‘Youngblood’ With Matt Gallagher
Incoming / May 1, 2020
We meet author and Army Veteran Matt Gallagher to talk about his novel "Youngblood" as well as his experience live-blogging the Iraq war while he fought it.
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So. Say. We. All.
From KPBS and So Say We All in San Diego, welcome to Incoming, the series that brings you true stories from the lives of veterans, told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. I’m your host, Justin Hudnall. Our guest this episode, Matt Gallagher, first made a name for himself way back in 2008, when he was an officer in the Army, deployed to Iraq. While serving downrange, Gallagher ran a very popular blog titled Kaboom: A Soldier’s War Journal. Service members were not only allowed to blog during deployment back then, but encouraged, as long as they followed proper protocol, and didn’t run afoul of their commander’s benevolence. And Matt’s blog was one of the biggest ones out there. Here was a high brow English major, commanding a Stryker unit known as the Gravediggers, and waxing philosophical about it online, making references to pop culture and the Greek classics in the very same paragraph. And then one day, it was shut down. You’ll hear all about why after this.
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Welcome back to Incoming and our guest today, author and Army veteran Matt Gallagher, who first gained national notoriety for live covering the Iraq war while he was fighting in it, through his blog Kaboom. Until it was abruptly shut down by his superiors. In his words, it was because of quote “Rash posting on his part, and decisions made above his paygrade. The Army said it was because his last post, titled “The only difference between martyrdom and suicide is press coverage” did not go through proper vetting channels. Which Gallagher says was due to him being on leave at the time he posted it. Both MTV and the Washington Post covered the shutdown, which Matt left with these words: It’s totally on me, as it was too much unfiltered truth. I’m a soldier first and orders are orders. So it is. Thank you for caring, agree or disagree with the war, if you’re reading this, you were engaged and aware. As long as that is still occurring in a free society, there is something worth fighting for. Since leaving the Army, Matt Gallagher has been able to write all he wants about anything he wants. He co-edited one of the very first anthologies of veteran writers from Iraq and Afghanistan, “Fire and Forget”, whose many contributors have gone on to make major names for themselves in the literary world in their own right. His memoir,Kaboom, came out in 2010. And his new novel, Youngblood dropped in 2016 . We’ll be talking to him about all of that and more, so without further ado, here’s Matt Gallagher.
Matt Gallagher, thank you so much for joining us on Incoming.
Thanks for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this.
Why don’t you start us off by telling us where you were in life and what motivated you to join the Army.
Sure. Flash back a few years, September 2001 changed a lot of trajectories for a lot of people. And I was one of them. I was a freshman in college, I had just started at Wake Forest in North Carolina. I’d joined the Army ROTC program, mostly as a way to pay for school. I came from a military family, so that part was natural, but I was certainly no G.I. Joe type of kid. I really didn’t know too much about Army life. I think I had some vague idea of maybe being a military lawyer. But the truth is I hadn’t really thought about it at all. I just wanted to pay for school and figured I could figure it out from there. About two weeks in, 9/11 occurs, I was still so young and naïve that we had a previous ROTC meeting scheduled for that evening, just to show freshman cadets how to tie our boot, how to put our equipment together, etc. But as I was walking to that meeting I didn’t know. I was thinking, are they going to send us straight to Afghanistan? I don’t even know how to tie my boots. I fired a gun maybe twice in my life. I’m not ready. Thankfully, that’s not how deployments work, which I learned later that evening. And yes, so over the course of the next four years, I decided to stay in Army ROTC and honor my commitment there. And then also decided that if I was going to do this Army thing, I kind of wanted to do it closer to the front. A lot was occurring, we went to Afghanistan a couple of months after that, and into Iraq in March of 2003. I figured history was happening, and I wanted to be a small part of it. Hopefully be a small part for the better.
May of 2005, graduate from college and commission as a young Lieutenant, as an armor officer, get signed to a cavalry unit in Hawaii. We got sent to Iraq, I was in charge of a scout platoon at this point, in late 2007. That’s where everything began, both for me professionally as a junior officer and even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, ultimately as a writer.
Hi, my name is Matt Gallagher. This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for the Paris Review in 2016, on Hemingway and his influence on me, both as a young writer and reader, and ultimately as an Army officer.
Like many young people of a certain type, I read a lot of Hemingway growing up. Too much, probably, though there were worse pastimes for a teenage boy to pursue in Reno, Nevada. Still, my sixteen-year-old self, full of angst and emo aches, felt he’d found a kindred spirit in the character of Jake Barnes, even if Jake’s brooding was much deeper, much darker, and more significant than my own. The Northern Michigan of the Nick Adams stories bore a passing resemblance to the Lake Tahoe basin. And my earliest attempts at creative work were pale and poor imitations of the Hemingway stories, The End of Something, and The Three Day Blow. While The Old Man and the Sea bored me to video games the first time I tried it, that didn’t stop me from extolling Santiago’s badassness at the dinner table.
