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Life During Wartime: 6 Stories and Poems from the Trenches

This Memorial Day, Grammarly would like to take the time to salute our men and women in uniform. Meet six wartime writers who captured the complexity of combat.
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This Memorial Day, Grammarly would like to take the time to salute our men and women in uniform. Meet six wartime writers who captured the complexity of combat. From the poet-soldiers of World War I to the satirical novels inspired by World War II, the works of these authors lives on.

The best-known poet of World War I was Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who was killed in action at the age of 25 on November 4, 1918--just one week before the Armistice ended the war. His poetry combined the lyrical style of Romantic poets like Keats and Shelley with the visceral horrors of the battlefield. Unlike the patriotic or sentimental poetry written in England during the war, Owen's work, including "Dulce Et Decorum Est" and "Anthem for Doomed Youth," was dark, gritty, and uncomfortably realistic.

Excerpt from "Dulce Et Decorum Est:"

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

In contrast to Wilfred Owen, Rupert Burke was a starry-eyed idealist. Once a member of the Bloomsbury group of writers that included Virginia Woolf, Burke wrote a handful of sonnets about World War I. Burke died in 1915 at the age of 27 (from, of all things, an infected mosquito bite), but his work became very popular after his death.

Excerpt from "The Soldier:"

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

John McCrae was a Canadian author and doctor who served as a surgeon during World War I. His most famous poem "In Flanders Fields" was published in a 1915 issue of Punch, a popular variety magazine, and it became one of the most iconic works about the war. McCrae died of pneumonia in January of 1918 at the age of 45.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

In 1968, having just graduated from Macalester College, Tim O'Brien was drafted. He served in Vietnam, and his experiences during his tour of duty led him to write The Things They Carried, a semi-fictional collection of short stories that has become an American classic, frequently appearing on high school and college required reading lists.

Excerpt from The Things They Carried:

If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.

The term catch-22 has come to mean an impossible contradiction--trying to get a job to gain experience when all jobs require experience, for example. It comes from Joseph Heller's satirical novel Catch-22, which was inspired by the author's experience as a bombardier in Italy during World War II. It is frequently ranked as one of the best (and funniest) novels of the 20th century. (Though we usually think the book is better than the movie, the 1970 film adaptation is really great, too.)

Be glad you're even alive.
Be furious you're going to die.

Artists process their experiences in different ways. For Kurt Vonnegut, who survived the horrific firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces during World War II, his experiences inspired the sci-fi classic Slaughterhouse-Five, a time-traveling narrative about a soldier named Billy Pilgrim. From an alien zoo to a slaughterhouse in Dresden, the story skips back and forth in time. Despite the impressionistic approach, it is one of the most important novels to come out of the Second World War.

Quote from Slaughterhouse-Five:

"Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt."

Who is your favorite wartime writer? How has that person's experiences impacted their writing, or your perception of war?