In Conversation with Matt Gallagher
by Joe Stanek
It would be difficult to tell Matt Gallagher led a cavalry scout platoon in Iraq when he was in his twenties if it weren’t for the effortless connections he draws between the recent wars and their impact on life in America. Like many of us who look back on our time in the military with mixed emotions, Gallagher has a lot to say about the causes and consequences of our collective psyche.
Since my first session as a student in one of his early Words After War workshops, I’ve always felt lucky to benefit from his talent for cultivating the critical capacity every writer needs to confront the thoughts that keep us up at night. During those first writing sessions in Brooklyn, he introduced me to the work of Katherine Anne Porter, Susan Sontag, and George Orwell, along with the contemporary fiction of Hassan Blasim. This attuned my focus to the various methods writers use to portray the myriad faces of conflict. I never lost that focus along with the rage we both cite as a powerful motivators to continue writing.
Gallagher met me at The Exley in Williamsburg just as the bartender placed a chalkboard with happy-hour specials out front as if to suggest we stay a while.
[Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.]
Joe Stanek: It seems like so much has happened since we scheduled this. There have been so many veterans popping up in the news lately as part of these NFL national anthem conversations. A lot of people appear to be pointing to any veteran they can find who shares their own opinion.
Matt Gallagher: You know, anecdotally, it sure seems to me that a lot of reflexive patriots want to use the military and the veterans community as a shield for their shallow logic suggesting everybody should stand for the national anthem and feel exactly the same as they do about the flag.
JS: Definitely. I think it’s actually good for people to see veterans voicing the full spectrum of arguments for and against this.
MG: I myself would never kneel due to not just to my military service, but my family background. My grandfather was an immigrant from Belfast and became an Admiral in the Navy. That flag meant a lot to him and it means a lot to our family, but you know I’d be foolish not to realize that hasn’t been the story of every family in America. That’s the story we like to tell ourselves. And it does happen sometimes, but a lot of other families have had a much rougher go of it and have been treated harshly and unfairly and unjustly and being honest about that is the only way we as a culture and as a society can go forward. In the military, taking a knee isn’t a sign of weakness or submission. It’s something we do as a moment of reflection or a moment of consideration, even in the midst of a firefight sometimes to try and figure it all out before we press on.
JS: I like that analogy of taking the conscious pause to reflect on the times.
MG: It kind of seems to me that’s all these football players are asking for is for all of us to take a moment to consider the best path forward. How can any person think that’s a bad thing?
JS: Is there anything else you think we should be taking a knee on?
MG: So much. These questions of what citizenship is. What is duty and service in a post 9/11 America? I think something that’s interesting with these football protests are cases of police brutality and racial injustices across the country. I think that’s vital to remember and not get conflated with other issues.
In the wake of all this, for the first time that I’ve seen on a mass scale at least, there’s also some backlash to yellow ribbon patriotism to things people were afraid to ask questions about right after 9/11. Why do we have to sing the national anthem before a football game or baseball game? Why do we have those giant ass flags? Why is it ok that the NFL has this pay for patriotism program?
JS: It seems like each movement has been using veterans in their own way too. Trump’s got his veterans and then everyone else finds a veteran in their camp to claim, “Veterans believe this!”
MG: Right, and I think it’s so vital that more people know we’re not a monolithic community. Sixteen years into this thing, it amazes me when people feel like they can trot out, “But the veterans” as an argument in defense of something. Those people probably haven’t thought that out or haven’t had too much exposure to veterans. If they did, they’d know that our community runs the gamut in terms of politics.
JS: Are there any unifying themes in particular that you’ve noticed emerge amongst the literary voices from these wars?
MG: I think one thing that unites the literature that’s been coming out of these wars is a subtext suggesting to the reader this really fucking matters. We need to be paying attention as a culture and society and I think if there’s one unifying aspect to these wide range of works and voices it’s that this does matter.
It’s on my mind because today my buddy Eliot Ackerman’s novel Dark at the Crossing was just named a finalist for the National Book award. And I’m really excited for him.
JS: It’s on my shelf! Like Elliot Ackerman, you’ve written fiction and nonfiction about similar subjects. How does your fiction and nonfiction inform each other?
MG: I can only speak for myself here, I like using journalism and nonfiction as a foundation for my fiction. It’s a good place for me to get informed on a subject. I’m very much a nonfiction writer who jumps in first and then figures out what the story is. The fiction takes much longer to wrangle over.
I’m a big believer of revisions. My novel Youngblood went through nine or ten full draft revisions. I tend to be really messy with it. I’m always envious of writers that are able to have kind of control over their long form fiction. With my nonfiction, it’s a much smoother process. I think that’s because the constraints of the world are already set for me.
JS: You gave readers a lot to think about with LT Porter in Youngblood. There were questions about his dynamic in relation to the platoon he was leading, the Iraqi family he felt responsible for, and the US Army he was a part of. I thought the interpreter character Qasim did a great job humanizing the aspects of a relationship that doesn’t have any equivalent in our society. What kind of considerations were you trying to get readers to ponder?