This was pre 9/11 America, a suburban white-collar community, far removed from battle or turmoil. As with many of my generation, I’d grown up under the dueling narrative shadows of WWII and Vietnam. My parents had both been children of WWII veterans, and both had protested the Vietnam war. As a result, my brother and I had been raised with a healthy respect for the military, mixed with a healthy skepticism for the how and when military force is applied. While my Hemingway obsession did confuse my mom a bit, she later told me she figured at least it wasn’t drugs. Or French philosophy. I started calling him Hem or Ernie in conversation, like we were old friends. The former when I was being sincere in my adulation, the later when I felt more light-hearted.
His pithy quotes that double as writing advice, and tripled as macho pseudo- philosophy, infiltrated my Instant Messenger away messages. For those of you old enough to remember those, then my school essays. A man can be destroyed but not defeated. Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know. The only thing that could spoil a day was people. Etc. I read Hemingway’s biographies like they contained the secrets of the universe. Taking careful note of how his early career as a journalist shaped his prose, I joined the high school newspaper, and began saying things like fuck adjectives, and, sit down at the computer and bleed. And this article about the Powderpuff game needs to be truer. My favorite biography carried the title, A Life Without Consequences. At the time, that seemed like a thing to aspire for. I was young. And, while it’s a bit embarrassing to admit now, the life and times of the character of Robert Jordan, and his real life inspiration, Robert Hale Merriman who attended school in Reno, had a lot to do with me joining the Army ROTC program in college at Wake Forest University, in North Carolina. I’d up writing my history thesis on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The American volunteers who fought fascism and Franco in Spain. Over our own government’s objections. The dark, awful romance of it all was like a siren song, the fact that they’d been dismissed as premature antifascists, like it was a bad thing, became a common rant of mine in the fraternity house.
We were in the Bush era now, and my worldview was being shaped by the politics of the time, and by events across the globe. From Afghanistan, to Iraq, and beyond. Hemingway’s books stayed with me during it all, but I referred to him as Papa now. Because I’d learned the power of reverence. I held personal misgivings about the Iraq invasion, less than two years before. 9/11 had seemed our generation’s Pearl Harbor. And now, somehow, people were comparing us to the Galactic Empire from Star Wars, and not just stupid people. Was war in Iraq inevitable? Of course not. But in that moment, as angry debates about yellowcake and weapons of mass destruction filled our television screens, it sure felt that way. I could leave ROTC, become a regular college student again, my parents offered to find a way to pay back the scholarship money I’d incurred. If that’s what I wanted to do. I told them I wasn’t even thinking about that. But I was. I was thinking like that a lot. I finished my thesis on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. I was proud of it. I added an epigraph to it before turning in the final version. A passage from For Whom The Bell Tolls. Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen to all the other days that ever come, can depend on what you do today. History was happening.
The Robert Jordans of the world didn’t jeer at history. They weren’t interested in something as small and self-involved as moral purity. Not when it came time to act. Not when it came time to be part of something. Life was complicated and immense, something I was only beginning to comprehend. The Robert Jordans participated in history, to make it better. Or to at least try. I wanted to be like that. More specifically, I wanted to live a life like that. The others did too. So, we went.
Going back and talking about your motivations for joining, you were also mentioning in your piece about Hemingway, and the influence all these other major literary war writers played upon your mind when you were thinking about what your role in history would be. Can you talk about while you were stationed in Hawaii, and before you joined up, that male rite of passage that war has for so many of us around that age?
Yeah, I think that was there. I was really a kind of idealistic kid, prone to romantic notions, I never grew up the way I think some of our peers did, thinking that I had to go through combat to prove myself our something. But yeah, that allure was there, and I was not immune to it. More than anything I just kind of wanted to be a person that was willing to get their hands dirty. To hopefully affect things for the better. I just didn’t want to spend my 20s caring about my own moral purity, right? And not trying to do something beyond myself. You know in the different world that could have been the Peace Corps, that could have been teaching, there are a multitude of ways to do that, for whatever reason I ended up in the Army. Which is perhaps a little strange to some listeners, but I think the ranks not just now, but over the eons have been filled with dreamy young soldiers like that. The books influenced me, especially Hemingway, but I don’t think it was because the bombs and the bullets so much as it was aspiring to be somebody that helped others or put themselves out there to effect change.
More the statue of the character.
Exactly. There is an authority that veterans come with in that regard. Much of it is earned, some of it is overblown, in my opinion. I may have not been conscious of that as a teenager, but yeah, looking back that was a big part of it for sure.
One thing that you said that really stuck with me is having grown up with Gulf One, and seeing how quickly that was begun and ended, were there any doubts in your mind you’d even get to Iraq in time to catch it after enlisting?
