by Kyle Larkin
War writing is paradoxical by nature. Historically, veteran authors have claimed that war cannot be understood unless it is experienced firsthand, but this claim is always made within the very writings that attempt to help readers understand wars they did not experience. Some writers seem oblivious to this contradiction, while others explicitly acknowledge that they don’t expect readers to understand them. Philip Caputo ends his Prologue to A Rumor of War by conceding that his writing “might, perhaps, prevent the next generation from being crucified in the next war. But I don’t think so.” Deep ambivalence is a central aspect of war writing, but we write anyway, knowing that it will change nothing, because the purpose, above all, is to share our experiences—to simply tell. These shared experiences, written by veterans, have formed unique and definitive narratives of each war.
The unprecedented scale and horror of World War I coincided with Modernism to produce the first great outpouring of work by disillusioned veterans. It is the narrative of trench warfare and Shell Shock—some of the earliest attempts to understand traumatic stress. World War II, the deadliest and most widespread conflict in history, led to a wide range of writings from authors all over the world. It is remembered as a justified war, the triumph of Good over Evil, the overthrow of Fascism by Heroism. The lack of iconic literature about the Korean War tells its own story—the absence is itself the narrative. It is the Forgotten War, in which more than thirty thousand American deaths were overshadowed by a world still recovering from the immensity of WWII. Vietnam brought Americans to the jungle in the midst of a countercultural revolution, forming a narrative of protest and anti-war sentiment in the face of political corruption. Veterans became victims of both the draft and the demoralizing treatment they received upon returning home, which initiated the controversial stereotype of the Broken Veteran.
What, then, will be the narrative of the Wars on Terror? For the first time in history, we have troops who, before they even deploy, are already familiar with terms such as “PTSD,” “re-experiencing,” “trauma studies,” “triggers,” “Veteran Suicide Rates,” and “hyper-vigilance.” After their tours, veterans come home to a ready-made post-traumatic lexicon waiting for them to use for interpreting their experiences. The lens of pre-reflective awareness that is now brought to war, and the very real dangers these traumatic terms represent, have both had profound influences on the way war is experienced and written about. A great passage in Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato explains how the protagonist, through television and magazines and newspapers, anticipated the ugliness and poverty of war, that “he had seen it all before seeing it,” which caused his experience to seem muted and familiar, a simulacrum. We now have soldiers who expect to be broken by war, are acutely aware of the breaking as it happens, and then return, broken by the war but comfortable using terms such as “my trauma” because they have come home to the tools and vocabulary with which to explain their experiences—they “had seen it all before seeing it.”
This is an important shift in the history of war writing, and, as a result, it has lead to an abundance of stories told retrospectively by self-proclaimed Broken Veteran narrators. The problem with this is that it tends to produce narratives that interpret experiences before explaining them. When veterans expect to be broken by war, and then their expectations are met, it can translate into writings that simply trace this arc backwards—the veteran begins their novel or memoir or short story by explaining they have been broken by the war, and then they explain how this happened. This narrative can portray a one-dimensional archetype of the veteran-as-victim, which seems borrowed from the draft and the Vietnam experience. War writing can be therapeutic, and there’s merit to that aspect alone, but the Broken Veteran should play a role in the modern narrative and not be the narrative itself.
Despite the abundance of attention it receives, the current hyper-focus on trauma only constitutes half of the contemporary war narrative. Frustration makes up the other half—veterans are frustrated with multiple deployments, frustrated with fighting an insurgency of indistinguishable enemies who seemingly vanish into thin air, frustrated with the disconnect between society’s proud, emphatic Support The Troops platitude and the large number of veterans who nevertheless are struggling, frustrated with the struggle of re-integration into society or with families (the ubiquitous and unchallenged use of the term “re-integration” is telling), and, maybe most of all, frustration with the possibility that personal sacrifices (and the sacrifices of the dead and wounded) were for nothing.
Veterans are granted privileges now that they did not have after previous wars. The Every-Service-Member-Is-A-Hero mentality that took hold after 9/11 has created an environment where it is blasphemous to question veterans. Critical analysis is strictly forbidden if you haven’t experienced war firsthand. Only other veterans are allowed to ask important, uncomfortable questions, but they usually don’t. These conditions have helped create the cocoon in which the prevalence of Broken Veteran narratives and over-traumatized writings have formed.
The risk inherent in this type of writing is that the modern war narrative could end up being defined solely in terms of post-trauma, rendering it generic and repetitive. When experiences are interpreted before they are explained, it replaces the ambivalence that is central to war writing with a bland certainty. The Post-Traumatic Wars deserve a narrative that is as complex and definitive and enduring as they have been. Great war writing seems to tell the reader, “War can’t be understood unless you’ve experienced it,” a statement intended more so to draw attention to the gravity of the subject matter than to be taken literally, but it also crucially implies, “but let me tell you about it anyway.” This is where some modern narratives fall flat—instead of telling, they seem to say that war truly cannot be understood without personal experience, and therefore they tell readers what should be understood (and in what terms it should be understood) before any experiences are described. The modern narrative could use a shift back toward ambivalence, which allows readers to interpret experiences for themselves. The purpose of war writing, after all, is to share experiences without expectations for change—to tell without interpretation, as Erich Maria Remarque brilliantly states in his preface to All Quiet on the Western Front, “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”
(Featured Image: Steve Beales / In Duty Comes Honour & Excellence / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 2)