We’re saluting all of the men and women who fought, volunteered and risked their lives to protect the nations they loved. Whether they served as soldiers, pilots or nurses, we’d like to pay tribute to this admittedly short list of authors that we've put together and, more importantly, to the impossibly long list of those everywhere who’ve sacrificed:
1. Tim O’Brien
O’Brien’s novel Going After Cacciato and his short story collection The Things They Carried could not have existed without his experience in the Vietnam War.
O’Brien was drafted in 1968, just two weeks after completing his undergraduate degree at Macalester College. By then, the war in Vietnam had reached its most horrific point in terms of American casualties. O’Brien served a 13-month tour in Vietnam as a foot soldier, being wounded twice and being promoted to Sergeant.
Here is just one great example of O’Brien’s writing on war from “How to Tell a True War Story:”
Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn't hit you until, say, twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you've forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife's breathing. The war's over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what's the point?
This one wakes me up.
In the mountains that day, I watched Lemon turn sideways. He laughed and said something to Rat Kiley. Then he took a funny half step, moving from shade into bright sunlight, and the booby-trapped artillery round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there, so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow. The gore was horrible, and stays with me. But what wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing "Lemon Tree" as we threw down the parts.
2. Walt Whitman
Whitman was 42 years old at the start of the Civil War. Just two years into it, the Whitmans in Brooklyn received news from the New York Herald that Walt’s younger brother, George Washington Whitman, was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Walt left his family’s home and rushed to his brother’s side in Washington. After several frantic days of searching, he finally found his brother, who by some miracle only suffered a minor scratch at his jaw from an exploding shell. Still, Whitman dedicated three years of his life tending to the wounded during the Civil War. Whitman addresses this in his poem, “The Wound Dresser”:
3. J. D. Salinger
Salinger was drafted into World War II in the Spring of 1942, allegedly carrying six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye in his jacket on the shores of Utah Beach during D-Day — his first day of combat.
Some claim that Catcher in the Rye would not have been the same without Salinger’s time in World War II, attributing the hard-boiled tone to his time in the war. The war certainly seeped its way into his short stories, like “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise,” which is told from the perspective of Holden’s brother Vincent as he waits in an Army truck in the rain:
The lieutenant says, dripping: "Get in. Get in the truck boy."
… Drenched to the bone, the bone of loneliness, the bone of silence, we plod back to the truck.
Where are you Holden? Never mind the Missing stuff. Stop playing around. Show up. Show up somewhere. Hear me? It’s simply because I remember everything. I can’t forget anything that’s good, that’s why. So listen. Just go up to somebody, some officer or some G.I., and tell them you’re Here — not Missing, not dead, not anything but Here. Stop kidding around. Stop letting people think you’re Missing. Stop wearing my robe to the beach. Stop taking the shots on my side of the court. Stop whistling. Sit up to the table.
4. Edith Wharton
Wharton was an American in Paris during the beginning of World War II, when she became a war correspondent, visiting the front lines and volunteering to bring relief to displaced refugees and soldiers fleeing the worst of the war.
Her experience is documented in Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belport:
A few hotels still carried on a halting life, galvanized by an occasional inrush of travel from Belgium and Germany; but most of them had closed or were being hastily transformed into hospitals.
The signs over these hotel doors first disturbed the dreaming harmony of Paris. In a night, as it seemed, the whole city was hung with Red Crosses. Every other building showed the red and white band across its front, with "Ouvroir" or "Hopital" beneath; there was something sinister in these preparations for horrors in which one could not yet believe, in the making of bandages for limbs yet sound and whole, the spreading of pillows for heads yet carried high. But insist as they would on the woe to come, these warning signs did not deeply stir the trance of Paris. The first days of the war were full of a kind of unrealizing confidence, not boastful or fatuous, yet as different as possible from the clear-headed tenacity of purpose that the experience of the next few months was to develop. It is hard to evoke, without seeming to exaggerate it, that the mood of early August: the assurance, the balance, the kind of smiling fatalism with which Paris moved to her task. It is not impossible that the beauty of the season and the silence of the city may have helped to produce this mood. War, the shrieking fury, had announced herself by a great wave of stillness. Never was desert hush more complete: the silence of a street is always so much deeper than the silence of wood or field.
5. J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien was a soldier in the British Army during World War I. He went to war with three of his best friends from school, two of whom he lost. While digging a mass grave after a battle, Tolkien contracted trench fever; it is said that during his recovery, he began writing what would become the middle-earth mythology behind The Lord of the Rings series.
The war clearly had its influence on Tolkien’s work. You can see his experience sublimating his fiction in this passage from The Two Towers:
War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.
6. Gertrude Stein
Stein moved from America to Paris in 1903, joining Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others, in what some have called the “Stein salon.”
After living in France for several years, World War I broke out in Europe. In 1916, Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, received a Ford, learned how to drive and volunteered with the American Fund for the French Wounded.
Stein included her experiences in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933. Stein and Toklas, both of Jewish heritage, also lived in France during World War II, avoiding the Nazis by the good fortune of the their connections. Stein draws on her experiences from both wars in Wars I Have Seen:
A nice war is a war where everybody who is heroic is a hero, and everybody more or less is a hero in a nice war. Now this war is not at all a nice war.
... the French know that you must not succeed you must rise from the ashes and how could you rise from the ashes if there were no ashes, but the Germans never think of ashes and so when there are ashes there is no rising, not at all and every day and in every way this is clearer and clearer. ...
Is it worse to be scared than to be bored, that is the question.
7. Joseph Heller
Heller graduated from high school in 1941, working briefly in an insurance office before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1942. In the Mediterranean theatre of operations during World War II, he flew 60 combat missions and was awarded an Air Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation.
Although Catch 22 was not based entirely on his war experience, it’s arguable that without his service, readers might not have been graced with lines like these:
Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window, and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.
8. Roald Dahl
Dahl served as a fighter pilot during World War II and was forever marked by his experience after being shot down in the Libyan desert, an event that left him with head injuries that caused terrible headaches for the rest of his life.
The incident inspired him to write a story called “Shot Down Over Libya,” which became popular in the Saturday Evening Post, encouraging Dahl to stick to his guns as a writer:
They hung a label around my neck which said "Flying Officer ––. Possible fractured skull base. Concussion and facial injuries. Church of England." I knew this because the medical orderly read the label out loud to me at the base hospital.
I tried to remember just why that label was there, and why it said these things. I tried to ask someone, but no one heard, so I gave it up and just lay still. Then slowly it all came back; not clearly and brightly at first, but a little dimly, as though by moonlight. In the end, I got it all.
This list is in no way meant to be all inclusive — in fact, you can find other writers who served in our previous blog post “8 Writers Who Almost Died Before Their Time.” And if you know of other authors who served and the impact it had on their work, tell us all about it in the comments below.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in unFold, The Leaf Unturned and Italics Mine. As a former co-president of SUNY Purchase’s Cheese Club, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese.
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