Oh absolutely. (Justin overlapping;I mean, after commissioning.) I remember watching the Iraq invasion on the news, so this would have been spring of 2003, with my roommate. Who was an antiwar protester. So, I think we learned a lot from each other, and certainly discussed these things in earnest, as much as young college kids did, or could. And expressed to my roommate that Iraq’s gonna be over by the time I graduate and commission into the Army. And feeling both relief from that, but also a little resentment too. Because do I want to be part of that? Part of me did, and then part of me didn’t. I figured bigger forces were at play that would ultimately decide that, but I very naively and very foolishly didn’t think Iraq was going to be part of my future. Of course, I was there about two and a half years later. And even then, it was nowhere close to the end of the war, so that was a big wrong on my part’s forecasting how that war would play out.
Something you write about in Kaboom and talk about in other pieces is, that’s really interesting to me, is the kind of fake it till you make it necessity of a young Lieutenant when put into a leadership role with more experienced and more grizzled under his command. Can you talk about what that process was like for you, to kind of become that person you felt like you had to be?
A lot of times friends, when they’re kind of looking for an anecdote to explain, well what is counterinsurgency, what is COIN? I think back to the summer of 2008, when my platoon was given a couple tens of thousands of American dollars, and we were told to go into the sectarian town that we lived in, and give $500 grants to local businessmen. It was up to us to determine who were businessmen and who weren’t. There’s no official documentation that said, oh this history major and English minor can determine what is a reputable business and what is not. But, we adapted, and did the best we could, you know. Oh, this guy has receipts from an ice machine from a couple of years ago? Yeah, okay, that makes sense. We know these barbershops have been staying open, they’re reputable businessmen. Talk to some of the local tribal leaders, don’t rely on them too much, otherwise you’re only going to end up handing out money to their family members. But they’re good sources of information. So much of that experience with COIN was learning to become a jack of all trades, while masters of none. You had to be ready for doing something like that or walking around and figuring out how much electricity was reaching certain neighborhoods. But then at the drop of the hat, riding to the sound of the guns, because a firefight had broken out on the other side of town. I think I learned very quickly that there were limits to pretending to be something you’re not. I was maybe 150 pounds dripping wet, so I wasn’t going to go in there and out bench press my platoon. I was a pretty good shot, I was a good runner, but I had soldiers there who were better at both of those things. And I just learned that I needed to be honest with my men, and more than anything, authentic.
My strengths would come out, my weaknesses would come out, and the same way I was learning from them, hopefully they could learn a little bit from me too, and we’d be a better line unit because of it. At the time there were all these stories and memoirs coming out about super alpha male lieutenants grunting and doing MMA with their platoon, and just being a cock of the walk type of leaders. And hey, that worked for them, but it was never going to work for me. I didn’t need to be. I had awesome sergeants who filled that role as disciplinarians. I learned very quickly that I think my role as Lieutenant was for something else. Both to communicate with higher, and keep them informed, and also to figure out when to keep higher off of my guys back. Right? Just give them the freedom of mobility to do what they needed to get done. It’s interesting, because my memoir is very much a story of a platoon in the right place at the right time, with the right people. A lot of things went right for us. My novel, which I wrote a few years after, is the complete inverse. It’s placing the young officer in a terrible situation with the wrong people at the wrong time, in the wrong situation. In both stories, I think at the center of it, is these questions of moral courage and moral authority. And when I talk to young ROTC cadets about what they should expect as a Lieutenant, that’s something I bring up a lot with them, is that you’re not there to be the biggest or the baddest soldier. There are career professionals who have dedicated their lives to these things. Part of your job, not the only part, but part of your job is to serve as a moral compass for your platoon. That’s a really ethereal thing. It’s hard to describe. But it’s vital, especially in the way these wars play out and the way they’re fought these days. There’s going to be a lot of hard messy gray areas, that combat soldiers are put in. And junior leaders, lieutenants and sergeants, who can navigate that well and quickly, are instrumental to these types of wars successes, or failures.
You trained in armored cavalry unit, Strykers, and when you arrived during the surge it’s a very different war than the one that those units had originally been intended for. In a lot of ways you’re walking and talking COIN and patrolling these neighborhoods, and COIN of course is hearts and minds, counterinsurgency and country building a lot. Can you talk about what that was like to have that role kind of flipped, and essentially being a beat cop.
We trained at Fort Knox on Abrams tanks, and got to Iraq and it was something else entirely. It was pretty easy for me to adapt, I was 23, 24, had nothing to compare it to, other than training. You want us to get on the ground and interact with the locals, and try to put this history degree to use? Okay. I’ll do what I can. Looking back, it was probably a lot harder for some of my older Sergeants, right? Who were career cavalrymen. Who said not ironically, death before dismount. God bless ‘em. What the mission called for, they executed and got out there, and we became the best counterinsurgents we could be. So, it was every day, every night, was something new. We just had to adapt to it. Otherwise, there just wasn’t an alternative.
