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Visions of War and Peace - WWI Literature and Authority by Phil Klay

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Visions of War and Peace - WWI Literature and Authority

By Phil Klay


"Froth-corrupted lungs," "a ballet,"  "lies," "the most wonderful war in the world." These terms present the diverse ways writers have described WWI in literature. But which is the most accurate when it comes to relating the real experience of war? Who has the authority to tell the real story? These are the questions National Book Award Winner, Phil Klay, contemplates as he surveys various literary works on WWI, written by soldiers, officers, nurses, writers, and intellectuals. In WWrite's closing post, Klay also provides insight into the ways reading and writing WWI have shaped contemporary thought on war's impact on culture. 


KLAYPHOTO9We Are Making a New World. Painting by Paul Nash. Imperial War Museum rt.IWM ART 1146


In the familiar literature, WWI comes to us, overwhelmingly, as muck and madness, an orgy of pointless violence, insanity on a civilizational scale as waves of young men were sent off with fine words into a meat grinder. It is blood gargling from “froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer.” It is the old battalion, “hanging on the old barbed wire.”  It is “strange hells within the minds war made,” while an oblivious public back home remains smugly, and wrongly, certain that “chivalry redeems the wars."

In Company K, a brilliant and sadly underread novel by William March, who served in WWI with the Marines and was decorated with the Croix de Guerre, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Navy Cross, a soldier tries a hand at writing an honest condolence letter after the death of a comrade. He writes:

 “He died in agony, slowly. You’d never believe that he could live three hours, but he did. He lived three full hours screaming and cursing by turns. He had nothing to hold on to, you see: He had learned long ago that what he had been taught to believe by you, his mother, who loved him, under the meaningless names of honor, courage and patriotism, were all lies . . .” 




This, according to much of the literature of World War I, is the bitter truth which the war revealed. Yes, there are the occasional Ernst Jungers, who compared the exchange of hand grenades to a ballet and who counted his generation lucky to have been able to serve in such a great struggle, but the vast majority of the famous literature of the war, from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to Jaroslav Hasek, is a collective ode to futility, waste, horror, and despair. Is this, then, the truth?

In The Fighters, CJ Chiver’s superb book about the current American wars, he announces that he is rejecting senior officer views so that his book many channel “those who did the bulk of the fighting with the unapologetic belief that the voices of combatants of the lower and middle rank are more valuable, and more likely to be candid and rooted in battlefield experience, than those of the generals and admirals who ordered them to action—and often try to speak for them, too.”



But of course, it’s not just generals and admirals who try to speak for the common soldier, it’s poets and novelists too. Wilfred Owen is very self-consciously trying to speak for “his men,” a move which, as the poet Tom Sleigh has pointed out, when contrasted with the less ideologically inflected (and, to my mind, artistically superior) work of an enlisted soldier like David Jones, can seem “at best…heroic posturing in an anti-heroic guise [a]nd at worst…a form of unconscious class condescension.” And many of the great writers to come out of World War I are writing in the emerging modernist tradition which had already, prior to the war, established itself in an iconoclastic relationship with tradition and the old order. Marinetti had demanded we “demolish museums and libraries” in 1909, Ezra Pound had tried to move past the “crust of dead English” by founding Imagism in 1912, Stravinsky and Nijinsky had shocked audiences with The Rite of Spring in 1913. The spirit animating that generation of artists was revolutionary, tossing down old idols with reckless abandon, and so we must ask: Were “honor, courage and patriotism” revealed as lies by the war, or by these artists commitment to the prevailing current of thought among their tribe? Both, probably.


KLAYPHOTO3Dancers from The Rite of Spring in original costumes.

After all, the writings of those non-artists at war paint a more complex picture. As the historian Jonathan Ebel points out in the introduction to his Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War, “Soldiers’ and war workers’ writings do not allow the honest historian to write a polemical history or a predictable ideological critique. As much as one may love or hate the idea of war, love or hate the men and women who plan wars and send others to die, love or hate those who profit financially or politically from war, the voices of soldiers and war workers will provide, at most, equivocal support.” And indeed, through soldiers’ and war workers’ letters and diaries he finds that, though we now like to tell the story of WWI as one of disillusionment, that was not the case for many Americans in the war, who saw it as an opportunity to practice "Christianity of the sword" by which they could find personal and national redemption for a God-chosen nation--and that that narrative was strengthened rather than weakened post-war.


KLAYPhoto6Walter Poague's diary, published posthumously


Walter Poague, who flew seaplanes on anti-submarine missions and who would be killed six days before the Armistice, wrote to his mother, “This is not a terrible war. It is the most wonderful war in the world. It is the war which means the real salvation of the world.” Red Cross nurse Elizabeth Walker Black noted the “exaltation about being under fire” which shirkers, “with their flabby souls and sluggish blood living selfish lives” would never get to experience. And Infantry officer Vinton Dearing wrote to his mother of the strangely compelling nature of war:

“You go out into the moonlight and feel the place ‘holy and enchanted,’ a new world, half mystical, a different moon, more wondrous lights;-then some tremendous 155 goes off and shatters your dream….Life is great and the aims of the war are great. It is when you see into the aims with your inner eyes that you see the bigness of it all.”

