Making the SEAL Team SEAL-y: Literary Theory and Recent War Writing

In a 2005 book titled Private Perry and Mr. Poe, an Army major named William Hecker argues that Edgar Allan Poe’s essays “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle” were inspired by Poe’s service as an Army artilleryman from 1827 to 1829. Hecker researched the Army artillery manuals that Poe would have used and found in them many words and ideas that corresponded closely with those he later used in “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle” to describe literature. In the two essays, Poe explains that every element of a successful poem or story should contribute to the work’s intended meaning and reception, or, in Poe’s words, they should create “unity-of- effect.”  Poe’s duty position in the Army was that of an “artificer”:  it was his job to calculate explosive charges and cut fuse lengths so that the shells fired by his unit’s cannons exploded precisely on their targets.  In other words, he was responsible for creating the artillery shell’s unity-of-effect.

That’s a pretty good piece of work on Hecker’s part—definitely ingenious if not provable or beyond criticism.  Not many people know Poe’s essays, but most writers and readers would agree that the elements of a work of literature should contribute meaningfully in a coordinated way to the work’s theme and tone.  Poe’s essays are important articulations of the idea, so any information about their sources and origins is welcome.

Now, Michael Carson, a former Army officer and Iraq veteran, also makes a significant contribution to literary history and theory.  In “The October Revolution, Russia Occupation of Persia:  WWI Soldier Viktor Shklovsky’s Sentimental Memoirs,” a piece published on The WWrite Blog, a blog sponsored by the World War I Centennial Commission, Carson uncovers a previously unexplored war memoir written by Viktor Shklovsky, an important member of a literary theory school known as “Russian Formalism,” that describes Shklovsky’s service in the Russian Army occupying Persia (now Iran) in 1917.  Since 1917 marked the first appearance of Shklovsky’s most well-known work, an essay titled “Art as Technique,” it is at least conceivable that Shklovsky composed “Art as Technique” while preparing to go to Persia or even while there.  Carson doesn’t push the point, and it’s not as clear in Shklovsky’s case as it is in Poe’s which came first—military service or literary theory—or exactly how military service and literary theory are connected, but that’s OK.  Carson’s discovery is an important breadcrumb for future scholars, especially given the nature and stature of Shklovsky’s ideas in “Art as Technique.”

To say that Shklovsky was a “Formalist” is to confuse apprehension of his most accessible ideas, however.  Thinking of literature in terms of its forms, or genres, and its higher-order ways of organizing itself, rather than its themes, characters, plots, and style, is hard-going.  Formalists assert that what really counts in a literary work is not content but the literary vessel in which content is contained:  poetry, memoir, reportage, fiction, etc.  Among other things, formalists speculate how given genres might best represent their times, or emerge in association with something else important about their historical moment.  At one level, this is an easy, obvious concept:  sonnets thrived in Elizabethan England, the novel in the 19th-century, and creative non-fiction came into its own only in the last few decades.  It’s harder, though, to say the next smart thing about the business, to go beyond surface observations and generalizations.

War literature offers examples of the problem.  Poetry may be the mode most correspondent with World War I, the novel with World War II, journalism and reportage with Vietnam, and the graphic novel and blog that of Afghanistan and Iraq.  But is this really even true—there are so many exceptions—and if so, so what?  Besides, there are many confusing data points.  Siegfried Sassoon, known best as a World War I poet, also wrote three novels based on his experience, and three memoirs that covered the exact same ground, and according to no less than Paul Fussell, the novels are truer than the memoirs.  American Vietnam War writer Larry Heinemann called his first novel Close Quarters a “straight up fictionalized memoir,” whatever that means, and the very title of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” speaks to similar confusion about formal boundaries between “real” experience and the modes in which one might write about it.  Critics often speculate whether the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it hard for novelists to write about the two wars, because the “lack of closure” of the wars might preclude novelists from resolving their storylines and final thoughts (see Adin Dobkin’s recent LARB article for a recent example of this line of thinking).  I kind of get it—it’s one thing to write a novel about a character in a war that ends in glorious victory, and another to write one about character that ends in debacle and defeat.  Somehow, though, novelists figure it out, and novels get written.  But maybe an open-ended form, such as an ongoing serial novel, or a blog (gasp), or a more multimodal genre, such as the graphic novel, or a genre-bending hybrid, such as Brian Turner’s and Benjamin Busch’s memoirs, really is the form most congruent for writing about the forever wars.

