Brandon Davis Jennings grew up as an Air Force Brat and enlisted in the Air Force in 2000. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, he was “augmented” to check for bombs at the entrances to the USAF base on Okinawa without ever actually being trained for the job. Eventually, he volunteered to go to Saudi Arabia in place of a friend who wanted to stay home and start a family. He was there when the United States invaded Iraq. Jennings’s 90-day deployment stretched to 179 days (the maximum without getting extra pay for a “short tour”). His job involved maintaining data feeds for Predator drones, Patriot missiles, and top-secret communications.
Reflecting on this period, he writes: “The fact that I did not touch a weapon or have to fear the enemy played a role in me not realizing that I was part of the destruction that was taking place so far away from me. I realized that all the data I was helping to route from one place to the next was in service of killing, and that still haunts me some days.”
After returning home, he studied English and Creative Writing, eventually earning both an MFA and a Ph.D. Reflecting on this, he writes: “I had thought absurdity and bureaucracy were behind me when I left the military, but once again ignorance was my enemy.”
Nevertheless, Jennings has published numerous short stories and essays in highly-regarded literary journals, and his work has also been collected variously. In 2016, he published a definitive collection of his war fiction, Battle Rattle and other Stories, and last fall, Little Presque published The Red Book: (or Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault), a collection of essays dealing with similar topics.
I first contacted Brandon in response to his short riff on the Iliad in Quarter to Eight, an experimental literary journal, and I had the pleasure of being the first to publish his poetry in the William and Mary Review two years ago. Since then, we have been in occasional communication. We compiled this interview from emails in the fall of 2017
– Frank Fucile
FF: When did you start writing, and what made you want to be a writer? The Red Book starts from an actual red notebook of yours from high school.
BDJ: Somewhere around this house I have my first poem. It’s something about a duck. I think I was maybe seven or nine years old. But I really started writing when I was fifteen. These were stories and poems that were not much more than violence, anger, and hate. I was probably doing it as catharsis without anyone ever telling me that was a thing I could do (and without even knowing catharsis is a word). I talked to no one about my problems since they “weren’t a big deal” anyway.
FF: You also mention that you kept notebooks during your time in the Air Force but that most of your real work has been done in the past ten years. Is that also part of a cathartic process, or do you have different motives now?
BDJ: The notebooks from my time in Tech school were fantasy “novels” that I wrote out by hand. I still have them, and they were fun to write. I don’t think they were catharsis as much as they were a way for me to escape the reality of my situation. I didn’t really want to be where I was, and making up a world gave me a way to get away from the one I was in.
FF: What was it like being a veteran on a college campus?
BDJ: Have you ever read Passing by Nella Larsen? I didn’t roll into classrooms wearing a sign that said I was a veteran, so people didn’t know unless I told them. There were a lot of people who were outright against violence in any form and bad-mouthed the military just for existing, and there were people who said people in the military were stupid. But the thing that bothered me most was people who talked about violence as if it was not a necessity. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad for living the life they’re living, but in order for some people to sit around and read books and debate the meaning of a metaphor, other people have to do the things those metaphor analyzers are not doing. And I had to listen to people debate all kinds of things in very abstract ways while I kept my mouth shut because all I wanted to say was, “It’s fine to sit here and talk about X in this way while our bellies are full and without fearing when we go outside we’ll step on a landmine.”
FF: What do you feel you gained from studying English and Creative Writing? What about the process seemed unnecessary?
BDJ: I learned more during my time in grad school than I did in all my years leading up to it. A lot of what I learned was done on my own and had little to do with classroom time, and this self-study was spurred by some amazing teachers and some great friends who helped me to become a much better writer and reader. So the MFA experience was good for me because it taught me how to learn and how to use what I learned to tell stories and write essays. I’m not embarrassed about my Ph.D., but I don’t think the credentials have done much for me now that I am a stay-at-home Dad, writer, graphic designer, animator and painter. I would not do it again, nor would I recommend it to anyone. The world needs more smart people to do more important things, and I think you can still make art while at once earning a living far away from the academy. (I still think the academy is vital; without it, I have no idea where I would be, but I do think we need to reevaluate its essential-ness.) Most of what seemed unnecessary to me was being forced to take a dozen or so classes on subjects that I will never think about again for any reason other than to remind myself how many hours I wasted that would have been better spent doing anything else.
FF: Do you think of yourself as a “veteran author” or simply as a writer? Is the idea of a separate category an issue for you?
