The following commentary was presented at the “Writing War” panel discussion on May 1, as part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.
As a critic and a reader—rather than a writer—of war literature, I wanted to share a couple of influential ways that war writers have tried to shape and control how their work is read. The English war poet Wilfred Owen was killed a week before the 1918 armistice. Earlier that year he wrote the first draft of a preface to a planned volume of his collected poetry, which contained at its center three memorable, if somewhat mystifying lines:
Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Since Owen wrote those lines they’ve had an outsize effect on how war literature is read and understood. They make sure that the literariness of war literature is absorbed by—subordinated to—the “war-ness.” The subject overwhelms the form. In response, readers are asked implicitly to pity, not to analyze or criticize. Pity requires a certain distance—it asks us to keep the subject at arm’s length.
The other idea that Owen emphasized in his preface was that there was greater truth in the “spirit” rather than the “letter” of what he wrote. That’s why, he says, he doesn’t use proper names. The most famous World War One prose narratives, which appeared in a flood about ten years after the end of the war, also wrote in that spirit, and were some hybrid of fiction and autobiography. Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, saw no tension between the two, telling the New York Times in September 1929, that “For obvious reasons I adopted the fiction form, but what I put down was the truth.” Remarque and Owen both insist that their writing, through obscuring the facts, conveys a more important, deeper truth than that contained in documentary accounts. So, even as they deny the importance of literary form (fiction and poetry), they privilege the values of literature over the values of history.
But literature, while it can convey deep, lasting, moral truths, is dangerously open to interpretation. Remarque’s brief dedication to 1929’s All Quiet on the Western Front shows that he was as concerned as Owen with how his book would be read, and eager to circumscribe his audience’s reactions:
"This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by war."
Like Owen, he systematically excludes what the book is not going to be, or do, limiting what his story can do in courtroom of history. He’ll be a witness, but not the prosecutor.
Remarque also rejects the literary heritage of the combat adventure story, and thereby asks his readers to reject the massive heritage of war literature that was meant to inspire heroism, glory and patriotism—all the classical virtues in which he and his generation had been steeped, and which he blamed for “destroying” them. Yet concepts of heroism, glory, and patriotism linger even in writing we think of as anti-war. Since World War One, readers have expected veteran poets and novelists to tell a different kind of truth, more powerful and profound than the truths of journalists and historians. But can we respond to that truth with anything more productive than pity