Matt Gallagher’s bright green Chucks stand in sly contrast to his low-key demeanor. He’s a writer from Reno who now lives in New York City, and a former U.S. Army captain who turned his wartime blog into a memoir, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. He also writes fiction, including Babylon, his short story for Playboy’s July/August issue, about a lesbian kickball umpire and Marine named Marti who’s still adjusting to post-deployment life in Brooklyn.
We met for the first time five years ago in a coffee shop by Columbia; he was completing his MFA, rather rare—I thought then—for a former Cavalry officer trained at Fort Knox and stationed in Iraq for 15 months. And though he comes across at first as a little shy, he’s actually anything but. On anything intellectual or literary he is clear and confident and fierce.
Gallagher is central to a new generation of veterans writing fiction, using literature as a lens to process their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ability to ride a horse across Baghdad doesn’t preclude a person from producing heartbreaking prose, as Gallagher did most recently in his novel Youngblood. Writers Richard Ford and Colum McCann and Ben Fountain and Tim O’Brien have all praised his work. New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called Youngblood “an urgent and deeply moving novel.”
These days, Gallagher spends his mornings writing and, after lunch and a trip to the dog park, his afternoons revising. We talked about everything from kickball and character development to conflict literature and counterinsurgency.
Tell me about the inspiration for your extraordinary story, Babylon.
Thank you, I’m glad you liked the story. Babylon has a few different origins. For one, my wife and I played in a Brooklyn kickball league a couple of years ago with friends, and while we had fun, the absurdity of it all couldn’t be ignored. The environment seemed ripe for literary exploration—not just the silliness and the overgrown childishness, but the moments of earnestness and kindness, even generosity. I’d also been reading more about the homecoming experiences of women veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of it felt familiar to my own return home and those of my soldiers, but much of it felt completely foreign. The idea that some veterans of these wars felt the need to hide away that part of themselves from society and from their families, just because of their gender—that bothered me. And when something bothers me, I tend to start writing to figure out why.
When writing Babylon, was it harder for you to channel the mind of a Marine who is a lesbian or a Brooklyn hipster—or does it even matter, as fiction is essentially the channeling of voices?
Well, I was an Army Cavalry officer, and the Cav can be somewhat more … unconventional than the Marine Corps. But Babylon, which is set around a hipster Brooklyn kickball league and about the particularities of a changing first-world ecosystem, didn’t need any more unconventionality. It needed some rigidness. It needed some yuts and oo-rahs and Marine-style pride.
So while it’s true that I’ve never been a woman nor have I been a Marine, I have known loneliness. I have longed for the past, at least a past distilled in memory. I have witnessed the pitfalls of gentrification, and its benefits. Getting to know Marti, and the other characters of Babylon, proved a true joy as I wrote and rewrote the story. Breathing life into characters and stories at the expense of oneself is central to the author’s purpose, I think.
Is there a new literature emerging from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? If so, what defines it?
It certainly feels like we’re in the midst of something. Whether it ends up being anything of significance or meaning will be up to the works involved and their quality. As for unique traits in this growing canon, I’ve noticed two: an interest in the perspective of the “other,” be they enemy combatants, local civilians or interpreters; and a keen interest in America’s all-volunteer force—what its effects are on the individuals who make up this force, and what the effects will be for our country as a whole.
Once you’ve written about war, is it hard to write about other more mundane things?
When I was in my 20s, I thought so. Now I’ve grown to more appreciate the mundane, both in writing and in life. War writing is like any sort of writing. It can be good, it can be mediocre, it can be bad. It’s the work that separates, not the subject.
Our friend Phil Klay (author of the National Book Award-winning collection Redeployment) said, “War is too strange to be processed alone.” Is this part of what inspired the creation of Words After War, the nonprofit you now help run?
Absolutely. Teaching writing for Words After War has continually fulfilled and inspired me. The organization is devoted to bringing veterans and civilians together to discuss and critique conflict literature. It bridges the vast, ethereal military-civilian divide every day, in tangible, meaningful ways. Some of the writing that has emerged from its workshops is just stunning.
Why did you choose Youngblood as the title for your new novel?
It’s a slang term used in the military, particularly in the combat arms branches, referring to new, untested soldiers. Experienced sergeants say it with that strange blend of derision and compassion. In the novel, I believe it refers to a multitude of characters, American soldiers and local Iraqis. All of them are trying to find their way through the ruin, trying to figure out the least worst choice in a land of only awful choices. After nine years of war and occupation in Iraq, that hope is all that remains.
What was the origin of your war blog?
Oh, the blog. Seems like forever ago. In 2007, as my scout platoon and I prepared to deploy to Iraq as part of the 25th Infantry Division, I began researching online for what awaited us. I came across a variety of military blogs that explained very clearly and cleanly what counterinsurgency looked like for soldiers on the ground. It also stoked a fire in me. I’d grown up reading and writing as a way of making sense of the world, and I thought, Hey, I could do this too. So I did, and called it Kaboom as a sort of stupid, immature joke about the threat of roadside bombs. What can I say? I was 24 and directly reckoning with my mortality for the first time.
