Current and Future Questions

by Eddie Dzialo


I am worried about the day my daughter will ask me if I’ve killed someone. No one has ever asked. Not even my closest friends who swam through Jameson with me when I first got home from my deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. She’ll ask around the time she’s old enough to be curious, but young enough to have no filter. Of course, then, I’ll tell her that I didn’t and that I love her. But some of that will be a lie, because I don’t know if I’ve ever killed anyone. Nothing about the type of combat being fought in Afghanistan is that definitive.

The Taliban wore the same clothes as the people we wanted to protect. Sometimes pregnant women were a means to hide explosives; dead dogs on the side of the road were packed with nails and ball bearings. Things weren’t as absolute as the Shoot/No Shoot drills that we’d rehearsed in training, and no one had promised that they would be.

During the first month I was in Afghanistan, we were in a firefight for four hours, and I never once saw a single person who had been shooting at us. We moved, they moved, and then at some point, they dropped their weapons and blended back into the huts. On another day, my buddy’s platoon—a kid from the south shore of Massachusetts—got attacked, and my platoon helped corner the attackers into a section of the city. We fired rockets, detonated walls with C4, had helicopters flying overhead, giving us additional viewpoints. But like the four-hour firefight that preceded it, the attackers eventually dropped their weapons, and they likely stood next to innocent civilians who were trying to get away from both sides.  

Throughout all this, I never saw a dead body. When we were being attacked, I saw bullets kicking up dirt around Marines who were too brave to run away; I heard rockets and mortars landing, but I never saw if anyone had been impacted by the things we did. It would be easy for me to say that because I didn’t see anything then it didn’t happen. No one got hurt. They fought; they ran. But I’d been told that the people who were attacking us often took the dead with them before fleeing. Another friend of mine, from another platoon, went into a room after a firefight, and there had been fresh, ungodly amounts of blood on the walls and floor, but no weapons, clothes, or people.

Once, on the morning after we were attacked, a man approached my company. He’d been pushing a wheelbarrow, and in that wheelbarrow, was another man who was badly mangled, barely alive. The man told us that his friend had been mauled by a tractor and was asking for help. The only thing we could offer him were prayers. But was he telling the truth? Had he gotten hurt by a tractor or had it been from artillery rounds? Honestly, I don’t know.

It’s those situations that will make things difficult on the day when my daughter will inevitably ask me if I ever killed anyone overseas. When she’s young, I will tell her that I didn’t and that I love her. And when she’s older, I’ll probably tell her the same things that I’ve written here and that I still love her. As for me, I will likely leave this world not knowing if I ever took someone else’s life. Maybe then I’ll know for sure.

Student Picks: Johnson, July


Eddie Dzialo-- To read Denis Johnson is to embed yourself in someone else’s struggle. In Johnson’s final book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, I couldn’t help but feeling that I was getting implanted into the author’s own acceptance of mortality and death. The stories in this collection focus on addicts, divorced men, convicts, men on their deathbeds; Johnson himself had been married three times, had been sober since the early eighties, and was in the later stages of his life.

In the title story, the protagonist says, “...I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to.” Sadly, this was also true for Johnson. Because some of the people in this book are writers or poets, it’s easy to imagine Johnson as being a character in these stories, reflecting on his past. And he does so with humor, honesty, and a command of language that makes this collection something surreal, something eternal. 


Shawna-Lee Perrin-- When I think of Miranda July, I think of the kinds of films that I put on my watch list, and after months, decide I should watch it, start it, decide I’m not in the mood yet, and turn it off. Yet, still, there’s something magnetic about her.

So when I found out she was also a novelist, I was intrigued. The First Bad Man describes a neurotic, 43-year-old woman named Cheryl living on her own, pining after an older, self-obsessed man, and looking for a kindred spirit in the faces of strangers’ infants. Her life is thrown into chaos when her bosses’ twenty-something-year-old daughter moves in and displays total disregard, even hostility, for Cheryl and her strange little life, which unravels quickly.

