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Why write about war?

By ANDY OWEN.

THERE ARE AS many different reasons to write as there are writers. With war literature there are a few motivations that appear to be common to some of the best writers in the genre. Since there has been the written word there have been stories about war, from the Epic of Gilgamesh and its battles of kings and gods, to the epic battlefields of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In modern war literature — and especially in the twentieth century’s industrialised and later asymmetric conflicts — the narratives are more often focussed on the lowly soldier rather than the hero king or general. 

Many books about war written by veterans have been openly autobiographical, such as Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That or autobiography disguised as fiction — thinly disguised in the case of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front or heavily disguised like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. In his introduction to Good-Bye to All That which covered his service in World War I, Graves claims he had written the book for three reasons:

An opportunity for a formal goodbye to you and to you and to me and to all that; forgetfulness, because once all this has been settled in my mind and written down and published it need never be thought about again; money.”

Beneath the jovial claims Graves makes I got the sense that the writing of it provided a form of therapy for him, breaking down his war experience in to separate chapters, giving him a chance to make sense of the chaos he had experienced. Graves was severely traumatised. He described being haunted by ghosts and nightmares for years after the war. Writing may have helped Graves say good-bye to some of these ghosts, even if it also meant he had to say goodbye to a number of close friends who he had served with him, such as the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who objected to many of the details Graves claimed as facts.

Alex Bowlby’s The Recollections of Rifleman Bowlby is a first-hand account of life in a rifle regiment moving through Italy in World War II. Both the regiment and the names of his comrades are anonymised. At the end of the book, Bowlby tells us that after the war the ghosts of his dead comrades haunted his dreams. In the mid-1950s he had a breakdown. In November 1957, thirteen years to the day his section commander “Judge” had been blown to bits on a mine, Bowlby’s grief exploded. He tells us how after dreaming of walking up the hill where Judge died, he painted Judge as Christ hanging on a willow tree. He then walked from Notting Hill Gate to Swiss Cottage, “crying all the whole way”.  As Bowlby’s world broke up he turned to the one thing he had left to hang on to—the book he was trying to write. During his breakdown the dialogue of the time came back to him for the first time since the war. Seventeen publishers turned the first draft down, at least one for fear of libel. The eighteenth insisted the title was changed from ‘All Soldiers Run Away’, from a quote attributed to the Duke of Wellington, but brought the book out in 1969. Arthur Koestler described it as “a monument to the Unknown Soldier”.

Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is written in the first person. Remarque fought in World War I and was wounded five times; the last time seriously. Key incidents in the book mirror real incidents that profoundly influenced him.  In 1917, his company were in Flanders for some of the most intense fighting of the war. His friend Troske received minor shrapnel injuries, but as Remarque carried him off the battlefield he received a further wound to his head which killed him, just as with his character Kat in the novel. After medical discharge, Remarque suffered post-war trauma and disillusionment, complicated by grief over his mother’s death, mirroring the death of the narrator’s mother in the book.

He comments in the preface that “[This book] will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” Speaking for the generation of men of which he was part Remarque claimed, “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men; we are crude and sorrowful and superficial–I believe we are lost.” All Quiet on the Western Front was not Remarque’s way of saying good-bye to his wartime experiences. He revisits some of the characters in a sequel (The Road Back), but it is clear that he is attempting to confront and make sense of the traumatic experiences he and his fellow young men experienced on the Western Front. Maybe for Remarque it was too painful to do this through autobiography.

Ambrose Bierce echoed a similar sentiment to Remarque when he said he saw it as his job in both his fiction and non-fiction to ‘cultivate a taste for distasteful truths. And … most important of all, endeavour to see things as they are not as they put to be’. According to US historian Drew Gilpin Faust he was the most significant American writer to fight in the Civil War experiencing nearly four years of combat. He too was haunted all his life by what he described as persisting ‘visions of the dead and the dying’. Bierce began to publish fiction in the 1880s as well non-fiction based on his experiences. His writings about the war are often cited as the beginnings of modern war literature and as a major influence on Hemingway.

I found it easier to talk about Iraq through fiction. To do otherwise would not have been too painful.

