NER fiction editor Janice Obuchowski talks with author Eric McMillan about “Havoc,” the story that emerged slowly after his Army years in Iraq and appears in NER 38.3. “If your beliefs are reaffirmed by the art you consume,” he tells us, “question your art.” And what does McMillan learn in the writing of this story, which he presents in the most human of scales? Among other things, “dogs, it turns out, are very hard to write.”
JO: You served ten years as an Army officer, participating in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then returned in command of an infantry company during the 2007–2008 surge. “Havoc” reveals your knowledge of Iraq—particularly its setting and its people. The story quickly establishes that the battalion medics “commandeered a row of palaces from the Republican Guard near this pristine, manmade lake with a stock of wild trout.” Were you, during your time there, writing fiction? Were you thinking about writing fiction—perhaps taking notes about what was happening around you or moments you were considering writing about?
EM: During the invasion I held a staff position, running logistical support to a frontline unit; I didn’t necessarily trust that what I was seeing had enough scope to make sense of the war—I left with impressions of Iraq but never bothered to write any down. By the time I returned, in command of a 150-man infantry company in early 2007, I was consumed by my duties. That level of responsibility challenges your optics: I had a tendency to make too much sense of what I was experiencing.
Combat sharpens the quality of your attention. The environment is full of signs and symbols. For the most part it remains coded. I absorbed everything—the granular detail of my surroundings; competing accounts and myths and second-hand stories; the array of facial ticks and poker faces you encountered with the locals. I became a collector of “widowed images” (to use Charles Baxter’s phrase).
Becoming a writer meant changing headspace and learning how to receive the offerings of a glutted subconscious, how to re-contextualize my observations. I used to regret that I hadn’t kept a journal of some kind, a “captain’s log.” But because I don’t have one, I have no obligation to remain faithful to the source material. I’m free to play with my imagination and create a simulacrum of a lived experience.
On the one hand, of course I want my writing about the war to feel authentic. I employ a lot of non-fictiony detail; and yet, my chief concern, as a writer of fiction, is not to tell you what Iraq was like.
Readers grant veterans like me automatic authority. A war story’s power often derives from a notion of witness. And if there’s one thing I’m tempted to do as a writer—my challenge—it’s to uncouple power from notion. To trouble what it means to witness. Fiction seeks a truth that lies behind or beyond fact. I struggle with the war I was a part of. When you read my work, I want you to struggle with it too.
JO: The story also upends clichés about what it means to be a soldier. This resides in dry jokes at the sentence level: “We liberated a puppy and tried to tame him by feeding him peanut butter and Easy Cheese.” But more broadly it exists in the boredom the battalion feels—as well in their lack of authority, their lack of action. “. . . we napped all day, our feet dangling from the litter stands. Without TV, without any books or video games, week passed as we waited for word of our replacements. We stared at the ceiling, at each other, like a bunch of mouth breathers.” The writing highlights this thematically by moving against our typical notions of plot. There’s no large precipitating action; there’s no traditional arc. I loved this about the piece—because it felt like a risk paying off. You’re forcing the readers to inhabit a stasis similar to the one the soldiers are in, you’re illuminating a truth in these characters’ existence through structural decisions. Were you thinking about any of this as you were drafting the story?
EM: When I write, voice comes first. Think of the big muscle movements of plot as forcing functions. I’m more of a drama vs. conflict sort of fiction writer.
A story’s drama, the social and political and historical milieu of the story, can chew up plot. I say, let it. Conflict is something else, somewhere else. It’s internal, psychological. And the only thing I concerned myself with in drafting the story was how the characters—in the grip of that stasis you’re referring to—attempted to evade or refuse to confront that internal conflict, so that it was always bubbling up. Drama, our plot, can throw conflict into relief. The opposite can also be true. I try to work each off the other.
In other words, the only way—I felt—I could tell a story about the invasion in 2003 was to tell a story about a group of soldiers caught up in events, to watch their excuses and rationalizations. To a certain extent, parrot their cognitive dissonance. There’s what they want to believe, and there’s the cold light of day. Fiction, or the kind I care about, illuminates the distance between the two.
JO: The writing contains stasis and yet when violence occurs it happens quickly and, seemingly, without foregrounding logic. Things are all right and then, abruptly, they’re not. The men are in the streets playing with Iraqi children when one small movement—a medic grabbing the wrist of a child who had been reaching into his back pocket—incites a crowd to violence; two days before the battalion is to depart, a private gets shot while he’s on shift at the front gate. In writing about violence this way, were you thinking about what you’d encountered in Iraq? Were you trying to highlight the loss of control these soldiers were feeling? Something else entirely?
EM: Yes to your first question, yes to your second, and yes to your third. Not to be flippant, but I think my responsibility is to think ethically about the use of violence in a war story—there are conventions American audiences expect. We anticipate certain storylines. We’re conditioned for themes. Take, for example, the fall line-up on NBC with (what I assume to be) technicolor fantasies of heroic, American exceptionalism. Or, on the other hand, consider an equally fantastic depiction of the war with a different bias: The Hurt Locker. Both cinematic treatments have their ideal(istic) viewer. Literary fiction is no different. There’s a self-perpetuating, received wisdom to most war stories, either 1) war is not the answer, or 2) war breaks everyone and everything, or 3) what’s tragic about war is that soldiers and civilians alike get caught in the crossfire, that they have no choice in the matter.
This is inherently problematic.
