The Mysteries of Haditha’s author, Matthew Armstrong, or better known by his nom de plume, M.C Armstrong, is a professor at UNCG. Armstrong teaches an introduction to writing class and a freshmen seminar that focuses on the war on terror and literature that has come out post 9/11.
“This memoir is about my time embedded with Navy SEALS in Haditha, Iraq during the Iraq war in 2008; it’s about a number of things I witnessed while I was over there, among them are the burn pits and disclosure about chemical weapons at the base of the Haditha Dam,” Armstrong continues, “but it’s also about the personal connection between myself and stories about WMDs.
My grandfather helped design one of the first WMDs. He was one of the engineers on the Manhattan project.”
Armstrong also came to find out that there is a connection between Greensboro and the war on terror.
“It all started when I met Moni Basu, a journalist in my press pool. I introduced myself, which was quickly followed up by her asking me: ‘Do you know who Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is?’ I had no words because I had no idea what she was talking about, and she turned to me and said: “How can you cover this war when you don’t know what has happened in your own backyard?’”
The Mysteries of Haditha takes us from our city of Greensboro, North Carolina to the Middle East and the history of the mastermind behind 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who spent time in Greensboro and still awaits trial after 20 years in Guantanamo Bay.
“I was a teacher at North Carolina A&T, where Mohammad got his degree in mechanical engineering, but I was oblivious to the history around me,” Armstrong continues, “Many claim he was radicalized here in North Carolina in the ‘80’s, but I always felt this was kept secret.”
Armstrong’s initial intention when traveling to Iraq was to write about the war in a fictional context and to publish a few articles for the Winchester Star in Virginia, where he grew up.
Upon arriving in Iraq, he recognized that this incredible tether seen from the United States and the Middle East is something far bigger.
“When I got back to the States, I knew this story needed to be done in memoir,” Armstrong said. He continued, “Memoir in creative nonfiction has a unique information-carrying capacity that makes it unusually powerful.”
The mention of the burn pits in Iraq was a key moment in the book. A burn pit is a place where the wreckage of war is torched, often with the aid of jet fuel. This could range from garbage and batteries to ammunition and dead bodies. “The United States deliberately created burn pits all over Iraq, and when you burn these items in open air, people who are downwind of those fires inhale that particulate matter and it can kill them,” Armstrong added.
He continues, “This is a real phenomenon within the veteran community. What I continue to argue, not only in my book, but in my research is that this is a public health crisis.”
When asked if any obstacles stood in the way, Armstrong opened up about the tension he faced with his friends and family, particularly with the leader of the SEAL team in Iraq during his publication process. “I think he would’ve preferred I didn’t write this book,” Armstrong admitted.
When Armstrong first got back after his trip in 2008, he saw Iraq and his own country dissolve into recessions, and wars were everywhere and going nowhere. “My initial emotional compass was rage, and I wrote the first draft with that- my guide as darkness.”
However, Armstrong continues, “As I began drafting more deeply, I recalled all I had endured, not only some rocky spots in my friendships and seeing the war evolve, but also losing my mother. I realized she was the heartbeat of the book.”
Detailed in the book, Armstrong mentions a deal he made with his mother around the age of thirteen years old, and because of this promise they maintained a close and open relationship. “She told me, ‘If you tell me the truth, you’ll never get in trouble,’” Armstrong shared with a grin on his face. He went on to say, “When she passed away and I understood that relationship was gone, I needed to continue and the book became a place where that truth-telling voice took over and evolved the rage.”
When asked if there was any advice he could give to future writers Armstrong said, “I have two pieces of advice. One was given face to face by another writer by the name of George Garrett, and it was one word, ‘last.’ You’ll see talented writers all around you and they will fall away into careers or families, but the question is: ‘will you last?’ If you last, you’ll get there, and remember, you’ll never fully get there,” Armstrong added.
He continues, “my second piece comes from a writer I believe to be one of the most important journalists of our time, Seymour Hersh. In his memoir, Reporter, he says ‘Read before you write.’ If you do so, first off as a writer you recognize you don’t have the answer, and secondly, there’s one hell of a conversation out there, and you may just find the hole.”
Armstrong finishes off with, “My saying to all student-writers then is, ‘write what’s missing.’”
The Mysteries of Haditha has been named “Best Nonfiction of the Year” by The Brooklyn Rail, and has been nominated for “Best Memoir of the Year” at The American Book Festival.
Armstrong is currently pursuing publication for a new science fiction novel, American Delphi, and has made plans to adapt this book into a trilogy-based feature film. “I have received a wonderful education right here in Greensboro, and working under Fred Chappell, Michael Parker, Lee Zacharias, Christian Moraru, they have shaped me into the writer that I am today. I hope to pass my knowledge on to future writers at UNCG.”