With satellite phones, endless cable television coverage and a small army of embedded reporters, journalists have gotten as close to this war as any in history. But no matter how many risks they take, journalists cannot go into the minds of the men and women who are fighting the battles and who have no choice but to risk their lives and kill people. That mental intensity is perhaps the most difficult thing to document in war, and it remains mostly unknown territory to the majority of Americans.
The National Endowment for the Arts will announce a program today to change that, to encourage troops returning from Iraq (and Afghanistan as well) to write about their experiences in wartime. "Operation Homecoming," which will be unveiled at a news conference at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, will make some of this country's most prominent authors available to servicemen and -women, for workshops and lectures intended to help them express and record what they have seen and felt in combat. The program is part oral history project, part literary talent search, and part a writing-as-therapy program for troops, particularly those in Iraq, who have been under extraordinary stress in America's first protracted and messy war since Vietnam.
The 16 writers who have agreed to participate by visiting military bases include Tobias Wolff, Tom Clancy, Victor Davis Hanson and McKay Jenkins. In addition, 10 other writers, including Shelby Foote and Richard Wilbur, have contributed reminiscences and readings to a compact disc and Web site the Endowment has produced.
The NEA project will add to extensive oral history projects supported by the military, and to a Library of Congress initiative to collect material, including journals and letters, from veterans of the two world wars, and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. "Operation Homecoming," which will anthologize the best of the material it collects, is focused on soldiers fresh from ongoing conflict.
"These are not voices we would easily hear, otherwise," says Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA. They haven't been heard for a number of reasons, most important of which is that America's military men and women are preoccupied with fighting. Gioia also notes that one spur to the project is the realization that much of what is being said and recorded about the war is happening through e-mail, a medium that is more ephemeral than the letters and journals that captured the grit of military life in earlier conflicts.
"We want to connect with people when their stories are still fresh," says Jon Parrish Peede, one of the NEA's project directors for "Operation Homecoming." Peede compares the project to the artistic endeavors of the Depression-era Work Projects Administration. The NEA effort is a similar attempt to connect, artistically, with the broader American public during a time of national anxiety.
The goal of the project, beyond providing an emotional and expressive outlet for military personnel and their families, and getting the basic eyewitness facts of history down on paper, is to add to a long tradition of war literature. That tradition encompasses everything from the first great classic of Western literature, Homer's "Iliad," to the vast and ongoing production of new military memoirs, histories and novels that make up a healthy percentage of the American publishing industry.
The project will focus attention on the military, and military life, at a crucial moment in American history. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have necessitated long deployments, which one military official (Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, speaking with the Los Angeles Times) called "the first real test of the all-volunteer force in this country." Concerns about reenlistment rates have also been raised, within the military as well as in Congress and among military families.
The American public, reflecting a debate within the world of journalism, is also conflicted about how much it wants to know about the war, especially painful facts, graphic images and bad news from the combat zone. So while the war is omnipresent on television, accounts of the fighting in Iraq don't come through with the intensity of, say, Ernie Pyle's descriptions from World War II.
The NEA project is organized in partnership with the Department of Defense and the Southern Arts Federation, a nonprofit group based in Atlanta, and $250,000 of the $300,000 cost is being paid by Boeing. Writers visiting military bases will be paid a $3,000 honorarium. NEA officials say they don't expect the military to place any constraints on what is written, and that the volume that is eventually published will represent a diversity of viewpoints about the war.
The Defense Department believes the writing will reflect positively on military life.
"I don't have any concerns," says Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Charles S. Abell. "We tend to remember those things that are good."
The history of war literature in the past century, however, has often been an extended argument with military authority, conformity and logic. Disgust with World War I, which produced such classics as Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front," reverberated throughout Western culture to such an extent that it was one of the most important (if not the most important) influences on the artistic styles and preoccupations of the 20th century.
American literature produced by and about soldiers who were drafted into earlier conflicts, such as World War II or Vietnam, is often markedly bitter. Will soldiers leaving a volunteer Army add to the sarcastic tradition of Joseph Heller? Or will their writing read like the interviews with service personnel one hears on the morning talk shows, "on message" about the country's goals to such a degree that it often seems like the entire military has received corporate media training?
"It will be interesting to see what form the responses take," Gioia says. "The new generation of soldiers is the best educated and best trained in American history."
"Operation Homecoming" is the second major project the NEA has initiated with the military. Last fall, the Endowment launched a nationwide tour of Shakespeare plays, with military bases prominent among the stops made by the seven touring companies participating.
Based on the popularity of the Shakespeare performances, the Defense Department is expecting enthusiastic response to the writing initiative, according to Abell. Both projects demonstrate the Endowment's recent efforts to steer clear of the controversy of the "culture wars" that bedeviled it in the 1990s. They have, for the most part, deftly positioned the Endowment as supporting popular access to art, which is difficult for even the NEA's most ardent critics to criticize. But will there be uneasiness among artists, who are often perceived as reflexively liberal, about a project that uses federal arts money in ways that may seen as glorifying the military or war?
"The arts community really is pro-troops," says the NEA's Peede. "The American arts community has reached a level of maturity and recognizes that it should not exclude any experiences."
Gioia sees the project as a way of getting two large constituencies, American artists and the American "heartland," represented by military personnel, talking to each other.
"One of the issues in contemporary culture is that our organizations and fields become so specialized that they talk mostly among themselves," says Gioia. "Whenever we can create opportunities in culture for groups of people to talk across fields, I think that creates both an increased understanding and new energy."
Still, in a society that is squeamish about war imagery and deeply divided about the war in Iraq, mixing art and wartime memory can be dangerous. Nobody captured the uneasiness of making art from war better than Kurt Vonnegut, who included in one of his most famous novels a scene in which, years after the Second World War, a veteran gets the cold shoulder from his Army buddy's wife. He tells her he is planning to write a novel about the firebombing of Dresden, and she explodes.
"So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn't want her babies or anybody else's babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies."
The novel was "Slaughterhouse Five," one of the most bitterly antiwar books ever written.