On writing about war:
This year, according to my careful calculations (or at least according to the bracket I just hastily filled out), Syracuse University will win the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. And when I think of Syracuse, the local basketball powerhouse of my upstate New York childhood, I think of past college greats who played for the Orangemen: Carmelo Anthony, Earl “The Pearl” Washington, and of course nineteenth-century novelist Stephen Crane, although hoops wasn’t his game.
Crane briefly played baseball for Syracuse in the late 1800s. I learned this over the weekend, from a Times article claiming that Stephen Crane’s experiences as a young athlete were directly responsible for the uncanny, chaotic momentum of his war writing. This might be difficult to believe if the author himself hadn’t said as much when The Red Badge of Courage came out in 1895. “I have never been in battle… I believe I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field,” Crane admitted, which makes me wonder, Did nineteenth-century novelists feel less secretive than contemporary writers about the tricks and quirks of their approaches to writing fiction? And also, more importantly, have we lost our sense of the role imagination plays in making stories about war?
A look at the opening passage from The Red Badge of Courage gives a sense of what the author learned from competing in team sports:
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.
One thing that fascinates here is Crane’s deftness with group psychology—the army immediately becomes a single character with a collective point of view. There is also the echo of “eyes” and “eyelike,” which actively imagines the looking that must take place before this sort of battle, capturing how young men feel when confronted with visible evidence of their rivals. Of course the rivalry Crane describes is a deadly one. Much more is at stake here than in any football game; when the army gazes at “hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills,” the hills are monstrous, not merely threatening. But there is something in this description that also resonates with the way players on the same sports team sometimes see with collective eyes, the way teammates fight for a common goal on the field even when they may not know each other very well outside the confines of the game.
Taking Crane at his word about the influence of football on his literary imagination—and knowing that he wrote his novel decades after the Civil War ended—makes me wonder about the emphasis our culture places on writers being “embedded” with military personnel in theaters of war. I believe that the work of embedded war reporters is often very important, and I’ve read excellent fiction that’s come from the experience of writers witnessing the lives of real soldiers (Tom Bissell’s recent long story “Death Defier” comes to mind). But I find that stamp of approval—“embedded”—troubling somehow. It calcifies this sense that soldiers go and fight for us, while war reporters go and witness for us. Therefore the rest of us—well, we’re given images from the front lines, and some very memorable reporting, it’s true. In some ways this reporting helps us envision what it’s like to be involved on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. But what about our own role in witnessing and imagining what the wars our country is fighting must be like?
I didn’t love the movie The Hurt Locker, and the fact that the screenwriter was an embedded journalist for Playboy (oh God, yes, the articles!) doesn’t exactly make me trust the movie’s point-of-view. But one thing I have to say for it: maybe because of the filmmaker’s role in transforming the material from script to screen, there are moments in the film that go way beyond reporting, that force us to participate in the weird mix of boredom, discomfort, fear and exhilaration that soldiers live through. I can understand why some veterans’ groups object to the things that the movie gets wrong. But their demands for documentary realism are in some ways a big problem. The Hurt Locker’s fictionalizing is at times contrived and shallow, but there are stretches of real poetry in the film as well, moments the filmmakers’ couldn’t have made without giving themselves permission to stray from agreed-upon facts. We need excellent journalism and documentary films to help us understand war and its human consequences. We need imaginative attempts like The Hurt Locker too.
Civil War photograph by Mathew Brady.