All that said, Shklovsky’s “Art as Technique” is packed with much more accessible ideas about literature, so much so that is has become a staple in English undergraduate and graduate curriculums.  One of Shklovsky’s ideas is that art’s purpose is to revitalize human powers of perception.  A famous quote is that great art “makes the stone stoney”; that is, in the hands of master artists, descriptions of rocks express whatever is essential about a rock, while also astonishing readers with the unique vitality of the author’s power of observation and expression.  Shklovsky’s word for how people become overly familiar with objects in everyday life and how they are commonly described in mundane literature is “habitualization,” while his word for art’s power to awaken new possibilities of perception is “defamiliarization.” “Defamiliarization” might just be a fancy-pants way of saying “vivid” or “memorable” or “literary” or “better” or “what I like,” but perhaps it really is the best word to sum up all those other words.  One way literature defamiliarizes common understandings, according to Shklovsky, is through the accumulation of closely observed details.  Another way is through the poetic quality of the language used to describe objects.  Together, detail and language create a sense of a sense of wonder that readers, or at least a lot of readers, enjoy and actively seek out, not for information about the subject being described, but for the sensation of “experiencing the artfulness of an object.”

All the above makes great grist for classroom discussion and essay prompts, and also has interesting application to war writing.  Shklovsky himself uses many examples from Tolstoy to illustrate defamiliarization and writes, “In War and Peace, Tolstoy uses the same technique [defamiliarization] in describing whole battles as if battles were something new.”  For my money, there’s an interesting tension that arises from using war writing as an example of the flow between habitualization and defamiliarization, because war is an inherently exotic and thrilling experience, with a natural power to compel interest when written about halfway decently.  But as Shklovsky archly points out (“as if battles were something new”), the experience of combat has been written about so many times that war lit has become one of the most habitualized of genres, overgrown everywhere with convention, cliche, and familiar expectations.  Still, readers, or at least those who are drawn repeatedly to war writing, may actually like the only-slightly-different character of war stories; the appeal of ritualized repetition–“refamiliarization,” to coin a phrase–of combat and military tropes might be stronger than the desire to be defamiliarized.  Meanwhile, authors, it seems to me, strive to avoid writing boring descriptions and clichéd stories—most of them feel the impulse to “make it new” very strongly—but understand that veering too greatly from convention risks making the form unrecognizable while draining war stories of the power that makes them compelling in the first place.

There are other complicating factors.  Veterans and military insiders familiar with military lingo and culture look to war writing for relatable depictions of their lives and bristle at what they perceive as misrepresentations.  In other words, they resist being defamiliarized in regard to things they think they know well (though Shklovsky would argue that defamiliarization, in the hands of masters, brings readers closer to what Poe, to bring his name back into play, once called “the precincts of reality,” rather than pushing them away).  Civilians turn to war writing to learn about events unknown personally by them, but as they read they become habituated to what must be a defamiliarizing reading experience in the beginning.  As new elements appear in war—night vision goggles or drones, for recent examples—and then begin to appear in written accounts, what initially jolts and excites with vitality with each instantiation in subsequent war-writing becomes familiar, mundane, and then worn-out.

The push-pull between the familiar and the unfamiliar in contemporary war writing is illustrated well in the three stories by Will Mackin published the last few years in the New Yorker: “Kattekoppen,” “Crossing the River No Name,”  and “The Lost Troop.”  Published in advance of the release of Mackin’s short-story collection Bring Out the Dog next year, each of the New Yorker stories portrays the inner-workings of SEALs at war in Afghanistan; others in Bring Out the Dog are set in Iraq or America. Wonder of wonders, Mackin defamiliarizes the by-now completely crusted-over genre of SEAL fiction and non-fiction through a variety of techniques Shklovsky (and maybe Poe, too) would recognize.  Mackin served with the SEALs on multiple deployments as an air-support liaison responsible for calling in air strikes (shades of Poe!)—a position he wouldn’t have kept for two days if his technical competence, physical and emotional toughness, and basic good fit for SEAL-team culture were in question.  So he writes with an insider’s familiarity about SEAL team life and operations and thus renders technical and tactical detail with enough precision and authority to quicken the heart of the most hardcore judge of military detail accuracy.  He’s also at home with staple themes of SEAL-team literature–warfighting skill, easy accommodation with the business of killing, the gruff-but-powerful loyalty that unites the SEAL brotherhood—and dramatizes them convincingly, not as end points of the stories but as start points before moving on to more interesting things.  In these ways, Mackin fulfills Shklovsky’s injunction to “make the stone stoney” through the most alert portrait of how things really are, not merely how we are habituated to see them.

