Courting Demons: Jen Percy's Quest to Understand War and Exorcism

Jen Percy's non-fiction account of the way war affected a particular American veteran, begins this way: "Sergeant Caleb Daniels wanted to save all the veterans from killing themselves."
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On March 19, 2003, at exactly 9.34 EST (5.34 a.m. on March 20th, in Baghdad time), George W. Bush launched his invasion of Iraq without a declaration of war. The war came to be known by many names, "Operation Iraqi Liberation," "Operation Iraqi Freedom," "Operation Telic" (UK), and "Operation Falconer" (Australian), but not the one it deserved: Operation Arrogant Idiocy. The United States government liked to claim that it lead "a coalition of forty nations" into war, but most of those nations were bit players, considered insignificant on the world stage, whose troop contribution ranged from the laughable (2 from Iceland, 24 from Moldova, and 29 from Kazakhstan for instance), to the negligible (120 from Lithuania and 250 from Azerbaijan), when compared to the 165,000 Americans sent in to kill and die on a pretext. 4,347 American soldiers would perish after the infamous "mission accomplished" banner was strung behind America's dunce president. The death toll among Iraqis and, before and after -- during America's other goodwill mission, "Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan -- of Afghans, we may never know. Further, there are other ways for soldiers to die; experts argue that the number of suicides among veterans is far higher than the official figure (22 per/day) released by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Demon Camp (Scribner, 2014), Jen Percy's non-fiction account of the way war affected a particular American veteran, begins this way: "Sergeant Caleb Daniels wanted to save all the veterans from killing themselves." In June, 2005, Daniels escaped death through a simple twist of fate: his orders changed at the last minute. He stayed on the ground, while his sixteen fellow Special Ops soldiers returned to earth in flames when their Chinook crashed in a remote part of Afghanistan. In many ways, though, Daniels swallowed that fire, which burns through his soul and leads him to believe that the PTSD from which he suffers is, in truth, possession by a monstrous figure. Percy, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, has been praised for the way she immerses herself in her research, a tactic that Lea Carpenter, writing for the New York Times Book Review calls, "participatory journalism, in extremis." Indeed, the story she writes is both observation and memoir.

RF: In a recent article in the NYT, Phil Klay wrote about "a failure of the imagination," on the part of those who have not been in active service, when they choose to fall back on the statement that they cannot imagine what it must have been like for those who have. Was that attempt, to imagine yourself into combat and its aftermath, what led you to pursue this story for your first book?

JP: Yes, I wanted specifically to empathize with the homecoming experience of soldiers who had made it back but found the world uninhabitable. These were the ones taking their own lives. How does this feel? We think war has authority over our imagination and so we make grand efforts to gain back that authority -- the narratives we build to condone or simplify acts of violence. To imagine a world that's not your own, especially something difficult, means giving up these narratives. In doing so, you give up parts of yourself, and you might encounter new truths you didn't want to find. We are uncomfortable with the fact that war is both repulsive and compelling -- but that grey area is revealing. I would also argue that it's a refusal of the unconscious. Our biology also wants protection from the reality of our common misdeeds. For example, the people I wrote about are so traumatized that they can hardly imagine (or re-imagine) the experience themselves. And, of course, this is why they've found an alternative narrative to make sense of pain.

RF: You met Caleb Daniels, the main character in this work, in 2008, when he had transformed from being a soldier trained and off at war to being a civilian un-trained at coming home, and you were an MFA student at Iowa. How difficult was it to build a sense of trust in him that you would be able to tell a story that was true to his experience?

JP: With Caleb the trust was immediate because that's how he lives his life: by fate and intuition. He thought our lives intersected so that I could tell his story. But I'm not sure I've ever been faced with that question directly from a subject. Either they talk to you or they don't. Caleb's idea of himself is different than the way others perceive him. Which is true of all of us. But, for example, he told me he thought he was like Achilles from the Iliad taking revenge for the death of Patroclus (who we can understand as his best friend Kip Jacoby). But Caleb didn't say the Iliad or Achilles, he said the movie Troy and the actor Brad Pitt that plays Achilles. So in many ways, there was his narrative of himself and there were my observations of him making sense of himself, and then there were my interpretations of these narratives. I think those layers need to be there for the reader. The "I" is always in the way, but we need to step back and let subjects do the talking as well. The tension between these layers is interesting. They are like the tectonic plates of nonfiction writing. When they collide, the earth cleaves, and something deeper is revealed.

