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“War is a choice”: Matt Gallagher and the Ethics of War Writing

Julien Brugeron et Matt Gallagher

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Matt Gallagher is a US Army veteran who served in Iraq in 2007-2009. He is the author of the novels Empire City (2020) and Youngblood (2016), a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. His work has appeared in Esquire, ESPN, The New York Times and The Paris Review, among other places. He is also the author of the Iraq war memoir Kaboom (2010) and lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his family. His next book, Daybreak, a novel about the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict, will be published in early 2024.

This interview was conducted online on Friday, May 20th, 2022.

Photo credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh – The Tulsa Artist Fellowship


Matt Gallagher reading the Prologue of Youngblood (New York, Atria Books: 2016, p. 1-2)
Crédits : Matt Gallagher

Julien Brugeron: You are a 2021-23 fellow with the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, and you work as a writing instructor for NYU’s English Department’s “Words After War.” How do you conceive of your work as both a writer and an instructor?

Matt Gallagher: I write both nonfiction and fiction, and I think I conceive them very differently. Nonfiction is much more about connecting readers to two issues of war and peace: trying to get everyday people, the kind of people that I grew with, the kind of people that I know in my civilian life now who don’t really wrestle with these issues because they’re not forced to, for a lot of power dynamics, and try to humanize it, to humanize what’s happening to civilians in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Ukraine, what’s happening to soldiers who aren’t, in my opinion, superheroes, or clown villains from Batman. I think I use my nonfiction to try to challenge preconceived notions, easy stereotypes that have settled into the modern world, and in modern America in particular. My fiction is much more deliberate. I enjoy it, I find it much more fulfilling, but I also find it much more challenging. Perhaps for all those reasons, it’s a slower go. Fiction for me is the pursuit of art in the most classical sense. It is trying to capture the complications and nuances that I explore in my nonfiction at a deeper level and trying to make it cleaner and more dynamic and more powerful than it is in real life. Certainly, there’s a relationship between the genres, and anybody that looks at my work can probably see a lot of the germs for my fictional work in my nonfiction first. But there’s a higher calling, a higher challenge with fiction. With nonfiction, a lot of times, there’s a timeliness aspect to it. You’re engaging with the world, the headlines at a certain moment. With fiction, the goal⁠—at least the ambition⁠—is to make something timeless. Reading a news article a hundred years after makes it really hard to understand what happened. I think in a great novel, we’ve all had this experience with a great piece of fiction, there’s none of that. You’re sucked into this story, in the world of these characters immediately. Anytime I sit down and write fiction, that’s my ambition, to write something that won’t be dated, that can stand the test of time, even if I’m well aware that I won’t be alive to be able to see if that comes to be.

JB: I attended the public reading of the Writing Program for Veterans at New York University, 9 Lines, and it echoes the different choices that they make, be it prose, poetry, fiction, nonfiction. It’s really interesting for me to see the path that they choose to walk on, aesthetically speaking. What you’re saying really echoes that in many ways.

Now, regarding your recent involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, and your trip to Lviv two months ago: in the interviews that I read, you mentioned a young Ukrainian student, Roman, who’d had no experience whatsoever with guns, and you recount this very simple yet crucial dialogue when he asks: “There’s going to be a human being at the end?” and “The human being will have come here to shoot me?”, and you answer “yes” twice. And further down your paper, you say that you “gave them experience and hard-earned wisdom.” I was struck by this because how can one ever teach or help young newly and self-appointed soldiers? With the death of the other and one’s own death, how do you pass this experience and this wisdom on to them?

MG: We were so focused on the practical and the physical, the tactical skills, the idea being that there was a possibility when we first got there⁠—the Kiev offensive was still happening⁠—that Russia might even push into the west. Lviv still has been struck by cruise missiles, but it really doesn’t seem under threat now, which is a personal break relief, because I got to know these people on a personal level. Most of the time was focused on just these very practical skills of self-defense, of learning to carry and operate a weapon. These were people that were going to defend themselves if they needed to, regardless, and you needed to make sure they knew what they were doing so as not to die a pointless death. That said, we absolutely had conversations about the morals, the ethics, our experiences. They wanted to hear anything we had to offer from Iraq or some of my fellow trainers. I haven’t been to Afghanistan, but one of my fellow trainers had.

