War Narratives

April 8, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

How is honor created? Is it imperative that war narratives describe honorable people and events? Recently, I attended a conference regarding war narratives. From this discussion arose questions about the ways in which society frames our understanding of war. A truly global society is a fairly recent phenomenon. Therefore, war on the level of globalized states is also fairly new. However, war as represented in literature stretches back past the time of Homer. There is no question that works like The Iliad are masterful. The question is, rather, why the narrative of war remains mostly unchanged, while many of the factors involved in war have changed drastically. This also seems inconsistent with other narratives and with human reality itself. If story intends to add some pertinent truth to the human record, we are missing an element of truth by continuing to function within a single common narrative.

Obviously, heroic tales have power over us, revealing dramatically virtuous deeds. The virtues underlying heroes and heroic action thrills us, captivates us, grabs at our emotional center. Science fiction offers one way of re-visioning existing narratives. For example, in the novel 1984 by George Orwell, war is constant, but mostly in the background. The opponent constantly changes and no one keeps a historical record of the events. Though the war is distant and fragmented, war rhetoric, propaganda and patriotic speeches remain very visible. Complete annihilation of battle scenes leaves the novel bereft of a hero, at least a hero of such caliber as a battlefield hero. This feels unsatisfying.

Most war narratives offer a specific view of the events weighted with some emotional content and individual perspective. There is a wonderful episode in the HBO series Band of Brothers where Winters (Damian Lewis) attempts to write the report of one of his most difficult battles. In the scene, Nixon (Ron Livingston) jokingly tells Winters to stop writing a novel and just finish the report. The struggle to balance detail and fact is astonishingly hard. Obviously battle takes a tremendous emotional toll on the soldiers and each one responds differently. Therefore, having one person compose a narrative of the entire battle seems impossible. Sometimes facts do not mean anything, but emotional facts always mean something. So Winters struggles to compose the right balance of fact and emotion in his report. He gives voice to the soldiers' heroic struggles. Without his perspective, emotional facts are replaced by data, such as time, date, place, numbers.

War narratives often involve heroic characters. Most literary battles include some of the deepest, most personal and uplifting heroic actions. At the same time, however, the drama builds in the face of the absolute opposite. We remember these moments of inspiration: think of Henry V's “once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech. Imagine Braveheart, striped with blue, astride a powerful horse, shouting that he is Braveheart, the man and not the legend. As Gibbon notes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, barbarians of different races signed up to fight with Attila simply based upon Attila's reputation (Chapter 34 and 35). Heroic leaders are made on the field of battle. They are larger than life. And as a world, we want to be inspired, we want to believe that the good guy wins. We want to believe that horror and atrocity leads to something decent, brave and good.

For this reason, the hero is an exciting, seemingly untouchable literary character. In the Syntopicon, Adler suggests that honor is built upon the ideas of both praise and blame. He writes, “Any solution of the problem must consider the relation of the individual to the community, and the standards by which the individual is appraised – by himself and his fellowmen. Honor and fame both seem to imply public approval, but the question is whether both presuppose the same causes or the same occasions for social esteem.” The idea that shame can be a motivating factor in heroism is both fascinating and scary, since public opinion can quickly sway. This element of the hero is one that is difficult to develop. It drives us into a very uncomfortable place and asks us to question two things. First, we must wonder at our deep-seated beliefs and historical records. Second, we must question the actions of people put in situations of which we have little firsthand knowledge. So, either we uproot ourselves, or we uproot our heroes.

It is possible, though that an alternative narrative exists. I would be interested to look into some Native American texts with these questions in mind. I think it would be fascinating to see if they challenge our (or your very specific) definition of heroism, or if the definitions align. Either way, the results would be enlightening. These three novels, I believe, offer a possible beginning conversation due to the inclusion of war and/or veterans:

- House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

- Dark River by Louis Owens

- Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko


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