AWP Roundtable: “Duty and Dilemma: 100 Years of Writing About War”

The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, or the end of World War I; and 90 years since the first publication of the most famous novel from that war, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Alternately praised by pacifists and condemned by patriots, Remarque’s work was eventually banned by the Nazis as they revved up their war machine for what would become World War II. But did they have reason to fear Remarque’s words? Has any one book—not to mention poems dating back from Sappho–or the thousands that have since been published during a century of armed conflict, stopped any war? Or have they had the opposite effect by celebrating the triumphs of soldiers along with the cost of those triumphs?

As if in response to these questions, the field of war literature has expanded mightily since Remarque to include graphic novels (It Was the War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi), books by and about women at war (Girl at War by Sara Novic); both realistic and magical investigations into the lives of refugees (Exit West by Mohsin Hamid; Loom by Therese Soukar Chehade); stories told from the point of view of America’s enemies (The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen); and the resurrection of Greek myths (The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya) to recast the narrative of the ever unfolding and potentially endless War on Terror. This discussion focuses on why and how we write about war, and whether we have been meeting our responsibility as writers and human beings to somehow put an end to this recurrence of the “decisive human failure.”

Jane Rosenberg LaForge (JRL): Why do you write about war the way that you do? Each of you has carved out a particular approach, locus, or specific time period, in your books. I’m asking this question in light of innovations to the genre, such as those mentioned above, and any others you can think of.

Helen Benedict (HB): I first approached my cycle of writings about women in the Iraq War – my recent novels, Wolf Season, its predecessor Sand Queen, the nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier, and the play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues – with the mission of finding out from soldiers and civilians themselves what they were experiencing in this war, and what they thought about it. I knew what politicians were saying, and what pundits, journalists and my friends were saying, but in 2003-5, we were hearing precious little from those actually in the midst of the violence.

I also knew that more American women were serving in the Iraq War than in any other war since World War II, and yet were receiving precious little attention for it. I wanted to know why they, as women, had joined, how they felt about the war, and what was it like to be a woman in ground combat, even as it was still officially banned. Thus, I set out to travel the United States for roughly three years, from 2006-9, interviewing women veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Some I spoke to for an hour or two by phone, others I talked with for many months, visiting their homes, touring their towns, seeing their high schools, and meeting their families. In the end, I interviewed some 40 women from the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force.

These women opened their hearts to me in ways I found extraordinarily courageous and moving. Some were proud of their service, others loved the military but opposed the war, and yet others had turned against both the military and the war – but they all wanted to be heard. I wrote The Lonely Soldier based on those interviews, and later the play, which was all in the words of the soldiers themselves.

Yet, I was not satisfied.

All these women had endured war, and most had suffered trauma, not only as a result of being in battle but because some 90 percent had been relentlessly sexually harassed, and some 30 percent raped or sexually assaulted by the very men who were supposed to watch their backs in battle – their so-called brothers-in-arms. Sometimes, during our interviews, the women would fall silent, their hands shaking, their eyes filling with tears; at other times they would deflect my questions with humor. Those moments haunted me until I came to see that, as open as these women were with me, another story lay in those silences and jokes – the private, internal story of war hidden deep inside every soldier’s heart; the real story of war.

I wanted to tell that hidden story, but I knew much of it lay beyond what these women were willing or even able to say aloud. Some couldn’t speak because they didn’t have the words, some were too afraid, others too proud, yet others too ashamed. Military culture is fiercely secretive and self-protective, and soldiers who criticize it are usually treated as traitors. Even whistleblowers tend to internalize that accusation, and eventually retreat into self-loathing, shame, suspicion, and silence.

So I turned to fiction, where I could combine my interviews, research and imagination to fill in those silences and get to the uncensored story of war — to how it really feels to be in a war day in and day out, from the long stretches of boredom to the worst moments of violence, and all that happens in the minutes, hours and months in between.

But soldiers’ experiences are, of course, only one side of what is going on in Iraq. I wanted to tell the other side, too — that of civilian Iraqis – a side that has been missing from American public discourse for 15 years by now. Thus I found some Iraqi refugees and talked to them for hours, just as I had the soldiers. They, also, were generous, courageous, and eager to help me. They, also, wanted to be heard. And once I explained that I was writing a novel with an Iraqi character in it, their eyes brightened, their enthusiasm kindled, and they offered all the stories and advice I needed.

