The War Writing Rhetorical Triangle

The concept of a “rhetorical triangle” is well-known to graduate students of composition, rhetoric, and communications. A way of imagining any particular act of communication, but especially that of public speakers and authors in the act of argument and persuasion, the rhetorical triangle attempts to depict the relationship between speakers and authors, their subjects, and their audiences. Graduate students ground their academic interest in the rhetorical triangle in Aristotelian definitions of ethos, pathos, and logos, each linked to a specific corner of the triangle, and put their understanding to practical use in undergraduate composition classes. There, the rhetorical triangle helps students understand the importance of author and speaker subject positions and the notion of intended audiences. Often, the rhetorical triangle is embellished in textbooks and slide presentations with the addition of circle that envelops the triangle, meant to represent “context”—why a particular subject is under discussion at all, what outside pressures bear on it, what underlying assumptions impact the effort being made at communication, etc. Figures A and B below depict the rhetorical triangle and the rhetorical triangle + contextual circle as they typically are represented.



All good, but I’ve long thought that the typical rhetorical triangle, as it exists as a visual metaphor, was a little too rigid, unsubtle, and unimaginative to portray the complexity of any “communicative situation,” to borrow another phrase from the rhetoric-and-composition world. My misgivings crystallized as I began thinking about how the rhetorical triangle might apply to war writing, by which I mostly mean fiction and poetry about war authored by veterans of war, though not without application to memoir, non-fiction, and veterans-in-the-classroom scenarios, as well as works written by journalists, historians, and civilian authors of imaginative literature who have studied war closely. Still, if we retain the basic equilateral triangle and round circle shapes of the standard rhetorical triangle + contextual circle, we might enhance it as follows in Figure C to portray what traditionally might be said to be the relationship of veteran-writers, war, and civilian readers who have not been to war:


As my thinking about this pictorial representation of war writing dynamics proliferated, or perhaps festered, I began to question whether the circle representing context adequately conveyed what is most salient about the attempt to render the experience of war to readers who had not seen combat. Rather than a benign circle hovering on the outskirts of the acts of writing and reading, I thought that a grid imposed over the top of the triangle might better depict how war writing as a genre is forcibly shaped by an array of recurring events, attitudes, themes, tropes, scenes, and expectations, as well as reliance on a short list of time-honored antecedents as literary models, that together harmfully solidified the relationships of writer, subject, and reader into hardened positions, perilously close to cliché, stereotype, “confirmation biased” patterns of cause-and-effect, and self-prophecizing conclusions. Figure D shows my effort to portray context as an imposed grid:

Slide4What might be a work of literature, or a movie, that could be given as an example of war writing that conforms to the Figure D model? There’s no perfect example—the diagram is a cartoon, after all—but let’s for the sake of argument posit works such as Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front as the ur-novels of modern warfare: stories that concern themselves not just with describing the “horrors of combat” and the possibility of transcending them, but the psychological effect of witnessing and enduring the horrors. Yes, I know Crane was not a veteran, but he ventriloquized one admirably, and like I said, the examples are not perfect. What’s important is that many many works of fiction, as well as memoirs and movies, have repeated, with various amounts of skill, motifs and manners-of-treatment originating or advanced in exemplary fashion by Crane and Remarque.

But as war writing evolved and permutated over the course of the 20th century, differences in style, perspective, and approaches also emerged. A very common refrain found in Vietnam War writing is the idea that “the truth of war cannot be conveyed,” sometimes expressed as “you had to be there to understand it,” notions that would seem to undermine the whole effort of writing about war. They didn’t, however, and in practice the sentiment seems to operate more as a marker of authenticity than a confession of ineptitude. The arch-expression of the idea is Tim O’Brien’s well-known “How to Tell a True War Story,” which compellingly dramatizes a veteran-author’s difficulty in conveying to civilians the essence of what fighting in Vietnam was all about. O’Brien’s famous last line, “It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen,” drives home the point that in the narrator’s mind at least one corner of the rhetorical triangle, that of the audience, is drastically estranged from both the veteran-author and whatever might be said to be the truth and reality of war.

A post-9/11 war reiteration of the fractured war-writing rhetorical triangle appears in Matt Gallagher’s novel Youngblood. In the Prologue, the narrator-veteran describes several instances of difficulty connecting with civilians who ask him what Iraq was like. He ends by stating,

What was it like? Hell if I know. But next time someone asks, I won’t answer straight and clean. I’ll answer crooked, and I’ll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I’ll smile. Finally, I’ll think. Someone who understands.

