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“A near-miraculous, brilliant debut.”—George Saunders, Man Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo
“In one exquisitely crafted story after the next, Will Mackin maps the surreal psychological terrain of soldiers in a perpetual war.”—Phil Klay, National Book Award–winning author of Redeployment
The eleven stories in Will Mackin’s mesmerizing debut collection draw from his many deployments with a special operations task force in Iraq and Afghanistan. They began as notes he jotted on the inside of his forearm in grease pencil and, later, as bullet points on the torn-off flap of an MRE kit. Whenever possible he incorporated those notes into his journals. Years later, he used those journals to write this book.
Together, the stories in Bring Out the Dog offer a remarkable portrait of the absurdity and poetry that define life in the most elite, clandestine circles of modern warfare. It is a world of intense bonds, ancient credos, and surprising compassion—of success, failure, and their elusive definitions. Moving between settings at home and abroad, in vivid language that reflects the wonder and discontent of war, Mackin draws the reader into a series of surreal, unsettling, and deeply human episodes: In “Crossing the River No Name,” a close call suggests that miracles do exist, even if they are in brutally short supply; in “Great Circle Route Westward Through Perpetual Night,” the death of the team’s beloved dog plunges them into a different kind of grief; in “Kattekoppen,” a man struggles to reconcile his commitments as a father and his commitments as a soldier; and in “Baker’s Strong Point,” a man whose job it is to pull things together struggles with a loss of control.
Told without a trace of false bravado and with a keen, Barry Hannah–like sense of the absurd, Bring Out the Dog manages to capture the tragedy and heroism, the degradation and exultation, in the smallest details of war.
Advance praise for Bring Out the Dog
“Good stories that deal with war must deal with the extremes of war: heroic altruism and murderous selfishness, piercing beauty and disgusting ugliness. Mackin hits all the notes and all the notes sound true. These stories are right at the top with the best I’ve ever read.”—Karl Marlantes, New York Times bestselling author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Bring Out the Dog
The Lost Troop
We had a dry spell in Logar. It was February, during which the weather was dog shit, so a degree of slowness was expected. But this went beyond slowness. It was like peace had broken out and nobody’d told us. Nights we’d meet in the OPS hut for the mission brief. We’d tune the flatscreens to the drones—over Ghazni, Orgun, and Khost—only to find all three orbiting within the same cloud. We’d listen to static on the UHF. We’d stare at phones that never rang. We might’ve left it all behind, walked off the outpost and into the desert, never to be seen again. We might’ve created the Legend of the Lost Troop. Rather, we chose someplace where we imagined the enemy might be hiding—a compound on the banks of the Helmand River, a brake shop in downtown Marjah, a cave high in the Hindu Kush—and we ventured out there, hoping for a fight.
I thought of the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, who, in March 1945, when their island fell to the Americans, may not have known that their island had fallen. Who, a few months later, may not have heard that A-bombs had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that their emperor had admitted defeat. Those soldiers hid in tunnels on Iwo for weeks after the war was over. For months, even. For them, the fight continued in those dark and narrow spaces, until they ran out of food. Until they drank the last of their water. Until, absent the means and/or the will to take their own lives, they climbed out of rat holes into the sun, to wander warm fields of lava rock, in surrender.
I wondered what it would take for us. If, one night, we’d drop out of the starry sky in our blacked-out helicopters near a walled compound in the desert. We’d run toward that compound with the rotor wash at our backs, pushing us into the dust cloud that had been kicked up by our arrival, and out the other side. Passing through a crooked archway in the compound’s outer wall, we’d enter the courtyard. And there, among the fig trees and goats, we’d find an American tourist with a camera strapped around his neck.
Having served his time in Afghanistan, our fellow American had gone home, fallen in love, gotten married, and had the two bow-headed daughters now hiding behind his legs. Maybe he’d wanted his girls to see how brightly the stars shone in the desert. Maybe he’d wanted to share with them all the strange places the army had sent him, way back when. I imagined that he’d look at us with understanding and remorse.
