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Writing personal stories about war

March 25, 2015

Tags: war memoir, soldier, veterans writing, memorial

Pat with her Uncle Vern (Vernon Coil), a military hero
Writing about wartime experiences and memories? Some of these resources may be helpful or inspiring:
Veterans History Project (capturing personal accounts of American war veterans and U.S. citizen civilians involved in war efforts, such as USO workers, flight instructors, medical volunteers). You can download the VHP field kit and forms online.

Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story (Ron Capps, CreateSpace). Written by a veteran for veterans, it details the elements of craft involved in writing both fiction and non-fiction. The Veterans Writing Project uses the book in its co-cost seminar and workshops for members of the armed forces, active and reserve, who want to learn about writing in order to tell their stories. Capps is also author of the memoir Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years.

Soldiers Lost and Found: Students Rediscover the Fallen (Michael M. Phillips, WSJ, 10-20-12). A generation of Tom Clark's high school history students have been tracking down the families of Indiana's war dead and creating an archive of their stories. "His classroom is like a forgotten corner of the Smithsonian."

Top Reasons to Record Your Military History (Mary V. Danielsen, Documented Legacy).

A Year at War (stories of the 30,000 men and women of First Battalion, 87th Infantry, taking part in the Afghanistan surge), excellent New York Times video series.

Writing the War (Colin Wilhelm, Narratively, 11-14-13) Distraught by his peers’ disengagement from a war still being waged, a shaken Afghanistan veteran helps fellow fighters put their war wounds into words.

If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O'Brien. An intensely personal account of his year as a foot soldier in Vietnam. NY Times review: ""O'Brien brilliantly and quietly evokes the foot soldier's daily life in the paddies and foxholes, evokes a blind, blundering war."

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. "They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing--these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice.... Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to."

Writing About War: I Hate It but Can’t Stop (Don Gomez, Daily Beast, 9-2-13)) Among veterans of war, there has always been a tension between wanting to tell everything and wanting to say nothing at all, writes Army veteran Don Gomez.

Home Fires (George Packer, New Yorker, 4-7-14) How soldiers write their wars. The new war literature by veterans is largely free of politics and polemics.

The Last Ring Home: A POW’s Lasting Legacy of Courage, Love, and Honor in World War II by Minter Dial. Minter Dial’s grandson, named for him, spent years of his own life tracking down facts, and interviewing more than one hundred interviews with experts, survivors, and descendants of the Greatest Generation to tell the powerful story of American prisoners of war in the Pacific.

Women Writing War: A List of Essential Contemporary War Literature by Women Kayla Williams, Los Angeles Review of Books, 5-26-14)

Dad's Message Recorded At War, A Gift Given Decades Later (NPR, 1-4-14). See also At 71, finally hearing her father's voice (Susan Reimer, Baltimore Sun, 12-27-13) and listen to the hour-long original show.

Ben Patton on interviewing military veterans . Listen to 21-minute R.J. McHatton's audio-only interview with documentary filmmaker Ben Patton about the process of making short films about veterans.

Veterans, Alone Together, Share Stories They Can’t Tell You (Lawrence Downes, NY Times Editorial Observer 10-5-08,writing about weekend workshop run by Vets 4 Vets, a Tucson nonprofit that is setting up peer support groups around the country for a new generation of veterans making the transition from "hunter-killer" mode to husband-student mode)

Harry Lamin's letters from World War I, a blog on which letters from an English soldier are posted by his grandson exactly 90 years after they were written; now the son has died and the grandson has taken over, but there are also links to new blogs that this one inspired. Maybe it will be a model for someone you know!

Virtual Wall, Vietnam Veterans Memorial (look up Vietnam War casualties by name, place, date, and other details--get more info, add a photo, etc.)
African American history records (Ancestry.com). Slave narratives, troop records for U.S. colored troops in the Civil War, Freedman's Bank and Bureau records, World War I draft cards, etc.

After the Wars. Chicago Public Radio's weekly series of short radio stories and images of America's veterans--a Points of View Production by Paul and Ben Calhoun, ed. by Cate Cahan. Click on image to hear vet's story.

