Seth Brady Tucker’s poetry collection, Mormon Boy, brings to light an aspect of the most recent Iraq War that risks to slip unnoticed into history: the first Iraq War, or Operation Desert Storm, the important yet little-understood antecedent to the 2003 invasion. As French thinker Jean Baudrillard famously wrote, Desert Storm was the war “that didn’t take place.” George Packer noted in his recent review in The New Yorker, “Home Fries: How Soldiers Write Their Wars” (April 7, 2014), that there is no shortage of contemporary literature published by veterans returning from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With writing workshops and seminars tailored for vets popping up in universities and communities all over the country, we can expect even more works detailing these combat experiences. However, in terms of literature, and especially poetry, Desert Storm and its consequences have yet to be adequately unveiled.
Mormon Boy is not only a revelatory account of what really occurred behind CNN’s hypermedia coverage, which consistently compared the conflict to “a video game.” It is also the recipient of the 2011 Elixir Press Editor’s Prize and was a finalist for the 2013 Colorado Book Award. Tucker’s second poetry collection, We Deserve the Gods We Ask For, won the 2014 Gival Press Poetry Prize and his short fiction collection was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award. Currently, Tucker is writing a novel about a soldier, set on an Indian Reservation in Wyoming, and is represented by Trident Media Group agency in New York. His work has appeared in reviews such as A Gathering of the Tribes, Antioch Review, Art Times, Atlanta Review, Chattahoochee Review, Connecticut Review, Crab Orchard Review, Iowa Review, Mississippi Review, River Styx, Rosebud, Shenandoah, and Witness. Behind these prestigious publications and awards, lies the raw, stunning work of a combat soldier turned writer, whose talent and insight into war parallel that of Tim O’Brien and Brian Turner.
In this interview with award-winning poet Seth Brady Tucker, a teacher of veteran writing workshops, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, focuses on his war experience, his status as a veteran, and the writing about it that has both healed and tormented him. How did the false media representation by 24-hour news services and the overwhelming public support for Desert Storm contradict the reality on the ground? How does poetry in particular give voice to this experience in ways that fiction or memoir cannot? What are elements of a war story that a veteran can never tell? How do Desert Storm and the most recent Gulf War compare in terms of the way veterans are treated? Why isn’t the US government taking care of its soldiers?
Since the publication of Mormon Boy in 2012, Tucker has been interviewed by the Colorado Poets Center website, The Lighthouse Writers Workshop Blog, and other informal online publications. However, these mostly deal with Tucker’s attention to poetic form and only give liminal mention the war experience that has shaped his work. In 2012, Tucker agreed to give Orth-Veillon this interview when she was teaching his work in a first-year composition course at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The theme of the class was veteran literature and his personal insight was of immense value to the students.
Tucker is not only an articulate speaker about war and the chaos it brought to his life and work. He has a generous and gregarious personality. He is funny, eloquent, and unflinching. These elements of his personality and work come through in this interview and it is hoped it can be as a resource for all those wanting to write, teach, or read about war, and to understand the aesthetic that comes out of it.
JENNIFER ORTH-VEILLON. Your poems in this collection deal with a range of experiences, from war to love, to art. How does the title, “Mormon Boy,” bring all of these elements together?
SETH BRADY TUCKER. I wanted the title to be a reflection on the complete piece. I was raised Mormon, and many of the reasons why I went into the military were in reaction to my loss of faith. Essentially, this book is as much about being a soldier as it is a response to the “Mormon boy” who left Wyoming to forge a new path for himself. My parents and my whole extended family are still practicing members of the LDS faith, but I was never really a believer. I also wasn’t a great student in high school and I wished someone had said something like “Seth, you never seem to stop reading. There are degrees and professions for stuff like that,” but nobody ever told me that. So, I slacked off on my studies and read novels in the back of class, and when I was getting ready to graduate, there really wasn’t an option for the college experience. Oddly enough, my parents said that if I went on a Mormon mission, that they would help me with the costs of school, but I saw the offer as the worst kind of hypocrisy because they knew I lacked the faith for such an enterprise. In the end, I joined the military because of that rootlessness and that conflict with faith, not to mention the fact that like many soldiers, I came from a very poor family. My hope was that each of the poems in this book would speak to what it is to be a soldier, a young boy, a lapsed believer, a “Mormon boy.” I also tend to write from persona quite a bit, so it helped me to have something to connect all these disparate experiences and voices.
