A USA Today reporter called me a couple years ago to ask, “Which of the 300 books published about the Iraq war”—and this was 2005, just two years into the war—“are going to last like Jarhead and Baghdad Express seem destined to do?” Setting aside the assumption that either my book or Tony’s was going to “last,” the question struck me as ridiculous: “No one knows,” would have been the only proper answer to both her assumption and her question. But you know—you have to play the game, right? I mentioned Generation Kill as a likely candidate, but then said there were two big problems inherent in any book coming out so quickly after its author had served in a war (or a journalist had covered it): “Did they know how to write a novel or memoir?” and “Could they get their head around it—all the way around: morally, aesthetically, and so on?”
I looked back at how it had taken Hemingway and Remarque ten years or so to digest World War One and how, with the exception of Mailer—who had won the Story competition while still at Harvard prior to his WWII enlistment, most of what we now consider the classic accounts—especially in memoir—had taken decades: With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge came out in 1981; Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang in 1979; Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier—out in 1967—was almost precocious by comparison.
There are always exceptions, it’s true, but in general: the longer you wait, with war, the more likely you are to have developed your chops as a writer and cleared your head—and prepared your heart—for the journeys you have to take through your experiences & the even more difficult one of preparing it in such a way that others might take that same journey.
Now, along comes Matthew Eck with The Farther Shore & we’re lucky he took his time: he’s delivered a small masterpiece.
Eck was with the 10th Mountain Division in Somalia fourteen years ago. After getting a B.A. and an M.F.A. and spending still more years honing his book, he’s written what will go down on a very short list of classics of that bloody little engagement. He’s joining Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down and Christian Bauman’s The Ice Beneath You and while I think it’s extraordinary that such a brief engagement should have given us three classics, maybe it’s not such a surprise: it only takes one bullet to start and end your combat experience, and that U.S. intervention not only carried with it the ambiguities on the ground, but a fair number of ambiguities in the head.
Eck, with his narrator Joshua Stanz, handles both of these with tremendous care in The Farther Shore. It’s a straight-ahead story built on almost pitch-perfect prose. Eck seems to have learned—and learned how to avoid obviousness with—every trick in the war-teller’s repertoire (hell, the storyteller’s rep). Look at how, in this extended excerpt, he handles so many of war’s themes:
One night a dead shark washed ashore near the hospital. The next morning those of us who could went down to look at it after breakfast. The shark was huge and dark gray, with a white belly. Most of us had never seen anything like it, so we kept our distance. I really wanted to look into the dead shark’s eyes, but I never summoned the courage.
One afternoon a nurse from the hospital walked down the beach with me. We sat on the beach and tried in vain to convince each other to go down and touch the shark.
Soon other soldiers showed up with their cameras and had their pictures taken with it. Then they grew bored with taking pictures and began striking at the shark’s mouth with the butts of their M-16s, trying to knock out its teeth. They wanted to make necklaces with them. They eventually stuck their hands in and tried to pry the teeth loose. When I refused to join them, the nurse called down to the others to ask them for one.
In the evening the tide would carry the shark back out to sea before leaving it on the beach again. After a few days of this the carcass started to smell. Tiny crabs ate its eyes before I could look into them, and before long they were crawling all over its mouth and gills.
Finally a group of engineers brought out a forklift and a flatbed to remove the shark. I watched as the blades of the forklift dug under the shark and lifted it into the air. But when it was just a few feet off the ground its skin burst open and its rotten insides poured to the earth. The stench was something awful.
Something awful—beautifully told. Also, on a single page, resonances with a half-dozen other war memoirs and war novels I know: yet absolutely unique and appropriate to the shores of Somalia; to the culmination of Josh Stanz’s war. It’s impossible to say what, in literature, is permanent and what will fade, but if there’s any justice in our future judgment of today’s literature then surely The Farther Shore will survive for a long time.
I e-mailed Matthew after reading his book and asked him if he wanted to bullshit about war stories for a while, including his own fantastic addition to the list. He replied that he’d love to and I talked to him Sunday night.
Joel Turnipseed: So how’s your book being received out there in the world? I saw that you made the B&N Discover Great New Writers series. Things are going pretty well?
