NORFOLK NAVAL STATION, VA. — NORFOLK NAVAL STATION, VA. - Even with their sleek, steel blue barrels fully loaded, they were amazingly lightweight gadgets - fully operable with just three fingers, two in a pinch; small enough to fit in a shirt pocket; powerful enough to topple governments.
Paid for by a defense contractor under a program approved by the Pentagon, they were handed out, one per solider, to volunteers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines who gathered here last month to learn about the newly issued apparatus from the experts.
Experts like ... Tom Clancy.
"The whole point of writing is to get an idea out of your head and put it into somebody else's head," the best-selling author of military thrillers told them.
Clancy's talk was part of "Operation Homecoming," a National Endowment for the Arts program to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan write about their experiences and preserve those writings for posterity. Working with a stable of 26 well-known authors and poets, the NEA is holding writing workshops at 20 military bases across the country in a program financed mainly by Boeing - a leading defense contractor and provider of the complimentary ballpoints.
Johnny got his pen.
Much of the classic literature of war - from Homer's Iliad to All Quiet on the Western Front, from Johnny Got His Gun to Catch-22 - has focused largely on war's downside, the horror, inanity, cost and futility.
The literature of the Iraq war remains to be written. But it is testament to how controversial that war has become, and to how many writers and poets oppose it, that a seemingly benign program has drawn suspicion from some in the literary community: Is the Bush administration, they ask, simply arming its warriors with another weapon, this time to fight the war of public opinion?
"Operation Homecoming threatens to move the NEA into the business of supporting the generation of propaganda," Kevin Bowen, a poet and Vietnam War veteran, wrote recently in Intervention, an online anti-war magazine, "a wartime exercise that is not part of its mission, and does writers, veterans, and the public a great disservice."
Poets still remember how a White House poetry symposium was canceled last year in the weeks leading up to the U.S. attack on Iraq, after administration officials learned one participant was gathering anti-war poems to present at the event.
Some fear that the anthology of soldiers' writing that the NEA will publish as part of Operation Homecoming similarly will be scrubbed of anti-war sentiment.
While the authors leading the workshops include such military boosters as Clancy and Victor Davis Hanson, there are also representatives of the other end of the spectrum, such as pacifist poet Marilyn Nelson.
Nelson, who took part in the poets' White House protest, led the second workshop in Norfolk. She, in fact, is credited with generating the idea that led to Operation Homecoming while she was teaching at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Nelson, the daughter of a Tuskegee airman, opposes the war but believes writing can help returning soldiers heal.
"I feel about this program as I did about accepting the invitation to teach at West Point. ... Sometimes, it's important to simply be there," she said. "What motivates me to be involved now is the sense that taking poetry to them returns to them some fundamental humanism, that it counters, in some small way, that other thrust."
Nelson had been teaching a "poetry and meditation" class at West Point when she ran into fellow poet Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA, at a conference last year. Gioia, a Bush appointee, asked about her class. Nelson said it would have been nice if returning Vietnam War veterans had access to a program that helped them express through writing their bottled-up emotions. Gioia agreed, and remarked on how the distance between the literary and military communities since Vietnam and the end of the draft seemed to have only grown.
From that conversation, Operation Homecoming evolved. Novelists, journalists, historians and poets were enlisted, at $3,000 a head, to teach the workshops, including Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down), Hanson (The Soul of Battle) and Tobias Wolff (In Pharaoh's Army).
Others writers, including James Bradley (Flags of Our Fathers) and Shelby Foote (Shiloh) helped put out a teaching CD, and an online tutorial.
And soldiers were invited to start submitting their work. More than 300 have so far. The best - as determined by an NEA panel - will be included in an anthology of wartime writing to be published next year. The NEA also will keep an archive of every poem, story, essay, letter and journal entry it receives.
Even though the program is primarily financed by Boeing ($250,000 of the program's $300,000 budget), and approved by the Pentagon, the selection of works for the anthology will be based on artistic merit, Gioia has said, and the writer's politics, or stance on the war in Iraq, will play no role.
Nelson, in an interview after the workshop, said she didn't expect the Pentagon to censor the anthology. "If anything, military people may censor themselves, I suppose."
She said her desire to help soldiers outweighed her opposition to the war.
"The literary world for the most part has not paid any attention to the military world. The USO entertains them with half-naked girls and off-color jokes. Why not something intellectually stimulating? You teach somebody to write a beautiful sentence and they will have that the rest of their lives."
