Just in time for Veterans Day arrives the vet-mil anthology Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Contemporary Writers and Veterans on the Lingering Stories of World War I. A collection of posts first published online and now in a very handsome paperback edition, Beyond Their Limits of Longing offers reflections on World War I by a who’s who of prominent contemporary vet-writers, as well as interested civilian-authors and scholars. Individual entries focus primarily on World War I’s impressive literary legacy, but also range far-and-wide to explore overlooked military and cultural aspects of the Great War. Throughout, the veteran writers make heartfelt and often bold connections between their own war experience and those that came before, while the contributions by authors who haven’t served offer equally trenchant connections between our time and World War I.
When I say “a who’s who” of contemporary vet-writers I’m not kidding. The first two-pages of the Beyond Their Limits of Longing table-of-contents feature, for starters, Iraq and Afghanistan vet-writer stalwarts Brian Turner, Phil Klay, Seth Brady Tucker, Teresa Fazio, Elliot Ackerman, Brian Castner, Benjamin Busch, Eric Chandler, Colin Halloran, David James, Jenny Pacanowksi, Brandon Caro, and Shannon Huffman Polson. Also listed are vet-writers whose service predates 9/11 Robert Olen Butler and Jeffrey Hess, as well as David Chrisinger, whose sympathetic facilitation of vet-writing is well-known among members of the vet-writing community. The parade doesn’t slow down in the following pages of the table-of-contents, and I’m proud to say that I make an appearance as well, with a piece on Aline Kilmer, the wife of WWI poet Joyce Kilmer and also a formidable, though overlooked, poet in her own right. Throughout a consistent theme is honoring the World War I contributions of women both as participants and authors and the fighting experience of non-white soldiers not just in the French trenches but on far-distant battlefields as well. The commitment to non-traditional voices is also reflected in the contributors’ biographies. Besides the aforementioned Fazio, Pacanowski, and Polson, Beyond Their Limits of Longing features articles by Jerri Bell, Kayla Williams, Andria Williams, and Roxana Robinson, all prominent female voices in the war-writing scene, and authors-of-color and ethnic identification such as Mary Doyle, Drew Pham, Faleeha Hassan, and Philip Metres.
The maestro behind Beyond Their Limits of Longing is author and scholar Jennifer Orth-Veillon. An American currently living in Lyon, France, Orth-Veillon first conceived of the project and sold it to the World War Centennial Commission as a worthy way to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the end of WWI in 2018. The conceit of asking contemporary veterans to contribute was genius, and Orth-Veillon’s persuasive power and editing prowess made the project’s realization soar. Now, in finding book form, we also owe a healthy debt to publisher Tracy Crow’s MilSpeak Foundation. Crow, who also contributes a piece to Beyond Their Limits of Longing, could not have been more actively supportive of war-writing the past few years. MilSpeak has published a long string of veteran-authored and vet-centric titles, all worthy in my mind, and now culminating in Beyond Their Limits of Longing.
In her Introduction, Orth-Veillon explains the genesis of Beyond Their Limits of Longing in a war-literature class she taught in that uncovered parallels between the contemporary veteran experience and that of World War I veterans:
Frustration over the lack of individual voices in public war narratives was a theme I found not only in the WWI and other literature I studied with my students while teaching at the Georgia Institute of Technology but also in the creative writing workshops I led for student-veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. In each case, soldier-writers I encountered from past or present wars expressed resentment because the soldier’s experience had been neglected by other kinds of stories told by the media, Hollywood, or history books.
Conversations with Seth Brady Tucker and Brian Castner helped Orth-Veillon zero in on World War I as the crucial point of connection to past wars:
I realized today’s war writers owed a debt not only to the service of WWI soldiers but also to the unprecedented way they wrote about the war… It could be said that WWI writing, for the first time in history, was responsible for exposing the severity, variety, and complexity of war wounds to the public.
Kudos to Orth-Veillon for recognizing that today’s war-writers, as she first noted with Tucker and Castner, connected seismically with World War I and that a chance to write on it would elicit such alert and evocative responses. I don’t dare name favorite contributions to Beyond Their Limits of Longing (they’re all great!) nor do I have space to begin itemizing themes and making connections between the pieces. But the prompt to write on a distant past war seems to have been extremely productive, even for talented writers with plenty to say without prompting. What immediately jumps out from the reflections are a profound sense of history and empathetic understanding for World War I participants—two qualities that were sorely missing from America’s apprehension of what was at stake in our twenty-first century wars.
Beyond Their Limits of Longing: Contemporary Writers and Veterans of the Lingering Stories of World War I. Edited by Jennifer Orth-Veillon, with a forward by Monique Brouillet Seefried. Milspeak Foundation, 2022.