War of Words: Award-Winning Authors on the Literature of Combat


Writing about War
Phil Klay speaks about "Writing About War" as Natasha Trethewey and Scott Sagan look on.
Photo credit: 

Generations of political scientists, philosophers, policymakers and historians have studied myriad aspects of war, but there are some things about war that only art and artists can express.

“To understand how changes in war, technology and politics influence the foot soldiers, victims, and civilians and our overall memory, we don’t need political scientists and historians, we need pilots and poets, we need warriors and writers,” CISAC Senior Fellow Scott Sagan told a Stanford audience gathered at Bing Concert Hall.

Joining Sagan were National Book Award winner Phil Klay and U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. A Stanford Live event, the talk was part of a three-day workshop on “New Dilemmas of Ethics, Technology and War” sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Trethewey, a professor of English at Emory University, was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, a region steeped in Civil War mythology. She read poems from her 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poetry, “Native Guard,” which was inspired by a real diary of a black Union Army officer. The book takes its title from the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first all-black Union Army regiments. In addition to seeing battle, the Native Guards were tasked with guarding a fort housing Confederate prisoners of war.

Klay, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, read from his 2014 National Book Award-winning “Redeployment,” a collection of short stories that portray war and its aftermath through the memories of ordinary soldiers and officers fighting in Iraq. Klay started writing the book just a few months after he came back from Iraq, where he served as a public affairs officer.

“I came back with a sort of sense that a lot of people feel like, ‘What the hell was that?’” he said.

“I also came back to a country that didn’t feel engaged in a serious way with the wars that it was fighting, which was very disturbing to me since the political decisions we make here have huge impacts.”

Both writers conducted deep research while working on their respective books. Trethewey told of time spent in the Library of Congress poring over original letters from civil war soldiers as well as historical monographs. Klay pulled from personal memory as well as interviews with other veterans. While both maintained some fidelity to historical details, facts alone were not sufficient to fulfill their purposes.

“[I went] through research materials like Dr. Frankenstein going through a graveyard looking for spare parts – anything that might be useful to advance some of the ideas, questions, and troubles that I had,” Klay said.

“What you are aiming for does not necessarily lie with facts.”

For Trethewey it was as much the case that some facts were simply unaccounted for. The acts of black soldiers have, for the most part, been whitewashed out of history.

“I’ve always been interested in cultural memory and historical amnesia,” she said.

“I’m a native Mississippian and I grew up between Mississippi and Georgia so I grew up in the land of the ‘Lost Cause’ ideology, the land of the Confederate flag. I grew up in a place where if you were visiting from somewhere else and didn’t know the outcome [of the Civil War], based on all the monuments you might think the South won the war. And that creates a kind of psychological exile because it’s only telling one part of a larger, important American story.”

Writing About War

Trethewey read excerpts that dealt directly with the theme of competing histories. In one of her poems, she writes from the perspective of one of the Native Guards who is writing his words inside the used pages of a Confederate soldier’s journal, “on every page, his story intersecting with my own.”

Klay read excerpts from his book that were often funny and bitterly dark. In the story “Ten Kliks South”, an artillery crew fantasizes and debates the outcome of a recently executed fire mission. They wonder who they killed and whether any moral culpability should be borne and by whom (the shell loaders, or the trigger puller, or the commanding officer, or the bomb makers, or the entire American public?).

“There’s sometimes an expectation that a war book shouldn’t be funny, which is odd,” Klay said.

“Soldiers are really funny and one of the ways you make sense of absurd situations, which proliferate in any institution, and certainly the military is a good one for absurd situations to be in, you make sense of it through jokes. I think of Kurt Vonnegut saying, ‘I think a joke is a perfectly valid form of literature’.”

Making some sense of what war is and what it means to people is what Klay and Trethewey’s works aimed to do.

“It almost goes without saying but I always feel the need to remind people that in difficult times and in times of some of our greatest joy, we turn to poetry,” said Trethewey.

“People do turn to poetry because there is still a belief that most of us have, no matter how far buried down it is, that poetry is a language that speaks things that are unspeakable, which is why so many people turn to it in those moments.”

The writers’ efforts were welcomed by CISAC senior research scholar and U.S. Army veteran Joe Felter.

“In today's all volunteer military we have a much less diverse segment of the American public that has served in the armed forces or has a close friend or family member that has served,” said Felter.

“Fiction and poetry that give us a glimpse of the many faces of battle help make the experience of war, and the challenges faced by those directly involved in it, more accessible to a largely insulated public. As a policy researcher, I think it’s critical that the human dimension and costs of war are appreciated by our political decision makers. As a combat veteran, I hope that the sacrifices of those who served are not forgotten. Fiction and poetry like the extraordinary readings showcased in this event can help do both.”

By recording and embodying war’s horrors, ironies, and absurdities, Klay and Trethewey demonstrated what artists have to offer to Americans, the majority of whom are extraordinarily distanced from the very real and consequential human drama of war: to express the inexpressible, and the unexpressed.