By Daniel Rothberg
A 21-year-old drives through Tonopah, switching between Michelob and Copenhagen, three nights before his second deployment in Iraq. A platoon leader divides an Iraqi city north and south. He calls the areas AO Reno and AO Vegas. Johnson says to Pierce, “I know your wife was party to your game in Vegas.” They call him “Battle Born” from “nowhere” Battle Mountain.
The characters in Caleb Cage’s recent short story collection, “Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada,” carry Nevada with them to Iraq and carry Iraq home with them to Nevada. Cage, who leads the Nevada Division of Emergency Management and serves as the state’s Homeland Security Advisor, uses these characters to explore how two disparate lands reflect one another.
At 24 years old, Cage, a Sparks native, led a platoon in Baqubah during the early days of the Iraq War. Throughout the stories, Cage subtly compares and contrasts the two deserts, how they are often misunderstood and disorienting. After a reading at the Writer’s Block bookstore in downtown Las Vegas this week, he told an audience that he started thinking about these concepts during his first deployment.
“Some pretty heady things for a 24-year-old were all happening in this great desert over there” he said. “I started thinking about misunderstanding cultures and how in my opinion, people largely misunderstand Nevada culture as the 4.2 miles of county property in the center of the city. There is a lot more to the state than that… It’s very much the same in the Middle East.”
Weeks after he got out of the Army, Cage started working in state government first as a senior policy advisor to the lieutenant governor, then as the director of the Nevada Office of Veterans Services. “Desert Mementos,” which was published by the University of Nevada Press, is his second book. Cage’s first book, “The Gods of Diyala” is a memoir about fighting the insurgency.
The Nevada Independent met with Cage, 38, before the reading Wednesday to discuss his story collection, how fiction gets at truths about war and the meaning of service in a democracy.
All the stories include references to Nevada. I’m curious what Nevada meant to you before you were deployed, while you were deployed and then after you were deployed.
When I was 18, like a lot of 18 year olds, it was just time to move on. I knew I would have an Army commitment after my time at West Point… By the time I became a junior in college — once it was time to make the commitment to the Army for the next seven years and I knew I wouldn’t really be going back for seven more years — I became enamored with Nevada… To me, it’s this amazing place, a wildly misunderstood place, this place that people [often] think of as that 4.2 miles of Las Vegas known as the Strip. But it’s really so much more than that.
Given the somewhat similar topographies of Iraq and Nevada, did that influence how you reflected on Nevada during your deployment? The title sort of alludes to that.
The desert there is a much different desert. I think Afghanistan — and I never served in Afghanistan — is much closer to the high desert that we have here. For me, it was more about comparing and contrasting the people [and misunderstandings we have] of those two deserts. The people of Iraq who we were there to protect, but who didn’t always trust us and we didn’t always trust them. Whatever good we did for the local community was often undone, either by us or by the enemy, and that created barriers to understanding the local complexities of the Iraqi people—the diversity of their cultural, religious, and political views, and so on. And then that sense of misunderstanding that I think is applied to Nevada a lot as well. Reno 911 and a lot of the literature that talks about either these trailer developments or the Strip.
You talk about those misunderstandings in your book.
This is a cliché, and the cliché is that “I learned we are all the same. We are all people.” And I don’t mean to say it in such a tortured way. But to look at how misunderstood folks in Nevada can be. And if you read the literature of Claire Watkins or Lee Barnes, Willy Vlautin, the people in these books are just super sad, depressed, and they live these just horrific lives a lot of times… Those same stories could be told for the people in these cities of Iraq. They’ve lived, at this point, with 10, 12 years of war. Then back in the 80s, they lived with 10, 12 years of war.
I say in the introduction to the book that the comparison and the contrast between these two experiences amount to a matter of perspective. The kid in a story, like [Las Vegas-based writer] Laura McBride’s “We Are Called to Rise,” who might be experiencing neglect, abuse, or worse, probably feels desperate, frustrated, stressed, and so on. Though in reality it may be a much worse environment, a kid growing up in a war zone feels these same things. That’s a part of what I am trying to say: these experiences may be different in terms of degree and perspective, but our reactions to them can be the same or similar.
