Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Inner Wars and Outer Wars

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 28, 2014

One of the questions I get asked all the time is “Why do you write about war?”

7Samurai

"Again we've survived." The closing image of Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai."

It’s a good question, and for years I didn’t have an answer.

I didn’t start out writing about war. For almost thirty years I wrote screenplays and novels and none of them were war-themed. In 1996, Gates of Fire (about the battle of Thermopylae) came out of me for some reason I could not (and still cannot) fathom. Six more novels about war followed. A non-fiction book about the Six Day War of 1967, The Lion’s Gate, just came out two weeks ago.

What gives?

What is it about armed conflict that seems to fascinate me?

I’m certainly not the blood-and-guts type. I’ve never been in a war. I was an infantryman in the Marine Corps but that was in the reserves. My unit never got called up. I never saw action.

I haven’t lost friends in war; I haven’t been traumatized by experiences in combat. I have no ax to grind politically. I would not call myself “anti-war.” But I’m certainly not pro-war.

Marine Lieutenant General James Mattis invited me to speak to some of his officers at Quantico a few years ago, and afterwards he invited me to dinner with his staff. He had read Gates of Fire and had been deeply impressed by the reality of the combat depicted and by the representation of the emotions and the fellow-bonds of the warriors under such extreme conditions. He asked me straight-out: “How can you write so truly about men in war when you’ve never experienced war yourself?”

My answer sounded facile, I know. “That’s why they call it fiction.”

My reply was not facile. It was a true statement of the fiction writer’s experience, of the mystery of the imagination, and of the creative process.

Homer lived three to four hundred years after the Trojan War. He was blind. How could he know what he knew? How could he write the Iliad?

Shakespeare was born 150 years after Agincourt. He did not fight in that battle (nor in any war, for all we know) yet he was able to put these words into Henry V‘s mouth, addressing his outnumbered, weary, illness-ravaged troops:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me 
shall be my brother;

Be he ne’er so vile, 
this day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
 shall think themselves

Accurs’d they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap

Whiles any speaks 
that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

How did Shakespeare do that?

How does any writer write anything?

My answer (and I’ve thought about this a lot) has to do with inner wars and outer wars.

Life is a war. That’s my experience of it anyway. Life is a clash enacted on manifold levels.

We fight it in the sphere of action, in the material world. What warrior is braver than a single mother working two jobs to put food on the table for her children?

We fight it on the plane of the imagination, like the combat vet dueling demons only he can see. We fight it on the emotional plane, the psychological plane, the spiritual plane. We fight it inside our own heads and hearts, sometimes just to get through from night to morning.

There is an enemy inside us.

What I call the “war of art” is the internal struggle of the individual against those unseen forces that seek to keep her from realizing her truest, bravest, and noblest self. That struggle is universal. Everyone has to fight it.

What is the individual struggling for?

She’s fighting for her own soul.

In Israel last year I was interviewing a former combat commander, who had fought in five wars. He was describing his experience during one particularly harrowing ninety-six hour period, when the reconnaissance company he was commanding faced the enemy at point-blank range a number of times and inflicted and suffered heavy casualties.

War for the commander is not like war for the individual soldier. What is going on in external reality is for me only context. The real war is inside my head.

In my head I must overlook nothing, forget nothing, fail to act on no warning or intuition. In my head I must manage my own emotions, not for myself but for the mission and for my men. I must know the breaking point of each soldier and each vehicle, and of the unit collectively. I must know how much they have left to give, and how much extra I can ask of them in a crisis.

A military unit, particularly a reconnaissance company, is like a street gang. You are closer than brothers. Each life is precious to you. For every man under my responsibility, I see in my mind’s eye his mother and father, his girlfriend or wife, his children, even if he has none yet—his children-to-be, and their children as well. All will suffer if he dies. Such a weight makes concerns such as personal fear, loss, even one’s own death seem trivial.

I am lucky. My position as commander denies me the luxury of doubt or hesitation or fear.

For this commander in action, the inner war and the outer war have become one. The exigencies of the outer war have rendered the personal inner war moot. The universal inner war not only remains, however, but has become screwed to a pitch of life-and-death intensity and immediacy.

Why do old soldiers remain bound to the comrades-in-arms of their youth? What has made those bonds so imperishable? Why do so many veterans struggle when they return from wars?

Is it because the experience, however ghastly in moments, produced peaks of intensity, selflessness, honor, courage, and love that are impossible to replicate (or even to imagine) in peacetime life?

And yet …

The inner war remains. This is a war for which “real” war is a metaphor. The inner war goes deeper than the emotional level, or the psychological level, or even the psychopathic level.

On the plane of the spirit, the yet-to-be-born swims upward toward the light, even though it doesn’t know what the light is, or if that light exists at all. And it swims opposed. Resisted and dragged downward by enemies it cannot see or name or grapple with hand-to-hand.