It was interesting, and to be honest with you, I’m still unpacking it myself because, in many ways, they were more like the Iraqis and Afghans. They’re defending their country from invaders, which is how many Iraqis and Afghans saw us. Many of our lessons, frankly, were reverse engineering. I was teaching some of the best practices I remembered from what in Iraq we call “insurgents.” It was jarring for us all in that way. But, at the end of the day, I think what they really wanted was candor of the human experience. I think the spirit of your question is something I agree with. I can never fully convey the entirety of the experience of taking a life or almost losing your own, or watching a friend, somebody that you served alongside with American or Iraqi soldier, in some cases, dying.

Literature is similar in this way. Someone can write the best, most perfect, most accurate war story that reaches us all, that penetrates. But writing literature is still artifice. It’s not the experience itself. The goal was that I could give them glimmers of my experience, my fellow trainers could give them glimmers of their hard-earned wisdom, so they’re a little better prepared. It seems less mysterious to them. Just getting parts of it was our hope when we were there. Technology helped in this regard. It was kind of strange: we’d be teaching a lesson of what the right way to do something was⁠—for example, squad movement, spreading yourselves out in urban terrain⁠—and then there’d be videos captured, the Russian soldiers doing it incorrectly. We could show our Ukrainian civilians who we’d only spent a few weeks with⁠—by no means were they special operations soldiers or anything⁠—but they knew what they were doing, and they could say: “These guys are fools. What are they doing? Bunching up like that?!” There were live time practical exercises, the video aspect of this happening in cities in Central and Eastern Ukraine that they had been to. We ourselves have not, but they recognized, I think, probably with those lessons. But there’d be no way of being able to convey the experience a hundred percent, I think, for any human being, let alone soldiers, civilians, let alone across languages, just trying to get some pieces of it across, I think.

JB: Indeed, you needed an interpreter, as on CNN there was an interpreter all along. In the same article that you wrote, Roman is then, in your own words, “struck by the power of the bullet and what it means regarding life and death and everything in between.” Did you have a chance to talk to him about that, about the “what it means?”

MG: A little bit, and part of it. His English was pretty good, like many, especially younger Ukrainians. I think he was twenty, I can’t remember exactly what age. A lot of the younger Ukrainians could understand very well from movies and YouTube. Speaking was hit and miss, and then the older generations, it was more hit and miss as well. Roman spent a lot of time playing airsoft and paintball, so he had some experience in that way, the tactical aspects of it, the training that we had done preceding that. He was a natural, he just knew how to conduct himself. It helps that he’s a tall, physical young man. He wanted to be in the front. He always wanted to be where the action was. What was interesting with him was sometimes, frankly, he kind of struck me as cocky. But it was that last day of our training when we took him to the range. I think something clicked for him that seems very obvious, but he’s twenty, it’s brand new, it’s revelatory in his life. It was a good reminder for me as an older man of how powerful this stuff is. It was his first time holding a real weapon, feeling the kick of an AK 47 in his shoulder, looking at the paper target and seeing that they’d gone where he’d intended them to. He was a smart kid, and the fact that he’s thinking, “This isn’t pretend anymore, I’m doing this in case a Russian soldier shows up on my street trying to kill me, trying to rape my girlfriend,”⁠—all these horrible things that we’ve seen happening in this country⁠—he was putting that all together in live time. It was fascinating to watch. I’ve written about these things for more than ten years now. These themes, these ideas, they’re powerful, and I care about them, obviously, if I’m still drawn to them. But watching it click in one young man’s mind in two minutes… It was a tremendous experience being an objective observer, but also being very subjectively involved: I’m his instructor, I’m literally right behind him, adjusting his position before he squeezes the trigger. It was a very interesting out-of-body experience, partly being involved and partly not.

