Writing from the front lines

Writing from the front lines

 Office of the Dean March 30, 2020

UCI folklorist captures tales of war firsthand

By Matt Coker

When you picture an English professor, you might not picture someone who has embedded with active wartime military troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But Carol M. Burke defies such preconceptions. The professor of English at the University of California, Irvine has used her skills as a folklorist and storyteller to elucidate some of the most important and contentious topics imaginable, including war.

When Burke arrived in Afghanistan in 2010, coalition forces had been in the country for nine years, yet they still knew little about the native people surrounding them. In order to embed with the military as a cultural liaison, Burke took a year off from teaching. Her goal was to venture away from military bases and outposts and to integrate with local Afghans so that her U.S. military hosts could better understand those they were fighting for—and against.

Burke is parlaying her Afghanistan experience into her seventh book, America’s Longest War. From her cozy office in Murray Krieger Hall, where her rescue dog Molly is curled up in a corner, Burke describes America’s Longest War as a collection of first-person essays from her time embedded with two different combat units.

While in Afghanistan, she and her small team of cultural advisors sought to unearth vital information about the local population in the volatile area they were occupying. Burke went out in the field to map where members of different Afghan tribes lived, what their local histories were, and what their individual day-to-day concerns were. She discovered that small children often suffered from dysentery, so the need for clean drinking water and medical aid was critical. Illiteracy was universal; even the local mullahs in the remote areas she visited could not read.

Military brass appreciated what she was logging in her field notes, especially when it came to the different Afghans’ views of the Taliban. Most confided to Burke that they originally considered the Taliban to be radical jihadists, but as the occupation by coalition forces lingered, many viewed the Islamic fundamentalist political group as just another powerful entity to deal with. This was especially true after a four-year drought had decimated the area agriculturally. Burke discovered that for work, options for young men essentially amounted to joining the Afghan army, getting onto a police force, or going all in with the Taliban – which, of the three, paid the most and gave new recruits coveted used motorcycles as bonuses.

In addition to explaining what was on the minds of Afghan civilians, Burke found herself having to educate westerners so they would not offend the local population. She noticed that members of coalition forces would return from markets with rugs that they would position to wipe mud off their boots before entering their tents. Burke explained to them that some of those rugs were Islamic prayer rugs, and if Afghans working on the bases saw soldiers wiping mud on them, it could sow seeds of resentment that would take root in the community.    

This was not her first time on the frontlines. From the beginning of December 2008 through the end of January 2009, while America was still fighting in the Iraq War, she embedded in Northern Iraq with the U.S. Army 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. While there, she published articles on the dangers faced by local Iraqi interpreters working for American military units, on the threats to the few remaining independent journalists working in northern Iraq, and on the U.S. Army’s controversial Human Terrain System. Now defunct, the Human Terrain System had placed anthropologists and other scholars within military units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Her dedication to storytelling, in even the riskiest situations, can be traced to her roots.

Burke grew up in a small town in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York, where a mining company owned the village school, the general store, the gas station, and all the residences, whether they were apartments, bunk houses or single-family homes. Her father, who had served as an Army infantry technical sergeant during World War II, worked for the mines as a pipefitter.

“Like many infantry soldiers, he saw a lot of combat,” Burke reveals. “He came back with probably what we now say is post-traumatic stress disorder. He never forgave himself for a friend’s dying on the battlefield.”

Her father did not survive working in the mines, dying in an accident when she was one-and-a-half years old. Her mother, who was a teacher in the mining town, suddenly became its only single parent. “Most weekends and every summer, we’d take the three-hour drive out of the mountains to a place my mother called ‘down home,’ where she and my dad had grown up on neighboring farms in the fertile St. Lawrence River valley,” Burke says. “We didn’t stay with my mom’s family; we stayed with my dad’s, a large Irish-Catholic family filled with storytellers. 

