There is a lot of pressure to get it right when you write a war story. You must balance humanity with violence, explain impossible politics, convey the essence of a military culture that is largely hidden from society, and move through constant tragedy without getting bogged down. So Iraq War veteran Dan Nygard hasn’t even told all of his military friends that he’s written a book. “I worry that people won’t understand why I needed to write this. Or, I think some of these guys might take it the wrong way, or think that I didn’t get it right,” he says.
But he did get it right. While “Rounds” (Knuckledown Press) is a gracefully written work of fiction, it’s based on Nygard’s time in the service, and filled with the observations of a generation of military facing a war unlike any other.
In a series of interconnected short stories, Ray Beaucock is trying to reintegrate into civilian life after an eventful, often surreal deployment. In flashbacks, Beaucock is caught in a confusing and nonsensical war, and at home he is confounded by a society that is largely uninvolved in a war they are funding.
“In previous wars, society was more involved, whether they were protesting or sacrificing or watching on TV. Now, if you’re not in a community with a military base, you can go about your business and forget we are still at war,” Nygard says. “I wanted to show what it’s like to be part of a world that is so close-knit and connected, and yet so separated from the society they are supposed to represent.”
Joined Army in ’97
Nygard joined the Army at age 17 in 1997. “It was the Clinton years, we were at peace and I thought it would be a good way to serve and figure some things out before I started college,” he says. He completed his commitment in Europe, had a wonderful time, then came back to get an English degree and MFA from U of M Moorhead — until, post 9/11, he watched his military friends get sent into war.
“I didn’t agree with the war in Iraq, I felt the decision to go there was really, really shortsighted, but I was missing the military. There was a part of me that felt I wasn’t doing my share. So I walked into a National Guard recruiting office to talk about signing up,” says Nygard. “Their jaws hit the floor. Not a lot of guys were going in there, so they were fighting over me. The first month that I was getting settled into my company, the commander came in and said, ‘We’re going to Iraq.’ So I guess I really got myself into it.”
Nygard wrote a ’zine in high school and studied poetry in college, and read generations of war stories, from Ambrose Bierce to Hemingway to Minnesota writer Tim O’Brien, before he decided to write down his own experiences after his deployment. But it was hard. “There’s a point where it’s so surreal you can’t write about war using the conventional forms of literature,” he says. “You need to invent new ways to write.”
A difficult psychological journey
And it was hard in other ways, too. As he explored in fiction topics that had deviled him in reality, Nygard experienced the kind of psychological journey soldiers receiving therapy for PTSD go through, sinking into depression at times.
“The suicide rate for military people is off the charts compared to the civilian population. There is something in the culture that we need to get to the bottom of, this sense of, ‘I’m a rock and an island and I can handle things by myself — I don’t need share my experiences.’ ”
But doing so helped Nygard, and he wishes other veterans would write, too. “People are starting to writes about these wars, but I think the big one, the “The Things They Carried” [Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam story] of this war still hasn’t been written. Some come close — “The Yellow Birds” [by Kevin Powers] has some beautiful stuff in it, and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” [Ben Fountain] comes close, but I think we’re still waiting. I think it’s going to come from one of the soldiers in Afghanistan.”