Plying the Darkness

Review of My Life as a Foreign Country  by Brian Turner (Norton 2014)


Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country is one of the richest war memoirs I’ve read since Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army. It can be read in a sitting, a long morning or afternoon. It might not let you do otherwise. 


Thus far Turner is his war’s most prominent American poet, with two volumes behind him. The present work is a book-length essay characterized by a particular lyricism and structured in a series of 136 numbered sections ranging from six words to twenty pages (plus the unnumbered, unnamed prologue and epilogue), often strung together on implication and intuition.

Its meditations ask us to sympathize, and in the spirit of Susan Griffin’s A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, to connect. With his waitress at a café in Berlin “who could be the great-granddaughter of the man who loaded a canister of gas into the artillery piece that would take nearly fourteen years to kill my own great-grandfather Harley.” With his grandmother Anna and her photo collection of the soldiers she danced with on their way to war, and the bearers of those photos’ doppelgänger-like copies: “Anna’s face, smiling at young weary men who were to meet the grenade or bayonet. Or, perhaps, a Japanese soldier held her photo in his fingertips.” 


I don’t see the individual sections as prose poetry or micro-nonfiction, but Turner’s book belongs to our hybrid literary moment. Hybrid in sensibility, too: Turner is cousin both to the musing feminist Griffin and to the pogue-bashing grunt who can talk field-expedient pussy with the gruffest of us.

Because it is a soldier’s story after all, its essayistic divergences attached to a generally chronological structure, through vignettes from stateside infantry training, to arrival in Iraq, the tour of duty, a short leave back home, and his return, in the natural and usual order. Yet it is a war memoir that avoids the fetishism of recording. What happened to me is not the principal motivation. It is a work of history and witness by default, its mode less documentation or even reflection than resonance. 


In his classic study of the genre, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War, Samuel Hynes observes that twentieth-century war memoirs typically demonstrate no apparent knowledge of the genre’s tradition, as if each were the first. This pattern has held less true over time; My Life as a Foreign Country certainly proves an exception. Turner enlisted after graduate school and spent his life among war stories, from his family and his readings. Early on the memoir confesses its immersion in other written accounts: “Our first day in Iraq. We are traveling roughly 480 kilometers to our new home north of Baghdad: Firebase Eagle. From buildup through deployment — from Herodotus to Xenophon, from Cornelius Ryan to Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore — I am aware of a variety of insertion narratives.” How, the book asks itself all but aloud, might it go about the same old war story anew? 


A few pages later, Turner finds himself in the moment, his weapon switched to semi, its sight’s “center dot, small and red, the premonition of an entry wound,” his breath exhaled to still the body for the trigger squeeze, when his vehicle commander breaks the spell, having identified the targets as friendlies in mufti.

The next section transports us to Japan, years after the war, as a painting by Soyama Sachihiko hypnotizes Turner. Aiming at the Target shows only the archer, on the edge of release. The target isn’t “the point. The point is to become one with the moment. To meld with the motion of the instrument.” We can’t but recall the man almost killed for Turner’s being melded to his own death instrument. But we are also asked to consider Turner’s state of mind when gazing at Sachihiko’s painting, his state of mind while engaged in the writing, and our state of mind as readers. And I start to wonder what we risk, lost in our meditations, unless a buddy breaks in over the intercom. 


“My squad stood in full ‘battle rattle.’” I circle the quotation marks, thinking they aren’t necessary, that in 2014 this phrase from the war is probably quite familiar. Then I think how encouraging that first thought was. And then, how sad.

They head out on their mission, and we are there, next to Sgt. Turner as he screams back, at the night, the country, the war, even, I think, at us. 


“For now,” Turner writes, “they are soldiers.” And on that mission the repeated phrase “the soldiers enter the house with…” lists the updated versions of the things — equipment, thoughts, emotions — carried by Tim O’Brien’s soldiers in The Things They Carried (who are likewise youth just acting the part, mission by mission). Turner’s endnotes tell us that this section converses with Rick Moody’s “Boys,” but for my money O’Brien’s novel is the first text readers will recognize.

