New Memoir Breaks From Tradition
By Timothy Gillis
Benjamin Busch, author of “Dust to Dust,” a remarkable new book on life and death, peace and war, braved Hurricane Sandy Monday night to read at Longfellow Books to a handful of brave souls. The non-fiction work may speak about “ordinary things” like the “adventures of childhood and the revelations of adulthood,” but this is not your mother’s memoir.
Busch has been to 47 states, promoting the new book, in between the continued pursuit of a varied career in film, art, photography, and writing. Busch spoke this week between setting up an art installation in New York City and heading to Maine to talk about his book.
“It’s all about finding our place in the world, with readers turning away from my story and into themselves,” he said.That ideal hope may be hard for many readers to fulfill, as his story is captivating in detailed imagery and compelling in wartime narrative.
Compared to a combination of Tim O’Brien and Annie Dillard, Busch’s book weaves war scenes from Iraq during the deadliest days of Operation Freedom with youthful meditations on a life in nature in Michigan and Maine.
He spent several summers here in Maine, roaming the rocky coast in boyhood quests for natural combatants. As a kid, he remembers his family would stop in Freeport and then push on to Machias and Cutler, to discover what he called “the American shore.” Those early forages into Maine’s watery wilderness stayed with him, he said, and kept him calm and focused during the most dangerous moments of combat.
“Maine does something with space. There’s a literate section, and then there are vast other portions, with people working, going day to day,” Busch said.
Son of the noted novelist, Frederick Busch, the young Benjamin always seemed destined to a literary life. But early on, his sense of adventure pulled him from the desk and into the outdoors.
“Maine has a sense of isolation that’s startling. One gets a distance by going to the rocky coast, where the sea mashes into earth. It’s the middle of everything in the universe.That’s what I love about Maine,” he said.
Sections of his book are broken into elemental topics like “Water,” that features him as a kid trying to change a river’s direction to build a waterfall because an old-timertold him that trout love it. Another section called “Metal” has him trying to build a plane to fly home to Maine from an England that treats him as an outsider, with kids in school calling him Yank.
In a section called “Soil,” he moves from the cellar he’s exploring as a married traveler to a bunker he’s investigating in Iraq that brings with it far weightier consequences of the search. In another section called “Bone,” he tells of an early love for football as a rite of passage, with its helmets and pads like armor. He hit the field before a game, his “blood was rich with something like growing up.” (Dust to Dust, page 147) That same game saw painful disillusion replace feelings of immortality, as he left the game with a serious leg injury.
Busch is visual artist, a photographer, and film director. He played the role of Officer Anthony Colicchio on the HBO series “The Wire” and has appeared on “Homicide,” “The West Wing,” and “Generation Kill.” His writing has been featured in Harper’s and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He has also been a guest commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered.
But most pointedly for this book, Busch was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer who served two combat tours in Iraq.In 2003, he was the Commanding Officer of Delta Company, 4th LAR Battalion, mobilized by Executive Order 13223, Presidential Recall, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and deployed to Kuwait and Iraq for action in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Phase III Combat Operations and Phase IV Security and Stabilization Operations.
“In war, you’re in a suspended state, despite how close you are to the war. You have to suspect everyone,’ Busch said. “Frankly, it’s about self-preservation. If you’re worried about not dying, you can’t fight. You sever almost everything. You are under threat all the time, so you have to be bold.”
Busch trained for fourteen years before he saw action. “My skill set was pretty good. I was a dangerous individual if it came down to that. But death is random in war. My best friend in Iraq – near to in front of me – I watched his vehicle blow up, not because I had a particular prowess. They just picked him.”
He has a serene fatalism about himself, and a brief phone call expanded into a long discussion on life, death, war, and our place in it, even if we never put on a uniform or see combat. He sees his near-death experiences as comparable to the daily mishaps we all make that could become fatal.
“If a sniper misses me, it’s because he missed. He misjudged my speed when aiming at me. The randomness of war requires so much suspension of disbelief of how much you contribute to your own circumstances,” he said.“I got strangely calm during action.”
In 2005, he returned to action, and was deployed to Iraq as a Civil Affairs Team Leader, Team 1, Detachment 3, 5th CAG in direct support of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines at Camp Hurricane Point, Ar Ramadi, Iraq.
The second tour was much like the first, in the day-to-day details of a constantly imperiled life, but the greater picture started to become clearer. Now looking back, he is able to focus on philosophy.
“Vets ask, ‘So, how’s the war with you?’ They don’t mean how am I feeling, physically. They are asking how my head is,” he said. “With Vietnam vets, whatever happened took twenty years, took up a lot of storage space.”
Each section of the book is chronological, with the action moving from boyish outings and conflicts with neighbors and nature to action with his Marine troop in Iraq.
“The book builds up to prepare you for what is coming. I’m the messenger. It’s not my story. It’s the story of us, of all of us,” he said.
In 2007, Busch was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and his decorations include the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart medals. While his military life might have gone the way of many other heroes, his written reflections on it are quite distinct.
The book breaks entirely away from convention, with little biographical material about family and friends. “If you go into the book as if it’s a standard memoir, it’s the wrong idea. To describe what family is thinking is fiction. The portrait is from my perspective, but it’s not a portrait of me.”
Busch says he doesn’t get into a tell-all about his love life. “I didn’t write about girlfriends. They’re not elemental. Girlfriends are not part of the landscape. They’re just something that happens to you.”
Busch read Monday from “Dust to Dust” and talked about his vast experiences and how they may relate to each of us. He says, “I hope what I do (in the book) gets your seeing into yourself. It’s a trigger.”
He gave a free copy of his father’s last book, “A Memory of War,” as well as his film “Bright,” to each person who faced the elements and attended his talk.