"Where death becomes absurd and life absurder" - Literary Responses to War & Peace

Closing Statements

November 24, 2009
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When we were first assigned this blog I was quite skeptical on whether or not I would honestly be able to find correlations between the texts we were reading in class and current happenings in modern day conflicts. I thought picking a broad topic of various effects of war on the family members of soldiers or those living in the areas of combat but not directly involved in the fighting would make forming these connections easier. However, a few weeks in to the semester I found that I was not connecting to these elements in the text as much as I initially assumed I would. Instead I found myself more drawn to the way these stories of war were written and the ways that they conveyed their theme and feelings to the audience.
The Language of War is what has driven my last few posts. Maybe its the countless literature classes I’ve taken over the years which have inadvertently directed my attention to the the different uses of words and tone, but these things stood out more strongly for me in the texts than people who are speaking/writing these words. The use of language in the texts and blogs/websites are also the one thing that I am most familiar with, because I have never had to experience any sort of military conflict nor have I, thankfully, ever had anyone I cared about involved in combat. The subtleties of the language used to convey the horrors and traumas of war are what I found most interesting. Each of the authors we examined in class wrote on similar themes: death, heroism, and morality. Yet, they all constructed their literary images in very different ways. The blogs that I followed throughout the semester did this same thing, but on a more domestic level.

Over all I found this blog more beneficial than I anticipated. It allowed me to keep making connections between the literature and real life outside of the class room more so than some of my other courses.


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Perspective Lense: How an Author Sees a Story

November 24, 2009
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At the close of the semester I have been considering the range of materials we have read for my Literary Responses to War and Peace. Each one provides a very different perspective of the war that the writing revolves around. Currently we are reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. And I think in many ways his perspective is the easiest to relate to. He is a man in his twenties when he is drafted and forced in to what he calls a “wrong war”. It is only in certain sections that the narrator in O’Brien’s stories are his 20 year old self. Many perspectives from his 40 year old self looking back on his adolescence spent during the war and now he has lived two lifetimes (his 40 years being split between the two 20 segments). Now, granted I am not on the verge of being drafted into a war I do not support but be in the same time frame of life and having similar political convictions I feel like I can more easily relate to what he is writing. His perspective of as an author also causes me to connect very strongly with this text. At the end of the section titled “Spin” O’Brien comments on his perspective, being of an author creating story and being separated from the war by time.

He says, “Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a life time ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. An sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stores are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story” (O’Brien 38).

This concept highlights the fact that every story is individual to narrator and this stories serve as our memories and our lenses of certain situations. The influence our future perspectives. In the blog, A Family in Baghdad the author writes in the most recent post about they way people of the Western world have false perspectives and inadequately use them to examine other cultures.

Faiza Al-Arji states, “Most of the writers are Americans. This means that they write about the events from an American perspective… Young and naïve students [who have gone abroad to study] who lack experience may get brain washed and return to his home country to apply the twisted theories that he studied in the western or eastern countries. Most of the time, these theories don’t represent the real life in his country.”

Although not all of the students she refers to are going to be contributing to “stories” that will reach masses of people, they do construct their own personal stories. And now that their perspective has been altered to that of a Western one, Faiza Al Arji implies a fear that this will be detrimental to the country’s/population’s future. This idea is backed up by O’Brien’s description of what story is and how it connects what you learned or experienced in the past to who you deal with things in present and future.

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A Kind Word

November 6, 2009
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The texts that we’ve been reading in my Literary Study of War and Peace class have been quite varied. They’ve ranged from poetry to drama to memoir to graphic novel. Now we’ve moved on to an epistolary collection from American women to their loved ones over seas during WWII, titled Since You Went Away. I’ve always felt very intrusive reading published letters because the audience they were written for was not of the public sphere. The authors and recipients of the letters are varied yet they all share the common thread of love separated by the intrusion of war. They consist of couples courting through heartfelt salutations, newly weds, and housewives driven from their work at home to work for the war effort. When reading through the vast majority of the letters, one gets the feeling that you are hearing one side of a telephone conversation because well, they are mostly written in very conversational language.

