Books
4:26 pm
Mon September 24, 2007

Operation Homecoming

It was the intention of the editorial board and the NEA that this volume be neither for nor against the Afghanistan/Iraq wars. And it succeeds. But I can't see how anyone could read these heartbreaking accounts without becoming determined that no war should be begun without absolutely good, unimpeachably good, in fact nearly perfect justification.

Operation Homecoming

If you read only one book about America at war since 9/11, let it be this one.

"Operation Homecoming" began as an idea to get a conversation going between the troops and their families and the American public, most of which is nearly unaffected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This led to a series of writing workshops, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and conducted by "a group of distinguished American writers." In the workshops, fifty in all, on twenty-five military bases in five countries, participants "were encouraged to write in any form?fiction, poetry, drama, memoir, journal, or letters." This writing would be done during the war, not afterwards. Immediacy was wanted, not historical objectivity, the opposite of Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility." Many of these pieces were written at the front lines, practically under fire. The power, the unmediated authenticity, of this writing is nearly unbearable. This is no "official" account of anything; this is real.

When service men and women and families were approached, the response was huge: two thousand manuscripts were submitted, a total of more than ten thousand pages. Five percent, about one hundred pieces, were finally chosen and edited.

The volume is divided into sections, chronologically. "And Now It Begins," the first section, contains accounts of where the writers were on 9/11 and why they signed up. There are pieces on the earliest days of combat in Afghanistan. In "Distant Thunder," Sgt. Denis Prior of Mobile describes moving into Iraq from Kuwait during a sandstorm.

The second section, "Hearts and Minds," concerns interactions between Americans and indigenous populations and yes, a lot of good Americans are doing a lot to help Afghans and Iraqis in terms of health care and schools. The American service person is a caring, generous soul. When the innocent are killed as collateral damage, the remorse is not just political; it is personal.

"Stuck in This Sandbox" is a section on daily life in the combat zone?the discomforts, the attempts at amusement, the long bull sessions. In "The Circle," Sgt. Sharon Allen writes that of course the troops sit around and debate the war. Some are Democrats, some Republicans. Some enlisted after 9/11, some were career. Weapons of mass destruction did or did not exist. The war is for oil, the war is for democracy. In short, she writes, "[we] were not brainwashed, and we have differing opinions. And we realize that there wasn't only one reason for starting this war. . . . Because I honestly believe if there had been, in one of our endless discussions in the circle, we would have found it."

At about this point in the volume it occurred to me that the entries all seemed to end with "Sgt. Smith returned safely, went to college and became a social worker," or some such thing. Was this a whitewash? I needn't have worried. The final three sections, "Worlds Apart," "This Is Not a Game," and "Home" were radically different and nearly unbearable.

The hardships endured by parents, spouses, and children coping with poverty, loneliness, and fear are cruel. The stories of actual woundings, surgeries, rehab, prostheses, plus alienation from a country that has not shared the terror are painful to read. I literally choked up repeatedly. This book will make the reader prouder than he ever imagined he could be of the mostly young men and women in the service. Their courage and their character are miraculous.

It was the intention of the editorial board and the NEA that this volume be neither for nor against the Afghanistan/Iraq wars. And it succeeds. But I can't see how anyone could read these heartbreaking accounts without becoming determined that no war should be begun without absolutely good, unimpeachably good, in fact nearly perfect justification.

Tags: 

Related Program