One of the unique things surrounding America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the extraordinary number of books written by servicemen and women.
Unlike in previous wars, the best telling of the soldiers' stories has come from the soldiers themselves, and not from traditional journalists. Many of these books add to our understanding of people at war, while a few are just macho battle stories.
Some seek to reach into a war's soul.
Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire is one from the latter category. Randy Brown, who blogs as "Charlie Sherpa," is a 20-year Army veteran and the author. FOB Haiku (a FOB is a Forward Operating Base in mil-speak), via a series of short poems, takes the reader from boot camp through Afghanistan, to homecoming.
While Brown's book-length work is the only one available now that demands we understand the Afghan War through poetry, the use of verse to express things often otherwise unsayable about war has a long history. From Homer's Iliad through Walt Whitman's plaintive descriptions of the American Civil War, the collision of something beautiful with something terrible has been an important part of war literature.
Brown's writing is a worthy addition. For example, saying grace over a prepackaged meal (MRE), Brown is funny, but with an edge:
Forgive us our trespasses, for we have trespassed a lot today -- kinda goes with the territory, and the job. And deliver us from evil, particularly that which we have done unto others. See also: "trespasses," above.
Warning a new trooper too anxious to get into the fight:
War is often more boring than not. Then, it is scalding. Do not covet action.
Brown wistfully recalls his days as a National Guardsman, when training was laughed off as "summer camp." Headed to Afghanistan post-military retirement as a reporter, Brown has to buy his own body armor online, noting it is part of a land of no refunds and no returns, as true for Afghanistan as it is for Internet commerce. He remembers his grandfather's musket over the fireplace mantle as a proud symbol, and wonders if he could do the same with that armor. Should he make it home, of course.
A Vietnamese cab driver enroute to the airport asks too many questions about Afghanistan, leaving a hole in Brown, the irony -- a Vietnamese asking about another American war -- noted. In that same airport, Brown observes well-traveled suits confuse boots with heroes and buy us sandwiches, knowing they do not understand the shallowness of such a gesture, Brown bitter and generous in forgiving at the same time.
Speaking of other wars, or perhaps of all wars, Brown reaches for more epic tones:
Let all diffuse, dissolve and disappear in time. Because we are not dust, but water - moving in spaces between nations. We are not ashes, but waves.
But the strongest writing here is in the final section, Homecoming. Brown remembers the blessed smell of earth at his farm, experiences shock at the fried-food excesses of a county fair, and expresses a soldier's sense of wonder reuniting with his family. He is frustrated with the difficulty of re-establishing relationships with his children, begging a too-young daughter to cling to a turn looking at the night sky with him, finally saying to her:
Wars and presidents will come and go. So, too, will parents and children and other first loves. All will be eclipsed in memory, leaving you. Remember this.
We are the stories we tell ourselves, Brown writes near the end of Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. These poems are the stories he brought home to tell us.