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On War and Writing

by Samuel Hynes

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     "In our imaginations, war is the name we give to the extremes of violence in our lives, the dark dividing opposite of the connecting myth, which we call love. War enacts the great antagonisms of history, the agonies of nations; but it also offers metaphors for those other antagonisms, the private battles of our private lives, our conflicts with one another and with the world, and with ourselves."   Samuel Hynes knows war personally: he served as a Marine Corps pilot in the Pacific Theater during World War II, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. He has spent his life balancing two careers: pilot and professor of literature. Hynes has written a number of major works of literary criticism, as well as a war-memoir, Flights of Passage, and several books about the World Wars. His writing is sharp, lucid, and has provided some of the most expert, detailed, and empathetic accounts of a disappearing generation of fighters and writers.             On War and Writing offers for the first time a selection of Hynes's essays and introductions that explore the traditions of war writing from the twentieth century to the present. Hynes takes as a given that war itself--the battlefield uproar of actual combat--is unimaginable for those who weren't there, yet we have never been able to turn away from it. We want to know what war is really like: for a soldier on the Somme; a submariner in the Pacific; a bomber pilot over Germany; a tank commander in the Libyan desert. To learn, we turn again and again to the memories of those who were there, and to the imaginations of those who weren't, but are poets, or filmmakers, or painters, who give us a sense of these experiences that we can't possibly know.            The essays in this book range from the personal (Hynes's experience working with documentary master Ken Burns, his recollections of his own days as a combat pilot) to the critical (explorations of the works of writers and artists such as Thomas Hardy, E. E. Cummings, and Cecil Day-Lewis). What we ultimately see in On War and Writing is not military history, not the plans of generals, but the feelings of war, as young men expressed them in journals and poems, and old men remembered them in later years--men like Samuel Hynes.… (more)
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Samuel Hynes is unquestionably in his element with his latest book, ON WAR AND WRITING. As Princeton Professor Emeritus of Literature, and the author of numerous scholarly works on Auden, Hardy and other literary figures, particularly from the Edwardian era, he certainly has the writing angle covered. But Hynes knows war too. Before turning twenty-one, he had flown over a hundred missions in the Pacific as a Marine Corps pilot, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In the Introduction, he tells us, " All my working life I've had two vocations - flying and professing ... they've always been there. The flying came first."

The book itself is something of a mixed bag, a collection of pieces spanning over thirty-five years. The oldest from 1980, is a critical look at Edward Thomas, an obscure British nature-writer-turned-poet, a protege of Robert Frost. Thomas, barely known in this country, was, Hynes tells us -

"... smothered by War Poets, because he happened also to be a poet who was a soldier, and was killed in action."

The newest piece here, very personal in nature, is the book's Introduction, in which Hynes gives a brief overview of his life, from Minnesota schoolyard games to his World War Two service, through his long academic career (he taught at Swarthmore, Northwestern and Princeton), his lifelong fascination with flying, and the study of war. In "Hardy and the Battle God," an extended treatise on Thomas Hardy's poetry from the Great War, Hynes writes of Hardy's "bitter vision of war, and of humankind's unalterable capacity for violence against itself" - a view which I suspect he shares. But Hynes also understands the allure of war to the young. In his 1988 essay, "In the Whirl and Muddle of War," he notes -

"Young men at war feel life and death with an intensity that is beyond peacetime emotions. They know comradeship, a closeness to other men that ordinary life frequently does not provide. They see their friends die, and they feel grief ... They feel fear, and the exhilaration of fear overcome. And they are changed."

In the same piece, Hynes tells us of teaching "a course on the literature of war," which piqued my interest, because I too taught such a course, but more than a decade earlier. Hynes, however, focused less on fiction and more on memoirs and personal documents in his course, while I concentrated on fiction in mine. He cites Graves, Sassoon, and Blunden (WWI); Dahl and William Manchester (WWII); and, from Vietnam, Caputo's A RUMOR OF WAR and Robert Mason's CHICKENHAWK. I used Hemingway and Mailer, and, from Vietnam, William Pelfrey's slim novel, THE BIG V, the only novel I could find from that war, which was still in progress.

There are a few pieces here that are very scholarly in nature - "Yeats's War," "E.E. Cummings's THE ENORMOUS ROOM," "The Death of Landscape" - obviously aimed at academic audiences. Other shorter pieces are book reviews, or introductions written for certain classic editions - pieces on books by Graeme West, Rebecca West, Vera Brittain and Cecil Lewis.

Perhaps the most accessible piece here, to the average reader, is "At War with Ken Burns," which documents the years-long making of Burns' PBS documentary, THE WAR, which featured Hynes as a principal contributor. I especially enjoyed the " Whirl and Muddle" piece, and also "War Stories," in which Hynes praises the work of the battlefield cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who "made the American G.I. imaginable and real." And in "A Critic Looks at War" Hynes takes a close look at literature to come out of the two Big Wars, as well as the "little wars" of the twentieth century. (I made a pretty lengthy list of works I want to read.) He added a 2016 Epilogue to this piece, noting he was wrong in his predictions about the "little" wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conceding sadly -

"They were and are peculiar wars - undeclared and unfinished, aimless and endless ..."

Indeed. As Dexter Filkins has called them, "the forever wars. "

Sam Hynes' ON WAR AND WRITING is an important book, one that should be added to the recommended reading list at all of our military academies. I will recommend it highly to historians, military buffs and anyone who enjoys literature and critical thinking. The University of Chicago Press is to be commended for gathering these pieces together in a single volume.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the Cold War memoir, SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA ( )
  TimBazzett | Apr 20, 2018 |
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     "In our imaginations, war is the name we give to the extremes of violence in our lives, the dark dividing opposite of the connecting myth, which we call love. War enacts the great antagonisms of history, the agonies of nations; but it also offers metaphors for those other antagonisms, the private battles of our private lives, our conflicts with one another and with the world, and with ourselves."   Samuel Hynes knows war personally: he served as a Marine Corps pilot in the Pacific Theater during World War II, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. He has spent his life balancing two careers: pilot and professor of literature. Hynes has written a number of major works of literary criticism, as well as a war-memoir, Flights of Passage, and several books about the World Wars. His writing is sharp, lucid, and has provided some of the most expert, detailed, and empathetic accounts of a disappearing generation of fighters and writers.             On War and Writing offers for the first time a selection of Hynes's essays and introductions that explore the traditions of war writing from the twentieth century to the present. Hynes takes as a given that war itself--the battlefield uproar of actual combat--is unimaginable for those who weren't there, yet we have never been able to turn away from it. We want to know what war is really like: for a soldier on the Somme; a submariner in the Pacific; a bomber pilot over Germany; a tank commander in the Libyan desert. To learn, we turn again and again to the memories of those who were there, and to the imaginations of those who weren't, but are poets, or filmmakers, or painters, who give us a sense of these experiences that we can't possibly know.            The essays in this book range from the personal (Hynes's experience working with documentary master Ken Burns, his recollections of his own days as a combat pilot) to the critical (explorations of the works of writers and artists such as Thomas Hardy, E. E. Cummings, and Cecil Day-Lewis). What we ultimately see in On War and Writing is not military history, not the plans of generals, but the feelings of war, as young men expressed them in journals and poems, and old men remembered them in later years--men like Samuel Hynes.

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