July commits completely to her narrator’s voice, which follows some truly bizarre streams of consciousness that I found myself reading multiple times because I couldn’t believe the crazy things I just read. Cheryl follows her own internal logic, which only makes sense to her, and probably not many others. That July can pull readers along with this is a testament to her enviable skill as a writer. This is the Miranda July I signed up for.

Running to Trauma

by Eddie Dzialo


When I first appeared at the Officer Selection Office in Durham, NH, I told them that I wanted to be a Marine officer and that I would do whatever they needed me to do. Had it been an option, I would have left that day. 

I went down to the Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia, but three weeks before graduation I broke the second metatarsal in my right foot. The intensity of the physical fitness requirements literally broke me.

In the mornings, before the Sergeant Instructors tore through the barracks, I got up and wrapped my foot with duct tape. The top of my foot had swollen so badly that I wouldn’t have been able to get it in my boot without taping it down. My rack mate, the nephew of a legendary NFL coach, said that my foot looked like it had swallowed a purple grapefruit. One of the Corpsmen—the Navy’s version of an EMT—caught me doing my morning duct tape routine. When he told me that I would have to go see a doctor and be dropped due to injury, I told him that I must have pulled something and nothing was broken. To prove this, I hopped up and down on one foot—the shattered one. Either he was foolish enough to believe me, or he saw how badly I wanted to stay.

During the timed runs, the endurance courses, the conditioning hikes and fitness tests, I ran on the outside of my foot—until that bone broke too. Before graduation, I ran three miles in 19:02 with a foot that looked like an infected circle. When I got home, I went to get X-rays. After getting the results, the doctor refused to let me get off the examination table; he wanted to get me into surgery. Even then, I pleaded for a cast because getting surgery would have prevented me from being sworn in as a Marine officer when I graduated college the following spring.

Three years later, I was in Iraq.

Both of my parents were Marines, as were two of my uncles, my aunt, and my cousin. Despite my background, no one in my family told me to become a Marine. Before I left, my father tried to talk me out of it. It’s not that he wasn’t proud of me or that he wasn’t being supportive, but he told me that if I was going to risk my life doing something, then the decision to do so had to come from me alone.

I am not the same person I used to be. Before I left for the Marines, I had friends; I had been the president of a fraternity; when I smiled, I meant it. I am guilty of making choices that impact not only me but everyone in my life. Relationships of all varieties become strained, but unlike many survivors of trauma, I was an eager participant. I volunteered for something, and I accept the consequences of that decision, but the people around me, the people who see me struggle, did not.

After my second deployment, life morphed into a dull fog. The aftermath was the loss of emotions, the feelings of isolation and confusion that evolve into anxiety. And I became this way because I wanted it. A draft notice never appeared in the mail, an economic hardship hadn’t made me consider the military as a means for a better life. I didn’t stumble into my current state, I ran into it, willingly. I wanted to become a Marine and I ended up exactly where I had set out to go. 

Student Picks: Darnielle, Puterbaugh, Jones

First, a reminder: 

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If you're in New York, join us at McNally Jackson Books in Soho at 7pm to celebrate the third issue of Assignment. We’ll feature readings by Christine Smallwood, Anna Summers, and the winner of the 2017 Assignment MFA Student Writing Contest, David Moloney.

Sarah Foil-- Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle is a salute to a margin of the population that is often overlooked, stereotyped, and laughed at: the people who meet once a week for Dungeons and Dragons with their friends; the people who stay up until 4am in front of their computer screens; the people who have subscriptions at their local comic book stores; the people who sit on the bedroom floor and listen to the same record over and over again.

It’s a maze of a narrative that jumps through the life of Sean Phillips, a deformed recluse and the creator of Trace Italian, a popular mail-in role-play game set in dystopian United States. Scenes alternate between different points in Sean’s life, his depressed childhood, the creation of Trace Italian, and the tragedy of two teens who attempt to follow his game in the real world.

Darnielle’s debut novel is beautiful and heartbreaking. The plot is one that will stay with its readers long after they finish the last page. As a writer, it leaves me striving to do more.