Matthew Eck: It looks like it. There haven’t been—maybe 20 reviews of it so far. I imagine there are more on the way but the ones that I’ve seen have been pretty kind. The one on Salon.com—I read that one and I was just floored by it. There was another one in the NY Sun which just humbled me. That Stephen Elliot one—I was almost crying by the end. I have another friend who called up who had seen it and he said, “Wow, that’s a pretty powerful piece.” And Walter Kirn had seen it and he thought it was really nice. It’s so early and I’m just doing my best to stay level, to stay in this realm and focused. I did go up to Barnes and Noble last Friday and they have the catalog out and they have it with all the other Discover books. I flew out and did an interview with Katherine Lanpher and you can listen to that at the Barnes and Noble website. It’s out there in the world. People are reading it. There’s that moment in the afterwords to Lolita when Nabokov talks about his book is out there in the world and he wakes up at night sometimes and imagines it sitting in someone else’s basement. So—it’s out there.
Joel Turnipseed: Let’s talk about the war novel—it’s influence. That’s something I struggled with quite a bit. I’m standing right now in my library and just my “War” wall is about 500 books. So, you take something like the Red Cavalry Stories—you read that and you think, “Am I really going to write about war?”
Matthew Eck: That was actually the book that, when I was working on The Farther Shore at Montana, Kevin Canty bought me that book. He said, “If you want to write a war story in this day-and-age, and you want to make it original and relevant, you need to read this guy.” I think what I discovered in Babel was the absurdity: just fill your book with as much weirdness as you possibly can. I think Tim O’Brien does that incredibly well. Tim O’Brien, Joseph Heller, Vonnegut—I mean, the weirder you can make it, the truer it sounds.
Joel Turnipseed: But you don’t go over the top with it. There’s no gratuitous craziness. I know a lot of Vietnam vets hate two of my favorite films, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. These aren’t necessarily right-wing SOF types, but maybe hair down to their ass or who have anarchist tendencies—but they’re not big fans. But a movie they love is Go Tell the Spartans. Do you know that one?
Matthew Eck: I don’t. Which kind of surprises me.
Joel Turnipseed: It’s a little obscure. Burt Lancaster plays a major in it even though he was pushing seventy when they made the film. It’s widely considered the first “real” Vietnam war movie. It came out in 1978, right around the same time another undeservedly obscure classic, The Boys in Company C—and both just before Apocalypse Now was released. The title comes from the Spartans at Thermopylae and it’s about a group of guys at a Forward Operating Base who are told to go occupy and hold an abandoned hamlet and they all get overrun and massacred by the Viet Cong. It’s got all the fucked up things about the war, but they’re not all smoking pot, listening to The Doors, and fucking Playboy bunnies in a shot-down helicopter.
Matthew Eck: Yeah, we’ve utterly romanced war in a weird way—turned Vietnam into part of the hippie movement instead of the war that it was.
Joel Turnipseed: I think one of the things I found intriguing about The Farther Shore as I was reading it was that there isn’t even one “bad guy.”
Matthew Eck: No. I went out of my way… I don’t know where I picked this up, or who I heard it from—I guess I’m pretty even-keeled in the world—but there aren’t “bad guys” in literature, or there aren’t supposed to be. The other thing, being in Somalia I quickly realized that they weren’t exactly the big evil they had been painted to be. You watch something like Black Hawk Down—which I’ve never really seen, just fragments—but in the movie they’re wearing sunglasses and supposed to look like villains. I was like: they looked a lot like people to me. What I remember about that is that it wasn’t necessarily that they didn’t want us there, but they were afraid of why we were there. Why is America here? Do they realize we don’t have a lot of oil? Or do they think we do? What do they want from us?
Joel Turnipseed: I think about these questions of weirdness and bad guys—let’s tie the two together. Babel gets into some of the sheer, fucked up, mind-blistering savagery—but he does it with an amazing amount of sympathy.
Matthew Eck: It seems like he was with some pretty serious brutes—which he may or may not have—but we’ve all heard, and maybe it’s just a stereotype, but we heard some fucked up stuff about what the Russians did in World War Two, or really on both or all sides: people can do anything.
Joel Turnipseed: That’s something to talk about: the expectations people bring to the war novel and the ways that wars have changed. If you look at something like the Ken Burns film, The War, and one thing that pisses me off in this country—and that he went to at least some lengths to correct—is this notion that we single-handedly won the Second World War. It makes you want to say, “Thank you for serving. I served, my family has served in every war since World War Two, my grandmother was a Marine in World War Two—but nope: you’re wrong.” In the Battle of Stalingrad alone each side lost more people in one battle than the U.S. lost in the entire Second World War.
Matthew Eck: Yeah, there were more than a million dead. It’s just staggering. We’ve never been faced by that—our back broken as a nation by that kind of total, absolute conquest.
Joel Turnipseed: But to bring it back to the kinds of expectations people bring to war stories, even in what I’ll call “moral war porn”—in my unit in the Gulf War we lost 3 out of about 300 guys, so not a trivial percentage: but it wasn’t World War Two. There were U.S. units that had 100 percent casualty rates in places like the Hürtgen Forest or in the Pacific campaigns.
Matthew Eck: Yeah, that was unreal.
Joel Turnipseed: You know, we just don’t fight wars now in which every person in a unit gets killed or wounded. In those units, it was guaranteed: the unit goes in, and the whole unit is killed. A unit of replacements would go in—and they would get killed. Repeat two or three or four times: whole successions of units with 80 to 100 percent casualties. But there's this lingering expectation...
Matthew Eck: That was something you did well in Baghdad Express—expressing that feeling; not believing it. I remember when we went to Somalia that was the sort of thinking. Or when we went into Haiti they said that in urban combat there would be an eighty-seven percent casualty rate and I remember thinking, “Fuck that!” Thank God it didn’t turn into anything like that. Haiti turned out to be something like, “We landed, they jeered, and we got out.” Nothing like Somalia or anything else. But I remember my grandpa, talking about one of his best friends in World War Two: at D-Day the guy was shot and paralyzed for the rest of his life. He lay on the beach for three days and they were picking him up and getting ready to throw him in with the other corpses and this guy who lifted him up just happened to notice that he was crying. Otherwise? That guy would have been thrown on the pile with all the other bodies and smothered. We can’t even imagine that kind of war.
Joel Turnipseed: I think one of the other things that’s tough about writing war narratives now—or talking about war—is, and I heard this verb when reporting a story a few years ago, is that there’s this precursor process in which you have to “green” your readers. Whenever I read reporting on the Iraq war—whether it’s about combat or about things like that Army Suicide Report—I always think, “But you’re missing the big context here: the bottom line is that in many of these cases the decision process isn’t between what would I do in the dorms or in the cubicle, but ‘What can I do next that will keep me alive?’ That’s the comparison: between what I’m about to do and being dead; living every day with that expectation of death; its culture.” It’s true that there are asshole commanders and shit-head NCOs and bullshit happens every day—but the vast majority of guys are trying to keep each other sane and alive and have a very strong ethic of care. Hell, even Patton got relieved from duty for hitting a poor bastard with his .45—and that was in World War Two. When you’re in the military you take for granted the trailer-park de Sades, the shitheads, the psychopaths—but you also mock them relentlessly.
Matthew Eck: Yeah, you do: they get a lot of shit. It’s not even that the moral situations are blurred, it’s that you’re just people. People do stuff, they’re inherently just that: not good or bad. Not too many of these guys think of themselves as heroes or villains, they just show up and do what they do. Their basic instinct of survival—including their need for love and kindness—takes over. There are just mistakes and pressure and you could make the wrong choice and then it was on you to suffer the consequences.
Joel Turnipseed: I think that’s one of the great strengths of The Farther Shore. Even the presumably special forces guy in the room across from the hotel in which the guys are holed up, he’s a great cat. What was the one—
Matthew Eck: Someone told me he would be a great Pynchon character. I was like, “Really?” “Yeah, someone who undercuts the micro-managed war.” That’s not why I had him there—he was there to show how absurd it was that he may or may not have been able to help those guys, but he didn’t really want to.
