Stacey Peebles, Centre College – What Are Our Newest War Stories?

On Centre College Week:  We’ve heard the war stories of the past, but what about today?

Stacey Peebles, H. W. Stodghill, Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Associate Professor and Chair of English, looks for some.

Stacey Peebles is H. W. Stodghill, Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Associate Professor, Chair of English, and Chair of Film Studies at Centre College. She is the author of Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq, Cormac McCarthy and Performance: Page, Stage, Screen, and the forthcoming The War Comes with You: Enduring War in Life, Fiction, and Fantasy. She is editor of the collections Violence in Literature and Approaches to Teaching the Works of Cormac McCarthy, and editor of the Cormac McCarthy Journal.

What Are Our Newest War Stories?

If someone asks you what you know about the Vietnam War, what do you think of? You might think of a movie like Platoon, Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter. Maybe a book by Tim O’Brien or Michael Herr. What about World War II? There are lots to choose from. American wars have always inspired enduring stories, but what about our contemporary wars? What are the enduring stories from Iraq or Afghanistan?

There are a number of acclaimed works of literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, for instance, or Phil Klay’s Redeployment or Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone. There are also movies about contemporary wars, you just have to know where to look.

The next time you watch a superhero movie, a Star Wars film or another fantasy blockbuster, you might ask yourself what kind of war story it’s telling. Because these are all war stories—the Marvel Cinematic Universe begins in Iron Man, with combat in Afghanistan and takes us into planetary and multiversal war in more recent entries like Loki and The Marvels. What’s Star Wars without blasters and light sabers, weapons and tactics, or Avatar without armies and warriors, territory and casualties? These wars are globalized, if not galactic—often triumphant for the heroes, but also traumatizing. Notably, they are endless and ongoing—there’s always another battle to fight, another enemy to engage, and the war is never really over.

In the absence of a canon of touchstone realistic depictions of contemporary war on film, it’s worth asking what lessons about war these ubiquitous fantasy films are teaching. The answers, in many cases, might surprise you.

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