Propaganda vs. distance

Last week I thought I might be going to Kabul in August. Now I know I'm not.
This has bummed me out for sure. This summer has been a... difficult stretch of months and the idea of spending the waning days in Afstan was pretty buoying.

This post isn't a venue for me to bemoan my lot, but rather give some context for working under the auspices of CFAP.

The initial point of departure for most conversations of official war art is propaganda. The great thing about CFAP is that there is no such thing. More to the point the distance between the artist and the military (except for your limited time with the soldiers) is huge to the point of being infinite. The other side of this relationship is there's no guarantee your body of created work will ever see the light of day if you don't hustle for yourself. Certainly, for the most part, the military is indifferent.

The more problematic ingredient of this distance is that while CFAP is very eagre to get artists onto their project, the military proper is potentially (far) less so. This is much more the case when dealing with operational issues... hence me not going to Kabul in August. If immersion in military culture is important for these projects, then dealing with the specific bureaucracy of the Army is just part of the larger process. If, however, you have a specific goal, that CFAP supports, but The Army (or CEFCOM) sees as a distraction, or even a liability, then it's best to not put other plans on hold.

My plans now are as follows:
Mid October: CFB Edmonton (B COY. and Jump School). 7-10 days
December: Camp Phoenix, Kabul Afghanistan. Anywhere from 7-28 days.


I'm reading John Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory", his book about the life, death and betrayal of Pat Tillman (at the hands of the US Army). While it seems to be affecting me more than I though it would, for now, I'll simply offer this quote found at the beginning of Part 4:

"He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon

You might not agree with it, but for good or bad, I mostly learn through loss.


I Used to Live Here. Mind if I Look Around? (pt.2)

If I describe him as a mouse it is too casual (and likely insulting) a description which is nonetheless intended to evoke a charming, avuncular quality imbued with a long and considered understanding of this house, its charms and its perils. Warrant Officer Rich Davey is the Company Sargeant Major of Adm. Coy. And will be my tour guide over the next 9 days. The length of his knowledge goes back a generation, goes back to when he was a junior NCO and I a private. We trade names and stories of guys still in, now out; names of the fallen, the forgotten and the remembered. Loitering around Call Sign 8 (the Adm. Coy HQ) a few days later, a passing W.O. makes the comment that the army is personality driven. This truism is something I am counting on as getting thrown in with a battalion of soldiers can be – as an understatement – a somewhat alienating experience.

WO Davey’s seen a number of retoolings of the Canadian Forces over his career. From Cold War Soviet Bloc training scenarios, through Balkans (no) Peace (to) Keep(ing) up to the great shift into front line Afghan combat. I’ve come knocking at yet another renovation, that of an Afghan training mission, a mission currently defined in only the broadest of strokes and, owing to this newness and vagueness, still embodying the combat ethos. It is an army that, though seemingly contradictory, has gotten more affable as it has gotten tougher. Surely the screaming Sergeants Major still pop their heads up, but they now seem to be the aberration. Maybe I’m just catching a very limited view or maybe the realities of buddies dying and getting fucked up has put priorities in order. When such trauma is spoken of, it’s with the casualness allowed for those who’ve suffered and carried on. Black bracelets are worn to commemorate the lost; double-amputations are discussed akin to root canals, as things you definitely don’t want to have happen.

In C/S8 soldiers troop in – mud-caked boots and combat pants – on various administrative matters. As the civvie in the corner I've claimed a chair and portion of table where I sketch, jot notes, sip hot, mango-flavoured energy drink and ambiguous coffee. The civvie in the corner is ignored, nodded at, engaged in small talk, offered more coffee and the occasional baked good (Exercise Dessert Ram to some) but also let me be. And as the stranger who’s taking dumps in their porta-potties, eating too much of their toast and generally loitering while they discuss family business, I am grateful. Some are suspicious, as they are of any outsider who comes pokin’ around. Remnants of hazing videos, The Somalia inquiry and the death of the Airborne Regiment still colour relations between soldiers and those who document them, but at the same time, these New Millennium soldiers are accustomed to a media presense in a way we never were at the Cold War’s demise. In effect there is a zero-sum loss; I am a measuring device who alters the results far less than I might have thought.


