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  • Witnessing Contemporary War
  • Stacey Peebles (bio)

What does it mean to bear witness to war? Homeric epic tells stories of a Trojan War long past and makes use of frequent extended similes to communicate the sensorial and emotional experience of armies and warriors coming together in conflict. Those similes most often compare war to aspects of the natural world—an eagle seizing its prey, a stag torn to pieces by jackals, wheat fields shaken by the wind, or this, to describe the sound of men slaying each other:

Swollen river torrents flow togetherWhere two valleys meet. The heavy waterFrom both streams joins in a gorge, And far off in the mountainsA shepherd hears a single, distant roar.

(Homer 4.488–92)

The Greeks were certainly no strangers to warfare, but even so, these epics use natural and domestic imagery to describe what it’s like to experience the sights, sounds, and emotional heights of battle. These similes evoke the simultaneous distance and proximity of war to other modes of experience, a reality so far beyond the limits of a noncombatant’s life, the poetry suggests, that the only way to tell it is to filter the description through something more familiar—but it can also suggest the opposite. You know this, the lines declare. You’ve seen it when animals kill each other or when storms batter a landscape. War is no aberration—it’s just people doing what is “natural.” That tension has always fueled the representation of war, [End Page 800] entailing questions about how best to express the nature and effects of war for the individual, the community, and the state, as well as to pose questions about the positioning of the audience in response to that communication.

Military histories and mass media coverage have often trafficked in distance, distilling injuries and death into statistics, strategies, and maps of territories won or lost—institutional representation designed to make war comprehensible, even palatable. War memoirs by foot soldiers (rather than by four-star generals, for instance) or the personal accounts of others affected by war, however, tend instead toward intimate strangeness—rendering for their audience the sensations of walking through new landscapes, of being injured by lethal technology, of killing, of seeing others killed, of expecting to be killed oneself. These stories want to put you there, to use language—in essence, the very system of simile—to make the audience understand this particular experience in extremis.

Recently, the US audience for representations of contemporary war roused itself from what seemed like a lack of interest. In 2012, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds was a finalist for the National Book Award. That same year, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk became a bestseller and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner for fiction. And American Sniper (2012), Chris Kyle’s memoir of his service as a sniper in Iraq, was an even bigger hit, staying on the New York Times Best Seller list for 37 weeks. Clint Eastwood adapted it into the highest-grossing film of 2014; adaptations of The Yellow Birds and Billy Lynn, directed by David Lowery and Ang Lee, respectively, are set for release in 2016. Michiko Kakutani, George Packer, Ryan Bubalo, and Roy Scranton published high-profile essays about the recent boom of war stories in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the New Yorker, and scholarly work by Roger Luckhurst, Patrick Deer, and others followed. After years of relatively little commentary about contemporary war literature and film, suddenly the boom of new representations has been all the more fodder for both popular and critical conversations. People have become ready, it seems, to consider more thoughtfully these most recent US wars at the level of on-the-ground experience and the implications that experience has for a broader political understanding in, for instance, an election year.

The representations themselves are more numerous and more diverse than when I wrote about the first wave of war stories in [End Page 801] Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (2011). At that time, only Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt...


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