My sole unequivocally proud memory of America’s post-9/11 wars occurred in Bossaso — a city in Somalia’s Puntland region that hosts a mid-sized United Nations humanitarian, development, and political presence. Next to the port city’s sand-covered runway back in January 2012, to be precise; kicking rocks between thorn bushes and termite mounds with a gaggle of other United Nations and non-governmental aid personnel, waiting for our plane to be refueled.
Back then, most of the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) Somalia crews hailed from the former Soviet Union, and the gnarled Uzbeks and puffy-faced Byelorussians would always get a kick out of the six-foot-two, tattooed Black American prattling away in poorly accented Russian.
“Your Navy SEALs rescued those two in Galkayo,” the Ukrainian pilot informed me. In Russian the word for “seals” is “морские котики.” But without the adjective, “котики” is also the word for kittens. So, it took me a second to figure out what the pilot meant.
In Somali, “Galkayo” translates as, “the place where the white man fled.” Where Sayid Mohamed Abdullah Hassan’s dervish army outwitted the British for the first two decades of the twentieth century, scoffing at the westerners’ aircraft and Maxim guns. The British referred to him as the “Mad Mullah,” a nom de guerre earned in equal parts by daredevil combat antics and brazen, often outrageous, claims of soldierly prowess and divine favor. Sayid boasted that he could transform bullets into water and overhear what men said seventy-five miles away. He proposed that the Royal Navy’s searchlights in the Gulf of Aden were actually the eyes of Allah come to bless him. He frequently wrote to his foes, addressing one of his many poems to Richard Corfield, the officer who commanded the Somali protectorate on the fringes of the British empire. Sayid instructed Corfield to explain to God’s helpers how, “his eyes stiffened with horror as spear butts hit his mouth, silencing his soft words.”
A century later, some of the Mad Mullah’s relatives had transformed Galkayo into the region’s unofficial pirate capital. A dangerous city of whitewashed buildings and dirt roads split along its east-west axis by the Darood and Hawiye clans, whose perpetual violent feud seemed driven as much by habit as legitimate grievances. But the Darood and Hawiye clan elders could at least agree on one thing: the young, upstart pirates were a pain in the ass. Drawing negative international attention, sparking inflation by carelessly spending millions of dollars in ransom money, and generally transforming Galkayo into the Lord of the Flies with Kalashnikovs.
In October 2011, one of Galkayo’s pirate gangs kidnapped two Danish Refugee Council workers — Jessica Buchanan (an American) and Poul Thisted (a Dane) — on their way to Galkayo’s airport. I didn’t know Jessica and Poul, but most of the Puntland crowd did, and almost all the international aid community for Somalia — including me — had braced themselves during the harrowing drive from the UN compound in Galkayo to the airport.
I didn’t read the full account of the rescue until later that day in Garowe, where I was slated to teach a first-aid course, before returning to my duty station in Mogadishu. On the night of January 24th, the same SEAL team that carried out the Bin Laden operation parachuted into an area just south of Galkayo, surrounding the camp where the two aid workers were being held. Killing at least eight of the kidnappers, the SEALs freed the two hostage aid workers and took no causalities: the stuff of Tom Clancy novels.
On the runway in Bossaso, I translated what I understood of the rescue for my fellow passengers, and we all cheered. I’m talking do-gooder Canadians and Swedes here, whooping for an American military operation at the top of their lungs. This wasn’t the jubilant crowd escaping Somalia for Tusker beers and rest & relaxation in Nairobi either. Many of us were hungover, returning to our duty stations after Christmas and New Year’s leave, and all bracing to reboard a UNHAS crop-duster that felt like sitting amidst thousands of metal bits and pieces that just happened to be hurtling through the air in the same direction.
I cheered along with everyone else. That’s a special feeling, isn’t it? Everybody cheering for the same thing, for the same reasons. Hands down, it was the best memory I associate with the messy business of my country’s forever war—a conflict unrestrained by borders, but date-bracketed by the event we vowed to never forget on one end and on the other by the withdrawal from a country that many of us struggled to remember we were fighting in at all.
