What you were always trying to avoid was being party to an atrocity: An interview with Michael Pitre
Michael Pitre’s debut novel, Fives and Twenty-fives, delves into a war of endless tedium and Sisyphean roadwork, but there is no boredom. There is only routine, which saves lives, and a fog of death that clouds them. Each day, the soldiers—Pitre joined the Marines in 2002 and was twice deployed to Iraq—find potholes and, in each, a bomb. They deactivate the devices and move on to the next, motivated by banal routine rather than a sense of accomplishment.
Pitre talks in stories. He answers questions twice. He explains his reasoning then pauses and asks if you’d like to hear a story. Always answer ‘yes,’ because in listening to Pitre weave stories into answers, it is easy to hear the writer in him. Although he dislikes the title ‘writer’ and spurns it, it is obviously the right one.
Recently, in the early evening light surrounded by the chirping of video poker machines, Pitre walked me through his book, his war experience, and the differences between the two.
Fives and Twenty-fives is the shared reading at Pitre’s alma mater, Louisiana State University, this semester and he will give the keynote speech at LSU’s Honors College convocation this year. Fives and Twenty-fives was recently released by Bloomsbury in paperback. Pitre lives in New Orleans, where he received his MBA from Loyola University in 2010.
Room 220: You wrote half the book in present tense, which made things feel both immediate and temporary. Is that what you intended?
Michael Pitre: I didn’t understand Slaughter House Five until I’d gone to a war. When I was in high school I read Slaughter House Five and I thought, honestly, it was a book about time travel, not quite understanding what Vonnegut was trying to say about wartime experiences: how they’re never in the past. One moment he’s having Thanksgiving dinner with his family, the next he’s back in a burning building in Dresden. So the past and the present tense sort of blend in together. Both books are about people who are never quite sure what moment of their life they’re going to be in.
Rm220: Each character struggles to find identity after the war. You ended the book with Dodge about to speak, about to tell his story. He’s finding his identity, even more than Donovan or Lester. Why was it more important to show Dodge’s closure?
MP: It’s strange. You come back from a war and you feel both childlike and fully grown at the same time. In one sense, you are stunted emotionally, but in another you have a full understanding of the world and the extremes of the world and of humans. All three characters have that. The two Americans return to America, where things are quite taupe. Dodge goes to Tunisia, where his experience of the war just deepens, which to me was always the most important part of the story.
It was always very important to me that the Iraqis have the last word—especially a character who is indicative of those Iraqis who really did want Western democracy and secular values, as few of them as there were. That was the whole point of the book. As much as they all lost, the character who represented them needed to have the last word. They were the whole reason we were there, and we forgot that somewhere along the way, among narratives about which sniper killed the most people—as if that was the person who won the war.
Rm220: Your American characters all deal with how to talk about the war, something they can barely bring themselves to talk about. Was the book your way of talking about your war experience?
MP: My wife and I wrote each other a paper letter every day. There were things that happened—people got killed. The only time I ever mentioned them was in those letters to my wife. We’ve never talked about all the things in those letters.
The major hazards of service in Iraq were not physical. They were moral hazards. What you were always trying to avoid was being party to an atrocity. That was the real risk. How do you come home and talk to your wife about that stuff without appearing like a psychopath? You want to be a normal guy. Most people I know don’t want to go the Walter Sobchak route. But until you can discuss these things with your wife you are a stranger to her. Until you can talk about these things, you’re a stranger. We grew up with grandfathers who were World War II veterans who never talked about it, ever. And that’s supposed to be a good thing, like they were better than you because they never talked about it. Maybe we should talk about it a little bit more.
I realized I needed to air all this out a bit. The way I started doing that was by writing little stories. Then it turned into a whole narrative. On the way home from work, I’d stop at a coffee shop and write. I’d go home for dinner, and my wife would ask me, What happened today? And I could say, I killed Marceau today, which was my way of being able to say that it was like the day so-and-so was killed.
Rm220: It seems due to those moral ambiguities, the characters have a hard time reconnecting with each other. Was that your experience? Did you want to show the effects of those moral hazards?
MP: Do you want to hear a story? About two weeks after I finished the first manuscript, my friend Ed was in town for Jazz Fest. We were both captains in Iraq. And my character Donovan is really based quite a bit on Ed. Ed’s job in his second deployment was filling potholes. All that stuff about how many of them had bombs in them—that’s all Ed.
And there was a guilt that hung over me after my deployment with Ed. Two of our friends were killed by the same bomb. They were the EOD [Explosive Ordinance Disposal] guys. And everyone was very close to the EOD guys.
Ed was sleeping because he was going to be on a night convoy. I was running the operations center. I was working on the recovery of their remains, and our battalion commander came in and said, don’t tell Ed that these two guys got killed. Everyone in the operations center heard this colonel tell me, a captain, don’t tell your friend that we lost two guys today before he leaves because I want him thinking about the mission. Now Ed was going to find out about an hour and a half after he rolled out because he was going to roll into another compound where their bodies were being kept.
Ed comes in and sits down next to me. Everyone in the operations center—they all know these two guys got killed—everyone knows I’ve been told not to tell Ed about it. They’re all just looking at me wondering if I’m going to obey the order or if I’m going to disobey the order and do the right thing and tell him, like an adult.
He says, “Hey, anything going on?”
