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Literature : Interview

War with and without words.


Infantryman in Ramadi. Photo by Cpl. Wayne Edmiston.

We have heard this before. That war is unspeakable because of trauma. That the language used to describe experiences of war will always be inadequate. That war negates language, destroys the meaning system. How does the marine, who is under fire, who watches a friend die, relate such an experience back? How does the pilot who misses a target and destroys a school speak about what he feels? Theorists of trauma argue that in these moments language fails and things are best left unsaid.

The main issue with war fiction is that guns can only ever boom, mortar can only ever thump, and bullets always whine. Despite some of the best attempts by some of history’s greatest writers, there might be very few examples of war fiction that effectively portray the trauma of an actual war zone; very few texts come close to weighing the impact on the soldier who survives, who comes home, who carries on being a human and no longer a weapon. Few writers describe that hell.

Phil Klay’s Redeployment is a nonpolitical, nonpartisan, nonconformist, and most importantly nonjudgmental collection of short fiction. It looks at what war does to the modern American marine’s heart, mind, and soul, and at where it leaves him or her. Here the cost is not one of bodies but of the innocence of a nation that made these young men and woman so unprepared for the savagery of war.

Matt Choate I had this debate with a friend of mine in South Africa. We were talking about whether you could write a real post-apartheid experience. We had been studying lit theory together, so had encountered all these theories around language and how language can’t adequately address trauma—

Phil Klay Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others. Elaine Scarry. Right, yeah.

MC So I was trying to look at writing about torture—torture literature. I looked at Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians and Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, reading these through Scarry.

PK There’s this essay by a friend of mine, Roy Scranton. His review of Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq says the following:

The most significant trouble with Authoring War is that McLoughlin’s main arguments are not just about war literature, but about war itself. McLoughlin’s central argument opens with and builds upon the claim that war “resists depiction, and does so in multifarious ways.” This idea, adapted from trauma theory, is an unstable foundation on which to build an analysis. The first problem with this claim is that “war” is an abstraction, a concept, a category of complex human endeavour (like “marriage,” “justice,” “capitalism,” or “religion”). In asserting that “war” resists depiction, McLoughlin begs the question of how we “depict” abstraction in the first place, and specifically the question of what the relation is between a literary example and the abstract concept it supposedly exemplifies. Certainly Aeschylus’s Agamemnon depicts marriage, but so do The Tale of Genji, Jane Eyre, and The Waste Land. At what point are we justified in making essentialist, transhistorical claims about “marriage” and its depiction? […] It must be clear to anyone who thinks about linguistic representation at all that reality itself “resists depiction.” Translating lived experience, material being, and sense data into nouns, verbs, and syntactical relations is a vexingly difficult task, and it is a near miracle that we do it with such aplomb, day after day. If it is true that war resists depiction, war is no different from countless other aspects of human existence, such as “the self,” Spain, going to the grocery store, society, consciousness, eating an apple, swimming, and love. .1

MC Do you agree with that?

PK I think extreme experience is difficult to communicate to somebody who’s not had that experience, because they don’t have a reference. Right? If we’ve both been to Spain and I say, Hey, I was in Barcelona. And you’ve been there, that communicates more to you than somebody who has not.

MC So the onus is on the writer to then create Spain, to some extent, for the person who has not been there.

PK I’m partially color-blind. My experience of viewing a Van Gogh, it’s going be different from yours, assuming you’re not color-blind too. Even if you were, but color-blind slightly differently, we would have no real way of explaining the precise nature of the difference. I don’t really know how to explain the precise difference between two cups of coffee, one of which I like slightly better than the other. But getting at the infinite complexity of all the sensations we’re taking in at once is very different than what I think of when we’re talking about communicating. Because if you’re trying to talk about anything emotionally important to you, the minutiae of sensory experience isn’t interesting, unless there is some sort of value you are putting on top of that, and that value is going to be related to your position within societies you navigate between. Talking about meaning, however, is something we absolutely can do.

MC Don’t you think there is almost a resistance from readers themselves to designate certain things that are not relatable? This is something I encounter a lot—the minute I write about South Africa I start getting responses like: I don’t know what it’s like in South Africa, but I struggled with this or that. And my obvious response is: No, you struggled with that as a story, it has no relation to the place that it comes from. So do you think those boundaries of experience are predetermined when a reader comes to a text? I don’t understand war, so I can’t understand this book?

PK I think of it this way: I can never read the Iliad the way a Greek in the golden age of Greece would. And he wouldn’t read the Iliad in the same way that a Trojan war vet would, because the Trojan war vet would probably just bitch about the inaccuracies all the time. Does that mean that the Iliad comes at a particular time and place with a certain set of social understandings about where this text fits in, and I will never be a part of that, because I don’t exist in that society and that society doesn’t exist? Does that privilege their experience of the Iliad as a text over mine?