This is how I came up with my novels about women on both sides of the Iraq war, novels that reflect what I found in the silences, tears and jokes of soldiers, and in the lonely eyes of Iraqi refugees; those secret places in the human soul that have always been the territory of novelists.

D.H. Lawrence once said, “…war is dreadful. It is the business of the artist to follow it home to the heart of the individual fighters.”

I wrote about war the way I did because I, too, wanted to follow the war home.

JRL: I’m wondering if the #MeToo movement is going to change anything in the military, and if this will eventually translate into literature. Do you care to make any predictions about it?

HB:  In a sense, military women have been having a #MeToo movement for many years now. And military sexual assault and harassment as a subject has already entered some literature — for example in both my novels, Sand Queen and Wolf Season, as well as in memoirs, such as Caged Eyes by Lynn Hall. Several closed Facebook groups for survivors of military sexual assault exist as well; forums for just this kind of discussion. Women have also spoken out to journalists, as they did in my book, The Lonely Soldier, and the documentary that came out of that work, The Invisible War. But this is not to say that it isn’t incredibly difficult to speak out about sexual persecution in the military, which is an intensely victim-blaming and shaming culture.

Only two years ago, Human Rights Watch released a study showing that a woman who reports a sexual assault in the military is TWELVE times more likely to be punished than a man who commits one. Retaliation, cover-ups, and victim blaming are still far too rife in the military. Investigation and prosecution must be taken out of military hands and the chain of command, and moved to neutral, non-military courts, as they are in Canada and Britain, if true change is to be made. I do hope the #MeToo movement will make that happen.

JRL: Returning to the original question of why each author has approached a particular time period, or aspect of war:

Jesse Goolsby (JG): I’m most interested in the nuance and uniqueness of human desire in all of us. The reason I write about war and its infiltration beyond combat areas and into the side streets and livings rooms everywhere is because war, for veterans and civilians in war zones, is only one experience in a life, but such an impactful one that it very well may tinge all that occurs after. But, of course, that may not be true at all. I know many combat veterans that do not showcase the expected physical and moral wounds of war, and abhor the assumption that they must be haunted or hurt. My novel and many of my short stories work imaginatively to privilege the sanctity of the individual experience and the vast responses to conflict one might image.  While that’s my goal, I must acknowledge that as an active-duty Air Force officer, the proximity of war, or the threat of war, is never far from my day-to-day consciousness. How that affects my writing, I’m not sure, except to say, when I write about war or the consequences of war, it feels urgent and close. And at the same time, I find it a great joy to explore human courage, loyalty, and fortitude well beyond the battlefield. Of the 13 chapters in I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, two take place in Afghanistan. My “war” novel is more at home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Chester, California than in the Middle East.

Samuel Snoek-Brown (SSB): I’m an absolutist in my pacifism. This isn’t just about war; it’s about violence of any sort. I’m that guy who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly—I have a little bug vacuum that I use to suck up insects and carry them outside. I’m that guy. So, nationally speaking, I’m against any war for any reason. But I’m also what one might call a pragmatic idealist; I know how unlikely it is that we’ll ever eradicate warfare altogether. So how do we live with it? Not the warriors but the civilians, the people who have no interest in fighting someone else’s war—how do these people cope when war sucks them in unwillingly? That’s what I was trying to wrestle with in Hagridden. Which seems strange, considering how easily the women in my book fall into murder during the Civil War, but that is their coping mechanism. Historically, culturally, regionally, this all rings true. We tend to think of the South as a monolith, racist Confederate rebels the lot of them, but in truth, poor whites in the South—even the racist ones—had little at stake in the war. They knew it was a political and economic fight, and a lot of folks, especially outside the heart of the slave economy, knew they were just being used as fodder in a war for rich white people. This was especially the case in Louisiana, and the bayou there became notorious as a place where people could avoid conscription or hide out from home front soldiers hunting deserters.

