November 12, 2018: “Kattekoppen” by Will Mackin

Happy Veteran’s Day (observed), Story366! I’d been planning to do a post for about a week now, letting last week slip away. Since I don’t really post on weekends anymore—slow traffic—I put time aside this morning to get one in. It’s serendipity, 100 percent, that it happened to be Veteran’s Day and I happened to grab Will Mackin‘s book—Will Mackin’s a veteran who writes about his experiences in Afghanistan. Sometimes things just work out.

Before I get into the book, I thought I’d relay some of my own veteran experiences, which, really, aren’t my experiences. My father’s story, as best as I can relay it: In 1950, freshly graduated from high school, Dad got into several arguments with the family who adopted him when he was 12, a family who owned a bakery and expected my father to pretty much work there full time, for the rest of his life, since he was done with school.  Dad instead signed up for the Army, right in the midst of the Korean Conflict, and as he told it, was on a ship heading to Asia when he got a staph infection in his foot. He was then sent to an Army hospital, and after that, instead of going to Korea, spent his deployment in West Berlin, pre-Wall. He came home when his two years were up, made peace with his adopted family, and went to work in a Northwest Indiana steel mill for the next thirty-four years.

My oldest brother, 17 when I was born in 1973, just missed the Vietnam-era draft, and he and the middle two boys in the family went to high school in the seventies when the country wasn’t drafting and wasn’t heavily recruiting. By the time I reached high school in the late eighties, military service was advertised as a great way to pay for college and see the world, the commercials on TV displaying groups of soldiers laughing and frolicking in exotic ports. It was never, ever an option for me to join, for a few reasons. First, everyone in my family, everyone I knew, dissuaded me from doing so, the basic, “What? You want to get killed or something?” reasoning. I was a straight-A student in grade school and an honors student in high school, and for the most part, the military was painted to me as an option for people without options: Kids who weren’t going to college and couldn’t hold down real jobs chose the military, just to ensure a place to live and three squares a day. This is a shameful depiction, I’ve come to realize in the last twenty years, but overall, anyone who talked to me when I was young would have shot the idea down with something to the tune of, “You’re smart. Why would you want to throw away your life?”

On top of that, I was not a well kid. I grew up with horrible allergies, a touch of asthma, a general susceptibility to illness, and an overprotective, semi-hypochondriac mom, the kind who kept me out of school for two days for as much as a sniffle—I missed thirty or more days of school every year from kindergarten through fifth, when I started liking being at school with my friends more than staying at home and sleeping all day, Chicken and Stars poured down my throat from morning to night. In eighth grade, I fell hard on my coccyx in gym class, which cracked apart the bottom two segments of my spinal column, putting me in a back brace for the next few years. I also had been diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease in my knees, which didn’t bother me too much, unless my knees touched something—Johnny Bench I would not be.

Most of all, I just wasn’t that type of kid. Because I played sports in my yard and on teams since I was little, I was pretty skilled in the skill areas: I could hit, throw, catch, and shoot all manners of balls, and was, when I was a kid, kind of good at sports. However, I was also what anyone would dub “the fat kid” on the team (or one of them—this was Chicago, remember), and by the time I got to high school, it caught up to me. Sure, I made the baseball team, but the guy who played first base while I rode the bench was a massive dude, six-four, thickly muscled, also the quarterback of the football team and the center on the basketball team—he got drafted by the Astros right after our senior year. When those Marine guys came to school to administer hose Vice President tests, I was super-exposed, unable to mount much of anything in the way of situps or pushups, and to this day, I’ve never done more than one pullup, just that one you do because you jump up and grab the bar and your momentum carries you over the first time. The Marines were not asking to talk to me after gym. I was headed to college and everyone was okay with that.

