Literature about the battlefield has a hallowed place in American culture. Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, based on his experiences while serving in World War II, and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried are just two war books that have captured the imaginations of both service members and the general public.
Many veterans say that writing their stories of war — from the intense fighting to the boredom to the brutality to the heroism — helps them confront the conflicted emotions they often carry.
Mark Bowden, a journalist and author of the book Black Hawk Down, tells NPR's Neal Conan about the benefits of writing about war.
"The whole variety of human experiences [of those who] serve in the military and serve in war zones is fascinating, and an important part of American life," he says. "It's extremely beneficial for society at large to hear these stories."
Through a national writing competition and a series of workshops, the Missouri Warrior Writers Project is helping veterans and service members write about their experiences serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bowden, whose book is about the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, will judge the competition's nonfiction category. Winners and selected entries of nonfiction, fiction and poetry will be compiled in the anthology Holding Each Elephant's Tail: Voices from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
"There's no doubt that there is a kind of authenticity to a narrative about war from a soldier or former soldiers," Bowden says. "All the more reason to encourage people who have served to write."
Bowden also says stories about military life need not focus on the battlefield to be compelling.
"Most soldiers' experiences are not necessarily traumatic and difficult. Many people who serve come out feeling very good about themselves — feeling very good about what they accomplished," Bowden says.
"Sometimes they have stories to tell that are quite uplifting — as even a good story about a traumatic event can be."
NEAL CONAN, host: There's a long tradition of writing about trauma and combat in hope that the exercise may lessen the pain. Many veterans are encouraged to write about what they saw in the line of duty, and combat vets like Norman Mailer and Tim O'Brien made important contributions to literature. A new program called the Missouri Warrior Writers Project developed a series of workshops and a competition to give veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the chance to tell their stories. At the conclusion, their poetry, fiction and nonfiction will be considered for publication in an anthology, and three winners will be chosen from an open call for submissions among active duty and veteran military personnel.
We're going to speak with one of the judges in a moment, but we want to hear from members of the armed services today. Has writing your story helped you? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Writer and journalist Mark Bowden is judging the nonfiction category and joins us today from our bureau in New York. And nice to have you with us.
MARK BOWDEN: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And you wrote about your experiences in Somalia in, I guess, what's still your best-known book, "Black Hawk Down." And I wonder, did writing that story help you with your experiences?
BOWDEN: Well, to be honest, Neal, I wasn't there for the battle of Mogadishu. I'm a journalist, and I reconstructed that story. So I have to say, no, I had no trouble dealing with it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BOWDEN: I had a bit of a traumatic trip to Somalia to do the reporting for that story, but, you know, I just think writing is important for any one of a thousand reasons. And, you know, the soldiers who I've - whose work I've read are not necessarily expurgating trauma, but that can be a reason. You know, they write stories that are very funny and very moving and, you know, the whole variety of human experiences. People, you know, serve in the military and serve in war zones is fascinating and, you know, and an important part of American life, so I think they should be writing about it.
CONAN: I'm not sure that Norman Mailer or Tim O'Brien were doing it for therapeutic reasons either, but they're pretty good books.
BOWDEN: They are very good books, and there's no doubt that there's a kind of authenticity to a narrative from - about war from a soldier or a former soldier, so all the more reason to encourage people who have served to write.
CONAN: Have you had the chance to review any of the submissions yet?
BOWDEN: No, I won't until January. I think the deadline is December 1st. So I'll start seeing things probably early next year.
CONAN: So as a judge, what do you think you're going to be looking for?
BOWDEN: Just a good story and, you know, good writing; originality, clever use of language, stories that move me in one way or another, good reporting. I think, you know, that's an essential part of any nonfiction writing. Those are the things I look for.
CONAN: And it's interesting, you might say, well, those are qualities of a writer, not necessarily of a soldier. But soldiers have to write their stories, too, in reports. They have to be able to communicate what happened.
BOWDEN: Sure. I mean, writing is a skill that serves any of us, you know, in our lives in many different ways, whether you're trying to create, you know, lasting works of literature or whether you're just trying to write a heartfelt letter to somebody about something important, or file a report or a memo that you hope conveys an idea or information in a coherent and powerful way. So I teach writing at the University of Delaware and, you know, try to work with young people whenever I can. And, you know, I think it's just a tremendously useful skill, period.
CONAN: And it's interesting, as - you teach writing, and so you have some of the skills of an editor too. I mean, those are the ability to pick apart what makes a piece work and what gets in the way.
BOWDEN: Well, that's right. I've had the very good fortune, throughout my life, of working with very talented editors and have learned a lot from them. And, you know, there are a few career missteps in my past where I ended up editing at a newspaper...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BOWDEN: ...so I've had a little experience with that.
