When we read about conflict and war, it is easy to find ourselves absorbed in the major muscle movements of militaries and nations. We see arrows on a map depicting the movement of thousands in the pincer movement at Cannae, the fishhook line of Union forces at Gettysburg, Schwarzkopf’s left hook in Operation Desert Storm. We can easily find ourselves focused on the statistics of mass: tens of millions of artillery shells fired at Verdun, the millions of military and civilian casualties at Stalingrad, the millions of tons of bombs dropped in Vietnam. And the same can be said of the conflicts like the Yugoslav Wars and the Croatian War of Independence. Armies. Bombings. Casualties. Mass graves.
What gets lost in those arrows and statistics is that they’re a collage of individual elements, of lives, of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters with hopes and dreams and lives changed by war. At a distance, the individual elements can’t be seen apart from the whole. Sometimes, it’s important to look at these individual lives—not of the great, but of the small—that make up these statistics, to establish an affective human connection to, and understanding of, this most human of activities.
Into this space steps Sara Nović with her first novel, Girl at War, a book in which the writing seems pedestrian until it captures you with its poetry. She also identifies a sense of the importance of the genre in which she writes—a fictional narrative of a little life capturing the experience of a conflict. When one character notes that talking about the war is not the same as living through it, Nović offers us a gem: “You don’t need to experience something to remember it.”
This may be an apology by the author, since hers is a work of fiction she explicitly rejects as autobiographical; she was born and raised in the United States, but she was inspired by time spent with family in Zagreb after the war. This is, however, precisely the power of literature; when it’s done well, we can remember something we haven’t experienced, or experience something of which we have no memory. It can become a part of us and shape our understanding of all those statistics and arrows on maps. And Nović’s work has done this very well, indeed.
In broad strokes, the story is a simple one. Ana Jurić is ten years old in Zagreb when the Croatian War of Independence begins in 1991. In the course of sending her infant sister Rahela to the United States—into foster and medical care and into a world where she will be called Rachel—the family runs afoul of a militia in the Stribor Forest. Through a heartbreaking ruse, Ana survives but isn’t spared, becoming a child soldier in a terrible war—though she will later say, “There’s no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia…There is only a child with a gun.” She is eventually smuggled out of the country by family connections and the United Nations, taken in by the foster parents of her sister, and spends the next ten years in America. Then, in 2001, Ana returns to Croatia in search of…something.
This is, however, precisely the power of literature; when it’s done well, we can remember something we haven’t experienced, or experience something of which we have no memory.
Simple as it is, the story is complex and deceptive—pulling a reader from past to present, nonlinearly told from the alternating perspectives of a child and a young woman, and revealing Ana’s struggle through narrative and memory. Through the child’s eyes we see the ethnic divides that would destroy her family; her confusion over why a brand of cigarettes or how one shaves would make for mortal enemies; and the games of war turned into an all too real experience she cannot comprehend. Ana’s older self understands no better, and the book’s title takes on extra meaning.
Ana is a girl at war in the literal sense, but she is also at war with herself, her past, her memories, and her loss. A most interesting aspect of her loss is the loss of identity, of the connections to who she was. She now knows her parents only through memory and a blurred photo. These wars remain unresolved, in many ways, and a two-line conversation between Ana and a childhood friend with whom she is reunited on her return to Zagreb captures this. As Ana searches for the site of her parents’ execution, these simple lines capture the sense that the struggle of becoming and understanding, is never resolved:
“It’s over,” Luka said.
“It doesn’t feel over.”
Novic’s effort is not a wholly novel one. There are innumerable works illuminating brilliantly the human experience of war. In fiction we have works as varied as Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Back, Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. In nonfiction, examples include God Sleeps in Rwanda by Joseph Sebarenzi or A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah or The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget by Andrew Rice, stories of Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, respectively. (My reading prejudices may be showing.) And we have compelling work full of pathos on what the survivors of these traumas endure in books like Achilles in Vietnam and The Road Back from Broken. It’s a large and important literature.
Girl at War is a beautiful and brutal addition to this canon.
Eric M. Murphy is a mathematician, operations research analyst, and strategist for the United States Air Force. He is also an Editor at The Strategy Bridge. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Girls being trained in a Palestinian refugee camp (Child Soldiers)