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Inside Battle Runes: Writings on War
Selected Works and Interviews with Their Authors
By: Chandra Persaud
A recurring theme in this anthology is the loss of religious belief or hope due to war. God or spirituality seem very distant as bombs drop on homes, bullets pierce the bodies of the innocent, and fear spreads like wildfire. Humankind is left expecting very little in the form of a miracle, a sudden change of events seems almost impossible, and even prayers seem to be left unanswered. The protagonist in Hunter Liguore’s “Pieces” no longer depends on religion to save him or those affected by war: “I used to pray to Allah, until I realized that he could not hear my prayers over the bombing and gunfire” (6). In turn, the protagonist finds his own way to alleviate the troubles and heartaches caused by war. During times of gunfire and attacks, the protagonist risks his own life in order to pick up the remains of a victim, store them in a plastic bag, and hand it over to family and loved ones present at the moment, ridding them of the burden of doing this themselves – “every piece is sacred” (7). In this way, he keeps love, humanity, and hope alive.
Liguore offers an interesting view on the effects war has on faith and religious belief: “For me, war and spirituality/religion come together much the way an audience and a theater performance do – through the observation of the exterior war, we can be reminded of the spiritual war that is being waged daily. Most of the existing sacred texts deal in wars, but so often, they are allegories for the spiritual war . . . Perhaps the effect [of war] should be to be more conscious of our own spiritual battle, that in coming closer to one’s deity – that is, seeking silence and peace through prayer/meditation – the exterior war would essentially be eliminated.” Thus, religion and spirituality should be used to tame humankind’s inner demons – those feelings that must be controlled and traits that need to be rectified. This in turn will eliminate much of the chaos in the world. This gives rise to some thought-provoking questions: If we are not using religion to conquer our spiritual battle, how can we expect to see its inexplicable effects? When one is at peace internally, how can he or she not want the same externally? Is war a result of our own inner turmoil? How much of war is influenced by our lack of distinction between emotions and facts?
On the other hand, some of the pieces in Battle Runes speak of the need for and trust in spirituality and religion during times of war. The belief in a power greater than ourselves, capable of abruptly changing circumstances, compensates for our lack of control. Margaret Kingsbury’s “The Consequent Phrase of a Melody” sheds light on the plight of families left behind because of war. While the protagonist maintains a strong exterior and attempts to carry on with life while her husband is overseas, she reveals her pain, loneliness, and desire for her husband’s return through her tears at night and her conversations with God. “Religious belief is integral to my protagonist’s ability to cope with the devastation and loneliness of war. The capacity for hope and the ways in which individuals seek out and establish that hope has always been inspiring to me. Belief in God is how my protagonist finds solace from her loneliness,” says Kingsbury.
The protagonist in “The Consequent Phrase of a Melody” also gives voice to the many women who are left alone and tasked with raising children, running households, and keeping their families together while their spouse is at war. While the protagonist is no longer the woman she was when she fell in love with her husband – “she no longer knew her own melody” (77) – she refuses to allow her loss of identity to affect the well-being of her family. She hides her pain, frustration, and worry and displays her strength to protect, care, and provide even when her life seems to be falling apart. According to Kingsbury, the protagonist represents “an amalgamation of women in my life, especially my sister and mother, who are the most important women in my life. Both had husbands who were stationed overseas during wartime and were left to raise their children by themselves. What I remember from when I was a child and my father left for Desert Storm was my mother’s loneliness and her attempts to keep that loneliness and desperate worry at bay, both from us children and herself. There is always a lot of concentration on the mental state and well-being of the solider while at war and when they return home, as there should be. I wanted to explore the sometimes parallel I saw in my mother, although the protagonist is a very different kind of woman than my mother . . . My characters are inspired by real-life experiences and people, but take on their own voice and needs. The mother in the story is both similar and different to the women in my life.”
Apart from faith and spirituality, Battle Runes: Writings on War also speaks about adapting to life after war. When an individual is transplanted to a foreign land or forced to accept bullets, explosions, blood, and death as the norm, readapting to one’s “normal” lifestyle may become an arduous task. Pushing aside experiences at war and embracing past routines, duties, and interactions may leave one feeling misunderstood, guilty, or lonely.
Inspired by a memorable story shared by a war veteran on a radio show and a recent visit to Grand Marais, Minnesota, Norah Piehl’s “Going Somewhere, or Coming Back?” speaks of the difficulties a young solider encounters as he attempts to readjust to life after war. He seeks not to be constantly reminded that the aftermath of his time at war creates a gap between him and the long-time residents of his town, simply because he witnessed events and endured emotions that they did not. Thus, he searches for a way just to blend in, to remain hidden. Yet, it’s the very act of doing so that prevents him from coming to terms with his war experience and fully integrating back into civilization.
Piehl says, “I think one of the biggest struggles veterans encounter is the difficulty of putting into words and sharing an experience that they don’t really understand themselves. They may want to talk about their war experience – whether as part of their own healing or as part of a desire to raise awareness or (re)form connections with their civilian friends, family, and acquaintances – but until they are able to articulate their own narratives to themselves, to intellectualize their experiences, this kind of conversation can be very difficult to have.”
While war is associated with death, trauma, and separation, there still remain certain aspects that are admirable – putting one’s own life at risk to save a fellow solider, the formation of lifelong friendships based on a shared experience, and unity with strangers grounded on a common goal. Battle Runes: Writings on War also captures camaraderie, love, selflessness, and maturation that take shape on the battlegrounds.
