With PERSONAL REFLECTIONS OF WAR: IN WORDS AND MUSIC, The American String Quartet, war journalist and poet Tom Sleigh, and National Book Award winner and Marine Veteran Phil Klay offer Norton Center audiences a unique  experience that is at once challenging, provocative, and deeply personal. These remarkable musicians and writers create an intense meditation on war and its impact on human life and the soul through prose, poetry and music.

Veteran Klay and journalist Sleigh follow in the tradition of soldiers and correspondents returning from the cauldron of war and then transforming their lives into art.

Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce turned his tour of duty in the Union Army into a series of extraordinary sketches and stories, including “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chickamauga.” In the latter story, a small child playing soldier, wooden sword in hand, plays among a throng of horribly wounded and mutilated soldiers as they crawl and creep downhill toward water.  He imagines himself as a romantic figure, leading his troops into battle, as the destroyed soldiers die around him, his boyish fantasies juxtaposed against the horrors of war.

A generation and a world war later, war poet Wilfred Owen would die in action on the front in 1918, the vast majority of his poetry published posthumously.   His most well-known poems included “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum est.”

Another world war saw Joseph Heller turn his experience as a B-52 bombardier with more than 50 combat missions to his credit into Catch 22, the scathing black comedy of the horror and   absurdity of war. Kurt Vonnegut, another WWII veteran, survived the Battle of the Bulge only to be bombed by the Royal Air Force after being taken prisoner by the Germans. He then survived the catastrophic firebombing of Dresden as a POW.  Held in the sub-basement of a slaughterhouse, Vonnegut lived to write his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five.”

Correspondent Ernie Pyle, with his brilliant reporting from two fronts during WWII, focused almost solely on the struggles of the common infantryman.  He would die in action on Okinawa in 1945.

The Vietnam War produced brilliant works of fiction and non-fiction, including Tim O’Brien’s Going After Caccioto, Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, James Webb’s Fields of Fire, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, and Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story.

The nearly two decades of US conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan have generated superb novels from such veterans as Ran Scranton’s War Porn, Barney Campbell’s Rain, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and Michael Pitrie’s The Fives and Twenty-Fives. Reporter Sebastian Junger, writing about the war in Afghanistan, concerned himself with the intense details of combat and its impact on young soldiers rather than the larger issues of the war itself.

These are veterans and artists, looking back on war, trying to understand what it means to survive, what it means for the soldier to come home, and what it means to tell that story.

Phil Klay said in an interview with The American Magazine, “There is something both beautiful and terrifying in the idea of being truly known.  Beautiful because it draws us out of our isolation, makes us feel understood and connected to the rest of the world.  Terrifying because none of us are ever fully justified.” (July, 2015)


Stanley R. Campbell
Director of Library Services

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