The Forever War Over War Literature

From The New Republic:

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs Jim Webb might have seemed like a weird candidate to give the keynote speech to a roomful of antiwar activists, journalists, creative writers, and academics in New York City. Remembered today as a rigid one-term Democratic Virginia senator who rode an anti-Bush wave to Capitol Hill during the worst years of the Iraq War, Webb had taken a wall of shrapnel in Vietnam, shielding his Marine Corps platoon mates from a fragmentation grenade. But by the opening of the Asia Society’s May 1985 conference on literature of the Vietnam War, he’d also become well known for the bombs he lobbed.

In 1979, Webb had penned a 7,000-word essay in The Washingtonian titled “Why Women Can’t Fight,” which got him briefly shadow-banned from the Naval Academy, his beloved alma mater. The year before that, when a California radio interviewer had joshingly asked Webb if he’d be catching a local appearance by antiwar actress Jane Fonda that weekend, Webb turned silent for a long time. “Jane Fonda can kiss my ass,” he replied, eventually. “I wouldn’t go across the street to watch her slit her own wrist.” (Among those listening were future Reagan White House personnel chief John Herrington, who would later enthusiastically recruit Webb into the administration.)

Webb was also a triple novelist, best known for the visceral 1978 Fields of Fire, the saga of a motley Marine platoon in Vietnam that he’d penned in law school, after being angered by his classmates’ reflexive antiwar politics. Now, a decade after the war had ended, Webb had been gifted an opportunity to blast the other war novelists, poets, memoirists, and critics—many of them veterans of the conflict, like him—that he thought had glutted the national conversation with anti-government narratives and leftist navel-gazing. “American society is too often narcissistic and riddled with vicious domestic debate,” he argued. “At the same time, during the war it was romantic about the Vietnamese Communists and completely ignorant, for the most part, about the implications of a North Vietnamese victory.”

He continued, decrying what he called the “Academic-Intellectual Complex.” Literary and journalistic awards, he insisted, “are lavished on those who discover new ways to question or attack government policy, to tell us where our government is failing us,” but “sometimes it takes more courage to confront the hostility of one’s peers than it does to attack that amorphous dragon called government policy.”

The gauntlet had been thrown down. Webb’s speech hit the conference like a “lightning bolt,” one attendee wrote. John Del Vecchio—a self-described “token conservative” on war literature panels, whose debut Vietnam novel, The 13th Valley, had been nominated for a National Book Award two years before—got stuck in Manhattan traffic on his way to the conference and showed up late. He walked in and “found the room already divided … leftist writers bunched over there, conservative writers bunched over here. It was quite a scene.”

. . . .

Perhaps broader America was ready to move on from the war, but many of its participants and chroniclers were not. “All wars are fought twice,” Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen would write decades later. “The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”

This was a battle for memory. It would prove a defining one, worth revisiting today, as my generation of forever-war literati fights similar battles and, in many ways, stakes out similar paths.

. . . .

As contentious as Webb’s talking points were—his conference speech also inveighed against Soviet access to Vietnamese ports in the Pacific—the literary broadside had conveyed one hard truth. His call that Vietnam literature written by Americans should be less “narcissistic,” that it should consider the peoples, histories, and cultures impacted by foreign soldiering and not just dwell on the myopic American experience, resonated like mortar fire through the remainder of the conference.

. . . .

War literature tends to grow and evolve in this manner. First, war writers—like young writers of any subject—need time to mature their thoughts and art. (Slaughterhouse-Five took Kurt Vonnegut over 20 years to write, and rewrite, after surviving the firebombing of Dresden; Karl Marlantes took 30 years after he returned home from Vietnam to complete Matterhorn.) Similarly, the macro stories that Kakutani called for require distance to play out. Their chroniclers need clarity to wrest narrative from ruin. (Psychological trauma may have been considered a fringe idea during World War I, but it’s the bedrock of Regeneration, Pat Barker’s Booker Prize–nominated 1991 historical novel of the Great War. Likewise, Corporal James Jones may have only had a small, frontline window into the Pacific theater in 1944, but after years of methodical research, he was able to blend his own experience and his broader understanding into The Thin Red Line.)

. . . .

“Are we going to learn, are we going to grow, are we going to repeat it again?” Ron Kovic had asked his fellow veterans and artists at the 1985 Vietnam conference. “What kind of country is this, if we would ever let it happen again?” Alas, in 2020, we have disheartening answers to those questions. The fierce resolve of “never again” turned to ash in a post-9/11 swirl of reckoning, vengeance, and yellow-ribbon patriotism. The battle for the memory of these brushfire wars has already been raging. American Sniper: for or against? In war, the only thing worse than picking a side is evading the choice.

. . . .

Our “long war” is not over. It just continues to morph into some other phase, on new fronts. Modern war writing is also shaped by the fact that our wars are now being waged by an all-volunteer force instead of draftees. If there’s one unifying principle to the work generated today, it’s a scream, a desperate howl, to pay attention to the foreign wars, to remind readers that they matter and belong to us all, even as our society gets better and better at shutting them out of our daily lives. Accordingly, the publishing world tends to treat war lit as a necessary curiosity, no matter how good or artful. (“Modern war writing is a strange thing to praise,” Sam Sacks wrote in a representative 2015 Harper’s essay, “because such praise ennobles the account while deploring the event.”) The acrimonious debates over ideology in 1985 now simply yield separate literary realities, like cable news channels: There’s war literature for liberals (moody meditations on combat like Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds) and war literature for conservatives (action-packed thrillers like those written by Brad Thor). It’s a rare work indeed that offers crossover appeal.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

PG has read a lot of 20th century history which, of course, often includes wars of various sizes, shapes and outcomes.

However, in his more limited experience with war fiction, he has observed that fiction and autobiography/biography are often blended together in sometimes obvious and on other occasions less-obvious ways.

That said, PG’s favorite book about war was written by a woman, Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth.

As many visitors will recall, Ms. Brittain’s book has been the basis of a motion picture and a BBC video series.

Note: When you click on the following YouTube video, you’ll be taken to a screen that says the video is unavailable for embedding, but you can watch it on YouTube. If you don’t mind going to YouTube, click on the link and you’ll be taken to the intended start point in a longer episode of Testament of Youth – BBC version

9 thoughts on “The Forever War Over War Literature”

  1. Both of you belie your ignorance as to what a Jobs Program is. Tsk tsk.
    It’s OK: I’ve never changed a single person’s mind on the internet.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.