After graduating from Vassar College in 1991, where he majored in Studio Art, Benjamin Busch did an unusual thing for someone of his milieu: He joined the Marines. During his 16-year service, he went on two tours of duty in the Iraq War, earning a Bronze Star. Between tours, he did something equally unusual for a military officer: acting, most famously portraying police officer Anthony Colicchio on the HBO series The Wire.
He also began to write, publishing essays in Harper’s, The Daily Beast and other prominent outlets: work that garnered him two nominations for Pushcart Prize essay awards. As if that isn’t accomplishment enough, in 2011 he wrote, directed and produced the short film Bright. Now Busch has published a memoir titled Dust to Dust, a project that was spurred by two life-altering events: his return from Iraq in 2005 and shortly after, the death of both his father (novelist Frederick Busch) and mother.
Now on a national book tour, Busch, who grew up in rural upstate New York, will be giving a reading at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on Sunday, April 15, beginning at 4 o’clock, as well as Vassar College’s Rosenwald Film Theater on Thursday, April 19. The Vassar reading starts at 5:30 p.m. and will be preceded by a book-signing at the Theater starting at 4:30 p.m. For more information, call 437-5370. Alm@nac’s Lynn Woods recently talked briefly with Busch by phone:
It’s unusual for an Art major to join the military. What prompted your decision?
When I was very young I was this martial creature, as well as an artist. Many people would think those two professions were entirely in conflict with one another, or very disparate. I always felt them to be intertwined in my life. I was fiercely both those things, and each relied on the other to be effective. For example, my sense of organization and purpose I found in the military is greatly allied with how I approach art. My art was born of endless fascination and a real obsession with my environment and expression of my place in it, which, when I was in the military, was very helpful: I had a heightened awareness of my environment when I was under threat.
There was a big difference in mindset between your first tour of duty and your second. What were those differences, and how do you account for them?
The simple wearing of a protective layer affected how I thought of myself. In my first tour, I carried myself as if I were invulnerable, because invulnerability was expected of me. As a Marine, I was the mast [the other soldiers] looked to. If I would be unsettled, the entire unit would be unsettled. I believed myself to be immortal. I wasn’t careless, but after a while you believe your own myth.
On the second tour I was wounded within the first two weeks. It was a vicious environment to be in. Death was a constant. I was so convinced I would be killed; my position put me out there an awful lot. In Ramadi, the belief that I was doomed also created no anxiety. You are immortal or you are doomed, but both situations give you no say in your fate. The first produced a certain confidence. In the second, if you’re doomed you don’t have a whole lot of worry. Once you feel you won’t have the ability to escape that fate, fear has no value to it. Fear is a gift your body has…in Ramadi in 2005, there was no way to be steered away from harm’s way. The worse thing would be to be afraid, because it would be constant. Many of us adapted to the idea that death wasn’t the thing we feared.
You didn’t die. What was it like returning to civilian life?
There was an adjustment. I went from being an artist in a liberal institution to being a warrior in a Spartan group without any adjustment, except for some hair loss. [In Iraq,] we had such focus: My awareness of my environment was incredibly heightened. Every day we had specific things we were trying to do. There was such urgency. We were constantly in motion, and there was this constancy of purpose. When I got out and came back home, there was none of that. The environment was slack, and the tension was absent; that was a very hard adjustment to make. I was annoyed I didn’t have this purpose or urgency or mutual courtesy. It was kind of like being on the Moon, where your body is too light and the air is too thin.
Afterwards, though, you were so productive. How did you cope?
I just began to build myself into someone who was always working. I was always driving…I did find that expression in myself. Hiding inside characters was something I always enjoyed, and had done after my first tour in the Marines. I was in the Reserves for a good deal of time, which is when I could pursue photography, film and acting. I began to do those things slowly, and initially didn’t pursue writing, except for doing scripts.
The book and writing emerged later. Actually it was because of the war: When I was in Iraq, writing letters home was the only form of expression available to me. I finally discovered the capacity of language to transfer the inner thoughts of experience. It was the beginning of my prose voice and my understanding of language. I grew up in a house of words, but I wasn’t a writer or reader. My father had an absolute reverence for books and my mother was a librarian, but I couldn’t be nailed down to read books. I had his respect but not his appreciation.
What’s unique about Dust to Dust? Would you call it a war memoir?
This book has war in it, but it’s a very new design for a memoir. It’s not a war memoir. I’m trying to discuss these universal observations, about life, the endurance of memory, childhood, war and mortality, all in a very new structure. It’s something that builds by themes towards the conclusion; you pick up clues as you read.
Was it difficult to write?
Some of it was. Some deals with my childhood and the distant past, which directly brings me to my parents, whom I’ve lost. What I found in those memories is that I could restore them and bring them back to life. They’re in my head. Hopefully the book is the story of its reader: As people read it, my hope is that the way I’ve designed it, my memories will awaken the memories of the reader. Instead of learning about me, it’ll take them back to their stories.
So is the book partly a tribute to the power of memory?
When I lost my parents, I had just come back from my second tour of duty. I’d been dipped in a lot of blood and loss. When I got home it was on my daughter’s first birthday, and she didn’t know who I was. She was beginning her childhood. Very quickly after that I lost my father and then my mother. I’d had enough of death. When I began to think about what loss is, the fact I didn’t have them anymore, it was memory that gave me my parents back. That’s what I think the book will bring out for a lot of people: that they carry their childhood in their memories. It’s a memoir for all of us that I just happened to write.
Did you discover something unexpected about your childhood in writing about it?
When we’re children, we expect our parents to be immortal. We believe ourselves to be immortal. Mortality and immortality are what the book’s struggles are about. In my late 30s, I disbelieved the death of my parents. The child in me kept saying, “It’s impossible my parents are dead,” even though that’s not rational. The child’s beliefs live in us, and they can make us defiant in the face of the evidence because of that love.
How long will you be on your book tour?
I’m going to 197 cities, and it will last through October. I’ve just done my 16th reading. I want to meet as many readers as possible, so I’m going to as many cities as possible.