I Used to Live Here. Mind if I Look Around? (pt.1)

Below is the first, semi-rough, portion of a long form piece that should encompass all (3 or 4) of my trips to visit the Battalion.
There’s a photo of our house on 9th Ave. – long and uninspriring – its modification at the hands of my father speaks well of his practical nature and shows a clear demarcation where the small, cottagesque charm was repeated, its proportions drawn out into an awkward ratio. 857 9th Ave. has a reasonably sized frontage stretching out in the back to include a large garden, with the more exotic gooseberries sitting alongside the quotidian carrots and cabbage. At the far southern edge, a row of fruit trees offered up the pears and plums that would herald my Mum’s first experience in canning. Over the winter, plum jam would be rationed out, wax seals would be removed and residual flecks picked out with the tines of a fork. New to Canada from Northern England (the land of canned milk) and even newer to the west kootenays, our backyard was where I learned to cast a fishing and where I learned to shoot, at first a .177 air-pistol and later a handsome, wood-stock Russian-made air rifle of the same calibre.

Under this umbrella of childhood I also killed my first animal, a crow, as it sat poking around across the road. Though here I will tip into gravitas, it is easy for me retroactively call this act a tipping point childhood. From the halcyon qualities of gooseberry and plum jam to that first mortal sin and my increasing insulation as a response to the xenophobia of the village’s redneck majority, the slide towards teenage malaise began right around there. We left the Kootenays in 1984 but at some point before then we had a visitor, a stranger who showed up at the front door asking to look around the house, their former home. Surprising then, the desire to go home is the desire that colours my early middle age.

* * * 

Boots suck into the pudding that turns to chocolate milk and, at best porridge, defining all egress through the training area. The day before I flew out to Exercise Desert Ram, I was called to ensure that I brought a good pair of warm, high rubber boots. For that I am so very grateful.

Slopping east along one of the arterial dirt roads with Pte. Caldwell, here begins my first contact with the Third Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry as I prepare to enter the house left behind almost two decades ago. As it turns out, Caldwell and I both lived in Kelowna for stretches and his Battle School instructor was my Battle School peer. These surprising commonalities make the trip comfortable but also give me optimism about the myth of going home again.


(trying to) Getting Ahead of Myself

My domestic life is a weird thing these days. An occasionally wonderful, often sweaty and sometimes downright devastating mess of days and weeks.

So today when I talked with Shannon at CFAP and she was optimistic about my chances of going to Kabul twice (once on my own dime), including August, I felt like I had been offered chance at a reset button.

Once off the phone I walked over to No Frills, listening to The Rural Alberta Advantage and shopped for produce and cereal in a stomach tightening sense of building glee. Fuckin' right: Glee.

A little while back I ran into a curator friend outside a pointless photo exhibit. Telling him about this project, he was excited about it, but said that he'd never enter the notion of going to Afstan, notr would he enter the notion of ever being inclined to do such a thing.

[This para has been edited. I have such a hard time describing the draw and need to do better than I did on the first edit]
The other Shannon and I have had many difficult conversations where I tried to explain the draw. During those times I'd sometimes offer generalities about the importance of war art or the desire to contribute something specific to the world - something I have a relatively unique perspective on. All these things are true. But at the same time, there's the other truth: How do you explain that you're drawn to your own mortality; to activating a life where choices are designed to increase danger; to finding a version of yourself on that precipice? Is that even the case? Maybe there's a part of me that doesn't want to be happy, and looks for ways to circumvent the (until recently) happy little domestic world I had a hand in creating. Or more likely, my desire is to have both: to balance the world and to find joy where it exists in relation to where it does not

I don't know the answers to these possibilities, but just like the scene in Donnie Darko, I feel like there's an invisible tapewormhole pulling me east.

So, here's the results of my shopping trip. If you care to, imagine me hovering my way through the supermarket, buying cranberry pop, Corn flakes and grapefruits, while my mind wonders how much "War Zone insurance" costs and whether there'll be breakfast cereal at the Camp Phoenix mess. 
In addition to the full fridge (full for me), note the photo of "The Kid". The most important part of my life. 


small heads

While writing I've also been working on a number of small portraits: both in ballpoint and paint. The purpose of these sketches isn't clear to me, and at this point in time they act as both a repository for thinking and evidence of the same.
There's some amount of difficulty in renaming yourself as a writer/painter rather than the converse, so perhaps these sketches are an anchor for myself and the visual art world I occupy. 

