The things they wrote
If the war novel is a form all its own, would-be writers have a well of works from which to draw inspiration.
Whether it’s Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I classic “All Quiet On The Western Front” or Norman Mailer’s “The Naked And The Dead” about the Pacific theater of World War II, veterans with literary bents have chronicled every major conflict of the 20th century.
But in an era with an undefined enemy and modern warfare, when soldiers write blogs not books, can a big work of fiction emerge from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan? Or is the war novel as a genre finished?
Random House’s Executive Editor Jonathan Segal said he believes the public’s lack of awareness about the wars leaves little room for something so weighty as the great Middle Eastern novel.
“I think very few Americans today care about Iraq; it’s old news. And Afghanistan -- Americans don’t know what to make of it. But the deep level of necessity that drives fiction, the need to explain possibilities and try to find clarity, well, I don’t really think it ever reached critical mass,” Segal wrote.
Not a newcomer to nonfiction about the wars, Segal worked on two of the most searing and often darkly humorous books by journalists who covered Iraq and Afghanistan, Dexter Filkins’ “The Forever War” and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Imperial Life in The Emerald City.”
Jon Peede, director of Literature at The National Endowment for the Arts, said he thinks this kind of novel can only come forth after the war has ended and enough time has elapsed to process the experience.
“It would be interesting to have this conversation again in five or 10 years,” said Peede in a telephone interview from his office in Washington.
Peede, 44, is the director of “Operation Homecoming”, a project preserving the writings of Iraq and Afghanistan’s veterans. Launched in 2004 in cooperation with the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affair, “Operation Homecoming” collected e-mail, love letters, short stories, poems, even cartoons. In 2006, Random House published a well-received anthology containing 100 of the best submissions.
Citing some of the major war works, Peede noted that the vast majority was published years afterward, well into peacetime.
Joseph Heller, a bombardier in World War II, came out with the satirical classic “Catch-22” in 1961, 16 years after the war’s end. From the same major conflict came Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” about the firebombing of Dresden, which he lived through. It was published even later, in 1969.
“Literature is experience distilled,” Peede said. “If you are the participant in trauma, the closer you are the harder it is to process it. I think for a lot of these writers it’s waiting for that.”
One of the short stories in the “Operation Homecoming” anthology is about the fatal shooting of Qasim, an Iraqi farmer and non-combatant whom a soldier mistook for an insurgent. Three bullets hit him in the back as he frantically flees the scene.
The author, Korean-American Sangjoon Han, was a second lieutenant in Iraq from September 2003 to April 2004. Now 29 and a recent graduate of Columbia Law School, Han says he has toyed with the idea of writing more, maybe even a novel.
When he wrote the story, entitled “Aftermath,” Han said he had in mind the different narratives of the characters in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam-inspired “The Things They Carried.” In it, we get every different point of view, ending with the dying thoughts of Qasim as American soldiers whisk his failing body away.
“He looked around the helicopter once more, trying to catch a few last glimpses of his surroundings. The inside was mostly black and burnished steel, covered with the same light dust that coated everything else. On the far wall was a window, the blue Iraqi sky beyond. He would have liked to have looked outside at the receding ground but he knew he would never get that chance.”
As war fiction goes, the NEA’s Peede says the story succeeds by humanizing the enemy, by using the freedom of fiction to imagine the Iraqi’s thoughts and to mine his psychology, a near impossibility with the memoir or in journalism.
One of the most memorable scenes in war literature encapsulates this idea. In “All Quiet On the Western Front”, based on Remarque’s years as a young German soldier, the protagonist Paul Baumer is sitting in the trench with a Frenchman he has just killed. He begins to take out his papers, learns his name, his profession. He is, he was, a printer. Paul discovers family photographs and personal effects.
“There are portraits of a young woman and a little girl, small amateur photographs taken against an ivy-clad wall. Along with them are letters. I take them out and try to read them. Most of it I do not understand, it is so hard to decipher and I scarcely know any French. But each word I translate pierces me like a shot in the chest -- like a stab in the chest.”
