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Not One, But Two Years of WWrite in Review! January 2017 - January 2019.

Part 1: WWI and Today's Veteran Writers

By Jennifer Orth-Veillon, Curator 

 

Over the month of January, to prepare for the remaining months of the blog, WWrite will publish a “WWrite Blog: Two Years in Review of WWI and Writing,” a series that will document and synthesize the 100+ blog contributions from January 2017 to January 2019. This first installment of the series will highlight contributions from U.S. veteran writers:

 Review3Before and after adding color in Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old. Left: colored image from WWI footage. Right: original footage. Image source: The Guardian

They Shall Not Grow Old –  Director Peter Jackson Adds Color and Proximity to WWI

Last Thursday, December 27th, I sat in a packed Regal Cinema theater in Norfolk, Virginia, close to where I grew up in the Tidewater region that William Styron writes about in books such as Lay Down in Darkness, A Tidewater Morning, and The Confessions of Nat Turner. Like Mark Facknitz, a WWrite contributor and member of the World War Centennial Commission’s Historical Advisory Board, I do not normally like colorization of black and white films, but this film offers an exception for me. Facknitz sums up my feeling about the documentary in a recent Facebook post: “I saw this today. Very interesting. Though usually averse to colorization, and inclined to be strict about the need to protect historical evidence and to fully elaborate context, I yield my scruples on this one. It allows an immediacy and sometimes distressing capacity to imagine the lived reality of the soldiers on the Western Front.”

My proximity was not only to the soldiers on the Western Front but to another population of soldiers– still-living soldiers and veterans…sitting so close to me I could hear the rustle of their popcorn bags. For now, I live in France, where the centennial memory of WWI was celebrated at the Arc de Triomphe and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the most influential heads of state on November 11, 2018, in Paris. Weeks later, this same place was desecrated by the "Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vests)," who took to the streets and interstates to express their outrage at what they call neglect by political elites. The official war memorial site of a nation unified in mourning and commemoration quickly turned into a place of chaos and division.

 

Review1.2Left image: France 24 photo of Armistice Celebration at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the Armistice Day Centennial, Nov. 11, 2018. Right: A few weeks later the "Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests)" protest violently.

 

Yet, here in Norfolk, things feel very different. The possibility of expressing civilian discontent at a site of war memory seems unimaginable. The surrounding area makes up an epicenter of military activity. A couple miles from the movie theater sits the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the largest and busiest naval facility in the world today. Not too far away is the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, the country’s premier installation for housing and training the nation’s Expeditionary Forces. Also close by are the Marine Corps Forces Command and Fifth Coast Guard District office. The Naval Station Oceana and Nam Deck, the Naval Medical Center, and the Ft. Langley-Eustis Base are here too. The military presence is so dense that my high school history teacher explained that our federally-strategic area would be incinerated within seconds in the event of nuclear attack. We would feel nothing.

Review4The Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the largest naval facility in the world. Image source: military.com

From a young age, I recall the ephemeral nature of many friendships with children of military parents who stayed just long enough to become my best friend only to leave sometimes without traces. I once had a friend who moved into the house that my former best friend had occupied only days prior. I remember my younger sister’s motherless best friend who stayed with us for months when her Dad went away to Operation Desert Storm. She tied a yellow ribbon around a tree in our front yard. It was hard on us, those that stayed. But I always thought it must have been harder on the ones who left.

So, in that sea of darkness, dimly illuminated by the flickering light of the somewhat false, muted color, I knew from the gasps, the voiced commentaries, the whispered conversations, the shouts, and the sounds of crying that periodically punctuated the audience’s silence, that the theater was packed full of the military in all its forms: soldiers, veterans, other personnel, spouses, children, friends, and extended family.

To help us understand, Jackson film gave color to the black and white WWI footage, slowed it down in some places, and sped it up in others. But, I think that Jackson’s biggest innovation lies in the fact that, through incredible cinematographic technology and a personal passion for WWI, he created a collective experience of a war that ended 100 years ago, a collective experience that more closely resembles theater than film in its closeness to the human experience of war – for those in the audience and those on the screen.

