On War Writing: A Roundtable Discussion with Donald Anderson, Doug Anderson, Matt Gallagher, Sam Hamill, Peter Molin, Marilyn Nelson, and Stacey Peebles
Gathered here around a virtual table is an eclectic assembly of thinkers who offer their responses to a series of questions and issues connected to the literature of war.
DON A: Donald Anderson / DOUG A: Doug Anderson / MG: Matt Gallagher / SH: Sam Hamill / PM: Peter Molin / MN: Marilyn Nelson / SP: Stacey Peebles
Can war writing bridge the gulf between the experience of war and those who’ve never experienced it firsthand, and if so, in what ways?
SH: A great writer presents an experience that is a cosmology unto itself. We may draw deeply from firsthand experience, but we can’t replicate it. Good writing is an act of revelation to its author even when the subject is clearly predetermined. What is “good war writing” depends on any given reader’s angle of perception. An antiwar activist and an army major read a biography of Napoleon and come to entirely different conclusions despite reading the same words in the same order.
DON A: What is remembered or imagined becomes reality. And if we don’t create our personal versions of the past, someone else will do it for us. This is a frightening and political fact. How many books, for instance, seek to refute the fact of the Holocaust, complete with footnotes, et al.? And who can forget the opening pages of Milan Kundera’s novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which describe a photograph from which a party official has been airbrushed from history? Then there is Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl,” a strafing account of a death camp murder of a stick-limbed child. Though born in time to have been interned in a death camp, Cynthia Ozick wasn’t; she was, at the story’s fictional time, a cheerleader in high school in New Jersey. Memory and imagination are the what and how we have as artists and readers and citizens. To which we must cling, as if to luck or safety.
MG: No, but not because of any failures of the writer. Because there are inherent limitations to language, and so much of war defies those limitations.
MN: While one can never truly experience the experience of another, storytellers have mesmerized audiences with stories of heroes and their adventures ever since extended families gathered around the very first campfires. War writing continues that gift of story, allowing readers in this and subsequent generations to imagine that most painful, most trying, terrifying, testing experience through words.
PM: War writing is to a large degree reportage, and many aspects of modern war are new(s) to readers who haven’t deployed. For example, life on a FOB, getting hit by IEDs, nation and host nation army building, and relationships maintained and defined by Skype, texting, and Facebook are all elements that just wait careful and interesting description. In terms of deeper issues, such as death, loss, pain, guilt, and killing, veterans just need to keep trying as hard as they can to describe these things honestly and interestingly without falling into the traps of cliché, self-aggrandizement, boasting, glorification, exaggeration, melodrama, and so forth. It’s a challenge that not every vet writer will surmount every time.
DOUG A: I believe it can provide an immediacy of experience that reveals the particular of an experience, beyond all the generalizations about war. How we eat, shit, sleep, and pack our gear. How intense being under fire and yet how dull the day to day, the waiting. Our culture in particular needs direct experience beyond the packaged versions they’ve been fed. We’ve not had a war in this country in living memory. The decisions people make with their votes, for or against a war, cost or save lives. It is important for them to know viscerally what war is about. War writing can do this, with a chance detail, a fragment of dialogue, an image.
SP: The gap between a soldier on the front lines and the civilian back home is a big one, more so as time goes by and the war recedes into history. Some say it’s the biggest gap to try to bridge through representation—at least a lot of soldiers seem to think so. For writers, maybe that’s the challenge, in addition to the primal desire just to tell the story, to share something so outside the bounds of normal life.
For me, good war writing is alive with that urgency. Even if you don’t know what it’s like to shoot and be shot at, you can recognize and respond to that need to put you there, to make you feel the sensations of that moment and that life. If the desire to tell can create a desire to read and understand, then there’s a connection.
When considering war literature, how can beauty be possible?
DON A: If art were as powerful as we might wish it, then war might well have stopped after the Iliad was first sung. Aristotle’s notion that history accretes but poetry unifies is a notion worth subscribing to. Art grants access to a larger world.
