Workshopping the Next Generation of American War Literature

By Lukas, Michael David | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Workshopping the Next Generation of American War Literature


Lukas, Michael David, The Virginia Quarterly Review


In addition to precipitating the Baby Boom, the rise of the suburbs, the expansion of higher education, and a growing sophistication of the national palate, the flood of soldiers returning home after the end of World War II had a signal impact on American literature. More than sixty years after the end of the war, the work of writers such as Joseph Heller, Howard Nemerov, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Randall Jarrell, and Norman Mailer continue to be read in graduate seminars, book clubs, and high school classrooms across the country.

The connection between war and writing is as old as literature itself. The experience of war provides aspiring writers with a venerated subject, as well as a sense of legitimacy and gravitas. At the same time, writing about war can give soldiers a chance to organize and make meaning from what is a fundamentally chaotic experience. As the former Poet Laureate and WWII veteran Richard Wilbur reflected in an interview for the NEA's Operation Homecoming documentary: "If you're a soldier existing under combat conditions or threatened with combat conditions, you're going to feel rather disrupted. You'll be disrupted by fear and uncertainty and simply the strangeness of fighting a war. And writing poems is a way, a small way, to put some of your life and mind in order."

Following the path blazed by World War II veterans, a number of more recent American writers have used their experiences in the Vietnam War as a source of inspiration. As Tobias Wolff, a Vietnam veteran and longtime professor of creative writing at Stanford University, put it in the same documentary:

Fd always known I would wear the uniform. It was essential to my idea of legitimacy. The men Fd respected when growing up had all served, and most of the writers I looked up to: Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Erich Maria Remarque, and of course, Hemingway, to whom I turned for guidance in all things. Military service was not an incidental part of their histories. They were unimaginable apart from it.

While the Vietnam War is associated most closely with films - like "Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket," and "Apocalypse Now" - the end of the war also saw an outpouring of important work by veteran writers, books such as Wolff's In Pharaoh's Army, Yusuf Komunyakaas Dien Cai Dau, and Michael Herr's Dispatches.

After nearly a decade of US soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems reasonable to ask: where is the literature of our current conflicts? Brian Turner's poetry collection Here, Bullet, garnered praise when it came out in 2005, and a number of veterans have published memoirs (Melia Meichelbock's In the Company of Soldiers, Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away, and John Crawford's The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell, to name a few). But aside from these and a smattering of shorter works, the literature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has yet to emerge.

Perhaps the basic circumstances of military service now differ from those of the last century. As Robert Olen Butler, a professor of creative writing at Florida State University and a Vietnam veteran, pointed out, the lack of a draft fundamentally changes the composition of the military:

Most of the best writers in Vietnam did not go there voluntarily. They maintained that sense of distance from what they were doing because they weren't there from a natural personal impulse. They were not ontologically comfortable with the role they were cast in ... If you go there involuntarily the intensities of war make you doubt even more profoundly why you are there.

Perhaps today's 1 iterar ily inclined veterans are drawn to other, more contemporary forms of expression. And indeed, posting on Facebook and blogging from the field are so common among soldiers that the military recently decided to clamp down on such pursuits.

Or perhaps it's just a matter of time. Some of the best American war literature took decades to emerge. …

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