PEN 2014: Is There Such a Thing as Anti-War Literature?

Film Literature War and Peace

The discussion of anti-war literature demands several questions, none of which will be addressed here. For example, should there even be anti-war literature? What is war, exactly, and so then what is anti-war? Which wars are worth opposing and is it the obligation of the writer to do so? And so on. Never mind that no two wars are alike, so then no two artistic responses are alike. In war, like in art, there is no single truth.


U.S. Marine veteran Phil Klay read a short piece from his collection of war stories, Redeployment, in which one of the characters declares there is no such thing as an anti-war film. I don’t have a case against this argument. My question—touched on by the PEN World Voices Festival panel “Writing War”—is whether there is such a thing as an anti-war novel.


In literature the touchstone for great war narratives begins with Homer’s The Iliad, especially in the heroic events surrounding Achilles, who ably deals out death like he is managing a poker game, bringing “toil and sorrow on the Trojans” in the battle for Troy. The violence in The Iliad is bathed in both heroic and sinister light. Soldiers battle for glory of their name and kinsmen, and yet death is so often delivered—after much begging for mercy—in the most un-heroic, gruesome fashion:

…but a mischief soon befell him from which none of those could save him who would have gladly done so, for the son of Telamon sprang forward and smote him on his bronze-cheeked helmet. The plumed headpiece broke about the point of the weapon, struck at once by the spear and by the strong hand of Ajax, so that the bloody brain came oozing out through the crest-socket. His strength then failed him and he let Patroclus' foot drop from his hand, as he fell full length dead upon the body; thus he died far from the fertile land of Larissa, and never repaid his parents the cost of bringing him up, for his life was cut short early by the spear of mighty Ajax. Hector then took aim at Ajax with a spear, but he saw it coming and just managed to avoid it; the spear passed on and struck Schedius son of noble Iphitus, captain of the Phoceans, who dwelt in famed Panopeus and reigned over much people; it struck him under the middle of the collar-bone the bronze point went right through him, coming out at the bottom of his shoulder-blade, and his armour rang rattling round him as he fell heavily to the ground. Ajax in his turn struck noble Phorcys son of Phaenops in the middle of the belly as he was bestriding Hippothous, and broke the plate of his cuirass; whereon the spear tore out his entrails and he clutched the ground in his palm as he fell to earth.


This is not a turn off?

Soldiers die a thousand violent deaths in The Iliad, and yet it remains a romantic literary portrayal of humanity’s most abhorrent tradition. “The history of Western Civilization bills itself as the romance of war,” wrote Lewis Lapham in his introductory essay in the inaugural issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. And yet, no matter how often told, the story of war, says Lapham, “begins with a call to arms and ends with a cortege of postmortems.” It seems we never learn. Or, perhaps the lessons are exactly what need to be taught year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia. The veteran correspondent and political dissident Chris Hedges famously argued that war is a force that gives us meaning.


The third person omniscience in The Iliad keeps the reader at a far remove from the psychological trauma of those who suddenly find themselves thrust into a battle that perhaps they don’t want to be in, let alone not allowing us to see what goes through their minds when they are run through by a spear, gasping their last breaths. To whom do they whisper a final prayer? What regrets suddenly discolor their final moments on our earthly plane?


The Iliad is violent spectacle in which it is safe for the audience to engage. We can see plainly that there is death, destruction, and even heroism, but that is all. We only see it. We cannot feel it, let alone have greater understanding or empathy for the characters meeting their ends (or meting out Death’s commands). The same is true of cinema, where moving images present violent spectacles at safe remove. One could argue that every war movie ever made is derivative of The Iliad. A war movie like Platoon or Apocalypse Now antiseptically deliver visceral and emotional surges from a viewpoint that is exterior to the character. Sure, there is psychological trauma in these two films, but you’ll never actually dive into the psyche of the deteriorating protagonist. Platoon, it is said, is supposed to be an anti-war film, and yet Klay tells us that all of his Marine buddies adore the movie.


It is literature that gets us into the minds of the protagonists, thus providing the best chance to create an anti-war narrative.  It is literature that allows the reader to glimpse the psyche of the character caught up in a violent maelstrom; as Roxana Robinson suggested, to explore the “confusions of the soul.” Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is seen as a quintessential war novel, and it is also the contender for best anti-war novel. All Quiet does not romanticize war, as the epigram boldly declares:


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 the war.


One result of exploring these psychological and spiritual confusions, as is remarkably conducted in Remarque’s masterpiece,1 is finding yourself—the reader—in a pitying mood. We might pity the character for their predicament, but is that necessarily a positive outcome? Pity is an emotional response to someone else’s grief and misfortune. But what good is pity if there is nothing to be done about the situation? Pity allows the reader to feel better about themselves for empathizing with a difficult situation; it does not obligate the pity-er to act. In pity, which is narrowly focused on an individual moment, there is little room for a colder, more scientific approach to the same situation. Criticism allows us to pull back and to examine the phenomena surrounding and acting on the character—the totality of the situation. This space is needed to question why characters find themselves in such ugly circumstances in the first place. In doing so, we may even discover that the character does not deserve our pity.



1. And also, I suggest, in Shohei Ooka’s Fires on the Plain (1957), translated from the Japanese by Ivan Morris.



PEN 2014