A 23-year US Navy veteran, Bronze Medal recipient, and author, Will Mackin discusses how to write a war story using the military’s five-paragraph order format.

– Hello, and welcome to
the Radcliffe Institute
for Advanced Study at Harvard.
My name is Claudia Rizzini.
I am the Executive Director
of the Fellowship program.
The Radcliffe Institute
brings together
students, scholars,
and practitioners
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We begin the program with a
presentation by Will Mackin.
After the presentation,
the speaker
will respond to questions
from the audience.
Please use the Q&A
feature on Zoom
to submit your questions at any
time throughout the program.
We ask that you
keep your questions
brief to allow us to address
as many as possible in the time
that we have together.
It is my pleasure to introduce
this year Patty Morehead
Grayson and Burns Grayson
Fellow Will Mackin.
His first book,
Bring out the Dog,
won the PEN/Robert Bingham
Prize for debut short story
collection.
The stories are based on his
23 year service in the US Navy.
The judges of the PEN/Bingham
Prize concluded that, quote,
"Mackin's fiction situates
the reader in the head
space of an elite soldier
who records the realities
and irrealities of
contemporary warfare,
as well as most heartless
and harmful eruptions
of human nature on both sides
with an audacious infrared
clarity."
Will joined the Navy after
graduating from the University
of Colorado, Boulder.
Early in his career, he served
as a Pentagon speechwriter
and an Olmsted Scholar, which
is the military equivalent
of the Rhodes Scholar.
He served in Iraq
and Afghanistan,
first as a Navigator
aboard a carrier based jet,
then as a joint terminal
attack controller
attached to a SEAL team.
Will Makin's writing has
appeared in The Atlantic, GQ,
The New York Times Magazine,
The New Yorker, and Tin House.
His short story,
Kattekoppen, was
included in the Best American
Short Stories in 2014.
Will played a DIA agent in
episode 507 of Breaking Bad.
Following that appearance,
he wrote an essay,
which is published in GQ.
And was nominated for an
American Society of Magazine
Editors Ellie Award.
In 2019, on the
Moth main stage, he
told a story called,
The Danger Zone,
about a close call with a chain
smoking flight instructor,
former prisoner of war.
He interviewed on New York
Radio Hour, MSNBC, Morning Joe,
and other media outlets.
At Radcliffe, Will is
writing Animals, a collection
of short stories based
on his experience
as a special operations soldier
in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Each story would be
centered around an encounter
between a soldier and a member
or members of the animal
kingdom.
In particular, he will
explore the similarities
and differences between
soldiers and animals
in terms of survival instinct,
pack mentality, reactions
to stimuli, and exercise
their illusion of free will,
with a goal to add a fresh
perspective to the idea of war
as a uniquely human enterprise.
And now, it is my pleasure
to give the virtual floor
to Will Mackin.
– Thank you, Claudia, for
that kind introduction.
And thank you to the Radcliffe
Institute for this opportunity.
I'd also like to thank my
fellow Fellows in the audience.
It's my pleasure to
spend this year with you
in your good company.
OK, as Claudia
mentioned, I spent
over 20 years on active duty
in the United States Navy.
And during that time,
I kept a journal.
In the journal,
I'd record things
that struck me emotionally,
sights, sounds, images.
Every once in a while,
I would go through
and try to give
context to those things
that I included in the journal.
And you see some
pictures on the screen
here in the intro slide, some
things that made the cut.
A barbecue at Al Asad,
which was in Iraq.
There is what was called a giant
hole out in the middle of Iraq
on patrol, that we
circled with chem lights,
so we wouldn't drive into it.
Down at the bottom left is
a piece of farm equipment
that was outside of the
compound in Afghanistan.
So, these types of things
that I just thought of I
put into my journal.
And later, when I
retired, these–
the things in my
journal, plus my memories
were very disjointed.
There wasn't really
any context to them.
There wasn't much
perspective to them.
So, when I sat down
to write, my job
was really to take these
things mostly in memory form,
but I'd also go
back to my journals
and look and see– place,
and time, and space
where these things happened.
And try to turn that
jumble into something
with narrative context to it.
So, my goal today
is I'm going to try
to describe to you my process
of how I went about doing
that for my first book.
Which presumably will
be the same process
for my second book, which
I've begun working on–
I've been working
on for probably
about a year and a half
now, but it's still
in its very early stages.
And so, the way I thought
I would describe this
is by using the template of
a military operational brief.
And because everything in
the military has an acronym,
the operational
brief does as well.
And it's called the SMEAC.

And so, SMEAC is
also a mnemonic.
It stands for Situation,
Mission, Execution,
Admin logistics, and
Command and control.