MC So it boils down to almost Barthes’s idea that the reader is the author? That every single reader approaches a text and writes that text for themselves, and no reader will have the exact same experience of a text as another.

PK There’s a German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, who refers to books as thick letters to friends, which I love, because if that is what they are then you can write back. We’re supposed to write back. In fact it’s not complete unless you write back or respond, it’s not a static thing. This notion of the reader authoring the text as disconnected from the author, I don’t think that’s the case; the text is a space that you inhabit together. So a modern reader can know more about the Iliad than that Greek we just mentioned, as well as less, and it’s not a failure of communication.

MC It’s a different type of conversation.

PK Exactly. Because when you’re claiming that something like trauma can’t be communicated, what is it precisely that can’t be communicated? It’s not that you can't communicate pain. Everybody understands physical pain. The range of human emotions—it’s not like there is a set of emotions that can’t be communicated. You can have an empathetic engagement with the experiences of the people you’re reading about. You’re not going to stand in the same relationship to that experience as other people. So it’s easy for you to go through that empathetic experience, with this aesthetic experience that imposes no obligations on you, which is different.

MC So you don’t subscribe to the idea that, essentially, trauma is incommunicable?

PK No. I think that notion is very slippery, and it’s often used to prop up different types of claims that are not related to the trauma itself but rather to the meaning we want to lay on top.

MC In this New York Times piece (“After War, a Failure of the Imagination,” 8 Febraury 2014), you give the example of your friend who’s been through an experience of child abuse. I had a girlfriend once who told me she had been abused as a child, and I was really struck by the fact that she did try to communicate that experience and on some level succeed in speaking about it. So this is the problem—being unable to speak trauma. I don’t know if it’s difficult because we don’t want to hear it, or because we need to keep such things in a privileged space, or because we need to believe they are incommunicable.

PK Have you read Paul Fussell? In The Great War and Modern Memory, he kind of argues both ways:

One of the cruxes of the war, of course, is the collision between events and the language available—or thought appropriate—to describe them. To put it more accurately, the collision was one between events and the public language used for over a century to celebrate the idea of progress. Logically there is no reason why the English language could not perfectly well render the actuality of trench warfare: it is rich in terms like blood, terror, agony, madness, shit, crucify, murder, sellout, pain, and hoax, as well as phrases like legs blown off, intestines gushing out over his hands, screaming all night, bleeding to death from the rectum, and the like. Logically, one supposes, there's no reason why a language devised by man should be inadequate to describe any of man's works. The difficulty was in admitting that the war had been made by men and was being continued ad infinitum by them. The problem was less one of "language" than of gentility and optimism; it was less a problem of "linguistics" than of rhetoric. Louis Simpson speculates about the reason infantry soldiers so seldom render their experiences in language: “to a foot-soldier, war is almost entirely physical. That is why some men, when they think about war, fall silent. Language seems to falsify physical life and to betray those who have experienced it absolutely—the dead.” But that can't be right. The real reason is that soldiers have discovered that no one is very interested in the bad news they have to report. What listener wants to be torn and shaken when he doesn't have to be? We have made unspeakable mean indescribable: it really means nasty.2

MC I’m trying to remember… It’s not Belsey, but Judith Butler I think, in Precarious Life. She brings up this argument that you have two types of rhetoric. There’s the national discourse, and basically if you can’t bring the witness’s narrative into that national discourse, then you need to find a way of removing it because it is an ideological clash.

PK Claims about trauma, especially war trauma, get tied to political commitments. You don’t know what it was like. It gives a certain degree of authority to the speaker. What’s happening is not the incommunicable trauma speaking but certain ideological commitments related to their experience that are totally traumatic.

MC What I find interesting is that when you do start to talk about war, or certain types of trauma, you get into this really murky space where the language almost becomes like the discourse of love. Where you have a unique experience that you want to relate to the world, but you find yourself running into the same old metaphors. A bomb explodes only a certain few ways in the English language. So do you need to engage in a new kind of poetics, to find a way to express this unique experience, or do you think it is just better to rely on those old metaphors?

PK There are shared references about war, and your experience might not line up with them. There are as many cultural narratives about war as there are about love. And yet if your experience is unique, in trying to communicate that, it’s not that the other person is a blank slate. You are navigating between those notions that they have already. Also you might not know what the experience means because the experience is going to change as you tell it. There’s a great bit in Karl Marlantes’s What It Is Like To Go To War. Ask the twenty-year-old combat veteran what it felt like to kill a man, and his angry answer, if he’s being honest, might be: It didn’t feel like a fucking thing. If you ask him twenty, thirty, forty years later his answer might be very different depending upon who’s been around him, what kind of person he is, what’s happened in his life, how people helped him interpret his experience or hindered him from effectively interpreting his experience. When you’re talking about trauma there are physical sensations, there are psychological effects, which make the experience really confusing, and then there’s the meaning you lay on top of that—the purpose with which we’re telling the story. And there’s interpretive change that comes about when you have somebody who is actually engaging with your story.

