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Composition Forum 28, Fall 2013

Experience, Remembrance, Writing: Teaching War Writing in a Time of War

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Lydia Wilkes

Abstract: Even as veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars seek higher education, civilians tend to know little about war and military culture. While this lack of knowledge makes veterans’ adjustments more difficult, it has a more pernicious effect on civilians themselves, as it limits civilians’ ability to act as informed, responsible citizens before, during, and after war. Writing teachers can help ameliorate this problem by incorporating war writing into their syllabi. Accordingly, this review essay provides an overview of the civilian-military gap, reviews memoirs by Army veterans Shannon Meehan and Kayla Williams, and suggests pedagogical approaches to teaching war writing.

Meehan, Shannon P., with Roger Thompson. Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontlines in Iraq. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009. Print.

Williams, Kayla, and Michael E. Staub. Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.

In an article titled A Composition Course Based on the War, published in a 1918 issue of The English Journal not long after the US entered World War I, Cornelia Carhart Ward argues vehemently that students of writing ought to study war when their country is at war:

We cannot be good Americans unless we know why and how our country is giving her wealth and her blood. [. . .] The youth of today will be the men and women of tomorrow, the rulers of our democracy. Shall it be a worthy democracy or a perversion of the name? The impressions gained now will be lasting. The future can be understood only in the light of the present. Clear thinking is needed more than ever when the world is upside down. Few families have not sent some member to serve his country. We are making history. Should not this vital interest be utilized and directed? (207)

Most writing teachers in 2013 would agree with Ward’s assertions about preparing young adults to be active participants in the democratic experiment, using present circumstances to prepare students for the future, and fostering clear thinking in a tumultuous time. For example, in her 2009 NCTE report, Writing in the 21st Century, Kathleen Yancey urges us to “help our students compose often, compose well, and through these composings, become the citizen writers of our country, of our world, and the writers of our future” (1). Yet, due to dramatic changes in who joins the military and the percentage of the population that serves, Ward’s exhortation to teach the war—“We are making history. Should not this vital interest be utilized and directed?”—resonates with far fewer teachers and students in 2013 than it did in 1918. If, as Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Herman Wouk declared, “The beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance” (qtd. in Meacham), then a composition class that includes war writing may benefit students not only during a time of war but also once Americans, presently tired of war, forget war’s costs and begin again to engage in talk of war. In light of the role education plays in preparing students to be citizens and the duty citizens ostensibly have in authorizing war, it follows that our students ought to know something of war, and perhaps ought to learn it in a composition class. To that end, this essay offers a short overview of the growing civilian-military experiential gap and the war writing that could bridge it, then reviews two memoirs written by veterans and discusses pedagogical approaches to teaching war writing in a time of war.{1}

At a time when hundreds of thousands of veterans are entering higher education, most civilians who recently left high school for college grew up in a country that seemed not to be at war. Hence, these civilians had little opportunity to learn about that calamitous but persistent human endeavor. While Ward’s urgency stems from the fact that “[f]ew families have not sent some member to serve his country,” mine lies in the opposite state of affairs: few families have sent someone to serve. Presidential historian Jon Meacham eloquently sums up the problems created by a military that no longer represents the civilians it protects:

Millions of Americans hardly notice that their country is at war. [. . .] [O]nce we forget the price of combat, it becomes all too easy to allow others, and other people’s children, to pay it. [. . .] So few of us [. . .] have any direct connection to those who are fighting now. The military has become another country, a place where a disproportionate number of often disadvantaged young Americans go to find their way. [. . .] The burden of military sacrifice is thus isolated. Wars become distant; casualties go little noticed.

Meacham points to the fact that while nearly nine percent of Americans served during World War II, only one half of one percent—0.05%—have served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, rhetoric and communications scholars have argued that cable news war reporting and war-themed entertainment, among other media, render war a fun, safe, sanitized game for the public to watch or join in playing (Butterworth and Moskal; Der Derian; Stahl). Such spectacles distract civilians from deliberating about war, they argue, or give civilians a sense that by consuming these media, they are participating appropriately in national discourse about war. Hence, unless a civilian knows someone who has served (which is less likely now than at any point in US history), that civilian probably knows little of war and soldiers beyond the stereotypical images circulated in mass media. Of the problems this lack of awareness creates, one of the most damaging is the tendency to see military service people not as they see themselves—as more or less average people—but rather as superior or deficient. Compounding this trouble is the representation of service people in entertainment media and news reports, respectively, as superheroes incapable of doing wrong or as victims of the military apparatus or the trauma of combat who may snap at any moment. Against these flat representations, writing by participants in war helps writing teachers cultivate students’ personal writing, critical inquiry skills, and cultural literacy.

