A couple weeks after my second daughter was born, I began to pack an unwieldy pile of books into my wheeled footlocker in preparation for my upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. It was early October 2012, and the rest of my SEAL team already had deployed. Most of my buddies packed a Kindle instead of bound books, because the palm-sized device can carry thousands more titles than my beaten-up, dusty locker. Yet to me, there is something comforting in the feel of books when at war; something about being connected physically to the text that my comrades did not seem to understand. So I carefully selected my library and filled it almost entirely with Ernest Hemingway. He was my literary combat comrade.
I always have enjoyed his work and his connection to the battles of World War I. I would and still do make comparisons to my own experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, through the lens of his literature. War is war, after all, and it’s hell. He provided me an escape while allowing me to process and relate to the events and actions taking place around me.
Hemingway’s ideal of masculinity—that it is acceptable to be scared, so long as you face the situation—leaps from his pages and gives me a feeling that everything is going to be all right. His words put me at ease when situations are dangerous and stressful. I can come back from an emotional experience and lose myself in the emotions of his fiction. He is therapy.
Books at War
Practically since the time Gutenberg pressed ink to paper and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were put to print, soldiers have carried war books to war as a coping mechanism and escape. U.S. troops in World War II were no strangers to this notion. The Council on Books in Wartime provided small paperbacks, called World War II Armed Services Editions, to U.S. servicemen during the war. I think about a soldier escaping from the horrors of D-Day in Normandy or of the Battle of Guadalcanal in the same way I packed my footlocker before deploying. The Council on Books’ motto was “Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas,” and I believe that to be a sacred truth.
The Armed Services Editions allowed soldiers to carry new, exciting novels of their times, like future classics from my favorite authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, whose works clearly are shaped, influenced, and immersed in the ideas of war. There is no doubt the Armed Services Editions program enhanced World War II soldiers’ “capacity for wonder,” not to mention their sanity, at the time when psychologists understood almost nothing about battlefield stress.
I will never forget the day in 2015 when I went to the Library of Congress to see an Armed Services Collection copy of The Great Gatsby. I wanted to feel that Armed Services Edition in my hands. I wanted to connect with whomever had read it—probably passed from one soldier to another—near some faraway battlefield long ago, even if I was left alone to wonder with no conclusions.
Hemingway in Afghanistan
I would stash a copy of In Our Time in the cargo pocket of my pants in Afghanistan. It was light, hardly disrupted movement, and was completely impractical for a SEAL to be carrying in a war zone. Yet, the short stories made it easy for me to reflect on my own situations. The vignettes were like snapshots of a moment in time, and I could flip open to any page and enjoy the form and structure and interchapter sketches. It is impossible for anyone to process the events of war as they happen. Finding clarity and context takes years. Yet, sometimes, in the moment, it can be enough just to see the words of someone whom you know relates. That is what I found so clearly, and soothingly, in Hemingway.
In In Our Time, Hemingway speaks of evil and violence in a way that makes the uncomfortable understandable. He uses various techniques to demonstrate an idea of masculinity—or what it means to be a man in the modern world—and a clear anger over the idea that American men are too fearful toward life and death in a post-World War I era. Hemingway offers an indictment of this vulnerability and insists that American men must overcome it to truly be men.
Hemingway gives the reader a sense of heroism, particularly American heroism, in his time. Yet, the work always has had a timeless sensibility to me. The late Phillip Young, in Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration, illuminates In Our Time’s deceptively obvious title:
But Hemingway delighted in irony and in titles that are quotations; it is almost certain that he intended here a sardonic allusion to that phrase from the Book of Common Prayer which Neville Chamberlain was later to make notorious: “Give peace in our time, O Lord,” for the stories are mainly of violence or evil in one form or another. It is that there is no peace in them.
And there could be no peace for me either in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. World War I and the wars of my time are different conflicts in different times, and they started for different reasons. But the outcome is still the same: stories of violence in one form or another.
Masculinity in Hemingway
Hemingway’s immersion in the traumas of war, from his experiences as an ambulance driver in Italy in World War I, where he was wounded by Austrian mortars, and his work as a journalist on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, influenced his literature in immeasurable ways, especially regarding aspects of masculinity. His standard American man is ultimately stoic (one thinks of General James Mattis carrying his copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations around Afghanistan). In the Nick Adams stories, Hemingway demonstrates masculinity through the reflections of a young boy, Nick, and his father by inverting a youth’s experience into what an American man “should” understand in the postwar period.
In the story Indian Camp, Nick asks his father whether “dying is easy” for the man who commits suicide. His father replies, “It all depends.” Nick’s father suggests that suicide is acceptable because it gives the person a certain amount of agency. It can be a “manly” act, or it can be a not “manly” act. Hemingway thereby sets up his ultimate point: death can be “easy,” depending on the situation. This message is contrasted by the rest of In Our Time, where we see death as not always so easy. His construction of masculinity suggests we should not worry about the death that will come in war. For when death comes, death itself does not matter, and a true man ought not pretend that it does. Dying is easy, but how you die may not be.
Like Nick, I find myself ruminating on childhood memories after 15 years of preparing for and going to war. How does one prepare for seeing war and not become isolated? I think the truth is you cannot. Yet, this does not stop me from reflecting on moments of my childhood and trying to locate ones when I was tested or taught how to behave honorably. And it does not stop me from seeking that necessary comfort I find in books—Hemingway’s in particular.
As I near my retirement in the military, my greatest hope is that other soldiers, airmen, Coastguardsmen, sailors, and Marines can recognize that there can be a similar comfort for them; for there is comfort for the wise.
Lieutenant Suess is a Navy SEAL and is in his second year at the U.S. Naval Academy as an instructor in the English Department. An 18-year Navy veteran who has served numerous times overseas, he earned his master’s degree in English from Georgetown University in 2016, with a focus on American modern literature.