A Review of Steven Moore’s The Longer We Were There: A Memoir of a Part-Time Soldier
February 7, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Hugh Martin
Prior to describing a rocket attack while serving in the Bad Pech Valley of Afghanistan, Steven Moore, a sergeant with the Iowa Army National Guard, reflects upon those more well-known, albeit briefly, stories involving the war: Bowe Bergdahl. Osama bin Laden. Pat Tillman. “The war in Afghanistan was a perpetual background,” Moore writes, “always there but easy to forget about. America looked at the war whenever the war could produce a coherent story. Rarely was it capable of doing so.”
Throughout the twelve essays in The Longer We Were There: A Memoir of a Part-Time Soldier, Moore further interrogates and complicates this idea of—and impossibility of—“coherence” in relation to his service in Afghanistan between 2010-11.
Rather than writing a linear narrative or one with tidy bromides, or farfetched resolutions, Moore instead writes in fragments, vignettes, and short “flash” pieces as he moves between past and present throughout his deployment overseas and his seven years in the Iowa Army National Guard. In the penultimate chapter, “The Trouble With Ceremony,” which delves deeply into the moral and ethical quandaries involving the limits of narrative, along with the relationship between war and art, Moore wisely considers his own difficulties and skepticisms when attempting to put into language what is often an ineffable, and incoherent, experience, “I became increasingly hesitant, if not directly afraid, to tell anyone what it was like to be in Afghanistan” he writes. Citing writers as various as Tobias Woolf, Joan Didion, Tim O’Brien, Maggie Nelson, and Robert Hass, Moore smartly considers the obstacles involving, for instance, aestheticizing violence: “…telling a story about war in any way,” he writes, “no matter how brutal its violence is made to seem, will make that violence look desirable to someone.” Although Moore doesn’t, not surprisingly, have the answer—“…what I’m trying to say is, I still don’t know what we are asking art to do, or for whom, or when”—his self-awareness involving language, structure, and the unavoidable aggrandizement of the writer, an American veteran, telling his version of war, is present throughout the entire book.
Moore’s collection, which begins five days into his Afghanistan deployment on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, captures with honesty, precision, and humor, the bizarre, often liminal space National Guard soldiers occupy as civilians and soldiers. Early in the collection, as a college student and a newly minted National Guard soldier, Moore explains his attempts to juggle both identities: “The problem was inhabiting both parts, civilian and military, simultaneously.” While working as a student at the university bookstore, Moore struggles to answer innocuous questions about his training from other students. “Part of me didn’t want to describe what we were doing…” he says. “The military parts became absurd when exposed to a civilian context, the way blood changes color when exposed to oxygen.” In some sense, throughout the entire trajectory of the book, Moore grapples with how to fulfill his role as a citizen-soldier—later, as a full-time soldier in Afghanistan—and, even more significantly, how to put that experience into words, both in conversation and on the page.
As someone who served in Iraq with the National Guard—I joined as a high school junior three months before 9/11—I admire Moore’s vivid depiction of the citizen-soldier “behind the triumphant sheen of the TV commercials.” Moore shatters stereotypical soldier portrayals with his attention to detail and his eye for particulars. While working at his family’s gas station, which is directly across from the armory where he’ll soon drill, Moore frequently interacts with National Guard soldiers stopping in as customers. “None of the soldiers seemed heroic, or very noble, or upstanding, or glamorous,” he writes, and then later, wryly: “They were just doing some kind of job, then taking breaks for soda and cigarettes.” No sentence captures a National Guard drill weekend better than that.
In the latter parts of the book, Moore focuses on the war and the trouble with homecoming. In “American Background,” one of the most riveting sections, while recounting a rocket attack from multiple perspectives, Moore and another soldier debate whether to fire at what they discern to be muzzle flashes a half mile away: “The flashes disappeared. We stared at the spot. Daniels paused a moment, then said, Fuck it, I’m firing. He pressed his gloved thumb against the safety. I said, Wait.” Ultimately, they don’t end up firing, at least on this night. Having endured dozens of indirect fire attacks in Iraq, the scene is fitting to these typical moments of “war”: attacks and explosions happen quickly and no one, often, has any clue what’s going on.
In the final chapter, “The Case for Zakir,” Moore focuses on an Afghan interpreter, Zakir, and his struggles to obtain an SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) to come to the United States. Moore explains how Zakir’s life is constantly in danger because of his work with U.S. soldiers, but still, he’s rejected due to misinformation exchanged through the layers of bureaucratic channels and processes. The book closes, fittingly, without a coherent ending or resolution: Zakir is still in hiding, in fear for his life, in a sort of limbo, waiting for help that may never come. From a narrative perspective, Moore is wise to end here, at this place where the war still goes on, still affects those, like Zakir, whose story often gets ignored or lost. “He can’t continue to exist in hiding,” Moore writes. “It’s like living in jail…for him, Afghanistan is jail.” The book closes with Zakir still, after five years, waiting. Although we, as readers, still might have trouble imagining one “coherent” narrative involving our War in Afghanistan, Moore gives us, with compassion and depth, a human face to a war that is, today, “a perpetual background.”
Hugh Martin is the author of In Country (BOA Editions 2018) and The Stick Soldiers (BOA Editions 2013). He is a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio University.