To which truth do we owe allegiance? If we accept Chivers’ democratic notion that it is among the voices of lower and middle-rank combatants where we find the truth of war, then our poetically-informed ideas about WWI must get pulled in an uncomfortably militaristic direction.

As a writer who was once a Marine and writes about war, I am skeptical that there is any kind of final authority which we can rest on the supposed perspective of “the troops,” whatever that might be, and doubly skeptical that such authority then reverts to artists. After all, the budding fascism of the post-war period can be spotted not simply among those who grimly clung on to a cold and fatalistic nationalism through all the bloody years of the war, but also among far too many disillusioned artists and writers, from Celine to Evola to Huelsenbeck to Pound. The destruction of the old values can lead in many directions.

Veterans and artists can convey to us the thrilling or horrifying or insane intensity of war experience. They can show us the desperate attempts at sense-making done by humans engulfed in it. They can allow war to revolt us, or seduce us. They can lie, for sure, but even more dangerously, they can tell terribly impartial truths.


KLAYphoto8Winner of the 2014 National Book Award in Fiction, Redeployment by Phil Klay


In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin took it upon himself to review a collection of essays, edited by Ernst Junger, about World War I and the possibilities within German nationalism for those of “heroic spirit.” As Benjamin, who a decade later would commit suicide while fleeing the Nazis, points out, all the authors “were themselves soldiers in the World War and, dispute what one may, they indisputably proceed from the experience of this war.” And yet, despite this, and despite the fact when war broke out in 1914 Benjamin spent his time translating Baudelaire rather than fighting, he confidently, and accurately, condemns not only their work but even their ability to write about war itself. In the essay, titled “Theories of German Fascism,” he declares:

We will not tolerate anyone who speaks of war, yet knows nothing but war. Radical in our own way, we will ask: Where do you come from? And what do you know of peace? Did you ever encounter peace in a child, a tree, an animal, the way you encountered a patrol in the field? And without waiting for you to answer, we can say No! It is not that you would then not be able to celebrate war, more passionately than now; but to celebrate it in the way you do would be impossible.

This, it seems to me, rests authority where it ought to reside. Not in the lived experience of war, nor in the penetrating yet isolate truths of individual artistic geniuses, nor in the aggregated opinions of a given mass of veterans, but in a careful reader possessed of a vision of peace.

KLAYphoto7Walter Benjamin. Image source: mosaicmagazine.com

Author's bio

KLAYbiophotoPhil Klay is a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War and the author of the short story collection Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction. He is also the 2018 Laureate of the George W. Hunt, S.J., Prize for Journalism, Arts & Letters for outstanding work in the category Cultural & Historical Criticism. A graduate of the Hunter College MFA program, his writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic Magazine, the New Yorker, and the Brookings Institution’s Brookings Essay series.









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They Shall Not Grow Old – and Neither Have We by Teresa Fazio

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They Shall Not Grow Old – and Neither Have We

By Teresa Fazio

FAZIO1Movie They Shall Not Grow Old 840x480Image from Peter Jackson's film, They Shall Not Grow Old. Image source: Battleground State News

This past January, amid headlines of US negotiations with the Taliban and lingering Syrian ISIL strongholds, I escaped internet news for an afternoon of 3D immersion in They Shall Not Grow Old, the Peter Jackson film that brings previously unreleased World War I archival footage of British soldiers to life. To do this, Jackson’s team smoothed the jerky frame rates of century-old film, employed forensic lip-readers to sleuth dialogue, and recorded the slams of breech blocks from antique artillery. But when I forked over twenty bucks for a ticket, I didn’t know that what would strike me even harder than this impressive technical reconstruction was the similarity of the youthful soldiers to my own Marines in Iraq in 2004.

Read more: They Shall Not Grow Old – and Neither Have We by Teresa Fazio

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Movies That Made Me - A Farewell to Arms by Jenny Pacanowski

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Movies That Made Me - A Farewell to Arms

By Jenny Pacanowski

JENNYPFTAfilmImage from A Farewell to Arms (1957) with Jennifer Jones and Rock Hudson. Image source: weebly

Often people ask me at events if I started writing before my deployment to Iraq in 2004 or before I discovered veteran writing workshops and poetry were a part of me that I couldn’t live without. Up until today, I said, I didn’t write before the war except in journals. However, today, watching old movies on my parent’s couch, I realized I was probably and most nearly born a poet.

One of the movies that’s inspired me during the WWI Centennial is based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms. A volunteer ambulance driver, Frederic Henry, and a nurse, Catharine Barkley, meet and fall in love in Italy during the Battle of Caporetto during WWI. While the time and circumstances were different, their situation 100 years ago resonates with my experience as a medic in Iraq.

Read more: Movies That Made Me - A Farewell to Arms by Jenny Pacanowski

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When the War Didn't End by Rob Bokkon

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When the War Didn't End

By Rob Bokkon

BOKKONIMAGE2AEF Doughboy Safe for Democracy


The stench of chlorine gas blew away into the wind.  The clatter and slap of tank treads, the angry wasp hum of airplanes, the cries of the dying and the wounded all faded under a blanket of dull silence. Where before a pall of smoke had hidden the miles and miles of bloody mud and corpses and barbed wire, all came now into sharp relief as the great guns, at last, stopped their terrible song.

