On November 11, America will pause to honor all those who have served in its Armed Forces. Veterans Day as we know it was established in 1954, when Congress changed the name of Armistice Day and broadened its definition—what had been primarily a celebration of World War I vets was redefined as a day dedicated to all military veterans.
Here at HPB, we’re thankful for all who’ve donned the uniform to fight for our country. But being the bookish types we are, we thought it’d be interesting to consider a few of the great American writers who spent time in the military. Most of these authors wrote about their war experience, and it’s safe to say that all of them were shaped by it in profound ways. The writer Norman Mailer called it the worst experience of his life but also the most valuable.
The novelist of Catch-22 fame joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at age 19, shortly after America entered World War II. He was sent to the Mediterranean island of Corsica, and from there flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier. After the war, Heller went to college on the G.I. Bill and worked as an advertising copywriter before the publication of Catch-22 established him in the literary world. The satirical novel, published in 1961, is decidedly anti-war, but it has been used by the U.S. Air Force Academy to teach about the dangers of bureaucracy. Heller even appeared at the Academy in 1986 for a celebration of the book’s 25th anniversary.
The famously private novelist and short story writer J.D. Salinger was drafted into the Army in 1942. As a member of the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, he participated in the D-Day landings at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. As part of a counter-intelligence unit, the young writer interrogated POWs and helped liberate a concentration camp. The violence and horror of war took a toll on Salinger, and a deep sense of loss would pervade much of his work, seen in the world-weariness of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, and in the depressed servicemen of short stories like “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” Biographer David Shields called WWII the “secret subtext” of Salinger’s entire body of work.
Vonnegut dropped out of Cornell University to enlist as an Army private in 1943. He was captured by Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned in a Dresden slaughterhouse. When Dresden was bombed by the Allies, Vonnegut survived by taking refuge in a meat locker, and after the attack he was forced, along with other POWs, to help gather the city’s dead for a mass burial. He was eventually liberated by Russian Army soldiers and was awarded the Purple Heart. His antiwar novel Slaughterhouse-Five was based on his experiences and made him a countercultural hero during the Vietnam years.
Best known as the memoirist behind This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff joined the Army after being expelled from high school. He was trained as a member of the Special Forces and was sent to Vietnam as an adviser in 1967. His Army service is the subject of his 1994 memoir In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War, in which he writes: “I was inclined to regard every day I got through alive as a close call. I knew I could be killed at any moment, in any number of ways, randomly in the general mayhem or at the particular wish of the Vietcong who were everywhere around us… So while it might have been fainthearted of me to picture the days ahead as a long minefield, and the days behind as a series of reprieves, it was also perfectly accurate.”
Will any major writers emerge from our current-day military conflicts? Time will tell, but Phil Klay, born in 1983, is one to watch. His first book, the short story collection Redeployment, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014. A New York native, Klay joined the Marines after graduating from Dartmouth College and served as a Public Affairs Officer in Anbar province during the Iraq troop surge of 2007. In a 2014 opinion piece in the New York Times, Klay wrote: “Veterans need an audience that is both receptive and critical. Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility—it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain. You don’t honor someone by telling them, ‘I can never imagine what you’ve been through.’ Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels.”
Mark is Art Director at Half Price Books Corporate.