War and Imagination
I know little of war, but that has not kept me from writing about it. The imagination goes where it goes. This remains true for soldiers and non-soldiers alike. A writer’s job is to reveal, which is not the same as the lawyer’s job, to persuade. Some veterans of war deride the writing of non-veterans, but all writers, no matter what their backgrounds might be, face the same problems when it comes to telling stories—how to make them live on the page. Both war and imagination involve us in the unimaginable, the unrealness of reality.
This has always been true. Many ancient writers, such as Sophocles in Greece and Lu Chi in China, were also soldiers. But the greatest poet of war was Homer, and of “him” or “them”—depending on how the Iliad was composed—we know nothing. We only have the poem, and it is enough.
No matter who writes them, our stories of war are not war itself. Oliver Stone’s 1986 movie, Platoon, has been praised for its realism, and I remember being shocked by its climactic battle, yet the movie is also identical in many ways to dozens of other war movies. There is a unit of soldiers slowly getting picked off by an unseen enemy, with parables of good and evil, innocence of experience thrown into the mix. In one cliché scene a soldier shows his buddies a photo of his girlfriend, and you know that’s the guy who gets killed in the next firefight. Within minutes, the poor fellow is gasping his last. Yet clichés relate to things that really do happen. My father remembered a buddy after the battle of Iwo Jima showing a photo of his wife and tearfully saying he was afraid he would never see her again. He didn’t. A kamikaze killed him weeks later at Okinawa. Platoon pioneered new technologies to convey “combat realism,” but in its storytelling it is hardly more real than any other war or coming-of-age flick. The imagination must also get its due.
How we write about war, then, is as problematic as how we write about anything else and is influenced by all that has been written (and filmed or staged) before us. The critic and historian Paul Fussell understood this when he composed his masterpiece, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). His preface to the first edition begins, “This book is about the British experience on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 and some of the literary means by which it has been remembered, conventionalized, and mythologized. It is also about the literary dimensions of the trench experience itself. Indeed, if the book had a subtitle, it would be something like ‘An Inquiry into the Curious Literariness of Real Life.’”
We all know what it’s like to imagine we are part of a story. How many soldiers, going off to battle—an actual experience that in itself might obliterate anything remotely resembling rationality—have thought of themselves as characters in a book or a movie?
This is the kind of thinking illuminated by writer Tim O’Brien, who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, the period of the My Lai Massacre. A version of that terrible event eventually became the central nightmare of his novel In the Lake of the Woods (1994). His collection of stories, The Things They Carried (1990), meditates on the problem of war and imagination, particularly in “How to Tell a True War Story,” where a traumatized narrator explodes the genres of both fiction and criticism:
In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, . . . you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.
This is what Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford and their friend Stephen Crane meant by “impressionism,” a literary technique approximating the symptoms of shock, which has influenced later writers about war, though arguably we find it in Homer and Tolstoy as well. The imagistic manner of impressionist writing conveys not just events themselves, but how those events are perceived in the mind. O’Brien’s story returns to the deaths of boys on patrol:
Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
O’Brien gives us a master class in writing. Dialogue should catch a character’s particular syntax. The dying soldier in shock does not say, “What the fuck did you do that for?” but “The fuck you do that for?” He could be asking God as much as his fellow GI. The hero who has attempted to save his friends dies on a cliché: “Story of my life, man.” And the moment between life and death is conveyed by a dying smile.
“In the end,” O’Brien writes, “a true war story is never about war. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.” It’s about life, the vast and short and incomprehensible experience that ends for all of us before we really apprehend its meaning.
The Hudson Review is a war baby. Two of its three founders, Frederick Morgan and Joseph Bennett, served in uniform during World War II. This collection of writing from the magazine contains Frederick Morgan’s powerful editorial for the Spring 1968 issue, which begins, “The Hudson Review published its first issue twenty years ago, in the aftermath of World War II and Hiroshima, when a generation was first becoming aware of its literally infinite potential for ruin.” War and all that it pertains had given these editors a sense of purpose. “Now, in 1968,” Morgan continues, “sickened additionally by an odious and unjust war, the nation is rapidly approaching a fateful self-confrontation.” His words are prophetic. America’s wars have not abated. Old men have not become wiser. Young men and women have been swept up in the fervor of an abstract cause, learning as all soldiers must that war is a factory of irony, simultaneously beautiful and obscene.
Morgan’s editorial asks, “Of what use are literature and the arts at such a time?” His answer insists upon the journal’s independence from fashion. The arts “will serve best if they perform their traditional function . . . to keep our minds and sensibilities alert and honest, and our imaginations free.” The arts, including literature, have a social purpose, always endangered by conformity: “A society depends on its artists to give it its full scope of intellect and feeling.” Morgan finds it appalling that universities, prizes and fellowships too often reinforce mediocrity rather than challenging it—a situation that remains true, if not worse, today. He defends the unpopular, the difficult, and promotes good criticism as a way of keeping the arts fit for purpose. “. . . the problem is to pick out the genuine artist from the frauds and second-raters, the true talent from the inflated reputations, the valid insight from the spurious.” The Hudson Review has always provided a home for honest criticism, as well as good fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama. And in more than seven decades, what an amazing swathe of writers the review has harvested, all writing out of that same commitment to independence and excellence, that same belief in good writing, which pays respect to the beauties and complexities of life.
This is a book about war and wartime seen from multiple points of view, civilian and soldier, poet, essayist, critic and fiction writer, from several languages, times and cultures. Previous volumes in this series have focused on the review’s legacy of publishing translations and travel writing. Once again, Managing Editor Ron Koury has had a lot of great writing to choose from. I am struck by how rich and varied the book is. Everything in it rewards reading and will send you looking for more work by its authors, some of whom are not as well known as they deserve to be.
I have made “war and imagination” my theme, so it is fitting that the first prose we read in the book may well blur the line between fiction and fact. Since it was published in book form in 1974, the authenticity of “Last Letters from Stalingrad” has been questioned. A few critics have felt that the literary sensibility of the letters’ authors is too unified for us to believe they are real documents from German soldiers trapped in a besieged city. According to their translators, “When, in January 1943, the last plane out of Stalingrad landed in Novo-Cherkask, seven bags of mail were seized. The letters were opened; address and sender’s name were removed. Then they were classified by content and general tenor, tied into neat bundles and sent to the Army High Command.” The letters were at first used to ascertain the morale of German troops, but it quickly became apparent that morale was low and faith in their commanders nonexistent. Of the two million casualties at Stalingrad (1942–43), 800,000 were German. According to some statistics, only 6,000 German soldiers survived the battle and their internment in Soviet prison camps. However these letters were handled, transcribed, used and neglected—finally trashed by Goebbels as “unbearable,” the same word used to designate the Jews—they are haunting documents. The German Army had captured much of the city but now found itself surrounded and cut off. Soldiers knew their invasion of the Soviet Union was failing and could imagine what their own fates might be. “I always thought in light-years,” one writes, “but I felt in seconds.” Ironically, such a soldier might have been influenced by reading Tolstoy. He sounds like a Tolstoy hero when he writes, “Monica, what is our life compared to the many million years of the starry sky! On this beautiful night, Andromeda and Pegasus are right above my head. I have looked at them for a long time; I shall be very close to them soon. . . . The stars are eternal, but the life of man is like a speck of dust in the Universe.” He finishes, “I should have liked to count stars for another few decades, but nothing will ever come of it now, I suppose.”
If I remain convinced by these letters, it is partly because of the simple and homely musings of their authors, who stumble into profundity. The men talk about their trades, their families, their feelings of incompleteness and whether or not they are ready for death. One is a pianist who has lost fingers to frostbite and mourns his gift as much as his life. Several of them curse Hitler and his minions for what they have done to Germany. Quite a few offer their own versions of war’s irony:
You were supposed to die heroically, inspiringly, movingly, from inner conviction and for a great cause. But what is death in reality here? Here they croak, starve to death, freeze to death—it’s nothing but a biological fact like eating and drinking. They drop like flies; nobody cares and nobody buries them. Without arms or legs and without eyes, with bellies torn open, they lie around everywhere. One should make a movie of it; it would make “the most beautiful death in the world” impossible once and for all. It is a death for beasts; later they will ennoble it on granite friezes showing “dying warriors” with their heads or arms in bandages.
How often have words like these been written? We see such sentiments in literary works from Homer to the present day. We know from Marilyn Nelson’s memoir in this book that the ironies of war are taught honestly to cadets at West Point, some of whom will go out to repeat them in the next war. What does this tell us about human beings and their endless capacity for the deception of others and themselves? Wilfred Owen’s “old lie” of patriotism just goes on and on. The Greeks understood this. War does not end in Homer’s Odyssey until the goddess Athena steps in and calls a halt to the fighting. Human beings appear to be incapable of living for long in peace.
War makes philosophers out of soldiers, who often strive to understand why things are thus and not otherwise. “In Stalingrad,” one of the German soldiers writes to his father, “. . . to put the question of God’s existence means to deny it. . . . I have searched for God in every crater, in every destroyed house, on every corner, in every friend, in my foxhole and in the sky. God did not show Himself, even though my heart cried for Him.” Another prepares his young wife to deal with widowhood: “Gertrude and Claus need a father. Don’t forget that you must live for the children, and don’t make too much fuss about their father. Children forget quickly, especially at that age. Take a good look at the man of your choice, take note of his eyes and the pressure of his handshake, as was the case with us, and you won’t go wrong.” Still another soldier offers that “all in all, life was beautiful once, so these days have to be endured calmly.” A few soldiers write details of combat as brutal as anything you might see in a lurid movie, but most are concerned with finding or making meaning in their time of despair. These are the letters of the condemned and the damned, yet they are achingly beautiful.
Joseph Bennett’s “A Cambodian Diary” was published in 1971, just months before his death from leukemia, age 50, in Perth, Australia, where he had flown from Southeast Asia for treatment. A poet and novelist as well as a co-founder of the review, Bennett wrote superbly. As journalism, travel writing and political invective, this piece deserves comparison to George Orwell and James Fenton. At the time of his writing, Cambodia was a sort of quasi-communist Shangri-la between the American-inspired corruption in Thailand and the war in Vietnam. By the time the piece was published, the situation had changed. Lon Nol had ousted Prince Sihanouk, who was to some degree Mao’s puppet, and Cambodia lurched toward civil war, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields. Bennett wittily and somewhat dispassionately reports the state of things under Sihanouk, the pros and cons of a safe, nonindustrial society where the influence of Chinese communism could not be entirely avoided. For a while, Sihanouk played the Americans against the Chinese, preserving his own and his country’s independence, but corruption of one sort or another proved inevitable. Eventually, millions died.
Bennett writes with affection for people and a keen eye for their foibles, as well as contempt for the leaders who get them in such trouble. He can summon up a satirical mood when it suits him:
All these America-created, America obsessed cities, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Bangkok, Saigon, have in common a smog that strangles and burns the lungs, product of the exhaustion of so many motors into a naturally damp, sluggish atmosphere, sitting inland in bowls where air can scarcely arrive. In Taipei, Seoul and Saigon the filth piles up among the flashing new motors, crawling atop each other’s backs. . . . At the trail’s end lie Las Vegas and Miami, where they all want to go when they die, living off money piled up in Switzerland.
This is the polluted effluvium of America’s wars, the money pumped into abstract causes and siphoned off by newly-minted oligarchs. As I write, according to news reports, a son of the former Defense Minister of Afghanistan is buying a multi-million-dollar mansion in Beverly Hills.
Turning from Bennett’s elegant prose about corruption, from which there is little escape except to the monkish realms of Angkor Wat, we find one of history’s original middlemen, the charismatic traitor and double agent, Alcibiades, in John Finlay’s meditation on the perils of egoism in a time of civil war:
Alcibiades drank the black broth and ate the stale bread of the Spartan mess hall when he lived there in exile from an Athens which had sentenced him in absentia to death—“I’ll show them I’m still alive,” he is related to have then said. He wore his hair long and untrimmed in the Spartan way, took cold baths and then robed himself in the coarse, homespun cloak of a Spartan aristocrat. He sweated through all the manly exercises. For someone so much a victim of a multiple of passions this ascetical regimen must have been the last novelty. But he adapted himself with equal facility and abandonment to the manners of other cultures. In Thrace he out-drank them all in the drunk place. In “Horse-breeding” Thessaly he was more of a centaur than the natives. While he lived in Asia Minor he was luxuriant and indulged in the pomps and the ostentations of an Eastern satrap. . . . His entire life seemed only a succession of brilliantly maintained but quickly discarded exteriors, a series of costumes and cosmetics such as a figure in the haunting transvestite dream he had just before he died. . . .
Alcibiades advocated for the Athenian invasion of Sicily, which turned out to be as disastrous as America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, then he betrayed the very people he had pushed into the disaster. Claiming to love Socrates, he had a hand in creating the society that put the philosopher to death. Socrates comes to represent the wisdom that dies when a country goes to war—kind and sociable and relatively humble before the mysteries. Alcibiades is the survivor-ego—that is, of course, until his own assassination.