JB: You mentioned that he used to play paintball, and I’m thinking of this ongoing trope in war literature, from Crane to now, this whiff of childish games in war, and this is a constant, even in works as violent as The Short-Timers. It’s mindboggling: the fact that you mentioned paintball and the link between his being a very good student, as it were, when he pulls the trigger, and you being proud of him as an instructor or impressed by his skills that may have been facilitated by paintball, in a way. How does that all play out, do you think? Is it just a coincidence?

MG: I think it goes back to whether a person believes war is part of the human condition or not. Certainly, humans, and particularly young men, have been conditioned to be potential soldiers for eons. On the other hand, I have a four-year-old boy, and we’ve been trying to create a very peaceful home environment for him and trying to give him toy cars and race cars and trains, and he loves Legos. But one of his friends at a play date had a toy gun… We don’t allow toy guns here, but it was all he wanted to talk about. There’s this fascination, and we tried to create this environment that kept him away from that stuff. I haven’t had a serious conversation about the military with him yet, but I’ve tried to talk about how this is serious and not good, but he was fascinated with it. Is this something that we’re just born with? Maybe. I do know that a lot of people make money from conditioning young men to think this is normal, and that really bothers and infuriates me. At the same time, there’s something like Ukraine, which is a really timely reminder that sometimes we need brave, strong young people who are willing to do this to protect a free society in the face of brutal invaders. I don’t know, I’m still unpacking so much of this.

JB: In the article, you go on saying that “the sky could spit out death from above at any moment,” all the while making a clear distinction, in another interview, between Ukraine and Iraq. You said they were two different experiences. I’d like you to tell me how danger was different in those two places for you.

MG: In Iraq and for the vast majority of our recent wars, we were spoiled as American soldiers or Marines in many ways. We never had to worry about enemy jets, enemy missiles, maybe an angry Iraqi insurgent firing mortars or something, but nothing like a cruise missile. In Ukraine, there was a feeling of helplessness, and part of this was also not being a soldier: We weren’t carrying around rifles like we did in Iraq, I wasn’t surrounded by thirty scouts and infantrymen that I knew had my back. We felt very naked in many ways. There were three of us. We learned to trust the Ukrainians we worked with. They were strangers and there was a language barrier. We were kind of leaping into the unknown and we were well aware we were a relatively soft target. There was kind of this element of paranoia in Lviv. It was not active combat, but it was like a war-adjacent atmosphere. People just didn’t trust each other, and if we slipped up and started speaking English on the streets, which happens sometimes, people would jar and look at us wondering who we were, and who knows what they thought? I could tell them a hundred percent truth, that we’re just volunteer trainers here working with the civilian defense force, and they’re not going to believe me and they shouldn’t believe me. That sounds like what somebody with ulterior motives would say. It was odd.

JB: I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting such an answer because you felt more vulnerable in Lviv than you did in Iraq, although you were directly involved in the US-Iraq war and you were a helper in Ukraine. It sounds paradoxical on paper, but with your explanation, it does make sense.

MG: I think it’s psychological, not logical. I probably was in much more danger in Iraq: I was there longer, I was wearing armor, I was a Lieutenant, I was a target. But so much of it was psychological in both places: the sense of being in control, the sense of being in power, and even though I was there to train and to help, I was well aware that from a Russian perspective, we were combatants. Let’s say they kidnapped us or something, they would have thought we were CIA. They would have treated us as CIA, even though we were just all writers. We were all angry, hippie veteran writers at this point, but they would not have treated us that way.

JB: You went there willingly and on your own dime, am I right? In your April 10th article, “Advice for American Veterans Who Want to Get on a Plane to Ukraine,” you admit that although you saw your fair share of human suffering as a soldier in Iraq, Bucha seemed to you like a new circle of hell. This feeling of a sensation that keeps coming back, all the while being a new one, is this also the experience and wisdom that you’re talking about as regards Lviv and what you wanted to pass on to the young soldiers?

