At Columbia Journal, we believe the stories and voices of our service members should be celebrated within creative communities and circulated among the people for whom they served. In honor of Veterans Day 2017, we have invited guest editor Brian Castner to curate writing and creative expressions concerning the military experience.
Guest Editor Brian Castner is a nonfiction writer, former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War. He is the bestselling author of All the Ways We Kill and Die and the war memoir The Long Walk, which was adapted into an opera and named a New York Times Editor’s Pick and an Amazon Best Book. His journalism and essays have appeared in the New York Times, WIRED, Esquire, Boston Globe Magazine, VICE, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Buzzfeed, The Daily Beast, and on National Public Radio. He is the co-editor of The Road Ahead, a collection of short stories featuring veteran writers, and has twice received grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, to cover the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014, and to paddle the 1200 mile Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean in 2016. His newest book, Disappointment River, will be published by Doubleday in the spring of 2018.
Letter from the Editor
A term like “hyper-political” doesn’t even begin to describe our current national mood, and so little wonder that, on this Veteran’s Day, military service is a cudgel like any other.
Football players taking a knee during the national anthem are disrespecting our troops—no, they are exercising the free speech our soldiers fought to defend. Bowe Bergdahl got off disgracefully easy—no, it was fair, because no military punishment could top Bergdahl’s five years of Taliban torture. Niger is Benghazi. Russia is our frenemy. John Kelly, the former Marine general and President’s chief of staff, is either beyond reproach or a liar, depending on the moment.
Lately, even when I turn on mild-mannered NPR, it seems most stories start this way: “Now we’re going to talk about the controversy surrounding……” A brand new parody Twitter account, @Iamthewarax, has gained immediate fame by claiming to speak for all veterans. That’s the joke; such a thing is impossible.
So it feels naïve, and more than a bit foolish, to ever hope that words like “veteran” or “military service” will be apolitical. They never have been, of course, so let’s not have nostalgia for a time that did not exist. But this particular national moment, the one in which we are all stuck, feels particularly bipolar, veterans as heroes or victims and little else.
So this Veteran’s Day, let me—proudly, as the guest editor—recommend the work of Tricia Knoll, Joseph Levens, and Eric Chandler, three voices from the wilderness that introduce some thoughtful nuance to upset our political dichotomy.
Each of these talented writers start the reader someplace familiar, the veteran experience as we think we know it. We encounter the veteran as homeless, an all too common sight. Or in a letter from overseas, a classic treatment. Or in protest, frustrated that no one seems to care about an ongoing war. As Knoll writes, “no one asks for whom the bombed bells broke.”
But then each writer moves beyond this easy trope to something surprising and empathetic and real. The unseemly sense of superiority among many veterans, that we know something the rest of America doesn’t. Taking account of the web of loyalties in one’s family tree. The shame of keeping secrets, and responsibility to remember. All of these works show how, in the veteran experience, the war is often just the start of the struggle. The conflict echoes. Some grow stronger, some crumble under the weight, but all are changed.
These pieces are subversive in their humanity, and, I hope, a small antidote to simple narratives, this Veterans Day.