On my drive from New Hampshire to Atlanta for Dragon*Con, I had the opportunity to stop off in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to visit the Army Heritage Education Center, or AHEC. The AHEC has a very nicely designed museum indoors, and a fascinating heritage trail outdoors, featuring a number of restored tanks and armaments, a few helicopters, and some useful informational signs.
Being a history buff, my favorite is Redoubt #10, a reproduction of a defensive installation from the British side, during the Battle of Yorktown during the Revolutionary War.
However, I think the primary value of the site is to enable the visitor to try to enter into the circumstances of the average soldier. The AHEC does a good job, in my opinion, of honoring the soldiers as the people who are charged with carrying out the needs of their government, without glorifying warfare in general. A highlight of the museum portion is the Viet Nam nightwatch hut, where you sit in the dark, watching through a narrow window, and listening to a surround-sound recording of a few guys on watch, complaining about the crackers, wondering about what might happen–and responding with fear and courage as the enemy pours over the ridge nearby.
Part of the writer’s job is to convey experiences like this to those who have never had them: to create or re-create the moment. We seek to build the layers of sensory input–the hard seats, the darkness, the voices, the occasional spit of light–to bring the reader into a scene. Then we use those layers to build tension. Those lights–are they the enemy? No, false alarm–wait! Did you see that? We use our words to surround the reader and entice him or her to imagine the scene so fully that he or she is inhabiting it.
If we do our job well, the reader gains an understanding of what it would be like to be there, sharing that experience with worthy comrades, regardless of whether the enemy they confront is zombie, orc or human. We look for the universal elements of the situations we portray that our readers can relate to, then we add the more striking or unique elements to make the literary world complete. Because one of the underlying themes of the AHEC is that the soldier is still–from the Revolution to Iraq–at the heart of the army, and as one who writes about war, I hope that I, too, can honor that commitment and convey it to a new audience.