MG: I think it’s this idea that there is no bottom to the evilness that human beings can do to one another. It’s such a hard thing for people who have grown up in relative peace and comfort to wrap their heads around, myself included. The people we worked with in Lviv were normal people. They weren’t people from Eastern Ukraine who’ve seen the horrors of that war for eight years now. They didn’t seem like people who knew. They were lawyers, law students, business entrepreneurs. They knew soldiers, but they were volunteer soldiers. They didn’t come from a segment of Ukrainian society that had been exposed to much suffering before. It reminded me of the kind of place I grew up in, my friends and family from Nevada who I keep in touch with. I’m pretty much the only person they know that joined the military and went to Iraq. I felt some kind of connection, a natural connection to these people, as a result. So, I think I instinctively understood how insulated they were, even though they were Ukrainian and the war had certainly affected them more than me, they were still pretty insulated from it. Lviv, in many ways until the cruise missile strikes, was pretty isolated from the horrors of the front. So Bucha comes out and it’s the exact same type of suburb. It was just a matter of geography because these people hadn’t been prepared, because there hadn’t been a Bucha that preceded this. There was no kind of violent resistance to it that I think would happen now if the Russians were to penetrate central Ukraine again. There was still an element of trust, there was still an element of, “hey, I don’t have a weapon, there’s no way you’re going to take us out there in the courtyard and shoot us,” but they did. “There’s no way you’re going to create a rape dungeon,” but they did. I’m not trying to absolve the American military here. We committed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of which were punished and some of which were not. But finding a parallel for what happened in Bucha, I think you’d have to go back to Mỹ Lai in Vietnam.

  • 1 On May 18, 2022, in his speech at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, G.W. Bush criticized Rus (...)

JB: Exactly. The Short-Timers is probably the hardest novel I’ve ever read in my life. It was first classified as a science fiction novel because, when I looked into the archives, I discovered that it was first published in a science-fiction collection⁠—only extracts⁠—because people would not believe that such things happened. But when we look at Bucha, that’s exactly what happened. And what you say about the war crimes in Iraq reminds me of George W. Bush’s recent Freudian slip1

MG: Much old anger came up in my heart. For me, it wasn’t even the mistake, we all misspeak. It was the snicker. It was the laugh when he realized he made the mistake. And that snicker... I can forgive misspeaking, but having that response to it, no, too much…

JB: You enlisted and got involved in the Iraq war, and you said in August 2016 that there was a “broken sense of idealism from the people who joined the military right after 9/11.” I was wondering what constituted this idealism you mentioned and why you think it was broken at the time.

MG: America is very good at amnesia and not wrestling with the messy parts of our history. People around my age, we grew up with the idea that Vietnam was a mistake that would never be made again. It’s not that we didn’t know about it, but it was lightly touched upon, it was not taught a lot in school. Whereas for World War II, and particularly a very specific version of World War II, we didn’t learn about Stalingrad and the millions of Russian soldiers. But without the Soviet Union, the Nazis win, and we were not taught that. We were taught about D-Day, about saving Europe, the Holocaust and everything. And 9/11, if you view those attacks through a certain prism, at least in that moment, it felt like Pearl Harbor again. There’s a cleanness, a justness, as we’re seeing with Ukraine now, that comes from an illegal attack, an evil invasion. Ukraine is certainly not a perfect country, it has plenty of its own problems, but it’s a sovereign democracy that has been attacked, and Russia is in the wrong. People, almost all politics, all different world views, all different backgrounds, can largely agree with that.

