War Experience and Trauma in American Literature

A Study of American Military Memoirs of «Operation Iraqi Freedom»

by Lena-Simone Günther (Author)
©2016 Thesis 295 Pages


Walt Whitman wrote: «The real war will never get into the books.» To this day, however, American soldier-authors write about their war and translate traumatic experiences into language accessible to the reader. Veterans of the recent Iraq war do not differ here. Joining the post-draft American military, the selected soldier-authors are thrust into a conflict which soon exceeded governmental, military and public expectations. Focusing on core elements which link the selected military memoirs of Nathaniel Fick, Colby Buzzell, Clint Van Winkle, John Crawford and Matt Gallagher together, this book follows the soldier-authors’ process of soldierization, their loss of innocence, moral responsibility and, finally, coping mechanisms for traumatic experiences sustained in combat.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • I. Introduction
  • I.I Into the Crosshairs
  • I.II Not Done Yet – The Individual’s Narrative of War
  • Chapter One. Literature and War
  • 1.1 The “I” in War
  • 1.2 Creating Meaning out of War?
  • 1.3 “Innocence” and “Responsibility” in War – Abstract Concepts in Need of Definition
  • 1.4 The Soldier-Author’s Transformation in the Literature of War
  • 1.5 Résumé
  • Chapter Two. Be All You Can Be – And More
  • 2.1 The Civil-Military Gap in the United States
  • 2.2 Yellow Footprints – The Path to Military Service
  • 2.3 Into the Sounds of Chaos
  • 2.4 Strength in Knowledge
  • 2.5 Be All You Can Be – And More
  • 2.6 Résumé
  • Chapter Three. Hurry Up and Wait
  • 3.1 Responding Quickly and Decisively
  • 3.2 Military Memoirs and Heightened Vitality
  • 3.3 Rehearsing for War
  • 3.4 Résumé
  • Excursus: A Brief Theoretical Discussion of Tie-Ins between Reader-Response Theory and John Dewey’s Art as Experience
  • Chapter Four. “Experiencing” Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • 4.1 Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Soldier-Author, and “Moral Responsibility”
  • 4.2 Free Will and Control in the Military Memoirs of Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • 4.3 Being Engaged and Aware
  • 4.4 Résumé
  • Chapter Five. Welcome to My Homecoming
  • 5.1 Re-Entering Civilian Life
  • 5.2 Scripted by War
  • 5.3 Résumé
  • VI. Conclusion
  • VII. Afterword
  • VIII. Bibliography

← 6 | 7 →

List of Abbreviations

← 8 | 9 →

War – What Is It Good For?
– Edwin Starr “War”

I.   Introduction

In response to the despair and destruction of the Vietnam War, Edwin Starr demands in his song “War” the answer to the question: “What is it good for?” Answering himself by forcefully stating “absolutely nothing,” he, additionally, details circumstances, events, and consequences which have been the result of war and its physical and psychological destruction for centuries. Starr, singing against the killing, death, and trauma of the Vietnam War, does not forget the plight of the common soldiers, including their “experience”1 in his song to illustrate the personal aftermath of war and to formulate what men should – after centuries filled with war – already know:

War has shattered many a young man’s dreams,
made him disabled, bitter and mean,
life is much too short and precious,
to spend fighting wars these days,
war can’t give life
(Edwin Starr “War – What Is It Good For?”)

“Absolutely nothing” – almost a hundred years before the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom2, Mark Twain spoke out against American involvement in the ← 9 | 10 → Philippines. In the short story “The War Prayer,” he presents to his readers3 the seemingly glaringly obvious: praying for war, victory and the safe return of one’s loved ones means, at the same time, praying for the death, destruction and despair of the enemy. Ignoring the warning included in the reversion of the prayer for victory and calling the alerter a lunatic (Twain “The War Prayer”), the congregation shows no understanding and remorse but rather opts to keep its naive and sanitized view of combat in general and the American-Philippine War in particular. Both Mark Twain, showing the two sides of a prayer for war, as well as Edwin Starr, contradicting the upbeat and uplifting musical arrangement with the seriousness of his message, call for the next generation to be wiser and less inclined to enthusiastically hold on to a romanticized and glorified version of war.

However, neither Mark Twain, Edwin Starr nor others in past and present times have been successful in their effort to debunk the myth of war. Borrowing from Edwin Starr one might ask: war writing – what is it good for? Tracing the beginning of war writing to Greek and Roman epics such as Homer’s Iliad and Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War (58–52) as well as to Beowulf (late 8th century), and William Shakespeare’s Henry IV (1596) to today’s representation of war in movies, music, and fictional as well as non-fictional texts, war writing seems not to have had any impact on past generations. However, to equip past and present war writings with such power would, simultaneously, simplify and complicate the relevance of literature. The act of war is not simply a literary phenomenon but rather, as defined by Carl von Clausewitz, a political tool to achieve certain political goals (Clausewitz Die Kunst des Krieges 16–17) which transgresses imagination and the boundaries of literature. As Kate McLoughlin states in The Cambridge Companion to War Writing:

But, even at the risk of offending, war, […], must be written about – and that writing must be written about. Discomfort is only to be expected. Every student of war writing, too, must be aware of the larger-than-usual gap between representation and referent. Five minutes in battle could teach more than any number of texts. Whenever war is written or read about, it is also actually happening and this must give both urgency and humility to our reading and writing. (McLoughlin The Cambridge Companion to War Writing 3)

If war writing has its limits and is unable to fully grasp the “experience” of war, what is it good for, then? While fictional and autobiographical war writing offers ← 10 | 11 → its readers the opportunity to take a peek at a seemingly out-of-reach reality, these texts are not suitable to find historical, economic or political information about a war such as Operation Iraqi Freedom. Instead, these texts offer an insight view of a fictionalized “experience” which possesses the potential to change and disrupt an individual’s life, to traumatize and affect a person’s very core of being so deeply that they emerge a different person. War is not the main character, the protagonist of these texts, but the soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad, manning control posts in Mosul, or searching for insurgents in the hostile environment of the Sunni Triangle. In the center of the story is the soldier who “experiences” the challenges and particularities of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who is, as Bruce Springsteen puts it in his song “Devils and Dust” (2005), “just trying to survive” (Springsteen “Devils and Dust”).

Why is it necessary to read and write about wars? Superficially, the basic principles of war do not seem to have changed. The use of force to achieve a nation’s aspirations seems to be based on, for example, killing the enemy, conquering enemy territory as well as evoking fear and mistrust in the civilian population. It appears that there is no need for change in how these developments are “experienced” and, eventually, represented in literature. This is not true. In studying and analyzing past and present war writing, the avid reader will recognize differences as well as similarities. As Kate McLoughlin points out:

All wars are different and also the same. […] What makes wars differ from one another are factors such as historical moment, casus belli, political and cultural disposition of the sides involved, type of terrain, professional or conscripted armies, weapons technology, and so on. These variables ensure that each conflict has its own poesis. (McLoughlin The Cambridge Companion to War Writing 1)

Thus, the Vietnam War and Operation Iraqi Freedom might share some similarities, e.g. the lengthy involvement of the United States military and the American public’s rising disapproval of the proceedings (Peebles Welcome to the Suck 3), but there are also dissimilarities responsible for each conflicts’ individual make up, creating a conflict’s very own narrative which puts into the spotlight ideas, concepts, tactics, and personal “experiences” unique to a conflict, in this case Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Gerald F. Linderman, analyzing combat life during the American civil war, observes in Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War: “Every war begins as one war and becomes two, that watched by civilians and that fought by soldiers” (Linderman Embattled Courage 1). Applying Linderman’s notion to the developments surrounding Operation Iraqi Freedom, I have come to the conclusion that the war has more than just two narratives. ← 11 | 12 → It is inevitable to include a third group next to “civilians” and “soldiers.” As the war in Iraq has shown, government officials perceived and “experienced” Operation Iraqi Freedom differently than the American and international public – civilians – and those members of the military who were deployed to Iraq. There appear to be, at least, three different official narratives, each depicting a different view of the conflict, however generalized this view might be. While these narratives exist side by side, there are several instances in which these narratives clash, casting a divergent image of the conflict, or merge, presenting a homogenous image of combat operations. In the following, it is my intention to briefly introduce two different narratives of Operation Iraqi Freedom, focusing first on the narrative constructed by the Bush administration. Additionally, I will focus on the military’s general narrative which is paramount to any reflections on the individual soldier’s account discussed in this study.

