in its tone than, let’s say, WWII literature.  Vietnam might be equally apologetic in some ways.

But it’s definitely an experience that a very small percentage of Americans have had—I’ve read that about 1% of Americans have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.  So most people won’t know personally anyone who did that.  So they’re getting all their information from TV for the most part, or print journalism to some extent.  So yeah, I think the literature has to come from a rhetorical perspective of assuming your audience is relatively ignorant about what happened, or at least the nuances of what happened—they might know things like the Abu Ghraib scandal or the Battle of Fallujah, big touchstones like that—but they’re not going to know the ins and outs of military life, they’re not going to know much about the military.  And they may be…not hostile toward the military, but the kind of people who read literary fiction are probably not going to be pro-war.  So that informs the tone of the writing and the rhetorical devices that the writer can use to try and draw the audience in.  The structure, the types of characters—I think it does impact that.

EPC: Do you think…Vietnam was such a watershed, such a cultural break moment in the US, and now we’re living in this post-Vietnam era…do you think that we’ve had another change in the nation’s relationship with the military in the post-9/11 era?  Or I say post-9/11 era, but really I feel like Iraq was another big watershed moment in the US’s relationship with its military.  How do you think it compares with Vietnam?

BVR: There are similarities to the Vietnam war.

To me the big difference is that there’s no draft anymore.  And so that really changes the politics of war, who feels like they need to pay attention to it, who becomes an activist.

EPC: Yeah, in Russia there’s a really big movement of soldiers’ mothers.  Because they have a draft there, there’s a really strong anti-war movement of soldiers’ mothers.  I don’t think we really have anything like that in the US.

BVR: Not really.  There’s Code Pink, but it’s not directly tied to—it’s more nebulous than just soldiers’ mothers.  And there was famously Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, and he was actually stationed on my camp, she camped outside of George Bush’s ranch, she was a prominent activist for a while.  But I agree, the anti-war movement in the United States, it was quite robust right around the time when Iraq first happened, right before the war started, there were some big marches.  But it’s just kind of petered out and there’s not much of an anti-war movement.

And I think that’s directly related to this feeling of apathy that comes from not having a draft.

It just feels like people have thrown up their hands and said, “Nothing we do matters.”

It feels in some ways like we have a samurai class now in America that fights the wars.

It’s a very small percentage of the people, the military kind of lives in a bubble, a lot of them, I think, view civilians with some amount of contempt.  Some don’t, but there’s some contempt for civilians, and there’s definitely some contempt for the military on the part of some civilians.  So there’s a true divide, plenty has been written about it, the military-civilian divide they call it, and I think it’s a real thing, it exists.

And it’s not healthy for a functioning democracy, I know that.

EPC: Do you think that reinstating the draft would break through that divide in some way?

BVR: Yes.  But there would be problems if we did that, and frankly I don’t think it’s going to happen.  The only way the draft is coming back is if we need it to come back, which means we’re involved in a very large war.  And I don’t think that…the military doesn’t want the draft, most Americans probably don’t want the draft, and politicians don’t want the draft.  Therefore it’s not going to happen unless we get involved in a big war.  Which might happen.  I do think it would help to cohere our society in some ways if we had, say, compulsory national service.  For one because you’d be forced as a young person to leave your geographic comfort and to live and work in close proximity with people who are not like you.  I think that’s a good experience.  That’s one of the things about the military that I think was a useful experience for me, is that I bunked with black guys and people from rural America and liberals from Oregon and all these different kinds of people that I probably would not have lived with if I had not joined the military.

It’s harder to be dogmatic and it’s harder to be a bigot when you’re forced to do that kind of thing at a young age.

It’s still possible, but I think it’s a little harder.

End of Part I–read Part II here!

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