Regarding the American wars, the 21st century started with a similar attack, with innocent civilians killed, and then it morphed into an illegal invasion, in my opinion, of a country that was not involved in those attacks at all. Afghanistan morphed into all kinds of different things that had little to nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks… It was such a waste of a generation’s spirit, a generation’s patriotism, global goodwill, the kind of international goodwill that America had on September 12th, 2001. It seems like a distant dream, not to mention innocent blood, innocent civilians, dead soldiers, and the amount of trillions of dollars wasted into these efforts… On top of it, it was fought and carried out, at least on the American side, by a small percentage of people that largely feel isolated from the wider population now. It was all just such a waste. All of it being lost idealism in part, because idealism by itself isn’t really anything. But when channeled correctly, it can be a tremendous thing: it can lead to so much pragmatic good on a community level, on a state level, on a national level, if you have wise leaders in charge of that⁠—but we didn’t. It was just a giant, tremendous waste that, more likely than not, the coming generation of American students won’t learn anything about because it’s not a feel-good story.

JB: In regard to Kaboom, which was published twelve years ago, death is everywhere, and raw, and also, at the same time, often displaced and dodged, as it were. In one word, metaphorized or derided. Sometimes, it’s the sight of “intestine bits hanging like Christmas ornaments,” and sometimes it is foreshadowed by a “bleeding orange sun,” for instance, and very often it is epitomized by dead dogs, which reminds me of “Redeployment” by Phil Klay. Is it a way for you to negotiate the paradox of what you called an “amorphous and authentic experience,” as you call it in the “Intrologue,” or what you called “surreal bullshit” for The Rumpus?

MG: Probably both. I look back on that book and so much of it was written in the moment in the blog posts. I was twenty-five when I wrote it. I think I was just a young person trying to grapple with these big heavy topics and processing them, but also putting them away because we had another patrol the next morning. The former, I think, would be more of that. Then, the “surreal bullshit.” I wasn’t born into the army. I had been a person before the army, so the ability to observe and analyze as an individual still punctured through. And I’m glad for that, it’s what helps, at least personally speaking. I needed to maintain that side of me to be able to get through the fifteen months, and I think most soldiers are that way, finding these little human moments… That book feels so far from me, that experience feels very far from me some days, but then I remember wearing Guinness socks on patrol. I was such a punk! But I know why I did it. It was a way to maintain some sense of individuality, some sense of my prior self, that I was someone. I had been somebody, and I would be somebody again. Iraq was not my entirety. It’s a jigsaw of a book, and I think the duality you captured with your question reflects that.

JB: So being ironic and metaphorizing would be ways to derive that and in some way to possibly ward off the memories of a traumatic experience.

  • 2 In 1926, Russian author Isaac Babel (1894-1940) published Red Cavalry (original title Конармия), a (...)

MG: I wasn’t conscious of that when I was writing the blog posts. But gosh, that first car bomb that we came across, that is in the “Intrologue”… We’d only been there a month, maybe six weeks. I’ve never seen anything like that ever in my life. I’d watched movies, I was well aware that I had a role to play, even in the moment, and my soldiers were doing the same thing. There was an element of playacting involved, of doing our duty during our roles, at least for those of us who had not been to combat before, and considering that I wrote about it in the way that I did, with some elements of ironic distance, there’s just no way I could have gone back and written like Isaac Babel2, and just written straight on with all the gore, I just couldn’t have done it. Maybe that’s because it’s some weakness in me as a person, maybe some weakness as a writer, I don’t know, but I just knew that I needed to put up some kind of ironic wall between me and that, not just to describe it, to capture it, but also because, who knows? Maybe the next patrol would be worse.

JB: Actually, I think that the very act of writing is already a dissenting act in many ways. Your blog was shut down, and I was wondering, from a very pragmatic point of view, what were your writing conditions when you were in Iraq?

MG: We were stationed at an outpost, and my captain was supposed to read my blog posts before they went online, and usually he did. He started getting annoyed with them, and sometimes he would hold on to them for a few days just out of spite. Sometimes he wouldn’t read them and just say “Put it up.” But there was a growing sense of detachment from his end. Then, there was the one that got me in trouble. He had gone home for emergency leave, there’d been a family medical emergency, so he wasn’t in Iraq. I was the senior Lieutenant, so I said I approved it. I was obviously angry with the Colonel but the way I justified that aspect of it was I was the ranking officer at the outpost at the time. There were many layers of cleverness that got me in trouble with the blog, and that is another one.

