Review of Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country
September 22, 2014 § 1 Comment
Of all the issues that can tear a family down the middle over time, deciding how to define and live out service has shaped–and divided–the people I love most. Both sides of my family talk about “COs” but mean different things. Until I moved from Ohio’s Amish country to Appalachian Ohio, I’d never passed a U.S. soldier in uniform on the street, let alone ever taught one. Some days, the main crosswalk on our college campus swells with camo, and I find myself holding my breath, wondering what we, America’s taxpayers, might ask these young people to do someday.
In Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, I get an answer. It’s as complex and eye-opening as you’d imagine, a palimpsest of surreal imagery — Iraqi dead lingering in the shadows, dreamscapes where owls and camels beckon, soldiers in training filmed to star in a new video game — entangled with the realities of war.
But what are the realities for American soldiers in the War on Terror? Can civilians touch any part of those truths through newscasts, photographs, blogs, or twitter? Using mostly linked, numbered sections, Brian Turner’s memoir shows the recursive experience of one man keeping diligent witness over what brought him into war, and what still leads him out of it.
Turner feels a primal pull towards joining the narrative shouldered by generations of veterans in his family. He follows what he’s come to see as his destiny by enlisting, eventually serving in Iraq. “We rode on a war elephant made of steel,” he writes about his convoy there. As a volunteer soldier, as a son, husband, and veteran, he pairs the flat, sanitized language of combat with the way a poet sees the world. The result is work fueled by astonishing empathy. Perhaps the bravest aspect of this book is that “known and suspected enemy targets” remain human beings under Turner’s watch, even as he describes having to kick in doors to houses or guarding men of military age with sandbags over their heads.
Turner also revisits past wars tied to other men in his family. My family, too, has a rich military history. On my dad’s side, serving meant enlisting for every war since WWI, even if you were too intoxicated to remember doing it. It meant working for the Pentagon, being one of the first women in the Air Force, or coming home with a new bluebird tattoo, a Navy dare. But on my mom’s side, to kill or be trained to kill would have meant turning your back on your faith community and identity. Serving, to them, meant living outside of the mainstream, even–especially–when a military draft was in place. It meant years of unpaid labor in Civilian Public Service work camps during WWII, digging ditches and smoke jumping. The five Americans I know who have been wounded, kidnapped, or killed in Baghdad and Kabul were there voluntarily and unarmed, engaging in nonviolent work with Christian organizations. All my life, these accounts of service have pushed against each other. And yet, I could give Turner’s memoir to either side of my family, and we could talk about it together for hours.
As a reader, there were times I wanted to look away, to put down the book and move into the luxury of not knowing, especially when Turner describes announcements over the battalion net like “You are authorized to shoot children,” or when his convoy listens to Insane Clown Posse and watches porn while driving through the streets of Mosul, addicted to aggressive adrenaline because war’s become routine. Because adrenaline can keep you alive. That being said, this is a book that many will read in hours, not days. Its masterful storytelling and language keeps the pages turning.
Since reading My Life as a Foreign Country, I’ve begun to more fully interact with the veterans at the doctor’s office, in my classrooms, and at work because I finally feel I’ve caught a glimpse of how they see the world. “How does anyone leave a war behind them, no matter what war it is, and somehow walk into the rest of his life?” Turner writes. The answer I glean again from his memoir is that no one ever truly does, not completely, and all of us are part of both the continuous sending and homecoming.
Becca J.R. Lachman’s newest poetry collection, Other Acreage, will be published by Gold Wake Press in 2015. Editor of A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford, her work appears in such places as Consequence Magazine, So to Speak, Image, and Mothering Mennonite. The War & Peace-themed poetry workshop she’s currently teaching at Ohio University explores defining service through storytelling as its springboard.