War Makes Bad Art

According to Sam Sacks recent Harper’s essay, contemporary war stories have a problem. They have become too subjective. They do not accurately reflect modern war. They focus too much on the home front. They make soldiers look pitiable. They don’t challenge us. Essentially, stories become a way for us not to think about war. He blames MFA programs. While we’re in the historical blame game, I think we should go ahead and attack Aristotle too. If anyone deserves censure here, it’s the guy who wrote Poetics.

Way back when, Aristotle argued an effective drama must contain a genuinely unexpected yet eminently logical reversal of fortune. Accomplished writers since Aristotle have worked very hard to craft scenarios where the reversal of fortune comes as a surprise yet does not upset the story’s internal logic. The best stories achieve this reversal neatly, with a minimum of detail, to produce what Poe called a “singular effect” in readers. This is a good system, but it is not an especially easy system for war writers. War has an expected effect—namely, death and violence—and the war writer must somehow pretend at ignorance to produce the desired outcome, but if they pretend at ignorance the story does not seem logical, and the reversal of fortune does not seem credible.

Consequently, apart from poets, smart storytellers generally avoided war up until the twentieth century. Some modern historians chalk this up to traumatic repression. Not quite. This makes war more mysterious and sublime than it actually is. Artists then simply knew artful stories and war did not go together. You do have stories in the 18th and 19th century just about war but no one is likely to call them artful. Likewise you have artful stories with war in them, but no one is likely to call them war stories. Miguel Cervantes wrote about a knight fighting imagined enemies. Stendhal created a character that doesn’t remember having fought a battle. Ambrose Bierce, who actually did write war stories, concludes with the supernatural almost every time. Even Leo Tolstoy had the sense to tack Peace on the title, largely because war—spectacular as it tends to be—is essentially an unartistic subject. It requires peace to provide tensions worthy of art.

This changed with the great democratic slaughters of the twentieth century, where bourgeoisie university students went to the trenches to rediscover their manhood. When they were predictably massacred, those who survived wanted to write about their experiences. But they had a problem, the same problem faced by Cervantes and Stendhal and Whitman and Bierce—it is really easy to write an interesting war story (death! everywhere!) but really difficult to write one that is artful in the Aristotelian sense. Writers like Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Sebastian Junger didn’t even try; they turned to memoir and history. Writers like Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf focused on the home front. Writers like Georges Bernanos wrote stories about Catholicism and the devil using the war as a metaphor. Writers like Henri Barbusse wrote stories about Communism using the war as a metaphor. Writers like Wilfred Owen, Apollinaire, and Isaac Rosenburg turned to poetry until they too were slaughtered and became metaphors themselves. Most everyone who survived understood the inherent limitations of a story about war—narratives, yes, art, no.

But then the Americans and the Russians got involved, two countries that have never had qualms about breaking with tradition. Isaac Babel, writing about the Russian Civil War immediately following the First World War, went as close to the action as possible, pulling back at the last moment to show a darkening of character. His most famous is about how the intellectual becomes a man and gets working-class friends because he kills a rooster. Babel’s stories generally tend to be about the thrill of giving up on civilization, just as his non-war stories detail the simmering violence beneath bourgeoisie veneer. The key word is happiness here. Unlike much work today, Babel is not afraid to give up on civilization and bourgeois sentimentality. His stories work because the characters give into the slaughter. They work because by staying intensely close to the individual character, being so wrapped up in the concrete material world he blunders through, and watching him descend into brutality cheerfully, he achieves surprising yet logical effects.

Hemingway’s stories are also about what it means to be a man, but he approached them in a different way. In an interesting essay on the short story, Eudora Welty claimed that the dramatic tension in Hemingway’s stories derives from efforts to repress his own fear of violence. This is why bullfights and the military fascinated Hemingway. This is why a bare-bones language obsessed him. He saw in these stoic rituals a way to disguise his fear of pain.  It is this tension that the American war story has been caught up in ever since. For good reason: it is an effective way to solve the problem of the war story. If you can’t write about war, then you can write about the soldier coming back from war or the soldier trying to deal with war by pretending there was no war. By focusing on the divide between the supposed reality of violence and the artificiality of civilian life—as well as the soldier’s determination to keep the war and violence away from him—you get the aesthetic tension necessary for effective stories (an interesting essay remains to be written about what this says about our own fears of death and pain).

