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Earlier this spring, Dana Gioia, a poet and the chairman of the National Endowment for Arts, stood next to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz at a press conference announcing Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. The program, organized by the NEA, is backed by “a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Defense” and “made possible” by the Boeing Corp., which has supplied $250,000 of its $300,000 cost. Well under way by now, Operation Homecoming organizes writing workshops for returning troops and their families at military installations across the country and abroad. The workshops are conducted by a list of distinguished writers that includes Tom Clancy, Richard Bausch, Mark Bowden, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tobias Wolff, and others. Some of the poems, letters, personal narratives, stories, memories, journal writing, etc., to come out of these workshops will end up in the Operation Homecoming anthology, which will be published in the next couple of years. According to Operation Homecoming’s Web site: “Military personnel, reservists, National Guard members, and Coalition Authority members who served after September 11, 2001, especially in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as their immediate families, are eligible to submit writing for consideration in the published anthology.”
The situation of a poet and a war-mongering ideologue sharing the stage is odious in itself, but it also raises a tricky question: What is the real purpose of the project? The poet Gioia asserts in the introduction on the Operation Homecoming Web site that “[o]ne cannot tell a story of our nation without also telling the story of our wars,” as if the task of literature and writers were to tell the stories of the nation. This standard tenet of nationalism—that writers, just like everyone else, serve the nation—is necessarily ideological and stacks the odds against the writers who prefer to tell a different national story. Even if telling the story of “our nation” were a worthy, ideologically benign project, even if the same old American story of greatness and victimhood were not being told over and over again, would Operation Homecoming let a soldier like Sean Haze be part of it? “Months have passed since I’ve been back home,” writes Prt. Haze, whose letter is quoted in Michael Moore’s Will They Ever Trust Us Again? Letters From the War Zone, “and the unfortunate conclusion I’ve come to is that Bush is a lying, manipulative motherfucker who cares nothing for the lives of those of us who serve in uniform.” If the story of the Iraq disaster is to be told, Pvt. Haze would have to be in it, and so would the crimes in Abu Ghraib, as well as the adventures of various “contractors,” the shadowy part of our nation that includes foreign mercenaries with vast wartime experience in South African death squads or Serbian ethnic-cleansing militias.
Operation Homecoming wants its participants to write the story of the war that produces almost as many casualties as lies. “And these often harrowing tales are best told by the men and women who lived them,” writes Gioia poetically. As a matter of fact, the story would be much better told by those who died in Iraq, but they do not get to tell any stories, to participate in workshops, or to come home—except in the coffins that under a Pentagon policy prohibiting media coverage of human remains are not to be seen on television or in newspapers.
There is no doubt that some valuable writing—both as history and literature—could come out of Operation Homecoming. But even if the good people of the NEA and their writing instructors have nothing but the purest intentions in their hearts; even if workshops serve as some form of group therapy; even if the NEA received blanket security clearance from Wolfowitz and the Department of Defense to publish whatever would further the understanding of the war experience—even if all that were the case, any account of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom that does not include testimonies of the freedom-shocked Iraqis cannot avoid being a lie. A similar lie is at the heart of the Vietnam War mythology, built around the fallacious belief that the main victims of the war in Vietnam were Americans, even if for every dead American soldier there were dozens of dead Vietnamese civilians. If in those workshops the American epic of greed and power is being translated into another self-help manual of national victimhood, then the result will be nothing but therapeutic propaganda.
Despite all that—or indeed because of all that—Operation Homecoming is a project of great importance, inasmuch as the soldier writers will have to face the same tricky questions that many other writers, readers, and citizens face today: How real is my experience? To what extent is my experience our experience? And what the hell is real here, anyway? In American war fiction, such questions have already been gloriously asked by Kurt Vonnegut, for whom war was akin to an apocalyptic hallucination (Slaughterhouse-Five); by Joseph Heller, who understood World War II as a set of adjustable fantasies of those who managed it (Catch-22); and by Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), who defied the tradition of war realism by fragmenting his narrative and constantly questioning his reality-producing methods. The Iraqi war is still waiting for a writer who could match the magnitude of the failure, someone who could address the current debacle of American reality.
For the flimsy fiction of “the war on terror,” produced by the Bush regime in cooperation with the obedient media, funded by Boeing and other corporations, has all but displaced what until Sept. 11 was recognizable as common reality. The old Wittgensteinian thought that “The world is facts in logical space” has been transformed into the Bushian “The world is claims in faith-based space.” Bush and his cronies are the rich people’s postmodernists: Reality is negotiable, except the negotiations take place in the remote domain of the political and corporate elites; the truth of a statement is measured by its deniability; and the purpose of language is to defer indefinitely meaning and, therefore, understanding.
The question for all writers, the homecoming ones included, is how to deal with the social and cultural situation dominated by the perversely postmodern Bushist ideology. Its operations make the world, America, and the life of every human being more unreal and fictitious by the day, so plain old literary fiction, versed in the business of producing or deconstructing realities, is going to have to do some work. Contemporary fiction has to develop new models to access, dismantle, and reassemble the fictional world of the Bushed America and thus reinsert facts back into our logical space. It has to excavate true human experience from under the debris of Operations Enduring Freedom and American Victimhood. It needs to restore the belief in the power of nonnegotiable human truth and so create home-in-language for those who are dead or lost in lies. A different Operation Homecoming is ahead of us. American fiction is going to have to reclaim American reality.