Veteran and Author Paul Crenshaw on war and the American “other”
By M.C. Armstrong
Shortly after the first Gulf War, Paul Crenshaw performed a march.
“I was in advanced training,” he told me, “ which is the second half of military training. This was the summer of ’91, when the troops were coming home, and because none of them wanted to march in the 4th of July parade, the folks organizing the parade asked for volunteers from Fort Jackson, South Carolina. That was us. So we marched in downtown Columbia, South Carolina on July 4th with these heavy flags and, if I remember correctly, it was about 206 degrees and about 400 percent humidity and, afterwards, we were invited to have a few cool beverages and attend the celebration. So people came up to us and asked to shake our hands. They thanked us for our service. And the first few times this happened, we told them we were trainees, that we hadn’t actually served in Desert Storm. But when we’d tell folks the truth, we noticed many of them looked at us like we’d set out to deceive them and some of them actually got angry, so we just started accepting thanks because it was the easiest thing to do. They wanted to say ‘thank you for your service’ and go home and eat meatloaf instead of being exposed to any kind of hard-earned truth so we just played the game.”
Crenshaw’s storytelling recently garnered him a different kind of praise, this time from Jonathan Franzen. Franzen recently selected “Names,” an essay about the monikers young soldiers give each other in the American military, for the 2016 edition of Best American Essays. Crenshaw’s inclusion represents the third time he has been chosen for the Best American series, the fourth if you count his selection in the Best American Non-required Reading series.
“The ‘Names’ essay is about having secret codes,” he said, sitting in Center City Park in Greensboro on the day Deep Rai, a Sikh from the suburbs of Seattle was shot by a man who believed his victim to be a Muslim.
“I write essays, and obviously, there’s not a lot of money or fame in essays, unless you’re David Sedaris,” Crenshaw said, “but there’s a certain kind of truth in it, a different way of getting at the truth.”
Crenshaw’s brand of truth comes to the reader in a sensibility that is both oblique and confrontational, angry and lyrical.
“Anger activates,” he said.
What makes Crenshaw angry, right now, is to some degree, the same thing that inspired his prose in “Names,” the “quintessential American” tendency to “other,” to give people the wrong names.
“We see these acts of violence every day against Muslims, but Sikhs, too, because folks don’t know the difference between the two.”
“Writing can serve as a form of resistance,” Crenshaw said, “because writing is a form of education. It teaches us this difference between a Muslim and a Sikh.”
When I ask him what names he received in the military, he smiles.
“Crankshaft. Cumshot. Cocksucker. The “Names” essay is about these secret codes we have with one another,” he says, “and even though these were mostly derogatory names, they weren’t derogatory.”
The Crenshaw essay lives in this secret ambiguous place, this liminal territory where derogatory names aren’t derogatory, where the othering tendency of the other is sublimated by the writer in the act of writing. The military, with its code of secrecy and brotherhood, may be the perfect place for Crenshaw to explore that “quintessential American” experience, that territory that is both common and divisive.
“I was in basic training when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August of 1990,” he says, wetting his thumb and taking a deep breath. “I had just graduated high school. I joined the military for the college money and the paycheck, you know, mostly. My father was a pragmatist. He joined to stay out of Vietnam. My grandfather was drafted on December 6th, 1941, and woke up the next morning, the day after his wedding, to find out about Pearl Harbor. These stories of the military—I grew up with them. I think a lot of Americans did.”
When I ask Crenshaw what he learned from his time at Fort Jackson, he said:
“I learned a lot about brotherhood and being on a common cause. I almost said fighting for a common cause, but most of the time we were fighting each other.”
This tension between friend and enemy, othering your brother as a kind of training for doing the same to your enemy, is at the heart of Crenshaw’s most recent award-winning essay.
“Perhaps we were scared of letting one another know how we felt,” Crenshaw writes in “Names,” “so we hid everything behind a screen. Perhaps all our words are only screens for what we might say if we were better people or perhaps we only use words that fit what world we find ourselves in.”
To give a name to a brother (or the other) is to help build a wall, a relationship with language that enables the erasure of the individual and the privileging of the platoon, a collective tribal sensibility that serves the soldier well.
Referring to the war reporter, Sebastian Junger, author of War and The Perfect Storm, Crenshaw encourages others to read Junger’s contribution to the 2016 Best American collection. He says that Junger understands the fix soldiers are in, the way they’re trained in a tribal mindframe to fight tribalism for a society based on the opposite value.
“One of the reasons Junger says we suffer so profoundly from PTSD in America,” Crenshaw says, “is because these brothers—these soldiers—suddenly return to such a radically individualized society.”
Crenshaw is quick to give credit to his fellow writers and mentors. After growing up in Booneville, Arkansas, he moved to Greensboro as a Fred Chappell fellow in the UNCG MFA program, and it was here, in Greensboro, that he first began to develop as an essayist.
“I hadn’t really written essays until I took Lee Zacharias’ non-fiction class,” he says. “I immediately liked the genre.”
Crenshaw writes every day. He now teaches at Elon University. One of the things he says he says he likes most about writing essays is that his students seem to respond to the form and, additionally, essay readers seem to really like him.
“My essay, “Storm Country,” was in Best American 2005,” he says, “and not long after it was published a friend of mine was on a plane and sat next to a passenger who was reading my essay. She took a picture and sent it to me. That was a good day.”
