Can Literature Make Sense of War?

Whenever I read literature about war, I’m left with a feeling I can’t quite explain. It’s something difficult to reify, or even contemplate. One can envision war, see it dramatized, or listen to firsthand accounts told by a relative. But none of that really does any justice to the true experience. Instead, it creates a vision for what it might have been like.

As a result, it’s presumably burdensome for those who have stories to tell knowing their audience has a limited understanding. As Tim O’Brien writes,

They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

Recognizing that conflict can bear a heavy load on the psyche, literature functions as a powerful cathartic experience. The title of O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried, suggests the weight of persistent and painful memories immune to erasure, leaving many veterans like O’Brien in a state of Sisyphean torment with no way of truly communicating their actual experience. As a result, some write about it.

The Things They Carried.jpg

Literature can help articulate this understanding, as reading fiction generates empathy in ways other genres do not. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is a fitting example. Despite never having served, Crane manages to craft a narrative that transcends experience, illuminating the psychology of war through sketches of landscape and vivid characterizations rather than relying upon the minutiae, jargon, and other formalities accompanying the tedium of a soldier’s life to accomplish that for him.

Stephen Crane, 1897

Foregoing visceral combat scenes in favor of a more distant narrative observation of combat, Crane acknowledges his limitations and sticks to what he knows. What war narratives like The Red Badge of Courage reveal are the degrees of separation that influence how the author interprets conflict, either physically or psychologically. Even Crane’s vision for his nameless protagonist, the Youth, reflects that separation as he eschews the brutality of war for a more romantic interpretation of its theater,

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors.

It remains evident that narrative conventions supersede the necessity for the more true-to-form backdrop of a blood-soaked battlefield, howling artillery shells, the crashing of gunfire, and the deafening battle cries.

Tim O’Brien’s 1990 National Book Award-winning novel also abandons pyrotechnics. O’Brien adheres to a realism grounded in experience alone and depicts a broad swath of emotions akin to the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance.

From the book’s first chapter, “The Things They Carried,” the fictional protagonist Lieutenant Jimmy Cross has to cope with death from a commanding officer’s perspective. O’Brien introduces death early on as a continuous theme running throughout the novel. Cross has to reconcile a common humanity with a brutish disregard for his enemy,

When someone died, it wasn’t quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines mostly memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy the reality of death itself.

Another grim realization is that confusion that is never requited, never made sense of. Much like the death of a comrade, the Vietnam conflict is itself even much less clear to O’Brien, the fictional Norman Bowker, Kiowa, or the other characters. Remunerative diplomatic rhetoric like Domino Theory propagated neoconservative aspirations of global interventionism, a self-shaping hand of the American war machine, but it left little in the way of salient justification.

JFK + 50: IKE DISCUSSES "FALLING DOMINO" EFFECT

The Domino Theory visualized

“On the Rainy River,” an earlier chapter, engages this idea of a pointless war, in which O’Brien grieves over a life forever changed for dubious causes, delivering some of his most biting invective:

Twenty-one years old, an ordinary kid with all the ordinary dreams and ambitions, and all I wanted was to live the life I was born to—a mainstream life—I loved baseball and hamburgers and Cherry cokes—and now I was off on the margins of exile, leaving my country forever, and it seemed so grotesque and terrible and sad.

TBR-Logo-Partners-InverseIndeed, it is rather sad and grotesque. In his recent talk given here at Virginia Tech sponsored by the Big Read NRV, O’Brien elaborated on his own reservations of the need for military action, even when it seems obviously necessary. When asked in earnest by an audience member his opinion on current foreign policy directives—whether or not to re-involve ourselves in the Middle East—he maintained that he is staunchly anti-war.