How did how you were raised prepare you for what you saw in Iraq?
I grew up in the suburbs, the son of two lawyers. So nothing in my background could’ve prepared me for the type of third-world poverty I saw there. But I was raised a Presbyterian, and thus raised to respectfully question prevailing wisdom. Putting ideals into practice is hard and messy. It’s also what we all have to do in life if we are ever to become the person we aspire to be.
During your deployment, what was the most emotional experience you had?
The moments I return to the most are the personal encounters with the local children. Especially the orphans.
How was your transition back to civilian life?
About as ideal as anyone could hope for, though of course it still had its strange moments. Once, shortly after I came home and moved to New York, I got off the subway in a not-nice part of Brooklyn while a gang fight was going on down the block. A couple pistol shots went off. People began running every which way while I took a knee behind a car and looked around for my radioman. I felt really dumb when I realized where I was (and where I wasn’t), though when I got a confused look from an old man hobbling across the street, I thought, I found cover, dude. You’re in the middle of the street. You’re the crazy one.
The idea of the mysterious supersoldier rappelling from the sky like a shadow ninja to save the day can be comforting. It’s also not representative of the armed forces.
How did you meet your wife, Annie, and what was it like navigating a relationship while you were on deployment?
We went to high school together. But we didn’t start dating until some years later, when she was in college and I’d graduated and joined the Army. Our relationship during that time was like a lot of long-distance ones. We kept in touch over phone and e-mail. We tried to share as much of our respective lives with one another while still living our own. These wars allowed for that communication in a way that previous ones didn’t. I don’t know. Maybe it worked because we didn’t put great long-term expectations on it until we had the luxury and space to.
Which authors were critical as you developed your own voice as a writer?
Katherine Anne Porter, Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison and Stephen Crane, for five. All Americans, all deceased. Not sure if that’s a coincidence or not.
What are your thoughts on writing about sex and desire, two subjects famously hard to put into words? I love the scene in Joan Didion’s Democracy—a novel about a war that’s not exactly a war novel—where Jack watches Inez walk off plane in the pouring rain. Didion simply has him say, “Get her out of the goddamn rain.” That scene delivers desire without being explicit. No one is naked; they are not even in the same room.
That scene is superb, as is that novel. Good literature aspires to reveal the many layers of the human condition; how can that not include sex and desire? The latter serves as a driving force for Marti and her cousin Squatch in Babylon, and for a variety of characters in Youngblood, American and Iraqi. I’m not just talking about Marti’s trips to Mama’s Lounge, either, or the thrill foreign soldiers feel in their chests when they catch a glimpse of the sheik’s mysterious daughter. What happens when what we seek comes into the scope of another? What happens when that pursuit conflicts with the search of another, or perhaps worse, proves to be the very same thing as theirs? Desire can give purpose to existence. It can also inhibit and destroy. Literature has brooded over these fates since the beginning.
James Salter or Michael Herr?
Both are masters, of course, but so different. Salter’s craft was all sculpture, each sentence and idea so polished and clean. Herr’s work captures something else, something more raw and visceral, even if it sometimes came out messy. So gun to my head, I’d say Herr. I like a bit of chaos in art.
Stanley McChrystal or David Petraeus?
Another tough one, but I’ll have to go with Petraeus. I spent 15 formative months as a COIN [counterinsurgency] disciple in the Iraqi desert, and Petraeus was the COIN prophet.
For those unfamiliar, COIN in Iraq represented a shift in strategy and approach. It happened as part of the Surge and the Sunni Awakening in 2007 or so, and came with the realization that we weren’t going to be able to shoot our way out of the war. The most vivid description of COIN I ever got as a young lieutenant was “You know, like British imperial occupation.” That’s not totally exact, but it isn’t wrong either. It’s about the long game, being a jack-of-all-trades immersed with the people, being beat cops and conducting electricity surveys and dealing with roadside bombs and snipers all at the same time.
It worked in Iraq, at least temporarily. We thought we’d won the war when we came home in 2009, if wars like Iraq can be won. But that peace couldn’t be sustained, which is tragic for a lot of reasons. Foremost for the Iraqi people.
Army or Marines?
Well of course I’m going to say Army, but my grandfather was a career Naval officer, so I have great respect for our sailors and what they do. Even if that crackerjack uniform belongs in the pajamas aisle. The old notion is that the Army’s culture is more egalitarian, and perhaps that’s still true.
Why does America adore and glamorize special operations?
I’ll say this: Both the Army and the Marines are so much more than the special operations within them. The public’s fascination with Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and whatever goofy acronym Delta Force goes by now is both understandable and alarming. The idea of the mysterious supersoldier rappelling from the sky like a shadow ninja to save the day can be comforting. It’s also not representative of who makes up the armed forces or what the armed forces do as a whole in our collective name.
What are you working on now?
A second novel, centered on post-empire America. Vague, I know! It still needs a lot of work, but I’m excited for its potential.
Lea Carpenter’s first novel, Eleven Days (Knopf, 2013), was short-listed for the Center for Fiction prize and long-listed for the Baileys. Her second novel, set in the intelligence world, is forthcoming from Knopf.