“Dudes, war’s over.”
But, as far as we knew, it wasn’t. Therefore, we’d meet in the OPS hut every night at eight. In the absence of new intelligence, we’d review old intelligence. We’d double-check dead ends and reexamine cold cases. Finding nothing mission-worthy, Hal, our troop chief, would open the floor to suggestions. It’d be quiet for a while, as everyone thought.
“Come on,” Hal would say.
He’d be standing in the middle of the plywood room. We’d be sitting on plywood tables, balancing on busted swivel chairs, leaning against the thin walls. Drones, orbiting inside moonlit thunderheads, would beam their emerald visions back to us. Lightning would strike twenty miles away and the UHF would crackle. I, for one, didn’t have any good ideas to offer.
One night, Digger spoke up. “Who remembers that graveyard decorated like a used-car lot, out in Khost?”
I raised my hand, along with a few others.
“I think we need to go back there,” Digger said.
The graveyard in question was on the northern rim of a dusty crater. We’d patrolled past it, a few weeks prior, on an easterly course. The “used-car lot” decorations were plastic strands of multicolored pennants. One end of each strand was tied high in an ash tree that stood at the center of the graveyard. The other ends were staked into the hard ground outside the circle of graves. The graves themselves were piles of stones, shaped like overturned rowboats. I couldn’t recall the name of our mission that night, its task and purpose, its outcome. But that graveyard stuck with me. I remembered the pennants snapping in the wind, dust parting around the graves like current.
Digger, who’d passed closer to the graveyard than I, thought the graves had looked suspicious. He believed they resembled old cellar doors. The type, I imagined, you’d find outside a farmhouse in Nebraska. The type you’d run to from darkened fields as a tornado was bearing down. Digger postulated that at least one of those graves was made of fake stones.
“Styrofoam balls,” he suggested to us in the OPS hut, “painted to look like stones, then glued to a plywood sheet.” Digger wondered if we might sneak into that graveyard, pull open this hypothetical door, descend a flight of stairs, and discover a Taliban nerve center, bomb factory, or armory. Digger had no idea what might be down there, but he’d gotten a weird feeling walking past that graveyard that night.
“Let’s make it happen,” Hal said.
We rode our helicopters—two dual-rotor, minigun-equipped MH-47s—southeast from Logar. We sat in mesh jump seats, across from one another, roughly ten per side. The MH-47, at altitude, stabilized like a swaying hammock. Its engines warbled like cop cars racing off to faraway trouble. Lube, dripping from the crankcase, smelled like bong water. At the back end of the tubular cargo bay, beyond the open ramp, night passed by like scenery in an old movie.
The 47s dropped us off in a dry riverbed, three miles west of the graveyard. We patrolled eastward under heavy clouds. The clouds carried a powerful static charge, while the earth remained neutral. Sparkling dust hovered, and my brothers, walking with me, appeared as concentrations of this dust. All I heard, as we walked, was my own breathing.
We connected with the crater’s westernmost point, then walked in a clockwise direction along its rim until we reached the graveyard. We found the pennants torn and tattered; the ash tree diseased; the graves crooked. None of the stones were made of Styrofoam. Not one of the graves was an elaborately disguised entrance to a nefarious subterranean activity. Though, upon closer inspection, I noticed that the dust that I’d remembered parting around the graves, resembling current, actually funneled into the spaces between stones. In fact, the dust appeared to be getting sucked into those spaces. Which made it seem like there was some sort of void below the graves, creating a vacuum, and lent a measure of credence to Digger’s theory.
From the top of one grave, I selected a smooth, round stone, about the size of a shot-put ball, and I heaved it into the crater.
Joe, our interpreter, was right there to scold me. “I would expect such disrespectful behavior from the Taliban,” he said, “but not from you.”