Looking back on that time now, how do you judge the effectiveness of it?
Oh, that’s a great question. It’s interesting, we came back in early 2009. Thought that we’d won the war, or something like it. Not that wars like Iraq can be won, but in very real, very meaningful ways that can and have been measured, things were starting to turn around. The sectarian violence had declined steadily. Schools were being reopened. There was more stable electricity. A water treatment plant that had been inoperable for years, finally opened up. These things matter. Garbage pickup was happening with some regularity. Kind of these basic civic services that we take for granted here in America, in the middle of a war zone, go away very quickly. And getting some of that back to the Iraqi people, at least in the corner of Babylon we were, it meant a lot. We felt pretty good about it. Only now, all these years later, having interacted with veterans of Iraq, who were there throughout the war, do I realize how lucky we were, to have that sense, even that false sense, of accomplishment. Tenuous sense of accomplishment.
Even then, I think there was great concern amongst the ranks, like how much can this hold, if there isn’t American money propping it up? If there aren’t American soldiers posted all over to maintain it. There was this giant question mark hanging over it all. But at the time, pushing a country back from the brink of civil war, was what we were charged with. Through a lot of pain, a lot of struggle, that was partly accomplished. I’m quoting smarter people than me when they say the surge was a tactical and operational success, while a strategic failure. We were tactical soldiers, so compartmentalizing that, I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying it’s wrong, compartmentalizing that and our role for what we were charged with and what we accomplished, is something I’ve done as a human being. Then as a writer, probably done the opposite actually, and tried to explore the messiness of that, within a strategic failure. Because there’s a lot there, there’s a lot going on. Most prominently, the Iraqi people who all these buzzwords mean nothing to, all they know is fifteen years of war continues to endure, because of the American invasion of 2003. Any time I get too philosophical about this, I try to ground myself and remind myself that we walked away after fifteen months, this is their lives.
We’ll be right back with our guest, Army veteran and author, Matt Gallagher, after this.
Welcome back to Incoming, where we’re speaking with our guest, Army veteran Matt Gallagher, author of the memoir Kaboom, and his new novel, Youngblood.
Hi, my name is Matt Gallagher. This is a short excerpt from my memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, which was published in 2010 by De Capo Press. It’s about my scout platoon’s tour to Iraq, during the surge in 2007 and 2008, in Iraq. This excerpt explores our first encounter with the enemy we’d heard so much about and had been trying to chase down for our first few weeks in country. It was a day after the great red dust storms ended, a little more than a week after our squadron lost its first soldier to a deep buried IED in the farmlands west of Saba al-Bor. I lay in bed, staring at the wall from the top bunk. Basking in the rarest of days, one of which I could sleep in. The gears in my mind were just beginning to grind towards muscle movement. Mainly a product of memory, then a conscious decision, when Sergeant First Class Big Country, our platoon Sergeant, barreled through the door. The Iraqi Army got Mohammad Shaba, he said, staying just long enough to drop off an empty mug of coffee. Just like that, he was gone. I was back in Iraq. My nothiness had burst like a star cluster. I cursed to myself, slapped myself in the face, and hopped off the top bunk. The nothingness was now gone.
So, I thought. They got the Ghost. Saba al-Bor’s native son, a known terrorist and wanted murderer, had been a general thorn in the side of coalition forces for the better portion of the past year. Much of his celebrity status was overblown, mostly due to his self-designated nickname, which translated to either Mohammad the Ghost, or Mohammad the Shadow, depending on which interpreter had been asked. Nevertheless, higher had longed after this Jaish al-Mahdi insurgent for a long time. Capturing him was a public relations dream, if not a key strategic blow for Shi’a extremism in our area. My scout platoon had already been on a few boondoggles going after him. But we were always a room away, ten minutes late, or finding his grandfather with a full piss bag, but without a grandson. When Mohammad Shaba missions came down, it usually felt like we were hunting a black dog in the night. These experiences weren’t isolated to just our platoon. They encapsulated all of Bravo Troop’s bouts with the Ghost. Now, the Iraqi Army had him. Sure, I was shocked, I thought but good for them, this was what we were aiming for after all. A self-sustaining Iraqi security force.
