Your Army

This veteran author never saw combat. He writes to comprehend this experience

As the size and rate of combat deployments steadily declines, more and more troops face the likelihood that they can serve an entire enlistment or career without seeing combat.

That time span between the Vietnam War and the 9/11 attacks was one where, unless a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine was in a specific unit on a certain deployment cycle, they could serve a full 20 years or more without seeing war.

Though top leadership is shifting budgets, training, manning and equipping for the possibility of a near-peer fight with Russia or China, signs of impending large-scale combat loom in the realm of speculation, but still remain an ever-present threat.

It’s where in the zeitgeist a new book by writer Paul Crenshaw lives. Here, he weaves memories from his short time serving in the Arkansas Army National Guard in the early 1990s with the surrounding military culture that permeated his childhood and lingered beyond his service, while noting the impact of a nation at war for more than two decades.

The book, a collection of personal essays called “This We’ll Defend: A noncombat veteran on war and its aftermath,” delves into the nuances of service and the gulf between military and civilian life in both peace and wartime.

This is not Crenshaw’s first book. Many of the essays in this collection were published previously in literary review magazines. Two appeared in annual Best American Essays 2016 and 2018. One was also published in The Pushcart Prize Anthology 2017. He has also written the essay collection, “This One Will Hurt You,” which is a more topically inclusive book. And he is currently at work on another essay collection centered around the themes of growing up during the Cold War.

In his most recent work, Crenshaw summons snatches of memories of playing soldier as a child, wondering about his grandfather’s World War II and Korean War service, his father’s National Guard service and his own fear of going to war — attending boot camp as the Persian Gulf War ramped up.

Throughout the book, Crenshaw talks about how drill sergeants at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1990 kept reminding him and the other recruits that they would likely deploy to the Gulf once they graduated basic training. But after finishing training, Crenshaw started college, attending his Guard drills monthly. He and a roommate watched the opening attacks of the Gulf War on television, drinking too much and telling themselves they wished they were there.

As Crenshaw writes, in the summer of 1995, “I left the military forever.” But, as many veterans experience, the military didn’t really leave him.

The following is a question and answer session with Crenshaw, edited for clarity:

Q: Much of this is revealed in pieces throughout your essay collection, but can you tell our readers about your military background?

A: I joined the military in 1989 when I was 17, between my junior and senior year in high school. I was in the Arkansas National Guard for a year, going to drills before I went to boot camp. My grandfather was a World War II and Korean War veteran. He did 26 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Guard. My dad joined the Guard during the Vietnam War. He was still in when I joined. He showed me how to polish my boots, get a uniform ready for inspection. When I joined, my Guard unit was medical — a MASH unit. But it changed to an air defense artillery unit. I was a supply private at first, but all of the field activities were air defense.

A few months after the Gulf War ended, I found myself telling people I tried to go. I was in the National Guard then, and though my unit was never activated during the war, I fabricated the idea that I had tried to enlist full-time so I could fight. This was a lie I told whenever the conversation rolled around to war, or the military, or dying or honor or death, but after the third or fourth time I said it I started to believe it.

This is my memory of war: drunk nights before the TV, then sleeping all day to wake and drive to the liquor store to do it all again. Sleeping during our weekend guard drills or hiding somewhere listening to the phantom sound of fighters overhead. Nowhere in it is the idea of entering the war. I’m not sure now how I would have even gone about it. I suppose I could have talked to an army recruiter or my captain, but none of those things ever happened. Like most of war, my memories of it are lies.

Paul Crenshaw, author of
Paul Crenshaw, author of "This We'll Defend," a 2019 essay collection about his time time in and reflections on the military after serving in the Arkansas National Guard in the early 1990s. (University of North Carolina Press)

Q: Did you read a lot growing up? Did you always want to be a writer?

A: As a kid, I wouldn’t call myself an avid reader. I really started reading in college. And I didn’t really start writing until 21 or 22. I had gone to college and dropped out and was going back to college. My roommate and I didn’t have a lot of money, maybe enough to shoot pool once a week. I would grab my mom’s books on weekends and bring them back with me, trade in the ones I didn’t like for ones I did like. One night I started messing around trying to write a novel. I’d write maybe two or three paragraphs a week. Later I finished college and went on to graduate school for fiction writing, in 2001, 11 years after high school.

Q: A lot of writers, and particularly veterans, have written memoirs, novels or journalistic accounts of their military experience. What drew you to the essay?

A: In the second semester of grad school all fiction writers took a nonfiction class. Though I was still mainly a fiction writer, I started writing a few essays. My first essays were just very narrative-based. I have one essay that started as a short story, turned it into my fiction thesis adviser and he said, “this needs a murder in it.” The short story was about 85 percent true anyway, so why not make it an essay instead? The essays I’m writing are creative nonfiction, they use elements of fiction. Some now are more reflective, memoirish. That’s how the process started.

Q: How does an essay start for you? Where do you begin an idea?

A: Something strikes me. The form strikes me, rather than this great idea for an essay. The form fits an essay, narrative in nature, with something to reflect on, figure out. A lot of “This We’ll Defend,” is figuring out how I felt about a lot of things. A lot of people who’ve been in the military sort of have a conflict with what they’re supposed to be doing and what they’re doing.

Q: Can you share an example of one of those conflicts that’s military related?

A: I was in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, when the troops started coming home from the Gulf. They had huge parade in downtown Columbia, South Carolina... jets flying over, marching bands, tanks. A lot of returning soldiers didn’t want to march in a parade. They wanted to go home to their families. So, we marched in the parade. We were wearing green camouflage, not desert camouflage. People kept thanking us for our service. We told them we weren’t there. Some were offended, asking “why are you marching in this parade, why are you here?” I think one of the ideas I grappled with was why were soldiers after Vietnam treated so poorly, then after Desert Storm were hailed, given parades?

Q: What advice might you offer other military members or veterans who might want to write about their experiences?

A: That’s the most important thing I want veterans to do: Tell stories. Start with what happened, tell the narrative. Let the story grow out of that. Hopefully through telling the story, you’ll figure it out. I’ve met with groups of student veterans and talked about writing. One of my first essays, “Storm Country” was about growing up in Arkansas near tornadoes. I was driving to Washington DC with a friend who thought a storm we saw on the way could become a tornado. I explained why it wasn’t. It dawned on me that most people didn’t grow up in tornado alley. Veterans who read my essays, they’ll identify with things, say “yep, I know that.” But to a lot of people, who don’t know what the experience of basic training is like, drill sergeants, the mental exhaustion and camaraderie.

Q: What do you get from writing these essays, many of them about experiences from decades ago?

A: There are ideas to explore through essays. That is what an essay is to me. How do I really feel about these things? That’s exactly it. To reflect on past experience. I don’t understand anything until 10 years later, if I understand anything at all.

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