George Kovach

George Kovach (1947-2020), author of the poetry collection The Light Outside, served as a combat infantryman in Vietnam where he was awarded a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars for Valor. He returned home, married, completed his undergraduate degree, raised three children, and had a twenty-year career in the field of commercial real estate. While working to overcome debilitating symptoms of PTSD, he returned to his love of literature and earned his MA and then MFA in Creative Writing at UMass Boston. Next he launched CONSEQUENCE Magazine, an award-winning literary journal addressing the culture and consequences of war through poetry, prose and visual art. George turned his disabling experience of war into an act of literary creation, and dedicated himself to editing and publishing the work of international artists and writers who understood and expressed war’s meaning and impact the world over. He will be remembered for the courage displayed in everything he took on, his skill as an encouraging and rigorous editor, his discriminating good taste, his generosity, his remarkable kindness, and the grace with which he blessed the world.

For each new volume, George would typically write an Editor’s Note. These notes would lend insight into both the volume and George himself. Please find these notes below.

Vol 3

November, 2011—A few years ago I had the honor of accompanying a delegation of poets and writers—all faculty at the William Joiner Center’s Annual Writers’ Workshops—to an international literary conference in Hanoi. Our distinguished Vietnamese hosts had gathered to honor their friends and colleagues for sustaining a cultural exchange begun in 1988, long before diplomatic relations were restored. For more than twenty years the efforts of these men and women from both countries had bridged a gulf of post-war resentment, and brought some of Vietnam’s most revered writers to the U.S. It was a thrill to witness former, so-called enemies reading one another’s poems in English and in Vietnamese, strengthening ties made possible by their mutual desire to understand and embrace each other’s humanity.

The third volume of CONSEQUENCE features poetry in translation to celebrate these friendships. In her book, Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman reminds us: “Translation always helps us to know, to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar. As nations and as individuals, we have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight. The alternative is unthinkable.” Yet only three percent of books published in the U.S. are translations, and less than one percent if you count only poetry and fiction. Big publishing houses have mostly abandoned translation to the small presses. Amazon’s imprint, AmazonCrossing, may improve access to foreign literature here in America, but these translations are chosen for bottom-line performance, based on what’s already selling well in European markets. Too many important authors from cultures we ignore at our peril—and sometimes theirs—will never be known here.

When accomplished writers devote time and talent to translation—devotion meagerly compensated—they deserve to be recognized, and read widely. Often, they are taken for granted by publishers and readers alike. This issue applauds their unique contributions to the literary arts by publishing the work of ten poets in new translations. Most of the poems are in bilingual format. CONSEQUENCE will continue to publish new translations of prose and poetry that are faithful to the author’s artistry, and a pleasure to read in English. We will look for work that reveals the humanity we share with people whose culture and language seem strange to us. Our magazine focuses on war, but not narrowly. We search for the deeply rooted causes and far ranging impact of violence around the globe. Diverse, unfamiliar cultures challenge us to question our assumptions, and our response has a moral dimension. It’s seems fair to ask if we don’t owe it to ourselves, and to those outside the comfort zone of our own language, to try to understand more than just the words that need interpreting. This is part of our mission here at CONSEQUENCE.

If you are new to our magazine, you will discover a nuanced approach to the culture and consequences of war. Literature and art can capture our most destructive but also most vulnerable moments. With the support of our readers and friends we will keep bringing you the depth and range of human experience.

Vol 5

November, 2013—The standard definition of war, one society imposing its will on another by militant force, fails the test for full disclosure. It appears to be hiding something. Squeezed between the muscular words “imposing” and “force” sits that ambiguous “will.” By the rules of grammar and logic, not to mention reason, that word should carry more weight. But will is a slippery concept, easily lost when we discuss war in terms of armies, weapons, destruction, and suffering. The willfulness of the aggressor and the intentions of his will are among the missing—two of the many subjects we don’t talk about when we talk about war.

To a shameful extent the media are to blame for the lack of serious analysis and discussion of war. Profit-driven and increasingly ideological, they allow and in some cases dictate a superficial level of discourse that insults and infantilizes us. War is a given; war is hell; get used to it; and believe what we tell you. Most troubling though is how little we are told, and how difficult it is to get the information we need. A test of wills is ongoing among government to control the war narrative, the media to preserve their integrity, and the governed to decode the message. The collective will of society is merely a trope; the will of powerful interests trumps the popular vote. While oligarchs face the scrutiny of only those elites who keep them in power, thoughtful individuals probing the thin atmosphere of mainstream media find few opportunities for inclusion in the national dialogue—such as it is.

While we earn wages, send kids to school, volunteer at shelters, make grocery lists, and perform all the activities that define society, a culture of war abides, sustained by portions of our earnings. The demands of a complex age easily distract us from matters beyond our control, problems we’d rather not face. The default position: rely on self-assured pundits and broadcast information to make important decisions, like condoning war waged in the name of society’s will. Iraq comes to mind. The spectacle of willfulness on the part of the Cheney/Bush coterie was an impressive display of fabricating a narrative and bamboozling a nation still in shock from 9/11. The triumph of their will quickly reached apogee under a hubristic banner on the deck of a warship. Leni Riefenstahl could not have staged it better. It was pretty much downhill from there, a long and costly march to moral bankruptcy. But the administration’s deceptive narrative succeeded. It took years to deconstruct and dismantle the lies, due largely to a lack of will on the part of a cowed and equally discredited fourth estate. The counter-narrative to “the interest of national security and a free society” was virtually clandestine. Dissenting voices got shouted down, or strangled with yellow ribbons. It has taken the courage of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and strong-willed activists to prick a nation’s conscience.

The writers and artists whose works appear in CONSEQUENCE show similar moral courage and strength of will. They create powerful narratives that invigorate a discourse that will be necessary as long as war is conceivable. Here readers will find new ideas, unique perspectives, and literature that provides emotional as well as intellectual access to the extremes of human conduct.

We need look no further than the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School for evidence of these extremes. Twenty children and six adults killed by one man is the latest tragedy in a parade of incomprehensible violence made possible in part because weapons designed for war are on sale at Walmart. Gun culture is the focus of two exceptionally well-crafted works in Volume 5 of CONSEQUENCE. Lee Hancock’s tautly compelling essay, “Interview with a Gun,” explains how Nidal Hasan bought a high-tech weapon and efficiently killed thirteen and wounded twenty-nine at Fort Hood, Texas—and how the exceptionally lethal handgun he chose made it so easy that any of us could do the same. In David Abrams’ powerful and poignant story, “Guns,” a young boy is taught by his father how to shoot elk; and later, as a soldier, struggles toward competency with an M-16, and his own humanity in combat. Stories like these reveal aspects of a society at risk and a culture of war. They are two degrees on a spinning moral compass, and examples of what we don’t talk about when we talk about war.

Vol 6

November 3, 2014—Super Bowl XLVIII drew well over a hundred million viewers to a spectacle akin to the Fourth of July, and at nine million dollars a minute the most coveted three hours for major league advertisers. The commercials can be more enjoyable than the game itself and clever ads go viral before the fourth quarter ends. This year’s offerings included a sixty-second spot produced for Budweiser Beer showing a homecoming celebration for Army helicopter pilot Chuck Nadd returning from Afghanistan. Starting with an airport reunion the ad cuts to marching bands, fire trucks, and hundreds of cheering citizens holding signs and waving flags. As I thought about the confetti-gun exuberance, the burly Clydesdales pulling the Anheuser-Busch wagon with the heroic soldier aboard, elevated on cases of Bud, the abject wholesomeness and couch-potato patriotism of this celebration annoyed me. I suspect there were plenty of soldiers and veterans watching who felt the same way.

Budweiser’s ad portrays a soldier’s homecoming the way cavalier consumers want to see it. The warrior (preferably male) is healthy and handsome. He has a faithful girlfriend and loving family waiting at home, and a whole community ready to cheer his return. For civilians and soldiers alike, this picture is dangerously misleading. The reality, of course, is that returning from a war zone can be a surreal experience, especially for combatants, and adjusting so difficult that many turn to alcohol and drugs to relieve the anger, depression, and memories that haunt them. A third of all active duty troops returning from combat will experience PTSD or the effects of traumatic brain injury. The Veterans Administration reports that every day twenty-two veterans commit suicide. Who wants to be reminded of the invisible wounds of war when the game’s on?

