Sep 232011


Writing a War Story

by Richard Farrell


For the better part of two years, I wrote a war story that wouldn’t come together. No matter how hard I tried, the damned thing refused to work.  It’s not that I spent six-hundred days toiling away at the same pages like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, though at times it did feel that way. No, my devotion to this story meandered over those two years. I would chip away at it for a few weeks, abandon it for a while, and then come back to it. I deleted scenes and added new ones. I switched from a first-person narrator to cascading, multiple third-person points of view. I changed the title, the main characters, the setting, the tone. Every so often I sought help, from  my writing group, from workshops and from trusted grad school advisors. The consensus was always the same: the story floundered.

But I couldn’t let it go.

I was writing about the firebombing of Tokyo, a particularly horrific incendiary attack by U.S. bombers in March of 1945. The ensuing firestorm was more grisly, more deadly even, than the atomic bombs that were later dropped. It is estimated that over 100,000 people died in a single night. Shadows of the dead were burned into sidewalks. Downtown Tokyo was obliterated.  Many consider it to be the deadliest day in history. The target of the attack was not Japan’s munitions factories, electrical grids or coke ovens; it was not enemy harbors or troops or barracks; the target was the citizenry of Tokyo, non-combatants, women and children.

Mother and daughter after raid on Tokyo. (Note: This famous photo is often associated with atomic attacks. Either way, the impact is obvious.)

Almost as troubling as the stark reality of this raid is the fact that the firebombing of Tokyo rarely warrants more than a footnote in the history books. I was (and am) both fascinated and terrified by the casual way we forget these things.

Still, these were only facts, and none of them made for a good war story. I wanted to understand why.

 In Tim O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story,” he writes:

A war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of the story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

I had violated this concept right out of the gate. I imposed opinions, suggested models of behavior, and bore no allegiance to evil. But wouldn’t anyone have wanted to salvage some bits of rectitude, some smoldering fragments of humanity, from the char of history? There had to have been a moral to the story, though hardly a simple one. Wasn’t it my job as the writer to render some judgment and to extract meaning? O’Brien didn’t seem to think so.

Author’s Grandfather, Lt. Col. Norman Tisdell

My late grandfather fought in the Pacific in World War II. He was not a flier, but he would tell me war stories when I was a kid. We would sit together in his living room for hours and he would talk about what he had seen and done. His stories were somber, serious, often funny, and always fascinating. He’d witnessed kamikaze attacks, seen  captured “jap” pilots begging for cigarettes, and heard torpedoes whistling below the keel. No one in my life had yet privileged me with these kinds of intimate memories. They profoundly influenced my decision to join the military. They very much ignited in me a yearning to understand war.

 Toward the end of WWII, as the US “island hopping” campaign pushed west toward Japan itself, there was uncertainty about how to conclude the war. One allied plan called for a massive amphibious invasion of Japan, a kind of “D-Day West.” I distinctly remember my grandfather talking about this. He was involved in the planning. Upwards of a million American casualties were expected in the massive assault. Surely this alone more than justified reigning fire on the cities, he told me. Surely the Americans were the good guys. I believed in this for a long time, and I still wonder about it today.  He never specifically mentioned the raid on Tokyo. He never talked about killing women and children.

Later, I verified many of the things my grandfather told me: the expected U.S. casualties, the prohibitive cost of such an amphibious landing on Japan, the bloody destruction and the long journey to peace. The desire to avoid incredible American losses did play into the decision to bomb rather than to invade Japan. But I also learned that U.S war planners considered burning the “paper cities” of Japan as far back as the late 1930’s. I learned that the doctrines of strategic air combat weighed the pros and cons of precision bombing versus indiscriminate attacks. I learned that Army Air Corps generals knew well about the flammable Japanese cities, how they bypassed legitimate targets, and how they aimed to inflict maximum ‘anti-morale’ losses on the enemy.  And all of this was planned long before any invasion forces were assembled. These contradictions were not easily resolved.

Still, I wasn’t writing history, I was trying to write fiction. I knew that writing a story about larger moral issues ran the risk of devolving into analysis and abstraction. O’Brien again:

In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe, ‘Oh’.”