Yawning, I strolled out of a room and into the main foyer of the combat outpost. Our company commander and a few of the soldiers from headquarters platoon were heading out the front door, in route to the Iraqi Army compound, to question the Ghost and his fellow detainees. I bumped into Lieutenant Virginia Slim, who was coming up the stairs and taking off his helmet. He’d just been over, with the Iraqi Army. My dude, he said. You should head over and check those guys out. Why? I asked. I didn’t feel compelled to put on my gear. I was more interested in grabbing a few banana nut muffins and seeing if there were any pieces of bacon left. Did the commander say he needed me? Nah, I just thought you’d appreciate the scene, he said. Just a couple of scared punk teenagers. We probably could have had them months ago, if we’d set up a trap with X Boxes and some weed. We laughed, and I sauntered toward the pantry, rubbing at the stubble of my face. I should probably shave too, I thought. It had been a few days.
After breakfast and quick dry shave, curiosity got ahold of me, and I walked across the street to the Iraqi Army compound. I poked my head around the fence line, and spotted a crowd of Iraqi Army soldiers, commonly referred to by their Arabic name of Jundees, interlaced with a group of American soldiers, sent over to ensure the detention process stayed peaceful. There was a post-prize fight feeling in the air, the soldiers of both countries joking with one another, crowing like young bantams at a cockfight. They crowded around three grubby, emaciated shapes in handcuffs, and wrapped in blankets. They were stacked against the building. The three shapes were separated along the wall, so they could not communicate. They were crouched, in the traditional Arab squat, and only nervous glances from downcast heads confirmed them to be human beings. Not teenage scarecrows, made of dirt.
As I walked closer, I recognized Mohammad Shaba from the mugshots we’ve used for countless previous missions. Same scar across the right cheek, same long chin. Same mop of black hair jetting out. In the photograph, he snarled toward the camera, menacingly challenging the viewer, to dare to venture into Saba al-Bor’s alleys to hunt him. Here, at the compound though, he did not snarl, nor challenge nor dare. He sniffled like a bullied child, trying to hold back tears, cradling a swollen nose that dripped with blood. It had been broken by a Jundee when he bit one of them and tried to escape. The teenager handcuffed next to him, who I later learned was another target of ours known as Ali the Prince, looked far more openly, and reeked of feces. Wait a minute, had he really? Yes, sir! He actually shit himself, one of our headquarters Sergeants said to me. Apparently provoked by my sniffing of the air, and grimace. Gives new meaning to the term scared shitless, don’t it? I nodded, hoping I appeared aloof and knowing to my enemies, who now had faces. Why I cared in the first place, I still don’t know.
Shifting to talk about your writing a little bit, your memoir Kaboom was on the front line of the wave of veteran literature that continues today, and I think has been very different from other wars in that how quickly those stories have come out, after their author’s service, or after their authors have left the military. But you are a little bit of a legend, because you actually started writing on a blog while in country, and if you could talk to us a little bit about that first, because one of the questions I always wanted to ask you about that time is, I really cite that era as the moment the military command and political administration behind it really got thrown. Because they couldn’t control the message coming out of the war anymore, because the actual service members were able to get it out themselves in their own words. So, I wanted you to tell our audience about what that experience was like for you.
Kind of goes back to Hawaii before we deployed. We were going to a lot of meetings. Getting a lot of briefings about COIN, about counterinsurgency, and a lot of it just wasn’t resonating with me. I’d go back to my guys and try to explain it to them, and if it didn’t make sense to me it wasn’t going to make sense to them. I just started doing some research online, and came across some military blogs that were written by soldiers and Marines, over in Iraq and Afghanistan, talking about what they were doing. It was so much more helpful and informative than any of the briefings that I’d been going to in terms of understanding what our intent and mission was gonna be. So I found that helpful, as a leader, and then as someone who’d grown up reading and writing as a way of making sense of the world, I think it sparked something in me that was like, hey, you could do something like this too. Figured it would be a good way to keep in touch with family and friends, the war was very political, at that point, so I didn’t want to ram it down peoples’ throats. I figured a blog was a cool thing that people would visit if they wanted to, and if they weren’t interested, no worries. I think I had vague ideas of it maybe serving as a time capsule, for me, as a human being. To go back and revisit how the experience was in the moment, as opposed to decades of nostalgia, sanitizing it all. So yeah, I started blogging, called it Kaboom, sort of an irreverent joke reference to roadside bombs. I was definitely a kid with an ironic sensibility, pretty dark, looking back on it. But it was ha ha, Mr. Insurgent Man, you’re gonna try and kill us with bombs, I’ll name my blog Kaboom, joke’s on you.
