By Bruce Jacobs

“You Know When The Men Are Gone”
By Siobhan Fallon
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam ($23.95, 223 pp.)

For the longest time (literally), the United States has been fighting two wars against ill-defined enemies in places very few of us have visited. In today’s wars, our soldiers work their tours more to avoid death and dismemberment from “devices” than to engage uniformed adversaries. Success for today’s soldier is returning from Iraq or Afghanistan in one piece with all parts working…not beating an enemy into surrender.

As we know from Homer long ago, war is not just about Odysseus and his heroic Trojan battles, but also about his long voyage back home…and all the Penelope’s waiting anxiously for his return with loyalty, domesticity, bravery, and agile wits.

Siobhan Fallon has captured the Penelope’s of our modern wars in her first collection of loosely linked stories called “You Know When the Men are Gone.” A military wife who has lived on the home front of Fort Hood during two of her husband’s deployments to Iraq, she knows the people and the terrain. She knows them so well that her short vignettes of life on the base take us as much into the nature of soldiers as they do into the uprooted lives of the families who stay behind.

Going and Coming Back

Many of Fallon’s stories focus on those difficult moments when soldiers leave or on the military’s attempt to create momentous homecomings when they return. She paints these small dramas into larger visions: “The buses were blue. There was a long line of them lurking, heaving in that big circus-animal way, giving off exhaust, shuddering, making their presence known, devouring the scant minutes left to the families…Six hundred uniformed soldiers gathered into a sea of digitized green…at attention behind the red banner of unit colors, then march[ed] themselves into the waiting buses.”

Happy Homecomings?

Even when Fallon’s stories describe a happy homecoming, they also note how the tenacious bond of a soldier’s loyalty to his unit is reinforced by pressure from the brass to re-up, and so that moment of happy relief can turn back into one of anxiety about the next departure. We hear the voices of those left behind in Iraq taunting those who want to get out: “Can’t imagine why a fast-tracking soldier such as yourself would do that when the civilian job market is headed the wrong way down a one-way…how else you gonna have an opportunity to be a goddamned hero?”

Too often the happy homecoming signifies the unhappy end of a family, as the reality of war experienced by soldiers is too much for a fragile long-distance marriage. “Who was this man in her living room? This stranger who put Carla through the toughest year of her life while he was in another country, then continued to tear everything apart when he returned?”

And it is only worse when they return bearing serious wounds, “battered soldiers leaning forward with sweat on their foreheads, all of them wondering if their wives would be waiting, and if they were, how long would they stick around when they saw the burn scars, the casts, the missing bits and pieces that no amount of Star Wars metal limbs could make up for.”

Gold Star

In the last story, Gold Star (a military euphemism for the widow of a soldier killed in action), one such wounded man meets with a young widow still grieving over her lost husband and what’s left of her own life. He offers to help: “I’m pretty busted up but I can still take out the garbage and open jars of pasta sauce or whatever it is they say men can do better than women.”

As it is, she only wants to be held for a moment by a man in uniform – “knowing this man was not her husband, that her husband was never coming back, but for now she was as close to him as she could get and she would not let him go.”

As sad as these stories are, they are also filled with the quiet courage of those families left on barren military bases in crappy military housing who wait calmly for their soldier’s return and always sound cheerful when he calls or emails.

There are many heroes in “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” and Fallon takes us into the very center of their daily lives – lives of shopping the commissary, changing diapers, trimming the scorched Texas lawn, and baking cookies to be sent overseas. War may indeed be hell, but it is as much a struggle for those who loyally stay behind to wait, as for those who board the shuddering blue buses for deployment.

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