March 23, 2010

Special Abu Muqawama Q&A: Six Questions for Matt Gallagher

I picked up the paper this morning to see that Bing West has written a fantastic review of Matt Gallagher's new book, Kaboomir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0306818809, for the Wall Street Journal. I think you all know by now how much I loved this book and how much I am encouraging readers of this blog to buy it. I liked Kaboomir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0306818809 so much, in fact, that I forced Matt to answer some questions.

1. I’m going to get right down to it: this is my favorite memoir to be published by a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wrote my own quickly-forgotten memoirir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1592401376, of course, and have read quite a few more because my friends keep writing them. So far, the two most popular memoirs written by junior officers have been those written by Nate Fickir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0618773436 and Craig Mullaneyir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1594202028. And in a lot of ways, their well-written memoirs are reflections of the writers themselves: thoughtful, earnest, accomplished … and almost too good to be true. One of the things that has always struck me about Craig and Nate – and I consider them both friends – is how damn earnest they are. Their memoirs reflect two hard-working, selfless platoon leaders who live and die by the welfare of their men. I read and greatly enjoyed both of their memoirs, but as I finished them, I thought to myself, “Damn, is that what I should have been like?” Sometimes I wonder, as I pin up a photoshopped GQ cover (with Nate’s face replacing that of Rachel Bilson) in our office kitchen, whether or not I should feel guilty for having as much fun as I did as a platoon leader in combat. Yes, the constant grind of missions was brutal, and bivouacs on 12,000-foot peaks in eastern Afghanistan in March are never fun, but what about all the hilarity that goes hand-in-hand with a tight-knit group of men at war? I mean, maybe I’m just a much bigger smart-ass than Craig or Nate (or E. B. Sledge or Tim O'Brienir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=054739117X for that matter), but one of the things that I have always found to be missing from war memoirs has been the humor, the banter, and the absurdities of living with a group of young men of the Anchormanir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=B00005JMYI generation. Until now, that is. Man, you really nailed it. My first question is, how in the world did you so faithfully represent the back-and-forth, smart-assed dialogue that takes place within a combat arms platoon at war?

It was important to me to capture that element of war because it was so vital to my platoon’s experience and my own personal experience. Humor is one of a soldier’s survival tools, and it has been for far longer than the GWOT wars. I remember reading Norman Mailer’s novel, The Naked and the Dead, the summer before I left for college and being shocked that the Greatest Generation joked so crudely. But of course they did. It helped remind them that they were alive, that their present wasn’t their eternity. And we of the “Anchorman” generation, as you put it, did the very same thing, albeit with the ironic quirkiness and sarcasm of our era.

So, I made a point of scrawling down the more hilarious quips and events of our time in Iraq, both for the Kaboom blog (when it was still active) and for the sake of posterity. I’m paraphrasing the old adage about war – that it’s constant boredom interrupted by fleeting moments of terror. Well, what fills up that constant boredom? It’s not just pulling security or moving sandbags or cleaning weapons. There are a lot of dick jokes to be told. A lot.

As for the natural comparisons to Nate Fick’s and Craig Mullaney’s books – I’ve read both and enjoyed both immensely. And they both seem like great guys and even greater platoon leaders. But their way isn’t the only way. They’re gladiators. That isn’t me. I found that the most important thing a platoon leader can do is to be authentic with his men, as soldiers can sniff out frauds and phonies like bloodhounds. So, I played to my leadership strengths, turned to my NCOs to help me out with my weaknesses, and that turned out to be a pretty simple recipe for success.

So yeah, there’s a reason Craig Mullaney’s website has a video of him boxing a gigantic Robo-major to near-death with only one working shoulder, whereas mine has one of my soldiers teaching me the “Crank That” rap dance. Play to your strengths, future LTs, play to your strengths!

Also, Ex, don’t sell yourself short. Your memoir is solid and a vital part of the junior officer memoir library. I’m pretty sure you were the trailblazer in our little slice of the literary world, so embrace that. I’m not kissing your ass, either, because I still own you at foosball.

2. So true. I was half in the bag at that point in the evening, but usually my foosball gets better the more I drink.

Your “voice” in this memoir is really unique. You go back and forth between stream-of-conscience reflection and hyper-realistic narrative and dialogue. What was your idea for this memoir when you first started writing it. What did you want it to be?

In addition to enjoying writing in both of those styles, I think they both reflect the deployment experience, albeit in very different ways. While conducting ops, you're forced to take on a hyper-realistic mental state, in an effort to detach yourself from the severity of what you're actually doing and where you actually are. I'll still catch myself remembering moments in Iraq, and have to remind myself that "yeah, that actually happened and we actually did that." But in the moment, you can't get bogged down by that, so you rely on the mere momentum of action to carry you through. At the same time, there was a lot of time for reflection in Iraq - either during long, boring missions or back at the outpost, during recovery. That's when the stream of consciousness kicks in, and anyone who’s been deployed can attest to the dangers of thinking too much over there.

My only goal for Kaboom ahead of time was for it to be an accurate portrayal of our experience in Iraq. I think I accomplished that, and hope it resonates with others who had similar experiences, and/or with people interested in learning more about what it means to send off our nation’s soldiers off to war.

Now that I’ve completed the book, I’m shooting for something a little grander in scope. Counterinsurgency is a great buzz word now, and a sweeping strategic vision, but tactically speaking, it’s messy and not conducive to instantaneous fulfillment. I’ve read a lot of great books about COIN, but I didn’t find too many that described in detail the ground experience for junior officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers. I really hope “Kaboom” helps out some cheeky platoon leader twenty years from now who has no idea what counterinsurgency means to him or his guys, but does like to read. Even if this only happens once, I’ll consider this endeavor a success.