Toward the end of the Harper’s article, Sacks pulls out a series of revelatory moments in recent war fiction, moments where stories about war work towards some kind of artful conclusion. They do all sound comically alike. Like Sacks, I don’t think this speaks to a common experience among soldiers, but a proven way to create an aesthetic effect for the reader (I imagine if you cherry-picked epiphanies from any kind of literary writing over the last hundred years, you would probably get much the same result). Nonetheless, a technique used over and over again quickly becomes a literary trope, and Sacks is right to point out the noxious repetitions. Yet Sacks points to the use of the first person as the problem. This is silly. It is a trope of literary criticism to pretend moving away from the subjective viewpoint will somehow solve the problem of war writing, and Sacks arrives at it because he sees the Hemingwayesque style as a distraction rather than an honest attempt to make artful something as stubbornly unartistic as war.

Worse, MFA programs, he contends, are Hemingway factories. They desire to write in the “pure present.” He admits that this might have had been useful at one point in literary history, but no more. Today, he argues, Hemingway’s “pure present is mediated by technology,” and it misses the fact that we can be distant from war and know about it because of drones. This sounds nice, but the problem is Hemingway’s “pure present” style evolved because in the early twentieth century many writers and intellectuals believed everything in their world was mediated by technology (contrary to popular belief, technology did not begin with the internet). This was one of the concerns, if not the central concern, of modernist writers. So isn’t it another kind of ahistoricism to simply abrogate “pure present” writing without thinking long and hard about why it came into being?

Can we go back to Dos Passos—or, as he suggests toward the end, Sophocles—without practicing another kind of navel-gazing anachronism? Isn’t this as egregious an offense as focusing on the concrete now at the expense of the more abstract now?

Ultimately, Sam Sacks wants someone to explain war experience for him, and he wants the kind of writing unafraid to do this. Phil Klay annoys him for focusing on uncertainty rather than something less uncertain, and Sacks suggests that this kind of writing might be responsible for the war on terror itself. To me, if Hemingway’s “pure present” writing has many issues—which it does—the kind of critique that calls for a return to a more comprehensive and truer art has many more. Worse, the idea that a war will give birth to a new type of writing is even more insidious, and Sacks’ argument comes precariously close to representing war as some sort of aesthetic crucible which the young men and women of today do not have the intellect or wherewithal to shape into artistic gold (unlike kids back in the day, the greatest generation, cough, cough).

If history has taught us anything, it is not that new wars produce new art but that war and art do not have much in common. Following Aristotle, Hemingway created a window for war writing and Sacks is correct to point out that recent war writing has done very little to go beyond it. He is also correct to point out that art ceases to be art if it does not “wake us from our stupor.” But writers like Phil Klay, Katey Schulz, Elliot Ackerman, and Matthew Hefti are trying to push forward, manipulating the tropes of the past to make art that somehow represents but does not glamorize modern war’s essential banality. When it comes to writing about war, it is not as simple as moving to “an omniscient narration,” especially when much of the power of the subjective war narrative stems from the felt loss and deceptions of omniscience.

Contemporary “first-person shooters” do have many problems, but their existence is not a mistake nor a regrettable literary detour. It is a little unfair of Sacks to believe that some earnest young veteran writer can break with assumptions about war literature and war when even the most audacious and learned critics suffer from the assumptions themselves.

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Michael Carson

Michael Carson served as a U.S. Army Infantry Officer from 2005 to 2009. He studied history in New England and presently lives on the Gulf Coast with his wife and son.

2 Comments
  1. Smart, wide-ranging piece! Sensational scenes of combat, bravery, near-brushes with death, dealing with the loss of a friend, etc. are fools-gold for would-be war writers. What most war stories are missing is first, a plot that generates suspense, and, second, shrewd observation of what it really feels like to actually be in the military, beholden to all sorts of institutional pressures, conflicting values, and odd personal allegiances. War writers are also too beholden to notions of realism, and so don’t seem to have the sense of how really good writers manipulate language continuously to put pressure on the events, places, and characters they describe.

    1. Thanks for the comment and compliment! Agreed. Re your thoughts on realism: I’m starting to feel that the recent anti-contemporary-war-lit crowd is just as beholden to realism as the writers they critique. They criticize war writers for relying too much on authenticity by guilting them for missing what was truly authentic about their experience, or for not doing what they should be doing with their experiences. War for these critics remains a wellspring of truth – both new and old, horror and beauty – that is not only beyond the reach of craft but gives birth to new kinds of craft. I don’t know. I personally hate war too much to give it that kind of credit.

      I also find it interesting how an argument against contemporary war literature seems to be becoming an argument against trauma literature (made famous by Hemingway but by no means exclusive to males), an opportunity to go back to more coherent, objective and strong narratives. I don’t think anyone has thought about the gendered implications and assumptions being thrown around here. Might make for an interesting essay.

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