Reading the fiction inspired by the “Global War on Terror,” I am reminded of how much the battle over the memory of America’s post-9/11 wars is still in its infancy. Like a lot of Americans, I’m often tempted to pretend not to have a dog in this fight. After all, I spent most of the two decades between the attacks on 9/11 and the withdrawal from Afghanistan as a United Nations field security officer. But despite the striking lack of public engagement in our recent wars, all Americans remain complicit in our use of lethal force abroad. If there’s one unifying principle to the novels and short stories that make up this body of work, it’s the scream — the desperate, banshee howl — for Americans to pay attention to the violence committed abroad in our name.
In The Chicago East India Company, Christopher Lyke’s narrator trudges through the hallways of Chicago’s public school system into late middle age, struggling to understand what his military service in Afghanistan meant for himself, his community, and his country. In the tradition of linked short narratives of war that stretch from Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, through Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, to Matt Young’s Eat the Apple, violence and brutality mingle with a surreal, sometimes poetic beauty in Lyke’s collection:
The bullet entered Eugene’s face in the lower left cheekbone. The hole was small and there wasn’t a ton of blood at first. The bullet tumbled through his head in a tenth of a second and made a smacking, popping noise when it came out the left side of the back, near where the spine joins the skull. He fell as though someone pulled all of the bones from his body.
Like his narrator, Chris Lyke spent some of the darkest years of the global war on terror as an infantry platoon sergeant in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, followed by a career as a public-school teacher in Chicago. The refreshing inclusion of a story set in the occupied Ogaden region marks The Chicago East India Company as one of the few works of American war literature to contend with the war on terror’s impact on East Africa. Like all great war stories, these overlay fact and fiction in a way that enhances rather than hinders the truth — and the truths The Chicago East India Company speaks are hard ones. Whether these be the hard truths of unit cohesion in “the Eskimo,”
…some part of me actually wanted something to happen to Lunt. Nothing that needed a tourniquet, but something that would shock him back to the squad and the mountain.
Or the hard truth about the racism of reduced expectations in “Fee Waiver,”
In this alternate reality all the staff and hangers on act like it’s acceptable that the parents don’t do what they are supposed to do as productive adult people. The educators shrug their shoulders and bite their lips and feel guilty. They treat them like children and make excuses for adults that don’t do the bare minimum. They pretend like it is helpful and normal and not elitist or racist to behave this way.
The sharp contrast between the narrator’s combat and classroom experience fuels some of this collection’s best stories — many of which span no more than three or four pages and read like angry love letters to the Windy City. From “The Birdman of Bucktown,”
Every year the city dies a horrid, frozen death. And every year it comes slowly back to life. Road crews arrive with hot-patch and trucks to fix streets that are cracked and sinking under the weight of a thawing city. Parents breathe a sigh of relief as they no longer worry for tiny fingers that freeze in wet mittens. The dog moves off the heating vent, and fifty-five degrees feels like eight-five as the young traipse from bar to bar in shorts and hoodies, praising Sol without knowing it. It is spring, and it is bright, and in the evenings it is red. Maybe we’d have more fun if we still worshiped like that. At any rate, winter was gone, and the city was rubbing itself up against the May sun.
The narrative thread running through this collection is loose by design, and the starkness of Lyke’s prose put me in mind of fellow war on terror veteran Kevin Power’s novel The Yellow Birds — beautiful in a bleak, heartbroken way, each story a slice of life cut with a Kbar.
Our society got pretty good at shutting down the post-9/11 wars out of our daily lives. But they still belong to all of us, despite the selective memory of a distracted citizenry that imagines itself as perpetually innocent. The hogtied corpse of war remains with us and within us, impossible to forget but difficult to remember, and central to our national identity.
Dewaine K. Farria is the author of Revolutions of All Colors: A Novel. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Rumpus, the Mantle, CRAFT, and the Southern Humanities Review. You can find more of Dewaine’s writing at dewainefarria.com.
Image: United Kingdom Ministry of Defence.