Here, Gallagher’s narrator’s hoped-for “communicative situation” is marked by frustration and distortion, which, if only those miserable qualities could be attained, would stand as a great improvement on the incomprehension and indifference that have so far governed his attempt to describe war.

The contemporary emphasis on “failure to communicate” might be reflected in the following variation on the war-writing rhetorical triangle (Figure E):


Features of the contemporary model include:

  1. The veteran-author’s personal relationship to his or her subject of war is intense and intimate, as represented by a thickened, shortened line, but the connection is obfuscated by that very closeness, as well as the more general difficulty of apprehending the truth or reality of combat described as “the fog of war.”
  2. The civilian reader’s relationship to the veteran-writer, and vice-versa, is distant and beset by communication difficulties, as portrayed by the long, broken line.
  3. The civilian reader’s understanding of war is also remote, indistinct, and untrustworthy, as depicted by the thin, wavering line.

In Figure F below, I have added in a contextual circle that names what I think are the most important contemporary social, political, cultural, and technological influences on war, the men and women who go to war and then write about it, and the nation-at-large. I’ve also noted some changes in the composition of the corners of the triangle to reflect modern trends.


I won’t take time here to explain these factors or how they put pressure on the legs and corners of my war writing rhetorical triangle. Many are obvious or self-explanatory, and none are beyond the ken of readers who have made it this far and who now choose to roll them around in their minds to consider their relevance. I might well have portrayed them as a grid, as in Figure D above, but for the sake of clarity, mostly, I haven’t. Taken together, the diagram suggests a contemporary war writing field characterized by multiple variables, full of complexity, ambiguity, perspectival variations, and tenuous, arguable intersections joining war, writing about war, and readers.

Might the broken-and-distorted contemporary war writing rhetorical triangle be as much a trope, or even a cliché, as anything that’s come before? Some very good veteran-authors have taken up the question. Benjamin Busch, in “To the Veteran,” his introduction to the veteran writing anthology Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, states, “We often feel there is a certain authenticity lost somewhere, that language cannot completely express our experience to those who do not share it,” but ultimately he concludes that the stories in Standing Down “prove that transference of experience is possible with language.” Similarly, Phil Klay in a New York Times essay titled “After War, A Failure of Imagination,” writes, “Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain.” Busch and Klay are formidable writers, but I’m not sure everyone, including many veterans, agrees that veterans can express the reality of war in a way that is perceived as meaningful and reasonably fulsome by civilians. The fact that Busch and Klay have to assert their case proves the sentiment they hope to rectify is both real and a problem. Whether their perception is an enduring and truly true structural feature of war writing or merely a passing truism-of-the-day remains to be seen.

Many thanks to the organizers and participants of the 2016 Veterans in Society seminar at Virginia Tech, where I first presented on the “War Writing Rhetorical Triangle.”

War Writing Anxiety of Influence: Bobbie Ann Mason and Tim O’Brien

Leon Uris's Battle Cry was a best-seller in 1953. In 1955, it was made into a movie that I loved as a kid.
Leon Uris’s Battle Cry was a best-seller in 1953.
The back cover verbiage offers a fair assessment of what war writers and war writing marketeers thought was important in 1953: men and manliness.
The back cover verbiage offers a fair assessment of what war writing marketeers thought was important in 1953: men and manliness.

“Anxiety of influence” is a phrase associated with literary critic Harold Bloom. It refers to the response of authors to important and beloved precursor authors by writing works that either imitate cherished models or attempt to surpass them. The phrase was on my mind as I composed my spoken comments at our MLA 16 roundtable discussion “Contemporary Literary of the Forever Wars,” which I have excerpted below. Please read them in conjunction with my published remarks about war-writing authored by women at our panel website.


“…almost nobody, it seems, remembers Bobbie Ann Mason’s 1985 novel In Country or has seen the 1989 movie based on it. This is curious, because Mason’s novel was critically praised upon publication and reasonably popular (the movie a little bit less so). This is curious because In Country dramatizes issues still very current in today’s body of war fiction: the troubled vet, the problem of homecoming, the difficulty of finding words to convey the experience of war, the vexed dispute over authority and right-to-speak about war, and an already yawning civil-military divide. This is curious, because In Country was authored by a woman and is narrated through the perspective of a young woman named Samantha Hughes, the niece of its troubled Vietnam vet protagonist.

