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


Recently author Brian Van Reet and I had a long chat about art, war, life–pretty much everything.  In Part I of our conversation we discussed, among other things, the process of literary creation, the military-civilian divide, and feasibility of reinstating the draft.  The continuation of our conversation is below.

EPC: I think it can be hard to understand, at least for some people, although I think the impulse is in all of us, the desire to sign up for something that might be really difficult and dangerous, and that bad things might happen to you.  Certainly if you teach on a modern American campus we have this idea that the students are so fragile and they must be wrapped in cotton wool all the time.  But in fact a lot of them are thirsting for adventures.  Including really bad things.   So why?

BVR: It’s a problem…reading your questions, you mentioned romance novels as being kind of an inverse genre to war novels, which is something…I never thought of that before, but it’s very provocative and might be true.  It’s a good question.

It’s a problem with creating art about war.  And really any kind of art about violence.

Because by virtue of the fact that if you tell a story that’s in any way interesting to read or watch on film—more people watch stories—even if your stories are explicitly anti-war—you know, a lot of the Vietnam movies like Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now—they’re pretty explicitly anti-war.  They’re trying not to glamorous.  And yet they still end up fascinating young people.  And I was one of them.

The question is, “Can you even make an anti-war movie?  Is that possible?”  And I don’t know, I don’t know if you could.  And it’s something I’ve thought about, writing about war—is some seventeen-year-old kid going to read my book and decide that he or she wants to go to war.  The answer is maybe, but I can’t control other people’s perception of it, I can only control my own intention.

And I think the problem is that people—all people, to some degree, have an attraction towards darkness and danger.  And that comes out in romance novels, it comes out in different ways in war novels.

You see it in the way that people like horror movies, they like amusement park rides, why they smoke cigarettes, or ride motorcycles too fast with no helmet.  Some people have that impulse more strongly than others.  Especially young people and especially young men, although women are not immune to it.  But they seem to be attracted to very violent kinds of darkness.  And it’s very…it’s related to curiosity, you want to see for yourself what that part of life is about.  And that’s part of the reason why I went to war, why I chose to do it.  Even though I knew, I wasn’t totally naïve, I knew it would be hard and dangerous, but you still have that curiosity and reckless impulse.  I don’t know exactly where that comes from.  You know, tons of writers have tried to explore that question of why people are attracted to things that can hurt us.  And I don’t an easy answer, but it’s definitely something I was exploring in my book.

EPC: Do you think there’s something in particular about war as opposed to other hard and dangerous things?  Is it just this ultimate proving ground, is it because we’re fed this diet of books and movies about it?

BVR: It is something about war.  I mean, coal mining is hard and dangerous, but you don’t see many films about coal mining, or novels glamorizing that.  Part of it is a tradition of glorifying war, and that goes back thousands of years.  It’s a way to obtain glory.

And I think part of it is the fact that it’s human beings pitted against each other in sanctioned violence.  It’s very elemental.

It’s the reason why people like boxing or any kind of sports, for that matter. It’s very elemental and tied into some impulse in us to defend our group against the other group.  I think it goes a long, long time.  I’m not sure why exactly why war is so much more prevalent than other types of dangerous activities that haven’t been explored in art so much, but…I guess that’s my answer, that it’s a long tradition of doing that.

EPC: Yeah, I mean, I’ve heard that Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now have done more to recruit for the US military than all their recruitment posters.

BVR: It’s true.  And those people who made those movies did not have that intention at all.  But yeah, there’s guys in the billets who’ll watch a movie like Platoon and kind of psych themselves up in a way.

And some of them are smart enough to realize the irony of psyching yourself up for war by watching an anti-war film, but it still works on your brain in that way.

I don’t have the solution to that, but it is related to how we view it in our culture, I’m sure of that.

And I think it’s also true that historians—in the post-nuclear age, since 1945, so far, we haven’t had another huge global conflict.  And some historians think that’s because it’s become suicidal to do that.  Statistically, compared to say, the middle ages, society is less violent than it used to be.  There’s less murder, less violent deaths.  So in some ways of viewing human history we’re getting more peaceful.  But if you look at individual conflicts, like what’s happening in Iraq and Syria, etc., it doesn’t seem that way.  So it’s hard to even know what the trend is.  From what I’ve read it seems like we might be getting more peaceful.  Over a long span of time, like a thousand years.

EPC: Do you think this leads to more of the disconnect between civilian and military life?

BVR: Yeah, after spending a year in Baghdad, and coming back to the United States…there is a very strong feeling of a disconnect.  Especially when our leaders of the team were telling people, in the aftermath of 9/11, to fight terrorism you should go shopping to keep the economy going.  We’ll give you a tax cut so you can spend more of your money.

