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Know the West

When the ‘war on terror’ comes home

‘Acceleration Hours’ is an honest, rare look at American militarism.

 

“George, you’re a funny motherfucker.” Thus begins “Green Lungs, Purple Hearts, Orange Kidneys,” a story in Jesse Goolsby’s new collection, Acceleration Hours. The George in question is President George W. Bush, with whom the story’s narrator, a U.S. soldier from Utah, is having an imaginary conversation. As he patrols the streets of Samarra, Iraq, the narrator shares some harsh truths with his commander in chief: “You’re a believer, a rich boy, but that’s not your fault.” 

The narrator’s thoughts then wander to the Purple Heart he earned on his last deployment. He fantasizes about taking the president to a swimming hole in Utah’s Green River, a place he remembers from his youth, where a rope swing hangs dangerously close to a submerged rock. He and George watch brash swingers brutally injure themselves jumping into the water, and they award them the imaginary medals referenced in the story’s title. The Purple Heart, symbol of a sacrifice made in the name of a sacred duty, is transformed into a grotesque token of the random violence and arbitrary death that can attend summers on the Green River as surely as patrols in Iraq. “Or better yet,” the narrator goes on, George should “skip Utah and come on out to Samarra.”

At such moments, Goolsby collapses the geographies of the Western United States and the Middle East, thereby unsettling some of the core pieties about the democratic aims of U.S. military intervention and the noble ideals of sacrifice used to sell the “war on terror” to the American people.

This is surprising, considering Goolsby is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force whose career has included stints at the Pentagon and the Air Force Academy. What does it mean that one of the very officers communicating the United States’ strategic goals and teaching its future officers holds this outlook? Acceleration Hours offers an answer in the disquieting connections it draws between the far frontiers of American wars and the violent masculinity Goolsby witnessed growing up in the West.

The narrators in Goolsby’s stories range from a small town convenience store clerk, who develops an unlikely friendship with a World War II vet, to a renowned filmmaker embedded with a militia plotting the takeover of a Sierra Nevada town. Goolsby’s voice is most incisive, however, in stories like “Green Lungs” that focus on the psychology of white male service members and veterans from the U.S. West. Unfortunately, this focus often comes at the expense of other voices: The Iraqis and Afghans in Goolsby’s stories, for example, exist only as ghosts that give voice to the trauma of the U.S. servicemen at their center.

The collection’s focus is amplified by Goolsby’s unusual decision to include pieces of autobiographical nonfiction. In “Waiting for Red Dawn,” he reflects on incidents in his own family history relating to gun ownership and the fear of household and national invasions. Starting with a terrifying tale in which he and his father nearly shoot a neighbor knocking on their door, Goolsby recalls his long-time fascination with the 1984 action film Red Dawn, in which a plucky band of rural Colorado youth use hunting rifles and survival skills to defend their town from a Soviet invasion. In many ways, the story reflects Goolsby’s own disillusionment with the film’s paranoid nationalism.

“I pray my children will be prepared to do more than hide and wait.”

But if Goolsby is not quite a believer in the violent culture exemplified by Red Dawn, he is not not a believer, either. He owns firearms and plans on teaching his children how to use them, writing, “I pray my children will be prepared to do more than hide and wait” should a terrorist attack or mass shooting occur. Goolsby writes about the property he owns in southern Colorado and his secret fantasy of surviving a foreign invasion there with his family. “So yes,” Goolsby admits in his conclusion, “I’m waiting for Red Dawn.”

This is an admission of uncommon honesty. Even as Acceleration Hours strips away so many of the mythologies that Americans use to justify violence at home and abroad, Goolsby nonetheless admits to harboring a survivalist fantasy that cannot be wholly disconnected from a scene of the mythic Old West — in which settlers, alone on their homestead, rifles trained on the surrounding darkness, are idealized as defenders of peace rather than invaders of Indigenous land.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/books-from-the-bundys-to-cheap-burgundy-how-myths-shape-the-west]

Some readers will criticize Goolsby’s seeming inability to imagine the world otherwise. But in the United States — where patriotism has never polled lower, even as we maintain, by an order of magnitude, the world’s largest defense budget — the contradictions in Goolsby’s thought illuminate a more disturbing paradox. Faith in the democratic ideals of this “empire of liberty” may be waning, but the idea of America as an outpost of civilization, precariously defended against an imagined savagery, persists.  

Alex Trimble Young is a scholar of U.S. culture and transnational settler colonialism. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.