Fire-and-forget missiles are launched and then left to their own devices, whizzing toward inevitable destruction. The veteran authors of Fire and Forget: Short Stories From the Long War (Da Capo Press, 234 pages, $15.99) are on a mission to ensure U.S. soldiers aren't similarly treated. Their compilation is a grim expedition to the front lines and back home, giving a personal face to the desert wars that linger in soldiers' lives long after they've left the sand.
"We all know happiness throws white ink against a white page. What we need is darkness for the meaning to come clear," explains Colum McCann's foreword. There is plenty of darkness on these pages. The front line in "Red Steel India" flows mind-numbingly by in a montage of jacking off, video games and suicide bombers. Between deployments, an Army scout in "And Bugs Don't Bleed" wakes up, hung over and newly single, and slaughters his young neighbor's chicken just to kill. "Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek" sees two veterans fishing. Picturesque, until one beheads a trout with his teeth and the other exposes his mutilated privates (no pun intended) to nearby picnickers. In "Play the Game," the game is apparently to drink until you black out, harass police and yell "fuck this shit!" in In-N-Out Burger. The personal face of war, it seems, is teeming with hopelessness. It is also as masculine as a Hemingway novel: There's just one female veteran author.
At worst, the compilation reinforces negative soldier stereotypes. Almost every story is underlined by a dismal relationship, at times reducing the compilation to a narrative of failed couple's therapy. It is an isolated snapshot: young male Army infantry in a world of cursing, alcohol and PTSD. As one author puts it: "The Army is everywhere. Look around, all you can see is porn shops, drug stores and chain restaurants."
But at best, Fire and Forget gives human features to distant wars. A few standouts, ensnaring readers without sugar-coating, save the collection from being an overly painful slog. "Poughkeepsie," in which an AWOL soldier dreams of woodland bunny armies, is a welcome comedic respite. And Gavin Kovite's choose-your-own adventure story puts readers in the action: "At the front of your field of vision is the enormous black barrel of an M2.50 caliber machine gun...that shoots rounds the size of small dildos."
It's hard to seduce readers when you begin, as the foreword does, by calling them "wadded with lies." It's harder still when the alternative you offer is a depressing world of emotionally mauled figures in failing relationships. Fire and Forget, like almost any war, is an uncomfortable look into the dark corners of humanity.
GO: Roy Scranton, David Abrams and Gavin Kovite will be at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Wednesday, March 20. 7:30 pm. Free.