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The Military-Literary Complex

[Navy Reserve Cmdr. Kathleen Toomey Jabs autographs a copy of Operation Homecoming; image from] [Navy Reserve Cmdr. Kathleen Toomey Jabs autographs a copy of Operation Homecoming; image from]

Poetry cannot serve as an emotional bandage for the blood and guts of warfare; such an industry is doomed to dishonor the dead as well as the living. — Yusef Komunyakaa

Not so long ago, American corporate media willingly accepted a set of new conditions and limitations in exchange for the privilege of reporting on the frontlines of Iraq, such as they existed. The military bed was a place of censorship, where reports underwent military review prior to publication. But more importantly, the failures of the bed were ones of sympathy and lack: by focusing on one story—the story of an all-volunteer American army—embedded journalism failed to report on the experiences of the vast majority of people—unarmed Iraqi civilians—conscripted by American policy into a life of violent war and brutal occupation.

The military bed is not a thing of the past, but its home has changed. Over the last few years, the practice of embedding has been moved from the chambers of journalism into those of literature. The story of how it moved involves an unlikely array of governmental, commercial, educational and grass-roots organizations—including the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Boeing Corporation, grassroots veterans support groups, MFA programs, publishers and professional and amateur literary associations—that have come together to extend embedded writing into the heart of American letters.

During the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the embedded model invited civilian journalists into military units and in the process produced a dubiously framed story about humanity and violence. The embedded model of literature works conversely. Now, a network of military-literary partnerships invites ex-soldiers into civilian publishing through a system of training, mentoring and special access. As Sinan Antoon has argued, the arrangement reproduces the same kind of story we read a decade ago, though now with serious literary credentials. In the new war canon, the Iraq invasion and occupation again appear as almost exclusively American events. Again, Iraqis are largely absent from the frame. Again, torment and pain—and humanity—belong to US soldiers rather than Iraqi civilians. Again, the war and its rationale may be available for critique, but only in a very limited way. Like the failure of embedded journalism before it, the failure of embedded literature is one of imagination and research.

Combatant Privilege

One cannot tell the story of our nation without also telling the story of our wars. And these often harrowing tales are best told by the men and women who lived them. Today’s American military is the best trained and best educated in our nation’s history. These men and women offer unique and important voices that enlarge our understanding of the American experience. Looking at the great literary legacy of soldier writers from antiquity to the present, I cannot help but expect that important new writers will emerge from the ranks of our latest veterans.
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, A Guide for Writers, 5.

War experience has long been a rite of passage for some young (male) writers. To see how large war literature looms within American letters, we only have to recall the careers of Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, and others. There is, of course, no necessary link between war and writing, and the vast majority of veterans never make a concerted effort to record—let alone compose, craft, and publish—their stories. Nonetheless, a special link between guns and pens has long been assumed, and that is what allows former NEA director Dana Gioia, quoted above, to refer so easily to a “great literary legacy of soldier writers from antiquity to the present.” The extremeness of armed conflict is presented as if it were the ultimate test for writers, and as if the truth of war experience could be expressed by no one other than armed combatants. Or, as the editor of the much-lauded volume of wartime prose, Operation Homecoming, put it, “You get not just what the combat correspondent beside them observes… This is the internal feeling of warfare.” The lesson is clear: combatants know war from within and feel it, while non-combatants only ever watch from the sidelines.

What this account leaves out is, of course, the fact that the vast majority of participants in wars are not armed combatants, but rather civilians attempting to survive the havoc created by armed combatants. Even so, the fetish of the warrior writer is well established. The word “crucible” is a cliché in the reception of this kind of writing, as if no other human experience could produce writing so pure or hard. It is not just that combatants are granted a unique purchase on war experience, but war experience is granted a privileged place in writing itself.

Such privilege is not a given. For it to exist, it needs to be constructed and maintained. It needs a support system. And, over the last decade, champions of the new war writing have mobilized an unprecedented amount of support for their cause, at times with careful, strategic planning and underwritten by tax-payer dollars and corporate largesse.