One thing my story wasn’t yet doing was making anyone say, ‘Oh.’

I was not afraid to discard flawed stories. Robin Oliveira, a good friend and successful war story writer herself, once told me that a willingness to abandon stories helped her grow as a writer. She called them “practice stories.” She said any real writing I might do wouldn’t occur until after I was able to jettison some work in favor of newer, better stories.  But we writers cling to our words like kin. As hard as it was to hear Robin’s advice, and harder still to heed it, I learned to let go of bad stories. Buried on my hard drive today are many entombed,  forgotten tales that I suspect will never be opened again. (Why I don’t delete them is another question.)

So why couldn’t I abandon this one?

It wasn’t that the characters retained a strong pull on me. In fact, the characters in this story had changed names, changed jobs, and appeared and disappeared from the page with regularity. In one draft, a character might be the protagonist narrator and in the next a bit player. They lived, died, committed murder, and contemplated suicide; they piloted the bombers, wrote letters home, made toast, and watched the city burn. (I do, however, continue to hold a strong affection for my one-legged fighter pilot, Colonel Pike.) And it wasn’t the plot either which kept bringing me back, because it too evolved, dropped away, twisted like a river as I returned, again and again, to dredge the material. No, what I couldn’t let go of was this battle, this particular moment in the war which had so captivated and confused my imagination. I clung to it in spite of the mounting failures.

But this past spring, after two years of feckless writing, I finally decided to move on. I wanted to focus on stories which at least had a chance. I bid farewell to my war story. I decided that, while a useful exercise, it was a practice story, ultimately doomed. Good riddance, I said.

Then summer arrived and I returned to my day job of raising two kids. We frolicked on the beach, went to the zoo, the pool, the grocery store. We watched TV. It was blissful. My kids were finally old enough that the trauma of toddlerhood seemed like a distant battle. But I didn’t write much. I squeezed in a few hours each week, usually early mornings or evenings.  As friends and former classmates from grad school reported acceptance letters and book deals on their Facebook pages, I watched reruns of iCarly.

When September returned, I felt re-energized. The kids went off to school and I went off to write. Eager to work after a three-month hiatus, I plunged back in, hell-bent on trimming and tightening old stories, beginning new projects, reading again. The last thing on my mind was the war story. But after a few days, my enthusiasm hit a wall. Everything I worked on seemed stale. Nothing held my interest. Once again, I pulled open my war story. I didn’t choose it. It seemed to come after me.

So for the last three weeks, I’ve been at it again, wrestling with these characters, trying to create the specificity of drama within their individual desires and struggles. I remind myself to rely less on the battle and more on the men in my story. I am seeking an alliance with evil. I am trying not to moralize.

Is it improving? I’m honestly not sure. Sentence for sentence, I think it contains some of the best writing I’ve ever done. But in my heart, I know the story remains flawed. I suppose the more important question in all this is why I keep returning to this backdrop of war. My fascination with the event aside, if I’m totally honest, it’s probably a crutch. War generates instant conflict, instant ‘at-stakeness’ for almost every scene. Compared to the usual, peacetime domestic settings, battle makes for great drama. War is also a terrific place to gaze into the abyss, and damn if it isn’t fun to do some abyss gazing from time to time.

So my desk is littered with history books and war stories and a B-29 flight manual. I’m trying, once again, to make this story hum. I don’t know if I’ll get there any time soon. I have other projects that demand attention and revision. I probably shouldn’t be reading six-hundred page history books about strategic bombing or studying how to open cowl-flaps on Superfortress engines in order to prevent magnesium fires on takeoff.

I’ll close by returning to the eloquence of Tim O’Brien. He offers both an explanation and an insight into why I’m so committed to writing this war story. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, he might also suggest a pathway through:

The truths are contradictory.It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorous, the purply black glow of napalm, the rocket’s red glare. It’s not pretty exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference—a powerful implacable beauty—and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.”

Author in 1989

– Also see Douglas Glover’s “The Fine Art of Death and Dismemberment” about war writing.


Christy Clothier’s memoir excerpt, Trail of Breadcrumbs.

