Author Jacob Siegel on War Writing
This week for the LABA Journal, Jacob Siegel, writer and combat veteran, reflects on the books that inspired him.
No matter how much time has passed it happens inevitably that I feel a tap on the shoulder and something pulls me back towards war. Books offer no escape from that pull. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never been especially drawn to war literature as a genre—not before my wars or after. It makes no difference whether I try to evade it; still, I play out a recurring return.
My career as a writer really began not long after returning from Iraq, when I saw that NYU was holding a free writing workshop for veterans near my apartment in Greenwich Village and, on a whim, decided to go. I met my circle there. Together, we edited an anthology of short fiction: Fire and Forget: Short Stories From the Long War. It was published not long after I returned from Afghanistan. The anthology includes one of my own short stories. It’s my personal contribution to war literature. But I avoided the subject afterward. Avoided addressing it from my own perspective at least, though I did go on to a brief jaunt as a professional war reporter. It wasn’t for political or moral reasons that I stayed away but a fear of being swallowed up.
Time passes, I’m headed in another direction, facing something else, but inevitably I feel that tap on the shoulder and I return.
Before I enrolled in this year’s LABA fellowship—on the theme of War and Peace, incidentally—I’d become familiar with the 14th street Y a few years ago when I taught a free writing workshop for veterans there. Here I am again.
And here I am now, on a suggestion from LABA Journal’s editor that I write something about war literature. He recommended I do it in two parts, one section on the canonical works and another on those that inspired me personally. You can see my problem. My canon is not very canonical and the books that inspired me personally are not particularly warlike.
In military parlance the objective is where you are going. It’s the thing you must seize or attack: the hill, the building, the house, the man. Have you reached the objective? Two klicks out. One. Roger, we’re on the objective. Objective secure.
If there’s an alternate military definition of the subjective, I never learned it.
The Iliad, Homer
There is nowhere else to start but The Iliad, Homer’s great tale of the Trojan War and its end. A prelude of sorts to The Odyssey, The Iliad is the purer specimen since it deals with war itself rather than its aftermath.
I Don’t Talk Service No More, Charles Portis
A Korean War veteran, Portis is best known for the novel True Grit, which is just about perfect in its way but not his best book. This is a short story about two old vets talking over the phone about a raid that happened forty years ago in the Korean War and whether that sort of thing—service, the war—is something they still talk about.
Pumpkin Flowers, Matti Friedman
A memoir about serving with the IDF in Lebanon in the interim between the two official wars. It captures the rhythm of modern soldiering—guard duty on the outpost, patrols, weapons cleaning, claustrophobic comradery, the mystical out of body feeling of lone soldiers with time to kill rubbing sleep from their eyes and contemplating the universe with the intensity of an erotic encounter, the ritual joy of frivolous distractions—the dumber the pop song the better—almost childlike if not for that ambient intensity. Then, slashing violence cutting through the dull persistent fear in moments of irreversible terror. Friedman moves between the universal language of grunts—truly universal: the IDF and American army both have a category of soldiers they call “brokedicks”— and a higher register of historical perspective and literary meditation, to tell a story about how his experiences on a hilltop in the ‘80s presaged the future of war.
The Glass Bees, Ernst Junger
War, tyranny, technology, the individual: the major themes of a powerful and profoundly anti-humanist writer. Junger was not a Nazi but a German war hero, proto-fascist anti-Nazi who opposed Hitler from the right, and even there only passively, while he turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. It’s too complicated and fraught to pursue here. Read Clive James on Junger and go from there.
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War and the politics of the twentieth century. A manual on how to write.
Redeployment, Phil Klay
Youngblood, Matt Gallagher
War Porn, Roy Scranton
Dark at the Crossing, Elliot Ackerman
War of the Encyclopaedists, Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite
The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner
Spoils, Brian Van Reet
Five novels and two short story anthologies written by friends of mine about “our” wars. They are still going on now but may end one day. These are the record of what they meant, how they were fought, against whom, and at what cost. The cost is measured by the ledgers we Americans kept. They are highly partial; only one set of books in the accounting.
Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor
Somehow, Hemingway came up in conversation. This was four or five years ago at a bar on Hudson Street. It was Matt Gallagher who brought him up. He became incredulous when I said he hadn’t meant all that much to me aside from some of the short stories. So, what was it, Gallagher asked me, that was like your Hemingway? Your young man fiction before you joined the Army? I told him that for me it was Flannery O’Connor. An obnoxious answer but true.
Red Cavalry, Isaac Babel
Babel volunteered for the Red Cavalry and in 1923 was sent to the Polish front with a Cossack regiment. Lionel Trilling called him, “a Jew riding as a Cossack and trying to come to terms with the Cossack ethos.” No one else writes like Babel. He’s a master of laconic precision, irony and revelation. He was killed after the war in a Stalinist purge.
The Woman Chaser, Charles Willeford
Weights and Measures, Joseph Roth
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
The Willeford and Roth are books I love. The Yates is okay. He’s a great writer at the sentence level but works too hard at telling you how to feel. I group the three together because each features a soldier who leaves the service and finds that he can’t quite make sense of life out of uniform. There is something about this character that always gets me.
The Big Red One, Sam Fuller
This is not a great novel but it’s an incredible story and it’s one Fuller lived. It follows the 1st Infantry Division, known as The Big Red One, through three beachhead invasions—North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy—and the liberation of a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. It’s based on the strange, unforgettable film that Fuller made several years before the novel in his full-time job as a director. He writes with a workman’s lyricism. It’s funny, lurid and brutal and none of it is written for its own sake. Everything pays off.
Home Fires, Gene Wolfe
The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
All war writing tells a story of remembering. Science fiction gets to use actual time travel. These are two great novels. Home Fires pulls off the rare trick of disorienting and captivating the reader all at once as the action skips and drags through time. Wolfe is more formally inventive in his language and storytelling than most of what goes on in literary fiction.
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