Friday, July 27, 2007

Some Thoughts on "Operation Homecoming"

I've been of two minds about "Operation Homecoming," the National Endowment for the Arts' initiative to hold writing workshops for American soldiers, from which an anthology has now sprung.

On the one hand, this project enables a unique opportunity for U.S. troops to articulate and give form to experiences that they might not otherwise; it also enables those of us on the homefront a way to listen to these stories, from writers who want to tell them. Obviously, soldiers in the modern era have played a critical role in representing war in ways that have made the politicians' doublespeak about its glories less tenable. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, Michael Casey, Yusef Komunyakaa, and recently Iraq War veteran Brian Turner (among many, many others)--all of these poets have contributed critically to our understanding of war, with poems that are beautiful and terrifying. Clearly, the NEA has scored serious patriotism points along the way.

On the other hand, I'm wary that such stories will replicate, too often, what Miriam Cooke calls the paradigmatic "war story"--the kind of story told from a young male perspective which privileges certain accounts of war that end up making it tidier, less bloody, and more masterable than war actually is, for the vast majority of those who experience it. Will this writing make war ultimately more exciting and glamorous than it may be?

I was particularly pleased to see, on the recent story on npr, that a soldier's mother was one of the writers included in the project--because if we believe that war is, as everyone from William James to Paul Virilio suggests, "the endless preparation for war," then we need to look at the "homefront" experience.

Yet will the writings of "Operation Homecoming" enable us to understand Iraqi experience any better, or will it perpetuate the Orientalizing representations of inscrutable irrational otherness that haunt war accounts of colonized powers?

Finally, how will soldier-writers, once they have done this writing, be received by fellow-soldiers (not to mention the Defense Department), particularly if their writing explores painful, difficult, or even illegal experiences? Is there a place for dissident writing in "Operation Homecoming," and how might writers be protected to explore the full range of experiences and issues that those experiences raise?

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