Is War’s Absence From Art a Class Thing?

Beverly Gologorsky is a novelist who grew up in the South Bronx during Vietnam, and so grew up witnessing many of her neighbors, friends, love interests, and family members go off to and come back from war. War was a part of life. Her first novel was about Vietnam war vets returning home, and her second novel is “permeated with a shadowy sense of what the Iraq and Afghan wars have done to us.”

In an essay for Guernica, Golgorsky writes about how she suspects the class divide is what keeps war feeling abstract and unknown to many Americans — and many fiction writers:

I’m a voracious reader of American fiction and I’ve noticed something odd in recent years. This country has been eternally “at war” and you just wouldn’t know that—a small amount of veteran’s fiction aside—from the novels that are generally published. For at least a decade, Americans have been living in the shadow of war and yet, except in pop fiction of the Tom Clancy variety (where, in the end, we always win), there’s remarkably little evidence of it.

Why doesn’t war appear more often in American novels? Novelist Dorothy Allison once wrote, “Literature is the lie that tells the truth.” Yet in a society where war is ever-present, that truth manages to go missing in much of fiction. These days, the novels I come across have many reference points, cultural or political, to mark their stories, but war is generally not among them.

My suspicion: it has something to do with class. If war is all around us and yet, for so many non-working-class Americans, increasingly not part of our everyday lives, if war is the thing that other people do elsewhere in our name and we reflect our world in our fiction, then that thing is somehow not us.

I think there is some truth to this, at least in my experience. I come from a military family and was an Army brat growing up, but these days I don’t know anyone personally who is serving in the military, or who has ever gone to war. An old fling from high school, a crush from church growing up, and then friends of friends, sure — but certainly no one I’ve been close to at the time or talked to about it.

Photo: cdrummbks

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8 Comments / Post A Comment

OllyOlly (#669)

Except if your grew up near DC, then your parents worked for the defense industry and are rich, but also have a ton of friends in the military or who were in the military. Then you have mailed care packages to your mom’s good friend who was in Iraq, volunteered at Walter Reed, been aboard an air craft carrier, and dealt with 4am texts from your boyfriend’s brother who is stationed in Japan.

But of course my anecdote does not disprove the theory. Another interesting point is how many movies are made about war in comparison to literature.

This is true, and is maybe geographic as well as class-based. There are way fewer universities with ROTC programs in the Northeast than in other regions, especially top-tier universities. See this Foreign Policy blog post from 2 years ago for some shocking details/comparisons.

@cuminafterall That’s definitely an interesting point. And I would also wonder, with our generation, about the geographic distribution of people who are going to college after having served on GI Bill benefits. I went to school in the DC area and I think we got a disproportionate number of people who went into ROTC anticipating defense careers or came back from service to go to school and use their clearance to get a contracting job in the area, at least compared to other schools/places in the northeast corridor. Or maybe my social circles are weird!

guenna77 (#856)

@bowtiesarecool i don’t think you’re off-base. i found the same thing at school in DC. a number of my classmates were ROTC. but yeah, it was seen as step 1 for a career in a town that values a security clearance.

@bowtiesarecool I also went to school in DC. My school is one of those without its own ROTC program, but I did know a few people who commuted to Georgetown for Army ROTC.

Our school had a history of supporting ROTC as little as possible because of Vietnam, then Iran-Contra, then gay rights… our fans used to chant “Don’t Ask! Don’t Tell!” when our school would play West Point at basketball. Not our school’s finest moment. From what I understand, though, that’s changing. I hope?

Eric18 (#4,486)

@cuminafterall Fortunately, several of those NE schools are correcting their wrongs (kicking ROTC off campus) and reintroducing ROTC to their campuses.

Yes, yes, yes. And yes to OllyOlly and cuminafterall. I have family in the military and have been paying attention to our wars for a long time, and I was flabbergasted when a coworker of mine recently didn’t know what an IED was. Over 10 years of war and you don’t know one of the primarily tools being used against western troops?!? Talk about a civilian-military divide…

Eric18 (#4,486)

It has much more to do with how the military is organized than it does with class. The military has been all-volunteer for 40 years. Without the draft and the need for a large military like we had during the Cold War, it is inevitable that most Americans won’t have any connection to it. Therefore, it is pretty much out of the lives of most Americans.

I know in my high school, I was one of 3 or 4 to go into the military out of about 550. I suspect this is the norm these days as opposed to during the draft.

It’s not a class thing. The stereotype that today’s veterans are the dregs of American society is a sick, nasty one, that has somehow endured, especially in certain social and academic circles that should know better. Alot of people would be surprised how closely today’s ranks mirror American society. I think service members today are smarter and more creative than any generation of veterans. And I get this from vets who served during the Vietnam-era and the post Vietnam-era (a low point for the military, especially the Army).

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