Most Americans know little about military life and have little reason to learn. For two generations the fighting and dying have been the burden of young volunteers. Since 9/11, less than one percent of the population serves in uniform. This enormous gap between the American public and the nation’s warriors presents a challenge for both citizens and their elected representatives in Washington. Relationships between the Pentagon and government are frequently contentious and trust hard to come by. The commander in chief and his staff can be blamed for uncertain commands and inconsistent behavior, making it difficult for the military to do its job. The Pentagon on the other hand closes ranks to protect its own interests and preserve an inbred culture that bristles at civilian interference.

After Vietnam the end of the draft meant the end of citizen soldiers conscripted from every state whose service linked all Americans to war and the military. Since the first Gulf War a professional, all-volunteer force has grown stronger and more effective, but also more isolated. The values and norms of military life necessarily diverge from civilian society where obedience is a choice and aggression restrained. The cultural divide widens as the Pentagon emphasizes elite forces whose special ops are secret, even to their own families. As smaller units trained for specific missions develop distinct identities, military culture becomes even more insular. Special Forces enjoy an elevated status—on both sides of the culture gap. Intensive training, unique skills, and a potent mystique set these soldiers apart. Civilians become enthralled by Hollywood’s version of Green Berets and Navy Seals as super human. In reality they’re exceptional, multi-skilled warriors who deserve recognition, but placing any military force on a pedestal strengthens the myth of American exceptionalism, the belief that our superior way of life will not be equaled, nor will our military power. Contributing to this myth is a war-making machine that truly is the greatest the world has ever seen.

Regardless of strength, sending young volunteers to war on the nation’s behalf presents a moral dilemma. What’s at risk? A professional volunteer force lets the entire population off the hook. Government leaders can more easily use war as a tool for foreign policy without alienating too many constituents. Civilians can feel insulated from the physical and psychological scars of war: the troops fight and die while the country sits back to watch a football game and drink responsibly. Even the ads make us feel good.

Vol 7

May 31, 2015—Writers are dangerous people. Authoritarian regimes fear the power of free thought and truth telling that dissident writers wield. If they are not controlled, their words can weaken entire régimes, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s did in the former Soviet Union. That totalitarian government banned his work and forced him to leave his homeland, but in banishing him, it damaged its own society by silencing a man whose art could help repair it.

Repression of writers dates back to the oldest known author, the Sumerian princess, Enheduanna, who was also the first writer in recorded history forced into exile. Daughter of the king and high priestess in the ancient Sumerian city of UR over four millennia ago, she composed poems in the first person that identified her and the religious practice that distinguished her. Her poems also describe her exile when the ruling power changed hands—and beliefs. Whether in wedge-shaped marks on clay or pixels on a lap-top screen, writers give expression to the conscience of their times. They bear witness to the spectrum of human endeavor, for good and bad, and in telling their stories sometimes risk their lives.

What must that be like? I try to imagine the decisions writers must make for the sake of their art, their safety, and the well being of family and friends. Can they continue to write in their own country if panels of ideologues censor their work or forbid its sale? Can they even permit themselves to think and express their thoughts freely, or must they censor themselves? For some, freedom to write means leaving home and loved ones, emigrating to a strange place, often not speaking the language, and struggling to support themselves and their art. The émigré writer faces challenges that can be no less harrowing than living in a repressive society.

How does an unfamiliar cultural environment affect the émigré writer’s work? For some, the stay will be temporary. They think they will return home when the political climate changes. Solzhenitsyn returned after the Soviet Union collapsed and continued his political critique that grew to include the secular West. But for some émigrés, the uncertainty of returning eventually raises the question of identity. Untethered from the homeland, exiled writers must decide whether to hang on to the past and keep speaking for the people they left behind, or to accept, if not embrace exile, and find a voice to express their new reality. Adjusting to freedom of this kind might even call into question the very idea of “home.”

