Some authors are closely associated with war, like Ambrose Bierce and the American Civil War or Ernest Hemingway and two world wars as well as the Spanish Civil War.
However, in such turbulent century times many more served, saw and survived combat, and then went on to dazzle the world by writing about something other than their war experiences.
Here are five writers, in chronological order. Most of the names you’ll recognize, though you might not know of their military service. (Thanks to sources like this and this for help in narrowing this down some – there are many, many such authors.)
J. R. R. Tolkien – World War I
We know him as an Oxford don who gave us The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. However, he enlisted during World War I, right after taking First Honors at Oxford, and became a battalion signal officer with the Lancashire Fusiliers, taking part in the Battle of the Somme and other actions. He himself was not wounded, but he lost friends in the war and finally had to leave it after contracting trench fever.
It is dangerous to assume that an author’s life experiences are directly reflected in his or her fiction. Tolkien is not a World War I writer in the sense that, say, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, or Ernest Hemingway are. These writers directly portrayed their war experience in their stories and poetry. Instead, Tolkien’s war experiences are sublimated in his fiction. They surface in the sense of loss that suffuses the story, in the ghastly landscapes of places like Mordor, in the sense of gathering darkness, and in the fates of his Hobbit protagonists.
Tolkien himself stated that the war had only a limited influence on his writing. However, it is also true that people are shaped by times in which they live…. .
Raymond Chandler – World War I
One of the founders of the hard-boiled detective story, Chandler published just seven novels during his life, including The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely; The Little Sister; and The Long Goodbye – all but one of them was made into a movie, sometimes many times. When the US entered World War I in 1917, Chandler enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, possibly because the Canadians offered support to dependents, and saw trench warfare in France, where he was wounded. He was training with the brand-new RAF when the armistice came.
At Vimy Ridge Chandler’s group was surrounded and he distinguished himself in battle; in a subsequent bombardment, everyone in his unit except Chandler was killed: he was concussed so badly he had to be evacuated. Rested and decorated, he tried to return with the Royal Flying Corps, but in 1919 he was discharged.
George Orwell – Spanish Civil War
Two books by this English writer – Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm – have sold more copies than any other two books by a 20th-century author. He also wrote literary criticism, memoirs and poetry and did some journalism. His real name, by the way, was Eric Arthur Blair. He was also trained and worked as a policeman in Burma, and when the Spanish Civil War broke out, he fought with the Republicans and was wounded. (I know – he’s not an official vet, but with having a rank while in combat and serious wound, I’m counting him in on this list.)
The Spanish Civil War broke out in British Intelligence controlled Spain on 16 July 1936, and as an MI-6 agent George was assigned as a war correspondent (like many other writers). Orwell was an uncompromising individualist and political idealist and argued that writers have an obligation to fight social injustice, oppression and the power of totalitarian regimes. The newly married couple arrived in Spain in December 1936. George soon took up arms and joined the struggle against Franco’s fascists becoming a member of the Lenin Division in Barcelona. His wife Eileen was his support and civilian intelligence. She effectively kept him alive and informed.
Orwell looked like a robber chief, being inclined to rough-looking clothing, leather jerkins and high leather boots. He carried a long ex-German Mauser 98 Gewher and topped the outfit off with a large knife. When you think of all the other Poms in Spain dressed up like Christmas trees, it was a practical-looking outfit.
In early January 1937 he was given the rank of corporal, sent from Barcelona to join the offensive at Aragon and from there to the front line of Huesca in February. In early May, he took a week’s leave to be with his new wife in Barcelona and exchange information. He returned on 12 May to be promoted to 2nd lieutenant in command of 30 men, one of which was a Scotsman named Jimmy.
While talking to an American sentry near Huesca at 5 am on 20 May 1937, Orwell was hit in the neck by a Franco sniper bullet leaving him temporarily dumb and his left side paralysed. This enabled him to go to hospital where he heard that his unit had been declared illegal and were in danger of being murdered by the communist comrades within their unit. With this foreknowledge (his wife included) he managed to escape what was the utter chaos of the Spanish Civil War. Much of his unit was either thrown in prison or murdered, depending on food rations… .
– Source (some of the page is in Turkish, but scroll down; unfortunately, original sources aren’t identified)
Robert Heinlein – United States Navy
Isaac Asimov said Heinlein was the best science fiction in existence and would hold that title throughout his life. ‘Nuff said. However, he also graduated from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis and served on the Navy’s first modern aircraft carrier in the brand-new field of radio communications during the 1930s.
Heinlein’s experience in the U.S. Navy exerted a strong influence on his character and writing. Heinlein graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1929 with a B.S degree in naval engineering, and he served as an officer in the Navy. He was assigned to the new aircraft carrier USS Lexington in 1931, where he worked in radio communications, then in its earlier phases, with the carrier’s aircraft. The captain of this carrier was Ernest J. King, who later served as the Chief of Naval Operations and Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet during World War II. Heinlein was frequently interviewed during his later years by military historians who asked him about Captain King and his service as the commander of the U.S. Navy’s first modern aircraft carrier.
Heinlein also served aboard the destroyer USS Roper in 1933 and 1934, reaching the rank of lieutenant.
Jerry Izenberg – Korean War
Unless you’re a sports fan, you’re probably saying, “who?” right now. This guy, who is a Korean War veteran. I’ve saved the picture for last, and you’ll see why. It accompanies this Memorial Day column that he wrote in 2009, and it’s also a perfect column to read for Veterans Day.
Thank you all, vets!
Categories: Thursday Lit