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literature : interview

Matt Gallagher

by J. T. Price

“War isn’t a destination, nor is it a topic to be mined for scribes with nothing else to say.”

Stryker combat vehicle in Saba al Bor, Iraq, January 2008. Photo by Matt Gallagher.

Youngblood, Matt Gallagher’s debut novel, is a story of the American occupation set in an isolated Iraqi town where violence has flared, settled, and may be poised to flare again. Lest that sound too macro an account, it’s really a narrative about people—those encountered on a daily basis by Lt. Jack Porter as he seeks to abide by orders, take care of his men, and do all that he possibly can to maintain a fragile peace in the region. Predictably, those objectives do not always align so well, with fealty to one sometimes pulling him afoul of another. The novel is unique among modern war literature I’ve read for delivering a more pointillist, day-to-day vision of what it’s like to be an occupier of another country, even when you are well aware of the absurdities that go with that less-than-desirable role. Among Youngblood’s wide-ranging cast of characters, Porter must negotiate his way through a gung-ho sergeant, an unreasonable chain-of-command, a Suzanne Somers-enthralled sheik, a cool-as-a-cucumber interpreter, a local boy incensed by the loss of his pet goat, and a bereaved Iraqi mother who longs for life in the Western world. It’s a messy journey that is less one of escalating drama than of steady attrition, and if the narrative edges don’t quite meet in places, Gallagher (as Porter) warns us of as much in the novel’s preface: “I’ll answer crooked, and I’ll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I’ll smile. Finally, I’ll think. Someone who understands.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Gallagher a few years ago, among other writers following the annual Veteran’s Day reading at the Old Stone House in Park Slope. (One of the sites where George Washington organized his soldiers for flight from the fast-arriving Brits at an early stage of the Revolutionary War.) In person, Gallagher is animated and engaging, with something of the eternal teen in his enthusiasm—which is all belied by an overarching seriousness that might have something to do with his having commanded fellow soldiers at an age when the vast majority of his compatriots were either throwing themselves headlong into narrow, thankless jobs or considering grad school. Gallagher thought about grad school too—it just took him a few extra years to get there.

J.T. Price I find myself compelled to acknowledge and even show admiration for the choices you made with your life, in a way I probably would not if speaking to other contemporary novelists—like, say, Jesse Ball, or Claire Vaye Watkins, or Alexandra Kleeman, though each is immensely talented. I expect those conversations would be more exclusively about the novel at hand, and that biographical details would emerge in a secondary fashion, if at all. But probably nobody sits down to discuss your novel and says at the end of the conversation, “Oh, you served in the military, didn’t you?” I wonder how you feel about the tendency among readers to foreground a military experience?

Matt Gallagher It’s a strange thing, and something I’ve come to accept is just part of the gig. It can frustrate if you allow it to—being a “war writer” or a “veteran-writer,” rather than being viewed foremost as an artist, an artist like any other. But usually that tendency among readers isn’t coming from a mean-spirited place, just a curious one. In a time when half of 1% of American citizens serve in our foreign wars, it’s an understandable impulse.

So, you remind readers that your writing isn’t fictionalized autobiography and mention the many great works of war literature written by people who didn’t spend time in the military at all. Then you talk about the merits of utilizing fiction when writing about war in general—and these wars specifically—then chalk up the conflation of the writer with his or her work as an occupational hazard. Who knows, maybe that interest is what compelled them to pick up the book in the first place? How can that be a bad thing?

JTP True. An author’s identity is frequently enough a selling point for a novel, if usually in a more muted way—especially in this moment when “autofiction” is blurring the line between fiction and memoir [Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, et al]. It’s an increasingly prominent question.

MG That said, if readers are still more interested in a writer’s bio after finishing their book, I believe that writer has failed. The work needs to transcend that.

It’s not all doom and gloom, either. To be honest, every writer who’s a veteran writing about our contemporary conflicts has benefitted some from this tendency, myself included. Things like the Vanity Fair profile last year—which was great fun to be a part of, and done with writers I admire. Very few young writers get an opportunity like that. It happened, in part, because of our backgrounds and our military service. It’s up to us now to prove we deserved that kind of notice, to produce work that stands on its own merit.

JTP Shortly after returning from the Middle East, you published the sardonic and visceral Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, a memoir based largely on a blog you ran in your downtime. In reading this novel, I noticed at least a few moments described in Kaboom reappear. In what other ways did going through the process that led to the publication of Kaboom inform your path to writing Youngblood?