The Things They Carried dramatizes the necessary act of sympathetic imagination by requiring its readers to imagine O’Brien’s imagining being other people. The book also exposes the limits of that kind of sympathy, as the fictional author-narrator imagines the man he killed as a Vietnamese version of himself, with the whole affair never escaping the orbit of O’Brien himself through his using his own name for the novel’s fictional author-narrator.

My Life as a Foreign Country performs its own version of O’Brien’s tactics. Turner describes another platoon on a mission with all the fullness of a first-person account, except we figure out he wasn’t with them. He invents a scene with a three-man Iraqi mortar crew on its nightly effort to achieve the right range and direction to Turner’s base, complete with dialogue. (It’s about patience. And family.) He constantly ventriloquizes for fellow soldiers, for relatives in other wars. He takes us on the death journey of a Turkish cook. Such moves strike me as generous and selfless, as Turner feels no urgency to press all the details of his days upon us or to gripe about the petty. These sections, in their brevity and frequency, also express the limitation of such projections. This imaginative act is literature’s ethical foundation, but in the end we cannot occupy another life. To borrow from the book’s opening conceit, which writes Turner’s memory project as a drone’s flight — “I am a drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body,…over the curvature of the earth [with] the shells of Dubrovnik and Brěko and Mosul arcing in the air beside me, projectiles filled with poems and death and love” — the best we can achieve is a white-hot or black-hot silhouette. 


Inside the barriers protecting the firebase where he lives, Turner walks by a set of outdoor holding pens for Iraqis, at least one of whom still wears flexi-cuffs and a sandbag hood. Turner’s on his way to the Internet station, armed with M4 carbine, boot knife, and flak jacket, when he catches a prisoner’s eyes. “We both live in pens of wire,” Turner offers. Yet the memoir, in moments like this one, knows to test the limits — and presumption — of such sympathetic connection. 


My Life as a Foreign Country insists not exactly on war’s sameness, but on a sameness in war. Turner’s is a thoroughly American tale. He joined the army for a host of reasons, chief among them familial legacy. Not joining “would’ve meant that between me and the people I most revered there were beaches and jungle foliage and Russian MiGs and snipers and artillery craters and midnights spent drifting on the Pacific in the Southern Cross.” He discusses other wars, he gathers references to multiple conflicts into single sentences, he superimposes the generations. He pulls in the Bhagavad Gita and the poetry of Bruce Weigl.

The memoir’s resonances with other war stories capture the sameness and the difference of war experiences. Turner’s patrol is yet isn’t O’Brien’s platoon assembling itself for a mission. Different soldiers, different mission, different war. Yet a sameness, too. 


Turner relishes the sounds of language, the turns of phrases, and the pacing of passages. Listen to him artfully transform his M4’s manufacturing into its operator’s manual’s description: “Here is where machinists articulate the lands and grooves of barrel rifling; where the hammer, trigger and sear find their cold housing; where steel is shaped and molded into a gas-operated, magazine-fed, selective-fire, shoulder-fired weapon with a telescoping stock.” I don’t need to know what a sear does to fall for that sentence.

When he describes soldiers on a firing range “waiting in turn to exhale the rounds held within,” he’s pointing to the release of breath before firing, as NCOs have instructed all of us who have gone through the training. When he describes living with the knowledge that an IED or missile might “rend the moment open,” I picture those wracking bomb-defusing set-pieces from Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, a film named after one of Turner’s poems. 


The Hurt Locker’s paralyzing stateside grocery store scene came to mind when reading about Turner’s layover in the Bahrain airport, which “reminded [him] of shopping malls back home” in the “gleaming surfaces of tile and glass and marble given streams of vibrant life.” It reminded me as well of my own experience in a Savannah shopping mall the day after I came home from the first Iraq war.

Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ The Thin Red Line is evoked, for me, in Turner’s section 75. Malick’s stunning film, set during the Guadalcanal campaign, plays with ideas of beauty and savagery by asking us to juxtapose the natural world with human nature and civilization (including the film itself). Turner’s book considers the “wild spaces” of nature as places “where the architecture of civilization is not at play, the context of human civilization somehow absent or suspended. A space where the rules are upended. The theater of war, some call it. The space where war disentangles itself from the structure of human norms to thrash in the natural world, the idea of beauty, all that some might view as the closest this world can come to a kind of sacred perfection.”

And I can’t read Turner’s lovely portrait of an Iraqi IED-artist without picturing the bomb-maker in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. The man’s concentration brings me back to the archer, the writer, and the reader, and again I’m chilled. A wrong move ends his life, ends this section, “it’s true, but others are waiting.” 


A sequence of other more or less self-inflicted deaths follows: Private Miller, with his weapon in a port-a-potty; an imagined Japanese Kamikaze, headed for the HMS Formidable; and an imagined young Iraqi woman, about to carry out a suicide bombing, looking in a mirror (there’s the resonance with Pontecorvo’s sequence again). 


While we usually know an episode’s veracity vis-à-vis Turner’s imagination, it isn’t always clear when he passes from good-faith memory to good-faith fancy. If the imagined bomb-maker just might hum along to Tommy James and the Shondells, did Turner’s father really listen to “Secret Agent Man” when flying clandestine recon over Russia in 1965? Is it true that the woman in a rave party’s cuddle room, when Turner is home on leave, needs him for his body’s medicine rather than the other way around, saying as they go down together, “I’m going to draw my husband from you now. Touch by touch. I will bring him back into this world”? The scene swims in fantasy.

The distinction between the real and the embellished doesn’t matter in a book like this one any more than the autobiographical allusions matter in The Things They Carried. We just need to keep its ruminative spirit in mind. 


In this memoir of the war that led the United States to lift the combat-restriction on women, the Western women play the tried-and-true parts. The ex-wife whose changed status might have contributed to Turner’s enlistment; the supportive girlfriends both romantic and platonic; the “Dear John” e-mailer; the Amsterdam prostitute whose commercial services he receives as a nurse’s ministrations; the Dallas Cowboys’ Cheerleaders (who take center stage in Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). Turner treats us to a fair amount of hetero-normative riding and spooning. It’s the age-old wartime gender roles compounded by, in writer and veteran Phil Klay’s language, “the way American history, unlike Iraqi or Afghan history, allows for a neat division between soldiers who see war and civilians who don’t.” Like the sweat lodge Turner experiences after the war, women on one side, men the other.

The book closes at its most phantasmagoric, with Turner’s future wife traveling to Iraq, cruising past his dumbfounded buddies in covering positions, tunneling through his memories, and pulling him back home. It’s brilliant and tender, the entire project now a love letter and testament of gratitude and vulnerability. I wrote the equivalent moment from my own life — in a memoir guilty of the historical recording fetish — much more prosaically. One night, three years after returning from the Persian Gulf, “I sobbed, I gusted, for hours. My soul had come untucked and then some….I had recently fallen in love, [and] letting go of my heart for Michelle may have done something to prompt that tearful letting go [of the war] that night; over the next years she unquestionably helped guide me back to myself.” 

Personhood — I’ll progressively resist saying manhood — restored. It’s a cliché, one of the oldest, and one that veterans like Turner and I will be forever and happily indebted to, as we are to the women who became our partners.

As for the native Iraqi women, the book offers a few. In addition to the imagined suicide bomber, there’s a woman living outside the firebase whose dead chickens cost Turner seven dollars, an Iraqi interpreter with dyed red hair and a pair of hip-holstered pistols whom the soldiers nickname “Two Guns,” and an eye-catching beauty who strides by just before an RPG strikes Turner’s vehicle. His description of watching its perfect approach has me watching, in my mind’s eye, the head-on, slow-motion, choreographed RPG flight through the orchard in Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir.