“I don’t know if women or male authors of contemporary war fiction feel the force of Mason’s influence—I haven’t read or heard any of them say so—and I haven’t (yet) done the legwork of tracing the exact lines of connection between Mason and contemporary war writing. I won’t even say much more about Mason here, but rather speculate about the Vietnam War author everybody HAS read and praised: Tim O’Brien, and specifically O’Brien’s short-story ‘How to Tell a True War Story.’ One reason ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ is so popular is because it addresses and dramatizes what have emerged as the driving aesthetic and ethical imperatives of contemporary war writing: its relationship to ‘truth,’ its effort to define what is really important about the experience of war, and its attempt to adjudicate who has the right to decide what is really important about the experience of war.

“Upon rereading ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ recently, however, I came to the conclusion not that the story pronounces definitively on the business of writing about war, but that O’Brien’s narrator—who is quite distinct from O’Brien himself, in my reading–is quite possibly insane, or at least driven to sputtering frustration by his inability to explain exactly how to tell a true war story, or to demonstrate what a true war story really looks like. If I were to read ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ out-loud, I would do so as if it were a nineteenth-century dramatic monologue along the lines of Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ or Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’—the last thing the narrator is at the end of the story is calm, reasonable, and satisfactorily arrived at an explanation of what a true war story is all about. Its famous last lines, ‘It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen’ deserve to be shouted, not patiently explained, with the narrator becoming ever more agitated and inchoate. The surety with which he has begun his tale has evaporated in the face of the difficulty of extrapolating meaning from the anecdotes he relates and the inadequacy of his epigrammatic stabs at profundity.  Statements such as ‘A true war story is never moral’ and ‘True war stories do not generalize’ are not home-truths then, but desperate last-ditch hand-holds on the way to radical incoherence.

“And what about the ‘sisters who never write back’—specifically the ‘dumb cooze’ sister of Curt Lemon—and ‘those people who never listen’? By ‘those people,’ the narrator seems to have in mind the woman of ‘kindly temperament and humane politics’ who approaches him after a reading to express her dismay about the poor water buffalo shot by Rat Kiley. The narrator’s over-the-top anger that the woman has missed the point of his story is decidedly part of his problem getting at the truth of war-story-telling. The narrator’s sense of what that project entails clearly includes women, or more properly put, implicates them: ‘It’s always a woman,’ as he states. Specifically, women are representatives and objects of love, desire, beauty, and sex, though never soldiers or people the narrator respects. They inform war writing’s aesthetic, ethical, rhetorical, ontological, epistemological, and every other kind of -ological structure, but the images of women who don’t write back or listen well suggest that the narrator has trouble figuring how they do so meaningfully. In other words, the problem is his, not Curt Lemon’s sister’s or the well-intentioned woman in the audience. The narrator’s frustratingly incomplete conceptualization of war and war writing, bereft of understanding how women have important roles to play or things to say, stands as a signifying dramatization of the male-dominated and male-centric state of war-writing prior to Iraq and Afghanistan. Today’s cohort of women veterans and women war authors, we can thus understand, are in the process of addressing and rectifying that failure of communication….”


In future posts, I’ll sketch a few ways I think the presence of women in significant numbers both in uniform and in the ranks of war writers has changed war-writing. I’m also thinking about ways that masculinity has reconfigured itself in modern war fiction, perhaps beneficially and admirably so, but probably more likely in an effort to re-instantiate its privileges on new contemporary terms. I’m glad to hear from anyone else who also has thoughts on the matter.

Tim O’Brien’s “Story Truth” and “Happening Truth” in the Contemporary War Novel

Do war stories need militarily-accurate detail to be compelling? Lots of contemporary war fiction bandies the author’s familiarity with up-to-the-minute jargon, gear, and nomenclature, as if the story’s success depended on readers tipping their hats to the author’s first-hand knowledge of what an MRAP, IFAK, or ETT might be. And why not? Iraq and Afghanistan were different from Vietnam, Korea, and World War II, and some of that difference is reflected in the gear, tactics, and language used by those who fought it. Why shouldn’t authors include a little bit or a lotta-bit of verisimilar detail in their stories?