JOV. Is your decision to go into the military to pay for school common among vets you know?
SBT. In answer to this, I’d like to bring up a conversation I recently had with one of my colleagues; we were talking about the war in Afghanistan and the new violence and uprisings in Iraq, and he said that he thought that we should bring back the draft for current wars. His thinking was that it would create a more conscientious approach to warfare and overseas entanglements. It is something I have also long believed, but the more I thought about it, it suddenly occurred to me that we already have a draft—poverty is our draft. We fill the ranks of our military with mostly poor kids. Personally, I can’t think of one soldier around me who came from any sort of wealth in all my years in the military. The problem with this, is that our leaders rarely listen to the poor in our country—they care about what false promises the “job creators” will give us, then betray. A real draft would change all that, but it would need to be a draft that had no loopholes for the wealthy and entitled. In answer to the actual question, I think most soldiers go in with the hope they will use the GI Bill, but few actually do—I remember when I was at SFSU, I went in to check my balance and they were flabbergasted to learn I had used all my (meager) benefits. I was the first one they had ever seen use it all, which should tell us all a lot about how the money in those funds are being used.
JOV. When you signed up in 1988, was Desert Storm in the horizon at all?
SBT. No, as a matter of fact, when I went in, I thought I was joining a peacetime military—I was never a believer in the power of warring as a way to protect our interests. At the time, the Cold War was over and the Berlin wall had come down, and it seemed to me that we were moving into a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity. I seriously never thought of the military as anything but an extreme experience and a place to challenge myself and to also get money for college. It never occurred to me that if I went through all this different combat training and airborne school, that I would become a bullet-catcher in a lot of ways. It never occurred to me that the more training I received, the more likely those skills I developed would have to be put in combat.
JOV. Shortly after you joined the military, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Could you give us a quick overview of the conflict?
SBT. If I remember correctly, I think Saddam invaded Kuwait on August 2nd, 1990. I was with the 82nd Airborne Division by then, and they are part of the military’s “Quick Reaction Force.” The mythology surrounding the 82nd is that we were supposed to be able to take everything we owned—every weapon, every soldier, every tank, every truck—and deployed anywhere in the world in eighteen hours. Obviously, some of our intel worked because we were in the air when Saddam invaded. The only reason I knew it wasn’t a training exercise was because they issued us live ammo, and actually had us load it in magazines and lock and load while we were on the airplanes. Normally, for training missions we get ammo issued, but were always instructed to not take it out of the boxes. To be honest, I didn’t even really know where we were going initially—most of my mates in the military, myself included, were woefully uninformed about current events (there was only one TV in the barracks per floor for about 300 soldiers). Add to that the fact that we had just been deployed to Panama six months before that, so I think I just couldn’t believe I was being deployed again, for real. When we landed in Saudi Arabia, the mission details were slow and far between—I think they wanted a show of force, a show of the US’s will, but hadn’t thought much past getting us there. And maybe this is how this war was different—we simply didn’t get news. We really didn’t get information. After we landed in Saudi and settled in, we were living basically in canvas tents in the middle of the desert for the next six months, almost like we didn’t have anywhere else to go. Most of the time, water was only for shaving and drinking. There was no infrastructure, and logistically I often thought we were ill-prepared for a long standoff with the Iraq Republican Guard. Our only food for the first three months was MRE’s (Meals, Ready to Eat). Which consist of one or two decent flavors, the rest were disgusting. For two months, all we ever got was “Barbequed Beef”—if we got another type of MRE we would fight over it. After breakfast, lunch, and dinner, of one kind of MRE, we tended to get desperate for any other food—even to the point of sneaking into local villages to buy food from the markets, even if that meant a possible reduction in rank. It got to the point where I would rather eat dried cuttlefish before I would eat the barbequed beef. Any solider would know what I’m talking about when I say that it seems that they always have the worst kind of MRE available only in bulk. Thousands of packets of one crappy MRE, then once in awhile a new one that felt like a rare gift. Then we ran out of MRE’s, and we had to eat Dinty Moore’s “Beef Stew” for a month and a half. I still can’t stand the smell of it. A friend from grad school didn’t believe me, and served me the stew as a joke and I threw up from the smell. Anyway, that really doesn’t even answer your question. The most I can say, is that for months we lived in ranger graves and foxholes and dirt bunkers, with very little information that wasn’t rumor, and personally, I had no idea why we cared so much for a tiny little kingdom like Kuwait. It wasn’t until our return that things started to fall into place.