Is this striding beauty Freyja, “the goddess of love and fertility, battle and death”? Is she the Vietnamese night shade Yusef Komunyakaa and Robert Olen Butler have written about, the woman on the mountain pass who sometimes saves, sometimes devours, always seduces? 


My Life as a Foreign Country doesn’t always seduce me.

The metaphor of an outgoing mortar round described as “metal given an irrevocable intention” loses its force when later Turner lobs at us weapons firing with “metallic elocution” and the imagined kamikaze’s “ineluctable steps.” You can get away with the irrevocable once in a slender read, but not if you follow it with the inexorable, the ineluctable, and the inevitable, not to mention the inscrutable. The metallic elocution is further spoiled by “Death’s cold and metallic invitation,” and the book’s several other figurative articulations and enunciations. For my tastes, there’s too much dramatic breathing (and exhaling and expiring). The book’s diction and rhythm sometimes clench too tightly after the profound: “After another deep exhalation of breath, Esposito simply leans forward to press his forehead against the [shower] stall’s blue plastic molding. He is leaning his forehead against the abiding structure of the world, pressing his neocortex
and the frontal lobe against its inscrutable nature.”


In the last section, Turner or a Turner avatar undergoes a Native American ritual that he finds restorative and that I instantly connect with Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, about a young Laguna Pueblo veteran of the Second World War who requires a ritual journey to return home in spirit as well as body. Both ceremonies embed poetry. Turner’s wife’s traveling to Iraq and pulling him back into their bedroom, into life, is his ceremony’s final act; Silko’s Tayo too needs an otherworldly lover to complete his ceremonial journey, their mutual orgasms joined by a drought-ending downpour. Silko weaves Tayo’s recovery around the community’s salvation: it saves him and itself, he saves it and himself, a double-helix for peace.

Wait a minute. Tayo isn’t simply a veteran needing his enemy’s blood washed away. He’s a Native American whose ancestors were decimated and displaced by the white man’s armies and who was caught up in the white man’s global war, in the Pacific, against people who look like more his own than those ordering him to kill them. Turner wants us to associate his ceremony with the cleansing rituals for returning Vietnamese warriors of bygone eras while very nearly daring us to forget the book’s several mentions of the Unites States’ centuries-long frontier wars, very nearly daring us not to drag Michael Herr’s Dispatches into the conversation with its Richard Slotkin-inspired hypothesis that “Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along” (a hypothesis visually taken up for Iraq by The Hurt Locker).

But Turner doesn’t ask us to forget. He actually reminds us that “in 1637, John Endicott landed on the[se] shores…with an armed group of English colonists bent on killing the native men, women and children” and “initiating what turned into the Pequot War.”

The complexity rends the book open. It challenges me to make sense of it, to make sense of it all. 


“How does anyone leave a war behind them, no matter what war it is, and somehow walk into the rest of his life?” It took years to answer that question for myself. Nevertheless, the danger of excerpting this line out of context, as surely will be done at Veterans’ Day ceremonies or in epigraphs for texts that don’t know better, worries me. We must be careful not to perpetuate a myth of certain maladjustment, or to romanticize that myth. The promise of transformation and of admittance into the coterie of those who have served was one of the reasons Turner went to war, after all. Leaving war behind, going home, getting on with civilian life — these are some people’s, some generations’, luxuries. But Turner’s book also knows that Iraqis have been in constant war, in their backyards, in their front yards, for decades. As I write this review, the ISIS surge has brought the war out of remission. Turner revises the list of what soldiers carried into target houses with the list of pharmaceuticals that carry them through post-war life. The rows of VA-supplied pill bottles I see on the kitchen table of an American veteran of the Vietnam war in Coco Schrijber’s film First Kill: do we think we’d see such an assembly on an Iraqi kitchen table? 


