Literature's Role in Peace
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Literature's Role in Peace
The topic of war has been discussed in literature to great effect. Various themes within this genre include the psychological impact of war and the soldiers' personal experiences from the front lines. In an effort to help prevent conflicts from emerging and to bring the world towards a uniform peace, some authors dedicate their lives to persuading readers that war should be avoided, if at all possible. Writers in peace literature are effective in conveying the negative impact of war on veterans, civilians, and nations alike.
One of the writers that comes to mind whenever the concept of world peace is discussed is Maxine Hong Kingston, who was born on October 27, 1940, to Chinese immigrants living in Stockton, California. Kingston lived during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Anthony Fonseca explains that "both [Kingston and her husband] were active in Vietnam War protests and in efforts to protect free speech." Kingston continues to be passionate against war, even to the present day. Kingston does not rely specifically on any particular genre, which allows her to be flexible in her writing. In "Reading Back, Looking Forward: A Retrospective Interview with Maxing Hong Kingston," Kingston says, "I am experimenting with genre. . . . I've written a couple of nonfiction books but I haven't done the fiction, so let's try that genre" (141). Kingston likes to change from genre to genre in order to not only write something new in various forms, but also appeal to readers who are interested in different genres.
Additionally, Kingston prefers to try to gain a new understanding of the world around her. In The Fifth Book of Peace, she thinks, "How should I reply to all these [veterans] in person? I have to look in their eyes and faces. . . . I have to give them something" (248). She decides to organize a writing workshop. This is new territory for her, but she does this in order to find new ways to communicate her opinion that war should cease. Kingston enthusiastically takes on the challenge of advocating for world peace by writing about it. She can share her opinions and arguments to support the notion that war is the bane of humanity's existence. In "Maxine (Ting Ting) Hong Kingston," Fonseca explains, Kingston feels "she could address her fears of war in her prose, that she could prevent the bombing by finding the 'Three Lost Books of Peace.'" Kingston uses her writing as a tool to express her concerns about the world and its conflicts, and even though she does not find the lost books, she decides to write her own. Doing so allows Kingston to shape her own interpretation of how peace can be achieved through writing and dialogue.
One of the most basic, yet effective means of gaining knowledge about war is through the stories. Combatants and non-combatants who were in Vietnam during the war saw first-hand how terrifying the conflict could be. In The Fifth Book of Peace, Kingston recalls a Vietnam veteran's war experience: "On his first day in Viet Nam, under attack, this vet, Anthony, shot and killed a Vietnamese, probably [Viet Cong], who turned out to be a sixteen-year-old girl. . . . The officer called him a killer, a murderer" (276). This veteran killed a potential enemy combatant who turned out to be a young teenaged girl, someone a reasonable person would not normally expect to be a soldier fighting in combat. Then, he was called a murderer for doing his duty as a soldier. Vietnam veteran Roman "Hopper" Martinez reads to those attending one of the writing workshops the tale of his unit finding the remains of a downed helicopter: "I [was] overwhelmed to find out that the smells that had me salivating [were] coming from my cooked buddies. . . . I had . . . body parts come off in my hands; like pulling a drum-stick off of a roasted turkey" (qtd. in Kingston, 327-328). These veterans are forever traumatized by such horrific events.
War experiences have also affected those who were not in the military, but were in or near the combat zones. Richard Tregakis, in Vietnam Diary, recalls flying as a war correspondent on an air mission against a ground target: "I remember thinking that at last the [air mission was] over and we would be heading back home. But we no sooner got over the ridge top and into the next valley than we [were] turning again" (144). Tregakis wanted the mission to end so he and his pilot could be finally out of danger, but the pilot continued to do runs on the ground target in a seemingly endless loop. Civilians were in the fray as well, and their accounts show how terrified they could be when caught in the crossfire. A journalist who was on the "kill" list of the Communists is Thai Nguyen Strom. In "The Fall of Saigon: Part One of Three. A Personal Story," she recalls, "A friend of mine, Hue, had stopped by the day before, looking tense. She told me she had arranged . . . for me and my children to be airlifted out of Vietnam . . . and I [could] tell not one soul about that" (par. 2). Strom writes about the life-changing decision she had to make during the last days of the Vietnam War, where she was presented with the option of either leaving to escape from the imminent Communist takeover or staying with her family members who could not leave. Such decisions are the lasting legacies of the Vietnam War.
Authors such as Kingston write about helping and supporting veterans in their struggle to return to civilian life. Kingston states that "Two of my brothers were in the Viet Nam War, one of them in-country. I admit that one motive for starting these workshops is, I want to give my brothers some ways to get over Viet Nam" (292). Kingston feels that she should help her two brothers cope with their experiences by using one of her talents: writing. Hass states that many veterans were "keenly aware of their outcast social position as survivors of a deeply unpopular war. They [wanted] a national monument to help them reclaim a modicum of recognition and social standing" (10). These Vietnam War veterans, after the danger of fighting, returned to a society that scorned their actions, thereby making it even more difficult to integrate into civilian life. The challenge to return to a normal life also highlighted the need to remember, via a national monument, the sacrifices made during this turbulent time in American history.
