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.

Little Magazines 2: Ep;phany


The winter/spring 2013 edition of Ep;phany: A Literary Journal is guest edited by poet Brian Turner. Not fooling around, Turner has solicited and selected quality work from a who’s who of contemporary war literature.  A roll call of contributors begins with Benjamin Busch, Roy Scranton, Bruce Weigl, Donald Anderson, Matt Gallagher, Jehanne Dubrow, and Paul Wasserman.  Turner’s also reached out internationally to include Israeli poet Etgar Karet, Myanmar poet Tin Moe, Irish author Fred Johnston, and others.

Everything I’ve read so far is wonderful, but here I’ll just offer a few initial impressions.  A poem by Army veteran Martin Ott called “Blanket Party” caught my eye with its reference to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where Ott, as I did, underwent basic training:

      In Fort Leonard Wood, our rooms were windowless
      the days began in the dark for pushups on fields of rock.
      We were calorie-starved with only minutes to shovel
      chow, and set against other squads by barking sergeants..

Brian Wright O’Connor’s “Appointment at Bu Dop” explores his father’s service in Vietnam as the commander of an infantry battalion.  The essay concerns itself with treatment of enemy dead and body counts, but Lieutenant Colonel Mortimer O’Connor is in the news this week for other reasons:  he has just received a posthumous PhD in English Literature from Penn.  He was weeks away from completing his dissertation in 1968 when he deployed to Vietnam, where he was killed in action.

The cover photo by Benjamin Busch is a stunner.  Called “Casualties,” it was taken in Iraq in 2005.  It portrays the aftermath of an IED attack that killed a close friend; Busch describes the event at length in his memoir  Dust to Dust.   In Ep;phany, Busch writes, “…the vehicle burned long into the night.  We guarded it in the dark, waiting to recover the body of a gunner still trapped under the wreckage.”

Little Magazines 1: O-Dark-Thirty

O-Dark-Thirty is a literary journal and website associated with the Veterans Writing Project.  The VWP is a non-profit based in Washington, DC that provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, active and reserve service members, and military family members.  Its founder is Ron Capps, an Afghanistan veteran who has published widely.  He’s passionate about bringing as many veteran writers into print and publication as possible.

More power to him.

Volume 1 Number 2, the winter 2013 edition, of O-Dark-Thirty is out now.  It features non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and art by and about veterans from World War II onward.  Of special interest is Capps’ profile of William Zinsser, a U.S. Army sergeant in WWII and the author of On Writing Well, a best-selling and authoritative guide to writing non-fiction.  Zinsser is 84 and still teaching at New York’s New University.  Clearly, he has been inspirational to Capps, and why not?

Forums dedicated to war writing by vets are cool. Forums that bring together veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan with those of earlier wars are cooler still.


William Zinsser On Writing Well

Happy Mother’s Day War Literature

Below I’ve reposted a slightly-edited post from my old blog, 15-Month Adventure, that I also published on Time Now last year on Mother’s Day.

To the Moms, the Whole Love

Moms come up quite a bit in writings about the war, I’ve discovered.  Not surprisingly, authors are sensitive to how military service touches those whose children do the fighting.  For example, here’s how Benjamin Busch in Dust to Dust describes his mother’s reaction to the announcement that he has joined the Marine Corps:

“My mother took a deep breath, her hands clamped to the edge of the table as if she were watching an accident happen in the street.  Her father had been a Marine, had gone to war and almost not come back.”

How to describe a mother’s anxiety about her child’s deployment?  Kaboom author Matt Gallagher’s mom, Deborah Scott Gallagher, writes:

“’I will be stalwart,’ I had said to myself on the drive home from the airport the morning I said goodbye to him. “I will be steadfast. I will read and listen to the reputable war reporters, and I will write my senators and congressmen, but I will not lose faith in my country. I will concentrate on sustaining my son rather than myself, and I will not confuse self-pity with legitimate worry and concern over him and his men. I will be proud, justifiably proud, but I will not be vainglorious! And I will never, never, never let him know how frightened I am for him.’

“But, within moments of returning home, I had broken all but one of these promises to myself. I was doing laundry and, as I measured detergent into the washer, the Christmas carol CD I was playing turned to Kate Smith’s magnificent contralto, singing, ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.’

“‘And in despair, I bowed my head,’ she sang. ‘There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’

“And, at that moment, for only the third time in my adult life, I began to sob — not cry, not weep — but sob uncontrollably, sitting on the floor of my laundry room, surrounded by sorted piles of bed linens and dirty clothes.”

And if the child comes back wounded?  Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone, describes a trip to Walter Reed to meet injured soldiers and their families:

“And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: ‘Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?’”

And how does a veteran describe his mother, a lover of language and books and authors and ideas, as he watches her fade late in life?  Benjamin Busch again:

“She had been a librarian.  All of the books and conversations about the importance of written words swelling inside her head like a star undergoing gravitational collapse into a black mass, its light still traveling out into space but its fires already burned out.  Nothing left but ash.”  Then he recounts her last words: “‘Oh my baby boy.'”

So much hurt.  So much damage.  So many memories.  So much love.

My mother, Ann Castle Boswell, Athens, Ohio, 1958, Athens, Ohio, the year I was born.
My mother, Ann Castle Boswell, Athens, Ohio, 1958, the year I was born


Benjamin Busch, Dust to Dust:  A Memoir (2012).

Matt Gallagher, Kaboom:  Embracing the Suck in a Dirty Little War (2010)

Deborah Scott Gallagher, In a Hymn, Words of CourageNew York Times, December 23, 2011.

Siobhan Fallon, You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011).

Siobhan Fallon, A Visit to Walter Reed, March 29, 2012.

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