The Big Read Blog (Archive)

An Editor's Take on War and Art

Art is creation; war is destruction. Yet the overlap between the two can often prove remarkable, as is demonstrated by novels such as Tim O?Brien?s The Things They Carried. In honor of O?Brien?s birthday on Saturday, we asked Donald Anderson, editor of the journal War, Literature & the Arts (WLA) to write a guest post for The Big Read. Founded in 1989, the journal is published by the Department of English and Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy, which gives it---and Anderson---a unique perspective on the inner workings of war. Anderson graciously complied with our request, and below are his musings on editing soldiers, the power and powerlessness of art, the intersection of war and imagination, and why there?s no such thing as ?the greatest war novel ever written.?

I showed up in 1989 at the United States Air Force Academy with an MFA from Cornell University in fiction writing. Before attending Cornell, I?d spent five years as the deputy director of the National Defense University Press where we published books on subjects relating to national security and military-political affairs. I knew that from time immemorial, war and art have reflected one another, and I was interested in a journal that took on war in both a personal and an academic manner. These days, we publish annually some 300 pages of critical essays, personal essays, poems, short fiction, creative nonfiction, visual art, novel excerpts, memoir, interviews, drama, and book reviews. Ten years ago we began to publish online as well as in print. We receive over 100,000 unique website hits each year and see online publishing as the future.

Over the years, I believe that memoir and the personal essay have represented our strongest material, though we have published a large amount of strong poetry too. Our least successful material, on the other hand, has been ?weak? poetry---a poetry of statement rather than a poetry of image. When it comes to war, especially to personal experience in war, inexperienced writers will veer to cliché and heartfelt, simplistic pronouncements. The difficult part of the job at WLA is respecting that personal knowledge, but needing to decline publishing what is, in the end, unprocessed, artistically untransformed experience. At WLA, we don?t believe that patriotism is as simple as buying a bigger flag. And we don?t think that war is pretty, or always noble. We do believe that Tim O?Brien hits the mark when he says: You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don?t care for obscenity, you don?t care for the truth; if you don?t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.

By my lights, the strangest queries I get have to do with inquiries as to whether we are an anti- or pro-war journal. Of course, to some this may seem a reasonable question, given that WLA issues from one of the nation?s military academies. But I answer this question the same way I answer the questions I get about teaching creative writing to Air Force Academy cadets. Some people seem to think the young men and women I teach go home at night to polish shell casings, but that?s just not true. It?s a seriously inaccurate stereotype. Even though soldiers---my students---take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution, I often point out to them that what they?re defending is a culture that values the individual, a culture that provides the occasion for people to read and write books, to wear T-shirts or affix bumper stickers that criticize the government, and that this is a miracle in the long haul of history. I tell them they?re defending libraries. I feel the same way about the sort of material we seek to publish in WLA. We want to contribute to awareness and serious thought about human conflict.

I believe the reason for our success over the past two decades is that WLA is an almost one-of-a-kind journal. As a consequence, we receive a great deal of material, have much to choose from, and are able to make public some very fine art. We wish that art were more powerful than it is. If art were as powerful as we might wish, then war would have stopped after the Iliad was first sung. All to say that at WLA we subscribe to Aristotle?s notion that history accretes, but that poetry unifies. Art grants access to a larger world, allows us to experience others? lives, allows us to examine the quality and meaning of our own lives. Before we made fire, before we made tools, before we made weapons, we made images. Art, at its deepest level, is about preserving the world. We trust that WLA contributes to that preservation.

