Speaking of War

I’m currently in a seminar entitled ‘Myths of War and Violence.’ Our first paper assignment asks us to identify the common elements of the ‘war stories’ that we’ve read and seen thus far, ranging from Homer’s Iliad to Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo. My response appears below:

Almost all the works we have read or seen suggest that those who have not experienced combat cannot understand it. Restrepo and ‘After War, a Failure of Imagination’ are the two exceptions to this trend. Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves portray the First World War as so chaotic that they must explain it by means other than a description of the conflict itself. Walt Whitman’s dispatches from a Civil War hospital contrast the suffering of soldiers with the ignorance of civilians. Homer goes so far as to place the description of warfare beyond the reach of human imagination. He and Chuck Patterson seek to include veterans at the expense of noncombatants. So, too, does Tim O’Brien. By contrast, Hetherington and Klay see no reason why the divide between those who have experienced combat and those who have not cannot be forded. They conceive of their task as building bridges between the civilian and military world.

The Great War poets rely upon metaphor to convey their experience of trench warfare. Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ strikes a metaphorical tone from the outset: ‘What passing bells for those who die as cattle?/Only the monstrous anger of the guns./Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle/Can patter out their hasty orisons.’[1] The imagery of cattle proceeding to the slaughter stands out. Owen must make reference to the mundane in order to connect with his audience. This gives way in the second stanza to a contrast between the soldiers’ doom and their loved ones’ anticipation of their return. ‘The tenderness of patient minds’ is met by the ‘drawing down of blinds,’ emphasizing the dissonance between eagerness on the home front and the ubiquity of death on the battlefield.

Robert Graves does not write of the many unburied bodies he witnessed during the First World War. He tells an autobiographical tale of when he and his sister buried a dead dog. Coming across the putrid animal, the two children do precisely what their upbringing has taught them to do: ‘You bury all dead people,/When they’re quite really dead,/Round churches with a steeple.’[2] They even conduct a mock service for it:


‘And let’s put mint all round it

To hide the nasty smell.’

I went to look and found it-

Lots, growing near the well.

We poked him through the clover

Into a hole, and then

We threw brown earth right over

And said: ‘Poor dog, Amen!’

The scene is important for what is does not say. The thousands of unburied human bodies Graves saw during his service trivialize the burial of a dog’s body. But few people have witnessed such carnage. The contrast must have achieved its fullest effect in Graves’ mind alone.

Whitman addresses himself explicitly to the experiences that separate a veteran from a civilian. He declares in his introductory remarks, ‘People through our Northern cities have little or no idea of the great and prominent feature which these military hospitals and convalescent camps make in and around Washington.’[3] He goes from considering the suffering meted out to ‘all of the New England states’ to a vivid description of a single soldier’s suffering, one ‘among these thousands of prostrated soldiers in hospital here.’ Most galling in the mistreatment of one J.A.H. of the 29th Massachusetts, says Whitman, was the abject lack of empathy in those who had been commissioned to care for him:

Poor boy! the [sic] long train of exhaustion, deprivation, rudeness, no food, no friendly word or deed, but all kinds of upstart airs, and impudent, unfeeling speeches and deeds, from all kinds of small officials, (and some big ones,) cutting like razors into that sensitive heart, had at last done the job. He now lay, at times out of his head, but quite silent, asking nothing of anyone, for some days, with death getting a closer and surer grip upon him — he cared not, or rather he welcomed death. His heart was broken. He felt the struggle to keep up any longer to be useless. God, the world, humanity — all had abandoned him. It would feel so good to shut his eyes forever on the cruel things around him and toward him.


The symptoms attending the soldier’s wound become more psychological than physiological. This is borne out by the soldier’s depth of gratitude to Whitman for taking notice of him. Noticing that ‘it was a case of administering to the affections first,’ Whitman engaged the boy in conversation. This more than anything elicits an outpouring of affection: ‘He told me I had saved his life. He was in the deepest earnest about it.’ That such a seemingly trivial act of kindness wrought such a tremendous improvement in the soldier’s well-being testifies to his feelings of abandonment prior to Whitman’s advent. One is reminded of Philip Giraldi’s recent piece in The American Conservative criticizing the National Football League’s ‘feel-good jingoism.’[4] For all the professions of good will, J.A.H. had received little in the way of genuine affection and compassion.

