Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Benjamin Busch on His Gritty Iraq Memoir "Dust to Dust"


In his memoir “Dust to Dust"(Ecco, $25.99, 320pp.), the artist and filmmaker Benjamin Busch chronicles his childhood in upstate New York, his experiences in the Iraq War as a Marine and the death of his parents. Busch has thrown out the traditional chronological memoir form to break his life down into elements, including water, arms and soil.

When Busch was six or seven years old, his parents did not buy him a toy rifle, so he made his own. His rural childhood consisted of building wooden and stone forts. Despite being a studio art major in college, Busch joined the Marines. He served as an officer in South Korea, then went into the reserves. In 2003, he was in Iraq and by 2005 was fighting insurgents and dodging IEDs as a civil affairs officer in Ramadi. Not long after he returned stateside, his father Frederick Busch, the famous novelist, died suddenly of a heart attack and his mother died the next year of cancer. Through his nontraditional memoir, Busch has written a beautiful and powerful meditation on combat, profound loss and mortality.

Busch, 43, was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star in Iraq. He is also an actor, having starred in acclaimed miniseries "The Wire." Busch spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Michigan.

Q. You structure your memoir with nine chapters broken down into elements like “Blood,” “Bone” and “Metal.” Why?

A. We are so used to a memoir taking a particular form. It usually begins at a certain point and progresses to a natural conclusion later in life. I wanted my narrative to reflect as closely as possible the way I remember. It’s not a linear progression from youth to later times. I jump around when I think and I cue onto certain subjects. I knew I couldn’t do a memoir that began in one spot, referenced these things in chronological order and then just ended.

I divided the chapters into elements and then did these short progressions, usually from age six or seven, when I had my clearest first memories. Things then progressed chronologically in each chapter.

Q. In the chapter “Bone,” you go through a horrible high school football injury, then move to exhuming bodies from a mass grave in Iraq. At the end of the chapter, you are digging up old bones of slaughtered animals on your Michigan farm. What holds these pieces together?

A. My eye is in some way the constant and in spite of environment and circumstances, I still key in on very particular things. Even in war, I still noticed the soil, the Euphrates River. I still noticed the foam on the water, like I noticed things when I walked down the railroad tracks with my mother as a child. I allowed my eye to be the unifying voice. The voice ends up being visual. If I do this right, the reader should get a clear image of what I am seeing.

A. During officers’ training for the Marines, your class was surprised with a slideshow of the bodies of dead Marine lieutenants from Vietnam. What was your reaction?

A. We didn’t expect it, so it was more immediately chilling. I was happy they did it. It was not gleeful excitement, but I was looking at my future. The dead men were 23 or 24, second lieutenants and first lieutenants. No experience. Why it was a brilliant move was that it was a simple introduction to undisguised mortality. Staring at the images, I thought I was prepared for this.

(Benjamin Busch in "The Wire.")

Q. Do you see this book as a memorial to your parents and those you lost in Iraq?

A. Yes. This book is so much about memory, so much about observation and the brevity of everything. It is very much about aftermath. We struggle to ignore the fact that we are mortal beings.  I hope readers will take in the outcry to preserve what is truly us.

(Originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2012)

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