The book doesn’t make these guys heroes. It doesn’t really attempt to glorify them in a way a lot of war writing does. There are definitely acts of heroism. But these guys are also joking around and doing things that are kind of dickish. I’m curious why you wanted to write stories like that rather than what you sometimes see in war literature…
A chest-beating, patriotism thing?
That’s not a book I want to read. I don’t think it’s accurate. I consider myself to be a patriotic person. I served in the military because I believed it was something I could do. There was a sense of purpose and duty, a sense of service — and this fits into our broader national conversations right now. I don’t think that that means everything has to be perfect and unquestioned.
[The book shows] a realistic perspective, from my perspective — people can disagree all day long — of what these folks were doing there. Even these small acts of dehumanization of the “enemy” that were included. They were very passive. [Characters referred] to the Muslim people who were going into the mosque as hajji. It’s not offensive coming from a fellow Muslim but it’s definitely a dismissive pejorative.
That’s what I saw. As a platoon leader, that’s what I was a part of. I don’t put that out there to shame or dishonor any of the guys. All the guys I served with are guys I truly consider to be heroes. But I think the interesting thing is, if you talk to any of them, they would never say, ‘I’m one of those heroes that you’re talking about.’ They’re uncomfortable with that. To me, I would much rather write a story about some of the mundane things or some of the real human things. A guy torturing another guy in the desert to settle a score with another soldier who slept with his wife… I wanted to tell the war as I saw it and experienced it.
What about for the reader? I’ve never experienced war and most Americans haven’t, at home or deployed abroad. What types of stories do you think are important for people like me to read to better understand the war? And did that influence your writing?
Mostly what I want people to do is pick it up and be challenged… I want everyone to be challenged and challenge their perspectives, challenge the hero narratives that maybe inform their sense of why people serve. And it’s not to diminish anybody’s service. I don’t have a right to do that or a desire [to do that]. But [I want] to say it’s complex. It’s a human enterprise. At the end of the day, you’ve got good and bad and in between and most of it is in between.
Why is that important though for the larger national conversation and for lack of a better term, the military-civilian divide?
It is all about the civil-military divide. We’ve never had a time when we went to war with an all volunteer force before… That divide has had a huge impact on our foreign policy and how we use the military. And I think it’s also had a huge impact on our society right now. You can see it going on. Any debate that’s about patriotism becomes one about military service. They wouldn’t call themselves heroes, but I think there are a whole bunch of heroes — civilians and first responders — who just took care of this terrible incident in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. [Patriotism] is a broader term than that. If we can have a conversation about it, especially one where we are willing to challenge our narratives, then we might be able to ideally prevent this sort of thing from happening again. I think there is a role for the military and I think there is a role for a military option, but it comes pretty far down the list.
How do you think civilians can serve their country or be engaged in a positive way?
When we are at our healthiest, individuals get to decide what they think patriotism or service is, and they get to live that out however they want… This is a huge part of the institutional framework of our country and I hope that continues to be the case. I think it will be. I’m hopeful that there’s a big resurgence of people saying, ‘What am I good at and how can I contribute to something bigger than myself.’ … What I would like to see us do is take it to the next step and that is be really willing to sacrifice for those things that we believe in. You have some folks who are out there doing that for sure. But we can be informed and we can be angry and we can go blow up Twitter, but nothing changes as long as we, as individuals within our society, are not willing to put any skin in.
What would be an example of that?
You have a United States senator who basically resigned [this week]. You have a football player who is taking a huge hit to his career for a stance that he believes is worth fighting for. And those are people, let’s be honest, with a lot of options. They are going to be OK. But they have a platform and they are willing to use that platform for something that they believe in. It would have been much easier for [Arizona Sen.] Jeff Flake to play ball. I have huge admiration for what he did. Same with Colin Kaepernick. Historically, it has been much easier to follow the rules and go with the flow.
