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Published: Saturday, 5/15/2004

Project holds the literary legacy of war

"For the individual soldier, the sweeping facts of history are accurately written not in the omniscient, third-person plural, but in the singular first."

- Donald Anderson, editor, War, Literature & The Arts

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Dana Gioia would agree with the literary editor.

In fact, Mr. Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, last month announced Operation Homecoming, aimed at collecting the written accounts of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

"In an age of e-mail and cell phones," Mr. Gioia was quoted as saying, "the rich documentation of previous wars, when soldiers wrote long letters home, doesn't exist anymore."

Watching Ken Burns' Civil War epic on TV, I remember being struck dumb by the poetry of soldiers' letters home, letters written chiefly by young men with little formal education.

In much that same way, an NEA spokesman told me, Operation Homecoming hopes to discover terrific yet otherwise unknown writers.

But aside from literary aspirations, there is also the all-important goal of documenting soldiers' experiences.

As Mr. Gioia explained on the project's Web site (www.nea.gov/national/homecoming), it's "impossible to predict" what writing will emerge from the ambitious project. Memoir, certainly, but "some of it may rise to literature ... [and] all of it will have historical value as the testimony of men and women who saw the events directly."

Soldiers and their families are asked to submit their writings. The NEA will place everything in an archive, and choose from these submissions which to include in an anthology.

"Our chair has talked about three purposes," explained NEA spokesman Ann Puderbaugh. "One is to unearth great writers among our military. Another goal is to provide historical documentation of this conflict, given by the people who served in it. And another is to provide a way for those who served to come to terms with their experiences."

The project offers writing workshops - given by such luminaries as Mark Bowden, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tom Clancy, Tobias Wolff, and Jeff Shaara - at 8 to 10 military installations. But Ms. Puderbaugh said yesterday that the response is already so good the NEA is likely to add others.

This far-reaching project began with a chat between Mr. Gioia and Marilyn Nelson, a poet who was born in Cleveland and raised on military bases. Now a professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Ms. Nelson will be one of the workshop leaders.

"Our chair was at a poetry gathering and got into a conversation with her, and they discussed how unfortunate it is that there's a divide between the arts community and the military. That was the genesis," Ms. Puderbaugh told me.

It's just not possible, according to Mr. Gioia, to "tell the story of our nation without also telling the story of our wars. And these often harrowing tales are best told by the men and women who lived them. Looking at the great literary legacy of soldier writers from antiquity to present, I cannot help but expect that important new writers will emerge from the ranks of our latest veterans."



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