Perhaps the greatest strengths of war writing are the enduring questions it raises and its tendency to humanize the people who fight. Though war writing is very much about war, it also addresses the transition from adolescence to adulthood, the challenge of ethical decision making in morally challenging situations, the need to find an identity, the bizarreness of cultures (American as well as Iraqi and Afghan, civilian as well as military), and the profound effect writing and storytelling have on the understanding of self, experience, and culture. Not only do students relate to many of these themes, but the fact that men and women not much older than they are went to war and wrote about it frequently impresses them, enlivening class discussion. Indeed, as I discuss below, war writing can be adapted to fit many pedagogical approaches.

Building a course around war writing, or incorporating it as a complement in an existing course, is at once made easier and more difficult by the plethora of recently published work, most of it on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Poet and former infantry team leader Brian Turner offers compelling lyrics in Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise. A first wave of fiction about the Iraq war—including Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, Ben Fountain’s Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and David Abrams’s Fobbit—emerged in 2012. More eagerly anticipated fiction has been published in 2013, including Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days and a collection of veterans’ short stories edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton called Fire and Forget. However, memoirs form the vast majority of recent war writing, and so I have chosen two memoirs for this review essay: officer Shannon P. Meehan’s Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontlines of Iraq, written with Roger Thompson; and enlisted person Kayla Williams’s Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army, written with Michael E. Staub. Reflecting different voices and perspectives, these two memoirs, taken together, represent the dozens of veterans’ memoirs currently in print. Though an array of excellent writing by non-combatants exists—journalist Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War and anonymous Iraqi woman Riverbend’s Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq must be mentioned—I have limited my selection to work by veterans. I have found that the intensity of veteran-authored memoirs appeals to students while also showing them a world of experience vastly different from their own.{2} Additionally, learning that a great deal of war writing is produced by people not much older or more educated than they are can help to demystify writing for students fresh from high school. Returning adult students can identify with the process of becoming an adult and with the power experience has to shape identity. Finally, seeing a person put complex life experiences into words helps all students view writing as a means to make sense of and share their own life experiences.

Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontlines of Iraq by Shannon P. Meehan with Roger Thompson tells a deceptively simple story that could belong to almost any war: “I went to Iraq to serve my country, and I think I made a difference. But while I was there, I killed people who did not deserve to die” (269). One more line might fully encapsulate the memoir: I have not been the same since then. Unlike many combat memoirs written by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Beyond Duty focuses on the emotional, spiritual, and moral consequences of a single, accidental failure by an officer who strove to do everything not just correctly but also justly. In many ways, Meehan is the ideal soldier. A working class kid from a rust belt town whose father instilled in him a strong sense of responsibility and honor, Meehan was the “golden child” of his family and town, living the American Dream of rewards earned through hard work (13). Though Meehan shined as a young lieutenant commanding a tank platoon of fifteen men in a particularly violent area of Iraq, his story became what Samuel Hynes has called “the soldiers’ tale”: not a simplified myth of war as just or unjust, but “the whole story” in all its messy ambiguity (xii-xiii). Meehan’s desire to prove himself, though met, came with exposure to war’s horrors and moral uncertainty that left him angry, dispirited, and severely depressed. Like many of our students, Meehan wanted to make a difference in the world; he saw his deployment to Iraq as his opportunity (16). However, after calling in a missile strike on a house rumored to be an IED factory—an action he weighed carefully and cleared with his command—he learned that, in addition to harboring explosives, the house also hid a family with several children (197-99). Meehan had every reason to believe the house was a threat, none of the US forces present knew a family was in the house, and the family chose not to heed the warnings broadcast in Arabic to flee the area of the impending missile strike—yet Meehan held himself responsible for their deaths (197-99). Unable to make meaning out of the fact that he had done everything according to protocol but still “destroyed [a] family,” Meehan struggled not just to continue leading his men but to go on at all (207, 193). “I did not believe that the war was shaping me into the man I thought I would become,” Meehan laments (205).

While the inner struggle to do the right thing in a situation in which one is constrained by forces greater than oneself may or may not be familiar to students, it is an ethical trial most will one day face. Hence, Beyond Duty spurs discussion not just of war, combat, and the challenge of returning home after having done something reprehensible (if accidental), but also about decision-making, leadership, loss of innocence, and the measure of a good person. Perhaps most overtly relevant to composition, though, is the importance Meehan places on breaking a deafening, soul-killing silence with stories. After the missile strike, Meehan writes, “No one could speak about what happened. No one could say a word. All that existed was a deep and penetrating silence, the kind where all that is left is you and the fact of what has happened” (204). Stories were “invisible, silent in the face of too much loss, too much war” (132). Yet, as Tim O’Brien has written, “stories can save us” (225); and so Meehan concludes, “all I have and all I can tell you is my story” (269). Its meaning, like the meaning of the war itself, is up to us to make.

