I wrote in an earlier post about how it’s impossible to fully understand a tragedy unless you were there. I think war pretty clearly belongs in that category. Only people who have been to war can fully understand the experience.
I am fond of war narratives. One of the best books I’ve read recently is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a semi-autobiographical account of the Vietnam War. One of my favorite books of all time is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, the satirical classic set in World War II. Both of these narratives portray war as a liminal experience, a strange jumble of contrasting superlatives. Where life is precious exactly because it is valued so little. Where moments of horror are imbued with a dark sardonic humor. Where circumstances can whiplash 180, boredom to carnage, when a slog through the jungle is pierced by a rigged artillery shell that blows a friend into the trees, when a milk run suddenly meets enemy fire and the rear gunner is gutted inside his flak suit. Where the most meaningless becomes the most meaningful: Lemon Tree and the Snowdens of Yesteryear.
War narratives are a touchstone into a world that, God willing, I will never see firsthand. However, war narratives have much to teach us, about ourselves, about others, about the very best and very worst of humanity. In particular, they have much to teach writers, since a writer is always a student of the human condition.
Try reading some war stories. The Things They Carried and Catch-22 are exceptional places to start.