Live To Tell

Soldiers carry home the experience of war

now, poets and writers like Tom Clancy are helping them unleash their stories.

October 06, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

NORFOLK NAVAL STATION, VA. - Even with their sleek, steel blue barrels fully loaded, they were amazingly lightweight gadgets - fully operable with just three fingers, two in a pinch; small enough to fit in a shirt pocket; powerful enough to topple governments.

Paid for by a defense contractor under a program approved by the Pentagon, they were handed out, one per solider, to volunteers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines who gathered here last month to learn about the newly issued apparatus from the experts.

Experts like ... Tom Clancy.

"The whole point of writing is to get an idea out of your head and put it into somebody else's head," the best-selling author of military thrillers told them.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on Operation Homecoming in yesterday's Today section misidentified the aircraft carrier on which Petty Officer 1st Class Karen Cozza served during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Cozza served on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The Sun regrets the errors.

Clancy's talk was part of "Operation Homecoming," a National Endowment for the Arts program to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan write about their experiences and preserve those writings for posterity. Working with a stable of 26 well-known authors and poets, the NEA is holding writing workshops at 20 military bases across the country in a program financed mainly by Boeing - a leading defense contractor and provider of the complimentary ballpoints.

Johnny got his pen.

Much of the classic literature of war - from Homer's Iliad to All Quiet on the Western Front, from Johnny Got His Gun to Catch-22 - has focused largely on war's downside, the horror, inanity, cost and futility.

The literature of the Iraq war remains to be written. But it is testament to how controversial that war has become, and to how many writers and poets oppose it, that a seemingly benign program has drawn suspicion from some in the literary community: Is the Bush administration, they ask, simply arming its warriors with another weapon, this time to fight the war of public opinion?

"Operation Homecoming threatens to move the NEA into the business of supporting the generation of propaganda," Kevin Bowen, a poet and Vietnam War veteran, wrote recently in Intervention, an online anti-war magazine, "a wartime exercise that is not part of its mission, and does writers, veterans, and the public a great disservice."

Poets still remember how a White House poetry symposium was canceled last year in the weeks leading up to the U.S. attack on Iraq, after administration officials learned one participant was gathering anti-war poems to present at the event.

Some fear that the anthology of soldiers' writing that the NEA will publish as part of Operation Homecoming similarly will be scrubbed of anti-war sentiment.

While the authors leading the workshops include such military boosters as Clancy and Victor Davis Hanson, there are also representatives of the other end of the spectrum, such as pacifist poet Marilyn Nelson.

Nelson, who took part in the poets' White House protest, led the second workshop in Norfolk. She, in fact, is credited with generating the idea that led to Operation Homecoming while she was teaching at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Nelson, the daughter of a Tuskegee airman, opposes the war but believes writing can help returning soldiers heal.

"I feel about this program as I did about accepting the invitation to teach at West Point. ... Sometimes, it's important to simply be there," she said. "What motivates me to be involved now is the sense that taking poetry to them returns to them some fundamental humanism, that it counters, in some small way, that other thrust."

Nelson had been teaching a "poetry and meditation" class at West Point when she ran into fellow poet Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA, at a conference last year. Gioia, a Bush appointee, asked about her class. Nelson said it would have been nice if returning Vietnam War veterans had access to a program that helped them express through writing their bottled-up emotions. Gioia agreed, and remarked on how the distance between the literary and military communities since Vietnam and the end of the draft seemed to have only grown.

From that conversation, Operation Homecoming evolved. Novelists, journalists, historians and poets were enlisted, at $3,000 a head, to teach the workshops, including Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down), Hanson (The Soul of Battle) and Tobias Wolff (In Pharaoh's Army).

Others writers, including James Bradley (Flags of Our Fathers) and Shelby Foote (Shiloh) helped put out a teaching CD, and an online tutorial.

And soldiers were invited to start submitting their work. More than 300 have so far. The best - as determined by an NEA panel - will be included in an anthology of wartime writing to be published next year. The NEA also will keep an archive of every poem, story, essay, letter and journal entry it receives.

Even though the program is primarily financed by Boeing ($250,000 of the program's $300,000 budget), and approved by the Pentagon, the selection of works for the anthology will be based on artistic merit, Gioia has said, and the writer's politics, or stance on the war in Iraq, will play no role.

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