A commander of a unit
will develop a SMEAC brief
in response to short
notice tasking.
It usually happens at an outpost
or maybe even in the field.
There's not a whole
lot of time to plan.
So, it just hits the highlights.
The goal is really to build
the situational awareness
of everybody in the
unit as to what's
about to happen and to assign
tasking as best we can.
And so, my plan today is
to go through the SMEAC,
each element.
I'll give you some context
in which each element means
in a military
brief, and also try
to talk to it, my
interpretation, artistically,
and how I'm going to use
this to describe my project.
And the big takeaway
really for the SMEAC brief,
it's not a detailed plan.
It's a very– it's very
much a plan to deviate from,
which makes it perfect for the
unpredictable nature of combat,
but also it kind of
fits a work of fiction
in its very early stages.
So, beginning with
situation, militarily
what I'd be talking
about here are forces–
friendly forces, enemy
forces, their positions
on the battlefield, their
numbers and their capabilities.
Artistically, though,
situation or forces
are more psychological
in nature.
And for that, I'm going
back to the things
that I put in my
journal, or my memories,
things that occurred to me
that I can't seem to forget,
that I kind of obsess over.
And these types of forces,
these impressions or influences
are hard to break out in
terms of friendly or enemy.
But my criteria for
the friendly side
was anything that gave
context to my work.
And so, I came up
with two of them,
two influences, matter of fact.
The first one is the novel,
Animal Farm by George Orwell.
And the second is the album
"Animals," by Pink Floyd.
And so I encountered
both these works
as a freshman in high
school in the early 1980s.
And they both appealed to me
immediately for their distrust
of authority, since I
am a Gen-Xer, and also
their revolutionary vibe.
So, early 1980s
in English class,
we were assigned Animal Farm.
And it was taught to us that
it was a critique of Stalinism.
At the time, this was the
fever pitch of the Cold War.
A few years prior, I'd
seen the Miracle on Ice
happen at the Olympics, where
the American hockey team that
defeated the Soviet hockey team.
More recently, I'd
watched The Day
After on TV, which dramatized,
a nuclear holocaust,
a nuclear war between the two
superpowers and its aftermath.
And as a 14-year-old, I
believed President Reagan's
characterization of the Soviet
Union as an evil empire.
But that changed after
reading Animal Farm.
I could see how it hadn't
started that way, how
there really were some–
there was some purity
of thought behind it,
that they trying to create
a more just and equitable
society.
And Orwell dramatized
that in his narrative
using his animals.
Pink Floyd, the album, functions
a little bit differently
for me.
I didn't– I wasn't assigned it.
It was something I came
across, and I liked it.
I just liked the sound of it.
I loved David Gilmore's
guitar solos and Roger Waters,
his voice and his lyrics.
But this album,
it's often described
as a critique of capitalism.
So, it functions kind of in
the same way Animal Farm did.
But it describes a very bleak
world, where greed and apathy
are the dominant emotions.
In fact, the opening lines
begin, "If you didn't care what
happened to me, and I
didn't care for you."
The rest the album goes
on to describe a world
void of caring or empathy.
And this reminds me of a
quote from the writer George
Saunders, who said, "A story in
which nobody is wearing pants
is ultimately a story
in praise of pants."
And so, this album, as I
listen to it now as an adult,
functions in that way.
It is a story of empathy.
And I hope to kind of do the
same thing in my project,
in my next book.
OK, so while friendly
forces give context,
enemy forces do the opposite.
They create confusion.
And so, the two I've selected
to talk about are first
and foremost, our
practice of taking
detainees and our treatment
of those detainees, also
called enemy prisoners of war.
But we didn't call
them that, And we were
careful not to call them that.
There were several euphemisms
that we used officially.
And those euphemisms have
bled down unofficially.
But we call them detainees,
persons under control,
enemy combatants.
And the reason for
that is because we
wanted to avoid having to
treat them as it's lined out
in the Geneva Convention.
So, the Geneva Convention
details a list of rights
that prisoners of war
should be granted.
And by calling them
something else,
we circumvented
those rights, which
is shameful in my opinion.

But one of the aspects,
or actually paradoxically,
the strange thing about this
is before the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan, early
1990s, I had just
graduated flight school.
And I was assigned to
a jet whose mission
was to fly behind enemy lines.
And for any crew member
of an aircraft that
flies behind enemy
lines, you have
to go through
training called SERE.
And some of you might have
heard about SERE before.
It's another acronym.
And it stands for Survival,
Evasion, Resistance,
and Escape.
And so, during the
survival phase of training,
we're all taken out into
the woods– in my case,
it was California–
let loose, and just to
live for two or three
days on what's available to us.
So, no equipment.
It'd be as if we ejected
from an aircraft.
What we had in our
flight suit basically
was what we had in the
woods in California.
And so, we learned useful
things, like which bugs to eat,
which bugs not to eat.
We learned how to purify water.
So, that's a survival phase.
In the evasion phase, the
drama steps up a little bit.
The instructors give
us a destination
several miles away
in the woods, which
we're supposed to reach in
a certain amount of time.
They give us a head start.
And then they chase us.
And they try to capture us.
Not as fun as it sounds.
But during this
phase, you're just
learning how to evade capture.
But eventually, we
all are captured.
And when we're captured,
we're brought back
to a mock prison camp.
And in this camp is where we
undergo mock interrogation.
So, part of the–
so, this is where the reality
is blurred a little bit.
We're all sleep deprived.
We're now in this camp.
They're sleep
depriving us further.
And they're using what
they call, at the time,
accelerated techniques,
one of which
was to put us in very
small cells, in which we're
cramped and folded.
And we spend a
long time in there.
I'm not trying to
make this sound
like it's anything
comparable to the real thing,
being an actual prisoner.
I'm just trying to
describe the situation.
And so, while we're folding
into these little boxes,
they play at top volume what
I call the crying baby tape.
So, this is kind of a
psychological warfare.
It's a way to disorient us,
and to get in our heads.
And it was very effective.
The tape itself begins
with a baby in its crib.
And is kind of fussing.
It starts to cry out
and gets no response.
The cries get more desperate.
And eventually, the
baby is screaming.
And it's screaming
to the point where
you wonder if it thinks it's the
only living being left on Earth
trying to hear itself scream.
The screams get
to the point where
they're distorted in the audio.
And they last for
a very long time.
The tape itself, maybe start
to finish is 8, 9 minutes.
But they replay it over, and
over, and over, and over.
And so, anyway, I was exposed
to this during SERE school.
Years later, when I'm
with the SEAL team in Iraq
and Afghanistan,
part of our mission
is to go out and find these
leaders of terrorist networks.
And if we find them,
we bring them back.
And we hand them over
to interrogators.
The interrogators
have– the detention
facilities are co-located
with our camps in many cases.
And to soften up the
detainees for interrogation,
they would play the same tape.
So, the irony there
was not lost on me.
And again, it's not as
affecting to hear it basically
as a member of the
team or on the side
that's playing it versus the
side that's listening to it.
But it still has effects.
And so, this is one of the
main thrusts of the narrative
that I'm hoping to
incorporate into the drama.
So, one third, or a third
aspect of a situation
are neutral forces.
And this is where I kind of
see the animals fitting in.
Every night when we
went out on target,
when we went out
on a mission, we
would encounter animals,
on the way to the target,
on the way back, on
the target itself.
It's always at nighttime.
We're always wearing
night vision.
One of the first things
that struck me about this
is the eyes.
So, we'd routinely see bulls,
goats, pigs on occasion,
donkeys.
And on night vision, their
eyes have a reflectivity.
You could look at
them, and you could
tell that they were thinking,
what are you doing here?
And so, seeing them think
that made me wonder,
yeah, what am I doing here?
But just for a minute.
Then I'd snap back into
what I was supposed to do.
But it was just that
interaction that
makes me think about, or makes
me reflect on a lot of things.
And they're kind of the
mechanism of that reflection.
So, that pretty much
covers situation.
If this were a real
military brief,
I would have laid down exactly
where all the forces were,
the state of play.
And next, I would get into
mission, which details the who,
what, why, when, and where,
or what we call the five W's.

