“Fire and Forget” is a powerful, depressing, and unsettling collection of short stories. These stories were written by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and while they are fiction, I have no doubt that most if not all are based on real experiences.
“Depressing” is an adjective I rarely use to describe fiction. In this case, it comes with the territory, because so much of what occurred over there or upon return was/is terribly depressing. These short stories manage to capture the essence of what many service members have experienced, but for the most part it’s doesn’t make for comfortable reading.
Some of the stories are downright sad. “Play the Game”, by Colby Buzzell effectively transmits the mixed emotions one combat vet experiences, turning his brain into an organic “Wheel of Fortune” as he wanders around in a fog on the streets of Los Angeles. “New Me” by Andrew Slater manages to describe how traumatic brain injury created a slippery slope between normalcy and borderline dementia for one returning soldier, while his friends and family remain earnestly clueless.
Mariette Kalinowski’s gut-punching story, “The Train”, perhaps affected me the most of all. I’ve experienced “survivor’s guilt” myself, and Ms. Kalinowski’s portrayal of how that plays out really rang true. As an added bonus, if there are any Americans who still possess the mistaken belief that women haven’t been serving in combat, they need to read “The Train” to assist them in pulling their heads out of their rear ends. On the flip side, “Tips for a Smooth Transition” by Siobhan Fallon really nailed the equally-difficult challenges faced by spouses during and after deployments.
Finally, I need to say something about what was for me the most disturbing piece of this collection: “Bugs Don’t Bleed”, by Matt Gallagher. Having read Gallagher’s superb non-fiction account of his tour in Iraq, “Kaboom”, I expected something similar from him here. I was way wrong. His portrait of “Will”, a tank crewman, illustrates something that the best writers of war fiction deeply understand: Serving in a combat zone really screws up soldiers, although in varying degrees. Those who participate in direct combat operations are affected differently than those who support the folks who do the fighting, but the crazy shit that we see and do changes us forever. I’ve known a number of soldiers similar to “Will”, who appear physically normal (whatever that is), but have their wiring re-connected in a slightly different pattern. That’s what disturbed me the most about this story. There are an awful lot of men and women similar to “Will” among us, and many of them aren’t getting the help that they need. While the concept of the “broken combat veteran” is surfacing in the media and popular culture, solutions seem to be a long way off.
There are a lot of essential truths packed into “Fire and Forget”. For those of us that have been there, or know people who served in these wars, it is important reading. It is even more important for those of you who haven’t got this connection to begin to grasp the powerful and long-term effects on your sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, or that guy you went to high school with. You may not enjoy “Fire and Forget”, but you will remember it.
Note: "Fire and Forget" will be available next month, February 2013. It was edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, and published by Da Capo Press.