Seth Brady Tucker (SBT): This is an interesting manipulation of a very common question: “why do you write about war,” which I’ve been basically answering at every reading or guest lecture I’ve done since 1996. It is a tiresome question; so tiresome, that I actually misread your question to begin with (I don’t bring this up to criticize, but it made me think about why the first version is so annoying and the second version, yours, is so compelling). Of course, if one is a veteran, it is likely they will write about what they know, as many fiction writers do, as many poets do, as certainly most nonfiction writers do. Personally, I feel strongly that I don’t choose what I write, but listen for the next piece by paying attention to the world. The way I write is significantly more complicated; I write the way I do (fiction, poetry, and currently a novel) because of all those veteran writers who came before—I write short fiction because Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried challenged me to write a “true war story.” I write poetry the way I do because I early on fell in love with those poets who could communicate a life and an idea in just a few simple images. I write the way I do because I literally found poetry (William Carlos Williams and Mary Oliver) in a foxhole in the Persian Gulf. In my mind, we are all paying our respects to Heller and Sassoon and Remarque and and and… And then it is our turn to speak a “truth the stomach believes,” as O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story.”

My poetry is what I would consider imagistic lyrical narrative (yuck, what a mouthful), so much of what I write takes small moments and endeavors to expand it in such a way that the reader is given a stake in the subject, right there along with the humans who are speaking or experiencing it. Almost all of my poems tell tiny stories, which is why my short fiction will sometimes lapse back into flash fiction or prose poems. And no. I don’t believe we have been matching our duty when it comes to “our decisive human failure.”

JRL:  In 2015, Roy Scranton, the author of War Porn (Soho Press), wrote an essay in which he criticized “the myth of the trauma hero.” He traced the origins of this myth—mild-mannered men go to war and are forever changed by the monstrosities they witness but cannot articulate—to demonstrate how most war literature fails, particularly in terms of illustrating the social forces that propel nations into war.  (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/trauma-hero-wilfred-owen-redeployment-american-sniper/ ) He indicts Wilfred Owen into this category, along with Hemingway and Phil Klay. What do you think of his criticism of war literature and in particular, his idea of the “trauma hero?” I think this myth is necessary, if only so we can believe in the exceptional or fragile nature of our own humanity, and as war as an inhumane, worst-case scenario. Does this myth preclude explaining the causes of war in the midst of combat?

 HB: Yes, American soldiers are too sorry for themselves. And yes, it is tiresome. And yes, we selfishly pay more attention to our own problems – those of the occupier – than those of the occupied, the civilians whose lives we have destroyed. And finally, yes, too much of American war literature, and too many American war movies, glamorize and lie about war without addressing the deep corruption of its politics and the horror of its results.

But the study and discussion of moral injury is essential, for the deeper it goes, the more it reveals that, in fact, most humans are not comfortable with killing and torturing, and that most killers suffer for their actions. I refer readers to a forthcoming anthology called War and Moral Injury, edited by Robert Emmet Meagher and Douglas A. Pryer (Cascade Books), in which the findings about how deeply killing and torturing destroys the killer and the torturer are beautifully explained. I consider this a ray of hope for humankind. We just might not be quite as savage as we think. The traumatized soldier is not a myth; it is merely overdone.

The root of Roy Scranton’s critique, I believe, lies in the difference between a war that relies on a draft, and one that relies upon voluntary enlistment. It is much easer to muster sympathy for the trauma and moral revulsions of young people sent to war against their wills than it is for those who voluntarily joined up, only to express bewilderment and horror once they are sent to war.

This is an argument that Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) has also made. But both he and Scranton have lost sight of a few facts that challenge their point.

First, many young service members who deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were, in fact, bamboozled into war. This was certainly the case for those who joined the National Guard, which hadn’t been sent to war since Korea, just so they could serve the country, get their paychecks and escape their hometowns without going to war. As one soldier said to me, “National. That means inside the country, right?” Wrong, it turned out.

Second, many recruits were conned into enlisting by lies. Under President Bush and the pressure to fill the ranks for the post-9/11 wars, recruiters were lying in droves. I document this in The Lonely Soldier, so will only say here that the prevalence of lies told to high school kids to get them to enlist was widespread, well-covered, and shocking. They were told they wouldn’t go to war, that the chances of dying in war if they did go were lower than being killed by a car, that the war was almost over, and that it wasn’t really a war but a liberation of the people, especially the women, of Iraq. (In fact, we took away the rights women had held under Saddam Hussein and joined with fundamentalist Imams to drive women back under Sharia law.) Under the “No Child Left Behind Act,” public schools were mandated to give the names, addresses and phone numbers of students to the military in exchange for Federal funding, so that the military could reach into students’ homes, visit them, court and hound them.