For years, I never thought anything of this. There were people who were meant to serve and I just wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t until 9-11, when people really started joining the military at long unforeseen rates, that I started thinking. I was 28 at the time and really in no better shape, but people I knew from the community started to sign up. High school kids—not just the ones my family members had described—were signing up, and not simply to receive free college or one day be stationed in Hawaii. People were patriotic. People wanted to defend our country. Some wanted revenge, sure, wanted to go and shoot whoever blew up our buildings. They wanted to make sure nobody did that again. It got me thinking about service, how I probably would have been rejected, anyway, but that I shouldn’t have discarded the notion so easily. If I had been patriotic enough, had believed in doing my part as my father had and these post 9-11 kids were doing, I could have made it happen. My back was healed, my mom wasn’t holding me out of school, and if I wanted it bad enough, I could have gotten in shape. For the first time, I felt a little guilty, that I wasn’t contributing. More so, I wasn’t risking anything like these people had and were and still do. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a coward, but I would never be mistaken for a hero, either.

In Missouri, military service is much more prevalent than in the Chicago suburbs or in Ohio, where I lived during 9-11. Fort Leonard Wood, where my father did his basic, is just up the road, and a lot of military families settle around Springfield when their time is done. The culture around guns and the outdoors is different here, too, boys growing up more like the guys in The Deer Hunter than the kids rich kids in John Hughes movies that more closely resembled my upbringing (note how Chet from Weird Science, who chose a life of military service, was pegged as a dumbass, a violence-hungry asshole, the exact kind of guy my relatives said the military was for back then). Kids in Missouri grow up out in the woods. They own guns. They’re in Boy Scouts. Military veterans are their teachers, their bosses, and their parents. My classes are littered with veterans and Guard members. Parents from my kids’ schools, people I know and interact with, served. It’s a culture where military service is deemed honorable and respectable, much different from my experience as a kid. Much better.

So, yesterday was Veteran’s Day and today I’m thinking about all this again. I’m considering the people who did something I couldn’t do, wouldn’t do, and didn’t do, for whatever reason, and note how they deserve my respect. I think about how the worst/hardest/shittiest day of my life is a good day for a lot of these people, that they often experience the worst day of their life, then maybe have to top it the next day. Or not make it through. I feel embarrassed, not because I didn’t serve, but because of what I thought about the people who did, what I was taught, what I chose to believe because it gave me an escape clause. So, happy Veteran’s Day to you vets. Thanks for doing what you do, for what you sacrificed, what you still live with.

Wow, this is undoubtedly a Story366 record for longest lead-in to the actual story and book, Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog, out earlier this year from Penguin Random House. Like I said in my opening paragraph, it’s complete serendipity that I picked up this book and today happened to be today, so maybe it’s fate. In any case, Mackin is a veteran of the United States Navy, with several deployments into combat zones, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. From what I’ve read of his bio and in interviews, Mackin was a SEAL, serving with SEAL Team Six, the Navy unit most famous for the killing of Osama bin-Laden (though I can’t find if Mackin was in on that operation—probably not a coincidence). He is a true American hero, and on top of that, a gifted story writer.

Not every story in Bring Out the Dog is set in a combat zone, but seven of the eleven are, and so far, I’ve read three of those, “The Lost Troop,” “Crossing the River No Name,” and today’s selection, “Kattekoppen,” all of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. The stories all follow the SEAL team through their various deployments in Afghanistan, covering several missions. Like in O’Brien’s The Things They Carry, we get to know the soldiers as we follow them through the book, the same soldiers, the same narrator (Mackin himself? A for-fiction’s-sake proxy?), making at least parts of the collection a novel-in-stories. I remember writing on Phil Klay’s Redeployment back in the everyday 2016, how Klay wrote about different characters in each of his stories. For each one, he chose a character with a different job, trying to cover all the aspects of the war, what people did, from the frontline fighters right on down the line. Mackin’s approach means I could more easily write about any story, a lot of it feeling like a novel-in-stories, but I chose “Kattekoppen,” so here we go.

Kattekoppen, we find out, are these little pieces of brown licorice that a munitions guy named Levi has sent to him from his mother in the Netherlands, part of regular care packages. These:

As a kid, Levi loved them, but now he hates them, so he gives them to anyone who wants them. Everyone in the story—all the characters we’ve come to know so far in the book—give them a try, and in every case, they spit the Kattekoppen out in disgust. The narrator/protagonist goes for far as to eat snow and chew on pine needles to exorcise the taste from his mouth; it doesn’t work. On top of that, the little cat heads are likened to the faces of dead Taliban soldiers the team has blown up, their empty eyes. So, in short, Kattekoppen is bad.