BDJ: I’m a writer, man. I am a veteran and a man and a husband and father and have a beard and was in a band and am right-handed and a bass player and Calvin and Hobbes reader and beer drinker and brewer and bad cook and amateur woodworker and lover of pine trees. To create a separate category for the type of writer you are is only useful when it comes to sales. If I was to say I only read books by veterans or by chefs I would be an idiot. A lot of this has to do with perceived authenticity. I am a veteran author if it helps me get a book deal, and I am not a veteran author if it helps me get a book deal. The books will be the same regardless of how I am classified. I’ll let marketers do what they do so that my books get into the greatest number of hands, where they can do some good. This reminds me of a time I wrote a music review in the Daily Athenauem about a Tool album and called it progressive rock. Some anonymous troll emailed me to tell me how Super Tramp is prog rock and therefore Tool cannot be. This is the kind of debate that is killing the soul of the universe; however, we need to categorize things or else we’ll all go mad with input.
FF: Though you almost always identify yourself as a veteran, your work doesn’t focus on combat, and in the new book, you point out that (like most servicemen) you weren’t in combat yourself. You also take issue with the notion that those who have never been in combat shouldn’t write about it. So it seems you have one foot in the war literature genre. Is that simply the result of your experience, or is it also an artistic choice?
BDJ: I don’t think that the combat itself is the story. That is the stuff of comic books (or graphic novels, since that’s what they’re calling the full series now). How people live after combat is interesting to me because, as I mentioned earlier, violence is a part of life. And combat, to me, is not something that only happens on a battlefield. No, I have never been shot at or been forced to “don” MOPP gear [protective clothing against chemical and biological weapons] in a non-exercise. I am not claiming that whatever I have experienced personally is the same as that kind of combat, nor am I trying to minimize that experience for those who’ve lived through it, but people who believe that only those who’ve experienced combat should write about it are wrong.
FF: It’s an incredibly common assertion, but it’s just a different version of a broader debate in the fiction-writing world about who has the right to certain kinds of topics or characters.
BDJ: If I was younger I might be more afraid of saying things like this, but I just don’t think it matters to me who tells a story as long as it is told the best. The Red Badge of Courage is a good book that I often cite as an example. Crane had “no battle experience,” but he is quite good at helping us see the complicated emotions a soldier might experience. If some jerk with a loud voice (read: wide readership) wants to tell me I can’t write about something in The New York Times Book Review or any other national forum, I hope he does. I would love for that many people to know about my work that I shouldn’t be doing because I haven’t earned the right to do it. Then they can buy or borrow my books and judge for themselves. All press is good press, as Trump has taught me over the course of the last two [three?] miserable years.
FF: In much of your work, you position yourself as an inheritor of the postmodern tradition of American war literature (i.e. Heller, Vonnegut, O’Brien). In the post-draft era, do you think literature needs to respond differently to the different experience and the different politics of the Global War on Terror? Or has GWOT just intensified the situations critiqued in those earlier works?
BDJ: The positioning happened organically for me. So I can’t pretend that I started down this path in a calculated way. All three of those writers matter a great deal to me as a person and as a writer, so their influence on myself and my work is undeniable. Being in a post-draft era is slightly different, but I also think that one aspect remains the same. Poor people join the military to get ahead. Poor people joined the military before they were drafted to make sure they could pick their job. Poor people join the military now so they can earn a living and get the G.I. Bill. Not everyone who joins the military does so for economic reasons. But economic pressure plays a significant role in guiding people into the military. It’s easy to say, “Rich people don’t join the military,” but that isn’t flat-out true. A lot of wealthy and powerful people were able to get deferments in the draft era, but not all of them did. And to be fair, some wealthy and powerful people probably did more good for the country at home than they would’ve at war anyway. So the thing that remains the same to me is how economic forces guide folks into the military. What has changed? I don’t know. I was indefinitely extended and that only pushed my deployment to six months (179 days). When I got out in 2004, some people were pulling 18-month tours. I’m sure there were people who had to stay longer as well. So I don’t know, and I can’t really say if it has intensified the situations, but there is something very different about the wars we’re fighting now and those wars in the past. The enemy is everyone, and the enemy is no one, and that’s how terror works.
FF: Could someone reasonably say that your books are more about economic and cultural malaise than they are about war?