JB: Was it easily accessible for you to write and to post it? Was it usual, or were you some sort of black sheep?

MG: A little bit of both. Writing was easy. I just had my laptop when we got home or when we got back to the outpost two or three times a week. There were three computers with sporadic Internet access for sixty soldiers living at this outpost. Honestly, most of the soldiers wouldn’t go online, and they were on MySpace checking in with their girlfriends or calling home or whatever. I think I was the only one there blogging about it, and some people liked it because they didn’t want to talk. That’s just how they were, they would say “oh, just read the Lieutenant’s blog.” Some people didn’t like it, very professional soldiers that have a very kind of ‘us-versus-them’ relationship with civilians. They expressed their disapproval. I was in such a unique position because I was an officer and also, I was loud in my anti-arminess. I had more latitude than I think most people would have gotten, and that was a privilege and I exploited it. But it was also such a kind of “surreal bullshit,” again, compared to our everyday lives. It wasn’t something anybody really cared about all that much until it got shut down.

JB: In Youngblood, you start off with something that you’d already used in Kaboom, namely the notion of time that stretches out and then shrinks, and the discrepancy between what happened in Iraq and the narrative that people back home expect with guns, bombs, and jihads, for instance. How did you manage to make sense of your time there when you got back?

  • 3 The NYU Veterans Writing Workshop.

MG: I think it’s exactly related to what I was talking about, the relationship between nonfiction and fiction at the beginning. When I was writing Kaboom, I knew that stuff interested me. I knew it was happening, but I didn’t quite know what to do with it as a writer yet. And with Youngblood, I had the time to really sit down, ponder it, and thematically explore it. I’d come back as a soldier and I’d gotten out of the army. I was at Columbia, where not a lot of military veterans are, and in the Creative Writing program3, where there’s even less military veterans and trying to explain to people and sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. It was just that my faith in the war had ended, which I think was such an underexplored aspect of war literature. It’s hard to make sense of this on any level for any person. It’s hard to channel into literature. But how do you do it when these wars are endless on top of it? Historically speaking, you know this better than I do, I think there’s a reason most of the good war literature comes out after the war itself has ended. The Short-Timers came out in 1981, maybe? Late seventies or early eighties?

JB: 1979.

  • 4 Vietnam War veteran Tim O’Brien published Going After Cacciato in 1978 and The Things They Carried (...)

MG: So a couple of years after Cacciato. The Things They Carried4 came out fifteen years after. I don’t think it’s a coincidence Phil’s book came out three years after we ended up going back in with ISIS and everything, but “we’d won” the war in 2011. I’ve talked to friends of mine who tried to write about Afghanistan about this, and maybe now they can begin to grapple with what those twenty years were. I think Youngblood as a success was able to look at not just my small piece of the war with some kind of finality, but looking at 2003 to 2011 with some sense of fullness. The characters are there at the end of it for a reason, both the Iraqis and the Americans, even if it’s not a clean ending for any of them, there’s some sense of finality to it. And I needed that to be able to write a piece of literary fiction about this war, whereas Kaboom is very “slice of life.” These fifteen months are very open-ended. I think it ends with one of our replacements getting killed from the Pennsylvania National Guard. It was a wildly different experience writing those books, even though they have a lot of similarities, both details-wise and thematically.

JB: You previously said that you struggled to make sense of it when you came back, but still you do underline “the clarity of having to survive,” as you say in the Prologue of Youngblood, and in your interview with Phil Klay, you talk about that “sense of purpose and that clarity of being.” I’d like you to go back on that a little.

