“A Kind of Freedom”:
Telling Stories About War
J.A. Moad, II, in conversation with The Straddler

On November 17, 2013, The Straddler met with former Air Force pilot J.A. Moad, II, on West 29th Street in Manhattan to discuss the impact of silence on war literatures, past and present. Moad’s work as a writer, editor, teacher, and performer reflects a deep dedication to counteracting the silence that often confronts veterans after they return home from war. In addition to writing, he has performed at the Library of Congress and the Guthrie Theater as part of the Telling Project, a program in which veterans share their stories of combat in live performances. He is also a regular facilitator of workshops for Warrior Writers. He has served as a professor of War Literature at the United States Air Force Academy, and is currently a fiction editor for its journal War, Literature & the Arts (WLA). His regular contributions to the WLA Blog take on topics ranging from literary criticism to political activism. In a recent post, Moad proposed a national initiative to designate October “War Literature Month.” In December of 2013, Minnesota agreed to recognize October as “Veteran Voices Month,” and to assist Moad in his efforts to enlist national participation.

Moad, November 17, 2013

The veteran group that is writing today is still emerging and growing, but they’ve really tapped into the legacy of the Vietnam era—more so than the legacy of the World War I poets. The Vietnam poets took a long time to come out and start writing, to end the silence they were lost in.

I think this current generation of vets feels a kind of freedom. It’s a gift really—a gift from the Vietnam vets, from the burden they bore for so long when people didn’t want to hear what they had to say. They felt that silence everywhere they turned. The World War II guys, they just weren’t going to talk about it. They really boxed it up. The Vietnam vets came back and talked about things openly, out of anger in many respects, and the World War II vets were really bothered by that. It created a schism. VFWs didn’t really want to accept that new generation of vets. That was another denial.

It takes a while for the culture to find space to take its breath so that it can absorb this stuff. It also takes time for artists to emotionally transfer their experiences into meaningful art. It’s no easy thing. When I work with Warrior Writers, I’ll get a dozen vets in the room. Just the fact that they’re coming to this venue says a lot. They don’t really know what it’s about, but they come in and they’re willing to open up. And some beautiful stuff emerges. It’s really a cathartic thing for them, a freeing thing, because otherwise they’re not talking about it. For me, that’s what this whole project is about. 

All art is an act in which you create a distance between yourself and the audience. That space is what allows the freedom for the artist to create and give of themselves. When there’s no audience, then it’s just a story. But when you’re on stage and performing it, the emotion comes through. It’s as if there’s a divide, and the performer and the audience are reaching into it—and that’s what makes performance magical. When I performed the Telling Project in Washington, DC, for the first time, there was a woman in the group who had been raped. She was the only woman in the group, and she was there to talk about that experience for the first time ever publicly. It was incredibly difficult for her. Right before she went on stage she had a panic attack. I said to her, don’t think about the audience. Just think about your story and the importance of getting that story out there. And once she was able to find the space where she could give herself over to the story, she felt the freedom to give that story life. It’s the same thing with the Warrior Writers.

All trauma is burden, so many people are afraid of thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it, going to that place, because it brings up the hurt. But when they’re writing, you can see it’s a kind of freedom. And it provides vets with a different space than they get with the “support our troops” and “salute to service” kind of recognition of their experiences. I’m troubled by the prevalence of the “support our troops” message. I feel it’s disingenuous. It feels to me like pandering. The problem is the narrative that gets shaped around this message by corporate interests. They twist and turn it until it’s the narrative that’s valued; and then it becomes a commodity. And where does all that go? At what point have we pushed it so far that every veteran or person in the military is suddenly a hero? People in the military don’t want to be called heroes. They don’t even want people to say “Thank you for your service.” They don’t. They’ll say in response, “I didn’t do it for you.”[1]

You might choose to join up for a variety of reasons. Maybe after 9/11, out of patriotism. Or you’re angry. Or your family’s done it for years—it’s just a legacy, and you continue that. Or you’re in a small town and you’re bored. Or you don’t have any options for college. Very few people sign up at the age of seventeen and say, “I’m going to go defend Americans’ freedom.”