More biting, albeit more subtle, is Ted Brumback’s letter to the parents of Ernest Hemingway after their son sustained an injury on the Italian front during World War I. An article describing the incident had appeared in the New York Sun on the 22nd of January 1919, replete with all the conventions of yellow journalism. Hemingway had ‘defied the shrapnel of the Central Powers.’[5] The stretcher bearers who encountered fire from an Austrian turret were not ‘killed.’ They ‘went down under a stream of machine gun bullets, one of which got Hemingway in the shoulder.’ Brumback is more blunt. The Italian who had been standing between Hemingway and a bursting shell ‘was killed instantly.’ Another bystander ‘had both his legs blown off.’ Hemingway’s valorous act of carrying a wounded Italian to a first aid station is notable in its absence from center stage. Hemingway had forgotten all about it ‘until the next day, when an Italian officer told him all about it and said that it had been voted to give him a valor medal for the act.’  By juxtaposing the two accounts, one can gain some sense of the dissonance between events as they occur in warfare and as they are presented to those back home.

Homer’s Iliad, composed roughly two and a half millennia prior to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, requires divine inspiration to speak of war faithfully. Fully one half of the second Book is dedicated to unfurling a roster of the Achaean warriors who had joined Menelaus in his bid to reclaim Helen.[6] Richmond Lattimore, whose translation of the Iliad corresponds line-by-line to the original Greek, commits over 10 pages to the Catalog of Ships. ‘Who then of those were the chief men and the lords of the Danaäns,’ the poet asks the Muses.[7] ‘I could not tell over the multitude of them nor name them.’ Describing methodically the characteristics of the myriad commanders and the lands whence they come, the poet assigns a certain number of ships to each, 40 being the size of a typical contingent. The ultimate effect is to overawe the audience, to suggest something unprecedented is about to occur. Wilfred Owen achieves the same effect much more concisely in his ‘Parable of the Old Man and the Young.’ Deviating from the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, ‘the old man’ slays his son in the penultimate verse, as well as ‘half the seed of Europe, one by one.’

Homer also excludes civilians from his poem. Book 6 relies upon a particularly endearing scene of domesticity to underscore the moral exceptionalism of the soldier. Enjoined by his prophetic brother Helenus to return to Troy in order to prompt the Trojan women to offer sacrifices to Athena during a Greek assault, Hector meets his wife Andromache, attended by a maid carrying their infant boy, before the gates of the city. Before the Trojan commander lifts his boy into his arms and laughs at the effect that his imposing armor has upon the child, Andromache begs him to refrain from combat, to ‘pity [his] own little son’ (II.407-408). Hector’s response is telling. ‘I would feel deep shame,’ he responds, ‘before the Trojans, and the Trojan women with trailing garments, if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting’ (II. 441-443). Says Bruce M. King of this exchange:


‘In Homeric Greek, aidos is a responsiveness to the ethical judgments of others within the community;[8] it is a social emotion provoked by the perception of one’s place in the social structure and of the obligations that accompany that place. Hector’s sense of aidos before the entirety of his community does not permit him to rank the claims of wife and son above those of his community. In being preeminently responsive to the claims of his community, Hector must set aside the claims of those who are most his own.’[9]


Somewhat differently from the poets we have considered so far, Homer recognizes a barrier between combatant and non-combatant that is ontological. That is to say that misunderstanding derives not from any particular experience that Hector had on the battlefield. Rather, it derives from his status and social obligations as a soldier.

Chuck Patterson’s veterans are set apart by their collective memory of warfare. He and O’Brien agree resoundingly on the civilian’s ignorance of combat. Patterson’s ‘War Story’ begins with a mocking allusion to the kind of callow ennoblement of war that we saw in Graves’ ‘The First Funeral’; he refers to the enemy as ‘Charles,’ a moniker for the Vietcong derived from the American military’s alphabetical call signs.[10] His narration of the firefight strikes us as anecdotal, conversational in tone. The idiosyncratic details-the arrival of the pig and the perturbed ‘mama san’-are introduced with interjections of delight. ‘It begins to get good’ when the ‘little pot bellied pig’ makes his appearance (and it is an ‘appearance,’ in the theatrical sense of the word). He’s ‘a goddamned kiwi fruit with legs.’ But ‘it gets better’ when the mama san runs out into the intervening paddy, scolding both the Americans and the Vietcong. Both sides check fire and burst out laughing. ‘Doc’ notes that the scene is going to produce ‘one hell of story’ if told correctly.

Having set the narrative scaffolding in place, Patterson lets his coup de grâce fall quickly and heavily. Such charming anecdotes don’t make for war stories. ‘War stories are true./We greased the pig,/The mama san too.’ Much like the execution of the water buffalo in ‘How To Tell a True War Story,’ the actual occurrence of such an event is irrelevant. Patterson wants to ridicule the nature of the transmission of ‘war stories’ from veteran to civilian. Amusement and dramatic structure are elements that we incorporate once the muzzles have cooled. If the narrator wishes to capture any degree of truth, he must restrict himself to the recitation of facts. More to the point, his auditors must have witnessed those facts. This is illustrated by the frustration the narrator of Tim O’Brien’s short story feels toward the generic woman who mourns for the water buffalo after he has told the story of Curt Lemon’s death. How does one characterize verbally the anguish and torment Rat Kiley feels upon seeing Lemon blown into a neighboring tree? A description of the event does not suffice. Some outward manifestation of his feelings must work upon the empathy of those who have been in his shoes. The suffering of the water buffalo carries no weight in O’Brien’s mind. He means to convey the bond between Kiley and Lemon. Civilians cannot be trusted to make that distinction.

Hetherington and Klay confront head-on this broad consensus concerning the empathic gap between soldier and civilian. In Hetherington’s documentary, the filmmakers’ absence is psychologically deafening. By capturing the sights, the sounds, and the sentiments of men deployed at a forward operating base in the Korengal Valley, Hetherington argues that it is possible for civilians to understand combat. Noncombatants can sympathize with soldiers if they witness the soldiers’ unmediated experiences. We can debate the degree to which he achieves this goal. That he addresses himself to such an objective, however, is beyond dispute. The only images we see are those of American soldiers and Afghanis. The only voices we hear are their own. We hear of one sergeant’s insomnia and see the unit’s reaction to the event that caused it-the death during Operation Rock Avalanche of a particularly talented and endearing NCO.

Klay echoes this chorus. Venting some of the frustration he felt when a victim of child abuse told him she ‘could never imagine what [he’s] been through,’ he insists that civilians can empathize with soldiers. Klay views declarations of emotional obliviousness as a cop out. ‘To enter into that commonality of consciousness,’ Klay insists, ‘veterans need an audience that is both receptive and critical. Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain.’[11] If it is the soldier’s duty to serve his country, it is no less his country’s duty to understand the struggles inherent in his service, and to address them as best it can. Hackneyed platitudes about the bravery and selflessness of our armed forces, buttressing as they do the trite assumption that we ‘can’t have known what it was like,’ hinder this process. The story of J.A.H. from the 29th Massachusetts attests to that.

[1] N.B. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘orison’ as ‘A prayer. In later usage, the act of praying.’ The text of Owen’s poem was culled from the Poetry Foundation’s website. It can be accessed via the following link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176831.

[3] Quotes from Whitman’s essay are culled from a Word document provided by Dr. Palaima on the 15th of January. cf. relevant email for an electronic copy.

[5] Ibid (3).

[6] cf. The Iliad, tr. Richmond Lattimore, University of Chicago Press, 2011, pp. 105-116.

[7] Ibid., p. 105 (II.487).

[8] Hector had used the deponent verb αἰδέομαι to characterize his feelings were he to shrink from battle.

[9] cf. The Barnes and Noble Classics edition of the Iliad, End Notes, p. 450.

[10] ‘Vietcong’ (VC for short) would have been converted into ‘Victor Charlie,’ whence Charles. cf. again Dr. Palaima’s email of January 15th.

[11] cf. the February 9th, 2014 issue of The New York Times, in which Klay’s Op-Ed piece appeared. An electronic copy of the essay can be accessed via the following link: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/opinion/sunday/after-war-a-failure-of-the-imagination.html?ref=opinion.


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