I certainly felt a schizophrenic divide between how we look at war and how our society is compared to other places in the world.

Even in how Americans view soldiers.  There’s one type of view, which is that soldiers are these selfless heroes.  And then there’s another view where soldiers and veterans are kind of pathetic victims of circumstance who are damaged in some way and possibly violent.  And sometimes the same person can have both views at different times.  So yeah, there is a schizophrenia in how we look at the military and how we organize our society, and it’s very much—you know, all the statistics say we’re getting more divided.  The super-wealthy who are controlling a very disproportionate share of the resources, and the middle class keeps getting poorer.  It can’t go on that way forever, because that’s how revolutions happen.  So I think we have to fix that somehow.

EPC: Do you think that American veterans are politically activated?  Again, looking back at Vietnam, it seems like Vietnam veterans became very politically active.  Do you think there’s a similar thing going on now with veterans of Iraq, or is there too much of a divide, is society too insular, or are people just too apathetic, that we don’t have that kind of veteran activism?

BVR: There certainly are activist veterans.  I’ve met some.  They’re on the left and the right.  There’s an organization called Vote Vets, they’re leftwing, they seem like they’re pretty rational, I don’t know much about them but I’ve supported some of their things.  And there are definitely veterans who are involved in militia movements, and kind of paranoia of the government stuff, rightwing stuff.

I don’t have any hard data to back it up, but my hypothesis would be that veterans are more politically engaged than the average American citizen.  Again, they could be leftwing or rightwing.  But that would be my hypothesis.  And there are certainly apathetic veterans.  I knew guys in the military who didn’t really care about politics, didn’t follow it closely, and I knew others who were either stridently, or I knew others who were really liberal.  My roommate and I in Iraq both voted for John Kerry in the 2004 elections with absentee ballots from Baghdad.  And a lot of guys voted in that election from Iraq, and a lot didn’t.  It’s crazy to me to think that you could be in a war and not even care enough to vote for your commander in chief, but some people didn’t.  Some people didn’t care even then.

EPC: Do you think that overall the experience tends to make people more active or more radicalized in some way?
BVR: Again, I don’t have survey data, and it’s dangerous to generalize, but my hypothesis would be that if you go to war, if you have a certain political belief, it will usually end up reinforcing whatever that belief is.  I don’t know if will really radicalize you, but I think it might harden your beliefs.  So if you’re kind of a nationalist going into war, you’ll probably be even more of a nationalist coming out, if you’re a liberal globalist going in, that view will be reinforced.  That’s my hypothesis, but I don’t really know.

I don’t think…you know, there are certainly vets throughout history who have come out and become radicalized and done terrible things.   The problem is that if someone has military training, they’re more dangerous.  There are a lot of dangerous people in the US, a lot of radical people who want to do harm, but if someone’s actually disciplined, and has training with weapons and explosive, they’re way more dangerous than a guy whose just kind, I don’t know, working at a tire shop or something.  I don’t think veterans are any more radical than any other group in American society, and I do know that the data suggest that veterans are less likely to be criminals, at least in the United States, they earn more than civilians on average.  So as a group they’re doing okay, but of course there are problems as well.

EPC: Do you think that this particular generation is having a harder time integrating back into society after coming back?  Do they get more pushback, more of a sense of alienation?  Or is it that in every generation it’s hard coming home from a war?

BVR: I think it’s always going to be hard.  I think…I can talk about my own experience.

I’ve never been treated for PTSD.  But that doesn’t mean it was easy to go to war and come back.

There was certainly a period of about a year of readjustment for me of just learning how to live what I’ll call a domestic life or a civilian life, when you’re not in constant danger, you don’t have to…life isn’t going to be so thrilling, for lack of a better word, as it was in a war zone.  It took about a year for me to make that adjustment.

And then it’s been a process of just getting older and more mature and kind of mellowing out.  And I had it relatively easy, I would say, in terms of my homecoming compared to some people because I had friends and family supporting me, I had something I wanted to do, I wanted to go back to college and I had clear, set goals that seemed attainable.  And I think for some people it’s much much harder to find meaning in their life after this very meaningful and intense experience that might be the most…in some ways it’s hard to know where to go from that.  So that’s part of the problem.

And PTSD…I’ve read a fair bit about it, and I’ve certainly…I could understand it to a degree…I think it’s one of the diagnostic categories that is so nebulous…It’s really a syndrome, it’s not a disease, you can’t just put someone’s tissues under a microscope and say, “Oh, this person has PTSD.”  It’s very much at the discretion of the clinician.  I’ve read memoirs of guys who, you know, one clinician diagnosed them as having PTSD, someone diagnosed them as, “No, you don’t have PTSD, you just have a little anxiety or something like that.”   So it’s very much…I’m not saying it isn’t real.  It’s describing something real.

