For centuries authors who have experienced war first-hand have often attempted to capture some essence of it in their writings. While these writings can express aspects of conflict in beautiful prose or in horrifying detail, some underlying message or meaning is often lost. What this missing essence is can be hard to articulate but at the same time can be easily recognized by the appropriate audience. The reason for this broken line of communication goes hand in hand with the nature of the message itself, the sender, and the receiver.
The authors of these tales of bravery and horror are as numerous as their backgrounds. The tie that binds them, war, has been a great equalizer in the sense that it often changes the personality and outlook of those who partake of it. Even with the shared experience of conflict, of holding one’s life in one’s own hand, the resulting impact on the survivor is not something that magically endows upon them the ability to express the experience in any way that would do justice to the intimacy of the events. The impacts of war on an individual are not only the direct results of specific events, not the physical injuries nor the emotional scars, or even the culmination of them over the period of the conflict but the unforeseen, and often unrecognized side-effects it has on personality and its influence on personal-growth. For example, in the Brkic story Canis Lupus, the prisoner’s sense of self and identity change as a result of his experience. In an attempt to help the reader understand this personal transformation, the author tells the story from a first person point of view. Since the prisoner’s transformation is drastically different from common experience, attempting relate causes one to get stuck in the mire of his mind without some sense of external perspective to keep the reality of his change in context. But even if such a perch was available to look from, the act of having it in the first place distorts the experience the author is trying to convey.
The readers of war-time authors attempt to re-enact the experiences that pervade the texts. They try to relive the moments and personal-growth of the characters portrayed in their own mind by following the thought processes the author has laid forth in its pages. If these reader’s themselves have not experienced anything similar, the subtler aspects can be overlooked such as the case of the prisoner’s transformation mentioned earlier. A skilled author can recognize this and can take many approaches to reach a varied audience. Courtney Angela Brkic, for example, tells several short stories in her book Stillness, each with a differing point of view and from different personalities. With such a wide-net of experiences being cast, the odds of catching the right aspect of readers’ mind are greatly increased. In Suspension, the family portrayed lost a child to war and as a result their lives were placed in suspension, and unable to move-on with false-hope and memories pushing upon their daily lives. If some readers have lost a family member to kidnapping, they have a means of identifying personally with the feelings and experiences of the family in the story. Even though the circumstances differ, the emotional effect, and the unintended influence the act had on the readers identity and personality provide an insight and a sense of understanding of the story that others may not have.
Is there another disconnect; one that goes beyond the side-effects of first-hand experience? How can bitter enemies, soldiers of opposing sides, come together afterward and be able to speak with ease with one another and identify so easily with one another regardless of the individual details of their experiences? This separation may be best defined to be one of culture, not culture as defined in some ethnic or religious or even nationalistic sense, but as a form of culture that transcends what is commonly described. Not unlike the culture of academia, the culture of conflict is defined by common attributes, values and experiences shared among its members. In the case of professional soldiers, stories are numerous of how former enemies become strong friends, and then there are stories of shared senses of honor and respect among the belligerents of ongoing conflicts. One such case being the story of the Nazi Officer Hermann Goering who in World War 1 engaged in a lengthy dogfight with an Australian pilot named Frank Slee. After Goering shot him down, he landed nearby and presented him with his Iron Cross which Slee held on to for years to come. Readers who hear of such acts can often find themselves at a loss to how two people who would have and may yet kill one another could stop and perform such and act and then treasure it. If one cannot overcome this cultural barrier than there is little hope of understanding the actions and consequences of war, similar to how one could not understand the history of Europe without understanding the driving force of Christianity.
Is it appropriate or even to claim that most readers cannot and will never understand war texts without experiencing it themselves, or is it more appropriate to claim that authors of conflicts assume too much about their readership to effectively communicate aspects of the events they witnessed? The Cambridge History of Warfare could be presented as an example of a text that isn’t effective in reaching readers in a meaningful way. By approaching the conflicts in such a shallow manner as a quick chronology mixed with colorful section titles such as “Lessons Not Learned”, or “The Empire Strikes Back”, the author tries to draw conclusions and prove a point too quickly and as a result the text either passes through the mind of the reader as nothing new, or rejected prematurely due to perceived bias. To better communicate lessons and perspectives of conflicts in a more intimate way to the readership, an author must delve deeper than bullet points and outlines of events. The author must be able to recognize the side-effects that conflicts have on the personal-development of the actors involved, for it is these side effects, intended or otherwise that have the most meaning and not the events themselves that shape the understanding of war.