When warriors become writers

Posted: Aug 09, 2004 12:00 AM

War is hell. War is inspirational. It brings out the best in man, the worst in man. It drives men and women to give eloquent voice to tragedy and comedy on both battlefield and home front. War offers intoxicating excitement and deadly fascination, glory and gore, honor and horror, darkness and light. Nobody has ever said it better than Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg: "It is well that war is so terrible; we shouldn't grow too fond of it."

War has created great literature, dating from Homer's Iliad through Stephen Crane's "Red Badge of Courage," Ernest Hemingway's novels from World War I and Norman Mailer's World War II classic, "The Naked and the Dead."

Says Hector in the "Iliad":

I know how to stand and fight to the finish,

Twist and lunge in the War-god's deadly dance.

Not much literature has come from Afghanistan or Iraq, but it's early. Dana Gioia, the poet who is chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is eager to prime the imaginations of the men fighting there. He has established "Operation Homecoming," writing workshops for returning soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. He has chosen writers with knowledge and talent for writing about military matters to teach those eager to give voice to their experiences and lessons in how to do it. The NEA will publish the best of the essays and stories in an anthology.

Some critics dismiss the idea as merely "writing as therapy." Norman Mailer says that the end of the military draft in 1972 created an armed forces deprived of prospective writers with a "high literary orientation." Such excuses sound condescending, but it's true that the quality of war literature has diminished since the end of the war in Vietnam.

Writers must first read great books, and the NEA demonstrates how fewer men and women are reading imaginative literature. The availability of tape recorders, e-mail and the Internet, together with ever-shorter attention spans of those brought up on images in a visual age, have reduced the discipline required to work with the words that shape and frame a good story.

"We have the best educated and best trained military in American history," says Dana Gioia. "I can't believe that there isn't considerable talent among this huge number of people."

Some of his workshop teachers are veterans, and of these some are hawks, some are doves. But the project isn't about the philosophy of war so much as tapping into the personal experiences of men and women who can evoke a strong sense of identity to a nation in wartime. "The Red Badge of Courage" is a brilliant novel dissecting fear and heroism in combat, but Stephen Crane never heard a shot fired in anger, or even saw the war up close.

Teachers will go to specific military bases to talk about writing and to read from their own works. One teacher is Bobbie Ann Mason, whose first novel is about a young girl who searches for knowledge about her father, who died in Vietnam before she was born. She writes with poetry and powerful poignancy, as in this scene at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington: "At the bottom of the wall is a granite trough, and on the edge of it the sunlight reflects the names just above, in mirror writing, upside down. Flower arrangements are scattered at the base. A little kid says, 'look Daddy, the flowers are dying.' The man snaps, 'Some are and some aren't.'"

Another teacher will be Victor Davis Hanson, author of "The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the present Day," in which he asks:

"What then is the soul of battle? A rare thing indeed that arises only when free men march unabashedly toward the heartland of their enemy in hopes of saving the doomed, when their vast armies are aimed at salvation and liberation, not conquest and enslavement."

War reflects on a society and defines what that society regards as worth fighting for. Letters written home by Union and Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, like letters from the battlefields of the world wars, testify to the respect and honor of their causes. Contemporary experiences are more mixed. The recent Democratic National Convention in Boston tinselized war, with the nominee boasting ostentatiously of his heroics, illustrated with home movies he shot himself four decades ago. Eloquent it was not.

The men from Afghanistan and Iraq who struggle now to write down their combat experiences can add depth to authenticity. They have a wonderful opportunity to tell it like they see it, unadorned by political pretension. They've earned it, and we're eager to hear their voices.