In our own country, since the exposure of unwarranted surveillance by the United States Government, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are spoken of with increasing alarm. Edward Snowden’s revelation of NSA spying on American citizens has had a chilling effect on writers throughout the country; and the efforts of the US Justice Department to coerce New York Times investigative reporter, James Risen to reveal his source in exposing illegal government acts threaten the constitutional freedoms that citizens hold sacred.

This issue of CONSEQUENCE acknowledges the courage of a particular nation’s writers who speak the truth despite hardships and danger. Our special feature focusing on contemporary Persian literature presents the work of twelve authors and their translators who address the culture of war from their unique perspective. There is also work written in English by Iranian-American writers. We publish these authors to promote exceptional writing that enables an English-speaking audience to see the consequences of war differently, and specifically from a Persian point of view. Most of us know little about their culture and little about the Iran-Iraq war that, on the heels of the Iranian Revolution, devastated several generations of its people. In this collection of stories, poems and visual art, you will find depictions of that war, its intimate impact on men women and children, and, perhaps especially, those invisible wounds that damage the psyche of anyone touched by war. For me, reading these works unfastens the flack jacket of my assumptions and enables me to enter a kind of sacred space where the meaning of suffering and loss becomes complex, nuanced, spoken in a voice that’s both strange and familiar. The cumulative effect is recognition of our shared humanity and how the experience of war is both different and the same, regardless of where it’s fought.

Vol 9

February 25, 2017—I remember three great-grandparents on my father’s side, immigrants who came to this country in the 1880s to escape poverty and the dismal horizon of a quasi-feudal society. Hearing of jobs in America cutting stone to build New York City, they borrowed money for passage to an uncertain future. They carried few possessions, spoke no English, and being poor and young they were vulnerable. But as daunting as it was to leave behind all they’d known, it was their decision; my great grandparents were not fleeing a war to stay alive. Refugees, however, leave their homelands because they have no choice.

As this issue of CONSEQUENCE goes to print, a federal appeals court has halted a particularly mean-spirited and likely unconstitutional order banning Muslim refugees. If the US Supreme Court upholds the ban, our government will turn these desperate families away, and those whose animus emerges from ignorance and irrational fear will have their small victory.

Prejudice finds soft targets among the vulnerable who’ve lost possessions, livelihood, community, and sometimes family members. Because they may look different, speak a strange language, appear frightened and disoriented, they are often shunned. Their tragedy is uncomfortable to witness because it reminds us that our own privileged security could be otherwise, had we been born in, say, Syria. For most of us, suffering like theirs is merely conceivable.

Although they search for safety, refugees often develop an overwhelming sense of not belonging, a feeling that may never go away. Without help learning a new language, finding work, and acclimating to a society that can be suspicious or intolerant, the challenges facing these families can defeat them. To compound these difficulties, many refugees have been traumatized by the violence they’ve experienced. Proud parents who bear hidden scars struggle to raise healthy children and keep their family together. At this moment in our increasingly surreal time, it’s uncertain how these dispossessed and rejected asylum seekers will find adequate aid and protection.

Three generations of Cambodian Americans have a unique understanding of the word, refugee. The first generation, now grandparents, came to this country to escape the horrific Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s that destroyed nearly two million lives in the name of an absurd ideology. But the tragic history and continuing story of the survival of the Cambodian people is rarely heard. It’s overshadowed in the minds of most Americans by the Vietnam War.

This issue of CONSEQUENCE features work by and about Cambodians who are survivors coming to terms with a devastating past. Some return years later to Cambodia remembering what they endured, seeking to understand the senseless killing, and desiring justice that comes far too slowly. There are also stories, poems, and essays by the next generation of writers determining their own identity while honoring the Khmer culture and traditions of their elders. And now a new generation of Cambodian Americans speaks out, often exclusively in English, embracing American culture wholeheartedly, leaving behind community, traditions, and sometimes even their past. For all of these generations, language plays a determining role in their identity and their future.