MG Whether conscious or not, I imagine it informed every part of the process. From a pure craft standpoint, there were a lot of things I had to unlearn. Early on, I tended to still write in bloggy anecdotes, quick bursts four or five pages in length. Getting to the point where I could write fuller, denser chapters took time and work and study.

Conversely, over the course of writing Youngblood, I sometimes turned to my old blogs and the memoir when I needed to grab at something, get something visceral—a smell, a sound, a feel. Both Kabooms are sort of raw and unbridled.

JTP Meaning the original blog material and the published book?

MG Yeah. I hope it’s not the best thing I ever write, but it’ll probably be the most honest. Getting bits of “this is how it was,” instead of “this is how an MFA grad remembers it being,” helped immensely with texture.

And yes, certain scenes and moments of Kaboom crept into Youngblood, though it’ll take close readers of both to recognize such. There are a variety of ways to know a subject. For example, this book is set a few years after I served in Iraq, so I read a ton of news articles and oral histories to get a better feel for this part of the war. Then there’s emotionally knowing a subject, of course. Then there’s the most obvious way of knowing—direct experience. I’d be a fool not to use some of that, though with restraint and care. Unfiltered reality tends to make for poor fiction.

JTP Did military service strengthen your sense for and appreciation of irony?

MG No doubt. Having joined the army straight out of college, I knew nothing else. The bureaucratic machinations and organizational contradictions of the military weren’t completely unlike their civilian equivalents. So that magnified the appreciation for the dark irony so pervasive in military culture.

JTP What are the best books—fiction or nonfiction—that you’ve read about the modern wars not written by Americans who’ve served? 

MG Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a tour de force. I found Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days to be a magnificent portrayal of a military mother in this War on Terror era. Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone is so smart and elegant, and it proved to literary readers that this subject could be so much more than American Sniper. There have been a lot of great works of journalism about these wars and their consequences, but the late Jim Frederick set the gold standard with Black Hearts.

Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition made me deeply uncomfortable as an American veteran, which means it was doing something right and doing it well. Whitney Terrell’s novel The Good Lieutenant is coming out in June, and I can’t wait.

What else? Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War, Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War, Jen Percy’s Demon Camp, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s Ashley’s War, Deborah Amos’ Eclipse of the Sunnis. I know I’m missing a ton…

There’s so much good contemporary war lit out there by non-veterans. People who argue otherwise just aren’t looking for it. They’d rather just dismiss the whole scene as “vet-bros” and go back to tweeting about reading—rather than, you know, actually reading. That’s not a slam on the Twitter machine, by the way. I’ll leave that rant to others.

JTP So, I have a series of questions now that draw on quotations from your novel. The first one: "It wasn’t that I’d never chewed over the question. It was that where I came from, a person wasn’t supposed to have just one answer."

Ernest Hemingway once wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald, saying: “War is the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.” Now setting aside the fact that Hemingway did not serve while Fitzgerald did, I'll ask in what ways Hemingway’s declaration is or is not amenable to your own view?

MG That Hemingway pronouncement, like many Hemingway pronouncements, seems very profound when you’re twenty years old but doesn’t hold up against the scrutiny of the world. War isn’t a destination, nor is it a topic to be mined for scribes with nothing else to say. Whether it is the “best” depends entirely on the quality of what is being written about it, and how. War can be a subject, like any other, and it can be written about well, and it can be written about poorly. Hemingway’s one of the greats, of course, but that letter to Fitzgerald has always struck me as peacocking and dense.

There are only a handful of scenes and chapters in Youngblood that are true combat sequences. That was intentional. Most of the novel is about aftermath and occupation, about the inheritance and consequences of armed violence and its lasting effects on human beings. It was as important to get right the American occupation’s psychological impact on an Iraqi child who’d known nothing else as it was to describe as exactly as I could the sound of a fired round from a carbine.

The best novels about war, the ones that resonate with me are about people being pressed and compromised and defiled in the midst of chaos and ruin. Going After Cacciato, The Caine Mutiny, Half of a Yellow Sun. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is another example—that book has nothing to do with the trenches of World War I, and yet everything to do with that war and its aftereffects.

JTP In the sense that Jay Gatz’s self-reinvention begins with the war?

