BARRY WILLDORF: bring the war home!
Sat Feb 26 11, San Francisco
Why Activists Should Study Fiction: Lessons from Bring the War Home!
I can’t recommend Barry Willdorf’s Bring the War Home! as a piece of literature. But I can recommend it. I can recommend it for anyone who has been an activist and is trying to write fiction. I can especially recommend it for anyone who is about to go into activism, regardless of their interest in fiction. Because by reading it, and by watching the legally trained Willdorf, as the novel progresses, learn to understand how to best tell the protagonist Eric Wolfe’s story, you can learn a lot about the enormous gap between the way a novelist and a lawyer sees the world. It becomes very clear very soon that activists need the skills of novelists just as much if not more than they need the talents of lawyers.
This isn’t to say the book reads like a legal brief, or that it’s a failure. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of a lawyer working in Camp Pendleton to defend active-duty Marines. Shortly before he took that job, the house he was supposed to be working in was machine-gunned by pro-war activists. I briefly worked with vets, but I never did anything even remotely as brave as he, nor as extreme. It’s hard to imagine any book with this kind of story as a failure.
To top it off, Willdorf was struggling with one of the biggest problems that have ever faced writers: how do you convey the left-wing activist mind? How does one capture a logic that is convoluted, rational to the point of absurdity and self-deluding while also being, in general, the closest thing to a just worldview that the protagonist, the author, and this reviewer can imagine? And then, to make things more complicated, how do you do that artfully?
At first, Willdorf’s answer was a little too simple. He tried to explain all the complexities of the anti-war movement through legal-sounding expository dialogue. “As long as there is a draft and young men know they are going to be forced into some military organization or another,” Eric’s wife Emma explains to a reverend they’re trying to recruit to their cause, “then there is no truly, noncoercive volunteering going on.” As it is, as dialogue, in this scene, this information about a legal problem many Marines faced—that they volunteered for a war they then wanted out of—seems cold and stilted and extraneous. It’s Willdorf the lawyer talking, and it’s awkward.
Sometimes, though, when the dialogue told a specific story, he was able to succeed in getting important information across without unnecessary exposition. Take, for example, the Eric’s story about getting out of serving in the military in his pre-induction physical. The story is told in three paragraphs of dialogue to a black GI Eric is trying to help. “Something short circuited,” he tells the GI, “I puffed up and yelled right back into (the doctor’s) shocked puss. ‘I’m not wearing any fucking underwear. What kind of doctor are you, anyway? Freakin out when you see a pair of balls and a dick?’” This scene conveys tons of information about the way the draft works, about Eric’s attitude, and about the sexual mores of the time. It’s an example of how a story can get the reader the information she needs without ever needing to explicitly tell the reader what’s going on. It’s Tim O’Brien’s advice in “How to Tell a True War Story,” but Eric never had to go to war.
But then, when the GI says, “all you white boys gotta do to get out of the service is to yell at the fucking man,” Eric—and Willdorf—revert to a form of expository thinking that does not belong in a novel. “Woods putting my experience in a racial perspective,” he writes, “caused me to wonder about just how many of my experiences I had simply accepted at face value.”
Is this a valid concern for someone to have in this situation? Yes. But the reader should already be thinking this, should already hear this tension in Eric’s words and the way he’s holding himself and his actions. They should be having this epiphany on their own. A novel should lead the reader to its theme, not tell them what it is.
The novel’s strongest point is it’s climax, when Eric gets a deserter named Jumpin Jack the opportunity to tell his story on the record in front of a court-martial. Jack’s story is absolutely devastating, in the best possible way. The Marine—despite the prosecutor’s attempts to keep all testimony relevant to the desertion charge—tells the story of how he committed a war crime by jumping on a VC prisoner’s torso until his guts exploded, while a young VC watched to get some intelligence. “I can feel the air go out of him. Stuff explodes out of his mouth and ass. Shoots up at me like a geyser, and for a minute I’m not sure what it is.” This all masterfully conveyed the terror of war through the details of war, and the full story also lets us know all about the tunnels and the torture and fear and the social expectations of these Marines without actually laying it all out for us in so many words. In this section, this novel is doing everything that a novel should do. And as a result, it is so much more effective in relaying the horrors of war and racism and hatred and the pitfalls of the justice system. So few words are needed, and we can still feel it and hear it and smell it. And now we want to know what we can do to stop something like this from ever happening again. Now we will listen to long explanations.
And while this is a great lesson for every writer, this is especially a great lesson for every political activist. If we want to change minds, if we want to communicate the evils of imperialism and homophobia and racism and misogyny and capitalism, we need to stop using the words homophobia and racism and imperialism and misogyny and capitalism, at least at first. What wins people over is stories, specific stories, stories that bring home the terror of the time in which we live. Bring the War Home! helped bring that lesson home for me. I hope it can do the same for you.
Seth, great piece. Very timely.
Smart piece. Reminds me of something I read, I think it was Stephen Elliott, that said we as writers have the capacity for empathy. I think that empathy is what motivates my activism and what gives me fodder for my writing. But I have learned now through some extensive market research that the people that are not in the choir the largely contested middle they need messaging that is more main stream. This last year I have had to forget everything I thought I knew about grassroots communication. Your review points this out beautifully. The first thing that I need to do is have a villain with a face. We are such good story tellers but as activists not so much. The best example I learned from this was greenpeace. Before greenpeace whales had a really bad rap. Think about it. Moby Dick. Pinnochio. Whales looked big and evil. Then Greenpeace came along and they looked helpless and on their way to extinction and the whalers were in these big huge scary whale killing boats that had no tenderness to it at all. So yes as an activists we do a good job talking about BIG Business and OIL Companies but what does that look like? Who do they hurt?
I agree with just about everything Seth said, except that really, really, really, we talked that way. We said those things to people in our crazy hyper-intellectual, analytical ways because we all thought we ought to sound like Lenin or Mao delivering a diatribe and so our thinking became stilted. I know, I know it wasn’t quite literary, but I was really trying to be accurate about it. Seth’s visceral reaction mirrored the kind of responses we got to our organizing techniques. So, there is that lesson to be learned as well.
Glad you liked the guts of it though.
Yes, I really learned a lot from that book. And believe me, I know about really talking like that — well not like that, exactly, but talking the language of politics. I worked for politicians for four years of my life (which I’m told I’ll never get back, but here’s to hoping.) My point, I think, was that if the goal is to use fiction to immerse the reader in the world, you have to make changes to what really happened sometimes to do that in the best way possible.
Hope to meet you sometime around town!