the infinite universe, the fleeting universe

A scenario/ an experiment:

A small column of drably painted and up-armoured SUVs rolls through the tight, rutted streets of Kabul. In this scenario there is an IED strike, and an SUV is suddenly rended upwards. After achieving the apex of its trajectory it – almost infinitely slowly – thumps back to the ground, resting on its side like a crumpled tetra-pak.

As ears ring and the lighter pieces of debris – granola bar wrappers and pages of a well-worn Maxam – make their own languid way to the now charred ground, the ripples and cracks from AK fire descend on the convoy.

The weight of your torso keeps you held in place in a half slump/half hang as the seatbelt buckle refuses to budge. And as you've done through the years, in moments where chance asserts itself, you think of that touchstone of quantum mechanical theories involving cats.

Rounds crack through shattered a windshield and there's only you and the rounds. They impact, walking towards you along the upholstery of the passenger seats, making little puffy craters as they do.

And at this point the world splits into 2 possible universes.

In one of these universes, looking into the impact holes you see the promise of darkness, isolated and infinite moments, the lulling embrace of the void. You think of the potential decades laid ahead and feel overwhelmed by the emotional drain of living in the days, weeks, months and years to come. You welcome the rounds closer. They are a friend who comes up to you and, speaking directly into your ear says, "Here I am. Let's leave this world."

In the other universe each of these impacts opens a tiny peephole through which you replay the world:
Eating Honeysuckle with your step-son on a grassy embankment in early summer.
Watching Swallows dip into the Yukon River at sunset, snatching up bugs in a marionette dance.
Smelling a thunderstorm as trees bend in anticipation of its arrival.

and you realize that you want to go home. To your friends and your city, to lovers and hipsters, hobos and dog parks. To the knowledge that those gleaming moments of joy are worth the pain that brackets them. And in this moment of revelation and grace you thank the universe for this war.



We burn the fat off their souls

The title of this post is me misquoting Jarhead where a character quotes Hemmingway.

My friend Dan asked me (and I will take the license to infer) if I am... beatifying the soldiers? In the previous posts about spirituality and the land there is certainly the tendency to ennoble the grunts and their self-awareness.

While reporting during the disastrous Russian campaign of 1941, Vasily Grossman (that country's pre-eminent WW2 war correspondent) wrote of the soldiers,
"At war a Russian man puts on a white shirt. He may live in sin, but he dies like a saint. At the front [there is] a purity of thought and soul, a kind of monastic austerity.
The rear [the civilian part of the country] lives by different laws and it would never be able to merge morally with the front.... We Russians don't know how to live like saints, we only know how to die like saints."*

This tendency to elevate is, I suspect, a common tendency for cultural producers of war documents. It is also a well documented fact that infantry soldiers can be pigs. Using myself as example, Peeing on a pile of winter coats at a party or kicking someone in the face after they've already been hit unconscious, those are not the acts of a noble person.

Like Anthony Swofford or Siegfried Sassoon, the accumulation of time allows us to write from a position that doesn't forget the crass truth of the grunt, but does allow us to step past the specific actions and see that, retrospectively, there is much to be gained (spiritually and otherwise) from the infantry profession. But I, at least, needed a decade (and counting) to learn what those things are.

* A Writer at War, Edited and translated by Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova


The intersection of military non-fiction and Christian contemplation (pt.2)

As the congregation engages in low-key banter, the padre’s golden, cropped hair picks up the sun is a counterpoint to his reddened, wind-swept skin – the skin that defines field-time in Suffield. It is the other uniform and is the summation of working on the land; a complexion that’s accented by flecks of dry skin on noses and cheeks and bracketed by the heavy gauge boot dirt and slivers of dirt held fast under fingernails.

* * *

In as little as a month this cluster of young Christians will trade dirt for dirt, Alberta for Kabul or Mazar-i-Sharif. Even though theirs is a training mission – not open combat – it’s easy enough to envision scenarios where they’ll come in harm’s way. The notion of crusade seems a tired one, the refuge of zealots, and one can only imagine as much apprehension as enthusiasm defines the thoughts of these guys from 3VP.

There has been criticism (from the troops) regarding the relevance of brigade level training when the unit will shortly be broken down into SUV-sized training cadres. At the same time, one of the driving motivations of soldiers to chose this life is the chance to know yourself, meet you limits and eclipse the known world. And so in that regard all challenges serve this greater goal of self-awareness – a quality that some would claim the soldier to be distant from.

The monastic spirituality of The Badlands and combat soldiering come together with equal parts tension and reciprocity. Mud is fought against and constantly undermines the training (and to a lesser degree the morale), the utter lack of trees is a regular cause for complaint but the obvious truth is that the land is best seen as an indifferent ally, that which, if given its due can be utilized and used against a human adversary. Just like the farmers of The Prairies and The Dakotas who chose a hard life and a closer proximity to (what might be called) god, so too can the ardour of physically traversing and confronting the land provide the soldiers a truer sense of themselves.


The intersection of military non-fiction and Christian contemplation (pt.1)

In the sprawling white mess tent the industrial fridges have been removed and the single-serving milk is now jumbled in plastic crates. Last bowls of Bran Flakes and Granola are being enjoyed before the battalion is placed on hard rations: aluminum bagged Lasagna or scrambled egg with salsa being some of the better options.

The prairie air is warming just as wholesale brigade pack-up picks up momentum. Within the battalion Combat support Coy. will be the first to go; snipers and recce spirited away in a night move while Adm. Coy., who have the task of returning the land to its pre-exercise state, will roll out last.

Halfway up the mess tent, a few benches have been formed into a hollow square facing the east. On this Sunday afternoon the padre is leading his weekly service to a small cluster of troops, photocopied scriptures in hand. Smiling and nodding along to the padre’s overtures, it’s easy to see his avuncular charm working its magic on these young believers.

Outside the tent the sun is tracing its way down the western horizon though there’s still ample light to shine through the plastic windows and cast ambient illumination on the white tarp walls. Positioned between a west and east window, the sun also alights the congregation and, notably, the padre’s western-facing golden mustache. Bushy but well-kempt it’s the personification of his personality. His is an approachable charm coupled with a subtle sense of detached contemplation (and a pocket full of mints) that imbues him with the air of the ideal badlands preacher.

* * *

Long snowy fingers still hold to the low ground across the impossibly large training area. Slowly and grudgingly they’re ceding to the grasslands underneath and bringing out a legion of prairie dogs. In this crawl towards spring the long blades are still dormant but already offer an ochre glow. These expanses, these possibilities and unpredictabilities of The Badlands quickly suggest the Terence Mallick film of the same name – the beauty and indifference of the land is clearly at play here, a play on – and of – its own terms. Those terms are most clearly defined by Kathleen Norris in her Badlands contemplative memoir, Dakota when she writes, "The Beauty of the plains is like that of an icon; it does not give an inch to sentiment or romance."

It might then seem a missed opportunity to hold the service inside, but that is to assume worship takes place here, when clearly, worship takes place on the land. Worship is the humping across snow fingers, through muddy lowlands and seasonal ponds; It’s walking the fire picket at the rise of the lodestar and rolling out in a convoy at daybreak with the eastern sun promising nothing except honesty. The Sunday service is simply a consolidation of what the land has already whispered as it whipped up last year’s grasses.

* * *

Within the mess tent, three weeks of meals and boots have worn the grasses down to barren swathes and swatches of dirt, with slivers of grass surviving only along the tent edges. Dirt and mud defined this Ex and the soldier’s boots confirm their experiences. Hardened pale mocha chunks of clotted earth hang like scabs off their wet-weather boots and if you were to only casually glance at the boots they might seem to emerge directly out of the dirt. Higher up the legs though, the dirt fades and the pixilated saturations of green and brown take over. It’s an easy, overly earnest metaphor to see these figures in CadPat camouflage as growing from this mud-scape; as technological proxy and precursors of the soon-to-be-reborn grassland.


Failing to be clear (clearing a failure)

Last winter I had the pleasure of participating in a symposium at The Canadian War Museum. The basic premise was to look at the first 10 years of Canada's current war art program, CFAP.
You can watch me talk my talk here.

After the fact, a blogger out of Ottawa wrote a post about the event which included a brief mention of one of my self-portraits, "Deer in the Headlights". I'll do my best to be diplomatic here, but when I showed the image I made the point of talking about the gap between intention and perception in portraiture; about the (in)ability to transmit something relatively consistent between artist, painting and viewer. Further to that, I had talked about how great it was to be back with the infantry (I was with 2RCR while they trained to deploy to Afghanistan), and so the bug-eyed look of the painting was intended to be a little comedic and melo-dramatic.

The blogger made the point in her writing that I looked scared and was clearly awkward in the back of the LAV, where the photo was taken. On the one hand, I thought, "man, didn't she hear a thing I said?", but more to the point, it reaffirmed the specific trajectory of my talk, that of the subjective and contradictory nature of viewing military themed art. Of the loaded nature of banal imagery and the inability of intense scenes to fully translate the emotions at play.

So, as was mentioned previously, it is of great interest to me how I relate to the soldiers who are gracious enough to let me eat with, drive around with and generally impose upon. In the painted study of Cpl. Fath (below), is there any sense of that awkwardness? Of me asking if I could take a few heads shots while we bounced around in the box am; of the almost instantaneous shift in his tenor after he agreed; of my need to further formalize the stagedness by using a flash so as to compensate for the rattle and clang that required a fast shutter speed?
Does Fath look stiff and ill-at-ease? Can you tell he's fake-talking for the camera? Or maybe because of all we know and are taught, the image is imbued with the assumption of authenticity.