But that’s not all there is to the question. Could one say that some contemporary war fiction is overly dependent on the insider knowledge that comes with “having been there, and done that”? Waving their litanies of military lingo and equipment as badges of authenticity, they distract attention from the author’s story-telling chops, attract gullible, easily-impressed readers, and repel discriminating ones who resent callous efforts at being manipulated.

thingstheycarriedTim O’Brien, the most important pre-9/11 writer to the contemporary war lit scene, defines these issues most succinctly. In the magnificent “The Things They Carried,” he itemizes the gear carried by infantrymen in Vietnam in long lists that stand-alone from the explicit events of the story. The effect is not only intoxicating, but groundbreaking. I don’t think the generation of World War II authors—Mailer, Styron, Heller, and Jones—ever slowed down the narrative flow of their novels in such a way to focus attention on the equipment and verbiage that enveloped their characters. But after O’Brien, almost every American vet and civilian author of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction that I can think of somewhere makes such a move. Even a lefty-feminist poet such as Juliana Spahr, in her poem “This Connection of Everyone with Lungs” can’t resist name-checking the precise, specific equipment that help define how we fight now.  Other arch-examples of the tendency include Phil Klay’s story “Frago” and Paul Wasserman’s poem  “15 Months, 22 Days.”  Klay’s and Wasserman’s works are self-conscious commentaries on the practice, and so too is Spahr’s, but for other authors the tendency seems to be more unknowing, or even craven.

Is any of this necessary? Tim O’Brien, again, leads the way in helping us understand. In an Atlantic magazine essay titled “Telling Tales,” he derides an over-reliance on verisimilar detail and instead argues that a story above all must be an original, striking act of the imagination. For O’Brien, realistic description is only a secondary attribute of fiction, one bound to eventually bore the reader unless the tale starts tickling the fancy through its artistic and fanciful rendering, or even contorting, of reality. Helen Benedict, in her review of Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives, takes another approach by arguing that reveling in military-specific jargon, equipment, and tactics amounts to glorifying war. I half-suspect she’s right, even as I wait for war writers to expand their reach to more and different realms of the Iraq and Afghanistan war experience, a move that can only be made by bringing the material and linguistic reality of the wars into view.

A good case in point in this discussion is Fives and Twenty-Fives itself. I praised it in my last post for subjecting the world of military movement in armored vehicles in Iraq to artistic rendering. I also hinted that Pitre was very observant about how military service shapes the habits of perception of service members. It’s not just what soldiers and Marines see and experience, it’s how they are trained to see and experience by military method and the danger of war. A chapter titled “The Rule” in Fives and Twenty-Fives illustrates by vividly portraying a small-unit patrol brief and the ensuing patrol. Almost every detail offered by Pitre suggests the ways that the Marines in the story have been altered by their service.

The platoon sergeant, Gunny Stout, proclaims, “Five and twenty-five’s the rule,” by which he means that the Marines on patrol will not look at just whatever they want to, but at assigned fields of vision, first five meters out, then 25. But Gunny Stout himself has also been changed. The body armor and sunglasses he wears, by hiding his middle-age flab and wrinkles, takes years off his appearance: “he looked like he could’ve been in grade school.” Gunny Stout, smart as a gunny should be, directs at every turn the absorption of patrol brief information by the Marines. He commands the platoon medic to stand next to the bomb-defusing technician, because it “helped the Marines” by inspiring confidence and unity. “Everyone stood still when [Gunny] talked,” “staring at the dirt during the convoy brief.” But when Gunny Stout commands, “Eyes up,” everyone directs their gaze his way. The platoon’s attention during the patrol brief is also monitored by the second sergeant in the chain-of-command, Michelle Gomez. Sergeant Gomez is “the only Marine allowed to move around during the convoy brief.” “She circled us,” Pitre’s narrator tells us, “like a sheepdog, making sure we all paid attention.”

