August 2015 | Volume XXXIII, Issue 4 »

Reading, Writing, and Reflecting on War

August 1, 2015
Elizabeth Gross, Houston (TX)

The literature of war dates from The Iliad or stories told in the Epic of Gilgamesh to last year’s National Book Award winner Phil Klay for his short-story collection, Redeployment. War—and the people and nations who wage it—have long captivated both writers and readers. Poetry and prose alike have garnered a following, along with memoir, documentary films, and now even literary blogs, such as Time Now: The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Art, Film, and Literature (

Veterans are not the only readers, and wartime experiences may be only a part of a character’s story. War and its effect on the psyche of the soldiers provides background for such writers as James Lee Burke, whose characters Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell share a common experience in Vietnam. Although the novels are not about the war, they allow the reader to understand how the experience of war has reshaped the worldview of the characters. Another of Burke’s characters, Hackberry Holland, has constant flashbacks to the Korean War, triggered by current experiences.

 There’s been a shift in war literature from glorifying the combatants and highlighting soldiers’ unquestioning obedience to reflection of the views of society on war and battles in general. The literature is complex and offers multiple points of view—the view of the combatants, the view of bystanders and civilians, and differing views of the men and women who serve in war.

Changing Perspectives

The view of war changes constantly in society. As we look back at the American Revolutionary War for instance, our literature celebrates the glory of the new republic as it emerges from the confinement of colonial constraints, and we as readers tend to see it as a just and honorable war. However, a review of literature from other countries colors the way this war is seen according to local politics and culture. Time as well as geography influences the way individual wars are viewed. A communist Chinese author of the 1970s will see this war much differently than a Canadian or British writer of that same time period, based on the ideology of each country at the time. Contemporary writings tend to play up the humanity of the leaders, even to the point that we see how flawed they are.

 In the history of the United States, the Civil War is seen as a brother vs. brother war. The South was pitted against the North in a battle that seems just and right to both sides. There is also the glory for the North of the end of slavery. In Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, however, the war devastated not only the individual, Inman, but the countryside and people as well. (As an aside, the novel is seen as modeled on The Odyssey. And why not? It’s a great story!)

 War literature is ultimately the story of what it means to be human, and war poetry in particular often demonstrates the sorrow as well as the belief in war as being the right thing to do. War literature is sometimes used to create a situation in which an author can share his or her sensibilities, and persuade readers to understand and perhaps agree with them. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, which many read with the idea that it is a Civil War era novel, was written long after the war, and Crane was never a combatant.

From Glory to “Grunt”

In the literature of World War I, the notion that war is incredibly hard on both combatants and the populace takes a much stronger place in war literature. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was published in 1929, eleven years after the war ended. In this novel, the message was that the extreme stress of combat and the physical hardships endured by soldiers made it difficult for them to return to normal, nonmilitary life. Much of the literature of this time emphasizes the unbelievable horror of war. At the time this novel was released, Germany was going through the incredible upheaval that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler. World War I literature tends to show how war dehumanizes both soldier and civilian alike.

 The literature of World War II, in America at least, is based quite extensively on the experiences of those who lived through the war. Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is based upon his experiences in the Philippines during the war, and James Jones’s The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity, as well as Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II, look frankly at the people who, just a few short months before, were civilians without the cares of war and who would be forever changed by the experience.

 The literature of Vietnam tends to be more explicit than previous eras, in keeping with the overall literary landscape of the last half of the twentieth century. Writers like Tim O’Brien and Walter Dean Myers infuse reality into their narrative to allow the reader to experience the war zone from the perspective of the soldier. Terms like “grunt,” describing an infantryman, move into the language, and protest as well as celebration become themes.

After 9/11

There has been an explosion of literature in all forms—memoir, poetry, novels, short stories, film—from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, much of it written by recent veterans. Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq reviews the first wave of this writing in an engaging and provocative text.

 Another type of narrative that has begun to show itself is the female voice. Where earlier female narratives of the war experience might feature a nurse or wife, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s Ashley’s War tells the story of highly trained women soldiers and the contributions and sacrifices they made on the front lines of the war in Afghanistan. This type of narrative represents a different perspective in that so much of war literature records, glorifies, and expounds on male efforts on the battlefield. Treatments of gender, status, and authority are all emerging in this new post-9/11 literature.

 War literature is varied and broad in its depth of coverage. It includes not only prose, but also nonfiction and poetry. It has changed its focus, goals, and rationale over the centuries. While once the domain of predominantly male authors and subjects, the literature of war has expanded to include the entire range of those who serve. We read war literature to feel the vicarious thrill of the battle, to imagine the feeling of belonging that so many who have fought together have come to know, and to read for ourselves about the depth of human courage and fortitude in the face of the unthinkable. Writers share war literature to communicate to others their profound sense of survival and the knowledge—having seen the highest of human sacrifices—that life is sacred. The stories they share are profound and worth exploring for all of us.

List of Books Referenced

Anonymous (2100 BCE). The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Crane, Stephen. (1895). The Red Badge of Courage.

Frazier, Robert. (1997). Cold Mountain.

Homer (ca. 8th c. BCE). The Iliad.

Homer (1178 BCE). The Odyssey.

Jones, James. (1962). The Thin Red Line.

Jones, James. (1951). From Here to Eternity.

Klay, Phil. (2014). Redeployment.

Lemmon, Gayle Tzemach. (2015). Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.

Mailer, Norman. (1948). The Naked and the Dead.

Peebles, Stacey. (2011). Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq.

Remarque, Erich Maria. (1929). All Quiet on the Western Front.

Wouk, Herman. (1951). The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II.

 Selected War Lit Reading Lists

“A Golden Age of War Writing: A Critical Companion to Contemporary War Lit,” May 27, 2105.

 ”A Reading List of Modern War Stories,” New York Times, December 25, 2014.

 “Best Iraq and Afghanistan War Books,” Goodreads.

 ILA’s Joining Forces initiative has reading lists for adults, children, and families. The adult list has sections on World Wars I and II, Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan; the children’s list is organized by age group.

 Time Now: Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Art, Film, and Literature. Blog edited by Peter Molin, former US Army infantry officer who now teaches at Rutgers University.

 “Through Fiction, Veterans Present a Clearer Truth on U.S. Wars,” Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2015.

 “War: A Memorial Day Reading List—Searching for Illusive Trust in the Literature of Conflict,” Matt Gallagher, Literary Hub, May 25, 2015.


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