Monday, September 15, 2008

On writing a war novel - Part 2

After laboring for a year and a half on a novel about the war in Iraq I discovered that neither I nor anyone else could really capture in words what the experience was like. The problem, simply, is that for the reader to understand even the most common conversations that we had would require untold pages of explanation. Let me give some examples.

A lot of this was revealed to me when my friend edited the first draft of my novel. She had no experience with the military (which was good - I was writing for a general and not a military audience). The military is obviously a very hierarchical organization and for those familiar with military rank a colonel means something completely different than a sergeant in that a colonel is older, better paid and most likely better educated (although in the Reserves there are many more exceptions to the educational difference.) My editor friend missed this, plus the nuances that a captain outranked a lieutenant but not a major.

The military is a separate culture from the civilian world but not everyone knows the tremendous cultural differences that exist between the Army and the Marines, or that the Army has a subculture called the Reserves that is a strange amalgam of civilian soldiers. Take this sociological soup and drop us into the Middle East as an Army unit attached to a Marine organization and the fun begins.

The Marines had their own jargon and ways of doing business that was different from what we were accustomed. The U.S. military in Iraq invented new acronyms and code words that were critical to understanding everyday conversations. The reports we read were filled with confusing Iraqi geography, providing descriptions of events in a multitude of cities when our knowledge extended to a vague idea of the location of Baghdad and Basra.

Thus, our everyday work conversation was filled with terms and concepts that are alien to the average citizen. These alien terms had and still have an emotional impact for me whenever I hear them: Tampa, Anaconda, Cedar, Nasiriyah, and Highway 8. If I were to spend all my time explaining, the reader would lose interest.

The task that I set for myself in writing a novel about the war is translating the entire experience into English. As always in such cases, something is lost in the translatiion.

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