Too much nationalism can lead to bad things. If it were up to me, I would say that any corporation can give as much as they want to the military, but then don’t put your name next to it. I don’t like the military uniform being associated with anything that’s trying to be sold or marketed. It’s dangerous. It stifles the real stories. And it creates a powerful counter-narrative.

Some would say that you’re not supporting our troops if you’re not supporting the war in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, or whatever it is. In Vietnam, the war and the soldiers were married together more closely than today’s wars and today’s soldiers. To hate one was to hate both. There was a shift—but in a weird way I feel that it’s shifting back, so that supporting our troops means supporting the war experience and whatever policies in our government led to the decision to go to war. It’s the pendulum swinging back—and, as we know, the sharpest blades on the pendulum are on each end. We need to find a proper balance. Because right now it’s an all or nothing thing—you’re either with us or against us. And that’s a scary belief, because it stifles dialogue, it stifles questions, and it villainizes people. 

There’s this myth that soldiers want to go to war. Sure they’ve trained to go fight, but all it takes is going to combat for the first time and a soldier is usually not excited about going back a second time. My brother spent years in the army, he was an enlisted Special Forces guy. He never saw combat, except for a brief stint in Grenada. In his mind he missed his war. So he ended up going and doing some contract work, being on the ground with these subsidiaries. And there’s a whole legion of those guys. Again, this is when war and fighting becomes a commodity. You train these guys, they’re part of the civilian world, but, for the right price, they’re always accessible to go where the fighting is. And they are as tied to these wars as anything. We forget that. At some point, in Iraq, there were as many contractors on the ground as soldiers. Between the cooks and the cleaners and the guys fighting. Those guys come back and they’ve got no VA benefits. They’ve seen horrible stuff. And then they just magically slip back into society. There’s no official position of “We Support Our Contractors.” These guys are time bombs. You don’t know what kind of stuff they’re boxing up. I’m going to be curious to see what kind of writing comes out from some of those guys.  

I think of writing about war in terms of being a witness—or as reportage. You’re reporting your experiences. Just because you’re not killing people doesn’t mean you’re not affected by the dead bodies around you. Fighter pilots who used to drop the bombs during World War II had what they called the morality of the air. They had distance. If you didn’t see what you did, you didn’t really think about it. It was the guys who thought about it, or saw images of it, or heard stories about it from other people. Before we dropped the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we did these fire bombings over Tokyo. Around the factories in Tokyo, there were all these wooden shacks where poor people lived—we just fire bombed them. The guys flying over could smell the burning flesh. After that, those guys never let go of the smell. That was a tangible thing for the pilots. But now, for the most part, they don’t see it. But the drone pilots, interestingly enough, they are seeing it. They have video.

To me art is about transcending the limits of the world’s experience, the reader’s experience, to create something your audience can accept and see and feel. Because it’s not just information. I was doing this war literature workshop at a high school and I showed some news stories of a particular event. You know, headlines like “Bosnian Refugees in Serbia…” “Several Thousand Killed by Serbians.” I showed maybe three articles, then I said, here’s a poem about that event. It was by a Bosnian poet,[2] and it said—

They took the men of military age       marched them out
as if they were an army but they were not an army       they were men
fathers        brothers        brothers-in-law         uncles        nephews        sons
matchless with tools        song        supper        courtship
generous        handsome        proud        bearded        sunburnt        dressed
in the free clothes of workers        farmers        Sunday hunters        young men

They were brought out in squads and massacred […]

So, does that cast a different story for you? What’s the difference between information and reportage? That’s key. You can silence information. You can turn it off.   

[1] Moad is currently working on a novel about the military's evolving role in American lives.

[2] Adrian Oktenberg, “They took the men of military age,” The Bosnia Elegies, Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1997.