Lives During Wartime (Home Fires Readers, NYTimes, American Veterans on the Post-War Life, launched 11-10-09)
Mama Always Comes Home (Debbie Brodsky, Bethesda Magazine, 2-10, on creating a deployment video: a military mom's messages to her children)

My Son, My Soldier, My Sorrow.(Janet Burroway, St. Petersburg Press 6-13-04). Three essays written over 20 years by a liberal, pacifist mother struggling to understand her conservative son, a proud soldier and member of the NRA

World War 2: 'We All Had a Piece of Hitler's Desk'. Joy Hunter recalls a remarkable life, working in Churchill's War Rooms and attending the historic Potsdam conference in 1945. (Elizabeth Grice, Telegraph, 9-3-09)

Singing Away the Wounds of War (Niva Dorell Smith, Narratively) Chuck saw atrocities in the jungles of ‘Nam. Chris was attacked by America’s allies in Afghanistan. Anni was assaulted back at home. How a legion of traumatized vets are turning tragedy into song.

Memoirs of war and conflict: A reading list (Writers and Editors)

More War and Peace stories (Narratively)

Pasadena Veteran Collects War Stories For Posterity (Jenny Dumont, Pasadena Voice, 9-23-15). If you aren't a writer, find someone to record your story!

Organizations for veterans who write

Veterans Writing Project . Offers no-cost seminars and workshops for members of the armed forces, active and reserve, who want to learn about writing in order to tell their stories. Their core curriculum is Ron Capps's book Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story. Written by a veteran for veterans, it details the elements of craft involved in writing both fiction and non-fiction. The Veterans Writing Project publishes a blog and a literary journal O-Dark-Thirty .
Warrior Voices ( Cecilia Capuzzi Simon, NY Times Education Life, 2-1-13). Veterans learn to write the words they could not speak.
A Million Strong: Helping Them Through (James Dao, NY Times Education, 2-1-13). Serving the surge in military students puts colleges to the test. Teaching veterans to express their experiences helps them heal.
Veterans group, Maxine Hong Kingston together use writing to heal (Justin Berton, San Francisco Chronicle, 1-7-08)
Back From The Brink: War, Suicide, And PTSD (Ron Capps, Health Affairs, July 2010)
Veterans Writing Project: Nation's Heroes Write of Pain, Personal Triumphs (John Bachman, Newsmax, 5-27-12)
Warrior Writers (based in Philadelphia)
Syracuse Veterans’ Writing Group
Veterans' Writing Group of San Diego County
Black Hills Veterans Writing Group
Military Veterans Writing Workshop (Writers Guild Foundation)
The Journal of Military Experience
The Veterans' PTSD Project , which also has as page linking to resources for veterans who want to write
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  1. March 27, 2015 7:09 PM EDT
    Pat, what an amazing list of resources for Americans who are reading, writing or researching about wartime experiences. Brava, on providing such an excellent resource.
    - Annie Payne
  2. May 25, 2015 5:38 PM EDT
    How One Vet is Saving Lives Through Sharing Stories by April Bell (StoryCatcher for iPhone, 5-23-15)
    The book: Voices from Vietnam: The Tragedies and Triumphs of Americans and Vietnamese--Two Peoples Forever Entwined by the Legacy of War by Charlene Edwards
    The website: Voices from Vietnam (written and photographed by Charlene Edwards, telling her husband Mike's story and that of many others). "The Americans call it the Vietnam War--the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War. By whatever name, it was a great tragedy. And although the shooting stopped in April 1975, the war and its aftermath rage on in a different way--in the consciousness of Americans and Vietnamese alike."
    Also worth a look: Voices from the Vietnam War: Stories from American, Asian, and Russian Veterans, for which Xiaobing Li spent seven years gathering stories from vets from different cultures and with very different perspectives on the war.
    - Pat McNees
  3. August 18, 2015 8:34 PM EDT
    Also suggested (not a memoir but in the same spirit): Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq Available on Netflix. Nearly every soldier who survives the Iraq War experiences an "alive day," in which they narrowly escape death on the battlefield. This sobering, Emmy-nominated documentary examines 10 veterans who suffer from "alive day" physical and emotional trauma. Recovering back home, the soldiers discuss the effect their brutal experiences have had on their views of the war and serving their country. The film was executive produced by actor James Gandolfini.
    - Pat McNees