The story’s not really about the candy, though. It’s about Levi, the team’s howitzer liaison. This guy’s job is to pinpoint artillery, which “softens up” a zone where soldiers are about to enter, taking out as many of the enemy as it can, making the zone more approachable. I.e, fewer American casualties. The team has to trust in their howitzer liaison, as often, a small miscalculation means the good guys get blown up instead of the bad guys. They trust Levi, which is key, and a problem when Levi wants to take a short leave to see his son born in Texas. This means they need to find another howitzer liaison, one they can trust, so nobody dies while Levi is gone. To note, everyone wants Levi to have this chance, so much so they get him on transport stateside even though he doesn’t have permission to leave. No hard feelings toward Levi, but it still means they have to find someone else to do his job while he’s gone. They find this someone in M.J., aka the Mah-Jongg Kid, a name that’s not explained (in this story, anyway).

While Levi’s absent, the team finds out about two missing GIs, guys who took a wrong turn in the wrong place and ended up captured. The rule is still No Man Left Behind, so the team sets out to find the pair, no matter where they have to go, no matter how long it takes, because that’s what they do. In an interview I read with Mackin, it’s noted that SEAL Team Six was the ultimate unit in Afghanistan, meaning everything that went down in Afghanistan surrounded them: If they had a mission, it took priority, and they could recruit whatever people and equipment they needed to get the job done. The search for the two captured soldiers—dubbed Chin and No Chin from the picture the team has of the duo—commences, and is harder and more involved than anyone had hoped.

I don’t want to go too much further into the plot, as it would spoil its modestly surprising outcome. I will say that Mackin nicely comes back around to Kattekoppen, as the team encounters a corpse that whose stench makes them all gag, leaving a terrible taste in their mouth—what’s powerful and pungent enough to erase this smell? Kattekoppen! Levi eventually returns to the unit, his son born (and, in the funniest bit I’ve read in the book, somehow with a thicker Dutch accent, despite being in Texas), but has to earn the trust of the team again. This ties into the story’s resolution, how this mission, the story of this gross Dutch cat-shaped candy and Levi’s furlough to the States, comes to an end.

This is how the stories I’ve read in Bring Out the Dog go, compartmentalized missions that involve this SEAL team, which happen to be the most important and dangerous missions of the entire conflict. Sometimes that means the stories don’t exactly follow the Freitag arc, as the missions don’t wrap up that neatly, aren’t structured like that. That’s the nature of what these characters do, how there isn’t one climax that defines the story, or the collection, because there’s a string of climaxes, often without any corresponding resolutions—there might be lulls, as they’re not shot at or shooting someone every day. But it’s close. Mackin seems to take that into account when crafting, that he can never depict anything as finished, even when a mission is complete—the highs never reach too high and the lows never dip too low. Even when a member of the team dies—soon, there’s going to be another mission, and maybe it’ll come off as planned. Or maybe two guys will die. Or maybe everyone will. It’s an interesting mindset for a first-person narrator, one that only really applies to war stories. Mackin’s skilled at it; it makes his collection unique, different from other war books I’ve read by O’Brien and Klay and James Jones and Robert Olen Butler and Jusef Komunyakaa. I enjoyed Mackin’s take. I enjoyed his writing.

There’s a general, unwritten rule in fiction writing, and that’s not to write military stories unless you’ve been in the military. Above all other occupations and identities, it’s the one that has no chance of coming off as authentic if you’ve not experienced your subject matter firsthand. I’ve heard veteran writers say it, I’ve heard my veteran students say it, so I’ve more or less avoided the subject completely. It’s sound advice. I hope in writing about military service and veterans, on this Veteran’s Day, that I’ve been respectful. Veterans deserve that from me, at the very least. As does Will Mackin, whose debut collection, Bring Out the Dog, marks a fine addition to the canon of American war literature, a good book in any category.