Eddie Dzialo-- While listening to records with a friend, he told me that music works its way into our DNA and becomes a part of us. Singing it, tapping its rhythms becomes instinctive. Phish is that music for me. Strangely enough, at my first seventh-grade dance, the DJ played “Down with Disease” as the last song of the night. Coming home from Iraq, I was on a satellite phone with my mother trying to find a way to buy tickets for their reunion show at the Hampton Coliseum. My wife and I chose a Phish song for our first dance at our wedding. In Afghanistan, I listened to 40gb of Phish shows I’d stuffed into my iPod before deploying.

Puterbaugh’s biography explains how Phish built a career around fans whose allegiance dwarfs my own. More importantly, it details why someone would follow Phish around for a leg of a summer tour, listening to hours of improvised music, selling grilled cheeses in a parking lot to fund getting to the next show. Phish spent decades learning to speak through a musical language that they invented, a language their fans heard and integrated into their lives. Puterbaugh’s biography conveys deep understanding of that language. 


Megan Gianniny-- One of my favorite short fiction discoveries this year was the novellas, ranging from Lovecraftian retellings to Afro-futurist space adventures. Mapping the Interior by Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones is a quieter story of a boy haunted by the ghost of his father, and the mysterious circumstances of his father’s death before his family left the reservation.

Junior’s story is as much about the struggles of life with a single mother as it is a ghost story. He defends his sickly brother from bullies, faces off against an angry neighbor, and makes up stories about the trash in the yard to pass the time. But when night comes, Junior maps his house to figure out the path his father’s ghost is taking, and what he can do to help his father return to them.

Jones’ ending snuck up on me and was utterly chilling, as good horror should be. But despite the ending, the scariest parts of the story were how the darkness and grief stay with Junior long after the ghostly visits have ended. The dark humanity of Junior’s story is what makes it so powerful, and makes me want to read more by Jones.

Three Details

by Eddie Dzialo


During the time I was in the Marines, units deployed for seven months, then they trained for seven months in preparation for going back. When I returned to the United States in October of 2008, it was a statistical certainty that I would be back in the Middle East by May of 2009—and I was. Before my second deployment, I was assigned a new platoon. A platoon usually consists of 40 Marines, give or take, and when I took command of it, I had less than 20. People had been sent off to specific schools for training, others had been moved to other units, and the rest had started the process of being discharged because their contractual obligations had been met.

Every few weeks, new Marines would check into my platoon. Shaved heads, rigid, nervous. They’d stand in front of my desk as I went over their files, figuring out where they were from and how well they had performed at the School of Infantry. Most of them were young. They’d just graduated from high school, or they’d left college to join up. I would try to draw out three details about them during our initial conversation. They were married.  They had kids.  They had slept in a van when they were homeless. This way, they were not just machine gunners or riflemen, they were kids who carried pictures of their children around with them in the same shirt pocket every day.

Once, when a new Marine was checking in, I looked through his file and noticed that he was 27 (I was only 24). Because he was several years older than most Marines of his rank, I asked him why he joined at an unusually late age. Without hesitation, he said, “Because I was sick of bagging fucking groceries, sir.” Afterwards, when I would see him during a field exercise, I would think about his answer, and I was proud of him for his conviction.

It’s been nine years since the day I checked that Marine into my platoon, and his response is no less powerful now than it was then. For as complicated as war can be, it’s the tiny moments that become so important.

Before leaving for Afghanistan, I was transferred to another platoon. When we deployed, I wouldn’t be in charge of the person who had quit his job as a grocery bagger to risk his life overseas. And on July 11, 2009, he was killed. He’d been driving a vehicle, and an IED detonated underneath him. His lieutenant, a close friend of mine, had been thrown from the vehicle by the blast. Another Marine lost both his legs and bled out in the helicopter while being transported to a medical facility. Of the three, the lieutenant was the only one to survive.

