Image: French Troops Resting © Estate of Christopher Nevinson/The Bridgeman Art Library
IN THE ANTI-WAR BOOK THREE GUINEAS Virginia Woolf writes, “You must educate the young to hate war. You must teach them to feel the inhumanity, the beastliness, the insupportability of war.”
Woolf was a pacifist and her novels are filled with anti-war feeling. The devastating effects of the first World War, the greatest conflict of her generation, are everywhere: Andrew Ramsey dies in WWI in To The Lighthouse; in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf explicitly deals with the relationship between civilians and veterans through the story of Septimus Smith and Clarissa. And in Jacob’s Room, the whole of the narrative is the story of one young man’s life who dies in the war.
The English language anti-war syllabus is of course chockful of books by men, including Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Heller’s Catch-22, and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
These novels were released in, respectively, 1929, 1961, and 1969.
So where are today’s anti-war novels?
Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy, beginning with Regeneration and concluding with the Booker Prize-winning The Ghost Road is a poetic, incisive exploration of the effects of WW I. There are the aforementioned titles by Woolf. And there are scattered titles dealing with Eastern Europe.
It’s clear the two major wars continue to inspire writers. But where are the novels dealing with current armed conflicts like Iraq or Afghanistan? Are writers simply not writing them, or are publishers not putting them out?
The focus to nonfiction is behind the shift, Geoff Dyer says in his piece for The Guardian, ““The human heart of the matter”:
Reportage, long-form reporting – call it what you will – has left the novel looking superfluous. The fiction lobby might respond: it’s too soon to tell. A decade of literary silence followed the armistice of 1918. It wasn’t until 1929 that a novel appeared that made imaginative sense of the first world war.
If that timeline is to be followed, next February marks the twentieth anniversary of the “official end” of the Gulf War, which means we’re long overdue for a novel dealing with the events in Kuwait.
Dyer argues that readers can find novelistic control of tone, phrasing and the “moral resolution of fiction” in current war-themed books like Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War.
No matter how well-written these real-life experiences are, they remain nonfiction, an extended riff on the in-depth news piece. If all that readers are getting is the visceral experience of the grunt’s wartime experience or the author’s embedded observations, we’re still missing the depth of a novel. A subject as big as war needs an approach like Heller’s and Vonnegut’s satire or a political polemic in the style of Woolf’s novel-essays.
And there’s need for one than one point-of-view. War is still a man’s pursuit, one that despite all his protestations about peace, he clearly relishes. And then he crafts stories around his male-generated, male-run wars.
Is there a different kind of war book yet to be written, about the Gulf War, or Afghanistan or Iraq, which becomes part of the high school syllabus for tomorrow’s students?
What’s needed is a story that transcends gender and politics, whether written by male or female. Woolf touches on this when she writes, “In fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” For a novelist writing about war, the whole world must be his country.