The real work of defamiliarization that occurs in Mackin’s stories, however, occurs on a larger scale with the reader’s increasing realization that Mackin has avoided the traps of glamorization and cliché that characterize other SEAL stories.  In Mackin’s hands, SEALs are not supermen, barbarians, or victims; an easy shorthand description of Mackin’s achievement is that he humanizes them, but that’s a tired word that’s been used too many times before. It’s more that Mackin’s found telling ways to portray the character and personality of individualized SEALs within the intensely social SEAL milieu as they execute highly specialized tactical and training operations, with the central motif being the banal, not outrageous, ways that team members jockey to prove their fitness to other members of their teams.  Adding to the defamiliarization process are surreal interjections, moments of narrator unreliability, constant references to the contingencies of observation and perception, and dislocations of the time-space continuum, as well as literary permutations of language that heighten the possibilities of everyday speech.  Not too much, mind you, but just enough to put readers on notice that the stories they are reading are at once more realistic and more artful than those that have come before.

In “Art as Technique,” Shklovsky’s interest is more fiction than in poetry, but he expresses a high regard for poetic language, which he calls “formed speech.”  He writes of how poetic language “gives satisfaction” by slowing and impeding easy apprehension of objects it describes, and quotes Artistotle to the effect that poetic language must appear “strange and wonderful.”  He distinguishes between poetic speech—“attenuated, torturous speech”–and prose—“the ‘direct’ expression of a child”—and notes how in both everyday speech and literature poetic speech and prose intermix to generate an “economy of artistic energy.”

These interesting ideas about poetic language, as well as the fluid interplay of habitualization and defamiliarization, can be put to the test by looking at recent poetry by Lisa Stice and Eric Chandler.  Stice is the wife of a Marine, and her volume Uniform explores the vexing permutations wrought on domestic life by military service.  Chandler, a retired Air Force pilot, in Hugging This Rock, writes not just of being a pilot at war, but also about more sedate experiences and observations affiliated with family and community life.  Neither Stice nor Chandler is overly literary in their word choices or figures-of-speech, but their poems register as “formed speech” through careful arrangement of lines on the page to control the cumulative release of meaning and force.  Stice’s poetry describes her effort to reconcile herself to the ways that military life pressures tranquil domestic life even as codes of military appropriateness inhibit her from confronting such truths directly and publicly.  In other words, her poems register her defamiliarized surprise at the impact of her husband’s career on her own expectations and happiness, while also documenting her habitualization to new norms of military domesticity.  A good example is a poem about the preparations every military family must make when one member deploys:

“Family Readiness”

The paper pocket-folder
you left for me
in the file drawer of our desk:
limited power-of-attorney
your social security number
logins and passwords
names of command I can’t call
because they are with you
your deployment address blank
our bank accounts
contacts for your relatives
chaplain’s email
(but he’ll be gone too)
family birth certificates
list of what you want buried with you
how you’d want to be dressed
the song you’d want played
just in case

For a reader like me, who knows the military well, the poems surprise most with their apt reflection of experiences and observations to which I can relate.  To a reader not as familiar with the military, they’re a peek through the window at a world that is bound to be seen as weird and trying, and inspire wonderment at Stice’s fortitude.