CONAN: I've made a few of those mistakes, too. Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BOWDEN: But - no. I've learned and, hopefully, you know, I incorporate that - those lessons in my own writing, but also can offer them to others who are struggling with the same task.
CONAN: And as you - as the competition is set up, are you expected to treat these stories as finished products? Or is it possible for you to call somebody back and say, you know, if you move that story that's on page six up to the top, I think it'll work a little bit better?
BOWDEN: Well, that would be nice. I have other work to do, I'm afraid. By the time it gets to me, I'm kind of the Supreme Court on this one. I'm going to make the final rulings.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We want to talk with veterans today who've written something about their experiences and whether that helped them deal with those experiences. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with Bob, and Bob's with us on the line from Honolulu.
ROBERT WEHRMAN: Hi. Good morning. Thanks for taking the call.
WEHRMAN: Yes. After 9/11 - I'm a Vietnam veteran. After 9/11, the PTSD that I had from Vietnam came screaming back at me, and so I sat down and wrote about my experiences in a book called "The Unnatural Act" that I managed to get it published, and now it's been adopted by a number of universities. And young folks are reading it and perhaps coming to grips with the military experiences that face, perhaps, them in the future and what we all had to deal with. So it's very therapeutic.
CONAN: And was it a book of fiction or non-fiction?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WEHRMAN: It was all true, but the publishing - the publisher's attorney said, you better call this fiction or you're going to get in trouble.
CONAN: I see. Names were changed to protect the innocent?
WEHRMAN: Or the guilty, one of the two. And if you look at the Tim O'Brien books, like "The Things They Carried," that's labeled as fiction probably for the same reasons. I'm guessing, but perhaps.
CONAN: Yeah. I've had the chance to talk with Tim about that book, and yeah, I think you're probably right.
WEHRMAN: So I found that the writing - first, it was really scary, because I kept thinking, my God, was that - was the blood on that guy green or was it red or, you know, how many legs did he have missing, and all that. That was really scary. A very uncomfortable theory for a long time that later on I came to realize that it is the best thing I could have done.
CONAN: And did you go back and talk with some of the guys you served with, or look back up records and that sort of thing?
WEHRMAN: Yes, I did. Actually, I'm still in touch with a few folks. I see them every now and then. We go fishing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Something nice and quiet.
WEHRMAN: And they - the funniest part is that, you know how - in the news, they've been talking about by-witness memory, and all of that. We all agreed that none of us remembered exactly the same, the various incidents that we were all put through. And some of them were, of course, very heinous and scary and all, and no one remembered things precisely.
CONAN: But your memory, your recollection is the one that's going to be read by other people.
WEHRMAN: That's right. And it has been. And it's actually doing really well. I didn't write it for money or fame or glory. I wrote it because my psychologist said: You've got to face your demons.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: That's a good line. I'll have to remember that. Bob, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
WEHRMAN: Thank you.
CONAN: As - Mark Bowden, you teach writing. Are the students, for the most part, doing it for trying to make a career as writers?
BOWDEN: I get a mix. I always tell my students that to learn to write is - ought to be an ambition in and of itself. Some people may manage to make a career writing. Most of my students probably won't, but I want them to take something away from the class that they can use that will help them throughout their lives. I tell them, if you can organize a good argument on - in an essay on a piece of paper, you're going to be better at arguing with your wife.
CONAN: Let's see if we could get a caller in. This is Lara, Lara with us from Salt Lake City.
LARA: Yes. Hi. Can you hear me all right?
CONAN: Yeah. You're on the air. Go ahead.
LARA: So I had an experience, when I got back from Afghanistan last year, there was this new magazine in Salt Lake called Edible Wasatch, and it's about food in the local area. And it's sort of a stretch, but my experience in Afghanistan - I'm a civil affairs sergeant, so it was very much involved with the people. And the culture in Afghanistan is - well, it's not like it's food-based, but food is an important part of it. And so I had a lot of really good experiences with Afghans surrounding food. And so I pitched this story to Edible Wasatch, and they accepted it, and I wrote it. And it published in the spring this year.
And the whole experience was - it surprised me how important that was to me, like, it was very therapeutic, and it was a lot harder than I expected it to be. But it was good for me. And then they actually got feedback from soldiers in the area, thanking them for running the story. And actually, a soldier from my unit read it. I didn't tell my unit that I had done that, but they found out about it, and they really appreciated it. So what he's doing is great, your guest.
CONAN: That's wonderful. And as you were writing the story, did you work out some emotions, do you think?
LARA: Yeah. I think I did. It was hard, and actually even - I'm not really happy with the story myself. Like, I got good feedback about it, but it was almost more therapeutic than it was to do the writing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BOWDEN: You're a real writer.
LARA: Yeah. I hope. I don't know. So...
BOWDEN: Well, if you're a real writer, you see the things that are wrong with it, not the things that are good with it. And that what makes you keep getting better.