3. To what degree was this memoir a logical extension of your much-loved, short-lived blog?

I never intended to turn the blog into a book. It honestly – I swear to Allah - started out as a medium to communicate with family and friends, and as a way for me to chronicle our days and nights. Then it evolved into a personal catharsis. And then it evolved into a case study for how to get into trouble without ever really getting into trouble. Luck of the Irish, that, and all thanks to my strict observance of OPSEC.

In terms of the finished product, I think readers of the blog will recognize style similarities and a few of the earlier stories. I’m obviously free to write more honestly and candidly than I did on the blog, though. And the benefit of an actual editing process, and its impact on the quality of the writing, cannot go unstated.

4. You seem like the kind of guy that might never enjoy a job as much as you did leading the Gravediggers in combat. I know the feeling but have been pleasantly surprised to find out how much I enjoy life outside the U.S. Army. On the one hand, I miss it every day, but on the other hand, I never regret leaving. The opportunities I have received on “the outside” have just been awesome. (Plus, I never would have met Lady Muqawama.) What is next for you? Where do you see yourself in five years?

I honestly have no idea, and frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm still young enough - or immature enough, depending on your take of such matters - that the thought of being permanently settled to a place or a job scares the hell out of me. I'm going to grad school next year for Middle Eastern history/Islamic studies, and if I end up doing something with that, great. But I'm going back simply because I enjoy learning about those subjects, and think that I have something to contribute because of my own experiences.

You're right about the job thing, I miss being a platoon leader in combat greatly, and worry that I'll never get a thrill like that again. While civilian life has its perks (sleeping in past dawn! Beatles hair!), I don't think most veterans ever accept its banality. I certainly haven't. But I drifted into the military and into that job, so I'm hoping that I'll drift into something else just as invigorating and enlightening. I miss the people in the Army every day. I don't really miss the Army.

Wherever I'm at mentally and physically in five years, I'll be writing. Fiction, non-fiction, Dear Abby columns - it's the only thing I enjoy as much as I did being a PL, albeit in a much different, introspective way. Leading the Gravediggers was straight social channeling, homie, and enough of an extrovert exercise to last me a decade.

5. I was at church last Sunday and ended up striking up a conversation with a new congregant who happened to be from my hometown. For a while, we were talking about Chattanooga and churches there, but then we both realized we had served in Iraq and were then talking, after the service but still in our pew, about the war. This guy was telling me about his battalion commander, and – still in church, mind – said to me: “Do you know him? No? Yeah, he was a fucking douchebag … Wait, am I allowed to say that in church?” Needless to say, I was rolling with laughter. Sometimes – and it doesn’t matter where you are – the old U.S. Army vernacular slips out. What will you take from your Iraq experience with you into the brave new world of civilian life? Any quirks you have kept? Anything your girlfriend notices that just stands out?

Well, my propensity to use the word fuck, in pretty much any form of speech, is still there, as well. That seems to be a universal gift from the military to its former soldiers and retirees. My family has accepted this, but it tends to shake up both strangers and the meek. Lady Kaboom (better known as City Girl to long-time readers of my blog) thinks I order around civilians too much, especially when they’re moving slowly and are in my way. And what’s with all the fat people out here? Don’t they have tape tests? Other than that, just the standard combat veteran dislikes for honking cabs and slamming dumpster lids.

6. Guinness – specifically, pints and cans of it – occupies a privileged place in your narrative. The last question in these interviews always revolves around food and drink. Where can one get the best pint of Guinness in the United States? Name specific bars, please, as our readers demand it.

Let me preface this by saying that Guinness outside of Ireland is dirt. Granted, this dirt still tastes better than all of the other beers in the world, but still, don’t be fooled into thinking that the Irish don’t horde the best for themselves. I studied near Dublin for a semester during college, and spent way too much time sampling the Black Stuff. So I have to include at least one genuine Irish pub. I’ll follow your United States restriction for the remaining recommendations.

1) The Roost, Maynooth, Ireland

2) White Horse Tavern, West Village, New York City – Crusty bartenders, cranky locals, and the place where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. A little too touristy now to be a consistent watering hole, but you can still feel the ghosts in there. Especially after a few pints of Guinness. Some words of warning, though – don’t feed the yuppies! Or the hipsters. Damn, dirty hipsters …

Yeah, this is one of my favorite bars, and they serve a mean pint. But if I'm in the Village, I usually walk over to Swift for Guinness. Anyway, #3...

3) O’Toole’s Irish Pub, Honolulu – As a young lieutenant, I held the dubious honor of being thrown out of every Irish pub on the island of Oahu. This place was my favorite, due to being the most authentic “pub,” and thus its bouncers were the most familiar with my antics and appreciation for general mayhem.

4) Durty Nelly’s Irish Pub, San Antonio

5) Molly Malone’s Irish Pub, Louisville – I have fond memories of this place, from my time as a 2LT in the officer basic course, mainly for the atmosphere and the conversation. But isn’t that at least half the reason to go to a bar? This was the place my friends and I did our best to make sense of the wars, our futures, and military culture, in general. It’s also the last place I hung out with Mark Daily, a friend of mine who was killed in Mosul in January, 2007. I couldn’t not mention Molly Malone’s (double negatives be damned). I’ll always associate it with the Clancy Brothers’ version of “The Patriot Game” and Mark.

Thanks, Matt, for both writing this book and taking the time to answer these questions. You, reader, can buy Kaboomir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0306818809 here. And I'll raise a toast to Mark Daily the next time I sip from a pint of Guinness.