Some Thoughts on the Value of Writing During Wartime


While reading the WTV reader Expelled from Eden, I came across this piece. It is taken from Vollmann’s Iraq chapter from Rising Up and Rising Down and from a speech he gave in Sacramento in 2002. I searched online to see if I could find this particular section, the three suggestions that he offers to writers writing about war, but I also think it has a broader appeal and applies when trying to write about any group that is well-known and often misunderstood or misrepresented.

“My advice to the writers among you would be as follows:

1.) Never forget the other point of view. No matter how you judge it, try to see it fairly and try to describe it accurately. Failing this, you will remain unable to evaluate the ideological claims to which you will be subjected for the rest of your life. Whatever you write about, let your subjects teach you in their own way, and show them that you have learned it and respect it. Let them be round characters always. The most anti-American Taliban officials were kind to me when I showed them my own copy of the Koran.

2.) Never forget your own point of view. If extremists convince their neighbors in the Muslim world that we are all pawns of Israel, maybe you can unconvince them. If our government presents our next archenemy as a flat character, lern enough to present him as a round character. If you become a reporter, you will have to live with dumbing down your message, but please never, ever allow the fundamental essence of that message be distorted. Remember, we writers are among the few who enjoy the privelge of presenting and standing by our own independant position to the world. We are beholden to no one.

3.) In these times, any one of you who feels inclined to risk a little and earn a lot should travel to an Islamic country to make friends and learn, not to teach. I can promise you that the mere fact of your interest will make a difference in a world where most Americans are seen as ignorant bullies. You should consider it an honor and a duty to keep those friends for life. You should get to know them well enough to understand why what they elieve is plausible to them, and you should explain their views to other Americans as sympathetically and as accurately as you can.”