Michael Anthony is the author of Civilianized, “an intense memoir” (Kirkus) about his return to the U.S. from a combat tour in Iraq. He is also the author of Mass Casualties: A Young Medic’s True Story of Death, Deception, and Dishonor in Iraq, which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. He has written for the Washington Post blog, the Business Insider blog, as well as several others, including a year-long stint as a feature writer and the editor of the “War and Veterans” section of the Good Men Project. He lives in Boston and can be contacted through is website: MassCasualties.com.
Michael Anthony Gives Part I of an Interview, regarding his new book, with SV’s Bob Shuman. Part II will be published February 14.
Do you think your experience reintegrating into American life, as told in Civilianized, is fairly representative?
I think there are parts that will be universal to some or most veterans and other parts that won’t be as universal. I think what’s universal is that all veterans, who return from war, have a reintegration process, whether it’s two days, two weeks, or two years–that’s the big difference. The process is smoother for some, rougher for others. Over 20 percent of returning veterans are diagnosed with PTSD; between 20 and 22 veterans kill themselves every day in the United States; and veterans represent the largest minority group in the homeless population. There’s definitely something that’s “happening,” for veterans, as they’re making the transition from “war,” to “peace,” Civilianized is just the beginning of a conversation of what that might be.
Tell us about the book—and how it was harder and easier to write than your first memoir, set in Iraq, Mass Casualties.
For both books I had journals from the time period to utilize, which made it a lot easier. But with my second book, I also have the benefit of having an MFA from Lesley University, which I didn’t have with my first. So I think writing the second one came a little bit easier (though it took a longer time) than my first one. In general though, I think memoir is the easiest prose to write. All it really takes, in my opinion, is to close your eyes and try in the best way possible, to describe what you see/feel/remember. The hardest part, I think, in memoir, isn’t in the actual writing; it’s in finding the strength to be honest with yourself about what the story really is, and what needs to be told.
What don’t non-military U.S. citizens understand about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?
I think the biggest thing people don’t understand is that these are real people fighting these wars (on both sides). We often demonize our enemies and put our own soldiers on a pedestal and, after a while, it no longer reflects the true human reality of war. When veterans come home from wars it’s hard to understand why they’re struggling so much when our only experience of them is as manly, stoic heroes in movies and TV shows. I worked with one woman in Iraq who held a job at a strip club before we were deployed. Another woman was a police officer and one guy was a cashier at a grocery store–one was a firefighter, another was a tax accountant, another was a cab driver, and another was an English teacher. Real people fight wars and then real people come home from wars, and I think that’s what people don’t really grasp: the person who’s risking his or her life for you isn’t some romanticized, idealized person. It’s your brother, your sister, your neighbor, your coworker. He or she can be that annoying kid from next door, your high school crush, that guy who dated your sister, that girl who dumped your brother.
I think that once we see that returning soldiers are real people again, with real problems and issues, which are and can be compounded by the stress and trauma of war, that it becomes easier to understand and empathize with what they went through–and are going through–on their return from war.
What did serving in Iraq give to you that you would never give back?
A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with someone, and she asked if “the military/war changes you?”–and she was implying in her question that military service and war change a person.
I, on the other hand, told her that I actually believe the opposite: That the military/war doesn’t change a person; rather, it shows him or her who they really are. In war you get to see who you “truly are.” Not just who you are as a regular Joe Schmo, working forty hours a week, who gets eight hours of sleep a night, three meals a day, and spends his weekends golfing. I’m talking about who you are when the tides are turned against you. Who you are when you’ve only had four hours of sleep a night for two weeks straight, when you haven’t had a day off in months, haven’t had a good meal in just as long, and you’ve got someone dying in your hands. I fully believe that it’s only in those moments that a person realizes who he or she really is. Joe Schmo may have the makings of a badass hero inside him, but he’ll never know it because he’s never been tested in that way.
So I think what Iraq and fighting in a war has given me is a perspective of who I really am, as a person, and what people are really capable of when pushed to their limits.
Knowing what you now know, would you have enlisted? Would you have become a writer if you had not served?
I would’ve absolutely done it all again. I worked in a hospital over there, helped save hundreds of lives, and was there looking out for my friends. Although my deployment wasn’t perfect, and there was a lot of crap that went along with it, there’s an allure to the power and purpose and passion that war offers.
Towards the end of my deployment, I volunteered to stay another six months, but I was the only one in my unit who had done a year straight, and the commanders wouldn’t let me do an additional six months. A year after returning from Iraq, too, I volunteered for a six-month deployment to Afghanistan, but a friend of mine got his packet in before me so he went instead.
If I had never gone to Iraq I probably still would have been a writer, since I’ve written since I was a kid. But I definitely wouldn’t be published, or as good, or as successful, and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to afford to get an MFA without a little help from my Uncle Sam.
What person, on the national scene, do you think should read Civilized and Mass Casualties—and why?
Anyone who works in the VA system, I think, should check out Civilianized. So many veterans are out there, hurting, and there are so many amazing, caring people who work in the VA, but they’re being thwarted by the politics and bureaucracy involved. So, I think, that if we can get some of the people at the top to read stories of our veterans, it will remind them that veterans are real people. They’re people who served their country and are not just numbers or dollar bills, and, I think, that would have the potential to help the system.
View Civilianized on Amazon: Civilianized
(c) 2017 by Michael Anthony (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.