I.I   Into the Crosshairs

Eighteen months prior to the opening volley against Iraqi targets on March 19, 2003, the United States civilian and military leadership in the Pentagon started planning several scenarios for a possible Iraq invasion (Ricks Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq 32). In correspondence to the military planning, President George W. Bush as well as other high officials of his administration laid the political foundations for an invasion denouncing the state of Iraq, and Saddam Hussein in particular, as being a threat to the United States and its allies. In their speeches prior to March 2003, the Bush administration and other supporters of a war against Iraq created a clear distinction between us and them, good against evil, and civilized versus uncivilized.4 Hence, the American ← 12 | 13 → government began to construct an image of the upcoming conflict in which hero and foe were firmly established. Using the 2002 “State of the Union” address as a political opening salvo, President Bush accused Iraq of being a member of the “axis of evil” (Bush “State of the Union” Washington, D.C. 29 January 2002) while referring to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as “threatening adversaries” (Bush “State of the Union” Washington, D.C. 29 January 2002). In the following months, the Bush administration worked to prepare the public as well as the troops needed for a war with Iraq by increasingly presenting Saddam Hussein as a villain in need to be stopped. Providing the means for this military endeavor, President George W. Bush, without mentioning Iraq directly, introduced in a speech to the graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point a new preemptive military approach, stating: “Yet the war on terror will not be won on the defense. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge” (Bush “United States Military Academy, West Point” West Point 1 June 2002). Acting in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, President Bush defined in both his second “State of the Union Address” and the West Point speech a line of approach to war with Iraq, providing the political and doctrinal means for ending Saddam’s supposedly terror regime (Ricks Fiasco 38–39), while sending a clear message towards Iraq and the public: the United States is prepared to use all necessary means to disempower Saddam Hussein and, thus, preventing possible terrorist attacks allegedly supported by the regime.

Following the lead of President Bush, high ranking administrative officials used public appearances to foster the population’s support for actions against Saddam Hussein and his regime. Speaking at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vice-President Dick Cheney used the opportunity to openly call Iraq a threat; a threat which the United States needed to take care of, claiming, “the risks of inaction are far greater than the risks of action” (Cheney “Veterans of Foreign Wars” Nashville, convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars, 26 August 2002). Accusing Iraq of possessing WMDs, Dick Cheney found Saddam Hussein guilty of having the intention of using these weapons, thus, providing the United States government and, possibly, other members of the United Nations with a just cause to stop Saddam Hussein (Cheney “Veterans of Foreign Wars” Nashville, convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars, 26 August 2002). Upping the tone of its rhetoric in the following weeks (Ricks Fiasco 51), the Bush administration set out to make actions against Iraq appear necessary to protect ← 13 | 14 → the American and the international public from terror attacks on the scale of 9/11 (For more information on the discussion pertaining the “just” or “unjust” causes for the invasion of Iraq, see Chapter One and Chapter Four).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Irakkrieg Kriegsliteratur Autobiographie Krieg gegen den Terror
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 295 pp.

Biographical notes

Lena-Simone Günther (Author)

Lena-Simone Günther studied American Language and Literature at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt (Germany) and the University of Wyoming (United States). She received a scholarship from the Maximilian-Bickhoff-Universitätsstiftung and worked as a lecturer for American Language and Literature at the University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. There she was a member of the European Studies research staff. Her major research interests focus on American war literature, autobiographies and the cultural exchange between the US and Europe.


Title: War Experience and Trauma in American Literature
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298 pages