One of the most hopelessly idealistic nicknames of all time has to be “the war to end all wars,” considering that World War I was anything but that. Not only did its conclusion bring about the Treaty of Versailles—practically a Kickstarter campaign for round two—but the immense tragedy and death resulting from four years of brutal trench warfare left nations confused as to why they sacrificed so many of their bright young men for a cause that came from an obscure, zigzagging chain of events that can barely be remembered by most high school students during exam time.
Riddled with misinterpretations, that war and its many lessons were largely swept under the rug of history. Kathleen Rooney’s new historical fiction novel, “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey,” looks into the forgotten lives of individuals who endured the tortuous fighting. Writing from the perspectives of its title characters, Rooney follows a homing-pigeon-turned-hero who saved the lives of 195 American soldiers who were stranded in the Argonne Forest under the command of their beloved leader Major Whittlesey. Rooney’s novel rises above the clichéd glamor of bullet wounds and artillery strikes, instead revealing that when it comes to something as annihilating as World War I, there are no clear winners or losers.
I spoke to Rooney over the phone about her experience researching characters who lived over a century ago, how their actions could be a valuable lesson, and how the romanticization of war stories can be a slippery slope.
World War I is such a complex and dense period of history, filled with hundreds and hundreds of different stories. How did you manage to narrow a novel down to the unique narratives of Cher Ami and Charles Whittlesey?
I’ve always wanted to write about World War I, but before I learned of Cher Ami and Whit, I wasn’t going to. What could I say about this massive event? After a former student of mine encouraged me to look her up, Cher Ami became my first fascination; she was my way into the story, but almost simultaneously I fell down the rabbit hole of Whit as well. I was drawn to both of them right away because even by Googling to the shallowest extent, you see they both have this really interesting gender and sexuality situation where Cher Ami was misgendered as a male pigeon her entire life and Whit, based on most researched accounts, lived a clandestine life as a gay man.
Obviously, it isn’t difficult to instantly sympathize with Whit and Cher Ami’s struggles, but something I found impressive was how closely I connected with the characters fighting alongside these protagonists such as Zip Cepaglia and Captain McMurtry. How did you maintain the emotional core of the story without losing these details that painted the picture of the Lost Battalion?
One of the things I think about a lot is the information-intimacy axis that fiction operates on where the more information you get from a novel, the less intimacy you feel. When you’re pulled back to get a global picture, you’re more informed but you don’t feel as emotionally connected, and sometimes the more intimate you are with a character, the less information you learn from a global event, so I was really trying to balance information versus intimacy. There’s this clichéd proverb that goes, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” That was something I was thinking about a lot because numerically WW I should horrify us. There were twenty million casualties, half of which were noncombatants. That alone should stop us in our tracks, but it does and it doesn’t. You take a number like twenty million and it becomes an intellectual exercise. What I hoped for was that if the novel focused on these individual stories, then the narrative could embody the true tragedy.
There’s that Hemingway cliché of a romantic war story where some guy does the equivalent of blowing up a bridge as a sacrifice for the greater good, but unlike most popular war films and books, your novel avoids that. Was it a challenge to avoid this glamorization while writing?
I was super-aware of the tradition of war literature and war cinema where even stuff that is intended as antiwar comes off as pro-war. Take “Apocalypse Now,” where there’s this famous scene of a helicopter raid while Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” plays. You get the impression that Coppola is being critical of war, but it’s impossible to watch that scene and not think, “That was super-cool.” I was always reminding myself not to pull a Coppola. One way I managed to do this was to shift my focus from the larger events to the smaller details. I don’t want to be crude, but war is crude, war is obscene, war is bodily, and when the battalion is stuck in the Argonne Forest for days, the latrines are overfilled and they are literally living in their own shit. It’s really hard to read scenes like that and come away thinking, “I wish I fought in World War I.”
Global events are constantly being put into the mind frame of war. Essential workers are “frontline workers.” Candidates are visiting “battleground states.” Trump was recently reported by The Atlantic calling wounded veterans “losers.” What can this infusion of war jargon have on a country’s way of thinking?
I finished writing this book years ago, and no author knows when their book is going to come out, but I certainly did not imagine that it’d be coming out in a year with Trump versus Biden or during a global pandemic. Both of these situations have this war-oriented language of life or death, victor or loser, black or white and I think putting non-war situations inside of war rhetoric develops this mindset of a zero-sum game where there can be no half measures. This thinking doesn’t give the necessary room to develop empathetic strategies for change. Although to be clear, defeating Trump is a matter of life or death, and we need to choose life. I wouldn’t use a war metaphor to define the election, but I would use the metaphor that Trumpism is a death cult.
Looking at something like world war and other world-involving events like global warming, the line between emotions and facts often blurs. During the writing process, did you ever come to certain ideas about how these two could be separated for positive change?
It’s difficult to say because if I knew how to successfully do that I’d probably run for office or rule the world. But in all seriousness, I’m leery as an artist of conflating art and politics. I think they have a relationship, but they are separate things. I hope I wrote an antiwar novel, but I do not naively believe this novel will stop war. Having said that, I do think that the negotiation between facts and emotions in the so-called “real world” is going to hinge on narratives and stories, some of which may be novels. The narrativization of problems puts people in action. I don’t want to apply war metaphors to climate change, but they’re both these hyper-object situations that are difficult to wrap our minds around. It seems like we have the knowledge to never go to war again, we have the knowledge to not destroy our planet and ourselves, and yet we’re not stopping these things from happening. I am anti-war in every circumstance, and I know people think I might be foolish or cockamamie for thinking that, but I think it’s a failure of imagination to believe that we cannot live in a world without war. It’s never too late to make a restorative choice.