Describing My Experiences in Afghanistan—in 6 Words

Defined by limitation, urgent in its economy of language, the six-word story is a useful medium for chronicling individual experiences of war. 
Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.

The six-word story--legendarily but probably falsely attributed to Hemingway -- has since inspired imitators, creating a new genre of writing. Like a tweet or a haiku, the six-word story is defined by limitation, urgent in its economy of language.

Six words.

In July of 2010, walking off the bus after returning from Afghanistan, I never imagined being able to describe my war in six neatly packaged words.

It's three years later and I find myself obsessively racking my mind for every horrible moment that I spent overseas, proceeding to cut away the fat until I have six shining words that say all that I want.

The most recent iteration of the six-word story trend is Six Word War, a Kickstarter project started by two West Point graduates, Mike Nemeth and Shaun Wheelwright. "Describe a 15-month combat deployment, all the firefights and anguish and boredom, in just six words," is how the challenge was framed by Stars and Stripes, a newspaper covering the project.

"Dustoff is inbound, keep him awake."

That's my best thus far.

Matt had multiple gunshot wounds in the arm. Dark red blood seeped through his uniform and onto the brass-covered earth.

A dog barked in the distance as the sun dropped from the horizon, the dull thud of rotor blades mixed in with the echoes of a distant firefight.

Matt had received a large amount of morphine and showed clear signs of shock. The medevac helicopter -- call sign "Dustoff" -- was fifteen minutes away.

The corpsman told me to keep him awake until the helicopter arrived.

"Dustoff is inbound, keep him awake." It was my six-word war.

Whether it's sitting across the table from your mother and articulating what combat has done to her son or putting pen to paper, the desire to explain is always there. Our generation has failed to yet write its definitive account and so the six-word war finds its place in the margins somewhere between a Facebook post and a manuscript.

The stories I've read run the gamut between arresting and hilarious. Some themes cling to that residue of combat, that bad taste left in your mouth after the smell of cordite clears and the only evidence of a struggle are a few bloody bandages blowing aimlessly around a landing zone.

Loss, grief, fear, and doubt. Themes Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen monopolized to define the "lost generation" of World War I veterans are instead being chronicled and disseminated in the twenty-first century by the everyman.

The people submitting these stories do not all call themselves writers. They're veterans with folksy descriptions like "regular guy" and "just another American," and like moths to the flame are flocking to Tumblr and Twitter to tell their stories.

Presented by

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a former Marine and writer living in Washington, D.C.

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