MG: That’s the paradox, isn’t it? How can anything of hope, of life, be salvaged from the ruins of war? Yet that’s been a recurring aspect of war literature since the Iliad. Poetic similes, beautiful, sweeping imagery—that’s as ingrained a tradition in war literature as the loss of innocence. There’s a very real reason for that—one of the effects of war on the personal psyche is that environment becomes that much more lucid. From Homer’s spring poppies to Lawrence’s vast deserts to Orwell’s Spanish hills to Mailer’s Pacific island to Marlantes’s jungle and beyond, it seems clear that beauty—especially natural beauty—does something important to its participants and observers alike during war. I know I had that experience with the dusks in Iraq, and I’d never before been a particularly observant young man. When individuals are exposed to the very worst of humanity on a daily basis, where else can they turn for relief and solace but the natural world that surrounds them?
PM: Beauty can be achieved through demonstration of technical and craftsmanlike mastery. Photography is the art form that most often evokes a feeling of beauty that then is almost instantly surmounted by a realization that the object of the photo is ghastly or troubling. With literature, a feeling of respect and appreciation is probably the most that can be hoped for. Beauty might come in the form of a surprising ray of joy, hope, connection, forgivingness, or love that emerges unexpectedly from the flux of events and words.
SP: I do what I do because I think war writing is beautiful, even if it’s devastating at the same time. I remember visiting a colleague’s class and teaching Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian—not exactly a war novel, but I think you could aptly call it a combat novel. I was trying to explain how a book that takes such a no-holds-barred approach to violence, both narratively and philosophically, was, to me, the epitome of art. “See, I disagree,” my colleague said. “I think the most profound subject for art is the everyday, the domestic, the ordinary moment.” Point taken—it’s a perfectly defensible opinion. Maybe I need art to show me things I don’t understand rather than those I do. Or maybe I’m enthralled by that odd tension between wrenching subject matter and sublime artistic form. Greek tragedy makes aggression and suffering beautiful too, so it’s something that humans have been after for a long time.
SH: Tao Te Ching, chapter 2: “Beauty and ugliness have one origin. / Name beauty, and ugliness is. / Recognizing virtue recognizes evil.” The Japanese feel mono-no-aware, beauty found in the temporality of things. Beauty and sadness walk hand in hand in our world.
What can the literature of war teach us?
DOUG A: You aren’t in Kansas anymore. What someone may tell soldiers is going to happen to them is not what happens to them. That is an important difference to communicate. This is where a writer either succeeds or fails. With a detail. With staggering understatement. With discovery.
MG: Well, we all know how Tim O’Brien would answer this question! He famously wrote, “Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.” Though that’s not exactly a direct answer to this question, it’s certainly related.
I’m not sure I agree with O’Brien, though I understand the sentiments of fear and reservation in his quote. In a culture and society that reveres experience but has a nasty habit of continually learning the wrong lessons from history, I think most responsible people shy away from wide-sweeping, generalized statements about lessons learned, especially with war. We all want peace. But why has no generation of humanity been able to find it and maintain it? Why celebrate war stories if they might just help lead to more war stories?
All that said, war literature has a lot to offer us, both as students of the past and as people interested in shaping the future. Literature, and specifically war literature, is a map through the human condition. Nearly every year humanity’s been on this planet has been marred by conflict, so it’s not something that can be simply brushed aside or labeled a genre. War is ugly and terrible but part of each and every one of us. With that in mind, human beings are storytelling creatures by nature, so it should come as no shock to anyone that war stories resonate within people’s souls in ways no war history ever could or will. We are because of what we were. War literature, at its best, captures all that and forms it into language.
PM: That war is experienced in far different ways by soldiers, family members, and those caught up in it than is expressed in official rhetoric and the news media. These feelings demand poetic precision and novel-length explication, not sound bites and generalities.
DON A: Of course war needs to be written about, and, from time out of mind, it has been. From the earliest rendition of the Iliad to the latest showing of Black Hawk Down or Jarhead or The Hurt Locker, war and art have reflected one another. War frames our lives. Look behind or ahead and war will find you. Though war has been convincingly written about by outsiders, I believe we turn to insiders—combatants—for our weightiest insights. A soldier’s response to war lays claim to a special visceral authority.
If it seems to fall to the historian to make distinctions among wars, each war’s larger means and ends, the trajectory for the artist, regardless of culture or time, seems to fall toward an individual’s disillusionment, the means and ends of war played out in the personal. For the individual soldier, the sweeping facts of history are accurately written not in the omniscient, third-person plural but in the singular first. We live in a culture that values the individual. Our works of art about war mirror this welcome bias.
MN: Wisdom, one hopes. It can teach us what any literature can teach us. Most importantly: humane values.