And I said, “No. We’re all good. Nothing’s going on.”
So it’s hot and we’re in the sun, and I’m drunkenly telling Ed about the book at Jazz Fest. I finally say, I need to apologize about that day in July. And he says, I totally forgot about that. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal.
Thirty seconds later I got a Linked-In request from someone whose name on Linked-In included the pseudonym of my interpreter, who I had heard died three years before in Bagdad. He writes saying, Hey, yeah it’s me. I live in Santa Rosa.
It was a moment that screamed everything is fine. Ed didn’t hate me. My interpreter was alive. It all worked out. That was right after I finished the first manuscript thinking it was only something that Ed, my wife, and a couple people from my battalion would read.
Rm220: Was it those problems with speaking about the war and reconnecting with each other that led to the decision to tell the climatic moment of the book in documents?
MP: This is the day that none of them will talk about, ever. So if any of them tells the story very plainly in their first person voice, the story ceases to be true.
Also, people need to understand that war is just paperwork. Which is why I juxtaposed the bronze star citation with all of the ammunition expenditure and the after-action reports and the incident reports, of which I have written hundreds.
Every day, every time anyone takes fire, you write a pretty bland, rote report about it. And that’s what survives in the end. That’s the truest evidence of what the war was. So it was a chance to get away from anyone’s recount of the day and get into the facts and to let the reader ask, Does this incident really merit the hero designation that is given to Donovan? He certainly doesn’t feel it does. He doesn’t feel like he did anything particularly heroic.
I know people who’ve done those sorts of things, and they don’t feel particularly heroic. I have a good friend who was the hero of such and such event. When I asked him how he felt about it, he said, Well, it was the worst day of my life and it’s all anyone wants to talk about.
Rm220: Donovan is awarded a bronze star, but it is only briefly mentioned, while Zahn’s not being awarded a Purple Heart is forefront, and it’s clear the point is not his individual valor. Was your point the difference between courage under fire and actually being injured?
MP: There are a number of very important individual decorations. One of them is the combat action ribbon. The regulations for awarding someone a combat action ribbon call for a formal exchange of fire, meaning the enemy shot at you and you shot back. That’s really a Vietnam construct for combat. So all of these logistics troops, who were out every day and were subject to IEDs all the time, had this ever-shifting standard of what would warrant a combat action ribbon.
Some friends of mine were very good at running convoys. They were great officers who fucking saved lives by organizing their convoys in the right way. They came across many, many IEDs but always knew they were there. Those guys are not official combat veterans because they always cleared the IED before it could be detonated. So there’s this whole classification of veterans of the Iraq war who are not official combat vets because they were never in a circumstance where they could shoot back. Ask them about it and they’ll say, I don’t give a shit. And I’m one of them. I don’t give a shit.
But the Purple Heart comes with it actual benefits at the VA. Guys who had traumatic brain injuries a lot of times never got a Purple Heart because there was no blood. I had a guy who was evacuated for a traumatic brain injury. His pulse dropped below 30 and his temperature went up to 105. He was injured. But on my after-action report I didn’t put the right combination of words, and he didn’t get a Purple Heart. That had real-world consequences for his post-service life. If your whole job there as a young officer is to take care of these people as best you can, then you have to make sure the guy who needs a Purple Heart gets one. Failing to do that is the failure of my life.
Rm220: Those lasting consequences make the characters’ struggle seem endless. The countless IED-filled potholes, the unfinished Iraqi canal, Dodge about to speak, it seems it was very important that you show that the war and its effects are always unfinished and endless.
MP: The way Americans like to think of warfare hasn’t really evolved much since the Second World War.
That’s what frustrated Americans so much about Iraq. Americans said, Hey, we took their capital in 2003, why is the war not won? Including those unfinished lives in the book was a way to show that not only is it not finished, it’s worse than it was. I was reading The Guns of August recently. There’s a line where Barbra Tuchman discusses what happened in 1915 – 1916, when the frontlines in France became industry in reverse, the industrial revolution in reverse.
We were way too late to understand the principles of counter-insurgency and how killing is not an end unto itself. You can’t kill your way out of it. And that left everything unfinished, left lives unfinished.
This is why Kateb is still working on his thesis. It’s his desire to see something through. That’s Lester and his medical bag. He wants to save someone’s goddamn life.
Rm220: After writing this book, do you feel like you’ve finished something?
MP: At the end of the day the veteran experience is not home to me. It was transitory in my life. I’m not going to write about Iraq anymore. I made that decision a long time ago. I’ve said all I need to say about it. I’m not going to be an Iraq war writer forever. As much as I would be very, very luck to have that as a thing that I do, I just said all I wanted to say about it and now I’m ready to move on. This is probably the last interview I’ll do about this book.
The book I’m working on now is based on my grandfather and the era in which Cajuns stopped being shrimpers and started being oilmen. As much as I have a very Cajun name, a very Cajun birth, I did not grow up in that world. I do worry about if this book ever gets published—which is a big if—how will Cajuns feel about a guy who’s definitely the outside-insider who’s talking about them and the choices they made as a culture to abandon that old life, which was filled with poverty, for a different kind of life. But at the end of the day, once again, I’m telling a story. That’s also why I fall back on the crutch of saying I have a job that has nothing to do with this. I work in construction risk transference. I am not a writer.