Jackson’s documentary captures what most of us think of as the iconic WWI experience: the soldier fighting in the trenches on the Western Front. However, he made that image more complex by focusing on the lesser-known elements. He highlighted the ghastly, putrid parts of trench life, but he also made us aware of the comradeship and humor among the soldiers. He showed their bravery as they went “over the top” and into the No Man’s Land’s rain of fire with rifles and bayonets. He also showed us their panicked, childlike faces, rotting teeth, and their bare buttocks sitting on makeshift toilets. We got a glimpse of rotting, mangled fly-covered corpses and of the horrific injuries they incurred from enemy fire. Then, we saw footage in which British soldiers and their German prisoners shared cigarettes and played games. The audience felt a surge of relief as we watched their incredulous and joyful faces as they received news of the Armistice. Then we felt anger and indignation when we learned that the soldiers went home to civilian life only to learn that no one wanted to understand their experience. They couldn’t get jobs and were alienated from family or friends.

ReviewJacksonScenes from They Shall Not Grow Old. Left: soldiers in No Man's Land. Right: soldiers filmed while off the front

The story of these WWI veterans is the same story of veterans from other wars like WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. For most, war does not have one storyline; it has many and these are wrapped up in layers of contradictory emotions, memories, and experiences, past and present. As in WWI, all veterans have come home and faced other brands of battle – with the difficulties of civilian life and with themselves.

By asking these writers to reflect on the ways that WWI has influenced their perspective on other past and present military conflicts around the world, WWrite hopes to thread a line through the diversity of 20th and 21st war experience to foster a more nuanced, complete understanding of the writerly lives and minds of American soldiers from 1914 and beyond.

The WWrite Veteran writers appear below. A short summary of their contribution is followed by key quotes from their post.

 

Elliot Ackerman: “Ernst Junger: The Modern War Story”

 

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In an interesting flip for convention, this WWrite post steps out of the current narrative in war literature to explore our culture's allure not to peace but to violence. Rather than glorifying war, recent memoirs and books have concentrated on its debilitating and destructive effect on the returning soldier. In this post, National Book Award nominee and veteran writer, Elliot Ackerman, gives us his take on Ernst Jünger's seminal war memoir, Storm of Steel, and the ways in which it assigns a redeeming quality to combat violence.

“The character of battle … is slaughter.” – Carl von Clausewitz

Much of the modern literature of war, which was birthed in the trenches of the First World War, has been arrayed into the following moral arc: a naïve, idealistic youth goes to war; he witnesses the horrors and waste; he returns home haunted, or even destroyed by what he’s seen; hence war is evil. Obviously, there are many variations on this theme—sardonic novels like Catch-22, or narratives that only obliquely reference war such as The Sun Also Rises—but much of literature adheres to this basic framework and its moralism. And why shouldn’t it? What could be redeeming about the slaughter Clausewitz references? Yet it took the unprecedented bloodletting of the trenches, with their poison gas and futile advances into machine gun fire, to codify this conclusion in art. But is there room for another narrative in literature?”

 

Donald Anderson: "How Do Wars Begin?"

 

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A WWrite Blog exclusive! WWrite asked Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at the United States Airforce Academy to contribute something about WWI for the blog. Anderson's Gathering Noise from My Life: A Camouflaged Memoir, was named by the Christian Science Monitor as one of “12 Electrifying Memoirs” of 2012. A few days after WWrite's request, he sent the following original piece, entitled "How Do Wars Begin?" A unique mix of poetry, prose, fiction, and history, "How Do Wars Begin?"brings together British poet Wilfred Owen, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the Archduke's assassin, Princip, bombs, and an expired cyanide pill to put into question not only the origins of WWI but of all contemporary conflicts.

“What if the Serb hadn’t been hungry? 

[  ]

This is what starts the war: a mis-thrown bomb, a wrong turn in a car, bad cyanide, child non-mortality, lunchtime? Austria takes a hard line against Serbia and other powers in Europe choose sides. Within 30 days, a half-assed squabble between Austria and Serbia transforms into the first great modern war. 

[  ]

At the 100-year assassination site celebration, someone calculated that to hold a second of silence for every person killed in WWI in Europe that the attendees would have to stand mute for about two years. 

[  ]

And this: Princip’s cyanide pill was expired too.

