Joseph Conrad: Hemingway of the War on Terror?

by Paul Tanghe

by Paul Tanghe

When Chris and Matt conceived of Line of Advance, they sought to find the next Mailer or Hemingway. But perhaps a better antecedent writer for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is Joseph Conrad.

Joseph Conrad wrote his best known works a century before 9/11, including Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), and The Secret Agent (1907). Yet his work was eerily prescient of both the dynamics of modern globalization and the conflicts therein. Earlier this fall, I attended a lecture exploring this insight by Maya Jasanoff, professor in Harvard University’s History Department specializing in modern and imperial British history.

Jasanoff’s presentation was less lecture than storytelling, aided by a Google Earth presentation with visual content embedded in an overlay associated with the geolocations of Conrad’s life.(1) Beginning with Józef Konrad’s Polish birth, she traced his journey to a seaman’s life in France, his shift to the British merchant marine as a third-country national taking jobs no respectable British officer would take, his voyages to East and Southeast Asia, his work in Africa, and ultimately his arrival as an author naturalized in Great Britain. Jasanoff’s use of Google Earth effectively portrayed the geographic links along this story, and recalls Bruce Chatwin’s later work in The Songlines: “The migration itself, like the pilgrimage, is the hard journey: a ‘leveller’ on which the ‘fit’ survive and stragglers fall by the wayside.”

Surviving his journeys, Conrad nonetheless carried with him memories of stragglers who fell to the wayside of travels: Muslim pilgrims abandoned to the storm in Lord Jim, the horror of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, the mentally disabled Stevie and his caretaker sister in The Secret Agent.

Jasanoff persuasively argues that Conrad wrote about a world transformed by new technology, ideas, and politics. Though the setting of his novels spanned continents, common to each was the barely disguised figure of Conrad himself, weaving historical fact and personal experiences to tell a consistent story of an increasingly connected and conflicted world.

Scholars have often noted Conrad’s stylistic departure from a strict chronological sequence. Perhaps this reflects that the present is suffused in memories of the past, especially for those who have journeyed far from home. As Conrad notes of the River Thames:

Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of the day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth. We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories. And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, ‘followed the sea’ with reverence and affection, than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames.

Yet Conrad’s reflection on the Thames goes beyond the personal. Though Kurtz’s dying gasp of “the horror! The horror!” provides the Heart of Darkness’s denouement, the story does not end there. Rather, Conrad ends it back on the Thames, Britain’s fundamental conduit of military and economic ties to the world. There, Conrad ends his most famous story with the image of reminiscing old men, “by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky- seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” While many have criticized this as Conrad’s imperialistic dismissal of the developing world as a land of savage darkness, perhaps Conrad’s use of heart is more significant. Just as the heart pumps fluid throughout the body, perhaps Conrad’s heart was the clash of foreign war and exploitative commerce in pumping darkness back to the very powers that engineered it. Perhaps Conrad foresaw that such foreign expeditions follow us home.

Conrad spent his youth crossing the ocean for more than just thrills, witnessing first-hand the challenge and costs of expanding international exchange in an earlier era of globalization. In the wake of these journeys, he milled his experiences to an eminent career of pen and fame. Evocating foreign lands, their inhabitants, and through it all, his own experiences as an agent among them, Conrad created works that like their author, survive.

(1) I guess FBCB2 is a transferable skill.


Paul has led tank and cavalry teams in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea. He is currently pursuing a PhD in environmental governance in Denver, Colorado.

Line of Advance is a nonprofit, digital literary journal for the creative writing of military veterans.  Subscribe today to read the best in veteran writing.

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