MG: I wanted Jack [LT Porter] to be a cipher. There are so many barriers between literary readers and the military that I knew I needed a narrator that people didn’t have to like, but at least they could identify with. I thought having a lieutenant fresh from college who was still figuring out military culture and language himself could be helpful for that. I also wanted that cipher to be coming into Iraq at the very end with fresh eyes. When the story begins, he’s experienced the war the same way 98% of Americans have through television and news stories.
JS: He’s still very much the outsider in that way.
MG: Exactly. Trying to figure his way in. More of an observer in many points than he is an active presence that changes over the course of the novel. Yet, he’s their platoon leader. He needs to be an active force. He’s not allowed the freedom of an embedded journalist who can say they’re just there to observe. A lot of readers like Chambers a lot, I grew to like him a lot as I wrote him as the antagonist.
JS: There’s something respectable with him. A lot to like there.
MG: He’s a pragmatist. He’s Machiavellian, but the world needs people like that. And militaries really need people like that because otherwise nothing will ever get done. We can’t all hem and haw from afar even if that’s the best place to maintain one’s moral purity. The world doesn’t operate like that. I think Jack’s journey in Youngblood would be similar to anybody else’s. We all have to make compromises. We all have to decide what’s important to us. Part of what Jack determines is that he can’t save the war and can’t save all of Iraq from the American withdrawal. He decides for reasons that are both healthy and unhealthy that saving this Iraqi woman and her two children matters to him. That comes with a lot of moral compromises along the way. Maybe ones he was unprepared for when he made that decision.
JS: That’s a good point about how we’re not always prepared for the consequences of the decisions we make. There’s no way to fully see that out.
This perspective of looking back lets us ask how these places have changed since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Looking at the same cities that have been in the news for over a decade gives a sense of a total loss of control. There’s still so much energy being exchanged.
MG: It’s really dark. War literature should be dark, each passing year it’s getting more interesting, more layered, more nuanced. I think that’s good that writers are responding to each other, to the wars, to American culture and society. War literature of 2017 should be in a different place than it was in 2011 otherwise it’s not doing anything new. It’s not challenging itself and it’s not challenging the narratives put out by our government by politicians.
JS: In the current climate, do you think society sees veterans, as a recent tweet by Peter Lucier said, as “arbitrary arbiters of patriotism”?
MG: I think it’s important we stand up and say as individuals and groups that we didn’t serve so some jingoist asshole can feel good about themselves. I served so people I disagree with can express themselves. If that’s one good thing that can come out of these wars that have gone so horribly awry, I’ll take it. I’ll grasp to it because there’s not a lot there. I say that as someone who was there when things were happening and came back thinking we won the war or something like it.
JS: What year was that?
MG: Late 2007 through 2009, late surge in Iraq. First 3 months were harry and then got noticeably better in real ways. It wasn’t fake.
JS: Which is not a story a lot of people I talk to have about how they felt about their deployments.
MG: No! Looking back on it, I realize how rare and lucky that was. My first book Kaboom was a testament to that time and place. I wasn’t conscious of it when I wrote Youngblood, but the novel was my exploration of the war as a whole that I served in, as opposed to just my time there which Kaboom focuses on.
JS: That’s the kind of stuff people who are curiously engaged want to know. People ask what soldiers are thinking and doing in these areas they don’t see in the news.
MG: It’s so important to just write what you have to write. Writing is hard enough as it is. There’s already so many other distractions pulling you in different ways, self doubt, all that stuff. Trying to game the system is just a layer of madness. If it’s keeping you up at night or getting you out of bed in the morning, probably means you should be writing about that.
JS: What are your biggest motivators now?
MG: Rage. Frustration. A lingering belief despite all evidence to the contrary that we can and should be better than this. Also, just an interest in storytelling. Exploring why human beings do the things they do in trying circumstances. The hope that maybe someday there’s a young reader that will pick up one of my books and learn from it the way I did with so many authors that shaped my ideals and beliefs sometimes for the better and sometimes not. I was a more fully realized human being because of their books. We’ve all had those experiences with books that leave a mark on us. One of my biggest hopes as a writer would be that someday, a young person has an experience like that with one of mine. Sometimes, you just have to put yourself out there. I try to remind myself I can’t be precious with it. Say what you mean and move on to the next thing.
Inshallah, as God wills it.
JS: Sometimes that’s all you can say. Have you always had that mentality or has that changed for you over your career?
MG: I probably had to do the opposite and learn to reign myself in a bit more. I kept a blog overseas that got shut down and was probably too reckless with what I was writing about and also just read way too much beat literature in college thinking First thought best thought. I really took that to heart, maybe too far as a young writer. For my MFA at Columbia, I wanted to better my fiction. It was coming out crooked. If I took anything from the MFA it was learning to reign myself in. The importance of revision and polish. You can go too far with that I think. That’s the danger of becoming too precious with it. Whatever that raw spark is in those early drafts, how do you save that through revision without getting rid of it? That’s the equilibrium we’re all trying to find in our work. Something that speaks truth and is powerful, but always says it the sharpest way possible so you don’t have to wade through too much clutter to get to that truth.
Mr. Gallagher, who served as an armored cavalry officer in Iraq, is the author of the novel “Youngblood” and the memoir “Kaboom.”
Find Matt Gallagher on Twitter @MattGallagher0