MG: There’s a friction there, the clarity and that sense of purpose that’s happening on a human fundamental level of being. I think it came out probably with Phil because we were both junior officers. There’s a charge of being put in a leadership position of, in my case, thirty young men who are looking to you and your platoon sergeant for guidance and wisdom, and it’s thrilling, it really is. I hadn’t experienced anything like it until going to Ukraine and really tapping into a part of me that lay dormant for many years. But then there’s the thinking side, there’s the ethically examining side, there’s the writer’s side that is going to be more, at least in my case, is more interested in these bigger issues of: was this a just war? I know what we were accomplishing on these patrols, maybe even in this town, but was it sustainable? Was it part of an effort that I’ll be eager to tell my grandchildren about, or let alone proud? That was the conclusion I arrived at. Maybe then as a citizen of a republic, extrapolating that and thinking: “What can my duty be now?” I’m proud to be from a country that produces young people that have ideals, that have beliefs, that want to be part of something bigger than themselves, but it’s on the older people to make sure that all that stuff is channeled into something worthwhile. That it is not wasted and squandered like I believe it was for us. It’s like two parts of a being: the soldier and actor side, and then the thinking citizen side, and there’s going to be gaps and discrepancies. Some people are very content living in one or the other space, and they’re not wrong to, frankly, it probably makes them much healthier human beings. But I think writers who write about war particularly operate in both realms or have in different parts of their lives.

JB: And veterans that write about war, and within them and within you, as you said, the two sides, the civilian and the individual and then the soldier. All of them are linked by their experience of having been threatened at some stage, and I feel like this is a sort of cognitive dissonance here that is necessary to comprehend what’s happening. How did the very possibility of your death affect your writing?

  • 5 Vietnam War veteran Larry Heinemann (1944-2019) published Paco’s Story in 1987 and won the National (...)

MG: I found myself thinking because I actually don’t fully agree on this issue with Larry Heinemann5, who died I think last year, the Vietnam author who said Vietnam made him a writer, that he would not have been a writer without Vietnam. Then, you have somebody like Tim O’Brien, who was a student journalist beforehand, and certainly Vietnam is his main subject, but not his entire thing. I’d been on the high school paper, the College newspaper, before. I’d like to think I would have been a writer if I hadn’t been a soldier in some ways, because it’s how I make sense of the world. It’s how I reckon with the world. I was blogging not to become a writer, but it was natural to me, it was a normal way for me to try to communicate with people. That said, I think, at least in my case, it forced me to confront issues of death and morality, both on a personal and on a big macro level, issues of culture and the limits of armed humanitarianism. These are heavy, heavy things that most people in their twenties aren’t exposed to, and they shouldn’t be. Speaking solely for myself and not trying to project some kind of overarching wisdom or anything, I think I was exposed to ideas and subjects much earlier on than I would have arrived at had I not gone to war. It’s on me then to try to treat those things as responsibly as possible and not cheat with them and to be honest with my readers about them, not romanticize it, not be dismissive or didactic with it either. I was a bit of a punk, a cocky frat boy when I joined the army. I hate it but it’s true. It made me grow up in a way that I think otherwise… I don’t know. Sometimes I think about who I would have been otherwise, and I think I’d want to punch myself in the face, to be honest with you.

JB: In all fairness, you didn’t have a choice but to grow up when you were there, as a strategy of survival, in a way. Maybe you decided, consciously or unconsciously, to leave this young punky, frat boy behind and to adjust to the surroundings you were submitted to and that you had to face.

MG: I think so. I think it’s the only thing an honest person could do. But at the same time, I’d like to live in a world where people can just grow up normally, naturally, without having to see such suffering in order to do so.

JB: I’d like to finish with Colum McCann and his foreword of Fire and Forget, which you coedited. He wrote this about the contributors: “Their words eclipse war and bring back the very humanity we have always desired.” Now, an eclipse is the astronomical process of hiding something, all the while bringing attention to it as an event that is somewhat exceptional. I was wondering whether that echoed your own writing practice and what you said about the grayness of existence, which is something that you already said in 2015: “Good literature finds its vitality in the messy grays of existence.” So how does that all play out for you? The image of the eclipse and the “messy grays of existence?”

