The Experience of War
Posted by: Keir Graff
I’m nearing the end of Jarhead. Operation Desert Storm has finally started but the men are still waiting to go into combat. The waiting reminds me, in a way, of the waiting in trench warfare, like All Quiet on the Western Front, except that, in today’s wars, the enemy is not waiting just a few hundred yards away. Armor and airplanes mean troops can deploy far and fast, and often will be deployed only after guided missiles and bombs have done the bulk of the killing. Today’s wars are both better documented – the missiles carry cameras on their way to the targets – and more abstract, because the soldiers have so little first-hand knowledge of their enemy.
Books about war have often depicted the soldiers as young, conflicted, and confused, but at times there’s almost an absurdist quality to Jarhead. Maybe no more absurd than All Quiet on the Western Front, but at least in trench warfare there’s a clearly defined objective, no matter how valueless (e.g., three hundred yards of mud and craters). There’s no sense of order and purpose in Jarhead. Even the soldiers’ routine, the busywork designed to keep them from losing focus or morale, is unable to keep them from floundering.
The modern soldier is trained to kill even more efficiently than his historic counterpart, yet is saddled with more rules and regulations about how to do so. The rules suggest that killing can be made moral or done right, and the constant training and exhortations keep the Marines keyed up and ready to kill on command. But the command rarely comes, if ever. It’s no wonder they’re confused and anxious.
Yesterday I wrote about my interest in nonfiction books that take me inside societies or groups to which I wouldn’t otherwise have access. Books about war are especially important because for every person who fights in or is victimized by war, there are many more who experience war third-hand, through the words of blow-dried anchorpeople. We need first-hand accounts to understand what it means to be there. Without meaningful data, our opinions on the subject don’t mean much.
I started thinking about books from particular wars and conflicts, wondering if I could make a list of the books that define particular wars. In a variation of Chicago’s citywide reading club (“One Book, One Chicago”), it could be called “One War, One Book.”
Reductive lists like this are always flawed, of course, as are any “best” lists. But – as the list-makers always cry in their own defense – it’s an interesting exercise. Of course, there have to be criteria: do the books represent “our” point of view, or “theirs”? The winners or the losers? Are the books overviews or personal views? Fiction or nonfiction?
Okay, I give up on this project already. Too explosive. But, in a general and non-definitive spirit, here are a few books that crossed my mind as being essential narratives (both fiction and nonfiction) of various wars, conflicts, police actions, etc. These aren’t necessarily histories with maps of troop movements, but books that say something about the experience of war and its aftermath.
This area isn’t my strong suit, so I need help. Anyone have any suggestions for more? (Just to draw the line somewhere, let’s keep the list limited to conflicts with U.S. involvement).
Black Hawk Down, by Mark Bowden
Dispatches, Michael Herr
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
World War II:
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
Night, by Elie Wiesel
World War I:
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
Andersonville, by MacKinlay Kantor
War of 1812:
Apparently, there are a few essential books out there that I haven’t read! Let me know what they are.