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A destroyed home photographed in wake of war against ISIS in Sinjar, Iraq (Levi Meir Clancy)

How Should We Make Sense of War in Fiction?

It’s not just a question of who tells a war story — there is also the question of when.

Words: Katherine Voyles
Pictures: Levi Meir Clancy

How to tell a war story and who gets to tell a war story are crucially important questions. They are also relatively familiar questions even if the answers to them shift around and are likely to remain unsettled. When to tell a war story is an equally important, and slightly less familiar, question. It feels important to linger on this issue of temporality because I think it helps us understand something important about how to make sense of the importance of war.

That is, focusing on temporality reminds us not just that war stories take place in particular historical contexts and at particular historical moments, but also that there is a pacing to how these stories unfold that is bound up with the meaning-making capacity of narrative. Stories about war unfold through narrative time, and the events presented in the narrative are subject to interpretation and reinterpretation as the story moves forward in time and events stack on top of one another, each one casting what came before in a slightly different light. 

Raymond Williams, a well-known Marxist cultural critic, famously took the novelist Jane Austen to task for not writing about the wars of her time. He wondered at the absence of the Napoleonic Wars in her fiction. An easy response, and one I’ve often satisfied myself with, is that her novels are full of the war brought home: the soldiers and sailors who populate them from General Tilney in “Northanger Abbey at the start of her career to Captain Wentworth in “Persuasion” at its end — to say nothing of the fact that she had two sailor brothers, one of whom became an Admiral — illustrate that Austen’s fiction and her biography were shaped by the defining war of her era for her country. 

Stories a Society Tells Itself

Beyond this, however, is something deeper: Williams voices an expectation that cultural productions might also be encompassed, made under conditions of war should themselves represent the war of their time.

Williams’s view is, of course, not the only possible one. In our own day, the expansive interest in the intersection of science fiction and national security suggests that there is also something generative about displacing, in both time and space, a story of war. Today, books about how science fiction and strategy are related to each other are shelved next to the newest novels that depict the coming war (or wars) by high-profile national security figures. Even these works of fiction are more likely, however, to tell us about the concerns and preoccupations of today in terms of what war looks like tomorrow.

It’s a truism of many academic disciplines that the limits and possibilities of cultural productions are determined by their social, political, and material conditions. Cultural productions have the power to show a society to itself, to reveal not just specific aspects of it, but to relate and interrelate those aspects to one another. War, in its immense complexity and almost unimaginably high stakes, is especially potent in these respects. The stories a society at war tells itself, the stories a society at war tells about war, and the stories a society at war tells about the ongoing war are crucially important ways for that society to make sense of itself through a detailed examination of an endeavor that is as intensely consequential as war. For this reason, it does matter whether that story is set during the present war, or looks forward to the form future war might take.

After 9/11

For years after 9/11 a very specific question was: wither the novel? The slightly broader question was about the texture of stories in a post-9/11 context. That a cataclysmic event would reshape the contours of existing forms of cultural production was essentially taken as a given.

What the post-9/11 novel would look and feel like, however, was not at all settled. Should the boundary be narrowly drawn — a focus on the day itself in the manner of Don DeLillio’s “Falling Man or Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close— or should the boundary be more widely drawn so that novels — any novel, all novels — written in the wake of the event might be understood as post-9/11 novels. 

What the post-9/11 novel would look and feel like, however, was not at all settled.

In many respects it was easier to point to discrete examples of the species than it was to describe the genus itself. The Kiefer Sutherland-led show 24 was conceived of well before 9/11 but originally aired in the month after the event — with its focus on terrorism and cortisol-spiking ticking clock, the FOX drama seemed tailor-made for a newly anxious America, particularly its focus on white anxiety and fear.

Temporality and Pacing

The nature of the temporality and pacing of stories is important to understand. Most of us know that stories have a beginning, middle, and end; there is a rising and falling action as tensions are introduced and in some way resolved. What’s less familiar is how all stories run along two lines: the order of events as presented in the story and the order of events as they unfold in chronological time. There is a mismatch, in other words, between the sequence of events within the narrative and the sequence of events as they would occur in real time. 

This mismatch is incredibly generative because it opens up space within the story for events to be interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the story. And because this may sound a bit abstract it’s useful to put an example around it. Detective fiction is a wildly popular genre that dramatizes this dynamic. As the investigation into the crime proceeds, the meaning of any individual clue shifts around as more and more clues pile up. Something that previously seemed sinister turns out to be innocuous and the previously innocuous can turn sinister. This pattern of evaluation and reevaluation occurs over the course of the story until a single determination is reached at narrative’s end when the identity of the criminal is revealed.

The power to make meaning, revisit the import of any particular meaning, and ultimately settle on the import of meanings is a central feature of all narrative that is especially important for stories about war. Stories about war of necessity engage issues such as its very nature, the events that led up to it, events within it, and what comes after it. What happened and what it all means are at the heart of these narratives. 

How War Changes Individual Lives

Peter C. Baker’s 2022 novel, “Planes,” is interesting in these respects. It spans three continents and multiple decades to tell the interrelated stories of three couples whose lives are torqued in vastly different ways by the practice of extraordinary rendition.

By placing the Global War on Terror in the context of how it reshapes individual human lives the novel uses some conventional rhythms and hallmarks of adult life — marriage, childrearing, homebuying — Baker’s novel charts how war unequally and unevenly changes individual lives and marriages at a single moment in time. The novel also uses these same markers of time to suggest that the meaning of the war would be different had its characters lived out these signs of adulthood in different ways. 

Melanie grows from a graduate student with conventionally progressive or leftist leanings in Durham, North Carolina, that are nurtured by her close relationships with her neighbors into a wife, mother, and homeowner whose family and work commitments crowd out her progressive politics. She serves on the school board with a conservative man with whom she has an affair. Her family life, her affair, and her centrism all come to a head when her family discovers her infidelity, and she learns that her lover is helping to support the extraordinary rendition program.

Making Meaning of War

This trajectory points out her vast difference to Amira, the Italian wife of a Pakistani national who has been detained under the program. It also reveals the changes in Melanie to herself as she thinks about whether the version of her who lived in the ramshackle house in Durham would have protested more loudly and vigorously against the war in Iraq than the comfortably bougie version of herself does. The meaning of the Global War on Terror depends in this novel very much not just on the character’s perspective, but on the moment or moments in time of a character’s life.

Baker’s multiperspectival novel of what are today a deeply unpopular program and deeply unpopular wars does not provide a singular meaning of those wars. Instead, the assessment and reassessment of those endeavors at the center of the story are powerful. They dramatize the temporal capacity of narrative to make meaning of war.

Katherine Voyles

Katherine Voyles is an English PhD who works for the Department of Defense. She writes in public about issues of national security in culture and the cultures of national security. The views here are her own and do not reflect the official position of the US Army or Department of Defense.

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