OK, so for mission, I'm going
to show you this slide here,
up in the upper left.
That's the actual notebook
that I carried with me
out on missions.
And it was waterproof
for a reason.
We often had to cross rivers,
or it was raining, or whatever.
And I needed to be able to
read what I'd written down.
So, I used that grease pencil
that's tucked away there.
On the right side are
my notes from an SMEAC
brief on the mission portion,
the who, what, why, when,
and where.
And I'll step
through them briefly,
so you can understand
what's happening.
The middle column,
the collection
of letters and
numbers there, those
are abbreviated call
signs for aircraft.
And that's the who
and also the what.
Each aircraft had its own
capability, some of which
are classified, and
I can't get into.
But that's the who and what.
The when is on the
left-hand side.
Those are on station times.
So when the aircraft
is actually going
to be overhead and
available for tasking.
And they all overlap.
So, this, when we get into the
where, is on the right side
there, those numbers
correspond to altitudes.
So, is 270 is 27,000 feet.
230 to 250, that's a
block, 23,000 to 25,000.
So that was probably at
least two aircraft together.
And they just want to split
their formation vertically.
And it goes down from there.
At the very bottom, the
SE02 was the gunship.
And every night we
would have what's
called the AC 130 gunship.
It carried a howitzer.
It carried a bunch
of other armament.
And it was very low
and very lethal.
So, these are the
elements when I'm talking
about, say, a narrative.
I'm trying to convert, OK, how
does a mission, part of a SMEAC
become a narrative?
These are the things that
I can reach out, and touch,
and control, basically.
So, the way I interpret that
fictionally is with character.
And behind the
characters are stories.
I already told you a little
bit about the crying baby
and how that's
going to factor in.
But really, what I'm
interested in with that
is how the tape came
to be made at all.
Like, what's its origin story?
Beyond that, what
did the parents
know about this tape being made?
And lastly, what
became of the baby?
Like, the baby– the tape was
probably made in the '50s.
It was a reel to
reel originally.
That's what they played it
SERE, was the reel to reel.
And so, by the time the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
are happening, the baby is
probably in its 60s or 70s.
So, I just wonder, like
that's the arc, the narrative
arc of the story of the
baby that I want to tell.
The family, this
includes not only
the family of the
baby, the parents,
but also the protagonist
as a young man,
and also the protagonist
as a father and a husband.
And this cycle there is the
deployment cycle, going to war
and coming home.
That creates the
conflict and the tension.
Down to the animals, I'll just
highlight a couple of these
here.
But they all have their
stories, many of which
came out of when I was
writing my first book.
These were stories that were
left over that I couldn't quite
finish or put together.
And I'm hoping to do
so with this project.
But pigs, for instance–
prior to every deployment,
the entire team
would undergo what was
called live tissue training.
And this was medical training.
And we used live pigs
to do this training.
So, the pigs were
sedated, heavily sedated.
And then they were given
injuries, traumatic injuries.
And we had to use what
would be available to us
on a mission, the medical
supplies that we had on hand,
to stabilize the pig,
and theoretically
get it on the CASEVAC,
which would take it
to a hospital with
more robust capability.
So, that was the
goal of the training.
It was taken very seriously.
It was a very somber occasion.
And because we'd all lived
through this with human beings,
with people that we
knew and cared for.
And so, the instructors
for this course of training
were all injured veterans.
One time, I had a guy who
had been hit with an IED.
He had lost an arm.
And he also had
traumatic brain injury.
And he would speak very
slowly, very methodically.
And so, he came over when I
was working on my pig, and kind
of knelt down.
And he's like, he asked me
if I knew what I was doing.
Of course, I said, no.
He then stepped me
through each organ.
He was taking me through,
like, OK, this is the pancreas.
This is the stomach.
These are the lungs.
And he got to the heart.
And he pulled the
pig's heart out.
The pig was still alive.
And I held the heart in my
hand and felt it beating.
And I felt it stop.
And that was– to get
at the empathy here,
I really feel my own heartbeat.
I don't think anybody does.
Even if I climb a
flight of stairs,
it's only for a few seconds,
maybe, that I'm aware of that.
But four hours after that,
I felt my own heart beat.
And this is the empathy
that I'm talking about,
that I want to bring
into the stories.

I'm running out of time, so
I'll just move on from there.
So, the characters,
they each have stories.
It's not necessarily
a cohesive narrative
when I put them all together.
So, in the execution
phase, which
militarily you discuss how.
Like, how are you going to take
these elements of the mission
and employ them effectively?
And so, the how for me–

well, militarily here, I'll
just show you very quickly.
On the left, this is my stack.
These is the aircraft that would
be overhead on the mission.
On the right, this
is the template
that I would use to
employ those aircraft.
So, if you think about it,
they're all in a stack.
They can't just descend
and climb within,
because there's a risk of
having a midair collision
and just creates a lot
of confusion and chaos.
And so, using this
template, I could
de-conflict in time and
space, run multiple attacks
simultaneously, while
de-conflicting with the stack.
Execution for a
work of fiction, now
imagine you're on top of
the stack looking down.
And these are the characters
in the orbit of the stack.
The baby would be the
highest in the orbit.
It would have the widest orbit.
And when I think in terms
of– when I think about theme,
I think in terms of cycles.
And for the baby, it's the
cycle of the tape itself.
It goes from comfort, to
despair, to terror, to static,
and then repeats.
And the family, as I mentioned
were the protagonists as well.
His father is also a
veteran of Vietnam.
And so, that family
is constantly
running through a
cycle of war and home.
And then at the center
are the animals.
And these are– this is
the anchor of the story.
This is where I hope that the
emotional heft will come from.

OK, so onto admin and logistics.
In a military setting,
what we would discuss here
are rules and limits.
So, rules of engagement,
rules pertaining
to the handling of detainees.
Limits pertaining to
different aircraft,
like the gunship
that I described
earlier, which is the
lowest in the stack, that
has the howitzer gun.
It's not allowed to fly
during certain periods.
It can only take off 30
minutes after sunset.
It needs to be back on the
ground 30 minutes prior
to sunrise.
And those rules can be broken,
but you have to who to talk to
and how to break them.
But for fiction, the
rules really don't apply.
And that's what I aspire to.
But that's not
always what happens.
So, I imposed initially, when
I was writing my first book,
I imposed very strict
rules upon myself.
In that, I wanted it
to be nonfiction first.
And secondly, I wanted it
to be a true reflection
of what happened.
And by that, I mean
I wanted everybody
that was with me to read
it and acknowledge it
as a true and representative
copy of what happened,
for lack of a better term.
And that was impossible.
I would finish some stories,
and I would send them
to friends, guys that I
knew were with me when
these things happened.
And they would remember
it as happening
in a different season,
in a different year,
in a different country.
And so, it was very unreliable,
especially when it came to fact
checking some of these stories.
But what that told me was, and I
should have realized it sooner,
but I wanted–
like the intensity
of our experience
kind of brought
me to that place.
And so, I had to
break through that.
And I did, luckily,
after probably
2 and 1/2 years of writing,
in four years total.
And so, once I opened
myself up to allowing things
to be fictionalized,
to be made up,
to take something that happened
in a different place in time
with something else that
happened in a different place
in time, put them together,
made it a lot easier for me.
So hopefully, that
will continue.
The last thing is
command and control.
And for this, in a
military briefing
we'd be talking
about communication.
We'd be talking–
first of all, command
is the command structure,
the chain of command,
who makes the decisions,
how you can reach them.
And the control
part is, of course,
the comms, mostly radio comms.
So, going into my
experience, on the left
here is from the
notebook, again, it's
what we call the comm wheel.
It corresponds to a dial
on top of the radio,
so that each detent is a
separate, discrete frequency
with a separate audience.
And the way it worked
was, at nighttime
you can't flash a light down,
look down at your radio.
You have to know by clicks
who you're talking to.
And so, that's what the
comm wheel is there.
What my military
experience taught me really
was kind of my MFA, was
my role as a communicator
in the military.

When I was flying, it
was very important,
especially around the ship.
You had to say exactly
what needed to be
said when it needed to be said.
And you had to say it in such
a way that inspired confidence.
That was multiplied
when I became
a JTECH on the other end.
Now, I'm on the ground
talking to the aircraft.
I had to not only
project calm, but know
what I was talking
about, say things
when they needed to be said,
anticipate questions, describe
the situation.
There was a back
and forth between me
and a pilot on any attack,
where it's called the talk on,
where I would describe
to him or her the target.
And we would come to
a mutual agreement
that we were looking
at the same thing.
And that was very intensive,
very– you have to be precise.
You have to be brief.
And so, this is kind
of where I learned
my voice is in
communicating on the radio,
talking to pilots as a
JTECH, talking to controllers
as a navigator.
And so, let's see, I've
got five minutes left.
What I'd like to do
on the part here,
the voice, is just
kind of read you
a excerpt from my first
book that I really think–
when I was writing this,
I thought very much
about the voice.
Because voice– your voice
is really your credibility
in the military.
And so, this scene
describes a SMEAC brief.
It's set in Iraq at an outpost.
It's a SEAL team being
briefed by their commander.
His name is JJ.
They're second in
command is named Spot.
And JJ gives, like I just
gave to you, the SMEAC
brief, the wave top stuff.
But then Spot stands up and
really delivers what's up.
And so, without further adieu,
I'll just jump right into it.

A caged bulb, the kind you'd
hang off the hood of your car
while doing a tune-up,
lit the briefing hut.
We set under the light on
rows of wooden benches.
A white sheet, which functioned
as our projector screen,
hung at the front of the room.
JJ turned on the projector,
squinted against the light.
"We're going back
to heat," he said,
using the Iraqi
pronunciation for hit.
Then he talked us
through the slideshow.
The helicopters
would drop us off
at the train station
around midnight.
From there, we'd walk across the
tracks and toward the Euphrates
on a perpendicular road.
We'd take a right this time.
Our target was a four-story
building on a corner.
Actions on target,
or those steps
taken to kill or capture our
enemies within were standard.
We'd pull detainees as necessary
and exit field southeast.
Now, JJ pointed his
laser off the bed sheet,
circling a spot on the
plywood wall beyond.
Out there, we'd find an area
with new tank traps, sinkholes,
or barbed wire, where the
helos could safely touch down.
The last slide said
simply, "Questions?"
And there were none.
JJ closed the brief.
And a white light projected
onto the bed sheet.
Spot stood up in that light,
his lower lip packed with chew.
He spit into a
paper cup and said,
"All right, how to put this."
Events of the last
mission had convinced him
that things were getting a
little too loose, not just
with laser discipline,
although dudes were still
lighting up every moth and
bunny rabbit in the shadows.
And not only with
bullshit on the radio.
Case in point, last night's
reading of War and Peace
over troop comm.
But with actions on target, with
our bread and fucking butter.
And although he shouldn't have
to reiterate our philosophy,
Spot felt the need.
"Speed and violence," he said.
And we allowed him
to say it again.

How many times had
his ass and the asses
of others been saved by
those two elements working
in concert?
The answer was unknown
and unknowable.
We knew that.
As the reigning world champions
of speed and violence, we knew.
So, to go in doing one thing
without the other, or neither,
or to go in half-assed, Jesus.
[INAUDIBLE] followed
Spot as he paced
in the light of
the projector beam.
Nicotine entered his
bloodstream through the thinnest
of membranes on the
inside of his lip.
His wayward eye was humming.
"These people," Spot
would have us now,
"were trying to kill us."
Example, Habbaniyah,
example, Ramadi,
example Al-Qa'im Goddamn
Qa'im in particular,
with its remnants of
the Republican Guard.
Imagine had we not reacted like
unconscious banshees there.
Imagine if zero shits and
zero fucks had not been given.
Spot savored a fresh influx
of nicotine, affording us time
to imagine what we'd
reflexively survived
at Quim, which I tried.
I really did.

OK, so, with that, I'll
conclude my SMEAC brief.
And hopefully, I clarified my
process a little bit to you.
I know it was
clarifying to me, and I
appreciate having done it.
I'll leave you with the thought
that the SMEAC is just a plan.
And as such, it's not going
to survive initial contact
with the enemy.
Or as Mike Tyson
says, "Everyone has
a plan until they get
punched in the mouth."

And with that, I'll
hand it over to Claudia.
– Thank you, Will.
This was a great presentation.
Thank you so much.
As you can imagine,
we have questions.
We have a lot of them.
So let's move on
to them, please.
So, the first one is
from a Public Radio
reporter, who aims to report
from Afghanistan and Iraq vets.
This person is asking, do you
think the embedded strategy
makes sense?
And are their journalists
who report on war whose work
you admire?

– Good question.
Yes, I think the embedded
model makes sense.
I'm a big fan of Michael
Herr's Dispatches.
It's one of the first
things about war
that I read that really
resonated with me.
I don't– I'd say beyond him, I
don't know of anyone else that
I could say has influenced
me with that reportage.
But I understand that
it's very important.
And we had some people with
us on the team, but we would–
because our missions were
generally more dangerous,
they weren't allowed
to come along.
But they hung out at the camps.
And it was a good sounding
board, if anything else,
to find somebody
outside of the system
and sit down and
have a conversation.
But thank you for your question.
– Yeah.
Is writing an act of
reconciliation for you,
who was struck by the
anti-authoritarian ideas
of Orwell's Animal
House early on,
but then became a
career military officer?

– Yeah, that's the
story of my life.
I don't know.
But it's– I–
well, I joined the Navy because
I needed money for college.
That's what it boiled down to.
I wanted to go away
to school, and I
didn't have money to do it.
The Navy offered
this opportunity.
I also wanted to fly.
I saw Top Gun and had
these ideas of myself
as a maverick, which I
understand is very cheesy.
But regardless, when
I got into the Navy,
and I realized that
it was something
completely different–
my father wasn't in.
My grandparents' were in, but it
was a very different situation.
They were in World War II.
And so, I didn't
really have a model.
I didn't really know
what I was getting into,
beyond the cheesy movies
that I was watching.
And what kept me
in, though, was–
and you hear this
from a lot of vets,
but it was just the
people that I worked with,
the mission that felt
important, that I
felt like I was a part of
something bigger than myself.
These are all things that
vets say over and over,
but it really is true.
I miss that now as a retiree.
But thank you for your question.
– So, what was the most
helpful in crossing the bridge
to feel able to write fiction
from these experiences?

– Most helpful was definitely
being able to make connections
that I would not have been
able to make in non-fiction.
So, for example,
there is a story
in my book about
crossing a river.
And in real life,
we crossed a river,
and we had somebody fall in.
And as they fell in,
they screamed out.
They cursed as they
went underwater.
And this reminded me of
a story by Isaac Babel,
called Crossing the River
Zbruc, I think it's pronounced.
Where in the very early
parts of that story,
somebody falls into a river
and curses the mother of God.
And so, I had that
connection in my head.
Another connection that would.
When I thought about
that, the reality
of that, and the
story of that, would
occur to me is this football
game that I played as a junior
in high school.
It was a championship game.
And we won on a trick play.
And so, that occurred.
Those thoughts,
like in nonfiction,
I couldn't make the connection.
But in fiction, I was able
to connect those things,
and tell the story that I
thought my subconscious was
trying to tell me, but
that I was resisting
because it didn't make sense.
– Yeah.

Can you offer a
particular example
of how one of these creatures
makes an appearance in one
of your stories?
And how it represents
the animal theme
that you are targeting
in this collection?

– Sure, so I'll go with a story
that I've already written,
because the other ones
aren't complete yet.
But the story from which
the title of my book
comes, Bring out the Dog,
is about the death of one
of our military working dogs.
Happened the first night
of my third deployment
to Afghanistan, so
probably around 2008.
And it was what's
called a blue on blue.
It was one of our guys
that shot the dog.
It was an accident.
And it was tragic.
It was a horrible way
to start a deployment.
But anyway, that
played out in a way.
We had a memorial for the dog.
And we sent it home.
We had it buried.
We gave it awards,
all the things
that we would do with
a member of our team,
exactly as we would behave
with a member of our team.
And so, the animal there,
the dog, the obvious function
is just reflecting on
how, or what, I guess,
constitutes teamwork, what
constitutes that loyalty.
And the dog definitely
had earned that from us.
And so, in that
story, I was trying
to explore that relationship.

