Type to search

Nothing Else Was As They Told Us: An Interview with Kacy Tellessen

Book Reviews Featured Society

Nothing Else Was As They Told Us: An Interview with Kacy Tellessen

Avatar photo

An interview with writer Kacy Tellessen about the release of his war memoir Freaks of a Feather, his thoughts about the state of the military, war, and being a writer.


Recently, your war memoir Freaks of a Feather came out. Shortly after, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, punctuating our nation’s 20-year occupation. I’m sure both events stirred up mixed emotions. Can you describe how you feel about both events at the present moment?

The book was a long time coming. From the first germ of an essay to the finished product was about a 10-year process—so, half of an Afghan war spent writing about a conflict that both mirrors and distorts the war in Afghanistan. To be honest, it feels damn good to finally have the book out into the world. But, like the futility of our efforts in Afghanistan, I find that my efforts will never live up to the image I had in my mind about what I wanted the book to be. I wanted to force civilians to stare at what was done in their names, and I think I came close, but there is only so much you can do with a book.


How did your friends and family react to your book? Was their reaction what you thought it would be?

My family has been very supportive. My wife is always my first reader and has been with me since the first sentence went down on paper. It is a bit awkward to have my filthy laundry out there for the world to see, but I don’t know any other way to tell stories. If that means that I might make an aunt, uncle, or parent uncomfortable with the thought of little Kacy with a gun to his head, so be it.


I saw on social media that General “Mad Dog” Mattis read your book and reacted positively. What was that like?

It was a little overwhelming. He’s a man and a Marine I look up to, so it did feel like validation for the effort I put into the book. His brother Tom read the book first and passed it off to General Mattis. I was told he read it over the weekend and when he handed it back to Tom his summation of the book was that it was honest. He sent me a signed copy of his book and told me job well done. I still suffer from enough Stockholm syndrome in connection with the Marine Corps that the sentiment filled my chest with pride, even if only for a moment.


Now that the war in Afghanistan was objectively a failure, and arguably a total loss, do you think the idea that Iraq was a waste of time is less politically charged?

Iraq as a waste of time seems like a tenable position. Other than Saddam being a monster, nothing else was as they told us. It rips your guts out to think that the most profound experience of your life, both the horror and the triumph, was built on a foundation of lies. You have no choice but to stare at it and feel the rage bubble behind your face. We were sent under false pretenses, but as I wrote about in my book, I don’t think young Marines care much about the reasons why. We are the smiling children ready to do or die.


Are you worried anyone will read your book and think war is badass?

I think this is unavoidable. When I was a kid, I watched Platoon and Full Metal Jacket and thought war looked awesome. Those movies are fucked up, but they aren’t fucked up to a kid with a delusional concept of the world and war. A kid will likely pick up my book and read what they want to into the pages. They will believe that all the death won’t apply to them, as they are of course invincible. They will also think that they are different, that the war won’t be able to leave a dark fingerprint on their minds. Maybe they’re right. My guess is that they’re wrong.


If you could go back, would you still join the United States Marine Corps?

Of course. At the time, it felt like I had no choice. I had to do this or die trying. Even if my old ass could get in a DeLorean and go back in time to teenage Kacy, grab him by the shoulders and tell him that it’ll never be worth it, I’m positive teenage Kacy would think this Kacy was a coward and full of shit.


Where did the United States go wrong with Iraq?

The hubris of thinking we would figure it out once we got there.


Where did the United States go wrong with the United States?

Participation trophies.


Other than Saddam being a monster, nothing else was as they told us. It rips your guts out to think that the most profound experience of your life, both the horror and the triumph, was built on a foundation of lies. You have no choice but to stare at it and feel the rage bubble behind your face.


Where can people go to find your book?

You can buy it direct from the publisher, Latah Books. Auntie’s Book store out of Spokane, Washington, carries it both online and in their physical store. And if you want to fuel the next phallic rocket, you can buy it from Amazon.


What else do you want to do with your writing?

I just want to keep writing.


Many people wonder what it’s like to kill a person. In your book, you eliminate opposition forces who were in play according to the Rules of Engagement (ROE). If you were to give a definitive answer that isn’t “recoil,” what would the answer be?

Like most things in life, it fails to live up to expectations. Killing is something you fixate on from day one as a Marine. You may or may not have thought of killing someone prior to joining, but you have no choice once the yellow footprints are in sight. Everything in boot camp is KILL, KILL, KILL. And really, it’s all you want to do. It’s damn near all you think about. You practice on green plastic Ivan targets and fantasize that it’s flesh instead of plastic composite. When you finally pull the trigger, you expect a transcendent experience. What you are left with is a cold memory of one poor person killing another poor person.


