Telling War Stories

by Sara Mayeux

I know this blog's buffs tend to be of the Civil War variety, but for whatever reason, I've always been more fascinated by World War I. As a naive high schooler, these lines from Tender Is the Night hooked me (the scene: Dick Diver and friends are visiting the site of the Battle of the Somme):

This western-front business couldn't be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn't. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren't any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather's whiskers.

Now, of course, we could spend hours just talking about what is going on in this scene, especially the contrast between Dick Diver and Abe North, who "had actually seen battle" and thinks Dick's romanticization of it is nonsense. One of my favorite books that I was assigned in college--which I didn't actually finish reading until after college--was The Great War and Modern Memory, in which Paul Fussell painstakingly breaks down WWI poetry and memoirs, word-by-word, to show how this body of literature created ideas like irony and blue skies and dashed innocence and a lot of other literary tropes that we now take for granted and don't associate solely with war literature. (It's been a while since I've read it; forgive me if I'm misremembering.)

In roughly 2005 and 2006, I read a few of the first bunch of memoirs to come out of the Iraq War. While I learned a lot about life for the soldiers there, I didn't find much that struck me as literature likely to endure. What I found most moving was not anything I read but the film version of "Operation Homecoming." But maybe it was too soon, or I was reading the wrong books. So, esteemed commenters: Have you read, yet, any great novels, memoirs, or poetry out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or do you think today's wars will be most effectively memorialized not in poetry or prose but in some other medium--film, music, graphic novel...

This may seem afield from my interest in criminal justice. However, as noted in this Slate piece, some jurisdictions are now experimenting with specialized "veterans' courts" to take into account the unique needs and circumstances of veterans who wind up in criminal trouble. (Also if you google "veterans courts" you'll turn up some news articles from around the country.) Though court transcripts and judicial rulings don't often rise to art, the criminal courts are another arena in which the stories of our society's war veterans get told (or not told), and the meaning of those stories gets debated.