By Brian Castner
Tim O’Brien says in “The Things They Carried,” that classic of war literature, that “stories can save us.” That was Vietnam, a generation ago, several technological eons ago. Can it possibly still be true today?
Modern society is defined by fragmentation. Traditional institutions that served up a common experience, from religious institutions to the nightly news, are on the retreat. Replacing them, one thousand television channels and a blog or app for every niche. The modern experience is tailored to the individual. We chose what we see, when we see it, from whom, and how.
No wonder then, that given the choice to tune into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 13 years, many Americans have turned the channel instead. Social media have given us unprecedented access to the day-by-day of the soldier’s experience, but only if we want it. As the wars have dragged on (or worse, restart), we seem to want it less and less.
The civilian-military divide, the media calls this phenomenon. A generation of men and women have gone to war and come home to a country that isn’t quite sure what they did.
Many veterans suffer this same disconnect even with their fellow former service members. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan varied significantly country by country, city by city, year by year. A grunt on the ground in Kirkuk in 2005 had a very different experience than one in Kandahar in 2012, so imagine the distance from a Navy aircraft mechanic or an Air Force linguist.
How do we bridge this gulf? I hope it doesn’t sound too quaint to offer the arts as a solution. A distillation of empathy that provides a shared experience. As a society we traditionally turn to painting, music, theater and, yes, storytelling, like the writing workshop I am leading this fall, hosted on the campus of Canisius College.
The class is sponsored by Words After War, a literary nonprofit easing that military-civilian divide. There are a number of veterans writing workshops around the country, and many do good work teaching writing as therapy. But I became involved in Words After War because it has a larger goal, to facilitate a direly needed national conversation by increasing the quality of war writing by all authors.
The workshop begins Tuesday and there are still a few spots left. It is open to all writers. More than that, it will work only if we have writers of all types, veterans and citizens with no military background. A gorge cannot be bridged if everyone is already on one side of the ravine.
Brian Castner is the author of “The Long Walk” and is a writing workshop instructor for Words After War.