During the Norfolk session, Nelson said later, a retired soldier told her he had nightmares for years about the first man he killed during World War II.
"We can't leave our soldiers alone, out in the cold, with those nightmares," she said. "They are doing what our government - no matter what we think of it - has ordered them to do."
If they were countries, and were they at war, novelist Tom Clancy would crush poet Marilyn Nelson.
It would be an ugly thing to watch: Nelson's army, not big on uniforms, would be gathered quietly in a wildflower meadow by a lake, sharing feelings. Clancy's troops, much higher in number, and all wearing military caps and sunglasses, would swoop down upon them in a loud, coordinated assault using all the latest technology.
Under a barrage of rocket-propeled adjectives, Nelson's troops would be helpless, their softly lobbed sonnets causing only momentary confusion to Clancy's advancing artillery. It would be over in minutes.
In reality, there is no bad blood between Clancy and Nelson. They hadn't even met until last week, when both arrived at the Norfolk Naval Station.
There, except at a luncheon and in a brief appearance before the news media, they went their own ways, leading separate workshops and imparting vastly different messages.
Day 1 brought Clancy - the brash and boastful Baltimore-born writer of best-selling fiction, an admitted military wannabe who, because of poor eyesight, never got the chance to serve. Dangling the keys to his Mercedes in front of the class, he told soldiers their stories could sell, to just start writing.
Day 2 brought Nelson - a soft-spoken, award-winning poet who drives a 2001 Honda. She urged her audience to look inside themselves, not to worry about selling their work - in reality, few will, she said - but to write for the sheer joy, self-discovery and healing of it.
As might be expected at a military base, Clancy was the bigger draw. More than 100 attended his session. Fewer than 20 attended Nelson's.
Operation Homecoming tries to bring writers from different genres to each workshop, but few have been as opposite as the two at this session.
"I don't think we have anything in common," said Nelson, now teaching at the University of Connecticut.
At her workshop, Nelson described how she prepares for writing, first lighting a candle and some incense, then putting on a meditation tape - maybe the sound of wind blowing or rain falling.
Then she closes her eyes, takes 10 slow breaths and visualizes being on an old-fashioned elevator, the kind with the arrow, descending from the 10th floor to the basement. She steps out, walks down a hallway and enters a room. She opens the curtain, then the window, then her eyes. Only then does she pick up her pen.
Clancy's preparations: Go to office, sit at computer (Mac), check e-mail, start writing.
"How many of you have been in a bar having a beer with someone you know and told a story? A novel is essentially a very long bar story," he said.
The insurance broker turned best-selling novelist told the would-be writers that luck played a big role in his success. His first novel, The Hunt for Red October, jumped on the best-seller list after then-President Reagan was quoted in a Time magazine article as calling it "the perfect yarn" and "non-put-downable."
Clancy, whose 80-acre estate in Calvert County features an underground gun range and a military tank as a lawn decoration, told the soldiers his life is far more comfortable than it was in the days when he lugged an IBM Selectric typewriter home from his office everyday to write.
Nelson's presentation was decidedly more touchy-feely. While Clancy's was peppered with curse words, Nelson's was filled with comments like "thank you for sharing that," and her advice included keeping a dream journal and confronting one's inner demons, even if only indirectly.
"Some of you may have memories you don't want to revisit ... but sometimes we don't need to attack things head on," said Nelson. "People who have been through extraordinarily intense experiences probably have truths they can share. You can discover things that you didn't know you knew."
She warned them not to expect the rewards Clancy has received: "I have a friend that irons his returned manuscripts page by page ... to save money, before sending them out again. That's the real world."
Clancy's workshop - at least the portion open to the news media - seemed more pep talk than anything else. In Clancy's book, and he's written 13 of them, the pen is not mightier than the sword. "People need to know our freedom doesn't come from reporters and poets. It comes from soldiers and Marines." And writing won't cure what ails you. "Catharsis?" he said. "That sounds like some kind of Greek drink."
He told the soldiers they have something to offer that civilians don't.
"I try to tell people what it's like to be one of you guys, but I've never been one of you guys," he said. "I never got a chance to do what you guys do. ... We've got a lot of smart people wearing the uniform, and the media doesn't tell that," he said.
It was at that point that NEA officials motioned reporters out of the room.
The NEA is limiting media access at the workshops. Those writing about the writers teaching soldiers to write are allowed, as a rule, to attend only the first 20 minutes of workshops, so participants won't be inhibited by their presence. Even during that time, an NEA news media handout stipulated, remarks made by service men and women were off the record. Most media interviews with soldiers, and even with the authors, were monitored by military or NEA officials.
