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This subsection explores the sometimes surprising interactions between off- and online worlds. It considers how not only war media, but the forms that underpin formal narration and communication migrate across digital and analog worlds. This is the case with past as well as contemporary conflicts, complicating our understanding of how they are experienced, recorded, and remembered.

Digital and networked forms of expression have been associated with fragmentation, nonlinearity, and presentism. Anticipations of the algorithmic in analog war literature exist. Some authors have found ways to play with, invert, and reconstitute forms and practices to reflect lived experience as a series of impressions and dislocations in ways that to some degree parallel the practices if not the capacities of modern social networks. Technology provides a means both to organize and subvert formal conventions that present memory as orderly and narratable. Max Saunders reveals how this played out across the To-Day and To-Morrow publication series in the 1920s and 1930s.1

Jacket of "Imagined Futures: Writing Science and Modernity in the To-Day & To-Morrow Book Series 1923-31"; Max Saunders
Figure 1.

Baylee Brits makes a case for this with respect to writers Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and J. M. Coetzee – all of whom address the disorder that follows in the roiling wake of violence and social breakdown; Rebecca Roach’s research has shown how Coetzee’s work as a computer programmer influenced his engagement with talk and writing. Brits outlines a “generic literature”: that is, writing that “replaces predicates, location and progressive narrative enumeration with allegory of its own composition.” Such writing “does not produce new mechanisms of narrative progress, so much as reveal the contingency of movement.”2 Although potentially fragmentary, it does not necessarily display an outright rejection of linear narrative, but instead articulates alternative creative structures. Furthermore it does not identify any one form of expression as organic and unquestionable. The messy overlay of multiplying and interacting online platforms offers the potential for inventive authors to further complicate life writing online.

1. Narratology

The most successful offline and online war writers are able to balance detail and perspective, to meld these to speak to something fundamental about the human experience of conflict. The poet, critic, and biographer Jon Stallworthy, assessing the First World War poet Wilfred Owen’s “Spring Offensive” and “Smile, smile, smile,” writes of how he “naturalized” the dying and suffering of soldiers: “the figure of the poet does not appear, and the greater objectivity of his later poems is a measure of his maturity and the distance he had travelled from his ego-centric boyhood.”4 Owen manages to collect a series of fragmentary impressions compiled throughout his short life and to work them into verses that simultaneously speak to his particular and to a broader experience of war.

Employing a civilian lens, the literary historian Lara Feigel has investigated how life writing in wartime deals with periods in which cultural traditions abruptly shift to accommodate the inevitable death, loss, and destruction. Writing about the London Blitz Feigel speaks of the “tideless present of wartime London” that was born out in the work of a number of key writers trying to convey the strange, persisting sense of suspension. This is what the writer Elizabeth Bowen in her novel The Heat of the Day (1948) explained as a present in which: “Vacuum as to future was offset by vacuum as to past.”5

Such a dislocated world required new forms of reporting. John Hersey, in attempting to convey the scale of devastation wrought by perhaps the most grandly horrific of technological “advances,” the atomic bomb, chose to focus his influential 1946 New Yorker nonfiction account of the bombing of Hiroshima on six survivors.6

Hiroshima Peace memorial by uzilday from Pixabay
Figure 2. Hiroshima Peace memorial by uzilday, uzilday on Pixabay.

Introducing his story, Hersey wrote that “A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died.” It was impossible to write about the scale of what had happened let alone the body count in a meaningful or relatable way – it was the exceptional yet deeply human details that mattered: “Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition – a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see.” Retrospectively, narrative arches could be constructed to try to make sense of what had happened, even if “At the time, none of them knew anything.”7

Hersey was writing at a moment of what must have felt like a culmination. The firebombing of Japanese cities, and in particular Tokyo, was materially more destructive than the effects of the atom bomb. Hew Strachan has written about how totality and modernity (here implied by atomic warfare) are sometimes viewed as one and the same, whereas the worst atrocities inflicted on the human body during the Second World War most often involved less technologically advanced weapons.8. Yet the atom bomb in its newness appeared to shift the paradigm of warfare to the collective existential, just as the bombing of Hiroshima as experienced from the ground might be presented by Hersey as representative of months and indeed years of escalating violence and near-global suffering.