There are flamethrowers, napalm, and machetes in his family’s war stories. Turner’s kin fought in some of the bloodiest American battles of the last century. To write “We rode on a war elephant made of steel” is to relate and differentiate. My Life as a Foreign Country begins to be a history lesson after all: “We know our prelude will be different from the trenches of the First World War or the front lines of Korea….Our battle space — and perhaps it’s a cliché now — will occur in a 360-degree, three-dimensional environment. When we entered the desert, the available calculus involved in the creation of any new moment changed.”

Now I want to relate instead of differentiate. Weren’t the jungles of the Pacific and of Vietnam, and the Second World War’s urban combat in Europe, all-around environments? Aren’t most civil wars, most irregular wars, most small wars, most small-unit engagements — that is, most combat?

Turner and I are both dancing around the sameness and difference whenever boots hit the ground. Yet something has changed, something has changed even from my Iraq war, something approaching a paradigm shift. It’s not the drones, or not just the drones. But as with helicopters for the war in Vietnam, they may have become, after IEDs anyway, this war’s tail-end synecdoche. 


My Life as a Foreign Country ends with the memoir-as-drone conceit with which it began: “Sgt. Turner is dead,” yet stays at his drone operator post, where he will “maintain his standoff distance” to “monitor the heat signatures of the living,” specifically Turner’s civilian self and his wife curled together in bed. In the epilogue Turner has unmelded himself from the drone, has divorced himself of the good sergeant while fully aware this other self will always be watching the target house.

Sgt. Turner’s death, however, doesn’t completely exorcise the prologue’s book-as-drone conceit, a conceit I’m curious to pressure beyond the epilogue. We glimpse its flight throughout the memoir. At one point Turner imagines pilots inside a control connex (which itself could be sitting anywhere in the world, “there’s no way to tell from the inside”) flipping back and forth between black-hot and white-hot, chatting about ice cream recipes from a South African website, mostly bored and trying “to stay awake” — except when on a mission, when they watch “human heat signatures” stumbling as they run away. “To haunt. This is the drone pilot’s charter.” To haunt and to hunt, to kill, from a position of security and boredom, from the comfort of air conditioning, and from a distance.

The memoir-as-drone now menaces, another weapon in the American arsenal. That Turner could write it, that we can read it and marvel at it and meditate upon it, is a luxury born as all luxuries are on the sufferings of others, like the dead soldiers’ teeth adorning rich people’s mouths in the nineteenth century that Turner so marvellously describes. Dare we read the memoir as wrestling with its own complicity and guilt, not just as the work of a veteran, but of a citizen, a twenty-first century globalized American writing his memoir in sixteen different countries? What, after all, is the market for Afghani war memoirs in the Korengal Valley, much less for criticism of war memoirs? The drone’s sinister surveillance of bedrooms and kitchens perhaps even taints the memoir’s imagined entries into other people’s lives.

To rephrase Susan Sontag’s paraphrased maxim from Regarding the Pain of Others, “Nobody can read a book and hit someone at the same time.” My meditation on Turner’s meditation defies this simple mutual exclusivity. The luxury to read and write can itself constitute violence, even if we aren’t, as bored drone pilots have reported doing, actually peeping in on lovers as their heat signatures merge. I reconsider the memoir’s conflation of bellicose machinery and belletristic utterance. I read Turner’s achingly beautiful landscapes and battlescapes, his reconstructions of his grandfather’s service, the abundance of resonances, and I ache with the privilege.


This essay was first published in Open Letters Monthly on 1 Jan. 2015--my deep appreciation to Rohan Maitzen and her colleagues for their willingness to run it and their great edits. Also thanks to colleagues and friends Dorian Stuber, for putting me in touch with Open Letters, and Pat Hoy, for his revision feedback. This essay would never have been written without the prompting of George Kovach of Consequence, whose editing also made for a much finer final piece.