With a project that's going to run over a couple of years I need to resist the tendency to get shit done right away. Time is required: Time to distill, to evolve and devolve. One of things that painting and drawing has over writing is the very tangible reference to time. The mark (especially in paint) is imbued with a temporal quality not so readily grasped in the written product. And if I am to paraphrase/butcher Dave Hickey, the greatness of portrait painting is that it brings the dead, the past into the present, it insists through its very process, on life.

With that in mind, a few sketches: The painted ones are 12"x9", acrylic and oil on masonite, the drawing are around 8"x6", ballpoint on Moleskine


Justify my love

The other day, Aaron (Formerly and affectionately known as "hog boy") wrote me about how he still holds fast to his memories of being in "The Reg." Specifically, he was recounting tales of a Sergeant named Weathers (affectionately known as "Psycho"). Coincidentally, that very morning, I'd be telling a Psycho story.

The thing I like most about Tim O'Brien books (other than some spectacular paragraphs: see below) is that he has dedicated his writing career to understanding that one year period where he fought in Vietnam. It makes me feel a bit more legitimate in my attempts to understand my own time as a peace-time grunt, in my attempts to contextualize and crystallize the experiences of myself and other Canadian grunts, past and present.

For Aaron, I think he sometimes wonders why it holds him so fast after so many years. Certainly I wonder this too. Why do I still read license plates phonetically while running? Why have I allowed my artistic practice to be so singularly focused? I'd be pretty interested in making art about Quantum theory and the gifts of the universe.
But wait, that's exactly what I am doing, just down the barrel of a 5.56MM rifle.

Today, Maj. Kevin Barry, CO of 3PPCLI, called me, in an email to one of his officers, "a friend of the Regiment.". And I felt that I had made one more step back into the thing I ran so hard and fast from 2 decades ago. In short, I felt pleased, validated and successful. Or maybe what I'm doing is ghettoizing myself. Time will tell. Time is also what turns kittens into cats.

From Tim O'Brien's,
Going After Cacciato

"Insight, vision. What you remember is determined by what you see, and what you see depends on what you remember. A cycle, Doc Peret had said. A cycle that has to be broken. And this requires a fierce concentration on the process itself: Focus on the order of things, sort out the flow of events so as to understand how one thing led to another, search for the point at which what happened had been extended into a vision of what might have happened. Where was the fulcrum? Where did it tilt from fact to imagination?"


And Back Again

All through the literature and remembrances of conflict you'll find a denunciation of the official motivations for fighting. Specifically, soldiers reinforcing that why they fight is to support the guy on either side of them. That really has little to do with the aftermath of war though, of those things that we might actually gain and benefit from as a collective entity. This has nothing to do with winning and losing, building roads, defeating oppression, but has everything to do with what we learn about ourselves afterwards.

When this blog started a while back, my friend Josh wrote to me with a short succinct note, saying, "Understanding the deepest roots of conflict is part of the pathway to a more peaceful and enjoyable life and planet."

Josh looks (I would offer the compliment) the hippie and not the sort to support military intervention and so I was especially pleased by his observation.

[Recognizing that I should really stop quoting Restrapo, allow me the following]

"I haven’t figure out how to deal with it inside. The only hope I have right now is that eventually I’ll be able to process it differently. I’m never gonna forget it, I’m never even gonna let go of it. I don’t wanna not have that as a memory because that was one of the moments that makes me appreciate everything that I have."
- Sgt. Aron Hijar, interviewed in Restrapo

I'm somewhat struck by these competing yet complimentary statements. That on the one hand, only by understanding violence will we learn the mechanisms to avoid it, but also, by undergoing severe trauma we might learn the true greatness of the lives we are given. That the knowledge gleaned from trauma might be able to trump the weight of that trauma is the difficulty and, it seems, for so many soldiers, that weight bears too heavy.

For his birthday, my friend Luca was taken to an indoor range and got to shoot a semi-auto M4 (M16 chassis). He and I were talking about how once you've shot one, then watching them used in movies gives you a tangible connection to the act – you can feel the push of recoil in your shoulder when it happens in the narrative of an action film.

This is the difficulty. Watching Restrapo, or Armadillo or any other combat documentary, what seems relevant is a means by which the viewer can tangibly connect to the soldier's descriptions of loss.

I will call this post unfinished.