BDJ: Yes. That is partly what they are about. Because I am a third-generation veteran, and I hope that I am the last person in my family in a position where he has to serve in order to save himself. If my daughters want to serve because it is something they believe in, I will support that. But I will do everything in my power to make sure they know what they are getting into and also why they’re getting into it.
FF: In High Desert Rats, you deal specifically with young men who are the children of enlisted airmen, and you dramatize their decisions to either rebel against their fathers or follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Sometimes the decision to enlist is the rebellion, which is very different from what the reader might expect. Both their cynicism going into the military and the depiction of their class are quite different than what we typically see in these kinds of narratives. Is the narrative of disillusionment and bitter irony outdated at this point?
BDJ: I don’t think things get outdated in that way, but I do think the value in literature that has been placed on the “pain of the mad genius” needs to be tempered—a lot. All these books that come out talking about some man who was so smart that he had to go into a mental institution and then he came out of the institution and wrote a book—give me a break. I am not mocking mental health; I have gone to talk therapy and taken Zoloft. I know the value of working on mental health as much as anyone, and I am lucky that my issues were mostly environmental, so “fixing” them was relatively easy (though it was not easy to admit I needed help or to actually go about getting that help). But I look all over the place, and see people reading Infinite Jest or some other book that I can’t stand, and I wonder why the hell they would do that to themselves. My dad read a few sentences from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and he said, “That guy’s in pain. What else do you got?” Dad doesn’t read a lot, but he didn’t need to read any more to get all he needed from that book. So what am I trying to say? Basically what I mean to say is that, “No. Disillusion isn’t outdated.” But I don’t think it is helpful to value it more highly than narratives about people who actually give a damn about the world and who actively work to improve it. I can’t stand Chicken Soup for the (X)’s Soul. But I think those books have a place in the world for people who are able to read them and then be inspired to live better lives.
FF: Your earlier work tended to use a fairly light touch with its allusions to other texts, but The Red Book is explicitly meta-textual. How do you see the different approaches working differently?
BDJ: My fiction is created in a box that I define by myself for the characters and the world they inhabit. This book is meta-textual because my life is. When I am writing about my life, then all memories, all experiences, all books are relevant to the overall story because a life is made-up of the sum of all experiences. The funny thing about writing an essay to me is that I can literally change my mind about an idea halfway through the essay, and then I can change it again before the essay is done. When I am writing a fictional character, I normally see that as off-limits. It has to be believable in a way that is different for a “real” person because “real” people change their minds all the time without even knowing why. In fiction, people want to understand characters in a way that isn’t really possible with humans outside of stories. You can know a character’s motivation with absolute certainty; the same is not true of an actual person.
FF: All those references to other texts make The Red Book something of a work of literary criticism. Was that your intent?
BDJ: I think anyone who reads and writes in response to the work he reads will push back against the things he dislikes and piggyback on the things he admires. My essays are critical of everything, including myself, so literature wasn’t off limits. My main intention was to criticize the fetishization of ignorance, though.
FF: What do you mean by the fetishization of ignorance?
BDJ: While I was stationed in Okinawa, getting drunk every night after work, Osama Bin Laden’s men flew planes into the World Trade Towers. At that time, I am not kidding, the only Muslim I knew anything about was Morgan Freeman’s character in Robin Hood. I didn’t know that Islam was still around. I thought it was a religion that was gone—like people who worshipped Zeus. And I was 20 years old at the time. When we invaded Iraq, I did not know what an Arab was or that there was such a thing as an Arab nationalist or what secularism is or what sovereignty was or that there are more sects of Islam than there are of Christianity. All of this was new, and it was made to be scary by the people who I was taught to trust my whole life. The President was a good man, and he wanted to do what was right, and it was my job as an airman in the USAF to protect my country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I didn’t think for one minute that the man running the country might be ignorant about any of these things I was ignorant of. The President has to understand things at least as well or better than the people who he sends off to war, and I believed he did for a while. Not anymore. I do think he did what he believed was the right thing to do; I know that fact does nothing to fix any of the damage, though.
FF: You use devices like footnotes and internal dialogue in the ways that David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers have. Why did you feel those techniques were necessary? Do humor and irony play out differently in those types of postmodern civilian texts than they do in something written by a veteran about war?
BDJ: I am not surprised you mention DFW. They were footnotes in the original essays, but they were changed to endnotes during copyediting due to some kind of formatting problem. But the footnotes go back a long way for me. In my MFA days, I wrote some footnotes in a story called “The Bludagon,” which was about a French war machine that was, essentially, a barrel with a sprinkler on top that spewed blood onto the battlefield. When I workshopped the story, some people said, “David Foster Wallace already used footnotes.” Pardon my language, but who gives a shit? Flann O’Brien used them before DFW was born, and I am sure there are a million examples of people who used them too. The fact that someone has “done it first” is a useless critique. If someone had said, “Check out what DFW did with his. I think you might get some ideas,” then that would have been useful, but the critique was basically, “Just don’t even try because it has been done before.”
Why they were necessary is harder to explain. You know how when you explain a joke it becomes less funny? I don’t think this is dissimilar. But I do think it was essential to purge myself of all the echoes of stupid suggestions I had bouncing around in my head. The collection ends with an essay sans-footnotes that is a call to be less cynical and for people to not be embarrassed to care about and love people. This wasn’t a mistake. I am sure some people would prefer a straightforward, This-Boy’s-Life-style narrative because they don’t like to be yanked out of “the dream state,” but since this is a book that represents what it was like to live with extreme social anxiety and depression, the dream state must be interrupted. We are not living in a dream and this book is not meant to be a beach read that lets you forget your worry and your strife.
FF: When did you first read Catch-22? Tell us a little about its effect on you.
BDJ: I first read it in my MFA. I read about twenty pages and put it down. I thought I hated it. A few weeks later, I started it back up and read until the part where Lt. Scheisskopf wins the parade “hands down” by finding an obscure regulation about marching that no other commander had known about. It was the most elaborate and lengthy pun I had ever experienced, and it was so silly and dumb and amazing and summed up so much of my experience in the military that I was instantly in love with the book and the dead man who’d written it.
FF: I first read it when I was a lot younger—too young to understand some of it. I remember what got me was the bit where Doc Daneeka uses these anatomical dolls to explain sex to this young couple, and they’re flabbergasted. It’s funny how a book that ends up being so serious uses these completely juvenile—even idiotic—jokes to hook the reader.
BDJ: Yeah. I like that the guy punches Daneeka, too. Heller was one of my heroes, and I would never get to meet him. The same is now true of Vonnegut, Herr, Babel, Paley, and Thom Jones. I have some other heroes, and they’re alive, but I won’t name them for fear that they’ll die too. When I read that book and saw what Heller had done, I was embarrassed for myself and disappointed with myself. Then I started to work harder because moping around like a Doc Daneeka wasn’t going to do me any good.
FF: In The Red Book, you frequently discuss the point in your life at which you read a book, whether you immediately appreciated it or not, whether you read it on your own or were required to, etc. What is the objective there?
BDJ: I guess I could try and make this seem like it was some kind of brilliant plan, but the truth is that those passages are mostly just time markers or entry points into something else. Books are important to me, and the books that are most important are important because they influenced my life in a way that sears them into my memory.
FF: Again, you have a foot in each world: the booze, hijinks, and videogames of enlisted and pre-war life and the discourse of the university.
BDJ: I spent a large part of my life split between two minds. I was a happy, sarcastic kid, and I was a depressed, socially anxious kid. So I lived two lives in two worlds most of my days. In fact, the end of that is not all too distant. It was the struggle to find my own identity, and now that I have one, an identity that is complex and fluid in many ways, I feel much more comfortable than I had back in those days. Some people say they are fiction writers only or they are farmers only or whatever. These things you do are only things you do; they are not who you are, and if you allow the things you do to become who you are, then what happens when you are no longer able to do the things you’ve done and used to define yourself?
FF: You may not mean it this way, but I think that point gets back to my reading of your work as a critique of warrior culture, because I worry that, almost as a point of justification for the all-volunteer military, American media has become fascinated with this particular sub-genre in which the veteran is so disconnected from life as a civilian that he has no legitimate option but to return to the battlefield. As you say, you are a veteran, but that’s only one thing you are; it’s something you did. I can’t imagine one of your characters saying, “I’m a warrior!” (except sarcastically). It would be too idealistic. You even object to some people’s insistence that we use the continuous present tense to refer to Marines. You say, “He was a Marine.”