Joel Turnipseed: Yeah. He’s got that laconic humor that may or may not be funny in the end: “Ruin travels fast,” he says… and then later: “There’s no luck to be had in this place. It’s ruin and the rhythm of ruin. You just can’t escape it in a place like this.”
This is a hard sense of humor to judge, isn’t it? Is it even funny? I remember coming home from the Gulf War, stepping on campus in my khakis and polo shirt, and thinking that just a few weeks prior I had been wearing full-body armor, a gas mask, morphine injectors, a Ka-Bar, an M16, a few hundred rounds of 5.56mm NATO ammunition… and that if I stepped on campus with that get-up they’d call in a SWAT team. Helicopters would be flying over the campus.
So there’s this sense in which the humor of war really involves laughing at the wrong time and the wrong place and realizing, “Am I a complete fucking asshole—or am I just in a totally different world than the one in which this was funny?” How much traffic is there between the two? You don’t even have to have killed someone in war for certain things to be inexplicably changed. I love the ending of The Farther Shore, where Joshua Stanz says,
“I wouldn’t tell anyone I’d been in the Army. And if they asked why I was a little older, I’d tell them I’d lived abroad, maybe in Prague. I’d tell them the world was a beautiful place.”
Matthew Eck: “I was in Prague.” [Laughs] When I came back from the Army all my friends were saying, “I really want to go to Prague.” I don’t know about you, but that was also my little metaphor about how when I came back people really couldn’t have cared less. “You were in Somalia? I heard that’s a really nice place to visit.” I thought, “Have you seen the news in the past year?” That was my whole thing with that.
Joel Turnipseed: That’s that verb again, “greening.”
Matthew Eck: It’s sort of the passport to La-La Land.
Joel Turnipseed: So, this war-porn thing…
Matthew Eck: That’s such a perfect phrase. I was telling someone else—maybe in the Barnes and Noble interview—about that scene in Swofford’s book when they’re watching war movies. I remember when I was in Somalia and we were getting mortared and people were shooting at us and we’d go back and in the TV trailer at night they were watching war movies. I was like, “What? Maybe we should be watching something funny—you know?” I think it’s such a great phrase, “War Porn,” because that’s all it is. It doesn’t have much of a soul.
Joel Turnipseed: Yeah. And then there’s the fetish variety. I love it in Going After Cacciato when Paul Berlin, the main character, reports to Vietnam and doesn’t know what or where the hell he is—even what unit he’s in. O’Brien writes: “He was lost. He had never heard of I Corps, or the Americal, or Chu Lai. He did not know what a Combat Center was.”
That’s totally right! No one knows what all those fucking acronyms are and the various unit dispositions and the muzzle velocity of every weapon in the U.S. arsenal. Usually, when you’re told to report for or to something, you just go look for the longest line and stand in it. But then, you come across these war accounts that know things like the millimeter size of every rocket, its blast radius, the trigger pressure in pounds-per-square-inch to squeeze off a round, and you think, “If this guy hasn’t foregrounded that this is some kind of well-researched joke, he’s got to be full of shit.” Nobody remembers that for more than ten minutes after he has to recite it in a quonset hut in boot camp.
Matthew Eck: I forgot all that shit! I hated the Army, in my own weird way. I guess it wasn’t so much that I hated it, but I was really only there for the G.I. Bill. All that memorization and weird shit, the numbers—it’s so ludicrous. That’s why The Things They Carried made so much sense to me when I got out. He’s absolutely nailed this.
Joel Turnipseed: And he created a space—neither glory war porn or even suffering war porn—but a totally different rhetorical space: you don’t, won’t, and can’t know what I did or didn’t do. I’m going to give you some boundaries though, for you to start going there…
Matthew Eck: I think that was something I definitely had in mind with The Farther Shore: Let the reader make these decisions. What the reader can imagine might be far worse than what I would want to make Joshua Stanz say.
