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Literature of War Missing in Action

Today's small, automated conflicts aren't yielding the acclaimed books of yesteryear

March 08, 2004|Leo Braudy | Leo Braudy's most recent book is "From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity" (Knopf, 2003).

Every day, we are inundated with war news and opinions. There are newspaper and magazine articles, White House news conferences, the critical musings of presidential candidates, statements from foreign leaders and commentary of every political perspective.

But in all this talk and writing, where is the literature of war? Where are the works that step outside the immediate and give us not only a larger perspective but also one that is deeply personal and engaging?

Indo-European literature begins with war. From the "Iliad" to the "Aeneid," the "Mahabharata" to the Icelandic sagas, the warrior is a prime heroic figure -- looked up to in battle, mourned in death and celebrated for generations. Most of those heroes came from the upper classes of their times; some were even gods or demigods. And the poets who sang their virtues honored the aristocracy of physical prowess and earthly power from which they sprang.

But along the way to the modern world came some crucial changes. The introduction of gunpowder weapons in the 15th and 16th centuries made all that fancy armor vulnerable to a tiny bullet shot by an enemy with little expertise and no noble genealogy.

Soldiers, of course, continued to appear in literature, although the attitude toward them was somewhat less celebratory and more complicated. Shakespeare's fighting men, for instance, range from the impetuous Hotspur to the coolly manipulative Henry V to the thieving Bardolph and the mama's boy, Coriolanus.

For the most part, though, the literature of war was still not being written by men who had actually been soldiers. But in the 17th century, the cannon fodder began to talk back.

"Simplicissimus," perhaps the first novel to be written about war out of personal experience, shows how a common soldier in the Thirty Years' War manages to survive through trickery, cowardice and a certain amount of courage at the right time. The age of the antihero was on the horizon.

As more nonprofessional soldiers flooded into battle with the American and French revolutions, the volume of war memoirs and war scenes in literature and theater increased.

World War I became the first truly bookish war because so many of the men who served had a good literary education. They wrote harrowing reportage and memoirs, and especially poetry and novels, that made readers empathize with warfare. And in works such as Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That," Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" and Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," the old stories of past warrior heroics were swallowed in the muddy reality of the trenches.

This quantum leap in the quantity and quality of war literature in the first third of the 20th century depended in great part on the mass mobilization of nonprofessional soldiers and the equally broad, literate audience they addressed. With that, war became a central cultural concern rather than an inchoate fear or a matter for politicians and experts.

After World War II, the American public waited eagerly for the next great war novel that would make human sense of the otherwise overwhelming cascade of war information. Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" (1948), James Jones' "From Here to Eternity" (1951) and a host of others filled that need.

But since then, the novel of current or just-passed wars seems to have gone the way of mass mobilization. Only in Vietnam did the literary war make a substantial last stand, through the novels of Tim O'Brien and Philip Caputo's memoir "A Rumor of War."

We still see plenty of novels and movies set in past wars, which often substitute allegorically for the wars of the present. Last year brought us "Master and Commander," "The Last Samurai" and "Cold Mountain." But the effort to make contemporary literary sense of our urges for and against war seems to have moved to the periphery of national attention, not coincidentally as the Army itself draws less and less broadly on the variety of American society.

Will any great novel come out of Iraq? I doubt it. From the aristocratic epics of the past to the tales of citizen-soldiers of World War II, war literature has reflected the effort of a society to understand violence in the name of an idea, a religious cause, a political point of view. But the so-called small wars we fight now have little of that resonance, no matter how often the rhetoric is trotted out.

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