Your story in this week’s issue, “Crossing the River No Name,” is about a group of Navy SEALs on patrol in Afghanistan. You were part of a Navy Special Ops team deployed in Afghanistan. Did you draw on events from your time there, or does the story involve things that simply could have happened?
One night, while on patrol in Helmand, I fell into an irrigation ditch and sank in above my head. I drew from that incident and its resulting panic. And, although this isn’t war-related, like the story’s narrator, I was a second-string junior on a football team that happened to win a state championship on a trick play. Aside from those events, however, “Crossing the River No Name” involves things that could have happened. This constitutes something of a departure for me. When I started writing these stories, in 2011, less than a year after my last deployment, I felt obligated to remain true to events. Above all else, I didn’t want other people thinking that I was taking liberties with the things that were important to them. Over time, though, I learned that I can’t control how other people perceive, let alone react to, those events. And I’ve given myself more and more leeway with reality.
Early in the story, the narrator mentions that there was a time when a mission to ambush the Taliban would have been “fun.” It’s not a word I’d have expected to appear in this story. Can high-risk life-and-death missions like this one be fun? Does the pleasure come—as it does in chess, say—from the sense of out-maneuvering or out-strategizing your opponent?
We called it fun, but it was more like excitement. After years of training for combat, we found ourselves actually in it. The circumstances were no longer make-believe, and the consequences no longer administrative. That excitement quickly faded, though, and doubt crept in. Questions—like “What are we doing? And why?”—persisted. Answers weren’t always easy to come by.
The narrator, while nearly drowning, remembers a night in high school when he slept with the girlfriend of his friend and football teammate. The next day, he believes, God granted him a miracle. Why flash back to that moment?
I had Isaac Babel’s “Crossing the River Zbrucz” in mind when I began writing this story. Specifically, I was thinking of the part during the river crossing, where “someone sinks, and loudly curses the Mother of God.” I’d read Babel’s story long before I fell into the irrigation ditch. Afterward, I went back to “Crossing the River Zbrucz,” and I found that it resonated on other levels. For example, I detected a change in Babel’s Russian Army unit after they crossed the river into Polish territory. On one side, they were victorious. On the other, they were less so. The river, it seemed, had eroded some crucial thing. I wondered if maybe the man who’d fallen into the river wasn’t cursing the Mother of God but calling out to her. Which introduced the prospect of Her answering.
I thought I’d witnessed a miracle when my high-school football team won that state championship, and I wasn’t the only one. I could see in the faces of everyone involved that something amazing and inexplicable had just happened. It had seemed so important at the time, which made it ripe for contrast.
As a teen-ager, your narrator had a lot of pent-up aggression, which he’d release on other people’s mailboxes and cars. Was the Navy the right place for him to channel that energy?
I joined the Navy in the late eighties, at a time when the military was still considered, in some respects, to be a get-well program for wayward souls. Back then, there were a lot of Vietnam veterans in the ranks, who, having been in leadership positions during the draft, understood how to channel the less virtuous among us. Today, however, those channels are not as robust. Men and women volunteer to serve, and there seems to be a tacit agreement between recruits and lifers on the necessity of good order and discipline. Which, I think, is a good thing.
Less good, perhaps, is the military’s increasing alignment with the business world. There was, when I retired, far too much talk about best practices, deliverables, and synergy for my taste. And there were far too many people knocking themselves out to get M.B.A.s and Lean Six Sigma black belts in order to be promoted. To associate the profit motive with an enterprise whose underlying purpose is to kill and destroy still strikes me as morally dubious.
There remain, however, in the Navy and in the other services, a few places where more rebellious attitudes are welcome. I was lucky enough to find such a place toward the end of my career.
“Crossing the River No Name” and your last story in the magazine, “Kattekoppen,” will be included in your first book, a story collection that comes out next year. Do all the stories involve the military?
All the stories in the book are based on my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve enjoyed working on them; however, I recognize that they’ve kept me in a state of suspended animation. To my former brothers- and sisters-in-arms, who don’t spend a good part of their day immersed in the past, I must seem a bit emotionally stunted. To me, they seem pretty well adjusted.
The story appears in an issue of The New Yorker that revolves around the idea of American jobs. It doesn’t get much more American than working in the U.S. military. Having retired a few years ago, how do you feel about your Navy career? Would you encourage your son or daughter to enlist?
I made a clean break from all things Navy following my retirement. This wasn’t intentional; it just happened. I considered it a hiatus. Meanwhile, I received periodic postcards from the V.A., reminding me to come in for my annual physical. I waited nearly three years before doing so. The first step, of course, was for me to give blood. I took a number and sat in a crowded waiting room. There was a mixture of people in that room, men and women of different ages and races, all of whom held their little scraps of paper while a robot called out numbers. And it struck me that we’d all given up control of our lives for however long, and that we shared that strange bond. It felt so good to be back in their company, I swear to God, I almost wept. I’d really missed them.
My daughter was a senior in high school this year. She got letters from many different colleges. I always get the mail in the early afternoon, and I’d set those letters on the kitchen counter for my daughter to find when she came home from school. When she opened those letters, I helped her imagine what her life might be like at whatever school it was. Then, one day, a letter from the Naval Academy arrived. I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I knew that my daughter would succeed in the Navy. On the other, I knew—secondhand, at least—what she’d be up against. Not knowing how to advise her, I decided to see how she reacted to the letter and go from there. Turned out, she threw it in the trash without opening it. I had mixed feelings about that, too.