A Conversation with Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta

Why did you choose the title Sparta?

Sparta was an ancient Greek city-state that dedicated itself entirely to war. It produced warriors famous for their strength, skill and bravery, as well as for their moral code based on honor, discipline and loyalty. When I was doing research for this book, I was fascinated to learn about the affinity that Marines feel for Sparta. They identify with theSpartan warriors, and see their code as a kind of military ideal. They use Sparta and its heroic values as a kind of touchstone, and view themselves as the spiritual descendants of the Spartans.

I was also interested in the two cultures themselves. In Sparta, everything else family, commerce, education was subordinated to the business of war. In the Marine Corps, too, this is true, though the USMC exists alongside the civilian world. I wondered what effect this had had on Sparta, over time. I wondered how the tension between civilian and military values would be reflected in the Marine culture. Im interested in the moment at which systems break down.

In 2005 a massacre took place in Haditha, a town in northwestern Iraq. Twenty-four unarmed Iraqi civilians, including several children and an old man in a wheelchair, were gunned down by a group of Marines, in circumstances never satisfactorily explained.The Marines were based in a combat outpost they had named Sparta. The name resonated for me, echoing with the ways in which war and honor and a sense of humanity can collide. So I gave my novel this title wanting to make the connection between Sparta and the Marines very clear and explicit.

How is fiction valuable in exploring a subject such as vets returninghome?

I think fiction can create a kind of narrative that can reach us inside, in places that nonfiction doesn’t go. I once asked a historian what he thought was the best source to use in order to understand a particular historical period. Novels, he said at once. They give you the best sense of whats really going on. Fiction allows us to explore things on a visceral and emotional level as well as an intellectual one. When I started writing Sparta, I had read the facts and figures, Id read the political theory. I wanted something that allowed me to learn what it felt like to be in this situation, to know what it was like to inhabit one persons mind and feelings, to learn what this was like for him. Only in fiction are you allowed to create this deep and continuing connection, as a writer, and as a reader, only in fiction are you allowed to feel it.

Was it difficult for you to get into the mind of a returned Marine?Have you written from a male perspective before?

It was difficult. I have written from a male perspective but Conrad was very different from me for many different reasons. Im not only a woman but Im Quaker, and from a different generation. And the whole military culture is deeply, deeply male. So I had to abandon many of the ideas and responses most familiar to me before I could enter into Conrads mind and world. It was hugely challenging, and very exhilarating. One of the best things about fiction is that it allows you to live lives very different from your own.

What sort of research did you do?

Every kind I could think of. I read and read and read: war memoirs, articles, testimonies and military books. I read the Marine Officers Handbook, and learned about MOUT(Military Operations in Urban Terrain) warfare, and how to clear a room and what the rules were about moustaches. I watched Marine videos on YouTube, and saw them dancing and swearing and shooting in the dusty streets and eating MREs in their rooms.

I became a huge fan of the Marines, and when a Marine friend offered to take me to Quantico I was nearly speechless with awe and excitement: that was the inner sanctum.I interviewed veterans. I talked to anyone who would talk to me. Most people were generous and helpful. They welcomed me into their houses, and told me their stories: how they’d come to enlist, and what their families thought, and then what they’d done and what they’d seen in country. They told me those things that will stay with them the rest of their lives. They showed me pictures, and described how it felt, coming home, and why they couldn’t talk to their parents or girlfriends, and why it was so hard and disorienting to go to a wedding reception, where all your friends were laughing and dancing, and how it felt to try to live in both worlds. And they laughed, remembering things, and then they turned sober, remembering others, and then their voices dropped and broke, and they couldn’t go on, and they were the ones who taught me what it was like. They gave me Conrad’s story.

What surprised you during the course of writing the book?

Many things surprised me. The first thing was how difficult it was to gain entry into the military world. Im a woman and a novelist, so I had no credentials. I went into a group of arriving vets at an airport once, and asked to talk to a few of them. People would pause when I said I was a writer, but when they heard I was a novelist, not a journalist, they’d walk away. A Marine friend explained that the military is tribal. He’s right: its a tightly insular clan, bound together by beliefs and goals and duties that are specific to them, and unrelated to those of outsiders. This insularity means that the rest of us are made to feel like just that outsiders. I once went to a Marine recruiting center, just to get a sense of what it was like there. The officers were young, handsome and absolutely implacable. They nearly swept me out of the room with a broom. I don’t think Ive ever been so robustly rebuffed, just for being who I am: wrong gender, wrong generation, wrong occupation.

Another disconcerting surprise occurred when I interviewed a medic who’d been stationed in Iraq. Every day he had to try to repair the broken bodies that were brought to him, young men broken and wounded, damaged irrevocably. He told me about seeing the news, on a bulletin board, that Bush had been re-elected, and about the rage that went through him at the sight. The medic was still raging when I talked to him, andI suddenly realized as he talked that I was included as a target of his anger: I was a civilian, and we had allowed this to continue. It was the first and only time I ever felt physical fear while I was conducting an interview, and it taught me to respect the great and powerful forces I was dealing with. I have never ever been in the presence of someone who was so angry.

So the other great surprise was this: I had thought that war was about strategy and mechanics, weapons and planning. But I learned that it was about emotion.

