>

Exploring the art of prose

Menu

What They Didn’t Teach Us by Luke Whisnant


“What They Didn’t Teach Us” by Luke Whisnant is one of four winners of the Editors’ Choice Round from the 2019 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest. Our editors chose four pieces that showcase some of the range of forms and styles in flash fiction.


In “What They Didn’t Teach Us,” Luke Whisnant deploys impeccable collective first-person narration—the reader is complicit in the conflict; there is no “fourth wall” when it comes to the use of military force. This microfiction takes the list form, using repetition and syntax to vacillate the narrative voice from bravado to dread, from pride to disenfranchisement. Whisnant uses language meticulously in this micro, layering meaning and theme and sparing none from this web of collusion (see his author’s note for more on language and its misuse, its “debasement”). —CRAFT


 

They taught us how to kill with assault weapons, bayonets, bare hands. They taught us the lay of the land, how to navigate by rivers and stars, how to use cover to outflank enemy operatives, how to make a surprise attack against a heavily defended position. They taught us the procedure for poisoning the water with coal ash. We learned to napalm the trees, scorch the already blackened earth. We learned how to pour salt in the wounds, how to twist a metaphor, how to dissemble while smiling into the cameras. They taught us corrosion, shock and awe, how to clog the system, how to throw the optimum-sized spanner in the works. They taught us to find the choke points, the system backdoors and vulnerable patches; they taught us black ops, bait and switch, tea-bagging, rat-fucking, denial of service. We unframed the necessary questions. We disseminated fake news. We learned to steal without getting caught: to skim off the top, set up offshore accounts, access off-the-books funds, divert resources; we learned to exploit the dark web, to lift a sleeping hen off her eggs and leave no feather ruffled. They taught us to take it all, every last bit of it. The one thing they didn’t teach us was how to put any back when we realized we had more than we needed.

 


LUKE WHISNANT’s In the Debris Field won the 2018 Bath Flash Fiction International Novella-in-Flash Award. His other books include the novel Watching TV with the Red Chinese and the short story collection Down in the Flood; his latest collection, The Connor Project, is forthcoming from Iris Press in 2020. He teaches at East Carolina University, in Greenville, NC, where he also edits the journal Tar River Poetry.

 

Author’s Note

Some writers begin with character, some with theme, some with plot. I almost always begin with language. While writing “What They Didn’t Teach Us” I had two bits of language in mind: “collateral damage”—since the 1960s a favorite military euphemism for killing civilians—and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a sickening obfuscation used by the Bush administration to disguise torture. Neither of these phrases made it into the story, but they’re lurking in the margins.

The first time I read this piece to an audience I unexpectedly found myself almost shaking with anger. As so many people have noted, we’re now in a period of Orwellian Newspeak. I hope that “What They Didn’t Teach Us” catches some of the current administration’s obscene debasement of language, their rapaciousness—taking and destroying and monetizing everything in reach—and their cruelty.

 


LUKE WHISNANT’s In the Debris Field won the 2018 Bath Flash Fiction International Novella-in-Flash Award. His other books include the novel Watching TV with the Red Chinese and the short story collection Down in the Flood; his latest collection, The Connor Project, is forthcoming from Iris Press in 2020. He teaches at East Carolina University, in Greenville, NC, where he also edits the journal Tar River Poetry.