War, by its very nature, is “a continuation of politics by other means.” We can’t afford to be reflexive about the violence in a war story—not in these times. If your beliefs are reaffirmed by the art you consume, question your art.
I’m mindful that the events of “Havoc” occur fourteen years ago. There’s a reason the story begins with “Most people forget . . .” Because Iraq is not our past, it’s our present. Fact: we still have troops on the ground in Iraq. Fact: the troops on the ground in Afghanistan are about to be given more permissive rules of engagement. We’re behind incursions into Yemen. Our shaping operations in Syria happen largely under the radar. We just lost three Green Berets in Niger. We’re assisting the Philippine army against Islamic insurgents (despite Duterte) and conducting joint exercises in the Baltic States (to spite Putin.) We have close to 30,000 service members stationed in South Korea waiting for the shit to go down . . . with twice as many bureaucrats, diplomats, expats, and their families. Not to mention 51 million South Koreans whose fate may be in the hands of a chief executive who can’t be bothered with simple details in his intelligence briefings.
Violence doesn’t come out of nowhere—it just feels like it does, and that’s the danger that all of us should be keenly attuned to.
JO: And a question about Havoc, the liberated puppy who becomes a mascot for the battalion. He’s vivid, has personality—and the writing focuses on his character in ways that it doesn’t seem to focus on many of the battalion members. My instinct was this was deliberate—and your intent here could be complicated, multifaceted. Havoc becomes a symbol for the hope the men feel—perhaps to rail against this stasis, this existential pallor hanging over all their experiences. But, of course, the dog is named Havoc—which suggests destruction or ruin. Were you thinking about the dog’s symbolic potential in the writing? Were you thinking of the dog as a central character?
EM: Dogs, it turns out, are very hard to write. The germ of Havoc as a character came as a response to Turgenev’s story “Mumu.” Or rather, it came in response to something a professor said when I studied the story as part of a graduate seminar on “The Theory of Narrative” at the University of Chicago; it was an offhand remark (delivered by a Russian scholar): “In stories, we are more ready to feel for animals than for human beings . . .” That really stuck with me.
Of course, he was specifically referring to the character Mumu, this feisty dog, a wonderfully drawn character who has more expression and personality and agency than the mute serf Gerasim. I wanted to do something like that. My initial attempts failed, precisely because I tried to write the dog’s character as a symbol. You can’t write symbols. It’s like forcing a joke. The audience sees it coming from a mile away and resents you for it. Another of my teachers there recommended I read Muir’s “Skitereen” to get a sense of how you should write a dog.
The point is you have to write a dog as you would any other character but without the advantages of dialogue or access to interiority. There’s more of a burden to show, and much of what character is extent is wholly dependent on projection and human interaction.
Let’s not forget the importance of refracting through the cultural lens. What’s so de-familiarizing and alien about all those Iraqi strays—we see pets underneath, the Iraqis see a forbidden hadith, and the dogs themselves roam wild, largely free from human kindness or cruelty. When I started playing with this contrast in Havoc’s characterization, I found that everything I wanted to say symbolically, well, that just started steaming off the page. In fact, it was revealing more than I ever intended.
JO: Anyone you’re reading now you’re particularly smitten with?
Charles Baxter recommended I read The Wars by Canadian novelist Timothy Findley. And when Charles Baxter speaks, you listen. It’s a beautiful novel, what I imagine A Farewell to Arms would be if it had been written by Michael Ondaatje. It deserves to be rediscovered.
I’ve long been fascinated by World War One and have become immersed with all these forgotten novels and memoirs that have reemerged during the centennial. Some of them are really quite excellent, like Gabrielle Chevallier’s novel La Peur (Fear) or Hans Herbert Grimm’s novel Schlump. Both, like the more canonical All Quiet on the Western Front, deal with a form of bildungsroman; and yet, unlike Remarque’s book, both are more than mere protest novels. I was bowled over by their humor and nuance, the honesty of their self-indictment, and their resonant disquiet.
JO: What are you working on now? More stories? A novel?
I’m involved in an intractable, drawn-out campaign to write a novel, not unlike warfare on the Western Front—measured in assaults and met with counterattacks that yield little more than a few yards of gained territory. Occasionally, I will fool myself into thinking that I can carry out a series of clandestine, lightning-quick raids. Maybe, I think, I’ll write a short story. But whether the story is 5,000 words or 500 pages, I’m constantly relearning a fundamental lesson of my time in uniform: that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. (And yet, that’s no excuse for not having a plan.)
Five years ago I began “Havoc.” I thought I could knock the story out in a matter of weeks. Boy was I wrong. After months of trying, I gave up and tucked it into a drawer, where it stayed for over a year. One Christmas season I woke up from a dream, convinced I had the answer. At last I knew what I needed to do with it! And that version of the story got rejected for another year. I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it, entire sections at a time. When I could no longer see what needed work, I took it to workshop. I was a fervent novice in Jim Shepard’s dojo; he showed me how much further I had to go. Two years later, after even more revisions—the kind that can only come at the hands of careful editors—it’s here, in NER 38.3. I’m quite grateful for what the story has taught me, and I’m very proud of it.
As for the work to come, I’m stuck in the trenches at the moment—but you can bet I’m still in the fight.
Eric McMillan served ten years as an Army officer, participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and later returned in command of an infantry company during the “Surge” of 2007–2008. He has received support from the Richard Hugo House and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and his fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast and Witness. He lives in Seattle with his wife and son.