When I think back on it, I think of all the things that had to happen for that person to be in that vehicle on that day. Four feet to the left, and the vehicle wouldn’t have rolled over the IED. Had they chosen a different route, would things have been different? Would they have been worse? I don’t know, and there will never be anyone to tell me.    

Every Word a Choice

by Eddie Dzialo


When I got out of the Marines, I couldn’t make decisions. Even making a sandwich was too difficult. I’d become overwhelmed with the choice of meat or bread. I was conditioned to map out the consequences of each action and to fear the repercussions. Frozen with an inability to choose, I spent the better part of a year locked in my studio apartment.

When I was deployed, I was always deciding. In the summer of 2009, I was in southern Afghanistan, in charge of a platoon of Marines and forty-something Afghan National Border Patrolmen. We lived in a small outpost surrounded by mesh containers filled with sand and rocks, designed to keep out shrapnel, mortar rounds, bullets, and cars weighted down with explosives being driven by suicidal zealots. I spent most of my time studying maps, trying not to let anyone see how scared I was. Though our unit had taken casualties, as the platoon commander, I was more worried about the consequences of my decisions and the impact they’d have on other people than I was about facing my own death. During a patrol, if I picked the wrong route at the wrong time, someone’s kid, father, or brother could walk over an Improvised Explosive Device or enter into an ambush, unknowingly. Keeping other people alive required an unknown ratio of skill and luck, and I still avoid thinking about which one I had more of.   

Each day was a challenge. On our first patrol, as we walked through the streets, people shot mortars and rockets at us before opening up with machine guns. Afghan soldiers threw their weapons in the streets and hid in a ditch. Later that night, as we moved through a wheat field, we got caught in a coordinated ambush and shot our way out. Though part of me feels like I don’t deserve it, I was given a medal for what occurred after we were attacked. When I look at the framed medal that hangs on the wall at my parent’s house in Cape Cod, I think: Skill or luck?

On another day, I was ordered to call in an air strike on a person who had supposedly killed a Marine the previous week. An intelligence report said he was standing on a bridge, alone. My hand shook as I sat on top of a Light Armored Vehicle, tracing out the blast radiuses of various ordinances, ensuring that they wouldn’t land too close to our position, using nothing more than a marker and a laminated map. I focused on numbers and grid coordinates rather than that I was about to kill someone. As the person on the ground, if I radioed the helicopter pilot and said, “Cleared Hot,” then I was legally responsible for everything his fired rocket did and who it did it to.

Ok, this next part has never left me: Right before I was going to say, “Cleared Hot,” I cancelled the whole thing by saying “Abort” on the radio three distinct times. Though there might have been an obvious reason at the time, now I can’t remember why I did that. But as the pilot flew over the intended target, never firing a round, he called back and said that there had been a child on the bridge.

It took writing to get me out of my studio apartment and to teach me how to make decisions again. Every sentence is a decision. You don’t need an idea to write a story, a novel, even a blog post; you need hundreds of ideas. And with each new idea comes a choice. I can wonder what this draft would look like had I made other choices, agonize over each word omitted, but I am able to choose again. One word at a time, I am able to accept my choices.

Hope From Falling

by Eddie Dzialo


After I jumped out of a plane for the first time, I didn’t sleep for two days. The experience was something I needed to repeat. That was in the summer of 2010, five months before I left the Marines. I had deployed twice and had just assumed command of an infantry company. When I wasn’t at work, I went to Phish shows, surfed, and studied for the Treasury Enforcement Agent Exam to pursue a career in the Secret Service. The exam always got pushed aside in favor of the other two things. But each day seemed flat. I held onto a deep concern about what life was going to feel like after the military. To counteract that, I gambled on football and tried to surf through a hurricane. Deployments are filled with a devotion built around comraderies, something I knew I would never experience in the same way again. Because I’d been the platoon commander, ripe with my own shortcomings, the men probably hated me. But I loved them.