II found it easier to talk about Iraq through fiction. To do otherwise would not have been too painful. I didn’t experience the levels of trauma experienced by Remarque, Graves or Bowlby. For me fiction provided a greater sense of freedom. Having written both fiction and non-fiction about war I feel the differences in this genre can be less important — after all, ultimately what I cover in both the novel East of Coker and the non-fiction All Soldiers Run Away are stories of people in extreme circumstances reaching breaking point and trying to pull themselves back together again. Writing a biography is not the same as writing an autobiography. In a way it is an exercise of fiction, especially when you have no access to the subject as I did not have with Alan Juniper, the subject of All Soldiers Run Away. I had extensive conversations with his daughter that built up a picture of what Alan was like. I had some experience of the situations I found out he was in. I would then have to imagine how he might have felt in the same way you try to get inside the head of the characters you create in fiction. When writing fiction the process is similar but it is often putting words and feelings from real people into fictitious characters. There is a strong sense this is what Remarque did and not just his own words into the mouth of the narrator. Maybe I am also not brave enough. It takes courage to do this through non-fiction. There is an expectation, particularly from those who have not experienced combat that people act heroically. Yet, soldiers are all too human. They get scared, angry and psychologically damaged in the brutal extremes of conflict. Bowlby deserves particular praise for his bravery in his honesty as do Alan’s family.

There is another reason that Remarque may have preferred fiction and that is that it takes the story from the specific to the universal. An autobiographical approach tells one individual’s experience no matter how relatable. There would have been many soldiers who survived the Western Front on both sides that could have felt Remarque’s narrator was based on them. Remarque publicly stated that he wrote All Quiet on the Western Front for personal reasons, not profit. He wanted to give a voice to a generation impacted by the war. Throughout war literature this is a common theme: trying to bridge a gap of understanding between those who fought and those who did not. War writers have long tried to explain to those back home, whilst often also claiming that no-one who was not there can really understand. Walter Benjamin claims in his essay ‘The Storyteller’: ‘Men came back from World War I, not richer but poorer in communicable experience.’ This doesn’t stop some from trying.

As Remarque’s narrator visits his home on leave he finds that the town has not changed; however, he finds that he does ‘not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world.’ He feels disconnected from the townspeople. His father asks him ‘stupid and distressing’ questions about his experiences, not understanding ‘that a man cannot talk of such things.’ An old schoolmaster lectures him about strategy while insisting that he and his friends know only their ‘own little sector’.

GRAVES ALSO NOTES a disconnect: ‘England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere… The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language.’ For me this gap in understanding was a prime motivation to write East of Coker. In it the narrator, a veteran of the Iraq conflict, tells us:

Everyone sees me differently because of where I have been without even knowing what happened to me. They hear where I have been, and then they see my injuries, and they think they know it all… except that question they feel they need to ask, that question we all dread: ‘have you ever killed anyone?’ They don’t realise it’s not that we have experienced something different over there… it is that being over there showed us the chaos that exists everywhere when the happy illusions of our society are stripped away. We have just visited a place where the surface layer has been eroded and the bedrock that is beneath us all is exposed.”

You can split veteran writers into two camps — ones that wrote before but then found war a compelling setting to express themselves and those whose experience in war compelled them to write. Joseph Heller is an example of the former camp, and to a certain degree Ernest Hemingway. Both of these writers initially approached war with relish. Heller who had loved writing since childhood, was sent to the Italy while still in his twenties, as part of a B-25 bomber crew. He remembered the war as “fun in the beginning…You got the feeling that there was something glorious about it.” Hemingway kept an obsession with blood sports and conflicts throughout his life as well as soldiers he met, such as Col. Eric “Chink” Dorman-Smith. The initial enthusiasm of pro-war writers often dissipated with exposure to the impact of combat. After over 60 combat missions Heller went on to write one of the greatest satires about the insanity of the bureaucracy of war, Catch-22. Hemingway could not avoid describing the awful consequences of war in both For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms. Even, perhaps the greatest pro-war writer of all Rudyard Kipling after the loss of his son John in World War I produced more reflective and sombre pieces such as the poem ‘My Boy Jack’.

