My dad was a Sailor. He served in the Korean War pounding the North Koreans and Chinese with the 16” guns of the USS New Jersey. Later he was in the brown water Navy, running swifts for teams out of Little Creek. He told me once that all good sea stories began with this phrase: “Now this is no shit.” He talked like that. I suppose that’s why I do, too.
When I was a young soldier the running joke was that our Vietnam veteran NCOs started all their war stories with, “There we were, out of ammo and knee deep in grenade pins….”. And of course, all pilots all talk with their hands; we used to mock the pilots in my cavalry squadron by holding our hands in odd positions in front of us and delivering lines like, “I was inverted—I knew this because my Air Medal kept hitting me in the chin.” They were rarely amused.
The point to all of this is that story telling has a long history among the warrior class. When the Greeks warriors came home from Troy, villagers came out to hear them tell the stories of their battles. This was necessary, of course, because the Trojan War preceded Twitter by about 9000 years. But more importantly, it was necessary for the warriors to tell their own stories. They needed to tell their stories in order to validate their sacrifice, to get the memories under control, and to bear witness to the citizens who had sent them to war.
War narratives have forever illuminated war’s chaos, violence, and human suffering as well as its humor, irony, and the intense passions it can generate. When we create a literature of war we draw on a synthesis of imaginations used for vastly disparate ends. We set poetry, the belles-lettres, and creative non-fiction alongside chemical weapons, intercontinental missiles with thermonuclear warheads, and robotic drones. Our highest artistic aspirations are inextricably fused with our deadliest scientific creations.
As veterans or the family members of veterans we have a unique advantage over others in writing the military experience: our authority. We write from first-hand experience. As participants—combatant or family member irrespective—we create a literature of war rather than a literature about war.
Yet some veteran-writers feel that war is too difficult a subject to write about. How could one possibly address something on the scale of the Second World War—six years of war fought globally, over 60 million killed, the Holocaust, Hiroshima—with mere words? This sense of impossibility isn’t new: it is part of the rhetorical trope adynaton (Latin: impossibilia). About 2900 years ago, Homer rhetorically asked in the Iliad, “How can I picture it all? It would take a god to tell the tale.”
I believe that veterans have a responsibility to tell their individual stories and the larger story of war to those who remained behind. This is bearing witness and it is a seminal motivation for many veterans to write: they feel they have a duty to do so; a duty to their comrades who did not return and to the society that ordered them to go to war.
Some will argue that creating works of literature of or about war glorifies it and encourages the next generation to go to war rather than to do everything possible to stop it. Others have said that in the wake of so much killing in the 20th century, and in particular the Holocaust, that to create poetry or other works or art is barbaric. But these are philosophical questions. We are writers.
Again, words are not always sufficient, but they are what we have. We have to make them work. We have to try to give substance to abstractions like glory, honor, and valor, while we memorialize names like Shiloh, Belleau Wood, Normandy, Hue, and Fallujah.
One of the tenets upon which we built the Veterans Writing Project is the idea that every veteran has a story. Our job is to give away to others the skills we’ve learned in the hope that they will tell their those stories.