As scientists begin to reexamine the pages of historic texts, they’re learning remarkable things about the people who once handled these ancient documents -- including at D.C.'s Folger Library.
War is destructive, chaotic and difficult to explain to those who haven’t experienced it. The literary tradition of seeking to capture the experience of war is as old as the written word itself. We revisit some classic works that continue to resonate today and consider the emerging hallmarks of fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Mark Athitakis Book Critic; writer
- Richard Nanian Assistant Professor of English, George Mason University
MR. KOJO NNAMDITales of battles lost and won, full of heroism, destruction, despair and sometimes redemption, are as old as the written word from Homer's "Iliad," to Heller's "Catch-22," Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," to Kevin Powers' "The Yellow Birds." They capture, at least in part, an experience difficult to articulate and help those who've never fought on the frontlines gain some insight and understanding, with the standouts among them acting as cultural touchstones that help find meaning amidst chaos.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to revisit some classic works that have shaped our understanding of historic conflicts and to explore the emerging body of work coming out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is Richard Nanian. He is an English professor at George Mason University where one of the courses he teaches is on the literature of war. Richard Nanian joins us in studio. Thank you for joining us.
MR. RICHARD NANIANIt's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Phoenix, Ariz. is Mark Athitakis. He's a writer, editor, critic and blogger who serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors. He writes book reviews for the Washington Post, New York Times and other publications. Mark, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARK ATHITAKISThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. If you have questions or comments call us at 800-433-8850. Is there a novel you've read about war that really stands out for you? Tell us about it. 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Richard, you note that the natures of war and literature might seem to be at odds on the surface, but they've been closely linked for millennia. What makes them such a natural pairing?
NANIANWell, I think that war is an irresistible topic. It's inherently dramatic. It brings out many things that we admire, courage, sacrifice, dedication. And also, most of the works I teach are written by people who experienced it. And they need to convey what they experienced to people who were not there. So the need to communicate and to transfer to others an experience that in may ways is an effable is a challenge and it's a need that the written word provides.
NNAMDISome of the students you teach have also experienced it. We'll discuss that later, but, Mark, over the last two or three years, as our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down, we've seen a number of works of fiction emerge from those conflicts. What themes or through threads stand out from them?
ATHITAKISWell, I think one thing that we've seen, it's certainly taken awhile for novelists to get their arms around what's been happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think what we're seeing now is not so much a novel of combat, but so much as a novel about the home front and how people here in the U.S. or soldiers who have returned to the United States are really trying to reckon with something that, you know, as Richard pointed out, is very hard to articulate and very hard to describe. You can see, for example, just even thinking about D.C., George Pelecanos introduced a new character in his last two novels, Spero Lucas, who is an Iraq war vet.
ATHITAKIS"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," is about a trip to Dallas Stadium of a group of soldiers. "The Yellow Birds," Kevin Powers, is a novel about a soldier trying to make sense of what happened when he was in Iraq. And another novel, Roxana Robinson's "Sparta," is about PTSD, a Marine who had come back home and is really just trying to reconcile with what happened back there. So these are novels that are not necessarily about fighting and about war or certainly not about the people who are living in Iraq or Afghanistan, but what it means to come home from war, what it means for the people who are taking these soldiers back in.
NNAMDIRichard, as the nature of war has changed over the years, so do the narratives and the characters. Is there a particular conflict, if you will, that stands out for you as a sort of turning point, where you see a palpable shift in the tone, in the tenor of war literature?
NANIANWell, absolutely. And today being Veteran's Day -- of course in Europe it's known as Armistice Day and in Canada it's Remembrance Day. And World War I was the turning point for me, in terms of not just novels, but in terms of poetry. Certainly that's starting to emerge, as well, with Brian Turner's "Here, Bullet," and other works of verse that are coming out that are attempts to capture experience, not in a narrative form, but in a more intense personal form.
NANIANWorld War I saw a remarkable change in the form of poetry from the beginning of the war to the end. At the beginning you had traditional sonnets and rhymed, metered poetry that suggests a world that is ordered. It may be tragic, but it makes sense. As the war went on the forms became more fractured. Wilfred Owen developed a technique called pararhyme, in which the rhymes were wrong. And the feeling that you get from those is a sense of the order being broken, of a constant sense of disappointment because nothing makes sense. And it's remarkable how rapidly poetry changed during that time. So World War I would be it for me.
NNAMDIHow do you -- when you teach the sort of canon of war literature that you teach, how do you approach it?
NANIANWell, I take a historical perspective because I think a chronological perspective makes sense for most students. And we can see each work is reacting to the works before it. I do begin with "The Iliad," and I move forward in time up through "Catch-22." We also watch a bunch of films. And really what's fascinating is how war stays the same and is different. One of the big changes is as war becomes more mechanized and technological, the sense of an enemy being of a personal opponent vanishes and suddenly you have more of a sense of war itself being the enemy, almost like a natural force.