Then, of course, there’s the argument that poverty is a back door draft. And, I would add, half the recruits in the Marines and Army came from violent, dysfunctional families and had suffered abuse as children, according to two seminal studies, also cited in my book. This means that some 50 percent of those enlistees could well have joined up to escape, to feel strong, and to turn themselves into warriors instead of victims.

In short, many of the soldiers I interviewed over the years were young, ignorant and naïve, yes, but they were also idealistic, good people who truly thought they were going to do something noble. Most had enlisted at 17 or 18. They were children, and in my view, they have as much claim to trauma and moral injury as any draftee in Vietnam.

JG: I pray no author genuinely interested in the imaginative arts ever considers what Scranton or any other critic has to say about the potential failings of his or her art. Hemingway, Owen, Klay, and many others have tapped into fictive consciousnesses that experience trauma in war. The vast majority of their work is very well written. There are blank pages in front of all of us. If one wants a different war story then go write it, and I wish you well.

SSB: A few decades ago, when I had a job cooking meals in a senior center and eating a daily lunch with members of the Greatest Generation, I confessed to a woman that I once thought about joining the military but had decided against it because I didn’t want to go to war.

“You wouldn’t be willing to die for your country?” the woman asked, incredulous.

“I would absolutely die for my country,” I said, “but that’s not what they send you to war to do. They want you to kill for your country. And I’m not willing to kill anyone.”

I think Scranton makes some good points about the mythology of the “wounded warrior,” but the truth is, the trauma isn’t just in the violence a veteran soldier witnesses—the greater trauma is often in the violence the veteran soldier has been party to. That’s one of the things I was trying to address in my novel. My characters are all more or less willing participants in the often horrific and intimate violence they commit, but most of the characters also feel forced into committing that violence, and some of those characters are more damaged by what they’ve done than by anything they’ve been witness to. All of my killers are victims, but none of my killers thinks they are heroes.

If anything, I think that’s the new mythology that good war literature is trying to portray these days. We still have “patriotic,” jingoistic stories like those Scranton indicts, but I would suggest that since at least Vietnam, we’ve been far more willing to also tell the stories of the violence that we do ourselves in war. That in some respects, every wartime soldier is their own enemy, brutalizing themselves on behalf of someone else. That is especially more prevalent in the midst of America’s longest war, which we’ve been fighting on at least a few different fronts for going on sixteen years now. Soon, children who were born just before we went into Afghanistan will be able to enlist and ship out to a war that has been smoldering their entire lives. When they get there, what will we ask them to do? How much violence will we ask them to commit?

I wrote my novel about the U.S. Civil War, arguably the world’s first “modern” war and one of the most intimate and intimately brutal. But it was about this question of what wartime—not just warfare but a national period of war—does to the psyche of everyone living through it. Because these days, even civilians are “veterans” of the wars we’ve been fighting, and maybe that’s always been the case. In one of my current novels, I’m writing about the Reconstruction, and the characters in that novel are all veterans of the Civil War, returned to a home and a peace they don’t know how to inhabit, not because they are victims of the trauma of war but because they were perpetrators of war—they engaged in vicious, brutal violence, and they don’t know how to stop. That novel is rooted in several true stories from the period, but as I’ve been writing it, I’ve also been thinking about a student of mine a decade ago who gave a classroom presentation on video game violence. His older brother had deployed to Iraq and when he came home, all he wanted to do was play the wartime first-person shooter “Call of Duty.” My student and his brother would spend hours at the game, engaging in mission after mission. My student explained that his brother needed to play the game because that was the only way his brain worked anymore. He had to engage the enemy, accomplish the mission, juice his adrenaline. The only place he felt comfortable was on the battlefield, even if it was a virtual one. But then one day, as my student and his brother played a desert-battle scenario, the game stopped and my student heard a crack—his brother had broken the game controller in his hand. He was standing in the living room, his fists mottled red and white as he crushed the controller, as he struggled to breathe.

“Are you okay?” my student asked his brother.

“I can’t play this anymore,” his brother said. “I need some air.”

“Are you okay, though?” my student repeated.

“It’s too real,” his brother said.

