HELL GETS CHILLY
Good friend and ever-hotter novelist Chris Bauman made the New York Times on Thusday - Seeing the Pen Not as Mightier, but as More Honest. Thanks to NYT writer CHRIS HEDGES for doing the story. If nothing else, this should make Bauman the toast of his day job's office. And it proves once and for all that I need to keep my mouth shut about people's work, since I poo poo'ed various parts of CB's book on first read. What the fuck do I know? For those who don't subscribe, here it is.
CHRISTIAN BAUMAN says that when he has time, he watches the commercials, the ones that got him into war in the first place. He remembers what it was like, his daughter born before he graduated from high school, the series of dead-end jobs as a cook and a house painter, the bills from collection agencies he could not pay and the struggle to get by without health insurance. And he remembers the Army recruiter, with the promise of travel and another life, of adventure and a decent paycheck.
"I joined the Army for the same reason most people join the Army," he said, hunched over a hamburger on his lunch break as a copy editor for a company that prepares pharmaceutical advertising. "I joined because my marriage was not working out. I was young and poor. I had a child to support and no real job prospects. I wanted to escape. But what clinched it was when I found out the Army would pay for the operation my daughter needed."
He said that the birth of his daughter "saved my life because I couldn't be too much of an idiot." But it was the Army that gave him the discipline to put his life in order, and to write a book.
Still, he says, there are two Armies. There is the Army of motivated, elite units, which Mr. Bauman calls the "killing machines." He has a wry smile when he says it. And then there is the Army of poor and disenfranchised soldiers, the ones he said see the Army as a way out, the ones he wrote about in his novel "The Ice Beneath You" (Scribner, 2002).
"This Army of robots that you see on television doesn't exist," he said, referring to the way elite units are depicted. "What percentage of soldiers are in elite units? Almost none. The real Army is made up of people like me, people who had no choice, people trapped and suffocating without enough education and a real job. It is this Army, I explain, along with what happens to it when it is sent into countries where we don't understand what is going on."
Mr. Bauman, 32, who lives in New Hope, Pa., with his second wife, Brenda Muldowney, and their daughter Fiona, 4, was not a typical Army private. His mother is a doctor and his stepfather, who he says influenced him more than any of his blood relations, is a philosophy professor. Mr. Bauman was rebellious, unable to squeeze his curiosity into the confines of a structured classroom. His grades were poor. But he was also a reader, the editor of his high school newspaper and more important, a dedicated writer.
"I was the only private at Fort Eustis who got The New Yorker," he said.
He wrote compulsively, noting in minute detail the world around him, and out of it came his story of enlisted soldiers in Somalia. But it could be Iraq, or Afghanistan, or any number of countries where the brute might of American military gets stuck in foreign quicksand.
The novel centers around a young soldier, Benjamin Jones, who does not restrain his fire and unleashes a series of tragedies. The Army does nothing, which only exacerbates his guilt. The book follows his return to the United States, where he feels discarded and abandoned.
Mr. Bauman's hero is Woody Guthrie. He said he clung to Joe Klein's biography of the folk singer. Mr. Bauman, who plays the guitar, made a living for a while playing folk music after leaving the Army in 1995.
"Woody Guthrie's life was my fantasy," he said. "He was a reader. He wrote beautiful and creative songs that brought to light injustices, and most importantly injustices that were unknown by many. He was like Steinbeck. And this is what I wanted to do."
Mr. Bauman gave up his singing career when his second child was born four years ago because, he said, he didn't want to be away from home. He's working now to find a way to be able to write full time.
Mr. Bauman spent four years in the Army Waterborne, which is in charge of its boats. He left as an E-4 specialist, analogous to the rank of corporal. He was in Somalia and Haiti.
"There is a terrible injustice in these wars," he said. "We do not acknowledge who is in the Army and why they are there. We watch shows on the Discovery Channel about Green Berets or Rangers or Navy Seals and think this is the military. When I hear people use this patriotism card to justify these wars, it gets me angry. I wore a uniform. I carried a rifle."
Mr. Bauman said that he saw in Somalia and Haiti "the terrible ineptitude" of the country's interventions in situations it did not understand.
"We were not viewed positively by the locals," he said. "Being there opened my eyes. The only time they liked us was when they could get very concrete things from us, like food. They don't care about our Constitution or democracy. We storm into places like a big lumbering idiot. We did not understand where we were, what the conflict was about. We never explored these people, their culture, their concerns, yet we had just arrived like a big boot coming down on Mogadishu. On top of this we had to deal with the ineptitude of Washington, that understood even less, and officers that wanted to get into a war to punch their tickets on the way to promotion."
But what disturbs him most is what he sees as the cynical use of enlisted soldiers for power and resources.
"When some poor private from Alabama, who never had a chance in life, gets killed in Iraq, he won't know why," he said.