I received an advance readers copy of Retire the Colors (Hudson Whitman Press) and found myself staring at the cover and not wanting to go any further. The title was rendered in gold and black letters on a white background—an American flag fluttering across the bottom like a footnote. It reminded me of the cover of a folder, brochure or advertisement I’d seen far too often at some event meant to invoke patriotism. My initial reaction was that there couldn’t be anything new or interesting here, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
For more than a decade I’ve watched the writing of this current generation of veterans evolve as they grappled with the challenges of rendering the reality of war onto the page. It’s never easy, and it’s been said many times that the best war writing often emerges decades after the wars have ended. In many ways, Retire the Colors, edited by Iraqi war veteran Dario DiBattista, is a reflection of this reality. Many of these writers have been honing their craft, writing, speaking, and teaching skills as they’ve worked to share their stories with us. And the hard work has paid off. If this book is any indication of what is to come from these writers in the future, then we are very fortunate.
What’s unique about Retire The Colors is the blend of voices that populate this anthology. These personal stories are not only from the men and woman who have served in war zones, but family members and friends who have witnessed the changes wrought by those experiences of serving. It is through a compilation of these various voices that a broader and more nuanced narrative of war emerges to create a rich mosaic in the mind of readers. As Stewart Moss, an educator teaching American soldiers in Afghanistan to write, reminds us,
Just as these stories bear witness to realities of war manifested in those who serve, and their families and their communities, Retire the Colors marks a clear shift from a purely experiential and witness form of expression to a richly nuanced reflective one. These stories are distanced from the actual time in war zones, and we walk with these writers in the present, their days reverberating with the heartbeat of those past experiences. The stories are often marked by revelations of those grappling to make sense of the time since they returned home. As David Ervin discovered in his own writing, “I waged war with myself, but the battles were fought with the people who tried to get close to me.”
I’ve written before that I consider the art of story to be a kind of space where a dialogue happens between the artist and the audience. It is where the experiences reveal themselves through a conversation with the reader—a place where discovery happens. Reading these stories feels exactly like that to me—an act of discovery. They give us a sense of clarity in the present for these Veterans as they navigate through life in the aftermath of their experiences. We see them struggle as they work to settle back into being a civilian in America. Like the nation itself, they are adrift in these wars that seem to go on without stop, a society primed to invoke patriotism with an American Flag lapel pin, a bumper sticker, or a forced, “thank you for your service.” It is an America that doesn’t understand how to bridge the distance between them and those who’ve gone off to fight. These stories remind us to reach for more, and to examine what Lauren Halloran calls, “flash mob patriotism…The gush of nationalism every Independence Day. The waving flags at Veterans’ Day parades.”
Retire the Colors is an important and timely book—one that can help us to see inside the minds of Veterans and recognize that their pasts are always unraveling into the present. These voices capture the subtleties of what it means to go to war and grapple with those experiences as it ripples through them and out into the world. The work of these amazing writers serves as a collective representation of so many people who’ve served—soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines—the silent and faceless people who have fought and returned home to a society that will never quite understand them.
While no anthology can begin to capture the complex and diverse challenges of what it means to be forever altered by war, this collection gives us a clear and definitive glimpse into the lives of diverse people we will never know—people who served on our nation’s behalf and struggle to ground themselves in the present. As Caitlin Pendola points out, “I love the idea of remembering people I will never know. People who most of the world will never know.”
I echo her sentiment, and I can’t recommend this book enough. These are people we need to remember, people whose interactions with the world are forever altered by their experiences—voices we need to hear and understand. This is the kind of book you want to linger with as you finish each separate story and let the layered expressions settle over you. It requires looking past the cover, opening it up and delving inside. Trust me, you’ll be surprised by what you find there.