Reflections on “A War Portfolio”

by Cathy Dobson

Filed under: Blog |

First, I want to thank Brian Turner and all the staff who worked on A War Portfolio to make it a part of the Winter 2013 issue of Prairie Schooner. I’d also like to thank the writers and poets whose work is featured in the volume.  I hope my words seem humble, because I feel humble in the face of the subject, the talent, the effort that this work represents.  The voices in these pages have challenged me as a reader, influenced me as a writer, and I know that I have grown as a human being in the experience of them.

Some pieces in the issue haunt me.  I don’t even have to pick up the volume to remember them.  I don’t know what I can write to explain or describe my response to “Child Bomb.”  Pedro Serrano found the words to tell this story, but I find none I can use in reply.

I am there for Brooke King as she packs her duffel in “Redeployment Packing Checklist” and I want to be her comrade.  “I’ll go with you—we’ll go together,” I want to say. 

To the writers and the subjects in Elliot D. Woods’ “The Kunar Nine” and Roy Scranton’s “The Fall,” I can only say, “I’m sorry,” like one does at a funeral service addressing the survivors.  I want to acknowledge the grief and I want to take some responsibility for the losses to “friendly fire” in Iraq and Afghanistan, the carnage.  If what happened in these sketches is somehow my fault, how do I make amends?

Tamra J. Higgins’ “The VA-Issued Crutch” jars in me a memory that I pledge to commit to paper one day.

The round table discussion “On War Writing” is essential reading.  Without it, I don’t know that I could have felt any kind of closure, although the closure I do feel is like a door that somehow keeps opening.  I suppose this is because there is a story of war in me, and I haven’t yet learned enough about the art of telling to write it.

To an extent, I regret singling out some writers at the expense of the rest, to do so is a disservice, but how am I to acknowledge the significance of all in a brief post?  Each work is essential to the whole, and that is good editing. 

I would imagine anyone touched by war feels as I do upon reading these stories.  The longer I live and see war happening, the more I feel the effects, not because it happens more often, but because I am more cognizant.  One conflict in our world seems to bleed into another, like a wound that cannot heal.  I suppose if aggression is human nature, then war is inevitable.  But if education is the cure for ignorance, then maybe art is the cure for war.  What then would that art be about?

When I pick up A War Portfolio and open it to face Eliza Griswald’s “Homeland” I shudder at this story of a suicide bomber.  So goes the entire volume.  Reading it is like experiencing a solar eclipse.  You want to see it, but you can’t look at it.  And then, you realize: these stories of war had to be experienced by someone, had to be looked at and touched. Someone had to do everything except die as a result of it.  And then, you realize: some did die.

This is a volume to pick up and put down again and again.  It is storytelling, it is art.  It is all that and more—it is an eclipse of the sun.