I wasn’t seeking any answers because I didn’t think they existed, but the girl I’d recently started dating suggested skydiving and I said we should do it. When? Next weekend. Part of my sudden agreement was to enforce some narcissistic, macho image that I had of myself, but a lot of it had to do with how much I wanted to be around her, even if it meant riding up on a plane and not being on it when it landed. To prevent myself from appearing vulnerable, I never told her that I was scared of heights. When I was young, I got so physically upset on a kiddie Ferris wheel at Funtown Splashtown USA that I made them stop the ride and I’d been older than everyone else on it. My father still laughs about it.

On the drive to the drop zone, my legs went numb. When we were signing our waivers, I watched people getting on the plane wearing shorts and t-shirts, and their parachutes were like little backpacks. The smaller the parachute, the faster the descent after it opens—if it opens. After we took the class about jumping and practiced going out the door, I went out behind the hanger and puked. The girl I was with didn’t seem bothered by the inevitability of having to physically hang out the door of a plane for the first time. Because we were doing a tandem jump, she got paired up with a guy in his twenties, and I was set up with an older guy who waddled.

As we ascended with thirty other people, I focused on breathing, giving the appearance of control. The air smelled cold, people checked each other’s equipment. For most of the ride, I wanted it to end; I’d jump, share the videos, tell stories about it. But that changed when we reached altitude. People started chanting in unison like drunks and doing drum rolls on their knees. Seeing their faces made me realize that I’d been the only unhappy person on that plane. After the door opened, people gave one another a specific handshake before they jumped. Someone turned to me and showed me what they were doing. That was the sort of bond that I’d been missing since returning home. 

Stepping out of a plane is an act of devotion. Nothing else matters during freefall. Because it’s so consuming, it’s not possible to think about anything else. Falling gave me the sort of calm that I’d lost over two deployments. There’s a spirituality to skydiving, a state of peace that I didn’t know was possible.

I went back the following week with the girl I was dating and started the process to get my license. Life was unpredictable again, full of hope. Our kinship was brightest in the moments right before we jumped. I am married to the girl I jumped with that day, and now our daughter likes to climb on my parachute rig.

How to Write War: Learning from Tim O’Brien

by Eddie Dzialo


Though it seems like a different life, I used to be an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. I deployed to Iraq in 2008, Afghanistan in 2009, and I usually don’t elaborate further. I don’t avoid talking about my service to protect myself from painful memories. Some of the proudest moments of my life happened during those years and the people that I deployed with know a side of me that no one else can. When I avoid the subject of my deployments, I do so because I know I will become the focus of the story. And I’m not the point. I’ve read too many war books, written by people who aggrandize their heroics, their condemnation or support for the political ideologies that fuel combat. I didn’t want to become one of those people. Shortly after getting out of the Marines, I stopped reading books about war altogether.

When I entered the Mountainview MFA program, I wrestled with how to write about my own experiences in a way that would overcome the trappings of war narratives that I so detested. As I struggled, my mentor recommended I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, to show me how O’Brien navigated the difficulties of writing about combat. I agreed to read it only to prove my mentor wrong, to explain why I was against such books. It would be my excuse to walk away from writing about my experience. But my mentor was right. Halfway through the first story, O’Brien had already posed and answered the questions I hadn’t even known to ask.

I understand what O’Brien was risking by writing those stories: making the book about himself.  In writing war, you are never what’s most important. Any fear that Tim O’Brien might have written this book for his own edification leaves with the story “On the Rainy River.” Tim O’Brien, the story’s protagonist, is present, but as a frightened teenager who’s been swept up in events that he was powerless to stop. It’s self-deprecating, discussing fear with a brutal integrity that does not allow ‘heroics’ to intrude on the story’s honesty. “...I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything.”  These earnest emotions allow O’Brien to downplay his role within the stories and allow them to become more powerful than himself.

 “How to Tell a True War Story” gave me the words to understand my discomfort with war narratives by explaining what a war story is, what it isn’t, and what it can achieve.

What it isn’t: “A true war story is never moral...if a story is moral, do not believe it.” By not attaching lessons to his war stories, O’Brien is making a conscious effort not to bend them towards a purpose. He doesn’t give the atrocities any value. A real war story has an “...absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

What it is: “In any war is difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” Though the book is a work of fiction, The Things They Carried blurs the line between fiction and reality. The men named in the dedication are characters in the stories, and the opening sentence of “How to Tell a True War Story” is “This is true.” The reader cannot distinguish fact from fiction, just as O’Brien struggles to resolve his memories of war. “When a guy dies, you look get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot.”

What it can achieve: The most emotional scene in “How to Tell a True War Story” occurs when one of the characters tortures a baby water buffalo. The more the baby struggles, the more pain the character inflicts upon it. “It wobbled and went down sideways. Rat shot it in the nose.” As disturbing as this story is, the reader is left wondering if it really happened, if the author spliced an event that he witnessed into his fiction. To O’Brien, veracity is relative. “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

I still approach books about war with a healthy amount of skepticism, but by reading The Things They Carried, I witnessed how Tim O’Brien embraced his past and discussed it with honestly and humility. It’s a book that was selflessly written for other people, and I think that each time I reread it.

DFW on Lynchian violence in the new Twin Peaks

by Eddie Dzialo


I started watching David Lynch’s movies when I was too young. They didn’t ruin me, but I did see them before I was old enough to understand them—if they can be understood at all. When I was twelve, I saw Lost Highway for the first of many times and developed flu-like symptoms. 

Now, at thirty-three, I am a father in the middle of remodeling my kitchen but still manage to make time to watch Twin Peaks: The Return. And I do so with the same level of enthusiasm that I had for Lynch when I was in middle school, minus the uneasy nausea. Part of that, is accepting that good art is the successful transfer of emotion from artist to subject. And those emotions don’t have to make you feel good. David Lynch’s work becomes particularly interesting when studying his portrayal of violent subject matter—the material that sent my stomach reeling at twelve.

In his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace wrote: “an act of violence in American film has, through repetition and desensitization, lost the ability to refer to anything but itself.” Watching Lynch’s films are so surreal (and nauseating) because the visual and narrative devices Lynch uses to portray violence are outside the desensitizing vernacular of popular media. As Wallace notes in his essay: “Quentin Tarantino is interested in watching someone’s ear get cut off; David Lynch is interested in the ear.” In Blue Velvet, when Lynch zooms in on a severed human ear that is resting in a neatly manicured lawn, he is taking everything out of the shot but the thing itself. The viewer’s attention has nowhere else to go; it needs to lock onto the severed ear. As one of Wallace’s own characters was fond of saying, “Never underestimate the power of objects.”

In a scene from “Part 10” (Lynch referred to them as “parts” rather than “episodes”), Richard Horne attacks Miriam, but Lynch obscures the violence from the audience. The scene begins with Richard Horne arriving at Miriam’s trailer. While Richard is standing in her yard, Miriam shouts through her locked glass door that she has told the police that Richard ran over the young child. Richard cracks his neck by tilting his head toward each ear, then charges the trailer, breaks the glass door with his knee, and goes inside.  For twenty-five seconds, the only thing the viewer sees is the outside of the trailer from a considerable distance away. What the viewer hears is Miriam screaming until she stops, presumably because Richard has killed her. Lynch never shows Richard hurting Miriam at all.

Wallace argues that Lynch’s violence finds a way to refer to something other than itself because “Lynch’s violence always tries to mean something.” Audiences ask for violence.  They ask to see the act itself out of morbid curiosity, something the entertainment industry has exploited in numbing volumes. When Lynch gives his viewers nothing more than screams, he makes the scene visceral, taps into a universal expression of pain while escaping the visual clichés that make its consumption less painful.

Because of Lynch, I can feel for Miriam when she locks herself inside the trailer, and because of Wallace, I understand why. I can’t help but watch and wonder what Wallace would have thought of the newest season of Twin Peaks . As violent as Lynch’s movies are, Twin Peaks: The Return is like watching Lynch’s dissertation on the depiction of violence. And he transfers raw emotion better than he ever has.