Bridging the gap of understanding between those who involved and those not has  become an act of justification to remove the stain of the political folly from those on the ground in the failed attempts to quash insurgencies and build nations.

I am in the latter camp: my experiences compelled me to write about what I saw. Graves, after seeing the carnage of the front and what he perceived to be criminal mismanagement of the war by the senior commanders, found the unquestioning patriotism of those back home misguided. Many of the World War I and II writers and poets saw it as their duty to explain to those back home the horrific loss of life was not to be celebrated. It was a failure of humanity no matter which nation claimed victory — a sentiment most famously expressed in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘. In more recent conflicts public sentiment has been less supportive. Bridging the gap of understanding between those who involved and those not has also become an act of justification to remove the stain of the political folly from those on the ground in the failed attempts to quash insurgencies and build nations. Some of the writing emerging from the Chechnya conflict, such as Arkady Babchenko’s One Soldier’s War seems to also have this aim. As much as the World War II writers distanced themselves from how their generals fought the war and the public’s enthusiasm to feed the war machine with their young men, modern writers from Vietnam to Iraq have distanced themselves from the politicians who decided, initiated, then continually interfered with the war.

Another motivation running strongly through war literature of all ages is the desire to bear witness to the events unfolding. Throughout history battles often dictated the fate of nations, and before that whole civilisations. The first war literature, from the Iliad to Beowulf and the Scandinavian sagas, or even before, was arguably also the first histories. The first war literature was as much history as it was literature, and correspondingly many of the first histories we have were stories. In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five the witnessing of one particular historical event of immense destruction (the fire-bombing of Dresden), provoked a desire to ensure it was remembered even when the culture would rather have forgotten. In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, Henry’s speech on the eve of the battle of Agincourt reveals another dimension to the idea of bearing witness:

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”

The military owns how you will be remembered. Step out of the system and you will be forgotten; stay and do your duty and we will remember you.

IT IS NOT just the fact that these happy few would be enshrined in history by taking part in history, but also that the survivors would be duty-bound to remember the fallen as part of a ‘band of brothers’. Remembrance is a complex concept in the military that all veteran writers must be aware of. As a veteran you feel duty bound to carry on the memories of those you have served with. The idea engrained in modern military thinking is that no fallen soldier is ever forgotten. As a veteran writer even subconsciously you cannot desert that duty. When writing about Iraq I did not feel this need as much as those who witnessed wars in which casualty rates were so much higher. Every soldier who died was recognised and reported on. When writing about World War II, in All Soldiers Run Away, and I was faced with unfathomable numbers of losses, I felt obliged to look up every death – often recorded in war diaries as just OR KIA (other rank killed in action) – on the Commonwealth Graves Commission website. I listed the name, age and family details of each life who witnessed the end of my story’s arc. We are narrative creatures and we care very much about the end of the story. We want to others to know our end and we want to know what happens at the end of our loved ones’ lives. This is something the military is aware of and uses for cohesion. It owns how you will be remembered. Step out of the system and you will be forgotten; stay and do your duty and we will remember you.

From this follows the idea that these stories need to be written by eyewitnesses, by people who were actually there experiencing it. This is called: ‘combat gnosticism’. This extends past literature, as philosopher Cecile Fabre says:

I always feel that, as a philosopher, I somehow don’t have the right to moralise about war… one of the reasons why I keep reading… literary works about war, is as a partial substitute… for actually experiencing it myself. I don’t find in even the best philosophy books that I’ve read about war…enough descriptive, evocative content to give me a sense of what it can be like… To even begin to get a sense of what it might be like, I have to read literature.”

This demonstrates that at least for some readers they are looking for ‘descriptive, evocative content’ that will allow them  to have an as-close-to-the-frontline experience as possible. This would suggest the author must have legitimacy through experience.

Not all witnesses seem equal though. There is a shortage of writing from civilians caught up in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Khaled Hosseini, the Afghan-born American novelist, notes when speaking about the war in Afghanistan:

Too often, stories about Afghanistan centre around the various wars, the opium trade, the war on terrorism. Precious little is said about the Afghan people themselves – their culture, their traditions, how they lived in their country and how they manage abroad as exiles.”