The soldier, returned home, couldn’t handle the video game anymore not because it reminded him of what he’d witnessed, but because he’d gotten too wrapped up in the digital violence, and he was worried it would carry over into the real world. He was worried he would carry into civilian life the violence he had committed in war.

That’s not a myth. That’s not fiction; it’s not a film or a video game. That’s our current reality.

I think that’s what war literature today has to be about.

SBT: I think the myth is necessary and inevitable and will always exist—it is our job as artists to render that trope into obscurity with our own approaches to the forms we take on in our writing—to create a new vision of the trauma hero that is basically unrecognizable—it is true that we create archetypes and always will, but it is also true that great literature obscures and masks them. To criticize the “trauma hero” is akin to criticize the “broken husband” or the “bitter wife” or any archetype in modern and contemporary literature. What Scranton was really pushing back against, in my opinion, is the wild and irresponsible chase for war writers by publishing houses.

It just happens that there is a push for war literature that wasn’t there when I began writing, or, I should say “war porn” for those legions of Hoo-wah pulp novels that treat war in the same way romance novels treat sex. I like to think that the great writing being done by our contemporary war writers (Andrea Williams, Brian Turner, David Abrams, Kayla Williams, Tim O’Brien, etc.) are actually working against this archetype, and doing it well, just as contemporary domestic writers like Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, and new writers like Anne Valentine and Kirsten Valdez-Quade, are morphing the archetype of the embittered homemaker.

JRL: Are there certain features war literature must have—and is this part of the problem we’re discussing? I’ve read every war novel I could get my hands on in the past year, and most pay attention to terrain or physical conditions, the before-and-after of leaving civilian life for military service (or of leaving one’s homeland as a refugee, or the difference between war time and peace time), and the whiplash between boredom and intense, even cataclysmic peril that frames life on the battlefield. Is this not enough to de-glamorize war? Are there other ingredients that war literature does have, or should have?

 HB: The ingredient glaringly missing from most war literature is the voice of the victims: The occupied. The civilians. The women and children and non-combatant men whose deaths the military so chillingly describes as “collateral damage.” In today’s wars, more women and children die than men, according to the UN. So to tell war stories only from the point of view of the invader is a distortion so grotesque it would be laughable were it not so prevalent.

There is another ingredient missing too: diversity. Almost all the stories of American wars, past and present, have been told by white men. Even contemporary veteran writers have, for the most part, been former officers with MFAs and all white and male. Where are the female veteran writers? A couple of memoirs, a few poems and short stories – but so far, no novels. And where are the writers of color? Where are the novels by African American, Latino, Native American or Muslim veterans? Even among civilian war writers like myself, there are only four or so women who have written literary novels about war, and all of us are white. (The two exceptions to this that I know of are playwrights: Maurice Decaul, a veteran; and Cassandra Medley, a civilian.)

And finally, we need more literature by Iraqis and Afghans themselves. There are a few out in translation, mostly published by tiny presses her or by presses in other countries. But in the U.S., the dearth of translated literature by those who have suffered our wars is shameful. I have written about these books here: https://lithub.com/the-best-contemporary-iraqi-writing-about-war/

In short, if we are to deglamorize war through literature, which we are duty bound to do if we wish to be honest, we must stop looking at war through the very narrow lens of the white man, and look at it instead from the view of those we hurt the most. I have written more about this: https://readherlikeanopenbook.com/2017/10/11/why-i-write-about-iraqis/

JG: I’d never prescribe required elements in war literature, or any type of literature, but something we often encounter in art that deals with war is an explicit human yearning for connection. But isn’t that true of most or all literature? What I love about literature, and even murky genre distinctions including war literature, is that I feel artists are always pushing the borders outward, in a more inclusive direction. Consider the work of—just to name a few—Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men Are Gone), Kim Garcia (Drone), Suzan-Lori Parks (Father Comes Home from the Wars), Brian Castner (All the Ways We Kill and Die), Elyse Fenton (Sweet Insurgent).  All of these writers have taken contemporary war literature in new, and often unexpected, directions. Notably, many of these works possess very few commonalities or traditional, battle-focused war literature markers, and yet conflict always hovers somewhere: in memory, on a drive through the Nevada desert, in a pressed uniform hanging in a dark closet, on a quiet sidewalk outside a 7-11.