– Another member of
the audience says,
I liked your comment about
voice in the military.
And I was curious if you
felt like your writing helped
you further develop your voice?
Can you speak a little about
how and when you first became
interested in literature?
So, two questions.
– Yeah, two questions.
So, I'll start
with the last one.
I became interested
in the sixth grade,
I had a fantastic
English teacher.
Her name was Mrs Miller.
And she recently retired.
I'm still in touch with her.
But she assigned us a story.
Well, actually she assigned
us The Outsiders by SE Hinton.
So, reading The Outsiders,
she illustrated it
by bringing in– one day
she brought in a boombox
with the Who's "Baba O'riley."
And she played that
song and related it
to the struggle of the Greasers.
And because that song was
very much in play at the time,
it was very much part of the–
just what I felt was the
real world and my interaction
in it, just socially with my
friends, it struck a chord.
That was a very cool
way to illustrate that.
And after that, she turned
me on to Kurt Vonnegut.
And it was– that's
all she wrote.
After that, I just said,
I wanted to tell stories,
and I wanted to tell them
in a way that affected me
the same way that these had.

– How do you know what you
can share and what you can't?
Do you get approval before
sharing your experiences
when writing nonfiction?
– I don't get approval.
And that's another thing
that fiction helped with.
I don't come anywhere
near the line
where I would expose tactics,
or procedures, or people.
My characters are all mixes of
a bunch of different characters.
Although, everybody
seems to want
to be the main SEAL
character in the book.
All my– the friends that
I'm still in touch with,
the first thing they said
when the book came out
was, I'm Hal, right?
They want to be the hero.
But other than that, I steer
very clear of that line
and make it as fuzzy as
possible when I approach it.
– Yeah, understandable.
How has your fiction
been received
by the community of Iraq
and Afghanistan veterans?
In your personal life
and more broadly?

– So, personally, my friends
tell me that they like it.
I don't believe them,
necessarily, all the time.
But there are
people that nitpick,
that say these things–
these things are impossible,
these things never happened,
or call me a poser,
or I don't know.
These are the things that would
have bothered me had I not
made that shift to fiction.
So, the thing is, you're not
going to please everybody.
There are people that
absolutely love it.
There are people that
absolutely hate it.
I think they're both right.
– Absolutely.
Which war authors do you
consider yourself writing
in the shadow of, if any?
And when do you think of writers
who are critical of wars,
like Wilfred Owen?

– That's a good question.
I think you can still
be critical of it
and describe it in an
entertaining way, at least
that's what I try to do.
I try not to come down
on one side or the other.
In fact, the quote at
the beginning of my book
is from Barry Hannah, who's
one of those authors that
really affected me.
And he says, "We saw
victory and defeat,
and they were both wonderful."
That was very true
in my experience.
That was what I tried to
portray when writing stories.
And it's Barry Hannah's story.
It's called, Midnight
and I'm not Famous Yet.
It's one of the most, I'd
say, affecting stories
that I've ever read.
I love the voice of it.
And I hear the voice of it.
When I'm writing myself,
it's what I aspire to.
When I can hear my
story in his voice,
then I know I'm onto something.

– You mentioned empathy
as a central focus
in your collection.

What would you like the
reader to empathize with?

– So here– that's
a good question too.
I don't know what I have
in mind for the reader.
What I want to do is describe
an empathetic situation,
and hopefully, that the
reader can relate to.
So, some of these experiences
are very rarified,
or at least are
very stereotypical.
And it's not that I want
to approach everything
from the SEAL perspective.
But the way that those wars
were fought, they were both,
and I'm speaking of Iraq
and Afghanistan, very
Special Operations centric.
So, much of the
action was carried out
by Special Operations.
And so, it's a very small
community in the Navy,
in the Army, in the Air Force.
Everybody tends to
know each other.
And because of the tempo,
we got a lot of repetition.
And so, and it's also
not very well described.
I know there's movies about it.
I know there's books about it.
I know all that stuff.
But none of them feel right.
There's still kind of a–
it strikes kind of a false
note, at least for me.
And so what I'm trying
to do is present
this as a more human endeavor,
like these aren't superheroes.
These aren't– for
lack of a better term,
to kind of humanize.
– Excellent.
Do you know if anyone
in Iraq or Afghanistan
got to read your books?

– I don't know if
anybody has, but I
would be very interested to
hear what they had to say.

