March 14 2012 12:00 AM

Actor-soldier-memoirist Benjamin Busch looks back on being a Marine — and playing a Marine


Will the real Benjamin Busch please stand up? Busch’s memoir, “Dust to Dust: A Memoir,” is a modern version of the 1960s TV show, “To Tell the Truth.”

Busch — an artist, actor, soldier and now author — shows his poetic vision of life and death in this unusual memoir, which doesn’t follow the usual conventions. For example, the story isn’t linear, but is broken into the sub-categories of Arms, Water, Metal, Soil, Bone, Wood, Blood and Ash, things the author refers to as elemental. Typically, he alternates chapters on his war experience with those of growing up.

He describes the journey of writing the memoir as “seeking to disinter my childhood.”

“We all come from the memory of our childhood,” he said. “We go into ourselves, but we don’t go into them and they pass us by.” He says writing the memoir forced him into being “in his childhood,” actually being there to see his parents.

Nothing is conventional about Benjamin Busch. Although he is the son of the late novelist Frederick Busch and his mother, Judy, was a librarian, he admits to not reading much. “As a child I was physically restless and could not sit down,” he said. “Even in college, I had the same mentality.”

The young Busch always inhabited more of the physical world, and in his book he writes “what my father built with words, I built with pieces of the earth, stone and wood.” 

Busch tells of a somewhat conventional childhood, of playing with sticks and stones and building tree houses and forts while pretending to be a warrior. He then goes off to study studio art at Vassar College, a predominately female school.

Breaking with tradition, he also begins to study war as he enters the Marine Corps Officers Training Program. After graduating, he serves in active duty from 1992 to 1996. 

Then, beginning with a job as an extra in the film “Contact” (with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey), he commits himself to learn everything there is about acting. He lands roles in “Homicide” (he plays a corpse), “The West Wing” and, if ever life mirrored art, he plays a Marine in the Tommy Lee Jones/Samuel L. Jackson drama “Rules of Engagement.”

In 2003, when he is called up for the invasion of Iraq, Busch writes about how he inadvertently continued his acting career. Faced with leading battle-hardened veterans from the Gulf War, Busch describes how his acting skills came in handy and how he played the role of a hard-assed commander. He emerges from his first deployment relatively unscathed, both physically and emotionally.

Home safely, Busch takes up where he left off, playing Anthony Collicho, the ex-Marine cop in HBO’s “The Wire.” But his acting career is put on hold when he is sent back to Iraq in 2005, this time to Ramadi, where he confronts the randomness of war when a sniper’s bullet hits a member of the unit accompanying him.

“For the Marines, it was entirely random. I went over to talk to them. All that I knew was all that they knew. We would have to go back out tomorrow,” he writes.

The same year, he and several other Marines are injured when a cargo vehicle in which they are riding strikes an improvised explosive device. It was during this time that Busch describes how his life view changed from the invulnerability he felt during his first tour to expecting death in his second tour. “But the belief in immortality and the certainty of doom produced almost the same lack of anxiety in me,” he writes.

Toward the end of his second tour in Iraq, his father writes an essay titled  “Don’t Watch the News” for Harper’s Magazine about his son’s second deployment and how a family back home copes while also confronting their long held anti-war beliefs.  “Perhaps by slicing another day off our lives as we wish it away to bring him home we are spending our lives to buy his,” his father wrote.

In his typical existential style, Frederick Busch ponders the question he would like to ask his son: “How far do you burrow inside yourself before it’s difficult to work your way out?”

Benjamin Busch reflects on his parents’ values: “I remembered them raising me not to carry a gun. My father had chosen words over war.”

The younger Busch has embraced both words and war, and in 2008 — in a surreal example of method acting — he was back in combat gear as one of the stars of “Generation Kill,” an HBO miniseries about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In a few short years, Busch had gone from being an actor playing a warrior to a warrior being an actor playing a warrior.

Since his tours in Iraq, Busch has moved to Reed City and thrown himself into raising his family while creating and directing two short movies, “Sympathetic Details” and “Bright,” both with assistance from actors from “The Wire.”

Although Busch has been a soldier for more than half of his adult life, “Dust to Dust” does not glorify or glamourize warfare (only one-third of the 300-page book covers his days as a Marine). Instead, Busch has created an unusually poetic memoir (he says he tries not to use the same word twice) and one that he hopes will inspire introspection in others. No matter what career Busch finally decides on — if he ever does pick just one — you can expect him to bring to it a deep sensibility of life, death and the importance of memories.

Benjamin Busch

7 p.m. Wednesday, March 21

Schuler Books & Music

1982 Grand River Ave.,