Writing Down the Bones

Though the National Endowment for the Arts is in the business of funding art in all its variations, it's easy to forget the department belongs to the same government that has recently cut funding in areas from education to environmental protection – and arts – in order to finance the war in Iraq.

One of the NEA's recent projects, "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," is exercising this irony with literary intentions.

Operation Homecoming has coordinated with all four branches of the armed forces and the Department of Defense to sponsor writing workshops for returned troops and their families at military installations throughout the United States. These workshops have been taught by famous writers, poets, historians and journalists, from Tom Clancy to Tobias Wolff. The ultimate goal is for military personnel and their families to submit work to an anthology (which shares the same name as the program) to be published in spring of 2006. The focus is on troops who have served either in Iraq under Operation Desert Storm, in Afghanistan or in the current Iraq conflict.

The anthology will be edited, pro-bono, by Andrew Carroll. Carroll is the director of the Legacy Project, a national initiative that encourages Americans to seek out and preserve wartime correspondence before these letters (and e-mails) are lost or destroyed.

Since the U.S. seems hell-bent on keeping war a part of history, ad infinitum, the question remains to be seen if a project of this nature can help to exorcise some of the trauma of war that, especially in the last four years, is contributing to a new generation of war veterans. "One cannot tell the story of our nation without also telling the story of our wars," writes Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA, in the project's media kit.

Lt. James Habeck works in security forces for the Air Force. "We're the guys who defend the air," he said. Habeck is 34 years old and has been in the military for most of his adult life, sixteen and a half years. He was deployed in Operation Desert Storm and, most recently, returned from Iraq in early September. He and his wife – who is also in active military duty – have a four-year-old son.

Habeck attended the workshop led by writer Larry Smith and actor Stephen Lang at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska on Nov. 22.

"I heard about it on NPR and wanted to participate because I thought it was a great way to take the letters I'd written to my wife and compile them," he said.

He went in without expectations, motivated as much by meeting the actor Lang, (who starred in the movie "Gods and Generals," which had a "profound impact" on Habeck's life), as to get direction on archiving his letters.

Though Habeck found the workshop "enjoyable" and felt as though the teachers provided fresh ways to approach documenting the wartime experience, it wasn't until the weekend after the workshop that the first powerful writing happened for him.

"I went to visit my parents that weekend and some memories of while I was in Iraq came up for me. I started writing. It isn't exactly therapeutic, but when you see things on paper you don't want to talk about, it sort of makes them okay. Writing gives you the luxury to come to terms with your experiences," he said.

Just because a dramatic event took place in wartime, doesn't mean it will translate into a dramatic literary creation, but Habeck found himself surprised by the poetic potential of some writing that occurred around one memory in particular.

"I remember I was working with the Army, stationed just outside the Sunni Triangle [in Iraq]. I had to go up north, where dangerous work was going on. I came back to camp exhausted and I smelled perfume for the first time in months. After getting used to gunpowder, dirt and oil, it just made me stop and miss my wife, and miss home. I ran through the tents looking for who was wearing it. It was a powerful juxtaposition for me, the softness of it. It's funny but it gave me a sense of hope, reminded me that this was just one corner of the world where terrible things are happening," said Habeck.

Richard Bausch, a professor of English at George Mason University and the author of "Good Evening Mr. & Mrs. America" and "Hello to the Cannibals," among others, taught a workshop in June at Fort Drum Army Base in Watertown, New York.

"[The workshop] was exhilarating," he said. "There was a wide range of expression. I even worked with a group of wives of soldiers who were deployed. Whenever writing reaches a level of truth, there is surprise for the writer – it's the single most trustworthy thing about the craft and the act."

Both Bausch and Habeck agree that, though writing about war is cathartic, it doesn't necessarily serve as therapy.

"This is a war. [The workshop students] all had lost comrades and were, most of them, going back into the line of fire. They talked about how it was, and how long it had been since they had seen their families, and how badly they missed their loved ones," said Bausch. "But they were not complaining either. They were writing about it truly, and being faithful to the truth of their experiences."

"I think it's great that this program recognizes that people in the military have feelings about what we're going through. We don't have much chance to be creative or to share these things," said Habeck.

It remains to be seen just how cheerfully the government will encourage soldiers to write about experiences that do not support the efforts of war or the current administration's policies.

"Looking at the great literary legacy of solider writers from antiquity to the present, I cannot help expect that important new writers will emerge from the ranks of our latest veterans," writes Gioia.

One can certainly hope so.

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