JOV. As the French writer Jean Baudrillard said in his essay, “The Gulf War Didn’t Take Place,” huge gaps existed among the media representation of the war, the outpouring of American public support, and the reality. That is to say that the news reported little about soldiers killed or damage done in Iraq but focused on the use of technology, the video game aspect of this war.
SBT. Exactly. In a lot of ways, when I returned to the States, we didn’t know that this relatively new 24-hour news cycle had been covering the war so completely and in so many strange ways. For instance, the whole time I was there, I was attached to some of the most forward operating bases, and knew other soldiers who were actually patrolling into Iraq. We were all in the front line for the ten months that I was there and I didn’t see one imbedded reporter, and didn’t hear about any. I have friends who actually do this often for a living now, and have been in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, but I don’t think this was the case back in the first Persian Gulf War. So many aspects of this news cycle were surprising to me—I honestly thought we could be returning home to the sort of welcome the Vietnam vets had seen. After all, we had bombed all the roads leading to Baghdad and other targets consistently and unrelentingly for, I think, 190 days? It is hard for civilians to imagine that sort of onslaught coming off aircraft carriers every single day, and even harder for them to understand the devastation that was visited on so many military and accidental civilian targets. Ultimately, most of my experience in combat in Iraq during the ground force invasion was just bearing witness to the absolute destruction of a people. Every road, everywhere we turned there were burned out husks of vehicles filled with the dead. Much of them long dead. The smell is something hard to describe. And you couldn’t tell even from the destruction if it was a civilian or military vehicle. There was just this colossal amount of destruction and death, and it was for this reason, I thought when we finally came back that we were going to get a completely different response from the American people. And it was embarrassing—I remember going on leave soon after I returned, and I was just so embarrassed by it all, so embarrassed by the flag orgy that was happening, the yellow ribbon orgy all over my hometown, the many drinks I had bought for me at the bars. I even had a fight with my parents when I arrived home to this almost-joke sized flag hanging from the roof of the front of our house. And maybe that was when I started thinking about writing about the war. They were just so proud of their son and I remember being so upset with these people, who had forced me to make the choice between religion and the military, and who were now so proud of the fact that they had a son who had been in combat.
JOV. How does this gap between media representation and public support play out in your poems?
SBT. That’s what the first section of my book, Mormon Boy, is specifically addressing. In the first poem, “The Road to Baghdad,” I ask, “Is less a road than a floral/ collection of spongy and soft/ bodies, a gathering of a myriad/colors of nations – burnt umber,/puce, kiln red, olive drab, hot steel…” I wrote that poem in 2003 in response to our next invasion into Iraq. To me, it was obviously just an effort to cement our control of Middle East oil. And I feel like I am speaking from experience—in 1991, a couple of days into the conflict, as the 82nd Airborne, the 101st, the French, and the British turned north to take Baghdad, we were suddenly rerouted. We were given no explanation. We were just told to head northeast to the oilfields. Apparently, on our way there, Saddam had started burning the oil fields and so our new orders were to drop our mission and to go secure them and prepare for fire fighters to come and put them out. It was at that moment, which was confirmed by what I learned when I returned to the states, that I realized that whatever I had believed about what we were doing wasn’t true anymore. We weren’t there to free these people from a dictator, or save Kuwait from a warring neighbor—we were there to secure our own interests in oil. We were still in a fight, so it wasn’t a conscious realization, but I know that we all felt like we had been robbed of something. I was partially relieved that it was unlikely that I would be storming homes in close combat in Baghdad, but I also know that many of my platoon-mates were upset they wouldn’t be getting a chance to test themselves in the crucible of combat. So. “The Road to Baghdad.” in some ways, didn’t really exist. But so much of it did, and I think the first section of the book is devoted to that dissonance.
When we invaded Iraq a second time, the thing that struck me, and the reason that I started writing and resurrecting all the poems, was that a lot of my memories had started to fade and my own mythology had maybe started to color them a bit. I was, and am, still coming to grips with the things that I had seen and done, and the worst part of my experiences seem similar to what Tim O’Brien talks about in The Things They Carried, when he wrote that his worst day in combat was the bagging of bodies after a firefight. And that was by far my worst experience as well.
JOV. What kind of influence has Tim O’Brien, a prose writer, had in your work as a poet?
