Will Mackin has probably read a lot of Tim O’Brien (National Book Award-winning author of The Things They Carried). His debut story collection, Bring Out the Dog, is set in the familiar counter-insurgency backdrop of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, and plays with the idea of story truth. That is, Mackin’s stories, while fictional, are rendered in such a way that we know they hint at something very real—how war impacts the human psyche.
Through straight-forward prose, Mackin examines the logic behind the past two decades of violence and war. The result is an immensely satisfying exploration of absurd reality. More precisely, Mackin’s work tackles the broader existential question on everyone’s mind: what happens to soldiers who deploy to the same places over and over and over and over again?
His first story, “The Lost Troop” follows a squad of highly trained special forces operators left to their own devices in a remote Afghan outpost. The squad is suddenly confronted with a deafening silence: “It was like peace had broken out and nobody’d told us.” This is where the story begins to get a little weird. The team decides to help their Afghan translator Joe exact revenge on a childhood foe. In their pursuit of a new enemy, Joe’s boyhood rival transforms into a metaphor. He starts to represent the unsolved problems each soldier has left back home.
This is the way all his stories seem to reveal themselves. What happens next always a bit too bizarre to re-tell. Yet, the matter-of-fact way Mackin relates his story truths feels almost too convincing to be unreal. Anyone who has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and read the book will tell you, this is the kind of shit that could really happen over there.
I first ran across Mackin’s stories in The New Yorker last summer, where he had published a number from his book Bring Out the Dog: “Crossing a River with No Name,” “The Lost Troop,” and “Kattekoppen.” For someone sick of reading exaggerated, melodramatic war stories—where veterans are seemingly always stripped of their humanity through caricature as either victims or heroes—Mackin’s work felt like a breath of fresh air. These are not the played-out narratives pumped out by writers looking to set-up follow-on movie deals. These are stories that get at something far deeper than the big screen. These are real stories about war.