Review: Oh, the Stories They Tell in ‘Our Best War Stories’

December 3, 2020J. Ford Huffman
our best war stories, review, coffee or die, darron wright

For five years the nonprofit literary journal Line of Advance has organized a writing contest for service members and military veterans in memory of Army officer Darron Wright, who died in a training accident in 2013 — only a year after Osprey published Iraq Full Circle, his personal history of the war.

This year the competition widened and accepted submissions by military family members, with the continued and laudable underwriting by the Blake and Bailey Family Fund. 

And this year, all the “best” submissions are in print in Our Best War Stories: Prize-Winning Poetry & Prose from the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Awards.

Our Best War Stories collects the entries in one volume of 18 works of prose and 18 poems. The 36 works offer a range of human experience and literary prowess, in different voices and styles — some more distinctive than others. The “Prose” category does not differentiate between fiction or nonfiction, although only one story seems to be nonfiction.

our best war stories, review, coffee or die, darron wright
Col. Darron L. Wright. Photo courtesy of Line of Advance.

Two of the stories already have publishing pedigrees, an indication of the value of the journal’s recognizing nascent writers — even those who didn’t get to first place. Here is a look at the pair and at some of the other standout content:

  • Ray McPadden’s third-place 2017 short story demonstrates why his 2018 novel, And the Whole Mountain Burned, was noticed by major publisher Hachette. This reviewer called the Ranger veteran’s suspenseful book “an achievement that can be read as metaphor or mystery” or both, complete with an apocalyptic ending. His “Village with No Name” conveys the frustration of trying to reciprocate a lifesaving favor in Iraq, where the Army is as good as its word — unless another soldier comes through the village.

  • Also from 2017, Dewaine Farria’s second-place “Walking Point” shows the promise achieved this year when the Marine veteran was selected as the first recipient of the Veterans Writing Award inaugurated by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families and Syracuse University Press. His story, about a Vietnam veteran who is deputy warden at an Oklahoma prison and a mentor to three teenage boys, hints at what to expect in Revolutions of All Colors, his novel due for release in late December. This reviewer knows what he wants from Santa.

War Stories also makes you anticipate more fiction from Maj. Brian Kerg, a Marine who has two works in the collection. “October’s Daughter” (2018, third-place prose) illustrates the personal and professional stress of duty in Afghanistan, with a stunner flashback set at a California beach and with a sense of humor:

“One of the Marines had written ‘Trick or Treat!’ in the top-left corner of the map, and added a crudely drawn penis. This was the art only my tribe could produce.”

Also, hope to see more from Navy spouse Amy Zaranek, whose “Countdown to Deployment” (2020, second-place prose) allows you to empathize with a spouse’s anxiety. “Your mind races on the morning of Day Three, which may now be Day Two or Four or Day 18, and you aren’t sure why you’re keeping track anymore.” 

Showing promise too is Travis Klempan, the Naval Academy graduate whose “Rocks for Breakfast” (2018, third-place prose) catches you with an opening line that says To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee is “full of shit.”  

our best war stories, review, coffee or die, darron wright
Col. Wright died a year after Iraq Full Circle was published. Photo of Wright courtesy of Line of Advance.

Eight of the pieces in the book are by women. Females first crossed the Line in 2019 with Air Force veteran Sarah Maples’ second-place “Good Soldier.” Her poem deftly addresses gender – with irony and a nod to empowerment. 

Other poetry in the book is verbally well-powered, including: 

  • Army veteran Ryan Stovall’s “No Rolling, Shrink” (2018, first place) conveys a medic’s plight in only 28 lines. Try these three:

    My weary, ribby cart horse sense of self

    preservation implores this pestilence

    sealed up in darkness.

  • Former airman Eric Chandler’s “How Could You Do That” (2019, first place) convinces, with cadence, that “We, the people” means everybody. 

  • Veteran soldier Randy Brown, the head of Middle West Press, serves existentialism in a mere 14 lines in “Robert Olen Butler wants nachos” (2019, third place). 

  • History permeates the mood of former sailor Colin W. Sargent’s “Maneuvering” (2018, second place), set during a 1946 mission “steaming out of Washington at midnight.”

  • Air Force veteran Laura Joyce-Hubbard’s “Havoc 58” (2020, third place) is dedicated to an aircrew that crashed in Wyoming in 1996 and produces pure, plaintive sorrow as she frankly takes you to the graveside.

    Pilot’s wife, stumbling in grief,

    leans on someone nearby to stand.

    Dressed black-drunk. 

Anthology editor Christopher Lyke, fellow Army veteran Matt Marcus, and Army National Guard officer Ryan Quinn started Line as a way to give military writers a place to lean. The book confirms their effort, and the goal of the three wise men is being realized.

Presumably there will be future collections. In them, this reviewer urges Line of Advance to use what’s called a longer (“em”) dash for separating parenthetical phrases rather than this edition’s “en” dash, which can appear to be a hyphen. In the book’s text, words meant to be separated look instead like they are hyphenated. 

This point might seem trivial, but punctuation directs reading pace and aids comprehension. The talent published in the anthology is too promising to be distracted by typography.

Our Best War Stories: Prize-Winning Poetry & Prose from the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Awards, edited by Christopher Lyke, Middle West Press, 234 pages, $18

J. Ford Huffman
J. Ford Huffman

J. Ford Huffman has reviewed 400-plus books published during the Iraq and Afghanistan war era, mainly for Military Times, and he received the Military Reporters and Editors (MRE) 2018 award for commentary. He co-edited Marine Corps University Press’ The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (2012). When he is not reading a book or editing words or art, he is usually running, albeit slowly. So far: 48 marathons, including 15 Marine Corps races. Not that he keeps count. Huffman serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and the artist council of Armed Services Arts Partnership and has co-edited two ASAP anthologies. As a content and visual editor, he has advised newsrooms from Defense News to Dubai to Delhi and back.

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