LARA: Oh. Well, if that's the - I guess that's maybe how it's just going to be.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LARA: Thanks for what you're doing. That's really awesome.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. There are some stories that do - as that first caller's book about Vietnam suggests, it takes some time to percolate through before somebody is ready to write. You think about E.B. Sledge's great book "With the Old Breed" that was not published until, I guess, what, 30 years after his experiences in the Pacific. Yet, I guess, sometimes a fresh recollection is good, too.
BOWDEN: Absolutely. I mean, Karl Marlantes' novel, "Matterhorn," about Vietnam, took him 35 years to write. He was a decorated Marine captain in Vietnam, and that is a story that deals with battle and very traumatic things. But like your previous caller suggested, not everyone's - in fact, I might even argue most soldiers' experiences are not necessarily traumatic and difficult. Many people who serve come out with - feeling very good about themselves, feeling very good about what they've accomplished. And, you know, and sometimes they have stories to tell that are quite uplifting, as even a good story about a traumatic event can be.
But I guess my point is just that there is a broad range of both people and stories out there, and I look forward, whenever I can, to reading them.
CONAN: We're talking with Mark Bowden, who's one of the judges in the Missouri Warrior Writers Project. He'll be judging the non-fiction category. You can find out how to enter the competition, if you'd like, through a link at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And let's go next to Ryan, Ryan with us from Hazel Green in Wisconsin.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYAN: Hey, thanks for taking my call. I'm an Iraq war veteran, Army veteran. I was part of the invasion in '03, and then another year of patrol in downtown Baghdad. When I came back, I had PTSD pretty bad. I still do. I held it together for a little while, and I quickly ended up going to a VA hospital, the North Chicago Veterans Hospital, the VA.
And there, they have a music therapy program, expressive therapy where you use music to start feeling better. And I started doing that. I started playing guitar and singing in front of other veterans. And eventually, that led me actually writing songs about my experiences in Iraq. And I actually - I recorded them all, and I made a CD. The CD is called "Embrace the Suck," which is a - an old Army adage that means that you love, you know - you got to embrace it when things suck. And so I put a lot of - I got all of those songs together, and, you know, it's really painful to play them, you know, and really painful to write them. But once I got them out and once I played them a bit, I found I didn't need to play them anymore. And a whole of these things that I experienced had less of effect - had less of a hold on me.
I can't tell you how much good I've gotten from writing these things out and getting out and telling it to somebody else. If you have other listeners out there that are on the fence, other combat veterans that are on the fence about whether or not this kind of thing is a good idea, I can tell you firsthand that I'm probably, you know, I don't think I'd be here on the Earth if I hadn't found this with - program with the VA and started doing this. It's - this kind of thing does a world of good for combat vets, and I applaud your guest there for doing this.
CONAN: Ryan, thanks very much for the call, and good luck with the CD.
RYAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is CJ, CJ with us from San Antonio.
CJ: Hi. I just wanted to ask you this. I served in the military, but I didn't serve overseas. And I have a unique experience that I worked with all men, and a lot of people thought that I should write about my experience. But my question is: Has it helped or hindered others who have wrote about this?
CONAN: Well, Mark Bowden, what's your experience as a writer yourself and as a teacher of writing?
BOWDEN: Well, I guess the question is really whether writing about it would help or hinder you personally, or society at large. I mean, writing about it may - and this is always true when you write a story from your own experience - may create issues in your own life with those that you're writing about, because you're offering, you know, your interpretation of that experience. And they may not like the way you see things.
But in a larger perspective, it's extremely beneficial for society at large to hear these stories if you had, in fact, difficulty dealing in your service with men. I mean, that's - those are lessons that the Army needs to learn - if it was the Army in which you served - or the, you know, the military at large needs to learn. So in that sense, it's a service, and a very positive one.
CONAN: What do you think? What do you think, CJ?
CJ: Maybe one day I'll write about it. I - honestly, I don't think that the - I don't think the military in general really accepts the role of women, not only on a high level, but at the low level. It's very split. I had great experiences with some of the people that I worked for, and very negative experiences with those who really felt that women did not belong there.
CONAN: Well, we wish you good luck whenever that one day arrives.
CJ: All right. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And Mark Bowden, thank you very much for your time today.
BOWDEN: You're welcome, Neal. I just want to say that you - I've been given far too much credit for this program, here. It's the Missouri Humanities who have - who are sponsoring it, and they're really doing all the work.
CONAN: And the deadline for the competition is December 30th. And, again, there's information on how to enter, if you'd like to do that, at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Mark Bowden is the author of "Black Hawk Down" and the forthcoming book "Worm: The First Digital World War."
We'll be back with you again on Monday to talk about "The New Kids," a book that follows a number of immigrants attending high school in Brooklyn, plus, baseball analyst Bill James with a review of the new movie "Moneyball" that comes out tomorrow.
This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.