But it’s nebulous and it’s also, I think, dangerous sometimes to treat people as if they have a disorder and just dope them up on medication and say, “You’re probably never going to get much better, you need to keep coming to the doctor forever.”

Societies throughout history have had different ways of integrating or reintegrating warriors when they come home and I don’t think we’re doing—there are some things we’re doing well.  There are a lot of things we’re not doing so well.

EPC: Like what are we not doing?
BVR: Well…it’s hard for me to say without sounding like I’m whining about it…

EPC: I’ll jump in and say that I’ve had a different but similar experience, which is that I’m actually quite ill with Lyme disease.  So I understand how talking about bad things that have happened to you can sound like you’re whining.  So whine away.

BVR: Well, I’m sorry to hear that.  I think that…

I don’t want a parade.  Although sometimes symbolic things like that can provide closure.  What I would like is closure.  I mean, for me, the fact that I’m sitting here, I’m 36 years old, I enlisted when I was 20 years old, and the fact that you could argue that we’re still in a continuance of that original war, nearly a generation later, that really bothers me.

I feel like what would make me feel better is if we as Americans employed our military more responsibly and more judiciously, and if a war is worth fighting, or even possible to fight.  I would argue that a war on terror is impossible to fight.  Because terrorism is a tactic.  It’s a tactic that’s been used throughout history.  You can’t defeat a tactic.  You can maybe defeat an army.  Or an ideology.  But not a tactic.

So we’ve framed the whole thing wrong, we’ve gone about it wrong.

What would make me feel good would be if we were a little more rational and we had better leadership and we wrapped things up and ended the war somehow.  It’s not personal…I do not feel like a victim, I want to say that.  I’m not a victim.  The victims are people in Iraq and Afghanistan, who had no choice, who were civilians.  I’m not a victim at all, and I don’t feel like I am.  But I do feel like I have a grudge sometimes.

EPC: Yeah, and I think that’s maybe one of the things that connects these different conflicts, that connects Chechnya with the Western conflicts.  Very protracted wars—the second Chechen war dragged on for the better part of 9 years or 10 years and you could say that it’s still going on.  And what happened has been kind of swept under the rug and I think people feel like what they did wasn’t acknowledged and the issue wasn’t taken care of.  And it’s like “What did we go over there and suffer for and get shot at if it didn’t solve the problem?”

BVR: Yeah.  All those types of questions and concerns and nagging thoughts—they’re things that I think a lot of veterans think about.  And I basically, I’ve come to a place where I’m okay with being uneasy about it.

I don’t think you’ll ever get closure on something like that.  Probably Vietnam vets would feel the same way.

You get to a place where you’re okay with being uneasy about that.  And people deal with that in different ways.  So that’s my take on it.  But there are different kind of wars.  You know, I put Chechnya in my book for one reason, because I do feel like there’s a link, there’s common ideologies in play in both those conflicts.  They’re different, there are a lot of differences between what happened in Chechnya and what happened in Iraq, but there are some similar ideologies.

EPC: Ideologies on which side?  Or both sides?

BVR: On both sides.  My understanding is that they had Chechen nationalists, and they also had jihadists who were fighting for the Muslim people.  And in Iraq you had a resistance that was composed of a variety of groups, some of which were nationalists, some of which were very religious jihadist groups, others were kind of a blend between, you know, militias that were localized but also had an Islamist component.  And then you had the outside aggressor, Russia or the United States, trying to impose its power over this other country.

So it becomes a proxy war of ideologies.

The link is that it seems that an aggressive empire or would-be empire trying to impose itself on another country.  And then my character is involved in the jihadist part of the resistance.  It’s people fighting out this war on turf that they don’t have any business even being on, maybe.  Like Saudi citizens fighting in Chechnya or Russian soldiers fighting…they’re not even on their home turf at all, they’re fighting this kind of proxy war on someone else’s turf.

EPC: I just have one last question.  Are you working on anything for the future?

BVR: Oh yeah.  I’ve been writing since I was a kid, like I told you, and I have no plans to stop.  I’m working on a second novel at the moment.  Doesn’t look to be a war novel at all.  I’m still working on the first draft, it’s kind of early to talk about it much.

Right now one of the themes that’s playing out in the book is the relationship between representations of violence and then real-world violence.  The relationship between art and obsession.

So yeah.  Those are the themes that are interesting me now, but it’s not set in a war at all.  After five years of writing about the Iraq war, even though it’s a topic that interests me, it’s kind of good to change it up.  I get sick of writing about the same thing.

EPC: That sounds really exciting.  I hope you finish it, and I hope I get to read it.

Brian’s debut novel Spoils is available here.

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