The Ghosts of Babylon: An Interview with Army Ranger Jonathan Baxter
by Scoti Domeij
Written from a fresh, bold perspective, in his new book The Ghosts of Babylon, an Army Ranger expresses the complex emotions all warriors feel while deployed and stationed at home. Jonathan Baxter paints a vivid portrait of life inside special operations through lyrical, haunting story poems. This first appeared in The Havok Journal December 11, 2016.
What is the The Ghosts of Babylon about?
The book is a series of reflections on my deployments as an Army Ranger and a security contractor.
What motivated you to write The Ghosts of Babylon?
I did not set out to write an anthology. The writing simply began to happen on its own over the course of my deployments. I was not anything special, just an average Ranger at best. My experiences were just run-of-the-mill for a member of my community. But they were my experiences and my memories, and I had to articulate them in some way, if only for myself. Now that I’m coming up on a decade of deploying as both a soldier and a civilian, I have an accumulation of material. Marty Skovlund and the team at Blackside Publishing are doing an amazing job providing a forum for the veteran community. I decided to throw my writing out there to see if it resonates with anyone else besides me.
Who will relate to your book?
Hopefully, other combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will see some of their experiences reflected in here. Perhaps some of these pieces can open a window into the “deployment lifestyle” so that family and friends of veterans can better understand what their loved ones have experienced. I also hope this book can help the civilian community as a whole better understand our veteran community beyond just the depictions in movies, TV, and news clips.
Lastly, perhaps this book can encourage other veterans to get their artwork out there. There are many veterans with creative talent, and if someone like me can write a book, perhaps that can encourage others to relate their experiences through writing, art, or another medium.
As a community, we need to start doing this. Too many of us are bottling up our emotions until it is too late. Internalization increases alienation, between the veteran and civilian worlds, as well as among veterans themselves. I suspect this is a factor in the twenty-two veteran suicides a day. Art is therapy, and I hope the next years see a renaissance in art from the veteran community.
Why is your book relevant?
Warfare and the human experience at war will always be relevant. This book is my attempt to process what I experienced, in all of its excitement, monotony, boredom, ugliness, and occasional beauty.
What writers inspired you?
Wilfred Owen is the greatest war poet of all time. He experienced war at its most obscene while serving in the trenches of WWI. My own combat experiences do not compare to his. In the time he had, before he was killed in action, he was able to bear witness to the tragedy and absurdity of war and find the broken beauty lying in the ugliness. His “Dolce et Decorum Est” lays bare the fallacies and myths of war propaganda. His “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo” represents some of the finest writing on combat and the complex and nuanced emotions warfare engenders within its practitioners.
Rudyard Kipling’s poems of the Afghan border wars and British military life hold a special place in my heart. Even though he wrote almost a century ago, the nature of military service has not changed in the least. And Afghanistan has never changed…at all…ever. I doubt it ever will. The poem he wrote of the young British soldier dying on the plains of Afghanistan is as relevant now as it was one hundred years ago.
I think James Elroy Flecker may have influenced me to a certain extent. He was not a combat veteran, but he was dying of tuberculosis when he did some of his writing. The omnipresence of mortality and the desperate preciousness of life hang in his writing, and that definitely resonated with me. He also was adept at evoking the mystique of central Asia and the Middle East. For those of us who have travelled to those ancient places, there is definitely mystery buried there with all the history. I tried to touch on that in some of my pieces.
Why did you choose to write poetry?
I believe poetry is the most immediate of all the literary forms. It has the ability to distill the essence of an experience and articulate it more succinctly and directly than the other genres. Good poetry can transcend the boundaries of time and place and play upon our memories, our word associations, and our emotional “wiring” to produce a unique, immersive, and evocative reading experience. That’s what I was aiming for…whether or not I attained this is up to our readership to decide.
When did you start writing?
I started writing seriously about seven years ago after my third deployment. I’ve been at it since then, over the course of ten more military and civilian deployments. It helps pass the time, if nothing else….
What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
Cutting away all the layers of pretension and trying to lay out oneself in all of one’s vulnerabilities and fears. And then realizing other people are going to read it.
Do you read much and who are your favorite writers?
Yes. In no particular order: Joseph Conrad, John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, Tennessee Williams, Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Wilfred Owen, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, James Elroy Flecker, William Shakespeare. And Stephen King. I like the spooky stuff.
The DD-214: The “Holy Grail” of the out-processing quest, received upon separation. The discharge document that chronicles one’s military career, schools, awards, deployments, and time in service.
I receive my DD-214 as a reprieve
from the fat black woman behind the desk
and place it with the rest of my papers I have gathered
that were scattered like Easter Eggs
hidden around Soldier’s Plaza
in one blow-out extravaganza
The thick folder I hold here is my monument
to the acquisition of all my separation documents
Running in the rain through the street
hunting signatures like I once hunted HVTs
kicking down doors
blowing past bored civilian employees
chasing down that DD-214
And I got it. I’m done. Nothing Follows.
My DD-214 is pretty modest indeed
My six year career fits almost completely on one sheet
A few sentences spill over onto the second
bookended by: //NOTHING FOLLOWS
The six deployments fit into one box
a jumble of numbers, lines and dots
I sift through the dates
each recounting a different place in my life
That one was my first
That one there was the worst
We lost Ricky there
That one was my first to Afghanistan
the land where time began
That one was my favorite and
I hoist my giant folder
and make my way to the door and homeward
Clutching my beret, I head into the rain
trying to keep the papers dry inside my jacket
protecting the one and a quarter page testament
to whatever the past six years meant:
boredom, tedium, fear
anxiety, imposed celibacy
separation, sexual frustration
physical exhaustion, a few brief moments of fulfillment
those times you were God for a minute
Tonight I’ll get drunk and moody with some of my buddies
Pitch myself a little pity party
For now I get in my car and start driving to a new horizon
Here’s the freedom that you dreamed of for the past few years
but why does the sky appear so empty now?
Empty like the second page of my discharge document
ending in that final and hollow statement: