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.
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 , 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?