 SSB: I think the most honest—and the most necessary—ingredient of war literature is violence. Brutal, soul-rending violence. Whether it’s committed amid screams and blood spurts at the end of a saber or bayonet, or from a dark arcade where children fly robots to bomb wedding parties, war is about violence. Most of it horrifying.

I was talking to a creative writing class once and they asked why so many people in my novel get their throats slit. It’s not something I was conscious of at the time, the fixation on blades against throats, but the part that was intentional was the cold intimacy of those deaths. Violence committed up close, face-to-face. Blood literally on my characters’ hands. In my current project, one of the characters is a sharpshooter, what we’d call a sniper today, and he serves in that position not because he’s a crack shot but because he prefers to keep his distance from the killing he does. Except the distance is just an illusion, and he knows it. He feels it.

You mention terrain, and a lot of people point to my attention to landscape in my novel. Some readers have described my novel as post-apocalyptic even though it’s set 150 years ago, because the terrain is so desolate, my characters’ subsistence so tenuous. That’s on purpose. I had this idea that warfare, even distant warfare (my novel is set in the Louisiana bayou, where only a few battles occurred over the whole Civil War) traumatizes the land as much as it traumatizes the people. Or, at least, the landscape reflects the trauma of the psyche.

I have a pretty grim, unglamorous view of war, so yeah, I think those elements are crucial to any honest portrayal of war in literature.

SBT: I like to think that war literature should humanize war, rather than glamorize (in the case of “war porn”) or perhaps even deglamorize it, the way Brian Turner has done with his poetry and his creative nonfiction. Personally, the war literature that sticks with me, that fascinates me, that changes me, is the writing that presents the soldier and even the “trauma hero” in ways the show us their individual humanity, their value; maybe even teach the reader to quit sending them out to break up any squabble our Idiots in Office start … Yes, the pulp fiction out there, masquerading as literature (American Sniper, etc.; just Google “War Fiction” and there is a list of some truly atrocious and ethically bankrupt books out there that do glamorize it for us), is probably winning right now, but I have to believe that great literature wins out. Otherwise, what the fuck am I doing? Perhaps that is my own confirmation bias at work, but here’s the thing: I think we are only scratching the surface of what a war novel or memoir or book of war poetry can do—satire, humor, speculation, political theory or philosophy, etc., and even war literature that just teaches us it is time to see one another as human, no matter our background or genetic makeup. The lessons are out there, waiting for us to apply to our work. Why haven’t we seen more? Perhaps the almighty dollar? Publishers unwilling to put out another Slaughterhouse Five or Catch-22? That, I cannot answer, I don’t think, without assuming the worst about too many people

JRL: I’ve noticed that you have twice chosen the word “intimate” to describe the violence that takes place during a war. I’m very struck by your use of that word; of course we don’t usually use it in conjunction with “violence.” War is such a vast undertaking and therefore we might not think of it as that personal. Could you tell us why you’re using it and what that word means to you?

SSB: I do think about this a lot, especially as I’ve been wrestling with my current historical/war novel project. I think we too easily dismiss the violence of war when we think of it in global, political terms, and the novel — or, at least, the kinds of novels I know how to write — are deeply personal. And when I listen to my veteran friends describe their experiences of war, or when I read accounts of combatants and civilians who’ve lived through a war, I’m always struck by how . . . well, “personal” isn’t quite the right term, because the inhumanity of war demands that we strip it of the personal. But it’s certainly close-in. It affects each person individually, in a visceral way. The war that human beings experience directly — the soldiers, not the politicians — they don’t experience it in an impersonal way.

It crawls inside them. They carry the violence with them, in their nightmares and in their hearts and in their muscles. Experiencing violence in that way—and this isn’t confined to geopolitical warfare; people engaged in socioeconomic warfare right here in America experience much of this, too—it’s one of the most intimate things I can imagine. It’s certainly the thing I’m most interested in. I’m curious about the geopolitics of war, too, which is why I enjoy reading history. But fiction is about the human, about the internal, about the intimate, so that’s where I go when I write fiction about war.

