Describing My Experiences in Afghanistan—in 6 Words

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.

The six-word story--legendarily but probably falsely attributed to Hemingway -- has since inspired imitators, creating a new genre of writing. Like a tweet or a haiku, the six-word story is defined by limitation, urgent in its economy of language.

Six words.

In July of 2010, walking off the bus after returning from Afghanistan, I never imagined being able to describe my war in six neatly packaged words.

It's three years later and I find myself obsessively racking my mind for every horrible moment that I spent overseas, proceeding to cut away the fat until I have six shining words that say all that I want.

The most recent iteration of the six-word story trend is Six Word War, a Kickstarter project started by two West Point graduates, Mike Nemeth and Shaun Wheelwright. "Describe a 15-month combat deployment, all the firefights and anguish and boredom, in just six words," is how the challenge was framed by Stars and Stripes, a newspaper covering the project.

"Dustoff is inbound, keep him awake."

That's my best thus far.

Matt had multiple gunshot wounds in the arm. Dark red blood seeped through his uniform and onto the brass-covered earth.

A dog barked in the distance as the sun dropped from the horizon, the dull thud of rotor blades mixed in with the echoes of a distant firefight.

Matt had received a large amount of morphine and showed clear signs of shock. The medevac helicopter -- call sign "Dustoff" -- was fifteen minutes away.

The corpsman told me to keep him awake until the helicopter arrived.

"Dustoff is inbound, keep him awake." It was my six-word war.

Whether it's sitting across the table from your mother and articulating what combat has done to her son or putting pen to paper, the desire to explain is always there. Our generation has failed to yet write its definitive account and so the six-word war finds its place in the margins somewhere between a Facebook post and a manuscript.

The stories I've read run the gamut between arresting and hilarious. Some themes cling to that residue of combat, that bad taste left in your mouth after the smell of cordite clears and the only evidence of a struggle are a few bloody bandages blowing aimlessly around a landing zone.

Loss, grief, fear, and doubt. Themes Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen monopolized to define the "lost generation" of World War I veterans are instead being chronicled and disseminated in the twenty-first century by the everyman.

The people submitting these stories do not all call themselves writers. They're veterans with folksy descriptions like "regular guy" and "just another American," and like moths to the flame are flocking to Tumblr and Twitter to tell their stories.

"'Merica solution to a Pashtun problem."

"We came, we saw, we misconquered."

"Built expensive gym just before withdrawal."

"Returned. Son didn't recognize me anymore."

The stories resonate with their fellow combatants and with civilians alike. Journalists like Rajivv Chandrasakaran and Hannah Allam have taken up the hashtag #sixwordwar as well, succinctly chronicling their perspective.

It is the human element so desperately harvested in news clips and documentaries. Here it is, served from the primary source in six digestible words.

They are quickly becoming our own epitaphs. We have no national monuments erected for our war on terror, like those strewn across the battlefields of France. No poet has yet arisen from our generation to pen a "Dulce et Decorum est." We do not know how history will remember us. For now, all we have are photos on hard drives and steel bracelets venerating the dead.

In the age of Twitter, where 140 characters are redefining how we consume nonfiction, the six-word war matters. Together the stories weave a new perspective of how my generation defines the war and warrior. A generation that is painstakingly aware of its place in the world and the consequences of its actions.

As I crafted stories over the course of a glorious Sunday on Lake Tahoe, my girlfriend, who hadn't spoken since I began muttering to myself, looked at me and said:

"Thousands of Facebook friends, feeling antisocial."

Juxtaposed, our six word stories portray radically different paths of two millenials in their early twenties, but they both accomplished the same thing: Our respective insecurities, issues, and problems were tidied up, trimmed, and dropped neatly under some proverbial Christmas tree.

For those of us who have been through the breach, check out the great things they're doing at Six Word War and submit your own. You can do it anonymously, and I promise you won't be the first who writes: "You can't spell lost without LT."

And for those who haven't been in combat, write yours down anyway. I spent the better half of an afternoon carving away at memories, stripping the layers back, and finding the reasons they were memories in the first place. The six-word story allows you one more way to understand the experiences that make up who you are.

We can't all write novels, and sometimes we can't even say what we mean, but therein lies the merit of finding your six-word war. It's painful and gratifying, but sometimes six words are all you need.

Came home. Moved on. Couldn't forget.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a former Marine and writer living in Washington, D.C.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus