What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War by Laura Harrington

Laura Harrington  Alice Bliss cover art

Today I’m pleased to welcome my first guest blogger, Laura Harrington, author  of Alice Bliss, one of several recent novels by women writers about the Iraq War and its consequences. Last year Harrington spoke as part of a panel hosted by Consequence Magazine at the AWP conference; the other panelists were Catherine Parnell, Siobhan Fallon (whose story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone will be reviewed here shortly), George Kovacs, and Bob Shaccocis. Harrington’s presentation/paper was entitled “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War.” In light of my recent reviews of Iraq War-related books Sparta, Flashes of War, and Sand Queen (with more to come), Harrington offered me the opportunity to publish her essay for readers of my blog.

Sparta cover art  Flashes of War  Sand Queen  You Know When the Men Are Gone

Laura Harrington

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War

AWP Panel, March 8, 2013, 9 a.m., Room 309: CONSEQUENCE magazine

Catherine Parnell, Siobhan Fallon, George Kovacs, Bob Shaccocis 

What do we know about the wars we are waging? The vast majority of us can choose not to pay attention, as if this choice is similar to choosing what toothpaste to buy or what television program to watch. What role does our distraction play in these conflicts? If we aren’t watching, can we be held responsible? When a war can last longer than a decade and requires neither our attention nor our participation, what does this do to our national identity? What do the words civic responsibility and service and sacrifice mean to those of us living in America now?

My personal life and my writing life have been deeply impacted by what we don’t talk about when we talk about war.

My father taught me a profound respect for silence. A navigator/ bombardier in WWII, he came home and had a nervous breakdown, and never talked about his experiences. I have been deeply influenced by my father’s silence, both its limitations and its extraordinary strength. He showed his devotion not by spilling his secrets, but by shielding me from them. In addition, he sparked a lifelong curiosity and empathy. He gave me the most profound gift you can give a writer: he taught me to pay attention to all that is not said, to be alive to the mysterious silences that surround us. And he inspired me to try to give voice to that silence.

As a playwright I’ve written about war for much of my career: from the warrior saint, Joan of Arc, to Napoleon in exile on St Helena, from the destruction of the library in Louvain, Belgium in the first days of WWI, to four very young survivors encountering each other in the last days of the Civil War. I’ve even written a comedy about Civil War re-enactors who get their fondest wish and fall through a hole in time.

Did I reach anyone? Enlighten anyone? Does anyone in America want to go to a play about war, no matter how well you craft the story? Maybe not. Imagine this scene: Husband and wife at breakfast table. She says, “Honey, let’s go see that play about water boarding.” Actually she won’t get to suggest seeing that play because no one will produce that play.

What’s a playwright to do? If the medium you are working in is hostile to the difficult subject that obsesses you, do you retire? Retool?

On commission I wrote a thirty-minute, one-act, one-woman musical – Alice Unwrapped – about a 14-year-old girl whose father is MIA in Iraq. She copes with this crushing uncertainty by using duct tape and Kevlar to create a homemade version of the armor she imagines her father is wearing. Plus combat boots. Plus a bike helmet. And goes to high school in this outfit. All while trying to take care of her little sister and manage her mother who won’t leave the bedroom.

The revelation was how “relatable” this kid was. Audiences laughed and cried with Alice, and recognized her deep sense of honor as she tried to take care of her family in her father’s absence. I seemed to have found a new key to writing about war. Put a kid center stage, have her cope with missing her dad, and all the other challenges of growing up, all while the war acts as the unseen protagonist.

My inspiration, or compulsion in writing Alice Bliss, was to tell the stories we never hear, the stories we sweep under the rug, the ones we label “collateral damage.” My challenge became: how do we lift that which we prefer to ignore into the spotlight and make it absolutely unforgettable?

This is the task of the artist, in whatever medium we choose.

I learned that there’s an invisible army in our midst. An army of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives and children of soldiers who are deployed. According to the Department of Defense, only 37 percent of military families live on military installations; the remaining 63 percent live in over 4,000 communities nationwide. Your community and mine. They live around the corner, down the street, in the house next door, in the apartment above or below us.

There are more than 1.7 million military children and teens scattered across the country. They feel proud and angry and confused and frightened and worried and every other emotion that is part of growing up. But each emotion is amplified by the war and every fear it raises, and how achingly personal and specific that fear is to each one of those children.

Most of us have the luxury of thinking the war is distant; these children do not. They live with this war, day in and day out; they wake up with it, they fall asleep with it; it is woven into the daily fabric of their lives. They are expected to carry on at home and at school, to pretend that they do not have a parent who is risking his or her life, to pretend that they are not consumed with worry, that their daily life is not affected by this absence.

These children –- our children — are staring down a long year of a parent’s deployment or re-deployment, living with the fact of a father or mother in harm’s way, a euphemism we all accept even though it mocks the harsh reality of every soldier’s experience. To those fighting, and those at home waiting and praying, what occurs during deployment goes so far beyond the word “harm” as to be ludicrous. And we are not even talking about the long lasting “harm” of post-traumatic stress, or the shockingly high incidence of loss of limbs. This is part of our fuzzy language, fuzzy thinking, fuzzy policy, which creates a vague sense of unease amongst the general populace, but does nothing to goad us into action.

How can we share the burdens of this war more equitably? Should we take a page from WWII, and adopt compulsory military service, higher taxes, gas and oil rationing, War Bonds, Victory Gardens, scrap and metal collections?

Perhaps because we live with the illusion that our current conflicts cost us so little, we shrug our shoulders, turn a blind eye and allow it to go on and on and on.

These burdens should be shared by everyone in our country. And, I would like to argue, by men and women writers alike. Do we give equal time and more importantly, equal weight, to men and women writing about war? And if not, why not? How does the storyteller impact not only the conversation, but our attitudes and beliefs about war?

Here’s what I’ve noticed recently about books about war. Men, since they have been on the front lines longer than women, get the battle scenes while the battles at home are relegated to the back-burner. We need to acknowledge that the risks of war are shared by everyone involved, both those deployed and those at home. When a father or mother is killed, a family is fractured. Forever. And how best to experience and understand the nature of that fracture than through the family’s eyes? Yet we see this part of the story –- the collateral damage as experienced by wives, children, parents, etc. — as secondary to the main event. What if we reversed the way we look at this?

Let me get specific. There are several wonderful books that have been written in the past year about the Iraq war which are getting a lot of play. I’m thinking of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, David Abrams’ Fobbit. Last year it was Sebastian Junger’s War and Karl Marlantes’ What It Means to Go To War. In newspapers and online, these books are often written about together, the authors are sometimes interviewed together (recently Fountain and Powers in the NY Times). This is all great. I am a fan of these books.

But it’s fascinating that the books written by women about the Iraq war are rarely mentioned at all, and as far as I have seen, never mentioned with the men’s books. This is not just my novel, but also Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, Kristin Hannah’s Home Front, Johanna Trollope’s The Soldier’s Wife, to name a few.

This is disturbing to me for several reasons. Leaving the probable sexism aside, all of these books deal with the costs of war in one way or another; but the women’s books deal with the costs that we rarely see and almost never talk about, the costs borne by women and children.

Celebrating the male experience of war, intentionally or not, celebrates war, and is in the great literary tradition of glorifying the power of personal sacrifice in the theatre of war.

I believe that this is a larger story than just which books garner attention. It’s a story about how we think about war, how we imagine it and talk about it, and how we perpetuate myths of heroes and anti-heroes alike.

When Life Magazine published photographs of the fallen soldiers following Hamburger Hill in Viet Nam, it was instrumental in turning the tide against the war. When the NY Times, this fall [2012], published the photographs of the US dead, there was no public outcry whatsoever.

