Thursday, August 5, 2010

Cynthia Wachtell

Cynthia Wachtell is the author of the new book War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 and an assistant professor of English at Yeshiva University in New York City.

Last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I know a fair bit about American war writing of the past. In my book, War No More, I reveal how Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and other writers of the Civil War era boldly challenged conventional ways of writing about war, and I trace the remarkable rise of antiwar writing from the late nineteenth century to the eve of World War I.

I do not know nearly as much about American war writing of the present. This summer I set out to address that. I assigned myself the task of selecting three books in three different genres about three countries caught up either directly or indirectly in the current conflicts: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Also, I wanted to read what other Americans are reading, so I tried to find books that have proven popular. I chose Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (fiction); Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea (non-fiction); and Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet (poetry).

First I read The Kite Runner. The novel is a little too contrived for my taste, which is not to say that I found it easy to put down once I started reading it. The plot traces the fate and fortunes of Amir, who grows up a motherless but privileged boy in pre-war Kabul. Amir’s personal story of sin and redemption is inextricable from the recent history of Afghanistan: Little Amir flies kites, eats pomegranates, and seeks his father’s love. (There is a bloodless coup and the king’s forty-year reign ends.) Amir betrays his best friend. (The Soviets arrive with bombs and occupy Kabul.) Eighteen year old Amir and his father escape into Pakistan and then move to America. (The Russians fall to the Taliban.) Amir enrolls in junior college and sets out to become a novelist. (The Taliban terrorize Kabul.) Adult Amir must return to Pakistan and then Afghanistan for some unfinished business. I liked it, but I felt manipulated.

The next book I read was Three Cups of Tea, which tells a rather amazing and inspiring tale, even if the writing itself is often weak. Greg Mortenson set out in 1993 to summit K2 in Northern Pakistan. He failed to reach that mountaintop but over the following decade succeeded in building a bridge to a remote village and fifty-five schools for poor children, especially girls, in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. Describing the landscape, people, faiths, and customs of Pakistan – and to a lesser extent of Afghanistan – the book fosters cross-cultural understanding. And by tracing the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan and the start of the war in Afghanistan, the book offers an on-the-ground look at the devastating impact of extreme fundamentalism and war. It also offers a plan for peace – a version of peace founded on education. The New York Times reported that the book was recommended to General Petraeus by his wife, and not without good reason. Three Cups of Tea models the kind of good works that are supposed to win Americans the hearts and minds of our enemies.

Here, Bullet, the final work on my list, I read in a single afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed. That is, I enjoyed it as much as one can enjoy a collection of poems about road side bombs, dismembered corpses, and suicide. Brian Turner’s book has been hailed as one of the early works of “great” antiwar writing about Iraq. Given my focus in War No More, I was particularly eager to read it. How, I wondered, would the antiwar impulse that I knew so well from the age of Mark Twain and Stephen Crane be translated in the age of Bin Laden and Bush? Turner who served as an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq, beginning in November 2003, captures the small details of war, the haunting details. His poem “Body Bags” begins, “A murder of crows looks on in silence / from the eucalyptus trees above / as we stand over the bodies.”

I recommend my summer reading list. Not each of the works is a masterpiece but each is relevant to our current conflicts. Jointly the authors took me on a tour of the war region, a tour that began with the opening words of The Kite Runner – “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975” – and ended on the closing page of Here, Bullet with the lines: “To sand / each head of cabbage unravels its leaves / the way dreams burn in the oilfires of the night.”
Visit the War No More website.

--Marshal Zeringue