Feminist critics remind us that oppression of women is often manifested through control of their bodies. They would have a field day with a scene in which Sergeant Gomez, prior to going on duty, works her long hair into a bun to meet the demands of military grooming standards. But Sergeant Gomez, no one’s victim or object of suppression, circumvents easy categorizing. When the narrator catches her fixing her hair, Sergeant Gomez fires back: “She notices me and narrowed her eyes, all mad. Like, what the fuck you looking at? Turn around. Get back to work, asshole.” The narrator, a young male medic, is unconcerned. He actually likes being spoken to like that. He’s smart enough to notice the contortions wrought on civility by military service, but in the context of actually being a Marine in the middle of a war he totally understands where Sergeant Gomez is coming from. And there is no one, absolutely no one, whom he trusts more than Gunny Stout and Sergeant Gomez to roll out the gate with on the unit’s daily mission to defuse and fill booby-trapped IED craters.

The scene strikingly portrays the flows of deference, obedience, and resistance characteristic of enlisted life in the service. Gunny Stout, the senior non-commissioned officer in the platoon, is the master of passive-aggressive instantiation of chain-of-command orders and policies, no matter how much they are hated. After the platoon leader, Lieutenant Donovan, directs the platoon to stop writing obscene and derogatory graffiti in the FOB port-a-johns, Gunny Stout affirms the directive, but modifies it in terms the junior troops appreciate:

Then, his voice so low the lieutenant couldn’t hear, Gunny Stout said to us, “I’m running over to the shitters after we break. In fact, I’ll give the whole platoon three minutes to do the same. You know that glistening, goddamn beautiful cock in the last stall on the right? I want a picture before it’s gone forever. One of you miscreants is a regular Leonardo da Vinci of dicks, and I’d hate to see the evidence erased for all time. Fucking tragedy.”

The platoon executes not just dutifully but laughingly, and the story doesn’t end there. On patrol, a sergeant named Marceau requests the other two sergeants in the platoon, one of whom is Sergeant Gomez, to switch to an unauthorized radio frequency the NCOs use to communicate freely out of earshot of the officers.

“Listen,’ I heard Marceau say. ‘You two deserve to know that most of those penis murals are mine. And I’ll be honest—I don’t think I can quit cold turkey. Over.”

Zahn and Gomez, in separate vehicles, both keyed their radios just to let Marceau hear them laughing.

Marceau, kept going, deadpan. “So here’s my compromise: I’ll keep drawing penises, and you can go ahead and put me down as a volunteer for the overnight shitter watch. Out.”

And so Pitre continues, eloquently dancing on the boundary line between realistic rendering and novelistic possibility. When we think of Sergeant Gomez, what do we think? True-to-life portrayal? Fantastical embellishment? A male fantasy? Or a well-drawn representation of how it is to be a woman soldier or Marine in the military today? Would we like the story more if it were written by a woman? Would a woman write such a scene? Has Pitre’s own service rendered him an insider’s advantage on life inside a small unit? Does it lend his story credibility? Or, could he have told the story just as well after reading lots of memoirs and watching YouTube clips? Tim O’Brien writes in a story titled “Good Form” of “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and asserts that story-truth, or emotional truth, is far more important than happening-truth, or realistic depiction. But how do you know story truth when you see it, and how far can you take it?

UPDATE:  Adam Karr’s review of Fives and Twenty-Fives for Make Literary Magazine also riffs off the legacy of Tim O’Brien and the importance of realistic detail in war fiction. Karr’s review was in circulation before mine, and though I was not thinking of his review when I wrote this post, Karr should be given all credit for first raising this important issue, especially as it pertains to Fives and Twenty-Fives.

The Civil-Military Divide Within: Going After Bergdahl

When Bowe Bergdahl disappeared from his small combat outpost in Paktika province in 2009, I was also in eastern Afghanistan. In the ensuing days I obtained a pretty solid first-hand understanding of the tumult the event caused. After a month the story faded from public view, but it lingered long in my mind as one of the most curious, unexplained, unfinished episodes of the war. What would have made Bergdahl do that? Why did so few other soldiers do the same thing? The furor after his release by the Taliban a couple of weeks ago confirmed my intuition that his story was captivating and important.

CacciatoEarlier this spring, I met a vet author who told me that he had written a draft of a novel based on the Bergdahl saga. For him, Bergdahl’s disappearance represented a contemporary version of Tim O’Brien’s 1978 Vietnam novel Going After Cacciato. In O’Brien’s novel, the title character slips away from his platoon while on patrol and tries to walk to Paris. It’s possible that Bergdahl, a reader and dreamy young man by all accounts, has read Going After Cacciato. But what is the larger import that accounts for the public fascination with his case? To me, Bergdahl enacted in real life a narrative that figures often in contemporary war lit, drama, and film—the dream of unofficial-but-honest unmediated contact between US service members and local national citizens. The movie The Hurt Locker provides the most available example—a soldier on his own slips the FOB perimeter to help a poor Iraqi family. I’ve seen two plays that also feature such scenarios, and I know there are others. Most portray such ad hoc interactions as kindly–soldiers now more human once free of military tyranny–but others show Americans acting evilly–enflamed by military dehumanization and now free of its discipline, they run wild.

