How War Literature Occupies the Realms of Both Fact and Fiction
Phil Klay on Maintaining Verisimilitude When Writing About War
Sometimes in interviews I catch myself speaking of my book of short stories about the Iraq War as though it is a kind of literary journalism. I want people to think about their recent history, imagine the lives of soldiers, and get a sense of what it’s like to go to war. And I do want those things, since having a richer sense of war experience is essential to having a richer understanding of our obligations toward a world wracked by war and political violence. But I’m always troubled by readings of war literature that begin and end with empathetic engagement. There’s capturing authentic experience, and then there’s doing the work of writing and reading fiction. “What it’s like” is a means, after all, and often it’s a slippery one.
In Wilfred Owen, what it’s like is to be “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags…All went lame; all blind / Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots / Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.” And his poem, directed “to a certain Poetess” (the patriotic civilian poet Jessie Pope), tells the reader that if they too could “pace / Behind the wagon” or “watch the white eyes writing in his face” or “hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,” then they would not tell children “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.”When we read Homer, we are reading the work of a poet who had no idea how the Trojan War was fought.
But for Ernst Jünger, here is what it was like to fight in the very same war: “The exchange of hand grenades reminded me of fencing with foils; you needed to jump and stretch, almost as in a ballet…In those moments, I was capable of seeing the dead—I jumped over them with every stride—without horror. They lay there in the relaxed and softly spilled attitude that characterizes those moments in which life takes its leave.”
And for Ford Madox Ford, also a veteran of the First World War, “what it’s like” was to hang about:
The process of the eternal waiting that is War. You hung about and you hung about, and you kicked your heels and you kicked your heels: waiting for Mills bombs to come, or for jam, or for generals, or for the tanks, or transport, or the clearance of the road ahead. You waited in offices under the eyes of somnolent orderlies, under fire on the banks of canals, you waited in hotels, dug-outs, tin sheds, ruined houses. There will be no man who survived of His Majesty’s Armed Forces that shall not remember those eternal hours when Time itself stayed still as the true image of bloody War!
The sheer variety of experience in war is enough to make a modern war writer throw up their hands. “War is hell,” wrote Tim O’Brien, “but that’s not the half of it, because war is mystery, and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” I’ve spent countless hours trying to evoke, with as much focus as possible, the exact sensations of any variety of given moments of war. And even If when I finish I feel I’ve succeeded, I often then go and throw those pages out, because what good are mere sensations?
In a 2010 essay for The Guardian, the writer Geoff Dyer argued that the great war literature of modern times didn’t come to us through fiction or poetry, but through journalism. He writes, “If there were ever a time when the human stories contained within historical events—what Packer calls ‘the human heart of the matter—could only be assimilated and comprehended when they had been processed by a novel (War and Peace is the supreme example), that time has passed.” For Iraq, he points readers toward Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War and David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. For Vietnam, he holds up Michael Herr’s classic Dispatches over the work of Tim O’Brien, Robert Stone, and Jayne Anne Phillips.
On the other side of the debate, you have Robert Graves arguing that “the memoirs of a man who went through some of the worst experiences of trench warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of falsities,” and Tim O’Brien, in “How to Tell a True War Story,” declaring: “Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
Personally, I don’t recognize a stark distinction between the various sorts of war literature. I love Finkel’s The Good Soldiers for precisely the same reason I love Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night—both books leave me profoundly unsettled about issues of war and peace that I’d previously taken for granted. The attempt to reproduce, with as exacting a verisimilitude as possible, what it’s like to serve in war is only valuable to me if it guides the reader toward the kind of collision of values and the destruction of ideologies that war experience sometimes brings about. If we do nothing with the knowledge other than manifest a sort of weak empathy, if the reader is not unsettled at a more fundamental level than mere discomfort at the effective description of violence, then the writer has done the reader little service.I’m always troubled by readings of war literature that begin and end with empathetic engagement.
I don’t read Shūsaku Endō’s Silence out of a deep need to understand the experience of seventeenth-century Japanese Christians any more than I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch out of a burning desire to understand nineteenth-century provincial English politics. Why should it function any differently for war writers? Even for writers dealing with events in recent memory, it’s difficult to plan for how your work may factor into the political understandings of policy. World War II veteran Joseph Heller, for example, could hardly have predicted the ways in which his 1961 novel Catch-22 would get taken up by antiwar segments of the Vietnam generation. And it is worth noting that Heller once claimed that “the antiwar and antigovernment feelings in the book belong to the period following World War II: the Korean War, the cold war, and the fifties.” So (if we choose to believe him) he didn’t even mean for his World War II novel to tell us much about World War II. And yet, precisely for this reason, Catch-22 ended up reading like a dispatch from the future.
Where, then, do the facts come in? In the writing I do, research factors heavily. I’m looking for real-life situations that might offer fruitful avenues for exploring questions about war, about masculinity, about violence. When I learned that one of the tactics during the Battle of Fallujah was to have psychological operations specialists shout insults over loudspeakers, that offered me one tool for thinking about the act of killing. When I talked to an artilleryman about being part of a team firing an incredibly deadly weapon toward a target he’d never see that was miles away, that offered me another tool. The accumulation of these tools does not make a story, but it is a start. And in addition to looking for these situations, I obsess over small details, because small details can carry tremendous emotional weight. To Vietnam veterans who received the first trial run of M16s, the difference between the M16 and the M14 was not a numeral, but life and death, the difference between a reliable weapon and an unreliable one. If you fudge those details, you can lose your reader’s trust.
So there are plenty of facts in my fiction. A small part of my writing is wrenched out of my experience, which I skeptically allow a certain bit of authority. Part of it comes from interviews with veterans, from books and articles I’ve read, from documentaries I’ve watched, and through half-remembered bits of late-night conversations in bars. What I’m looking for, though, is not enough information to allow me to create a near-documentary recounting of reality, but enough information to allow me to evade being totally captured by fact. I want enough knowledge about my subject that I feel confident making things up. If I know five compelling stories or details about, say, being a chaplain in the military, then I’ll write a story in which I go in a straight line hitting those five points, and the character will feel lifeless. I need to get enough comfort with the world in order to ignore the things I know when the character starts to suggest other directions for me. And it’s only when these departures happen that work starts to feel truly honest.
When we read Homer, we are reading the work of a poet who had no idea how the Trojan War was fought. He didn’t know how chariots were used then, or what armor was worn, or that the Greeks of that age didn’t fight in phalanxes. And yet every generation of warriors seems to rediscover the Iliad and find their own wars described within it. In my work I’m trying, through facts and through invention, to find some small piece of what Homer found in myth. It’s a truth that often lies somewhere in between the facts, but doesn’t necessarily rely on them.
Excerpted from Uncertain Ground: Citizenship In an Age of Endless, Invisible War by Phil Klay. Copyright © 2022. Available from Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.