For example, one letter from Catherine Cole to her new husband Vernon Lange describes the the common obstacles of her pregnancy that he is not around to experience. “Since I’ve been home I haven’t been a bit nauseated and Mom says I’m really lucky for some girls are miserable for quite some time. Today I wore a two-way-stitch [girdle] to church and thought I’d expire before getting home so suppose I’ll have to buy a larger one… Goodnight my darling. I’ll never stop loving you.” (Since You Went Away 75)

The sense of immediacy in the letter keeps Vernon connected to the world at home. The language is very personal, especially the closing. Allowing this letter to serve as a tangible link between his family and himself. Another method of doing this, that can be seen frequently throughout the letters, is through the use of sensory language that creates a strong image of home for the person overseas.

This can be seen in Sigrid Jensen’s letter to her husband, Karl, just hours after he left. “Your magazines, your books, your ash receiver, your papers still where you dropped them last night, your clothes spilling out of your closet and even your pajamas flung on the bed. But it wasn’t till I picked up the shirt you’d worn last night that the feel of you was unbearable … I stood there holding the shirt thinking it must go to the laundry. But I couldn’t put it in the hamper. I couldn’t even lay it down.” (Since You Went Away 12)

After reading through these letters I glanced through my Google Reader and caught up on the current happenings in Iraq and Afghanistan which stream through Iraq Today. I was intrigued by the stark contrast of the type of language that is coming back across the ocean to those at home in comparison to the letters. I’m fully aware of the separation in the historical time frame these two subjects of writing have and the different purposes they serve. But I think its the individual uses of languages they use set them apart even more than time and distance. It is solely information driven and very impersonal.

For example, Police forces managed on Friday to defuse a bomb in western Kut, a security source said.
“Bomb squad managed on Friday morning (Nov. 6) to defuse a bomb at the inlet of al-Ahrar neighborhood in western Kut,” the source told Aswat al-Iraq news agency. “The local-made bomb was targeting Iraqi and U.S. troops on their way to the Delta base in western Kut,” he added.

If a family member is currently out of communication with the person they love in the war, this website might serve as one of their main sources of information. The constant listing of casualties and attacks would be very hard to manage, especially since the site refrains from using names.

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Are They Just Words?

October 29, 2009
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Every individual group on some level has their own language.  These group can be as broad as various generations, to groups based off of geographical location, or even just a group of people who use a specialized vocabulary due to their job.  These various sets of jargon can be a small part of the language or can be so large that they act as an age which excludes outsiders from being able to to easily understand or communicate with members of said group.  An are where this specialized use of language is very common are during times of war.  Armed forces themselves use a separated lexicon for various operations, but the general public also has to come up with terms to identify and deal with what is going on around them.

In an article by Keith Woods, “Take Back the Language” this dividing line of language is addressed.  The focus of the article is about how journalist must be careful of how much military jargon the use while reporting.  This may seem like a fairly acute group of people who need to be concerned with how they use a language that is mostly foreign to them, but the language is filtered through the journalists to the public.  Therefore, if they miss use a word, the public will then take it and run with it.

Woods states, “The language of the military, like that of the local police department or civil court, can be muddled in obtuse, euphemistic jargon that has the seductive quality of making journalists sound like they’re in the know. But language has always had a power that tilts toward those who define the terms.”

The problem highlighted in the article is not the development of a specialized language, its the use of this lexicon out of context. The words don’t have the same meaning when you remove them from a combat situation. And when the are implemented by the public without noting that they are from a specialized set of language, their use and definitions become even more confused.

“The trouble comes when journalists adopt the language, take it out of quotation marks, remove the modifiers that tell viewers and listeners that this is someone else’s language. Then the patriotism, the nobility, the testosterone-infused terminology slip insidiously into the cracks of our independence and erode one of the profession’s cornerstones.” (Woods)

This article reminded me of a section of a text we’re reading in my War & Peace literature class, Survival in Auschwitz: If This Is A Man by Primo Levi. However, on top of their being certain language developed inside of the camp, a hybrid of all of the languages spoken among the prisoners,

the basic “meaning in the Lager of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ ” (Levi 61) have been altered to be subjective to one’s situation.