Operation Homecoming and its Critics

The celebrated example of Operation Homecoming, illustrates how elaborate state and private subsidies for war writing can be. The National Endowment for the Arts—“in coordination with all four branches of the Armed Forces and the Department of Defense,” the Veterans Administration, the Library of Congress, the Southern Arts Federation, The Writer’s Center, Random House Books, and the Boeing Corporation—assembled a massive writing, publishing and archiving project dedicated to fostering the writing talents of soldiers and their families. With a large contribution from Boeing, the NEA:

sponsored writing workshops for returning troops and their families at military installations from Alaska to Florida, New York to California… The workshops also were held at overseas installations from the USS Carl Vinson in the Persian Gulf to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Taught by some of America’s most distinguished novelists, poets, historians, and journalists, these workshops provided servicemen and women with the opportunity to write about their wartime experiences in a variety of forms—from fiction, verse, and letters to essay, memoir, and personal journa.” (Operation Homecoming Handbook, 4)

Over fifty workshops were held, and participation was sizeable—six thousand vets and family members, according to organizers. Many of the teachers and mentors who participated in the workshops were eminent writers in their own right, including the novelist and short-story author Tobias Wolff, himself a Vietnam vet, as well as the former Poet Laureate of Connecticut, Marilyn Nelson, who grew up on military bases as the daughter of a Tuskegee airman. Best-selling authors like Jeff Shaara and Tom Clancy were paid upwards of three thousand dollars for their participation. At a workshop at the Norfolk Naval Station in September 2004, Clancy supposedly jangled his car keys at the audience while joking, “Mercedes Benz. All you have to do is tell your stories, and you can have one, too.”

Thousands of pages of prose were produced under the aegis of the Operation Homecoming project, covering an impressive range of wartime life in and around the US military. The corpus was collected and archived in the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. War historian Andrew Carroll then edited a small portion of the writing generated in the workshops, which were then published in an anthology by Random House and The University of Chicago Press, complete with a high-profile book launch and publicity campaign. The 2007 film, Muse of Fire—featuring Kevin Costner and directed by Lawrence Bridges—documented the history of the project.

Operation Homecoming was roundly criticized even before it got off the ground. Vietnam vet and poet Kevin Bowen called it a “pre-emptive move” to create “an official literature coming through the military and Pentagon.” Elsewhere, he argued, “Operation Homecoming threatens to move the NEA into the business of supporting the generation of propaganda… [it is] a wartime exercise that is not part of its mission, and does writers, veterans, and the public a great disservice.” Pulitzer Prize winning poet and Vietnam vet Yusef Komunyakaa described it in similar terms, “Operation Homecoming reminds me that we had our soldier poets in Vietnam also; and for the most part, they penned what I call “the boondock doggerel of blood and guts” which was printed by the Stars and Stripes.”

In a 2004 essay, the poet Eleanor Wilner questioned the wisdom of creating a public-private, military-industrial-literary synergy with the Boeing Corporation, “a major recipient of our tax dollars and a corporation that profits from war.” Wilner went on to note that the mere act of questioning military experience, rights, and privileges is to invite severe criticism and controversy:

What we have here is a program that seems designed to be proof against all criticism, as if to raise any questions about it is to seem to target those deserving soldiers and the writers who have signed on. But what if we look behind these unassailable shields? Are these returning troops once again being used as a shield against the scrutiny of the very policy which put them in harm's way in the first place? Will Operation Homecoming serve them? Will it serve poetry? Or is it designed to serve quite another purpose?

Some, including Wilner and Komunyakaa, wondered whether the money being spent on writing workshops would not have been better spent on bringing the arts to underserved communities or sending vets to college.

Organizers of Operation Homecoming were quick to defend the project—and sure enough, attempted to assert that it was beyond the pale to ask questions about combatant experience. The director of the project, Jon Parrish Peede, leveled charges of elitism:

The National Endowment for the Arts created Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience to reach out to an entire stratum of our society often excluded and even ignored by the literary establishment—military men and women and their families. Because they have lived through something the rest of us can barely imagine, the NEA believes it is important to offer an opportunity to use literature, specifically writing, to begin to clarify these life experiences. Those who teach at universities certainly understand the value of writing. But they also can be blind to life outside those same privileged circles.

Peede’s framing echoes the familiar exclusionary strategy we saw above: since only soldiers can speak about war from the inside, and since they “have lived through something the rest of us can barely imagine,” it behooves civilians to listen rather than ask questions.

Peede went on to assert that ideology did not steer the project, “nor biased toward a pro-war or anti-war stance… Literary excellence, historical importance, and the desire to present a diversity of opinions and genres will be the guiding selection factors.” The NEA Chairman, poet Dana Gioia, a George W. Bush appointee, underscored the autonomy of the NEA, “the Boeing money comes without restrictions and that submissions will be based on artistic merit, not on whether they are pro- or anti-war.” Elsewhere, Gioia asserted that Operation Homecoming was completely free from the control of military censors: “We do not tell the writers what to teach. We do not tell the troops what to write. Freedom of artistic expression is the sine qua non of all NEA programs.”

Nonetheless, as Bowen pointed out, it is difficult to understand how critical and independent “active-duty personnel” could be when they were still under the chain of command—and in any case, “military public affairs officers” would still have to “review submissions” to the Operation Homecoming project, if only to protect classified information. As Bowen put it finally, “Beyond the language of self-help and ‘therapeutic’ aspects of writing, beyond the back-patting, it is not difficult to see in the project an effort to establish an official canon of writing from the century’s first wars, neatly packaged, ready for mass distribution and classroom use.”

Therapy, Recording, Teaching, Canon Making

In contrast to military writing programs like Operation Homecoming, the programs and institutions serving combat veterans are far less official. There are many such programs, including: a creative writing program (NYU’s Veterans Writing Workshop); a writers society (The Military Writers Society of America); Veteran support groups that specifically promote creative writing (Words After War, War Writers Campaign, Warrior Writers, Veterans Writing Project, Syracuse Veterans’ Writing Group, Military Experience and the Arts); literary venues and journals that promote war writing (Dispatches, War Literature & the Arts, The Journal of Military Experience, Blue Streak: Journal of Military Poetry, and Blue Falcon: Journal of Military Fiction). Additionally, there are programs within the Veterans Administration (such as the Healing Arts Partnership at the Walter Reed Medical Center) that have used writing as a tool of medical therapy. Related also are countless reading groups at military bases and within local Veterans groups which, through purchases and discussions, make writing and reading war literature an inextricable part of contemporary military and veteran culture.

These different organizations do not share the same goals or founding principles. In terms of ideological orientation, these writing activities and organizations are vibrantly eclectic as is the mass of writing they are producing. Some institutions and groups promote creative writing primarily or solely as healing practice, whereas others stress the imperative of soldiers to record their accounts for posterity. Most Veterans writing groups, unlike Operation Homecoming, are grass-rooted, community-minded, and independent. Some use writing to generate more effective public advocacy for Veterans rights, activism against US foreign policy, and military culture.

Most of the vets participating in these workshops will not go on to publish best-sellers. Most are not, and will never, be embraced by the literary establishment. Nonetheless, many of the titles, including self-published books, have respectable sales. Again, it is hard to make generalizations about the writing itself, since it spans genres and styles—and includes Iraqi dog rescue stories, evangelical Christian battle accounts, platoon tales, and legends of snipers. Despite the many differences between official projects (like Operation Homecoming) and grass-roots efforts, these war writing activities and projects share five main themes, whether or not intended for publication: healing, teaching, history, craft, and canon.

Arts therapy has emerged in the last decade as effective for treating vets with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and this aspect composes the lion’s share of VA investment in war writing. Here, rather than publication or performance, the goal is the reflective aspect of the writing process in itself. As Ron Capps, a veteran Army officer and founder of the Veterans Writing Project, put it : "Writing [allows you] to take a memory that might be stuck in the back of your mind, make it physical and shape it. ... Eventually you understand it’s a memory and it can’t hurt you anymore."

This same aspect dominated Operation Homecoming:

When asked why they decided to participate in the writing workshops and submit material to the NEA, the troops and their family members consistently gave the same answers. First, they found the writing process itself cathartic. It enabled them to gain a measure of control over their feelings and unravel tangled knots of emotions. Second, they shared their private journals, e-mails, and letters––many of which reveal very raw and honest accounts of drinking binges, depression, and nightmares––to let other veterans suffering from similar problems know that they aren’t alone. (Operation Homecoming Handbook7)

A desire to record the facts of combat experience and to teach civilian audiences about that experience colors military and vet literature. According to Andrew Carroll, “many participants lamented how little civilians seemed to know about the armed forces, and they wanted their writings to foster a greater understanding of the military.” Most striking in this regard is the way a hyper-investment in realism colors this writing. Detail matters, as does getting everything right. In this writing, there is a deep commitment to an anachronistic rhetoric of presence, a literary sense that might be called “he-must-have-been-thereness.” If Amazon reader reviews are any indication, the audience for these works shares this sensibility.

But this writing aspires to literary values that go beyond therapy or the creation of historical documents. Indeed, the sponsors of these projects consistently describe the writing in terms of crafted narrative and beautiful expression:

Good writing also depends on originality and ingenuity, and service members are trained to improvise and think creatively to solve seemingly insurmountable problems. And troops certainly aren’t lacking in material needed to fire up the imagination; many have accumulated a lifetime of riveting stories from a single deployment. Above all, first-rate writers believe emphatically that language matters, that words are almost sacred. For members of the armed forces, words are more than marks on a page or spoken utterances. They are one’s honor. They are orders and missions. They are life and death. (Operation Homecoming Handbook, 6)

And they describe them in terms of timeless human questions and universal concerns:

In addition to revealing the heroic actions of US service members, the submissions illuminate how thoughtful and intelligent these troups [sic] are. The literary works they have crafted are valuable not only for their lessons about history and combat, but for their insights into human nature itself. Their writings transcend the subject of war and teach us about grief, hope, violence, compassion, empathy, resilience, and the precariousness of life. Without question there is intrigue, humor, suspense, and drama in these stories of men and women who have endured the crucible of battle. But as with all great literature, there is also hard-earned wisdom about the human condition from which all of us can learn. (Operation Homecoming Handbook7)

And it is here that we can begin to see the outlines of a very intentional project of canon formation. Poet Dana Gioia, patron of Operation Homecoming, repeatedly grounded the legitimacy of the new military-literary project, by reference to a Western corpus of combatant writing, stretching from the ancients to the present:

Many great authors have been soldiers. The Greek playwright Sophocles, creator of Oedipus Rex, served as an Athenian general in the Peloponnesian War. The Roman poet Horace fought at the Battle of Philippi. Shakespeare’s friend and fellow playwright Ben Jonson served in the infantry in the Flemish Wars. The two Renaissance poets who first brought the sonnet to English — Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey — both were soldiers. Other great writers have continued this tradition from Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, to Russia’s Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace(Operation Homecoming Handbook, 5)

Here it needs to be admitted that the string of names I mentioned above—Crane, Hemingway, Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller, O’Brien, Wolff—is itself a cliché of this canon formation project. Like embedded journalism, the war canon project highlights combatant experiences and voices over non-combatant ones. But unlike embedded journalists, the canonizers of the new war writing argue that combatant writers and texts not only have a unique voice and experience, but that these exemplify the very best of Western thought and expression.

The canonization project needs to be understood for what it is: an attempt to forget the many other stories that could be told about war; and an attempt to recreate in letters the very privileges and power that armed soldiers always have in relation to unarmed civilians.

Despite its heterogeneity, these various writing activities and organizations constitute a sizeable and active audience and network shaping the production and reception of contemporary war writing. Moreover, it needs to be noted that veterans buy books and talk about books like no other community in the country. Similarly, national veterans groups—and the US armed forces—are in themselves collective buyers and distributers of books. Altogether, this motley network of official and unofficial actors have created what is perhaps the most cohesive, self-aware and mobilized sector of readers and writers across the country, with the capacity to propel titles into the limelight, to manage the parameters of war writing, and to ensure that other stories are not discussed.


Admittedly, it may be an overstatement to call the new model of embedded literature a “military-literary complex,” since much of the activity—especially vet activity—is independent, uncoordinated, and even dissident. Yet, there is evidence—such as Operation Homecoming—of a strategy to make sure military stories have a privileged place on bookshelves. Commercial publishers not passive actors in this story, for they are publishing and promoting military titles with regularity while consistently marginalizing war literature by Iraqi authors. Book reviewers have engaged enthusiastically in this project as well, writing profusely and positively about combatant literature, but again, mostly ignoring published literary accounts (especially those by Iraqi authors) that challenge the combatant model.

Still, it is possible that there is no such thing as a military-literary complex, and no coordinated plan involving military censors or the collusion of writers, publishers and book reviewers. It is far likelier that habit and taste—not policy and plan—are what dictate the kinds of literature Americans publish, read and discuss.

If this is the case, Americans need to face a likelihood far more disturbing than the existence of any military-industrial conspiracy, namely that we accept embedded literature because we prefer stories about “us” and not “them.” We accept tales of combatant privilege because we would rather imagine ourselves being the ones holding the guns than those who are not. This may be more plausible than the existence of a military-literary complex, but it is also far more troubling.

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