SBT. In The Things They Carried, he does all the great things that great fiction writers are able to do. I still don’t know how that book didn’t win the Pulitzer. Anyway, in his story, “How to Tell a True War Story” he examines what it is to be a returned combat vet, while also investigating his need to be a writer who has some responsibility to write about his experiences. O’Brien’s greatest skill is his ability to use beautiful, almost lyrical, language even when writing about the traumatic and violence of combat. In some ways, he taught me that the beauty of language can survive and rise above the ugliness of war. I am just sad that it took me so long discover his writing, and others like Robert Olen Butler and Thom Jones and Yusef Komunyakaa—I didn’t realize there were so many “war writers” out there, and I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t start reading them until grad school. I try to remind myself that as a teacher, it is my job to give them the material in class that will help them grow as academics, but also to give them access to the material out of class that will help them grow in to artists, if they want to. Tim O’Brien, et al, freed me up from the academy a bit, allowed me to write what I felt like I needed to write—and that, I think, was what I was trying to do in “The Road to Baghdad”—to describe something in beautiful ways that was just so ugly and awful. I just wish I would have had the examples of their words earlier in my life. The lesson here for teachers is that we should recommend the great books to our students—even if it is outside of the scope of the current class. One never knows which book will change a trajectory of a life!
JOV. What are some of the ways that poetry of combat differs from fiction or memoir of the experience?
SBT. In poetry you are given this freedom to use language in new and surprising ways. Essentially, the poet is truly expected to create new languages, new ways of expressing ideas, play with disparate images, etc. With fiction, however, you kind of have to draw comparisons, make connections, and also write eloquently and beautifully, but not then derail the actual trajectory of story by over-doing it. So, you can use metaphor and you can use symbolism in fiction, but you can’t do it so much that you conflate or deflate the plot. I keep the following simple (but useful (for me)) definition of the two genres in mind when I write: fiction must give the reader a problem of some sort that must be solved. Poetry, on the other hand, often is more concerned with giving us new tools and approaches to understanding the problem. Unlike fiction, poetry doesn’t necessarily concern itself with solving the problem that it establishes, and poets don’t have to concern themselves with explaining what happened. In poetry, there’s a story that gets told in the use of the language, the use of the imagery, the use of the figurative. Generally, I know which genre I am working on simply by the breadth of the problem, the need for answers.
That said, I do think that most of the truly great poetry out there should endeavor to create conflict or problem, whether it is spiritual, metaphysical, personal, physical, psychological, etc., yet often doesn’t do it. It is why I tend to distrust much of the poetry being churned out right now—where is the heart or soul of it, if the poet doesn’t care about whether the reader has some stake in the work? And that’s the thing—establishing a conflict or problem is at the heart of creation and artistry. Otherwise, what’s the point?
JOV. O’Brien also says that a true war story must contain elements that aren’t exactly true. How has that idea affected your writing?
SBT. I think that as writers, we are always trying to give our reader the dope on the action, but as sensitive people, we are often trying to distance ourselves from the emotional pain of that action. Brian Turner is a master when it comes to managing this contradiction. In his poetry collection, Here Bullet, he creates an experience that brings the reader in close to the dreadful nature of combat and violence, then essentially delays the pathos of experience, all while slowly letting the rope out so we can understand what is happening beyond and behind the violence. There’s something bigger and better behind his truth. I always tell my students in my fiction-writing workshops that there are some necessary truths in writing that you have to tell that aren’t true. O’Brien wrote, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” If you grew up in a house that had a white picket fence, with a perfectly manicured yard with flowers and a little angel statue spitting water into a fountain, but you were really trying to describe how you were physically abused, then you wouldn’t probably want to be too “honest” in the description of your “real” home. That may not be a great answer, but I think when I started really writing about combat, it was when I got really tired of talking honestly about it. I had so many writer friends telling me I should be spelunking this wealth of material, but for some reason I was always pushing back against what I felt was true. I think I was tired of giving honest answers to stupid questions—I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I’ve killed anyone before. Most people seem disappointed if I say ‘no,’ but are equally disappointed if I say ‘yes.’ I doubt most people would ask the same question of someone who has any other violent or traumatic experiences—if I say I was in a car accident, I don’t think the follow-up question would be, “did you kill anyone?” Most of the time, I don’t think the person asking the question even understands how thoughtless and selfish they are being by asking it.
