Why We Write
Craft Essays on Writing War
Edited by Randy Brown and Steve Leonard
Middle West Press, Johnston, Iowa, 2019, 256 pages
Book Review published on: April 3, 2020
Randy Brown and Steve Leonard asked sixty-one military writers a simple question: Why do you write? The answers, mostly in prose but sometimes in bullet points, come together in the edited anthology Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War. The people who contributed answers to the question have wisdom to share, valid critiques to make, comrades to mourn, and written legacies to leave behind them. They write to leave paper trails of lives lived in service.
Randy Brown, also known as Charlie Sherpa on his blog and social media accounts, and Steve “Doctrine Man” Leonard are members of the Military Writers Guild. The mission of the guild is short and to the point. In fact, it is three sentences long, as shown on the guild’s website under the “Our Mission” link. The guild exists to connect writers who are “committed to the development of the profession at arms” through the written word. The guild encourages “open dialogue from diverse perspectives,” and recognizes the inherent benefits this attitude offers when engaging questions of national security. Finally, the guild “foster[s] a strong peer ecosystem” where poetry and prose intentionally focus on military affairs and the where the authors offer encouragement, mentorship, and amplification.
I asked the editors about the intended audience for this collection of essays. Leonard stressed that the book is for “writers of any genre” and will help prospective writers “better understand what motivates us to tell our stories.” He perceives the anthology as a call to action. Brown agrees, calling the book a source of inspiration and lessons learned “to be shared with anyone wrestling with writing about military experiences, themes, or topics.” Brown points out that “after nearly 20 years at war, nearly everyone you meet can be found to have some connection with the military,” and while writers in uniform were encouraged to share their stories, the voices of family members, citizens, taxpayers, and voters are just as important.
The authors’ contributions vary from the serious, the heartfelt, the devastating, the sardonic, and the gracious. It definitively illustrates that the military and military-adjacent experience is not a monolith. Matt Condon explains in his essay, “Writing Myself to Sleep,” how putting his fears down on paper “in black and white” created a space where they could no longer hurt him. Kate Germano found support for her written words after the Marine Corps relieved her of command for being a squeaky wheel, “obsessed with equality.” Vanya Eftimova Bellinger educates the world with her scholarship, and writes because she has “always had more questions than answers about the world we live in.” Her essay, “On Writing the Other Clausewitz,” follows the untold story of Marie von Clausewitz and how she shaped her husband’s legacy. Mick Ryan argues that a soldier requires development in written communication and appreciates how the act of writing encourages learning new things, challenging “one’s beliefs or knowledge with new facts, opinions, and analysis.” He concludes his essay with the hope that writing made him a better soldier, leader, and person.
Brown and Leonard made some deliberate editorial decisions so the readers would focus on the stories, intentionally dropping references to pay grades and medals, because “a good technique or idea doesn’t depend on rank.” Twenty percent of the participants are members of the Military Writers Guild. Thirty percent of the contributors are women, and 70 percent are service members or civilians. Brown wants future projects to further emphasize the diversity of “voices and experiential backgrounds,” reflecting the objectives of both the book’s publisher and that of the guild. This anthology demonstrates the power of effective writing when collaboration amongst policy and doctrine “wonks” write alongside historians and poets. “Military writing,” Brown reminds us, “is so much more than five-paragraph orders and three-part essays.” It is where big ideas meet intimate moments and memories are preserved in the hopes that the lessons learned may persist beyond our lifetime.
The readers of Military Review all have stories of their own, and Leonard encourages all to use this book as a source of inspiration. “Our book is a call to action,” he insists and asks that readers “put aside your reluctance and tell your stories, share the ideas, and speak your opinions.” Ultimately, Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War reminds all of us that no one else can tell our personal stories. We have to pull out a notebook and pen, or keyboard, and tell them ourselves.
Book Review written by: Kate Dahlstrand, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas