Writing About War

Ruins at Guernica in 1937
Ruins at Guernica in 1937 photo from Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive)

Oops, I let Veterans Day slide by without posting anything about the date of observance, so here are a few belated thoughts about novelists who write from the war experience. Actually the list is quite long, for it seems that participating in a prolonged military engagement provides good material, not to mention some real-life experience for novelists and other types of creative writers. I’ll skip the great Russian writers – you know the titles – War and Peace or Doctor Zhivago and jump to the American scene.

Actually the American Civil War was not only one of the bloodiest of all wars, but also one of the most written about. Besides such notable stories as the “Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane and the “Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”, by Ambrose Bierce there are over a thousand first-person accounts of the war that were published in book form. Just reading a synopsis of one of these accounts is fascinating, but the going for the whole book might be even better.

Fast forward to the Second War World, which provided firsthand material for a number of successful writers. Take for example Norman Mailer and his “The Naked and the Dead” or James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”, “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut or “Mister Roberts” by Thomas O. Heggen. All of these are stories well told that usually brought the writer some literary fame and financial compensation.¬† Even Jack Kerouac served in WWII with the merchant marines. He too, wrote a story about the adventure which has just recently been published. It is entitled “The Sea Is My Brother”. Not one of his most noteworthy titles, but it goes to show how widely the war experience runs.

Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris-desert-1940
Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris 1940 Public Domain (U.S. War Department

Good writing during wartime did not stop during Vietnam with quite a few films and books having been released and still available to readers as paperbacks or DVD’s. My favorite Vietnam War book, “The Things They Carried With Them by Tim O’Brien and Full Metal Jacket, the Stanley Kubrick movie.

I hope this post doesn’t sound like I’m glorifying war, but it is hard to imagine what some of these writers would have done if they hadn’t gone to war.

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Channeling Jack Kerouac

Kerouac Park in Lowell, Massachusetts
Kerouac Park in Lowell, Massachusetts

This has been a summer on the road for me, for I have abandoned my Portland (Maine) apartment, stored everything of value in a storage locker, gave away my desktop computer and headed for the open roads, fields and forests on my bicycle. It’s been quite a learning experience, but more about that later, for after spending two weeks enjoying the June hostel scene in Boston I quietly left Beantown one night on a 11 0’clock train bound with a one way ticket for Fitchburg.

Actually, I got off the train near Acton and spent the remainder of the night underneath an interstate bridge trying to get some sleep. Sleep did not come easy thanks to the hum of overhead traffic and my stony bed. By some quirk of chance I found myself nestled near a deer trail, for I glimpsed several of the creatures during the course of the night. In the glare of the streetlights they appeared like strange silhouettes.

Sunrise had me up and on the road and around 6 A.M. to see what I could learn about the great writer of the road from a visit to his hometown. But first things first – I had to stop at the Lowell McDonald’s for a large coffee and two Egg McMuffins. I imagine the Beats might have done the same thing – but that is merely speculation on my part.

Then came the bike tour of the city. No pretty tour guides to leave a group of tourists around, just me on my bike with a knapsack full of personal items on a summer Sunday morning that was about to turn into a scorcher.

A once-used factory building in Lowell, Massachusetts
A once-used factory building in Lowell, Massachusetts

Next came the big factory buildings. I have scene a few of the old New England factory buildings in my day but this one takes the cake. The sheer size of these brick structures was mindboggling. If I was looking for an explanation of why Jack had left town – but the truth was I just wanted to visit the place. I spent the next hour or so cruising beside the giant structures, like I was a shadow in a DeChico painting.

Finally, I discovered the canals and the Merrimack River. That added a little humanity and natural scenery to the picture but not much. Still, the canals were the nicest part of the whole visit  Рnot including the Egg McMuffins РI enjoyed riding past and stopping to look at the waterways that once powered this industrial dynamo.

And when I finally departed Lowell, I think I understood a little bit better the process the put Kerouac in motion and launched his writing career.

Lowell buildings reflected in a canal.
Lowell buildings reflected in a canal.