In Poetry's October issue, Eleanor Wilner asked of the NEA's Operation Homecoming program, "How could it be more wrong?" As Thoreau reminds us, public dissent against the government is one of the strengths of our democracy. In this case, however, a reasoned argument would have been more effective than an uninformed denunciation.
The National Endowment for the Arts created Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience to reach out to an entire stratum of our society often excluded and even ignored by the literary establishmentmilitary men and women and their families. Because they have lived through something the rest of us can barely imagine, the NEA believes it is important to offer an opportunity to use literature, specifically writing, to begin to clarify these life experiences.
Those who teach at universities certainly understand the value of writing. But they also can be blind to life outside those same privileged circles. Not everyone is given the time or the opportunityor the encouragementto use writing as a means of expression or reflection.
The NEA is offering writing workshops on military bases to those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the families who waited for them. The workshops encourage them to write about their experiences in memoirs, fiction, essays, poetry, letters, and journals. The workshops are run by a distinguished team of journalists, historians, biographers, novelists, and yes, poets. Many of these writers are veterans themselves or grew up in military families.
Veterans teaching workshops or reading on our educational CD include novelists Richard Bausch, Shelby Foote, Joe Haldeman, James Salter, and Tobias Wolff. Bobbie Ann Mason, author of In Country, and Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, are also teaching workshops. Numerous poets are teaching workshops too, including Judith Ortiz Cofer, Andrew Hudgins, E. Ethelbert Miller, Marilyn Nelson, Wyatt Prunty, and Daniel Rifenburgh. In addition, Marilyn Nelson, Louis Simpson, and Richard Wilbur have contributed to our educational CD for the troops. Simpson and Wilbur, both World War II veterans, read particularly moving poems about their combat experiences.
The NEA and the Department of Defense signed an agreement that allows the NEA to conduct writing workshops on bases and to solicit writing directly from the troops, even those who do not attend a workshop. The DOD will not be involved in the selection of writing for the anthology, and the program will be free of censorship. As poet Dana Gioia, who serves as Chairman of the NEA, states, "We don't tell the writers what to teach. We don't tell the troops what to write. Freedom of artistic expression is the sine qua non of all NEA programs."
More than thirty news organizations and cultural publications have sent correspondents to the bases with the NEA and have repeatedly noted the free flow of opinions in the workshops. Unlike the New York Times and NPR reporters who filed lengthy considerations of the program, Eleanor Wilner never bothered to attend one of our workshops, speak with the agency, or interview any of the authors, military personnel, or spouses participating in the program.
Yet, devoid of facts, Wilner questions whether "it is literature that can be produced or even encouraged under such circumstances." Notwithstanding her view that a military base is not "an educational setting," surely she is aware that for generations American writers have produced extraordinary works of art in these very places.
Some of the best writing submitted to Operation Homecoming has come directly from the front, particularly in the form of blogs, email journals, and letters home. While war literature has given us Catch-22, The Things They Carried, and other masterpieces created years after the conflicts ended, it also has given us the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, works penned in the midst of battle. It is too early for anyone to predict whether the current troops will write most powerfully about their experiences now or later. Soon after the NEA announced the launch of Operation Homecoming, submissions and letters of gratitude began pouring into the agency. The NEA staff quickly found itself corresponding with hundreds of young American writers completely outside the literary establishment. These soldiers and spouses refuse to be marginalized simply because they are not writing from what Wilner called "bona fide writing programs." Instead they are writing from the school of experience:
I am an Army Reservist, called to duty for one year. Without the reserves, this war could not be pulled off. I think my essay reflects the hardships that many citizen soldiers endure when they leave their lives behind to serve. It's an important story that should be told and I hope you will use my piece to tell it.
Enclosed please find a letter written to me by my nineteen year old son. It is an honest letter written by the hand of a young American Marine who just found himself in extraordinary circumstances.
Writing about those things that we combat veterans keep locked up inside is tremendously cathartic. I lost my creative voice after Mogadishu; putting things into perspective took a long time, especially without any encouragement or understanding. Thank you again for this project.
Surely open-minded people can agree that these soldiers should not be silenced. Nor should they be told they have spoken too soon. Nor should they be told that they can speak or write legitimately only from the institutional base of a university writing program.
The NEA already has received more than three hundred submissions from troops and their spouses. These are powerful stories of living in difficult times and places. Whether reading poetry to us over a satellite phone from Iraq or emailing journal entries from Afghanistan, these young men and women have thoroughly embraced the written word. Giving voice to these individuals is essential in human, historic, and literary terms. In a society too often divided, Operation Homecoming creates an essential dialogue between and among military families and artistsand ultimately the American publicabout lifechanging experiences. Such dialogues can be at once therapeutic, cathartic, and calming.
The need for such conversations is understood most clearly by the dozens of Vietnam War vets who have written the NEA expressing their support of the program and sharing their own wartime experiences. After that war the vets had stories to tell, often harrowing ones, but unlike today the nation was not prepared to hear them.
In historic terms, Operation Homecoming offers an opportunity to amass what may be an invaluable archive of this period in American history, written not by journalists or politicians, but by the men and women affected by war on a very personal level. The NEA has had discussions with the National Archives and the Library of Congress regarding housing this vital archive.
From The Red Badge of Courage to The Naked and the Dead, war and military service have been major subjects throughout American literature. We hope and expect to discover a few good writers through this program whose work will be read for generations to come.
The NEA looks upon the writing workshops as the central part of the program, but the anthology will be the most tangible outcome for the reading public. Through an independent, transparent panel process administered by our Literature staff, the NEA will select the best submissions and will publish them regardless of point of view. The panel will consist of twelve to fifteen distinguished writers, including the National Book Award finalist Marilyn Nelson and Andrew Carroll, editor of War Letters and executive director of The American Poetry & Literacy Project, which he co-founded with the late Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky. Other panelists will be announced in December.
Literary excellence, historical importance, and the desire to present a diversity of opinions and genres will be the guiding selection factors. The submissions already published online by the New York Times and read on NPR's "Morning Edition" should address any concerns that the program is biased toward a pro-war or anti-war stance.
Rather than diverting funds from the Literature fellowship program to support Operation Homecoming, the NEA increased the Literature budget by $150,000 this year and secured funding from The Boeing Company to support arts initiatives for military communities, such as Operation Homecoming. Sometimes those privileged to teach at universities forget how little access most people have to the artsespecially people who live in isolated and rural areas, which is the setting for most military bases. It would be hard to imagine people more in need of what the arts provide than those who face the trauma of war. The NEA strongly believes that military families should not be excluded from our arts and arts education programs.
The National Endowment for the Arts is proud of the Operation Homecoming program, the thirty writers currently involved in its success, and especially our service men and women.
Director, Operation Homecoming
National Endowment for the Arts