“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”
–Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
War has a reputation for engendering patriotic sentiments primarily, but not exclusively, among non-participants. From the sidelines we engage through uplifting moral archs as if war was simply the testing ground of character and the factory of valor. War is sung to us like a rite. As if war is a normal, expected part of our existence. I first noticed a ripple in this mirage when I married a veteran. I saw it first in his sense of humor that seemed unshaken and even outright drawn to darker shades. Over the years I met his friends, who tended all to be vets of one service or another. I discovered the concert of their collective wit. These people seemed to all have the lightning quick ability to find the ironies, inconsistencies and absurdities in our existences. And you somehow get the feeling that there is always an internal memorial they are reliving. A place they can’t quite share in whole.
When you read a war story, you should be troubled. It should not, on the grander scale, seem to make some sense. When you read a war story you should be plagued by moral ambiguities. It should exert some discomfort as a light blinding on direct approach.
Here are a few to try that you might not have encountered before:
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers
Redeployment – Phil Klay
Company K – William March (One of my all time favorite novels.)
And if you are not faint of heart, Short-Timers – Gustav Hasford (This is the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It is very out of print but can be found floating the webs in pdf form.)
(The title was borrowed from the words of William Tecumseh Sherman. “I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance for desolation. War is hell.”)