Poet Warrior Brian Turner: "As a Nation, We Go Too Quickly To War"
Brian Turner's My Life as a Foreign Country is not your typical war memoir. As the title implies, there is something radically displaced about this soldier's story. In one moment, Turner imagines himself as a drone aircraft, "plying the darkness above my body, flying over my wife as she sleeps beside me." In another, Turner writes from the standpoint of the Iraqi man aiming a rocket at an American base.
"The majority of soldiers are aliens in a foreign land," Turner tells Cultist ahead of his Book Fair appearance on Sunday. "Then we come home and -- at least in my experience -- coming home was quite a strange experience. Nothing seemed the same.
"And it still does in a lot of ways," he says. "This is a vey wealthy country. It's a country that can wage multiple wars and not even pay much attention to them or talk about them. So it seems there is some bizarre psychic disconnect between the real world and the world I live in."
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My Life as a Foreign Country doesn't just cycle between combatants in Iraq, where Turner was a sergeant in the Army. It also cycles between generations of men in Turner's family who have served in the military.
Turner, who has written two volumes of poetry about his war experiences, says the disjointed structure of the book was intentional. The project began as a collection of haibun poems, "but it didn't work."
Instead, readers are confronted with 136 sections or "fragments," as Turner likes to call them. The name invokes shrapnel, but also the fragmented nature of memory and piecemeal nature of writing.
"There is the Seal Team Six sort of genre and those memoirs are often very clear cut," he says. "The mission started here, and we moved out at o'eight hundred and it was on this day and this happened. Almost like reportage in a memoir, like a reportage style to make you feel like you're right there down in the dirt experiencing the moment.
"For me, that's not really how I think. In retrospect, I often think about fragments. I often think about one moment and then I think about something that happened two weeks later or three months before, and I'll start to tie it together and start to piece together a cohesive whole that I didn't have."
Turner says his time in Iraq was "a year of boredom punctuated by intense moments" that were difficult to thread together. It could be days or weeks after a near-death attack that he would begin to think about who had attacked them.
"I would think that at some point in their lives, soldiers would be curious about the people who tried to kill them," Turner says of his sympathy for the other side.
That process of putting together his fragments of memory hasn't stopped since he came back to the U.S. Speaking to Cultist on Veterans Day, Turner said he still struggled to reconcile his time as a soldier with his return to civilian life.
"There is a vibrant writing community in Orlando, where my wife and I live," he says, 'but at the same time, we are actively bombing people probably as you and I are speaking now, and it's disturbing that there is very little conversation about it.
"Considering Veterans Day, there are stories of tribes of nations where warriors have gone out to fight. When they come back they often stop short of the village and the villagers go out to greet them. And there is sort of a ritual cleansing ceremony where they wash away the blood from these warriors. They take away their warrior names and give them back their names.
"I think this is something that would be very useful, if we had a little bit more ritual" in the U.S., he says. "I think Veterans day is part of that process -- a way of welcoming the warriors back home and giving them back their names -- but it's not enough.
"It's just as important that the civilians walk out and be part of the ceremony, because the blood on the warriors' hands is a shared blood, the sweat and toil there are shared sweat and toil. The responsibilities that we undertake in war, that isn't the sole domain of the warrior caste of our society. And we as a society have to come to terms with the wars we wage, that we as a nation wage, or I think it will have communal after effects that may be difficult for us to see. A nation or a tribe or a community that can wage wars and not pay attention to them, I think it will come back on them in another way."
Turner says he doesn't see much hope of a change any time soon.
"I see a country that seems to have a tremendous amount of endurance for war," he says. "And I would say we've been waging war for far longer than just 12 years. Anyone born after 1991 hasn't even taken a simple breath that wasn't during a time of war.
"There is a very strong military mindset. It's part of the American psyche and it's something I'm very concerned about. It's gone too far," he says. "As a nation it seems we go too quickly to war. I want to be part of the dialogue to pull back the reins."
Brian Turner will talk about My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Room 8301. He appears on a panel with Helen Thorpe (Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War) and Carlos Harrison (The Ghosts of Hero Street: How One Small Mexican-American Community Gave So Much in World War II and Korea)
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