Joel Turnipseed: Yeah, there are a few direct shots, though. There’s that great moment where Stanz takes off his combat helmet: “I found the rules of engagement printed in a notecard inside my Kevlar. I wanted to read them again, to see what it said about shooting children.” Or there’s another great line even earlier: “I hadn’t had a dream in the past two months and I was starting to worry that dreams had something to do with sanity and happiness.”
I don’t think, looking back, I don’t think I had time to dream—not with the four hours of sleep a night I got in the Gulf War. But that’s the weird thing about war: it’s partly this juvenile, sexless, Boy Scouts with guns atmosphere—and then there’s the fraternizing couple who announce that they’re going to be fucking over the next sand dune and across the tent there’s some guy who’s totally filthy, savage, and more outrageous than anyone you’ve ever met. And there are no dreams to relieve this.
Matthew Eck: Yeah, that kind of thing, like trading M&Ms for sex in The Farther Shore. The Army was so weird like that—exactly like the “we’re going to go over to the next sand dune and get it on,” and you’re thinking, “Oh my God: we’re in the middle of a war.” I guess that’s where you just couldn’t get more surreal. You’d have to have a big shopping mall next door to a firefight or something. Where the mall rats are wearing Prada and know more about everything than you do. You’d talk to a kid and he’d say, “We heard that you guys are doing an operation in ____ tonight.” You wouldn’t have a clue. The next thing you know: you’d be running the operation these Somali kids had told you about. That’s the total insanity of it all.
Joel Turnipseed: There's something, too, about the shorter form. Chris Abani’s new novella, Song for Night, is about 160 pages. And there’s not a page missing. Same with The Farther Shore. When I teach memoir, I’m always amazed at how much people try to pack in. That’s getting hung up on the wrong thing. Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes. Never used.” In Ken Burns’ The War there’s that great story about the guy at Iwo Jima, in which a flamethrower on the front lines walks away from the line, goes down to the beach, strips naked, goes for a half hour swim among the landing craft and artillery bursts, then comes back to the beach, gets dressed, and goes back into the line. Totally absurd and surreal and true—and a complete story about war. A two-minute story.
There’s a similar thing in The Farther Shore: “Jordan gave me an MRE. A ham slice, my least favorite. It was the kind of meal you saved for un-wanted guests.” That little moment gets at so much—without editorializing or overdoing it.
Matthew Eck: Yeah, that entire section when he’s running with the sheep. That’s my huge nod to the Odyssey—when Odysseus has to hide with the sheep to get out. Joshua Stanz has to hide with the sheep to get in and he’s like, “Fuck this.” It’s all about hospitality, the unwanted guest. The other soldiers—just because they’re in a different unit—treat this dude like a total turd. I love that scene.
Joel Turnipseed: So, you do have one over-the-top moment in The Farther Shore. The shark? That was pretty wild. What was the motivation behind that scene?
Matthew Eck: Someone else asked me that question: it’s one of the few true moments in the book—that actually happened to me. I saw and witnessed it. I remember thinking, the whole time that scene was going down, “This is the perfect metaphor for what a war is.” It was right on, accurate, and powerful. I could never make up something better about war. A giant rotting shark carcass that you lift up and all your ideals and principles are in the guts that just fall out of it.
Joel Turnipseed: Every war story, as you say, sort of ends up needing, as a result, somebody getting shot who didn’t deserve to get shot, somebody getting a supply they didn’t need when they most needed some other supply—basically, a constant flow of surreal, stupid shit: otherwise there’s almost no way it’s true. You kind of have to risk melodrama and cliché.
Matthew Eck: You’re right. I’ve had so many questions about, “Is it hard to write about war and not use all the clichés?” I always say—and I think this comes back to me as the professor of creative writing just as much as me the writer—well, you have to know what they look like. So that when you use them—and we can go back to Mailer who’s the ghostly presence in this talk—he has a great line, which I won’t get perfect, in Armies of the Night, where he says, “The details we need to write about, the situation we need to write about, the predicament we need to write about—is usually the one that’s just a little to the left of what we want to write about.”
It’s those moments where you have to have the clichéd “Army moments” where they ran out of supplies, but you have to make it look like it comes a little bit more from the absurd or out of the angle or focus than people might expect—and that’s how you make it true and make it stick.