Especially when the president is tweeting about you.
Right. And knowing full well that the president’s engagement is probably going to have an impact on viewership and that’s probably going to have an impact on your hireability in the future and all sorts of things. Those are two examples that come to mind. Of course, very quickly, you are for or against them. I have my own opinions about them but I’m for them taking a risk and standing up for what they believe. But I think you see people do these things every day.
What was the spark that prompted you to write the book?
I’ll be honest, this comes from a long-standing denial of things like PTSD. I’ve evolved away from denial about that. But I think that my writing, whether it was the memoir or this collection of stories, were attempts to get a better understanding [of the war]. Even if I denied that there was even such a thing as post-traumatic stress disorder, I knew that there were things about me that were incredibly different from before. I wanted to understand what those were… In general, I’ve always wanted to write but I think that’s what’s kept the focus on these wars and my experience in them. These stories are fiction but they deal with real things and reflect real feelings that I’ve had or know people who have had as well. So [writing was about] trying to find a way to access those.”
And fiction can do that in a way war journalism and nonfiction can’t?
What fiction does is it allows you to empathize with the characters no matter who they are. Matt Gallagher [another Reno-based writer and veteran] is great at trying to actually write from the Iraqi perspective. Some journalism does that for sure. But to put it easily, for half the country, that sounds like the liberal media bias at work when there’s real value in that. Or if you cover the soldier’s perspective and it’s all heroic, that’s written off in the same way. These things are complex.
Especially when there are credibility issues with nonfiction. As you said, people just dismiss it as ‘this is a liberal talking point or this is a conservative talking point.’
Fiction also allows people to drop the presumption of truth… It allows people to explore the human side of these things a little deeper. It gives people access to [the war] who wouldn’t typically have access to it — the civilian public who has never been there. They’re going to have their opinions. But how do they [express them]? Oftentimes, you’ll talk to folks and they’ll just defer… What we want to do is have a conversation, and these are attempts to start that conversation.
What should that conversation be?
The most important conversation should be: What are we willing to go to war for?… And I think that conversation includes questions like, what is important? What are American values? What do we value enough to protect with our military strength? What are we willing to sacrifice?… That conversation should be about those things. It should be about the civil-military divide. It should be about what I think… is a dangerous sense of lionizing people in the military.
A lot of what we’re talking about revolves around asking these tough questions and having a public debate. Yet we also hear rhetoric where people are basically saying that the military is untouchable. These leaders are untouchable. Don’t question them.
I think that’s problematic… That actually gets to what I think is a problematic future in some respects. There is this lionizing of the military in a lot of respects. And look, I served with a lot of people who deserve a tremendous amount of respect for stuff they’ve done. But part of the problem that can come from this, as you pointed out, is we start to get into a military class and… our democracy is challenged so much that we get out of the civilian leadership of the military and something closer to really allowing a ruling class in some sense. I don’t think we’re there.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
I want us to question what we think about these wars, what we think we know about them and why we believe what we believe. I think we could have more wars like these in the future. And I think that that’s problematic. I think we should learn something from these wars as a society, that there are costs, not just on the battlefield but after. That these things really have an impact on people. They certainly had a big impact on me.
Are you planning on writing something else?
I kind of alluded to it earlier. For a very long time, I had the belief — I call myself a PTSD denier. I had the idea that it was another excuse or another way to victimize people or create victims of people. I couldn’t explain some of the significant issues I was having. And over time, I started changing my narrative about PTSD… I really found myself at a crisis point in my life and saying ‘OK, you’re not being the person you need to be or that other people think you are. And how do we figure this thing out?’ I started to come around on that right around when I took this job, which took me from 0 to 60 very quickly. And it really pushed me to the point of you really have to address this… I’m going to write that story I think. I don’t know if I’ll ever publish it. But I need to write it.
This Q&A, based on an interview and a follow-up email conversation, was edited for clarity.