Four years of agony and boredom, heroism and stupidity, sacrifice and madness: all whisked away in the flourish of a pen.

Every WWI aficionado knows the date and the hour. 11AM, Paris time, November 11, 1918. The Armistice, and the end of the Great War.

And such an end: The Kaiser deposed; the German Empire defeated and humiliated. Austria-Hungary in tatters.

France safe and secure. Belgium avenged. Britannia triumphant, thanks to the help of her former colonies:  Young America, magnanimous in victory, ready to take her place on the world stage. Of course, there was the little matter of that unpleasant business in Russia, but it would soon sort itself out—for now, the war was over. The world was free from tyranny. Safe for democracy, in the words of President Woodrow Wilson.

This is the legend. This is the myth we have told ourselves and let ourselves hear. This is how we end the story, since stories must have a good solid boom at the end, if only to let us know when to applaud. Much like the memorable date and time of the Armistice, 11AM on 11/11/18, this narrative is tidy. Precise. Simple.

The truth, as always, is not tidy nor precise and it is never simple.

Read more: When the War Didn't End by Rob Bokkon

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“They were mortal, but they were unconquerable.” Willa Cather and the WWI Memorial in Washington

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“They were mortal, but they were unconquerable.”  Willa Cather and the WWI Memorial in Washington

By Mark A. R. Facknitz


What does it mean that Willa Cather 's words from her novel, One of Ours, "They were mortal, but they were unconquerable,"will join Woodrow Wilson, Archibald MacLeish, and the American nurse Alta May Andrews on the future WWI Memorial in D.C.'s Pershing Park?

That two of the four whose words will be immortalized in stone are women is remarkable, representing the maturation of our sensibilities as we grasp more completely that the long-term consequences of wars transcend gender. As WWI literary specialist and historical advisor to the WWI Commission, Mark Facknitz, explains in this post, they also exceed the usual limits of class, region, and literary prejudices. Discover Willa Cather's impact on war and literature by reading “They were mortal, but they were unconquerable.” Willa Cather and the WWI Memorial in Washington at WWrite this week!


SteichenCatherWilla Cather by Edward Steichen. Image source: zackrogow.blogspot.com

In the District of Columbia, construction is about to begin on a long-overdue memorial to the American soldiers of the First World War.  A major refashioning of Pershing Park is envisioned.  The words of four Americans will be cut into stone to commemorate the country’s role in the fundamentally transformative war of 1914-1918.  One of those Americans, perhaps surprisingly, is Willa Cather.  What does it mean that Willa Cather will join Woodrow Wilson, Archibald MacLeish, and the American nurse Alta May Andrews?  That two of the four whose words will be immortalized in stone are women is remarkable, representing the maturation of our sensibilities as we grasp more completely that the long-term consequences of wars transcend gender.  And they also exceed the usual limits of class, region, and literary prejudices, and so there is a particular satisfaction for Cather’s fans that she figures among the four.

Read more: “They were mortal, but they were unconquerable.” Willa Cather and the WWI Memorial in Washington

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"The Land Remembers" and "Zone Rouge" by Amalie Flynn

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"The Land Remembers" and "Zone Rouge"  

By Amalie Flynn


 Amalie Flynn, author of the memoir Wife and War: The Memoir, her story of surviving 9-11 and her husband's 15-month deployment to Afghanistan, shows in her poems  "The Land Remembers" and "Zone rouge" (red zone)  that her experience also belongs to a universal history of war, including WWI. "Zone rouge" is the French name for the almost 120,000 hectares of battlefields that incurred major physical damage to the environment during WWI. Due to the presence of thousands of corpses and an estimated 60 million unexploded munitions, certain activities in the area were provisionally or permanently prohibited by law to the public after the war. No one was allowed to build or alter the designated areas. However, in order to preserve the traces of war in the landscape, trees needed to be planted to stabilize the soil. To the surprise of many, these ravaged moonscapes flourished into forests and lush fields years later. Today,  It is estimated that 80,000 soldiers remain buried underneath. Read Flynn, who has also published in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and TIME, as she brings a contemporary poetic eye to France's battle-torn landscapes at WWrite this week!


Flynn Zone Rouge Image.jpg 1



The Land Remembers


Trenches that twist and turn like empty veins. Bomb craters. Chemical foliage forests. Vapor cities. Burn pits. Dust cities. Radioactive rivers. Dioxin dug into the ground. Unexploded ordnance. Landmines strewn. Alive and circular like metal breasts. A child standing on top of a pile of what is left behind. When war floods a place. The land remembers. It holds war and keeps it. War sinks in a river. Accumulates in the gill of a poisoned fish. Laces itself in the soil and sediment. Twists inside trunks of trees. The land remembers.


Or how it bears witness to our forgetting.

Read more: "The Land Remembers" and "Zone Rouge" by Amalie Flynn

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