Tales of War Express Loss -- and Glory
As Civil War soldiers lay injured in the makeshift hospitals of Washington, D.C., Walt Whitman walked among them, bearing food and bandages.
“I go around among these sights, among the crowded hospitals doing what I can, yet it is a mere drop in the bucket.... The path I follow, I suppose I may say, is my own,” he later wrote.
By the deathbeds of the young men with whom he chatted and sometimes fell in love, Whitman filled journals assembled from scraps of paper. He wrote notes about the wounded, letters to friends and, inevitably, lines of verse, like this one from “The Wound-Dresser”:
I am faithful, I do not give out;
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand -- (yet deep in my breast a
fire, a burning flame.)
War’s true legacy, Whitman later observed, was the “mute, subtle, immortal” graves of the victims. But just as war leads to death, it inspires literature.
Even before a U.S.-led war against Iraq actually started, thousands of poems -- most of them antiwar -- were written. Protesters throughout the world staged readings of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” in which the women of Sparta and Athens seek to end war by refusing to have sex with their husbands.
But there has never been one single way to respond to battle, or even to oppose it. The literature of war, from Homer to Hemingway, has served both the dissenter and the nationalist, the nihilist and the believer.
War has been presented as noble mission (Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”), impersonal force (Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”), absurdist bureaucracy (Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22"), numbing bureaucracy (Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” ) and a prelude to heavenly justice (“You will scalp the great enemy in the green prairie/Beyond the great river,” vows the anonymous author of a 19th-century American Indian poem, memorializing a fallen tribesman).
“The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” Homer’s epics about the Trojan War and the postwar journey of the Greek warrior Odysseus, still stand for many as the greatest of war stories. Here are the betrayal and ideals that lead to war, the battles themselves and the men who fight: the vengeful Achilles, the crafty Odysseus, the valiant Hector.
“Homer is not simply a war poet; he sees war as an activity that’s part of the human condition -- comradeship, loyalty, intensity of feeling,” said Robert Fagles, professor of comparative literature at Princeton University and an acclaimed translator of Homer.
In war stories, roles are reversed, alliances formed and disbanded. In “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Erich Maria Remarque’s famous World War I novel, a schoolmaster who has inspired his students to enlist in the German army ends up serving under one of his former pupils.
In the poem “The Colored Soldiers,” Paul Laurence Dunbar celebrates the black recruits to whom a desperate Union turned during the Civil War and wonders, decades later, if anyone still cares:
They were comrades then and brothers
Are they more or less to-day?
Until recent times, the anticipation of war often led to celebration in verse.
O sunburned clear-eyed boys!
I stand on sidewalks and you go by with drums and guns and bugles.
Carl Sandburg wrote that in 1917 as American troops prepared for battle in World War I.
Rarely is such enthusiasm heard from writers now. Although early polls show most Americans support the current war, the predominant response from the literary community has been against military action.
More than 13,000 antiwar poems and statements have been posted on a Web site set up by poet and publisher Sam Hamill. Contributors include former poets laureate Stanley Kunitz, Rita Dove and Robert Pinsky, and such award-winning poets as Galway Kinnell, Hayden Carruth and Adrienne Rich, who warns of “blood on the undersoul thickening to glass.”
Few expect any current work about Iraq to last; the most memorable literature usually comes after the battle.
Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut were both World War II veterans who translated their experiences into the circular madness of Heller’s “Catch-22" and the deadpan insanity of Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” in which the deepest horror is signed off with the refrain, “So it goes.”
War often means describing the indescribable. Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam veteran who fictionalized his experiences in “The Things They Carried” and other books, says war stories are the hardest to tell.
“Just about everybody’s been in love, or had a father, but most people haven’t been in war,” he said. “It’s one thing to look at a picture of a pile of bodies, but putting your hands on those bodies and loading them into a truck, that’s a different experience.”
The difference between antiwar writers and “pro-war” writers is often less in how they present battle than in how they interpret it. War, according to Homer or Tennyson, is no less bloody than in Vonnegut’s work, but where Vonnegut sees only loss, others see both loss and glory.
Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” was inspired by a Crimean War battle in which a cavalry unit misunderstands an order and makes a suicidal rush into a line of artillery.
Tennyson notes that armies have little power over their own fate (“Theirs but to do & die”) and remembers the cavalry emerging “Shatter’d & sunder’d.” But instead of condemning all conflict, he emphasizes the soldiers’ sacrifice:
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
War both reassures and destroys. Whitman’s visits to the soldiers confirmed his faith in the masses: “Not a bit of sentimentalism or whining have I seen,” he wrote. But in Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” a Civil War soldier trembles before battle.
“In his life he had taken certain things for granted, never challenging his belief in ultimate success, and bothering little about means and roads,” Crane wrote.
“But here he was confronted with a thing of moment. It had suddenly appeared to him that perhaps in a battle he might run. He was forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself.”
War itself is just one kind of war story; the return to civilian life tells another.
It’s a theme dating back to “The Odyssey” and revisited again and again in novels such as Charles Frazier’s best seller “Cold Mountain,” about a Civil War-scarred veteran’s harrowing long walk home, and in short stories such as Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” in which a World War I vet returns to Kansas and learns that no one wants to know what really happened.
“His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities,” Hemingway wrote. “Krebs found that to be listened to at all he must lie, and after doing this twice he, too, had a reaction against the war and against talking about it.”
War has been a man’s game, and romance only reminds soldiers of what they’ve missed or cannot have. As Odysseus sails home from the Trojan War, he has himself bound to the mast of his ship to protect himself from the seductive song of the Sirens, who lure men to their deaths. Hemingway’s Krebs no longer wants to love, while the officer in Anton Chekhov’s classic story, “The Kiss,” discovers that love overrules his duties as a soldier.
In “The Kiss,” Staff-Captain Ryabovich is an insecure loner who has been invited to a lieutenant’s tea. He wanders about the house and into a dark room, where he is kissed by a woman expecting a different man to arrive. He and his brigade soon march on, but the kiss has clouded his eyes, or perhaps unveiled them.
“Ryabovich looked apathetically at all those necks and faces in front and behind,” Chekhov wrote. “At any other time he would have dozed off, but now he was immersed in new, pleasant thoughts.
“When the brigade had set off, he tried to convince himself that the incident of the kiss was only some unimportant, mysterious adventure and that essentially it was trivial and too ridiculous for serious thought.
“But very quickly he waved logic aside and gave himself up to his dreams.”