-Richard Farrell

 All quotes taken from “How to Tell a True War Story,” by Tim O’Brien, as found in Postmodern American Fiction, A Norton Anthology.  (New York:  W.W. Norton Company, 1996)

  12 Responses to “Writing a War Story: Essay — Richard Farrell”

  1. If it calls you…well, nothing to do but answer it. Pull together the random fragments worked and reworked. I’ll be the first in line to read it Rich!

  2. Thanks, Wendy. Maybe you can read the current draft (mess) and offer tips! 🙂

  3. I admire this line no end: “I was (and am) both fascinated and terrified by the casual way we forget these things.”

    And, of course, I remember that story, or something like it, in a much earlier incarnation. I don’t know. Maybe we all have stories like this; everything else we write is “instead of” the thing we are trying to write. In some ways this seems to be happening to you with all the rather good nonfiction you’re writing these days.

    Your direct line, through your grandfather, to the Pacific war is fascinating, as is the whole military side of your life and aesthetic. Being part of the notionally lefty, liberal art world, we tend to forget how much that side of things shapes the total American ethos.

    Thank you for posting this.

    • Since I began this story under your tutelage, If I ever get it finished, I’ll send you the next installment of my Talisker payment plan.

      Thanks for giving me a forum to work through these ideas and images.

  4. Thanks, Rich, for the mention. You did seem to argue, however, against my advice, which in the case of this story, seems like just the right thing to do. Did I never say if you’re haunted, you need to face the ghost? Maybe not. I think you said it, though, in this story, brilliantly.

    • Robin,

      You said so many wonderful things to me. It seems that facing our ghosts in an inevitable part of this process. They don’t like being ignored. Many of those ‘ghosts’ seem to be the experiences of other writers who have walked these same paths. Whoever said writing is a lonely profession was only half right. Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. Thanks for this, Rich. As I know nothing about the fire bombing of Tokyo, your novel would certainly be an illuminating read. It seems that some stores just take a lot longer to tell. Maybe it’s a matter of finding the right structure or approach. Then everything you’ve struggled over for so long can finally come together in a new way. I hope this happens for you. And I love the O’Brien quote about the terrible beauty of war, those flashes of colour and pattern.

  6. Kim,

    Structure is exactly it! Trying to build the urn to get a vessel for the water (or so said Robert Vivian via Rumi…seems like Cleanth Brooks wrote a book about that too.) It’s the water we desire, the emotional truth or the ineffable life force that good writing allows us to feel, but as a writer, all we can manage to do is work with the sructure to hold that water. To build the urn. Anyway, I think you’re spot on to say that’s why the story keeps changing.
    And yes, O’Brien’s writing is something else. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. Rich, I’d be curious to see how this obsession finds its way into your other stories—even if only in tone or sentiment rather than content or form. Though I also believe it behooves writers to abandon “bad stories,” it seems senseless to try to ignore our obsessions. Like you said, it’s the obsession that seeks us out, not the other way around, and at some point we simply need to surrender to them (horrible pun not intended). Perhaps all we can do is write through our obsessions until they get bored with us, leaving artists to continuously fail until we achieve a distance great enough to provide the hindsight to look back and acknowledge the “peripheral work” these failures had inspired—wonderful essays such as this.

    • Interesting point, Mary…makes me want to contemplate the nature of the obsession on a whole different level. I often forget to look back at the good parts of discarded work, to see if those bits and pieces can be useful for other things. Thanks for the thoughts…as always insightful.

  8. I thought of my own obsessions–stories I work on and abandon, then work on again–as I read your essay. Why indeed do we abandon some but work on others? Will we find, some day, ten years down the road, as Ron Carlsen did when writing “Keith”, that the story finally sings? I like to think so.

    As Carlsen writes: “‘Keith’ was a story I had in the drawer a long time before I made the final decisions about it and trimmed it up. I’m glad I did….”

    (See “Notes on ‘Keith'” in Burroway’s Writing Fiction.)

  9. Natalia,

    Will be reading that later today. Thanks for bringing it up. This whole damned thing is one big mystery most of the time. 🙂 That’s probably what makes it so interesting, too.

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