Matthew Komatsu: Reading War

“Only the dead have seen the end of war” – Plato

History agrees with Plato’s pragmatic suggestion that war is engrained in the human condition. As such, it is as fair game as anything else within the human experience for artistic rendition.

Look, you can scratch the surface of war with ease. Kill memoirs do it on a regular basis, and even journalism rarely gets much past war’s fundamental values: kill or be killed. But this is not what draws my interest. Don’t get me wrong – the documentation of the experience is important. I am not arguing these things shouldn’t be written. But if, like me, you want something more, something that gets after those common threads of the human experience; then you want something you can claw. Something that peels back the layers of the onion and gets beyond the scene and into the underlying story.

Hemingway knew this, applied it in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Think of the mustard gas poetry of Sassoon and Graves, Wilfred Owen, All Quiet on the Western Front. Slaughterhouse Five. The Red Badge of Courage. War and Peace. The Iliad. Gilgamesh.

My MFA reading list skipped the glancing blows and went for the gut shots. Books that unsettled me, made me angry, lumped my throat, and inhabited my dreams. I found a wealth of nonfiction that deserves our attention, but here are my top memoir picks.

On Vietnam: 
Dispatches, Michael Herr. Herr spent a year (1968ish) in Vietnam on a nebulous Esquire assignment. But unlike his journalistic peers, he worked without deadlines or assignments. He chose his narrative. And boy, is it a hell of a ride. Fragmented, challenging, soaked in LSD and hazy with weed smoke, cynical yet sentimental. If you read one nonfiction book on Vietnam, this is it.

On George Bush’s Iraq:
Jarhead, Anthony Swofford. I’m re-reading this Marine’s tale right now. Political, angry, hilarious and stinging. Swofford’s narrator has some things to say.

On Afghanistan:
War, Sebastian Junger. The literary partner to the acclaimed documentary Restrepo, this book documents a year in the most dangerous area in Afghanistan. Essentially an examination of why young men are drawn to war, Junger’s answer is surprising: love.

On George W. Bush’s Iraq:
–  Dust to Dust, Benjamin Busch. This book transcends war with a poetry unlike anything I’ve encountered. Sure, Iraq figures heavily, but as I would expect from the son of Frederick Busch, it’s just one experience that informs the story of a life. The narrative is fragmented but chaptered by elemental themes like fire, water, dust. I highly recommend you become familiar with Benjamin Busch.

Of course, this is just a beginning, a sample of men who’ve participated in war. But what about the other side, the voices who’ve not been heard? The stories exist, but I’ve had to work harder to find them. Amalie Flynn recently blogged for me here about her experiences as a war spouse, and you can out Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times article, which is damn near all-inclusive. On a budget? Read these for free: Brandon Lingle’s outstanding “Keeping Pace”, “I Said Infantry” by Brian Turner, and JA Moad’s meta discussion on the modern veteran writer.

Reading these authors will teach you that war is like any other life experience; it’s just that the volume is cranked up and the consequences are higher. Against its backdrop, the real stories emerge: culture, love, tedium, mental health, pain, healing, death and survival. It’s these stories that illuminate the true experience of war.

Matthew Komatsu is an author and currently serving veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2014, he enrolled in the University of Alaska-Anchorage’s MFA in Creative Writing program as a Nonfiction candidate. He has published essays in The New York Times; War, Literature and the Arts; and on stage at Anchorage, AK’s Arctic Entries. War, Literature, and the Arts nominated his memoir-essay, “31 North 64 East” for a Pushcart Prize. He also has a flash essay upcoming in the September 2015 issue of Brevity. You can follow him on Twitter @matthew_komatsu.

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