– You said in an interview that
you went from SEAL to ROTC,
and that gave you a
chip on your shoulder.
The chip fueled your drive
to write your first book.
After winning awards and
getting critical acclaim,
does that cheap still
fuel your writing?

– It doesn't.
And actually, it was
something I had to get over.
I don't– if I said it fueled
my writing in my interview,
then I was lying.
Because really, it
was an impediment.
And it was not just an
impediment to writing,
it was an impediment to life.
Because I couldn't function.

There was at the time, I
don't know if there still is,
but there is a very kind of
resentful feeling in the team
when it comes to
civilians, or even when
it comes to other military,
that perhaps don't
deploy as much,
or as frequently,
or do as dangerous a mission.
And so that, regrettably,
that seeped into me.
And when I went to
ROTC, which is–
I call the land of make believe.
I mean, nothing is real.
Almost nothing has any impact.
It's all training.
It's all safe zone.
And it was a shock.
And so, it really brought
that chip out in me.
And it was not good.
And so, I had to chip
away at that over time.
I think the stories helped,
because you can't write a story
with a chip on your shoulder.
It comes off as just like
yelling through a megaphone.
It's obnoxious.
And I saw in my first drafts
that that's what was happening.
And kind of came to
terms with it on my own.
It wasn't– I don't have PTSD.
And I don't, thankfully,
suffer for anything like that.
But my struggle was
just trying to be–
trying not to be an asshole,
to put it in stark terms.
And every degree that I calmed
the heck down from that I think
made me a better writer.

– We have notes expressing
appreciation for your service
and for your efforts to
share your experience.
So, just wanted to note that.
One more question.
I love seeing your journals.
Was there a point
in your writing
process where you
became aware that you
were writing for an
audience as opposed
to writing for yourself?

– Yes, there was
a point in that.
And that was when I was
writing my first story,
the one I got published first.
It's called Kattekoppen.
And it was very much
based on real events.
It was a nonfiction
story initially.
I went to the Tin
House writing workshop
and workshopped that story
as a nonfiction there.
And I realized that what was
making it not work was it just
wasn't–
it wasn't relatable.
And one of the things
that fiction brought
to that story that
made it more relatable
was one of the
characters is Dutch.
And he receives these
packages from his mother.
He's in the American military.
This is all factual.
He's like a 7 and 1/2 foot
tall Dutchman, was in the Army.
And he was with
us on our outpost.
And he would get these
packages from his mom
with these candies in
them, called kattekoppen,
which are licorice.
They're horrible.
My policy of any Dutch
people in the audience,
but they are horrible.
Anyway, he didn't even eat them.
His mom thought he liked them.
And so, this was
kind of the story.
There was a drama that
happens in the background
kind of centering
around this character.
But it wasn't until I
added some stamps as–
like little cut-outs of Bruegel
paintings, a Dutch painter.
And kind of that really
brought that story
to a more relatable level.
And it wasn't just like tactics,
us moving here and there now.
Now it had a little bit
more meaning behind it.
And I think that's
really when I realized
that I needed to do that.

– So, in your new
book, how will you
incorporate concerns
about military war crimes
and make real the
many war crimes
in all our fields and battles?

So, my hope is, as much as
I'm going to address that,
to do that through
the crying baby tape.
And to try and bring the story
of the creation of the tape
itself, and how it was
originally imagined to be used,
and how it was actually used.

I don't really have a good
answer there, other than that's
my way in.
Like, I haven't
figured it out yet.

– I think we have time for
one more question, which
is, did you ever feel the
impulse to include drawings
in your published fiction?

– I did.
And it's a good thing I
didn't, because I'm not
very good at drawing.
Some of them, like
one story, the one
I talked about with the dog that
we lost on that first night,
we were at an outpost
near Kandahar.
And there was this–
this reservoir, where all
the waste from the toilets
was dumped into.
And every once in a while,
they'd pour diesel on it,
light it on fire, and it
would evaporate into the air,
and form clouds.
And then it would rain shit.
And so, this was kind
of like the backdrop
to that, that very
happy and hopeful story.
But the– what got me thinking
about that– well, not just
the fact that I had to
walk through shit storms
every now and then,
was the fact that,
like how weather cycle worked.
And I drew that in
my journal one time.
I was in Helmand, in a valley
between these mountains.
And actually had time to sit
there and watch a storm form
an start raining.
And so I drew that.
I drew the little
cycle of evaporation,
and condensation, and rain.
And looking at that, that's
what got me into that dog story.
I saw that, and I
was like, OK, now
I know how to describe
the shit rain.
– Excellent.
Well, thank you, Will, for
your thoughtful presentation
and for your perspectives.
We've learned a lot about
your creative process today.
I also want to thank
you, our audience,
for the terrific questions.
I hope you'll be able to join
for other Radcliffe future
programs.
You can find out
about future programs
and watch videos of past events
at radcliffe.harvard.edu.
And with that, thank you
again for joining us today
and have a good rest of the day.

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