It’s a very Irish approach to—[overlapping laughter]
Yeah, well, the blood tells sometimes. I got plenty of that in me. So yeah, I started blogging, just a couple times a week, what we were seeing, what we were doing. I was real mindful of operational security, that was the big thing at the time, don’t give away location, don’t give away mission secrets, etc. So, I gave all my soldiers nicknames, I gave the town we were in a nickname, very vague about patrol details, particularly the Stryker as a platform. It was really received pretty well, at first, from my command. They thought it was a cool thing, had a human touch to this new approach to the war, etc. Gradually, I could push back about some things I’d written about reconciling what we were told to do versus what we were actually doing. And that all culminated about six months in when I blogged about a conversation I had with our battalion commander, that portrayed him in an unflattering light. He was an asshole but I was certainly wrong to not only write about it, but then to post it. Which was pretty reckless, but a lot of times people ask me why would you do that, and It’s like. We were so tired, our day to day business was so serious, and so every new mission, every new patrol, was so imperative, that the blog was something I did on the side when I had free time. Helped me make sense of things. Writing about it as something that just made sense. Posting it, whatever. I certainly wasn’t the first Lieutenant to be pissed off about being chewed out about a superior officer. I very naively didn’t think it would get back to him. Of course that’s not how the internet works, I think it got back to him in about three hours. And he shut it down. Which was well within his right to do, course on the flip side, by doing that it made the blog a much bigger deal than it otherwise would have been. Any time people get a whiff of authority crushing something, it can spread like wildfire. And that’s what happened with the blog. I had a few dozen, maybe a hundred readers before he shut it down.
He wanted the blog to go dark, but by that point a bunch of mirror sites had popped up, there’s Wayback Machine, people could still find all that stuff, because that’s how the internet works. A lot more people, a lot more eyeballs started reading those entries because of that. All these years later I should probably send him a fruit basket or something. I don’t know.
Give him an edible arrangement, yeah. It was a digital martyrdom and I wonder if that didn’t in a way also politicize your writing in a way that might not have been your intension out of the gate.
Yeah, it’s interesting. I definitely didn’t view my blog writing as political or anti-war, at the time, but when you’re writing about war, how could it not be political in some way? I believed in trying the counterinsurgency approach. It was something different, it was something new. I appreciated that, rather than trying the same old same old. But it came with warts, it came with its faults. It didn’t always meet the clean sanitized version that Big Army wanted to put out. I think I had the freedom to write what we saw and what we did, because I’d already made the decision not to make the Army a career. I wasn’t trying intentionally to be reckless, it’s just. I’ve been raised to tell the truth, and to try to seek truth, and not writing about it that way, it really just never crossed my mind. Had I had a more professional outlook, on everything, I probably would have. But to paraphrase Grace Paley, great writer of the 20th century, it’s not that you seek out to defy authority by writing, but the mere process of writing, you’re gonna defy authority. You’re gonna ruffle feathers, because you’re transcribing. You’re in control of the story. Certainly, having the authority of being a Lieutenant on the ground, gave me that authority in that blog. In a way that I was not really aware of at the time. But looking back on it, of course it bothered the staff majors and colonels, back at base, when it wasn’t clean and pristine. Because they weren’t out there, they weren’t seeing what we were seeing, they weren’t doing what we were doing. We had a lot of power, and transcribing that, and sharing that, had its own power as well.
We’re getting farther and farther from the war in our cultural memory, it barely gets a headline in the news anymore, even when a servicemember is killed. And I wonder, as our relationship, our cultural relationship to OEF and OND , kind of become what our relationship was to Gulf One, as an archivist of the war what do you feel is the part that you want to not get lost the most? What aspect of that conflict?
Oh, that’s a great question. I think something that connects all my work, whatever the genre, whatever format, is a howling reminder to anyone bothering to pay attention, that the purpose of war is to find peace. Not to continue war, right? As an apparatus, as a business, that the absurdity of a war continuing just because it’s been happening before, is still an absurdity. And it’s not only okay to point that out, it’s imperative to point that. Not as a veteran, not as a writer, but as the thinking citizen of a republic. Recently, the Wall Street Journal had a piece showcasing young Marine recruits on Parris Island, who don’t remember 9/11.
Who will potentially be sent to Afghanistan, to fight a war that began before they were born. There’s a lot of things to draw from that, I think. One thing especially is we have failed our young people. As a society, we have failed our young people. We have given them this thing that just continues to go on and endure. I’m not a retired general, I’m not a foreign policy subject matter expert, who works at a fancy think tank or anything, I can’t say that I have all the answers. But I can say that we as a country, as a people, need to pay attention, still. And remember that the purpose of war is peace. That, I worry, gets lost with each passing day, with each passing year, of this forever war era.
I wanted to ask your opinion on what you feel like vet lit is. I remember feeling, when all these books and memoirs by service members were coming out, around the era you published Kaboom and slightly afterwards, there was such a cultural disconnect between civilians and their military, right? And this reaction to, and consumption of media by veterans, is a way to connect to that war, and also maybe a little assuagement of guilt, that the civilians felt. Looking into the future for veteran literature, what hopes, what ideas, what prognosis do you have for it, as a genre?