RF: Your work is a blend of investigative and participatory journalism, and, whether you intended it to be or not, also a mix of observation and commentary as well as self-reflection and political statement. That's a heavy load to carry for someone whose experience of the war that is at the heart of Daniels' story was vicarious. Did you have any reservations about the inevitability of becoming a voice, the "Joan of Arc," as Daniels himself puts it, for veterans and anti-war advocates?

JP: I have no reservations but I don't think that it is an inevitability. Art and advocacy can work together but are different species. Also, I'm not the only advocate or voice, and it's the chorus of voices that will lead to the greatest change. If I'm precluded from being a voice because I'm a civilian, then so are all civilians. Most of us will never experience combat, or even atrocity, and so the vicarious experience is a valuable and necessary one. That doesn't mean it's parallel, but it's an attempt, and for many of us, that is the only opportunity there will ever be. The literature of war holds stake in our imagination because it gives us access to a world that we are not privileged to know, but more importantly, it does what all great literature does: it gives us ordinary characters just like ourselves making tough moral decisions about life, death, faith and love. It doesn't matter how extraordinary the experience, if you can tell it with humanity, the possibility for empathy and connection will rise.

RF: While we, as humans, often mourn the dead, we rarely mourn the living-dead. The idea that "at least your son/daughter is alive," and therefore, we feel, "fixable," is a constant in our imagination. The Black Thing of Daniels' dreams and reality can sometimes be portrayed as The Black Thing of our -- civilian, political -- refusal to address the long-term effects of war. Do you think that your work could help change America's hallucination of "sterile wars?" Given your own immersion in and understanding of the consequences of that neglect, do you feel a personal responsibility to help that cause?

JP: My job is not to be complicit. I would hope it could help change things by bringing people to awareness, which I think is a different job altogether than advocacy. Though I'm happy to do both. My daily experience while writing this book is of living in a world of people who figured homecoming was a cliche. I wanted to tell it in a new and unfamiliar way. I learned that much of the debate surrounding psychological trauma still revolves around the problem that many victims' experiences are altogether doubted as real. That's not a good place to begin a conversation: the inability to comprehend the reality of the war experience. I mention as much in my postscript -- the story of a Vietnam vet who was diagnosed with schizophrenia because no one believed his war stories. Only a woman named Sarah Haley believed the vet because her father had been to war and she had already been exposed to war stories. I think we are willing and ready to enact policies, but if our policies grow from reductive and inflexible interpretations of human experience, they will lead to simplistic diagnoses of problems. If trauma is not part of socially validated reality, then it will become unspeakable, and ignorable.

RF: In some ways, your engagement with the people of Afghanistan -- who are but a backdrop the story of American veterans -- is just beginning. While your book awaited pub date in January, you spent the days leading up to it in Afghanistan, interviewing Afghan commanders and a future female presidential candidate. What was it like to be there, physically, if not in the exact place where the things that haunt Daniels and others took place, but in the country of their nightmares and fears?

JP: I didn't see any of the war, at least, not in the way I expected to see it. I didn't embed and I didn't talk to U.S. troops and I didn't see any fighting. There might have been a few bombings, but I would read about them in the news. I was in Afghanistan but I was still reading about the war in Afghanistan. Mostly I was immersed in civilian life. Being exposed to civilians who wanted out of the country, or who were trying to go about living their daily lives in the midst of conflict. We've been trained to see the Middle East as a sickness. We see a Muslim at the airport and we think our plane is going to blow up. But it's really our sickness. The symptoms manifest themselves as fear and hatred. And then when I went to Afghanistan, really, I just felt embarrassed for all of us. I've never met such generous, good-humored people. It was a blessing. And so there was a leveling. I could see the world from their perspective; the fear of America in their eyes.

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