Perhaps the polar opposite of Beyond Duty is Kayla Williams’s memoir Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army, written with Michael E. Staub. Tonally aggressive and crass rather than reserved and polite, told in fragments rather than smoothly narrated, and overtly political rather than stolidly apolitical, the discrepancies stem in part from Williams’s status as an enlisted person (whereas Meehan is an officer). However, the greater difference is that Williams writes as a woman—part of the mere fifteen percent of soldiers who are female (15)—in the hypermasculine, hypersexual US Army; the toughness she cultivated to survive in that environment saturates her memoir. Williams enlisted prior to 9/11 as an Arabic interpreter, not knowing she would be called upon to serve in Iraq. However, the same sense of responsibility that drove Meehan also compelled Williams to volunteer beyond the dictates of her duty as a translator. Furthermore, the loose narrative structure of Williams’s memoir allows her to discuss more of the wars’ characteristic issues. These include weighty matters such as suicide, sexual assault and rape, incompetent leadership, illegal interrogations, and loss of faith in the ability to do good as well as more lighthearted topics like the incredible generosity of people who seem to have nothing to give, the value of keeping a companion animal (dog or cat) while at war, the absurdities of Army policy, and the trials of maintaining a vegetarian diet in a combat zone. Love My Rifle More Than You stands out most, though, for its attention to the dynamics of gender and sex in a rigidly masculine culture as Williams strives be treated as “a person” rather than merely “tits, a piece of ass, a bitch or a slut” (214). Furthermore, Williams’s memoir draws attention to the ongoing conflicts over military policies and practices related to gender, sex, and proper conduct, which could spark lively class discussions. For example, after a male soldier harasses her, Williams meditates on the complex contingencies that led her to report him informally rather than formally and to worry about the rest of the men turning against her in “[b]ros before hos” fashion (214). Also, like many female soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, Williams served in combat and with infantry platoons, a reality with which military policy has only recently caught up. Finally, by dint of serving with eighteen to twenty-two-year-old men, Williams writes in an aggressive voice that opens the way for conversations about gender, voice, audience, and style.

At first, war writing may seem alien to civilians with little military knowledge, but soldiers and their editors typically take care to translate military culture, allowing writing teachers without much military knowledge to teach war writing. (As a civilian who is not from a military family, I knew almost nothing about the military when I began to teach war writing. My students and I learned a great deal together as we worked through memoirs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) Furthermore, war writing has a home in a variety of classrooms and on a variety of syllabi. The personal, experiential nature of war writing seems to call for the same type of writing from students. Whether to assign students a personal narrative, though, depends on how prepared one is to assess personal writing that may include significant trauma.{3} War writing readily lends itself to what Simon During has called “engaged cultural studies,” which examines “contemporary culture from non-elite or counter-hegemonic perspectives (‘from below’) with an openness to the culture’s reception and production in everyday life, or, more generally, its impact on life trajectories” (26). Meehan and Williams rarely find themselves in positions of power; rather, they must always negotiate their actions within the culturally informed constraints of military policy, Iraqi culture, and their personal beliefs while in Iraq, and, while in the US, the experiential gap between civilians and soldiers. Those emphasizing a WAC/WID approach could have students conduct research into their discipline’s ways of writing about war: in historical accounts, psychological case studies, international legal proceedings, business contracts, white papers, and so on. Though the waging of war is no longer total in the way it was during World War II, most professions contribute in some way to it, offering students an opportunity not just to learn the what and how of war in their field but to reflect, too, on war’s why. A rhetorical approach might involve situating war writing in its historical and cultural contexts, examining the most effective means of persuasion employed, and comparing genres of war discourse by including political speeches, popular films, and video games. Finally, a service-learning approach could involve work at a local VA hospital or with local veterans groups, such as the Student Veterans of America, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the Wounded Warrior Project, and the American Legion, to name only a few.