I begin to see the ways each piece of writing collected in this book is connected. The pieces talk to each other, as when Marilyn Nelson, who describes herself in “Aborigine in the Citadel” as “a fat, inexorably aging, California laid-back, funky, left-leaning, dreadlocked Aframerican woman poet” brings the peace-loving traditions of poetry and meditation to cadets at West Point. Her memoir calls to mind the one occasion I taught a class at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The Major who hosted me, a Seamus Heaney scholar, walked me over to a window facing the campus quad and the chapel, which resembled a bunch of jets stacked in a row like dominoes. As we stood looking out on that vacancy, he asked me, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Though the campus architecture was a modernist nightmare, I said I saw nothing wrong with it. “There’s no place to sit,” he said. “No benches, no shade trees, no lawn to dream on. These cadets are scheduled from dawn to lights out with no breaks of any kind. How can we really say they’re getting educated?” Nelson’s students tell her that the minutes of silent meditation with which she begins her class are the best time in their day. “The method I am trying to teach requires time and quiet. And these are in short supply at West Point.”
I remember war veterans like the poet Anthony Hecht, who at one point confessed he was prepared to shoot an officer rather than obey an insane order—luckily the order was rescinded in time. What does it mean to treat soldiers as drones or myrmidons rather than human beings? Nelson writes about needing “To see soldiers not as uniformed, muscle-bound G.I. Joe skinheads, but as volunteer firefighters willing to enter a heat-blinding inferno to rescue a terrified child still clutching the burnt match. I hope meditation will help my cadets recognize, even disobey, stupid and unjust orders, and to give wise and considerate ones. . . . I hope they will be soldiers who live with the humanist values kept alive by the poets, aborigines, and fools who refuse to close the door on our inner wilderness, with its echoing silence. We, after all, are crazy. We bring the verdant underworld jungle of absurd and necessary values into the marketplace, into the classroom, in this white man’s world, even—as crazy as it seems—into the citadel.”
Many of the pieces in this book reflect the experience of civilians, who now comprise the majority of casualties in war. The physicist and historian Abraham Pais writes, in “‘The Impossible Real,’” of his survival of the Holocaust, hidden by virtuous friends who put their own lives at risk. At one point he huddled in a house almost next door to the attic in which Anne Frank and her family hid—an indication of the peril he faced. “I feel that common language is inadequate to those events, which were too singular to be described by such terms as horror, tragedy, disaster.” That is, of course, precisely the purpose of much literature—to give voice to unspeakable things, to attempt to say what cannot be said. Meticulously, Pais re-creates the vanished camp in which his sister was gassed at age 23. He also relates his own arrest in the final weeks of the war, and how narrowly he missed execution, a fate suffered by one of his friends. Like all good writers, he notices the contradictions in his experience: “About happiness in prison. From that period I have learned that even in times of misery there are good days and bad days.”
Louis Simpson’s memoir, “Soldier’s Heart,” appeared in 1997, one of dozens of contributions he made to the journal over his lifetime. Simpson served in the 101st Airborne Division and “saw action” many times, including at the Battle of the Bulge. Among our best poets of World War II, along with figures like Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht and Samuel Menashe, he brought a soldier’s irony to his vision of civilian life. His memoir is distinguished by an honest anger as he details his mental breakdown and hospitalization after the war. Simpson saw a black patient in the mental ward beaten to death by guards and came to understand the hypocrisy and racism of the civilian society he was trying to re-enter, a society in which he would always feel an outsider, even when he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
The poems included in this book range from despair and grief to a kind of hope at what survives humanity’s murderous tendencies. Ron Koury has chosen as his epigraph a very fine poem, “Halabja,” by Nina Bogin, an American who has lived in Europe for many years. The title refers to a chemical attack perpetrated against Kurdish people by the forces of Saddam Hussein on March 16, 1988. Between 3,200 and 5,000 men, women and children are reported to have died. Bogin does not write as a journalist or lawyer in the case, but instead moves lyrically to the impossible truth: “No gods, no men come forward. Only children / with the faces of angels, and they are dead.” Bogin’s poem “Yugoslavia in Ruins” heads up the poetry section of this book, and here again impressionism and shock predominate with “words / broken on every crag of these forsaken outposts.”
“The Miracle of Camp 60,” by the late Anne Stevenson, a poet not known for sentimentalizing anything, tells a remarkable story. Italian prisoners of war, held at Lamb Holm in Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland, took the detritus of war—cement, barbed wire, two nissen huts laid end to end—and fashioned a beautiful chapel. One of the prisoners, an artist named Domenico Chiocchetti, painted the interior Madonna and other works. As the narrator says, “We wept for sadness and joy because from memory / we had made in our ugly camp a dream of Italy.” Like the German soldiers writing home from Stalingrad, these men did not care about causes, about great leaders and notions of imperial gain. They were as human as the British soldiers who had captured them in North Africa. “Chiocchetti did not come home with us. / He stayed to complete his font, and when I met him in Moena— / many years later—he told me he, too, felt guilty. / But guilt is not right, he said, for art is joy. / Short is our suffering in this life, joy is forever.”
So why do we go to war? Why do young men and women continually put themselves in such absurd positions, where the arts seem a distant luxury? The excerpt from John Ridland’s fine translation of the Middle English classic, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, offers its own ironic take on notions of nobility and courage, the height of egotism and the way experience brings it down. “Knives,” a poem by Maria Terrone, underlines the doubleness of objects, tools used in both war and peace, while Maxine Kumin’s poems deal with deadening bureaucratic responses to terrorism. All of these works pit individual incredulity against the group mind, the hive mind that blunders into war.
Abraham Pais’s Holocaust memoir began in the Jewish shrine of remembrance at Yad Vashem, but he does not mention the only poetry inscribed within. These are the concluding lines of “Préface en Prose,” by Benjamin Fondane, who was gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, given here in the translation of John Balaban and Donka Farkas:
But a day will come, for sure, when this poem
will lie before you, asking nothing.
Leave it. Leave it. It’s just an outcry.
You can’t turn that into a poem.
(Will I have time to polish this?)
But when you tread on this clutch of nettles
that was once me, reading this in some other century
like an outdated story, remember that I was innocent
and that like you, mortals of your day, I too
had a face marked by anger, and by pity, and by joy.
A man’s face, quite simply.
Writing is alchemy. The words have no meaning until they are invested with purpose in the alembic of imagination, where they might join the most beautiful and enduring remnants of our species.
How we write about war concerns the critics Richard Hornby and Brooke Allen, whose reviews represent the multiple ways in which a literary journal positions itself in relation to the world. Hornby considers plays that make use of historical figures—versions of conflict from Aeschylus to the present day—while Allen takes up the American Revolution through the lens of a single prose history, and skeptically examines its thesis. These two expert critics uphold one of the values imparted by Morgan in his 1968 editorial—the importance of criticism to keep the arts real and help them avoid the pitfalls of propaganda.
Finally, we have an extraordinary set of fictions, all of which speak to the issues raised in the book so far. Two scholars, Nicholas Moschovakis and David Roessel, discovered an unpublished short story by Tennessee Williams, “In Spain There Was Revolution,” and brought it to the review. Williams apparently wrote the story in about 1936, when he could hardly have known its full ironies. It focuses on young lovers at a summer camp in America, blissfully unaware of the direction in which the world is headed. Yet Williams seems to have sensed the coming catastrophe, rather as Auden did in his most prophetic poems. So the imagination knows things that have not yet dawned on the rational mind.
Which leads us to the utter greatness of Tolstoy, whose storytelling survives in any translation, here in the one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. We are given three major sections from War and Peace: the Battle of Austerlitz, Natasha Rostov’s first ball and the glimmerings of her romance with Prince Andrei, and the last days of Petya Rostov during the French retreat. All the ironies of war are here, the psychology of young men fuddled by ideals and confronting ugly realities, the grandeur and chaos of battle strangely matched by the peacetime conflicts of the heart. I had not read these passages since I was a nineteen-year-old fisherman in Alaska, and once again I was besotted, swept along in the tide of story. As I’ve already noted, a lot of great writing about war seems to echo Homer and Tolstoy, and this must be because they got so many things so right, particularly the way heroism and absurdity coexist, the way war becomes irony’s playground. Austerlitz begins quite literally in a fog, so the armies arrayed against Napoleon have no idea how close his troops have come to them. For much of the battle, no one knows who is killing whom—an impression Homer sometimes gives as well. As Jean Renoir would demonstrate in his great film, Grand Illusion (1937), there is also the class struggle, the way officers treat each other as fellow aristocrats even as they set out to kill one another. Manners in war parallel the manners of the fancy ball in which Natasha dances with her prince. And in the later scenes, poor Petya Rostov is just too young, too enthusiastic, to believe he is riding straight to his death. I cannot imagine Ernest Hemingway or even Tim O’Brien writing without the influence of Tolstoy. There may be differences of nationality, class and manners, but the psychology of war, the impressionism of writing and the way heroes and fools can meet identical ends, are the same.
For most of Wendell Berry’s story, “A Desirable Woman,” war is a “distant mutter of thunder.” Berry gives us an intimate portrait of a marriage and the whole agrarian community surrounding and sustaining it. He also gives us a kind of love outside the marriage which is not an infidelity, but an enlargement, as the wife considers it, “for all love must begin without knowledge. Perhaps, she thought, it is itself a kind of knowledge.” Berry’s psychology is religious in the best sense, steeped in ritual and mystery—again, seeming to express the inexpressible—and he brings his story to one of the most beautiful endings I have ever read.
The Spanish Civil War returns in “Hunting in July,” a story by Julián Ríos. Born in 1941, Ríos is part of the generation of Spanish writers who came of age under Franco’s dictatorship, so fiction becomes an attempt to understand events of another time. His story owes much to Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” and also “The Secret Miracle,” an homage to Bierce by Jorge Luis Borges—both exploring the psychology of death. Postwar Japan and the struggle to survive during the American occupation are the background for “Allegiance,” by Japanese writer Asako Serizawa. Here a husband and wife must navigate the aftermath of the firebombing of Japanese cities, the loss of their son, and their own guilt at having failed to resist sufficiently the wartime ethos of their country.
Luke Mogelson’s gripping story “Kids” brings us closer to the present as we follow a unit of American soldiers in Afghanistan. Mogelson, a prominent war correspondent for the New York Times and The New Yorker, spent several years in Kabul and writes about his lieutenant narrator and a platoon of soldiers as if he had been one of them. He writes dialogue with the terse panache of Tim O’Brien and gets the lingo and manners of the men, such as the overweight machine gunner, Corporal Kahananui: “He’d fallen for the SAW the first time he felt it chugging in his arms, spraying metal down the range at Benning. Call it an affinity, like the fat kid who chooses tuba. During a tiff, he could fix a jam, reload a belt, or jury-rig a broken drum with hardly a hiccup in his surgically directed devastation. He had achieved that intuitive communion with his weapon that every rifleman aspires to. It was humbling—it was truly a delicious treat—to watch him work.”
As you might have noticed, Mogelson’s narrator has a few issues. He misreads his men and for a time is hated by them. He doles out punishment unfairly and partly causes a man’s death and is in turn relieved when a new recruit fucks up even more than he has. He doesn’t even understand that the recruit is a Jew, who might not appreciate being sent to a chaplain for counsel. We see this unit undergoing trauma and confusion about who is and is not an enemy combatant, yet Mogelson knows that those who survive will be telling different stories when they get back home, some of them deeply changed, others deep in denial.
Trauma is also the subject of Lara Prescott’s story, “Those Who Burn,” which follows civilians through an unnamed city under siege, dodging sniper fire as they search for food. It is, like Tim O’Brien’s stories, about all the things that can and cannot be carried through this life.
And then we come to “The Bridge,” the final story in this book, in which Cary Holladay conveys a novel’s worth of characters during the American Civil War. Holladay’s bridge over the Rapidan River becomes, like so many other locations in this book, liminal, between one state of being and another—between appearance and reality, past and present, north and south, man and woman, war and peace. The very contradiction in the term “civil war” comes to bear on this, as well as all the dreams and expectations and losses of her characters, their projections into a future some of them will not live to see.
As I said at the beginning, both war and imagination involve us in the unimaginable, the unrealness of reality. Reality and imagination cannot fully be distinguished from each other. I’m thinking of Lily Briscoe, the artist in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, who in the aftermath of World War I finds herself trying to complete a painting she had begun before the war. “So much depends,” she thinks, looking out to sea where her friends may or may not be reaching the hoped-for lighthouse in their boat, “upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us. . . .” All writing, all art, grapples with that distinction. The literature in this book changes our perspectives upon war, seeing it at a distance and close up, as the perplexing mystery it remains, no matter who lives it, or how.
War and Imagination is the title of a new Hudson Review anthology in formation, edited by Ronald Koury.