Joe was Afghani. His real name was Jamaluddein. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1980, he’d escaped to the U.K. with his parents. Joe was twelve years old at the time. Now, as a middle-aged man, he’d returned to help save his country from ruin. He wore armor on missions, but he carried no weapons. His interpretations of our enemy’s muttered words were always clear and precise. He had a bad habit of walking too close behind me on patrol, then closing that distance whenever we made contact with the enemy. Sometimes he’d bump into me and I’d turn around. Thus, I’d seen conflagrations reflected in the smudged lenses of Joe’s glasses. I’d heard him whisper prayers between sporadic detonations. His voice, with its derived British accent and perpetual tone of disappointment, exactly matched that of my beleaguered conscience.
So I jumped into the crater after the stone. I found it at the end of a long, concave groove in the dust. Turning back toward the crater’s rim, I saw my bootprints descending the slope, as perfect as footsteps on the moon. On my way back up to the graveyard, I was careful not to disturb those tracks, or the flawless groove that had been carved by the stone. I wanted these things preserved, I supposed, in the event that an asteroid should slam into the planet, sloughing away the atmosphere, boiling the seas, and ending life on earth in a matter of seconds.
Our troop—asphyxiated, desiccated, frozen—would lie scattered about the graveyard, perfectly preserved in the seamless void of space forever, or at least until other intelligent beings came along and discovered us. Perhaps because these beings existed as thin bars of blue light, incapable of offensive or defensive action, they’d puzzle over our armor, rifles, night-vision devices, and grenades. They’d wonder, especially, why we’d worn such things to a graveyard. There’d be no mystery, however, regarding the bootprints in the crater, since they’d know, by the boots still on my feet, that I’d been the one who’d left them. Furthermore, they’d deduce, by the groove, that I’d descended into the crater after a stone. Only one stone could’ve cut that groove. Thus, they’d find it among a thousand others, right where I’d returned it, atop the grave, just moments before the asteroid had struck the earth. But none of that would explain how the stone had wound up in the crater in the first place.
Had one of them thrown it? the curious bars of blue light might ask themselves.
The next night, in the OPS hut, we still had nothing, intelligence-wise. Hal asked for suggestions again. Another hush fell on the troop as we sat thinking. Hal stood in the middle of the plywood room. On the one hand, he loved the war. On the other, he loved us. Green clouds floated by on the flatscreens. Fuzzy static emanated from the UHF. Archie, who, a month prior, had replaced Yaz, who we’d lost in a soybean field in Konduz, stood up from the floor. He pulled a tin of breath mints from his shirt pocket.
“I probably should’ve told you guys about this sooner,” he said.
The tin, Archie explained, had arrived in the mail about two weeks ago. It was sent by Yaz’s widow, whose name was Connie.
I knew Connie from troop barbecues, Halloween parties, and the like. I remembered her, once, dressed as a cowgirl and dancing in Digger’s kitchen. She fired cap guns at the ceiling, which made the fluorescent light hazy. Yaz, standing by the bean dip, watched his wife holster her toy pistols. He smiled as she spun an invisible lasso over her head. Roping Yaz, Connie pulled him in, hand over hand, while Yaz feigned resistance. His breath must’ve smelled like corn chips. Hers, I imagined, smelled just fine.
The tin Archie showed us in the OPS hut contained a handful of Yaz’s ashes.
“Connie asked me to find a good place to spread these around,” he said. “And I tried, but no place seems good enough. You guys got any ideas?”
Digger suggested that we climb to the top of Mount No-shack—i.e., the tallest peak in Afghanistan—and release Yaz’s ashes into a spindrift. Tull proposed a verdant meadow, north of J-bad, where he and Yaz once went AWOL to hunt elk. I made an argument for the tiny garden of purple flowers that had grown behind Yaz’s tent, where he used to spit out his toothpaste. Hal, however, wanted to return to Konduz.
