“Nobody believes in Hell—until they get there” is the powerful first line of Ghosts of Babylon, a newly released novel by R.A. Mathis who joins me as a special guest today on Indie Review Tracker. As writers, it is our job to plumb the depths of human nature, even if that sometimes means delving into darkness, but spare a thought for those whose day jobs lead them into dark places every day, places they enter to protect the freedoms of others, places they go to serve. Mathis is a veteran of the Iraq war and now a novelist who draws on writing as a cathartic experience. Today, he tells of the healing power of writing and the ability of fiction to sometimes deal with the most difficult of truths.
The author and the soldier live in very different worlds, but sometimes those worlds collide. On rare occasions, pen and sword are both wielded deftly by the same hand.
Memoirs are valuable historical documents and can make for riveting reads, but they aren’t what I’m referring to. Many veterans record their wartime recollections in straightforward narratives, but far fewer filter their experiences through the lens of fiction. Of these, only a miniscule fraction is ever published. This is especially true of our most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I recently ran across an article from The Atlantic dated June, 2011 about this very subject: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/06/wheres-the-great-novel-about-the-war-on-terror/240233/ A quick search on Amazon or the local bookstore will produce an avalanche of veteran-authored non-fiction about any conflict you care to name, with a pitifully small sampling of novels penned by vets. But this small band includes some literary giants such as Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Tolkien to name a few.
Writing illuminates the inhumanity of war
Even a cursory read of Hemingway, Vonnegut and Tolkien reveals the heavy influence their martial experiences had on their writing. Hemingway’s semiautobiographical classic, A Farewell to Arms, is clearly a cathartic vehicle that illuminates the inhumanity of war, stripping away the wrappings of glory and pageantry. Tolkien’s work bypasses literal settings and uses fantasy to examine the natures of good versus evil and freedom versus the lust for power. Vonnegut, I suppose, falls somewhere in between. But they all dig deep. Torch in one hand, quill in the other, these brave souls explore the cavernous depths of human nature, illuminating its flaws, virtues, and fears. They peer into the places we try to keep hidden and pull out the ugly truths that plague us as individuals and that plague society as a whole.
I imagine many of them turn to fiction for the same reason I did. The sights, sounds, smells, stress, and emotions of combat are a lot for the mind to take in … too much, actually. Eventually, you have to switch off your humanity for the sake of your sanity. Emotion is removed from your thought process because it has to be. A foe becomes a target to be tracked and eliminated. The shredded body of a kid killed by an insurgent’s IED isn’t somebody’s child. It’s just a thing. You train yourself to see mangled corpses the same as you would a dead dog on the side of the road. You think, that’s a shame. But in the back of your mind, you know it was a six-year-old boy — what was left of him. You still hear the child’s mother wailing when you’re lying in your bunk or manning an observation post in the quiet of the night. You still don’t sleep. Your stomach still stays in knots. Your loved ones still hear it in your voice when you call home. You try to stuff it all in the deepest corner of your head you can find. You tell yourself, “Just get through it. You can think about it later.”
Eventually, if you’re lucky enough to make it home, you do think about it … a lot. Like many fellow service members, when I first got back to the States, I still wanted to drive in the center of the road to avoid IED’s. I insisted on sitting where I could see the door in any public place and could tell you exactly how many people were in the room at any time and what they were carrying. There were also the questions, the doubts, and the guilt. Did I make the right decisions? Did I take the right actions? What should I have done differently? Could I have saved a fellow soldier? Why did I make it home? Why didn’t he?
Writing can be a form of self-help
I turned to writing as a form of self-therapy to help work through what was going on in my head. I’d kept a journal during the deployment. It provided a record of what happened, but didn’t help me come to terms with any of it. Memoirs may aid their writers in venting some of the emotional steam imparted by the pressure cooker of war, but they rarely delve into the deeper, darker places of the soul. Fiction does. I was soon writing for hours a night. It was as if a dam had burst and everything I’d stuffed away in those remote emotional nooks came spilling out all at once through my fingers and onto the keyboard. Eventually, a novel began to take form. The first draft was pretty rough. The final still isn’t perfect, but it’s honest.
All soldiers know that going in. At least they should. All they can do is try to make it a change for the better. Before deploying to Iraq, a small group of us resolved to do just that. From that day on, I’ve tried to keep that promise. My novel, Ghosts of Babylon, is a product of this ongoing challenge.
Endeavoring to join the ranks of those warrior poets who successfully picked up the pen after laying down the sword, I present my own feeble effort. It’s an attempt to convey the grit, heartbreak, uncertainty, humor, brutality, camaraderie, despair, exhilaration, deprivation, and terror that is war. My predecessors have set the bar high, and it’s frustrating as hell trying to reach it. But like them, I’m a soldier. And like a good soldier, I’ll press on.
If Rob’s heartfelt post doesn’t make you want to buy Ghosts of Babylon immediately, then I don’t know what more I can do but let you know that a portion of all book sales will also go to the Wounded Warrior Project until Memorial Day 2013. Thank you Rob, for your contributions, both here and around the world. If you’re an author, maybe could get behind this excellent charity Books for Soldiers too, which hooks soldiers up with donated books to help take their minds off some the hard truths they face. I’d also love to hear from any other readers who turned to writing to help them through difficult periods in their lives. Share your story in the comments.