“All Quiet On the Western Front” hit bookstores in 1928, almost 10 years after the last bullet had been fired.
Since novels take time, before prose cometh poetry. While in the trenches himself, the English soldier Wilfred Owen wrote "Dulce et Decorum" (It is sweet and right), the wrenching poem that depicts the bloody horrors of World War I. Owen was killed in the war’s last week, on Nov. 4, 1918, near the French village of Ors. His parents got the news on Nov. 11, as bells rang celebrating the armistice.
Like Owen, Ben Turner wrote poetry between battles. Beginning in November 2003, he was an infantry team leader in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Almost all of the poems in “Here, Bullet,” a collection of verses from the war, were written in Iraq.
“I was trying to remember my life and not forget it”, Turner said in an interview from Orlando, Fla., where he is teaching a course at a writer’s residency.
Before enlisting, Turner, 39, received a master's in fine arts in poetry from the University of Oregon. Turner said that the men and women he served with didn’t seem interested in expressing themselves through the medium he chose. But he remembers little surprises here and there, such as when a younger soldier whom Turner had always pegged a macho-man approached him with a specific request.
“He said do you mind looking at this poem of mine and tell me what you think?”
Or the time he was at an airbase in Northern Iraq and saw a notice pinned on a wall that made him smile: “Wednesday Night: Open Mic Poetry.”
Another part of “Operation Homecoming” sends established writers and poets across America to have writing workshops with military veterans. Many of the writers, such as Tobias Wolff, have seen war firsthand and have written eloquently about it.
The last workshop of the summer was Aug. 11 at the Writers Place in Kansas City, Mo. It was taught by two veterans, John Samuel Tieman, a poet and high school teacher from St. Louis, and Matthew Eck, a novelist who lives in Kansas City.
“Inevitably somebody is going to sit down and write the great Iraqi novel,” said Tieman, 59. “If you think about it, 'The Red Badge of Courage' was the novel of the Civil War and was written many years later by someone who hadn’t even been to war.”
A journalist, Stephen Crane wrote that slim book about the Civil War nearly 30 years after it was over.
Tieman served in the Fourth Infantry Division during Vietnam. His new book of poems, “A Concise Biography of Original Sin,” was recently published by BookMark Press.
“It was a traumatic experience and it scarred me all of my life,” Tieman said. “It’s not the only thing I write about. It’s not all I write about, but some of my best poems are about that.”
Eck, 34, is a kind of throwback war writer and may be a hopeful reminder that someone out there could be writing the next “The Things They Carried” right now. His novel “The Farther Shore” derived from his experiences in Somalia in 1993 and 1994 as a specialist with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
“Writing seemed to be the kind of one refuge that I found,” Eck said, adding that many of his favorite authors from Vonnegut to Heller to Jack Kerouac spent time in one of the services.
Since a young age, he knew he wanted to become a writer, and this is partially what compelled him to join the Army. Enlisting before college, Eck said the G.I. Bill was the other part.
One of the Eck’s observations about the lack of war literature concerns the different world we live in now.
“Vietnam and World War II drew on such a larger cross-section of society and people definitely read a lot more books back then,” Eck said.
What Eck seemed to share with other literary veterans like Tieman and Turner and Han is not a melancholic outlook about the future of the war novel but a hopeful attitude of novels to come. It will arrive one day, Eck said, and due to the changing demography of our modernizing military, it may come from a brand new voice.
“There could be a female out there writing about their experiences," Eck said. "She could be the next Hemingway. Who knows?”
“Who knows” sums up many aspects of the two wars our military is fighting. With additional troops slated for Afghanistan and an ambiguous future presence in Iraq, it may seem beside the point and wildly irrelevant to speculate about novels.
But the war novel has always provided a meaningful and textured legacy. It sets down in universal prose a trenchant testament to those who bore the brunt of battle. It documents war’s brutal contract, a severe set of conditions and commitments that humanity continuously signs up for.