NEA Literature Fellowships

David Morris

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2008 - Prose)

From the non-fiction article "The Big Suck: Notes from the Jarhead Underground "

Common wisdom holds that 140,000 generally churchgoing Americans in Iraq are locked in mortal combat with some of the world's most serious monotheists. To me, a new, less orthodox faith seems to have arisen, something far more personal and circumstantial. You could see it every time you watched a grunt throw away a box of Charms candies that came in the field rations (bad luck) or toss rounds that had been dropped (no matter how much you cleaned them, bullets that had been dropped always jammed). Like so many others, I had been inclined to believe in the bromide "There are no atheists in foxholes," but based upon my admittedly less-than-systematic observations, there were at least as many blessed lance corporals, lucky ladybugs, stuffed giraffes, coins, and saved M16 rounds as there were rosary beads. The marines I lived with seemed to have moved on from the Twenty-third Psalm and were now deep into One Hundred Years of Solitude.

One afternoon I was watching tv at an Iraqi house that some Marine advisors had commandeered. It was a lazy afternoon, not much going on in-sector. We were all sitting around watching The Breakfast Club on a wide-screen. On the floor in front of us a lieutenant was cleaning a .50-caliber machine gun with what looked like Victorian surgical instruments. As Molly Ringwald declaimed her particular strain of late-eighties suburban anomie, the lieutenant's hands flashed over the weapon in practiced, weirdly maternal gestures. A microwave oven buzzed in the background. The echoes of domesticity were unignorable: We were like a deranged, unexplainably well-armed family. An artillery forward observer who was new to the team said, "Man, we haven't gotten IED'd in awhile." The team's executive officer, a high-strung captain who'd been a logistics officer back in the States stomped into the living room and yelled, "God damn it, dude, I know you didn't just say that." He craned over melodramatically to some plywood shelves near the corporal's head and knocked on one of them. Guys were always doing this sort of thing. Anytime somebody started talking about how much time they had left or the fact that recently they'd had a run of good luck, eyes began to search frantically for a horizontal surface to knock on.

A couple of weeks later I read in the New York Times that one of the team's Humvees had struck an enormous IED, killing two marines. After I returned to the States, I received an e-mail from the team leader saying that the Times report had been in error, but this welcome correction failed to fully erase the causal chain that had haunted my mind in the interregnum. A corporal had given voice to an idle observation about not having been IED'd in a while and some of his comrades had been killed. And, even now, this is the memory trace, the psychological residue that remains: in Iraq thinking the wrong thoughts can kill you.

Dave Morris is the author of Storm on the Horizon (Free Press, 2004), an account of the battle of Khafji during the Gulf War. He has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for and the Virginia Quarterly Review since 2003. He's also worked in a television factory, as a rock climbing guide, a bike messenger, a photographer and a Marine infantry officer. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Der Spiegel, Etiqueta Negra, PEN online, Rock & Ice, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007. Morris received his BA in history from Texas A&M University and is working on his MFA at the University of California at Irvine.

Photo by an Iraqi militia fighter whose name the author never obtained

Author's Statement

When a representative of the federal government calls to tell you that they like your writing and that they'll be supporting you, it's impossible not to be humbled. Writing is the loneliest art and it's a comfort in having to face the eternity of the blank page each day knowing that at least I've got the rent covered. Being recognized by the NEA has forced me to reconsider my writing, what it is that I'm doing. I hadn't been back from Iraq long when I found out that I was to receive this fellowship. The immensity of the task before me, trying to capture even the smallest portion of the war experience, is intimidating. Somehow it's less intimidating now.

I'm humbled by my fellow honorees, most of whom deserve this award more than me and all I can do now is thank the administrators of the NEA for this award.