Interview: The Illumination and the Significance of WWI
K.J. Wetherholt discusses war, trauma, and how WWI set the stage for modern conflicts.
UPDATE: The following interview is about the literary novel, The Illumination: a Novel of the Great War, being re-released exclusively by MIPJ: Media, Information, International Relations, and Humanitarian Affairs on Memorial Day, May 31, 2021, with a portion of the proceeds to benefit projects on war and vulnerable communities most affected.
Synopsis: On the Western Front in 1918, during what was to have been the “war to end all wars,” three people meet at an Allied camp near Amiens. One English, one American, and one Irish, they forge a friendship which transcends nationality, surviving the harrowing nature of a war which would devastate an entire generation. What happens during those weeks and in its aftermath will shape not only the world, but also the lives of those who experienced it, demonstrating the truth inherent in all war, and that as soldiers of every age have experienced, war is not only fought without but within, and the macrocosm of a world in conflict also reflects an intrinsic war where each man and woman must find his and her own sense of peace.
KJ Wetherholt: My great-grandfather was a veteran of WWI, and since I can remember, I have regarded that time period with both reverence and fascination. It is one of those wars which has seemed to fade from memory, despite having been one of the most brutal wars ever fought, and the first truly modern war. Because of my great-grandfather and other family members who served and the importance of war itself, I wrote The Illumination in honor of those on the myriad fronts, focusing on both “total war” and its personal impact on the men and women who lived through it. Again, at the time, no one had ever before seen war of that unmitigated brutality and carnage on that scale — this was the first appearance of aircraft, tanks, and chemical weapons — in a way it was a true harbinger of what was to come for the rest of the century, including the next world war which followed [WWII]. People often forget how horrible a war it was, because there are more survivors of WWII who are alive to make sure we remember the horrors of that war, and as they should. Unfortunately, though, it makes us forget that WWI was supposed to have been “the war to end all wars.” The world from that point on would never be the same, and that was also true of those who fought in it.
I see here the description as it is in some of the press material: “As soldiers of every age have experienced, war is not only fought without but within, and the macrocosm of a world in conflict here will reflect the intrinsic war where one man must find his own sense of peace.”
KJ Wetherholt: No matter what one has lived through, he or she will always carry that experience, and is forced to deal with its aftermath. The only thing he or she can do is to try to find a sense of peace any way one can. This is about three soldiers’ search for that peace during and after their experience on the front.
The Illumination has several themes of importance which reflect the sentiment above — and more specifically, in the case of a story and its characters, the brutality of war, the camaraderie among soldiers, the restrictions placed on the press, and the place of love in experiences in the middle of a living hell. And yet, it makes an important point about the need, in quoting the press material, among each man and woman to find his and her own sense of peace.
How do you emphasize themes which are so important, and yet, so difficult to effectively demonstrate, particularly in the cynicism now which seems so prevalent when it comes to any importance that can be attributed to war? Right now we are a world at war — perhaps in a different sense than in 1918, when your book takes place, but do you see the relevance for a book in these times about the First World War?
I think in the times of greatest cynicism, that is the time to place the most emphasis on the importance of appealing to the best and most profound notions of what it means to be human. War brings out both the best and the worst in humanity, and that was as true then as it is now. Sometimes I truly do think, as I said in [a] previous interview, that perhaps it takes intense experiences such as war to remind us of what we’re truly capable in the best and worst moments. War brings out the deepest love, courage, and sacrifice as well as the greatest brutality. And unlike in World War I, when censorship of reports from the front was common almost to the point of absurdity because the War Office wanted to “protect” the public from the realities of war, we are now at the opposite end of the spectrum in which we constantly bombarded by the worst and most harrowing images twenty-four hours a day — and such information is instantaneous. And unfortunately, because of the nature of the media now to provide information in what constitutes a rapid-fire segment or soundbyte, we’re bombarded by truncated information often without appropriate and necessary context, and without necessary attention to history. We see the faces of suffering people without truly understanding the reasons for their suffering, or see the effects of wars thousands of miles away in which we’re not given a whole account of their underlying causes. How can one have compassion when not given the opportunity to understand completely what has happened, or the whole story behind atrocities, illness, war, and generally, why someone is suffering? The result is cynicism and compassion fatigue which can only be the result of having been bombarded by information without such context. The vast majority of what we’re shown would then seem to suggest that brutality is all we’re capable of. And there has to be a balance to show that we are capable of horror and devastation, but that we’re also inherently capable, too, of the greatest truth and compassion.
And in terms of the political or historical relevance of the First World War in these times?
In the case of WWI, it is said to have begun because of an act of terrorism. That is inherently relevant because any profound act of terrorism will create reverberations which are unavoidable among more than one nation. And that was as true in 1914 as it was during 9/11 and to this day. In this case, it was the act of a member of the Black Hand, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo over the intensity of cultural conflict in the Balkans. That cultural conflict continued in the most harrowing and brutal of ways through to [the early 90's]. WWI also came at a time and in a context of a world marked by colonial powers’ desire for further land and control, and trying to hold onto such control at the beginning of a new age in which they were ill-equipped to adapt. That almost made conflict inevitable. You cannot have a world change as it does and not create imbalances and conflict. The industrial age forced a change in people’s consciousness. The old was being forced to contend with the new realities of a new century, an industrial revolution in which world powers were no longer determined by the social constructs and imperialism of aristocracies and colonialism, but by industrialization and the power of nations which could more easily adapt to a necessary paradigm shift, and what suddenly constituted true power in a new age. Power and influence would then come from that capacity for adaptation. It is something we are seeing today — when technology and the economic influence creates a new paradigm, those most easily able to adapt will be the ones who hold the cards in terms of power — including economic and political power. Such was also the case rather profoundly at the turn of the twentieth century. The old guard were fighting a losing battle — trying to maintain a world in which an entire generation would be lost to that unknowing and tragic sense of entitlement. It was a domino effect among the colonial empires because they were clinging to whom they had always been in the face of a new reality, believing that colonialism and that sense of aristocratic entitlement would maintain their hegemony.