I can surmise that such portraits represent efforts to illustrate the human side of war, but I doubt they ring true with many vets. Most I think would find them unrealistic if not downright dopey. In my experience soldiers didn’t care enough about Afghans or Iraqis to even think about risking their lives by leaving the safety of their units and their FOBs to be with them. Outside of our interpreters and military counterparts, we didn’t know Iraqis or Afghans or even really want to know them. The attitude of Rodriguez in Phil Klay’s “Prayer in the Furnace” is probably closer to the truth for many soldiers: “’The only thing I want to do is kill Iraqis,’” he says. That’s harsh, but the blighted relationships between Americans and Iraqis in Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen and Americans and Afghans in Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, marked by mutual hostility and distrust and played out within steps of FOB gates, also seem typical. To venture far outside the wire on one’s own was unfathomable.

But maybe Bergdhal was the exception that proves the rule. Maybe he really wanted to be among Afghans without the security of his weapon and squadmates, to see what happened for better or worse. Perhaps he thought there were good Afghans who would protect him or that the Taliban weren’t really interested or really so bad. Maybe his unit was just so screwed-up and unfriendly that he couldn’t stand it anymore. Or maybe he just got too much a snort of that wild Paktika air, which, as I’ve written about before, has turned other warriors into poets. Did he know Into the Wild, the story of a young man who assumes enormous risk by walking solo into the Alaskan outback? I wouldn’t be surprised.

PeeblesAs for me, I’m currently reading Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq, a study of contemporary war lit written by veterans up to about 2010. I’m only about 30 pages in, but am already impressed by Peebles’ insights about modern soldiers and how they represent themselves in memoirs, stories, and poetry. Peebles claims that the dominant theme in contemporary war lit is the desire of veteran-authors to transcend their identities as soldiers. Raised in a culture that now values diversity above almost all else, military men and women resist homogenous absorption by the martial world they have entered. And yet, Peebles continues, the anguish that fills the best books stems from the military’s way of imposing itself comprehensively on people’s sense of themselves. If not the uniforms and regulations, then the culture and the unit, or the demands of accomplishing missions. If not the mission, then fear, pain, and death. If not fear, pain, and death, then responsibility for what one has witnessed and done. As military identities and mindsets harden, they blot out memories of past lives and other selves, delimit possibilities for relationships in the present, and extinguish potential future options. It then becomes a question not of “being all you can be,” as the Army slogan would have it, but the military becoming all that you can be. Forget the divide between those who have served and those who have not, Peebles says, the real civil-military divide is within the psyches of soldiers and veterans:

“As young people, these soldiers have been encouraged to revel in their individuality, challenge restrictive categories, and make ample use of technology to do so. Contemporary American culture traffics in identities that are cyborg, hybrid, avatar…. The media savvy and extensive knowledge of pop culture, however, is anything but a balm for the realities of war, and only exacerbates their sense of isolation and impotence.”

“Other soldiers express dissatisfaction with traditional gender roles, most notably the dictates of masculinity, but their attempts to construct a viable alternative fail. Some arrive in Iraq ready to reach across national and ethnic divides and make a difference, but the invasion’s execution prohibits them from doing so, reinforcing their sense of being strangers in a strange land. Finally, traumatized and injured veterans find that after such radical changes to the mind and body, the most sophisticated treatment and technology in the world can’t always make them whole again.”

“[In contrast to soldiers in Vietnam War fiction] soldiers in these new war stories also feel betrayed—not necessarily by their nation, which many already believe is on a fool’s errand in Iraq, but by the personal resources they expect to carry them through. They are politically cynical, but personally idealistic, believing themselves to be beyond the strict categories of race and gender, to be technologically and culturally savvy. But these resources fail them as well… In war, the realities of biology, physics, and psychology can hit home with a vengeance—and there’s no way to log off.”

