Why Write About War? Leeds Arts &Humanities Research Institute Event, Wednesday 13 March 2019
David Foster Wallace suggests; “Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” In The Sense of an Ending Frank Kermode claims of fictions; “we want them not only to console but to make discoveries of the hard truth here and now”. I believe this is truer of war literature than most forms of fiction. There are many writers who have written about war to make sense of trauma, placing their fragmentary experience of the battlefield into a coherent comforting narrative structure. There are also writers who have written about war to make others aware of the trauma of the battlefield potentially providing discomfort to their readers as they have done so.
In the first category there are many books written by veterans that have been openly autobiographical, such as Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That, or autobiography disguised as fiction — such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. In his introduction to Good-Bye to All That which covered his service in World War I, Graves claims he had written the book for three reasons:
“An opportunity for a formal goodbye to you and to you and to me and to all that; forgetfulness, because once all this has been settled in my mind and written down and published it need never be thought about again; money.”
Beneath the jovial claims Graves makes I got the sense that the writing of it provided a form of therapy for him, breaking down his war experience in to separate chapters, giving him a chance to make sense of the chaos he had experienced. But also giving him a chance to try to give that part of his life an ending, as for many veterans the war does not stop when the guns fall silent. Graves described being haunted by ghosts and nightmares for years after the war. Writing may have helped Graves say good-bye to some of these ghosts. US author of The Yellow Birds Kevin Powers writes of his moment “trapped in amber”. For Powers it was witnessing .50-caliber machine-gun rounds tearing into the small white car and the old man and the old woman sitting within in it on a road outside Tal Afar, Iraq. Powers claims that; “They have been dying in my mind every day for the last 14 years. I suspect they will do so until I’ve exhausted my own days on this earth.” In The Sense of an Ending Kermode investigates man’s need to make sense of his life span with fictive concords that have origins and ends, but, as for the whole, I think we have the same need for individual periods in our lives.
Alex Bowlby’s The Recollections of Rifleman Bowlby is his account of life in a rifle regiment in Italy in World War II. Both the regiment and the names of his comrades are anonymised. At the end of the book, Bowlby tells us that after the war the ghosts of his dead comrades haunted his dreams. In the mid-1950s he had a breakdown. In 1957, thirteen years to the day his section commander “Judge” had been blown to bits on a mine, his grief exploded. As Bowlby’s world broke-up he turned to the one thing he had left to hang on to — the book he was writing. During his breakdown wartime dialogue came back to him for the first time since the war.
Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is written in the first person. Key incidents in the book mirror real incidents that profoundly influenced him. In 1917, he was in Flanders for some of the most intense fighting of World War I. His friend Troske received minor shrapnel injuries, but as Remarque carried him off the battlefield he received a further wound to his head which killed him, just as with his character Kat in the novel. After medical discharge, Remarque suffered post-war trauma and disillusionment, complicated by grief over his mother’s death. Remarque comments in the preface that “[This book] will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” Speaking for the generation of men of which he was part Remarque claimed, “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men; we are crude and sorrowful and superficial–I believe we are lost.” All Quiet on the Western Front wasn’t Remarque’s way of saying good-bye to his wartime experiences. He revisited some of the characters in a sequel, but he was attempting to confront and make sense of the trauma he and his fellow young men experienced at the front. Maybe for Remarque it was too painful to do this through autobiography. French philosopher Albert Camus claimed that; “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” Maybe he wanted to avoid offending those with who he fought. Siegfried Sassoon ended his friendship with Graves over Goodbye to All That.
Remarque used a style close to autobiography, using a narrator to detail events as they happened, one after the other, neglecting to follow a traditional narrative arc, of beginning, middle and end. This is a common approach for war writing as it accurately resembles the experience of war as a set time period, consisting of long periods of inaction followed by intense bursts of random violence and then an abrupt end when a soldier’s time at the front is over. A narrative can be imposed by a writer for the sake of the reader at the cost of accurately depicting war’s fragmentary nature. In Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut places his vividly accurate descriptions of conflict in an outlandish plot structure as his hero, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time” due to his abduction by aliens who happen to be unbound by the normal limitations of time and space. Powers claims that; “Through this ingenuous device Vonnegut shows the past as an irresistible force, particularly in the case of those who have trauma at the center of their experience.” This again highlights the ambiguous nature of “endings” in war literature. Maybe veterans looking to for the comfort of an ending might always struggle to give one to an experience “unstuck in time”. A memory can be set in amber, but the amber itself isn’t fixed in place, it is orbiting on an unpredictable trajectory that can cause it to re-enter your consciousness time and again until you’ve exhausted all your days on this earth.
