War is life’s greatest conflict and the ultimate form of competition.
War is life’s greatest conflict and the ultimate form of competition. As such, it continues to provide writers with a fertile field for examining the always intriguing complexities of human nature. Warfare is often railed against, and on occasion it has been chic to view it as obsolete. In the overall scheme of things, however, war has generally managed to remain popular. Indeed, the noted philosophers Will and Ariel Durant once calculated that in the past 3,000 years only 268 of those years have been free of war. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that wars have provided grist for some of the world’s most enduring literature.
Literature that focuses on war recognizes how war affects human behavior through characters created in literature.
Organized armies have fought against each other for at least ten thousand years. Either at war or in anticipation of war, military infrastructures have played a key role in the organization of human societies. The earliest civilizations of China, for example, were established by organized armies.
Accounts of the earliest conflicts were preserved in song and story through oral tradition, often setting warfare in a
The earliest literary work in the Western tradition to deal with war is found in the
The adopted nephew of Charlemagne, the knight Roland, and his bosom friend Oliver, together with their valiant comrades, sacrifice their lives to protect Charlemagne’s army by defending the pass at Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees Mountains in 778
Among Germanic peoples, one of the most influential works of literature was the
By the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the literature of war had begun to depart from the reliance on mythology found in earlier literature and to concern itself more with historical reality. The topic of war continues to provide an opportunity for writers to speak of glory, honor, and courage, but with increasing fidelity to the background against which the story is set.
As world civilizations advanced in age and (especially) technology, these achievements were reflected in world conflicts. Wars increasingly expanded their sphere of impact. Increasingly, battles were no longer confined to unpopulated areas. Accordingly, literature sought to keep pace with the evolution of modern warfare. Although the heroic values present in the literature of ancient and medieval wars was still to be found in literature the realism, the suffering and horror of war became increasingly evident.
As warfare evolved into the so-called modern period, writers sought to present their subjects more realistically. Literary characters provided the opportunity and the voice to reveal a more accurate portrayal of the grim horrors found on the battlefield. In literature as in real life, war as a glorious confrontation of chivalric honor was now depicted as a bloody crucible of suffering and death.
Novels, plays, and poems increasingly began to address not only the external events of war but also the soldier’s personal experience of such traumatic events, from courage to cowardice. In
In his 1929 novel of
Two other haunting and memorable literary statements to emerge from World War I are Lieutenant Colonel
World War I and its fierce trench warfare gave rise to what a group of writers called “the lost generation”; they not only depicted the horror of war but also questioned its value and necessity as a means of resolving disputes between nations. In his novel
The original 1929 front jacket cover for Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
Satire and comedy have been used in many modern works to depict and condemn war. Critique of war becomes an outright condemnation in
Barlow, Adrian. The Great War in British Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Elucidates the different ways that World War I has been used in British literature and how that literature has impacted people. Berkvam, Michael L. Writing the Story of France in World War II: Literature and Memory, 1942-1958. New Orleans: University Press of the South, 2000. Looks at the works of literature that portray French life during World War II, after the fall of Paris, showing that not all French resisted the Germans and many later wrote about it. Chakravarty, Prasanta. “Like Parchment in the Fire”: Literature and Radicalism in the English Civil War. New York: Routledge, 2006. Uses the literature of English sects during the Civil War to outline the roots of what would later be called liberalism. Dawes, James. The Language of War: Literature and Culture in the U.S. from the Civil War Through World War II. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Analyzes the ties between language and violence, looking at how words frame the experience and understanding of war. Griffin, Martin. Ashes of the Mind: War and Memory in Northern Literature, 1865-1900. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009. Uses the literature of three northern poets and two writers of fiction to investigate the social memory of war and its place in cementing national values. Jones, Kathryn N. Journeys of Remembrance: Memories of the Second World War in French and German Literature, 1960-1980. London: Legenda, 2007. Focuses on the memory of the Holocaust in the literature of France, West Germany, and East Germany during 1960-1980. Mickenberg, Julia. Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Examines a specific genre of children’s books during the 1920’s-1960’s that went against the Cold War rhetoric to teach so-called radical viewpoints, many of which are now mainstream. Natter, Wolfgang. Literature at War, 1914-1940: Representing the “Time of Greatness” in Germany. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Ties German literature about World War I to the rise of a military ethos that persisted through the German defeat and helped prepare the ground for Adolf Hitler’s rise and World War II. Phillips, Kathy J. Manipulating Masculinity: War and Gender in Modern British and American Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. By using examples from the literature from World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq, this study illuminates how men are goaded into war mentality through the feminization of common traits. Taylor, Mark J. The Vietnam War in History, Literature, and Film. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003. Uses a case study approach in looking at five episodes during the Vietnam War to examine how returning veterans are regarded in film and literature.
Art and Warfare
Commemoration of War
Film and Warfare
Ideology and War
Music and Warfare
Religion and Warfare
Television and Warfare