Not all casualties of war happen on the battlefield – or even inside a war zone, for that matter. Thousands occur long after soldiers return to what should be the safe havens of their homes and families. It is only then that these young men and women finally succumb to the pressures they lived under for so many months while serving as repeated targets for Islamist extremists in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. And when they finally crack, the results are tragic for them and everyone close to them.
Luke Mogelson, in his debut short story collection These Heroic, Happy Dead, offers ten stories about men and women who survived “the war” only to be undone by “the peace” to which they came home. Each brought the worst of what they saw and did in the Middle East home with them, and each is paying a heavy price for having done so. What makes the stories in the collection so effective is that they are presented first and foremost as character studies of people finding it near impossible to cope with the modern world. They may be jobless, estranged from their wives and children, homeless, suicidal, victims of addictions, or prone to violent outbursts, but what they all have in common is that they are casualties of war. Remarkably, however, the tone of Mogelson’s ten stories is not particularly anti-war, something that makes them all the more powerful.
The book’s overall tone is solidly set by its first story, “To the Lake,” in which two veterans, one a double-amputee, meet in the holding tank of a remote county jail. Mentally and physically fragile as both men are, it still remains for the amputee to come to the rescue of his more able-bodied comrade. But now it might be up to the rescued vet to save the life of the man who just bailed him out of jail.
Not all victims of war ever were soldiers. Some of them are the parents of soldiers, some are the spouses of soldiers, and some are the children of soldiers – and Mogelson includes stories about them, too. “Visitors” tells of a mother who drives long hours every Wednesday to visit her veteran son in prison - where he’s paying the price for killing a man in a bar fight that happened just two months after he came home from what was supposed to be his real war. “Sea Bass” is a boy’s account of how difficult his father found it to hold a job after returning from war, and what happened on the last day he ever saw him. And in perhaps the most perplexing story of the entire collection, there is “Kids,” the story of a boy in Afghanistan who was either trying to steer an American patrol away from or toward a booby-trapped room. Without a translator, no one could be certain, and whatever the boy intended, it could not have been what ended up actually happening.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)