Soldiers Pen Stories, Record A History Of War
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We've heard about Operation Iraqi Freedom, which is the name for the U.S. campaign in Iraq, and Operation Enduring Freedom, which is based in Afghanistan. But there's another campaign we'd like to tell you about. It's called Operation Homecoming.
Organized by the National Endowments for the Arts and the Department of Defense, the mission is to record the history of these wars from the perspective of the men and women fighting them. Active duty soldiers and Marines have written poetry, memoirs and fiction about Iraq and Afghanistan, about missing home and about returning to the States.
Their submissions have already been turned into a book and made into a couple of award-winning documentary movies. Now the U.S. government is bringing writing workshops to VA hospitals all over the country, and we're going to talk to some of the people involved in this writing program for veterans.
First Lieutenant Sang-joon Han wrote a piece of short fiction set in the Iraq war. It was published in the anthology "Operation Homecoming." He joins us from NPR studios in New York.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a writer who served as a professional mentor during the workshops. He's here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. And Army Specialist Anisa Moyo, aspiring writer and former Army medic who just returned from one of the writing workshops in San Antonio, Texas, joins us from member station KUT in Austin.
Welcome to you all. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. E. ETHELBERT MILLER (Writer): Thank you for inviting us.
First Lieutenant SANG-JOON HAN (U.S. Army): Thank you.
Specialist ANISA MOYO (Former Army medic): Thank you.
MARTIN: Sang-joon Han, I'm going to start with you. I want to talk about the piece that you published in the anthology. It's a fictionalized account of an incident that occurred in Iraq. It's called "Aftermath." And would you mind reading a short selection from the piece?
First Lt. HAN: Of course. Qasim was only a few paces from the road when he caught his first glimpse of the approaching vehicles. His heart jumped into his throat. He knew something was about to happen. The town on the far side of the road was suddenly empty. The three trucks drew steadily closer. Qasim could make out the faces of the individual soldiers. It was the closest that he'd ever come to them, he realized, and he was still studying their expressions when the explosion engulfed the last truck in the convoy.
The noise was deafening, and the old farmer felt the ground shake beneath his feet. Qasim stood fixed in place. He wanted to see what the Americans would do. The answer was not long in coming. The Americans started shooting. He turned to run.
Sergeant Price was kneeling just a few meters away from his Humvee, taking aim with his rifle. If they're running, they're guilty. The credo had been drilled into his head over and over again. Price desperately wanted the man to stop running before he squeezed the trigger. Stop, Price shouted at the man's back. The son of a bitch was going to make him shoot. Price hated the man at that moment. Stop, he shouted a half second before he fired again.
MARTIN: I think the thing that I - stands out for me in the story is how you try to get into each person's head and to think about what that person was thinking about at that moment. And obviously, you are a soldier. So was it hard for you to put yourself into the place of a man being shot at, the farmer?
First Lt. HAN: That was the part about my piece that I had the most trouble with, obviously. I have a pretty good sense of what the soldiers were thinking because I had spent so much time telling these stories over and over again, but it was a real challenge for me to try to imagine what it would look like from the other side.
At the same time, I knew that the story would be incomplete if it was only told from one side, because a lot of the people who are involved in this conflict are people that we don't know anything about, really. So I tried to piece together what I imagined might be going through his head.
MARTIN: Anisa, let's bring you into the conversation. You were an Army medic in Iraq?
Spc. MOYO: Yes, I was.
MARTIN: Okay. And you just attended an Operation Homecoming writing seminar. Why did you want to go?
Spc. MOYO: I've been writing for a long time. You know, I thought it was a unique opportunity to be able to share my work and to be able to get feedback from established writers.
MARTIN: Would you share something that you wrote?
Spc. MOYO: I have a poem, and I wrote it before I deployed to Iraq. It's basically about my visit with a professor on campus. You know, I told him that I was about to deploy, and he wasn't happy at all that I was even serving in uniform.
MARTIN: Oh, well, please, read the poem. Let's hear it.
Spc. MOYO: You closed your office door in my face to make a point about your platform because I stood before you in uniform. You figure the 50 stars clinging to the horizon of my shoulder might as well amount to treason. Maybe if you had tripped over your lectern to repay my student loans, I would still be flouncing a T-shirt announcing your alma mater, scraping dried food off silverware in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant instead of experimenting with the open-door policy of bald eagles, with tokens in their talons.
MARTIN: Mm. How did it feel to get that down?
Spc. MOYO: It was sort of cathartic to me. Whenever I write pieces of poetry, it just happens at an unexpected moment. It's not as if I immediately write my material after the event occurs. It just happens when I'm completely doing something else.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. Thank you for sharing that.
Spc. MOYO: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: Ethelbert, I want to bring you into the conversation. It sounds like Anisa had already been writing before she went into the service and went overseas. And is that true of a number of the people that you worked with?
Mr. MILLER: No, there were a number of people that I met - and this goes back to 2004, and I was at a base in Italy. There were a number of people who signed up because it was something to do. You know, they were not in Afghanistan. They were not in Iraq. And this was a place that they had the downtime before being shipped out for another tour of duty. So, you know, in this case you have people who come because they want to meet the writer…
MARTIN: And I want to mention, you are on a very impressive list of writers who participated in the - in this program…
Mr. MILLER: In the workshops.