Until we can hear the stories of all who are impacted by war, soldiers and civilians, the families who are left behind, the families who are inadvertently caught in the struggle, we are lying to ourselves. We prefer the shine of brass, the extraordinary design of drones, the comforting flaunting of our military might. Writers can lift the curtain, expose the flimflam, push us to engage.

What will awaken us to this legion of hurt among our own service men and women, their children and families, whether they are serving abroad or coping with physical and emotional wounds at home? What will awaken us to the unspeakable destruction of land and life wherever we are dropping bombs? Does the entire nation have a hurt locker where we hide this war and its costs?

What would happen if we were to open that hurt locker and look inside?

What would happen if the book in your hands brought these questions into the light and these characters into your heart?





  1. “Perhaps because we live with the illusion that our current conflicts cost us so little, we shrug our shoulders, turn a blind eye and allow it to go on and on and on.”

    So well said!
    My 3 children are growing up military kids, and I think of how this affects them constantly — I know the statistics about military kids and their plummeting school performance, their vulnerability to depression when a parent is deployed. We have a deployment coming up in July — only 6 months, but that is a long time for elementary-school-aged children, and we are all bracing for it. I’m so grateful to writers like Laura Harrington for calling attention to the issues facing military families, especially the children!

    Thank you for this terrific post.



  2. Thank you for this thoughtful piece on the importance of bringing to light all parts of war and its impact on society. The other frequently unattended narrative is that of women soldiers who are fighting and serving, no longer only as support personnel but as members of the combat arms, and whose experience is both the same and different from their male counterparts.


    • Shannon, I know Laura Harrington appreciates your kind words. As for novels or stories about women in the service, see my reviews of Helen Benedict’s SAND QUEEN (posted a couple weeks ago) and Katey Schultz’s story collection, FLASHES OF WAR. I am in the middle of Cara Hoffman’s just-published BE SAFE, I LOVE YOU; look for my review this weekend or early next week. In the coming weeks, I’ll be reviewing even more war-related books, such as YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE by Siobhan Fallon, ELEVEN DAYS by Lea Carpenter, STOP HERE by Beverly Gologorsky, and WIFE AND WAR by Amalie Flynn.


  3. Just like there are more than one color in a crayon box, some people don’t talk about certain subjects when they talk of war. Others do talk about those subjects. I have had fellow workers, clients, fellow worker’s spouses, and friends that do talk about the wars and current conflicts. Some are men and some are women. Many people choose to get their worries and fears out in the open to deal with them. I believe there is a emotional maturity attained before an individual can confront the their fears. During World War 2 my grandmother asked a neighbor how she was dealing with the death of two of her sons. The neighbor answered “You can only hurt so much”. As the saying goes “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. Most sane people would agree we all want to live in a peaceful world. That however is living in a Pollyanna, rose colored glasses world. There are circumstances where war is open heart surgery that is necessary for us to survive as a human race. Could we have negotiated a peace with Japan and Germany prior to December 7th 1941 and lived with ourselves as to what was going on in the lands of occupation.? World War 1, World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan. If we had only turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the rest of the world, where would we be? It seems as though the world is not fond of us, unless we are liberating them or saving them one way or another. A lot of American blood has been sacrificed for the good of a lot of other countries. If we had invested all the money we spent on conflicts we would have the best and the nicest of the world. Countries such as Israel and Japan would have to learn to become good neighbors. What would happen if we brought all of our military home? Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. Forget about the foreign aid we freely give. We could have the best schools, hospitals, airports, medical care, and clean up every river, creek, lake, pond. The consequence would be some groups of people would cease to exist. If Widgetland cease to exist would it affect our price of eggs and milk? When Johnny and Suzi do come marching home what is the cost of getting them back to pre-war condition? Is it possible to get them back to normal? What do we win if we win? What do we loose if we stay home and take care of our elderly, homeless, poor, sick, and damaged? What are our fears with these wars? Are they rational or irrational fears? Is it time to tell the world to seek someone else’s help and aid. We have yet to be paid for the foreign assistance during World War 1 or World War 2.


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