Why should we read poetry about war? Why should students spend valuable class time looking at paintings of battles and soldiers? War often seems distant from our lives, foreign and remote. The experiences of soldiers seem so uniquely extreme that they appear to have no real bearing on our own daily existence. What is to be gained by studying the literary and visual art that is born of such distant worlds?
I would argue that the chance to participate in unique and distant experiences is one of the most valuable opportunities afforded by the study of literature. I believe that momentarily inhabiting the perspective of another person to be intrinsically valuable, especially if that person is separated from us by time or space. In this light, the experience of war should be studied because it is so unique and distant from our own. This is especially true if we are to function responsibly as citizens, bear the responsibility of sending soldiers to war, and appropriately honor the veterans that return. We are obligated to listen to these perspectives, no matter how distant they might seem.
However, I also ultimately believe that studying the art of war in its various forms provides us with a unique opportunity to grapple with exactly the kinds of struggles that dominate our seemingly peaceful lives. War seems distant, but it raises the kinds of questions that exist at our very core. In
The Things They Carried
, Tim O'Brien states:
War has a feel – the spiritual texture – of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths are no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck you in. You can't tell where you are, or why you are there, and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.
The feelings of confusion and uncertainty O'Brien identifies are powerfully universal. We live ambiguous lives. We live suspended between right and wrong, surrounded by beauty and chaos. Our beliefs are challenged. We question ourselves. We search for clarity. In
A Guide for the Perplexed
, E.F. Schumacher identifies such "divergent problems" as characteristically human. He considers the study of such problems fundamentally important. Such pairs of opposites "put tension into the world, a tension that sharpens man's sensitivity and increases his self awareness. No real understanding is possible without awareness of these pairs of opposites which permeate everything man does."
The literature of war is uniquely suited to the study of such divergent problems; it is full of contradictions and powerful opposites that can never be fully reconciled. In this sense, the experience of war differs from the experience of our daily lives in degree, but not in kind. By studying it carefully, we can hope to learn something about the battles that rage inside our selves.