Several pieces in this issue are by Cambodian writers and have been translated from the Khmer. Sok Chanphal’s short story, set in Tuol Sleng’s infamous prison, invokes a tortured past, and mocks the ineptitude of politicized efforts toward justice and reconciliation. Phina So’s story takes us into the light of contemporary Phnom Penh with its young, female protagonist’s declaration of gender equality, as she embraces the strength of Khmer language and art in a new idiom. The themes revisited by these writers—the search for security, justice, identity, acceptance, and respect—represent the struggle of all refugees. However, in our present context of an America dispossessed of civility and pursuing a policy of “perpetual war,” they can also be read as the outrageous price of admission to a once-great nation.

Vol 10

February 25, 2018—The photographs taken by Virginia Dwan and featured in this issue were selected from her book, Flowers (Radius Books 2016). Straightforward and clear, they appear at first as traditional statements in black and white about the consequences of war. But look again at these repeated images of military cemeteries that initially seem so alike and so familiar. One after another rank and file of identical markers extend from a particular moment in time and point of view to a vanishing point that is both past and future. If you were to walk toward the horizon in any one of Dwan’s photographs into that white, unnatural symmetry, you would find just beyond the trees vast stretches of land held in reserve for new graves. Now step back and notice how the peripheral space stretches in all directions, not attempting to contain what is alive and what is not. This is a patient, capacious response that never shies away from the obscene banality of war. Rather, it intentionally compounds and accumulates images to embody overwhelming loss. Still, despite the visceral sensation of wanting to turn away, we cannot escape the contradiction that a manicured, military arrangement of the dead is not, as Dwan shows us, without a disturbing kind of beauty. Do the frequent ceremonies at Arlington or any national cemetery make war honorable and easier to accept?

Virginia Dwan named her book of photographs Flowers, referring to Pete Seeger’s Vietnam-era song of resistance, but now, four generations of “permanent war” later, that title echoes with a renewed sense of irony. Like the woven refrains in a ballad or a hymn, each image in Flowers connects the one before it to the one after. To make the continuation of war tangible, Flowers comprises a series of images printed on one long, heavy sheet that folds together like the fabric of a bellows—as though the country’s national cemeteries stretched without interruption from Long Island to San Francisco, and then collapsed in on themselves. The necessary effort to view these accordion-like panels of contiguous images subverts the habit of turning a page and moving on. Dwan’s tactile layout forces you to handle each successive photograph as distinct, yet like others. It’s necessary to pause and think about this process, and perhaps even accept the responsibility of seeing. You have to choose to continue the journey. It’s a moral as well as an aesthetic choice.

In Seeger’s song, the rhetorical question “where have all the young men gone” equates soldiers to men, so it’s fitting that the lyrics include the words “long time ago.” Today, women return from war with the same visible and invisible wounds as men. They write and create art about combat and the many forms of devastation that war causes, but their work does not get the same attention or opportunity for publication as men’s. And for far longer than women have soldiered, they have contributed to war narratives as witnesses, survivors, doctors, nurses, journalists, mothers, sisters, partners and spouses. It’s obvious that their voices are essential for a full and nuanced understanding of what is at stake when we accept if not support the decisions made on our behalf by an elected elite.

The 10th Anniversary Issue of CONSEQUENCE focuses on the enormous contributions made by those women who write and create art in response to war. Since this magazine’s founding we’ve sought their perspective and insight, their wisdom and mastery. It’s very satisfying to look back, mark the names, compare the numbers and find that since 2008, more than half of our authors have been women. Numbers, of course, don’t indicate what you will realize when you read their work. We need the strength and empathy of women for all of us to be strong.

Vol 11

April 23, 2019—A humanitarian crisis persists in Iraq: nearly a million children orphaned, families without food and shelter, numbing unemployment, and living conditions rife with sectarian violence. Widowed and unprotected women can be victims of sexual harassment, rape and even honor killings. Residents of bombed-out neighborhoods still wait for government funds to rebuild their homes on land toxic with remnants of high-tech warfare.

For most Americans, the wars in Iraq have been unconsciously deposited in the vault of their collective denial. It’s easy and less painful to move on, to avoid the discomfort of knowing hundreds of thousands of deaths were due to our actions. Besides, there’s Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia . . .

Without a realistic plan for transition, we left a government in Baghdad too unstable to provide security for its fragmented country. Now, eight years since pulling out of Iraq, the moral question lingers: what is our responsibility to the Iraqi people? Had we fought a “just war” defending against credible Iraqi aggression, the cost of recovery might be charged to the defeated country. The Cheney/Bush aggression was not a just war, and yet, the burden of rebuilding and creating a civil society—an argument used to justify that war—keeps many humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people unmet.

For Iraqi and Kurdish writers, war and its aftermath are past, present, and future, so their work insists on finding words to wrestle with that fact, to give voice to desperate survivors and homage to their dead. With language honed and reshaped so their story of prolonged suffering can be told, their work clears avenues back from the ashes, and places footholds in the mountains of debris so the return from hell is possible.

This issue of CONSEQUENCE features twenty-six poets whose work deploys language and imagination to the spiritual minefield that is memory, dislocation, loss and despair. Their poems are necessary to heal, to reclaim the humanity taken from them, to find a way forward despite long corridors of unending violence.

When urban warfare breaks down the gate and enters the family’s courtyard, when a concealed explosive detonates in a market busy with shoppers, or when a tortured prisoner returns to the bruised intimacy of a cement cell—in these times, who is able to speak? When the turbulent poems featured here open these doors, language is challenged by the sound of screaming, or consoling, or pleading, or cold silence. In choosing the right register, some poets depend on fantasy to capture insurmountable loss, rather than the shaken but rational narrative of a survivor. In one poem a grieving mother, unable to see her dead son’s body, speaks of his last visit home from the fighting. He was hurried, often forgetful, “this time he forgot his right hand.”

Because the horror of war defies language to contain it, poets often need to bend language, sometimes break the rules and start over. When a child is killed and thrown into the street, one poem blames the failure of words and the failure of the poet to make any difference in a world gone mad. Adequate despair can’t be summoned, the child’s body is left in the street; the speaker smiles and can do nothing more than blame the rules of grammar.

There are other voices here that speak to gendered consequences of war, like the struggle in Iraq for women’s rights in a male-dominated society, where some men think women ask for “too much freedom.” Anger but also fear rise in one accosted woman’s voice, predicting that “men with rough hands will squeeze my ideas out of me.”

The reasons for war are rarely rational—different beliefs, values, religious practices, spoken language, ethnicity, dress, the side of the river that’s home—but what degree of insanity justifies genocide? How does a poet approach the heart of that darkness? If the parents of the Yazidi girls taken by ISIS could plead for them, what would they offer in return? And since the terrorists would never listen, in what veiled direction, to what imagined warlord would they turn and beg? “If you give us our children back . . . we will take them to the house of stories.” And that is where these poets and their translators lead us.

Vol 12

April 23, 2020—After twelve years of publishing a journal that feels to me like a growing member of my family, health issues demand that I step aside. I am placing my dog-eared, child-rearing manual in the capable hands of my long-time partner in CONSEQUENCE, Catherine Parnell. This issue appears on schedule thanks to her vision, leadership, and perseverance.

CONSEQUENCE was born in an editing and publishing seminar taught by Askold Melnyczuk at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s MFA Program. There I was fortunate to receive the support of faculty and friends. Many in the literary community recognized the need for a new publication focused on the culture of war. They have nurtured its development so that it could become the unique journal that it is today.

For me, it is deeply satisfying to have worked closely over the years with a gifted, all-volunteer staff whose only compensation is the satisfaction of seeing the magazine succeed. Without their generous efforts, hours of work and dedication, it would be impossible to produce such a professional journal.

While publishing CONSEQUENCE has been a labor of love, it has also been part of my own personal journey from war to healing, through art. Like so many combat veterans who deal every day with the symptoms of PTSD, I’ve had to find a way to channel the force of that experience into something positive. CONSEQUENCE is the result. We have created a place where writers and artists who focus on the culture of war can be widely read.

It’s hard for me to let go of a project that has become part  of who I am, but the magazine’s board of directors is committed to continuing the mission. To do this, we’ll need to broaden our reach and strengthen our base of financial support. Because our work and this publication have attracted writers, artists, readers, and contributors passionately engaged in the work we do, I know this will be possible.

For all of you who continue to advance the conversation about war and its consequences, I am very grateful.

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