Anyway, so when I say in my poem, “Falling in Love During Wartime,” that combat is “a fiction of lights and noises,” I mean that I had to start downplaying my experiences in order to write about them in a way that would translate into poetry. Ultimately, the truth is that I really did want another life. I wanted my life to be more than the truth of my combat experience. And I think that most deep-thinking soldiers feel the same. You give so much to the service – it’s not about the blood, sweat, and tears either. It’s the fact that the best physical years of our lives are given to the military. I was eighteen when I joined, twenty-two or so when I was discharged. Back in the states, my friends, those deserving or less deserving, were living it up while I slept in a dirt hole. I think things were pretty good in America in the early nineties for most of the kids of my generation, but I was digging a hole to sleep in. And I still think I am lucky! Because I literally found poetry and literature while living in a dirt hole from day to day. So I don’t know. That’s a hard one to answer. What is truth in poetry? What is truth in fiction? What is truth in memoir, or photography, or music, for that matter? I think there’s always some level of fiction, real or imagined, whether I am just trying to play out the narrative or not wanting to talk about certain things anymore. There’s truth in that too—I don’t want to write these stories or these poems anymore, but I find that I still need to, and there’s always this kind of ticking need in the background of everything I write.
JOV. In Guadalcanal veteran James Jones’ essay “Evolution of the Soldier,” he says that you can only evolve as a soldier when you realize that you are already dead. In “Dead Man,” you write “I am a dead man. Dead/ 18 years… ” and then “…I/ helped to hide many others in black/ body bags, but what did it matter/ if I was already dead?” How does this poem address Jones’ notion?
SBT. Generally the first thing you do when you get into a combat zone is write that obligatory letter to family and friends that most often begins, “If you are getting this, I have been killed.” And you make amends and you tell people about how you feel about them and you ask for forgiveness and you do all these things that we should all probably do when we are alive. A fortunate thing for soldiers, really. A person in a car accident would never have the opportunity to do this. But in the service, you have the opportunity to really think about your own death and what you would say to people before you get shot. And that takes something from you. This knowledge. Because the first step in confronting death is accepting that it is probably going to happen, and then it is simply the matter of worrying whether it will be ugly or pretty. Whether you are going to go out with a quick shot to the head or if you are going to go horribly and in agony. And that’s a terrible thing for an eighteen year old kid to think about, or have to think about. What I am about to say may appear thoughtless or disrespectful or mean, but I hope it isn’t—in my experience, the really terrific soldiers don’t think about the other side of the battle. They think that they need to win and that they are in the middle of becoming the next “best generation,” all those patriotic, nationalistic kinds of things. Often, this is the single thing that separates the great soldiers from the poor soldiers—not size, strength, bravery, etc. Listen, I’m not saying I wasn’t a good soldier—I like to think I was. But I also think I played the part pretty well. It was those guys who didn’t question anything who were the ones that could really get the job done, and with prejudice.
JOV. But you returned. How did you make the evolution into civilian life?
SBT. The simple answer is that most people don’t make that transition very easily. With the training you get in the military, you’re in the business of killing to defend your country. It’s hard to explain to civilians, but you turn into a thirty-year-old man the day you sign up for the military. Basically, all the weight and requirements and responsibilities, and all the expectations, are what a thirty-year old would be better equipped to handle. And you go for a two to five-year tour and then you are just set free. We do the same with prisoners, and the results aren’t great. And it was hard. I think this is the message in my poem “Whirligig.” It’s the feeling that you just don’t fit in, and nobody is going to understand you because you haven’t developed morally or socially since you were eighteen years old. So now you’re twenty-two or twenty-three, but you haven’t developed socially past eighteen when you finally go into that first first freshman class, and it truly feels like the psychological equivalent of arrested development. But the difference is, now you’re in the real world, and your knowledge of how to handle stress in combat is hyper-developed, and you have seen and done things that are beyond what you can understand as a teenager. Basically, you are returned to the world an oddity and an outsider. When our soldiers return to the world, they are also physically older than the other students or civilian counterparts. I took some things way more seriously, and others way less seriously than other members of my peer group. I was so happy to be alive! It turned me into a book nerd and I read anything on a college class’ supplemental reading material list, and I worked nearly full-time at the Olive Garden, and I played on San Francisco State’s varsity basketball team, and and and… I was filling every moment of my life because I felt like I still owed the world my best effort because I was spared when some were not. It wasn’t healthy, I realize now, but I hear the same refrain from the soldiers I teach at the university. It’s a common mantra from soldiers who are coming back and trying to get their shit together. They feel like it is ok that they’re back and they’re alive, but there’s a lot of guilt associated with being ok. Personally, I try to control the compulsion—it simply puts too much pressure on me to feel like I “owe” so much to so many.
