The American War Novel

Today is Veterans Day in America.  I thought that, in special recognition of this day, I would talk about a class I took in college that meant a great deal to me and greatly influences my writing: The American War Novel.  We got to discuss topics like the changing attitudes regarding PTSD throughout the centuries, the conceptualization of women in war literature, realism versus romanticism, and the nitty gritty effects of war on the people who fight them.

Our professor was just out of grad school “up north” as we say in the South, and he brought to Tennessee Tech a passion for war and trauma literature (shout out to Dr. Williams!).  It was a small class in which we sat in a circle and discussed the literature assigned.

Going chronologically through history, we started with some essays and excerpts from the nineteenth century.  There was a lot of romantic and flowery language during this era, the language of glory in death, etc.  It is beautiful language but way off base in accuracy, according to most veterans, in that it doesn’t touch on the realities of war. I always thought that this rhetoric, which was what much of America took into the Civil War, must have led to a huge wake-up call in the wake of what became America’s most violent conflict to date.  It may even have prolonged the conflict. You see in primary documents people clinging to this rhetoric of glory and “knights on a charger” even amidst the growing casualty counts deep into the war.

After that, we read The Red Badge of Courage.  This book, written about the Civil War by Stephen Crane in 1895 (thirty years after the conflict ended), is, according to Matthew Arnold, “a touchstone for modern war fiction.”  In other words, it is the mother of all war novels.  While “the war” is kind of universal in The Red Badge, most believe that The Battle of Chancellorsville is the setting.  Crane’s work is remarkable in that it obliterates the clichés of prior war fiction, giving us a depiction of a young boy who is simply a human, afraid that he will run at his first battle.  Every sentence is literary and could be carefully unpacked.  Romantic traditions are rejected in favor of reality and genuine courage.  I remember so vividly Henry Fleming’s inner struggle.  Even though we as a class could never take away a distinct “meaning” from the book (not a bad thing), it resonates.  And I have to think that was due largely in part to the fact that Crane interviewed a lot of Civil War veterans.

We moved on to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  This is about an American lieutenant serving in World War I in Italy who falls in love with his nurse, Catherine, after he is injured.  It is part gruesome and realistic war novel and part romance (although not in a happy-go-lucky way).  I liked this one for its narrative ease, for the way Hemingway strips his language down to the bare bones, and for the fact that a woman featured prominently in it.  However, the really depressing ending stays with you long after you read it.  It does contain one of my favorite quotes, however: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”  Just don’t read the line after that—hope never lasts long with Hemingway!

Next, we read Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, which was WWII-related and linked to the firebombing of Dresden.  It was also part sci-fi, part meta, part really off-the-wall novel!  This was not my cup of tea at all, but I am glad we read it to get exposure to all of the different varieties of war novels, and Vonnegut is certainly one of the legends of the war novel genre.  My reaction paper for this one was about the sexism used towards every female in the novel and my theory that it was done to highlight the degradations towards women that sexism causes (in other words, in an attempt to help, not to hurt).  The sexism was so blatant that my professor commented on my paper, “I really hope you’re right!”

After that, we moved on to Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko.  This was my favorite war novel and stands as one of my favorite novels of all time.  It is about a Native American soldier who fought in WWII in the Pacific Theater and was forced to take place in the Bataan Death March.  After this, he returns to his tribe with what was then called “battle fatigue,” and would now be known as PTSD.  We follow his journey to healing, which was aided by the spiritualism of his heritage.  It was beautiful.  I remember feedback from a fellow student who was commenting on how fascinating the war’s effects were to explore through the Native American experience.  She said, “When I try to think, What is the opposite of PTSD, I think, It is balance.”  Balance is such an important concept in Native American culture, so in this and in many other ways, you watch an entire culture’s answers to his illness come to the forefront.  I presented on this book in my class, and the subject I chose was the history of the Bataan Death March and the physical toll it took on the soldiers.  This book was a wonderful contribution to American literature, and, for me, a constant reminder that, of all racial, ethnic, and cultural American groups, per capita, Native Americans served in the largest number in WWII.

Next, we read Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.  O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran who went on to write war novels.  I think he is most famous for his book, The Things They Carried.  O’Brien has a lot to tell us about the nature of war as it is actually fought and lived.  He was almost like a second professor for our class; we read so many of his quotes that they could frame almost every discussion we had.  For instance, we talked about the theme of masculinity in war, or the concept in literature that, if war does nothing else, it makes you a man. The thing I loved about O’Brien was that he seeks to present you with the truth; he doesn’t deny any reality about war.  His answer to the “war makes men out of boys conversation?”  He agrees, but he doesn’t stop there.  He says, “War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”  Try grappling with that quote!  He talks about the beauty of war and juxtaposes it with its grotesque nature.  In addition to the Hemingway quote above, another of my favorites is by O’Brien: “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love.”  That quote has influenced me so much as I grapple with war themes in my own novels.  It gives a first-person perspective to those of us who have not fought in wars but want to honor the experiences of those who have in our own writing.  Cacciato is about a soldier in Vietnam who sets off on a journey to find another soldier who has gone AWOL.  It was another book that was very heavy on the literary elements.  It blends reality and fantasy.  It wasn’t my favorite, but Tim O’Brien is certainly worth discovering.

Last, we read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.  This one featured an Iraq war veteran who is sent on a victory tour after coming home.  It explores the reactions Americans had to troops during the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and the ways in which they might not have been helpful.  For instance, really vivid in my remembrance is the scene in which Billy and his group are expected to go down on a football field at halftime while Destiny’s Child performing.  It was revealing about the fact that we need to go much, much deeper in addressing the needs of returning veterans.  However, it was, in my opinion, a bit too political.  Our class was all over the political spectrum, and everyone seemed to agree on that.  Like I said, though, there were lessons to be gleaned from it.

We were slated to read In Country, by Bobbie Ann Mason but had to cut it because we ran out of time.  I was disappointed by that because it details the home front experiences of a little girl during Vietnam.  Most war novels focus primarily on men, and I would like to read more featuring women (one of the reasons I focused so heavily on women’s experiences in Northern Fire).  We did discuss women in relation to every book, era, and theme, however, so I felt like I left with a pretty good grasp of war novel trends throughout time with regards to women.  If you want to see a movie that plays with a lot of those themes (and don’t laugh…), I actually have to tell you that Mulan (animated) is excellent.  You can tell that the writers were students of the war novel genre.  Every song could be used as one of the war novel themes we discussed in relation to women.  For example, “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” was a recurring theme in early war literature, etc.

I really like the genre of the war novel.  It is a field that builds on every previous generation’s theme, almost as if all of the authors from Stephen Crane onward are having a conversation.  We discussed many difficult themes, and I think the class helped me to get just a small glimpse inside of the experience of those on the frontlines of wars and conflicts.  In the words of O’Brien, “That’s what fiction is for.  It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

To all veterans, thank you is not enough.  “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including the silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” – Tim O’Brien

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Tara Cowan Author

Tara Cowan is the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain and Northern Fire. A huge lover of all things history, she loves to travel to historic sites, watch British dramas, read good fiction, and spend time with her family. An attorney, Tara lives in Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel. To connect with Tara, find her on Facebook or follow her on Instagram @teaandrebellion_

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