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Why We Write About War

The memories and emotions flooded back as I scanned over the ink on the pages. Although I’d self-published Leaving the Wire digitally a while back, there was a new set of feelings invoked by holding my story in my hands. It seemed more vivid and real, the words on the page invoking a greater sense of gravity to the experience. I felt it deeper. Much deeper. Pit of the stomach deep. It reached inside and shook me up, so much so that I found myself wondering why I’d written it in the first place.

There are as many reasons why anyone writes about a particular topic as there are writers. Writers want to teach people things. They want to spur conversation about important aspects of our society by providing frames of reference. They want to entertain. While war writers ultimately share the goals of any writer in these respects, we write for other reasons more specific to the subject.

Saying that we write to heal is a bit of a simplistic answer. It conjures up images of us writing a story and, in so doing, dispelling terrible memories and extirpating the crushing grief of lost friends in one cathartic sitting. It’s a little more complicated than that. Holding our stories in our hands makes them more real and more disturbing than even the grimmest of memories can be. It will, without a doubt, invoke the exact same feelings that one experienced at the time. It hurts all over again. Yet confronting the memories in such a manner allows us a perspective that would otherwise be impossible to glean. For instance, we can finally see (and take to heart) that no amount of second-guessing changes what happened. Moreover, writing allows close enough examination so that we can see the many layers of responsibility at work in war. We can liberate ourselves from thinking we were the sole agents of every mistake or bad situation that transpired. It changes in that regard, allowing us to establish a meaningful waypoint in the truly lifelong journey that is healing. It’s a good start, at least.

And to say that we write to dissuade others from engaging in or promoting the tragedy that is armed conflict isn’t entirely accurate, either. Sure, we hope that the stories we relate may act to inform others of what they’re getting themselves into upon volunteering for such an endeavor. I don’t think any of us are naïve or arrogant enough to think that we’ll stop war by writing about it, though. We know that from experience. After all, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans grew up watching Platoon or Full Metal Jacket and reading a trove of moving, disturbing war literature by the likes of O’Brien, Remarque, or Caputo. But maybe we can prepare others for what they’ll see and do. We can show them that plenty of others felt the same way they will when they hear that their buddy didn’t make it back from a patrol. We can tell them that the most frightening of emotional reactions to the horrific events of war are, in fact, commonplace. There is comfort in knowing that, a solace that our silence could not provide.

There is one cliché that holds true in writing about war. It brings us together. All of us. Phil Klay, veteran, and winner of the National Book Award, once wrote that, “believing war is beyond words in an abrogation of responsibility. It lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from trying to explain.” He’s right. While warfare is an intensely personal experience for its participants, it is a very public endeavor. It’s history. It is deserving of the type of recording that allows society to interpret its meanings and determine its worthiness. I and many other veterans have been asked: “Knowing what you know now, would you do it again?” We can ask that question in return if there is a canon of work upon which any inquiring mind can base an opinion — an opinion which matters, considering the responsibility of their elected officials to represent those opinions in the formulation of policy.

All of these reasons aside, I’d venture to say that most war writers put pen to paper because we must simply do something with these awful memories. We must transform them into something that has a value or meaning outside of being simply bad memories. Writing is a constructive means of externalizing some potent internal emotions, and if engaging in it helps someone along the way of healing, then it’s all that much more meaningful.

Of course, for writers, there’s an old adage stating that we must write what we know. Collectively, we know war, in all its varying degrees. By telling our stories, the society for which we fight can know it, too.

David Ervin is Editor-in-Chief of Military Experience and the Arts, Inc and an author of memoir, short non-fiction, and fiction. Read more here.

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