Once a certain tall soldier developed virtues and went resolutely to wash a shirt. He came flying back from a brook waving his garment bannerlike. He was swelled with a tale he had heard from a reliable friend, who had heard it from a truthful cavalryman, who had heard it from his trustworthy brother, one of the orderlies at division headquarters. He adopted the important air of a herald in red and gold. -- Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage"
In one brief compressed paragraph, the novelist captures a reality of war, the way rumors become stories and how stories testify to the human need for the messenger to embroider facts as though he lives in a romance, where characters are decorated in red and gold. Stephen Crane never went to war, but as every reader learns quickly, "The Red Badge of Courage" dazzles with the authenticity of experience. Good writers do that.
American writers who have actually seen the blood and cruelty in military action have written great war novels, too. Norman Mailer set the standard with "The Naked and the Dead," and James Jones showed how it ought to be done with "From Here to Eternity." Authors of authentic war stories probe the deeper truths of human experience, taking advantage of the range allowed by fiction, some based on fact and much that is not. Heroism, fear, debauchery and callousness are born in a cruel landscape of battle, confined in a web of human passion. The complexities of tragedy are illuminated by the rocket's red glare and "the greater love" of ultimate sacrifice.
What might have happened can be fused with what actually happened in honest fiction. A novel can grow from reality, but honest reporting can't grow from fiction. A soldier who becomes a part-time reporter in Iraq can't color his "facts" by embellishing experience, no matter how tempting it may be. Such accounts are merely propaganda. Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp's diary, which became reporting in the New Republic, leaves the reader only to wonder what's real and what's not, and on his own to decipher fact from fiction.