NANIANAnd it becomes too big to imagine a personal combat. And that is something that when I've talked to -- I get a lot of veterans in the class. And when I talked to students who've fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, that's something they tie into. It's remarkable to me how quickly they pick up on some of the themes. And, you know, many of them have said to me, I could have written this, you know.
NANIANIt's that wonderful saying that Emerson has that when you discover a great writer it's like your own thoughts coming back to you, but with a certain alienated majesty. And this remarkable sense that these people are articulating their thoughts, but in a way that they had just never thought of before. I think that's what's been special for me.
NNAMDIThat range of reactions is interesting. Have you been able to notice when they read the works of people who have also had the experience of war, the students in your class who have had that experience to -- how does that tend to influence their perspective on war, one way or the other?
NANIANI don't think it changes their perspective because they have their own perspective.
NANIANThey bring their own perspective to each of these works, but I think that one of the glorious things about literature is that it's a wonderful cure for the sense of loneliness and isolation that all human beings feel, but especially soldiers. Because when soldiers come back, the people who love them may be supportive, but there's a sense of a of a barrier. They can't understand exactly what happened. And you can say, well, tell me about it, but words fail.
NANIANAnd one of the experiences I had was a young man who had been wounded twice in Fallujah and fortunately had come back relatively whole. And he discovered the works of the poet Siegfried Sassoon in World War I.
INTERVIEWERWorld War I, yeah.
NANIANYeah, who was a war hero, but made a statement against the war and because of that the powers that be said he had shell shock and they shoved him in a hospital in Craiglockhart, Scotland, to get him out of the way. And in that declaration against the war he says that the objectives of the war should have been so clearly stated that they couldn't be changed.
NANIANAnd that if that had been done the goals of the war could now be accomplished through negotiation, as opposed to more fighting, and that the soldiers who had joined up on a war of liberation, now felt that they had become conquerors. And after he read that, the student's face almost went white. And he looked at me and he said, this exactly reports my experience. He said…
NNAMDIThe more things change.
NANIAN…I signed up after 9/11 and suddenly about halfway through my tour, although I didn't want to go home, he said, I just had the sense the situation had changed and I wasn't sure that I was fighting for the reasons that I had signed up for.
NNAMDIMark Athitakis, given the very small percentage of Americans who are either serving in the military or even know someone who is today, do you think there's a, well, sense of urgency in getting novels about these wars into people's hands or is that immediacy better served by other sources?
ATHITAKISWell, I think there's a hunger to understand war, certainly. I mean, that is never going to change. I think it's a matter, really, of how exactly do we want to experience this? I mean, do we want to have this in a way that is going to be honest and present the chaos of war with some integrity or do we want, you know, we see so many stories about, you know -- in Hollywood movies about taking care of terrorists that have, you know, sort of familiar, comfortable arcs. I was thinking about David Simon's first show that he did after "The Wire." It was an adaptation of a non-fiction book, "Generation Kill." And I think a lot of people haven't heard about it.
ATHITAKISI looked up and the ratings were something on the order of, you know, a tenth of what "The Sopranos" or "Mad Men" might get. And, you know, a lot of the complaints about it were, well, you couldn't tell the soldiers apart or you didn't really know what was going on. But that was an accurate portrayal of what was going on in war. So you know, I think, certainly, even if there are fewer Americans fighting, I think we know that we're implicated in what's going on. The question is going to be what is our tolerance level for a story that is going to be honest about what the cast of war is going to be?
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back we will continue our conversation on the literature of war, but you can call anytime, including right now. Have you found your perspective shifted after reading a book about a conflict, recent or in the distant past? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the literature of war. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Are literary takes on war a staple on your reading list or do you prefer not to spend leisure time reading about conflicts, past or present? 800-433-8850. We're talking with Richard Nanian. He is an English professor at George Mason University where one of the courses he teaches is on the literature of war. And Mark Athitakis, he is a writer, editor, critic and blogger who serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors. Mark writes book reviews for the Washington Post, New York Times and other publications.
NNAMDIHe mentioned George Pelecanos earlier. George Pelecanos will be joining us on Thursday when we are talking about writers in school. So you might want to tune in for that. Mark, one work that has received a lot of attention is "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," which you note is a sort of outlier. How so?
ATHITAKISWell, it's one novel that is more overtly satirical, I think, then a lot of the other novels that have come out, which, you know, "Sparta," or "The Yellow Birds," or even some of the Vietnam novels that have come out recently, like "Matterhorn," or "Tree of Smoke," are very somber works. But I think one signal that we're starting to process what's happened in Iraq and Afghanistan is the ability to, you know, find cases of humor or find, you know, to have the boldness to kind of satirize what's going on. And Ben Fountain is not mocking the soldiers of course, but he is really daring to poke fun at the predicament of the way that Americans respond to soldiers coming back.
ATHITAKISAnd the sort of the clichéd reflexes with which people think about war. And so it definitely is a little bit different. I mean it's been characterized as the "Catch-22" of the Iraq War novels. And I think that's a fair way of characterizing it.
NNAMDIYou also feel that "Submergence," by J. M. Ledgard is not a traditional war novel.
ATHITAKISWell, I think, you know, what's interesting is that we haven't quite found a novel that can really reckon with global terrorism, in a way that feels like it's encompassing everything that's going on. And then J. M. Ledgard's "Submergence," is an unusual book in that it's dealing with a British spy who is captured by Islamic radicals in Somalia.
ATHITAKISYou know, and it has this very deeply interior portrait of what it means to be kind of in the grips of that. And so that's kind of one corner of, you know, I think an emerging literature about, you know, what does it mean to -- what are the terrorists thinking and how do they perceive Westerners. And, you know, is there going to be a literature that's really going to really drill deep into that? And I think "Submergence" is one example of a literature that's starting to address that.
NNAMDIRichard Nanian, we talked earlier about the students in your class. You mentioned one veteran of Fallujah in particular, but you get a lot of ROTC students and you also get veterans from different branches of the service. Do you notice any distinction at all in what their attitudes are or how they respond to the literature?
NANIANWell, I don't like to generalize because they're all individuals. I do find that the Marines tend to be a little bit more, shall we say, macho, you know. I remember when we were talking about the movies we were watching one Marine, who definitely got into the class, but he was like, why don't we watch "Battle for Los Angeles," and I was like, I don't think that's really what we're going for here. (laugh) But, no, I don't want to generalize. Age matters, gender matters a little bit, but they're all individuals. I think, too, it's interesting that Mark brought up the question of satire because satire, of course, it's not just comedy, but it's comedy that comes out of anger.
NANIANAnd I think it always takes a little time for satire to be modulated. If somebody tries to write satire too soon after war, it tends to come off as a polemic. You need a little time to process it and get it exactly right. I think what's going to happen in the literature out of Iraq and Afghanistan is it's going to develop over the next decade or so. What it needs is it needs some guiding voices, the way that Vietnam literature did. Of course, with Vietnam literature we had Tim O'Brien, we had -- maybe even more important we had Wayne Karlin who not just wrote, but -- I don't want to say pressured -- but encouraged others to write and anthologized and helped publish and edit the works coming out.
NANIANAnd I think Brian Turner's trying to do something like that, but what needs to happen is there needs to be a sort of shepherd of that literature to come about in the next decade or so, and I think it will happen.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is John, in Davisburg (sp?), Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNThank you very much, Kojo. I am very pleased to hear this conversation. It's something that I think is needed. I'm fan of the Civil War era books and Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels" is one of my favorites.
JOHNAnd it brought forth a tremendous amount of emotion that was on a very personal level with the people involved. And I'd never had anything move me quite as much. So I thought perhaps it would add to the conversation, since you said anything that you've read about war, even though it's over 150 years ago. It was so vivid and so well done that I thought perhaps it might be good to bring it up in the conversation.
NANIANOh, I think it's a marvelous book. I don't think that the sequels that his son has helped write quite measure up, but the original "Killer Angels," is marvelous. And of course it served as the blueprint for the film, "Gettysburg," that came out, which was dutiful and well done, but the book is a much greater experience. And the thing about war is that it taps into emotions and experiences that are timeless on some levels. So the fact that it's about a battle 150 years ago, literally this year, is irrelevant. It's the world it creates through its narrative that's so wonderful.
NNAMDIMark, wars fought and won, or for that matter lost, decades or even centuries ago, continue to capture the imagination of today's authors. Why do Vietnam, World War II and the Cold War, to name just a few, continue to serve as popular backdrops for new novels?
ATHITAKISWell, I think there's a couple things going on. I think, one, to Richard's point, is that war is always timeless, and the themes are just -- for a lot of novelists, just very irresistible. But I think -- you know I had mentioned a couple of Vietnam novels that came out in recent years. And I think, you know, time allows novelists the capability to apply a narrative arc that, you know, may not make sense if we're talking about the present day, where things maybe just feel too chaotic and it's hard to identify the clear lines between who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
ATHITAKISSo, you know, I wasn't surprised to see a novel like Karl Marlantes's "Matterhorn" come out a few years ago and get so much attention -- a big book about Vietnam that really is just kind of getting right down in the trenches with the soldiers. Because I think there's just a hunger for sort of the familiarity of what we know about the Vietnam conflict, an opportunity to kind of reckon with it and to make sense of it.
