War writing follows a sequence: first reportage, then memoirs. For years, that’s all there is. Novelists are always last: Ten years after the invasion, the first novels about the Iraq war appeared. Fiction is ruminative, emerging slowly from experience, like water seeping upward to a spring.
My own book was engendered by an account in the New York Times about our troops on the ground in Iraq, about unarmored Humvees, IEDs, and TBIs. It told of the military’s reluctance to diagnose brain injuries, because treatment was expensive, and would mean removing combatants from the field. All this troubled me. The story stayed in my mind, taking more and more space, until I realized that it would become a book.
I knew nothing about war—I’m a Quaker—and I needed a universe of information. I read every first-person narrative I could find from Iraq. I read blogs by soldiers in Ramadi and Hit and Falluja. On YouTube I watched marine dance contests and family homecomings. I watched firefights, shot by soldiers with baby cams on their helmets. I interviewed every vet I could find. I listened to their stories. And I asked them about their favorite war books.
The problem of war fiction is scale. War is vast, abstract, and impersonal. (It may be the most impersonal of all human endeavors; if we had to consider it in personal terms, we would never wage it.) A soldier is small, human, and personal. The task is to create a narrative that includes the personal and impersonal, and to create, in a language that civilians will understand, a world they can’t imagine.
During interviews, I kept hearing one title: All Quiet on the Western Front. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel was published in 1929, about a decade after World War I. Drawing on the author’s experience, it’s a first-person narrative, told by a young German soldier fighting in France.
Remarque beautifully resolves the problems of scale and language. Private Paul Bäumer’s voice is quiet and informal, and the story begins with a personal matter of universal interest: food. “Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans.”
Not only the soldiers are relieved: We readers are as well. Braced for horror, we’ve gotten a reprieve. We needn’t face the big guns just yet; we’re safe behind the lines and replete. Soon we learn why this has happened: Most of the company has been killed. The cook prepared food for 150 soldiers, but only eighty have returned from the front lines. This news is delivered casually; it’s important mainly because the surviving soldiers want all the food.
The sentimental notions of war and heroism are challenged at once, and the narrative continues to shock us with its contrasts between routine and horror. But the voice is not callous; in fact it’s almost unbearably compassionate. Bäumer visits poor Kemmerich, dying of blood poisoning in the field hospital. Kemmerich is told he’s going home (a lie), and nods silently. Bäumer says, “I cannot bear to look at his hands, they are like wax. Under the nails is the dirt of the trenches, it shows through blue-black like poison.”
The life of the body, in all its exigence, declares itself throughout the narrative. As death approaches, life becomes more urgent: Men wolf down their food before going out, because they might die before another meal. A wounded comrade dies in no-man’s-land because he’s blinded and mad with pain, blundering into the gunfire before his friends can reach him. These intimate moments inform us of the ghastly presence of war, looming behind everything. It’s war that turns Kemmerich’s hands waxy, war that causes the clumsy rush into machine-gun fire.
The narrative is both beautiful and desolate. It’s shocking, in the way of great fiction, because it reveals things we didn’t know we knew. It’s modern in its rejection of conventional pieties about courage or nobility or patriotism. It’s complete in its grasp of the wartime experience, with all its futility and heartbreak, extremity and complexity, and moments of deep human connection.
Two things serve as testaments to the book’s merit: that American veterans so admire it nearly a century after it was published, and that the Nazis were so enraged by its rejection of the notion of military nobility that they burned it, banned it, and then, since Remarque himself had left the country, decapitated his sister.
Books have a kind of power that war cannot equal, but war has a kind of power that seems unending. It was this paradox I wanted to explore in my own fiction; it was this paradox that all war books, by their nature, both challenge and perpetuate—the way men answer the call to become heroes, only to be reminded how deeply they are human.
Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books and the current president of the Authors Guild. The Guild is America’s oldest and largest professional organization for writers, and provides advocacy on issues of free expression and copyright protection. Her most recent novel, Sparta (Sarah Crichton Books, 2013), received the James Webb Award for Distinguished Fiction from the U.S. Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. This essay was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of BookForum and is reprinted here by permission of the author. http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/021_02/13271