Konduz was four hundred kilometers north of Logar. The 47s flew higher than usual to get there. Frost formed on the cargo bay’s circular windows. The engines whined, the rotors slipped, and the helicopter wobbled as if we were balancing at the end of a very long pole. I almost hoped that something would go wrong. Nothing catastrophic, of course. Just a low-oil light or engine temperature creeping into the red. Something that would force us to land short and reconsider. I didn’t want to see that field again, in Konduz, with its dark puddles reflecting the stars, with its soybean shoots glowing white. I didn’t want to smell its fertilized tang. But nothing went wrong. We touched down on the western edge of the field, right where we’d touched down before, opposite the ditch that had given me so much trouble.
We’d first landed in that field on a clear night in late December. Jupiter had been the focal point of a crescent moon. The ditch where we knew the enemy was hiding was east of our position, and outside of small-arms range. I thought, at the time, that there were no more than a half dozen Taliban in that ditch. I’d based that estimate, partly, on how the shrubbery had quaked when they’d scurried around behind it. I’d considered, as well, the frequency of AK fire, which, from that safe distance, sounded like movie projectors running out of film. I’d seen and heard these things before. For six Taliban wallowing in a muddy ditch, I figured that a pair of thousand-pound bombs, with delayed fuses, ought to do the trick.
A combination of ash and sissoo trees stood in that ditch. Shrubbery tangled the spaces between those trees. I brought two jets in from the north, in trail formation. The first bomb ignited every tree and shrub. The second launched their burning trunks like moon shots. I turned to my right, expecting to find Hal. Instead, I found Joe—hands in pockets, armored belly protruding. The burning trench was reflected in his dirty glasses.
Hal appeared from behind me. “You done?” he asked.
What remained of the shrubbery was still, and the AKs had fallen silent.
“Yes,” I said.
We spread ourselves the length of the field for mop-up, then walked toward the ditch in a line abreast. Stars jiggled in puddles. The mud reeked of nitrogen. Soybean shoots resembled those albino creatures that lived in the Atlantic’s deepest trench. Hal walked next to me. Yaz walked five men past Hal. The machine gun Yaz carried weighed as much as the front axle on a Sentra. Its rounds were the size of soup cans. As we stepped into small-arms range, Tull whistled like a bird, in warning. A Taliban popped out of the ditch seconds later. The barrel of his AK, we believed, was bent. The majority of his volley curved skyward.
More Taliban leapt from the ditch after Yaz fell. Dozens, in fact. We turned them around quick enough; then we fell back, dragging Yaz. Joe was right behind me, breathing hard. Hal called for CASEVAC even though Yaz was already dead. Maybe he didn’t want us thinking that he wouldn’t do the same thing for us. Maybe he wanted to give us one more reason to believe that he’d never give up. Or maybe he just wanted us to fight and not worry about it.
I called out to every jet in the sky. The first wave arrived just as the CASEVAC was lifting off with Yaz. I brought the jets down in a clockwise spiral. I had them toss everything they had—five-hundred-, one-thousand-, two-thousand-pounders—into the ditch. A second wave of jets joined the first in the spiral, then a third, and a fourth. I bombed the ditch until the mud puddles in the soybean field steamed, until the soybean shoots themselves melted, until it seemed as though I were standing in the ditch and bombing the field.
That soybean field looked no different in February. The ditch was unchanged, too, although some of the trees and shrubbery were gone. I stood in the same place I’d stood while controlling the jets, back in December. The rest of the troop walked into the field behind Archie. They formed a circle around him at the spot where Yaz was killed. Archie took a knee and pulled the tin from his pocket. He opened the lid and tapped the side of the tin with his finger. I didn’t want to see the ashes fall, so I turned around, and there was Joe.
A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Will Mackin served in Iraq and Afghanistan, first as a weapons system officer aboard a carrier-based jet, then as a joint terminal attack controller attached to a SEAL team. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and Tin House and been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2014. Originally from New Jersey, he lives in New Mexico with his wife and their two children.