Ambrose Bierce echoed a similar sentiment to Wallace when he said he saw it as his job in both his fiction and non-fiction to ‘cultivate a taste for distasteful truths. And … most important of all, endeavour to see things as they are not as they put to be’. According to historian Drew Gilpin Faust he was the most significant American writer to fight in the Civil War. He too was haunted all his life by what he described as persisting ‘visions of the dead and the dying’. His writings are often cited as the beginnings of modern war literature and as a major influence on Hemingway, who went on to write For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms based on his experiences during the Spanish Civil War and in the Italian campaign during the First World War respectively.
Writing the biography All Soldiers Run Away I had extensive conversations with Alan Juniper’s daughter that built up a picture of what he was like. I would then have to imagine how he might have felt in the same way you try to get inside the head of the characters you create in fiction. When writing fiction the process is similar but it is often putting words from real people into fictitious characters. There is a strong sense this is what Remarque did. It takes courage to do this through non-fiction when writing about war. There is an expectation, particularly from those who haven’t experienced combat that people act heroically. Yet, soldiers get scared, angry and psychologically damaged in the extremes of conflict. Bowlby deserves particular praise for his bravery in his honesty as do Alan’s family. There is evidence from psychology, including from studies of the effect of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, that suggests there are benefits for some in breaking down traumatic experiences and retelling them and confronting the emotions they elicit as you do.
Remarque may have also preferred fiction as it takes the story from the specific to the universal. An autobiography tells of one individual’s experience no matter how relatable. There would have been many soldiers who survived the Western Front that could have felt Remarque’s narrator was based on them. Remarque publicly stated that he wrote All Quiet on the Western Front for personal reasons, not profit. He wanted to give a voice to a generation impacted by the war. This is the second category: trying to bridge a gap of understanding between those who fought and those who did not, causing discomfort as they do. War writers have long tried to explain to those back home, whilst often also claiming that no-one who wasn’t there can really understand.
As Remarque’s narrator visits his home on leave he finds that the town has not changed; however, he finds that he does ‘not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world.’ He feels disconnected from the townspeople. His father asks him ‘stupid and distressing’ questions about his experiences, not understanding ‘that a man cannot talk of such things.’ Graves also notes a disconnect: ‘England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere… The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language.’
Graves, after seeing the carnage of the front and what he perceived to be criminal mismanagement of the war by the senior commanders, found the unquestioning patriotism of those back home misguided. Many of the World War I and II writers and poets saw it as their duty to explain to those back home the horrific loss of life was not to be celebrated. It was a failure of humanity no matter which nation claimed victory — a sentiment most famously expressed in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘. As much as the World War II writers distanced themselves from how their generals fought the war and the public’s enthusiasm to feed the war machine with their young men, modern writers from Vietnam to Iraq have distanced themselves from the politicians who initiated and then continually interfered with their wars.
In Brian van Reet’s novel on the Iraq War; Spoils, as the characters’ actions lead to spiraling unintended consequences, that increase misunderstanding and entrench divisions, the story becomes a metaphor for the whole sad inevitability of invasion and the wider public’s understanding of it. Some of the writing emerging from the Chechnya conflict, such as Arkady Babchenko’s One Soldier’s War seems to also have this aim.
