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10 of the most revealing literary takes on war

To celebrate this weekend's upcoming Peace Day celebration we look back at ten literary works that view war through an uncanny lens

This Sunday it's International Peace Day, a project set up in the hope that September 21 will become an institutionally recognised day around the world. Founded back in 1999 thanks to Peace One Day and the United Nations, the aim is simple, to create "an annual day of global unity, a day of intercultural cooperation on a scale that humanity has never known". All this week we'll be raising awareness in the hope that this Sunday will be the biggest Peace Day yet. Check back here for more throughout the week. 

In their classic forms, Dada and surrealism were born of war. Responding to the nonsensical pitch that state-administered violence had reached in World War I, writers working in the surreal mode shredded anything that the Western literary tradition defined as rational. When everything stops making sense, so should art. You may as well retreat into the inner maelstrom of the mind and see what’s up in there. Online-lit narrative voices sound toneless, or depersonalized, and that can compute as disengaged, which can in turn be interpreted as a gesture of political apathy. This is a mistake! As with classic surrealism, sometimes things don’t make sense because nothing makes sense and a writer is just reminding you. Noah Cicero says that when he writes about politics, he tries "never to write about politics like it matters." That’s not a rejection of the political – it’s a technique of approach. You can take it as a reader, too. From André Breton to flarf poetry to the bad novels of Saddam Hussein, never mistake a lack of seriousness for a lack of politics. Read on as we chart ten surreal literary takes on war.


Years before he came to write his inaugural 1924 text, the First Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton worked in a psychiatric hospital during WWI. There, he learned about Freud’s theories of the unconscious, was exposed to the horrifying psychiatric effects of war, and learned to despise the state. The Manifesto is a milestone in the political thought of surrealism and a tour de force response to the mechanisation of killing.


I found Nada Gordon's poem "Unicorn Believers Don't Declare Fatwas" (Poetry, 2009) in Brian Droitcour’s CUNY syllabus. In it, Gordon treats Hitler and this one unicorn like a kid treats little action figures on an afternoon kitchen table, except she found the action figures on the internet: "I was sort of doodling Hitler at my friend’s house and we couldn’t stop watchingunicorn hardcore soft porn abortion e-cards containing scenes in which the baby angora unicorn and Hitler stay warm on a cold night." Gordon’s flarf poetry is not the sort that is boring. Her work is collaged of vivid, hyperstimulating scenes, but she never loses control of the tone, so it just feels artful. Unicorn Believers uses the principle of sheer clash precisely.


Cicero is a political writer. He even has a degree in Political Science. Nobody can call alt lit apolitical, because Cicero is in it. His book The Human War (2011) is an brutalising romp through the final hours before the beginning of the War on Terror. It opens: “Two hours till war. It's six o'clock. Bush said at eight, people must die.” I’ve never read anything else that describes the way normal people actually talk about war without making them any sound less or more idiotic than is true.


Saddam Hussein wrote novels, although they were published under the pseudonym ‘he who wrote it.’ Really, according to the C.I.A., he told a team of ghostwriters what to write. In this case, he told them to write a lovely medieval king named Hussein, who heroically befriends Zabibah, an unhappy woman whose husband rapes her. Zabibah is meant to be the Iraqi people, and Hussein is supposed to be Saddam Hussein. The US government studied this book to try to understand the way his head worked. Presumably, they realised it works just like this book: weird, very bad, important.


Whilst skimming through this ebook of poetry a while back I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. I think I just found it on iamaltlit and clicked through. One poem stuck with me, though – the story is so good. It contains a good ratio of detail to sentiment: 

"My grandfather was in the hospital

we were talking about his life

how he enlisted in the army

but he pronounced army like “ahmey”

he told me about the Korean war

the first night he was there

they put him on patrol duty and was given two cans of beer

but he drank one and saved the other for later

he came back after the patrol and it was frozen

heating it up under the fire didn’t work

because the fire kills the “good” part of the beer

from then on he would drink both beers before the patrol

I asked if he was scared

'We were all scared.'”


David Abrams’ debut novel about life on a Forward Operating Base (FOB, hence ‘fobbit’) was a hit on its release in 2012, which is strange because it is a really fucking weird book. The tone is Joseph Heller-style frantic lightheartedness, with zany old captains and crazy lieutenants jostling with shitscared people trying to stay alive. Two parts M*A*S*H to one part Full Metal Jacket.


Marinetti’s 1914 groundbreaking Futurist work is probably best categorised as a concrete poem. In the form of a book, Marinetti lays out words in strange patterns and typographical images, a method he called Parole in libertà (words in freedom). It gives the story of the Battle of Adrianople, a conflict in the First Balkan War which Marinetti witnessed as a reporter. It ends on a characteristically chaotic, thrilling note:

"...these weights thicknesses sounds smells molecular whirlwinds chains nets and channels of analogies concurrences and synchronisms for my Futurist friends poets painters and musicians zang-tumb-tumb-zang-zang-tuuumb tatatatatatatata picpacpampacpacpicpampampac uuuuuuuuuuuuuuu



Sharon Mesmer’s 2006 poem is a series of narrative nonsequiturs, where things do things to other things. Political organisers clang against little kids, which bump into Bush’s war. Soundbites about Afghanistan make for very strange and interesting material, since they feel hackneyed from overuse but have still got it in them to shake you up:

"Squid signs me up for the NOW Action Alert list

NOW Action Alert list adds ice cream to my Jäger bomb

Jäger bomb waits patiently to turn into a little boy

Little boy shoots a rather alarming streak of squid in the nose of Jesus

Nose of Jesus thinks 9/11 was a comedy about Afghanistan

Afghanistan is evidence that Bush hates black people"


Mehmedinović’s book of poetry narrates the experience of living inside the bloody siege of Sarajevo. It was published in 1992, long before the siege would end: it was written under extreme conditions and is about living and writing under extreme conditions. Memehdinović at one point dwells on the parallel between photographer and sniper. Which, he wonders, is truly the more frightening?


Years ago now, Jeff Neumann at Gawker unearthed WikiLeaks emperor Julian Assange’s literary past. I still think about it all the time. If surrealism is the classic form of war writing, Assange’s poetry embodies its strangest version: the utter surrender of irony in the face of deeply felt and very badly expressed convictions: “What do guitars, lollies, lipstick, tamagotchis, padded bras, pornography, movies, opium, Ever Quest, and 98% of any Australian newspaper in common? They are all technologies of emmotional [sic] manipulation which distort our perceptions for the benefit of their masters.” Assange’s essays read like the diary of a fourteen year old who has just broken into Aldous Huxley, but for some reason they haunt me. A window into something, but what?

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