2. Fragmentations

Writers about war contend with structure and perspective, and if, where, how to insert the explicit, authorial self into narratives – what Filippo de Vivo has explored in his writings on microhistories 9. Some war writing becomes a meditation on time and generations. The Belgian writer Stefan Hertmans depicts the long tail of war trauma and how it reverberates across generations in his novel War and Turpentine (2016) about his grandfather – who died in 1981 – and his struggles with trauma of combat, wounding, and return in Belgium in and after the First World War.10 In attempting to convey the sustained rupture caused by the Second World War, in her book 1947: Where Now Begins (2016) the Swedish journalist Elisabeth Åsbrink uses one year as a framing device. Within this she presents a vast amount of life-writing material from refugees, writers, jurists, a fashion designer, and many others to convey the global scale of fragmentation, dislocation, and depression. She also articulates a sense of how the conflict continues to reverberate through her family, producing unerasable generational and cultural scars: “Grief over violence, shame over violence, grief over shame.”11

A sense of fragmentation, disorientation, and subversion of neat national narratives are identifiable in each of these examples of offline war writing, as they are in recent conflicts where digital mediations start to become more prevalent, if not pervasive. In her fictional short story “The Train,” Mariette Kalinowski writes about the trauma of a soldier returning to civilian New York after surviving the detonation of a bomb that kills the narrator’s friend, roommate, and colleague while they guard an Entry Control Point in Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003. As the eponymous train moves through peaceful urban and rural New York vistas, people press in and out, unaware of her mental wanderings. As they do, the narrator reflects on war as a disruptor of passive narratives and as an agent of sustained dislocation: “Each step forward would take her one step into the future, should take her one more step away from Iraq, but really took her directly into the past. Circling about, retracing scuffed footprints wearing down into a track, and she witnesses again and again the clear, determined look in that hajji’s eyes, an explosion through the centre of the earth, flames licking at the darkness and sending new stars whirling up into the night.” The scene plays again and again, like a film caught on a loop, or a train moving back and forth, its doors opening and closing. It tantalizes her with the potential for an alternative outcome, even as she works her way along the familiar grooves of memory:

Existence is circular, the world built in the round: clocks, horizons, galaxies, and always the earth swinging wide and then close, around and around the sun and always at some moment striking a point at which it had already been. At any given moment she exists in the very same place that she existed in Iraq, the exact same instant she stood over Kavanagh bleeding out, or the moment she snatched her weapon up, or the instant before that when she should’ve already been snatching her weapon up.12

Kalinowski deployed twice to Iraq and is at the time of writing working on a novel. Like those who write about war online, in her offline story – collected in Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher’s anthology Fire and Forget (2013) – she touches on a key theme of the broader genre: the shock produced by even brief experiences of violence and loss, and the circular, unresolving nature of trauma and grief that underpins much war writing. It was this sense of forced repetition and return that led the First World War veteran, poet, and memoirist Edmund Blunden to write from Tokyo in his “Preliminary” to Undertones of War (1928) of inescapable memories as “the ground,” strewn “thickly and innumerably ...with the facts and notions of war experience.” Now, in prose as in poetry, he determined, “I must go over that ground again” in order to somehow thwart “death’s astonishment” and “time’s separation.”13