While the writers chosen to conduct workshops run the gamut from hawk to dove, "We expect writers to keep their personal political views out of the classroom," Jon Peede, project director for Operation Homecoming, said in an interview. "NEA is not a platform for writers to make political statements. We want the writers focused on helping the troops."
Tonia Camp-Hyde, a laboratory technician at the Naval hospital in Bethesda, remembers her reaction when her grandmother would reminisce about her days as an Army nurse during World War II.
"I would say, 'That's cool, Grandma, let's talk about something else now.'"
Today she regrets it.
After her grandmother died, in 1991, Camp-Hyde learned that she had been one of the first Army nurses, and she realized she had blown her chance to document history - if not for the world, then herself.
"I never really talked to her about it and now I can't because she's not here. I missed out on a great opportunity."
Camp-Hyde, 31, drove to Norfolk for the workshop to "learn something new." The only writing she does now is an occasional letter to herself, "to get things off my chest." But, after hearing Clancy ("He was kind of an old salty dog") and Nelson ("She reminds me of my Grandma"), she was considering giving it a whirl.
Petty Officer 1st Class Karen Cozza, who was deployed during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom on the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, has never been published, but her writing was circulated.
Like others in Iraq, her e-mails home were forwarded to others by her parents.
"Mostly, I was just describing the day to day things - the food was horrible, we didn't get a lot of sleep last night, things like that," she said in an interview.
But, judging from e-mails sent to her, she developed a readership. "I would hear back from total strangers ... people I've never met. A friend of my mother-in-law wrote me regularly. I missed it when I got home. It was definitely therapeutic."
While originally aimed at active-duty soldiers, Operation Homecoming has been opened to all veterans and their families, and thousands of submissions are expected by the end-of-the-year deadline.
While a maximum length of 50 pages was set, Peede said, no works are being returned - not even those of a striving novelist who is sending 50 pages every week.
Ten more workshops will be scheduled and work on the anthology begins in March.
Some wonder how free-thinking the volume will be.
Bowen, the Vietnam veteran who wrote against Operation Homecoming, calls it an attempt by the government to control, or at least influence, what is written about the war.
Bowen, himself a former NEA grant recipient, believes Operation Homecoming is "an act of tactical preemption," and, in the article, asked if the program was an attempt by the NEA to "cozy up to the administration for a future budget increase."
While NEA officials deny that, the agency is in a far cozier position than it was 15 years ago, when it was being hammered, its budget axed, and its continued existence threatened by conservatives enraged over its support of projects like the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Today's more mainstream NEA - a transition sparked by the backlash and begun even before Gioia became chairman - is less likely to fund individual artists, especially those considered subversive. It is pushing projects that take art to the masses. And its budget has crawled back over $100 million. This year, President Bush has requested a budget increase for the agency next year that would be its largest in 25 years.
One of Gioia's first tasks as chairman was to help organize last year's ill-fated White House symposium - an event Nelson had planned to attend, and for which she wrote an anti-war poem. Her verse compared President Bush to cartoon character Yosemite Sam, frustrated and firing his six-guns into the clouds.
One can hate the war and love the warrior, said Nelson, whose regret over how she "wrote off" Vietnam-era soldiers while protesting that war in the 1960s may have something to do with why she's teaching them today.
"If we write off a whole group of people, what does that make us?" she said. "And what does it make them?"
Operation Homecoming (www.operationhomeco ming.org ) is not the only project seeking writing about war. Others include:
The Legacy Project (www.warletters.com ), a volunteer effort to preserve wartime correspondence. It has published War Letters, a collection of letters from the Civil War onward, edited by Andrew Carroll, who is also an Operation Homecoming participant.
The Library of Congress Veterans History Project (www.loc.gov/folklife/vets) is collecting veterans' letters, photographs, drawings and written and taped memoirs.
Voices In Wartime (www.voicesinwartime.org ), an online community that publishes writing about war. It has produced Poetry in Wartime, a coming documentary exploring "the perverse attraction and terrible reality of war" through images and the words of 34 poets, including Marilyn Nelson
Poets Against the War (www.poetsagainstthe war.org) is the organization poet Sam Hamill started after being invited to the White House.
An article on Operation Homecoming in yesterday's Today section misidentified the aircraft carrier on which Petty Officer 1st Class Karen Cozza served during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Cozza served on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. The Sun regrets the errors.