War has influenced much of what gets studied in college English departments across the country. Any survey course of British or American literature likely includes poetry from World War I poets like Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. Compulsory military service in World War II meant that many writers served overseas, either before or after their writing careers took off. Kurt Vonnegut survived the bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war, and William Golding participated in the D-Day invasion. Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried was based on his time as an infantry soldier in the Vietnam War.
Beyond just the written contributions of writers in uniform, two events in particular helped shape the contemporary literary scene in post-World War II America: Armed Services Editions of popular works (which democratized access to literature through mass produced pocket-sized editions of novels, short stories, and poetry; see Molly Guptill Manning’s excellent When Books Went to War for a detailed look at ASEs) ensured that soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and coast guardsmen—as well as Allied military and civilian populations— could read their way through The Great Gatsby or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as they fought across Europe or the Pacific; and the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (better known as the G.I. Bill) allowed millions of returning veterans the opportunity to attend college or vocational training, an opportunity they most likely would not have had otherwise. Taken together, the ASEs and G.I. Bill helped create a literate middle class.
After Vietnam, the military transitioned from draftees to volunteers. Combined with other factors—a generally robust economy, the drawdown after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and a general apathy towards military service—this meant that fewer and fewer people served or knew someone who served. This translated into fewer and fewer writers with military experience. By the time of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (combat operations which continue in some form to this day), a handful of soldiers and other service members were deploying more and more frequently, and the disconnect between the military and civilian sectors of the population grew less and less able to speak a common language of experience.
A growing number of writers with military service are becoming part of the literary world. A large portion of the earliest writing could be deemed memoir or autobiography and presented their experiences in combat through straightforward and fact-based accounts; think Lone Survivor or American Sniper. At the same time, writers are fictionalizing or poeticizing their time in uniform and are expanding the meaning of “military literature.” Army veteran Brian Turner stands out as one of the preeminent post-9/11 war poets—he is a Lannan Literary Fellow and directs the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. Phil Klay is a former Marine whose short story collection Redeployment won the National Book Award. Military writers are also bending conventions of genre; Colby Buzzell turned his blog My War: Killing Time in Iraq into a well-received book, and followed it up with Lost in America: A Dead End Journey, two works which parallel the longstanding tradition of examining the warrior at war and the warrior at home (see Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey).
More and more attention is also being paid to the millions of men, women, and children who lived through the wars and occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries.
Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq comes from years of embargo, combat, and separation; Dunya Mikhail’s poetry likewise combines the voice of exile with lyrical and provocative passages; and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is only the most famous of a large and growing body of work from Afghan poets and writers. As more works are translated into English, more college students and readers will have the opportunity to study and learn from those who’ve lived through the terrible consequences of combat.
Military writing is also making its presence known in professional circles.
At the most recent Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Los Angeles, there were no fewer than twelve events featuring military writers who’ve served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. Veterans have also started projects such as The Veterans Writing Project, designed to promote and publish writing by those who’ve served; Military Experience and the Arts, which works to combine writing with visual art, dance, and therapy; and Line of Advance, one of many veteran-focused literary journals. Additionally, sites like Randy “Charlie Sherpa” Moore’s Red Bull Rising serve as aggregators of military and veteran writing contests, submissions, and events. Peter Molin runs Time Now, a source for critical analysis of a broad spectrum of military writing, including works from Iraqi, Afghan, and other overseas voices.
Much of the discussion on these sites (and others) focuses on ways forward, and a popular topic is the “civil-military gap”—the aforementioned inability of two segments of the American population to meaningfully communicate.
With fewer and fewer people serving or knowing anyone who has, misconceptions and prejudices abound on both sides. When much of the populace draws their knowledge of the military from movies (with varying levels of accuracy) or from lingering resentments handed down from a generation that lived through the Vietnam War, and when the shrinking number of veterans self-isolate or denigrate those who never served in uniform, how do we make sure we can still talk across the divide?
Perhaps colleges could include more contemporary writing by veterans. The canon could be updated to include writing men and women (who are making up more and more a critical portion of the military) who’ve deployed overseas or who’ve lived through invasion and occupation. Much of the same issues examined by Hemingway or Remarque or Homer are still relevant but could be contextualized through current writers.
A newly revamped Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is allowing a new generation of veterans an entry into the academic world. Contrary to what may or may not be popular conceptions of who these men and women are, they don’t all have PTSD, haven’t all seen combat, and aren’t all war mongers. (In fact, very few are.) Instead, these incoming college freshmen are generally older than their peers, have varied backgrounds and skills, and are eager to begin new chapters in their lives.
Conversely, veterans could look to their classmates for lessons from their own experiences. Many of them have served in other capacities, either in their communities or across the country and world. They are teaching in underserved schools, working in the medical fields, or volunteering in numerous ways. They are also the writers creating new and exciting works, often alongside the military writers.
College English courses could provide a unique venue in which to challenge the assumption that, because of different life experiences, veterans and civilians have an inherent difficulty in communicating. After all, what does literature do but teach us about what it’s like to live as someone else? How else can we understand anyone other than ourselves except through art and empathy? Perhaps by incorporating some of the growing community of military writers (as well as other communities; this could be a concept easily applied to women writers, writers of color, or queer writers) we could expand the notion of who is creating work worth reading and begin to learn again how to talk with our neighbors.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Travis Klempan is a Colorado native who joined the Navy to see the world. He found out most of it is water so he came back to the Mile High State. Along the way he earned a Bachelor's of Science (not Arts) in English from the Naval Academy and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing & Poetics from the Jack Kerouac School. He is currently pursuing teaching opportunities—adjuncting, substituting, and teaching at sea. He's also working on several pieces of writing at any given time, including a novel, a collection of fables, and a musical. He does not ski but makes a great road trip companion.