  4. January 1, 2016 11:21 PM EST
    A totally different account of war, an oral history (boots on the ground) gathered by Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich: Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War. Must reading for anyone who wants to understand that war.
    - Pat McNees
  5. March 5, 2016 7:31 PM EST
    Two novels with an entirely different take on war: Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien. "In Tim O'Brien's novel Going After Cacciato the theater of war becomes the theater of the absurd as a private deserts his post in Vietnam, intent on walking 8,000 miles to Paris for the peace talks. The remaining members of his squad are sent after him, but what happens then is anybody's guess: "The facts were simple: They went after Cacciato, they chased him into the mountains, they tried hard. They cornered him on a small grassy hill. They surrounded the hill. They waited through the night. And at dawn they shot the sky full of flares and then they moved in.... That was the end of it. The last known fact. What remained were possibilities." And the long-classic Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (who said he didn't write an anti-war novel; he wrote an anti-stupidity novel). Heller's classic satire on the murderous insanity of war, brought to life through the unforgettable character of Yossarian etc. -- with a focus on World War II.
    - PM
  6. December 7, 2016 12:22 PM EST
    A Pearl Harbor survivor spent decades trying to forget it. Then one man got him talking. (David Montero, Los Angeles Times, 12-7-16). Writer Ed McGrath gets Lauren Brenner to talk about his experiences surviving the bombing in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, of the USS Arizona by the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces, bringing the United States into World War II. Of the ship's crew of 1,512 men, only 335 made it out alive. Sometimes memories are so painful that it takes patience and time to get the storyteller to reveal them. Bruner and McGrath's book is Second to the Last to Leave: The Story of the USS Arizona’s Greatest Escape.
    - Pat McNees
  7. May 28, 2018 5:15 AM EDT
    Just wanted to thank you Pat for putting up my book, The Last Ring Home. It's Memorial Day weekend and my film is being shown on APT/PBS around the US this weekend. Kind regards, Minter
    - Minter Dial
  8. May 28, 2018 12:46 PM EDT
    A day in your honor. Good to hear from you. Will look to see if it's being shown at the AFI Docs Festival.
    -- Pat
    - Pat McNees
  9. August 24, 2018 6:33 PM EDT
    Marc Leepson moderated (and BIO posted this writeup about) Writing About the Vietnam War, a panel at the Biographers' International conference (2018) that featured Kai Bird (author of The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms, Max Boot (author of The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, and Heath Lee (author of The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home, due out in April 2019). Leepson is the author of Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler from the Vietnam War and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death. Interesting insights into publishers' changing views of the market for books about Vietnam (they're "in" again). Writes Leepson: 'Before starting her book, Lee had heard that publishers were not interested in books about the Vietnam War. That, she said, is “totally not true now.” She thinks the release of the Ken Burns documentary on the war has spurred interest in books on the subject. In addition, wars can be “a great backdrop” for biographies. A war, Lee said, “brings out the best and worst in people,” providing a vivid portrait of a subject.'
    - PM
  10. September 28, 2018 1:46 PM EDT
    A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. A powerful memoir of Beah's time as a child soldier during the civil war in Sierra Leone. As William Boyd, in the New York Times, put it, "perhaps the first time that a child soldier has been able to give literary voice to one of the most distressing phenomena of the late 20th century: the rise of the pubescent (or even prepubescent) warrior-killer." First, he and a few friends are separated from their families when rebels arrive in their village, then they spend months scrounging for food and struggling to survive and elude troops "recruiting" boy soldiers, then, at 12, he becomes a boy soldier, along with a small group of friends. As boy soldiers, supplied with all the drugs they can consume, they go on a two-year killing spree. What comes after is also an interesting part of Beah's story.
    - PM