Yesterday I was talking with one of my former poli-sci professors and our conversation eventually got around to the topic of military history. I explained to him that military history is one of my particular interests. I also admitted to him that I like to write military fiction, WWII fiction especially—in fact the very first story I ever had published, in Geneva College’s literary magazine The Chimes, was about a squad of GIs in the Ardennes. He seemed a little surprised and he asked how I could write combat scenes, seeing as I’d never been in combat. He has—Vietnam and Eritrea. I don’t think he was being condescending. I think he was genuinely curious about the methodology I use to recreate something I’ve never experienced. But I still felt terribly presumptuous trying to explain how reading some books and watching some films authorized me to write about combat.
I hate the saying “write what you know”—I’ve said so before. But maybe I need to reconsider. How can I justify myself as a writer of military fiction? How can I talk to someone who’s actually been in combat and tell them, straight-faced, that I’m just as capable of telling a war story as they are—that I’m just as authorized to do so? There are things that make my writing voice unique and (hopefully) worthy, but without having actually been in combat myself how can I add anything meaningful to a dialogue about combat? It seems just as insensitive and indefensible as reading a few books on another culture and then undertaking to write as if I were an insider in that culture. I can speculate about the experience of combat, and maybe that’s valid—but is it really just as valid as a veteran’s experience?
In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien talks about the difference between “happening-truth” and “story-truth,” and about how story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth—but Tim O’Brien is a veteran, and he’s authorized to make those distinctions if he wants, because in the end he’s had those “happening-truth” experiences. I haven’t, and I’m not sure how my “story-truth” can speak to anybody who has.