Tearing Pages: War in Prose at the New Yorker Festival

While some would argue that the coveted ticket for this year’s festival is David Remnick’s conversation with Jonathan Franzen Saturday morning, an opening night panel on writing and War with Tim O’Brien, ZZ Packer and Chang-rae Lee – authors of fiction who have dealt with the topic of war in unique ways – commands attention.

Most familiar in this crowd is O’Brien whose novels – almost too many to count – have been praised for their clarity of research, economy of words and, in some of his collection – the rending detail of the characters bred and bled in wartime.

As a drafted combat troop in Vietnam, O’Brien’s experience on the battlefield informs his manner of reportage and shapes his gripping storytelling. By luring the reader into his dutifully modeled world, O’Brien replicates the experience that drew him to writing in the first place.

It was watching his father, backlit by the sunset, sitting with a transported look on his face as he thumbed the pages of a novel that drew O’Brien to fiction.

“I wished I was the book,” said O’Brien, somewhat wistfully. Constructing prose that would “make [his stories] feel real,” he said. Fiction became a mission, of sorts, but not without its limitations.

Fiction is, in its most realistic, the recounting of the world through the eyes, ears, and words of the author. But, while O’Brien says that writers like him, “take the world [they] live in and run it through their typewriter,” only to come out “kind of like the real world.” For O’Brien, this flexibility and subjectivity becomes a mode through which larger questions can be tackled.

“You don’t find truth” through fiction, said O’Brien, “you surround it.”

Surrounding truth, however, is not a simple task.

ZZ Packer, now in year eight or nine of her novel on Buffalo Soldiers (African Americans who fought on the side of the Union Army in the Civil War) has oscillated between intense research and giving herself the space to write, creatively – honestly – about the topic.

“You’re asking to tell someone else’s story,” Packer said. “At some point you feel like a vessel instead of a stenographer.”

This space to write is so critical for the development of good fiction, concluded the panel, and that there are specific times when the author needs to feels the material, gain confidence from their hours, days, months of research, and finally write from a position of security — fleeting as this security might be. Constantly in tension are questions of truth and authenticity and an honest acceptance that the telling of stories can obscure as much as it can unearth the truths sought.

For instance, action and entertainment that result through the characters in a story can be a “malignant force,” according to Packer. This force has the potential to overwhelm character, to cheapen authenticity for ‘cheap thrills.’

For ZZ Packer, the mention of action or excitement in her ongoing work – revealed in short sections for the New Yorker and Granta – are enough to make her cringe. While she never clarified the clear cause of the unease, one could assert from her previous literary work that she may find something authentic about the mundane.

The individuating characteristics lend originality – and gravity – to the prose produced and places the author in a position unique in both time and space.

Thus it was Chiang-Lee heritage as a Korean-born American with a father affected by the Korean War that sparked an interest in tackling dominant tropes of identity and belonging – flavored further by experience. Probing the topic of war for insight, and with care, is something that is so often attempted but indelicately done.

“There are two dominant stories today,” said Lee. “There are war stories and there are after-war stories.” Both of them, it seems, stand as tacit endorsement of conflict itself.

However, he continued, when you are presented with such evidence of life, love and loss, “reality is overwhelming.” Fiction, confirming the claims of O’Brien and Packer, allows the author to tell a story that – strictly speaking – is “not my story and never was,” said Lee. There is something, however, that suggests it is a story worth telling.

In the end, stories that move, challenge, and persist are still just collections of singular “moments of human possibility,” as Lee calls it. Fiction, after all, may be the knitting together of everyday observations and experience, but at its most essential it deftly stitches finite parts into a meaningful whole.

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War from the Front Row

In a world awash with images, even the most powerful can fail to draw attention. Even if that image is iconic, even if that image means or meant something more than pixels, more than a mere captured frame and a simple moment snapped in time.

No, an image that can be replaced may not be memorable, and it will neither raise the ire of society, nor silence the drone of apathy that threatens to lay waste to the emotions that photographs were once thought to retain.

But what about a string of images, knit together in time, captured in high definition from the middle of herculean feats of resilience (on both sides) in a bloody war with no end in sight and no peace in hand?

It is the power of the moving image – saved for our, and future, generation’s eyes on the memory cards of a Danfung Dennis’s Canon 5D – on display in Dennis’s Hell and Back Again.

This documentary, similar in theme to the Oscar-nominated Restrepo, places the viewer in the way of bullets, palpably close to anxious armed forces, and deep within enemy territory in a documentary merited – rightly – for its portrayal of life, focusing on one US Marine, Nathan Harris, in and out of the war in Afghanistan.

Hell and Back Again accomplishes two important tasks. First, it casts off the protective lens often fastened between subject matter and viewer – particularly the bulletproof layer that separates the public from the sharp edges of war. Second, it demonstrates the human costs – not merely in lost limbs or lives (though it shows those, too) – that come with the soldier’s culture of conditioning; a conditioning which makes life without the threat of sudden death unbearably complex – where trips to collect groceries or ordering fast food can inspire fury without reservation.

No, Hell and Back Again won’t solve America’s war problem. That problem is as much political as it is strategic, and ideology is not part of this film, according to Danfung Dennis. Instead, Hell and Back Again contributes to a truth project destined to preserve for past, present and future veterans a document of battle, sacrifice and experience.

