- Soldiers Once and Still: Ernest Hemingway, James Salter, & Tim O'Brien
Three decades after Vietnam seemed to have made another major overseas conflict unthinkable, Americans have been reawakened to the nightmare reconfronted in 1940–41 by Simone Weil as she considered how the poetic "miracle" that is the Iliad places "force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history" (The Iliad or the Poem of Force 3). In the wake of the Persian Gulf War, 9/11, the ongoing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the hyper-militarized election campaign of 2004, it seems inevitable that our lives will be formed and deformed by war for some time to come and that war studies will play an increasingly important role in the life of the nation and the work of the academy.
Alex Vernon, who was a tank officer in Operation Desert Storm and now teaches literature at Hendrix College, appropriately invokes the desolation of the Twin Towers in the preface to his study of twentieth-century American wars and three of the writers that they have fostered. Soldiers Still and Now seems to me an important early work in our own reconsideration of what Weil called "the subjections of the human spirit" to officially sanctioned and supported violence ("Force" 33). Although Vernon's choice of literary texts focuses almost exclusively upon the three titular writers, it also places modern war literature within the contexts of literary criticism and theory and modern wars. After an Introduction that attempts to distinguish the terms modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern/millennial within [End Page 197] the study of literature today and to disentangle such terms from their extended use by critics and theorists to characterize post-1914 warfare, part 1, "Reading American War Literature/Ernest Hemingway," considers modern representations of war before considering the case of Hemingway. Hemingway remains an important figure in parts 2 and 3, readings in turn of Salter and O'Brien, both of whom explicitly and implicitly acknowledge his presence in their own work.
Vernon's two most important moves in this study are to consider the category of veteransliterature in relation to the war-making that has influenced it and to take seriously the question of gender in male-generated works, including but going beyond representations of women. In doing so, he draws upon a mother lode of feminist criticism over the past twenty years that has richly illuminated and questioned how men make war and literature.
Hemingway was never in the military and never participated in combat, but his wounding on the Italian front in World War I when he was a Red Cross ambulance driver deeply colored everything he wrote after his recovery. Salter was a fighter pilot in Korea, and his first book, The Hunters (1956), is a novel of that conflict, but his second, The Arm of Flesh (1961), is situated in postwar Germany (another of the author's duty stations), where its pilot protagonists never see combat, and his best novels, A Sport and a Pastime (1967)and Light Years (1975), have no connection with either the military or warfare. Vietnam remains an inescapable subject for O'Brien, of course, but only his early memoir and the later autobiographical piece "The Vietnam in Me" (1994) take place in Viet Nam—even Going After Cacciato (1978)literally leaves Southeast Asia behind in order to imagine a journey to Paris—and the author has notoriously insisted that his fictions are not about the war in any case. Soldiers Once and Still is most valuable in its text-based readings of all three authors and the way in which the experience of war is reflected in virtually everything they have written, whether or not they acknowledge such influence. But in addition, he shows how war determines the life-writing that follows it, not only in fiction and nonfiction but in an author's sense of himself: each "case study" demonstrates "the contention that one's experience of war and the military affects the self's identity struggle...