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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Contributor Spotlight: Brandon Davis Jennings

A (Partial) Narrative Genesis for “Bosnian Roulette”

Two years ago at AWP in D.C., Hugh Martin and I (both veterans of the most recent Iraq war) attended a war writing panel. After Brian Turner read from Here, Bullet and Andrew Carroll read from Operation Homecoming, the panel opened for questions. One reason I dislike/loathe panels is that some people use post-panel Q&As to self-advertise, or ask ridiculous questions: exempli gratiaWhere do you write?” or “How did you think of (insert plot point/image here)?” or “Did that really happen?” I was ready to leave before any of the aforementioned occurred, but before I exited, a man wearing a unit cap, T-shirt adorned with a bald eagle head, and BDU pants stood. They handed him a microphone, and he said (This is not verbatim; I wanted to forget it, but fortunately I haven’t.) “We need people to write the truth. Not about baby killing. That. Didn’t. Happen. But the good stuff.” Hugh and I looked at one another and laughed—not because the man’s statement was humorous.
“That. Didn’t. Happen.” Has there ever been a serious conflict in which no children were harmed?  I’d have to define “children,” “a serious conflict,” and “harmed” in order to answer that question properly, and this is supposed to be about the Who/What/When/Where/Why/How of my story (a couple Whys and a few Whos at least). So in the interest of saving ink/e-ink I’ll leave those three things undefined and move on to what it was about that man that caused my neural receptors to soak up his words and start a chain reaction that ended in my reflexive burst of laughter. I saw myself in that man, presumably a veteran since he wore a unit cap and BDU pants (I’ve not worn BDUs since I was discharged except as a Halloween costume), who had somehow found his way to AWP in D.C., and had then felt compelled to say “the baby killing” didn’t happen. What made that man state this to a group of people that likely dismissed his statement as the kind of thing that some “crazy old vet” (a la Christopher Meloni’s character in Wet Hot American Summer) would say? I don’t know. I didn’t talk to him, which is another one of the Whys of my story: I want to understand why he said what he said because whatever compelled him to say “the baby killing” didn’t happen might compel men/women to say similar things in the future.
Here’s a theory: Masculine propagandists (hereafter referred to as ‘they’) want men/women to measure themselves against an impossible standard. They want men/women to believe that no “American fighting man” (scare quotes indicate antiquated phrasing) would piss his/her pants in combat (or elsewhere), and that we (The United States Armed Forces) always follow the UCMJ and the LOAC to the letter because we are better than any other fighting men/women in the world. They want us to believe we would never kill babies, not even on accident. They make men/women believe we must be flawless, that we must be something that no man/woman can be.
Assuming that man was a Vietnam War vet (and not a man who’d purchased BDU pants and a unit cap from an Army Surplus store) what’s going to happen twenty/thirty/forty years from now if American men/women don’t shift the expectations of what a fighting man/woman should be? I won’t speculate on What Ifs, but Anthony Swofford wrote in a recent article that (statistically) eighteen Iraq/Afghan veterans kill themselves each day. I hope those who’ve killed themselves didn’t do so because no one was willing to listen to them talk about what was bothering them; I’m sure many chose not to talk because they believed real men don’t talk about their problems. And so I wrote this story, in part, because I hope it might persuade some men/women to talk instead of suffocating themselves in silence, and I hope it will inspire some people to listen—even if those listeners don’t agree with what’s being said. Because it’s not always about consensus; sometimes being recognized is enough. I know if so many people hadn’t listened to me, I might be in a terrible spot today. And I wish I hadn’t laughed at that man. But I did, instinctively. And this story is the closest I can get to an apology.


Brandon Davis Jennings is an Iraq War veteran from West Virginia. He received his MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University, and is currently a PhD in English candidate at Western Michigan University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Monkeybicycle, Ninth Letter, Passages North. His chapbook Waiting for the Enemy is the 2012 winner of Iron Horse Literary Reviews Single Author Chapbook Competition. His story, “Bosnian Roulette,” appears in issue #50 of Hayden’s Ferry Review.

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