 JRL: Finally, the responsibility question. As writers—whether as historical novelists, veterans who now write, journalists who have covered war and related issues, for instance—do we have any particular responsibility beyond that of other writers, or artists? Must we be resolutely married to any particular ideology or goal in our work?  Must we always think of de-glamorizing war when writing? What would that look like? Is depicting the truth of war as it is experienced by soldiers and their spouses, civilians, refugees, and even politicians, enough? Or will it never be enough? 

HB: Any work of art that depicts war as glamorous is a lie. And any artist worthy of the name must be honest. The conclusion is obvious. And yet, throughout the history of war literature, from the ballad to the movie, the warrior has been revered, war glorified, patriotism sanctified. Even today, to write about war—or paint or film or photograph it—in its true horror is an act of rebellion. Look at the Bush era censorship against pictures of soldiers coming home in coffins. Look at films such as Hurt Locker and American Sniper, which so glamorize violence and American machismo that any anti-war message is undermined. Look at all the novels about the Iraq and Afghanistan War that either fail to offer Iraqi or Afghan characters at all, or depict them as only background blurs, villains or clowns. And look at the hysterical trolling of writers who dare criticize our invasion of Iraq. I myself have been called a traitor because of what I write.

So yes, when we write about war, or any atrocity committed in our name, we do have an extra responsibility not to join in the lies and propaganda that always surround it. We pay taxes for the killing. We cannot hide from that. Every citizen is responsible for our wars, no matter how remote those wars may seem, so the artist who brings war into people’s homes and heads does, indeed, bear a special responsibility to be honest, unpleasant though that may be.

As for the question of whether writing critically about war is enough, of course it isn’t. Nothing one person can do is ever enough. But we can only do what we can, and as guilty as we might feel most of the time, perhaps the most valuable thing we can do is do what we do best – write.

JG: We will each choose our own path and our own brand of responsibility. Hopefully for our art, our individual artistic sensibilities will lead us in ways we find valuable and worth our precious time and energy. We should never censor our imaginations when our characters act, speak, think, and look different than -. This goes for our feelings about war as well. I’m not interested in obtuse polemics or simple “lessons learned” in my art. But personally? My God, I hope we all agree that war is a horrific thing, and we should do everything in our power to live peacefully.

SSB: I think if we have any driving ethos in our work, it has to be to convey the truth. As we see it. In that sense, I would say we aren’t de-glamourizing war but more re-de-glamourizing a long-glamourized portrayal war—we’re un-varishing a reality that others have varnished.

I think we have to be honest about our ideologies, too. I didn’t write my novel as an overt anti-war novel, but I am anti-war. A former professor of mine remarked that while my novel expresses a wide range of attitudes toward war, in the voices of my various characters, and while I neither shy away from nor linger too glaringly on the violence of war, the overall impression was that my novel feels “anti-war” in the sense that it’s not something anyone would want to live through. Who was it that said every war novel is an anti-war novel? That’s pretty much my view, and while I try to avoid pressing the issue in any didactic way, I also think it would be dishonest to pretend that I don’t hold the views I hold as I’m writing.

But personally, I also want to remember that I’ve never been to war, and while America has never known a generation where we weren’t at war somewhere, I’ve never lived in or even near a warzone. That’s a particular perspective I lack. So I try to remember that there are other truths about war, too.

SBT: I don’t know if I would say we have a responsibility—flatly—anymore than someone who goes through a car accident is responsible to write about auto fatalities. We need more women writing about war. We need more writers and poets of color writing about war. My first two poetry books were not necessarily books I consider “war writing” until I started to put them together; Mormon Boy was my attempt to investigate my own heritage and struggle, and then the strict nature of Mormonism started to speak a bit to the strict nature of the military, and what happens when those tight routines are lost. We Deserve the Gods We Ask For was originally going to be about cartoon heroes once the “cameras” were turned off, but then it began to morph into a book that investigated what we do to our heroes once we stop thinking about them. What happens when Superman/Wonder Woman are no longer called to save the world? What happens to that sense of responsibility? Perhaps that was really my way of looking at the early part of the century, when I began to feel the public’s renewed zeal for war after getting a big bad mouthful of it in the nineties with nothing to show for it. My current project is a novel that follows a troubled youth, who loses his twin brother, into drug and alcohol addiction, then the military as a way to escape it. My hope is that it will show the reader a different type of soldier; one who has no patriotism or love of country driving their military experiences, but who uses the military to simply escape poverty and the great nothing vortex that can often spiral in the middle of rotten little religious towns. That has long been one of my deepest concerns when it comes to our military and the military industrial complex—we ask nothing of our wealthy—and we send our poor and destitute out to do our bidding under a patriotism that is really nothing more than nationalism. It is an ugly habit we have, here in the States; this need to ship out soldiers at every provocation. I keep thinking the poor will rise up, say no to our plutocrats, but the current situation in the White House seems to be showing me that I might be wrong out that. I am an optimist, but even my optimism has limits.