SH: We learn nothing useful unless we are willing to put ourselves and our assumptions on the table and see them cross-examined. Great literature always asks us to reexamine not only events but our own hearts.
SP: War literature can teach us everything, can’t it? The Iliad was the story of its time, and it’s held up pretty well too—combat, friendship, politics, love, dishonor, fate (or not), the divine, rage, leadership, mourning. But then maybe it doesn’t teach us anything, since we’re still killing each other.
What responsibilities do writers have to their readers when writing about war?
SP: When I talk about responsibility, I tend to talk more about the reader and the need to listen to war stories. I hesitate to assign responsibilities to the writer because that sounds an awful lot like “what you should and shouldn’t do.” As soon as I say an artist shouldn’t do something because it makes for a less powerful piece, someone will come along and do just that and make it amazing.
MG: I’m not sure writers have any responsibilities to their readers—but they do have a responsibility to the work itself. Some writing instructors teach their students to avoid large issues like war or September 11, presumably because they’re worried about “unearned” emotion. That is terrible advice. Anyone should feel the freedom to write about whatever they feel engaged by and interested in—writing is hard enough without self-imposed do’s and don’ts. The responsibility to the work itself will demand care and attention in a way no reader could ever inspire. Subsequently, if a writer has cheated the process and/or the work in the creation of a piece of war writing, it’ll be clear.
DON A: Soldiers more than anyone know what they are capable of destroying, and I believe when they write about war (or paint it or photograph or film it), they are trying to preserve the world. Of course Art and Life are different—if they weren’t we wouldn’t need art. And if Art generally strains toward making sense, most of us have lived long enough to know that Life is under no such obligation. W. H. Auden, who came into his fullness as a poet as fascism was creeping across Europe, wrote about that scourge and then concluded that “poetry makes nothing happen,” that nothing he ever wrote saved one Jew from the gas chambers. Yet, art markets authority. Else why would officials at the United Nations have decided to cover the tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica as council members met to discuss the start of Gulf War II? There is an obligation—is there not?—as Neruda advised, to “Come and see the blood in the streets”? It is dishonest to create art that does not reflect the world that art exists in. To ignore what we do in war and what war does to us is to move willfully toward ignorance and pretense. At their best, soldier-artists affirm the power of word and image and the human craving for meaning. And if one of the functions of such art is to disturb the status quo, to force us to view the world anew, to consider our capacities to build or tear down, then we must welcome these disturbances.
DOUG A: Tim O’Brien said it best: “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done ...”
And the rest of that perfect instruction. Don’t scam people. Don’t thrill them with higher purpose and edification. Keep it nasty. Keep it true.
PM: Don’t be boring. Don’t say things that others have said. Know the field and advance it.
SH: To be true to the Muse what brung ya.
How can those who’ve never been to war respond to and write about war and conflict in an authentic way?
MG: Research, research, research. It’s all out there if people are willing to put in the time and energy necessary to understand the nuances and particularities. The best American war novel, in my opinion, is Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. He was a journalist writing about the Civil War thirty years after the fact. There’s a strange train of thought that suggests only war veterans or war survivors can write about war effectively, which is gloriously untrue. Sure, Hemingway said, “Write what you know”—but there are many more ways to “know” a subject beyond living through it. Two of the best contemporary war novels, for example, are written by civilians—Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days. And one of my favorite nonfiction accounts of Iraq is journalist Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts, most of which covers a time period before Frederick himself arrived in Iraq. It’s important that veterans and survivors pen war literature. It’s just as vital that those who weren’t there do the same. It makes for a richer, more vibrant, and more true literary chronicle.
PM: Be a very talented writer with wicked powers of observation, imagination, and empathy. Siobhan Fallon and Ben Fountain haven’t been to war, but their sense of military culture, lingo, and operations is superb.
SP: It seems to me that you respond to war writing the way you properly respond to anything—by listening well. The experience of war is probably our oldest human story, but it’s new every time someone else has to go through it. I don’t think writers either of fiction or nonfiction are required to have lived through everything they write about—we wouldn’t have very much imaginative or critical work if that were the case—but I do think it’s important to deeply consider the experiences of those who have.
SH: The geography of the imagination is boundless. Did Homer need eyes to see what he sang?
Which images or moments from war literature have stayed with you long after the reading of them?
