How the War Will Change Art

As the war in Afghanistan draws to a close, Bram Stoker Award-winning novelist Hank Schwaeble discusses how returning troops will change our culture.

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Rising evil is concomitant with the destruction of art. Before anyone had heard of the Mullah Omar, NPR described to the world the obliteration of the Bamiyan buddhas. No vision of the Third Reich is complete without mountains of "degenerate" texts set ablaze, the deckled edges of Hemingway and Marx and Einstein curling into black as the printed words fade into ember. Yet though the dogmatist and the totalitarian and the theocratic would try to use violence to destroy art, as Bulgakov once wrote: "Manuscripts don't burn." Indeed, Orson Welles famously observed in a Carol Reed film that war can facilitate the conditions for great art. But during the act itself -- of the squeezing of triggers and the releasing of JDAMs -- art almost by definition cannot exist in those moments. War is the absence of art.

Western life is generally one of music and color. No matter where one goes or what one does, music follows. The alarm clock, the shower radio, advertising jingles on television, car stereos, muzak at the coffee shop, clarinet renditions of '80s pop hits while on hold at the office, mobile phones, restaurant jukeboxes, sidewalk bands, chimes when doors open and orchestral nods when computers close. Color, likewise, is everywhere, and focus-group-tested to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. Cars aren't red or brown; they're "nightfire" and "hot chocolate." Breakfast cereal aisles are the aftermath of a Sherwin-Williams plant explosion. Our ancestors would have worshipped modern toothpaste packaging as the earthly manifestation of a sacred god.

This is the opposite of the combat zone, where everything is so ordered as to deflate the senses and deflect attention -- and for obvious reasons. Two-by-fours and eight-by-tens are hammered together to form rudimentary buildings (when soldiers are lucky), and slathered in the same flat coats of paint. What does Afghanistan look like? Tan. The occasional green truck rolls off an Eeyore-gray C-17, but lest you think the Army is having a party, the tint is called "olive drab," and means it.

When there is sound, it's strictly utilitarian or designed to intimidate. It's a rumbling diesel engine; the blades of a helicopter chopping air; the propulsion system of a fighter jet; small arms fire -- tiny punctures in the sound barrier; the earthquaking detonation of ordinance. Sometimes it's a cacophony of all of these at once. (Apple gadgets, I'm sure, have improved things a bit, but that's a stick of Doublemint between buckets of porridge.)

A certain sensory anesthetization even behind the wire is, perhaps, the only way combat operations can work. Camouflage is obviously essential, but on a deeper level, stripping civilization from the soldier allows the soldier to operate in an uncivilized domain. Seven thousand miles from home and in one-year intervals, this works well. But the long war is ending, and soldiers who joined at seventeen (and who are now twenty-seven) face the prospect of semi-permanent settlement in Western civilization, and a lifetime surrounded by the art that comes with it. In the years to come, these men and women will integrate into and then transform the culture in ways hard to anticipate.

According to Hank Schwaeble, a Bram Stoker Award-winning novelist, interrogator, and former special agent with the U.S. Air Force, "War is all we know of hell, and probably more than we need to know." He's long considered how the hundreds of thousands of veterans returning from the combat zone will change art, and what demons will they bring to the canvas, to the musical instrument, to the blank page. In his latest thriller, he realizes those demons in the literal sense. Diabolical is the literary equivalent of an infantry platoon directing the chaos of battle. Christopher Hitchens once described literature as the place where ethical dilemmas meet and are dealt with. Diabolical's protagonist is a former interrogator with U.S. special operations, and he simultaneously atones for and makes use of the horrors he inflicted on enemies of the state. Where Heinlein could inspire the reader to enlist and reorder society, Schwaeble's grim humor makes you want to pass the Q Course and start a bar fight.

"The military forces you to reconcile contradictions," he says. "It requires members to adhere to strict standards of conduct, and has little tolerance for violence -- yet paradoxically, its function is to kill people and break things."

The soldier's life and the experience of war is conducive to "art through adversity." As Schwaeble explains, "What you have are adults who've given up basic freedoms for a period of time in exchange for pay, experience, and for many (though not all) the chance to serve their country. For the creative, individualistic mind, this poses challenges. The American military is hardly oppressive, but there is still a fundamental deprivation at work. So you learn to deal with it by channeling your energies and creativity into the paths that are available. When it comes to writing, I think many veterans employ that perspective in their fiction and allow it to give structure to their voice. Discipline in lifestyle often becomes discipline in storytelling. Creativity thrives on restrictions."
If history is any indication, as battalions return from overseas, some number of warriors will put down the rifle and take up the pen. Yet in spite of the tremendous legacy of literary giants who once wore the uniform, "I think most veterans tend to shy away from the term artist," says Schwaeble. "There's nothing wrong with the label, but I think many vets feel it's inaccurate. Writing is work. Work and habit. A lot of writers spend a lot of time cultivating the image of writing as an almost mystical process: turning a blank page into a world of characters and intrigue. I think that's a product of ego. Veterans who write, I would venture, take a more practical view of the process. They think in terms of setting an objective, determining the proper course of action to achieve it, and then accomplishing it. They don't look at a blank page as a means of channeling some ineffable inner brilliance, but rather as a tool for working out a problem -- in this case, one involving characters and conflict and plot."

This customarily solitary and disciplined act of creation will not always be undertaken solo. Not every man or woman leaves the battlefield forever. "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an interesting and tragic affliction," says Schwaeble. "I can't help but think that its effects are exacerbated in modern times by the nature of our society." He explains: "Modern civilization has become very good at making life risk-free. So when you take a soldier from the home front -- where risks and threats are the stuff of recreation -- and put him or her in a combat situation where highly-motivated people are trying to kill them, you have a recipe for trauma beyond that which was experienced by those who fought generations ago. This is not in any way the soldier's fault. It's not even society's fault. It simply is."

Art is a therapy for those demons, and the government has some ability to encourage and facilitate that therapy. In Schwaeble's view, the government can help by funding the G.I. Bill and encouraging veterans to further their education. "Let every veteran get a tuition and stipend benefit that will cover a decent college education. The government can also support private charities that help veterans of various stripes, while resisting the urge to attach strings to that support. These groups are usually very good at what they do because they're motivated and focused, composed of people who have either suffered a particular problem afflicting certain veterans, or are related to someone who does."

War and art are the defining characteristics of man, opposite and inseparable. Schwaeble calls violence the "abhorrent necessity of the natural world." Those who commit that violence on our behalf ask little in return. "I think veterans simply want to know that they didn't waste those years or that blood, and that they are accepted back as free autonomous citizens of a free country, empowered to make their own decisions and take control over their own destinies, just like what most Americans want."

Image credit: David Goldman/AP