MARTIN: …and the workshop.
Mr. MILLER: And also the editing.
MARTIN: Tom Clancy, Mark Bowden, Marilyn Nelson, you.
Mr. MILLER: And I also helped with the editing of the book…
Mr. MILLER: …which was another challenge in terms of, you know, what you accept, what do you reject. And I…
MARTIN: Why did you want to get involved with this program?
Mr. MILLER: Well, you know, when Dana Gioia - who is head of NEA - contacted me, the first thing I said, why you sending me to Italy when you could send me up the street to Walter Reed? And I was concerned about, you know, how I was seen in the war, because I was against the war. Politics never came into it. I think that if you're American and you realize that, okay, the fact I have the luxury to sit in my house and write is because of my - defending my freedom. And so, you know, you don't even think about, you know, be hesitant, should I go? But I was looking at the fact that when I would go up to the Safeway, you know, at Underwood Street and Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C.…
MARTIN: Right near Walter Reed.
Mr. MILLER: Yeah. Right next to Walter Reed. Sometimes I was seeing some of these young families, you know, where a person had lost a limb and, you know, there's like that first time out of the hospital where they were shopping. And that hit me. I said, wow. You know, here are young couples, you know, who are in their 20s, and, you know, I'm seeing them at a key point in their life.
That brings the war home. That's not a slogan. It's not, you know, I'm against Bush or this or that. These are people's lives. And so when you find people saying, okay, I have these stories in me. I have these poems. You want to see, okay, how can I help another person tell their story?
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about writing about war with E. Ethelbert Miller, Anisa Moyo and Sang-joon Han, all participants in Operation Homecoming. That's a National Endowment for the Arts and Defense Department initiative to collect stories from Iraq and Afghanistan from the people who are directly involved.
Sang-joon, can I ask you? Did you see yourself as a writer before? Were you interested in writing before you got involved?
First Lt. HAN: I was interested in writing. I definitely wouldn't have considered myself a writer. I think the main motivation for me was I wanted to record our experience. It's kind of the same reason why people are snapping away with all the digital cameras. It's just I just chose a different medium to do it.
MARTIN: What are you up to now?
First Lt. HAN: I just graduated from law school, actually. I'm in the middle of studying for the bar.
MARTIN: Oh, dear.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: We've lost another one. Ethelbert, you didn't save him? You didn't…
Mr. MILLER: My daughter's studying for the bar right now, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Oh, dear. Okay. Well, no, we thought we were getting another novelist out of this whole deal. Well, what do you think, Sang-joon? Do you think that you will continue to write?
First Lt. HAN: There are more stories that need to be preserved, so I would like to try to continue writing those stories down.
MARTIN: Anisa, can we hear more from you? What are you up to now?
Spc. MOYO: Right now, I work as a laboratory technician for the Texas Department of State Health Services. And right now, I'm working - transforming a novel I'm working on into a screenplay, which is a new medium for me. And it's called "Making Peace with Ohio."
MARTIN: All right.
Spc. MOYO: And I'm hoping that an actor or a producer would consider it as a project because…
MARTIN: Ethelbert, she's pitching. It sounds like she's a writer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLER: Well, when you're on NPR…
MARTIN: She's pitching. Well, good luck with that.
Spc. MOYO: Oh, thank you.
MARTIN: Ethelbert, final question to you. There has not been great memoirs by people of color about the war experience, which interesting given that people of color in this country are disportionately in the military…
Mr. MILLER: Well…
MARTIN: …relative to their numbers in the population. I mean, I'm thinking about Wallace Terry's book of…
Mr. MILLER: "Bloods." Yeah.
MARTIN: …"Bloods," of journalists…
Mr. MILLER: Right.
MARTIN: …writing about their experience, and I think that's a great work. But I can't think of too many others…
Mr. MILLER: And that's…
MARTIN: …and I'm just wondering why you think that is and if you think that'll change, and partly because of programs like this?
Mr. MILLER: Well, I think programs like this is very important, and I think we also have to look at the war. For example, if you think of World War I and World War II, a number of musicians served in the war. And I'm certain that when - if you look at that and listen to their sounds…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLER: …you get the blues coming through their music or whatever, they're telling their story that way. And when we look at, you know, where writers are, where artists are, you know, musicians, they're in the military and they're in other places. And hopefully these type of projects will be successful.
MARTIN: E. Ethelbert Miller is a writer who mentored American soldiers in Italy for Operation Homecoming writing workshops. He also helped edit the book, the anthology of the writings. It's called "Operation Homecoming." He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. We also heard from First Lieutenant Sang-joon Han, an Iraq war vet who's story, "Aftermath" was published in the "Operation Homecoming" anthology. He joined us from our studios in New York. And Anisa Moyo, writer and former Army medic just returned from one of the writing workshops in San Antonio, Texas and she joined us from member station KUT in Austin.
I thank you all so much for being here. I'd like to thank you both for your service. I'd like to wish you my very best.
First Lt. HAN: Thank you.
Mr. MILLER: Thank you.
Spc. MOYO: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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