“The representation of contemporary war is one of my primary research areas,” said Stacey Peebles, associate professor of English and director of film studies. “I was in graduate school writing a dissertation about World War II and Vietnam War literature when Sept. 11 happened, and I realized that this whole understanding of modern war and war stories was about to take on an entirely new dimension.”
This semester, Peebles took her knowledge on this subject and taught a course titled War Stories, where she addressed the aspects of war context and experiences that would seem universal, as well as those that are specific to our contemporary moments, as seen in a selection of literature and films from 20th to 21st century wars.
“So much of what we think about war comes from representations like this—think about how what you know about Vietnam has been shaped by television and movies,” she continued. “But at the same time, America has been at war now for 18 years, and I don’t think we talk about that nearly enough.”
Peebles said the course began with a short story by Ernest Hemingway, “Big Two-Hearted River,” and a novel by Tim O’Brien, “In the Lake of the Woods,” which were discussed in the context of World War I and Vietnam, respectively.
The remainder of the course covered contemporary war in a variety of contexts. Students read a novel by Ben Fountain, short stories by Siobhan Fallon and Hassan Blasim, and a memoir by Brian Turner.
During the course, students had the opportunity to Skype with Turner to discuss his work they were reading.
“Skyping with him was wonderful,” Peebles said. “I love his work, and he’s the best kind of author to talk to—gracious, interesting, often surprising and he quite pointedly doesn’t tell you how to think about or understand his writing, because he wants you to do that yourself.”
In addition, students watched a documentary about war writing, as well as feature films “American Sniper,” “Captain Marvel” and “A Private War.” Through these, Peebles said they discussed what makes contemporary war stories distinctive and how the scholarly conversation about them is coming together.
“I always find it really exciting to be able to talk about such contemporary material—there’s no scholarly consensus about any of this, really, and so every voice matters,” she added. “The students have said things in class that are just as smart and original as things I’ve heard at conferences—and some of their ideas have no precedent whatsoever, in the best way.”
Abbi Haering ’20 (Louisville, Kentucky) said that something Peebles communicated well is that each of the students have different experiences with the stories they were discussing and were welcome to share their individual thoughts.
“An aspect we focused on is the study of this literature as stories themselves and not just through study of war,” Haering added. “I really appreciate how focused on different themes, such as trauma, gender and loss through a literary perspective, but then study also why and whom for war stories are written.
“I really like focusing on recent war stories, as this is not an era of literature much focused on, especially in the context of war,” she continued. “In talking about recent releases and more contemporary literature, we are able to lead and create conversations that are completely original in this field.”
Peebles shared how this is such an important subject to learn and know something about.
“Almost every work we covered addressed the military/civilian divide, how difficult it is for the average person to know anything about what a soldier does, is asked to do, both in war and after coming home,” she said. “Tobias Wolff said something that resonated with a number of people in the class: ‘The sign of a really decadent civilization is one that sends young people out to do and suffer the things that soldiers do and suffer in war and not to care about what those things are. Not to have any costs laid on them, even in knowing.’ But listening to war stories, seeking them out in art and journalism and elsewhere, is one way of starting to bridge the gap.”
Danville resident Clara Maddox, who was in Italy during World War II, audited the course this semester and was able to share some of her personal experiences with the students.
“Having her in the room was extraordinary,” Peebles said. “It’s one thing to talk about the universals of the war experience versus historical specificities and another to have someone who can talk about what World War II was like and how that compares with what we read about Iraq. Clara’s already got more degrees than I can count, but I hope she never ‘graduates’ from Centre so she can keep enlivening our classes.”
Header image: Students in War Stories course Skype with author Brian Turner.
by Kerry Steinhofer
May 16, 2019