By Kevin Basl
Below are two introductions I prepared for AWP 2018 (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), an annual conference attended by over 10,000 people. On top of an off-site performance at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, Tampa, Warrior Writers and the Combat Hippies had two on-site events: Subverting the Stereotypes: Performances by Warrior Writers and Combat Hippies and Humanizing "the Enemy": Veterans Share Poetry of Reconciliation. Lovella Calica, director of Warrior Writers, also sat on a panel called Above, Beyond and After Duty: Teaching Creative Writing to Veterans.
Subverting the Stereotypes: Performances by Warrior Writers and Combat Hippies
Today's Warrior Writers and Combat Hippies shared reading is about challenging veteran stereotypes through poetry. With only .4% of the American population currently serving in the military, and roughly 7% representing living veterans, it's no wonder where the stereotypes come from. Just one example, people generally don't have a good understanding of what day-to-day military life is like. Most service members perform support roles closer to blue collar jobs, rarely seeing the kind of combat action Hollywood churns out.
Veterans often stay quiet about their service. How many of us had "silent veteran" family members growing up? But if we veterans don't share what we experienced both during and following military service, than others will do it for us. And as we've seen recently, we will be used as political props to shame athletes who choose to take a knee during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality and racism, we will be used to shame those who speak out against U.S. forever wars, saying they don't "support the troops." This slogan is described succinctly by David L. Parsons in his 2017 book Dangerous Grounds: Antiwar Coffeehouses and Military Dissent in the the Vietnam Era. He says, "The historical revisionism embedded in the phrase [support the troops] conflates respect for soldiers with support for war policy, and dissent with contempt for the troops." The misguided military “hero worship” we continue to see at sporting events and in political venues—a symptom of both American exceptionalism and commercialism—allows U.S. militarism to go unchecked, while stifling dialogue about how and why the U.S. employs its fighting forces.
Stereotypes that seem to persist are that veterans are conservative-leaning, pro-gun, unquestionably proud of their service. And certainly race, gender, sexuality, disability and religion play-in too. The image of the white, male, buff and tough service member is what we often see on advertisements and in movies. Stereotypes, of course, are sometimes used to work against veterans and service members, dividing us from our communities. For example, the story of activists spitting on troops returning from Vietnam persists today. As Jerry Lemke argues in his book the Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam there's not a single recorded instance--no articles, no news stories, no police reports--that document such behavior. Yet we hear this story all the time. Why would an antiwar activist want to anger those who could most effectively stop the war machine in its tracks? Why not organize with antiwar service members? What such stereotypes and myths serve to do is fracture us, to keep veterans and service members from organizing with civilian activists against racism, sexism, militarism and so on.
Something often overlooked is the robust history of veteran and service member dissent in the United States, diverse peoples' movements that have advocated for veterans benefits, ending a war, gay rights, Native rights, and have even built bridges with those peoples once considered enemies. Such veteran "countercultures" have produced a wealth of art, poetry, music, performances, etc. The Bonus Army of 1932, for example, brought some 30,000 veterans together organizing a massive occupation of Washington DC, to demand back pay for their service in World World I. Black and white veterans lived together in a makeshift encampment which was essentially a fully functioning city--significant because this was during the Jim Crow era. They performed music, speeches, read poetry and demonstrated till they were routed out by the U.S. army.
During the Vietnam War, active duty G.I.'s published DIY newspapers--over two hundred titles existed--which included articles, poetry, graphics, posters, comics, etc. Vietnam Veterans Against the War would host "rap groups" for veterans, where they could talk about their traumas, sessions which would ultimately lead to PTSD becoming recognized by the V.A. and psychiatry at large. VVAW also published poetry collections that spoke to such topics, with Winning Hearts and Minds (in 1972) and Demilitarized Zones in 1976.
These are just a couple examples of a tradition that continues today, veterans using art and poetry to raise awareness and challenge preconceived notions, as our reader-performers will demonstrate. Today we'll hear work from representatives of two of these communities: Warrior Writers and the Combat Hippies.
Humanizing "the Enemy": Veterans Share Poetry of Reconciliation
Maxine Hong Kingston writes in the introduction to her 2006 anthology of veteran writing, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace: "As Odysseus, the archetypical warrior, made his way home, he narrated his journey--setting off to war, waging the long war, coming home--to listener after listener. The story grew until, finally home, he could tell the whole tale and become whole. We tell stories and we listen to stories in order to live. To stay conscious. To connect one with another. To understand consequences. To keep history. To rebuild civilization."
Today's reading and discussion is about story-telling and poetry that turns attention towards those people some may have once considered "the other," or enemies. It's about making a gesture--however small--towards reconciliation with those peoples the United States has attacked and occupied since 9/11. It's about veterans using some of the positive attention and airtime they've been given over the past decade-plus to highlight the struggles of those who are often marginalized or silenced--those who usually don't get a platform to speak.
Literature, of course, helps us know and experience other cultures, feel other people's burdens, their celebrations, their political and social realities. Poetry can help veterans not only better articulate and understand their own war experiences but also help them realize how similar they really are to those once considered "enemies," whether soldiers or civilians.
Some veterans go a step further. Sean Mclain Brown writes in his contribution to Veterans of War, Veterans for Peace: "I know now, as many Vietnam veterans have learned, that I will never be fully whole until I revisit Iraq and make peace with the people I once falsely believed were my enemies. I long for that day."
Many veterans have returned to the countries where they once fought, to find inner peace, to learn, to create, to do what they can to help right their wrongs. Pulitizer-prize nominated poet and former AWP president Bruce Weigl is just one example. In his memoir Circle of Hanh he depicts his experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War, later learning the language and becoming a translator of Vietnamese poetry, and eventually returning to adopt his Vietnamese daughter. Bruce continues to make yearly visits to Vietnam.
Roy Scranton, Benjamin Busch, Brian Turner and Aaron Hughes, as well other veterans, have returned to Iraq and shared their experiences in writing and performances upon coming home to the U.S. Other veterans have gone back to Afghanistan, like Jacob George who, before his passing in 2014, wrote about that experience in song. While the current violence and social unrest in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East may make it dangerous for veterans to go to Iraq at this moment, there's still much we can do here in the U.S. We can help refugees--especially those displaced by U.S. wars--find homes, jobs and make them feel welcome in their communities. We can advocate for them. We can learn more about their cultures. Art and poetry projects can function as a first step, as a way to foster connections.
This reading and discussion features veterans of the post-9/11 wars who are involved in projects attempting to do just that.