With Veteran’s Day less than a week away I have been thinking about books about war. War and violence have been a part of human life from the moment that Cain slew Abel, and depictions of war are as old as literature itself. I have loved historical fiction for most of my life, and have particularly found myself drawn to novels about war and suffering. I went through a phase during junior high when I read every young adult novel about the Holocaust that I could find, and I’m still not sure what attracted me to this particular subject. I know that I found novels with contemporary settings to be vapid and petty, and the romantic in me longed for the sort of deep emotion and high drama that can be found (and sometimes exploited) in stories of wartime suffering.
And yet, as a Latter-day Saint reader, I have sometimes been troubled by my love of war stories. Like many members of the Church, I worry about the effects of exposing my brain to the graphic violence and crude language that generally accompany depictions of war in movies and books. Although Church counsel is fairly clear about the unacceptability of sexual content, prohibitions against reading about or watching violence have been few and far between. I have even heard many Church members who would not ordinarily watch rated-R movies justify fare like Saving Private Ryan or Glory with claims that viewing the violence in it is not as bad watching a movie rated R for sexual content or that the movie still has value because it is based on a true story and has a redeeming moral message.
First of all, to be clear, I do think that there are redeeming qualities in depicting the violence of war. I generally think that war is evil, and fiction can be an ideal vehicle for convincing an audience of that fact (although we’ve had centuries of war-related fiction and so far the world has yet to realize that war is evil). However, I still find myself with many questions. Is the benefit of convincing the world of the futility of war negated by the way the message must be presented? Am I a better person for having watched a movie like Platoon because I know why war is evil, or am I worse off because I just spent two hours watching horribly violent acts depicted on screen?
The question that I would really like to address is one that some LDS authors (and a few filmmakers) have tried to answer in their work: does fiction about war have to include graphic violence and profane language to realistically portray the evils of war? Is a sanitized war story just as emotionally effective as one that isn’t? One LDS author who has written extensively about war is Dean Hughes. He has published two historical series, the first titled Children of the Promise depicts the Thomas family’s experiences during World War II, and the second titled Hearts of the Children describes the lives of their children during the 1960s and early 1970s. War is a major theme in the first series, as one son is captured by the Japanese and spends most of the war as a POW, another serves in Europe, and a daughter becomes a nurse and eventually becomes engaged to a naval officer who serves in the Pacific. Although his books are published by Deseret Book and his tone is generally faith-affirming, Hughes doesn’t spare his characters. The Thomas family’s youngest son, Gene, is a faithful, righteous young man who gets killed within minutes of landing on Iwo Jima. The last volume of the series describes the homecoming of the family members who make it, and they are all traumatized by the things they have done and have trouble readjusting to civilian post-war life. And yet, Hughes remains firmly in the ‘telling’ camp ‘rather than the ‘showing’ camp. There are descriptions of violent acts, but not in the level of detail that other writers might employ (and there are no swear words, just sentences like “the sergeant swore and pointed his gun at Wally”). This is just as likely attributable to his straightforward, unadorned writing style as the fact that he is published by Deseret Book. I love Hughes’ books and have read them several times, but they do not hit me in the same visceral way that other books written about the same topic do.
In contrast to Hughes’ writing, Doug Thayer’s novel The Tree House does describe the horrors of war The protagonist Harris Thatcher grows up in Provo and then confronts the problems of war both as a missionary in postwar Germany and then while serving in the US Army in Korea. I think Thayer’s novel is more engaging than Hughes work simply because it engages in the sorts of questions that literature should be asking about war. More specifically, it wrestles with the questions that Mormons involved in war ask themselves: how do I reconcile the dehumanizing effects of war with my belief in man as a child of God? How do I keep the commandments in such an environment? Is repentance possible after participating in acts of violence, especially those sanctioned by my own country? In this passage, Harris is pondering the fact that so many of the man around him curse:
“Skell and Worsley cursed the Chinese, the war, the army, the stalemate at Panmunjom, cursed the two dead men as fools for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the cursing a kind of cleansing or perhaps a responsibility. Although Harris did not feel any need himself to curse, the cursing seemed appropriate, useful, better than developing a tic. Harris couldn’t think of more appropriate or useful language at the moment. Yet he thought that silence and the sound of the rain would have served just as well. Even the mud seemed right somehow” (pg 315).
Just like Thayer, Hughes accepts the fact that soldiers curse. Although Hughes doesn’t depict the words themselves, he also doesn’t question their place in a novel about war. He uses cursing as one way to distinguish his LDS characters from the non-LDS ones around them—Mormons don’t swear and other people do. However, Thayer takes this difference and pushes it beyond a simple trope of ‘bad’ nonmembers and ‘good’ members in order to examine what happens when LDS beliefs collide with the beliefs of the world. Harris recognizes why his fellow soldiers swear and recognizes that this language might be appropriate under the circumstances, and yet he also realizes that his beliefs are just as valid. Like many Mormons, he finds himself in between two worlds and has to reconcile the two. As much as I like and enjoy Hughes’ work, Thayer proves himself the more substantive author, willing to delve into deeper questions. As I was trying to think of LDS authors who have written about war, I wasn’t familiar with any beyond Hughes and Thayer (and Jerry Borrowman but I’ve only read one of his books). Does anyone have any other examples? Is it enough to talk about violence and profanity or do writers need to use them in order to tell their stories effectively?