Also, Levi sees that there is something lacking in all of the languages.

“Then, for the first time, we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man.” (Levi 16)

This implies that amongst the various languages spoken within the barbed wire fences, there is no word that can identify the atrocities committed there. The things that Levi and his companions went through is beyond the comprehension of language. As for myself, I’m not sure I’d want to know of the word that could be created to easily convey what happened in Auschwitz.

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Escapism: How Do You Get Out?

October 20, 2009

I was recently catching up on one of my favorite NPR radio program/Showtime television program This American Life.  One of the episodes focused mainly a man who experienced something traumatic and developed a unique type of escapism to deal with it.  The man had been assaulted and hurt so badly he was hospitalized.  After being released from the hospital he began to work his anger out through therapy using action figures.  Eventually the man built an entire city dedicated to these action figures.  The setting was a city in Germany occupied during WWII.  His attackers he embodied through Nazi soldier figurines.  His way to escape from what had happened to him was to create a fictional war setting where this type of violence was typical.  Where the horrible fates of the soldiers were accepted as the norm.

I found this interesting and ironic in contrast to the play we by Stuart D. Lee, The Ghost May Laugh that we have recently read in class.  The officers in the play partake in a bit of story telling to allow themselves to escape from the trauma and violence of WWI.  There is no physical way for these men to get away from the idea of death, so they have to create a mental state that can do this for them.  In fact, one of the men, Jenkins, adds on another level of escapism by drinking himself into a constant stupor.

The comparison of these two scenarios I find very interesting.  They are practically mirror images of each other.  In relation to the first, the man who has been assaulted and now takes his revenge out on action figures, I think there is an element of our society instilled in him that says: war makes violence okay.  In the setting he creates he gets to determine the fate of his aggressors and whatever violent ends they meet are par for the course.  The comparison of these two stories shows that while it is more likely for a person to need an escape from violence, there is also the possibility of a person choosing to live vicariously through fictional violence as their form of escapism.

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Loss of Home

October 15, 2009
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We are all familiar of the connotative difference between the words house and home.  There is a sense of safety, love, and comfort in the word home which “house” lacks.But what happens when the place that you considered home has been destroyed?  Whether or not you were there to witness its destruction, the loss of this place can be devastating.  Now imagine that your former home was destroyed amid a conflict involving several countries and the loss of thousands of lives.

A documentary that we watched in my Literary Responses to War and Peace class, called Surviving Auschwitz, dealt with this idea.  The majority of the film followed two women who were young children during WWII and survived the infamous Auschwitz as they returned for the first time to the camp and also to the places they had lived before being taken away.  While the two women walked through an apartment they had briefly called home, you could see their memory flashing back to their early years.  These small rooms were supposed to be a safe place while outside a world of violence and death waited for them.  One of the women mentioned that even though she was too young to remember  much from the time that they lived there, she could distinctly remember the sound of boots and marching outside.  The conflict of a sense of home and the anxious and uncertain feelings that have removed any level of safety this place could have held for either women, even though they have been gone for so long.

This loss of home is addressed in a blog that I’ve been reading lately. It is written by a young mother of 3 living in Iraq. In one post she writes about going back to her parent’s house where she grew up in Baghdad.  She writes,

BUT seeing Baghdad in such a strange environment, seeing strange faces wearing black, having strange traditions that I had never seen in the place where I was born, all that ruined my happiness. Besides seeing our neighborhood there almost empty from the previous residents broke my heart and I couldn’t accept the new situation.”

Because of the violence in the country she no longer recognizes the place that she grew up as what was once her home.  So even those these women did not live in the same regior or time frame their sense of home was still take away from them because of the presence of wartime environment.

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Do you have to be a hero?

