It's Memorial Day, and I'm thinking about war. This is the first Memorial Day in a long time that hasn't been a convention weekend for me, and I'm not used to using the day for it's intended purpose. This has me thinking some about war in novels.
War can be handled in different ways in different works, of course. It can even be handled differently for different characters. War changes some people. It probably changes most people. My grandfather carried the scars of the World War II until the day he died. His heritage was Italian and the first man he killed (at least the first he knew he killed), was an Italian soldier. The soldier spoke to him before he died. My grandfather never told a soul what the soldier said, but he had nightmares about it most every night for the rest of his life. Some people sacrificed life and limb for their countries. Others sacrificed their sanity and the souls.
But does that mean that all war stories have to be about intense mental scarring and post-traumatic stress? I don't think so. Some people seem built for war. The horrors roll off them. There are different theories as to why this might be, but it boils down to the fact that some percentage of the human population seems born to take human life, when necessary. They aren't serial killers. They don't necessarily enjoy it. They just don't have the switch that causes them unbearable guilt in war or violence when defending others. If you're writing adventure stories, you can certainly assume the characters in your stories are these people.
But I've been thinking about my grandfather, and what he sacrificed. What he endured. When I was young, I read a psychologist talking about mental illness. Unfortunately, I can't quote the source, but he said something like, "I can show you why any person in the world should have gone insane. I can't tell you how a single person, with everything they experienced, stayed sane."
You can tell different stories with the same character. People change. Situations change. My grandfather could have fought for months before that moment where he killed that soldier and exchanged those words (I actually don't know he didn't). Those nameless soldiers in the distance, would they have had the same effect on him? Maybe, maybe not, but if I were telling that story, I would feel justified making that a major turning point in his relationship with war. Most of the war stories he told me were comedies. Stories of adventure and drinking and bar fights. I could tell stories that seemed more like adventure stories before and darker explorations into the pain of trauma after. There was a stark demarcation in his life between the stories of war he told to entertain, and the twitching, horrifying torments that came in the middle of the night.
But we read stories to escape. We read stories to be affected. Sometimes we need the stories to be fantasies. Sometimes we need them to be painfully real. Sometimes we need them to edify the spirit. Sometimes we need to explore the pain we can't express ourselves. Sometimes we honor a person's outer deeds. Sometimes we honor their inner trials.
No one story can cover the full canvas of war. Pick your theme, and just do your best to do it justice.