Kristin Ann Hass, in Carried to the Wall, details how hard it was to give remembrance to a war that bitterly divided the United States: "The deeply controversial nature of the war, its unpopularity, and the reality that its loss created an enormous void of meaning that compounded the difficult work of memorializing" (9). Hass discusses the difficult effort to build what would later be the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial.
The memorializing of the Vietnam War for Americans is difficult not only for the male veterans but also for the female veterans. In The Fifth Book of Peace, Kingston recalls how the women veterans showed up at one of her writing workshops and argued for their recognition as Vietnam War veterans: "sixty-three women were killed in the line of duty in Viet Nam. . . . And their names are not on the Wall. . . . It feels like . . . our efforts, our contributions, our sacrifices as civilian women don't count" (317). These women felt their contributions should be remembered and honored just like the men's. They tried to shatter the traditional thinking that only men fight wars when, in reality, women are involved as well.
Despite all the literature detailing the negative impact of war, there are some who argue that literature is ineffective in convincing the world at large to avoid war. Opponents could argue that peace literature has not helped in preventing any new wars and that war is not detrimental to humanity but a natural occurrence. Some critics point out that there are soldiers who are not affected by killing in combat. They do it out of a sense of duty. For example, in Clebe McClary and Diane Barkerbook's Living Proof: The Exciting Story of Vietnam Hero Lt. Clebe McClary, the authors recall, "At base area we presented [the artillery battalion] an enemy weapon or flag as a reward and treated them to a steak dinner at Da Nang" (64). McClary and Barkerbook seem to be viewing war as a routine operation; nowhere do they give any indication of remorse or question whether the act of killing the enemy conflicts with their ideals.
Another counterargument against the solely horrific consequences of war is that war generates revenue for any company that is providing weaponry and ammunition to the armed forces. McClary and Barkerbook state, "The cost of war in terms of money is astounding. We easily used [one] million [dollars'] worth of ammunition in one night with artillery and air support" (64). This hints at the bigger picture of warfare in general: war can be very expensive to wage. Any government would have to allocate a certain amount of its budget to sustain military operations abroad. Funding is needed to obtain weapons and ammunition from businesses in the arms industry. In the end, the arms industry profits from any war.
One journalist points out that war can be glorified to the point where it is not seen as harmful. In "When Honoring the Warrior Sanctions War," Jason Espada writes, "Whereas before we had soldiers vilified for their actions-today there is no criticism of them at all" (7). Espada argues that currently the servicemen and women of the armed forces are not receiving any sort of criticism regarding their actions in war. War often results in heinous and horrific acts being committed in the confusion and chaos of determining who are enemy combatants and who are innocent civilians. The act of war brings up the question of the morality of fighting in general.
Ultimately, there are people who dismiss the veterans' tales of war. In The Fifth Book of Peace, Wayne Karlin, a Vietnam War veteran who served as a helicopter gunner, says, "America does not want to hear from its veterans. The literary market does not want [veteran literature]. . . . The level of denial in Americans-the publishers are not interested, the readers are not interested" (qtd. in Kingston, 354). Karlin states the reality that there are people, for whatever personal reason, who do not want to read about, listen to, or concern themselves with the topics of war or peace. All of this information leaves it up to the reader to decide what he or she believes is the right path to choose when it comes to war and peace.
In the end, all of the literature pertaining to war has a powerful effect on the reader. It divides people who believe that war is necessary from those who believe that violence should never be resorted to in order to solve a dispute on any level. However, peace literature does open up the debate: how conflict arises, what can be done to circumvent it, and what lessons can be learned for future disputes. I believe that the works of Kingston and other authors play a crucial role in sending a worldwide message that peace is something to strive for.
Espada, Jason. "When Honoring the Warrior Sanctions War." Connections [Stockton, CA] Dec. 15/Jan. 16: 7. Print.
Fonseca, Anthony J. "Maxine (Ting Ting) Hong Kingston." Asian American Writers. Ed. Deborah L. Madsen. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 312. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 May 2016.
Hass, Kristin Ann. "Making a Memory of War." Carried to the Wall. Los Angeles: UC Berkeley Press, 1998. 7-33. Print.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Fifth Book of Peace. New York: Vintage International, 2003. Print.
Kingston, Maxine Hong, and Shirley Geok-lin Lim. "Reading Back, Looking Forward: A Retrospective Interview with Maxing Hong Kingston." MELUS 33, no. 1 (spring 2008): 157-70.
McClary, Clebe, and Diane Barker. "Thorn in the Enemy Side." Living Proof: The Exciting Story of Vietnam Hero Lt. Clebe McClary. Atlanta, GA: Cross Roads Books, 1978. 59-64. Print.
Strom, Thai Nguyen. "The Fall of Saigon: Part One of Three. A Personal Story." The Record [Stockton, CA] 30 Apr. 1995: A8. Print.
Tregakis, Richard. Vietnam Diary. New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1963.