May 12 2010 12:00 AM

Three authors discuss war as a literary topic


“War — what is it good for?” Edwin Starr may have not gotten an answer to his famous rhetorical lyric of the 1960s, but three writers who have written about war and who have Michigan connections will use their insight to attempt to answer why writers have been fascinated by war since the beginning of time.

Philip Caputo, author of “A Rumor of War”; Doug Stanton, author of “Horse Soldiers”; and actor, photographer and essayist Benjamin Busch will discuss “Writing War” in a Michigan Humanities Council authors’ homecoming event 8 p.m., Tuesday, May 18, at Hannah Community Center in East Lansing.

In recent conversations with the authors they agreed the world never seems to tire of war, whether it’s books and movies about war, or playing video games with war themes. They know of what they speak.

Caputo, in his definitive memoir of the time he spent as a Marine Lieutenant as a member of the initial Expeditionary Brigade sent into Vietnam in 1965, was one of the first authors to write about the experiences of foot soldiers in the Vietnam War. Caputo said he landed in Vietnam at a time when the public barely had a clue about the war. According to Caputo, “Most needed to have a map to know where Vietnam was.”

Many writers had written the gutsand-glory war novels before Caputo, but Caputo brought a freshness to capturing not only the terror of combat, the camaraderie of soldiers facing death and the randomness of death, but also to the ambiguities of warfare and killing. Caputo and two others from his command were among the first charged with killing civilians, but they were later exonerated.

Although Stanton is, as he points out, a civilian the author has written two New York Times best sellers about war and its aftermath. His most recent book, “The Horse Soldiers,” is an intimate look at the Special Forces Unit sent into Afghanistan immediately following 9/11.

Stanton’s strength is his keen ability, as an outside observer, to ask all the right questions of the soldiers. “In Harm’s Way,” his book about the sinking of the U.S. Indianapolis, retells the ghastly tale of the survivors of the ship that delivered the atomic bomb.

Stanton who lives in Traverse City, recently returned to Afghanistan on a NATO tour.

Ben Busch also knows of what he writes. Busch served two tours of duties in Iraq, where he was in intense combat as a Marine major commanding the 4th Company Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. He is completing a memoir of his time in the corps. While in Iraq he created a body of photographs and launched exhibits of his pictures of the war.

Busch, who lives in Reed City, was also an actor in the HBO series “The Wire” and “Generation Kill,” which was about the Iraq war. For him, it was a little otherworldly being on the set of a movie about a war he in which he fought.

So why does war play so big in our literary imagination? And why do so many writers walk down that path?

“The randomness of death in war is very dramatic,” said Busch.

Caputo puts it this way: “It is the most engaged-in human activity, after sex. It is inherently dramatic: War brings clarity to your vision of what a person is.”

All three authors point to Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” as a memorable book about war. Like Hemingway, each of the writers examines how war leaves an indelible mark on a soldier’s life and possibly on their souls.

Caputo particularly delved into that issue of soul and psyche in his book “Indian Country,” which details the postwar life of a Vietnam veteran
suffering from post-traumatic stress in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“I was haunted by a guy who was so gripped by the experience of war and so alienated by it that he would go out in the middle of nowhere and talk about the ghost he couldn’t get out of his head,” Caputo said.

Stanton often wonders why Iraq and Afghanistan have not inspired great war fiction of the likes of “Catch-22” or “Slaughterhouse Five.” Caputo reassures Stanton those books are yet to come.

“It’s too close to those wars,” he says. He predicts it will be about 2020 before the next great war literature will be published.

Caputo says “Rumor” was not published until 1977, Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” until 1990 and the great World War I literature didn’t begin appearing until the 1920s and 1930s.

It’s almost understandable Caputo and Busch would write about war. But Stanton applies an outsider’s viewpoint and a very detailed approach to looking at warriors he has described as “Peace Corps workers who can shoot back.”

He sees his writing as being similar to Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff ” in that regard: “I want to know who they are, besides soldiers.”

After their combat tours, both Busch and Caputo may have been willing to sing the refrain of Edwin Starr. Although Caputo became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War neither writer claims to be anti-war. Both, however, question how their war was waged and if it was worth the death of their fellow combat veterans.

O’Brien — whose other books include the Vietnam-set "Going after Cacciato," writes about how he answers his young daughter when she asks him what he was doing in Vietnam.

“What did you want?” she asks.

He can only answer, “To stay alive.”

’Writing War:

Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam’

Doug Stanton, Philip Caputo and Benjamin Busch 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 18
Hannah Community Center 819 Abbott Road, East Lansing $5 for adults;
$50 for reception with the authors Advance registration required ( 517) 372-7770