From letters and diary entires from the front lines to Ernest Hemingway's early novels, Americans have long made sense of war through the tales told by soldiers, both real and fictional. While the way we wage war has changed drastically since Hemingway, how we deal with it — through writing — continues. As America continues to be embroiled in a different sort of conflict — the "War on Terror" — readers are turning to those who have actually experienced fighting to help make sense of it all.
"Any good story is a good story regardless of the subject matter,” says Brandon Willitts co-founder of Words After War, a non-profit organization dedicated to bridging the gap between the civilian world and the military through literature, and one of the people making sure people hear those stories. "It reaches a wider audience by the quality of the writing," he says. "We thought if we could focus more on the human condition and improve the quality of the writing, then it doesn't matter what we write about. The fact that we are writing about war is just a plus."
As wars drag on, people start to long for context and meaning; the stories of soldiers show a human side to something people can't totally contextualize. That would probably be the easiest way to explain why the stories of American soldiers are once again being held up by both sides of the political spectrum.
If there's any one indicator of just how much of an impact literature by and about our nation's soldiers has become, it's the work of Phil Klay, one of the most celebrated young American writers right now. A Marine who served in Iraq released the collection of short stories, Redeployment which went on to win the National Book Award in 2014 and became a bestseller across the nation, gaining praise from Fox News and Stephen Colbert alike. In his acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, he hit on the function of military fiction in society.
"[T]here's some sort of rigor of trying to take fictional stories and turn them into some sort of emotional truth because when you write it, it opens up the possibility of other people responding…I can't think of a more important conversation to be having. War is too strange to be processed alone."
While Redeployment is a work of fiction, it offers a personal and true experience. "The power of [Redeployment]…is getting the stories right. Not right as in factual, but tapping into that truth,” says Willits. "The one story that always resonates with me is the title story, "Redeployment." He's been gone for thirteen months and the first day back, you'd think the first thing he'd want to do is consummate his love with his wife but then you realize that they can't even touch one another. That is the most accurate, subtle, powerful scene I've ever read in war literature."
Another novel written by and dealing with a returning American soldier trying to understand the home he's come back to, Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish, has also garnered rave reviews and helped bolster the mainstream credibility of the small independent press it was published by. In his review of the book, New York Times critic Dwight Garner, celebrated the novel for being "unlike any American fiction" he'd read recently, for "its intricate comprehension of, and deep feeling for, life at the margins." That's really what Klay's book is about as well, and the fact that these are works of fiction that make the very real stories they tell a bit of an easier pill to swallow. Fiction helps civilians better understand the personal impact war has on the people that live through it no matter what background they might come from.
In many ways, Redeployment and Preparation for the Next Life are as revealing as the facts gathered by traditional journalism. But as they say: you can't beat the real thing. The perfect counterbalance to those works of fiction would be Jen Percy’s Demon Camp: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Soldier’s Return from War. This nonfiction book (written by a civilian journalist) focuses on Sergeant Caleb Daniels, who deals with the realities of the themes brought up in Redeployment. "When I first met Caleb…he told me he wanted to talk about how the war had followed him home…because these things are not limited to war, I started to wonder if it was following me." When we first get to meet Caleb, we understand the sort of universality that often goes unnoticed. When Percy writes that the war "was going to save him," she means from his poverty, from his town in the middle of nowhere. Instead, the soldier comes home and thinks he's being haunted by ghosts and demons. It's the type of thing that would make a great story to add to the growing list of great fictional ones written by and about soldiers, if it wasn't so hauntingly real.