Writing today’s war literature: Figuring out our story, not Hollywood’s or D.C.’s

By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

More than rifles and bullets, the pen often defines a generation’s wars and veterans. A war’s narrative, more than battlefield victory or defeat, shapes the identity of its veterans and its consequent legacy.

Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers personified America’s heroism and exceptionalism in a war demarcated by good and evil, democracy and fascism, liberty and tyranny. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, one of the best pieces of war fiction, wove together the daily drudgery, the heart-pounding terror, and unadulterated excitement of war in the thick, humid jungles of Vietnam. Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down indelibly shaped America’s perception of Somalia, coalescing American trepidation of humanitarian interventions on the ‘Dark Continent’ through the unforgettable images of naked American soldiers being dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu.

Consequently, these stories forge how America remembers each generation of veterans. Second World War veterans are honored as unflappable heroes, pristine, faultless, and glorious. Vietnam veterans represent a complex microcosm of a tumultuous social transition overlaid by a controversial war, often misunderstood, but proud. Meanwhile, the soldiers of the First Battle of Mogadishu, like their pre-9/11 counterparts, are framed as fearless heroes abandoned by their political masters, too squeamish of war’s bloody realities. So, how is the Global War on Terror, America’s longest war (albeit unofficial), portrayed? How does the latest generation of veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq pen their story?

Hollywood blockbusters, like The Hurt Locker, American Sniper, and Lone Survivor, have popularized a narrative rooted more in tropes than truth: a combination of the PTSD-riddled warfighter, the morally ambiguous killer, and the gallant, altruistic hero. However, this narrative is a Frankenstein summation of extremes, arbitrarily splicing and simplifying the truth into digestible and marketable bits. They are stories of exceptionality designed for an audience who has come to expect and want a narrow, unrealistic narrative of war and its combatants.

The truth of the war is complex and paradoxical, equal parts nightmarish terror, jaw-dropping inspiration, mind numbing boredom, and incongruous humor. But most of all, the story of the war is as numerous and diverse as those who fought and endured them. Each account, my own included, provides an anecdotal peephole into a cavernous well of experiences, simultaneously limited and informed by bias, perspective, and memory. My own war started with visions of dying like a martyr, but evolved into a realization that living with the war was harder. Likewise, Matt Gallagher’s fictional novel, Youngblood, weaves an intricate literary tapestry of the war so many are struggling to recount and reconcile – an instance where truth dwells in fiction. Then there is the military cult classic of Terminal Lance, a comic series following the hilarious duo, Abe and Garcia. Written by former Marine, Maximilian Uriarte, the story of the cheeky Abe and the sensible Garcia introduces aspects of military service beyond fever-pitch firefights, ranging from inappropriate porter john drawings to jokes about boots and 1st Lieutenants. Terminal Lance masterfully injects humor and normalcy into a narrative dominated by trauma and loss.

Not to be limited to print, today’s veterans have leveraged the Internet unlike any generation before. Task & Purpose, a veteran news outlet and forum, is a clamorous bastion of veteran advocates and storytellers. The niche specific site caters to everything veteran from unbelievable stories from the Second Battle of Fallujah to advice columns on how to navigate the labyrinth of the VA. Likewise, The War Horse, an upstart news outlet, is attempting to bring intimacy and inclusivity to the often-divisive discourse of war through personal accounts, investigative journalism, and mass data collection. Reflective of the times, the stories of today’s veterans are prevalently written, recorded, and disseminated online.

As a generation of literary veterans, I believe we are in the midst of a tumultuous, soul-searching process of understanding our war through writing. We reject Hollywood’s caricatures, and we don’t trust the Washington Beltway version, either. We have to define our own stories.

Whether we find solace, persistent demons, or a glimpse of some universal truth in our stories remains to be seen. Our stories, ultimately coming together as “our story,” remain a work in progress — being written frantically online and in print, for the world to see and for our eyes alone. In the end, whether in public discussions or private confessions, our stories are defining our country, our military, our legacy, and our generation. So, more than heroes or monsters, let us strive to be remembered as the generation that tried to tell the truth as we saw it — however ugly or beautiful it may be.

Sebastian J. Bae, a frequent contributor to Best Defense, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions. He holds the Marine co-chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted. His instagram handle is sebastianbae.

Photo credit: SPC. Glenn M. Anderson/USAREUR Public Affairs/U.S. Army/Flickr