Big heavy question there. I think the spectacle of relationship between the military and civilian America is on display, right? Whether it’s the homecomings at football games, whether it’s military getting to board an airplane first, I think it’s coming from an earnest place, from our countrymen’s perspective. They don’t know what to do, right? They’re trying. I think it’s imperative on vets especially, vet writers, to remember that it’s on us to meet these people halfway. Don’t take advantage of this platform, just to soapbox at people.
Right. Play the vet card.
Yeah. If that’s what you want to do, if that’s what you want to take from post-9/11 America is this is an opportunity to sell t-shirts, and wedge a divide, between us and them, you do you. I think that’s deeply selfish and deeply unhealthy for us as a country. Meeting people halfway, remembering that these wars don’t just belong to us, right? We fought in the citizenry’s name, right? We didn’t just wear the patches of our units overseas, but the patch of the American flag. Something I try to remind people, and sometimes they like and sometimes they don’t is, hey, if you paid your taxes, you’re part of this too.
Right, you could argue that 9/11, even though it was a terrorist attack, was kind of the end of the concept of the civilian. At least in America.
That’s heavy. I think there’s been some really good essays, about that idea. I remember Susan Sontag wrote a really scathing essay for the New Yorker, like a week after the 9/11 attack, that’s kind of brutally, makes a similar point about that. And both her and Hunter S. Thompson wrote essays kind of forecasting this era of what the War on Terror would look like and how it would play out, and it’s dark gloomy stuff from 2002 that has been proven correct. As for war literature as a genre, it’s a big complicated thing, and I think, I’m hopeful in some ways, and cynical in others. I think we’re starting to see on the hopeful side, a broadening of voices. I think we’re seeing more women veterans, veterans of color, coming forward with their stories, and getting published. I think that’s vital. There’s kind of a tradition of, that I’m a part of, frankly, of the white junior officer coming back and sharing what they’ve soon. That’s important, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. We’re a big country, with people serving in the military from all sorts of backgrounds and perspectives and world views, and getting that into the stories and getting them published, is fundamental to a better and deeper understanding of just what the hell it is that’s been going on these past eighteen years. I think we’re starting to see bigger chances are told, taking place. On the more cynical side, I do worry that people have started to tune out.
It’s, there’s so much going on in the world right now, that asking people to care about foreign wars that they’ve at best had a distant relationship to already, for almost two decades now, hey, I’m trying to pay the bills. There’s another presidential election coming up, there’s already so much on the news that getting people to engage with messy, sometimes dark literature on these wars, is asking a lot. As a result of that, it’s on us as writers, as creators, to find new, sharp, unique ways, entry points really, to get these stories to readers. Something like Kaboom, a straightforward day by day chronicle, soldiers are still experiencing that. They’re still doing it. They’re still writing about it. But getting something like that published would probably be very hard, frankly, in 2019. Much harder than it was in 2010. In that way, it’s gonna be on us. If we’re able to reach readers, it’s our success, if not, it’s our failure. One way to say I guess that there’s some signs of hope, and some signs of depression, and reasons to rage, as always. I guess that’s always the writers reconciliation process.
Well a bitching soldier is a happy soldier, right?
That’s very true. You worry about the ones who aren’t bitching.
Right, exactly. We’ll be right back, after this.
Welcome back to Incoming, and our guest today, Army veteran and author, Matt Gallagher. I’m very excited to read your next book. I often feel one of the greatest war novels ever written was Slaughterhouse 5, which is of course at least fifty percent pure science fiction. Kurt Vonnegut is like the spoon full of sugar, people don’t even know they’re reading about vet lit.
Very true. Very true. Some of the best war books, I think, aren’t generally considered that way. Maybe that’s something else to add to the conversation is, breaking free of the constraints of what is not a war story. You know in many ways I think the best novel about WWI, isn’t Hemingway, or Dos Passos, it’s The Great Gatsby. That’s all set back here, in Homefront America, in a country that has decidedly moved on. And parts of Jake Gatsby is, and parts of Nick Carraway, are still there. That’s initially what draws them to each other. Which I think is fascinating, is a shared experience over there. And Gatsby believing that his war experience can transform into a new person back here. I’ve been back from Iraq ten years now, and that resonates a lot, of bringing combat experience back home, believing it can help shape you into something new. And then finding no, you’re still the same person that went over there in the first place. Even though you may not feel that way, society still treats you that way. That’s one example of many of a quote unquote American classic that’s secretly a war story.
