I’ve said it before: without memoirs written by the man on the ground, all we would be left with would be the words of generals and upper echelon politicians seeking to make themselves out to be legends who single-handedly won or lost entire conflicts. There is a place for memoirs beyond simple entertainment and in the same spirit there is also a place for fiction.
Fiction, especially as it pertains to the telling of war, can serve several functions that memoirs cannot (and vice versa). It can illuminate certain facets of the military experience when reality might be too muddled or too chaotic to get certain points across. Fiction can also draw out and explain emotions that might not be so readily apparent in real life.
However, the population of veterans involved in fiction storytelling — be it novels, short stories, movies or television shows — is quite low, especially when compared to previous generations. For whatever reason, the culture surrounding storytellers and the veteran culture rarely overlap.
In the past, this wasn’t so much the case. Both JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis were both infantrymen in WWI, and fought in the Battle of the Somme, among other places. Ernest Hemingway wasn’t in the military but he was an ambulance driver in WWII and was wounded quite badly in the war. There are countless war poets and writers that have mastered their craft, honed their creativity, and built something that would be read, watched or played long after their deaths.
This is a shame, in my opinion, as there are certain aspects of the human experience that are difficult to explain if they’re coming out of the mouth of a layperson who was not intimately involved in the subject matter of their own piece of fiction. Would I rather listen to a story about a marriage of 50 years from the perspective of a 25-year-old guy who has never had a relationship last over a year or from a man who has spent the last 50 years with his spouse? Would I rather listen to the nuances and hilarity of international travel from someone who has never left the state or from someone who leaves the country every year?
Would I rather dive into the complexities and realities of war with someone who has never experienced it or from someone who has?
So many fictitious stories revolve around the experiences veterans share, and it’s not just limited to the heat of battle either. They have an innate understanding of comradery, selflessness, serving a greater purpose, being a part of a larger machine, ethical dilemmas both internal and external from a bureaucracy and much more. These can be applied in whatever fictitious ways the author/filmmaker/playwright chooses — JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis both chose the route of fantasy for their work.
That’s not to say great fiction hasn’t been created by third parties. “Saving Private Ryan” is one of the greatest war films of all time, and Steven Spielberg isn’t a veteran. Still, Hollywood and other forms of media could use more veterans involved in the creative storytelling process.
Their experiences are so valuable, and fiction is such an impactful (and entertaining) way of siphoning those experiences into something creative, bridging the gap of understanding between them and the layperson. Not to mention, it can be a cathartic experience for the veteran too.
Featured image courtesy of the USMC