Existing for Our Own Sake: Adin Dobkin’s Take on the State of War Writing

Yesterday, Adin Dobkin published a longform piece in the ever-terrific Los Angeles Review of Books evaluating the current state of war literature. “The Never-Ending Book of War” looks at recent war literature as part of a very long literary and historical tradition, one that, sadly, seems destined to forever repeat itself.

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There are aspects of Dobkin’s article that I appreciate tremendously; for one, his attention to the state of the “forever wars” in our new political climate. The regime change has not left Dobkin optimistic, something he shares with most veterans and active-duty service members I know.

I also am grateful that he poses a question that will outlive these wars, one which has existed throughout any of the “hot” or “cold” wars that have come before:

Alongside the end of each war came a new opportunity to never forget. But to what degree do we do anything with these memories besides allowing them to exist for their own sake?

It’s an excellent question, and one that quite frankly haunts me as we pass from one series of war literature to another.

Have we learned anything? Does reading war literature actually make the literate public more cautious about war, or do they read each book or memoir as its own, particular, lessonless experience? How on earth can we ever make our society more hesitant to commit its young men and women (and the citizens of whatever far-flung countries they are sent to) to warfighting when even great works such as the Iliad and our own national Book Award-winner’s collection have, so far, not?

As Simone Weil asks, is is possible to learn “not to admire force, not to hate the enemy?”

The recent election has left me with little hope that our voting public can make any reasonable judgment calls about international conflict, or (indulge me a little, please) about basically anything whatsoever. So I greatly appreciate Dobkin’s statements on the fine line war literature walks: its duty to render without glorifying, to produce critical thought without crass patriotism or jingoism.

War writers, he says, “must confront those who stand to gain from simplifying [war’s] complexity.” We have now seen the harrowing power of the simplification of service and sacrifice. It can take on a meaning all its own, one in which veterans actually participate very little.

Perhaps those simplifying the meaning of war are not, in fact, reading war literature; I’m willing to bet they aren’t. But is that a solvable problem? And is it our veteran-writers’ problem to solve?

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For all his historical and literary thoughtfulness, to my mind Dobkin misses the boat on a few critical issues. Now, this isn’t my favorite kind of response to make, because it is “easy” and doesn’t require an engagement with what the author is actually saying, but: I can’t help wonder what made Dobkin feel like he could write an “update” to the state of recent war literature without accounting for a single female veteran-writer, or writer of color. He does not limit himself to novelists, and he mentions the recent collection The Road Ahead, which features fiction by several well-known and well-respected female veteran writers and writers of color, so it’s mysterious to me why he cannot try to make a more cohesive and inclusive account of the state of war lit.

When he does mention one woman writer — the highly acclaimed fiction writer and military spouse Siobhan Fallon — she’s called “informationally privileged.” I see what Dobkin is getting at — that Fallon’s attempt to bridge the military-civilian divide is being made by a writer on the “inside,”  not some unusually well-meaning and astute civilian, thereby giving her informational “privilege” — but, on the other hand, I don’t consider it “privileged” to weather multiple yearlong stints on the home front, with very small children, while trying to create intelligent and meaningful art, and I doubt Dobkin would have actually referenced any male veteran-writer in the same way. Because that would be ridiculous. But this also shows an ignorance as to what military families actually give, and continue to give, when their service members are active-duty for careers that span these long, long wars.

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In any case, as a military wife and a novelist myself, I consider any attention to the mil spouse community a sort of “extra credit”; I never expect it and would never think to demand it, though I am pleasantly surprised when a reviewer pays us any mind at all. To leave female veterans out of the equation, however, is a far more grievous error. The whole “Welllll…..they aren’t really writing fiction the way the men are” argument is wearing thin, and in fact The Road Ahead, as well as numerous print and online publications, has nullified it entirely. If nothing else, an article that lauds the cross-cultural attentiveness of Eliot Ackerman (and goes so far as to compare him to Erich Maria Remarque) would read as far more informed if it also considered Kristen L. Rouse, whose short story, “Pawns,” does what Ackerman’s novels do equally well, and arguably in a more potent fashion. It seems that Dobkin is at this point proceeding on willful ignorance, and that concerns me.

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Over the past few years, I have learned a few things about war literature. One: that it is a small community, devoted and highly intelligent, but one that does not always extend vastly beyond its own boundaries. It is easy to read the community’s own enthusiasm for a larger national enthusiasm which cannot match it. People on the outside are frequently tacitly supportive. But the length to which their support goes may illustrate the larger national problem: war fatigue; an exhaustion with celebrating heroes who rarely ask for it and who in fact are more often than not embarrassed by it; a simple desire to turn to more fun, escapist subject matter, the “Gone Girls” and “Twilights” of the past ten years. Will we, then, see a veteran-vampire saga, or a straight-up, highly sexed murder mystery set among active-duty service members? (These books surely exist, but have not hit the mainstream.) Will that, then, be progress?

More optimistically, the communities Dobkin fails to reference may be the very communities from which we’ll see the most, and most experimental, writing over the next few years. Women veterans are writing with a focus and drive like never before, and as for us military spouses, well, we are still plugging along. The pressures of this new administration, and what our families are asked to do (or not), could be the crucible which brings forth a new era of mil-spouse writers, a new cast of characters, a new urgency. Hell, maybe we’ll see the first male mil-spouse novel. Who knows?

For better or worse, the pressure cooker is still on high, and veterans/service-members who write, and their writing family members, can either hunker down and wait it out, or churn out that goddamn pearl from within the oyster.

4 thoughts on “Existing for Our Own Sake: Adin Dobkin’s Take on the State of War Writing

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