Michael Pitre Addresses Honors Convocation
Former Marine and Iraq War veteran Michael Pitre addressed the LSU Ogden Honors College students and faculty Wednesday night at the 2015 Ogden Honors College Convocation. Pitre spoke about his novel Fives and Twenty-Fives, which was selected as the 2015 Ogden Honors Shared Read. After his remarks, the students took part in a Q&A session with the author, which was followed by a book signing.
Ogden Dean Jonathan Earle opened the event with a brief introduction and lesson on the meaning of the Convocation as a coming together at the outset of the academic year. Interim Executive Vice President and Provost Richard Koubek welcomed the incoming students of the Ogden Honors College and spurred them to inquire deeply and broadly during their time at LSU. In his introduction Earle praised Pitre’s writing and service, saying that Fives and Twenty-Fives made an ideal shared read for incoming college students. “I’m delighted that we are able to have such a distinguished and talented author on campus for our Convocation to address our students,” Earle said.
Pitre is no stranger to LSU. He is a third generation graduate, and began his remarks by retelling a humorous story about his grandmother’s adventures in flight school in her first days as an LSU student, and how she met his grandfather on campus during World War II. “In a very real sense, I owe my existence to this University,” Pitre said. During his own time at LSU, Pitre studied Creative Writing and History and later joined the Marine Corps after watching the attack on the World Trade Center on monitors in the LSU Student Union.
Published in August of 2014, Fives and Twenty-Fives earned overwhelmingly positive reviews. The lead book critic for the New York Times described the novel as providing “an unblinking, razor-edged portrait of the war through the lives of members of his fictional platoon.” Pitre added an unsentimental, critical perspective on the realities of war as a “regrettable waste of a nation’s capability,” alongside his reflections and unhesitating praise of soldiers’ valor and heroism, themes that underlie the stories of his characters.
In the Q&A session that followed, Ogden Honors students’ questions often probed at choices made in crafting the novel and sought confirmation of whether events in the book were based on real people and events Pitre experienced from his two deployments in Iraq.
According to Earle, Fives and Twenty-Fives is the first work of fiction selected for the Shared Read, and students were eager to see into the making of the story.
In his responses to such questions, Pitre offered a deeper understanding of how he sought to bring the reader closer to an understanding of the soldier’s perspective. Asked why the story jumps between the present and the past (and between narrators), he cited personal experience of feeling dislocated in time as though he were back in Iraq while home between his first and second deployments. By including jumps in the narrative, he was “trying to give the reader a little of that.”
The book often inserts military paperwork, including after-action reports and commendations, to deliver details in the narrative that summarize incidents . When a student inquired about this aspect of the work, Pitre explained that, “War at its best is paperwork. You count the people; you count the bullets. I was a watch officer so I wrote hundreds of these reports.” He sought to juxtapose the florid language of commendations and to avoid having decorated characters give an account of a heroic firefight. Pitre said that, had he written these accounts as a straightforward, first person narrative, “the book would have ceased to be true.” Through his remarks and responses, Pitre highlighted a recurring theme on the conflicting emotions felt by those decorated for heroic action who must relive the harrowing scenes in which their actions took place.
Pitre closed his address by exhorting the students to accept their role as citizens and voters in the foreign policy decisions made by the country. “I know that very few of you here will ever serve in the military and, hopefully, you will never serve in combat. But, you are all going to be voters, you are all going to be citizens of the nation. Wars that a democratic nation at large chooses to wage will belong to you as much as they belong to the soldiers that you send to fight. Know what you are doing as citizens. Feel free to thank veterans for their service, but above all, be engaged. Make sure that the wars to which you commit our military are winnable, and make sure that they are in keeping with our national values and that they are, above all, necessary.”