Army of Shadows*
By Roxana Robinson
When award-winning author Roxana Robinson was writing her critically acclaimed book about a veteran of the Iraq war, Sparta, she only allowed herself to read one war novel: Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. For Robinson, it "beautifully resolves the problems of scale and language" with a narrative that is "both beautiful and desolate." Read Robinson's reflections on contemporary war writing through the lens of Remarque's WWI classic novel at WWrite this week.
I read only one war novel while I was writing my own.
There were reasons: I didn’t want to hear another novelist’s voice, as I was trying to find my own way into a soldier’s mind. I didn’t want to learn about the wrong war: every war has its own weather and terrain, its own equipment and language, and I didn’t want the wrong ones in my head. I couldn’t read novels about the Iraq war because there were none.
War writing follows a sequence: the first writers are reporters. Later, veterans publish memoirs. Novelists are always last: ten years after the invasion, the first novels about the Iraq war appeared. Fiction is ruminative, and emerges slowly from experience, like water seeping upward to a spring.
My own book, Sparta, was engendered by an account in The New York Times about unarmored Humvees, about IEDs and TBIs. It told of the reluctance of the military medical establishment to diagnose brain injuries, because their treatment was expensive, and would remove combatants from the field.
The clarity of the writing, the intimacy of the images, and the urgency of the issues collapsed the distance I’d kept between myself and the war. I had opposed it, but it had happened. I felt helpless and didn’t want to think about it. This article made that impossible. Those soldiers stayed in my mind, taking more and more space, until I realized that this would become a book.
I knew almost nothing about war – I’m a Quaker. To write a book about this I needed a universe of information. I read reportage and memoirs. On the internet, I read military blogs by soldiers in Ramadi and Hit and Fallujah. On YouTube I watched Marine dance contests and family homecomings. I watched real firefights: soldiers put babycams on their helmets and switched them on when the shooting started. I interviewed every vet I could find. I listened to their stories. And I asked them their favorite war books.
The problem of war fiction is scale. War is vast, abstract and impersonal. (It may be the most impersonal of all human endeavors; if we had to consider it in personal terms we would never wage it). A soldier is small, human and personal. The task is to create a narrative that includes the personal and impersonal, and to create, in a language that civilians will understand, a world they can’t imagine.
I kept hearing one title.
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, was published in 1929, about a decade after World War I. Drawing on the author’s experience, it’s a first-person narrative, told by a young German soldier fighting in France.
Remarque beautifully resolves the problems of scale and language. Private Paul Baumer’s voice is quiet and informal, and the story begins with a matter of universal interest: food. “Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans.”
Not only the soldiers are relieved: the readers are as well. Braced for horror, we’ve gotten a reprieve. We needn’t face the big guns just yet; we’re safe behind the lines, and replete. Soon we learn why this has happened: most of the company has been killed. The cook prepared food for one hundred and fifty soldiers, but only eighty have returned from the front lines. This news is delivered casually; it’s important mainly because the surviving soldiers want all the food.
The sentimental notions of war and heroism are challenged at once, and the narrative continues to shock us with its contrasts between dailiness and horror. But the voice is not callous, in fact it’s almost unbearably perceptive and compassionate. Bauer visits poor Kemmerich, dying of blood poisoning in the field hospital. Kemmerich is told he’s going home, and he nods without speaking. Bauer says, “I cannot bear to look at his hands, they are like wax. Under the nails is the dirt of the trenches, it shows through blue-black like poison.”
The life of the body, in all its exigence, rises up through the narrative like a skeleton through earth. As death approaches, life becomes more urgent: men wolf down their food before going out, because they might die before another meal. A wounded comrade dies in No Man’s Land because he’s blinded and mad with pain, blundering into the gunfire before his friends can reach him. It’s the intimate moments that inform us of the ghastly presence of war, looming behind everything. It’s war that makes poor Kemmerich’s hands so waxy, war that causes the clumsy rush into machine-gun fire.
The narrative is both beautiful and desolate. It’s shocking, in the way of great fiction, because it reveals things we knew but didn’t know we knew. It’s modern in its rejection of conventional pieties about courage or nobility or patriotism. It’s complete in its grasp of the wartime experience, with all its futility and heartbreak, extremity and complexity, its moments of deep human connection.
Two things serve as testaments to the book’s merit: that American veterans so admire it, nearly a century later, and that the Nazis were so enraged by it, and its rejection of their notion of military nobility, that they burned it and banned it, and then, since Remarque himself was unavailable, they decapitated his sister.
Books have a kind of power that war cannot equal, but war has a kind of power that seems limitless and unending. It was that paradox I wanted to explore; it was that paradox that all war books, by their nature, challenge and perpetuate.
*Essay published with kind permission by the original publisher - © Bookforum, June/July/August 2014, “Army of Shadows," by Roxana Robinson. The images that appear in the blog post do not belong to the original publication. They were added in by the World War 1 Centennial Commission's WWrite blog curator.
Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, including Cost; three collections of short stories; and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BookForum, Best American Short Stories, Tin House and elsewhere. She teaches in the Hunter MFA Program and divides her time between New York, Connecticut, and Maine. She has received fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. She was President of the Authors Guild from 2014-2017. Her new book, Dawson ‘s Fall, based on the life of her great grandfather, a Captain in the Civil War, will be published in May by FSG.