Writing the horrors of war
Recently a couple of readers reviewing WOJ have intimated that the book doesn’t portray the true horrors of war…in vivid technicolour. Which, in the main, is true. Graphic descriptions of violent death in gory detail – Peckinpah-esque if you like – may suit certain authors’ narrative styles. And some readers’ tastes.
Part of the problem is a never-ending search for realism; trying to put the reader in the midst of things. Many contemporary paintings of Napoleonic battles showed the dead but never the real horror, concentrating more on glory, if such a thing can truly exist in war. So how would a fictional character, deeply involved in the action, view such violent injury and/or death?
Having spoken with two young men with tours of Afghanistan under their belts, I believe that depends on the individual’s experience of battle. Reluctant though serving soldiers are to give details, what I got from these conversations was surprising. To me, at any rate.
I thought a soldier’s first reaction when going on patrol or into action for the first time would be to feel fear. Not so, apparently. Adrenaline kicks in quickly, one reason why military training is so important – actions which have become second nature always take precedence when an individual is under extreme stress. Presumably, the brain is much more comfortable with repeated ‘everyday’ experiences to fall back on. So a man may suffer a sort of ‘tunnel vision’ where unimportant, peripheral detail is blocked out.
However the more experienced man has more apparent time. Events seem to happen more slowly. In reality this could be simply because of his experience. He now gets a smaller adrenaline rush. His brain allows him to take in more detail. So he notices the gory stuff, and must react to it in some way.
And when we come to the very experienced man, his senses take in even more of what surrounds him. But the very fact of his experience allows him a choice. He can either acknowledge or ignore what he sees, and thus control his reaction to it. Human reaction doesn’t change that much, and what the soldier feels today is much the same as his ancestor on a battlefield would have felt.
Visualisations of flesh ripping, blood spurting and entrails protruding may indeed have a place in historical military fiction. Many novels are filled with them. But notice the singular: ‘a‘ place. I believe that means they ought to be used sparingly. Having pages, or even whole chapters, drip blood cheapens your story, in my view. It’s sensationalism for its own sake. A story can hold its own without the gore – if it’s good enough.
Because it invites the reader to use his or her own imagination, and that’s what good storytelling should be about.