By R.A. Mathis
The author and the soldier live in different worlds, but sometimes those worlds collide. On rare occasions, pen and sword are both wielded deftly by the same hand.
Many veterans record their wartime recollections in straightforward narratives and memoirs, but few 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. A quick search will produce an avalanche of veteran-authored nonfiction 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 Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut and J.R.R. Tolkien. 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.
I imagine many of them turn to fiction for the same reason I did. The sights, sounds, smells and emotions of combat are too much for the mind to take in. Eventually, you have to switch off your humanity for the sake of your sanity. The shredded body of a kid killed by an insurgent’s IED isn’t somebody’s child. It’s just a thing. You think, “That’s a shame.” But in the back of your mind, you know it was a 6-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 don’t sleep. Your stomach stays in knots. Your loved ones hear it in your voice when you call home. You try to stuff it all away and 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. There were questions, doubts and guilt. Did I make the right decisions? What should I have done differently? Could I have saved a fellow soldier? Why did I make it home? Why didn’t he?
I turned to writing as a form of self-therapy to help work through what was going on in my head. Memoirs are invaluable historical documents and may even aid their writers in venting some of the emotional steam imparted by the pressure cooker of war, but they rarely delve into the deeper, darker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. Eventually, a novel began to take form. The first draft was pretty rough. The final isn’t Shakespeare, but it’s honest.
War changes everything it touches. Soldiers know that going in. At least they should. All they can do is try to make it a change for the better. 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.
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Rob Mathis (Knoxville ’97) recently published Ghosts of Babylon about his experience with the U.S. Army fighting in Iraq in 2005. He gives special thanks for help writing the book to Carolyn Boling, wife of UT President Emeritus Ed Boling. Contact him at www.ramathis.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.