The things they still carry: ‘Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Vol. 1′

“Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Vol. 1″ will make you proud to be, too — of being American and a Missourian.

Initiated by the Missouri Humanities Council and the Warriors Arts Alliance, the anthology consists of literature collected from all over America, edited by Susan Swartwout and published by Southeast Missouri State University Press. This collection of narratives and poetry is written by living men and women who have served in the military, taking us into the heart of the matter of our wars.

Yes, our wars, wars we civilians may try to deny — I’m thinking of Vietnam and other recent unpopular wars — and yet which belong to us all as Americans, wars we must own, must invite into our minds, so as to heal and unify as a nation. If, as Franz Kafka wrote, a book should be “the axe for the frozen sea within us,” “Proud to Be…” has both mighty heft and a fine edge.

The collection recalls the best of American war writing. There’s a loud echo of Randall Jarrell’s famous “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” in Jonah E. Krause’s “53 Alpha,” wherein we ride with the ensconced gunner atop the truck grinding through Baghdad.

Like the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” Nick Carraway, who returns to the Midwest from World War I feeling like it is “the ragged edge of the universe,” in “Proud to Be…” the Vietnam vet, of Jay Harden’s “Between Wives,” speaks to us decades after his war, carrying yet the unmistakable “heavy boots” of spirit: “Now I live in my pajamas, a solitary recluse in my house in the company of familiar, buckling depression and a cold computer screen.” Conversely, the anthology also features great humor and the warmth of camaraderie.

The young soldier of “The Red Badge of Courage,” who shakes his fist at the indifferent sun, is reborn in the stargazing soldiers of Levi Bollinger’s “Distant Seitz”: “But we, under the arc of those trajectories,/stare above at the same smattering of/heavenly beauties in divine parade/that has smiled lightly down on millennia/of Mesopotamian bloodshed.”

Here, too, in “Proud to Be…” grows another branch of the tradition of American war literature, the feminine voice, the modern role of woman, who must negotiate additional and different terms of military service. Lauren K. Johnson’s “The Soldier’s Two-Step” details the woman’s “Dancing between two worlds; her/partner the cold barrel of a/gun, music the hollow tones of war and hollow, cheerful voices on/the phone. This is the melody of loneliness.”

Many of the contributions to this anthology seek to depict the chasm between civilian and military life, to show the great divide and perhaps to shorten the distance between these two worlds. In the detailing of loneliness, loss, incomprehension, filth and alienation of war, such narrative and verse shock us into some measure of understanding, perhaps budding profound awareness, of what our men and women went through and must face when they come home.

“Proud to Be…” opens us to experience war in personal ways rarely delivered through expected media channels. It is a vital first volume, one that makes me not only proud to be an American, but a Missouri-American.

Join a host of veteran writers as they read their work from “Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors” at the anthology’s release event hosted by the St. Louis Poetry Center at the Focal Point on Tuesday, November 27 at 7:30 pm.


  • Susan Swartwout

    Thanks, KDHX, for a great review and for helping to spread the words.