“When Amanda came home from the war her family was there to greet her at the platform. She knew what to expect when she rematerialized, but she’d forgotten about the mortar-like chuff! chuff! chuff! as the others arrived after her. It didn’t scare her—she was beyond being scared by loud noises—but it added to her disorientation as she stumbled off the platform into her dad Ernie’s arms.”
– from the short story Where We Would End A War by F. Brett Cox
F. Brett Cox is an English professor, but not at just any institution. He teaches at Norwich University in Vermont, America’s oldest private military school. An accomplished writer, poet and editor, his short story Where We Would End A War explores a veteran’s homecoming at a future time when technology has made a soldier’s transition from the dangers of a war zone to the routines of civilian life a nearly instantaneous experience. The following Q&A explores how he came up with the idea for the story, what returning home might be like for future U.S. veterans and how he makes time for creative writing while teaching.
Where did the idea for your short story Where We Would End A War come from?
I wanted to write a story about a veteran returning from a future conflict, and I knew I wanted to play around with the notion of “re-entry time” by involving teleportation. That’s as far as it went until Andrew Liptak asked me to submit something for the War Stories anthology, and I had to start thinking seriously about exactly what story I wanted to tell, and how I wanted to tell it. I was stuck for a while (not unusual, alas). Then I remembered a classroom exercise where the student rewrites the beginning of a famous story as an entry point into his or her own work, and I realized I had the perfect model in Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home”–a story about a returning World War I veteran that was published in 1925 but could have been written last week. The first paragraph of my story consciously evokes the opening of “Soldier’s Home.” Once I had that, the rest followed fairly quickly. Hemingway remained on my mind throughout, as did Alfred Bester (whom I reference directly in the story), Joe Haldeman (for both his approach to stories of future war and as the source of the classroom exercise mentioned above), the films Full Metal Jacket and The Hurt Locker, and Brian Turner’s poetry collection Here, Bullet, whose prefatory poem “A Soldier’s Arabic” provided the story’s title.
What kind of challenges do you see U.S. veterans facing when they come from wars two decades from now?
Perhaps this is the place to acknowledge that I have never served in the military. But my father was a radio operator and side gunner on a B-17 bomber during World War II. He did his hitch and came home to a society that had been actively invested in the war effort on almost every level. (While he was flying missions over Germany, my mother, whom he had not yet met, was pulling civil defense duty as an airplane spotter along the South Carolina coast.) I don’t think he could have foreseen veterans returning thirty years later to a country that was desperate to forget the war it had sent them to fight, or, thirty years after that, returning to a country that made a big noise about how grateful it was for their service but remained profoundly uninvested, on almost every level, in the wars it had sent them to fight. So twenty years from now? I have no idea. I do wonder if continued technological advances will yield a generation of veterans having to deal less with shock and more with alienation.
What about our adversaries?
If you mean, who will our adversaries be, again, I have no idea. I can only hope some science fiction writer will write a story that will speculate on the topic and get people thinking about it—per Ray Bradbury’s famous observation that the science fiction writer’s job is not to predict the future, but to prevent it.
This is a story shaped fundamentally by a revolutionary technology but it also speaks to enduring post-war themes of reintegration. What will stay the same?
It’s relatively easy to beat swords into ploughshares; it’s far more difficult to go from swordfighting to plowing. Metaphorically speaking. That’s always been the case, it’s still the case, and I just don’t see that changing.
How does working at Norwich University, a private military education institution, shape the way you write fiction, and specifically this story?
My teaching at Norwich deeply informed “Where We Will End a War.” In fact, if I hadn’t been teaching at Norwich, I might not have ever written the story at all. Most (although not all) of my students are in the Corps of Cadets, and most (though not all) of the cadets are tracking into military careers. Teaching a population like that, at a minimum, increases your awareness of military culture and issues of war and peace. I’ve also had the chance to teach veterans, and to see how their experiences in war inform their classroom experiences, from the hypervigilant combat vets who always sit near the door to the aspiring writers who fear that any attempt at representing their experiences will fall so far short of the reality of war as to dishonor their comrades. Indeed, some of the latter attitude may have rubbed off on me as, in the early stages of thinking about this particular story, I abandoned my initial conception—telling the story in the form of essays written by a veteran for a college composition class—out of a sense of obligation to tell the story as directly and immediately as possible. Working with these veterans has been an education and a privilege.
What do you want to be the takeaway for today’s VA and Defense Department officials from this story?
Establish a culture that makes it OK for any veteran to admit to problems, and an infrastructure that makes it easy for them to seek help. We hear a lot about exit strategies; we also need re-entry strategies. And, in general, consider the consequences. Of everything.
Literature shapes our understanding of armed and social conflict, but other media do so increasingly too. Are writers overmatched by film and video games?
Absolutely not. Reading a work of fiction, watching a movie, or playing a video game—these are three very different experiences. Telling stories is not a zero-sum game. I suspect most of the stories in the War Stories anthology are informed by other media in a way they might not have been twenty or thirty years ago. But that’s not to say they’re overmatched. What goes on in your head when you read words on a page or screen cannot be duplicated by any other process, even the most immersive of films or games.
Describe your work flow or process when it comes to short stories, particularly how you find time for creative writing amid teaching and other projects?
Like Miniver Cheevy (if you’ll grant me an English teacher moment), I think and think and think about a story, and by the time I finally sit down to write, I can usually get it done in what time I have to get such things done. But I am nowhere near as productive as I might wish, and time management is always an issue. It helps that my wife is also a teacher and writer and therefore unfazed by what time I devote to sitting around the house staring vacantly into space.
What are you reading, watching or playing right now that you can’t put down?
Continuing from the previous question: when I was in graduate school I met the novelist John Barth at a campus reception, and when I asked him what he was reading lately, he replied, “Mostly, my students’ papers.” So there’s that. I’ve been dipping into the recent Penguin Books edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti, an extraordinary contemporary horror writer whose work reportedly influenced the first season of True Detective (which I really couldn’t stop watching). There is so much good television that I fear for my life. I’m also trying to restrain myself from plunging into Patti Smith’s new memoir, M Train, until I finish that next batch of student papers. As for playing, I confess I’m generationally impaired when it comes to video games. Maybe when I retire from teaching I’ll explore that world—although I suspect I’ll just keep staring vacantly into space.