These are wars of the soul, and they are real wars.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

23 Responses to “Inner Wars and Outer Wars”

  1. Basilis
    May 28, 2014 at 4:56 am

    So full of wisdom…

  2. Mary Doyle
    May 28, 2014 at 6:16 am

    Thank you for this – there is a lot to think about here. I have given a great deal of thought about the dark themes that keep emerging in my own writing. They do not reflect my personal history/life experience, but they are nevertheless firmly rooted in my work. Resistance has tried to get me to question what kind of a person would write the stuff I am writing and I’ve had my share of dark moments about it. Life being war makes sense from this standpoint, but once you step aside and let the writing go where it wants to go, you know that the Muse is nearby and all you have to do is get out of the way and take what She offers.

  3. Richard
    May 28, 2014 at 8:46 am

    I’m new here and don’t browse well and do not know how to start a new subject. So, In your Lions Gate talk I saw on C-span, there was one lady in the Q&A that said she served in the Golon Heights and mentioned something about their Air Force and “illegal” radar of the US. Did your pilot interviews mention why they attacked the USS Liberty?
    Semper Fi, Richard

  4. May 28, 2014 at 11:18 am

    I’ve been waiting for this column – why you write about war. It seemed inevitable, of course. Having read the War of Art, and other books of yours, as well as studied Tanya, I expected you to explain about the struggle of the soul, the war to exist. You do this so well, so eloquently – from within the trenches of life.

    The Talmud says, “against your will you were born, against your will you live, against your will you die, against your will you will have to give an accounting to the Holy One.” The struggle is with and against ourselves. We are eternally striving to unify and harmonize the disparate parts of our being.

    War makes it raw. And unavoidable. Whatever the war we’re fighting.

    Thanks.

    • Twyla
      May 29, 2014 at 6:14 am

      I cannot believe that the marvel of the unsullied human infant was not meant to be born…all that beautiful organization in human form…

      and at what instant does the human will come into being? at conception? then it would be a will to survive, or else it would just delete itself

  5. May 28, 2014 at 11:36 am

    War is not a metaphor that comes naturally to me in considering our evolution as a spirit or a soul. So you have given me so much to think about in this post. I’ll consider how it really appears for me.

  6. May 28, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    There is an enemy inside us. Well said. Back in the summer of 07, one of my Soldiers came to me asking to go back to Afghanistan or Iraq. We had just returned in January.

    My initial reaction was one of alarm, and I told her, “Kelsey, the real war is here. It is in achieving your goals, finding a job, finding a lover/mate, finishing school…what we lived overseas was really fiction. It felt important, and it was important–but our lives are here. The fight is here. Dig in here. I will not approve your deployment.”

    She eventually left the Army to become a Marine Aviator, and she is now flying helicopters in harm’s way. I love her like a kid sister, but in that summer she was running away instead of running towards something.

    There is an enemy inside us.
    bsn

    • Stephen Q Shannon
      May 29, 2014 at 8:10 am

      Brian, What you report and say apply to a job search by the employed or the underemployed and ikely the unemployed. Most jobseekers are driven by getting away from a former A-hole supervisor, not toward being in control of his or her’s destiny. Your insight supports (therefore I am writing this comment) my 23 years as a career trainer (not a coach, not a headhunter). Thou shalt not be successful in searching for new employment, if your mission is to get way from a bad experience (former ugly employer or former rancid organization,for profit or non-profit). Be relentless in search for what you do want and what is best for you while you solve a new employer’s problems so well they will find ways to pay you better and treat you with respect like never before.

      • May 29, 2014 at 7:56 pm

        Stephen,
        Serendipity. A component of my job now is to help Soldiers/Veterans transition to civilian employment. It is actually harder than one would think–Veteran unemployment is the highest in the history of Veterans returning from War (Civil War until now). A buddy of mine just wrote a paper for grad school on it, so the stats are current. (2008-2013).

        While I’ve put together job fairs, training programs, worked with outside agencies & non-profits–it is all very real to me personally now. I’ve decided to retire and am seeking outside employment while I tinker in the garage wrestling Resistance like the rest on this blog.

        Your point is absolutely accurate, in fact I thought, “Do I know this guy? Does he know I’m looking for a job?” Yesterday I got word that while I was a finalist, I was not selected for a job that would be a total game-changer for us. Disappointed, to say the least. So…I wrote a bunch of recommendations for some of my peeps, did some research & wrote a recommendation for another friend’s graduate program, and generally tried to think of others’ problems today. Good medicine, I have another idea about how to build a leadership program that I want to take out to the world.

        Good stuff, and thank you. I will use your wisdom as counsel for myself, and the Soldiers with whom I work.
        bsn

        • Stephen Q Shannon
          May 30, 2014 at 2:17 am

          Brian, Add me to your search team. We should try not to job search alone. I too am in transition after 22+ plus years working one-on-one with professional men and women including 10 years a Contract Career Center Manager for Pratt & Whitney (UTC)space, now Aero Jet Rocketdyne. I found that my great candidates (now legacy clients) were receptive to all manner of approaches to get hired. But when it came to investing in themselves while newly employed, not so much. I invite you and others whom might want to invite to take part informally in my new venture, free Google+ Video Hangouts via http://www.business-hangouts.com (also a free platform) that uses Google+, but is more user-friendly. Now that we are connected via LinkedIn (Thrilled you reached out to me so warmly)you know how to contact me by phone or by gmail. Standing by to assist (again no charge, ever)in exchange for you and possibly others willing to take part, via a suddenly scheduled or planned video hangout. When next we talk, I’ll set forth the mundane tech requirements that will ensure a seamless smooth event, private or public, as we see fit. Thank you for being so receptive and supportive. Refreshing. Your newest advocate, sQs

  7. Sonja
    May 28, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    Wow. This was powerful and much needed today.

