The issue of experience as authority to speak about war comes up for the soldiers, even though they themselves haven't yet fought. They are disappointed that Jarrell wasn't a ball turret gunner, when they read the poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Experience trumps willing suspension disbelief yet again. Never mind that he could not be the ball turret gunner of the poem, since that speaker is DEAD!
Yet whenever the subject of Jarrell’s biography came up, the plebes seemed disappointed. When I asked if it mattered whether he had actually served as a ball-turret gunner, they would become passionately insistent: “Yes, ma’am, of course it matters. If he didn’t, it ruins the poem.” “But he couldn’t experience his own death and then write about it, could he?” I would venture. “No,” would come the reluctant response, “but it still matters. Somehow, it still matters.” Because it mattered so very much, many of the plebes, though not yet battle-tested, could not at first see the incongruity of demanding more of Randall Jarrell than they did of themselves. Owning war is one of the things for which plebes will fight hardest, and they guard even wars of the imagination rather jealously.
This is a thoughtful and probing article by Samet, who's clearly doing good work--work that is more than about literature. She ends, appropriately, with Tolstoy, as balm for a self-questioning soldier:
READING TOLSTOY’S “WAR AND PEACE” at around the same time I heard from Brad, I was struck by the passage in which Prince Andrey’s friend Pierre asks him what he is “going to war for.” “What for?” responds Andrey. “I don’t know. Because I have to. Besides, I’m going . . . I’m going because the life I lead here, this life is — not to my taste!” Like Brad, Andrey didn’t have a ready answer for his civilian friend. After going to war, moreover, his motivations become even more complicated, almost impossible to articulate. Andrey loves glory yet feels its emptiness. He bears a deep responsibility to the men of his regiment, a love of country and a full recognition of the waste of war. All of these causes and desires battle within him even as he fights the enemy. I told Brad the story of Prince Andrey. What I guess I wanted him to understand was that thoughtful soldiers will endure moments of ambivalence.
I have become increasingly preoccupied with Prince Andrey as the Iraq war drags on. I think of the overwhelming pride and pleasure with which, disillusioned as he has become with the pursuit of glory, he responds to General Kutuzov’s recollection of the courageous charge in which Andrey had been given up for dead. “I remember you at Austerlitz,” the old general tells him, “I remember, I remember you with the flag!” I think, too, of the fate that awaits Andrey at Borodino, where he receives the wound that eventually kills him. Even as I know that fewer wars would be fought if the Andreys of the world stopped feeling the primal urge to go to battle, I also realize with breathtaking selfishness that even more wars would be lost, and that on occasion we might be lost, if the Brads of the world decided to sit them out. Once again I have retreated — or advanced — to books. I suppose I hope that the world of imaginative literature I have grown so accustomed to inhabiting and through which my own horizons have been enlarged might provide the same rich vein for someone like Brad, who is trying to figure out nothing less than how to live his life.