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The Art of Writing About War - and War Makers


Earlier this month, Black Mountain Institute explored the literature of war, with authors who have been involved in some way in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With us today are two of the authors.

George Packer is a New Yorker staff writer and winner of the National Book Award. His book, " The Assassins Gate – America in Iraq," was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Brian Turner is a poet and author. He was a master sergeant in Iraq, and has written extensively about war, including the memoir, " My Life as a Foreign Country."

And Dina Titus did not go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan. But she works tirelessly on behalf of veterans and active duty soldiers in Congress, as representative for Nevada’s first district.

So, the question is, do writers romanticize war?

Turner, whose war ancestry goes all the way back to the Civil War, says he grew up hearing the romantic, “National Geographic version of war” in the experiences of his dad and uncles.

“It was sort of like this hidden secret; some kind of knowledge that was embedded in that romance,” Turner said.

But for Turner, the more interesting story is about the people involved in the process, and our distance to it.

“It takes a nation to put an army in the field… As a person in this country, I’m part of the war making process,” he said, even if he had never gone to Iraq.


Turner was a writer first, then went into the military. He has an Masters of Fine Arts in poetry, and joined the Army prior to Sept. 11th. He’s honest about the fact that he didn’t believe in the mission in Iraq, and that he thought about not going, even if it meant prison.

Ultimately, Turner said, he went to Iraq because of the people in his unit – which is the central tenant of both war and war literature. He knew his men, and another sergeant might not.

Since he got home, though, Turner has a persistent thought: “I wish I had also thought about the names of the people in those rooms we went into. I’m trying to evolve.”

George Packer was in Iraq on and off for four years as a correspondent for the New Yorker. He went there looking at the political arguments for going to war, to see how they held up.

What he found was they didn’t.

“Iraq had its own realities,” said Packer.

Those realities – and the stories behind them - brought him back again and again, exploring the lives of Iraqis, and the political arguments that “exploded on contact.”

One of those arguments was the Bush administration’s contention that going into Iraq would plant the seeds of democracy.

“Turned out Iraqis were very bad raw material for democracy,” because of years of brutalization and sectarian resentments. The seeds that were sown, then, said Packer, are the seeds that fractured the Iraqi people and resulted in the rise of ISIS.

What concerns Turner is the fracturing he sees in people in the U.S. who go about their everyday lives without even thinking about the fact that we are fighting wars.

“There’s a psychic disconnect” from people in the U.S. and the realities of the wars their soldiers are fighting,” Turner said. He used the word “obscene” to describe that disconnect.

“People should be aware of what they’re a part of, because we’re responsible for those actions.”

“But the political rhetoric is just opposite of that,” said Congresswoman Titus. The presidential race thus far has been about building walls, she pointed out, not tearing them down.

Titus said she finds veterans to be very aware of that disconnect, and more leery of military action than many of her fellow members of Congress who talk about bombing ISIS or intervening in Syria.

“They’re the ones who have been there. They’re the ones who have lost friends and loved ones and limbs and a big part of their life, and they are much more cautious,” Titus said.

What vets are interested in, said both Packer and Turner, is helping the people who worked as interpreters to come to the U.S. Packer points out that interpreters have been well-vetted and have had ample opportunity to kill Americans, but instead served them loyally.

But Muslim xenophobia is making many of them go into hiding, in limbo between a world that sees them as traitors for helping Americans and the vagaries of U.S. politics.

“That’s, to me, a national disgrace that we have made it so difficult for a handful or obviously good and committed and worthy people to get here,” Packer said. “For me it’s one of the lingering shames of these wars.”

Packer also “wants us to put some national brain power to the question of finding the Yazidi girls and women who are being held as sex slaves and rescuing them. There is a very indirect result of the war on Iraq.”

The Yazidis are a minority population that lives in the mountains in the northeast of Iraq. They have been persecuted by ISIS. And ISIS exists, according to Packer, because the U.S. destabilized the region.

But why do some people emerge from war wanting to write about it?

“I think there are some writers who war makes writers, who were unformed in that way when they went off to war,” said Packer. He pointed out that Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien went off to war when he was 18. But other people, like Turner, went to war AS writers.

Turner said he started writing poetry as a way to write lyrics for his band. That didn’t work. So he scrapped the music and focused on the poems.

In war, he said, he saw so many things that he wanted to remember, so many stories that he wanted to tell. He didn’t have a camera, so he picked up a pen.

“I’m drawn to language as a tool, as a vehicle to try and preserve things,” said Turner.

George Packer, author of "Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq" and a staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine;   Brian Turner, poet and author of the memori, "My Life As a Foreign Country.";  Dina Titus, Congresswoman for the 1st Congressional District in Nevada

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: Carrie Kaufman no longer works for KNPR News. She left in April 2018)