We, today, have our own version of those empires in terms of world powers. Our greatest mistake is turning a blind eye to the realities of a changing world. Of not paying attention to those areas of the world which are in distress, and which are under the yoke of governments and leaders who do not have their fingers on the pulse of their people, or who are impervious to their people’s most profound needs — and particularly basic needs. That is where the next areas of conflict will inevitably come, as has been proved time and time again throughout history. Learning, indeed, is a choice. The same is true of war, and the reasons why it is fought in the first place. And as the old adage suggests, that from which we do not learn, we are inherently doomed to repeat.
And the other important theme — not just the power at war, but the individual in war — how those men and women live amidst that larger conflict. Why did you choose the characters you did?
I chose journalists as well as soldiers — both because of family history, but because they also encompassed some of the more important spectra of human experience in that war. The journalists were often kept from the front lines — or else they might be inclined to report what they saw, even if they were censored. But some had been there too long — and had been there even before they were accredited. They saw the action of carnage firsthand. They could see what their respective empires and gotten themselves into, and how there was a kind of dispassionate distance between the leaders — and often officers — and those soldiers who were forced to charge headlong into unmitigated slaughter. In that chaos and devastation, a man or woman could only keep his or her sanity any way he or she could, and it often was in those deep friendships with others who withstood a similar experience. And in times of war, emotion is heightened to a point of the truest importance, when one is reminded that each moment could be the difference between life and death. It is in those moments when such emotions become the most real. In the book, from the Irish and colonial British journalists, to Maeve, the woman whom they’re close to as an American surgeon for the RAMC — as many Americans chose to serve for the British even before the United States entered the war — to the French aristocrat who returns to an empty chateau and dormant land in the Pyrenees following the war, as the war had taken all of the country’s young. Each of them has experienced the kind of brutality none should experience, and yet, they each seek some means to transcend their experiences in its aftermath. They must, or else they may as well not have survived the war at all.
This is also a love story — did you feel that was necessary, or did it come as a natural component to the story?
The love story was important, as the story wouldn’t have been as important without it. When you’re mired in trying to understand the meaning of your life after the most intense and horrific of experiences, you turn to the memory of those whom you have most loved. Those you most love remind you that you are human and that something remains which will allow you to go on. It is the only thing that truly heals a soul who has been shattered by experience. Love can come in the form of filial love, parental love — romantic love — and the compassion one feels for others when you feel firsthand the visceral moment between life and death, in which another becomes as important as yourself. There are countless accounts of soldiers who would die in the act of saving another, or ones who prayed to stay alive to come home to their families and those whom they most loved. It was because in those moments, all life is precious. And the kind of passion for the lives of those whom you love and care about most becomes the most important expression you can give. And for many, it was instantaneous. The deepest aspects of what it means to be human were invoked by some instant need to save another human life. And that is something which veterans from every age are haunted by, and particularly in having survived. Understanding why you are alive when others whom you have known have died, you need to find, again, some sense of meaning or else life is indeed a living hell. Even others’ compassion means nothing if you cannot access that part of yourself which feels some sense of meaning. And loving others truly reminds you of the best of what it means to be alive, and to be human.
Now a difficult — and perhaps political question, relevant in having written what you have, including some truly disturbing scenes on the front. Do you believe that there is ever a justification for war?
The time when war is necessary is when you are defending those who have no voice, and who are being subjugated to brutality which is unimaginable. The world then must intervene, because if there are despotic forces at work, with the inherent despotic insatiable and often vitriolic need to prove something to the world, and are willing to prove such power by any means necessary, including the destruction of others — and sometimes, including their own people. That has been true of such leaders from time immemorial. After every other means of resolving the conflict has been exhausted, it is then that war, I believe, is sometimes necessary. One cannot reason with those for whom reason is an unknown concept, and when it is a matter of inherent, and malevolent solipsism and brutality. Again, whatever shades of gray, there is right and wrong. One only need look into his own heart and soul to know when he or she is taking action for the wrong reasons, or doing what will bring suffering, and in some way, the world, history, and destiny, will hold such people accountable. And one cannot be afraid to shed light on what needs to be most remembered. And that includes compassion for those who have experienced the intensity of those extremes. But the worst thing that anyone — or any nation — can do is to turn a blind eye to human suffering. In that sense, and something which is important to emphasize in terms of [either the book or the short story] — it wasn’t as important to me to make a political statement about this war — or any war — being right or wrong. War is and will be as long as it remains a natural part of the human condition, and until we can evolve past it. Until then, we cannot forget the individuals who have experienced it. Because whether one is for a particular war or against it — the only thing that matters, and why this book was written, is the human experience of those men and women at the front, who are indeed at the mercy of the experience of war itself. That is as important as anything else. If this book can honor the experiences of those for whom war has had a profound impact, and as the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of veterans, perhaps something of importance may have a better chance of being remembered.