JOV. The VA has only recently provided help for vets suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. Before it wasn’t recognized as a real illness caused by this conflict. Were you or your comrades affected?
SBT. Soldiers don’t talk about their ailments very often. All I can say about Gulf Syndrome is that we were exposed to a tremendous amount of toxic substances and environments. Probably 50% of ground troops were sitting in air so thick with oil that it would collect on your skin even thought you couldn’t see the oil falling. We didn’t know much about what was happening to us then, and not much more has been released that we could understand without a degree in Biochemistry. What are the chemicals used in oil drilling and what happens with fires? And what happens when you go into these cities and there are all these biological and chemical warfare plants? In some cases, they just blew them up. I don’t know, for instance, if the numbness and tingling upon my return was just my metabolism, maybe the slow process of getting those toxins out of my system, or if I was sick. It does exist. But I don’t know if the thyroidectomy or certain other afflictions are from the gulf or from my own genetic makeup. I suspect that we don’t know more because most soldiers, like myself, do not try to go get help. It could be that we would know more if those who are suffering from the syndrome actually went in to get help with the disabilities. But that’s common in general with soldiers, I think. I tore up my back pretty bad in a parachuting accident in 1991 and fractured a couple of vertebrae and, because I was young, kept driving on regardless of the pain. But years after that, I started having really bad problems with my back. I knew where it came from, and I knew how it got started, but I had no idea how to get help, and didn’t know if was even appropriate to seek help. We are trained to ignore physical pain in the military, and those who seek treatment are often seen as weak, and this carries into life as a civilian. I still feel bad when I go to the doctor, and still feel guilty if it isn’t a big deal. The problem with that logic is that soldiers don’t complain and they don’t go to the doctor because you get seen as someone who can’t hack it. For instance, while in the 82nd, if you go on sick call (and miss morning PT) but don’t have a prescription of some sort when you get back to a unit, the leadership is going to go off on you and put you on extra work detail.
JOV. You were affected physically and mentally, but you have also done so well. Was there anything specific that helped you cope? What about the returning soldiers who can’t cope at all?
SBT. I’ve thought a lot about this. My second collection, “We Deserve the Gods We Ask For,” due out this year from Gival Press, contains poems written in persona to answer this question. I decided that I was done writing poems about my boring (to me) experiences in the military, but that I could still write poems that might mean something to veterans and poets alike. I started doing research into combat vets who return to commit violence on themselves or on others, and then used that as the springboard for a new poem. One of the first poems in the series has to do with Brad Lynch, a soldier from Colorado came back from his first tour in Iraq and without any sort of explanation killed his wife and two girls by shooting them in the head. These stories I was finding scrape the inexplicable. You can’t really say, well PTSD caused that, or whatever. I think they all come back with a little PTSD. Personally, I suffered from guilt, but I was lucky in that I didn’t have any of my friends blown up in front of me. For a couple months after coming back I jumped when I heard a car backfire. But today guys come back and they’ve done like thirteen tours. Can anyone even imagine that? Ten YEARS in combat. So everyday sounds carry so much more weight for someone like that. Fortunately, I had a great support group of friends and family who let me talk about it when I wanted to. And they never asked if I killed anybody! I had people who were good citizens for me, who were good mentors for my writing and for the way I learned to think about my time in the military. And, this may seem beside the point, but I came from poverty, but it was farm poverty. I didn’t come from gangland poverty. I came from Wyoming and I didn’t sit on a street corner and wonder how I was going to get a job or anything like that. I could return, get a job, move on with my life. But that’s the thing about PTSD. It’s that every case is different. There’s no Twelve Step Program for any of these guys. You hope they can get through it, but they are ALL our responsibility, because we sent them there. Whether you supported the war or not, we birthed these men and women, and they deserve every bit of support we can give them once they return—and not that bullshit lip-service support I would say 80% of the citizens of this country give. The decals on cars make me crazy. They need REAL support. Give them a job. Send them care packages with a real letter enclosed. Take them in, talk to them, and then don’t brag to your friends about how great it is that you are helping them. Anyway. Obviously I have some strong opinions about what we don’t do for our vets, but my now work is devoted more to veterans and the criminal violence that occurs after their return. I’d like to think I will run out of material, but we don’t even have all of our soldiers home so I think it’s just going to get worse.