Were there particular moments that illuminated the intersection between the veteran life and the civilian?

One vet, a captain, agreed to meet with me. He named a time, and a restaurant near where he lived. I was four hours away, and spent the day on the highways. When I arrived at the cafe, I found not only the captain there, but also his wife and six-year old daughter. I was surprised to see them, but we all had a pleasant dinner and conversation. After the meal the wife and daughter left, and the captain and I sat outside and talked until midnight. It was then that he explained that his wife and daughter had been there to see what I was like in case I was someone he wouldn’t want to talk to.They were there to protect him, they were Security. This was a man who’d fought inBaghdad. Every time I think of them his beautiful, intelligent wife and his lively, bright daughter, dancing around our table coming there to watch over him, it catches at my heart. Its one of the reasons I wrote the book the deep inarticulated gulf between our civilian experience and theirs. The fact that wives and children need to watch over these men.

Did soldiers talk to you about their experiences with PTSD?

One story I will never forget came from a man from Texas told me about his time inIraq. He was in a combat zone and on a particular date, he said he gave the date -something happened that he will never tell to anybody. Later, when he came back home, he had the headaches, insomnia, flashbacks, panic attacks, inability to concentrate and the rest of the crazy quilt that makes up the symptoms of PTSD. The VA prescribed one medication after another for him until he was up to thirteen. But he still couldn’t keep a job, and he didn’t see how he could make a life. Then he was given a trained service dog named Paddy. I was talking with him by phone, and he asked me if I was going to come down to Texas. When I said no, he said he was sorry, because it meant he couldn’t introduce me to Paddy. Paddy is now with him all the time, and perfectly attuned to him. When the vet gets a panic attack, Paddy knows it, and immediately takes me somewhere safe. And where is that? I asked. The truck, usually, he said. We wait there until I can go back. But the best thing Paddy does happens at night. I couldn’t sleep, he said, because when I did I had these nightmares that were so frightening that I couldn’t endure them. Every night, Id wake up screaming and crying, until I was too scared to go to sleep, even with the pills. Sleep was terror. He paused. But now I have Paddy. He sleeps in bed with me, Im not ashamed to tell you that. Now I can risk going to sleep because if I start to have a dream, Paddy knows it and he licks my face and wakes me up, and he goes on licking my face until Im calm. He doesn’t care if I’m afraid. And so now Im not afraid to go to sleep because he makes me feel safe. He has a job, now, and he’s down to only three medications.

What made you set Conrads home in Westchester?

Conrad lives in a middle-class, educated, suburban community in the northeast. I hadlearned, to my surprise, that many of the new members of the volunteer armed forcesdont come from the south, or from military families, or from blue-collar backgrounds, allof which were traditional sources for the military. Instead, they came from middle-classliberal families in the northeast. I thought that was really interesting: we were seeinga surprising cultural shift. So I gave Conrad a community that would reflect the newdemographics, and show some of the cultural discomfort that the shift created: his familyhas no idea why he would do this. And now Im hearing from family after family who tellme this is what happened to them, and that they were completely confounded by theirson or daughter, taking a new path.

What initially inspired you to write about a US Marine returning homefrom Iraq?

One day maybe seven years ago I read an article in The New York Times about ourtroops in Iraq. They were being sent out in unarmored Humvees on patrol, and beingblown up by roadside bombs. These bombs (IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices)were widespread, and they had devastating results. Traumatic Brain Injuries wereincreasingly common, but the military was reluctant to diagnose them because of thecost of treatment and because the acknowledgment would mean the loss of combatants.I was appalled reading this. In any war you expect the troops to suffer hardships, but youexpect those hardships to result from the enemy or the terrain, not from lack of supportby the soldiers own country. I was appalled that the greatest military power in the worldwas sending its troops into danger, unprotected, with outdated gear, and then refusingto acknowledge the consequences. If we had to fight a war, (and it wasnt clear to methat we did), then at least we should provide our troops with the best possible equipmentand support. We were not doing that. We could afford to spend billions of dollars onstealth bombers, but we couldnt afford to buy armored vehicles for our troops to driveon roads studded with bombs. After reading that article, I couldnt stop thinking of them,these brave young men, going out day after day, loyal, brave, obedient, waiting for theexplosion.

The article changed the way I thought about our troops. I started thinking about them aspeople needing our protection. And I started thinking about the effects of the war on thepeople who engineered it, the people who fought it, and on the people at home. I comefrom a long line of activists, so you could say its in my genes Harriet Beecher Stowe ismy great-great-great aunt. Im always interested by moral consequences, I write aboutthem quite a lot.

Is *Sparta an indictment of American foreign policy?*

Not really. But its an examination of the consequences of our policy in this war, and toa certain extent of all wars. All wars have devastating and unintended consequences,which must be weighed by those in charge of policy against the necessity for militaryaction. This war was responsible for thousands of American deaths and hundreds ofthousands of non-Americans. It was also, because of new techniques and strategies,responsible for a new and devastating kind of psychological trauma. We have startedtraining our troops to kill more easily and more readily than ever before. This makesus effective in the field, but no one knows the cost to the troops who come home andhave to live with the memories of what theyve done. So Sparta is really examining theconsequences of this war, and asking the question: how much is war worth to us? Canwe tolerate these consequences?

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