Book Review: Simple Soldier, Scarred Psyche: To Live With Combat Trauma

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Gabe Hudson

Dear Mr. President

[Alfred A. Knopf]

With all the talk of an impending war in Congress, it just might be time to take a deep breath and think about George Washington bobbing for apples with naked women. Or maybe that's only what Gabe Hudson would write in his darkly absurdist vision of the Gulf War.

Dear Mr. President is a distinct reminder that war is not a regime change, a unilateral preemptive strike or a preventative measure against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or other jumbles of political gibberish intended to confuse the typical voter, but instead is indelibly linked to the human experience. It is in the aftermath of war that a soldier must adjust the grotesque reality of the battlefield with a return to mundane American life.

Through seven stories and a novella, Hudson's debut book chronicles the journeys of eight soldiers, each confronting the effects of war in absurd, yet convincingly real ways from a soldier who has sprouted a third ear on his ribcage to a Green Beret turned gay to protest the war.

Twisting truth and perception, Hudson cultures the surreal, reminiscent of Dali's cynicism of the war of his era. The military inserts receivers in the brains of potential recruits while caged monkeys crowd an Iraqi bunker. Hudson's characters can deal with the extremity of war only with the extremity of their imagination.

The quirky, neurotic characters in Hudson's novel seek understanding of their role in an ambiguous conflict and of their gripping memories.

"...war makes people commit horrible acts. And it is hard to get into Heaven when you have committed horrible acts, so ever since the war I have been practicing getting into Heaven through visualization...." ruminates a veteran, remembering the shooting range.

In one story, a vet suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, a disease the government denies him, lapses into war memories as he confronts a neighborhood bully. The title story is a letter written to the president by a distraught Green Beret who witnesses a mouth growing on the back of his wife's head.

Still in another, a prisoner of war convinces himself his dead daughter inhabits his body, cross-dressing to bring her memory to life.

The highlight of the book is a story detailing the pleas of a blind mother seeking to read a letter attached to her son's dead body. It's the last letter he had received from his girlfriend, yet no one offers to read it, even for $300. The letter is a compelling profession of infidelity out of anguish and love.

Hudson's prose is sharp and sarcastic, yet it maintains a subtle undercurrent of emotion, bittersweet with lost opportunity, sometimes lost love and sorrowful with the hidden pain of combat and strife. Just as war is an intense amalgamation of horror and awe, Dear Mr. President is a hallucinatory mixture of whimsical lunacy and stern gravity.

The comedic cynicism only lends more depth to his criticisms of the Gulf War. As a rifleman in the Marine reserves, Hudson also draws from his own past as the protagonist from his first story, not so incidentally, shares many of the same credits Hudson holds.

Dear Mr. President aspires to the pantheon of subversive war narratives, enthroned in it, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five, but Dear Mr. President is only a beginning as a collection of short stories. Perhaps Hudson will extend his commentaries in future works.

Despite this, Dear Mr. President is eerily timed. With another Bush in the White House, political ambivalence and a possible rematch with Saddam, the struggles of the protagonists to navigate their ethical confusion resound more firmly.

Ultimately, the novel may convince some that a second rendezvous with Saddam may prove disastrous while others may gather further support for a unilateral, preemptive insert-more-jargon-here.

However, Hudson's troupe of tragic heroes are a direct prod at Dubya and the American public to recall that those who make the final decision are not those who will bear the personal scars.


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