MG Exactly. And that his connection with Nick has as much to do with Nick’s own experiences overseas, and Jay believing in that as a bond. It contributes to their shared not-quite-belonging status in the wealthy circles they run around in. It’s one more thing that separates them from that world—because that world never had to deal with the war, even when it was going on. Both Jay and Nick want to fake that kind of disregard, but both end up failing at it, in their own ways.

JTP Another quotation from your novel: “The plan was far from tactically sound, but that never stopped a military operation.”

Youngblood isn’t what I’d call an uproarious novel à la Catch-22, but instances of humor pop up throughout like so many electronic gophers: it’s not practiced punch-line humor, but more of a “think about it” variety. Things get pretty grisly—but, even in the most unadulterated darkness, a description will take a little turn where it becomes clear you’re giving things a humorous curve. 

Is that readiness to laugh learned? As in, did you find yourself willing it, both as a soldier and in relaying war stories after the fact? Or are we talking about more of a reflexive, in-the-desert response? 

MG A little bit of both. In the moment, especially over the course of a long tour, you have to be able and willing to laugh. It’s a survival mechanism—war is fucking absurd. One’s finer sentiments and sensibilities can numb. Laughing is both a result of that and a reaction against it. Same goes for understatement. There’s a particularly grisly scene well into Youngblood when Jack and his platoon come across wild dogs going through the remnants of a car bomb attack, searching for the human remains. They can’t stop, take in the moment, and consider all the big existential questions. They have to keep moving, so they do so with irony and understatement—not because they’re cruel and inhumane, but because they’re human and frightened and overwhelmed, and that’s the most natural thing in the world.

JTP “I looked up at the floaty orange dust. Back when I’d longed for excitement, sulky teenagers with self-designated nicknames and confusion over gender identity hadn’t been what I’d imagined.”

Empathy for wartime antagonists is a signature feature of both Kaboom and Youngblood. Killers or would-be killers are presented as skinny snot-nosed boys made into zealots by perceived threats to their ways of life.

Is such empathy a luxury of being an officer? A necessity? Of course the army, by way of teaching young people to inflict mortal harm, is notorious for its dehumanizing or distancing techniques, so it does seem remarkable you would maintain the strength of character to do the opposite.

MG It’s a luxury of time and perspective more than anything. It’s something that’s present in some war lit offerings of the past, but totally absent in others. How much of that has to do with setting and era, how much of that has to do with the book’s themes and perspective, how much of that has to do with the authors themselves? Take All Quiet on the Western Front and Storm of Steel, for example—both books emerged from the wreckage of World War I trench warfare, written from the German perspective by German combat veterans, yet the books are radically different in tone, expression of empathy, etc.

For me, in both Kaboom and Youngblood, capturing that moment of who “The Enemy” often was on the ground felt essential. Not just because it was essential in the life of Matt Gallagher, though it was, or because it’s an essential part of the counterinsurgency experience, though it is—but because a generation of young American service members enlisted thinking they’d be going after bin Laden and instead found themselves running down street punks who were trying to avenge their dead fathers and lost brothers.

That empathy extends only so far, though, both the literary variant and the real-life one. It’s much cleaner and easier after the fact. Less so when said teenage street punk is still on the loose planting IEDs and taking pot shots at your friends with an AK-47, no matter how much one intellectually can appreciate their reasoning.

JTP The distinction between physical and moral courage is a major theme in your novel. One powerful interlude recounts your protagonist’s experience as a high school protestor. [Or protester? More on that in a minute.] While the novel examines gradations of both types of courage on the ground in Iraq, how do you see this distinction applying to the lives of American citizens at home?

MG I’m of two minds on this. On one hand, part of the raison d’être of the American all-volunteer force is to bear the burden of war and its consequences so the citizenry doesn’t have to. I get that, and I’d be lying if that weren’t part of the reason I joined up myself. On the other… after fifteen years of perpetual war, it’s become clear the American population as a whole doesn’t care about any of this. Not the particulars, not the generalities, nothing. There have been many acts of physical courage in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of which have been justly recognized and honored. Stories like those of Ross McGinnis, Leroy Petry, William Swenson, and other Medal of Honor recipients don’t just deserve to be known, they need to be.

