By Jason Dempsey
Best Defense office of the literature of combat
As we approach the end of our time in Afghanistan it would serve us well to reflect on the poets of World War I, not only for their messages but for what we have lost with the absence of an art form that was so well-suited to provide a window into war. On the question of who writes of war and how is it portrayed, World War I was unique for two main reasons: 1) almost everyone fought, including those who saw themselves as artists first and soldiers second, and 2) poetry was a widespread vehicle for artistic outlet and social commentary, not yet pushed aside by radio, movies, and television. The result of that ubiquity of poetry as an artistic medium, along with the ease with which one could write it, even in a combat zone, is that we are inundated with art from the Great War that was created by those who experienced it. From Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves, we get a tactile feel for the war paired with examinations of what it means for life writ large -- the purpose of art, as it were.
Today, unfortunately, those conditions don't hold. Artists and soldiers are, by and large, two separate communities, and poetry is essentially dead as a medium for mass-communication, supplanted by movies and music which are beyond the technical capacity of soldiers in the field to create. The result is that artistic interpretations of modern wars lag well behind their occurrence and are, for the most part, derivative. Since the end of mass wars and the dissolution of the draft, the record of "art" on war has been fairly dismal. From the medium that most touches mass audiences we are presented with Top Gun, Navy SEALs, and The Hurt Locker. Interpreting armed conflict in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, respectively, each follows the same tired tropes, merely placing old stereotypes in new settings. The gadgets, sets, and cinematography evolve but the story remains the same. Even Saving Private Ryan, for all its brilliance, could not, in its final moments, avoid the cinematic safety blanket provided by a valiant last stand and a noble speech delivered in a dying breath.
I've often wondered what we would have learned if Owen had lived, or if T.S. Eliot had gone to war. Owen, able to distill the horror of World War I and place it in the mundane context of its execution, made a dramatic statement about the failures of nation-states to achieve the patriotic ideals for which soldiers ostensibly fight, and die. Had he lived through the war and had more time to contemplate what had happened, one can only imagine the journey he might have taken us on. And Eliot, of course, represents opportunity lost. Eliot could turn the experience of a mere "house-agent's clerk" into blinding statements on love and faith, and his musings on the aftermath of the Great War inform "The Waste Land," one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. One can only imagine what he might have done with direct experience.
While many other poets survived and made great contributions to our understanding of war, both during and after the conflict, the gap left by Owen's death and Eliot's lack of experience has only grown wider in the intervening century. Today, art on war is stuck in a proverbial no-man's land. On one side are the soldiers, a self-selected class with a corresponding lack of interest in questioning the assumptions upon which we build our rationale for fighting, and often without the tools to readily contribute on the rare chance they do. On the other side of the trenches are the professional artists. Relying on field phones and distant observation, their resulting interpretations of war are best understood as personal introspection, or navel-gazing through the barrel of a gun.
Art has a role to play in addressing fundamental questions, and few questions are more fundamental than the choice of states to kill. On that question the poets of World War I stood like lightning rods in attracting attention to the horrors and stupidity of that conflict, and mankind is better for it. But in the years since, as the soldier and artist have diverged, our understanding of organized violence has become much more shallow. For today's artists war, if they go out of their way to address it, merely presents an opportunity to recast old narratives and put new faces on tired clichés. The result is a nearly static discussion and an understanding of war that lags decades behind execution.
We entered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan awash in nostalgia for World War II and devoid of the ability to move beyond a superficial understanding of modern conflict, and we have paid for it. Good books and memoirs have begun to emerge from these recent conflicts but their release meets waning interest and a public that has already moved on. One can't help but think of the opportunities missed with the disappearance of poetry as a tool with which the soldier-poets of World War I could immediately engage the public. Reading through those old poems, one feels a sense of great loss, both for their disappearance and for the larger absence of art from our conversations about war.
Jason Dempsey is the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics and American Civil-Military Relations and is serving as a combat advisor in Afghanistan. The views presented here are his own.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.