The [Living] List of War Lit Think Pieces


“Bye and Stuff” by Lydia Komatsu

Over the past few weeks, Peter Molin and I have been exchanging emails on the topic of essays about war literature. That is, writing that considers war literature–its good, its bad, the past and future. We came up with a pretty solid list that I realized would have been nice to have as an MFA student, and Pete agreed to let me run it, so here you go. There are a couple of caveats: I didn’t include book reviews, mostly because the consideration of war literature as a genre is not the primary concern and as a writer of a few reviews, I can say you might be fortunate to spend, at most, about 10-15% of your piece in such territory. I also have not included literature criticism essays (think of your college English essays, then add a Master’s or PhD) because, well, they’re pretty boring and tend to put the creative process under an analytical microscope that, for me, sucks the joy right out of writing. In other words, interesting, but rarely compelling for the creative act.

Now that the fine print’s out of the way, the standard disclaimer does not apply. I mean for this to be fairly all-inclusive. Hence the whole “Living” bit. But to get there, I’ll need you to let me know what I’ve missed in the comments. I’ll review to see if it passes muster, then I’ll update the post with your recommendation. Peter already had pretty much all of the list on a post on Time Now, but we also came up with a few more.


1. Matt Gallagher, “Where’s The Great Novel of the War on Terror?”The Atlantic, 2011. So far as I can tell, Gallagher’s was one of the first essays to really focus on contemporary war literature as a genre.

2. Brian Van Reet, “A Problematic Genre: The Kill Memoir,” The New York Times, 2013. This one was important for me, as it was written around the time I started writing.

3. Ryan Bubalo, “Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2013.

4. Phil Klay, “After War, a Failure of Imagination,” The New York Times, 2014.

5. George Packer, “Home Fires: How Soldiers Write Their Wars,” The New Yorker, 2014. I’ve returned to this time and again over the past few years, and tackled it for my MFA thesis critical essay. It’s a good survey, but a bit wrong in some critical places.

6. Roxana Robinson, “The Right to Write,” The New York Times, 2014.

7. Brian Castner, “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2014. I first read this on deployment, and it’s a lot like Gallagher’s 2011 essay in that it identifies a gap. Three years after the fact, the essay still holds up well, although the premise has been diluted as a result of the publication of several Afghanistan books. Still, his underlying thesis–that there’s something different about Afghanistan that affects the way it’s represented–is as relevant today as it was three years ago.

8. Michiko Kakutani, “Human Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf,” The New York Times, 2014. Kakutani is the only major newspaper-related book critic that I am aware who has covered war literature pretty consistently with her thoughtful reviews. I’ve traced her as far back as 1987, when she reviewed Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story. Her survey,  “A Reading List of Modern War Stories,” remains my go-to reference for war lit recommendations.

9. Kayla Williams, “Women Writing War: A List of Contemporary War Literature by Women,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2014.

10. Roy Scranton, “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment and American Sniper,“ Los Angeles Review of Books, 2015. This one ruffled some feathers, my own included. He might be correct in identifying how we’ve turned veterans into victims, but some of his critiques come off harshly.

11. Sam Sacks, “First Person Shooters,” Harper’s, 2015. Between Scranton and Sacks, 2015 was the year of dissent, evidently. Sacks’ basic premise appears to be predictive and countermand Packer: war literature is missing politics, and the genre is made worse for it. This one is behind a paywall, but chances are good a university library has a copy of the issue. Also, friends who are grad students might be willing to sneak you a PDF bootleg.

12. Adin Dobkin, “The Never Ending Book of War,” The Los Angeles Review of Books, 2016.

13. Michael Peterson, “War and Remembrance: Notes Towards a  Taxonomy of Contemporary War Literature,” The Mad Padre, 2016. A Canadian chaplain offers a a more classically-informed take  on war lit taxonomy.

14. Pretty much every post on Time Now has something to say about the state of contemporary war literature, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend it.


Update, 30 May 17: Thanks to Adrian Bonenberger and Steven Moore for reaching out to request the following additions.

15. Michael Carson, “War Makes Bad Art,” Wrath-Bearing Tree, 2015. A tidy response to Sam Sacks.

16. Michael Carson, “Philosopher Hero: From Socrates to Scranton,” Wrath-Bearing Tree, 2015. And a response to Scranton’s LARB piece.

17. Steven Moore, “Trouble with Ceremony,” The Georgia Review, 2017. Pay attention to the meta-reflective thread within the essay that deals with the modern lineage of the war story.





Reading War: Brian Turner’s MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY


It’s weird, but for a guy who read nothing but chronological nonfiction for decades, you’d think my writing style would be more linear. It’s as if all that reading was mere foundation, but what I exposed myself to during my MFA has turned into the real reading that has whittled my writing style into some kind of form.

I was pretty happy when the news of this book hit the wire, especially after having read Turner’s book of poetry, Here, BulletAnd not because I enjoyed Here, Bullet so much (I did) as much as the advanced reviews were already talking about the radical fragmentation of My Life. Imagine me: looking for fragmented narratives and finding not just a fragmented memoir, but one written by a fellow veteran.

[insert sound of blown mind]

The book began as an essay of the same name for Virginia Quarterly Review (I know that thanks to an awesome Dinty Moore interview with Turner on the Brevity blog.) If you haven’t read the book, but want to take it for a spin first, read the essay. It’ll have you running for the “buy this book” link below.

The idea of breaking apart a narrative in memoir is a relatively recent phenomenon, especially in war memoir. Only Herr’s Dispatches fits the mold; the riskiest form anyone else reaches would be memoir-in-essay (Wolff, and he didn’t do it until the 90s.) The Forever War has produced far more traditional memoir structures than it has open forms. So, it’s hard to overstate the importance of an example of something you’re trying to do, by a writer who kind of looks like you, related to an experience you both share to a certain degree. Which isn’t to say that I want to write books that look just like Busch’s, Castner’s, or Turner’s. I don’t, but it’s also helpful to see what works/what doesn’t.

There’s not much of the latter in My Life as a Foreign Country. Perhaps the most postmodern of war memoirs to date, it has, as Charlie Sherpa put it in his review of the book, enough poetry, fiction, and nonfiction within its pages to satisfy a reader of any genre. And it’s that pastiche of genre that I took to be the most important craft takeaway.

I put the technique to work in an essay that I was working on when I read My Life as a Foreign Country. It’s probably not writer-cool to say, but fully half or more of my essay “Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade” for The Normal School was inspired by Turner’s example of allowing room for imagination within a nonfiction narrative. It’s certainly not for everyone, as evidenced by the twenty-odd rejections I received before The Normal School accepted the essay. But I was happy to get it out into the world, and I think it’s a fine example of being inspired by a technique enough to try it out, and experiencing some success with it.

I have Big Opinions on the unacknowledged link between postmodernism and contemporary memoir that I hope to publish somewhere tweedy in the months to come, but that’s for another today. Today, it’s enough to say that My Life as a Foreign Country is a great book, and genre-challenging example for any writer looking to push the form. Oh, and you should totally buy the book.