Many thanks to the Yale University Veterans Association for the invitation to moderate a World War I Armistice Day Commemoration panel on WWI literature and film. The event was coordinated and hosted by Adrian Bonenberger, a Yale graduate, 173rd Airborne paratrooper, author of the memoir Afghan Post, co-editor (with Brian Castner) of the collection of contemporary war short-fiction The Road Ahead, and currently an editor of a Yale medical-science journal. Bonenberger invited an eclectic group of war artists and scholars to participate in a very cool endeavor: linking contemporary war-writing to precedents established by veterans and talented artists during and after “The Great War.” Joining me on the panel, which served as the capstone for a week of commemorative events, were Benjamin Busch, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and Brianne Bilsky. Busch, well-known to readers of Time Now, is a film-maker, poet, photographer, actor, and memoirist of very high order. Orth-Veillon is the editor of the fantastic WWriteBlog, where she has published reflections on World War I by many modern war-writers. Bilsky, now a dean of one of Yale’s residential colleges, is a former colleague on the faculty of the Department of English and Philosophy at West Point, where we frequently taught World War I writing to cadets.
The set-up for the occasion was intriguing, as it demonstrated the appetite of the Yale community for honoring veterans and for thinking about war-related issues in serious, complex ways. After an informative and enjoyable lecture by Yale historian Paul Kennedy on World War I memorials, we, along with our audience, watched Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 movie Paths of Glory, about French soldiers court-martialed for cowardice in World War I, and then discussed it in relation to the post-World War I artistic tradition. Next, we segued into discussion of World War I writing to which we felt personally connected. Finally, we tried to suggest the wider impact of World War I writing on contemporary veteran-authors and culture-wide thinking about war.
A broad charge, to be sure, one perhaps too broad for the time allotted, save for the acuity of the panelists, each of whom is apparently incapable of saying a dull thing. Watching Paths of Glory was galvanizing, as it offered chance to admire Kubrick’s superb direction and Kirk Douglas’s riveting acting, but the film in my opinion is a bit of a counterpoint to the general trend of World War I art. Not so much concerned with the impact of war on individual soldiers as with the moral bankruptcy of the chain-of-command that keeps the war machine going, Paths of Glory is a late-stage addition to the Great War artistic legacy. Arguably, it is as much about post-World War II Cold War conformity as it is about the historical work performed by World War I in erasing 19th-century modes-of-thought and bringing our modern era into being. Still, discussion of Paths of Glory set the stage for return to the canonical literary works of World War I, as well as the publicizing of voices neglected by the decades but resonant now. Here are the works each panelist read from and commented on:
Jennifer Orth-Veillon: Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms
Benjamin Busch: Wilfred Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” followed by Hemingway’s short-story “Soldier Home”
Brianne Bilsky: Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Counter-Attack”
Me: Aline Kilmer’s poem “To a Young Aviator”
What can be said about World War I writing that hasn’t been said before? To some extent, perhaps not much, because that’s some very well-trod critical ground. The better question is what rings particularly true today? Below are some of my thoughts on the matter, inspired by our panel.
One is the general truth that World War I veteran-writers and contemporary war-writers are both well-read participants in the literary traditions they hope to join. Each cohort has gone to war and then written about it with a swirl of precursor works in mind, the Western tradition of classics for World War I writers and the 20th-century body of war writing-and-film for modern veteran authors. Another link is a characteristic subject: the disillusionment of the individual soldier, caused not just by the slaughter and stupidity he (or she) witnesses, but in the collapse of the dream of heroism, inflected with huge amounts of survivor guilt. This morphing of heroic possibility into lacerating self-reproach is related to the way that soldiers were randomly and unglamorously killed in the two wars: by gas, artillery barrage, and mowed down by machine-gun in World War I, and blasted instantly off the face-of-the-earth by IED explosions in Iraq or Afghanistan. A third is a similarity in tone, different from the hard-boiled feel of the great World War II novels and the moral outrage of Vietnam War fiction—a tone more elegiac or hesitant or softer or somehow regretful. While World War II and Vietnam writing often seems testosterone-soaked, few World War I or Iraq/Afghanistan authors come off as tough guys, and most give the impression that he or she would view extreme masculine competitive aggressiveness as a pathetic pose in the face of circumstance. Connected to this last notion is a shared sense of futility about the respective war efforts, and a distancing from responsibility or even care for strategic goals and national aspirations, which are typically categorized as vain, foolish, or irrelevant to the individual soldier experience.
These are just some ideas, surely there are others. Not every aspect of contemporary war-writing need have an antecedent in World War I, and the World War I canon is not beyond criticism—in fact, the canon cries out for “problematizing,” to use academic-speak, on several grounds. Still, it would be a foolish contemporary war-writer who set pen to paper without first reading the works authored by World War I combatants and interested non-combatants touched by the war, and it would be a very good one who surpasses or transforms the marks they established.
The event had a special family significance for me: My grandmother’s brother left Yale during World War I to fight in France, where he suffered wounds in a gas attack from which he never fully recovered.