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Fighting words

Soldiers are telling their war stories one way or another, through blogs, e-mails, and letters home. Now thanks to a partnership between the military and the arts community, they are learning from authors like Tom Clancy and Tobias Wolff how to turn their battlefield experiences into books.

At 61, Army National Guardsman Sergeant First Class Frederick A. Coe Jr. is a baldheaded barrel of a man who talks with a salty Western Massachusetts drawl and has decades of service under his belt. He was even officially recognized as the oldest enlisted military policeman in Iraq. However, his only brushes with the battlefield took place just recently, on two deployments, the first to Bagram, Afghanistan, in the late summer of 2002, the second to Balad, Iraq, in the spring of 2003, both with the 211th Military Police Battalion, out of Lexington. While this call to arms in the autumn of his life wasn’t easy, Coe, who lives in East Bridgewater and is married with five grown children, embraced his duty, knowing that it would bring him one long-sought prize - his own war stories - which he plans to write after he retires next year. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “But I never thought it would be anything meaningful.” On September 11, 2001, Coe started to keep a daily journal. Then he spent more than a year protecting Bagran air base, confronting Afghan warlords at tribal checkpoints, and running convoys through a gantlet of kill zones across the Iraqi desert in Humvees armored only with sandbags. Along the way, he continued to chronicle his daily experiences.

Coe may find help getting his war onto the printed page through Operation Homecoming, an innovative National Endowment for the Arts program. The NEA, in an improbable partnership with the Defense Deparment, has enlisted renowned writers, including Tom Clancy, Tobias Wolff, and Bobbie Ann Mason, to lead writing workshops for troops who have served on active duty since 9/11. Some of the writers are veterans themselves, including Wolff, Joe Haldeman, and Daniel Rifenburgh. The workshops began last summer and will last until this summer. For troops who can’t attend, the NEA offers online tutorials, editing assistance, and a CD narrated by writers like James Salter, author of the novel The Hunters, and Pulitzer-winning poet Louis Simpson, on how they came to capture their own narratives. “To my knowledge,” says NEA chairman Dana Gioia, himself a poet, “this is the only program like this in history that happened right when the event was going on.”

Gioia hatched the idea for Operation Homecoming almost two years ago over drinks at a New Hampshire tavern with an old friend, Marilyn Nelson, who is Connecticut’s poet laureate and the daughter of a career Air Force officer. Part of that discussion, says Nelson, “was about the course I taught at West Point, `Poetry and Meditation,’ and part was about the teaching I’d done at the Joiner Center at UMass-Boston, which was founded for Vietnam vets. A lot of the vets in the program suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder - people who were waking and having screaming nightmares about things that happened 40 years ago, and I suspect that’s because they didn’t get them out - and several of the ideas [Gioia and I] were tossing back and forth was if it might be possible for the soldiers of this generation to avoid that by having something like what was happening in my class.”

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Coe, who has returned home and is still serving full time with the Guard, would be a great candidate for the NEA initiative. He spends every free moment he can maintaining his journal in an attempt to bookend his war experiences with his opinions on the situation in Iraq. “Every time I think of something, I write it down,” he says. “Every time I see something on TV, I will comment on it - what my thoughts are about what I’m seeing on TV, and what I think the reality is over there. I’ve just been trying to get notes down.”

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Coe hasn’t yet drafted a narrative from his notes and letters, but his compulsion to write joins him with a remarkable fraternity of authors - Homer (The Iliad), Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead), Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), and more recently Anthony Swofford (Jarhead) - who have followed the ageless impulse to put the wartime experience down on paper.

As the art of war has evolved, so, too, have the artists who capture it. Soldiers in the digital age aren’t waiting for the interest of a publisher or permission from their employer - the military - to tell their stories. They’re setting up websites and blogs from the front and posting logs on the Internet. A number of bloggers with writing chops to match their popularity have provided a much-needed supplement to the news media’s reporting of on-the-ground operations in a war that has so far claimed the lives of more than 1,400 US troops.

One that has drawn attention is run by Operation Truth (optruth.org), a veterans advocacy group started by former infantry platoon leader Paul Rieckhoff; its website features both blogs and stories from Rieckhoff and others. “I’d write my girlfriend letters before we got e-mail up,” says Rieckhoff, “and she would transcribe the letters into e-mail and blast it to a few hundred people who knew me or were colleagues, and then it developed into a following.”

Another celebrated blog, and probably the most controversial, is Army Specialist Colby Buzzell’s My War (cbftw.blogspot.com). Buzzell’s blog received up to 10,000 hits a day, until he was pressured by the Army to stop posting entries just three months after he began writing last year. Vivid accounts like the one contained in this excerpt from Buzzell’s July 29, 2004, posting, “I Don’t Want to Live Alone,” might explain the Army’s trepidation:

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We received a Warning Order for this raid yesterday, and today we received the OP (Operation) Order. This one was a pretty big mission, with a very high profile target. After dinner chow we performed rehearsals. ... We go over the raid countless times....

I never take uppers like caffeine pills, Hydroxycuts, Ripped Fuels, Red Bulls, or any of that heart attack crap before a raid, because as soon as you show up to the target house and that ramp drops and you dismount from the back of the vehicle, your heart is going a thousand RPMs and you’re wide awake from the adrenaline....

Anyways, it was at night and the target house was in a way old school neighborhood.... My shoulders were killing me from carrying the battering ram.... We communicated with soft whispers. ... We stacked outside the main door. Once that door was taken down, we ... stormed in there as fast as we could, weapons up, and cleared the room.... These people never knew what hit them. We busted in right when they were having dinner. Scared the living [expletive] out of them. Half a dozen little kids, a woman in traditional all black Arabic clothing, and the target individual, all sitting around this small table full of food. ... The kids were screaming in fear and crying and so was the lady.... We separated the target individual ... tied his hands up with a plastic zip tie and put a blindfold on him. ... The Iraqi lady was hysterically hitting herself in the chest repeatedly and sobbing something in Arabic.... “Don’t take him away, I don’t want to live alone.” ... But this guy that we got was a real piece of [expletive], killed an [expletive] of innocent people ... and a lot of Iraqi people are spending the rest of their lives alone because of this scumbag.

Operation Homecoming plans to publish an anthology by spring 2006 and so far has received some 750 essays, short stories, poems, log entries, blogs, and e-mail exchanges, through workshops and from troops and their spouses. The NEA will accept submissions until this summer and has hired war archivist Andrew Carroll, the editor of the books War Letters and the forthcoming Behind the Lines. A 14-member panel of writers, including Nelson, will help Carroll select submissions for the anthology, which will be sold in bookstores and distributed free to schools and libraries on military bases.

“When I started talking to people, I was shocked at how many veterans were throwing away their letters,” says Carroll about his quest to preserve war correspondence, which took him to 35 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, for Behind the Lines. “Whether you’re going off with a musket or an M-16, going to D-day or you’re fighting in Fallujah, it’s a life-and-death experience for those people, and it creates a lot of emotions. They need to get certain things off their chest. Even though they’re trying to project stoicism and strength and so forth, they’re human beings. And we encourage them: ‘Don’t delete your e-mails, print it out, save it, you’ll be glad you did.’“

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The sixth Operation Homecoming workshop, in September, takes place in the strip-malled military city of Norfolk, Virginia. By the end of the summer, 20 bases and hospitals will have hosted workshops, which are supported by a $450,000 sponsorship from the Boeing Co. Today’s teacher is Tom Clancy, which explains why a half-dozen television crews line the walls of the dining room in the naval station’s Breezy Point Officers’ Club. Clancy presses his palms against the lectern for balance. His flush boyish face soaks up the applause from the 100-plus crowd of military personnel who have come to hear the best-selling author expound on the fundamentals of writing war stories.

Among this flock is Buzzell, who, having joined his wife in New York on a mid-tour leave from Iraq, drove hundreds of miles to Norfolk for the workshop. “A couple of my readers emailed the people at the NEA about my writings, and they contacted me,” says Buzzell, who’s at work on a book and plans to submit a story to Operation Homecoming. “I checked out their website and noticed that a lot of really great writers were doing these workshops to help soldiers write about their wartime experience. I thought it was right up my alley, because I was doing a lot of writing in Iraq.”

“The object of writing is to be read,” Clancy, the apotheosis of the commercial writer, tells the audience. “The more people read you, the more money you make.” Brandishing a shiny object between his fingers, he says, “That’s a key to a Mercedes-Benz.

“Now I don’t really talk about money all that much, because if you talk about it, you don’t have enough of it, but you get rewarded in our society by doing good work, and they reward you with money. People buy your book, you get paid for it. Just like you can get paid for digging a ditch or driving a cab.” To Clancy, who’s never been on the field of battle, writing is a profession, not a calling; a cash cow, not a catharsis. “I’m not a shrink, I’m not a priest,” he says. “ `Catharsis’ sounds like some kind of Greek drink.”

Yet for people like Buzzell and Frederick Coe, who had wanted to attend but could not, catharsis may be the one thing writing will give them.

“I really disagree with Tom Clancy on this,” says Nelson as we sit at one of the ivory-clothed dining tables, after Clancy’s workshop has ended. Nelson, daughter of one of the Tuskegee Airmen - the pioneering legion of African-American military pilots who trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, during World War II - is the undercard to Clancy. Her writing workshop, the following day, draws a crowd one-fifth the size of the blockbuster author’s; her thoughts are very different from Clancy’s. “It’s not all about making big money and getting big advances,” she says. “It’s about having a story that’s burning inside of you and learning how to write it, and the only way you’re going to learn how to write is by reading and practicing writing.”

Jon Peede, the director of Operation Homecoming, says of the workshops approach: “Some people are going to be deeply focused on the fundamentals of reading for years and years, and the mechanics of becoming a writer through trial and error, and then there are people like Clancy who cook it down to willpower. I think that it’s good to have both points of view. Some people respond to one style of teaching, some to another.”

In light of these differences, I asked five other veterans-turned-writers -Anthony Swofford, Tim O’Brien, and Tobias Wolff, as well as Buzzell and Rieckhoff - for their thoughts on the workshops and how veterans should actually go about writing their war stories.

Rieckhoff believes the process is all about catharsis: “I think it’s just understanding the urgency of what [soldiers are] experiencing and how important it is to America and also to the world and wanting to give people a glimpse into what is going on over there. I think it’s going to take that first film or that first book that gets it right before people really start to understand.”

Buzzell isn’t star-struck by Clancy and has never read his books, but he does agree with one of his observations. “Hearing him just reconfirmed what I already thought was the key to writing, which was to just write if you want to write,” he says. “Just buy a laptop and write; either you have it or you don’t.”

As someone who has both attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and served as a Marine sniper in the Gulf War, Swofford, now a contributing editor at Details magazine, believes the Operation Homecoming program is a fine idea; yet he expresses reservations about the workshop environment: Soldiers “are sitting on base, in a classroom, wearing their fatigues. Writing is about freedom, and I’m quite certain that to a young grunt who’s just come back from the Iraq war, that that environment doesn’t feel like a real free environment, that he won’t feel like that’s a place where he can really express himself.”

Swofford also wonders if he had attended a workshop after his return from war whether his memoir would have turned out differently and perhaps not have been as successful. “I would have still been within the machinery of the Marine Corps,” he says. “The meditative space, the philosophical space that’s necessary to really enter the reality of combat . . . is something that takes some time.” This, Swofford reasons, is why it took him 10 years, which he spent reading, writing, and going back to school, to write the brutally frank Jarhead.

Wolff, who wrote the acclaimed novella The Barracks Thief and the memoir In Pharaoh’s Army, agrees that emotional space beyond the military is crucial, and he plans on stressing this point during his Operation Homecoming workshop at California’s Camp Pendleton this month. “I want to talk to them about purging themselves of the official language - to learn a very direct and uncluttered language - and get beyond that armor of official speak that they would have taken on almost in spite of themselves,” says Wolff. “You get overwhelmed and bombarded by sensory and psychological experiences in a situation like that, and they have to sift for a while before they make sense of them.”

The immediate task, says Wolff, is setting down the memories of war, which “you think that you’ll remember forever when you go through it, but you don’t.”

“These returning soldiers will have a store of detail and observation that they may not even be aware that they have,” he says, “and that’s the kind of thing that, if they can tap into it and get it down now, will become a very rich resource for them later on.”

O’Brien, author of the National Book Award-winning novel Going After Cacciato, says that for any would-be writer who’s survived the experience, the narratives of war are nearly unavoidable. “If you have a temperament that’s disposed to being a writer, you’ll probably end up writing about life-and-death material,” says O’Brien. War “is ready-built for a writer. The stakes are high, and the issues are universal and permanent.” Though he isn’t sure if he would have attended an NEA-like workshop had it been offered after his return from Vietnam in 1970, O’Brien says that the Iraq war’s chaos and ambiguity echo the feelings he experienced in Vietnam, and that Operation Homecoming promises to be helpful. “It’s always a good idea to talk and write things out,” he says.

While Operation Homecoming may owe a debt to writers like Nelson, Wolff, and Clancy, in the end, its success is up to soldiers like Frederick Coe, Colby Buzzell, and Paul Rieckhoff, the men who not only lived to tell their tales but are learning how to tell them.