Peter Molin, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and professor of English at West Point, published a post this week on his outstanding Time Now blog on the difference between “cooked” and “raw” war literature. And before I forget, if you aren’t tracking Time Now, hit the link and add it to your favorites. His posts are the smartest critical thought on war literature that you can find anywhere on the Interwebz.
I’ve had the pleasure of emailing a few times with Pete, and he’s a smart guy with informed opinions about the nature of war stories. His latest post was a great look on some recent war-related stories to hit the wire. Task and Purpose ran an article on what makes service members natural storytellers, Warhorse ran an essay provocatively titled “The Redemptive Power of Lying”, and Humans of New York featured several veteran narratives. All are very different takes on veteran storytelling, but Molin does a great job of breaking down what they represent by framing them within Claude Levi-Strauss’s concept of “raw” vs. “cooked” art.
The metaphor is fairly self-explanatory, and Molin explicitly avoids placing inherent value to either. To him, they’re reference points that help us understand how to evaluate war literature. For example, American Sniper would be a “raw” piece, versus Redeployment, which is most decidedly “cooked.” The former focuses on tough aspects of combat, the familiar “war is hell” tropes; the latter is more careful, considerate, and complex.
Molin’s take is decidedly cooked (in a good way), and complicated my own opinions on war literature. I consisted for years on a steady diet of raw war writing. They are stories that captivate the imagination and have wide popular appeal, but the same simplicity that made those books great reads eventually frustrated me. Namely because I could not find a way to frame my own experiences in the same way. And if I couldn’t do that, I had to wonder if my experience was worth writing at all.
Cooked war writing taught me there was a lot of room for narratives not dominated by battle and carnage. But in doing so, I may have shortchanged the value of the raw stuff. Looking back on a lifetime of war literature, it’s hard to imagine being able to capture the full range of the wartime experience without having consumed both. Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust will never be as widely read as the shoot-em-up stuff. But I don’t think I could write about war without both.
49 Writers board member Matthew Komatsu is just trying to find a balance. You can watch him flail on Twitter (@matthew_komatsu) if you like.