“I remember climbing into a large, worn upholstered rocker with my grandmother and asking her to retell stories that her Irish grandmother had told her, stories only she could tell and stories I delighted in no matter how many times I heard them. In the evenings, when the dishes were done and an aunt and uncle dropped by for an evening of pinochle or on Sunday after Mass, when all the relatives would come by for coffee and doughnuts, I delighted in the stories my father’s brothers and sister told about growing up with my dad. Since I had no memories of him, their stories gave definition to the character whom they recalled and whom I imagined, and filled some of the void his death had left in our family.” 

Her mother ultimately moved with her children to the next village over, 13 miles away, when Burke was 13. At Earlham College, a private liberal arts institution in Richmond, Indiana, Burke, who originally studied pre-med, switched to English because she found the latter discipline’s students much more interesting. There, despite being dyslexic, she flourished as a writer, leaning on her family’s storytelling tradition. A few of her poems were even published.

This love for writing led her to the master of fine arts program at Cornell University in the Finger Lakes region of New York. This experience set her up for odd jobs teaching and getting a book of poems published before teaching part-time at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.  Like many young writers at the time, she also worked in a program, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts called “Poets in the Schools.” While in Indiana, Burke developed a penchant for collecting the stories of others that was influenced by Bruce Jackson, the now-83-year-old folklorist and State University of New York (SUNY) Distinguished Professor. Jackson had received acclaim for recording black convict work songs and first-person stories of death-row inmates. Burke followed suit and collected similar stories from incarcerated women at Indiana Women’s Prison, which had opened in 1873 as the country’s first adult female correctional facility.

She continued this fieldwork in Maryland where she taught creative writing and literature at Goucher College while earning a Ph.D. in English, with a special field in folklore, from the University of Maryland. She eventually left Goucher for her first tenure-track job at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where there was also strong support for her research and opportunities to attend educational conferences anywhere, even abroad. “Like the prison, the service academy was a closed institution with a rich body of folklore and folk practices that scholars had neglected,” she says. “I went on to write about the ways in which tradition can offer a safe way of expressing disdain for a superior, distinguishing outsiders from insiders, and at its most misogynistic, inhibiting the assimilation of women in the ranks.”

Burke went on to collect all the military chants she could acquire, dating back to even before the Vietnam War. On file, she also has sayings, salutes, song lyrics, folk speech and stories of rites of passage like the Navy’s crossing the line ceremony. This folklore would become the basis of her book Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight: Gender, Folklore, and Changing Military Culture (Beacon Press, 2005).

Burke’s ability to tackle difficult topics with ease and bravery has sometimes resulted in blowback. But what Burke cares more about is how her writing has amplified marginalized voices. And her students respect her for it, often citing her as one of the most influential professors of their academic careers.

"Professor Burke’s class on documenting war remains one of my favorite classes that I took at UCI,” alumna Taylor Weik (B.A.s Asian American studies and literary journalism ’15) says. “Classes become much more compelling when it's clear that the professors are passionate about the subject, which Professor Burke was. She showed us films, war propaganda and articles to show us how war coverage could be biased, and to demonstrate the need for thorough research before we write anything. Her dedication to journalism and education inspired me to continue reporting after I graduated."

Speaking recently to a packed room of UCI staff and faculty about the motivations behind her storytelling pursuits, she pulled from her poetry days and spoke in the lyrical tune of a true folklorist:

“In my many years of collecting personal narratives, I have learned that storytelling is a collaborative act, that it requires the engagement of both teller and listener.

“I have learned that when people share accounts of their lives, they give the past shape and meaning. 

“I have learned that although stories can reveal, they can also conceal.

“I have learned that although not all stories are true, they all hold some meaning for the teller.

I have learned that some experiences rest on the other side of language in disconnected images that need time or a willing listener to coalesce into narrative.

“Most importantly, I have learned that stories are gifts, gifts that must be respected.”  

While Burke is putting her final touches on America’s Longest War, she’s also set her sights on a new project that explores culture and counterinsurgency from India’s post-1947 military history. In fact, she recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship hosted by the United Service Institution, a thinktank dedicated to research and writing about the Indian military and national security in New Delhi, India. In typical Burke fashion of breaking boundaries, she was the first fellow in history to be hosted there.

Photo credit: Ebrahim Safi