3. Technological interventions

Technologies make the going over of the ground possible in a variety of forms and by would-be narrators considering conflicts from multiple perspectives. Their efforts create a continuous dialogue between the offline and online. Media, cultural frames, and aesthetic preferences change even as the content moves across fields, forms, and national lines, bouncing back and forth between writers and readers and platforms. Some war writers are explicitly conscious of the specific ways particular platforms combine to amplify, fragment, and/or reconstitute content. In an interview with Francesca Recchia for the online publication Muftah14 in 2013, John Little, the author of the influential Blogs of War,15 reflected on how he approached his writing about modern conflicts on different online and social media platforms. Recchia reminded him that, in 2003, using his blog he was often able to break news about the US-led invasion of Iraq more quickly than mainstream news outlets, even if the blog itself offered “a slow-paced space for reflection, in-depth inquiry and deconstruction...of very convoluted and multi-faceted topics.”

Little concluded that technological change in the social media space, which sped up the rate of uptake, had forced him to change: “I think the emergence of Twitter left the old school news bloggers with very few alternatives. Twitter upended news bloggers in very much the same way that we upended traditional media.” This had not been an easy decision, particularly for someone concerned with retaining some ownership and control of the published content: “I really struggled with the divergence initially. The only reason I held onto the blog was my unwillingness to pour all my effort and content into someone else’s (Twitter’s) platform.”16 The blog became a linchpin, a home, but Little consciously molded the content so as to create a dialogue between short- and long-form war writing.

Other war writers’ engagement with social media platforms is less overtly strategic, but the interactive drive of the platforms encourages dialogues centered on particular posts, content, and / or themes. Sometimes this produces new content that migrates easily across analog and digital sites. I first encountered Marwan Hisham’s and Molly Crabapple’s reporting and illustration project, Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War (2018), which depicts Hisham’s experience of the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime, and life under ISIS through the Roads and Kingdoms newsletter.

This led me to aninterview transcript describing the project and how the two authors originally “met” on Twitter and collaborated across digital platforms to create a illustrated narrative of war experience: Hisham described her life at war in Syria, and Crabapple translated these into drawings.17

Video 1. Marwan Hisham & Molly Crabapple on Brothers Of The Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War. Shakespeare and Company Bookshop.

Source at

Another example speaks to the capacity of platforms to modify and amplify offline war writing, as narrators reiterate and develop themes that would, in the past, have remained largely static in printed editions. Philippe Sands’s offline memoir of war, family, and human rights law, East West Street (2017), has a particular digital afterlife in a number of online and mobile media incarnations, including the BBC Radio 4 podcast The Ratline (2018).18 The latter picks up a strand of East West Street, focusing on the relationships that have developed between the living relatives of Nazi officials and their enablers and the relatives of Jewish victims and survivors. The themes of the book also play out in Sands’s Twitter account @philippesands,19 where he invokes them to frame his responses to contemporary political and human rights discussions.20 On May 9, 2019 Sands retweeted a story from the Guardian’s “Long Reads” by Timothy Garton Ash that made the case for European unity by invoking the Continent’s long history of nationalist conflict; Garton Ash laced his argument with illustrative stories about war and family tragedy.21 Sands framed his recommendation of the piece as follows: “Powerful. Nothing beats personal stories and experience, in the memory space left by the disappearing generation that knows first-hand the horrors of which Europe is capable.”

He relates East West Street to political discussions about Europe’s recent past and uncertain future, and the potential risks associated with off- and online hate and denigration of groups and individuals, nationalism, and fragmentation. He also articulates a broader argument about the value of personal stories in testifying to the costs of war.

4. Historical continuities

Online war writing does not sit outside a historical continuum or inheritance; the available material from past conflicts from which to draw and mediate new experience is myriad, and increasingly global, in its origin, scale, and focus. The amount of findable yet only semi-contextualized information generated by the human experience of historical, current, and even future or imagined wars is staggering. It lends itself to writers who draw from the global well of human suffering and death in war to frame their own narratives, and who play with notions of time and fixed, ordered realities. It also requires theorists to apply new frames to make sense of complex material derived from deep collaborations across disciplines: an important example of this is described in Eyal Weizman’s Forensic Architecture (2017), which moves through a series of conflict zones and evidentiary categories in order to reestablish narratives of violence that would previously have been undetectable.22 Social media platforms, and the complex and often proprietary ways in which they encourage and discourage networks and interactions, extend these traditions to a realm that allows not only for hypermediation of material, but for a continuous critical dialogue between writers and readers about a subject that is, unfortunately, timeless.

And yet just how long self-published and often fragmentary examples of war writing on social media – much of it collected on privately owned and managed platforms – will be available, and how they will be accessed, remains unclear. The nature of online writing is to an extent ephemeral. As advanced as their kit and weaponry might be, supposedly technologically superior armies were not prepared or enabled to collect online war writing with an eye to history: “Whenever a unit prepared for the return trip home, its soldiers collected their gear, prepared the site for the following unit, wiped local servers, and allowed the details of the prior months to fade.” As Adin Dobkin has written in an article for The Atlantic:

The gap in record-keeping created by the absence of Williams and his team – and the difficulties they faced in demonstrating this record’s value while overseas – illustrate a common headache of 21st century historians. Though technology has made more sources than ever available to color, verify, and explore history, determining those sources’ value remains the task of a trained human eye. And in the case of the Army, support for that eye has declined as its necessity increased.23

Conservation – or lack thereof – raises questions for current and future historians of war, as does the privatization of content collection and moderation. The case of Facebook’s repeated removal of Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Terror of War” photograph (1972) of the burned and naked nine-year-old Kim Phúc Phan Thi on the grounds that it violated child pornography standards offers just one illustrative example. The reputation of this much-discussed photograph is a result of its decontextualization – a process that occurred before and might be said to predict online processes compounded by social media. Its depiction of a specific operation in the Vietnam War – with the South Vietnamese military attempting to halt a conventional North Vietnamese Army offensive – has become largely irrelevant: it has come to “symbolise generalised impressions of war, especially in retrospect.” 24 The ways in which this photograph, and more broadly speaking mediated accounts that depict the intense and particular suffering of others in war, have been used in Western society as a foundation for – or shorthand of – fraught conversations about state-sanctioned violence is complex; the algorithmic occlusion of this image provides a further layer of decontextualization. To repackage it as child pornography belies its importance as an iconic, and contested, evidentiary example of war experience conveying multiple meanings at different points in time. As Sarah T. Roberts has written, it speaks to “the complex, contradictory and often invisible relationships that platforms undertake with users when they endeavour to remove the content they have uploaded, and the meaning-making inherent in those acts of removal.”25 These relationships are only just moving to the forefront of public debate, and as such this seems a prescient moment to consider some of the sources available and to pose questions about the future of war writing in the wake of Web 2.0.

Carry on to Mediations, the next subsection of Life and War Writing, Off- and Online.


  1. Max Saunders, Imagined Futures: Writing, Science, and Modernity in the To-Day and To-Morrow Book Series, 1923–31 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
  2. Baylee Britts, Literary Infinities: Number and Narrative in Modern Fiction (London: Bloomsbury, 2018). 193.
  3. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (London: Everyman’s Library, 1993).
  4. Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974). 276.
  5. Lara Feigel, The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World (London: Bloomsbury, 2013). 171.
  6. John Hersey, “Hiroshima,” New Yorker, August 23, 1946,
  7. Ibid.
  8. Hew Strachan, “Essay and Reflection: On Total War and Modernity,” International History Review 22, no. 2 (June 2000): 341–70,
  9. Filippo de Vivo, “Prospect or Refuge? Microhistory, History on the Large Scale: A Response,” Cultural and Social History 7, no. 3 (September 2010): 387–97,
  10. Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine (New York: Pantheon, 2016).
  11. Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947: When Now Begins, trans. Fiona Graham (London: Scribe, 2017). 250.
  12. Mariette Kalinowski, “The Train,” in Fire and Forget: Short Stories from a Long War, ed. Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher (New York: Da Capo Press, 2013), 59–78. 69.
  13. Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (London: Penguin, 1937). xii.
  14. Muftah, 2021,
  15. John W. Little, Blogs of War, 2023,
  16. Francesca Recchia, “Blogging the War: An Interview with John Little of the ‘Blogs of War,’” Muftah, September 5, 2013,
  17. Cengiz Yar, “A Searing Memoir of Life and War in Syria,” Roads and Kingdoms, July 25, 2018,
  18. Philippe Sands, Intrigue: The Ratline, n.d.,
  19. See
  20. Philippe Sands, East West Street (London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 2016).
  21. Timothy Garton Ash, “Why We Must Not Let Europe Break Apart,” The Guardian, May 9, 2019,
  22. Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (New York: Zone Books, 2017).
  23. Adin Dobkin, “Modern Wars Are a Nightmare for Historians,” The Atlantic, June 14, 2017,
  24. Michael Griffin, “The Great War Photographs: Constructing Myths of History and Photojournalism,” in Picturing the Past: Media, History and Photography, ed. Bonnie Brennan and Hanno Hardt (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 122–57. 145.
  25. Sarah T. Roberts, “Digital Detritus: ‘Error’ and the Logic of Opacity in Social Media Content Moderation,” First Monday 23, no. 3 (March 5, 2018),


  • Åsbrink, Elisabeth. 1947: When Now Begins. Translated by Fiona Graham. London: Scribe, 2017.
  • Ash, Timothy Garton. “Why We Must Not Let Europe Break Apart.” The Guardian, May 9, 2019.
  • Blunden, Edmund. Undertones of War. London: Penguin, 1937.
  • Britts, Baylee. Literary Infinities: Number and Narrative in Modern Fiction. London: Bloomsbury, 2018.
  • Vivo, Filippo de. “Prospect or Refuge? Microhistory, History on the Large Scale: A Response.” Cultural and Social History 7, no. 3 (September 2010): 387–97.
  • Dobkin, Adin. “Modern Wars Are a Nightmare for Historians.” The Atlantic, June 14, 2017.
  • Feigel, Lara. The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
  • Griffin, Michael. “The Great War Photographs: Constructing Myths of History and Photojournalism.” In Picturing the Past: Media, History and Photography, edited by Bonnie Brennan and Hanno Hardt, 122–57. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
  • Hersey, John. “Hiroshima.” New Yorker, August 23, 1946.
  • Hertmans, Stefan. War and Turpentine. New York: Pantheon, 2016.
  • Kalinowski, Mariette. “The Train.” In Fire and Forget: Short Stories from a Long War, edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, 59–78. New York: Da Capo Press, 2013.
  • Little, John W. Blogs of War, 2023.
  • Recchia, Francesca. “Blogging the War: An Interview with John Little of the ‘Blogs of War.’” Muftah, September 5, 2013.
  • Roberts, Sarah T. “Digital Detritus: ‘Error’ and the Logic of Opacity in Social Media Content Moderation.” First Monday 23, no. 3 (March 5, 2018).
  • Sands, Philippe. Intrigue: The Ratline, n.d.
  • Sands, Philippe. East West Street. London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 2016.
  • Saunders, Max. Imagined Futures: Writing, Science, and Modernity in the To-Day and To-Morrow Book Series, 1923–31. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Stallworthy, Jon. Wilfred Owen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.
  • Strachan, Hew. “Essay and Reflection: On Total War and Modernity.” International History Review 22, no. 2 (June 2000): 341–70.
  • Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. London: Everyman’s Library, 1993.
  • Weizman, Eyal. Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability. New York: Zone Books, 2017.
  • Yar, Cengiz. “A Searing Memoir of Life and War in Syria.” Roads and Kingdoms, July 25, 2018.
  • Muftah, 2021.