As the opening of this essay showed, my rationale in advocating for war writing as part of a composition course rests on many assumptions about composition, literacy, and citizenship. Amy J. Wan has recently critiqued these assumptions as common in the field but unexamined and poorly defined. In particular, as Wan notes, “if literacy [broadly defined] comes with responsibility, then it is implied that there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to employ it, especially if such literacy is used in service of a particular brand of citizenship” (38). Wan concludes that active reflection on the “habits of citizenship,” or the everyday interactions mediated by habits, should help writing teachers define the role we play in making citizens (45-46). Reading and writing about war writing, particularly when it is authored by veterans, affords students a variety of ways to interact with veterans, whether in the community or in the classroom, and, ideally, spurs students to participate when talk of war begins. Adding more heft to this conversation is the fact that the generation of students we teach in 2013 will bear the economic burdens of paying for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for any wars to come, and, most importantly, for a lifetime of care for service people injured during the wars. This is no small task; it requires just the sort of critical skills and literacies we teach. At best, then, teaching war writing in a time of war urges students to become the good citizens—Ward’s “good Americans”—we wish them to be: responsible to those who have served them.


  1. Although the war in Iraq ended in 2011 and the war in Afghanistan is expected to end by 2014, the open-ended War on Terror seems to be a permanent fixture of US foreign policy (Bacevich). This permanent state of war drastically curtails citizens’ ability to dissent, thereby narrowing their role in a democracy and further perpetuating war (Ivie). (Return to text.)

  2. Writing teachers without the time to teach a full-length memoir can find excellent short pieces—from fiction to letters and emails to poetry and other genres—in the National Endowment for the Arts’ anthology Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families, edited by Andrew Carroll. Some of the most evocative pieces were filmed for the Oscar-nominated documentary Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which also features commentary about war and writing from legendary war writers like Tim O’Brien, Paul Fussell, and Tobias Wolff. (Return to text.)

  3. Galen Leonhardy records his success with personal narrative assignments while noting that civilian students may write about traumatic experiences and student-veterans may choose to write about a non-military experience (343). In fact, each piece in TETYC’s 2009 special issue on veterans in the composition classroom is invaluable. Additionally, for insight into the difficulty of returning to academic writing after several months of writing in a military context (which all military personnel do in some way), Liam Corley’s recent College English article “‘Brave Words’: Rehabilitating the Veteran-Writer” is a must-read. (Return to text.)

Works Cited

Abrams, Dave. Fobbit. New York: Grove Press, 2012. Print.

Bacevich, Andrew J. Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. New York: Holt, 2010. Print.

Butterworth, Michael L., and Stormi D. Moskal. American Football, Flags, and ‘Fun’: The Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl and the Rhetorical Production of Militarism. Communication, Culture & Critique 2 (2009): 411-33. Web. 2 Sept. 2012.

By the Numbers: Today’s Military. NPR. Those Who Serve. NPR, 3 July 2011. Web. 22 May 2013. <>.

Carpenter, Lea. Eleven Days. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

Carroll, Andrew, ed. Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.

Corley, Liam. ‘Brave Words’: Rehabilitating the Veteran-Writer. College English 74.4 (2012): 351-65. Print.

Der Derian, James. Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network. Boulder: Westview Press, 2001. Print.

During, Simon. Introduction. The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon During. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2007. 1-28. Print.

Filkins, Dexter. The Forever War. New York: Vintage, 2009. Print.

Fountain, Ben. Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk. New York: Ecco Press, 2012. Print.

Gallagher, Matt, and Roy Scranton. Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2013. Print.

Hynes, Samuel. The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War. New York: Viking, 1997. Print.

Ivie, Robert L. Democracy and America’s War on Terror. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2005. Print.

Leonhardy, Galen. Transformations: Working with Veterans in the Composition Classroom. Teaching English in the Two-Year College 36.4 (2009): 339-52. Literature Online. Web. 1 June 2010.

Meacham, Jon. A Memorial Day at War. Internet video. Need to Know. 30 May 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. <>.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1990. Print.

Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. Dir. Richard Robbins. The Documentary Group, 2007. Film.

Powers, Kevin. The Yellow Birds. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012. Print.

Riverbend. Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2005. Print.

Stahl, Roger. Militainment, Inc.: War, Media, and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Turner, Brian. Here, Bullet. Farmington: Alice James Books, 2005. Print.

---. Phantom Noise. Farmington: Alice James Books, 2010. Print.

Wan, Amy. In the Name of Citizenship: The Writing Classroom and the Promise of Citizenship. College English 74.1 (2011): 28-49. JSTOR. Web. 4 Jan. 2013.

Ward, Cornelia Carhart. A Composition Course Based on the War. The English Journal 7.3 (1918): 207-12. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2010.

Yancey, Kathleen. Writing in the 21st Century. Urbana: NCTE, 2009. Web. 11 Dec. 2012. <>.

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