John Gifford’s “Chance of Rain” demonstrates the camaraderie and selflessness that are often exhibited when war brings times of perceived imminent peril or death. During a missile attack, Richard Juergens, leader of the First Battalion, hands over his gas mask to a fellow solider in order to keep that solider safe and ease his fears. Juergens is willing to put his own life at risk in order to protect another individual under his care, which according to Gifford, is “a selfless act that’s also the hallmark of leadership.”
“Chance of Rain” is based on some of the author’s experiences as a U.S. Marine during the Persian Gulf War and a particular friendship that formed during those days of battle. The trigger for action in this story – a missile attack – was a terrifying truth that Gifford was forced to encounter practically every night. “I was an expert rifleman and could hit a dinner plate-size target at 500 meters with my M-16. But during the missile attacks we couldn’t use our weapons. We were helpless. All we could do was don our gas masks and hope the missile didn’t fall on us. It was a terrible feeling,” says Gifford. Yet, John always reassured Gifford that those moments would pass. John was a fellow, more experienced solider and friend of Gifford’s, an individual whom the author admired for his wisdom and collected composure during times of chaos. Richard Juergens displays similar qualities in “Chance of Rain,” standing as a firmly rooted tree for all the men under his care.
Thinking about camaraderie and war, Gifford says, “I think back to all the friends I’ve had in 42 years of life and some of the best were the guys I served with during the war. Other Marines. Other guys who lived through the same challenges and struggles I did. There is something special about the people with whom you share a common adversity. Especially when it’s one of the defining moments or events of your life. Thereafter, you’re inextricably linked with these people, and as time goes on, as you move, temporally speaking, further and further away from that event, these people remain vivid in your mind because they’re direct links back to that time and place, which is gone forever. Consequently, you feel you share something that no one else can understand, even if you never talk about it or never see those people again.”
Thom Brucie’s “A Deepening Heart” also hits on the more humane side of war. Set during the American Civil War, this short story tells the tale of Nathan Branchwell – a young man who joins the fight not because he is particularly passionate about the war’s cause, but to earn the hand of his beloved. Nathan is willing to put his life on the line to earn enough money during the war to prove himself worthy to his (potential) future father-in-law. Similarly, when he lands upon a scene of carnage and devastation, he is willing to risk it all to save a battered mule – the only form of life left, a symbol of survival. Nathan renders up every piece of gold he saved during the war to rescue the mule from death, jeopardizing his chances of any future with his beloved when he returns home. Just as Nathan begins to question his decision, readers also wonder why Nathan would do such a seemingly-foolish thing, especially when he winds up shooting the mule to put it out of its own misery.
Yet, at the end of “A Deepening Heart” we see that Nathan’s war experiences teach him that love is not measured by gold, status, or material assets. Love is how far one is willing to go when put to the challenge, how often one is willing to listen to his or her conscience, how much one is willing to sacrifice. Nathan’s war experiences change him forever, giving him a newfound confidence, allowing him to realize his own potential – “He [Nathan] thought for a moment about the absence of gold with which he would return to Agnes, but he did not worry about it, for now he knew what he was capable of in the name of love, and Rev. Perser would know too, one way or another” (66).
That final sentence of “A Deepening Heart” forebodes what may come to pass when Nathan returns home. Brucie offers an intriguing explanation: “If, for example, we accept the notion that his killing of the mule is kindness, we will expect a gentle reunion with Agnes and her rigid, self-righteous father, with a humble Nathan having no say in the matter of his love for Agnes or in his marriage to her. However, if we foresee Nathan’s return as the culmination of his unique individuation, we might intuit a warning from the line, “and Rev. Perser would know too, one way or another,” for Nathan will have Agnes as his wife, no matter what. The mule then acts . . . as text, the non-verbal writings of Nathan’s desire to live in peace; but he will live in a peace of his own making, and he will construct that peace through his own design, using his own rules . . .”
If probed to extract a “message” from this story, Brucie would offer this: “Each individual must live his or her life with courage in order to live in hope, for without courage, we dare not think, and without hope, we despair.”
It is courage that those, who have been immersed in some aspect of war, display long after the dust settles or while on the battlefield. It is courage that can be found in significant doses scattered throughout the pages of Battle Runes: Writings on War – in the stories and poems of husbands, brothers, and fathers who leave their comfortable homes without a guarantee of a safe return; mothers who carry on with life, while only shedding what seems to be an unshaken persona in solace; ordinary civilians or soldiers whose selfless acts are symbols of love and comradeship; war veterans who return home, picking up from where they left, pushing aside emotions and images their families and friends often cannot relate to.
It is courage that allows those who have experienced war to use what they’ve endured to come to appreciate their countless blessings. As author and war veteran, John Gifford describes beautifully, “I was 20 years old when the war [Persian Gulf War] began and like any young man who finds himself in a combat zone for the first time, I found the experience of war both surreal and life-changing, so much so that, in many ways, the event has since served as a kind of barometer by which I measure my current life. Today I live in a brick house instead of a tent. I can eat my dinner without worrying about a rocket attack. I can go for a walk or a drive anytime I feel like it, rather than having to dig a fighting hole or fill sand bags. It’s the small things you miss when you’re captive to a war, and later, afterward, you have a new perspective on the value of these little liberties. I guess today I am enjoying an earned freedom and it reminds me of how far I’ve come as an individual.”
Battle Runes: Writings on War takes readers inside the hearts and minds of characters who share stories that often go untold, whose realities mark them forever, whose experiences stay with them, in some form, indefinitely.