“Storm Country” has been republished in multiple anthologies and translated into a host of foreign languages. But in spite of Crenshaw’s incredible success as an essayist—he may be one of the greatest essayists working in America today—he continues to explore other genres. When I ask him what he’s currently working on, again he smiles, as if he’s not quite sure he wants to share the secret just yet.
“I’m working on a dystopian young adult novel. It’s dedicated to my daughters because if anybody’s going to change this world it’s going to be people their age.”
Crenshaw wants to see that change happen and wants to part of the process. One of the nicknames he was given by his tribe of fellow writers while studying creative writing at UNCG was “The Guv’nor.” The gubernatorial tag descended half in jest, half in admiration back in 2004 when a number of Crenshaw’s admirers (this writer included) entertained the idea of him running for office. Where, I ask him, would the ship of state be headed if “The Guv’nor” were in charge?
“Pretty much in the exact opposite direction of where it’s going right now,” Crenshaw said.
“I consider myself to be a patriot,” he adds. “But somehow along the line we’ve come up with this idea that being a patriot means not questioning anything when, in fact, the exact opposite is true. That’s how America was actually founded—by asking ‘Why are we doing this again?’ Taxation without representation. Protest. Remember? They had no voice with which to ask questions. This is what started the American Revolution. Asking questions and holding government officials accountable is the most patriotic thing there is. But now we’re at the point where just the word America or American has become a code for something else. In this world, America is often a code word for white.”
Just as he is keen to decipher the codes of military nomenclature, Crenshaw is quick to point out that code is all around us and that it is the writer’s job to hack through the layers of encryption, particularly when it comes to the new administration and the issues of race, war and education. As a man who has been an educator for over fifteen years now, Crenshaw has deep concerns about Donald Trump, his current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and her pledges to expand the voucher system.
“The voucher system began because of desegregation,” Crenshaw said. “It began so white students wouldn’t have to attend integrated schools.”
Last year Crenshaw was asked by the University of Northern Iowa to give a lecture. The topic he chose was “Absurdity, Literature, and the American Military.” After giving his talk, he realized, ultimately, the thread that ties so much of his work together is indeed the theme of education.
“I had a student at the end of the lecture ask me if I would recommend enlistment to young students coming up through the system today. And my answer was: “Educate yourself.” Here’s what happens if you join. Here are the benefits. Here’s what happens in Basic Training. Here’s what happens if you go to Iraq or Afghanistan. Here’s what happens if you get married. Military marriages are sort of notorious for divorce, but I can’t tell someone what to do with their life. I can only tell them what I’ve done with mine.”
What Crenshaw has done with his life, thus far, is amass a prodigious body of work that covers the gamut of contemporary American life, his fiction and non-fiction ranging, in topic, from science fiction to fantasy, from war to insanity, from tornadoes to television, from martial arts to fatherhood and Maurice Sendak (he loves Where the Wild Things Are). Crenshaw’s work ethic is a marvel to his peers. And the most recent collection of Best American Essays serves as a testament to his esteem among some of the greatest writers in the country.
Like Sebastian Junger, Laura Kipnis, Jordan Kisner and others in the 2016 collection, Crenshaw not only sparkles on the level of the line, but also challenges his reader to leave her comfort zone. Just as social justice educators Brian Arao, Kristi Clemmons and Guilford College’s President, Jane Fernandes, encourage students to move from “safe to brave,” so does Crenshaw seek to activate his reader by compelling them to confront a diversity of voices and opinions different from their own.
“That’s the great problem of reading and writing,” he said. “You have to force yourself to be mindful, to think about others.”
Perhaps the way we begin to think about others is to give them names. As Crenshaw demonstrates in “Names,” sometimes othering is the path to brothering.
“Nguyen we just called Gook. Ten Bears became Ten Bears Fucking. Black we called White and White we called Black and Green we called Baby-shit and Brown was just Shit. Bevilacqua was Aqua Velva, which was getting off pretty light as far as names went so sometimes we called him Bologna or Ballsack.”
The brilliance of “Names,” like so many of Crenshaw’s essays, can be found in the way he invites his readers to revel in the unsettling and often puerile pleasures of objectification before using that childish bait to hook you out of the shallows and into the more adult depths (or the floundering boat) of empathy, compassion and mindfulness. If one wishes to extend such a well-worn fishing metaphor a little further, perhaps Crenshaw is a bit like that old fish that shows up in David Foster Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement address, the one who greets two young fish in a lake one morning by saying “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The young fish then respond with “What’s water?” And with that, the story ends, leaving the reader with that most fundamental of questions: Why don’t the young fish know the name of the thing all around them?
The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for the past fifteen years. Our country has been at war in Iraq, on and off for the past twenty-seven. We may be on our way into Syria. When Paul Crenshaw, aka “Crankshaft,” “Cumshot,” “Cocksucker” and “Guv’nor” was only eighteen, he remembers a time when he ran out of names. Before performing that July 4th march for the veterans who served in Iraq, Crenshaw, like many young men and women in the service today, believed he was on the verge of being sent into combat there himself. As he writes in “Names,” there came a time in 1990 when, right after Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, that Crenshaw and many of the men in his company found themselves at a loss for words:
“Later that night after lights out, as we lay on our bunks in the darkness, we had no words to contain how we felt. The silence stood around us like stones. We could hear bombs off in the distant part of the base, as if the war had already come. The windows rattled softly in their panes. There were no jokes, no called names.”
For many Americans, that dark time seems to have come again. For those of us who have trouble sleeping through these nights, Crenshaw’s work won’t help you doze off, but his essays do go a long way towards showing readers how to rise above the nameless terror.