There is another closely linked motivation which is the desire of the author to bear witness. This bearing witness is a pre-cursor to remembering. The first war stories were arguably the first histories. The Iliad and the Icelandic Sagas are good examples. Correspondingly many of the first histories we have were written as stories, closer to the style of a fiction novel than a modern history text. In Slaughterhouse-Five the witnessing of one particular historical event — the fire-bombing of Dresden — provoked a desire to ensure it was remembered. Arthur Koestler described Bowlby’s Recollections as “a monument to the Unknown Soldier”.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry’s speech on the eve of the battle of Agincourt reveals another dimension to the idea of bearing witness:
“From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”
It is not just the fact that these happy few would be enshrined in history by taking part in history, but the survivors would be duty-bound to remember the fallen as part of a ‘band of brothers’. Remembrance is a complex concept in the military that all veteran writers must be aware of. As a veteran you feel duty bound to preserve the memories of those you have served with. The idea ingrained in modern military thinking is that the fallen aren’t forgotten. As a veteran writer even subconsciously you cannot desert that duty. There can be an interesting tension between your duty as a veteran and your duty as a writer.
When writing about World War II I was faced with unfathomable numbers of losses, I felt obliged to look up every death — often recorded in war diaries as just “other rank killed in action”. I listed the name, age and family details of every soldier that appeared in the biography and ended up KIA. We are narrative creatures- we care very much about the end of the story. We want others to know our end and we want to know what happens at the end of our loved ones’ lives. This is something the military is aware of and uses for cohesion. It owns how you will be remembered. Step out of the system and you’ll be forgotten; stay and do your duty and we’ll remember you. Part of my motivation for writing All Soldiers was to give Alan his story back, ironically at a time when he was losing his own memories to dementia. Recent novels on the Iraq war have looked at how this ownership of remembrance is being challenged in the digital age of posted Internet videos, in Spoils a character executed by jihadists is described as; “existing everywhere and nowhere at once, memorialised at his worst and finest”, and in Nico Walker’s Cherry about another character we are told; “They’d died and gone to the Internet.”
From this follows the idea that these stories need to be written by those who were there. This is called ‘combat gnosticism’ and it extends past literature, as the philosopher Cecile Fabre says:
“I haven’t been in a warzone myself… I always feel that, as a philosopher, I somehow don’t have the right to moralise about war because not only do I have no idea of what it’s about, but I fervently hope that I will never have an idea of what it’s about… one of the reasons why I keep reading fiction, literary works about war, is as a partial substitute…for actually experiencing it myself…To even begin to get a sense of what it might be like, I have to read literature… the very least that I can do is actually read those works which, even if it’s not obvious in what I write, nevertheless inform the way I write.”
This demonstrates that at least for some readers they are looking for ‘descriptive, evocative content’ that will allow them to have an as-close-to-the-frontline experience as possible.
There may also be a fear of criticising those in uniform that restricts an honest appraisal in Western fiction of recent conflicts from those that didn’t serve. Maybe society in the West feels it should be left to veterans that have earned the right to be more reflective?
In recent conflicts there is one group who have earnt more of a right than any other to write about war, but it is a group that is chronically underrepresented in both fiction and non-fiction. There is a shortage of writing from civilians caught up in the in recent wars. The Iraq war has more literature written by Iraqis, but much less than that written by soldiers whose visit to the country was a blink of an eye in the ancient land where writing began. One of the finest examples is Ahmed Saadawi’s magical realist Frankenstein in Baghdad, that mixes classic horror with the horror of modern-day war to great effect. In terms of legitimacy am I allowed to write about the Iraq war? Saadawi lived through it in a way I did not. Is my understanding of the conflict enough? Did I experience enough trauma?
If we restrict those who have served to being able to write about conflict, we would lose some of the greatest war literature, such as Leo Tolstoy’s description of the Battle of Austerlitz in War and Peace. He uses the extremes of war to examine morality, free will and the chaos of our lives, and, the losses the war causes to examine loss more generally. Placing characters in fictional extremes allows us to explore the limits of the real world. Gilpin Faust notes of the nineteenth-century American poet, Emily Dickinson that “war provided Dickinson with inexhaustible material for her metaphysical speculations.” War also changes wider society. Its impacts are felt by those who do not go to the front. It doesn’t take someone who has been to the front to reflect on these.
Those writing about war do so for a variety of reasons, whether it’s to find therapy the retelling, writing to close the gap of understanding between those who have gone ‘over there’ and those who have not, or, using war as a setting to speculate about our wider condition, all are individually valid. The very best war literature, in my opinion, manages to provide comfort and discomfort, but also at the same time illuminate key characteristics of our species that can remain hidden in much of the day to day of our largely peaceful modern Western world.