what we write about when we write about war

My current bookshelf is weirdly focused. The collection might seem a bit scary, if you didn’t know I was writing a book. (“What kind of obsessed veteran lives here?”)  When you know, some of what’s here might then seem obvious: David Cortright’s Soldiers in Revolt, Kingston’s Veterans of Peace anthology, the trauma stuff ( Jonathan Shay’s iconic Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery) and the war-specific guides: Rich Man’s War/Poor Man’s Fight, The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, The New Veteran ( by Charles G. Bolte, c1945).

Lately, i’ve been poring over the biographies and novels on the shelf, looking for guidance in the writing. (And kicking myself for never making the annual writers’ conference at the William Joiner Center.) Roy Morris’ invaluable  Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’ s Ghost, and James Tobin’s Ernie Pyle’s War seamlessly join narrative detail with the swing of history. So do Panther in the Sky, James Alexander Thom’s fictional biography of Tecumseh, and Joe Haldeman’s peerless 1968. (That last, however, is a bit like reading Joan Didion: you read it to be spun around by the master, not with the illusion you can write like that. )

But given the period I’m dealing with this week, I’ve been brought back to studying with Doctorow. More specifically, The March. In his 2005 review, Walter Kirn attaches to one of its core themes, which in some ways is half of mine:

The rampant destructiveness of Sherman’s march is, of course, the stuff of high school textbooks, but what isn’t so obvious is the way that destruction transfigures and transforms, pulverizing established human communities and forcing the victims to recombine in new ones. Inside the churning belly of Doctorow’s beast, individuals shed their old identities, ally themselves with former foes, develop unexpected romantic bonds and even seem to alter racially. Yes, war is hell, and “The March” affirms this truth, but it also says something that most war novels leave out: hell is not the end of the world. Indeed, it’s by learning to live in hell, and through it, that people renew the world. They have no choice.

Unlike the civilians in Doctorow’s novel, the soldiers in my story are all doing just that — either by challenging the discipline that makes war possible, or by speaking out either during service or afterward. Call it a coda to that central theme. But that’s not why I’m looking at Doctorow’s novel again.

Instead, I’m looking at a far more technical issue; how does he keep the arcs of four major characters, and an equal number of minor ones, flowing ahead together for the reader?  Can watching his transitions, his narrative spins, help me do the same, at least for this chapter? Can the transformation of Ambrose Bierce from 20-year-old hothead to Homeric figure/journalist/mystery shape one arm of this March while still getting readers interested in the parallel transformations of Lewis Douglass, sailor Edward Strickland in Florida, little Quakers like Jesse Macy? Let alone Donelson Caffery, who became an ardent opponent of the Philippine war after not only preceding Bierce at the battle of Shiloh, but seeing his Confederate commander go down at that field with the funny name, which witnessed hand-to-hand fighting that sounds like tales from 1994 Rwanda?* (Leaving aside the related question of how to write honestly about it all as a non-veteran, and to keep it bearable without trivializing it.)

Some of it is making them vivid, not just externally but with some characteristic mental tropes/phrases. But most of those, the bits of dialogue that fill Doctorow’s work and stayed with me, are from fictional characters. Except for this historic meeting aboard a ship off the South Carolina coast, so dramatically right that it’s hard to believe it happened:

The long head was in proportion to the size of the man, but intensifying of his features, so that there was a sott of ugly beauty to him, with his wide month, deeply lined at the corners….What is important, the President was saying in conclusion, is that we do not confront them with terms so severe that they continue the war in their hearts. We want the insurgents to regard themselves as Americans.

Doctorow doesn’t use quotes here, smartly not putting words in the mouth of frigging Abraham Lincoln. (I checked; that poetry about “the war in their hearts” is a Vietnam-era formulation for sure.) He does well, considering his source (Sherman’s memoirs):

Lincoln was full and frank in his conversation, assuring me that in his mind he was all ready for the civil reorganization of affairs at the South as soon as the war was over; and he distinctly authorized me to assure Governor Vance and the people of North Carolina that, as soon as the rebel armies laid down their arms, and resumed their civil pursuits, they would at once be guaranteed all their rights as citizens of a common country; and that to avoid anarchy the State governments then in existence, with their civil functionaries, would be recognized by him as the government de facto till Congress could provide others.

I know, when I left him, that I was more than ever impressed by his kindly nature, his deep and earnest sympathy with the afflictions of the whole people, resulting from the war, and by the march of hostile armies through the South; and that his earnest desire seemed to be to end the war speedily, without more bloodshed or devastation, and to restore all the men of both sections to their homes. In the language of his second inaugural address, he seemed to have “charity for all, malice toward none,” and, above all, an absolute faith in the courage, manliness, and integrity of the armies in the field. When at rest or listening, his legs and arms seemed to hang almost lifeless, and his face was care-worn and haggard; but, the moment he began to talk, his face lightened up, his tall form, as it were, unfolded, and he was the very impersonation of good-humor and fellowship. The last words I recall as addressed to me were that he would feel better when I was back at Goldsboro’. We parted at the gangway of the River Queen, about noon of March 28th, and I never saw him again. Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.

Doctorow lets his own beloved Wrede Sartorius, brought in to witness the meeting, to echo Sherman’s description and to more explicitly say what many think when we see those later, brooding portraits:

Perhaps his agony was where his public and private beings converged. Wrede lingered on the deck. The moral capacity of the President made it difficult to be in his company…..His affliction might be the wounds of the war he’d gathered into himself, the amassed miseries of this torn-apart country made incarnate.

Doctorow has, I think, also added a dash of Walt Whitman, the Civil War’s Homer, who wrote after watching Lincoln’s second inaugural procession the he could see

the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and the demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever into his dark brown face; yet all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness, beneath the furrows.

That last except courtesy of  Roy Morris (again), in his The Better Angel: Walt Whitman and the Civil War. Morris quotes openly from both Whitman and Bierce in describing the events of their iives; I wonder if I can do something similar, while somehow using a contemporary voice to better expose all those  gathered wounds to air. Or is my object to let their voices do it, and get out of the way?

We write about war, as Kirn said, as a way of writing about our lives. But there’s got to be a way to let those experiences be what they are, for a reader, before storytellers and politicians start yammering about what it all means.

* Speaking of Rwanda — and of learning from the master—check out this incredible Christian Science Monitor piece by my friend Jina Moore. If you ever need a reminder about what journalism can do, go re-read it.

Cross-posted at Devourer of Books.

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