London?s Financial Times recently ran an article on the National Endowment for the Arts? new ?Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience initiative. The program taps A-list writers to help teach returning soldiers how to mold all the raw and intense things they?ve seen and done in Iraq into narrative, and it caught my attention for two reasons. First, the workshop the Financial Times reporter covers is led by Tobias Wolff, a memoirist I (and just about anyone else working in the memoir genre) greatly admire. Second and most importantly, since my younger brother Emmet deployed to Iraq, I?ve seen how hungry the soldiers there are to read and write, and I can only hope Emmet gets to participate in this NEA program someday.
The FT article describes a typical class session:
?[Corporal Matthew Richards] . . . signed up, against his father?s wishes, to join the Marine Corps on his 18th birthday, 2001. He wanted to serve his country after the September 11 attacks. He describes talking with an old friend about their shared experiences in Iraq. ?We talked about morality and the war, and he?s a bit more religious than I am and feels the need to find some place he can go to make up for things out there, missionary work or something. I won?t be doing that myself, but I do agree that I also need cleansing.?
Richards is 20,000 words into a novel – the main character is initially indifferent to events around him but slowly grows in moral understanding. But something is troubling Richards and he can?t write about it. Last August, his unit fought a battle against Moqtada al-Sadr?s militia in Najaf, the spiritual heart of the Shia world. It was intense urban combat, ?something like D-Day, with tracer bullets flying and mortars exploding?. In a room next to him, he heard the shouts of ?Shoot him! Shoot him!? The marines had flushed out a ?militia guy? with a rocket-propelled grenade, who began running up the stairs. Richards saw his sergeant follow and draw his knife. What happened next still haunts him. All he remembers are the shrill screams as the enemy soldier was stabbed.
It was a dark moment. He wants to convey its essence in writing, but feels unable to. He wants to turn these events into fiction. If imagination and metaphor is the novelist?s domain, this kind of reality is either gold dust or poison. The last American generation to cover a big war produced some of the most disturbing books about combat and guerrilla warfare, such as Michael Herr?s Dispatches, Ron Kovic?s Born on the Fourth of July and Philip Caputo?s A Rumor of War.?
Everything in the article makes ?Operation Homecoming? sound like a model program. But then towards the end, the tone turns bafflingly snarky. Intense experience, the writer says, doesn?t necessarily make for finely crafted literature. He entirely misses the point.
To begin with, ?Operation Homecoming? may indeed produce some fine literature, and to express deep skepticism of this is to fall into the trap of stereotyping servicemen and women as uneducated and illiterate. Second, the program will boost the cause for literature in this country whether or not a book on the order of Tobias Wolff?s ?In Pharoah?s Army? emerges.
There?s the therapeutic value, of course, which I?m sure many soldiers will find priceless. But this writing therapy doesn?t just benefit the individual soldier. In seeing how writing mines individual experience for deeper truths, in seeing how much skill and hard work is required in striking at those truths, these soldiers are bound to emerge with a heightened appreciation for the art of good writing, and a better eye for it. And solider by soldier, in the years to come, this is going to make for a more literate American society.
I?ve seen that the soldiers in Iraq are eager and receptive; their encounters with life-or-death situations leave them needful of a medium capable of more profundity than a video game or a Hollywood blockbuster. Since deploying to Mosul, my brother?always a capable wordsmith but never much of a bookworm?has read Graham Greene, George Orwell, Ernest Hemmingway, and the Wolff memoir, which I sent him. Just today he sent me an email saying he was so excited about Jonathan Safran Foer?s ?Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? that he wants to send me a copy.
He?s not the only soldier in his platoon excited about writing. Last month, I sent Emmet an advance galley copy of my memoir. (After all, he appears as a minor character in it, though his star moment comes at age four, when I accidentally vacuum his hand and he?s forced to wear a white sock over the broken bones, so that our neighbors dub him ?Michael Jackson?.) The galley ended up circulating among the platoon members, a handful of whom wrote to me. One soldier said my memoir had inspired him to write?not about the war, but about his childhood. Another soldier wanted advice on a novel he?d been working on. They both have stories to tell. I hope they too are lucky enough to participate in the NEA?s ?Operation Homecoming.?