ATHITAKISAnd, you know, I think that's also true certainly with World War II novels, where we know, perhaps better than any other conflict, you know, who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. I mean there's never -- there's an endless supply of historical novels about that. And I don't see that diminishing any time soon.
NANIANWell, speaking of the timelessness of war, too, I mean the translation of "The Iliad" I use actually has a picture of D-Day on the cover, which that makes the point. And yes, World War II was the good war, but the novel I teach, beyond "Catch-22," from that period, is "The Naked and the Dead," Norman Mailer's magnificent Tolstoyan epic of World War II. And even then it's morally mixed. You know we don't get a sense -- it may have been the good war, but it's not a cheerleading book at all. And if it were I don't think it would have lasted. And it has lasted.
NNAMDIOn to the phones, again, to Steve, in Columbia, Md. Steve, your turn.
STEVEHey, thanks. Yeah, I just wanted to talk about another form. You talked a little bit about humor and you talked about a long narrative arc. And I'm a big fan of Gary Trudeau 's "Doonesbury" treatment of soldiers returning home and actually their experience in the war, as well, especially considering he's not a veteran himself.
NNAMDIYeah, he's been doing that for some time, at length, even though his column has been for the while -- he's off. He's coming back, I think, should be sometime soon. But care to comment on that?
NANIANOh, well, graphic literature is a growing, burgeoning field and you can see the narrative arc that he creates with B. D.'s injury, as being a kind of graphic novel in serial form. And although he didn't serve himself, he has worked hard to get to know and work with veterans and help them. I think that in some ways "Doonesbury" may have done more to bring consciousness about the aftereffects of war to people's consciousness to the popular readers than almost anything else because everybody looks through the Sunday funnies, practically. So I think it's been a remarkably successful venture.
NNAMDICare to comment, Mark?
ATHITAKISWell, you know, I think, you know, certainly I agree that "Doonesbury" has done a lot to put it in the public consciousness. And I think, you know, those stories are things that people are going to really hunger for. I think of a recent book -- and this is a book like David Finkel's, "Thank You for Your Service," which is a non-fiction collection of portraits of soldiers coming back from the war. It's one of the books that you just want to push into the hands of every citizen because it really just shows what, mentally, soldiers coming back from the war are struggling with.
ATHITAKISAnd how it's upending their families and upending their lives. And also just how difficult it is for the military establishment, even though it's made the decision that they want to address the issue of PTSD and military suicides, just how difficult it is to bring any sort of logical, sensible response to it.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Martin who said, "I'm a Vietnam vet and read a lot of war novels while in the Army. Among them were "Catch-22," "Slaughterhouse Five," and "Quiet on the Western Front." The one novel that blew me away was "Johnny Got His Gun," by Dalton Trumbo," with which I am unfamiliar, but Richard?
NANIANYes. Well, Dalton Trumbo, of course, also had a long career in Hollywood. It's been many years since I've read that book, but Trumbo was a blacklisted writer for Leftist sympathies. I'm sorry I don't recall it well enough to comment at length.
NNAMDIWell, a book I'd like you to comment on, Mark, before we run out of time is "Goldfinch," by Donna Tartt, and why you feel that it shows a kind of cultural shift.
ATHITAKISWell, I think about this more in the context of terrorism and then war. And I think just one thing that struck me at the "Goldfinch," is that opens with a terrorist attack on a museum. And I think that if this novel had come out maybe three years after 9/11 this would have been a setup for a considered, thoughtful novel, that was going to -- what does terrorism mean to America?
ATHITAKISAnd it doesn't become that sort of novel. It just becomes a novel about one character's, you know, extended life, you know, related to a particular painting. And I think, you know, that just might be a signal of how our novelists are really just -- instead of writing about terrorism as terrorism, it's just becoming another device. It's another way to set a plot in motion.
ATHITAKISAnd I don't know if that necessarily means that we've reached a comfort level with the prospect of terrorism in the United States, but I think it's just something that has become more subsumed into the novelist's toolkit. And I wonder if that's something that might be happening with war, as well, going down the line.
NNAMDIJust about out of time. We got an email from Cynthia, a captain in the U.S. Navy. "The novel that moved me the most was "Birdsong." It was about World War I. Wonderfully written and very powerful." And Christine tweets, "I took a Vietnam War lit. class in college, both "Short-Timers," and "Going After Cacciato" had a huge impact on me." Like I said, we're just about out of time. Richard Nanian, thank you for joining us.
NANIANThank you for having me.
NNAMDIRichard Nanian is an English professor at George Mason University, where one of the courses he teaches is on the literature of war. Mark Athitakis, thank you for joining us.
ATHITAKISThank you for having me.
NNAMDIMark is a writer, editor, critic and blogger. He serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors. He writes book reviews for the Washington Post, New York Times and other publications. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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