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A new and eloquent teller of war stories

These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories

By Luke Mogelson

Tim Duggan/Crown

184 pages, $24

By Michael D. Langan

The words, “These Heroic, Happy Dead”, capitalized and punctuated, come from poet, E. E. Cummings’s (1894 – 1962) work, “next to of course god America I.” This latter rendering of the phrase would be less recognizable to people because Cummings often had his name written by others in lowercase letters in the style of some of his poems.

The same words of this book of short stories by Luke Mogelson are of major importance because they refer to what happens to lives of people “forever changed by war.” Mogelson, who has written for “The New York Times Magazine” and whose fiction has appeared in “The New Yorker” and the “Paris Review” among other publications, is the latest in a long line of commentators on the horrors of war. He’s terrific, low key, imperceptibly excellent.

“Mogelson,” we are told by his editor, “provides an unflinching glimpse into the lives of people forever changed by war…from the home front to active combat, between experienced leaders, flawed infantrymen, a mother, a child, an Afghan-American translator, and a foreign correspondent – this evocative collection charts the legacy of an unprecedented conflict, and the burdens of those it touched.”

Let’s look first at the lead story of the clutch, “To The Lake”, to catch its tone and heft. The scene is set this way. Lilly is staying a month in Vermont with her parents, Bill, a retired colonel in the army, and his wife, Caroline, after her husband Nathan, an Afghanistan vet, punched out a window in their own house. Result: “ambulances and police, concerned neighbors milling in their robes.”

Earlier Nathan told Lilly that she made him “want to kill things.”You can see why Lilly took a walk. Nathan tries to get back to his wife but nobody will talk to him long distance by phone. So he drinks what’s left of his Stolichnaya, grabs his Bushmaster and a box of ammo, stows them in his truck, and heads north to Lake Champlain.

On the way, full of drink, he runs into a violent snow storm and, just before crashing, remembers an ambush in Kunar, where he spent time “picking spent casings out of the dirt and putting them in his pocket.” He was thinking about the limits of muscle memory when his truck went sailing off the icy road “like a ship without a keel.”

Nathan escapes death. Sometimes God protects drunks. The deputy at the scene asks him if “he’s had a few.” Nathan smells as if he’s had more than a few. He’s taken into police headquarters. Cops pull his record and find his priors, including a third DUI. He’s incarcerated overnight to await court appearance.

At this point Nathan calls the lake house from the Brook County Correctional Facility.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, “Caroline said, and hung up.” Read yourself to see where our author goes from here in this story about prospective reconciliation of vets and families in the face of mental and physical disability.

Another piece, “New Guidance”, is a clever title that shows how important Afghan translators are to the allied effort, and how they are summarily ignored, even stiffed, when no longer needed. It’s about GIs fighting in Afghanistan, and narrated by an Afghan translator named Roohullah, born in Kabul, but living in America for years after the death of his father before returning to work for the Americans.

“The new guidance was: no more air. No more Hellfire missiles, Hydra rockets, chain guns. No more evacs. No more rescue.” But for Roohullah, the new guidance ended up being even more than that. He writes, “I was interpreting for Major Karzowsky and Sergeant First Class Boyle”, Roohullah notes, “who sat on the barracks floor across from Lieutenant Mustafa. The platters of rice and stewed goat had been cleared away; one of Mustafa’s boys had brought in a plastic tray with a thermos, glasses, individually wrapped caramels, and a box of sugar cubes. The glasses, like everything else in Dahana, were glazed with an opaque film – what the Americans called ‘”moon dust.”

Beautiful, spare, you are there. Mogelson is a genius of the ordinary in this new collection. Bravo for this sensitive volume that extends itself in every direction to touch upon the running sores and savageries of war. War shreds the lives of military and civilians alike.

The story of war-time poetry started at least as far back as Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, in ancient Greece. He was their leader in the Trojan War and a contender in the “Iliad”, Homer’s poem about the war. Agamemnon was tough and proud, adjectives which often go together and can lead to death, as they did in his case. “‘War stories’ came later than its poetry. As we move from Hemingway early in the 20th century to current war writers and reporters that include Tim O’Brien, Michael Herr, Phil Klay and Elliot Ackerman, all have tried, in the words of critic Bob Shacochis, “to keep America honest about its foolish wars.”

I’m not so sure I agree that America has had too many foolish wars. It’s had its share, however. Too bad that America didn’t pay more attention to former Israeli UN representative Abba Eban’s sage advice to use the threat of war as a last alternative. Instead, leaders listened more recently to VP Dick Cheney. All this war talk on both sides is endlessly arguable. It doesn’t bring back “These Heroic, Happy Dead.”

So we end with where we began: with Mogelson: whose “empathy and elegance” carefully parses the troubled lives of war’s survivors and those who didn’t make it. All done with spareness and sad understanding that is admirable.

About the harm that war does to the armed and the innocent, perhaps the Chinese proverb says it best: “If you seek vengeance, prepare two graves.”

Or, you may prefer the updated American version: “War is terrorism – with a bigger budget.”

Michael D. Langan, a frequent book reviewer for The Buffalo News, served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve from 1955 to 1961.