 

Jerri Bell: “WWI Navy Yeoman (F), First Class Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Writing Advice, Writing Life”

 

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Navy veteran and writer, Jerri Bell, discusses the dynamic career of female WWI veteran, Marjory Stone Douglas. Bell, co-editor of the anthology, It's My Country Too: Women's Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan introduces the undiscovered richness of Douglas' long life (she died at 108!) as a prolific writer, Naval servicewoman in WWI, and political and environmental activist. A great story.

Douglas comments on her writing: “I was more or less tied into the mainstream from which Hemingway was estranged. I couldn’t write in that bare, stark way in which a story begins like a slap in the face.”

 

Adrian Bonenberger: “The Brest-Litovsk Treaty: Eastern Europe’s Forgotten Father”

 

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In his lifetime, the world-famous Polish ballerina, Vaslav Nijinsky, might have also claimed Russian, German, or Ukrainian nationality had he danced a few more steps to the right, or to the left. The future of Nijinsky's Europe–and his identity–was decided on March 3, 1918, in the town of Brest-Litovsk. March 3, 2018, marked the centennial of this event, an event veteran author, Adrien Bonenberger, calls "the moment" when "the old world falls apart, and creates space for the new to arise." In this WWrite post, Bonenberger gives us a rich overview of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty's implications for the former Soviet bloc countries, in Eastern Europe for yesterday and today. 

“The Western European attitude toward Eastern Europe as a place on which to impose one’s will and one’s destiny—a place to colonize, rather than a place of intentionality and agency—is longstanding, and may even go back to Roman times. The quasi-racist perception of Eastern Europeans by BritishItalians, and Germans has driven past imperialist projects and also exists today, driving populist, nationalist, xenophobic sentiment. Why does this matter? If one imagines a Prussian Junker signing a paper on a beautiful oaken-wood table, assuming the notion that an action like the establishment of a subordinate and subordinated Ukraine are in the past, well, there’s an argument to be made that this moment is much closer to the present time than many might realize.”

 

Benjamin Busch: “A US Marine Discovers British WWI Military Cemetery During Iraq War” and “A British Cemetery Revisited 10 Years After Serving in Iraq War”

 

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Actor, writer, filmmaker, and photographer Benjamin Busch was a Marine who led a Light Armored Reconnaissance unit during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and operated around the city of Kut. The posts come from his memoir, Dust to Dust, and an article that appeared in Harper ’s in which he notes the last surviving evidence of WWI in the region of Kut—a British war cemetery. He writes:

 “In a back street, my patrol came across the Kut war cemetery.  It had been found covered in several feet of garbage by Marines in Task Force Tarawa during the invasion, and they had cleaned and rededicated it to the British. Turkish and German troops had laid siege to Kut Al Amara, now simply known as Kut, from December 7, 1915, to April 29, 1916, and the British casualties were astounding.  Over 22,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded; 13,000 captured; and here in this small plot submerged from the street by four feet lay the remains of 450 of them. I stepped down into the graveyard and was surprised to see the intricate carving on the headstones. The dead here had not been killed during the siege but rather two years later, when the British and their Arab allies had retaken Kut. I was pleased to see the equitable burial of supporting troops from the British Empire lost in her efforts.”

 

Robert Olen Butler: “ Interview with Pulitzer Winner Robert Olen Butler: The Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller Series and the Importance of WWI

 

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When WWrite asked Vietnam veteran and Pulitzer Prize winner, Robert Olen Butler, why he set his Christopher Marlowe Cobb thriller series in WWI, he said that WWI “told the story of our time.” In the interview, he discusses grappling with the big issues– “the Zeitgeist”–of those days. He lists:

  • The expansion of new technologies expanding the capacity of mass killing and destruction

  • The premier place of America in the world

  • The ravages of war

  • The waves of immigration, often desperate in motive

  • The struggle for a viable free press

  • Violent acts of terror

  • The clash of ideologies both political and religious

  • Racial oppression

  • Gender repression

  • Dictators and would-be dictators gaining and asserting power

 

Brandon Caro: A Story of Regeneration: Hemingway’s “Two Big-Hearted River”

 

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According to writer Brandon Caro, Ernest Hemingway's "Two Big-Hearted River," tells the tale of WWI soldier who comes home and seeks to regenerate his soul after the prolonged trauma of combat through the story of a fishing trip. In this week's WWrite post, Caro, who is the author of the novel, Old Silk Road, and has published in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and  Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art,  talks about the ways this story resonates with his own experience as a veteran of Afghanistan.  