BDJ: I don’t have a character who would say that yet. But, I do think there are people who could say this and mean it, and I wouldn’t give them hell about it. Some people actually join the military to defend the country, and they go to combat and they die and they do it, as far as I know, because they believe it was worth it. But it’s like Einstein and how his “peers” claimed he wasted the second half of his life pursuing something that he wanted to pursue. So, no. Derrick and Rake aren’t likely to say they are warriors, but I do think that part of them feels that way. I don’t think they like that part of themselves, and I also don’t know if they should or shouldn’t. Have you ever punched a heavy bag? I have, and it feels good. I’m not saying I want to punch people or to fight. I just know that sometimes there are things that we’re led to believe are uglier than they have to be or uglier than they really are.
FF: How have your ideas about masculinity developed in the time since your enlistment? How have they impacted your writing?
BDJ: I didn’t even know the word “masculinity” until I was in graduate school. I am living the life of a man I never could’ve imagined before I met my wife. I stay home with my daughters all day, cook, clean (as well as I can), get raw hands from all the dishwashing and hand washing I do. I am glad we have a Dyson vacuum. There are a lot of things about me and my life that I did not equate with manliness and that I am not ashamed to equate with it now. I wake at 4 a.m. to work on the things I want to work on so that I am not distracted by those things when I am doing the work I must do later in the day. In short: I am a man in the way I need to be a man. I do not make a ton of money. My wife is the “breadwinner,” and I am happy because she is happy, and that is all that matters to me.
These new and non-traditional masculine experiences have made me a far better writer than I’d ever have been if I were teaching at Columbia (or whatever university) and writing while my wife stayed home with my kids.
FF: Obviously your household is quite different from the family you grew up in. Is that a form of rebellion?
BDJ: No. It is not rebellion. My mother and father are happy for me. There may be someone out there who is laughing at how un-manly I am, but they aren’t laughing where I can hear them. And if they were, I’d laugh right back. Being a stay-at-home dad and having a loving, amazing, hard-working wife are the best things that ever happened to me. I want to be alive more than I ever did before, and it is because of all these wonderful women in my life who allow me to cook (marginally well) for them and cart them around in the car and so on. It’s not rebellion; it’s enlightenment.
FF: You’ve published chapbooks with small literary presses; you’ve published through Amazon; and you’ve self-published. Talk a bit about your experience with different types of presses.
BDJ: My most recent book of essays (The Red Book) was with Little Presque Books, and Tim Johnston is the man behind that monster. I mean monster in the most beautiful way. He publishes books he wants to read (at least before he has to edit them for 3 years). He tracked me down and asked if I had a book and if he could publish it, and I don’t know how often that happens to regular Joes like myself, so I said yes because he likes my work and is a funny and hard-working guy. I am proud of the book and happy with the way it turned out.
Iron Horse Literary Review published a chapbook of mine (Waiting for the Enemy) back in 2012(?) That book was later accepted and published as a Kindle Single (and was a best-seller on Amazon), and was then bought by Amazon and published through their actual press in German. That experience, I think, is pretty rare. A little book of stories like that probably doesn’t get that kind of treatment often, and I am so grateful. I’ve made more connections in the literary world because of that little book than any other I’ve written, and I am so thankful for all the attention it’s received from readers and publishers.
Self-publishing is something that is newer to me, but it’s so damn easy to do that it was almost impossible for me to avoid it. If you have the patience and the ability, you can do it. I did it, and I am not ashamed of it. What I can say for a fact is that I do not know how to sell a book. I can tell you it’s good, and I can get folks to review it. I do not know how to market it, though. I try, and I hope to get better, but advertising is a hell of a lot harder than writing a book. The book I self-published most recently (The Bombmaker’s Wife) was entered into a contest that would have won me 20,000 pounds and an Amazon book deal. It’s the story of a poor white boy who was sexually assaulted in his high school locker room. He is befriended by a female janitor at his school who was a bombmaker before she immigrated to the US illegally. I could go on, but I’m already muddling the stupid thing up, and I don’t want to confuse myself anymore. I am taking it down from Amazon soon, and I’ll try and get an agent with it again because I don’t see how a book that deals with sexual assault, terrorism, and the universal effects of poverty can’t be interesting to a press somewhere. Maybe I’m naive to think people want to read about actual problems, though. Maybe I should just work on those fantasy books instead?
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Frank Fucile is a Ph.D candidate in American Studies at the College of William and Mary and Editor-in-Chief of the William and Mary Review.
The Red Book: (or, Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault) by Brandon Davis Jennings is available from Little Presque Publishing.
To read more from Brandon Davis Jennings, check out TLR’s Early Fall 2013 issue, Cry Baby.