I am privileged to teach in a first-year writing program at a northeastern U.S. university that allows me to draw in readings as I see fit, as long as the structure of the class follows a model shared by other classes in the program.
My class is called “War Stories.” Everything we read has something to do with war.
Most classes have read large sections of Homer’s “Iliad” (a modern translation, although we dove back into older translations to explore language variations). We always read from Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps, about the Civil War. We view John Trumbull’s paintings from the Revolutionary war and photographs from the Civil War. We read British soldier/poets of World War I, including Wilfred Owen’s often-anthologized “Dulce et Decorum est.” We might read Elie Wiesel’s Night, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five, we might see movies (always by Stanley Kubrick), and we end with modern conflicts: Vietnam and Iraq.
This is not a history class. Neither does it seek to glorify war or warriors. (Hence the reference to Isaiah 2:4: “… neither shall they learn war any more.”) But we do read a lot about war and its often debilitating consequences.
The premise of this course is simply that war stories, like most of the stories people tell, have structure and purpose, and that by studying war stories, we can learn about what has been foundationally important in our many communities in their times of conflict and stress. In discussions and writing, we look for echoes that cross genres, that are shared across time and culture.
On a more pedestrian level, we work to examine the war stories in term-paper ways, honing the vital college-level skills of analysis and presentation. We talk about academic practices and we identify themes of war – always identify honor, sacrifice, loss, recovery, grief, gratitude, love.
The first year I taught the class, I turned to the usual suspects, including Homer and Whitman, but I also grabbed a book already on my shelf: What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It (Little, Brown 2006), compiled and edited by Trish Wood, an investigative reporter and host of the CBC program “The Fifth Estate.” I could make a class of that extraordinary book on its own, but the single piece I have always chosen from it is, “You don’t want to look at your friend who has just been shot,” which Cpl. Mike Bonaldo, USMC, told to Wood in a hotel room not too long after his return from Iraq.
Bonaldo, a member of Kilo Company 2nd Platoon, details a rescue operation on 13 Nov. 2004 during the Second Battle of Fallujah – an incident known to some as Hell House. Mike’s account is extraordinary – calm in the face of life-threatening danger, emotions on hold, bravery and camaraderie, told in a way that shares plenty of the drama, but is never melodramatic.
Last year, Mike was generous enough to visit two sections of my “War Stories” class. I had everything planned out for the classes: We were all going to discuss the story – academically, to begin with, as an artifact, then as a story, as we had discussed all our other readings – and then as real life, with Mike present to contribute.
In the tradition of the United States Marines, Mike Bonaldo delivered the real goods. He sat at the front of each class and he told his story, quietly and insistently – his personal history, how he arrived in Fallujah, what happened at Hell House, and his return stateside. In each session, Mike elevated the class from an academic exercise in which we would work to find emotion in the printed word, and he had delivered us into the heart of the experience of the living document – what we had been searching for throughout the term: the true lesson, the true story.
Thank you, Mike. It is a lesson I will treasure.