“And that is where Nick Adams, and by extension, Hemingway, found themselves; waiting for their souls to regenerate after a prolonged traumatic, violent experience. And, to a far lesser extent, that is where I found myself. Some of the things I saw during my yearlong deployment to Afghanistan caused me to reprogram my understanding of the world.”

 

Michael Carson: “The October Revolution, Russian Occupation of Persia: WWI Soldier Viktor Schlovsky’s Sentimental Memoirs”

 

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WWI. Russia. What do we really know? This WWrite post by Michael Carson opens a door to this question by discussing the memoirs of Russian WWI soldier and writer, Viktor Shklovsky. Carson explores several pivotal issues about Shklovsky's writing and its relevance to the Centennial. Why read Shklovsky’s Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922 a hundred years after the First World War? Why remember this account of the October Revolution and the Russian occupation of Persia when we have forgotten so many other accounts of the First World War? What does this young Russian commissar have for us today except for yet another account of yet another endless bloody war that few remember now?

“Few talk of Shklovsky anymore. Few talk of the Russian Persian garrison of 1917. Few know what to do with the leftover pieces. It’s just the way of things. There are new writers. New wars. New bodies. We continue to fall, trying, with poor Prufrock, to hear voices dying “beneath music from another room.” But we can still hold up the lamp, we can manipulate the forms, we can see our plummeting stone, illuminate the bars of our cage, convert the horrible sweep of long ago and ongoing violence into experience—clean the dead world, make it alive, make it hum, turn it to art."

 

 Brian Castner with Matti Friedman: “Echoes of Sassoon”

 

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"Echoes of Sassoon: A Conversation with Matti Friedman" comes from Brian Castner, co-editor of The Road Ahead author of All the Ways We Kill and Die and The Long Walk. Castner interviews award-winning Israeli -Canadian author and journalist, Matti Friedman, about his memoir, Pumpkin Flowers. Their discussion centers on Friedman's experience as an Israeli soldier fighting in southern Lebanon in 1998-1999, a conflict that still has no official name. As Friedman and Castner point out, more Canadian soldiers died in the Great War than in any other conflict, and its influence can be felt throughout Pumpkin Flowers.  This puts Friedman at odds with most contemporary American veteran-authors, who often reach to conflicts other than WWI for comparison—Vietnam for Iraq, and Korea for Afghanistan. What happens for a Canadian whose cultural heritage of the Great War is different from the Americans?

“I think the guys who wrote about that war (WWI) understood that the power of the experience doesn't lie in descriptions of combat, which can't really be described anyway, but in the gap between normal life and nature on one hand, and the war on the other. So they give us those poppies first, as in the famous poem—and then these dead soldiers are speaking to us from underneath them. Or, you'll get a poem starring at an oblivious rat working both sides of no man's land, in Isaac Rosenberg's "Break of Day in the Trenches," and through that character, you see how sick the whole thing is. In Siegfried Sassoon's trilogy about the war, he spends almost all of the first book just writing about horses and cricket and bucolic England, to set up what happens afterward: the fall. I think he was on the right track.”

 

Eric Chandler: “Accidental Tourism and War Memorials

 

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As a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, writer EricChandler discusses the voyage he's taken (mostly on foot!) to grasp the lasting impact of WWI. In this week's WWrite post, "Accidental Tourism and War Memorials," Chandler, author of Hugging This Rock, Outside Duluth, and Down In It, brings us along with him as he jogs through major American and Canadian cities searching for traces of WWI amidst other war memorials A compelling post about Chandler's awakening to the presence of World War I history in our daily lives.

“I can only speak for myself, but the thing I worry about is people dying at the war. When I was leading people in combat, it was my greatest concern. Not that we were paid tribute. I wanted us to meet our stated wartime objectives. I think all of our energy should be spent on that. Then we can worry about bringing our people home.”  

 

Tracy Crow: “U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Tracy Crow Writes About Female Marine Sergeant Lela Leibrand (Ginger Rogers’ Mother!)”

 

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This post features U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Writer, Tracy Crow, author of the critically-acclaimed memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine, as well as the breakthrough books On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story, the anthology, Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, WWII to Present, and Cooper’s Hawk: The Remembering. In July 2017, she, along with co-editor Jerri Bell, will released the anthology, It's My Country Too: Women's Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan.  Crow discusses WWI Female Marine Sergeant Lela Leibrand, one of the first 10 women to join the Marine Corps. Leibrand was also mother to star Ginger Rogers.

“What we discovered by Leibrand was her article, "The Girl Marines," written in 1918 or 1919 for an unidentified publication. Her article breaks every rule of journalism, and I can only imagine the yardstick force of retribution that would have landed across my electric typewriter in 1977 had I dared to turn in such an energetic piece full of exclamation points and over-the-top personal bias. Yet with every read, I fall more in love with Leibrand's unabashed exuberance and her eerie prescience.”

 

Jim Dubinsky: “Robert Frost: A Poet For Whom Life and War Were Trials by Existence”

 

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According to veteran and Virginia Tech English professor, Jim Dubinsky, when scholars write of war poets, few consider Robert Frost. If a war poet is one who has experienced the turmoil and vicissitudes of combat, Frost does not qualify. However, if one is willing to consider poets who offer insight into connections between war and the human condition, then Frost fits the bill.

War poetry is an expansive and not so rigidly-defined sub-genre. No one would or should try to compare Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” or “Arms and the Boy” or Brian Turner’s  “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center” or “The Hurt Locker” with any of the poems I’ve mentioned here. Owen’s and Turner’s poems fall into a separate category. But if we wonder about the conflicts we’ve endured and are enduring, as well as the human costs of and underlying reasons for those conflicts—the “something there is that” sends both ground swells under walls each spring and injured fathers back into battle—Frost’s poems offer perspectives worth considering.”

 

David Eisler: “Heroes’ Grove: Remembering and Forgetting the Great War in Germany

 

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After war, how does a country commemorate its soldiers in the shadow of defeat and shame?  David Eisler explores the question at WWrite by analyzing the evolution of a war cemetery in Germany’s Rhein-Neckar Valley. Eisler, a U.S. Army veteran whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, War on the Rocks, The Daily Beast, Collier’s Magazine, Military Review, Drunken Boat, and the anthology of short fiction, The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, is a PhD candidate at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies in Heidelberg, Germany. His doctoral dissertation focuses on the relationship between American civil-military relations and contemporary war fiction from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“The Great War sits at an awkward place in German collective memory. Like the original Heroes’ Grove, the memory retains a more local connection, the towns who remember and mourn their lost without draping them in the war’s politics—small plaques here and there with handfuls of engraved names that, spread over an entire country, lead to an undeniable sense of loss. That loss is compounded by the way Germans associate the First World War with the Second, a blending reflected even in the Ruhehain’s two stone-bordered panels, just behind the large memorial stone, listing the names of those killed in both wars, mixed together with no obvious order or rationale; a subtle reminder that, here in Germany, the conflicts have combined into a single dark stain on the nation’s collective memory and of the challenge of remembering the fallen without honoring the cause for which they fell.”

 

Colin Halloran: “F. Scott Fitzgerald and WWI: The “Crack Up” Essays

 

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Scott Fitzgerald never got shipped out to fight in WWI, but the brush with combat influenced his life and writing forever. While Fitzgerald is known for his short stories and novels, the invisible wounds of living through war on the home front come through most poignantly in his non-fiction work. In this post, former Army infantryman in Afghanistan and writer, ColinD. Halloran discusses Fitzgerald's painful experiences by looking at the lesser-known "Crack Up" personal essays, published in Esquire in 1936. Halloran, who has explored PTSD and post-traumatic growth in his works, Shortly Thereafter and Icarian Flux walks us through Fitzgerald's post-WWI emotional journey.

“It would not be until post-9/11 war literature that Fitzgerald’s influence would truly be felt.

This man, who would receive so much flak from me and my combat arms brethren today for being a POG, paved the way for us to write honestly about our experiences in poetry and non-fiction. His bravery in alienating himself from his peers preempted so many war writers of the last fifteen years who have been questioned, criticized, and ridiculed by their peers. Much of this negative response has been directed toward female veterans, but the truth is that male veterans experience this underlying conflict just as much, if not more. The difference is, men are perhaps more hesitant to reveal the true impact of their experiences. It is my hope that they will turn to Fitzgerald as an example. That they will do what I and so many of my peers have done, and reveal the true impact of war—whether deployed or not.”