October 1, 2009

We all have different definitions of what we believe heroism to be.  I think in the broadest sense, everyone feels that there is a certain grandeur that needs to be present in an event or person for it to be classified as heroic.  However, any personal connection with said event/person might cause that definition to be slightly less grand.  This lofty idea of heroism can also make people feel inadequate if they have been faced with adversity in combat or some other situation and he or she has not lived up to heroic expectations.

For many people loss of a loved one, in any situations, but in war especially, can be more easily justified of there is a logical explanation or some greater good was achieved.  In the instance of Vera Brittan’s “Testament of Youth”, the death of Roland nearly ruin Vera.  The only solace she finds is that perhaps his death had been a heroic one and served a greater purpose than his life.  Vera contacts everyone who had any sort of connection to Roland’s death to reaffirm this notion.

Brittan claims, “had it been heroism or folly, I asked myself for the thousandth time, which had urged him forth to inspect the wire beneath so bright a moon?  In those days it seemed a matter of life or death to know.” (243)

Whether Roland acted heroically or not does not change the brutal fact that he has died.  However, if Vera can manage to put a positive spin on his death, his memory will be better preserved.  This notion of verbally adjusting events of combat to make oneself seem more heroic is still prevalent today,  and I believe will continue to be for as long as we hold heroism up on such a high pedestal .  In an MSNBC article about the Library of Congress’s efforts to gather American veterans’ personal war stories.  The article claims that the stories have been

“peppered with inaccurate information and fraudulent claims of heroism”

which cheapened the Library’s efforts.  One of the main inaccuracies that the article identifies are people claiming to be awarded Medals of Honor when they have not.

The incorrect Medal of Honor listings are just the tip of the iceberg in a collection of 50,000 oral and written histories that also includes numerous other errors regarding everything from lesser medals to rank attained and whether or not the soldier was ever a prisoner of war, according to outside experts on the database.

I think this shows that the majority of people who have participated in any war feel like they need to have done something great to be considered heroic.  It is society that expects every soldier to be a hero and this pressure is what has caused embellishment or stretching of the truth in the stories collected by the Library of Congress.  However, lacking a medal or an extravagant story does not make military service any less honorable and if everyone came out of combat with these things it would cheapen our perception of a hero.

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War & the “Youth” Generation

September 24, 2009
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Currently I am reading Testament of Youth by Vera Brittan.  In which she retells her experiences of World War I by  re-examining her diary and correspondence 15 years later.  The letters sent back and forth between Brittan and her romantic interest, Roland, are a prime example of the view point of the “youth” generation involved in the war.

Brittan states, “The War, we decided came hardest of all upon us who were young.  The middle-aged and the old had known their period of joy, whereas upon us catastrophe had descended just in time to deprive us of that youthful happiness to which we had believed ourselves entitled” (129)

This sentiment is obviously not particular to the characters in the book, nor to the time in history.  The presence of war in a society acts as a fast forward button on the lives and of the Youth.  This is because it brings the idea of one’s mortality to the forefront  of society’s mind. When a generation is constantly faced with the death of its members, en mass, it puts life into perspective and the “follies of youth” generally fall by the wayside.  In the United States, in present days and in days of times past, the younger generation has been the group to fight.  However, in places around the world those involved in combat are not only considered youthful, they are children.

In the article “Youth at War: Dealing with a Generation of Young Soldiers”, the IRIN describes the difficulties that adolescents in different areas of Africa and Asia have transitioning from child soldiers to adults.

“The breakdown of normal social structures prevents young people from making the natural transition to adulthood with its accompanying identities. In times of conflict and poverty, young people are attracted to the military as it offers them an identity they are otherwise deprived of. Caught between childhood and adulthood, youths can be drawn into armed groups as it gives them a fast-track to adulthood.

Adolescence and youth are a critical stage in a person’s development. It is a time of rapid transformation which can see young people taking risks as they try on their new roles and responsibilities. This period is intensified during times of conflict when the social norms and means of support are removed, stopping young people from making a normal evolution to becoming an adult.”

The way that Vera Brittian feels about the pressures of war falling on the shoulders of youth is universal.   Not only do the younger members of the generation have to bear the brunt of the combat, they must also internalize all that the experience during the war and deal with that through the rest of their lives.  Therefore, while any type of war or violence plays a role in the lives multiple generations and populations, it is the youth that is most greatly effected.

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How Much Is Too Much?

September 17, 2009
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Censorship is a prevasive issue  in all aspects of our lives.  In a recent connection to the struggles in Iraq the publication of the photograph of Lance Cpl Joshua Bernard as he was 

“tended to by fellow U.S. Marines on Aug. 14 after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during a firefight against the Taliban in the village of Dahaneh in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan” (Iraq Today).

  This photograph represents the reality of war.  All of the heroics have been omitted and the gruesome frailty of life is what comes through.

Many people have objected to the publication of this photograph. It has mostly been in context to how the image has effected the family LCpl Bernard.  I think that also on the broadest scale people fear images like these because it brings a violence ,that they are separated from through euphemistic terms and political rhetoric, into their homes.

The blog “Afghan Quest” reacts to the publication of LCpl’s photograph by saying

“The AP never really cared if the response was negative. This means that the approval of the family would have added some value to the AP’s angle on this; but they were so willing to go without approval that they were willing to disregard a direct request from the Secretary of Defense, who asked them not to publish it.”

  It is obvious to see why so many people have objected to the public’s ability to view this immensely personal moment in the life of LCpl Bernard.  However, by keeping images like this from the public the idealized view of war is kept in tact.

The contrast of the two tactics has been perpetuated throughout every major War the United States has been in.  An example of this are the varying type of poets from World War I.  Some of related the importance of fighting for one’s country and the honor which lies in that.  Rupert Brooke writes “If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ that is forever England.” (Brooke, The Soldier).  His glorification of going into battle is directly contrasted by the realistic and gruesome images portrayed by Wilfred Owen. He conveys to his audience the horrors of war through lines like “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/ Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge” in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”.  In their time frame these poems served as the only way the public back home had any notion of what war was like.  The verbal images are not nearly as shocking to people living currently because we are accustomed to the visual presence of violence in our lives.

The conflict that I see here is whether the censorship of such as images as LCpl Bernard or the words of Owen do us more harm than good as a society in general.  As human beings are we better off aware of the horrors of war?

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The Rundown

September 10, 2009
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       Throughout the duration of this blog my intention is to focus on how the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq affect not only the soldiers themselves, but also their  family and the people native to the area.  I think it will be interesting to see the different ways people who are involved with the conflicts on varying levels deal with the presence of war in their lives. 

         When searching for sources for my feeds for this blog I tried to cover a great range of feeds.  I Started at the top with feeds from major news sources, the two main ones I plan to follow are the New York Times World News and the BBC News: America.   The podcast that I chose to follow deals with the lives of Army Wives. I found it interesting how these women internalize the struggles that their spouse go through as well as their own difficulties of going through life with a loved one living abroad in a dangerous environment.  I subscribed to a handful of different blogs to be able to catch glimpses of opinions by different people involved in these conflicts.  One is “An Arab Woman Blues. Reflections in a Sealed Bottle”, it is the thoughts and opinions of a woman who has lost her homeland and dealing with the violence around her.  I also subscribed to two different blogs by people in the armed forces.  “Afghan Quest” and “Training for Eternity”.  I chose these two because they have contrasting themes, one focuses on the rebuilding of a nation while the other is preoccupied with the pointlessness of it all.  To add to the blogs, I included in my google reader feeds from “Iraq Today” and “Death of a Nation” – a Pulitzer Crisis website on intelligence from Iraq.  From these feeds I hope to be able to connect the technical aspects of what is going on in the conflicts to how the people are reacting and internalizing it. 

Throughout my examination of these current conflicts I will be relating them back to literature that has been written about previous wars.  My intentions are to highlight universal themes of heroism, patriotism, and mortality between various time periods and the different levels of all people involved.

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