JOV. Is there something specific about the current wars that changes the way that PTSD manifests itself in vets?
SBT. I am going to show my politics a bit here, and I will say that’s what I hated about the last Bush. He was one of the worst public figures when it came down to only paying lip service to the soldiers. He cut VA benefits seven out of eight years (and so did congress) even while we were engaged in two wars. And I think the veteran suicide problem is one of the greatest shames to our country. It should be an embarrassment to all of us that our soldiers feel so isolated and alone when they come home that they take their own lives. And war is shameful, when it comes down to it—we’re two thousand years past Christ and we still engage in stupid, ugly, pointless, and shameful wars. I find the fact that we are still fighting wars astounding. We can put a fully-functional computer that can locate any good restaurant on the planet into a phone, yet we still go off half-cocked when someone messes with the dinosaur excrement that we use to run our cars. Speaking of which—that’s embarrassing too—we still burn things for energy, just like we did ten thousand years ago. But I digress. All that, and then we don’t take care of the kids we sent into harms’ way. I don’t think it is that difficult—everybody can take care of our soldiers in some way. Little things. For example, ask questions that don’t demand drama. Talk to them about their hopes and dreams—not about the combat unless they want to. Also, soldiers still have shortages of care packages sent to them. Soldiers get so excited about care packages, it’s almost tender. I’ve never heard of one soldier in the world complaining about getting too many gifts from strangers, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if they did?
JOV. When you write in your poem, “The Cold Logic of Farm Animals” under the section title, “Six Artifacts of Scholarship,” it seems, as you say, a disconnect exists between what people want to hear and what you are telling them. Are there other things that people don’t want to hear?
SBT. The one thing I find interesting when I’m teaching any sort of war story or poem (I teach a class called “The Literature of War”), even going back to the Spanish-American War, even to the Odyssey, you always learn something about the boredom. Soldiers from WWI or WWII also experienced these long periods of boredom and I wonder if this boredom helped them to perform those incredible acts of bravery? Did these acts of heroism happen because they were so bored for so long that they became reckless? But no one wants to hear about the boredom. That would be a task, right—write the next great war novel, but focus on the boredom and inaction? I also think some people would be surprised that most soldiers writing about their experiences have a hard time dealing with their experience directly. Tim O’Brien even had to use the fictional representation of Rat Kiley as a narrator in substitute for himself at one point. There are some things about the experience you can’t touch. And most are afraid people will really not be interested in the “action between” the war. When I was writing, I kept asking myself if this was something I could even put in a poetry book that people would read? When I first started putting Mormon Boy together as an actual collection, I had hardly seen anyone write poetry directly about recent combat, until I stumbled upon Turner (who, by the way, is one of the few war writers who actually wrote his book in combat—most of the time, it takes decades to learn to negotiate with the experience and the actual writing).
JOV. What else were you afraid of in putting the collection together?
SBT. You know, I’ve never talked to Tim O’Brien or anything, but I think for combat writers, we struggle with authenticity and with the fear of melodrama. O’Brien wrote “that a true story makes the stomach believe,” and I always struggle with that intersection of truth and fiction—how do I re-tell something that I have obvious stake in, but make the reader also have an equal stake in the story? How do you make it not just some story about some guy who had a tough time? How can I make the reader understand the desperate and integral importance of that “red wheelbarrow, next to the white chickens,” as William Carlos Williams did, yet still maintain my stake in the work as well? And that was one of my greatest fears as I was putting the collection together and writing these poems. What if this is seen as melodramatic or dishonest? The other thing is that I feel like I owe my comrades the same sort of attention to detail in this collection. I owe them my best effort, and for me, more than anything, when you’re taking on a subject as fraught with drama as combat and war, there is always this fear. Will this come off as some bland or generic melodrama or will this come off as something that rises above all that? I believe that there simply has to be something greater at stake for the reader. I write with the hope that the poem will end up not being just mine, but will become a poem that belongs to everyone – us – and finally a poem that can also belong to the reader even though it is presenting a world and situation that is foreign to them. I still look at this book and I’m glad it’s out there in the world, but I’m also stunned that anyone would publish it, that there are people out there who are really reading war poetry. I don’t know—I suspect that even if they aren’t out there, I will probably have to keep writing it all down, my stories and the stories of those who have lost their voices to tell it.