International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Trauma and World Literature - Home Fires: How Soldiers Write Their Wars

Posted 22 July 2014 in StressPoints by ISTSS

Since launching this feature in 2006 we, and our generous contributors, have called your attention to literature which illuminates the destructive power of psychological trauma, efforts to ameliorate its impact and success in achieving resilience and/or growth in the face of overwhelming life events.

In his April 2014 New Yorker review of war literature, past and present, “Home Fires: How Soldiers Write Their Wars”, George Packer brilliantly applied these same principles. Each of us has chosen a favorite quote from that article to share with our readers:  

Soldiers who set out to write the story of their war also have to navigate a minefield of clich├ęs: all of them more or less true but open to qualification; many sowed long before the soldiers were ever deployed, because every war is like every other war. That is one of them. War is hell is another... (p.69)

Journalists and historians have to distort war: in order to find the plot—causation, sequence, meaning—they make war more intelligible than it really is. In the literature by veterans, there are virtually no politics or polemics, in stark contrast to the tendentious way in which most Americans, especially those farthest removed from the fighting, discussed Iraq. This new writing takes the war, though not its terrible cost, as a given. Instead of a coherent explanatory narrative, it presents us with fragments; for example, “Dust to Dust,” a 2012 memoir by Benjamin Busch, a former Marine Corps captain and an actor, is organized not chronologically but around certain materials—metal, bone, blood, ash. Fragments are perhaps the most honest literary form available to writers who fought so recently. Their work lacks context, but it gets closer to the lived experience of war than almost any journalism. It deals in particulars, which is where the heightened alertness of combatants has to remain, and it’s more likely to notice things. To most foreign observers, the landscape of Iraq is relentlessly empty and ugly, like a physical extension of the country’s trauma. But in the poetry and the prose of soldiers and marines the desert comes to life with birdsong and other noises, the moonlit sand breeds dreams and hallucinations. (p.70)

We hope that these brief glimpses at Packer’s broader vision will inspire you to read his entire review

We close with Packer’s concluding lines:

Some of the men will remain alone for years, perhaps their whole lives. But some will begin to recognize their own suffering in the stories of others. That’s what literature does. (p.73)