MC That reminds me of something they used in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I think they based it on a similar archive practice as the Holocaust. They got first-person narratives, which they bunched together and decided, These are kind of similar so we won’t take all of them, we’ll pick the most representative of the group. They couldn’t catalogue the first-person experience of everybody who suffered under Apartheid. In your story “Unless It's a Sucking Chest Wound,” the character is not sure about his trauma—if it’s okay for him to feel such things because there are guys out there who have been through real shit, who’ve been shot and watched people die. Do you think that is also a limitation when it comes to people telling a story? This has affected me in very meaningful ways. I’m traumatized by certain experiences, but my trauma, when put on a scale with what’s happened to others, doesn’t deserve to be told. Do you think that is also an issue?

PK It is certainly an issue for that character, and he doesn’t feel he has a right to speak because his story is actually the story of everybody he knew. Of course that’s true for all of us. Even if you’ve been through intense stuff your story is still going to be interrelated with other people’s stories. So then how do you speak about what you are going through? Particularly if you feel an obligation because of the weight we place on those experiences. How do you find a place to speak?

MC And a discourse, because you can’t rely on the combat metaphor and narrative that people are comfortable with. With trauma it gets so personal, but you run up against that anyway, right? You have to try to navigate your way through these metaphors, eventually conveying your personal experience. So many of the stories in Redeployment are about marines not being able to speak, being frustrated by not being able to speak. I love “War Stories” for precisely that reason—the story is never fully realized, as the event of an IED exploding remains a white space in the narrative. It is between these two characters (Jenks and the narrator), in the way they move around each other’s stories, and we do get a very strong sense of what actually happened. Again in “Bodies,” the narrator can’t speak to his ex-girlfriend about what he saw: a dead marine clutching two stones in his charred hands. He eventually manages to tell this story in a bar, to a stranger, getting angry, saying: “You didn’t care about that marine.” Almost: you don’t understand what I’m saying, I know why a dead marine would hold onto these two stones, but I can’t communicate that. What were you thinking when you wrote that? Is this an exploration of the idea that some of these things, these experiences, are incommunicable, or that, given time, they can become communicable?

PK Well they’re all first-person narratives, right? For one thing, I don’t think one can know what those things mean when right back from it. It’s hard to express. For the narrator, that memory is sacred. You tell your story to somebody, they react to it. And in “War Stories,” the guy doesn’t want Jenks to tell his story because then that story is not his anymore. He’ll lose it. And Jenks has a certain interpretation of his story, and the narrator thinks that Jenks is lying to himself at points.

MC Because the narrator has a different memory of that experience?

PK Well, not the moment of the IED exploding, but everything that comes after. Jenks doesn’t have much memory of the IED because it’s one of those things. Cops will tell you this: there’s a shooting and ten witnesses; you’ll get ten different stories that don’t match up. It’s not that people are lying; it’s that memory is a funny thing. I think part of it is also that desire—if I’m communicating something, it’s not enough for somebody to produce an actual understanding. It’s that I don’t want their judgement, I don’t want their different interpretation. The narrator in the story “Psy Ops,” wants to unload his story on someone, not communicate.

MC Like a download.

PK Exactly. And that’s a very different thing.

MC What I like about that story is that, for him, it’s the detail. If he can tell every bit of the story, coming home and confronting his father with that experience, maybe then something will be released.

PK And telling his father the story of what he did, that is part of the story.

MC So the story is continuing. Now the listener becomes a part of that larger story.

PK That story is him telling the reader a story, about telling another a story, about telling his father a story, about telling insurgents a story. And all those stories are told with a different purpose he’s slowly figuring out and circling around. So when you talk about trauma as being incommunicable, what precisely is incommunicable? And then if you can say it’s incommunicable, then what are they doing? What are they building off of that? There’s the bit in the story of the chaplain, “A Prayer In The Furnace,” where one of the Marines in the unit admits, Yeah we’re killing civilians. The chaplain talks to the staff sergeant about it, and the staff sergeant gives him this talk, saying something like: unless you were there, you have no right to speak about it, you have no right to even tell other people about it, because they are going to judge you, because in the end it’s impossible to talk about it, to even really remember what it was like, what happened. Even your own memory is not adequate.

MC It’s almost a cop out.

PK It’s related to avoiding scrutiny from outside of the unit—a group that feels justified in what they have done or, at least, want to feel justified in what they have done. Putting experience into words is painful.

Matthew Choate comes from Johannesburg, South Africa. After working as a journalist, editor, radio producer, and copywriter, he came to New York to complete his MFA at The New School. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories.


1. Roy Scranton. “Review of Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq, by Kate McLoughlin.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas. Vol 11, Issue 2, p. 351.
2. Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory. London: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 184.

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