The pacifist sentiments the visibly shaken O’Brien espoused emerge in the chapter “The Man I Killed,” where after a very brief firefight with Viet Cong insurgents, a young man, probably eighteen or nineteen, has been shot. The chapter pays an homage to him in a beautiful way, not as a ruthless killer, but rather a human being with a family and friends. Stripping the enemy of their humanity, he argues, is the only way to cope with incessant brutality:

He was not a Communist. He was a citizen and a solder. In the village of My Khe, as in all of Quang Ngai, patriotic resistance had the force of tradition, which was partly the force of legend, and from his earliest boyhood the man I killed…would have been taught that to defend the land was a man’s highest duty and highest privilege. He had accepted this. It was never open to question. Secretly though, it almost frightened him.

Coming to grips with the craven psychologies of men at war—from both sides of the Pacific—is O’Brien’s purpose with The Things They Carried. He attempts to explain, in conciliatory terms, the dark side of blind patriotism so palpable early on in the conflict, the hopeless regret midway through, and the grim realities that appear after occupying forces have taken down their last base camp.

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Vietnam Moratorium Committee protest in Washington, DC, 1969

When conflict is young and the cause seems very clear, it’s easy to wax patriotic and encourage those to rally behind war efforts, as Katharine Tynan captures in her WWI poem, “Joining the Colours”,

There they go marching all in step so gay!
Smooth-cheeked and golden, food for shells and guns.
Blithely they go as to a wedding day,
The mothers’ sons.

But that sentiment almost always fades, especially when the term ascribed to World War I, “The Great War”, is echoed in a unifying, liberating slogan: The War to End All Wars.

By the same token, I am reminded of Wilfred Owen—a veteran of The Great War—who writes in “Dulce et Decorum Est,”

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce Decorum est / Pro patria mori” translates to “It is glorious to die for one’s country.” O’Brien’s work at least speaks to, but does not confirm, that notion. How glorious is it to die for a cause with which you hardly agree? The Things They Carried examines a persistent cultural conviction woven into the fabric of American society, and at times deconstructs the moral rectitude of the Vietnam conflict as one built on false pretenses. The fated Domino Theory came to be decidedly untrue, leaving millions dead in its wake.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/Memorial_Amphitheater_-_rear_pediment_-_Arlington_National_Cemetery_-_2011.JPG

Inscription at Arlington National Cemetery

Recognizing that veterans, families of veterans, and those merely interested in the war may be less attuned to the politics of the matter, his talk only further confirmed his dedication to helping others cope with the harsh realities of overseas conflict. O’Brien advocates the healing power of literature, and merely hopes to share the weight of the things they carry.


Andrew H. Wimbish hails from Martinsville, Virginia and is currently pursuing a master’s in English at Virginia Tech, where he also earned a bachelor’s in English. As an academic, his research interests lie in textual studies, 19th-century British literary history, and digital humanities. He is a former newspaper columnist and now an editor at large of a forthcoming publication, The Pylon.

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2 thoughts on “Can Literature Make Sense of War?

  1. Pingback: Can Literature Make Sense of War? | universalpluspepe

  2. Can literature make sense of war? Yes, Andrew! Is there anything that literature cannot make sense of? No! Not justify, of course, but help make understandable. All of the examples you give are in the high school canon, and thus are ipso facto literature that will not bring the PTO, armed with pitchforks, to attack the school board. Curiously enough, I (a Viet Nam veteran, like Tim O’Brien) never really trusted the early O’Brien, and then one day I read that he said that people did not really trust him. I trust him more now, after he acknowledged that he is a storyteller whose primary loyalty is to the story rather than to the literal truth of an experience (as every writer should be). Even people who have experienced war have only experienced a tiny slice of it, so you and other civilians are actually not far behind any veteran of any war. May I recommend the poetry of three Viet Nam veterans? R.L Barth, Michael Casey, and myself, namely. But in fact there probably is no writer who can show others what his or her particular war was like, only what his or her particular experience was like. No one can know love or war from literature alone, but literature can help us see how others’ experiences might differ from, or confirm, or reshape out perceptions of our own.

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