Hi, my name is Matt Gallagher, this is the prologue from my novel, Youngblood, published in 2016. It’s strange, trying to remember now, not the war, though that’s all tangled up too, I mean the other parts. The way sand pebbles nipped at our faces in the wind. How the mothers glared when we raided houses, looking for their sons. The smell of farm animal waste and car exhaust, blending together during patrols through town. Rambling, aimless hours, lost to the desert. How falafel bits got stuck between my teeth so much, I started bringing floss on missions, along with extra ammo and water. The sun. The god damned heat. The days I couldn’t sleep, and the nights I wouldn’t. How the power of being in charge got to me, how it got to all the officers and Sergeants, giant armed soldiers at our backs, ready to carry out foreign policy, through sheer fucking force. How sometimes, many times, we were gentle. The feeling of something, relief? Gratitude? Exhaustion? When a patrol returned to the outpost, and for another day, we’d be able to ask ourselves, just what the hell were we doing? So little of Iraq had very little to do with guns, or bombs, or jihads. That’s what people never understand. There was the desert. And the locals. And their lives. The way time could be vague and hazy one moment, yet hard as bone the next. Lot of people ask, what was it like? And once, I even tried to answer. I was home, with old friends. They meant well. And while they didn’t want a perfect story, they wanted a clean one. It’s what everyone wants. And I knew that. But it came out wrong. I stated off about imperial grunts, walking over a pass we didn’t know anything about. But I could see their eyes glazing over. So, I switched to the Iraqi kids playing in mud under bent utility poles, But that didn’t work either. An anecdote about finding the Sheikh’s porn collection earned some laughs. But by then I’d lost them. So, I stopped. What’s an imperial grunt, one asked later. Did they help the SEALs get Bin Laden? Kind of, I said. Even though we hadn’t.
I miss it. Which is a funny thing to think, until I remember otherwise. Like the daily purpose, I miss that, as messy as it could be. I miss the clarity of trying to survive. Miss the soldiers. Even miss the Mukhtar , who was honest enough to hate us, but still made us chai, because we were guests. And her, of course. She comes in fragments. Slivers of jagged memory that cut and condemn. How she’d sigh before we talked about the past. How my mind ached, after we considered the future. I failed Rana, failed her utterly, all because I tried to help. What was it like? Hell if I know. But next time someone asks, I won’t answer straight and clean. I’ll answer crooked. And I’ll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I’ll smile. Finally, I’ll think. Someone who understands.
Well, rolling to our last question, off that note, being back into the civilian shoes for ten years now. If you were to meet a service member who’s about to rotate out in a couple weeks or months, and you could give them one piece of advice, what would it be?
That’s a good question. And worth thinking about, for any veteran listening, or active duty service member listening, I think my number one advice is meet people halfway. Whether that’s a spouse, a partner, your parents, whether it’s old friends. They’re trying to connect with you, the want desperately to connect with you. And it is vital that you remember that the, coming to you, the way they have, is a courageous act. And you have to meet them in kind. They’re not looking for answers, they’re just looking for human communication. Because human beings communicate that way, right? We’re animals like that, in that way. They don’t need an explanation, but if they’re reaching out that way, the way friends and family will do, when you come back from deployment, meet them there. And try to view the interaction from their perspective. And also try to remember that it’s all been done before. You’re not alone, not only have thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experience the same feelings and sensations of dislocation that you’re now experience, thousands of veterans going all the way back through Greece, through Rome, the same thing. I remember how freeing that was, that you’re part of an ancient tradition, and taking pride in that, and then simultaneously remembering that you’re not special, because of that. Do you want to be one of the ones who doesn’t figure it out, or one of the ones that do? Of course, you want to be one of the ones who figure it out. And for my money, that goes back to meeting people halfway. You don’t need to provide more than that, but you can’t just rant at them and ask them to come get you. You gotta bring yourself back halfway yourself.
Well Matt Gallagher, thank you so much. Congratulations on the kid, the anniversary, and your upcoming third book.
Thanks man, I really appreciate it. Enjoy talking with you.
And that’s our show. Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall, our editor is Jennifer Pepperpot Corley, at KPBS Kirk (sp? unintelligible) is radio production manager, Emily Jankowski is technical director, Kinsee Morlan is podcast coordinator, Lisa Jane Morrisette is operations manager, and John Decker is director of programming. Music in this episode was provided by the artists James Boudreau, Philip Wagle(sp?), Nocturnum, and Lee Roseveier (sp?). Incoming is made possible by the KPBS Explorer Fund, the California Arts Council’s Veterans Initiative in the Arts, the City of San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture, and the supporting members of So Say We All. You can find us on the web and learn more at SoSayWeAllonline.com. Please do subscribe to the Incoming podcast, through wherever you do your podcasting, drop us a review and a rating, it helps so much. Tell your friends, share on your Facebook page, if that’s still a thing, Facebook, I don’t know. And if you’d like to get in touch with us, we’d love to hear from you by email, at email@example.com. Thanks for listening, let’s talk again soon.
Incoming is a KPBS Explore series that tells true stories from the lives of America's military — told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. Produced by So Say We All, a literary and performing arts nonprofit, Incoming features voices of people from all walks of life associated with the armed forces. This series showcases the raw, honest voices of men and women who have served in every capacity and branch of the military. If you're interested in sharing your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.