 

Jeffery Hess: “Of the Dreadnoughts

 

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Dreadnoughts. A baseball team? A guitar? A band? While Navy veteran and writer, Jeffery Hess was researching the Cold War for his next novel, he came upon information about Dreadnoughts, battleships used during WWI. Hess, the author of Beachhead, Tushhog, and the short-story collection, Cold War Canoe Club, navigates us through one of the less familiar stories of WWI about the U.S. Navy and its formidable Dreadnoughts.

“The Floridacannot boast of any heroic performance in World War I (though it did prove heroic in the Battle of Veracruz in the Mexican Revolution), but that’s why it’s so interesting to me. In fact, the Florida spent much of World War I the same way I spent the Cold War.

And like me, she was built in New York but forever known as Florida. Whether alone or in conjunction with the ships in her division, the deterrence was unmistakable. That ship helped win that war. It wasn’t a particular day that proved their value, but rather the sum of all the days they were ready to kick ass. The long deployments, the work, the constant preparedness, the hurrying and waiting, the jubilations of blowing off steam reminds me of my service seventy years after them.” 

 

Allan Howerton: “WWI Father, WWII Son: A Generational Perspective”

 

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Now in his mid-nineties, novelist and political activist, Allan Howerton is a WWII Veteran whose father served WWI. In his post, the ways in which the “good stories” from WWI soldiers inspired him as a boy. However, he gained a new understanding of his father’s war when he spent WWII fighting in Europe. Still, he could not figure out why humans waged war against each other and spent the rest of his life writing and learning about the issues that caused violent conflict. He writes of his WWII memoir, Dear Captain, et al. The Agonies and the Ecstasies of War and Memory:

“The Great Depression and the run-up to the war,  (I wrote) a memoir would tell the day-to-day-story of Company K and my struggle for survival, and a postwar novel (that) tried to penetrate the long psychic tussle to make me whole again. But the war never really left me. “Only the dead can see the end of war” George Santayana, the 20th-century essayist/novelist/ /philosopher/poet is reputed to have said. Generations to come will determine if he got it right.”

 

Ernest Lucas McClees: “Demonizing the Enemy: One in the Same.”

 

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Eastern Kentucky University Veterans Studies and Humanities professor, retired U.S.  Marine, and writer, Ernest Luke McClees draws parallels between todays and WWI-era propaganda. He discusses the ways in which the media demonizes and dehumanizes the enemy by addressing the "Destroy this Mad Brute" military poster that shows a large ape-like creature, supposedly a German, grasping a white woman against her will.

“World War I propaganda posters such as "Beat the Hun" or "Destroy this Mad Brute" strongly dehumanize the troops of Eastern Europe in a sardonic light. This propaganda, in tandem with various social programs, created distances between these new Americans. It not only harmed the progress of former Eastern Europeans and their families but of other immigrant groups as well. Lines of division and social injustice increased during a time when it would have been more productive to build cultural bridges for propelling universal assimilation or, at least fostering an understanding of the newer population who had become the backbone of the economy. Maybe it could have been possible to correct social unrest and problems by redirecting the propaganda during the war.”

 

RJ MacDonald: “A Distant Field: America’s Great War Highlanders

 

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WWrite takes a look at RJ MacDonald’s WWI historical novel, A Distant Field. A former US Marine and Royal Air Force Reservist and veteran of Libya and Iraq, MacDonald has written the first in a series that follows the characters, Stuart and Ross McReynolds, Scots-Americans who survive the sinking of the Lusitania. Together with four Irishmen, a Canadian, and a young English officer, they join Scotland’s Seaforth Highlanders and head towards the bloody battlefields of WWI.

“The mornings were cold in November 1917, so it’s easy to imagine the scene- Her Majesty’s Troopship Canada arrives at Liverpool docks, England. Soon lines of soldiers, burdened down with kit and rifles, are disembarking down the gangplanks. They form up into ranks, glad to be on dry land again, and with a nod from their commanding officer to the pipe major, the drone of bagpipes tuning up carries through the still air. Then, to the command of, “By the right, Quick March!” the men of the 236th MacLean Kilties of America march smartly away from the docks to the sound of their own pipes and drums. America’s Great War Highlanders had arrived.”

