They say a picture is worth a thousand words – the words of warriors are different. For centuries, warriors have written in a way that has pulled us into the heart and horror of war. As illuminated by Jonathan Shay, Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey depict the brutality of men and war and the difficulty of homecoming in a way that has had timeless relevance for generations who have served. Ernest Hemingway experienced war firsthand and wrotes dispatches from his many frontlines and Vietnam veteran and author, Tim O’Brien invites us to shoulder, Things They Carried in Vietnam.
Building upon this tradition, The National Endowment of the Arts has made a unique contribution to American Literary History and to those who have served our country. In a project called Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families, they reached out to the 2 million active military and their loved ones and invited them to write about their personal experiences of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while the events were happening.
The response was overwhelming. The National Endowment of the arts offered fifty writing workshops by esteemed literary figures on 25 bases in 5 countries, an aircraft carrier and a fleet ship in the Gulf. Six thousand troops participated – another 25,000 were sent the audios.
The result was a total of 2,000 submissions and over 10,000 pages of diaries, poems, emails, letters, fiction and autobiographies from which a final compilation was chosen and edited as a book by Andrew Carroll. The goal of the final manuscript was to be as faithful as possible to the heart and soul of the writings –“no matter how jarring or upsetting they be.”
The resulting collection is emotionally riveting. In the words of warriors and their loved ones, it is a view of war from the inside out.
As an example, one of the literary pieces, the poem listed below, pulls you into an incident observed firsthand by thirty seven year old Captain Robert W. Schaefer who jotted down he first draft only days after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (He would make only slight changes when he returned to the States).
or were they
blue? White, red
ribbon everywhere— Stay out.
But they were so small, plastic,
inches across. They didn’t look
soldiers wandered in curious.
said: “I wonder what would
and gingerly tapped one
with the toe of his boot
which then evaporated in a pink
a bubble gum pop, then cotton
arcing lazily through the air
landing with little wet thumps
muffled by the sand. .
Then, he died—just like that
just that quickly.
One moment he was alive.
and the next, he was just a
But the second was still alive
And so, to help him, without thinking
others ran into that minefield
We too now running, and I,
fastest, first, frozen
by the sight of so much crimson-
I didn’t know where to start.
Covered with the blood of others,
later, I was mistaken as a casualty myself.
But I would not let them take my
they would still live as long as
of them remained on my sleeves,
torn as they grasped for a few
The poem, like much of the writing, demands our emotional engagement with a very personal glimpse of war. The warrior’s images capture us and steal our breath as they place us so close to sudden, inexplicable death and loss. This insider view can only come from being there, from experiencing war firsthand. It is essentially the contribution of this volume.
In many ways it is fitting that this book is entitled Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families.
Warrior ruin image from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 27 May 2012