The Iraq war does have more literature written by Iraqis, such as Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer (even though the novel was originally written in Arabic, Sinan had been US-based since leaving Iraq in 1991), but much less than that written by soldiers such as myself whose visit to the country was a blink of an eye in the ancient land where writing began. In terms of legitimacy am I allowed to write about the Iraq war? Is my understanding of the conflict enough? Did I experience enough trauma?

If we restrict those who have served to being able to write about conflict we would lose some of the greatest war literature. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is but one obvious example. Leo Tolstoy’s description of the Battle of Austerlitz in War and Peace contains a vivid description of the impact of the fog of war on one of the main characters, Nikolai Rostov. Fabre notes that; “Tolstoy shows, with extraordinary power and clarity, precisely how unclear things are. Rostov doesn’t know where he is, he doesn’t know whether the shadows he sees moving are Russian soldiers, or French soldiers about to kill him. It’s one of the most vivid literary passages I’ve ever read about war.” The book is obviously of significant worth for far more than its descriptions of the battlefield. It uses the losses the war causes to examine loss more generally. He uses the extremes of war to examine morality, free will and the chaos of our lives. It is in extremes we often learn about ourselves. Placing characters in extremes allows us to explore the limits of the real world. Gilpin Faust notes of the nineteenth-century American poet, Emily Dickinson, that “war provided Dickinson with inexhaustible material for her metaphysical speculations.” The extremes of war also change wider society. Its impacts are felt by those who do not go to the front. It does not take someone who has been to the front to reflect on these.

ONE OF THE books that had the greatest influence on me was W G Sebald’s Austerlitz, a book that although set a generation after the last shot was fired on the battlefields of Europe is about the echoes of war that are still bouncing back from the faded grandeur of continental railway stations and overgrown cemeteries. It’s slow mesmeric drip of speculation concerning time, memory and the human experience making it about so much more than the direct events of the war.

For me, I realised I could also speculate in writing to close a gap of misunderstanding. East of Coker started as an attempt to explain the impact of a fragmented and seemingly pointless war on those who had to then return to a society that saw them stained by the politics of the conflict. It then became as much about what makes us who we are and what it is that gives us an idea of continuity of self over time. Alan Juniper, the subject of All Soldiers Run Away, was suffering from dementia by the time I started writing. I had to try to construct his story from the outside in — from the memories of others and dusty military records. Any attempt to say how he felt in a given situation was, in the end, a work of fiction. In both books I was trying to do the same thing — trying to work out what makes us who we are by following individuals, fictional and real, through great stresses to see what survives.

The cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined claims our species is getting less violent. One reason put forward for this decline is the increase empathy which ‘prompts us to feel the pain of others and to align their interests with our own.’ Pinker puts increased empathy down to a more connected world, in part due to the spread of the written word through the development of the printing press and latterly the Internet. Reading other’s stories helps us see them as people. It helps us understand their pain. Writing about war can help those who have not witnessed it understand the pain it causes.

Maybe it is an act of faith to believe the human animal can ever move beyond the inherent flaws in its nature. But writing is an act of hope.

War still persists. Pinker has his critics. The philosopher John Gray believes human progress is an inherited religious myth, reformed as a scientific myth, as technological progress is confused with moral progress. Maybe it is an act of faith to believe the human animal can ever move beyond the inherent flaws in its nature. But writing is an act of hope. Putting finger to key is act of faith. You hope to be read, you hope to be understood. The odds are often against both. So, whether it’s allowing those who have suffered in war to find therapy in its retelling, writing about war to close the gap of understanding between those who have gone ‘over there’ and those who have not, or using war as a setting to speculate about our wider condition, we should maybe keep writing about war to ultimately have the hope that we will be helping to one day put an end to it.


Andy Owen served in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army, reaching the rank of Captain. He completed operational tours in Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is the author of the biography of a Second World War deserter, All Soldiers Run Away: Alano’s War  (2017), and a novel, East of Coker.  Twitter: @owen_andy.

Author’s note: ‘All royalties from the sales of East of Coker and All Soldiers Run Away to http://timebank.org.uk/

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