In Afghanistan in particular, where the war has drained the blood of too many groups, and where the effects – in final body count, wounded and long-term mental illness – won’t fully be appreciated for years to come, the fact that this project shows the stark realities of war makes it even more powerful.

“Taking the death and the injury out of war, is to take that emotional part out of the conversation.” said Ashley Gilbertson, an award winning photojournalist, about the policies that limit today’s war photojournalists.

Without historical documents to capture war as it is, Gilbertson, who was embedded with the marines in Iraq, believes that today’s veterans will feel robbed in 10 to 15 years.

“What they experienced in war, what they complained about experiencing at war, and what is so hard for them to manage,” he said, is that the public at home “can’t understand. It’s because we can never see how bad it actually gets.”

Yet, the rawness of experience, so wickedly conveyed through the short lens of the DSLR, shows us the depth of war, the reach of its trauma, and the human reaction to coping – and helping someone cope – with the damage war exerts on its subjects. This elevates Hell and Back Again to a plane far higher and more honest than projects of similar type.

It also captures an important universal truth.

“The act of combat is something which takes place between two defined moments,” said Gilbertson, “but war lives with families for generations.”

Thus, it is hard not to be shocked by the artistic beauty and careful attention to the crafts of photography and cinematography on display in Hell and Back Again. Yet it is the film’s careful translation of war’s lived experience that will leave most viewers wide-eyed.

Watch it:

A Night Talking Terrorists

Eric Schmitt’s signature graces the inside cover of Counterstrike, a 2011 publication with New York Times colleague Thom Shanker.

“We need to be lucky and good everyday,” said Thom Shanker, a reporter for the New York Times. Even though the United States hasn’t had a terrorist attack in 10 years, doesn’t mean we’ll be safe forever.

Mr. Shanker and co-author Eric Schmitt, also from the New York Times’ Washington bureau, discussed their book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Midtown Manhattan on Monday September 12, 2011 – one day removed from the 10th anniversary memorial ceremony of the Sept. 11 attack.

The book traces the development of United States policy in the fight against terrorism, taking the reader from the first confused moments of that Tuesday morning, to the orchestrated strike against Osama bin Laden’s fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan which took the Al Qaeda leader’s life.

While the book contains insider notes on the workings and workers of the American intelligence and security community, it also paints a stark picture of U.S. preparedness on September 11.

“There were people in the Pentagon who were asking ‘al Who’?” said Mr. Shanker, who was shocked that state officials were unaware of  Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the 9-11 attack. This fact is made worse given that Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker also discussed the propensity for President George Bush’s “capture of kill” anti-terrorism strategy to feed Al Qaeda recruiting networks, citing concerns expressed by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the US approach was increasing, not reducing, the ranks in terrorist organizations.

In response, the authors argued that a new deterrence strategy took form in 2003-2004 which focused on attacking what terrorists hold dear – issues of reputation, financial restitution and the security of terrorist networks.

To deter terrorists Shanker and Schmitt said that the new strategy demanded spreading responsibility across the government more broadly, while simultaneously stressing inter-operabililty between intelligence (and I.T.) frameworks, transparency amongst government branches and cooperation between sectors of the national security apparatus – most noticeably the CIA and the FBI.

The night’s more animated conversation and debate surrounded warrantless wire-tapping which prompted questions on liberty and security. However, this line of questioning led the Timesmen to recite persuasive evasions, instead of measured answers.

However, Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker did highlight technology as both a progenitor and salve of modern terrorism.

“The Internet is the ultimate safe haven for terrorism,” said Mr. Schmitt, as websites or forums provide the space for extremists to indoctrinate others, while the Internet’s online gaming communities, replete with its anonymous and atomized user experience,  are penetrated by terrorists transmitting coded information without detection.

The Internet also provides an opportunity for law enforcement to lay in wait for extremists to expose themselves, leading to identification and potential capture.

In writing this book, Mr. Shanker and Mr. Schmitt said they intended bring the challenges of anti-terrorism policy and practice into relief. It isn’t easy to quell the fires of extremism, but Mr. Schmitt admits that it is possible over time.

One method is attacking the narrative used by terrorist organizations.

As terrorism derives its strength from others sympathetic to their cause, this support is a function of controlling the narrative, (i.e. the way actors’ roles are understood in the world),

“The United States struggles with the ‘say-do’ gap,” said Mr. Shanker. By this, Mr. Shanker means that regardless of national security concerns which necessitate the presence of American troops abroad, their deployment – almost exclusively – in regions like Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Libya makes them vulnerable to Al Qaeda’s argument: the West has waged war against Islam.

“The American narrative is hard to defend,” said Mr. Shanker.

Finally, as the discussion opened up to audience questions, Mr. Shanker’s expertise on the Washingston/Pentagon beat was put to use in the discussion of new Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta.

Mr. Shanker reminded the audience that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was selected to deal with Iraq, and stayed on to handle Afghanistan. Mr. Panetta, however, will have to wage war with the budget, said Mr. Shanker.

As economic trends have the potential to erode U.S. capacity fight terrorism, the question becomes, “how much security do you want to pay for?” said Mr. Shanker

In the night’s final response, the Times’ reporters took delicate jabs at the state of  U.S. politics.

“Washington can’t take two big ideas at the same time,” said Mr. Schmitt.

Unfortunately, and as Counterstrike demonstrates, the ‘big ideas’ do not have simple solutions. Particularly when national security is the subject of debate.