    You named your book, The War of Art, for a reason, and it’s always resonated with me. The struggle, the self-doubt, the striving for something….

    This was beautifully and eloquently said, and gave me much to ponder.

  8. May 29, 2014 at 5:29 am

    Life is war. :-)

  9. May 29, 2014 at 6:22 am

    “She’s fighting for her own soul.”

    I fight this battle every day. I fight for the right to write – and then I fight my body for the ability.

    Fortunately, I don’t fight for the desire to write. I just show up – the desire is there. I battle Resistance, give it its due, realize that the harder it is to write that day (if my brain is on), the deeper I have to dig for why. The ‘why’ always gives me good stuff.

    Today, finally, after 4 days of a brain fog so deep all I could do was sit in this chair for my writing time (that’s my commitment: be here), the sleep was better, and maybe the new meds are working, because I’m blocking the internet, and moving on to my writing (woo hoo!).

    The wars are not ours to win forever – but trying every day is.

  10. Barry
    May 29, 2014 at 6:24 am

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    Keeping my soul ‘present’ and ‘alive within my decisions and actions’ is a moment to moment, day to day challenge for me. I keep thinking, hoping that it will ‘get easier’ and that I’ll be able to ‘live more in flow’ with my soul being present.

    This post helps me accept that, yesm it is possible. And, it is an ongoing, all-out war for it to be so.

    “The wars of the soul are real wars.” Yes they are.

  11. Twyla
    May 29, 2014 at 6:35 am

    As an artist and writer and the daughter of a Cold War-era Starfighter pilot, I have struggled all my life with being excluded from the pilot brotherhood – born too early to have a crack at flying myself, I, like millions of military brats, lived lives determined by our fathers’ love of risk and danger, pride in their skill, patriotism, and their unwillingness to let any girl join their ranks. We brats were the least free of all those whose freedom was being defended. My attempts to de-militarize myself stumble over the deep thrill I get at the sound of a jet, the feeling of home I get inside a 10-foot high fenced compound. And I hate the fact of bombs and weapons being used on people, the agonizing destruction they create on every level. I haven’t found any satisfactory way to write about being part of a military family yet, but I’m working on it.

  12. Barbara
    May 29, 2014 at 6:57 am

    Wow – what a holy way to start the day. Thank you, Steven.

  13. yehudit rose
    May 29, 2014 at 8:21 am

    Steve,
    What an impressive post. It says so much worth reading again and again, both about war and about being human.
    Thank you for your insights, and for saying it all so directly and powerfully.

  14. May 29, 2014 at 10:55 am

    In a strange way, Mr. Pressfield answers the question in his 2004 masterpiece The Virtues of War. At the conclusion of his chapter on the battle of Granicus the wind pipes a chord through the long spears arrayed upright for the night. The boy called Underfoot sings

    The sarissa’s song is a sad song
    He pipes it soft and low.
    I would ply a gentler trade, says he,
    But war is all I know.

  15. Lucia
    May 29, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Tennessee Williams’s first full-length play to be produced was the 1937 “Candles to the Sun”, a tragedy set in an Alabama coal mine. It was written by a city boy, fighting internal wars, with no experience of mines or miners or Alabama (and no internet). This is from a review of a recent production: ‘”…Despite the talk of unions and working conditions and meager pay, it is ultimately about a family that is boxed in at every turn. There is real pathos to this story, and you can always count on Williams to nail the emotional truth of the moment.”

  16. Lesley D'Angelo
    May 29, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    I read all those books of that guy that writes about the Marines .Why?Was I planning on joining ? Going to battle ? Looking for a husband? Well,maybe ,but mostly I wanted to learn the discipline of the fight . If I lived in Israel I would have been required to serve ,right out of high school . We are missing this element of how to stand firm ,and how to deflect ,and how to WIN! There are enemies not of flesh and blood the Bible says we war against ,so every day I put on my armor ,I want to be ready .David ,Joshua were warriors.I love in the 67 war the enemy “thought” they heard the Israelites coming at them ,but they had set up a sound system in the trees to make the enemy believe they were on their way!!!Hah , that is the warfare of the mind ,I just loved that!

  17. May 29, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    Whoa! I love this stuff. Thanks so much for sharing.

  18. May 30, 2014 at 10:45 am

    Don’t know why this didn’t post yesterday, but I just wanted to say “Thanks for this Steve!”

  19. May 30, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    Pretty! This has been a really wonderful post.
    Many thanks for supplying this information.