 

James Moad: “The Story of Our Time: A Contemporary Story of WWI”

 

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"The Story of Our Time," comes from former Air Force pilot, award-winning writer, and actor, James Moad. Moad. With more than 100 combat sorties in the C-130, including during the Afghanistan War, he also served as an English professor at the United States Air Force Academy. He has performed his one-man play, Outside Paduchah, the Wars at Home, across the country since 2016. As Moad explains in his dramatic, manifesto-like post, the story of WWI is inseparable from the story of contemporary history.

“Don't think for a moment I've forgotten. A hundred years cannot erase the images rendered by the soldier poets of that first Great War. Men who bled onto the page, each of them bearing witness to the arrogance of kaisers, kings and czars. They told the story of an absolute war that broke a continent, decimated a generation, and gave birth to the first modern genocide. Those writers defied the myth of glory on the field of battle, rendered alive the truth of the trenches and the folly of Flanders Field. They helped us feel the wave of shell shock reverberate across the world and down through generations.”

 

Peter Molin: “Aline Kilmer: When the WWI Poet’s Wife is a War Poet Too”  and the "Roots of Contemporary War Literature in James Joyce’s Ulysses"

 

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Are war wives war poets, too? Can we consider those women who write about the contortions on domestic life and feminine sensibility wrought by war as veteran writers? Author, veteran, and teacher, Peter Molin, explores the question in a post about poet Aline Murray Kilmer, wife of well-known American WWI poet, Joyce Kilmer, who was killed during the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918. Throughout Joyce's deployment and then after his death, the words of Aline's poetry, in ambiguous ways, convey the urgency and nuance of a war wife's uncertainty as she finds her tranquility and self-worth vexingly dependent on her husband, even in his permanent absence. 

In his second WWrite post, Molin takes on James Joyce by asking: what do contemporary war writers discuss when they talk about WWI? James Joyce's epic work, Ulysses, of course. Peter Molin, lets us listen in on a conversation about Joyce among some of the most important voices in war writing today. 

“How to understand Aline Kilmer as a war poet herself?  Not easily and not clearly, but not impossibly, either.  Aline’s vague and ambivalent allusions to her husband Joyce Kilmer complicate the traditional notion of the dutiful soldier’s wife who dedicates all thoughts to her husband’s valor even after he has died.  Had our contemporary military spouse poets lived in a different time of war, say 100 years ago, and been forced to contemplate their husbands’ deaths, who knows that they wouldn’t have used the tactics of oblique reference and suggestiveness that generates the impressive power of Aline Kilmer.”

 

Major Jasmine Motupalli  "Historically-Influenced Path: Iraq and Afghanistan Inspired by Ida B. Wells' WWI Fight"

 

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Black History Month gave the WWrite blog the opportunity to showcase African American writers and artists inspired by WWI.  Major Jasmine Motupalli, Assistant Professor of Engineering at West Point, and Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran, reflected upon the roles of African American women during WWI, especially the actions of journalist, activist, and suffragist, Ida B. Wells. Major Motupalli also shared part of her memoir in progress about her experience in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer.

"...in the face of inequality, I tend to be a bit rebellious and, even in 1914-1918, I’m pretty sure I would have tried to break the ceiling even further. During this time, I would have followed one of my heroes, Ida B. Wells, journalist, suffragist, editor, and activist. She fought for voting rights and equal treatment for women who looked like me. During WWI, she sold Liberty Bonds and distributed care packages to black soldiers. But her fight didn’t stop there. She worked to defend black men falsely accused of crimes throughout the country. Following the Houston Race Riot of 1917, she fiercely protested the hanging of 13 black soldiers hung by a military court without recourse to appeal or review by the president."

 

 

Shannon Huffman Polson: “What the Mountains Hold: A Writer’s Trek Through the Dolomites of Mark Helprin’s WWI Italy”

 

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This WWrite post brings a fresh face to the WWI Italy described in  Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Author and veteran, Shannon Huffman Polson, takes us on a spellbinding trek through the Dolomites, where 689,000 Italians perished during the war. Following the footsteps of characters from Mark Helprin's novel, Polson's beautiful prose leads us through the stark, striking landscape of one of Italian history's most indelible memories.

