Research Notes · 02/10/2012

Harvitz, As To War

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Ben Nadler reflects on writing Harvitz, As To War, a novel about military experience, without having military experience of his own.

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Harvitz, As To War

When people ask what my novel, Harvitz, As To War, is about, I tell them that it is about not fighting in the Iraq War. The Iraq War is the central narrative of my generation; as I began my first book, it was the subject I felt compelled to write about. I have had a relative in every major war in United States history (including Iraq), but I myself never joined the military. So my novel is about not fighting in the war.

My titular protagonist, Sammy Harvitz, does join the Army, and comes very close to fighting in Iraq. He completes a good bit of training but, due to a series of stupid decisions, ends up failing a drug test, going AWOL, and missing his deployment. The only way to show a hole is to show the space around it. I needed to make Sammy very involved in military life, and ready to ship out, in order for his not going to Iraq to come across as a central event

For a long time, though, I wrote around Sammy’s entire experience in the military. I wrote about the experiences that led to Sammy enlisting, and about the experiences he faced after deserting, but I couldn’t write about his life in the military for the simple reason that I knew very little about the military. Over the long course of the Iraq War, I attended dozens of anti-war protests and actions, but only set foot on military bases twice.

The first time was in 2004, when some friends and I stopped by Fort Huachuca in Arizona to visit our friend L. L had been studying art with us in New York the year the war started, but she dropped out after three semesters to join the Army. Her and my understandings of the War and wars and many other things had been very similar, but then she became a soldier while I stayed a student, and an enormous gulf of experience opened up between us.

Years later, when L was back home, and we were living together in Jersey, she pointed out a quote in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast: “In those days we did not trust anyone who had not been in the war, but we did not completely trust anyone…”

There is a lot of distrust between soldiers and civilians. There is a lot that we civilians do not want to ask soldiers. We don’t want to know how they have lived or what they have done. Veterans, for their part, do not want to share their experiences with civilians because they do not think that we can understand.

I remember my uncle, a proud Marine and two-time Vietnam vet, sitting on the couch in my mother’s house, half-drunk and watching war movies. I had so many questions, but I never asked him a single thing about Vietnam. I would just nod at him, and leave the house through the kitchen door without saying a word.

I was living with L again when I began working on my novel in earnest. We were very close, with many shared experiences, but we had not shared the experience of the military, and there were many things I never asked her.

Until, that is, I needed to do the research for my novel.

L was kind and brave enough sit down with me for a couple of interviews. A lot of my questions were actually just about the details of Basic Training. Basic Training is not such a fraught subject as combat, and should have been easier to ask about. But it is an initiation ritual — in the most literal way — and I felt that as someone uninitiated I shouldn’t be asking about it. In order to accurately write my novel though, I had no choice but to ask L very detailed questions about Basic Training.

So I asked, and L answered. Maybe she had been wanting someone to ask. There was a lot about her time in the military that was very painful, but there was also a lot that she was proud of. She talked about the physical workouts, the weapons training, the war games, and the other challenges she had met with great success. She talked about the social dynamic in the barracks, and the different people she had met there. Her improbable and unexpected account of a day in the Basic Training cycle when you are allowed to leave the base to go on a Church sponsored outing to a small town ended up informing a crucial episode of my novel.

The other base I had visited was The Presidio in California, home of The Defense Language Institute, where L (like Sammy) studied Arabic. I was with L that time too, but by then she had been discharged, and was only there to settle some paperwork. During our interviews, L revealed that she had saved all of her course materials from DLI. I spent a good deal of time pouring through her crate of books, pamphlets and recordings, studying the texts that Sammy would study, trying to view them through his eyes.

One thing L could not help me with was the section of my novel in which Sammy is sent to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth. To access those details, I ended up turning to an internet forum for women whose husbands and boyfriends are imprisoned at Leavenworth, and other similar facilities. The more experienced women addressed the other womens’ concerns, such as how their men would be eating, how they could receive mail, and how safe they would be. I felt like a bit of a creep peering into these womens’ lives — they were all dealing with real pain, and had not put up their public forum for the benefit of first-time novelists — but part of being a writer is entering spaces that weren’t meant for you.

All of this research made it possible for Sammy to express a lot more knowledge about military life than I actually possess. In the end, though, he knows as little of war as I do. He does know what it means to not be fighting in a war, when other people your age are. This is something that I already knew for myself, before doing any research.

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Ben Nadler is the author of Harvitz, As To War (Iron Diesel Press, 2011). He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches writing at the City College of New York. He just finished reading Lonesome Dove, and would recommend the experience to anyone.