When a Marine Machine Gunner says, “If you weren’t an 0331, you weren’t shit,” what do they mean?

They mean that they can carry more weight and drink more cheap vodka than you. Machine Gunners come from a long line of crazies who will die before they hand the gun off. We are sadomasochists who relish the thought of being able to endure more pain than the other grunts. We are a cult within the cult and stand ready to be a liability on liberty and an asset when the shit hits the fan.


What advice would you give to a young Marine?

I would tell them that you are more than your service. Be proud of your title but realize that it’s a small chapter of your life. Keep moving forward.


What advice would you give to a nascent writer?

I feel weird giving any writer advice, but I think I would tell them that it’s okay to suck. Everyone sucks when they start out. There are people with talent, but that’s still nothing without the hard work. Read more than anyone you know and be selfish with your writing time. The work deserves the time.


What do you think of the Left vs. Right culture war the U.S. currently has going on?

I think that it is largely a byproduct of social media interactions. I think that things tend to be more civil when you are sitting across the table from someone having drinks. If we could ever just talk to one another, like actually talk, I like to believe that we would have more in common than not. Maybe that’s naïve, and the war is already lost, but my experience has been that face-to-face interactions with people change the dialogue.


Why do you think some of the Right are so obsessed with “owning the libs”?

I think they lack hobbies.


Also on The Big Smoke


Liberals seem to have a great deal of white guilt when it comes to Black people, but not so much when it comes to Arabs. Why do you think that is?

The Arab world is an abstraction to white folk in that it exists on the other side of the world. I think it is easier to view them as the other, not deserving of guilt. African Americans are … Americans. The juxtaposition of Black people living in American society with American history stokes the white guilt kiln.


Do you think military service should be compulsory?

I have mixed feelings on it. I understand that it would create a more homogenous society as we would all be forced into a shared experience, but I fear that forcing people into service is counter to the principles espoused in the Constitution. I think maybe mandatory “service” would be the route. The service could be accomplished through the military, or through organizations like the Peace Corps or the Forest Service. People often lack perspective. Service of one kind or another can fix the perspective problem.

There should be absolutely no “rich kid” exemptions. If politicians had to send their own kids to burn shit, kill people, and die, there would more than likely be a shift in foreign policies.

Chief Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes (sat on the Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932) served in the Civil War. He enlisted and then was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. This regiment was known as the “Harvard Regiment” because the officers were Harvard graduates and most of the enlisted grunts were made up of people who attended Harvard. I think if the Ivy League schools of today were forced to stand up infantry regiments to fight, we could be much less likely to enter into unnecessary conflicts. Maybe a mandatory, no-rich-kid-exemption military service could change things.


Do you think military service should be a path to citizenship?

100%. I’ve known immigrants in the Marines that were more American than any of the kids I grew up with. Military service is a willingness to put your ass on the line for something larger than yourself. That should be a part of the American ethos, and if someone is willing to do that, they should 100% become a citizen.


What was the scariest part about your experiences serving as a Marine Corps Machine Gunner in Iraq?

Honestly, it was probably coming to the realization that I was going to survive. I rarely thought about what comes after because I always assumed I would die in combat. I had no idea what the hell I was going to do with my life. I was close to reenlisting because I was afraid of having to survive in a world outside of the infantry. There are few jobs where your psychotic eruptions are applauded, and I just didn’t think that I would be allowed in the outside world.


Your work stops short of questioning the war. Do you still think it was just?



What do Americans fail to understand about Muslims in the Middle East?

They don’t want what we have.


Your writing is Spartan. Where do you draw inspiration from?

I was forced to read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in college. Rule thirteen, “Omit needless words,” seemed important. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea always rips my guts out. The amount of work that he is able to accomplish with the phrase “I wish the boy was here” left its mark on me.


If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?

I would have invested in Bitcoin when I got out of the Marines in 2009. Other than that, I don’t think I would change a thing.


Buy Freaks of a Feather from Latah Books

Buy Freaks of a Feather from Bookshop

Buy Freaks of a Feather from Indiebound

Buy Freaks of a Feather from Amazon

Buy Freaks of a Feather from Barnes & Noble


Jason Arment is the author of Musalaheen, a war memoir published by University of Hell Press.


Avatar photo
Jason Arment

Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He's earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Chautauqua, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review, Dirty Chai, and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Volume 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, The Florida Review, and Phoebe. Jason lives in Denver.

You Might also Like