“Along 400 miles of front in the Dolomites, broken by the severe terrain, 689,000 Italians died (out of a population of 35m) and 400,000 Austrians between June of 1915 and October of 1917, though the sparse record keeping makes any exactitude impossible. Italy had entered the war late, hoping for territorial gains. At the end of the fighting, they were awarded the Dolomites region, soaked in Italian blood. According to Iraq veteran Brian Mockenhaupt writing for the Smithsonian, it was fighting “like none the world had ever seen or has seen since.” Over 100 years ago, E. Alexander Powell wrote for the New York World that “On no front, not on the sun-scorched plains of Mesopotamia, nor in the frozen Mazurian marshes, nor in the blood-soaked mud of Flanders, does the fighting man lead so arduous an existence as up here on the roof of the world.”

 

Seth Brady Tucker: “Dulce et Decorum Est: Discovering WWI Poetry in an Iraqi Foxhole”

 

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Award-winning poet and First Gulf War veteran, Seth Brady Tucker, talks about his discovery of WWI poetry–He first read "Dulce et Decorum Est," by Wilfred Owen...in an Iraqi foxhole. Thus began Tucker's lifelong commitment to reading and writing poetry about war. In his post, he says he learned that Owen and all other WWI soldier poets were

  "...brave in words. In this, they did not shirk their responsibilities, in this they did not turn away from the horrors, the obscenity, the awful trench warfare that gifted some of them to us as martyrs, returned some of them to us broken and ill-used but willing to speak of war honestly." 

 

Brian Turner: “Sleeping in the Trenches: Poet Brian Turner Plays WWI Musical Composition”

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Brian Turner helped compose "Sleeping in the Trenches" for an upcoming album inspired by the experience of war from Roel Vertov and the Retro Legion, an international group of musicians and artists. Flugelhorn, cello, accordion, euphonium, electric and acoustic guitars, glass jars, taiko drums, pedal steel guitar, concertina, mandolin, tuba, trombone, percussion and drums, drone, tenor sax, flutes, serpent, piano, tank drum, djembe, vocals, and, yes, typewriters are among the instruments the group uses to create unique, dynamic blends of sound and voice. "Sleeping in the Trenches" tries to create a soundscape/landscape for enriching the conversations on the WWrite Blog. Roel Vertov is also an avid ambient sound recordist, and he recorded and layered in several versions of rain to help create the soundscape to this piece. Turner sang the vocals, along with Skip Buhler and Major Jackson. Turner recommends listening to it before, during, and after reading posts as its significance may amplify an understanding of not only WWI but of all wars.  

Turner says “Even I,  a veteran of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iraq, hear war resonate in new ways each time I listen and perform it.”

 

Kayla Williams: “Equal Pay, Equal Benefits: Loretta Perfectus Walsh, the First Enlisted Woman in the U.S. Military”

 

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When Kayla Williams, veteran of the Iraq War and author of Love My Rifle More Than You, enlisted in the Army in 2000, her pay was identical to that of all other service members with my same rank and time in service. It did not occur to her at the time that this not only put the military in stark contrast to many other career fields but was also the result of trailblazing women who paved the way for the rest of women. Loretta Perfectus Walsh, a chief Yeoman in WWI, was the first. Not the first woman to fight on behalf of America – that honor dates all the way back to the Revolutionary War – but the first to officially enlist, as a woman, earning equal pay and benefits. Earlier, women served either alongside their husbands or disguised as men (in an era of... more relaxed entrance examinations!). Later, they could serve in one of the Nurse Corps – but without equal pay, benefits, and rank.

“Walsh’s tombstone recognizes the import of her service, as the first “woman and patriot” enrolled in the Navy. She would not be the last: over eleven thousand women followed in her footsteps during WWI alone. Since then, over two million women have served in the U. S. military, gradually serving in a growing array of roles. More recently, the final remaining barriers were broken, and women can now serve even in combat arms positions –the first woman became an infantryman last year.” 

 

A note from WWrite to these writers and all veterans:

Thank you for your amazing contributions over the last two years, which are reflections of your service and of your commitment to fostering an understanding of war and, ultimately, peace. WWrite welcomes any contribution from veterans about their experience. To write a post, please contact WWrite at jennifer.orth-veillon@worldwar1centennial.org

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