MG: I’m obviously very grateful for that foreword by McCann. It was tremendous for us. I don’t think I agree with his choice of word there with the eclipse because I think it’s dangerous for us to consider war this supernatural thing. I think, more than anything, literature is really uniquely equipped to ram home the concept of “it’s all too human,” that we are capable of these awful things. Yes, it was Russian soldiers, and specifically Russian soldiers that carried out Bucha. Unless we guard ourselves, are we really all that different? I think it’s lazy and dangerous to think that we are. I’ve grown wary of metaphors that evoke natural disasters to war⁠—the hurricane is a common one. And God knows I probably used it myself at some point. That was a mistake if I had, because those are natural things that are beyond the scope of human control. War is a choice. War is something that human beings do to one another, and confronting that reality through literature, through news, through video footage, and reminding ourselves of that is something we’re capable of. I don’t think it's the best way to mitigate it, but the only way. I’m very grateful for that foreword, but he probably wrote it eight, nine years ago now. The grayness of human existence, I think, is right, but there are layers of gray and shades of gray, and constantly reminding ourselves of that, constantly checking one another on that, is vital, because when we slip into the black and the light, that’s when the real danger occurs. When we think we transcended history, when we get lazy and think that we bypassed history in some way, we’re certainly just going to repeat it again, and war is the most prominent example out there of that phenomenon.

JB: To quote Kate McLoughlin, who wrote Authoring War, it’s the “endinglessness” of both war and war writing, the impression that both wars and war stories never seem to reach a satisfactory ending.

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“American Veterans Train Volunteer Ukrainians in Combat.” CNN, 16 March 2022.

CAGE, Caleb. War Narratives #3: The Rumpus Interview with Matt Gallagher.” The Rumpus, 3 September 2015. Accessed 20 February 2023.

GALLAGHER, Matt. Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2010.

GALLAGHER, Matt, Phil KLAY, Perry O’BRIEN, Roy SCRANTON and Jacob SIEGEL. Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2013.

GALLAGHER, Matt. Youngblood: A Novel. New York: Atria Books, 2016.

GALLAGHER, Matt. “Forty Years After the Fall–Vietnam War Lit in 2015.” The Los Angeles Review of Books, 30 April 2015. Accessed 8 October 2022.

GALLAGHER, Matt. Notes from Lviv.” Esquire, 31 March 2022. Accessed 17 February 2023.

GALLAGHER, Matt. “My Advice for American Veterans Who Want to Get on a Plane to Ukraine.” The New York Times, 10 April 2022. Accessed 17 February 2023.

HASFORD, Gustav. The Short-Timers. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

KLAY, Phil, Redeployment. New York: Penguin Press, 2014.

KLAY, Phil. “Matt Gallagher and Phil Klay Discuss the War in Iraq and Finding Purpose at Home.” Electric Literature, 2 February 2016. Accessed 17 February 2023.

MCLOUGHLIN, Kate. Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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1 On May 18, 2022, in his speech at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, G.W. Bush criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin by accusing him of the unjustified invasion not of Ukraine but Iraq, a slip of the tongue that did not go unnoticed in the media and particularly in the circles of Iraq war veterans. See QIBLAWI, Tamara, « Why Arabs Aren’t Laughing at George W. Bush’s gaffe on Ukraine and Iraq », CNN, May 20th, 2022, Accessed September 27th, 2022.

2 In 1926, Russian author Isaac Babel (1894-1940) published Red Cavalry (original title Конармия), a collection of short stories based on his diary as a war correspondent in the context of the Polish-Soviet War (1918-1921).

3 The NYU Veterans Writing Workshop.

4 Vietnam War veteran Tim O’Brien published Going After Cacciato in 1978 and The Things They Carried in 1990.

5 Vietnam War veteran Larry Heinemann (1944-2019) published Paco’s Story in 1987 and won the National Book Award for Fiction.

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Crédits Photo credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh – The Tulsa Artist Fellowship
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Julien Brugeron et Matt Gallagher, « “War is a choice”: Matt Gallagher and the Ethics of War Writing »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Julien Brugeron

Université Paris Nanterre – CREA, EA 370

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Matt Gallagher

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