Acts of moral courage or moral cowardice have shaped the trajectories of these wars and their effects just as much, if not more so, yet are too often forgotten or outright ignored. The whistleblowers of Abu Ghraib, for example—doing that took profound moral courage. Careers and friendships and lives were risked. They’ve largely been ostracized. The counterinsurgency dissidents who pushed back on Rumsfeld in ’06 to say: “No, the status quo is not good enough, we are failing.” That took moral courage. And it changed the way the war in Iraq played out, temporarily for the better. Then those counterinsurgency dissidents became strategic insiders and started portraying the approach as a panacea—thus impacting the war in Afghanistan by prolonging its already indefinite indefiniteness.

As for back here, it takes moral courage to be an everyday citizen and to engage with our country’s foreign policy in a serious, thoughtful way. We need more people willing to do so. It’s part of being a damn republic.

JTP I’m reminded of an observation from the recent documentary film, Best of Enemies: Buckley v. Vidal. The line’s delivered in voiceover, but I believe it’s Eric Alterman speaking:

“The ability to talk the same language is gone. More and more we are dividing into communities of concern. Each side can ignore the other side and live in its own world. It makes us less of a nation, because what binds us together is the pictures in our heads. But if these people are not sharing those ideas, they’re not living in the same place.”

I wonder if fiction isn’t perhaps a salve of sorts for this dilemma—at least ideally, insofar as fiction can transcend labels of left or right, or other easy denominators of identity?

MG I agree with fiction being a salve against that divisiveness. It reminds me of the famous Tim O’Brien quote—fiction is for “getting at the truth, when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” Not to sound too much like a Jedi grandmother or anything, but I’ve found “truth” is rarely easy or polemic or clean. 

JTP Tracking back to an arguably more minor question regarding “communities of concern,” I've long struggled with the question of “protester” versus “protestor”; I’m unable to arrive at any sense of agreement on the spelling. I’ve seen both usages almost everywhere, including even in the Paper of Record. In Youngblood, you use “protestor.” Does that settle it then?

MG You know, I think I used both in my manuscript! Though the copy editor remedied that. If he’s certain it’s ‘protestor,’ then so am I.

JTP As reported in Kaboom, T.E. Lawrence was a part of your reading in Iraq, and his work also serves a utilitarian purpose for Lieutenant Porter. What other forms of cultural narrative do you remember consuming overseas—whether novels, movies, video games—and what makes for the most surreal contrast, in retrospect?

MG Well, there’s a scene in Youngblood where the soldiers want to get their dreary patrol through town over with so they can get back to the outpost and play Call of Duty. I lifted that straight from the pits of memory. It makes sense, of course—they were nineteen-year-old kids, full of adrenaline and testosterone, and had probably joined up for reasons other than bringing stable electricity to a rural backwater. The Vietnam novelist Karl Marlantes has written extensively and smartly about this, that maybe we’d all be better off if soldiers were used for soldiery tasks, and a foreign constabulary did foreign constabulary tasks.

JTP Seems like, “Gee, if we’re going to make infrastructural improvements, couldn’t we do that here in the United States?” In some sense then, the administrative element to the second Iraq War reads like this lunatic parody of Roosevelt’s New Deal…

MG There was that side to the neo-con policy, wasn’t there! Irony upon ironies. Where oh where is Orwell for this?

Anyhow, the question was about forms of cultural narratives! For the most part, we avoided the surrealism of Iraq with more familiar forms of cultural escapism: I watched The Wire in its entirety at least twice. I read a ton of Marquez over there, and Didion, and Emerson, of all things. I remember reading Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers in a Porta-John late at night with a red-lens flashlight strapped to my head so my roommate could have some “Skype time” with his girlfriend back in the States, thinking the grit and absurdity of the moment would be something Stone would appreciate. Oh, and The Bachelor. My soldiers loved watching that show. I think we went through every season we could find.

JTP Perhaps as an extension of empathy ranging beyond established bounds—us v. them, officers v. enlisted, officers v. higher up officers—the fluidity of identity is one of the sneakier themes cargo’ed into this novel. Lt. Jack Porter’s a bright, interesting guy, and you provide a real sense of all the ways in which he’s self-aware, even when—or especially when—his actions as part of the military machine belie that self-awareness. Your fiction speaks in some respect to the value and necessity of self-awareness, while at the same time recognizing the often painful limits of what self-awareness can effect for one individual among many, at least in the theater of war. 

I'm more or less waxing philosophical here, but if you have anything to say about this notion…

MG Being a part of an institution—and relinquishing one’s own moral purity in the process of working for something bigger and larger than the individual—is something at the core of the novel. What does that mean? How does it look, before, during, and after? Why is it important to do? It’s also something most readers will recognize from their own lives. We all live in the world, and part of living in the world is making small compromises to keep going, and to keep the world going. Self-awareness is great, and something to be valued in a human being, but it can also be inhibiting.

Only the Internet commentariat can live in absolutes. What is it like to do your best and be a part of something you believe in only to see it fall short and fail? Intentions aren’t means. That’s Jack’s journey, or part of it at least, and something that matches the journey of the mysterious Shaba, and the enlisted veteran Chambers, and even the Iraqi mother Rana. It’s also something that should match the journey of most people in one way or another, if they’re being honest with themselves.

JTP In looking for parallels to the plot of Youngblood, I found myself thinking less of other war fiction than of private-eye stories: Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, even Polanski’s Chinatown. Was that a conscious choice on your part or simply a natural resonance in telling a story set amid the counterinsurgency?

MG It became conscious during the first draft. I wanted to write a novel with breadth, a book that covered some totality of the Iraq War, or at least the American occupation of Iraq. Setting it near the end of that occupation, laid over a mystery about a civilian killing from years before, allowed it to have a sort of bi-level narrative. Once that scope and reach was established, the detective aspect of things fell into place.

Once I got there, I turned to writers like Chandler and Graham Greene for guidance. The Wire, too, which is arguably television’s greatest show—no one had a bigger impact on shaping Jack’s character than Jimmy McNulty.

JTP I’m aware, because you spoke of this shortly before your letter of response appeared in the November 2015 issue of Harper’s, that you were a bit miffed by a recent critical piece on contemporary war fiction—“First-Person Shooters” by Sam Sacks.

Some of what I'd guess is irritating is that Sacks more or less lumps all recent vet-fiction together, asserting in effect that they’re all the same, while going on to interrogate the workshop model as a source of that perceived problem. [Echoing a thesis on the novel he was principally reviewing, it should be said—A Big Enough Lie by Eric Bennett.] In one particularly egregious spot, Sacks suggests that Phil Klay shares the point of view of one of his own characters, who says, “You can’t describe it to someone who wasn’t there.” But the fact of Klay’s fiction obviously casts that assertion in an ironic light.

At the same time, what motivates the piece is concern about the so-called civilian-military divide, how few are fighting wars whose progress and execution ordinary citizens do not feel compelled to follow or question with any great force. Which—wouldn’t you know it?—turns out to echo Klay in a recent essay called “What Defines a Modern Warrior?” and your own essays addressing the civilian-military divide, many of which have appeared in The Daily Beast. The military intellectual Andrew Bacevich also explores this idea. It’s a big question, maybe too big for an interview like this one, but what can fiction do to address that divide?

MG As pleased as I was to see 5500 words in Harper’s devoted to contemporary war literature—being that it was only a couple years ago that we wondered if anyone in literary America would notice these books, let alone read them—I will say that essay has a lot of issues. I wish it’d focused more on exploring the effects of the civilian-military divide in literature and less on ranting about first-person narrative and MFAs, or cherry-picking passages to present a flimsy case about the lack of politics and ideology in already published works.

Anyhow, let’s do that now! Though I’ve been known to utter “FUCK BUSH” at the pub, I’m pursuing something a little more complex in my creative work. Blanket didacticism and partisanship bore me, both as a reader and as a writer. I’m far from the only scribe to arrive at this station. Good fiction about modern conflict and the military-civilian divide can ruminatively address the relationship between soldier and citizen in post-empire America. It can critique the veteran myths of that post-empire America, whether imposed by others or embraced by ourselves. It can aim to be about responsibility and pathology and bullshit mystique that sears inward and outward. All that is deeply political and ideological, and all of that is already happening if one actually looks for it. One of my hopes for Youngblood is that it adds to that discussion. One of my ambitions for Youngblood is that it makes people consider those issues a little bit more, maybe even in a different way than they did before reading the novel.


J.T. Price’s fiction has appeared in The New England ReviewThe Brooklyn RailOpium Magazine, and elsewhere; non-fiction in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and The Daily Beast.

iraq war (2003–2011)
war in iraq
war stories