Peebles’ body of evidence is slim: Jarhead, My War, Here, Bullet, The Hurt Locker, and a few others. But there wasn’t much to work with as she wrote, so I think she has done well mining what was there for exciting discoveries. An interesting project would be to size up her conclusions in regard to the many novels about Iraq and Afghanistan that have emerged since she completed her study. Do Peebles’ ideas hold true for The Yellow Birds’ John Bartle? Billy Lynn of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk? Fobbit’s Abe Shrinkle? Sparta’s Conrad Farrell? Or, turning back to real life, how about Bowe Bergdahl, who grew up a writer of metaphysical manifestos and fan of Ayn Rand, who then found himself a soldier soldiering not just at the front, but in front of the front on the Pakistan border. At some point he just didn’t want to do that, or be that, anymore.

Here’s to a full physical, mental, and emotional recovery for Bowe Bergdahl and to a successful reunion with his parents. We look forward to learning much more about the facts of his disappearance and captivity.

Paktika in the distance, picture taken from Spera Combat Outpost, Khost Province, 2009.
Paktika province, Afghanistan in the distance, picture taken from Spera Combat Outpost, Khost province, 2009.

Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq. Cornell University Press, 2011.

Note:  An earlier version of this post linked to a blog post purporting to describe Bergdahl’s World of Warcraft fascination.  That post is in fact a fabrication, though a very inspired one at that. The influence of role-playing games in the lives of modern soldiers and the art that represents them is a subject for another day.

Notes Toward a Supreme War Fiction

The title of this post cribs from a 1942 Wallace Stevens poem, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” Stevens writes:

     So poisonous are the ravishments of truth, so fatal to
     The truth itself.…

He also writes:

     The poem refreshes life so that we share
     For a moment, the first idea….

Elsewhere, in Stevens’ “On Modern Poetry,” also from 1942, we read:

     It has to think about war
     And it has to find what will suffice.

Such thoughts give entrée to a meta-critique of war literature. What does it think it is doing? What are the possibilities? Timothy O’Brien’s magnificent “How to Tell a True War Story” offers superb contemporary expression of the issues involved. O’Brien dramatizes and suggests their impossibly tangled complexity. What is more important, realistic truth or emotional truth? How is the truth related to the credibility of the speaker? How does truth relate to the individual perspective of the witness/participant and the reader? These issues are inherent in all discussion of literary aesthetics, but they are magnified in war literature by the sensational nature of the subject matter, the intensity of the emotional involvement, and the important moral and political consequences at stake.

Sometimes it seems like the best answer might be that of the chorus of Of Monsters and Men’s hit “Little Talks”:

      Don't listen to a word I say
      The screams all sound the same

Probing deeper, critic Laura Brandon, writing about war art, looks to redefine the subject “internationally through time” as more than “battle pieces, an aspect of national history, or military illustration.” She establishes a typology of war art: “propaganda, memorial, protest, and/or record.” That’s helpful. Riffing off Brandon’s suggestions, I came up with ten questions pertinent to the aesthetics of war literature and art. Read through them and let me know if they work for you:

1. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” -Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940). In what ways is Benjamin’s quote particularly true of war literature? Is there a way that war literature evades or transcends being a “document of barbarism”?

2. Is war literature inherently “anti-war” literature?

3. Does war literature celebrate war or perpetuate ways of thinking about war that increase, rather than decrease, the prospects for future war?

4. Is war literature written by veterans inherently more valuable, credible, or interesting than that written by those who haven’t served or even deployed (as a journalist, aid worker, contractor, etc)?

5. Heroism, fear/courage, guilt, shame, camaraderie, adventure, horror, shock—are these common tropes of war literature beyond critique? Why or why not? If not, then what about them invites investigation?

6. How does the war literature complicate the desire of the American public to “support the troops”?

7. What is enjoyable about war literature?

8. What does the war literature help us understand better?

9. How does war literature complicate the relationship between remembering and reporting?

10. What is beautiful about war literature?

Happy six-month anniversary of the Time Now blog. Thanks for reading and your support so far. My goal is a post a week for a year, more if I can keep it up. I’ve covered a lot of ground already, but there is much left to say. The summer writing season is here, so let’s go.

Pablo Picasso, "Guernica," 1937
Pablo Picasso, “Guernica,” 1937


Laura Brandon, Art and War.  Taurus Press, 2007.

%d bloggers like this: