A Writing Program for Marines

4 08 2004

I’ve been roundly criticized for treating blogs written by soldiers from Iraq as if they were writing exercises. The responses ranged from a kind of motherly concern (‘Don’t you know what they’ve been going through? We don’t care how well they write! We’re just glad to hear from them.’) to freeper-style attacks (‘You disgust me. You’re a traitor to your country and I hope your server crashes.’)

Most of this criticism arose from a review I did of a blog called A Line in the Sand (good title, by the way; I didn’t say that before but it is) which, having a healthy suspicion of the internet, I suspected from the way it was written was an Army PR stunt. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. Not long ago I ran across a website run by an Air Force major that was aimed at getting adolescent boys interested in aviation. It was a charming site in many ways, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with engaging the enthusiasm of kids in a career, but in order to do that without setting up the wall that would inevitably be built between him and his audience if they knew what he was, the major pretends that he’s a 13-year-old boy (and does a pretty good job of it, too).

Well, A Line in the Sand turned out NOT to be a PR stunt but a genuine blog written by a Sgt Chris Missick, who wrote an amusing, tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to my suspicions. I answered by apologizing for the mistake and trying to explain why I had made it: that he relied on pat phrases and PR-style cliches to such a degree that the genuine point he was making was largely lost in a blizzard of standardized slogans. I also praised him for the passion and conviction in his writing and suggested it was much more persuasive on its own when he left out the sloganeering.

The response to that was bewildering. His defenders were far angrier than he was, and seemed to confuse a criticism of his writing style with a criticism of his service. I tried to make the point in my replies that these blogs were providing a real service, and that if their authors had the time and the inclination, getting better as writers would serve their cause and their purpose in writing their blogs. Sgt Missick, for example, had some excellent points to make in the post I criticized about the media charge that the people who go into the military do so because they have no other options open to them, saying, rather, that many have chosen their service deliberately despite the dangers and the disruption to their careers and home lives. But he had buried that important observation under a mountain of slogans and cliches that made the post hard to read and his point hard to get at.

There can be, if the authors want to pursue it, a much higher purpose for military writing than simply letting your friends and family know what’s going on where you are and how you’re doing. Sgt Missick had clearly aimed his blog at one of those higher purposes. There’s nothing wrong with using blogs as a sort of ‘letter home’ (see A Sailor’s Journey for a neat example of such a blog) but they have other uses: bringing a wider audience closer to their actual experiences, giving us a clearer understanding of the war from ground level, explaining for us what’s actually happening as opposed to what the media feeds us. MY WAR, for instance, takes us into the heart of what it’s like to serve in Iraq in a combat zone, while Iraq calling shows us the day-to-day details of military life in a war zone. Both are valuable if for different reasons, and both are well-written. Those are not separate values: they would each be less valuable if they were badly written.

The military, it would seem, agrees. The Marines, with the help of the National Endowment for the Arts, has begun sponsoring writing seminars at Camp Lejeune.

[I]ts new writing program…seeks to address a seeming cultural paradox. War stories, after all, occupy one of literature’s longest, weightiest shelves, and American fighting men, from Ulysses S. Grant to Anthony Swofford, have set down their battle-forged memoirs, but these days the military and literary worlds barely overlap.”These are two parts of society that don’t ordinarily talk to each other,” said Dana Gioia, the endowment chairman. “And we thought, what would happen if we got them in a conversation?”

The program, called “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience,” is aimed at preserving stories from the battlegrounds of Iraq and Afghanistan. The endowment expects to hold 20 or so workshops at American military installations between now and next spring (Camp Lejeune was the second stop; the first was Fort Drum in upstate New York in June), with a formidable roster of participating writers selected by an independent panel of editors appointed by the endowment. It includes military thriller heavyweights like Jeff Shaara and Tom Clancy, as well as prominent literary lights like Tobias Wolff and Richard Bausch.

“I think the program is stupendous,” said Maj. Gen. Douglas V. O’Dell, the commanding general of the Marines’ antiterrorist brigade, who addressed one of the workshops here and who said he wrote poetry himself, though he didn’t volunteer to recite any. “It’s extremely valuable for its cathartic possibilities, and I hope it will give a voice to what’s going to be, in my opinion, a greater generation than the one Tom Brokaw wrote about.”At Camp Lejeune, a sprawling base that is home to 40,000 marines, the workshops were taught by Ms. [Bobbie Ann] Mason; another novelist, Erin McGraw; and a poet, Andrew Hudgins. They partly conformed to the image of the visiting-writer workshop that traumatizes visiting writers at colleges, Kiwanis Clubs and bookstore talk-backs….[T]he writers dispensed the tried-and-true advice that has been dispensed to fledgling writers since time immemorial: Be specific. Write every day.

“If you all go home thinking, `Journals and details, journals and details,’ we’ve done our job,” Ms. McGraw said.

There are higher purposes for the writers themselves, as well. Writing down what has happened to you gives you perspective and helps you to understand your own experiences and your responses to them. The more you work on the writing, the closer you get to the truth. For many writers, the act of writing is a kind of therapy that helps them to penetrate the mysteries of who they are and why they did what they did and what would have happened if they’d done it differently. If you learn to express your anger and confusion, you’re less angry and confused. A sort of clarity begins to emerge from the fog; you can begin to see where you came from, how you got here, or even–if you’re lucky–where you’re going.

Many of the fledgling writers encountered here are despairing and angry, they said, that their stories are being told, inadequately and inaccurately, only by the news media and civilian authors. One is Staff Sgt. José Torres, 27, from Lorain, Ohio, who was dreadfully injured in Nasiriya, Iraq, shortly after the war began and who has written, he said, some 200 pages describing the day that changed his life and its aftermath.Staff Sergeant Torres is not a literary type; he relates the details of his ordeal evenly and undramatically, without the pace or practice of an accomplished storyteller but with an evident eagerness to make himself heard.

“I suffered a broken femur, shattered pelvis, my left buttock was blown completely off, I had open abdominal wounds,” he said in an interview, adding that it took 22 operations to put him back together.

Another aspiring author is Julia Adams, a freelance journalist and a former marine herself, whose husband, Maj. Jim Adams — his nickname is Rainman — is a fighter pilot in Afghanistan. She’s hoping to help him write about his experiences, she said.”One thing we talk a lot about is the ability to live with killing,” she said. “It’s something he grapples with, and he’s been writing a journal. But there’s a lot of stuff he didn’t want to share with me while he was there.”

“Pilots compartmentalize,” she continued. “If a pilot opens up all those compartments, he can’t fly. So what I want to know is, `How can they delve into those feelings at a healthy level?'”

Writing is hardly a cure-all but it can help someone who’s been through a terrible experience come to grips with it and perhaps even find a kind of peace. What’s wrong with that?




One response

9 08 2004

As far as soldier-blogs go, have you seen A View From A Broad? It’s written by a (self-described) blue-collar feminist who was called up from the reserves and sent to Iraq, and it’s absolutely amazing. The clarity of her writing and the little details that she includes make Iraq more real – on both (all?) sides of the conflict – than any reporting I’ve seen or read.

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