Helen Benedict photo by Emma O_Connor

Helen Benedict, a professor at Columbia University, is the author of seven novels, including the just published Wolf Season, which Elissa Schappell wrote should be “required reading” and which received a starred review in the Library Journal; and Sand Queen, named a “Best Contemporary War Novel” by Publishers Weekly and reviewed by The Boston Globe as “The Things They Carried for women.’” A recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for her exposure of sexual predation in the military, Benedict is also the author of five works of nonfiction, such as the award-winning, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women at War Serving in Iraq, and a widely-performed play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. Her writings inspired a class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of those sexually assaulted in the military and the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, The Invisible War. She lives in New York. More information is available at www.helenbenedict.com.

 

Goolsby

Jesse Goolsby is an U.S. Air Force officer and the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), winner of the Florida Book Award for Fiction and listed for the Flaherty-Duncan First Novel Prize. His fiction and essays have appeared widely, including The Literary ReviewEpochThe Kenyon ReviewNarrative MagazineSalon, and Pleiades. He is the recipient of the Richard Bausch Short Story Prize, the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction, and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. He serves as Acquisitions Editor for the literary journal War, Literature & the Arts. Goolsby holds an English degree from the United States Air Force Academy, a Masters degree in English from the University of Tennessee, and a PhD in English from Florida State University. He was raised in Chester, California, and now lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  More information is available at http://www.jessegoolsby.com.

 

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Samuel Snoek-Brown teaches and writes in the Pacific Northwest. He’s the author of the Civil War novel Hagridden, the flash-fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin, and the forthcoming collection of stories There Is No Other Way to Worship Them. He also works as a production editor for Jersey Devil Press. He’s the recipient of a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship, has been shortlisted twice in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition, and was a finalist in the 2013 storySouth Million Writers Award. More information is available at snoekbrown.com.

 

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Seth Brady Tucker (S. Brady Tucker) is a poet and fiction writer originally from Lander, Wyoming. His second book won the Gival Press Poetry Award (We Deserve the Gods We Ask For 2014) and went on to win the Eric Hoffer Book Award in 2015. His first book of poetry won the Elixir Press Editor’s Poetry Prize (Mormon Boy 2012), and was a finalist for the 2013 Colorado Book Award.  He is currently a teaching Assistant Professor at the Colorado School of Mines, and is the founder and co-director of the annual Longleaf Writers’ Conference in Florida. Recently, his fiction won the Bevel Summers Fiction Prize from Shenandoah; was a finalist for the Jeff Sharlet Award from The Iowa Review; and won the Flash Fiction Award from Literal Latte. His work has recently appeared in the Birmingham Poetry Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, December, and Epiphany. Tucker served as a paratrooper the Army 82nd Airborne in the Persian Gulf.  More information is available at https://sethbradytucker.wordpress.com/.

 

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Jane Rosenberg LaForge (moderator) is a poet and writer living in New York. Her novel, The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War, will be published by Amberjack Publishing in June 2018. Her most recent full-length poetry collection is Daphne and Her Discontents from Ravenna Press; and her experimental memoir is An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir, from Jaded Ibis Press. She has been nominated for a storySouth Million Writers Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Best of the Net collection. More information is available at http://jane-rosenberg-laforge.com/.

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One thought on “AWP Roundtable: “Duty and Dilemma: 100 Years of Writing About War”

  1. […] Helen Benedict talks about war literature with authors David Abrams, Cara Hoffman, Matt Gallagher, and Dalia Sofer in the “Life During Wartime” panel at the Center for Fiction, and with authors Seth Brady Tucker, Jesse Goolsby, Jane Rosenberg LaForge, and Samuel Snoek-Brown in the “Duty and Dilemma: 100 Years of Writing About War” AWP Roundtable. […]

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