Chandler’s poetry intrigues by its author’s bio alone:  what reader wouldn’t be curious about the poetry a fighter pilot writes?  Might he be the second coming of James Salter, the Korean War Air Force ace later acclaimed as one of America’s foremost literary stylists?? Far too early to tell about that, so to return to theme…. In several of Chandler’s poems, such as the title poem, the effect of viewing the world from five miles up at Mach speed is the very point: “…but either way I’ve seen a bunch of cool things up there that I can think about / while we’re both down here hugging this rock.”  Chandler’s figure-of-speech–“hugging this rock”–suggests humility, a worldview and sense of self in which being a fighter jock is only a small part of an overall identity and life, with the most important aspects centered on human relationships, which must be defined by care and trust.  War is the subject of only about a quarter of Hugging This Rock poems, but sometimes the two halves of Chandler’s identity intersect.  “Maybe I Should Have Lied,” for example, depicts the tension of trying to reconcile being both a man-of-war and a family man:

“Maybe I Should Have Lied”

The teacher asked
Me to come to the class
And talk about flying.
He was my son’s teacher and
The jet’s always popular.

How fast? How high?
Pretty standard stuff.
I wore my flight suit
And handed out stickers even
Though they weren’t toddlers.

One kid asked
If I killed anybody.
I was surprised and
Shouldn’t have been.
I told him the truth.

Later that day,
In the squadron,
I asked a buddy
What he would’ve done.
I would’ve lied, he said.

I answered the question
In front of my son.
The only time it has come up.
“That’s what happens in combat.”
Next question, please.

In poems such as “Maybe I Should Have Lied,” Chandler portrays a civil-military divide not manifested by public debates, but by internal misgivings when compartmentalization just doesn’t work anymore. Many more poems in Hugging This Rock, and Uniform, too, also perform this kind of work, and a lot more, too, so please seek them out.

To close near where I began, some of the work left regarding Shklovsky is to figure out whether his literary ideas grew out of his experience of war, or vice-versa, or whether the relationship is more complicated, or perhaps nonexistent, or coincidental.  For now, though, kudos to the literary artificers:  Will Mackin, Lisa Stice, and Eric Chandler, Edgar Allen Poe and Viktor Shklovsky, and most of all William Hecker and Michael Carson.  Carson is one of the mainstays, along with fellow veterans Adrian Bonenberger and David James, of The Wrath-Bearing Tree, a culture, politics, and military affairs website always full of interesting things.  Hecker unfortunately is no longer with us—within a year of publishing his important work on the source of Poe’s ideas about literature, he was killed by an IED in Iraq.  RIP.

My own contribution to The WWrite Blog, on poet Joyce Kilmer’s wife Aline Kilmer, who was also a poet, can be found at the link.

William F. Hecker, editor, Private Perry and Mr. Poe:  The West Point Poems of 1831, with an epilogue by Gerard McGowan. LSU Press, 2005.

Will Mackin, Bring Out the Dog.  Random House, 2018.

Lisa Stice, Uniform.  Kelsay Books, 2016.

Eric Chandler, Hugging This Rock.  Middle West Press, 2017.

Explore posts in the same categories: Art and War

Tags: , , , , ,

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

5 Comments on “Making the SEAL Team SEAL-y: Literary Theory and Recent War Writing”


  1. RIP William Hecker. I never knew Poe served.

  2. eiremanlite Says:

    Pete: a superb write-up as always. My only caveat would be that Poe spelled his middle name Allan, with an ‘a,’ vice the traditional ‘e.’ I recently strongly urged a retired friend of mine, who is going to the Antarctica on a bucket list tour, to read Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. I trust you have read it, but on the chance that you haven’t, a relatively overlooked work, and the only novel, by the Virginian. B

    • Peter Molin Says:

      Right you are, “B,” and good to hear from you. Correction made–not the first time I’ve made that mistake, and it probably won’t be the last. I’ve read Pym, and thought it was needlessly weird and incoherent–sort of the opposite of “unity of effect.” No doubt I’m missing something, though.

  3. Liam Says:

    Great article! Seems like no visit to a school is incomplete without a kid asking us if we’ve killed someone. I’m interested in more developed thoughts about why contemporary war novels lack closure. You suggest that it is connected to the open-endedness of the wars. I’m pursuing a theory that the inability to conclude is symptomatic of an approach that excludes the political component of war. Perhaps these two meet.

    • Peter Molin Says:

      Thanks, Liam, if anyone can answer the question about war-ending and narrative-closure, you can! Might be a good panel subject at the WLA conference, you think?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: