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BOOK REVIEW

Looking at war, in soldiers' words

Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of US Troops and Their Families
Edited by Andrew Carroll
Random House, 386 pages, illustrated, $26.95

What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It
Interviews by Trish Wood
Little, Brown, 309 pages, illustrated, $25.99

A government agency has overseen a major accomplishment at the intersection of literature and the military. A government agency doing anything well these days (given highly publicized problems overseas, in New Orleans, and the like) qualifies as good news. Bringing together the worlds of writing and war is, perhaps, even better news.

The agency is the National Endowment for the Arts, directed by a poet named Dana Gioia. The project is Operation Homecoming, which reached out to those in the military and their families to send letters, poems, eyewitness accounts, diary entries, song lyrics, memoirs, short fiction, and other writings that would illuminate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from every aspect imaginable -- in battle, on US military bases, waiting at home for loved ones to return. The Defense Department did not intervene, and nobody censored anything to hide or sugarcoat the horrors of these discretionary wars.

The idea for the unprecedented project began at an April 2003 meeting of state poet laureates. Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut's most visible poet, talked about the pressures of war on families. She suggested that writers reach out to those in the military and those related to those in the military. As Gioia asks in the preface, "What would happen if the nation fostered a conversation between its writers and its troops?"

Combining federal funds and a grant from the Boeing aircraft corporation, the NEA sent accomplished writers to military venues to stimulate the desire to write, and to provide instruction about how to write well. Those writers are listed in the front of the anthology. They include Mark Bowden, Tom Clancy, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Tobias Wolff.

When the workshops started and the writing submissions began to flow in, what the organizers thought might be a trickle ended up as a flood. When the flood abated, about 2,000 pieces of writing had arrived. The book includes 100, chosen after careful deliberation by a panel of professional writers.

Many of the entries showed erudition as well as a modicum of literary expression. In the book's introduction, editor Andrew Carroll, a best-selling author who often writes about war, mentions a poem by Kathy Roth-Douquet, the wife of a Marine Corps officer commanding a helicopter squadron inside Iraq. Roth-Douquet alluded to Emily Dickinson's poem "Hope Is the Thing With Feathers" while composing "Emily, Updated." It reads, "Helicopters fly without feathers. Hope is the thing with armor." Entries of high quality abound. The book is divided into six sections: heading into combat; interacting with Afghans and Iraqis; gripes, humor, boredom, and the daily grind; life on the home front; the physical and emotional toll of war; returning to the United States.

Much of what is published could be considered antiwar. But much conveys support of the Iraq and Afghanistan incursions by the government of President George W. Bush. Then again, a lot of what appears cannot be considered antiwar, pro-war, or political at all, at least not intentionally so. For the most part, those of the military folks who submitted items wanted to express themselves in a realm where they are rarely heard -- the realm of serious literature. When Carroll asked contributors why they submitted their writing, he heard lots of answers. The one that stuck in his mind most vividly came from a noncommissioned officer at Fort Bragg in North Carolina : "This is the first time anyone's asked us to write about what we think of all that's going on."

A poetry of a different sort permeates "What Was Asked of Us." The book consists not of written words, but words spoken to journalist Trish Wood by those in combat. The combatants are not identified by name, but rather by military assignment, such as Navy Hospital Corpsman and Sniper-Scout. For those who thrill to the idea of killing strangers and being killed by strangers, the oral histories will serve as a turn-on. For those who are horrified that huge amounts of US resources are being spent in Iraq while government conscripts and civilians die, the book will cause a new round of sleepless nights.

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