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The art of war - ‘Bring Out the Dog’

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From every war comes art inspired by that war. The pressures and pains of conflict have proven fertile ground for creators since the days of ancient Greece and Homer’s “Iliad.” There’s loads of room for disparate feelings and emotions - hurt, heart, humor, hubris and much more – in tales from the battlefield.

America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are no different; some remarkable art has sprung from those fallow fields. Music, movies, literature – all have found ways to reflect the people, places and ideas of our country’s lengthy hitch in the Middle East.

With his debut collection “Bring Out the Dog” (Random House, $27), Will Mackin has produced something that holds up alongside the very best war literature of the 21st century. These remarkable stories – 11 in all – are inspired by Mackin’s time deployed with a special ops task force in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They began life as notes jotted down on torn-off flaps of cardboard boxes or even on his own forearm. From there, these thoughts and observations made their way into Mackin’s journals. And those journals served as the foundational material to build this book.

These stories are powerful portraits of men at war, capturing the desperate passion and brutal absurdity of the battlefield. They are filled with grit and honesty, unflinching in their warts-and-all approach to narrative. These tales crackle with an energetic truth that is enthralling and occasionally jaw-dropping.

Every single one of these stories sings; I’ve got my personal highlights, but your mileage may vary. One that might get overlooked is “Rib Night,” which digs deep into some of the personal pressures these soldiers face and how they alleviate them, whether it be through fistfights or fistfuls of pills. It is deeply personal while presenting truths that feel universal. But in truth, they’re all excellent; “Welcome Man Will Never Fly,” “Baker’s Strong Point” “Crossing the River With No Name” are pieces that I loved, but every story – really, every SENTENCE - is impressive and impactful.

My favorite – the one that gets my vote as best of the bunch – is “Great Circle Route Westward Through Perpetual Night,” a tale that begins with a literal rain of s—t and treads through the fallout following the death of the team’s beloved dog at the hands of one of their own. It’s a meditation on the many forms that grief can take and the many causes it can have. It encapsulates beautifully the combination of pathos and dark humor that flows through every one of these exquisite 11.

From the book’s introductory story - “The Lost Troop,” Mackin’s well-placed choice to bring us into his world that features a group of soldiers undertaking an unexpected mission on behalf of an unexpected comrade – to its finale, the tense and complex “Backmask,” where a soldier searches for answers while flooded by thoughts of Kipling and Led Zeppelin, “Bring Out the Dog” is relentless, constructing a propulsive and powerful glimpse into a war-torn world many of us simply do not understand.

These wars have become situations largely lacking in black and white. The gray areas have grown large, casting shadows of uncertainty. Through Mackin’s words, we see circumstances where concepts like success and failure are fluid, with seemingly dichotomous notions like tragedy and triumph instead containing elements of one another.

War lends itself to grand, epic narratives. Creating tales to match that scale is important; our art should reflect the scope of that experience. But of equal importance are stories like those that Mackin is telling, stories built around the individual experience of soldiers on the front. Showing what it really means to be one person in the midst of this massive mechanism, a cog in the wheels of warfare, can’t be easy, but someone like Mackin – someone who has been that person – is uniquely suited to do so.

“Bring Out the Dog” is both complex and compelling, offering up small glimpses of the surreal alongside moments of heartbreak and of heroism. Mackin’s prose displays a deftness that belies its basic muscularity; it’s an ideal mix in terms of presenting these stories with the ring of genuine truth. Conflicts internal and external alike are brought to bear in ways that break the heart and buoy the spirit – often at the same time.

This is a brilliant debut, a work unafraid to use brute force to evoke an uncommon grace. Mackin’s vision consummately captures the lives of soldiers dealing with the physical and psychological stresses of a seemingly unending war.

Time will tell whether this book finds its spot among the best American creative works born of these wars, but from where I’m sitting, it’ll be awfully difficult to deny “Bring Out the Dog” a place at that table. It is magnificent.


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