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How to Write About War

Posted Wed, 3/09/2016 - 8:00am by  |  Category:

Brian CastnerThis is the Hugo House “How-To” series. Every week (give or take a few) we’ll share a short tip related to the writing life. This week’s post comes from Brian Castner. His April 3 class, Making a True War Story, will break down the barriers common to wartime coverage and start conversations by exploring what makes war stories timeless and inclusive. Open to every writer, veterans and civilians alike.

Few topics intimidate the writer like war. But if you believe no subject should be beyond a writer’s (or human’s) imagination or capacity for empathy, then try these steps as a mental craft exercise. There is no formula to a war story, but there are consistent themes worth considering.

1. Forget every war movie you have ever seen and book on war you have ever read. Especially Hemingway.

Cliché is a hazard of all writing, but particularly so when stepping into the minefield of writing about combat and its consequences (see what I did there?). Fighting in a war is both an ancient human experience and an increasingly rare one—for Americans anyway — and so we naturally turn to movies and books to fill the gap, if only subconsciously. This shortcut, drawing on a well of images from Saving Private Ryan or For Whom the Bell Tolls, rarely ends well. At best, you simply repeat old sentimental tropes. At worst, this borrowing perpetuates false myths that do more harm than good and strip your work of truth.

2. Someone’s got to get hurt

I tried to find a war story that doesn’t involve violence or the threat of it and I couldn’t. It’s what makes a war a war. So, as a war story writing prompt, start by envisioning the untimely violent death of one of your own family members or a close friend. This is uncomfortable, but also a first step in breaking through the “I can’t imagine” barrier, the typical reaction to war stories. This violence and accompanying grief are the central experiences of veterans, civilians caught in bombed-out cities, refugees fleeing their homes. Now’s not the time for distance; we get enough impersonal statistics in the newspaper.

3. Confront the question of power

Chris Hedges wrote a book titled War is a Force That Gives us Meaning.But he could have stopped at War is a Force.It is bigger than any individual, a collective tragedy that everyone, soldier and civilian alike, is caught up in. At this base level, there is a question of control and who is in charge. When a brother, sister, mother, father, best friend dies in a war, some react with fatalism: what will be will be. And others, soldiers especially, are beset by guilt, the feeling that they should have been able to prevent the death somehow. Because….

4. War is not cancer or car accidents

While sad, if your friend dies of heart failure, you don’t fear your own heart is next. But war works differently. This impersonal force that killed your loved one can kill you too. Or the other members of your family or military unit. Fatalism and guilt are steeped in fear, and in either case, from The Iliad to A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, the act of violence is just the beginning of the story.

Learn more about Brian Castner’s April 3 class, Making a True War Story.


Brian Castner is a nonfiction writer, former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War. He is the author of All the Ways We Kill and Die, forthcoming in the spring of 2016, and the war memoir The Long Walk, an Amazon Best Book of 2012. His writing has appeared at The New York TimesWiredOutsideThe Daily Beast, and on National Public Radio. In 2014, he received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to cover the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, filing stories for Foreign PolicyVICE, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.