by Dan Nygard
74 pp, Knuckledown Press.
“A true war story,” Tim O’Brien says, “is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done…” He says:
War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
O’Brien says a true war story cannot be believed and it never seems to end. These are the things that come to mind when reading Dan Nygard’s, Rounds. Not just because it’s a war story, or many war stories added together, but because they are war stories told well. The mundanity, the grotesqueness, the brotherhood, the absurdity: they all play a part.
The first story is a first person encounter with Ray Beaucook, a Minnesota National Guard member of fourteen years and the sergeant of recently returned Minnesota battalion, Bravo Company. After Iraq and just six years away from a National Guard retirement Ray Beaucook quits the Guard. No one can understand why, especially his wife, Carol. She can’t understand it so much that she’s sleeping on the couch. Gust and Howland, two of his Bravo Company boys, head up from Fargo to Georgetown to check on him over a few drinks. Beaucook assures them that he’s fine, but even he doesn’t believe himself.
Nygard then flashes us back to Bravo Company’s first day at Camp X-Ray. The camp is a sand-trap, with limited space, and a patrol area that butts just up to the river Euphrates. Just after breakfast “an enemy mortar round whistled in with a hollow, echoing explosion a hundred meters from Ray Beaucook’s bunk.” The boys hit the floor. And this begins the Bravo Company’s endless days in Iraq.
The remaining stories are told in a close third person, which gives Nygard room to explore different characters’ psyches and experiences while also maintaining a distance. As if the stories are told by Beaucook himself they show, instead of tell, us why it is that Beaucook left the Guard.
Nygard doesn’t pussyfoot around the etchings of war. The third story in the collection, Dogs, is disturbing, mundane, absurd, and telling. Other countries aren’t like our own, and even countries in western Europe have a stray dog problem, and Iraq’s, near the camp, is rampant. Nygard writes, “The dogs paced along the tops of berms like lions circling to lie down and bask in the sun, and Norris along with the others soon regarded them as agents of the enemy.” Like war makes the characters fear, they fear the dogs, harmless and starving, a request to shoot the dogs on sight goes in and is ignored, but then on a routine patrol, a group is hit by an IED buried just under the sand 200 meters from camp, “[Beaucook] said in hindsight they should have known it was coming. All of the villagers were gone. There were no children, no donkey carts, and no dogs.” Mueller took to shooting the dogs with eagerness, he’s described as just the sort of man for the job, they’d kill ‘em and burn ‘em, but “Their numbers were never really affected. It was like the dogs grew out of the blackened spots left over from the burnings.” Bravo Company, realizing this, do it anyway, to keep from feeling the helplessness of war.
Nygard brings you into the world of these Minnesota boys, with leftover injuries and loves from home, displaced so far from it. Displaced for long enough, that when Howland returns home, a windowless, basement, practice space in Downtown Fargo is the only place he feels comfortable, away from the fear his family and friends can’t help show. He can pretend as if this visit isn’t leave, as if leave weren’t even a word in his vocabulary; his friends don’t want to know the words in his vocabulary.
This is the story of our boys, our young boys who went over there, who are over there, in the midst of war. Nygard’s insight into the telling of these boys’ stories stems from his own experiences in Iraq. The wisdom that comes from that is probably wiser than O’Brien would allow, but it is the unwieldy, unattractive road that brought Beaucook to leave the guard just six years before a reasonable retirement. His wife may blame him, but we don’t.