Soldiers more than anyone know what they are capable of destroying and I believe when they write about war (or paint it or photograph or film it), they are working to preserve the world. Sadly, though, we are often forced to accept W.H. Auden?s conclusion that ?poetry makes nothing happen,? that nothing he ever wrote saved one Jew from the gas chambers. If art were as powerful as we might want it to be, war should, as I mentioned, have ended after Homer. Still, art markets authority. Why else did officials at the United Nations decide to cover the tapestry of Picasso?s Guernica, as council members met to discuss the start of Gulf War II? There is an obligation---is there not?---as Neruda advised, to ?Come and see the blood in the streets?? It is dishonest to create art that does not reflect the world that art exists in. To ignore what we do in war and what war does to us is to move willfully toward ignorance and pretense. At their best, soldier-artists affirm the power of word and image and the human craving for meaning. And if one of the functions of such art is to disturb the status quo, to force us to view the world anew, to consider our capacities to build or tear down, then we must welcome these disturbances.

If it seems to fall to the historian to make distinctions among wars, each war?s larger means and ends, the trajectory for the artist, regardless of culture or time, seems to fall towards an individual?s disillusionment, the means and ends of war played out in the personal. For the individual soldier, the sweeping facts of history are accurately written not in the omniscient, third-person plural, but in the singular first. We live in a culture that values the individual. Our works of art about war mirror this welcome bias.

As journal editor, I?ve often been asked to name the world?s greatest war literature; a fool?s errand at best. You could choose War and Peace, but what of the Iliad? There?s Naked and the Dead and The Red Badge of Courage. All Quiet on the Western Front. Goodbye to all That, A Rumor of War, and The Things They Carried. Dare you leave Catch-22 off the list? For Whom the Bell Tolls? Black Hawk Down, The Forever War? What do you do with a book like Diane Ackerman?s The Zoo Keeper?s Wife, Paul West?s The Tent of Orange Mist, The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, Solzhenitsyn?s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Koestler?s Darkness at Noon---aren?t they ?war? books? New war literature shows up unexpectedly. Forty years after the fact, here comes Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, a fresh and fierce probing of Vietnam. Most readers readily know the name of Philip Caputo, but few know his novella In the Forest of the Laughing Elephant, a Vietnam tale that, by my lights, rivals Heart of Darkness. By the way, is Heart of Darkness a ?war? novel? See what I mean?

I didn?t serve in Vietnam, but my nation did. Because of my ?memory? of what had happened---and was happening---to America and Vietnam, I made decisions. For one thing, I joined the Air Force to avoid the walking tour of Southeast Asia. I meant to beat the draft---it was not my imagination that more soldiers were being buried than airmen. I went on to serve for 22 years in the Air Force, but the point is my initial enlistment had everything to do with the war, and hardly would have surfaced as a career choice without the war. That I could imagine the war---its pointlessness borne out in time---was why I worked to avoid it. We have, each of us, factual histories and imagined histories, backfilling, always, when memory proves deficient, though ?it?s a poor sort of memory,? Lewis Carroll?s Queen points out, ?that only works backwards.?

It gets complicated. What is remembered or imagined becomes reality. And: if we don?t create our personal versions of the past, someone else will do it for us. This is frightening and political fact. How many books, for instance, seek to refute the fact of the Holocaust, complete with footnotes, et al? And who can forget the opening pages of Milan Kundera?s novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which describe a photograph from which a Party official has been airbrushed from history?

Then there is Cynthia Ozick?s short story ?The Shawl,? a strafing account of a death camp murder of a stick-limbed child. Though born in time to have been interned in a death camp, Cynthia Ozick wasn?t; she was, at the story?s fictional time, a cheerleader in high school in New Jersey. Memory and imagination are the what and how we have as artists and readers and citizens. To which we must cling, as if to luck or safety.

The opinion expressed in this blog entry are those of Donald Anderson and may not necessarily be those of the United States Air Force Academy or the Department of the Air Force.

Contributor?s Note: Longtime editor of War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, Donald Anderson is editor, too, of Aftermath: An Anthology of Post-Vietnam Fiction, When War Becomes Personal, and Andre Dubus: Tributes. His collection Fire Road won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Oddjob: Gathering Noise from my Life will be published by the University of Iowa Press in 2012.


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