DOUG A: The scene in Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting where he meets an enemy corpse. Any number of scenes of horrible post-traumatic stress disorder visions in Regeneration. Many of Homer’s extended similes, particularly the one describing a warrior’s experience of death. The image of the circling dogs, always there, always ready to pull a corpse off into the darkness. Achilles andPriam. The scene in All Quiet on the Western Front when the boys swim the river to party with the French girls.
MG: Two very different ones stand out, perhaps because I read both books in the formative years of my late teens: Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. For the former, it’s the last scene of the book, as the protagonist Robert Jordan is slowly dying but still finds resolve for one final attack on the Nationalists. He finds purpose and clarity with what he can control and act upon, despite the messy ambiguity of the grander war effort and mistakes made by the Republican side he volunteered for. Those were sentiments I could understand and appreciate during my own service in Iraq. As for Catch-22, who can forget meeting Yossarian for the first time in the military hospital, as he does battle with the doctors and nurses and faulty institutional logics? Talk about training your reader to know how to read your novel!
PM: Going back, I’ll list Snowden’s death in Catch-22, Jimmy Cross’s resolution to try to be a better officer in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and the description of Prewitt playing taps at Arlington Cemetery while a better (but African American) bugler is playing the echo in the hills in James Jones’s From Here to Eternity.
SH: Basho: Summer grasses: / all that remains / of soldiers’ dreams (strictly verbatim translation). I sent this poem to General Schwarzkopf during our first war on Iraq, and I got back a nice form letter thanking me for supporting our troops. Basho’s haiku is an echo from the T’ang Dynasty poet Tu Fu, who wrote during the An Lu-shan Rebellion: “The whole country devastated, / only mountains and rivers remain. / In springtime, in the capital, / the grass is always green.” It’s one of the most famous quatrains in Chinese literature.
MN: Coming around a hillock and overhearing generals in conversation. Backpacks full of stuff. Girl running screaming. Wounded man asking to be shot. “And they washed me out with a hose.”
Yossarian. The wrath of Achilles. Boy returning to village, everybody dead. A stone kicked down a mountainside keeps falling and falling.
“Is that your child?”
What is your favorite novel, story, or poem about war? What would you recommend, and why?
DON A: As a journal editor, I’ve often been asked to single out the world’s greatest war literature—a fool’s errand at best... . New war literature shows up unexpectedly. Forty years after the fact, here comes Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, a fresh and fierce probing of Vietnam. Or Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Most readers readily know the name of Philip Caputo, but few know his novella In the Forest of the Laughing Elephant, a Vietnam tale that, by my lights, rivals Heart of Darkness. By the way, is Heart of Darkness a “war” novel? See what I mean? In Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk only a couple of pages are devoted to combat, yet it is a formidable book about war and American notions about what war means. But, as I say, this is a fool’s errand, so I’ll stop.
MG: The best, I think, is War and Peace. My favorite is a more difficult question to answer. Like many young American boys who read too much growing up, I’ll always consider Hemingway’s works near and dear, even though he was capable of many, many silly passages. I also treasure Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier.
PM: Novels: Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Stories: The Things They Carried and especially “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien, and almost anything in Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time.
Poems: Many from Yusef Komunyakaa but especially “Thanks,” “Facing It,” and “Black String of Days.” More than I can count by Brian Turner. Many (but not all) from Melville’s Battle-Pieces, especially “Shiloh.” Many Walt Whitman poems, such as “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” and “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame.”
MN: Some of Szymborska’s poems about war are wonderful. I like work of several Vietnam vets. Catch-22. Mariano Azuela’s Los de Abajo.
DOUG A: Weigl’s Song of Napalm, and many poems from Bill Ehrhart’s Carrying the Darkness. Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. TheIliad. I love Pham Tien Duat’s Lighting the Lamps poems, even in translation, which is some of the finest war poetry ever written. And Nguyen Duy’s, Hu’u Thinh’s, and Lam Thi My Da’s poems generally. For novels, it’s hard to beat Johnny Got His Gun. There are really too many to pick just one.
SH: The Iliad and Johnny Got His Gun—they are worlds apart. Or are they? Both are classics, one ancient and one modern. I would also include Eduardo Galeano’s magnificent trilogy, Memory of Fire, a history of the Americas, its many wars and struggles, from an extraordinary storyteller.
SP: I also love the beginning of Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Iliad:
Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage
It wasn’t the first translation I’d read, but it was the first one in which the power of that opening really hit me. The wartime emotions of Achilles are so overwhelming that they are the beginning of the story, not even the man himself. And I very much appreciated that Lombardo chose a photo of soldiers coming off of the transport boats at Normandy as the image for his book’s cover, implying that this story about the Trojan War isn’t just about the Greeks and the Trojans.
What is your least favorite novel, story, or poem about war? Why would you not recommend it?
MG: Best to let sleeping dogs lie and bad books go unread and forgotten. That said, I’m not above naming titles after a pint or two, but readers will have to find me in person for that to happen!
Some assert that the hero in war literature died in the trenches of World War I. Do you agree?
DOUG A: I do. They could have avoided World War I if they’d paid any attention to the Civil War, which, although it lacked machine guns, told us everything we need to know about walking in straight lines into enemy fire. The machine gun brought capitalism to the literature of war in an incisive way. People are ground up like beef, blown to fragments by artillery, used up. I remember in either Siegfried Sassoon’s memoir or Pat Barker’s Regeneration, maybe both, images of corpses being used to prop up the disintegrating trenches. That image should have been enough to cure us of war. Sassoon’s great letter to parliament is maybe the greatest nonfiction document against war, written by a very brave and competent officer who’d had enough.
MG: I don’t. I believe the romance of war died in the World War I trenches, and it needs to stay there. But heroism doesn’t need romanticism to endure. In different ways, Hemingway’s Jordan, Salinger’s Seymour Glass, O’Brien’s Cacciato, Fountain’s Billy Lynn, and Carpenter’s Sara (a military mother) are all quite heroic, and all were created in a post-World War I environment. Some might be considered antiheroes, but that’s splicing the question unnecessarily. Just as literature and war literature evolves, so too will its heroes. But they will persist too.
SH: I do not agree. The definition of “hero” has changed in many respects, but Sly Stallone is just another reincarnation of John Wayne. As long as there are wars, there will be “war heroes.” See Star Wars or Apocalypse Now.
SP: It’s true that any notion that a hero could sail through a conflict with minimal physical and zero mental damage simply as a result of his own excellence probably died for good in World War I. But that’s always been a myth, right? Actually, it’s not even myth—look at how deeply Achilles and Odysseus and Aeneas were affected by war. Heroes suffer. Maybe we’ve become more aware of that recently, but in my reading it seems to be a constant.
Do you think poems and stories about war can also be considered love poems and stories about love? If so, how?
SH: Can be? Of course. Bruce Wiegl’s Song of Napalm is a great example, as are poems by Whitman, Tom McGrath, YusefKomunyakaa, and many others leaping immediately to mind. Denise Levertov took a lot of flak over her Vietnam War poems, but at heart they are very much in the Christian pacifist tradition and embody a great love of life, as well as a vast spiritual love. See also Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Conscientious Objector.”
PM: I think soldiers’ relationships and desires are absolutely central to the tradition of war literature. I don’t think combat and life in a unit are anywhere near fulfilling enough to the average reader to sustain a body of fiction or poetry. The war is the backdrop against which emotional yearning plays out for soldier heroes, and the engine that drives it to fever pitch.
SP: I suppose of all the experiences that are hard to capture in representation, war and love would be at the top of the list, which is why we keep telling stories about both of them. Destruction and creation, death and life—two sides of the same coin, and ones that tend to bleed into one another. If that’s true, then describing war would touch on aspects of love, and vice versa, the way that very hot water can feel at first just like water that’s very cold.
MG: I don’t think I’ve ever read a war story that wasn’t in some way also a love story. Love for life, love for peace, love for someone back home, love for their comrades-in-arms—without love and loss, life and death to frame and contextualize a war story, it’s just gore for gore’s sake. And that’s not literature. That’s porn.
Any last thoughts on the subject?
SP: I think a lot of the war experience is universal, which is why ancient works still speak to us. But changes in technology drive the way war happens, and that does make a difference—whether it’s the longbow, the machine gun, or SCUDs. It’s more possible now to fight from a distance even as communications technologies can close the gap with the home front, and both of those things affect the kinds of stories that are told. But even given those changes, the soldier still has to wrestle with the imperative to kill or be killed, and that has always been such a complete reversal from civilian life that I think war stories will always have to address it.
SH: Camus says it best: “We can be murderers or the accomplices of murderers or we must resist with our whole being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it would be of benefit to have it clearly drawn.”