The Anti-War History of Literature

The Anti-War History of Literature

In his 2010 acceptance lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa praised the civilizing power of fiction. As a result of storytelling, “civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist.” This seemingly radical statement about the liberalizing, hyper-individualizing nature of literature is widely accepted by others in the profession. It would probably be hard to find an author who disagreed. Whether or not it is actually true is an empirical question, and up for debate.

The radical liberalism present in Vargas Llosa’s statement may be universally present amongst fiction authors, but modern history has shaped the conversations in such a way that we seem to lack bold new statements of opposition to war. While many (if not most) contemporary authors are certainly not war hawks, their opposition to militarism is not as radical and fervent as some of their more prominent predecessors from the first half of the 20th century.

In a scathing essay from Esquire in 1935, Ernest Hemingway warned the US about getting involved in the brewing conflict in Europe. In a piece entitled “Notes on the Next War: A Serious Topical Letter,” Hemingway wrote that the “first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.” Hemingway was from the “lost generation” of writers that were heavily influenced by World War I and its unprecedented destructiveness. Echoing the sentiments of Randolph Bourne, war was labeled as “notoriously the health of the state.” And worried about the continuing growth of executive power in the US, he says it “removes the only possible check. No one man nor group of men…exempt from fighting should in any way be given the power…to put this country or any country into war.” Foreshadowing a common criticism of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, Hemingway wrote that “when you give power to an executive you do not know who will be filling that position when the time of crisis comes.”

According to Hemingway, no one “wins a modern war because it is fought to such a point that everyone must lose.” This may seem like severe hyperbole to a modern audience, as we have not experienced anything remotely close to the carnage wrought by the two world wars. But to Hemingway and others of his generation, the totality of WWI weighed very heavily on their mind.

World War II was for Kurt Vonnegut what the first was for Hemingway. His classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five was inspired by his experience as a prisoner of war and observer of the aftermath of the Allied firebombing of Dresden. He laments in his essay “Wailing Shall Be In All Streets” that the bombing had “reduced this treasure to crushed stone and embers; disemboweled her with high explosives and cremated her with incendiaries” and that there were an “appalling number of women and children…Burnt alive, suffocated, crushed – men, women, and children indiscriminately killed.” His novel Cat’s Cradle features a passage that says “[p]erhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.” John Steinbeck wrote in his introduction to Once There Was a War that the “next war, if we are so stupid as to let it happen, will be the last of any kind. There will be no one left to remember anything. And if that is how stupid we are, we do not, in a biologic sense, deserve to survive.”

Mark Twain, considered by many to be the greatest American novelist, was a staunch anti-imperialist. Part of a group of intellectuals and businessmen known as “mugwumps” around the turn of the 20th century, Twain was heavily involved in the intellectual battle to stop American expansion after the Spanish-American War. Mugwump was a term to describe men of affluence who were not beholden to political parties – they placed principles first. On the whole (with exceptions, of course), they were not liberal. But they believed the imperial project was at odds with the larger American project.

Twain’s short work “The War Prayer” is a powerful and biting response to the Philippine-American War. The crux of the story is that in war, there are losers. People, not just soldiers, will die and their lives will be ruined:

O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst…

Susan Sontag famously argued against war photography, claiming that it desensitizes us to what should be traumatic and horrific experiences. But in a long examination of it published in the New Yorker she makes several points that echo Twain’s criticisms, saying “[t]he children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were no less innocent than the young African American men (and a few women) who were butchered and hanged from trees in small town America. More than a hundred thousand German civilians…were incinerated in R.A.F. fire bombing of Dresden[.]” She goes on to say that “acknowledgement of American use of disproportionate firepower in war (in violation of one of the cardinal laws of war) is very much not a national project,” highlighting the hypocrisy of America attempting to come to terms with the domestic stains on its history, but not those of an international flavor.

The examples highlighted above show a steep history of radical anti-war liberalism in literature. Contemporary fiction and its authors are largely not addressing this issue in the same way that authors of the past did (in at least one case, a very prominent author attempted to provide intellectual ammunition for adventurous militarism). This makes total sense, though, and it doesn’t mean that there is not important work being done.  But the era of total war seems to be over. Developed nations have moved to fighting smaller scale wars with less manpower and more advanced technology. The Iraq War or the smaller covert operations that are happening in a number of countries, for all of their horribleness, do not capture the imagination the same way that World War II did. And a volunteer military insulates the majority of us from the costs of war.

In today’s day of perpetual, unaccountable warfare and with signs that it is only going to get worse, liberalism needs principled and ardent defenders of peace. If Vargas Llosa is right that literature has a civilizing effect (and there is evidence to suggest he is), then novelists could plausibly play a role in further inspiring that peace.